Thursday, November 29, 2012

Issue #109 Beneath Ceaseless Skies - Review

   I feel sort of bad that I haven't kept up on reviewing the magazines for the last month or so due to my obsession with the fall political campaigns.  First, reading them is the one steady element of new fiction by authors I don't already know I get.  Secondly, by reviewing them and putting it out there, in some small way I'm contributing to the promoting and sustaining of the genre.  If I want the good people at places like "Beneath Ceaseless Skies" and "Heroic Fantasy Quarterly" to keep publishing I should be willing to do my little bit to help get the word about them out.  So, I'm wading back in with "Beneath Ceaseless Skies #109".

   Well, I came back to an excellent issue.  The Telling by Gregory Norman Bossert is about ancient ritual and custom in the face of death and a missing heir.  The Telling itself is the verse the youngest member of a household of a recently deceased lord must tell the estate's bees in order for them to remain at peace and in its service.  When Mel recites the old words they seem to rile the bees.  Soon Mel is striving to understand just what is going on with the bees, what the rituals actually mean and what his own future is.  Set in a timeless world reminiscent of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast stories, "The Telling" is a beautifully strange story.
   The Scorn of the Peregrinator by John E. O. Stevens concerns the arrival of a messenger, a peregrinator, from the newly ascendant Nine Kings to a hamlet out in a sun blanched wasteland.  He brings with him the new demands to be made of the town by his masters.  The story's events are recounted to us by a young member of the tribe.  There's a terrific display of magic in the story, much centered around feathers.  Beyond some displays of Steven's very original presentation of magic and a confrontation between the narrator and the peregrinator not much happens, but it's an intriguing bit of storytelling.  Enough about the story's larger setting and events before its telling and outside its borders is alluded to that I want to know more.
   Both stories have enough going on that I would be more than happy, in fact I'd be very interested in taking further excursions into their worlds.  Once again, BCS, a tip of the hat for making stories like these available.

Monday, November 26, 2012

More (Moorcock) Covers That Awed Me.

   So many of the books I read as a kid I discovered in cardboard boxes my dad kept in the attic (eleven years after his death most of the paperbacks we essentially co-owned are still there).  I can't remember at what age I started dipping into those boxes but I can remember the feeling of wonder I got when I did.  From Asimov to Zelazny with all stops in between.  There were (are) probably thousands of books in those ancient boxes.  Rockets and wild aliens or brooding swordsmen and bat-winged monsters overhead held the promise of excitement and adventure.  At an early artists like Kelly Freas, and Vincent Di Fate were helping shape my imagination's landscape.
   Like so many readers, I suspect, when presented with a slew of unfamiliar books, we grab the one with the cover that grabs us first.  I don't do that much anymore, but in my youth, boy, oh, boy is that what I did.  Two of the strangest covers I found in the attic were for Lancer Book's Elric books; "The Dreaming City" and "The Sleeping Sorceress".

   These covers, a vibrant collision of psychedelic colors and a weird, almost rotoscope effect were like nothing else (well, maybe the whacked out Ballantine "Lord of the Rings" covers) in the attic.  First there's the girl with the Medusa hair on "Dreaming City" and then the one with the multi-hued afro on "Sleeping Sorceress" to catch your eyes.  Both are staring straight at the reader with alien eyes and arms and wrists held in odd, unnatural poses.  I doubt the dusky-skinned Elric matches anyone's imagined Elric but he and his dragon-winged helmet still demands your attention.  The rainbow plumage of the the winged skull on "Sleeping Sorceress" is beautiful.  The strangeness of the covers turned out to be a perfect match for Moorcock's strange, off-kilter S&S.
   Fortunately I started reading Elric at the same time DAW started publishing them.  Several trips to Paperback Booksmith in the Staten Island Mall rewarded me with all six original novels.  Michael Whelan's cover art is some of the best in the genre, striving for realistic characters set in believable, fantastic surroundings.  Five of the covers are great (let's all agree the pig-faced corpse ruins "The Weird of the White Wolf").  It's the final one, "Stormbringer", that is a monster.  I don't love the pteranodon dragon in the corner, but, dang, that's a fine, over the top and side-of-the-van worthy Elric.  Stormbringer overhead and Horn of Fate trailing behind, Elric's charging head on at the reader with a perfectly psychotic glint in his bloody red eyes.  I didn't know the apocalyptic story awaiting me inside that book but its cover portended dangerous craziness.  

