Saturday, December 30, 2006

FLAMING LONDON
By Joe R. Lansdale

Ned the Seal returns in Lansdale tale of High Adventure and Low Humor. Having survived the Gotterdammerung of Dime Novel heroes in Zeppelins West, Ned washes up at the seaside home of Jules Verne, who just happens to be entertaining his good friend, Mark Twain. Twain is pretty much down and out and on skid row in Tangiers, Morocco so an adventure with an intelligent seal is quite a lucky break for him. Just to spice things up, the Martians invade. While the Martians’ giant, three-legged, fighting machines are nearly unstoppable, the good-guys have a secret weapon, Rikwalk. He’s a 40-foot tall intelligent gorilla, who shows up to warn of yet another disaster imperiling Earth.

Flaming London is another love note to 19th century pop-lit, from a 21st century genius. OK, it’s kind of like a love note from a crazy stalker, buts that’s all to the good. The action is non-stop as is the nutty word play and the Martian fart-jokes (yes, I wrote Martian fart-joke). Homage and parody mix in one of the funniest and best stories I’ve read in quite a while.
-Dave Hardy


Thursday, December 28, 2006

ZEPPELINS WEST
By Joe R. Lansdale

When I tell people about the premise of Zeppelins West, they look at me kind of funny. I don’t know why, it’s really quite simple, Buffalo Bill Cody’s disembodied head is flying his Wild West show on their zeppelin to Japan with Wild Bill Hickok, Annie Oakley, and Sitting Bull in attendance. It’s more than just a show since they are there to locate Frankenstein’s monster, who is being held captive by a samurai warlord who is slowly reducing the monster into an aphrodisiac powder. The story doesn’t actually get weird until later on the hidden island of… well I don’t want to give away too much.

Lansdale has always been the kind of writer who blended genres. Here he has poured all of 19th century popular fiction into a blender and then yanked off the lid. The result is less a splatter than a whacked-out Rorshack test where the repressed returns like a crazy, sexy ex-girlfriend, a lot of fun but kind of scary too.

Believe me, this stuff is FUNNY. I can read a lot of stuff that folks call funny without cracking a smile. But Lansdale cracks me up every few pages. Buffalo Bill’s marital difficulties are narrated with an understated zest that would have done Mark Twain proud. The story of how the carnivores and the plant eaters got liquored up on fruit juice and decided on a new dietary law gets me laughing just thinking about it. Zeppelins is a fractured fairy-tale told in an off-color Oz.

I am going to assert right here that Joe Lansdale is one of the unique voices of American letters, a post-modern Mark Twain. If you don’t believe me, just read Zeppelins West.
-Dave Hardy


Wednesday, December 27, 2006

THE MAGIC WAGON
By Joe R. Lansdale

Take an orphaned youngster, a legendary gunfighter’s mummified remains, an ill-tempered travelling showman, a strong-willed black man, and a wrestling ape and what more could you ask for in a novel? Cannibalistic zombies on a haunted zeppelin controlled by a demonic inter-stellar squid? OK, sure who wouldn’t want that, but The Magic Wagon was only Lansdale’s first novel so give him a break.

Buster is the orphaned youngster, he is an adolescent growing up fast (as so many of Lansdale’s protagonists do). He accompanies Billy Bob, a trick shooter with a mean streak, and Albert, a black man with a mysterious and deep connection to Billy Bob. While Billy Bob amazes the crowd with quick-draw displays and Albert peddles patent “medicine”, the show also features Wild Bill Hickok’s mummified body (his hinged arms are rigged to hold his pistols at the ready) and Rot Toe the Wrestling Chimpanzee.

Touring the South as a travelling show isn’t much of a life, but it’s what this odd lot has. As the pressure mounts on them they visit Mud Flats, an East Texas town where the forces, psychological and spiritual that swirl around them will come to a head.

The Magic Wagon is an intersection of Lansdale themes. It is a Western, and a tale of the supernatural. It is a work of modern fiction that looks to old Dime Novels as a template for fiction and for the way men fictionalize themselves. In Lansdale’s world nothing is ever as it seems, lives are lived on a stage where masculinity and racial hatred are donned like costumes and worn until they can no longer be removed. The piney woods of East Texas are a nightmare landscape where outcasts roam and dark forces are waiting to prey on the unwary.

If the Western is dead, it’s mutant offspring still roams the world like a drifting serial killer. Works like Blood Meridian¸ Little Big Man, and The Magic Wagon let the maniacs out of the cages and into our psyches.
-Dave Hardy


Tuesday, December 26, 2006

SERENITY
Dir. by Joss Whedon

The most awaited, most daring, most gripping science fiction film of 2005 featured a saber-wielding protector of the galaxy engaged in a duel with a renegade warrior that won’t just alter the balance of interstellar power, but will cost the loser his very soul. Oh yeah, and there was a Star Wars movie out too.

OK already! Stop with the hate mail. I LIKED Episode III, I just happen to think that Serenity should be recognized as a space opera of supreme drama and a political tract of remarkable insight.

The story picks up where Firefly (the tv series) left off. Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), the crusty war-vet is still leading his band of misfits across the ‘verse. Inara (Morena Baccarin) the companion he loved (though he could never admit it) has left as has Shepherd Book (Ron Glass). An increasingly irascible Mal is at odds with his crew. The focus of much angst is Simon and River Tam (Sean Maher and Summer Glau), on the lam since Simon liberated River from a secret government lab where experiments to turn her into a psychic killing machine rendered River quite insane.

The Feds are out to get River for good and they’ve put a nameless Operative (Chewitel Ejiofor) on her track. If that ain’t bad enough, the Reavers, cannibalistic, interstellar pirates are on the move, killing, raping, and eating their way ever deeper into the settled areas. The need to unearth the secret River holds in her damaged mind leads to a collision between all these forces.

Serenity is a marvelous mix of comedy and film noir wrapped up in a cotton candy confection of space opera. It also has the prime ingredient of science fiction: ideas. While Joss Whedon will not be winning any prizes for scientific extrapolation (I’m still not sure if his ships go faster than light or if lots of planets are really close together), Serenity does make some daring philosophical points. Only liberal Hollywood could produce a movie so steeped in conservatism. I found myself thinking of Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France and its intense distrust of plans to improve mankind's lot.

Mal is a man of the outer planets, backward, truculent, and ruggedly independent. The Operative is a duly appointed defender of the interstellar order, he carries out his orders without personal rancor or thought for advancement. Though he kills, it is with a detached compassion for his victims. He even sports a samurai sword for crying out loud. Just as the Jedi sprang from the Lensman, the Operative is a twisted Jedi, an assassin with a code. The Operative is the Hero of his story, alas his story is not the only one. Perhaps the most touching moment of the film is the scene where the Operative insists that his goal is nothing less than a Utopia. But it is a Utopia that he can never have a place in, for he is conscious that he has forfeited it by his deeds of blood. The Operative has an all-embracing vision of a perfected social order, an earthly paradise that is just a few corpses down the road.

Mal on the other hand shoots unarmed guys and doesn’t sweat it greatly. He is a smuggler, pirate, and hooligan. His loyalties don’t extend beyond his crew, their welfare is paramount. To Mal, ideology, social improvement, and apparently, law and order, are bunk. The inescapable fact that confronts the viewer of this tale is that a loser redneck outlaw is less of a threat to society than the monstrously arrogant experiments of the enlightened liberal establishment. The road to heaven travels through Stalin’s Gulags and Pol Pot’s killing fields. Mal is not battling an evil empire, rather it is a democratic order that has forgotten the basis of democracy in its willingness to boost man to perfection on a bayonet.

Serenity is a film to watch more than once. It’s non-stop thrilling action, superb ensemble acting and daring treatment of politics make it one of the finest films of 2005.
-Dave Hardy


Saturday, December 23, 2006

FIREFLY
Created by Joss Whedon

Relatively few people have seen one of the best science fiction tv series of the 21st century. It lasted half a season before FOX dropped it, if you blinked you most likely missed it. It was called Firefly and it took space opera places it hadn’t been in a while.

