Sunday, January 29, 2012

Enter Moorcock in White and Black - The Jade Man's Eyes

   It was bound to happen.  At some point the work of Michael Moorcock, traveler of the multiverse, was going to appear here.  After Howard and Leiber, Moorcock is the third leg of a swords & sorcery tripod for me, and probably the biggest one at that.  I read most of the original Eternal Champion books long before I read much Howard and any Leiber.  Between Dorian Hawkmoon, Prince Corum, Erekose and Elric of Melnibone that's a lot of titles.  (I also read scads of his other work; the man was ludicrously prolific) 
I remember getting excited beyond reason when I bought my copy of "Stormbringer" with the staggeringly cool Michael Whelan cover at the long gone Paperback Booksmith at the Staten Island Mall.  I was thirteen and had been hoarding my money to buy each of the original six novels.  I had read the edited Lancer editions of "The Dreaming City" and "The Sleeping Sorceress" years earlier.  Now I was reading the definitive (for that decade - everything would get rewritten by Moorcock in later years) Elric books as Moorcock had planned and written them.  I was hooked.
   I read as much of Moorcock's swords & sorcery as I could get my hands on.  Tracking down "The Champion of Garathorm" and "The Quest for Tanelorn" proved exceptionally difficult.  But I found them and devoured them.
   Michael Moorcock holds an important place in my heart.  In his short, exotically set books with their baroque universe hopping plots and alien beasts and demons, I encountered the truly strange.  The Young Kingdoms world of the inhuman albino emperor of Melnibone and his cursed black runesword was like nothing I had encountered before.

  The only significant fantasy I'd read before the Elric stories was the Lord of the Rings.  Tolkien makes sense.  His world, with all its beauty and mythic history, is still very much like ours', rooted in a realistic world.  The magic cast, even by the darkest enemy, is subtle and rare.
   The primary setting of the Elric stories is the world of the Young Kingdoms.  It is land of ghoul ridden forests, boiling seas and lands subject to the mutability of Chaos.  Nations are ruled by evil hierophants, twisted beggar kings as well as merchant princes and savage kings.  Magic is thrown with abandon and creatures from numerous plains of existence are summoned on almost every other page.
   And the main character himself was intriguingly strange.  Instead of a noble king-in-waiting like Aragorn, Elric is the demon summoning emperor of an empire of amoral non-human beings.  Bereft of health by his albinism he subsists on rare herbs and drugs.  He is moved to action by curiosity at first and later by revenge.  Much of the time anything noble he does is only a byproduct of nearly selfish actions.  Over time he takes on a nobler cast but his initial darker nature is never far off.
   Over the years I've reread the original six Elric books (Elric of Melnibone, The Sailor on the Seas of Fate, The Weird of the White Wolf, The Vanishing Tower, The Bane of the Black Sword and Stormbringer) several times and some of the novels and stories Moorock added on in the eighties.  I never finished the latter and I should go back and read all of them but late additions like "The Fortress of the Pearl" did not compel me greatly.
   I've been more than thrilled to find the Elric series holds up.  The character of Elric is by turns intriguing, infuriating, thrilling and sympathetic.  And it's all done in six books of under 250 pages apiece.  That's about 1000 pages - that's less than two of Steven Erikson's Malazan books (which I do enjoy).  You just don't really need umpteen thousand pages of supposed character development and plot padding to tell a complex tale.

   "The Jade Man's Eyes" was first published in 1973 as a chapbook from the Unicorn Bookshop and then more widely in Lin Carter's "Flashing Swords #2".  Apparently, Moorcock has said he doesn't remember exactly when he first wrote the story but it might have been as early as 1966.
  In its initial form "The Jade Man's Eyes" tells the tale of Elric and his friend and adventuring companion Moonglum and how they join Duke Avan in his search for the mythic city of R'lin K'ren A'a.  It will take them around the edge of the Boiling Sea, against deadly reptilian beings and into contact with a demon lord and a man cursed with immortality.
  The story is a perfect introduction to the exotic world of Elric.  When first met, Elric and Moonglum are penniless and sleeping on the streets of the wealthy city of Chalal.  When he and Moonglum are threatened with arrest for despoiling the visual beauty the city strives for, Elric makes it quite clear he is willing and able to kill all the guards threatening them.
   The imminent bloodshed is staved off  by the arrival of Duke Avan, native to Chalal and someone who's been searching for Elric for several months.  A renowned adventurer, explorer and collector of antiquities, the Duke desires to find the lost city of  R'lin K'ren A'a.  He needs a sorcerer experienced with adventure and willing to risk great danger.  Saying the "The adventure is to my taste", Elric signs on to Avan's voyage.
   R'lin K'ren A'a is located way up a jungle lined river on the distant and unexplored Western Continent.  Several days up the river they are assaulted by hideous creatures, scaled and walking on legs like wading birds.  To Elric their faces remind him of his own people and he wonders if the Melniboneans were cousins of the creatures or even their descendants.
   Eventually Elric, Moonglum, the Duke and several crewmen reach R'lin K'ren A'a. Each step toward the center of the city reveals There Elric is forced into confrontation with his demonic patron, Arioch.  That confrontation sets in motion even greater events that will come speak to the fate of the world of the Young Kingdoms.
   Later, in the seventies, when DAW published the core six Elric books arranged as intended and without the cuts made by Lancer, Moorcock rewrote "The Jade Man's Eyes".  It became part of the second book, "The Sailor on the Seas of Fate" retitled as "Sailing to the Past" and Moonglum was replaced with Count Smiorgan of the Purple Towns.  Instead of the beggared Elric contemplating his next source of income, Elric is in the midst of a sea voyage across time and space that has set him aside strange yet familiar heroes.

