Saturday, July 23, 2011

Ryre: Ramsey Campbell's S&S foray

   Ramsey Campbell, along with Clive Barker and Brian Lumley, is one of England's most successful horror writers.  Rising from writing teenage Lovecraft pastiches to his own psychologically realistic horror tales, along the way Campbell found the time to write four very good stories about the exploits of Ryre, a mercenary swordsman wandering a haunted and corrupt world.

   The first, "The Sustenance of Hoak", like all the rest, appeared in Andrew Offutt's interesting and often very fun Swords Against Darkness anthologies from the late seventies (there are five of them and they're all worth tracking down).  As befits Campbell's day job as a writer of horror tales there's more than a touch of terror to this story.
   We are introduced to Ryre and his companion Glode just after they figured out what to do following the end of the war they fought in recently.  Their pay was small and there was no more on the horizon.  Finally, despite a bit of ridicule from their fellow mercenaries, they decided to head off for the fabled and as yet unrecovered treasure of Hoak.
   Hoak is located on a continent an ocean away and in the depths of a great forest.  Near their destination Ryre and Glode are set upon by bandits.  While able to escape them, Glode is severely wounded and only Ryre is fit to confront the barricaded gates of Hoak and face down those within.  
  Once within the walls he discovers a town that wouldn't be out of place in Campbell's Lovecraftian Severn Valley tales.  Everyone and everything is drab and limp.  Along the main street he sees what at first he takes for a man and then realizes is large, almost limbless tree stump with a mouthless face at its summit that he assumes to be the local god.  Most people seem to subsist solely on a strangely enticing liquor.  By morning disturbing events have begun and Ryre allows himself to be pulled toward a monstrous confrontation.
  Ryre is a fairly generic barbarian mercenary, towering in height and utterly loyal to his companion.  The world and adventure Campbell sets him to, however, is exquisitely creepy and original.  The unnaturalness of the town of Hoak and its mysteries are an affront to Ryre's straightforward warrior mind.  Campbell describes in great detail a town where the children's faces are "pinched and old" and there "parched streets" and "senile houses".
  I had never encountered Ryre until last year and I'm quite happy I did.  All four Ryre stories are well plotted and together create a world that seems to be rotting away.  Towns and people fade away, their personalities are stolen and people are eaten by monsters.  It's a perfect world for a warrior to wage war against.
   All the Ryre stories and four other heroic fantasy tales by Campbell are collected in "Far Away & Never" from Necronomicon Press.  It's something I'd like to get my hands on someday but not today at $40 and up.  Get cheap used copies of the Offutt's collections instead. 

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Swords & Sorcery Reading List - Chapter One Conan

  So, you may ask yourself, what does this presumptuous blogger think any new fan of this swords & sorcery stuff should read to get a taste for the best it has to offer?  What does he think form the foundations of today's heroic fantasy books and shorts stories?  Those are fair questions and I'll endeavor to answer them in as helpful a manner as I can.

   Robert E. Howard - he's really the fountain of this crazy genre.  His tales of Conan and Kull took the world building and fantastic elements of writers like William Morris, Lord Dunsany and E R Eddison, mixed them with the violent, brooding heroism of the old Norse and Celtic myths and legends as well as the color and exoticism of historical adventure fiction of writers like Talbot Mundy and Harold Lamb and  the wildness and roughness of his own Texas, and took this concoction to new and different places from where its elements had come.
   With the creation of King Kull and Conan Howard pretty much created this whole swords and sorcery thing.  I think some of his stories with these two still stand as the apotheosis of the genre.  His stuff is good.  Maybe he never wrote a six ton epic fantasy doorstopper series, but I have reread his stories many times and I will reread them many times in the future.  There's a short, 
   There are only twenty Robert E. Howard Conan stories, one novel and four fragments.  Everything else is either pastiche, varying in quality from abysmal to not too bad, or finished by other hands and there's nothing really good to be sad about that.  There are some that started as historical tales and were converted by other hands for Conan's supposed benefit but not, alas, for we readers.  

   Sadly there's even less original Kull material.  Howard only published three stories while alive and left nine and poem behind after his death.  For whatever reason (and I suspect the Shield Wall folks over at the Robert E. Howard United Press Association can give you that info) he escaped the worst depredations of overeager posthumous collaborators and publishers. 

   I've already mentioned that my favorite Conan tales are "Beyond the Black River" and  "Red Nails".  I think they stand as the height of Howard's art and storytelling.  They provide vivid illustrations of his views on civilization and barbarism.  The first depicts the meeting of the utterly barbaric with the much more civilized.  The second presents us with civilization gone utterly to seed into deepest decadence.
   They are not just platforms for Howard's ideas about human society, they are exciting stories filled with action, swinging swords and monstrous foes.  The man could tell a tale that keeps the reader on edge the whole time.  There are steady swells that build to an overwhelming wave that threatens to engulf you.
   Both stories give Conan a chance to display his martial power as well as his sharp ability to study and understand his foes and the greater situation at hand.  Still while no monosyllabic brute he's not a man off civilization.  He moves with the implacability of a bear and the intelligence of a wolf but in both cases remains a wild creature.
   They are among the last Conan stories written and there's a sense that Howard might have finished what he had to say about the character.  He did write to Lovecraft that he saw his future writing to be in the field of westerns.  Who knows what he really might have done but ending Conan's tales here would have been satisfying.
   After these two stories, I would read about the earlier exploits of Conan in "The Tower of the Elephant", "Rogues in the House", and "The God in the Bowl".  All feature a lither Conan making his way as he can by stealing or sword wielding through civilization.  All the rest, as well as Howard's sole novel, "The Hour of the Dragon", are worth reading, as if we're to be serious here and you want to visit the roots of the genre you should be reading them all.  But start with the ones I've mentioned and you'll be off to a great start. 

