Sunday, May 29, 2011

Conan the barbarian 1982

Well, after probably more than twenty years, I actually sat down and watched 1982's Conan the Barbarian from start to finish. I accomplished this by swearing to myself that I would just watch it as a movie, without cataloging the inaccuracies of the film compared to Robert E. Howard's creation. For the most part I was successful, though a few things still grated. I came away thinking that my problem with the film is less the movie itself and more the repercussions it has caused for the character of Conan. All the time that I and others have expended explaining why this isn't Conan as he was created.
In fact, had the movie been called Zargon the Barbarian, I probably would have liked it in the same way I like Sinbad movies or Peplums. Thing is, there's not much reason to call this movie Conan. There are a few nods to Howard's stories, the crucifixion being the stand out, but really it's the John Milius show all the way and the movie is a mishmash of Nietzscheian philosophy, quotes from Genghis Khan, and other manly man tropes. Nothing wrong with that. I'm an admirer of many of the films Milius wrote, co-wrote, or directed. It just isn't Conan.
But anyway, rather than dwell on what I didn't like, let me mention a few things I did. I liked the fight in the caves below Thulsa Doom's palace, especially Valeria's running battle as she and her comrades were trying to escape. Her fight was better than Conan's really. (Though I must admit to being totally mystified how anyone found Sandahl Bergman attractive.)
I liked the big battle at the end. I liked Mako's character, the wizard. I was amused by Jame's Earl Jones' portrayal of the aging Thulsa Doom as a sociopathic flower child.
So do I still hate the movie? No. Do I like the movie? No. I doubt I'll ever watch it again. I think I came away with a little better idea of why so many other people like the film, though. It has a certain something. Anyway, I watched it. Now I can move on.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Doctor Who:Shadows of the Vashta Nerada

“We’ve gone all-out for the season finale,” says Steven Moffat, executive producer Doctor Who. “Shadows of the Vashta Nerada takes place entirely underwater – something which would be impossible for the TV series, as water is so expensive. It’s thrilling, terrifying, educational and fun. Just steer clear of those shadows…”

The microscopic piranha-like predators who live in the shadows, from the Doctor Who Episode Silence in the Library are back in the fourth installment of Doctor who: The Adventure Games. They really went all out for this game which contains not only the Vashta Nerada, but a giant shark-like monster, an underwater base filling with deadly radiation, and as much plot as an actual episode of Doctor Who. This is the best of the four games by a long shot.
The Doctor and Amy arrive on an underwater colony in Earth's future. They are immediately set upon by what appears to a giant shark who tries to smash the connecting tunnels the travelers are in. You, as the Doctor, have to get them to a safe spot before the monster gets to you. After that the action never lets up as you come to realize that the shark, the radiation, and the Vashta Nerada are symptoms of a larger threat.
If you didn't see Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead from the fourth season of the new Doctor Who, the Vashta Nerada are tiny, flesh eating creatures who live in darkness. In fact when they swarm they appear to be part of the dark, casting shadows where there should be none. They aren't in every shadow, but they could be any shadow. Your only defense is to stay in the light. And within the claustrophobic confines of the underwater base, the generators are failing and the lights are going out.
The player has to solve a series of puzzles, many of them involving staying out of the darkness, and stay ahead of the Vashta Nerada-animated corpses in diving suits that stalk the halls. Lots of running through corridors, using your sonic screwdriver and finding ways past dangerous foes. And, as in the previous three games, Matt Smith and Karen Gillian have provided their voices for the Doctor and Amy. Great fun for the Doctor who fan. As I said, this one is well written enough to almost be a series episode. Not bad for a video game at all.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Meeting Mickey

