Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Banner Art - Solferino

My new banner art is part of Carlo Bossoli's painting, The Battle of Solferino. From the little bit I can glean from the badly translated Italian Wikipedia page, he was Swiss born naturalized Italian. He was hired by a British publisher to follow the Piedmont War (2nd Italian War of Independence) and create lithographs. Later, the Prince of Savoy commisioned him to paint pictures from the war. This is one of them and it can be seen in the Museum of the Risorgimento in Turin. Risorgimento means resurgence and it was the word used to describe the movement to unify Italy during the 19th century.

Solferino was the climax of the war. A French and Sardinian army under Emperor Napoleon III smashed into the Austrian army commanded by Emperor Franz Joseph I. At the end of the day the Austrians were beaten and retreated back to the protection of their fortresses called the Quadrilateral. Soon after, peace negotiations started.

When I tweeted the painting above yesterday, Teresa Edgerton remarked how gorgeous it is and that it would make a great book cover. I don't have a book in need of a cover, but I do want a new banner. 

Napoleon III at Solferino

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Long Nineteenth Century

So the Chaosium Cthlhu Mythos project I embarked on late last year has clearly fallen by the wayside. I haven't posted anything on it in months and I haven't been able to make any headway in the next book, Cthulhu's Heirs, for weeks. Every time I tried to get going again I found myself distracted by anything else. I just couldn't stay focused on the stories, no matter how good. So, I'm calling it quits for now. Maybe I'll go back in the future.

What I AM interested in right now are the various wars and colonial actions between 1789 and 1918, a period the repellent Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbawn, crafted.  The French Revolution represents a shattering of the feudal, social, and relgious order in most of Europe. At the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the Great Powers attempted to re-establish the old order at the Congress of Vienna and it never really took. Between that span, nationalism sparked numerous revolutions and wars. France, England, and many other powers continued their imperial expansion bringing millions of people under their rule.

The slow-motion race toward the Great War and the vileness of the colonial undertakings are fascinating. At a time of rapid cultural and social growth, of scientific advancement at a speed never before experienced, the developed nations of the world seemed bent on proving themselves by force of arms and with bloodshed. From my cossetted early-21st century place it makes little sense. But of course it did to millions upon millions of educated people at the time.

When I read history, when I encounter the past, I try hard not to simply dismiss it because people and societies aren't as liberally minded as we like to think of ourselves today. People weren't evil (okay, some of them clearly were), but instead, had the same sort of complex thinking and understanding of human actions we have but with completely different underlying assumptions. My hope is to come to a greater understanding of how people came to such different conclusions than we do (most of the time) today.

Between 1815 and 1914, Europe saw numerous wars. Among them were the First and Second Italian Wars of Independence, and the Austro-Prussian and Franco-Prussian Wars. Even poor little Denmark gets ravaged by the Prussians.

The decaying state of the Ottoman Empire led to three wars between the Turks and the Russians. In 1882, Britain sort of, kind of, took control of Egypt from the Ottomans and in 1911, Italy helped itself to Libya. The British supplantation of the Ottomans in Egypt led directly to various excursions into the Sudan.

The Japanese make their entrance onto the world stage by defeating first China in 1894, then Russia in 1905.

None of these had the scope or duration of the Napoleonic Wars, but they were brutal and showed the way to the industrial slaughterhouse of the Great War.

Then, most egregiously, there are the numerous colonial conquests and exploitation. Germany, France, Belgium, England, and Italy into Africa. England, France, Russian, Japan, and more into China. Sometimes the colonized had the temerity to rise up, hence the Great Mutiny and the Boxer Rebellion. The Boer Wars, if not perfectly, fit into the catergory of uprisings as well.

The greatest proof of the failure of the Congress of Vienna is the Great War. All the nationalism, all the competition between the Great Powers for colonial possessions, martial and economic power, exploded in the summer of 1914. Though sparked by the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it had been building for a long time before that.

At present, inspired by the centenary of the Great War, I'm reading
The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916 by Alistair Horne and The Marne:1914 by Holger Herwig. Both are excellent studies of the respective battles, providing excellent studies of the commanders, strategies, and tactics involved. Both books go a long way to showing the disastrous conduct of the battles were more the result of failures by the generals to understand the changes wrought by technology. Rare were the commanders who really were able to take these things into account and incorporate them into tactics and strategies.