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Slight Delay

Actually started rereading "The Black Company" after being disappointed by "Tides Elba".  Dang.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

"Tides Elba" - Glen Cook

  Glen Cook's stories of the Dread Empire and Black Company held the flag of brutal, epic fantasy high in the dawn of the age of endless doorstopper series of fantasy novels.  These books, each modest in link, brought the reader deep into corrupt and darkening worlds where good was absent, horrible things happened to major characters and the battles were big, bloody and described in all their terrible detail.

  The first time I ever saw anything by Glen Cook it was a rubber band bound set of the original three Dread Empire books on a shelf in the late Barrett Book Trader.  I figured anything called, I'll generously describe as archetypal, the Dread Empire had to be pretty bottom-of-the-barrel stuff.  Then I read "Filed Teeth" in Orson Scott Card's anthology, "Dragons of Darkness" and it blew me away.

   I didn't recognize Glen Cook as the author of the Dread Empire books I had so readily dismissed and I didn't realize that "Filed Teeth" was connected to them until several pages in.  By the time I finished the story I knew I had to get to on a bus and get those three books before they vanished.  I was still in high school and I was not flush with cash in those distant days.  If I didn't grab the cheap second hand ones I couldn't be sure of when I could afford them new.

   Fortunately I made it and since that day I've bought and read almost everything by Cook.  He's one of the few authors I'll still buy hardcovers of the week they're released.  

   When "The Black Company" and its immediate sequels came out a friend of mine bought them and they were quickly passed around like the great discovery they were.  From the very first pages of "The Black Company" the reader is thrown into the midst of savage events and complex politics and the plots of wizards and it's realized the protagonists are essentially in the pay of a ring-wraith.

   Croaker and all the other members of the mercenary company that we will come to know and love are presented as grown men with whole lives behind them. The company has a history and so do its members.  The war they hire on to is ongoing and the result of much pre-book history.  Cook also writes in a very contemporary voice without.  It took me a few chapters to become comfortable with it but in the end it makes you feel like your reading dispatches from some distant but current war.

  For those not in the know, the Black Company series is about the actions of a mercenary company with roots going back four centuries that hires on to work for a dark lord, known simply as the Lady, and help in the expansion of her empire.  The books are narrated by Croaker, company surgeon and annalist. His duty is to record and protect the annals of the Black Company, some going back to the group's near forgotten origins long ago and far away in the south of the world.  As such he is privy to much of the secret machinations of the Company's commanders and their employer.  Along the way there are battles, sieges, assassinations, magical battles and plots and schemes of wicked, knife twisting ingenuity.

  The world of the Black Company is colored dark shades of gray and black lit up by frequent splashes of red.  It takes the old standby tropes of dark lords (or ladies), wizards, brave soldiers and noble rebels and plays havoc with them.  The good guys are often only "good" because they stand in opposition to truly evil forces.  

   At the time there wasn't too much around like the Black Company trilogy.  Karl Edward Wagner wasn't writing anything new and Steven Erikson was years off.   Even the darkest Michael Moorcock stories have a sheen of artifice about them that makes them a little distant.  David Drake's fantasy from the time is probably the closest thing that comes to mind right now.  But the remember, the same year "The Black Company" came out was the same year the the first Dragonlance book came out.  That still makes me shudder.

   Eventually the Black Company series expanded beyond the covers of the original trilogy.  By its end in 2000 there were nine relatively short books covering decades of adventure and chaos.  While still good the last few were somewhat less engaging due to changes in the narrative voice.  Still, over almost twenty years, Glen Cook wrote one of then most brutal and gripping set of fantasy novel I've ever read (and re-read several times).

  While I was excited when I learned about Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders' new collection of heroic fantasy, "Swords & Dark Magic", I was extremely excited when I learned that it contained a Black Company short story.  The only previous short story about the Company was an excerpt from one of the novels.  Getting a short, sharp, new dose of the Black Company should be like a blast mainlined speed.

   Called "Tides Elba", it takes place between "The Black Company" and "Shadows Linger", the first and second books in the series.  The Company has been sent into garrison duty in the city of Aloe and things are just dandy.  Cards are played, women chased and nothing much happens - until Limper, one of their employer's sorcerous commanders, and an archenemy of the Company, makes an appearance.  Together they are to hunt down and capture a rebel leader known as Tides Elba (pronounced "Teadace Elba").

  And that's pretty much it.  There's some of the plotting, counterplotting, scheming and scheming within scheming that runs through all of Cook's novels but not much else.  It'd be great to run into characters like Croaker, Silent, One-Eye and Goblin again in a new story if the story was a good one, and this isn't one.

   Sure the idea of watching the Black Company come up with and carry out a new plot is a great setup for a story.  But then nothing happens.  The plotting isn't very complicated, the prize sort of boring and unless you've read at least "The Black Company" the characters and the events they reference won't mean that much to you.  I guess I was hoping for serious bloodletting and fireworks and instead got a scheme that didn't lead anywhere really worth following.  What a bummer and a let down.

   Still, Glen Cook's still writing other new stuff and supposedly somewhere down the line there're two new Black Company novels waiting to be born.  Until then I can always just reread the books that are out there already.