I said in the post below that I’d write about meeting Mickey Spillane, so here we go. Of course, being me, I couldn’t just write about the actual meeting but had to backtrack a bit to explain how and why I ended up meeting him in the first place.
For a guy who read almost nothing but hardboiled detective fiction for more than a decade, it took me a while to get around to Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer books. In fact before I read any of the Hammer novels I read a book about Hammer and Spillane called One Lonely Knight: Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer by Max Allan Collins and James L. Traylor. This would have been in the late 1980s. Not sure where I got the book. Might have been at the late lamented Science Fiction/Mystery bookstore in Atlanta. I might have ordered it. I might have bought it at a convention. Can’t recall.
Anyway, One Lonely Knight is a literary study of Spillane and his work and also a history of the character Mike Hammer with chapters devoted to Hammer’s appearances, not only in books, but movies, TV, records, comic strips, etc. A very cool book and once I had read it I wanted to actually read the Hammer novels. I went to my local used bookstore and picked up a couple and that was it for me. I read straight through all the Mike Hammer books and eventually even bought them on audio to listen to during my daily commute. (Television’s Mike Hammer Stacy Keach read the books on tape.)
Obsessive compulsive type that I am, I became as fascinated with Spillane as I was with Hammer so I hunted down all the articles and interviews I could find. I got a bootleg VHS of The Girl Hunters, the movie where Spillane plays Hammer, and when I couldn’t find a copy of Ring of Fear, a movie where Spillane plays himself, but sort of Hammer too, I went to the trouble to track down One Lonely Knight co-author James L. Traylor who was a fellow Georgia resident and he was kind enough to loan me his copy of the movie. (It was on Beta-Max but Cliff had a beta to VHS tape machine and he dubbed me a copy. See the lengths I go to?) I also got Traylor to sign my copy of One Lonely Knight. Later I would get Max Allan Collins and artist Terry Beatty, who drew the cover, to sign it as well.
So that’s how I became interested in all things Spillane.
Now, jump forward to 1995. A new comic book company called Tekno Comics (Big Entertainment) had started a handful of comic book titles, most featuring the name and involvement of a famous writer or actor. They had Gene Roddenberry, Isaac Asimov, Neil Gaiman, John Jakes, Leonard Nimoy and…Mickey Spillane.
The Mickey Spillane comic book was called Mike Danger. Legend has it that Mike Danger was the original prototype for Hammer. Spillane, who had written for Marvel (then known as Timely) comics in the 1940s created a tough guy private eye for the comics around 1947. The comic failed to sell and Spillane turned Danger into Hammer and wrote the novel I, the Jury. (Apparently someone did get around to printing some of the original Mike Danger comic stories in the 1950s in the pages of a comic called Crime Detector. Hmmm, I should track those down.)
The new Mike Danger comic, co-written (I suspect mostly written) by Max Allan Collins, was sort of a twist on Buck Rogers, with the hardboiled Danger ending up in the far future where his old school attitude is out of step with the times. Collins was no stranger to the four-color page, having written the Dick Tracy comic strip for many years and having created the private eye comic Ms. Tree. He also wrote Batman and Wild Dog at DC, revived Johnny Dynamite for Dark Horse, and wrote the justly famous graphic novel Road to Perdition. I still consider Ms. Tree the best private eye comic in the history of comics and really wish someone would collect the whole run into graphic novels.
But I digress, as Peter David is fond of saying. Back in 1996 I was still a regular reader of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper (their editorial stances have since driven me away) and one morning I saw a small article about Big Entertainment that mentioned that Mickey Spillane would be signing copies of Mike Danger at a comics/record store in Atlanta that weekend. I knew roughly where the place was, so on the advertised day I gathered up my hardback of the most recent Mike Hammer book, 1990’s The Killing Man, and headed for Atlanta. I didn’t take any Mike Danger comics with me, figuring I’d buy them at the store.
The first thing I realized when I got to the store was that not only was Mickey Spillane there, but so was Max Allan Collins. The article hadn’t mentioned he would be there as well and I was a little put out, as had I known I’d have brought some of his books too, but fortunately I saw Collins at San Diego Con and Chicago Con several times.
Anyway, there sat Mickey Spillane, in a black polo shirt with the Tekno Comics logo on the sleeve. His crew cut was snow white but otherwise he looked just as he had in all the beer commercials. I could hear him as I walked in, chatting and laughing with folks who waited in line to get their comics signed. I bought several issues of Mike Danger and joined the line.
Tekno had a couple of folks there dressed up as characters from their comics. You could get your picture (Polaroid) taken with a rhinoceros-headed alien. I saw my chance, so when I got to the front of the line I asked the photographer, “Hey, can I get one with Mr. Spillane?”
Spillane jumped up and said, “He sure can!” and hurried around the table. When he got to me he looked up, (I was about a foot taller then him.) grinned, and said, “Jeez! You make me feel like a little shrimp.”
The guy took the picture and that Polaroid still rests inside the dust jacket of the Killing Man, right next to where Spillane signed the book to me. I looked at it last night. There I stand with Mickey Spillane. He has his arm around me like I’m his grandson and I’m grinning like an idiot.
I chatted with Spillane and Collins for a bit, and Spillane told me about the new upcoming Hammer novel, Black Alley. Both men signed my comics and then I stepped aside for the next person in line.
Sometimes when you meet a hero, they don’t live up to your expectations, but Spillane was great. Just the nicest, funniest, just plain coolest guy you could imagine.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Kiss Her Goodbye

Shortly before his death, Mickey Spillane told his wife Jane, "When I'm gone, there's going to be a treasure hunt around here. Take everything you find and give it to Max (Allan Collins)_he'll know what to do."
And boy, does he. Without a doubt, Kiss Her Goodbye is my favorite so far of the new Mike Hammer novels written by Spillane and Collins . In the introduction Collins explains that he wrote the book by combining, shaping, and expanding two of Spillane's partial manuscripts from the 1970s. The result is very impressive.
This one begins with Mike Hammer in Florida recuperating from wounds received in a shootout with some New York mob boys. His old friend Pat Chambers calls to let Hammer know that another old friend, an ex-cop Hammer considered his mentor during his own short time on the NYPD, has apparently committed suicide. Hammer heads north for the funeral, but in his gut he doesn't believe that his friend killed himself. Shortly after the funeral a young woman's body is discovered close enough to the funeral home to make Mike wonder if there may be some connection to what he feels is a faked suicide. As Hammer investigates he finds more questions than answers and begins to realize that there is some much larger game afoot behind the two deaths.
I think Collins made a wise decision to leave this book set in the time period it was intended for rather than updating it. Hammer plows his way through the 1970s, visiting a celebrity hotspot Disco molded after Studio 54 and fitting in about as well as you would expect. I grew up in the 70s, which may be one reason I like this book as much as I do.
Kiss Her Goodbye is interesting in that early on Hammer isn't quite the self confident mayhem machine readers are familiar with. The fallout from the almost fatal gun battle is that Hammer has lost weight and is dependant on pain killers. He wonders if he still has what it takes to get the job done as he did in the old days. But as the bodies begin to pile up, Hammer's rage begins to fuel his investigation and soon he's back in shape, off the pain meds, and ready to do some damage. The last quarter of the book is all out Hammer Time and includes some of the best action since the classic Hammer novel One Lonely Night.
I've no idea what in the book is Spillane and what is Collins but as I told a friend of mine, the 'voice' is Mike Hammer. It sounds like Hammer did in the old days. Collins has nailed it.
I was fortunate enough to meet Mickey Spillane back in the mid 1990s. I'll have to post about that soon. It was a great experience. Anyway, Kiss Her Goodbye is well worth your time. Check it out.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Jeffrey Catherine Jones 1944-2011