Joss Whedon created a genre-busting universe that mixed the hard-boiled with the comedic, the horse opera with the space opera, the heist story with cannibals from outer space. If they’d given Joss Whedon another season, he’d probably have thrown in Bollywood. The result is delirious fun that takes viewers from high drama to low comedy in a flash.

Earth-that-was is gone, mankind dwells on far-flung worlds scattered across the ‘verse. Those at the Core are sophisticated, prosperous, and powerful. Those at the edge are poor, backward, and weak. Things came to a head when the Alliance, the ruling system of the Core, imposed its rule on the Independents. A bloody war followed and the ‘verse came under the rule of the Alliance.

Some fellows never come home from war, one such is Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), a happy-go-lucky veteran with a dark side. He and his sister-in-arms, Zoe (Gina Torres) own the Serenity, a “Firefly-class” tramp freighter named for the war’s bloodiest battle. Their crew consists of Wash (Alan Tudyk), the pilot & Zoe’s hubby, Kaylee (Jewel Staite), the engineer, and Jayne (Adam Baldwin), a hired thug. Inara (Morena Baccarin) is a “companion”, a very high-class courtesan, who lives on the ship and transacts her business on the backwoods planets they visit.

And I do mean backwoods. Though man is capable of terraforming planets to create habits, most of them look like West Texas on a bad day. In effect the ‘verse is an ever expanding trailer park. The hill-billies that dwell on the outlying planets make Serenity’s crew of hicks and misfits look sophisticated. While Mal is a most charming space captain, he is also a smuggler and part-time pirate. He also runs a cruise line, although his clientele are more likely to be fugitives from justice than fugitives from The Love Boat.

The pilot begins when the Serenity takes on three passengers, Shepherd Book (actually a preacher, though sheep wouldn’t be out of line in this ‘verse), a young doctor named Simon Tam, and a nebbishy traveler. In short order the Shepherd (Ron Glass) turns out to have a wicked punch and a mysterious past, Simon (Sean Maher) is a fugitive with his sister (Summer Glau) in a box, and the traveler is a federal lawman. Mayhem and comedy ensue.

The doctor and his sister, Simon and River Tam, are the heart of the series. They are fugitives from the Alliance, which is sophisticated enough to perform gruesome experiments on River that turned her into a telepath while making her quite insane. The tension between Simon and River’s claim for sanctuary and Mal’s antagonism for outsiders drives the action forward. But make no mistake, every character is essential to the whole. Mal and Inara are in love but unable to admit it, so they trade jibes about petty crime and harlotry. Kaylee, a space engine genius and trailer park queen has a crush on Simon. He is too sophisticated and too obsessed with saving his sister to see love when is staring him in the face. Jayne ups the ante on Mal’s antipathy for the wealth and privilege he envies in Simon, and pushes it all the way to outright betrayal. Zoe is a calm counterpoint to Mal’s impulsiveness. Wash is the ship’s jester and Shepherd Book is its conscience.

In addition to refurbishing the Western via space opera (or is Whedon refurbishing space opera via the Western?), Joss Whedon has created a dark satire on class and politics. He has appropriated the mythic terrain of Star Trek, Huckleberry Finn, and Blood Meridian. Like Huck or the James Boys, Mal has lit out for the territories. Instead of Judge Holden or Apaches, he meets the Reavers, cannibal space pirates.

This mix and match kaleidoscope approach allows some amazing explorations of the expectations of genre. “Jaynestown” is about a backwoods hell-hole that just happens to think Jayne is a hero. The story is a comic deflation of Eric Hobsbawm’s “social bandit” thesis, a thesis that explains the appeal of stories such as Robin Hood or tv shows about charming space-outlaws. Many tv shows parody themselves, few do it so thoughtfully. “Ariel” is a classic heist story, one that could have come from W.R. Burnett or Jean Pierre Melville. The story questions the basis of honor among thieves, and rather than taking it as a given, explains why a man must live by a code. “Our Mrs. Reynolds” and “Trash” form a duo of tales about an interplanetary gold-digger who outwits the crew in a hilarious pair of stories of low cunning and high crime. The last episode, “Objects in Space” is a tour-de-force, the ship is boarded and seized by an off-kilter bounty-hunter named Jubal Early. Beautifully composed images form a perfect backdrop for a story where the villain and River fight a battle of wills and wits that is deeply revealing of character. TV drama does not get any better than “Objects in Space”.

This is one of the longest Fire and Sword reviews, and nonetheless I feel I have slighted this series. I watch these shows again and again because they are a textbook for creating characters that live and a world that is not just a tinsel and paint backdrop. The four DVD set comprises a mere thirteen episodes and a double length pilot. Three of the episodes were never aired and the pilot was shown only after the series was cancelled. While I certainly enjoyed the series when it was aired, I found my appreciation reached new heights when I could see it as an integral whole, each part related and forming a true series. One can only wonder at what heights it could have scaled had this series been given the chance it deserved. We are fortunate to have Serenity, the theatrical follow up, but the richness of the original series is unparalleled. It is a lush world of wonders I yearn to inhabit. On DVD, I still can.
-Dave Hardy


Friday, December 22, 2006

THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE
Dir. by John Huston

John Huston took an eccentric book by a reclusive German anarchist about prospectors, bandits, priests, Indians, and oil men and turned it into a very watchable Hollywood film. That Huston compromised enough of the story to make it filmable while keeping the central meaning of the film is no small achievement.

The premise of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is unchanged from B. Traven’s novel. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart at his most unshaven, un-sociable, ugly best) is a down on his luck oil field worker, reduced to panhandling. He meets Curtin (Tim Holt) when an unscrupulous boss tries to cheat them of their wages. The two men have had enough. They quit working in the oil fields and take up the suggestion of Howard (Walter Huston, John’s father) to go prospecting for a gold mine. They duly set off for the Sierra Madre and find their gold. Not without a lot of backbreaking labor and the attentions of bandits (Badges? We don’t got no badges! We don’t need no stinkin’ badges!). All that stuff is just the garnish on the plate though. The real menace is the corruption that comes of being a in a lonely place with men you have no deep personal loyalty to, while there is a massive amount of gold piling up.

All that is much as B. Traven wrote it. However, Huston (necessarily, I believe) cut certain things. Gone is B. Traven’s relentless anti-clericalism, gone too is the real sense of desperation and talk of Bolshevik revolution in the oil camps. The biggest loss though are the many parables told by Howard of the destructive power of greed and the Indians’ struggle to deal with the white man’s lust for the gold hidden in the mountains. While it was no doubt a sacrifice that had to be made to the gods of bringing in the film at an appropriate running time, the loss is not negligible. Howard’s little morality tales are what give Dobbs’ progression from a tough, brave, and hard-working man into a murdering brute a tragic dimension.

Huston was not a pantywaist who just couldn’t handle a bit of talk. In one impressive sequence where clever villagers trap some bandits in their lies, Huston shot the entire part in Spanish. Not a subtitle to be seen, but anyone who’s been paying attention will figure out what it means when the voices rise in angry denials and the Federale captain shouts, “Carguen! Apunten! Fuego!”

Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a classic adventure tale, but one that has dropped its ideological baggage along the way. That’s a pretty fair compromise for Hollywood, and Sierra Madre is deservedly considered a film classic.
-Dave Hardy


Thursday, December 21, 2006

THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE
By B. Traven

B. Traven? We don’t got no B. Traven! We don’t need no stinkin’ B. Traven! Which is perhaps apt of a novel overshadowed by its film adaptation and a novelist whose very identity is questioned.

Though it is better known as one of John Huston’s many films, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is B. Traven’s masterpiece adventure novel. B. Traven was a true mystery man, though scholars have linked him with the pseudonymous Ret Marut, a German anarchist who published a left-wing literary and political magazine during WWI. While Traven’s identification with Marut is questionable, they both shared far-left politics. Anarchist politics certainly infuse Sierra Madre.

The story begins in the oil-boom district around Tampico. An unemployed roughneck named Dobbs is enjoying anything but a boom. He is reduced to begging. When he can find employment he sleeps at a sort of hotel/barracks where men find a bed with a ragged blanket and an abundance of filth. After slaving for weeks on an oilrig, Dobbs and his pal Curtin are cheated of their pay. They are so broke they are willing to try anything, even gold mining.

