Tuesday, November 24, 2020

More Tolkien Covers

Last time I posted Barbara Remington's Lord of the Rings covers for Ballantine. Those were the first versions of Tolkien's books I read. They were my dad's and they eventually fell apart. When I bought a new set, they had covers featuring paintings by Tolkien. As much as I love Remington's on-the-nose sixties art, I prefer Tokien's. I love his art nouveau-influenced style and the rare chance to see an author's actual vision put to paper. I'm still looking for good shots of more of his art to post, but these four covers will do in the meantime.

depicted: Bilbo and the dwarves escaping the Elf King's hall

depicted: Hobbiton

depicted: Fangorn Forest

depicted: Barad-dûr

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Beautiful Ballantine Covers

Many of the books I'm hoping to read for my new Black Gate column were published by Ballantine books, some as precursors to and others as part of the famous Ballantine Adult Fantasy line. That's got me looking at my shelf-full of them and their beautiful covers. Several times over the years I've written about the quality of old book covers compared to modern ones. It should come as no surprise I think the old ones come out on top most of the time.

While Gervasio Gallardo is probably the single artist most recognized from the Ballantine AF books Lin Carter edited, there were other artists of note, especially for the pre-Carter books. Here are some of my favorites, all by the recently deceased Barbara Remington.

These hippy trippy covers were my first vision of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien couldn't understand them, but that's because Remington wasn't able to read them before doing the covers. She said she would have done something very different if she had, but I'm glad she didn't. I love these ludicrous artifacts from stranger days. 

I particularly love that together they form one lunatic vision of Tolkien's world

The first three of these are by Barbara Remington, while the fourth, possibly by a different artist, is uncredited. I hope to tackle Worm sooner rather than later, but I make no guarantees. These covers are remarkable. I love the ouroboros motif and the high middle ages depictions of the knights and castles. The dogs and lions on Mistress have a heraldic quality reflects perfectly echoes Eddison's medieval stylings. 

I look and look at both these sets of covers and I wonder why must we continue to suffer God awful photoshopped covers. 

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Back in the Saddle Again: A New Monthly Column

After nearly two years of retirement from Black Gate, I'm coming back. I'm brushing the cobwebs out of my brain, flexing my writing muscles, and gearing up for a return to the electronic pages of the best fantasy (and horror, and sci-fi, and crime fiction) magazine around. The luminous Mrs. V. has already signed back on to edit my work so it'll be coherent. 

There'll be two significant changes. The first is I'll be posting monthly, not weekly. Each new article will post on the first Friday of the month, starting in December. I figure a lighter schedule is the way to go. Five years of reading and reviewing three books and a half dozen or more short stories every month burned me out.

The other is I'll be reading classic works I haven't read before (or only once a long time ago - I've always got to give myself some sort of wiggle room - which specifically mean Gormenghast). The first book, which I've already started, is Hope Mirrlees' Lud-in-the-Mist. The Last Unicorn, and The Ship of Ishtar, as well as some Gothic romances, including Melmoth the Wanderer and Frankenstein, are some others I think I'll give a go. I can imagine reading things not as old, but I definitely want to focus on some of the books most important to the evolution of fantasy literature. 

I want to dig into fantasy from before genrefication took hold. That's what I call the point when fantasy got locked down. It was as if clear limitations were staked out marking out what is and isn't fantasy. Fantasy was reduced to no more than a commodity and tropes have come to supplant the unique and strange. Much contemporary fantasy seems to be written by authors for whom only other fantasy exists and those are their only influences. It's a copy of a copy, not something inspired and drawn up from the deeper wells of our shared cultures and myths. It often reads like a gaming campaign, complete with detailed magic systems and character classes. There's also the whole grimdark business which seems intent on eliminating the fantastic from fantasy much of the time. 

I think it was the explosion of epic fantasy series in the eighties and nineties and the commercial success of the genre that much of the strangeness went out of it. When Lester Del Rey deliberately set out to find a Xerox copy of the Lord of the Rings and discovered The Sword of Shannara (reviewed here) can be seen as the actual start of all this. For over a decade we were blessed with an endless slew of often hard to differentiate epic series. Now, with grittiness all the rage, everyone is aping George R.R. Martin or Joe Abercrombie. The tropes have changed a bit, but we're still getting lots of not very dissimilar epic series - just "grittier."

I know well-received books like Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell that don't limit themselves to the tired and true (hey, I haven't read that, so I might add it to the list) still appear from time to time, but they are anomalies. A few writers are still inspired by pulp and older fantasy (James Enge, Howard Andrew Jones, and Raphael Ordoñez  among them), but there's little room for the dreamlike imagination of many early fantasies or the magpie mixtures of sci-fi, horror, and anything else that suited the fancies of writers like William Hope Hodgson or Clark Ashton Smith. If you're not new here you know this is one of the hobby horses I ride the hardest. I'll make every effort to not be a bore.