Back in the mid 1970s, when I was seriously caught up in learning to draw, a book called the Studio became one of my biggest inspirations. The Studio contained the work of four young fantasy artists, Barry Windsor-Smith, Mike W. Kaluta, Bernie Wrightson, and Jeffrey Jones. I was familiar with Smith and Kaluta, and to a lesser extent Wrightson from their work in comic books. Jeffrey Jones name I didn't recognize until I began flipping through the book and realized that I had seen examples of Jones' work on book covers. That was my introduction to someone who would become one of my favorite fantasy artists.
Cliff emailed me yesterday to let me know that Jeffrey Catherine Jones had passed away the previous day of complications from emphysema. Jones was 67.
I always thought of Jones' early work as 'ethereal', because the worlds or Jones' early paintings seemed to exist in misty, undefined realms where backgrounds were suggested rather than rendered and sometimes even bled over into the foreground. The figures in these paintings often seemed to be just stepping from or about to disappear into these misty worlds. I came across these paintings a lot because next to Frank Frazetta, Jones seemed to be the go-to artist for sword & sorcery. Books by Fritz Leiber, Robert E. Howard, Michael Moorcock, Norvell Page, Lin Carter, John Jakes and many less well known S&S authors were all graced by Jones' distinctive covers. (I mistakenly thought that a lot of these covers were watercolor. As it turned out, Jones didn't care much for watercolors and these paintings were actually done with thinned down oil paints used as washes.)
Later, in the late 70s/early 80s Jones book cover work took a radical change, seemingly done with heavy brushes and a palette knife. These bold covers, many of which were used on the works of Robert E. Howard were some of my favorites of Jones' paintings. They evoke classic illustrators like N.C. Wyeth and Maxfield Parish, but are infused with Jones' sometimes wry sense of humor, which brings me to an important point. Though Jones worked for many years in the commercial arts field, this was a true artist. Someone who drew and painted for the love of art. Sure there are some hacked out pieces, as there are in the career of any commercial illustrator, but there are far more covers that can stand on their own as paintings, regardless of what they were used for. And there are far more paintings done purely for their own sake. There are quite a few collections of Jones' work out there and you should seek them out.
Anyway, Jones has left us, reportedly surrounded by friends and by the wonderful art that remains for us to appreciate.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Lovecraft At Last, At Last

A couple of years ago Cliff loaned me an amazing book called Lovecraft at Last. I was so taken with it, that I've been looking for a good copy ever since. That copy arrived this week, perhaps not quite as perfect as the Amazon after seller would have had me believe, but still a very nice copy with no nicks or cuts in the dust jacket and the book itself appears to be unread. I'm not always that picky about condition. Many times a reading copy will do, but I wanted a good copy of this one because it is truly a special book.
Lovecraft at Last is a memoir and a collection of correspondence. In 1936, a fifteen year old fan of Lovecraft named Willis Conover sent the writer a letter. Lovecraft, a letter writer of astounding energy, answered and so began a correspondence that would last until the end of Lovecraft's life, which was barely a year away.
Speaking as someone who has read five volumes of Lovecraft's letters, I can tell you that he tailored them to the people who would receive them. There aren't many generic Lovecraft letters. He took just as much time carefully answering the questions of the youthful Willis Conover as he did those of Robert E. Howard or Clark Ashton Smith.
It's hard to describe how moving this book is. Lovecraft's health and living situation was deteriorating quickly, and yet he is funny, wry, kind, and patient in his comments to his young correspondent. Conover responds in kind, becoming concerned about the welfare of the gentleman from Providence. It is an odd, but true friendship between two people who never met.
Conover saved all the letters, postcards, etc he received from Lovecraft and those missives are reproduced in the book. You can see the famous spidery handwriting of Lovecraft and look at the postmarks and feel a sense of history and time. The last letter Conover receives is from one of Lovecraft's aunts, informing the young man that Lovecraft has passed away.
Anyway, as you can probably tell, this is a much loved book and I'm glad to have a copy at last.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Retirement of Robert E. Howard

“I’ve been trying to pound out another yarn.”

“Another Conan story?”

“Yeah, but this may be my last one. I’m getting a little tired of Conan.” He made a sweeping gesture with his arm. “This country needs to be written about. There are all kinds of stories around here.”