So, that's what I'm doing here, for the next few months at least. Oh, at I'm leaving the US out of this. Sure, we were doing the sames things as Europe (and Japan). We had a bloody expansionist period, a bloody war of consolidation, and a nice quick war with Spain and colonialism. But, as an American, I'm already familiar with it, so I'm not looking to read much about it now (but maybe next time. I've got two good looking books about the Spanish American War that straring at me from the shelf).

Oh, and I'm too bored/tired right now, but I will be updating the banner.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

RIP Sir Christopher Lee

I guess every fanboy and girl is going to post Sir Christopher's death notice today, and why not? Growing up in the seventies, his portrayal of Dracula was ubiquitous on television. Forget, Lugosi, Lee was the Count. 

When I was a teenager and saw The Wicker Man for the first time it was also the first time I saw him out of his Dracula uniform. His performance as Lord Summerisle is mesmerizing. It remains my favorite of his many performances. His turn as Death in the Discworld animated movies is a close second, though.

By all reports he was a good and brave man. RIP, sir. Thank you and good bye.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015


I'm not sure what the first story I read by Clifford Simak was, but the first I remember is "Desertion." It's part of the book he's probably most famous for, City. The novel is a mournful farewell to humanity and Earth and stars robot butlers and talking dogs.

"Desertion" is about a scientist and his dog on Jupiter investigating missing explorers. They were transmogrified into lopers, a lifeform native to the planet's surface. None so far have returned to the station.

There's a tremendous sense of wonder in the tale as the nature of what's going on is revealed. I think of it as the story that showed me the true potential of sci-fi as something way more than rockets and rayguns (not that there's a single thing wrong with them).

Sadly, Clifford Simak seems to have slipped into the ranks of the unjustly forgotten sci-fi writers of the past. Growing up, he was just part of the general fabric of sci-fi and most fellow sci-fi fans I knew had read at least something by him.

Doing a search on Waystation the other day, I discovered a 2009 review in the UK Guardian. The author admitted he had never even heard of Simak until he started exploring past Hugo winners. Only twenty-three years after his death, a man who was the third Science Fiction Grand Master (after only Robert Heinlein and Jack Williamson), winner of three Hugos and a Nebula, was unknown by the science fiction reviewer of a major paper.

I can't blame the critic. As of 2009, most of his books were no longer in print. Happily, that seems to be changing a little, though, at least in the UK. Gollancz has published City and Waystation, and Gateway/Orion is releasing e-books of what looks to be all of his novels.

It's been a long time since I've read anything by Simak. John O'Neill's post about The Goblin Reservation and the comments reminded me how much I loved his work. There's a warmth and comfortableness to his stories that I love.

Here are the novels of his I have in storage. I just dug out Enchanted Pilgrimage, his first effort at writing a fantasy quest novel. He came back to it two more times in The Fellowship of the Talisman and Where the Evil Dwells.

All three send a party of adventures into enchanted lands to make some discovery or thwart some rising evil. I don't remember them being particularly original but nice reads nonetheless.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Wonderful Nonsense and Unearthed America

There are probably all sorts of fascinating reasons that there was a market for UFOs and cryptozoology when I was growing up back in the seventies. I don't really care now and I definitely didn't care when I was eleven. What mattered was that there were lots of books of glorious nonsense for me to read.

The Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot film in 1967 and Eric von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods? in 1968. Vincent Gaddis created the idea of the Bermuda Triangle in 1964 and Charles Berlitz popularized it his 1974 book of the same name.

This stuff, especially UFO and Bermuda Triangle themese, worked its way into popular culture. There's a 1975 tv movie called The UFO Incident starring James Earl Jones about the Barney and Betty Hill "abduction" and a tv show called The Fantastic Journey let Roddy McDowall get lost in the Triangle.

Cryptozoology was my favorite of all the bullshit subjects. It was the only one that actually had any sort of track record of
success and therefore the lowest bullshit quotient. Sure, scientists were more likely to uncover something like the coelacanth or a giant peccary and not a sea serpent but even as a kid that was cool enough for me. And I suspected aliens didn't own the Andes and there wasn't a mysterious vortex in the Caribbean.