This is the basis for the events that follow, Dobbs and Curtin, the oil roughnecks follow Howard, an old prospector, on a quest for a lost gold mine. Howard is no Pied Piper, he tells the younger men that gold mining offers only an adequate return of wealth in exchange it demands backbreaking labor that is too harsh for slaves. It will also demand a man’s very soul when he finds himself alone with his conscience and a whole lot of gold.

In many ways the novel is a series of parables. Howard relates stories to illustrate the pitfalls of wealth, beginning with the Catholic priests who ruthlessly exploited the Indians as slaves in the gold mines until the Indians rebelled and filled in the mine. Each of Howard’s stories follow the same pattern, someone thinks they have found what they desire in gold, only to discover they have lost their souls. The narration follows a similar pattern as Traven savagely attacks capitalism and the Church. The cruelty and greed of the clergy finds its hideous twin in the gang of bandits, ostensibly fighting to preserve religion under the republic, who mercilessly burn train passengers alive while shouting “Viva el Cristo rey!” Traven punctuates the atrocity by explaining that the men had learned the true meaning of religion from the brutal stories of martyrdom that the priests used to underline the power of the Inquisition. In Traven’s view, the cross is a sign of what the Church does to those who challenge its power.

Though not an overly artful story, Sierra Madre is not a work of socialist realism. It is an idiosyncratic work of propaganda, but with a respect for the demands of art. The adventure novel genre tends not to spend too much time thinking about the world it exists in (hence reams of self-righteous post-modern literary criticism on Edgar Rice Burroughs and Rider Haggard). In fact some would say it is the fantasyland of imperialism. While Sierra Madre may not be as thrilling a yarn as Princess of Mars, anarchists can claim a very respectable adventure novelist in B. Traven.
-Dave Hardy

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

BLOOD MERIDIAN OR THE EVENING REDNESS IN THE WEST
By Cormac McCarthy

More than one Western writer diagnosed the collapse of the genre as the effect of too many stories based on formula plots and mindless bloodletting. Others thought there wasn’t enough mindless bloodletting. Long after the river of ink dried up, Cormac McCarthy dynamited the dam and let loose a blood-red flood.

Blood Meridian follows a nameless boy who drifts from Tennessee down to Texas in 1847, the journey is described in a vignette that foreshadows the explosion of murder that will follow. In a tent revival in Nacogdoches the Kid meets Judge Holden, a huge, hairless man of immense erudition and mercurial disposition. When the Kid gets down to San Antonio he falls among the would-be adventurers who swarmed along the border in the 1850s. The Kid rejoins the Judge, now aligned with Glanton, the chief of a gang of scalp-hunters paid by the Mexican government to kill hostile Indians.

The narrative propels the Kid into a maelstrom of bloodshed, rape, murder, and mutilation become the norm when man meets his fellow man in the wastelands south of the border. The obscene atrocities perpetrated by the Apaches on Mexicans are matched and exceeded by the savagery of the scalp hunters. Blood Meridian hovers on the edge of the surreal, as sardonic dialog moves alongside raw bloodlust. Once you’ve seen “Ft. Smith Arkansas” in the same sentence as “congress with a goat”, it just seems natural. Just as a bush hung with dead babies becomes natural. The horror is heightened for readers who are aware that by and large the crimes described are taken directly from actual events. McCarthy has added the sinister figure of the Judge, to bear witness to man’s inner core of evil and let the guilty condemn themselves with their own tongues.

As the Western faded into the sunset, the last refuge of sentimentalists yearning for a past of tradition and Christian values that never was, one writer was willing to look at just how truly Satanic the frontier was.
-Dave Hardy

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

RED RIVER
Dir. by Howard Hawks

In 1948 Howard Hawks cast a little-known Broadway actor opposite John Wayne in a hard-boiled Western about a grueling cattle drive. The young man was Montgomery Clift, and his astonishing charisma was never shown to better effect.

The story is about Tom Dunson (Wayne) and his pal Groot Nadine (Walter Brennan in high mush-mouth sidekick glory). When Dunson leaves his love behind on a wagon train to settle new land in Texas, he didn’t expect the train to be wiped out by hostile Indians in hours. Instead of returning to find his love, he adopts a boy orphaned by the battle, Matt Garth (Clift). Dunson seizes his ranchland from Mexican hacenderos and Indians and builds a cattle empire. But in the process he becomes a man driven by an inner demon of stubbornness that will neither admit defeat or a mistake.

In the aftermath of the Civil War Texas ranchers found themselves with too much cattle and not enough buyers. They needed to re-establish their markets at out-of-state railheads. Accordingly Dunson and Garth set out to drive a massive herd (built with casual disregard of actual ownership of the cattle) to Sedalia, Missouri. They just have to cross a thousand miles and run the gauntlet of hostile Indians and vicious border ruffians.

What follows is a cowboy version of the HMS Bounty, with Dunson as Bligh and Garth as Mr. Christian. A wagon train of gamblers and “dance-hall girls” provides a prairie-bound Tahiti. Hawks keeps the sentimentality to a minimum, though occasionally his hard-boiled homage gets a bit ludicrous. The scene where Clift and Joanne Dru trade Bogey & Bacall-style snappy comebacks in the middle of an Indian attack is rather over the top.

Despite such deviations, including an ending that is far more optimistic than events warrant, Red River stands as a landmark of classic Western filmmaking, beyond formula sentimentality but not quite a revisionist rejection of the past. It is a masterpiece that surpasses its flaws.
-Dave Hardy


Monday, December 18, 2006

THE SEARCHERS
Dir. by John Ford

The Searchers is perhaps John Ford’s masterpiece among Westerns. It is a landmark among classic Westerns, standing in sharp contrast to the high points of the revisionist era such as Little Big Man. It is also one of, if not the greatest role by John Wayne. The cast was one of the best assembled for a Western, and there are magnificent performances by Jeffrey Hunter, Natalie Wood, Ward Bond, Harry Carry, Hank Worden, and Vera Miles among others.

The story concerns Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), an un-Reconstructed Reb who returns to visit his brother in Texas. While Ethan has been busy acquiring newly-minted double eagles from an un-named source, Aaron Edwards (Walter Coy) is busy raising a family on the West Texas frontier. Living with the Edwards family is Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter, know to SF fans as Capt. Pike of the Starship Enterprise). Martin is an orphan, his family was massacred by Indians and he was the sole survivor. Ethan was the man who found Martin (an echo of Tom Dunson’s relationship with Matt Garth in Red River).

Ethan’s re-entry to domesticity from the cauldron of war and banditry is short-lived. While he and Martin join a group of Rangers on a scout, Comanche raiders led by Scar (Harry Brandon) attack the Edwards cabin and kill the adults and carry off the girls. Ethan and Martin begin a search of epic proportions to find Debbie (played by Lana and Debbie Wood as a girl and young woman), the youngest child.

The Searchers is not exactly a sentimental film about getting a lost child home. Rather it is a story of how racism poisons that sentimental attachment to family. For Ethan comes to realize that Debbie will no longer be a child when they find her, she will be a woman. Moreover, she will be the bride of a hostile Comanche warrior. The same as the warriors who raped and murdered her older sister. Ethan is caught in a terrible moral trap, guilt for failing to save his family compels him to search for the lost girl. The same guilt commands that he kill her as an irredeemably tainted race traitor.

Martin is at least as driven to follow Ethan on his demented quest. He too is driven by guilt and terrible memories. He is as much Ethan’s rival as he is his helper. Ethan repeated makes it clear that Martin is no kin to Debbie or any Edwards. Yet Martin knows better. He turns his back on a happy life to follow Ethan, martyring himself paradoxically because he cannot become a tormented soul or an indifferent one.

The racism of the film’s characters stands out, arguably by design. Ethan introduces Martin by contemptuously referring to him as a half-breed of Cherokee ancestry. Laurie (Vera Miles), Martin’s love, demands to know why he should sacrifice so much for Debbie, who is no longer white, but has been, “sold and sold again to the highest bidder,” as though to be a Comanche captive is to be a whore. Cavalry officers dismiss the deaths of white captives in an attack as better off dead. However, for all that the film probably tones down white hatred of Indians and the racism of the era. Still, Ford was bold enough not to eliminate it. The Searchers is not a whitewash.