_Attributed to REH by Novalyne Price in her memoir 'One Who Walked Alone'

In a comment to one of my posts, Alex asked what I thought Robert E. Howard might have written had he lived past the age of 30. It is something that I, and many fans of REH have speculated on. As the quote given above shows, Howard seemed to be moving away from the weird tales of sword & sorcery he had written for so many years. Other comments in REH’s letters indicate that Western fiction might have been the direction in which Howard was headed. However he also mentioned in one letter that he wouldn't mind writing another story for Weird Tales if they would just pay him in something resembling a timely fashion.
A couple of other things to keep in mind are that Howard was a professional pulp writer who would try pretty much any genre at least once, just to see if he could make it pay, and that Howard sold more boxing and humorous western style stories than he did tales of Conan, Solomon Kane, etc. There were doubtless great fans of Robert E. Howard in the 1930s that only knew him through his boxing stories. I guess what I’m trying to point out is that we, today, think of Howard as the creator of Conan and the genre of sword & sorcery. But that was far from all the man could and did write.
Okay, so let’s say that Howard didn’t die in 1936. We won’t bother speculating on why. Let’s just say that it happened. The pulp magazine markets were shrinking as World War II approached. Even longtime pulp writers like Lester Dent (Doc Savage) who had what amounted to a regular gig, saw the size of the stories (and the size of the paychecks) getting smaller. After the war, many pulps (including Doc) became literally smaller, changing to a digest format. The main point is, the pulp magazines, as REH knew them, were dying. He saw the beginnings of that before his own death in 1936. To a large degree, pulp style heroes, as Alex pointed out, made the leap to the colorful pages of Comic Books. (Only a very few years after Howard died.) Quite a few pulp writers also wrote for the comics including Manly Wade Wellman, Otto Binder, and Gardner Fox. Howard might have had a word or two for Fox who created a character called Crom the Barbarian for comic books, come to think of it.
So it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Howard could have written for the comic book industry. Howard had been tied to his hometown of Cross Plains Texas, as he was the primary caregiver to his ailing mother. But after his mother’s death, Howard would have been more free to travel and thus could have done as other pulp writers did and moved East to where the work was. He might have done as Midwesterner Dent managed to do, establish himself with the New York publishers and then move away from the city and work wherever he wanted to. Being in New York would have put him in proximity to the comic book companies when Superman changed the world in 1938.
However, had Howard truly been bent on becoming a writer of Westerns, he might have followed other writers like Max Brand and Louis L’Amour into western novels and that could have carried him through the war years. (Though truthfully, I can’t see Howard failing to enlist to fight Hitler, even in his mid thirties. He seemed like that kind of guy.)
But now we get to the post WWII paperback boom. The land of Mickey Spillane (who also wrote for comic books). This is where Howard’s versatility as a writer would really count. As paperbacks began to sell in amazing quantities there were demands for all genres, almost like a mini pulp rebirth. Howard could have written not only Westerns, but obviously historical fiction and of course, sword & sorcery. Keep in mind; the surviving Howard would have only been 44 years old when the first Gnome Conan book was published. So in our altered timeline, if someone had taken an interest in reprinting the adventures of the mighty Cimmerian, they would have had to approach Robert E. Howard.
Let’s think about that for a moment. No L. Sprague de Camp. No Lin Carter. Robert E. Howard in charge of his own literary properties. Of course that could also mean there would be no Lancer paperback deal and no Frazetta covers, but given the Edgar Rice Burroughs generated fantasy boom of the late 1960s, (and the Tolkien generated fantasy boom a little later) most of the things that happened could still have conceivably happened. Different publishers perhaps, but similar events.
In our timeline the Gnome reprints of Conan proved popular enough that Gnome hired L. Sprague de Camp to rewrite four of Howard’s historical novellas into Conan stories. In the altered timeline, would they have approached Robert E. Howard for new Conan material? And would he have written it? Howard often said that he eventually lost touch with his various characters. As if they had been standing at his shoulder, telling him their stories and then suddenly walked away. I wonder if a more mature writer could have re-conjured the spirits of Conan or Solomon Kane. Perhaps he would have come up with a new sword & sorcery hero. Or maybe he would have done his own ‘cannibalizing’ of his non-Conan fiction. He was no stranger to that sort of rewrite.
In 1969 Marvel Comics writer Roy Thomas would have had to approach a 63 year old Robert E. Howard about the rights to a Conan comic book. I suspect Two-Gun Bob would have liked that idea.
Bob would have been in his early seventies when Hollywood came calling for Conan. Some movie money for his retirement years. You know, that’s a nice daydream. I think I’ll stop right there.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Howard Chaykin: Conversations

