Wednesday, December 24, 2008


Venice, ano domini 1099

Marco Dandolo stood by the bishop in front of the newly completed church of San Nicolo in Venice. “Che bella, bishop.”

“Yes, it is beautiful, my nephew. May it please the Lord.” The bishop sighed. “If only…”

“If only what, signore?”

“Well, my nephew, it is a silly wish. But if only we had the very relics of the holy saint here, then would this monument truly glorify His Holy Name. But the relics are far away on the island of Rhodes.”

“In the hands of the Greeks? That is not a problem, signore. For the glory of God, Venice, and the Dandolo family, I will retrieve them.”

“My blessing on you! But these Rhodians are very greedy for saints. They have San Teodoro, San Polycarpo, and San Evlogio as well as San Nicolo.”

“Why so many?”

“Something about their having died on Rhodes. It’s an unhealthy place for holy men. But that’s not the point. The Rhodians will never give you the relics, Greeks are too greedy.”

Marco straightened his doublet and adjusted his sword belt. “Signore, I am a Venetian. I know how to bargain. I’ll make the Greeks an offer they can’t refuse.”

Three weeks later, the war galley of Marco Dandolo swept ashore near the Aghios Nikolaos church on the coast of Rhodes. The Venetian sailors swarmed ashore brandishing swords and battle-axes. They ran to the church doors and smashed them in. A priest emerged from the sacristy, shouting angrily.

“Hey! This is a church not a barn!” Then he saw the Venetians brandishing their weapons. “I mean how can I help you gentlemen?”

Marco held out his blade, “We’ve come for the saint. Hand him over and no funny business!”

“Which one?” The priest shrugged. “We’ve got so many.”

“San Nicolo. Now make with the saint, pronto!”

“Oriste! You are too late, honored sir. Some Genoese fellows landed and took Aghios Nikolaos a few months ago. A real pity, he was the best.” The priest shrugged. “We still have Aghios Polykarpos, though…”

“The Genoese!” Marco snarled. “Those pirates! Well, that being the case, you won’t mind if we have a look around then.” He signaled to his men and they began to ransack the church.

“Hey Marco! Here’s Teodoro!”



A shake of the head.


“No!” Marco snapped. “I think this Greek is lying. If the Genoese had been here we’d have heard of it all over Italy by now. No, there’s an odor of sanctity here and I mean to find out where it comes from!”

There was a shout. A Venetian sailor was pointing at the wizened form of an old man, lying in a curtained alcove. “Look, he’s incorruptible!”

The priest ran forward. “No, no, no! That’s just old Kostas. He comes to mass every day. He likes to take a nap after the communion wine.”

The old man opened a rheumy eye. “Opa. How about a little krasi kokkinos, eh papas?” He sat up and reached for a brick in the wall. “I keep a little stash behind this loose brick.”

The priest waved his arms at Kostas, but to no avail. The old fellow pulled down the brick revealing a hollow with a jug of wine.

Marco came close and studied the hole. There was a much larger space inside the wall. He called for a candle and peered into the hollow.

Soon the wall was pulled down to reveal the remains of San Nicolo. The triumphant Venetians carried him to their war-galley and loaded him aboard. Singing a hymn in time to the stroke of the oars, they made for the Adriatic and home.

By Christmastide San Nicolo was safely ensconced in the church that bore his name. The people of Venice celebrated mass in his honor and rung the bells until the sluggish waters of the lagoon stirred with the reverberations. But Marco Dandolo did not share in the general rejoicing. He stood glowering in the piazza where his old friend Pietro found him.

“What ails you friend Marco? You look like a man who just found out he’d just paid gold ducats for a load of Genoese chicken turds. It’s Christmas, you should be rejoicing. Now is the season for giving.” Pietro held up a neatly wrapped bundle he was carrying.

Marco spat. “Ah, here I am, the man who brought home San Nicolo and what thanks do I get? You know after we left Rhodes my ship had to run the gauntlet of Genoese mercenaries. Then we had to fight the Barbary Corsairs. Finally the Dalmatian pirates attacked us. That was a struggle! They paint their sails all white with black dots so they blend in with the coastline.

“I make my way past these dangers all the way to Venice. The saint is in the church and now people treat me like I was a blacksmith or I ran the furnace at the public baths!” He shook his head at the ingratitude of mankind.

“Well, friend Marco, I have something to cheer you up.” Pietro held out his bundle. “This is my gift to you. Thanks for your service to Venice and Merry Christmas.”

Marco smiled and unwrapped the bundle. Then his expression turned to anger. “So, you’re in on the joke too? You thought this was funny? Well, you and everybody else who has given me these ‘presents’ today can take them and go to…”

“Easy my friend. What’s wrong with my gift? I bought you some top-quality scent, straight off my latest merchant vessel from Alexandria.”

“You did, eh? Then what is this?” Marco held out the bundle, which contained not rich, Alexandrine incense, but dull-black lumps of coal.

Saturday, December 20, 2008


By Jack Vance

While most writers of Sword & Sorcery have looked back to Robert E. Howard either as model to work upon or against, relatively few have followed Clark Ashton Smith. But to a degree that is what Jack Vance did with his Dying Earth cycle.