I'm also hoping to get some Western movie reviews up again. It's not like I haven't watched a ton of them since the last time I posted a review (here).

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Barbarians at the Gates of Hollywood by P.J. Thorndyke

 It's been nearly two years since I wrote anything for Black Gate. Save a few posts here, I've not done much writing at all. Every now and then, John O'Neill, captain of the good ship Black Gate, sent me an inquiry to try to entice me back into the fold. Until last month none of them proved tempting enough. Then I got P.J. Thorndyke's Barbarians at the Gates of Hollywood.

The book is absolute gold, albeit on a subject that rarely shines: sword & sorcery movies. They're mostly tripe, but, the story around them and about their creation is fascinating. I recommend Thorndyke's book to anyone with the slightest interest in low-budget movies as well as any S&S reader looking for a great resource on, no matter what the films' quality, an important part of the genre's history.

For the full review go HERE.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

A Horror Favorite: Session 9

Every October, the luminous Mrs. V. and I sit down to watch spooky (but not too spooky) movies together. I've long thought one of my favorites might be too much for her, but rewatching it last year, I realized it isn't. Unfortunately, while she indeed didn't find it too creepy, she also didn't really dig it. Oh, well, it's still one of my favorite horror movies. 

Session 9 (2001), directed by Brad Anderson

When it all comes together - story, atmosphere, acting - you get something that will you haunt you a long time after the screen goes dark and the house lights come up. Played by Peter Mullan, Gordon Fleming runs a faltering asbestos removal business. In hope of saving it, he takes on a seemingly impossible contract to clean up a massive old asylum in one week instead of the anticipated three.
Session 9 was filmed on the grounds of Danvers State Hospital, a closed facility outside of Boston. Built in 1878 and designed for 500 to 1000 patients at best, by the 1940s over 2000 people were housed there. Like most such facilities across the country, budget cuts, changing approaches to mental health treatment, and horrible conditions, it was closed. Since the movie was made in 2000 most of the complex has been demolished despite efforts to preserve it. 

The men on his crew, including a terrific David Caruso, balk, but the chance to make a big bonus is enough to get them all on board. When they discover a cache of interview tapes with a notorious resident of the hospital things start to get strange. Then they get terrible.

Session 9 builds much of its atmosphere out of relics, real as well as props, from the brick corpse of the asylum. Real photos from long-dead patients decorate the walls of one room, and the place really was plagued by ancient, crumbling plaster and asbestos. The graveyard is actually fake, but it was modeled on the real one nearby. 

When I saw this the first time (at the Angelika), I had no idea what I'd be getting. I knew it was a horror flick, but I only knew Brad Anderson from his excellent comic Next Stop Wonderland. Every time I've watched it since, it still manages to raise a chill. Like The Haunting, it puts to the viewer the question of whether events are supernatural or not.

Peter Mullan
The titular session tapes from an infamous killer once held in the hospital are fake. Nonetheless, they sound real enough. Each tape brings the cast (and the viewer) closer to a shadow prowling the ruins' hallways. Whether their final revelations are real or not is a question that persists until the film's final frames.

I have my own opinion on that, but the movie as it stands (there are deleted scenes that can be seen as strengthening one of the two sides) leaves the question unanswered, a black ambiguity that leaves Fleming's actions mysteries to the very end. This, plus the atmosphere of a place that was a real-life house of horrors and the cast, make this a movie that holds up under repeated viewings. 

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Early Thoughts on Esdaile's The Peninsular War

El 2 de mayo de 1808 en Madrid by Goy

I'm a good piece into Charles Esdaile's The Peninsular War. That's the name given to the complex and ferocious war fought across Spain and Portugal between 1808 and 1814. Spain, suffering from centuries of corruption, political and religious repression, and was facing revolution in its colonies in the Americas, had been forced into an alliance with the French Empire. Together, they had invaded and conquered British-allied Portugal. They had failed to capture the Portuguese royal family and treasury, both of which had been safely evacuated to Brazil.

 Despite the battlefield victory, Spain continued to be a state in turmoil. Machinations between various parties led to complete chaos, with followers of the king, Charles IV, facing off against followers of his son, Ferdinand VII.

 To ensure Spanish acquiescence to French plans, Napoleon began moving troops commanded by several of his marshals into eastern Spain. In the chaos that followed, King Charles IV abdicated and his son, Ferdinand VII, attempted to assume the throne. Napoleon forced them both out, installed his adoring older brother Joseph on the throne in Madrid and attempted to occupy the whole of the country.

 The invasion lead to a massive uprising against the French conquerors. Despite retaliation by the French, the uprising proved impossible to suppress. Spanish regular forces under General Castaños forced the surrender of nearly 18,000 French soldiers at Bailén. This led to British intervention, followed by Napoleon himself taking over the reins of the French forces. Then the British retreated, with their commander, General Moore getting killed, and the French in control of much of Spain and part of Portugal. Napoleon returned to France to raise troops to fight the resurgent Austrians and left his generals in command once again. It was only then that Arthur Wellesley arrived on the scene with a renewed British commitment to fight the French. At that point there were five more years of brutal fighting ahead.