Over the years Howard Chaykin has told several anecdotes about working as an assistant to legendary comic book artist Gil Kane and how he initially disagreed with almost everything Gil tried to teach him but eventually came to agree with most of it. That is pretty much my experience with Howard Chaykin. I can recall reading an interview with Chaykin in a 1989 issue of Comics Interview Magazine and thinking he was the biggest know-it-all smart ass on the face of the planet. But I kept thinking about the things he said about comics and about writing and drawing and I kept coming back to that interview and eventually I found that my views had moved into line with his. Thus I was very happy to get my hands on the new book Howard Chaykin: Conversations, which contains not only the very interview of which I speak, but a bunch of other interviews with Chaykin spanning his long career in comic books.
If you're not familiar with Chaykin he is probably best know as the creator and writer/artist of First Comic's American Flagg, a ground breaking series set in the not too distant future. If you go back and read that comic, which originally appeared in the 1980s, you will find Chaykin's predictions about the future to be scarily accurate.
Chaykin is also well know for his reboots of classic pulp and comic heroes like The Shadow and Blackhawk, as well as his own creations Cody Starbuck, The Scorpion, Dominic Fortune, Time Squared and many others.
To me, Chaykin has always represented a guy who went his own way in comics. You rarely found him turning out just another issue of Batman or Captain America. His work was original, often autobiographical and innovative. Never happy with the status quo in either the art or writing of comics, Chaykin pushed boundaries, stepped on toes and ended up a major influence to writers and artists who followed him. He also became one of the most unapologetic and controversial critics of the comics field. It was those opinions that originally irritated me, but with which I gradually came to agree. This was a man who loved the medium of comics but refused to let a haze of nostalgia blind him to the bland, the banal, and the just plain goofy in both the comics themselves and in the industry that produced them. And he's still at it. The interviews in Conversations run from 1975 right up to last year and everyone of them is fascinating. If you're interested in the history of comic books you'll want this one on your shelf and if you're a fan of the writing and artwork of Howard Chaykin this is a must have.

The Doctor's Wife

There are days I hate Neil Gaiman. He just writes so well. Oh sure, I don't like all of his stuff, but most of it is very very good and some of it is amazing. In the amazing category, file last night's episode of Doctor Who, The Doctor's Wife. From start to finish it is both a classic DW adventure in terms of plot structure and resolution, yet at the same time it is filled with Gaiman-isms. The story is dazzling and the pace unrelenting and the dialogue sparkles. I had to watch it again this morning just to marvel at the writing.
I think Matt Smith realized he was into something special too because he really went with the sheer manic energy of the story. Not that his performance is ever that restrained but he seemed to be in top form for this one. I'm not going to give a plot summary this time. That would spoil it. Not in the classic sense of spoilers, but just because the unraveling of this story is particularly nice to see. You'll laugh. You'll cheer. You might even cry. (Not me of course. I am too tough.) Trust me. This is a good one.
If you're a fan of Doctor who, you're in for a treat. If you're a fan of Gaiman you'll see his hand everywhere. Did I mention I hate him sometimes? But in a good way.

NOT a Tardis Self Destruct Remote Control

I was browsing the British foods section at my local Publix Supermarket this morning, and what should I spy but the 11th Doctor's favorite biscuit (Cookie to us Yanks) Jammie Dodgers. Now I've never had a Jammie Dodger so of course I had to buy them, along with my Galaxy Bars and Lion Bars.

Saturday, May 14, 2011


I've noted before that I'm always looking for something new in genre fiction. For those times when someone brings a different take to timeworn conventions and makes me remember why I love reading fiction anyway. Mike Mignola's and Christopher Golden's Baltimore is just such a book. It's an illustrated, Gothic/horror/adventure novel with vampires and demons and monsters of all sorts and yet it's also a book about damaged people who have , as Hemingway said, become "strong in the broken places."
Baltimore is subtitled The Steadfast Tin Soldier, and elements of the plot are linked to the old Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale. It begins during World War One when British Lord Henry Baltimore, an army Captain, leads his men on an ill fated mission into no-man's land. The Hessians are waiting in ambush and Baltimore and his men are cut down by machine gun fire. Baltimore survives, but as he lies wounded, among the bodies of his troops, he sees what appears to be a flock of kites descend on the dead. But these dark winged creatures aren't carrion crows. No, these are ancient vampires, come to feast on the blood and flesh of the dead and the dying.
Baltimore manages to wound one of the creatures as it attacks him, but wounded as he is, Baltimore can't put up much of a fight. The vampire, still in bat-like form, takes hold of Baltimore's wounded leg and breathes into the wound. This will cause the leg to become corrupted and later have to be amputated. But that's only the beginning of the now scarred vampire's revenge.
Creeped out yet? If not, you will be. There are worse things waiting in the pages of Baltimore. The vampires in the novel aren't precisely the creatures of Bram Stoker's Dracula but they are closer to traditional vampires than other recent portrayals of the bloodsuckers in films and books. They are foul, evil, ugly things of the night. Some of their victims become vampires themselves, while others merely become pale, gray creatures who cannot abide the light of day. Vampirism as plague, if you will. And there is some unseen presence lurking behind the vampires, an older darker power, The Red King.
The book has an interesting structure. Things swing away from Baltimore and the reader is introduced to three men whom Baltimore has summoned to a remote village in Europe. None of these men know each other but all are acquainted with Baltimore and each man has his own reasons for believing Baltimore's tales of vampires. The middle of the book features three separate stories, as each man relates his own encounter with the supernatural. A pale hungry thing that waits at the bottom of a dark lake in South America was, to me, the creepiest monster in any of these stories within the story.
Once the tales are told we learn more about Baltimore from a journal. Golden and Mignola are very coy about actually showing Baltimore after the book's horrific beginning, saving his reappearance in the flesh until the book's grizzly climax. It's a nifty bit of storytelling slight of hand, because the reader anticipates Baltimore's arrival, knowing that once he is on the scene, all hell will break loose.
And it does.
Mike Mignola, as some of you probably know, is the creator of Hellboy, and no stranger to Gothic trappings. He fills the book with his delightfully creepy drawings. I hadn't read anything by Christopher Golden before but I know that he has many horror and fantasy novels and short stories out there. I'll definitely be reading some more of his stuff.
Anyway, can't say enough nice things about Baltimore. My buddy Jim had been recommending it to me for some time, so I decided this week to give it a try. Really glad I did. Recently Dark Horse Comics, the publishers of Hellboy, have put out a Baltimore comic book mini-series, also written by Mignola and Golden. This isn't an adaptation but a new story. A collection of the mini-series will be out in June. You can bet I'll be picking that one up.

