Friday, October 31, 2014

Halloween Night

After watching a mostly not-too-spooky movies for most of the month, the luminous Mrs. V. and I will send the holiday out in style with a few creepier films. The highlight will be The Haunting, Robert Wise's effective adaptation of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House.

If there's time, we'll also watch Donnie Darko and Halloween. The latter was the first horror movie I saw in the theater and I remember it scaring the heck out of me. Even knowing it inside out it can still give me chills if I let it (and I will).

Writing this, I'm thinking about what other spooky movies I need to get my hands on. First, The Innocents, a 1961 version of Henry James' "Turn of the Screw" and William Archibald's stage adaptation of the novella.

Then I need to get my hands on the original Universal Lon Chaney Jr.-starring The Wolfman. It's not a perfect film but Chaney's Talbot is great and I'm a big Claude Rains fan (sadly, how many people can say that these days?)

I should also get good copies of all the Frankenstein movies. I hadn't watched all three in years. The first two are beautiful, channeling all sorts of German Expressionist film techniques and really introducing Boris Karloff to the world.

So have a fun Halloween and don't eat too much crap.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Oh, yeah, this blog is supposed to be about swords & sorcery

One plug ugly cover
Until today's review of John Jakes' Brak the Barbarian over at Black Gate. I haven't been writing about swords & sorcery much of late. Between hardboiled crime stories and light fantasy, I've drifted away from my core subject. And it still is what I want to write about most.

Maybe that's part of the reason I reacted so favorably to Jakes' blond hero. The stories are a mixed bag: the first two are eh, the second one okay, and the last two almost pretty good. But in the end I liked the entire book. It's like a palate cleanser. After weeks of reading light books by Teresa Edgerton and James Blaylock, and crime stories set in the real world, Brak's adventures were just the sort of pure heroic fantasy fun to reset my engines. 

Jakes' stories have a stripped down feel to him. He wasn't trying to anything but write good adventure tales and at that he succeeded. He isn't interested in barbarism vs. civilization or collapsing the genre's assumptions. He just wanted to set a guy with a sword loose against villains and monsters. 

While the last two stories, "Ghosts of Stone" and "The Barge of Souls" are really good, I'm looking forward to checking out at least one of the novels. Jakes clearly hit his commercial stride as a novelist, not short story writer. I'm hoping the same skills that led to his success as a historical novelist will be present in the Brak books. I'll let you know how that works out.

I'm really looking forward to getting into Sorceress of the Witch World tonight. I've written several times about how I came to Andre Norton's series later in life. I'm still so grateful I finally decided to give it a chance. All five novels and two collections of short stories I've read previously are great. Her world and characters keep growing and getting richer with each new work. 

Anyhoo. After turning Howard Andrew Jones' discussion of the terrific Fast One by Paul Cain into an discussion of the merits of James Ellroy's White Jazz, I figured I'd take a look at it. I haven't read it since it first came out in 1992 and I pretty much abandoned his books after American Tabloid and Hollywood Nocturnes. He just kept working the same ideas over and over again to no end and the violence and plots became increasingly baroque and ludicrous. 

But I remembered that White Jazz had brought the monumental L.A. Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, and L.A. Confidential) to a dizzingly psychotic close. Its machine-gun paced prose and brass knuckles to the side of the skull craziness were the culmination of everything Ellroy had been doing before. 

I'm only a few chapters in so far but it's been worth it. I don't remember a lot of the book's details, but I'm hip to the sorts of games he plays so I can see certain movements in the plot forming already. And I don't care. It's like jumping onto an out of control train careening down the rails, getting faster and faster. Once you get on you really can't get off. Gripping stuff.

I met Ellroy at New York is Book Country back in early nineties. He was sitting at a table signing and selling books. He asked me to buy his latest, American Tabloid. I told him I already had. So buy something else, he said. I told him I'd bought and read everything he'd written. So he thanked me. Then he signed my friend's girlfriend's balloon with these immortal words: "Cougar Blood Boil!" Still no idea what it means but it was pretty cool.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Brak the Barbarian and Other Things to Come

I've need to start planning a little better beforehand what I'm going to review at Black Gate for some time now. There've been a few weeks where I didn't pick something until the Thursday before. First, it means I avoid longer books, and secondly, whatever the length, I still have to rush through it faster than I'd like.

So, next Tuesday - John Jake's first volume of unabashed REH inspired tales of Brak the Barbarian, called Brak the Barbarian. I've read part of it and it's not that bad. In fact some of it's pretty alright.

After that I'm going to go back to Andre Norton's Witch World series with Sorceress of the Witch World, finishing the trilogy started in Three Against Witch World and continued in Warlock of the Witch World (both reviewed in Black Gate). I'm looking forward to how she ties the trilogy together.

Then it's back to P. C. Hodgell's Kencyrath Cycle and the third volume, Seeker's Mask. Again I reviewed the earlier books,  God Stalk and Dark of the Moon over at Black Gate. I've read this one before and I can tell you it's a great gothic mystery (with ensorcelled chickens and wandering towers).