Ford shows us why the white settlers would hate and fear Indians, but provides hints about why the Indians would hate and fear whites. Scar’s own sons were killed by whites. We see a young woman’s body (Wild Goose, played by Beulah Archuletta), after the cavalry has stormed her village. Martin asks what did she do to deserve that. While The Searchers does not provide nearly as much from the Indian point of view as it does from that of the whites, it is there.

The elephant in the corner is the attitude of Debbie to the idea of “rescue”. While Debbie is portrayed as a rational young woman, other white captives seem demented, broken by the horrors of captivity. The problem is that by-and-large that simply wasn’t the case. The Comanches were apt to rape, mutilate, and murder adult women they took as prisoner. But children were raised as part of there families. Even older children were shown tenderness and could identify with people who were not some much alien captors as adoptive parents.

If anything, it was white culture that enslaved and broke the spirits of “redeemed captives”. The records show that people like Cynthia Ann and John Parker, Herman Lehman, Clint and Jeff Smith, and Adolf Korn suffered terrible pain from the loss of their Comanche families and faced great difficulty in adapting to white society. Some never did. What future would Debbie Edwards face? What would she have said to Ethan and Martin, alienated kinsmen, who were warriors of the hostile Texans bent on exterminating her people?

As much as anything else, the open ended nature of these questions, ones that The Searchers raises but can not answer, make this a film that you can watch again and again.
-Dave Hardy


Sunday, December 17, 2006

THE CAPTURED
By Scott Zesch

As a youngster, Scott Zesch heard tales of Adolf Korn, his great-uncle. Adolf Korn would have been little different from other German youngsters in Texas, except that one day in 1870, Indian raiders carried him off. Eventually he returned to his white family, but he was a very different young man.

In searching for this ancestor who had been lost to his family, Zesch began following the trails of other white captives from Central Texas. He recounts, sometimes in horrifying detail, what Indian raids were like. But this is no “the only good injun is a dead injun” book. Because Zesch found that almost all captives came to prefer Indian life. Zesch offers some cautious hypotheses as to why these children (always children, adults fared badly at the hands of the Comanche and Apache raiders) identified so strongly with an alien culture that had forcibly abducted them. After considering the impressionability of childhood and the “Stockholm Syndrome” (where hostages come to identify with captors), Zesch returns to a simple thesis: Indian life offered a simplicity, ease, and freedom that the lives of hardscrabble settlers on the Texas frontier could not match.

The Captured compares the lives of Herman Lehmann, Clinton and Jeff Smith, Rudolf Fischer and many other white children who were abducted by Indians. Zesch offers us many insights into their lives as well as the lives of those they left behind and the life they adopted. They experienced Indian life in its last years of freedom before buffalo hunters destroyed the Indians’ livelihood and the US Army destroyed their people. Zesch’s accounts of Comanche and Apache raids find grim echoes in his description of Army attacks on Indian villages.

Eventually all the captives returned to their white families, at least for a time. But they all felt the pull of Indian life strongly. They had trouble adjusting to white life, they had learned to conform with Indian ways, easy-going and free. Some returned immediately to the reservation. Rudolf Fischer reluctantly visited his biological family, and shortly returned to his Comanche wife. Others stayed in Texas and even achieved a level of fame (both Herman Lehmann and Clinton Smith wrote autobiographies). Some, like Adolf Korn, withdrew from society altogether.

The Captured is a fascinating study, not just of a critical period in the history of Texas (and America), but also a window on the creation of character and personality when cultures clash inside a single person.
-Dave Hardy


Saturday, December 16, 2006

THE BOY CAPTIVES
By Clinton L. Smith

Clinton and Jeff Smith had their lives irrevocably changed on February 26, 1871. They were captured by Apache raiders. What began as a terrifying experience ended up with the boys becoming Indians themselves. The lads were split up, Jeff went to the Apache and was adopted by Geronimo while Clint became a Comanche.

Like many other children captured by the Comanche, Clint was adopted into the tribe. After an initial testing period he was treated no differently from other Comanche boys and expected in time to become a full-fledged warrior. The objective in taking captives, besides the possibility of ransom, was to bring fresh blood into the tribe and replace numbers decimated by war and disease. Clinton Smith lived alongside Adolf Korn, a German boy who had been captured and adopted. Many other Germans, Americans, and Mexicans became Comanches in this way. The Comanches’ greatest chief Quanah, was the son of Cynthia Ann Parker, a captive/adoptee who was related to one of Texas’ most prominent families.

Clinton Smith recounts Comanche raids for livestock and sometimes for bloodshed. He became fiercely attached to the Comanche point of view, a feeling reinforced when the 4th cavalry attacked the camp he lived in. As result of Comanche reverses, they were forced to send Clinton Smith back to his family. His brother was captured by Mexican bandits, who shortly returned him for a reward. They became cowboys and managed to re-adapt themselves to white society.

The Boy Captives tells about Clinton smith’s coming of age at a critical time in Texas history. It is a remarkable recounting of both sides of the bloody war that ended the Comanches’ way of life, as such if you are interested in how Texas came to be it is essential reading.
-Dave Hardy


Friday, December 15, 2006

ADVENTUROUS LIVES

I’m out of Tarzan material for the moment, so I’d like to build on my earlier review of The White Headhunter. James Renton crossed the boundary from the rough, but relatively domesticated world of Western civilization to life as a tribal warrior in the Solomon Islands. Quite a few other people made the same trip. Here in Texas it was often children who were captured and adopted by Indians such as the Apache or Comanche. Some of these captive/adoptees left memoirs. Hence my review of Nine Years Among the Indians.

The image of a ordinary young person from the prosaic domesticated world of frontier farms and whaling ships (ok, it seems pretty wild compared to OUR era, but no doubt seemed ordinary at the time) entering into the heroic, individualistic life of a tribal warrior demands attention. Arguably, that fascination with the idea of the primitive (as distinct from the reality of tribal life, let me be clear) informs quite a bit of adventure fiction and especially sword and sorcery. So why not explore the reality of that world? It's as fascinating as anything you'd read in Thrilling Jungle Tales.

FLASHSHOT

You can still sign up for Flashshot in time to get my forthcoming micro-fiction. "A Visit to the Caucasus, 1839" will be e-mailed on Monday the 18th. For details go to http://www.gwthomas.org/subscribe.htm.

-Dave Hardy
NINE YEARS AMONG THE INDIANS 1870-1879
By Herman Lehmann


Herman Lehmann was an ordinary German boy living on the Texas frontier in 1870. Then Apache raiders carried him and his brother Willie off. Willie escaped, but Herman did not get away from his captors. When he returned, Herman was no longer a captive of the Indians, he was a captive of the whites.

Lehmann (and probably his editor J. Marvin Hunter) had a gift for narrative. Lehman recalls his capture in vivid detail. Fear of the strange Apaches, the pain of being tied to a horse and driven across miles of open prairie, and the disgust at what Apaches ate on the trail are all rendered in intense detail. He describes how the Apaches killed a calf and ate the contents of its stomach with relish. They forced some on Lehman, who vomited.

But in this unorthodox coming of age story, the Apaches become Herman’s family and tribe. They are the people that raised him and that he came to love. The boy grows to be a warrior, inured to hardship, intense exertion, and warfare. Lehman even echoes the scene of eating the contents of a calf’s stomach, but this time he recalls it as a special feast!

This book is not for the faint of heart. There is no romanticizing of Indian life in Nine Years. Lehman recounts Indians raids in horrific detail, less as cattle lifting trips than as murder excursions. But he never backs down from his commitment to the Indian point of view. Lehman’s apology is simple and to the point: the Apaches and Comanches were fighting for their land and survival. He tells readers enough of the horrors that occurred when the U.S. Army raided an Apache camp to show what defeat meant for them.