I loved this stuff (and still do) because I'm a sci-fi/fantasy fan. Secret monsters, aliens, strange disappearances? Those things are at the heart of much of what I was was reading. 

It also seemed to rip the boring mask of reality away and expose all sorts of bizarre things going on in the background. It's cool to know secrets, even if those secrets were available to anybody who bought Chariots of the Gods? from the spinner rack in A&P.  

When I got older my taste for this stuff faded. After you've read one Bermuda Triangle book you've pretty much read them all. Same for Bigfoot and Loch Ness monster.

But I did get hooked on conspiracy and other crazy theories. That's for a whole other post some day. Suffice it to say, I don't believe them (OK, maybe the Business Plot because Smedley Butler's one of my heroes), from JFK's assassination to Nazis in the Antarctic. They are, though, a heck of a lot of fun to read about.

All of this leads me to America Unearthed. It's a History Channel 2 show about supposed lost and hidden pieces of American history. It's without a doubt some of the most magnificent bullshit I have watched in the last year or two.

Scott Wolter, the host, is a forensic geologist, a fine purveyor of grand theories about alternate histories of the settlement of America. In the earliest episodes, he argues for the presence of Mayans, Vikings, and Phoenecians, in the lower forty-eight.

I put the show on out of boredom and quickly was enjoying the silliness for what it is. Wolter brought out the Kensington Stone as proof of real Vikings in Minnesota and claimed Mystery Hill dated back to ancient times. I laughed at how angry he got when the park rangers at Chattahoochee wouldn't let him wander around protected sites or the guide at Roanoke dismised his ideas out of hand. He had heartfelt phone calls with his wife that ended with her telling him about a sudden, recent discovery that could prove his latest wild theory. It was all good, clean fun until he started talking about the Templars and the Holy Grail. 

It's one of the grandest and most debunked conspiracy theories out there. You can look up the details yourself. It's a mishmash of conspiracy theories, new age beliefs, and gnosticism, spawned by one of the most elaborate hoaxes every carried out. Dan Brown rode the hoax to fame and fortune, all the while claiming it was real and that he had discovered it. I don't want to ruin your own discoveries about them. Just start with the Priory of Sion and see where that takes you. 

Four episodes of America Unearthed's first season (the only one I've seen so far) focus on Wolter's theories about the Templars and how some escaped to the New World following their order's destruction in the 14th century. It's a wonderfully nutty web of unbelievable bits strung together with cords of ludicrous theories wrapped in sheets of nonsense. 

Later I found out Wolter has a two-hour show just on the Templars, the Holy Grail and the Kensington Stone. I need to find and watch that next. Then I have to see the second season where he spends at least one episode looking for the Menehune, the little people of Hawaii. 

I look at all of these shows and books as story telling. Maybe the tellers really believe in what they're saying, maybe not. But it doesn't matter. What they are doing is creating tales out of the myths and mysteries that litter our real world and finding patterns in them from which they can make new stories, and I can appreciate and enjoy them for that.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Chaosium Mythos Fiction: Mysteries of the Worm (2nd ed.) by Robert Bloch

Baby Bob Bloch
After weeks of delay brought about by travel, cataracts, other obligations, and, above all, laziness, I finally finished Mysteries of the Worm by Robert Bloch. It's name is the English version of Bloch's contribution to the Mythos' library of evil volumes: De Vermis Mysteriis by Ludwig Priin. As edited by Lin Carter, it originally appeared in 1981 from Zebra Books. Both later editions had a few stories added by our hero, Robert Price, and were published by Chaosium. I've read the 2nd edition, depriving myself of four more bits of Mythos writing.

He wrote most of the stories in the collection before he was twenty-two. Some barely rise to the level of story, really being nothing more than a nifty idea but lacking much in the way of plot. Only a few are great, the rest being the work of a novice writer. And I don't care.

There's more atmosphere, more thought, and more originality in almost every one of Bloch's stories than any of those I struggled with in Lin Carter's Xothic Legend anthology. Bloch was still a teenager and there's an intimation that he will be a better storyteller someday. With Carter's stories, it's evident that he had reached his limits.

