Thursday, November 26, 2015

Conan the Barbarian by Robert E. Howard

I was introduced to Robert E. Howard’s iconic character courtesy of L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter in the late 1960s when they began compiling Howard’s stories and publishing them in paperback, coupled with original Conan stories of their own. My intention was to inaugurate Conan to this blog with a post about Conan the Buccaneer, one of my favorite of the de Camp and Carter pastiche novels. But then I would have slighted Robert E. Howard and I couldn’t do it. Robert E. Howard is one of the reasons I became interested in pulp fiction to begin with.
My purpose here isn’t to say anything profound about either Robert E. Howard or Conan the barbarian. I belong to the gee-whiz geekdom school of Conan fans. Robert E. Howard’s prose is lush, ripe with imagery, and thriving with the pulse-beat of a man that loved to write. Conan, his greatest creation, is a man’s man. He doesn’t apologize; he doesn’t surrender. His world is occupied by haunted castles and tombs, horrifying monsters and naked or half-naked beautiful women. Violence is a way of life. The many comic book adaptations of Howard’s work all capitalized on these elements to great effect. I suppose in these politically correct times it’s inappropriate to admit that I bought those comic books and paperbacks because I loved the half-naked women on the covers, but I did. I still do. Take a tip from Conan himself and don’t apologize for a being a man. What we call Political Correctness is just another form of Puritanism.
Conan sought treasures and women and battles with an enthusiasm that is contagious. Robert E. Howard must have channeled some wild forefathers of his when he penned those wonderful tales. I re-read Howard’s stories often. Not just Conan, but his Solomon Kane stories and the Bran Mak Morn tales and the Kull stories. Del Rey has published eleven volumes collecting most of Howard’s stories and the three Conan volumes - The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian (2003), The Bloody Crown of Conan (2003) and The Conquering Sword of Conan (2005) - should be considered the definitive Conan collections.
Of the Marvel comics I preferred the magazine The Savage Sword of Conan which featured great artwork and visually exciting battle scenes. The great Earl Norem provided a lot of the cover art. I still harbor a fondness for those L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter paperbacks from Ace, but I enjoyed Robert Jordan’s Conan stories, too. Conan in films is also quite appealing, no matter if you like Arnold Schawrzenegger or not (I do, and I enjoyed Jason Momoa in the underrated Conan the Barbarian (2011).
The Del Rey/Ballantine editions are historically significant and I hope they remain in print. Re-reading the stories today it’s easy to track Robert E. Howard’s progress as the character developed. Of course his wild imagination jumps off the page. That first story, “The Phoenix on the Sword” always felt incomplete, and I think Howard was just getting a handle on it. The same with “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter,” but then he wrote “The God in the Bowl,” and “The Tower of the Elephant.” These are solid stories. Then followed “The Scarlet Citadel” and “The Queen of the Black Coast.” Conan was very much alive and must have walked side by side with Robert E. Howard until his untimely death.
I’ve listened to far more knowledgeable fans than I talk about their favorite Conan stories, and their enthusiasm and even devotion to Howard is something I appreciate. I cannot fathom how the act of reading can be made more appealing to a young person interested in the creative arts than with material like “Beyond the Black River” or “Red Nails.” This is not only fuel for hungry imaginations, but incredibly entertaining fiction. Is it wrong to suggest that Robert E. Howard’s stories should replace “Death of a Salesman” in High School curriculums? “Death of a Salesman” has literary value, but the fact is most young readers find the book depressing and boring. They’re right. Our educators have got it wrong. They’re forcing what they perceive to be “meaningful” literature onto a populace that wants to be entertained. The basic elements of storytelling can be taught well enough by using examples of Robert E. Howard’s fiction, or any of the great pulp writers for that matter.
The literary value of pulp fiction from the 30s and 40s has undergone a critical re-evaluation resulting in wide-spread academic acceptance. It is no longer anathema to use the phrase “Pulp Fiction” in regards to any work of literature, but there are still many high-brow critics who readily dismiss Howard’s work. Part of this dismissal stems from religious ideology or academic posturing. Ultimately, critics like Harold Bloom are as interesting as a sprinkling of dandruff.
Case in point: the first paragraph from “The Hour of the Dragon,” a novella serialized in Weird Tales from December 1935 through April, 1936:

The long tapers flickered, sending the black shadows wavering along the walls, and the velvet tapestries rippled. Yet there was no wind in the chamber. Four men stood about the ebony table on which lay the green sarcophagus that gleamed like carven jade. In the upraised hand of each man a curious black candle burned with a weird greenish light. Outside was night and a lost wind moaning among the black trees.