The Chronicles of King Conan: Vol II

As my friend Laura might say, meh. King Conan (later retitled Conan the King) was an attempt by Marvel Comics to get more mileage out of their license for the Conan character back in the early 1980s. The color comic Conan the Barbarian and the black&white magazine The Savage Sword of Conan were still selling well, so what the heck, let's put out another comic, this one taking place in the later years of Conan's life when he was the king of Aquilonia.
Unfortunately, Conan scripter Roy Thomas decided to stick to his habit of more or less following the outline for Conan's life established by L. Sprague de Camp in the Lancer/Ace Conan books, and so he gave Conan a son, also named Conan but called Conn, and began adapting the de Camp/Lin Carter stories from the paperbacks. Now speaking as a guy who actually liked some of the de Camp/Carter stories, I can tell you that this stuff was bottom of the barrel Conan pastiche in prose form. Illustrating it didn't help, even with the great John Buscema doing the art.
Volume II of the Dark Horse collections of the comics begins with an adaptation of the de Camp/Bjorn Nyberg novel Conan the Avenger. If there's anything worse than a bad de camp/Carter pastiche, it's a bad de Camp/Nyberg pastiche. Even Buscema seems to have lost interest, turning in lackluster layouts to be 'finished' by Ernie Chan.
This adaptation was Thomas's swan song on the King Conan comic, and he would soon leave Marvel for about a decade. Things only got worse after he left. The rest of volume two is filled out by boring stories and uninspired art. By the final issue presented here, Buscema too was off the book.
So now, my dilemma. After this Volume there's mostly a lot of forgettable stories and forgettable art. Do I continue picking up the reprints for the sake of a complete set or just let this one go? Time will tell.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Not Bad...

The makers of the new Conan film have said they drew some of their inspiration from the artwork of Frank Frazetta. That's pretty clear in the new movie poster, as it looks like an attempt to show a Frazetta style scene in real life. As such it looks pretty good. Of course in real life it also shows how vulnerable a bare-chested guy looks surrounded by soldiers in full armor. And of course Robert E. Howard's Conan DID wear armor when the need required it, but still the shirtless barbarian berserker is something of a genre convention so we'll let it go for the sake of a nifty poster.


Seems like we've been here before. The last Spenser novel. But no, this time a note on the inner flap of the dust jacket tells us in no uncertain terms that Sixkill was the last Spenser novel completed by Robert B. Parker before his death. So this is it. I already said my goodbyes when I was mistakenly informed that 2010's The Professional was the last Spenser book, so I won't go all maudlin again.
In Sixkill, Spenser is asked by the Boston cops to look into a murder charge against obnoxious movie star Jumbo Nelson. You know you're a good Private Eye when the cops ask you for help. Really it's just Spenser's cop buddy Quirk who doesn't like the way the case is shaping up but has to step lightly because of the interests of the media and local political figures. Spenser, being private, can blunder around all he likes.
It doesn't take long for the ever charming Spenser to royally piss-off Jumbo who sics his Native American bodyguard Zebulon Sixkill on our hero. Sixkill is large, strong, and tough. However Spenser is all of the above and a former professional boxer. Sixkill finds himself outmatched for the first time in his life. The next day Spenser finds Sixkill outside his office. He wants Spenser to teach him how to fight.
As the book progresses we learn that Sixkill's life has been pretty seriously messed up since he was a child and perhaps he needs more than just some lessons in boxing to pull himself together. Like Paul Giacomin in Early Autumn, Sixkill never had anyone to teach him how to be a decent human being. In flashbacks we see the events that led to Sixkill's emotional issues.
Spenser wants Sixkill's help in solving the Jumbo Nelson case, of course, but he also wants to help Sixkill if he can. Spenser has a thing for lost causes.
The book kicks into high gear in the second half, with as many car chases, fistfights and gun battles as a Spenser book has contained in a long time. Sixkill acts as sort of a junior version of Hawk (who is sadly absent from this last hurrah) backing Spenser's play even as he learns from the older man. This is a far far better book to go out on than the Professional, so I'm glad the initial reports about the last Spenser were wrong.
I promised I wouldn't get maudlin, but I have to admit that as I read the last few pages of the book I couldn't help but think, well this is it. No more Spenser. No more Hawk. No more of the snappy dialog and wise-ass quips. I've been reading Parker since high school and that has been a while. I'll miss his books a lot. I'm reminded of a line from an old Jimmy Buffet song, Incommunicado.