Pt. I

Robert Bloch (1917-1994) is still, sadly, really only known to the wider public (if at all) as the author of Psycho. Even that laurel is faded as it's Hitchcock's movie that people know best. Apparently he only merits a mention in the recent film, Hitchcock, about the creation of the movie.

What most people don't know is that he started his writing career as a sixteen year old member of the Lovecraft Circle. He had written to HPL in hopes of securing copies of older stories that were no longer available. HPL not only sent him copies, he also encouraged the young Bloch to start writing.

Later, Bloch started writing suspense and horror fiction that was more psychological and less supernatural. That path led to Psycho which ultimaltely seems to have led to Hollywood. There he wrote tons of TV scripts as well as several films. Several of Amicus Productions dynamite horror anthologies were written by Bloch. Asylum remains a favorite of mine. And he never stopped writing original fiction. His last novels, Psycho House and The Jekyll Legacy (co-written with Andre Norton), were published in 1990.

Pt. II
In his introduction, Robert Price makes a defense of the authors who dedicated themselves to systematizing the Lovecraft Mythos, especially Derleth, Carter, and Lumley. The post-Derleth reformers insisted:

the cataloguers have misunderstood what a "mythos" is. They maintain that certain stories by Lovecraft or others may draw on this body of myth, but the Mythos refers to the pseudo-information, not to the stories that draw on it

But there are no real tomes of mystery or actual myths and legends to the Lovecraft Mythos notes Price. The stories we are reading by Carter, Bloch, and others are what really compose the Mythos.

As such, while Bloch's creation, De Vermis Mysteriis by Ludwig Priin doesn't actually exist, Price believes Carter's decision to title the collection after it is perfect, stating "The stories of the Mythos are the Mythos!" It's a line of reasoning I like.

Other than that, there's not much further exploration of the theory Price put forward in The Hastur Cycle, that the "true" Mythos is something that preceded and extended past HPL's own stories. All Carter wanted to do when he created Mysteries of the Worm was to get a bunch of stories he loved by a member of the Lovecraft Circle together in one place.

In his "unauthorized" autobiography, Once Around the Bloch, Bloch wrote that as he had few ideas and no style of his own, when he started he tried to emulate his idol, HPL. And that's what you get in much of Mysteries of the Worm.

These are pulp stories, most written for Weird Tales. You can practically smell the ink and cheap paper as you read them. There's an audio clip of Bloch explaining how he would start with a finale for a story and then work out how he got there. It's easy to imagine him doing that in many of these stories.

In one story, a man kills himself  but the knife he uses is revealed to have the fingerprints of a gigantic ape. In another, a man learns his friend has been strangled by the little monster living on his back. In "Notebook Found in a Deserted House", my favorite in the book, you get exactly what the title describes. All cool ideas that Bloch must have had fun working back to the beginning.

So what to make of the actual stories? For all the rough edges and unsurprising surprises, the earliest stories still have a nice zip to them. While he was trying to emulate his mentor, there's still a leanness to Bloch's prose that's similar to what he would develop as a mature writer.

It's also easy to see that maturity starting to emerge over the course of the book. While Bloch mimicked HPL in the first story, "The Secret in the Tomb", by "The Secret of Sebek" from two and a half years later the narrator is self-aware enough to notice when he find himself talking old-timey all of a sudden. It's not that he's dismissive of HPL's more florid style, but that he's finding his own prosaic one. You can see the taut, more naturalistic prose that's the hallmark of his later thrillers and horror stories coming into being.

Several of the stories are linked, not as direct sequels, but by an Egyptian theme. It first appears in "The Faceless God." Bloch plays with Nyarlathothep as a deity worshipped in ancient Egypt under the priesthood of the dark pharaoh, Nephren-Ka. The latter, as Prices points out, is presented as an evil doppelganger of the monotheist ruler, Akhenaten. Like him, Nephren-Ka was struck from all the histories and monuments, but for vile sins and depravities, not simple heresy.