Finally, I'm going to review the coected Thongor books of too many people's favorite punching bag; Lin Carter. I'll be doing it in two parts: first, Thongor and the Wizard of Lemuria, Thongor and the Dragon City, and Thongor Against the Gods, second, Thongor in the City of Magicians, Thongor at the End of Time, and Thongor Fights the Pirates of Tarakus.

John O'Neil's piece on fan fiction last week over at Black Gate inspired me to revisit one of the possible progenitors of stuff, I've written before, as John very kindly mentions, that Lin Carter was essentially a fan fiction writer who managed to get published. Most of his books are pastiches of his favorites. That means lots of ERB, Leigh Brackett, Lester Dent, and of course, REH and HPL imitations.

Four years ago I reviewed Thongor and the Wizard of LemuriaIt was harsh, and while the book warrants harsh, but a little too flippant. . I've grown a little softer on Carter in the ensuing years. I really dug Young Thongor and Kellory the Warlock's a solid middle-of-the-road book. So I'm going back to it.

I'm also readng a bunch of other stuff, mostly in conjunction with the reading days going on at Howard Andrew Jones' site. That means some hardboiled crime stories for Mondays and Lord Dunsany for Firdays.

So far it's been a lot of fun. I haven't read a lot of crime fiction lately and Jones has put a lot of stuff I have never heard on my radar. I've never read more than a few Dunsany stories at all so this has been a great chance to read them and read some interesting commentary.

So that's what going. Fun reading times ahead!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Matter of Britain, Pirates, and Tough Guys

Statue of Boudica in London
I'm diving back into Henry Treece's Celtic tetralogy for Black Gate this coming week with Red Queen, White Queen. It's set during Boudica's bloody uprising against the Romans in 60 AD. Instead of the bloody queen, the book's perspective is from two soldiers, one Roman and the other a Briton. Where Artos and Medrawt in The Great Captains (reviewed at Black Gate) were building the great myths themselves, the protagonists here are only mortal moving through a legend-wreathed and spirit-haunted world.

Caractacus faces the Romans

The remaining books in the quartet are The Golden Strangers and The Dark Island. The first is set during the invasion of Britain by bronze using proto-Celtic tribes and their conquest of the stone age natives. The second is about Caractacus' war against the Romans.

I continue to be enthralled by the myths and history of early Britain. Even though my own roots are with the Saxon invaders, these stories have suffused the earth of the island itself and imprinted themselves on to all its inhabitants, including me through my ancestors. British resistance to foreign domination, be it Spain, France, or Germany, feels like it has its roots in the battles of Caractacus, Boudica, and Arthur. The seemingly endless struggle to bring a modicum of justice in times of chaos that lies with those stories as well.

I just finished off Rafael Sabatini's Captain Blood books: Brethren of the Main, Captain Blood: His Odyssey, Captain Blood Returns, and The Fortunes of Captain Blood. I'll go into more detail on them later (with Howard Andrew Jones - the worst instigator of book buying around these days). For now, just let me say that they, are rollicking, swashbuckling adventures of the first order.

I've also gotten back into some good hardboiled books as well. I finally picked back up and polished of Bait Money, Max Allan Collin's first Nolan book. The reason I hadn't finished it was it wasn't grabbing me. Nolan's a little too nice and the caper wasn't shaping up as something too thrilling. I think part of the problem was that years ago a friend told me Nolan was nothing more than a Parker knockoff and I went in expecting something more brutal and cynical than it is.

While inspired by Richard Stark's master criminal, Collins had his on take on that archetype and explains it afterword. He wanted to look at that sort of a man in the later years of his career as well as exploring Collin's own baby boomer generation through the character of Jon. But when I first started reading the book I was expecting something different.

Well, I'm glad I returned to it. The end is explosive and a great setup for the sequel, Blood Money. And don't get me wrong, there's a fair amount of cynicism, it's just tempered compared to what you find in the Parker books.

I'm also in the middle of Fast One by Paul Cain. I'd never hear of Cain until seeing him included on Jones' (Chris Hocking's actually) list of hardboiled books the other week. In keeping with its title, this is one of the most fast-paced books I've ever read. Within a few pages it's like getting hit by a train, a bloody, booze-soaked train. Not done yet but great so far.

Based on that list I also bought The Mouse in the Mountain by Norbert Davis, The Complete Casebook of Cardigan: Vol. 1. by Frederick Nebel, Solomon's Vineyard by Jonathan Latimer, and The Name of the Game is Death by Dan Marlowe. All look like a lot of fun, but I have to admit I bought the Davis book because it's got a big dog in it.

There are really a lot of similarities between hardboiled fiction and swords & sorcery. Both are tougher, more cynical and feature heroes more concerned with staying alive or getting the money than fighting evil. Richard Stark is to Agatha Christie as Karl Edward Wagner is to Prof. Tolkien. This has been talked about before (can't find the links, but trust me, people have discussed this), and reading the Cain and Collins only reinforces this belief in me.

So that's what's going on off the pages of Black Gate for me bookwise. I'm not even sure what heroic fantasy book I'm going to pick up next. I think I need to find something truly odd and from off the beaten track (of course, lazy as I am, I probably won't make the effort and I'll just grab something I've read already).