Tuesday, July 23, 2013

"Filed Teeth" - First Reading in Glen Cook

 Sometime in 1982 or 1983 my dad, source of so much of my early fantasy and sci-fi reading, picked up a copy of Orson Scott Card's anthology Dragons of Darkness. There are stories between its covers that might be so amazing that they could change my take on fantasy fiction forever.  I don't know and I don't care. That's because the book's first story is "Filed Teeth" by Glen Cook, the first story I ever read by him, and the story that made me a fan of his for life.

  In the first few pages there's adventure and mystery.  A band of soldiers and their employer, Lord Hammer, have just finished a brutal mountain crossing only to find their hoped for rest ruined by the onset of an ice storm. Trudging over the ice the men learn they must march "another eight miles...More if the circle isn't alive."  When I first read that, I was hooked.  Where were they going and what was the circle?

  The narrator, Will, describes a wounded comrade as an old man who should "spend the winters telling the grandkids lies about the El Murid, Civil and Great Eastern Wars". Who was El Murid? What were those wars? From that line it seemed Cook was presenting a fillip of a larger tale and I'm a sucker for that.

  With no other knowledge than that sentence I also believed Cook knew exactly, in detail, what those wars were.  The line wasn't simply a bit of chrome to flesh out a scene but a reference to great events of which "Filed Teeth" was some sort of addendum.
  I was also grabbed by Cook's complete avoidance of any sort of olde tymie dialogue. His characters speak in simple, contemporary English. When Lord Hammer's aide, Fetch addresses the soldiers, it starts like this:
"Hey!  Listen up!. Fetch yelled. "Hey!  I said knock off the tongue music. Got a little proclamation from the boss." "Here it comes.  All-time ass chewing for doing stupid," I said".  
Simple lines like that were revelation after Tolkien and, particularly, his copycats. Cook wasn't the first author to write fantasy like that, but his stories were the first place I sat up and took notice of it. Coupled with his grimier and more mundane approach to the genre it struck me as perfect.  
   By the end of "Filed Teeth", there's been dark and evil forests and a horde of barbarians. Powerful sorceries have been unleashed and mysteries' solutions revealed. Running through it all is a melancholia.  All the men are veterans of the wars mentioned above. Some suffered great losses among friends and family while others found what they believed in undermined and driven into the wilderness. Only later did I learn that's a constant tenor in Cook's stories as men rue the dark things they've done and devastation and betrayals they've witnessed or been subjected to.

  "Filed Teeth" sold me on Glen Cook. I was sold specifically on the need to find the Dread Empire books. I remembered that I'd seen all three rubberbanded together at the late Barrett Book Trader here on Staten Island and dismissed them because of the title deeming it a little cheesy. Now I had to have them. Fortunately, no one else had bought them and soon I was devouring A Shadow of All Night Falling, October's Baby and All Darkness Met.

  I haven't read all his books and still I've read thirty-one. To this day Glen Cook is one of only a few authors I try to buy in hardcover as soon as his books are released (the others are Tim Powers, James Blaylock and Terry Pratchett).

  People can argue about them in comparison to the his next series, The Black Company, all they want. The Dread Empire books are sloppier, less well written, and all manner of things lesser than the Black Company, but they still rock.  For me they hold a special place. The Dread Empire books were grittier and darker than the bulk of the fantasy I had read up to that point. Oh, Moorcock and Wagner got pretty cynical. With Moorcock, though, it often felt like an aesthetic pose. Wagner was probably the closest in sensibilities, but he was writing about an immortal superman. For all their epic adventures, the main characters in the Dread Empire series are mortal and usually driven by mortal desires and fears. Oh, and they are heroes who do noble things, but they have the feet of broken and impure clay.

  In his essay, "Shit Happens in the Creation of Story", in Jason Waltz's Writing Fantasy Heroes, Cook mentions a specific event from the Dread Empire books as an example of the power of story to overwhelm events and characters no matter what the author's intentions. That event, and if you've read them you know what I mean, is still a kick in the gut all these years later.

