Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Jack Palance vs. the Great Old Ones - The Scroll of Thoth


    Richard L. Tierney is a poet, writer and editor.  With David C. Smith he wrote a series of novels based on the Marvel Comic's Red Sonja character.  He's also written several Lovecraftian novels.  My only exposure to him are his Simon of Gitta stories.
   It's taken more effort than I anticipated to finish "The Scroll of Thoth".  I never expected to have to work so much to make myself keep picking up the book and work my way through it.  It's a collection of all of the Simon of Gitta tales written solely by Tierney, first for Andrew Offutt's "Swords Against Darkness" anthologies and then mostly for small press publications like Weirdbook and Crypt of Cthulhu.  The stories use the Biblical figure of Simon Magus and place him historically detailed, Lovecraftian drenched sword and sandal adventures across the Roman Empire of the first century A.D.  Several only appeared in their final forms in this beautifully presented collection published in 1997 as part of Chaosium's often excellent series of Call of Cthulhu fiction.
   In addition to several stories written with co-authors, there a Simon novel called "The Drums of Chaos".  I don't plan to inject my political or religious (you're already getting enough of my opinions anyways)  views with any sort of regularity into this blog but I've got to admit that it's portrayal of Jesus of Nazareth as a Wilbur Whateley clone means I'm not going to being checking it out anytime soon.  Once in awhile though they're bound to slips out and not mentioning "The Drums of Chaos"  and its controversial central point seems dishonest.
   Simon Magus, aka Simon of Gitta, appears in the Book of Acts as a sorcerer who converts to Christianity.  A short time later on seeing St. Peter bringing the Holy Ghost to people by the laying on of hands he offers money for the same abilities and is rebuked for such an sinful offer. 
   Simon later appears in works by early church fathers as a central figure in Gnosticism.  There are references to Simon of Gitta, who  is described as the religious leader of all the Samaritans.  He also makes appearances in several apocryphal documents including the Acts of Peter where he duels the Apostle with sorcery.
   Fictionally, Simon serves as the villain in Thomas B. Costain's novel "The Silver Chalice".  In the film of the novel he's played by Jack Palance.  Robert Price informs us in the book's lengthy introduction Tierney's Simon of Gitta is indeed meant to resemble the late, high cheeked actor.  Several times his unusually chiseled cheeks are mentioned.  One of Tierney's interesting techniques is his use of both film and literary genre references.  Sometimes it helps put a story into a seemingly greater context of already known expectations and tropes and other times is seems gratuitous.