"So when I finished that last line, I put the book by itself on the shelf with my heart in it."

Good night, Bob. It's been a good run.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Conan: The Road of Kings #4

As I noted in my review of the third issue of this comic book, writer Roy Thomas has so far supplied a stand-alone story in every issue of this mini-series even though all the stories fall under a wider story arc. Issue #4, while still having a beginning, middle and end isn't quite as tight as the previous issues, and seems to be designed to move the main story forward. In issue three, Conan was given a scroll by his old friend Murillo and asked to carry it to a mysterious party in the city of Belverus.
Conan delivers the scroll, only to find himself caught up in political intrigues within the city. He is captured by the king's guards and dragged before the king in chains. Thomas's skill with dialog shines in this scene as the smug king taunts Conan and Conan responds in the expected fashion. Artist Mike Hawthorne depicts a frothing mad Conan, who is dragged from the room spouting threats that I really hope he gets a chance to carry out. Conan is quite the fan of payback.
Conan ends up in the dungeon of the royal torturer, who finds that it isn't going to be easy to make the Cimmerian talk. In fact it looks like Conan is going to die without opening his mouth, but when things look terminal for our hero..well, read it yourself. I will note that the next few scenes lead to some of Mike Hawthorne's best art yet on Conan, two terrific two-page spreads of an ax wielding Conan doing what he does best.
A well written comic book with good art, that comes out on time is a rarity these days, but Conan: The Road of Kings delivers. (I should note that Tim Truman and Tomas Giorello are also doing a fine, regularly published mini series, The Scarlet Citadel.)
Next issue, Conan gets back on the trail of the kidnapped princess, Olivia. Looking forward to it.

Friday, May 06, 2011

My Top Ten Private Eye Novels

Okay, here's my first run at a top ten PI novel list. This is off the top of my head, which is usually the best way to get a list of favorites. The things that jump to your mind are the ones that stay with you. Keep in mind, this is a list of favorites, not bests. Just My Opinion here, folks. However I have read a couple of thousand PI novels so I have a lot of experience.

The Long Goodbye- Raymond Chandler

I know a lot of folks prefer the more famous Chandler novel, The Big Sleep, but for me it's The Long Goodbye. To me this is Chandler's masterpiece.

Eight Million Ways to Die- Lawrence Block

Look up world-weary in the dictionary and there's probably a picture of Matt Scudder there. This is just an amazing book. Scudder's odyssey across the underbelly of New York was never more vivid and Scudder's quest for redemption never more poignant.

The Maltese Falcon- Dashiell Hammett

You not only get some of the best hardboiled snappy dialog ever written, but a nifty plot, unforgettable characters, and Hammett's worldview neatly handed to you in a little, seemingly offhand story about a guy named Flitcraft. Beams are falling, kids.

I, The Jury- Mickey Spillane

Spillane's first tale of the hardest of the hardboiled, Mike Hammer. People in the 1950s didn't quite know what to think about Spillane, but they sure bought a lot of his books. Even by today's standards Hammer is the tough guy's tough guy. Read The Girl Hunters and watch for the scene with the hammer and nails.

Early Autumn- Robert B. Parker

In this one, Parker's pet obsessions about love, honor, parenthood, obligation, and autonomy all came together in just the right mix, along with some terrific action sequences. To my mind he never quite got things to work as well again.

The Sleeping Beauty- Ross MacDonald

Just about all of Ross MacDonald's books have the same plot, but it doesn't matter. It's the Gothic proceedings that carry MacDonald's stories. This one has a concept though that really impressed me. The titular sleeping beauty is a missing girl who stole a bottle of sleeping pills when she ran away. Does Lew Archer find her before she becomes the eternally sleeping beauty? That would be telling.

A is for Alibi- Sue Grafton

I read the first ten or so of Grafton's Kinsey Millhouse mysteries just as fast as I could get my hands on them. Grafton wasn't the first female writer to write about a female private eye, but she certainly is the most popular. The books are very much in the Ross MacDonald mode, so much that Wold Newton enthusiasts have speculated that Kinsey might be Lew Archer's daughter.

The Last Good Kiss- James Crumley

As a friend once said, "pure hardboiled poetry."

The Deep Blue Goodbye- John D. MacDonald

Travis McGee wasn't really a PI, more of an urban mercenary, but he usually functioned in the same role as a PI. McGee offered people in trouble a simple deal. If you'd lost something that you couldn't go to the authorities about, McGee would get it back for you but he got to keep half of what the item was valued at. The Deep Blue Goodbye was the first McGee book and contains one of MacDonald's most memorable sociopaths, Junior Allen.

True Detective- Max Allan Collins

Collins' Nate Heller books brought a new wrinkle to the Private Eye genre. Where other authors had set their mysteries in the past before, Collins' books were "true" historical mysteries, using real figures from the past and dealing with real unsolved crimes. Collins offered solutions to many unsolved mysteries from history, all seen through the eyes of hardboiled PI Nathan Heller.