Lehman was eventually forced to flee the Apache due to a feud. He was adopted by the Comanche and became a close friend of Quanah Parker (himself of white captive descent). After the defeat of the Comanche Lehman returned “home” and embittered warrior, a patriot of a lost nation forced to live among his enemies. His transition to white life was not easy, but he achieved a celebrity status of sorts when he embraced his white Indian status and in turn Texans came to embrace him. Nine Years Among the Indians is a unique testament from a critical time of the Texas frontier and deserves to be embraced by new generations of Texans.
-Dave Hardy

Thursday, December 14, 2006

TARZAN THE LOST ADVENTURE
By Edgar Rice Burroughs and Joe R. Lansdale

ERB was a thorough writer. He left behind little in the way of unfinished manuscripts, but he did leave one. In 1995 Joe Lansdale turned that partially completed tale into a full novel. The result is perhaps more Lansdale than Burroughs, something that may grieve some, but frankly I find Lansdlae’s contributions highly entertaining.

While I am not normally a fan of pastiches, I liked Tarzan The Lost Adventure. I’ve got admit up front that I’m more of a Lansdale fan than an ERB fan. So reading a Tarzan tale told with the distinctive Texas twang of Lansdale is my idea of a good time.

Lansdale’s Tarzan is a man sick of civilization, but unable to completely distance himself from it. Like a gunfighter who’s outlived the wildness of the West, Tarzan is just a bit unsure of himself. Not too unsure of himself though, give him a Cape Buffalo to wrestle or some bad guys to liquidate and he is in top form.

Prof. Hanson of the University of Texas is looking for anthropoid apes and a lost city in the jungle. He is accompanied by his daughter Jean and has a supporting expedition led by a pair of bumbling grad students. But also on the trail are a band of murderous cutthroats, deserters from the Foreign Legion. The jungle holds even greater dangers than outlaws.

This supporting cast is well developed. The outlaws and the bearers are men with personalities, not just extras around to hold a gun or tote a box. Tarzan is not the only character to show heroism, the spear bearers can rise to the occasion as well. Tarzan’s animal comrades Jad-bal-ja the lion and Nkima the monkey are essential parts of the tale.

The Lost Adventure is a bit of a curio cabinet of Texana and even martial arts oddities. It is also a rich field for the Texas banter that Lansdale writes with such verve.

Hunt said, “You speak to lions and monkeys?”
“Yes,” Tarzan said. “I find they have to be spoken to. Neither can read notes.”

Or:

“Have it your way, Bwana,” Billy said. “But I tell you this. Lots of wind. Lots of rain. Whip you to pieces. Twist you like rope, tie you in a knot. Throw stuff the wind whip does. Throws straw through trees. Makes elephant and hippo cower in fear. Not make Billy feel all so good neither.”

Some reviewers have focussed on Lansdale’s ending and plot points that were not resolved satisfactorily. Perhaps, but for me the fast-paced sweep of the story kept me hooked till the end. Now if there is never another Tarzan sequel ever written by anybody, I won’t feel cheated. ERB said plenty with his character, and he said it well without the need of any help. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t thoroughly enjoy this one time Joe Lansdale told a Tarzan story.
-Dave Hardy


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

TARZAN THE APE MAN
Dir. by W.S. van Dyke

While it was not the first Tarzan movie, the 1932 film featuring Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan is the definitive one.

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ vision of his ape-man was a sharply defined one: he was a scion of English nobility, reared by apes and possessed of their savage ferocity, but tempered with the cunning of a high intellect. He was also a cultivated gentleman who taught himself to read with a picture dictionary and spoke English, French, and whatever native dialects the plot called for.

MGM didn’t give a bankruptcy lawyer’s butt about all that. They found the best-looking athlete they could. To avoid the obvious problem that he wasn’t really an actor they didn’t give him any lines. For Jane they got a young Irish actress who was gorgeous and let you know she could handle angry hippos, hostile pygmies, and amorous ape-man. The result wasn’t ERB’s Tarzan but it was silver-screen history.

Jane Parker (Maureen O’Sullivan)arrives in Africa to meet her father at his trading post. Along with his handsome assistant Harry (Niel Hamilton), Old Parker (C. Aubrey Smith) is about to set off to find the fabled Elephant’s Graveyard. But on the way they encounter hostile natives and a strange white man living with the apes. That white man is none other than Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) who abruptly departs with the beautiful Jane.

Jungle romance blossoms, but not until after Jane narrowly averts a Fate Worse than Death (a common problem for ERB heroines, though usually at the hands of a villain, the script here is honest enough to admit that a chap raised by apes might need a bit of sorting out in the gentlemanliness line). She is restored to her folks after the loutish Harry pots Tarzan’s step-sister (she’s an ape, but still kin).

The expedition survives some brutal attacks by Tarzan (an echo of his long war with the Gomangani depicted in Tarzan of the Apes and Jungle Tales of Tarzan). Things really get hot when the explorers are captured by pygmies (“Are they pygmies?” asks Jane. “No, they’re dwarves.” Replies the insightful Harry). Only Tarzan, who must balance his hate for the intruders against his love for Jane can save the day.

This is the stuff of a boy’s Saturday afternoon dreams. By modern standards the film is pretty much politically incorrect, but it’s a waste of time trying to sort out the irreductablility of the privileged gaze from the Center on the (re)colonized Other of the subject(ified) periphery in a discourse that privileges the, oh never mind. It’s got charging elephants! And a gorilla! And Tarzan saying, “Tarzan! Jane! Tarzan! Jane!” What more can you ask for?
-Dave Hardy


Tuesday, December 12, 2006

JUNGLE TALES OF TARZAN
By Edgar Rice Burroughs

Everybody’s favorite jungle boy wasn’t always an elegant English earl. In fact, in his younger days he was pretty much a wild man, frankly he was a real animal. I suppose that’s how it is when you live with a bunch of apes.

Jungle Tales of Tarzan details Tarzan’s youthful exploits in the jungles of Africa. He learns about love and wonders why every animal has a mate except him. He develops his own religion with ideas about God and what kind of animal the moon is. Tarzan analyzes himself as a Mangani, an ape, that is a person without qualifications, in relation to the Gomangani, the black people, and the Tarmangani, the white people of his imagination. And he has rip-roaring battles with ferocious beasts: lions, hyenas, leopards, and enraged bull apes.

Tarzan has quite a few battles with the jungle’s most dangerous beast: man. This is where the Tarzan tales hit the pavement of the 21st century. Modern readers may find Tarzan’s almost psychopathic savagery toward the Gomangani to be a bit difficult to swallow. Sure, Tarzan adopts a black boy for a while. The adoption is more like a prolonged kidnapping with the poor kid’s terrified reaction formally laid out by ERB, in an ironic counterpoint to Tarzan’s enthusiastic attempt at building a multi-racial (technically inter-species, Tarzan is an APE by adoption) family. But ERB also drops enough lines about the innate inferiority of blacks to make this an uncomfortable read. The irony is that I read it directly after The Sky and the Forest and I found Burroughs’ African to be more fully-realized characters than Forester’s. ERB credits his Africans with abstract thinking!

Anyway, I really don’t want to sound like a pompous, white, 21st century liberal scoring easy points off ERB. The fact is he was a master of fast-paced action, capable of a bit of deft characterization and even a bit of irony at the expense of his most famous character. I’ll leave a larger discussion of racism in pulp-fiction to others more qualified than myself. But I’d be dishonest if I didn’t say that 21st century readers are likely to find the racial attitude unpleasing. Just call me a Tarmangani for reconciliation.
-Dave Hardy


Monday, December 11, 2006

FLASHSHOT

I have some good news and bad news regarding some projects.

The good news is about Flashshot. Flashshot is micro-fiction delivered daily through your email. When I say micro, I mean it. All stories are one hundred words or less. The tale might be a joke, an anecdote, a prose poem, or a 100-word epic about the rise and fall of galactic civilization. There are werewolves, housewives, hard-boiled PIs, lovers, and aliens in these tiny tales. It is the perfect complement to your morning routine.

I have three little tales that I call the “Heads Up Trilogy” coming out. On Dec 18th you’ll receive “A Visit to the Caucasus, 1839”. On Jan 14th “Did We Budget for Two?” is up and on Jan 29th “Professional Rivalry” comes out. For the full listing of stories and authors go to: http://www.gwthomas.org/schedule.htm.