   I am a little sad that in this day and age of e-books I don't care about covers as much.  I'm not buying in used-book stores, let alone Barnes & Noble, like I used to so the eyecatching ability isn't that relevant.  I know what I'm buying ahead of time with almost every book purchase these days.  I've read the reviews, gotten the recommendations and heard the podcast with the author.  It's the same thing with music.  I can barely recognize the covers of the last MP3 album I bought but the cover of my friend's brother's copy of "In the Court of the Crimson King" is still seared into my mind.  
   I love my e-books and I don't miss the feel of a book and turning pages.  That's because it's the words that I hold dear.  But I will miss the art, and I believe the day's coming when it will pass away into the e-ink ether, one more lost element of analog times.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

"Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser" by Howard Chaykin, Mike Mignola and Al Williamson

   Despite my negative review of Fritz Leiber's "The Sadness of the Executioner" at the beginning of the year, I am a big fan of his two rogues, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.  They walk their own, often jovial, path through the corridors of S&S.  While moments of pathos and melancholy run through some of their adventures, mostly there's displays of cunning, high and low, witty badinage and lots of derring-do.  Twenty years ago several of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser's tales received comic book treatment from the combined talents of Howard Chaykin,  Mike Mignola and Al Williamson.  
  In his great introduction, Howard Chaykin notes, what really triggered his love for the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories was his coming to believe they were S&S written for people who loved crime fiction.  Furthermore, Lankhmar was really "after all is said and done, only slightly more fantastical Manhattan - or at least the city south of 14th Street, circa 1935".  I don't know if that was Leiber's intention but I love the idea.  As a native New Yorker I can definitely see the conflation Chaykin sees between the Lower East Side's narrow streets, churches and synagogues and Lankhmar's Cheap Street and temples to the Gods of Lankhmar and in Lankhmar.  Despite the fantastic trappings, many of the stories could easily be converted to guns & trenchcoat stories.
   Chaykin also points out that like many archetypal New Yorkers, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are immigrants who became the archetypal Lankhmarians.  More than the people born there they become woven into the fabric of the Lankhmar.  No matter how disgusted or fed they become up with the city, they find themselves drawn back by the pull of her, their greatest mistress.   
   Apparently, Chaykin did a monthly Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser comic in the seventies.  He admits to not being satisfied with it.  In 1991 Mike Mignola, creator of Hellboy and BPRD (I'm a BIG fan.  As I'm writing this I'm actually wearing a BPRD t-shirt) got the go-ahead from Marvel's Epic Comics line to illustrate his own Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series.  Chaykin, who was already working on another project with Mignola, found out and asked if he could write the book.  He said yes and that was that (well, I don't know where Al Williamson fits in and neither Mignola nor Chaykin mention where he came in).
   In 2007 Dark Horse Comics collected the seven stories Mignola and Chaykin chose to adapt and collected them.  Back then it went for about twenty bucks.  It only took a quick flip of the pages for me to peel the bills out of my wallet.  That means I liked it.
   The selections made by Mignola and Chaykin are mostly from among the jewels of Leiber's Nehwon stories. The book opens with "Ill Met in Lankhmar", detailing how Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser become boon companions.  It's followed by "The Circle Curse" and "The Howling Tower", adventures that occur during their journey to escape that darkness the city of Lankhmar had become for them at the end of "Ill Met".  On their way out of the city they meet the two wizards, Ningauble of the Seven Eyes and Sheelba of the Eyeless Face who will become mentors and taskmasters for the heroes in later tales.
   The next three stories take place after Fafhrd and Mouser's return to Lankhmar.  First is "The Price of Pain Ease" wherein our heroes steal a house and rob the Death of Nehwon.  It's followed by "The Bazaar of the Bizarre".  Fafhrd, at the direction of both Ningauble and Sheelba must save Lankhmar, the Gray Mouser and all of Nehwon from the depredations of evil merchants from another dimension.
   The final story set in Lankhmar is "Lean Times in Lankhmar".  Almost like a couple drifting apart, Fafhrd and Mouser go their separate ways.  Fafhrd ends up aiding a priest of Issek of the Jug and Mouser ends up an enforcer and collector for a mobster.  Conflict between the two is soon inevitable.
  The collection ends with "While the Sea-King's Away".  Following the claims of a legend, Fafhrd is determined to find the lair of the Sea-King on the one day he leaves home and leaves behind his concubines to find lovers of their own.
   So those are the stories.  Any S&S fan's probably read them several times.  Was there really any need for comic versions of them?  I don't know if there's a need but I'm sure glad I spent my money on the collection.
   Not to take anything away from Chaykin's adaptations, but they work as well as they do because of their fidelity to Leiber's original stories.  Lots of Leiber's fun prose falls to the wayside, particularly, of course, the descriptive portions.  Some plots elements, such as the Street of the Gods and the proving ground it serves for up-and-coming deities, didn't survive the adaptation process.  I suspect a familiarity with the original stories helps in reading the comic, but still, Chaykin does them justice.
   What makes the book a keeper is the art and inking provided by Mignola and Williamson.  Their presentation of the city of Lankhmar is a perfect blend of the high and low.  As bright and shiny as the city can be, it's layered with grime and weathered by time.  Every bejeweled noble striding down the avenue is countered by a beggar scuttling along an alley.  It's all drawn with tremendous, often tawdry, detail.  Mignola's art is not quite as distinctive as his later Hellboy work, but it's still terrific.  While the colors are bright in a few appropriate scenes, more often the palette is muted and dark and perfectly suited to showing the daily struggle to survive Lankhmar's mean streets.
   I bought the collection new for about twenty bucks.  Now through the magic of Amazon you can have it for under a buck and quarter plus the usual $3.99 shipping.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Long Live Stasis!