   Presented chronologically, not in publication order, Simon of Gitta appears first in "The Sword of Spartacus" condemned to the arena for killing a tax collector.  He is chosen by the Samaritan sorcerer Dositheus for a special fight in the arena.  The sorcerer's master, Tages the Etrurian, is a magically preserved survivor of Spartacus' uprising a century earlier.  With the eponymous sword of the title he plans for Simon to initiate the end of Rome.
   Following the events of "The Sword of Spartacus" Simon becomes a student of Dositheus and a part of a great conspiracy to destroy the Roman Empire.  Aided by Romans looking to reestablish the Republic the conspiracy comes to a head in "The Fire of Mazda".  Here he also meets his literal soul mate, Helen.  Several of the stories involve the things keeping them separate as well as the willingness of Simon to risk his life and soul to overcome those barriers.
   Throughout the remaining ten stories and novellas Simon faces off against great evils with his quick sword, magical knowledge and powerful soul.  The later reflects the Gnostic universe the stories inhabit.  Simon is a "true spirit", his soul possessing a shard of the true divine spirit of the universe.  This sets him in direct opposition to the forces that would destroy mankind and remake the Earth for their malign purposes; specifically the Lovecraftian Old Ones.
   The premise is interesting, the history is fascinating and the fannish aspects often intriguing.  Still, I found it a tremendous slog to make it to the book's end.  On reflection I think it's because many of the stories are just kind of boring.  There's not a lot of life to them.
   The early ones are definitely the worst offenders.  Simon is forced by others to confront something he doesn't understand.  Then by means he doesn't understand he overcomes or escapes.  Coupled with that they're long.  "The Fire of Mazda" and "The Seed of the Star-God" are both around forty pages of a confounded Simon, long, dry exposition, followed by a dull plodding, determined Simon.
   "The Blade of the Slayer" is the first story I actually enjoyed but I'm not sure if it's the story itself or the gimmick Tierney used in its telling that worked for me.  Hiding out from bandits, Simon comes across the world's first murderer ensnared in a magical trap.  Can you see it coming, S&S fans?  The prisoner turns out to be a certain familiar red haired, blue eyed killer created by the late Karl Edward Wagner.  And it works, but then I'm a sucker for team-ups of major characters, from REH's "Kings of the Night" to Wagner's own "The Gothic Touch".
  The quality of the tales pick up when Egypt becomes the setting for five stories linked by Simon's tutelage under the high priest of Ptah, ancient god of primordial creation.   The tales are shorter and move faster.  Several are actually exciting, replete with lost temples, ancient relics and dark magics, particularly "The Worm of Urakhu".  This subset of stories also bring Tierney's fanboy stylings to the fore.
   On the good side he expands his Lovecraftian references beyond HPL and August Derleth to include Robert Bloch and Brian Lumley.  It's fun watching how Tierney plays with the HPL Mythos and folds it into bits of real history and create a unified "true" history of the world.
   On the bad side is the introduction of elements from Dune and Star Wars.  Actually, the Dune stuff isn't wholly unsuccessful.  Frank Herbert's sandworms and their homeworld of Arrakis fit smoothly into Tierney's Mythos games.  He presents them in a way that makes sense.  The morbidly obese Baron Harkonnen and his nephew Feyd don't.  Their Roman avatars turn up in "The Curse of the Crocodile" as Simon's opponents.  The only life the characters have is what a reader of Dune might bring with him.  Unlike the sandworms they don't mesh with well with the concoction of genre elements Tierney's created.
   The Star Wars business just sits there to no real purpose.  We get Boba Fett, Darth Vader and several other characters from George Lucas' films for no apparent reason.  Since the characters don't really get used in any exciting or innovative way I'm not quite sure what purpose is served by their introduction.  Robert Price, in his introduction to the story, writes about how Lucas' characters were just versions of the archetypes in Joseph Campbell's writings and that they performed the same function in Simon of Gitta's adventure.  Again, like Baron Harkonnen they're distractingly pointless.
   Tierney's intricate worldbuilding is successful precisely because it's so intricate.  Robert Price's lengthy foreword and introductions to each of the stories show the immense amount of research Tierney did in his study of ancient history, religion and Gnosticism as well as his deep knowledge of the HPL Mythos.  That deep detail is what gives Simon's world a solid reality.  Suspension of disbelief requires little effort.  Until you get somebody else's characters running around like they stepped in from another soundstage and then it all falls apart.  If the stories weren't written with such conviction I wouldn't have been so offended by Yoda showing up.  In a lighter tale it might have worked, but not here.
   After that the concluding stories are passable.  We get a front seat to the assassination of Caligula and learn the ultimate fate of Pontius Pilate and meet Deep Ones in the harbor of Tyre.  Along the way Simon learns more secrets about the evil machinations behind the events of day-to-day world and fights monsters.  Never once does it get that exciting and that's a big component of what I'm looking for in S&S.  It's really sort of the primary element.
  Finally there's the problem of much of the Tierney's actual writing.  Most of the time characters' speech is presented in a more or less standard English with a veneer of more theatrical adornments.  The dying emperor Tiberius cries out "From the blackness beneath the pyramids I hear it crawling.  Do you not hear?  Do you not see?  Ah-those cursed fiery eyes!"  In other words, typical for much of S&S and more than appropriate.  But Tierney drops in disconcerting terms that that just don't work and again, like the introduction of the Star Wars and Dune characters knock the reader out of the verisimilitude that's been so painstakingly developed.  The worst example is when Simon thinks someone "runs pretty fast for a little twerp".  I'm putting a lot of blame on that little word twerp but similar incidents occurs throughout the stories and it's annoying.  It's one thing if all his characters spoke that way, like in Glen Cook's writing, but they don't and there's no real rhyme or reason to when it happens.
   So there have it, after a month of working my way through "The Scroll of Thoth", my take on it.  If you've got any of the Simon of Gitta in their their original publications and haven't read them yet, check them out to at least see the result of the extensive worldbuilding Tierney carried out.  It's pretty amazing.  Heck, you might even like the stories.  They're not bad like a Lin Carter (and he really is my standard of bad S&S) story.  I just found them sort of boring.
   However, I can't recommend getting your own copy of "The Scroll of Thoth".  In putting this together I was shocked to learn the cheapest copy on Amazon is going for $60 bucks.  It's just not worth the investment.

2 comments:

  1. Speaking of which, I'm trolling the net drumming up interest for my own Simon Magus novel in progress, The Acts of Simon Magus. It's an epic historical fantasy, but rather different from Tierneys's in that it which explores the roots of the original Gnosticism through the eyes of its notorious founder, while examining the events and characters responsible for the rise of Christianity from a unique perspective. I have naturally retained some of the Lovecraftian stuff, especially since the Cthulhu and Gnostic mythologies have much in common. Here is a draft for my upcoming Indiegogo campaign, including video (featuring, of course, Jack Palance in his best role!) and link to some readings. All comments welcome! http://simonmagus.com/indiegogo http://simonmagus.com/readings-2

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  2. Very cool sounding. I'll put it on my to-read-list.

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