   After the awfulness of the last week's "The Sadness of the Executioner" by Fritz Leiber, "The Jade Man's Eyes" was a nice palate cleansing tonic.  Often Moorcock's swords & sorcery can be burdened down with a weariness and cynicism that seems unwarranted but no so much here.  There's plenty of action, insight into Elric's character and his abilities and history of his world.  Moorcock's sowrds & sorcery roots lay in many places ("Elric of Melnibone is dedicated to Poul Anderson, Fletcher Pratt and Bertolt Brecht) but the lost jungle city, dangerous, monstrous tribesmen and giant statues of gods tropes he employs reflect his strong pulp foundations.  At 16 he was the editor of "Tarzan Adventurers".
   I like the original version of "The Jade Man's Eyes" a little bit better than the rewrite.  It feels tacked on in the novel.  By itself it stands well as just one more adventure in Elric's wanderings across the Young Kingdoms.  Either way, though, it's an exciting story with all the elements of good swords & sorcery; swords, sorcery, monsters and adventure.
   I plan to start rereading the original Elric stories for a later, much more thorough look at Moorcock's most well known creation.  With the current lavishly illustrated Del Rey reprints of the Elric material I hope new generations of swords & sorcery fans are getting to sink their teeth into them.  

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Badness of the Executioner - Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser

   In order to get more stuff going on here I figured I'd start going through some of Lin Carter's and Andrew Offutt's anthologies and looking at single stories.  I picked up "Flashing Swords #1" (1973) which opens with the then brand new Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser story, "The Sadness of the Executioner" by Fritz Leiber.  I hadn't read the story in ages and only had the vaguest memories of its plot so what better place to start off?  Woohoo!
   The sad executioner of the story is the Death of Newhon.  He is describes as a minor Death in the larger universe and responsible to the Lords of Necessity.  As such he must ensure that the number and types of people the Lords decree must die in the space of so many heartbeats.  Along with peasants and savages, warriors, beggars a priest, a whore and others, Death is informed that he must serve up the death of two heroes.
   To meet his quota, Death lets an adder know where to bite and a spider where to wait for a victim.  Sudden openings for thrown swords are unveiled to gladiators and a little bit of depression is added to that already weighing down the soul of a maker of war engines.  And that's it.  Eighteen paragraphs of Leiber's darkly funny funny prose and the image of Death on his throne nudging along the doomed to their ends is very good.  After that it turns into the sort of reason swords & sorcery gets a bad rap.
   After providing all of his required allotment of dead save the two heroes, Death turns his cold eyes to Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.  While he values the tremendous value and variety of deaths that have provided for him over the years, Death sadly chooses the two men to complete his quota.  "Yet without exception every pawn must eventually be snapped up and tossed in box," he mournfully thinks.  
   As Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are great heroes Death feels they warrant ends outside of the ordinary.  Their stature, Death believes also, allows him to be creative and take extraordinary steps to bring about their demises.  For Fafhrd he teleports a gladiator from the dead king's private arena straight to Fafhrd apartment.  For the Gray Mouser, well, Death chooses something a bit creepy and less straightforward.
   The depressed builder of war engines got that way because his great-granddaughter was stolen by the procurers for the harem of the King of Kings.  Death decides to use her as his instrument of destruction in regards to the Gray Mouser.
   Unfortunately for the reader she is a nubile sixteen year old, driven to fury and madness by her capture and imprisonment.  For misdeeds she has been shaved and tattooed.  For the reader's amusement, presumably, she dressed only in shin greaves and breast cups, the former hiding stilettos and the latter bearing poisoned spikes.
   In the end, after being teleported to the Gray Mouser's room and failing in her effort to kill him he "ravages her".  When Fafhrd, steps in on the rape he simply begs pardon and steps back out.  She ultimately acquiesces and later we find her madness has abated and she's set up shop in Lankhmar.
   I was actually shocked at the creepiness of Leiber's story.  I haven't read the entire Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories in a very long time.  One of the many benefits of doing this blog was that I planned to go back and read old classics I haven't even looked at in ages.  In recent years I've reread the first three collections of the Lankhmar stories and loved them.  What I hadn't done was reread this depressing little story.
   I love Fritz Leiber.  He wrote good, sharp horror like "Our Lady of Darkness" and clever science fiction like the Change War cycle.  I remember loving the entirety of the Lankhmar stories but I read this one first when I was sixteen and   This story is an utter letdown.
   "The Sadness of the Executioner" starts so well and degenerates into the sort of stuff John Norman might present to a reader.  I don't like to sound PC or bandy about words like sexist but there's really no way to avoid that.  It's the matter of fact presentation of the rape and Mouser's clear enjoyment of it that makes the story's ending so repellent.  