  Cook was one of the first writers I read for whom no character, no matter how cool or beloved, was sacred.  Anything could happen to anybody at anytime and it did. Unlike many of the dark stuff being written today, it never felt forced or gratuitous. Bad things didn't just happen to remind the reader the world's an unforgiving, pointless crap heap.  Events happened because they flowed naturally from the story.

  As a story, "Filed Teeth" is dynamite. The mystery of Lord Hammer and that of his destination are revealed slowly and skillfully. If you've read the Dread Empire series it's not much of a riddle, but as my introduction to Cook's world, I was as intrigued as the narrator. Set in a forbidding land beyond civilization. and crossed with evil magics, lost cities and the dragon to end all dragons, it's also a spectacularly exciting story for one so suffused with the feeling that legendary times coming to an end.

  Between the Dread Empire and the Black Company series, Glen Cook, I believe, is one of the earliest writers of military fantasy. I find his terse style and shorter books more enjoyable than the giant tomes larded with endless, trivial side plots, visited on us by lots of authors these days (I know, I ride this hobby horse a lot, but c'mon, admit it, too many books are just too long). I'm so grateful to my dad for buying Dragons of Light all those years ago and I'm incredibly grateful to Glen Cook for writing scads of tough, unsentimental fantasy books.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Mail Bag

   With the summer months I get a little more reading done and am a little more apt to spend some money on books.  Sometimes even real, printed-on-paper books.  Of course that didn't mean I didn't buy a couple more e-books.

Swords & Dark Magic: I never bothered getting my own copy of this pretty good collection of new, original swords & sorcery.  I also never finished reading it. I figure it's important enough an anthology that i should have a hard copy on the shelf next to all the Flashing Swords! and Swords Against Darkness volumes.

Surrender to the Will of the Night: As huge a Glen Cook fan as I am, I'm actually surprised I haven't read this series yet.  With the fourth book coming out this fall I figured at least let me have the third one on hand should the urge to read them hit me. He's one of the few authors I still buy in hardcover.

Meji Book One:  Since discovering Milton Davis last year I've become a big fan. Between his sword & soul writing and his publishing efforts he's an inspiring guy.  Still, if his stories weren't fun it wouldn't mean as much, but fortunately they are a lot of fun.  

Wind Follower:  When I reviewed Milton Davis' and Charles Saunders Griots last summer, one of the two stories I described as my favorites was Carole McDonnell's "Changeling".  This is a book I'm particularly looking forward to and have high hopes.  

In Savage Lands: I'd seen this around and read the review by John O'Neil over at Black Gate last summer, meant to buy it then and promptly forgot all about it.  Now I've remember and the old one-click brought it to my Kindles.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