To sign up just send an e-mail asking to subscribe. The contact info is at: http://www.gwthomas.org/subscribe.htm

General info about submissions is at: http://www.gwthomas.org/flashshotindex.htm

On a sad note, RAGEMachine Books, is defunct (see the note at http://www.gwthomas.org, which is stilla ctive and chock full of interesting stuff). I’m very proud of my association with G.W. Thomas. He will continue with his many informational websites and I look forward to seeing his excellent fiction in new markets. Thanks for all the support and good luck Gary!
TARZAN FOREVER
By John Taliaferro

If there was one guy who could claim to have single-handedly invented pulp fiction it is Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose fictional creations have dominated the daydreams of generations of boys since 1913. John Taliaferro sets out to tell the story of the man behind Tarzan, John Carter, Carson Napier, Davis Innes, and a host of daring heroes in all the remotest places of the Earth and beyond.

Taliaferro balances his view of ERB the man with ERB the writer. But both are weighed against ERB the businessman. Talliaferro notes that ERB’s first book, A Princess of Mars, was written mostly as a release from the boredom of life as an unsuccessful businessman. But ERB was always cognizant that writing was a paying proposition. While ERB was a pretty good businessman for a writer, he was perhaps not a very good businessman overall.

Taliaferro depicts a man that is something of a prisoner of his own success. Having adopted a lifestyle that required a high cash flow ERB was forced to write quickly and stick to characters that would sell. ERB had little time to spend on polishing his work and developing new skills as a writer. When new characters and attempts at new genres didn’t pan out, ERB returned to writing Tarzan to make sales. The result was a body of work that started out as ground-breaking, but ended up by becoming repetitious.

ERB pioneered marketing a character with promotional tie-ins. In way that has become the norm now, the name of Tarzan appeared on toys, clothing, ice-cream, and even gasoline.

Some may find Taliaferro’s literary criticism heavy-handed. If ERB’s series tended to become repetitious, he worked earnestly to create new characters and to broaden his fictional horizons. ERB even dabbled in metafictional conceits such as having Tarzan confront his own movie popularity. Admittedly, Taliaferro chalks this up to an urge to get even with movie-makers that ERB felt hadn’t done justice to his creation. Still, the very notion of a fictional character observing himself translated into film is practically a post-modern novelist’s dream (are your listening Umberto Eco?).

Even more controversial will be Taliaferro on the racist themes and pro-eugenics propaganda that he finds in ERB’s work. While it would be foolish to deny that ERB would have benefited from a more relaxed perspective, readers may wish to make up their own minds on the subject.

Tarzan Forever is probably not the definitive biography of ERB, but its good enough to make its subject come alive and get the pulse pounding at the thought of reading some of those grand old adventure yarns that have held the imagination for decades.
-Dave Hardy


Sunday, December 10, 2006

THE WHITE HEADHUNTER
By Nigel Rendell

They say truth is stranger than fiction. It is also more depressing. Nigel Rendell tells the tale of castaway James Renton and how white civilization more-or-less steamrollered the native cultures of the Pacific. His research unites written accounts of sailors and officials with oral traditions from remote islands as well as some startling forensic evidence of headhunting.

James Renton was a young sailor from Scotland. In 1868 he and a several companions deserted the vessel they were sailing on. Desertion from sailing vessels was not uncommon in those days. Doing it in the middle of the Pacific was. Renton and his companions endured a hellish open-boat voyage of over a month. Near death they eventually made landfall on Malaita, one of the Solomon Islands. It was the one that was regarded as the least friendly to white sailors.

Renton was “adopted” into a local tribe, though his father Kabou had actually bought him as an investment. It seems the last time white men had come ashore the locals had massacred them all, but spared one who turned out to be a highly skilled carpenter. They were hoping for big things from the new one. The islanders got them. Through a series of misunderstandings Renton was hailed as a fire-eating killer. Having little choice, he played to the role. Renton formed an alliance with a warrior called Kwaisulia. He was a sort of local Achilles, a hired gun who took the lead in battle. Together the castaway and the Stone Age samurai so improved tactics that soon Kabou’s clan achieved a dominating role on Malaita.

This dominance was challenged by Renton’s “rescue” by a recruiting ship. Australia needed cheap labor and it was looking to the islands. The “blackbirders” often filled this need by kidnapping the natives, though efforts were made to regulate recruiting. In exchange for three years labor, the recruiters paid in axes, calicos, beads, tobacco, and above all in guns. The labor market was literally an arms race. Kwaisulia used his time in Australia to develop a program that turned him from a tribal warrior to a leading politician who dominated Malaita and neighboring islands by force of his strategic alliances and well-stocked arsenal.

Rendell paints a vivid picture of the Pacific in the era of contact and acculturation to colonialism. The story is tremendously complex, encompassing the creation of artificial islets on the coast of Malaita, the role of cannibalism, and the role of slavery. Rendell had been shanghaied, literally kidnapped and enslaved aboard the vessel he sailed on. In escaping, he nearly became a cannibal. He owed his survival to finding people who were regarded as cannibals (though the Malaitans were not, plenty of islanders were cannibals). The Malaitans didn’t eat him, but they did enslave him. The recruiters who Renton and Kwasulia were so involved with encompassed a large number of slavers, who in turn were believed to be cannibals (they took people from the islands, what else for but to eat?).

Rendell and Kwaisulia went their separate ways, the one to a career attempting to regulate the recruiting business, the other to exploit it to maintain his people’s (and his own) traditions and power. In both cases the attempt was doomed. Diseases from the white population devastated the islands on an apocalyptic scale. Missionaries worked hard to polish off native culture (and incidentally facilitated the spread of epidemics).

If I have one quibble with The White Headhunter it is with Rendall’s grammar. I often found myself losing track of what his pronouns referred to. Well, I often get similar complaints, so let it pass.

Grammatical issues aside, I heartily recommend The White Headhunter. It is a vivid depiction of the passing of the Pacific Islanders independence. Filled with colorful detail and vivid characters, it gives the Pacific frontier dimensions of tragedy and nobility. The story of those days is as wild and wooly as the settling of the American West.
-Dave Hardy


Saturday, December 09, 2006

THE SKY AND THE FOREST
By C.S. Forester

Once everything was right with the world, everyone knew their place, and there was broad agreement about how things should be. People had their problems for sure, but they were nothing unusual, they just come with the territory. Then some outsiders show up and turn it all upside down. White is black and black is white. The secure is filled with danger and only the unknown offers hope. Some days are like that.

The Sky and the Forest is about one of those days and the events that follow it. Loa is the chief of a remote village in central Africa. He is a god to his people, he has the power of life and death over them. Any woman he pleases may be his bride, though Musini has the privilege of being the mother of Loa’s son, Lanu. His people are cheerful cannibals who eat anyone unfortunate enough to fall into their hands. Then one day his village is attacked by Arab slave raiders. Loa is forcefully thrust into a new world full of pain and degradation. His escape and trek home provide him with insight into the world at large. The new life he builds for his people is living on borrowed time. The era of European colonization has begun and Loa’s people will see the world change yet again.

Forester makes a scathing indictment of colonialism and a defense, of sorts, of tribal, pre-modern life. As brutal as Loa’s people can be, they are pretty much angels compared to the Arabs and the Europeans. It is their fate to learn one stage of human conflict only to confront people who have mastered the subsequent levels of ruthless warfare.

The problem, and it is a big one, is that as a reader I just don’t buy Forester’s depiction of the African savages. Maybe I’m not versed enough in African anthropology, but the records of explorers I’ve read suggest that African natives weren’t unduly hostile to travelers. Maybe the Central African jungle really does impose isolation, but I find it hard to swallow that a village near a river had no concept of boats or even fishes. Or that they had no contact with any of their neighbors, except to eat them. Forester is at some pains to point out that Loa is a man unaccustomed to logical thinking, one who never had to use his imagination, and his language is clumsy and lacks the vocabulary to express abstract thought. Nonetheless, this big, deified tard becomes a great leader of men. My guess is that primitive people in remote places use their environment to the fullest. They may not have words for compound interest, jihad, genocide, post-modern inter-textual discourse, or fair and balanced news, but just the same I would bet African languages can express many complex moral and spiritual ideas.