Now, the problem with any top 10 list is that there are usually some leftover candidates that hold equal status with some of the chosen, but hey, you had to pick ten. I would liked to have gotten a Nero Wolfe book in there somewhere. I would like to have found a spot for Andrew Vachss' Blue Belle of Joe R. Lansdale's Mucho Mojo or Ed Gorman's The Night Remembers of Bill Pronzini's Shackles or Robert Crais' L.A. Requiem, and on another day any of those might have replaced Grafton or Crumley. But I'll let this stand for now.

The Hard Stuff

I ordered three books from Amazon yesterday, not a one of them fantasy, SF, or sword & sorcery. No, this was kind of a throw back to my older reading habits, the twenty or so year period when I read virtually nothing but hard boiled crime fiction. Happened like this. I was browsing at Amazon and I spotted a new Mickey Spillane/Max Allan Collins Mike Hammer novel, Kiss Her Goodbye. I've been reading the new Hammer books and enjoying them tremendously, (Not sure why I haven't reviewed them. Probably got pushed out by some Conan related rant.) so I ordered that one on the spot.
Then I remembered that Sixkill, the new and presumably final Spenser novel completed by Robert B. Parker was out this week, so I added that to my order. Now if you shop much at Amazon you know that as you browse, the webpage begins to make recommendations based on what you looked at and what you've ordered in the past. Sometimes annoying. Sometimes handy. This time, Amazon recommended a new Matt Scudder book by Lawrence Block.
Back in April of 2008 I blogged about how Block had once been at the top of my reading list but how I'd been increasingly disappointed by the Scudder books, not finishing two and finally not buying the last, 2005's All the Flowers Are Dying. I figured Scudder and me were through. However, when I read the book description for A Drop of the Hard Stuff, which is a flashback book, taking place in the days when Scudder was an alcoholic ex-cop looking for some sort of redemption on the mean streets, I decided to give it a shot. I still would put the Scudder novel Eight Million Ways to Die on my top ten Private Eye books of all time. Just stay away from the movie made from it. I'll let you know what I think of the new one.
So that was my order. Three doses of Hardboiled fiction. Feels like old home week. And yes, now I'm thinking about my list of top ten Private Eye novels of all time...

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Conan the Barbarian Trailer

The makers of the new Conan movie released a full trailer yesterday. I've watched it a couple of times and I will say that it looks like it could be fun. My basic take on the trailer was, "If this wasn't supposed to be Conan I'd probably be pretty interested in seeing the film." It does look like a fun sword & sorcery movie. There's a Cthulhoid monster, some obvious sorcery, some hot women and a lot of clips from fight scenes. Oh, and Jason Momoa does look much more like Conan should than Arnie, as I've said before. Those would be the positive things.
On the other hand, the overall look of the trailer doesn't really make me think Robert E. Howard. It just looks like another Hollywood Fantasy film. And I did note a distinct Wushu look to some of the fights. I'm really tired of this trend in action movies. If I want wire work and fights with spears and chain & sickle, I'll go rent a kung fu movie, thanks. Don't need it in the Hyborian Age. Anyway, the trailer is up at Yahoo Movies and I'm sure it's on Youtube by now, so I won't bother linking it. As I said, it does have some good points, but the jury is still out until August.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Reading Report

Been a while since I delivered a reading report. I'm always reading, even if I don't review all of the stuff I read. I've been steadily reading the stories in the 22 volumes of DAW's The Year's Best Horror Stories, which I acquired recently. I'll probably get around to some comments about that soon. I read a really creepy story the other night by a writer I've never heard of. Always cool.
I read Stalking the Nightmare, a collection of stories by Harlan Ellison. Some good stuff in there.
I read Reality is Broken, Jane McGonigal's book about gaming, and while I didn't agree with all of her conclusions about the uses of online gaming as a way to improve society, I did think she made a lot of good points. Definitely a thought provoking book.
Re-read David Gemmell's Legend, but only the chapters that had Druss in them. I've read this book like five times and it occurred to me that if I didn't really want to read the chapters about the other characters, I didn't actually have to. It's not as if I didn't know what was going on. So I just read the parts with Druss, which are the best parts anyway.
Read selected short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Harold Lamb, and Joseph Payne Brennan. I'm really enjoying Doyle's Brigadier Gerard stories. They show a different side to Doyle, nothing like Sherlock Holmes but loads of fun. Gerard is his own biggest fan, constantly reminding his readers what a wonderful, handsome, amazing man he is, and yet he manages to stay likable, because he seems completely unaware of his colossal egotism and for the most part he really is as good a swordsman, horseman, and soldier as he claims. Not always the brightest guy around, but definitely the most loyal and brave.
Right now I'm reading a cut down version of the diaries of Samuel Pepys. Pepys kept a very detailed diary for the better part of a decade, starting in January of 1660. If you want to know what life was like in the late 17th century, Pepys is your man. I was put onto his diary by an excerpt in another history book I was reading, in which Pepys gives a long account of the great fire of London in 1666. He basically crosses the city as it burns and reports what he sees. I absolutely love this kind of historical memoir. I've yet to get to the part about the great plague of 1665, but I've heard it too is an amazing account.
I'm also reading a book of interviews with comic book artist/writer, Howard Chaykin. I'll have much to say about that soon. As you can see, my reading is as eclectic as always.