Vance however avoids Smith’s poetics and instead riffs on magical quests across doomed dreamscapes inhabited by an off-kilter assortment of rogues, mountebanks, and suckers. Perhaps in that respect Vance’s fantasy more resembles the absurdist heroics of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser.

Tales of the Dying Earth collects all four of Vance’s Dying Earth novels into a single omnibus (The Dying Earth, Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel’s Saga, Rhialto the Marvellous). The first novel is a series of loosely connected short stories of various characters facing the sorts of dilemmas one faces in a world where sorcery has supplanted science and the sun is dimming like a cheap light bulb. There’s a romantic element to the struggles of Vance’s characters, not sentimental, but with a kind of tragic heroism.

Eyes of the Overworld and Cugel’s Saga firmly center on Cugel the Clever, a thief whose impudent cunning gets him into more hot water than Wiley Coyote. Trickster tales merge with merchant marine anecdotes (Vance served in the Marine in WWII) in the Cugel stories.

Rhialto is a different sort of hero from Cugel. Where Cugel thinks he’s clever, Rhialto is smart. Cugel’s constant efforts to get the best of any situation generally end in his comedic comeuppance. Rhialto on the other hand is the fellow who others try to best in a battle of wits, not realizing they’ve met the Conan of cleverness. Rhialto is less of a trickster than an elegant and determined wizard in a corrupt world.

For readers who are interested in fantasy that is neither a re-tread of cliches borrowed from Lord of the Rings or the Conan stories, the Dying Earth is worth an extended visit.

-Dave Hardy

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


By Robert E. Howard

Steve Tompkins has an unusual way of looking at Robert E. Howard’s tales of horror and adventure. Tompkins makes grand leaps that pull in unexpected connections, his appraisal of REH is as likely to include critical tools taken from D.H. Lawrence and Leslie Fiedler as from H.P. Lovecraft.

In this collection Tompkins looks for the essential American soul in REH. It makes for an eclectic collection. The work has about as much Gothic horror (“The Horror from the Mound”, “Pigeons from Hell”) as pure Sword & Sorcery fantasy (“Marchers of Vallhalla”, “The Thunder-Rider”). The settings are eclectic as well. This collection sometimes seems like a core sample of a hidden history of Texas: pre-historic (“Marchers”), pre-Spanish (“Nekht Sermerkeht”, high-Comanche (“Thunder-Rider), Reconstruction (“Black Canaan”), frontier-cowboy era (“The Valley of the Lost”), to Howard’s own day (“Pigeons”). The center-piece is a tale of pirates, curses, Indians, and treasure set on the California coast in the 1600s (why not Texas one wonders, given La Salle’s interest in this land at the same time as the setting of “Stranger”).

REH collectors may well have all these tales in other volumes, but Tompkins’ unique observations of REH and what it means to be an American writer are to found nowhere else. If I have a criticism of this set, it is that Tompkins did not at least make a nod to the corpus of REH’s tall-tale westerns. While they are ably represented in such volumes as The Riot at Bucksnort and A Gent from Bear Creek, a taste of the rip-snortin’, half-horse-half-alligator craziness of REH’s gigantic hillbillies coupled with Tompkins’ consciousness-expanding lit-crit would have made a fascinating combination. That aside, I’m very proud to have this volume in my collection.

-Dave Hardy

Saturday, December 13, 2008


By Robert E. Howard

Of all the pulp authors still in print today, who is remembered for crafting a multitude of boxing stories, most of them humorous? Think hard. Time’s up. For the answer read the author’s name listed above.

Perhaps Robert E. Howard’s strong output of boxing tales (some sixty eight, based on titles listed on HowardWorks) is best known to die-hard REH fans. However, it need not be. Wildside Press has produced books such as Waterfront Fists and The Complete Action Stories (replete with fistic exploits), the University of Nebraska saw fit to devote an entire volume to REH’s boxing stories as part of its series of Howard anthologies.

Boxing Stories is a sampler of REH boxiana, including several tales of Sailor Steve Costigan, a seaman on a tramp freighter who doubles as a waterfront palooka. His adventures take him though numberless foreign ports where his efforts to maintain his reputation as the boxing champ of seafaring crowd are inevitably more successful than his efforts to win the love interest. Sailor Steve was the character REH used the most. Costigan is featured in thirty tales, not counting others re-written to feature Dennis Dorgan as the protagonist, more even than Conan.

Not all of REH’s boxing tales are comedies. This collection marks the first appearance of the restored “Iron Men”, which has only appeared in heavily re-written versions. It’s a grim tale of a stubborn ring gladiator who has to choose between a career as a boxing kamikaze and the love of a good woman. Some of REH’s boxing related poetry appears as well. Last but not least is the excellent introduction by Chris Gruber, a Howard scholar and boxing enthusiast.

Boxing stories weren’t just a writing job for REH. He was a fan of the sport and was part of an informal boxing club where he watched and participated in amateur matches. Steve Costigan, the boxing sailor was such a part of REH’s personal mythology that he gave the name to the protagonist of his semi-autobiographical novel Post Oaks and Sand Roughs. For fans of old-time pulp, Boxing Stories is an excellent read, for REH fans it is essential reading.

-Dave Hardy