While I am a fan of Forester, The Sky and the Forest was a disappointment. The story line of survival and rescue is a strong one, but undermined by a picture of native Africans I can’t help but see as distorted and untrue. For straight up na├»ve jungle-adventure I’d recommend Tarzan, for a story of how the world changed overnight in a vast region of the world, read The White Headhunter.
-Dave Hardy


DEATH TO THE FRENCH
By C.S. Forester

No, it’s not about a U.S. Congressman’s heroic stand to liberate the Middle East with Freedom Fries. Instead it’s a wholesome tale of how a foreign fighter joins a group of religious zealots opposing international forces that have come to liberate their country from a backward and repressive regime. It is of course about the high-tide of Napoleon’s invasion of the Iberian Peninsula.

If the title seems a bit over the top, don’t blame Walter Jones. In fact this is the British title (big surprise), in America it was called Rifleman Dodd. The titular Dodd is a member of the elite British Rifle Brigade. These men were specialists, trained to be expert marksmen with a rifle. Their skills made them useful as skirmishers and scouts. When Dodd is cut off by an entire French army he joins a band of Portuguese guerillas looking to get revenge against he French for the rapes and murders of innocent civilians. The intimate knowledge of the land coupled with Dodd’s fighting skills make the band a devastating threat to the French.

The story also follows the fortunes of a band of French recruits pitched into the meat-grinder of guerilla war. The increasingly brutalized men find themselves in an almost personal duel with Dodd. The Portuguese countryside becomes a land of terror where men can even credit the supernatural with taking a hand in the bloody warfare.

This is a violent, dark story. It is warfare at its starkest and most merciless. Dodd is something of an unstoppable force, though the price he extracts from his Portuguese comrades is a steep one. It’s a very short novel (a quality I heartily commend) that builds to a climax where the grotesque absurdity of war stands revealed. As a classic tale of Napoleonic warfare originally penned in 1933, it stands up well today. It’s the kind of story we ignore at our peril.
-Dave Hardy


Friday, December 08, 2006

MASTER AND COMMANDER
By Patrick O’Brian

I think few writers would have chosen to start a novel about war at sea in the Napoleonic era with a scene about two guys who get on each others’ nerves during the performance of a string quartet. That’s exactly where Patrick O’Brian planted Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, tow of the oddest action heroes to come down the pike.

Aubrey is a regulation English sea-captain, bluff, bold, and hearty. Even so, he has a hidden streak of self-doubt, but not too much. Though he is a most discerning seafarer, Aubrey is charmingly oblivious to anyone who is not a sailor under his command.

Maturin is even more self-centered than Aubrey, but also self-reflective enough to admit it. He is an ignoramus at sea, and plays the part of the landsman who asks the questions the reader needs answered. In other respects Maturin has a scientist’s eye for exacting detail. His introduction to the world of an armed sloop in the service of His Majesty the King is a daft variation on the participant-observer process of an anthropologist. O’Brian’s pairing of Aubrey and Maturin is the damnedest thing since Oscar and Felix got an apartment together.

Because you must understand that O’Brian turns the conventions of the action tale upside down. This is a novel about a friendship between two unlike men under very unusual circumstances. The circumstances are Aubrey’s promotion to commander of a sloop of war based in the Mediterranean and Maturin’s recruitment as ship’s doctor (not, let it be noted, a surgeon who is, in British usage, a very inferior creature). Aubrey has a simple imperative, keep his crew and ship happy and seaworthy so he can capture lots of enemy vessels that he’ll get paid for (in those days being a naval officer was a little like piracy, you got a share of the loot). Maturin has to adapt himself to his role as lynchpin of morale. It’s not an easy task when Aubrey’s lieutenant is an old friend of Maturin who just happens to know him from their days as Irish nationalist revolutionaries.

The battles at sea are pretty thrilling here, but O’Brian knows that war is mostly sitting around (or sailing) getting ready and then waiting for a battle. O’Brian fills the space with odd vignettes, peculiar characters, and conversation. You’ll learn what a loblolly boy is and how a sin-eater may perform that role. We get exchanges between exiled Irishmen like this:

He is an ill-looking fellow, with a sly, Castle-informer look on his face. And the character of an informer is more despised in our country than in any other, is it not? Rightly so, in my opinion. Though, indeed, the creatures swarm there.

This is adventure for the thinking man. It’s a blazing war-story filled with quirky characters who exist in a fully-realized 19th century world. Read Master and Commander and you’ll see why it is one of the most popular series of sea-stories ever written.
-Dave Hardy


Thursday, December 07, 2006

SHIP OF THE LINE
By C.S. Forester

Before there was an Aubrey and Maturin swanning about the seven seas, we had to rely on Horatio Hornblower to keep old Boney at bay across the Channel. It was a tough job, but someone had to do. Lucky for us, we had C.S. Forester to tell us all about it.

Ship of the Line is the sixth of the Hornblower books. Hornblower is a mature man, a post captain of some seniority and considerable experience of war. Hornblower has just received command of the Sutherland, a 74-gun ship of the line. It is the cutting edge of naval warfare technology. With over 30 guns on a side firing shot at 18 pounds and up, it can blast nearly a ton of metal through an enemy vessel. Hornblower is at the helm of a snarling tiger of the sea, ready to rip the frog-eaters a new one.

All he has to do is get a crew, supplies, permission from his superiors to cruise independently, and to find some Frenchies. In many respects Forester was less interested in Hornblower’s battles than his reaction to him. There are plenty of battles in Ship of the Line, but this is foremost a character study. While Hornblower works out his responses to a variety of naval warfare situations: training a crew of landsmen mostly recruited from jails or pressed off the street, protecting a convoy from fast sailing privateers, capturing prizes, collaborating with Spanish guerillas, or using naval gunfire to attack ground troops. All of these eventually build to a climactic ending and an unusual resolution that leads to the seventh Hornblower novel: Flying Colors. While that action is moving briskly along, the reader is inside Hornblower’s head.

In some ways this is the weakness of the story. The reader has such an intimate view of Hornblower (the only point of view character) that we lose sight of how others see him. The lack of any other point of view tends to vitiate the dichotomy of the outside and inside Hornblowers. While Hornblower is to the outside world a taciturn, unflappable sea-god, inside he’s pretty neurotic. Admittedly, it’s a 19th century, British sort of neurotic, but still a little weird. What is one to make of Hornblower’s resolve to never speak a single word more than is absolutely necessary? Or his almost obsessive fear of appearing foolish? It’s as if Forester were playing with the idea that inside the skin of a stone-killer war-hero (and Hornblower is a devil in battle) is a man filled with fears and unresolved contradictions.

While the Aubrey-Maturin novels of Patrick O’Brian may have eclipsed the Hornblower series to some degree, this is the real stuff. For seventy years, Hornblower has been the gold standard of naval warfare series. May his heart of oak keep beating.
-Dave Hardy


Wednesday, December 06, 2006

COLONEL BLOOD
By David C. Hanrahan

He was a daring Irish rogue who plotted the overthrow of kings, organized daring escapes, and even dared steal the crown jewels. Though this prince of outlaws lent his name to the most famous fictional pirate swashbuckler, he was a real flesh and blood man. Yes Virginia, there is a Colonel Blood.

Captain Blood is better known. Rafael Sabatini’s swashbuckler hero set a standard for pirate antics unmatched until Jack Sparrow hove into view. Where Johnny Depp modeled his character on an outlandish, drug-addled, English rock star, Sabatini borrowed from an outlandish, religion-intoxicated, Irish rebel.

Thomas Blood was the offspring of English settlers in Ireland. They were Presbyterians in a Catholic County Meath, and Blood was of a decidedly Puritan bent. During the English Civil Wars Blood served first as a Royalist soldier suppressing Irish rebels and later as a Parliamentarian fighting to overthrow the king. Oliver Cromwell, England’s military dictator, rewarded Blood’s service with land confiscated from Irishmen accused of being rebels. Usually an accusation was enough to cost a Catholic his land. The era of the English Commonwealth was a good one for Blood.

When Cromwell died and King Charles II was restored to the throne the good times ended. Irishmen deprived of their lands petitioned the king for their return. Charles’ deputy in Ireland, the Duke of Ormonde had the nearly impossible task of doing right by Irishmen loyal to the king, judging who had actually been a rebel, and not antagonizing the powerful radical Protestant faction.