Note the profusion of strong images in tandem with setting the scene. That’s about as fine a first paragraph as you’ll see in all of literature. It succeeds in capturing a reader’s attention while putting into motion the basic elements of pure storytelling.
It has always been Robert E. Howard’s fans that make the difference, and even if you didn’t think those TOR writers were as good as Howard himself, I salute them for their effort. So here’s a nod to Karl Edward Wagner, Bjorn Nyberg, Steve Perry, Robert Jordan, Leonard Carpenter, John C. Hocking, Andrew J. Offutt, John Maddox Roberts, Roland Green, and Sean A. Moore. I bought them occasionally and never really disliked any of them. Conan is larger-than-life, a mythic figure equally as appealing as King Arthur, Robin Hood, Captain Blood, and Zorro.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Clockwork Lives by Kevin J. Anderson

Clockwork Lives is a follow-up volume to Kevin J. Anderson’s excellent Clockwork Angels. I do recommend that readers purchase Clockwork Angels first in order to familiarize themselves with the amazing steampunk world that Kevin has created. Inspired by the band Rush and created in conjunction with Neil Peart, both Clockwork Angels and Clockwork Lives offer a literary smorgasbord of the highest quality. I purchased Clockwork Lives directly from a link that Kevin offered through FaceBook and received my autographed copy of Clockwork Lives within a week. Books like this are the reason I love reading. In Clockwork Lives we are greeted by a collection of stories framed by a larger story about Marinda Peake. When Marinda’s father dies he bequeaths his fortune to her but only under the condition that she fills a book with special alchemichically treated pages with stories. In order to do this she needs but a small drop of blood from a volunteer splashed onto the page which results in that person’s life story being summed up in text. As Marinda begins her journey to collect stories she learns and important lesson, namely: “Some lives can be summed up in a sentence or two. Other lives are epics.” Marinda’s adventures are fascinating, often dangerous, sometimes sad, but always enlightening. The individual stories she collects are also fascinating and have a direct impact on her quest to collect stories, many of which are connected. This is a great book, and one of my favorites this year. KJA writes smooth, flowing prose, and I am always swept along by the tales he tells. This first edition hardcover from ECW Press is a collector’s item featuring beautiful illustrations by Nick Robles. Clockwork Lives came along when I really needed to connect with some great stories and the timing couldn’t have been better. Marinda’s quest becomes an epic unto itself and I guarantee you won’t be able to put this book down. Kudos!

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Dragon Engine by Andy Remic

I sometimes buy books strictly on impulse. I might wander the aisles of Barnes & Noble for a solid thirty minutes before making a choice. That’s how I happened to pick up Andy Remic’s The Dragon Engine. The book is published by Angry Robot, another UK based company like Solaris with a catalogue of intriguing, well-written titles. I must have been in the mood for some blood and thunder prose because I really connected with Remic’s calloused writing. There’s a dash of David Gemmell here and a dash of Robert E. Howard, yet Remic’s wild imagination percolates on each page. The Dragon Engine is the first in a series that will be called The Blood of the Dragon Empire and I’m on board to see how it plays out. The set-up is simple: six warrior join forces to track down a treasure that has healing powers. Their goal is to save the life of Jonti, one of their friends who also happens to be a skilled fighter herself. To find the dragon jewels they must travel to the mountains and locate the secret underground lair of the dragons which is guarded by the Dwarf Lords. These Harborym Dwarves are about as nasty as dwarves can get. The first one hundred pages are devoted to character development and in setting the plot in motion. After that things get wild and you’ll come to hate the Harborym Dwarves as much as Beetrax, Dake, Jonti, Talon and Sakora. A sixth adventurer, Jael, is picked up along the way. The battle scenes late in the book are exceptionally brutal. Some of these characters are like Conan on steroids. Remic writes a nifty, hard-boiled tale with stark images, solid plotting, and great action scenes. This is a dark world, but it’s a grand tale after all, and I thought it was tremendous. Immediately after finishing this book I logged onto Amazon and ordered Remic’s The Clockwork Vampire Chronicles which collects the novels Kell’s Legend, Soul Stealers, and Vampire Warlords. I plan on finishing that before the next installment of The Blood of the Dragon Empire. Meanwhile, sharpen your axe and go into battle with The Dragon Engine. It’s bloody good.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Ole Doc Methuselah by L. Ron Hubbard

I first encountered Ole Doc in 1970 when DAW paperbacks reprinted these seven classic tales from the pages of Astounding Science Fiction magazine. I’ve been a fan of L. Ron Hubbard’s adventure stories ever since. Ole Doc is a Soldier of Light, an intergalactic physician accompanied by a multi-armed alien named Hippocrates. Incorrigible and somewhat cerebral, Ole Doc is a combination of Sherlock Holmes and Allan Quartermain which makes for fun reading. These seven adventures were written as individual short stories but can also be viewed as a loosely knit novel. Doc encounters all sorts of problems, from alien disease to a regal aberration and greedy businessmen. Doc handles each problem with a deft touch and wry humor. Hubbard was at the top of his form when he penned these great stories. The writing is smooth and the stories possess that rare quality of being slightly humorous without being condescending. When people talk about “classic science fiction” they’re talking about stories like these from a Master Storyteller. This was one of the very first books I read by Hubbard and a personal favorite from that glorious age of pulp reprints in the early 70s. Ole Doc was fascinating. He had the cerebral abilities of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, and additionally, the stories had the same energy as the best Ellery Queen mysteries. Best of all this was Space Opera, but with a twist. For collectors this is DAW # 20 with cover art by Josh Kirby. The current paperback edition from Galaxy Press sports a jaw-dropping colorful cover by Gerry Grace. All of these stories were originally published under the pseudonym Rene Lafayette as follows:

Ole Doc Methuselah, Astounding Oct 1947
The Expensive Slaves, Astounding Nov 1947
Her Majesty’s Aberration, Astounding Mar 1948
The Great Air Monopoly, Astounding Sep 1948
Plague, Astounding Apr 1949
A Sound Investment, Astounding Jun 1949
Ole Mother Methuselah, Astounding Jan 1950
Current edition from Galaxy Press