Robert E. Howard - 106th Birthday

   I sadly missed Clark Ashton Smith's birthday the other week, not so with REH.  You can't say too much about Howard and his work, on its own and in relation to swords & sorcery.  Fantasy, horror, westerns, boxing, crime, adventure, he tried it all and pulled it off way more times than not.
   I just reread "Marchers of Valhalla" the other day, a story I go back to all the time.  Maybe I'll read "Worms of the Earth", another personal favorite today in REH's honor and for my enjoyment.  Thank you, sir.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Elak of Atlantis - antediluvian antics

   I think one of the reasons I started this blog was the monolith that is Conan the Cimmerian.  You can't venture into the waters of swords & sorcery without confronting Robert E. Howard's most renown creation.  With the Shieldwall folks out there these days you also can't avoid a certain amount of triumphalism about Howard and his works getting their due and proper recognition.
   And I totally get it and am glad to see it (except for the jackassess who take their legitimate criticisms of Sprague de Camp and turn it into how such a bad writer he really was overall and bray about how most of his work is out of print).  But it does get a little annoying.
   So, without looking to neglect Howard (I couldn't avoid making one of my first real posts about Conan the Warrior), I wanted to create a place where I would write about as many different writers as I could manage.  From the bad (Lin Carter), to the mediocre (John Jakes), to the solid Chalres Saunders) to the sublime (Jack Vance), and as many authors I'd never read as possible.
    Lurking in the back of my mind was the sort of hope that I would come across someone, when their work was read end to end, would stack up favorably against Howard's.  Maybe there was some lost pulp-era hack who'd never gotten his due.  Maybe something I hadn't read in twenty years would seem amazing in the light of maturity.  Maybe some great author, someone like, say Henry Kuttner, had written something I'd never read and it would blow Conan out of the water.   Yeah, well, someday, maybe.  But not today.
   Henry Kuttner only wrote four Elak of Atlantis stories.  Along with two Prince Raynor tales they've been collected under Paizo Publishing's Planet Stories imprint and released as "Elak of Atlantis".  Thank you Paizo for getting a whole bunch of long uncollected or unavailable stories back into the light of day (the first Elak story, "Thunder in the Dawn", was last seen in de Camp's 1971 "Warlocks and Warriors").
   Henry Kuttner, on his own and later with his wife, C.L.Moore, was one of the great short story writers of science fiction's Golden Age.  He started as a horror writer and his first published story was "The Graveyard Rats" in the March, 1936 Weird Tales.  From there he wrote a series of horror stories becoming along the way a part of the Lovecraft Circle.  Eventually he pulled away and developed his own themes and ideas.  Stories like "Mimsy Were the Borogroves" are still in print and there are many more worth tracking down in any of the collections of his stuff floating around.
  By himself and with his wife, Kuttner wrote under tons of pen names in order.  Wikipedia lists seventeen.  For a second Fred Pohl even suspected Cordwainer Smith's "Scanners Live in Vain" (which, if you haven't read you should stop reading this, find it and read it NOW!) might have been by Kuttner.  The man could write and he wrote everything.  Horror, fantasy and science fiction all flowed readily and professionally from his typewriter.
   In 1938 he tried his hand at swords & sorcery.  Over that year, all between Weird Tales' cover he saw published the first three tales of Elak of Atlantis: "Thunder in the Dawn", "The Spawn of Dagon", and "Beyond the Phoenix".  The final story, ""Dragon Moon" was published in Weird Tales in 1941.  And that was the end of Elak.  In 1939 Kuttner wrote two more swords & sorcery tales featuring Prince Raynor (and someday I'll read and yap about them, but not now).  And that seems to have been it for the genre for him.  By then he was starting to write the science fiction that would secure his reputation.
  When we first hear of Elak in "Thunder in the Dawn" his adventuring companion, Lycon, is waiting for him in a tavern in Poseidonia.  Lycon, short, fat and given to drinking great quantities of whatever alcohol is available is worried that Elak is off with the wife of a duke.  From recent events, including an attack by masked soldiers, Lycon is sure the duke is aware of Elak's activities.