James Allison - Æsir Remembrances

   Two of my favorite Robert E. Howard stories are "Marchers of Valhalla" and "The Valley of the Worm".  Both feature James Allison, a crippled man, withering away in the heat of 20th century Texas and capable of seeing "with clear, sure sight the grand panorama of lives that trail out behind (him)".  Over the course of those two terrific stories and the less terrific "The Garden of Fear", Howard's protagonist relives past lives as blond, proto-Aryan warriors, all  struggling against bloody nature, ferocious enemy warriors and terrifying monsters.  There are some fragments but I haven't read them so you're on your own with them.
   I'll start by saying that "Marchers of Valhalla" is a story that has loomed large in my S&S mindscape for a long time.  I consider Weird Tales' failure to buy it and that it went unpublished till the seventies unjustifiable crimes.  It's big and bold and pushes all of Howard's points about barbarism versus civilization, the latter being an unnatural trap that can weaken men.  The Ken Kelly cover of the edition I read is one of the best depictions of what I want from S&S (not all the time, but much of the time).  Re-reading it only reaffirmed my love for this quintessential story of rampaging barbarian reavers, decadent urbanites and bloody, bloody, combat.  It's blood, guts and sword swinging action with a soupçon of intrigue delivered with perfection.  That it brings proto-Northman ravaging down the Texas coast only makes it even cooler.
   "Marchers" introduces the central conceit of the Allison stories with the arrival of a woman.  Having climbed a ridge to look out over the grim and desolate valley of his Texas home, Allison is startled at her sudden appearance.  She is so striking he can't describes her specific characteristics, only knowing that she is "unbelievably beautiful".
   When she addresses Allison as Hialmar, in a voice "strangely accented" and "golden as distant chimes", he corrects her.   Continuing to act as if she knows him, the woman tells Allison he is greatly changed from when she last saw him, but though life has "dealt harshly with him", it "takes but it also gives".
   Condemning her as an optimist, Allison is surprised to find himself at once pouring out his soul to her.  His is angry and bitter that his infirmity has taken from him the possibility of living a life of courage and adventure.  He provides her with a litany of family members left hobbled by wounds or dead on battlefields all the way back to the Alamo.  
   Her response is to wave her hands across Allison's eyes and free his buried memories of life as an Æsir warrior in some dim pre-cataclysmic past marching over the north of the world only to end up in a Texas that existed only in Howard's imagination.  Hialmar and the warrior band he marched with were not a migratory drift of his native people, but more a predatory one.  
   Driven by a fierce need to "see beyond the horizon", a band of over a thousand Æsir from many clans left their cold homeland, Nordheim, and set off on a journey that sent them eastward across ancient proto-Asia through polar lands and down into an America still mostly empty of people.  Their trail is one "laid in blood and smoldering embers".  Recalling his memories of his band's travels, Allison omits much, fearing his readers would "recoil in horror" from description of the "slaughters, rapine and massacres".
   Finally, after years of travel in which Hialmar has grown from boy to man, the Æsir reach a city they at first take for a mirage.  It becomes clear that it is no dream.  It is surrounded by fields and orchards and they see the gleam of weapons atop the city's great surrounding wall and hear from within "the quick throb of war-drums".
   An army issues from the city and barbaric ferocity it's cut down by Æsir.  As they prepare to scale the walls and assault the city, the warriors are astounded when a Æsir woman comes out from inside.  She tells them that the city is called Khemu and its masters admit they cannot win in battle, but if the warriors continue their attack they will slaughter their own women and children and set their palaces ablaze.  Soon a deal is struck and the Æsir are being feted by the ruling priests of Khemu.
   It turns out the priests have need of the Æsir and their arms.  A great foe from the sea is bearing down on Khemu and one their own the city's soldiers won't be able to fend them off.  In return for service on the coming day of battle the Khemu will provide treasure, food and women.  The Æsir agree and the stage is set for brutal war and betrayal.  
   I find much of the story's power in Howard's descriptions of the Æsir.  They are "giants beyond the comprehension of moderns", and no man of today is as strong as the weakest of Hialmar's war brothers.  Their strength, though, is not only physical.  The Æsir are "a wolfish race" and years of wandering and fighting "instilled in (their) souls the very spirit of the wild - the intangible power that quivers in the long how of the grey wolf, that roars in the north wind, that sleeps in the might unrest of turbulent rivers, that sounds in the slashing of icy sleet, the beat of the eagle's wings, and lurks in the brooding silence of the vast places".