In 1663 Blood took matters into his own hands. He plotted to seize Dublin Castle and effect a coup against royal authority in Ireland. His method to distract the guards was to have a gang member confuse them by dropping baked goods at their feet. This novel approach was never tested, an informer gave away the plan and Blood went on the lam. He became an overnight hero to the Puritans, Levellers, and Fifth Monarchy men who despised Popery and monarchism.

Over the following years Blood’s legend grew. He freed imprisoned comrades by means of a bold attack on their military guards. Blood attempted to assassinate the Duke of Ormonde by kidnapping him and taking him to Tyburn for a public hanging (the Duke escaped). He even planned to shoot King Charles. Blood suffered tribulations as well. His son became a highwayman. In Blood’s eyes (and possibly God’s) political violence was one thing, robbing people for money was sinful.

Ironically Blood is best remembered as a jewel thief. In 1671 Blood and his gang befriended the keeper of the crown jewels. When the man’s suspicions were lulled away, Blood struck. The keeper was stabbed and bludgeoned (but survived) and the gang seized the state crown, the royal orb, and nearly got away with the scepter. In the process Blood hammered the crown flat to hide it and his son tried to file the scepter in half. Blood and his gang were caught immediately. Death by hanging was a foregone conclusion.

Blood had one last trick. He asked to meet King Charles himself. After an interview with his majesty Blood was pardoned, with a royal handshake. Blood began a new career as a consultant to law enforcement on Protestant extremists.

Hanrahan sets down Blood’s career in all its grime and glory. Along the way he provides pen portraits of the era’s notable men: the Duke of Ormonde, the duke of Buckingham, and of course, Charles II. For anyone longing to get at the grips of the seamy side of history where son men, fanatics, and high nobility played their dangerous games, Colonel Blood is a good place to start.
-Dave Hardy

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

THE DAUGHTER OF THE HAWK
By C.S. Forester

Nowadays the “mash-up” is very fashionable. You take two recognizable things: characters, singers, design elements, songs, what have you; and then you mix them together. The more incongruous the better (a Hello Kitty Darth Vader? Christopher Walken reads Goodnight Moon?). What is less known is that serious artists have pursued the mash-up, witness The Daughter of the Hawk, by C.S. Forester.

The protagonist is an Englishman named Henry Dawkins who is imprisoned in a particularly brutal South American prison. Forester details Dawkins’ background as a lieutenant of “The Hawk”, a rebel leader. The Hawk dies in battle, but first extracts a promise that Dawkins will seek out his daughter in far-away London. All Dawkins has to do is survive a savage prison camp and escape from a remote Pacific island.

Then it gets weird: Dawkins is pretty much a classic pulp action hero, strong, iron willed, speaking little, and acting with ruthless determination when necessary. Be assured this is the story of the Daughter of the Hawk. She happens to be a girl of singular determination herself. Honestly, I thought the possibilities of dropping a pulp hero into London society amid church socials and parent-teacher conferences could make for a very unique story. But Forester was aiming for a more naturalistic effect. The novel faithfully follows the gentle adjustments of a wild adventurer settling into ordinary life. After strangling a man with your bare hands in a battle for your life, picking a governess is a trifle anti-climatic. Still, many readers surfeited with pulp conventions (as many no doubt were when Hawk was first published in 1928) will find the latter part of Hawk to be a gentle diversion.

It’s not entirely without conflict, but it comes from the distaff side. The Hawk’s daughter may not be a killer, but she doesn’t let much get in her way. The novel ends with a jarring coda, which may or may not creep the bejeezuz out of you dear reader. Me I take it all with a grain of salt.
-Dave Hardy

Monday, December 04, 2006

FAIR BLOWS THE WIND
By Louis L’Amour

Though better known for his Westerns, Louis L’Amour was a bit of a jack-of-all-trades. A true product of the pulps, he was ready to write any kind of story, so long as it involved heroic men in a tight situation. In Fair Blows the Wind he takes on the era of Drake, Shakespeare, and Elizabeth. Unfortunately, the result is a bit uneven.

The novel begins with a strong premise. Tatton Chantry is cast away on the unexplored shores of North America. Much to his shock, he is not alone. A small group of Spanish travelers are also shipwrecked on the coast of what will someday be the Carolinas. It’s a bit of a stretch, but ok. Just as Chantry is working his way into the intrigues surrounding the Spanish castaways (involving a beautiful Inca princess and a special treasure) with yet another castaway (why am I reminded of Solomon Shaft from The Pyrates?) Chantry takes the reader on an extended flashback through pretty much all of Chantry’s teenage years and adulthood.

Alas, I was only slightly more enlightened about Chantry antecedents when I was done than when I started. L’Amour has a marked impulse to allude to things that are critical to the plot, but are too secret to be spoken aloud. Alas, this does little for reader comprehension. Chantry belongs to an un-named Irish family that has been outlawed. As L’Amour reminds us again and again, Chantry is not his real name, his own is so famous that all of Britain would know it. So why bother mentioning it, just be sure it’s REAL important.

The story is a bit of a picaresque as Chantry is by turns a member of a Travelling clan, an apprentice to a Highland sword-master, an associate of a secret society, a Grub Street hack, and a soldier-of-fortune. One gets the feeling that Chantry’s career parallels a bit of L’Amour’s life as well. Ultimately, Chantry pits himself against an Elizabethan Godfather who has made himself the crime-boss of 16th century London.

While normally I decry the tendency of novels to be overlong and full of padding, Fair Blows the Wind has enough material for a much longer novel. L’Amour seems almost to have been striving for an epic that encapsulates the time. But rather than following Drake’s epic voyages of piracy and exploration or the cataclysmic confrontation between radical-Catholic Spain and the revolutionary-Protestant Netherlands, L’Amour has his hero wander about the English countryside a lot.

Fair Blows the Wind is frankly, a big disappointment. There are decent moments, but they are not up to the level I expected. I had high hopes for a swashbuckling tale of Elizabethan rogues and rapscallions. Alas, the goods arrived damaged.
-Dave Hardy


Sunday, December 03, 2006

TO THE INDIES
By C.S. Forester

Though he is better known for his tales of Horatio Hornblower, C.S. Forester was capable of evoking eras other than the Napoleonic and attitudes other than upper-class England’s. In To the Indies Forester tells the tale of Columbus’ next-to-last voyage to the Indies.

The tale is not told from the point of view of the globe-crossing Admiral of the Ocean Sea, or by one of the nascent conquistadors who accompanied him. Rather Forester follows the fortunes of Narciso Rich, a senior lawyer from Barcelona, who is way too old to be out conquering unknown lands.

Forester lets his story unfold as the wind and tide carry the adventurous Spaniards through their new empire. Rich is the outsider, he’s a gentleman, but not the right sort for the sword swinging lunk-heads who are Spain’s iron fist in the Indies. Columbus explores new lands and Rich experiences the joy and the brutality of contact with unknown cultures.

Forester segues into events on Hispaniola, where revolt by both the Indians and disaffected Spaniards is brewing. As the king’s eyes and ears in the Indies Rich has to make sense of the flood of new experiences while trying to decide who is to blame for the colony’s mismanagement.

Forester evokes the era beautifully. He reminds the reader that 15th century belief was not our own, but does not cram it down the reader’s throat. Forester also shows just why Columbus was the greatest navigator of his age by depicting the discomfort, danger, and uncertainty of 15th century sea-travel. He plays with the scientific notions of the time and neatly depicts the social divisions of Medieval Europe just as it was becoming Modern Europe. While never soft-pedaling the ferocity of the conquistadors, Forester also shows what made those heavily-armed, over-privileged frat boys the men who had the power to re-shape the world: an indomitable belief in their own ability to dare absolutely anything.

To the Indies is a rare work of fiction that tells a story and brings to life vivid characters while being fully engaged in a world radically different than our own. A world in fact, that gave birth to our own.
-Dave Hardy

It has been quite a while since I posted any reviews on this blog, which is frankly odd, since I have a plethora of hasty judgments about books and films that I have read and viewed at least once. Further, while I am not the least reticent of persons (granted a platform), I am hardly a potted plant.

So, let's just post a review today, what?

-Dave