   Lycon becomes aware of two strange men in the tavern; one a large, barbaric looking man with clearly dyed hair and beard and the other a browned robed Druid.
   Lycon, drunk, soon picks a fight with the bearded man.  Only the timely arrival of the rapier wielding Elak saves him from his opponent's sword.  When Elak's sword proves too much for him and he he knocked down, the bearded man produces and throws at Elak, a winged serpent.
   Elak and Lycon together are unable to kill the poisonous thing.  Before it scores a fatal bite on the men the Druid calls on his mystics powers and throws flames from his hands at the snake and kills it.
   Soon we learn the Druid is named Dalan and he has come from Cyrena in the north of Atlantis to find Elak.  Elak's brother, Orander, king of Cyrena has been taken prisoner by the sorcerer Elf and his Viking allies.  Cyrena and its squabbling nobles have become easy prey for their enemies and Dalan believes only Elak can lead them against their foes and free his homeland.
   Of course Elak and Lycon and the duke's wife, set forth to distant lands to face off against foes dark and dangerous.  Chased by Granicor, the duke, and faced with monstrous obstacles, the quartet eventually make it to Cyrena in hopes of settling accounts with Elf.
  The two middle stories, "The Spawn of Dagon" and "Beyond the Phoenix" pit Elak and Lycon against Cthuluvian spawn and an angry local goddess.  In these stories we find out Elak is not above hiring on to kill a wizard or serving in king's guard.  He's also not above stripping corpses of their wealth and that Lycon's drunken brawling has caused the pair to be driven from Poseidonia and other cities.
   In the last tale, "Dragon Moon", Dalan reappears again seeking Elak.  Orander is dead by his own hand but only to stave off the sorcerous control of Karkora, an alien wizard from beyond Cyrena.
   Elak is a slightly different sort of adventurer than his forebears, Conan and Kull.  His homeland isn't the most civilized of Atlantis' kingdoms but neither is it a land of barbarians.  Henry Kuttner also didn't seek to make statements about civilization opposed to barbarism.  Elak is never concerned with the state of the world except for how it will provide for him.   His sidekick is an incorrigible drunk and instigator of fights.
   The stories are all fun and full of strange magic and terrible beasts.  In fact, the degree of powerful sorcery that occurs in each story is tremendous.  In "Thunder in the Dawn" Elak is cast into the astral plane and has to discover how to free his brother from the realm of fantasy.  Evil cultists seek to drown Atlantis in "The Spawn of Dagon" and in "Dragon Moon' an born dead child has become the darkest wizard in all Atlantis.
   The brief career of Elak of Atlantis is one well worth reading.  They aren't close the power of the Conan or Kull stories but they are fun.  The bickering antics of Elak and Lycon in "The Spawn of Dagon" point the way, from Falstaff and other lovable rogues straight toward Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser (who'd appear in 1939 in "Two Sought Adventure").
   The prose of the stories is clean and simple.  The action is bright and colorful as are the heroes and villains.  Once things start, and that generally by the second page, they don't stop.
   The world of Atlantis, while following in Howard's pre-Cataclysm footsteps is less than vibrant and exotic.  We hear of Vikings and Druids.  One of Howard's many brilliant bits was taking the real world and mixing it about and adding elements of myth and creating something new out it in Hyboria.  Kuttner's Atlantis is a bit too familiar.
   Still, Elak's adventures are fun.  I'll even be bold enough to call them romps.  Perhaps that's what most distinguishes them from Howard's Conan and C.L. Moore's Jirel (another predecessor).  Even when dealing with possible world ending catastrophes their a sense of slapdash fun to events.
   So get them and read them.  You can get the Paizo collection used (like me) for under $3 from Amazon.  They are a great example of an early effort to create something new in the fertile field of sword & sorcery pioneered in the years following Howard's unfortunate suicide.  Still, they don't come close to the power and original voice that Howard's Conan stories have.  But then little in the field  does.