   Well, looks like it's all done for another four years and I can stop obsessing about things I really can't do much about and I'm pretty grateful for that.  Now I can get back to blogging about S&S, Staten Island and trying to write more.  Woo hoo!

Friday, November 2, 2012

Hurricane Sandy

   Fortunately, my wife and I survived Hurricane Sandy with power intact.  Though less than half a mile from the waterfront we live 186' above sea level.  If we ever flood the world's done for.
   My sister-in-law, her husband and their four boys (all under 8) are at present living with us, refugees from their blacked out New Jersey home.  Around us, where power was out mostly due to the great number of downed trees, is slowly being restored.  We feel inordinately blessed and secure.
  Unfortunately, much of Staten Island is low lying swampland. The East Shore, once a vibrant resort community, is filled with old bungalows long ago converted to full-time homes.  These small, fragile houses were devastated by the storm surge and thousands are displaced.In other places homes were smashed by falling trees or had siding and rooves ripped off by the powerful winds.  It's a nightmare.  
  So right now I'm cooking for eight, reading crime books and watching to see what we can do to help once the immediate problems (broken gas lines, downed power cables) are addressed.  I know my church has power and will be doing all it can.  I actually trust the local politicians (from Staten Island, not citywide, ie. the mayor) to work hard to ensure the borough's not forgotten in the shadows of New Jersey and Manhattan.
  It's going to be be a rough time and I suspect many of the destroyed houses will not be rebuilt.  I also don't trust a mayor whose idea of an appropriate response to such devastation is to hold the NYC Marathon to do well by the borough.