   I think that long quote gets to the heart of what I like best about Howard when he's not just telling a great story.  It's not that the murderous Æsir as such have any appeal me, but men standing tall in the face of all opponents and the mindless fury of nature do.  There is, I believe, something buried deep inside modern humans, that remembers a struggle for survival and instead of wanting to hide in a cave behind a fire wants to confront and overcome.   
   There's more to the story.  If you've read it you already know how it goes and if you haven't you should read it now.  "Marchers"'s penultimate sequence involves an epic battle between proto-Aryans and proto-Caribs (led by another far from home Northman) that cries out to be filmed.  Beyond that is a not unexpected (or undeserved) betrayal, a goddess in the attic and an explanation of why Texas looks the way it does.  
   "The Garden of Fear" is the least of the three tales.  It commences with Allison informing his readers that in a deep, prehistoric past he "was Hunwulf, a son of the golden-haired Aesir".  Worshipping only Ymir, his particular tribe of proto-Aryans left their snow covered homeland for some unknown, distant destination.
   Hunwulf was born during his people's Völkerwanderung and never knew the cold home of his race.  He "came to full manhood" along a trail that "passed over bloodstained ashes of butchered villages".  While the tribe lingered sometimes in fertile lands, they always moved on at some point, ever southward.  The Æsir are a rootless, ever moving, ever restless nation.
   Hunwulf kills his tribe's greatest hunter, Heimdul, for the sake of the beautiful Gudrun.  Allison claims Helen of Troy and Alexander's Thais are "but pallid shadows" of Gudrun.  Loving Hunwulf as fiercely as he loves her, Gudrun willingly forsakes her tribe to flee with him into the unknown east.
   While spending an evening with a hospitable tribe, Gudrun is taken from Hunwulf by a terrible, winged creature.  Pursuing his stolen love, Hunwulf encounters an evil garden, an ancient keep and the sole survivor of a nearly forgotten race.  It's all okay, just nothing special.  It doesn't have any of the sweep of "Marchers" or the mythic portents of "Valley of the Worm".  Instead, it's just sort about a guy, his girl and a monster amd some bad flowers. 
   Reading "North by Southwest; or the Yellow Rose of Valhalla" by Steve Tompkins, I was surprised to learn that "Marchers of Valhalla" doesn't get a lot of love, especially when put up against the last Allison story, "The Valley of the Worm".  I find the scale of "Marchers" and its landscape altering conclusion more satisfying than "Valley".  I also like the circle created by the mysterious woman's appearance on the Texas ridgetop and the story's finale.  
   Still, the opening of "Valley" is more lyrical and better told than "Marchers".  "I am one and all the pageantry of shapes and guises and masks have been, are, and shall be the visible manifestations of that illusive, intangible but vitally existent spirit now promenading under the brief and temporary name of James Allison", is how Howard's protagonist describes himself.  There is more of a matter-of-factness to "Marchers".  In "Valley" the atmosphere is more mythic and Howard's writing reflects that wonderfully.  
   "Valley" is the tale of "Niord and the Worm", the source of all legends of a man standing against monster: Tyr, Perseus, Siegfried, Beowulf and St. George and it works very well well as myth.  It's bereft of elaborate detail or complicated plot, instead focusing on Niord, another grim and blond-haired Æsir, and his struggle against an unknown monster.  It is beautifully basic without being simplistic.
   At the story's opening, Allison's condition has worsened.  Now he awaits death, creeping upon him "like a blind slug".  Fully aware of his past lives, his dreams aren't filled with his present, "drab, disease-racked life" but by "all the gleaming figures of the mighty pageantry that have passed before, and shall come after".  Unlike the restless man in "Marcher", here he is content and at ease.
   Niord, like Hialmar, is a wanderer, part of the far ranging Æsir tribes.  Niord, though, is no roving killer, but part of the great racial migration that will spread the Æsir across the pre-cataclysmic Earth.  In the wake of a great battle at Jotunheim, the Æsir were shattered and spread out from their homeland on "century-long treks that carried them around the world and left their bones and their traces in strange lands and wild waste places".
   Niord's tribe ends its long journey when it enters the jungle covered "Country of the Worm".  There the Æsir are halted for a short while by bloody battle with the Picts.  Allison/Niord tells us "the Picts were as ferocious as we, but ours was the superior physique, the keener wit, the more highly developed fighting-brain. We won because we were a superior race, but it was no easy victory".  I have issues here but I'll return to them later.  