In the Egyptian stories, Bloch does desert adventure in "The Faceless God", dark secrets in the wild English countryside in "The Brood of Bubastis", and a riff on Poe in "The Secret of Sebek." As in all of Bloch's Mythos stories, the emphasis is on the pulp aspects of the whole enterprise. Bloch admits that his knowledge of historical Egypt was pretty lousy, but really, if there are enough animal-headed mummies and secret tombs, who cares?

Much as some critics go on about the depth of meaning to HPL's stories, what brings most people in I would argue, are the monsters and madmen. Sometimes, readers need to be reminded of this cobbled-together thing's roots.

For all the brooding existential dread that permeates the Mythos, there's also a great sense of play present as well. There's a whole lot of meta-storytelling going on from the very beginning. HPL gave himself and his correspondents nicknames. Lovecraft put some of his friends into the stories and allowed himself to be used by them in turn. In "The Shambler from the Stars" Bloch portrayed HPL as a "mystic dreamer" from New England and killed him off.

Lovecraft got his own back, killing off the Bloch stand in, Robert Blake, in "The Haunter of the Dark." Bloch later wrote "The Shadow from the Steeple," a direct sequel to "Haunter." Both of Bloch's are pretty decent.

It's a kick to witness the literary results of Bloch's and Lovecraft's interaction. They were hoping to write good spook stories, but they were in constant conversation with each other. What Bloch and Lovecraft did, killing each other off, is a lot more enjoyable than Derleth and Carter simply listing all the books from each other's haunted library shelves. 

As good, and as much fun, as Bloch's early endeavors are, it's two of the later stories that are the best in Mysteries. The first of these, and easily my favorite non-HPL Mythos tale, is "Notebook Found in a Deserted House." I first read it in theTales of the Cthulhu  Mythos Vol. 2 with the creepy John Holmes cover. I was probably fourteen when I first read it and was glad to find it held up when I reread it last week.

A boy goes to live with his aunt and uncle in the deep woods. Deep woods where awful things apparently lurk, hiding and waiting for dark and awful purposes. It's not a perfect story, with the juvenile narrator writing in his notebook right up until something smashes down a door (I hope you don't think I'm giving anything away by writing that. This is a Mythos story and you do know how they pretty much all end, right?). But there's a great, creeping feeling of dread and rising fear in the story that's terrific.

The final story, "Terror in Cut-Throat Cove," bridges the gap between Bloch's more traditional Mythos stories and his noir-tinged non-supernatural tales. An American expatriate living on a Caribbean island is approached by an American couple to help out on a dive for a Spanish wreck. Things don't go well.


These are not the finest crafted Mythos stories. The earliest ones suffer from clunky writing and derivative plots. But they breathe, there's life in them that many other Mythos writers never found. Bloch's skills developed quickly, and within a few years he was crafting well-written and clever stories that supply a nice jolt.

Bloch never abandoned his love for HPL's creation. In 1978 he wrote Strange Eons. It's a goofy book that tells of the final rising of dread Cthulhu by weaving together incidents from HPL's own tales. It's not scary or disturbing, but it is a lot of fun. It was published by Whisper Press, an arm of the great and mighty Whispers magazine.

Bloch at the Other End of Life
If you have any interest in Robert Bloch or Mythos fiction, buy yourself a copy of Mysteries of the Worm. I'll probably upgrade my copy to the newest edition in the future. The Hastur Cycle is a collection with a more serious purpose (to prove Price's theory regarding the nature of the Mythos as a body of stories), and several stories that aim for loftier artistic goals than Bloch's, but that leaves that volume a little drier and almost academic compared to this one. This book is just much more fun, and, really, that's why I read these stories.

Next TimeCthulhu's Heirs: Tales of the Mythos for the New Millennium, edited by Thomas M. K. Stratman

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Terry Pratchett, RIP

Terry Pratchett died today. I thank him for nearly for literally dozens of very good, often great, books. If you haven't read him, or only a book or two, you should fix that problem. And it is a problem.

Despite the debilitating effects of Alzheimer's Disease Pratchett was still writing until very recently. Except for the last few books, there are no clunkers in the Discworld series. Some I like better than others, but all have moments that will make you laugh out loud. Even in the volumes I like the least he could still whip up characters and scenes that were moving. This from a man who wrote two or three books a year at one point.

Thank you, again, and RIP, Sir Terry.