El tres de mayo de 1808 en Madrid by Goya
That's as far as I've gotten in the book and it's been packed with examples of military and political incompetence and atrocities of all sorts. Like most guerrillas before them, the Spanish and Portuguese partisans, unable and unwilling to confront the French in the field, carry out murders of collaborators and messengers. Most of the Spanish generals are mildly competent at best and the poor Spanish infantry are often untrained and poorly armed as well as underfed and ill-clothed. The French wantonly sacked and raped their way across the country side. The second, and successful, assault on Zaragoza left 20,000 Spanish soldiers and 34,000 civilians dead after months of siege and weeks of house-to-house fighting.

Abbey of Santa Engracia by Louis-François Lejeune
from the Second Siege of Zaragoza

The British fare no better in the book. Most were Anglican or Methodist and anti-Catholic and had a strong dislike of the Spanish priests and monks, seeing them as lazy parasites living on the largesse of the citizenry. For the Spanish army, they had little regard, treating it with contempt and derision. Without a dedicated supply train, the British army, like the French (and the Spanish, as well), lived off the countryside, routinely plundering whatever farm or village they come upon.

Saragossa 10 February 1809 by Harold Hume Piffard

I've never read much Napoleonic history, but I was still taken aback by the murderousness of the war - and this is only in the early stages. It's clear, already, why the fighting came to be called the Spanish Ulcer. It may not have been cause of Napoleon's great defeat - that was the Russian Campaign followed by the battle of Leipzig - but the deployment of so many troops away from his greater objectives was a significant contribution.

The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna by George Jones
Esdaile's book is very clear in his explanations of the assorted factors that led to the war and where it fits into the greater history of Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. What it doesn't do is give long, complicated descriptions of the battles - which in this sort of history, that is one covering a lengthy war - I quite like. Instead of describing the movement of every Spanish and British company at the battle of Talavera, Esdaile concentrates on the French and English strategies that led to the battle being fought in the place it was fought.

I'm going to take a break from The Peninsular War for a few days. I'm going to dive back into Perez-Reverte's The Siege. Then, it's onto War and Peace. It's funny, when I decided on the latter as the follow-up to Doctor Zhivago (more on that later), I didn't consciously pick for its being set during the Napoleonic Wars. It was just synchronicity.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Whiling Away Days in Quarantine

You'd think with all the free time in these days of enforced lockdown I'd get some serious reading done; nope. I mean I am reading and I did actually finish two books - The Footsteps at the Lock and Hidden Moon - but I'm working really hard to finish the three others I've got going on - Doctor Zhivago, The Peninsular War, and The Siege. All are very good and very dense and I will finish them, but, man, oh, man, it's taking me a long time. 

I was excited to get the latest issue of Tales from the Magician's Skull but I can't read it, at least not now. I'm amazed that I still can't read fantasy. It makes sense as it's about all I read for five or six years. Now, I can barely work up any enthusiasm for the genre, no matter how good it looks. It's getting to be a bit of a bummer. I've got books that I really want to read, but when I pick them up any interest just dries up like a puddle in the Sahara at high noon. I couldn't even finish a very good Tim Powers (one of my favorite authors) book I started during all this. I know I'll get back up on that horse someday, but right now it's way beyond the horizon.

We did just watch the Hulu series, Devs, from Alex Garland, starring, among a bunch of other good actors, Nick Offerman. Essentially, a tech mogul is attempting to determine if the universe is completely deterministic. I have all sorts of problems with the way the show discusses the question as if it's never been done before, and the end is not good. Nonetheless, the acting is very, very good, with Offerman and Jin Ha being my favorites. The whole show is, from the woodland campus and gilded quantum computing center to the fog-shrouded hills above San Francisco is beautiful. Within its own universe, it's a tense and riveting show. It's been hinted that Garland wants to do something entirely different with the same cast and I would definitely be up for that. 

As for how I'll while away future days in captivity, it'll be more of the same. Some work on the computer followed by computer games and movies with sporadic bouts of reading. The luminous Mrs. V. has us trying to get various projects done and I'm sort of game for it.

Actually, I do sort of have my future reading goals laid out. Once I've finished Zhivago, I'm just going to go for the brass ring and pick up War and Peace. It looked so ridiculously long when I was a kid, but, seriously, when fantasy fans routinely read multi-volume thousand-page-a-book series, it's not much at all. Alongside that, I've got Dark Matter by Michelle Paver, a horror novel set on Svalbard, and Tim Willocks' South African-set Memo from Turner. It's not too lofty a goal, so just maybe I'll achieve it. Stranger things have happened.