   The battle ends in Pictish defeat.  Soon, a Pictish warrior, spared by a "vagrant whim", provides the foundation for peace and co-existence for the two barbaric tribes.  When a group of young warriors and their mates set off to form their own Æsir clan, the stage is set for monster fighting.
   Despite strong warnings from their Pictish neighbors, the newly formed clan sets out toward the Valley of the Worm and the ruins that dot its floor.  Following an epic battle with a sabre-toothed tiger and his recovery from his wounds, Niord decides to visit his fellow Æsir in their new lands.  There he discovers staggering and appalling devastation and no survivors.
   Of course, the only sensible reaction for Niord, is to seek the vengeance.  Only the sudden appearance of Grom stays him from following the trail of destruction to its source immediately.  Grom tells Niord the whole story of his people's encounter with the monstrous source of the devastation in the Valley of the Worm.  Armed with this new knowledge the Æsir begins to formulate a plan whereby he will be able to achieve revenge.
   What follows really could serve as the primal version of the legends Allison mentions.   Perhaps that's why so many people prefer it to "Marchers".  It is pared to the bone, leaving a note perfect story of hero against demoniac abomination.
   Returning to the meeting of the Picts and the Æsir,  that's where modern readers run up into the question of race and Robert E. Howard.  I'm not foolish enough to read every character as the author's mouthpiece.  But, still, there comes a time when it gets a little complicated.  It's one thing if those lines simply reflect the Æsirs' beliefs, but it's another when they seem proven true by their victory.   Even the Æsirs' violence is more clearly thought out: "We did not torture.  We were no more cruel than life demanded...It was not wanton bloodthirstiness that made us butcher wounded and captive foes.  It was because we knew our chances of survival increased with each enemy slain.".  
   None of this is helped by the fact that the Æsir are tall, heavily muscled, blond and blue eyed while the Picts are short and dark.  Grom, Niord's Pictish companion, is described as having gorilla-thick arms and a gorilla-broad grin.  Sure, they're vivid terms, but they are at least lazy if not indicative of a bigger problem concerning some sort assumed ethnic or racial hierarchy (and, yes, I remember the Picts are "indisputably" white).
   In "Marchers of Valhalla", the Æsir's victory over the Khemuris is because of the former's  barbarian ferocity, an overwhelming force in the face of their urban foes.  It's no more believable than some sort of racial superiority.    
   When Allison first describes the Picts he notes that "while indisputably white men", they possessed some of the traits he'd seen "among black savages in jungle countries".  This is hedged a few lines later when Allison  says that the Picts' headhunting and cannibalism grew in them as "natural adjuncts" of living in the jungles.  In all these cases there seems to be an exaggeration of cultural traits into ethnic ones which is a path to simplistic, and often ugly, stereotyping. 
   Though there are positive depictions of the Pictish warriors, Kelka in "Marchers" and Grom in "Valley", they are not the same as Hialmar and Niord.  On the one hand, barbarism is extolled but then some barbarians are too barbaric.  From where does that distinction arise?  I don't think the pre-jungle Picts would be much more of a hindrance to the Æsir than Grom's tribe is in "Valley".  Is it something genetic or something cultural?  It's not entirely clear ,though the superiority of the Æsir is never in doubt.  
   Howard's racism is something that's gotten a lot of debate on the interwebs over the years and I'm not looking to really go into it here.  I just feel, that as with many older stories, there are elements here that require a little warning beforehand for some modern readers and a some consideration about their meaning.
   I think caution is required reading these sections today.  It's possible Howard was just playing with outdated theories of race and creating his own mythopoeic tales of which our own real ones are but shadows.  Creating a fake history of the world to undergird the real one is one of the best bits of storytelling employed by Howard.    For the willing reader it provides a veneer of truth to his stories, making them feel like something more than just fiction.   
      When all is said and done, Robert E. Howard is still the writer to beat in swords & sorcery.  "Marchers of Valhalla" and "The Valley of the Worm" are exemplars of the sort of mythic roots the genre can tap.  It's as if Howard really did dredge up legends out of our unknowable prehistory.  Every word of pseudo-history he wrote in these stories is false and not a one doesn't ring utterly true.    They also kick prodigious ass providing more excitement than any dozen of the last big screen yawnfest pawned off as action movies over the past decade.