Saturday, July 31, 2010

BLOOD IS NOT ENOUGH

Edited by Ellen Datlow

This collection of vampire tales was issued by Berkley in 1990 and edited by Ellen Datlow. The goal here seems to be to cast as wide a net as possible and sample every possible variation on the vampire tale one can find. There are blood drinking vampires and emotion drinking vampires and time wasting vampires and kids who think they are vampires, etc…

Some of these tales just misfire for me. Tanith Lee’s “The Janitha Tree” is a good example of her subtle and enigmatic style of weird tale that is so subtle and enigmatic I’m not too sure what happened. Other tales here just aren’t my cup of tea, “A Child of Darkness” by Susan Casper is a decent portrait of a young woman who believes she is a vampire, but ultimately the character comes across as more a pathetic loony than someone interesting in her own right.  

On the other hand there are some true standouts. Fritz Leiber’s tale of blood-sucking advertising “The Girl with the Hungry Eyes” appears here. It is subtle and enigmatic, but not too subtle. The best in the collection is Scott Baker’s “Varicose Worms”. This is a tale full of surprises! It tells of a Romanian immigrant in Paris who discovers the secret magic world of Shamanism and his epic battle to hold his place in it. Along the way Baker satirizes psychiatrists, politicians, Mircea Eliade, and homeless beggars, not necessarily in that order. I finished that one and was left begging for more, though I daresay Mr. Baker knows how to wrap up a yarn. If you ever run across this book, read “Varicose Worms”!

-Dave Hardy
 
 

Friday, July 30, 2010

THE BLACK MASS OF BROTHER SPRINGER

By Charles Willeford

Charles Willeford was the king of Florida noir. He wrote taut novels of odd loners who just couldn’t stay alone and draw others to their ruin.

Sam Springer is a dry-as-dust accountant who decides he’s a writer because he sold a novel. Broke and in search of new material to write about he visits a monastery in the Florida backwoods. The abbot and sole occupant is a career soldier who’s forgotten more about doing nothing while getting paid than most men ever learn. He helps Springer skip out on his wife and life by dispatching him to be pastor of an all-Black church in Jacksonville. But preaching actually takes some work and Jax is in the throes of a civil rights conflict. Rev. Deuteronomy Springer is a long way from a saint and so is Merita, the very beautiful wife of one of his deacons.

Black Mass
is a sardonic send-up of bigots, zealots, preachers, and believers. Even more than that it is a story about how wanting is quite different from having. If you like good, dark comedy, you should want to read this one. Having done so will be satisfying.

-Dave Hardy

Thursday, July 29, 2010

THE BIG TIME

By Fritz Leiber

The Big Time is a masterpiece of contradiction. It is set in a dazzling science fiction universe of limitless possibility, yet the tale itself is one of claustrophobic confinement. The fate of all time and space itself hangs in the balance, armies battle on all fronts, yet the characters are the most minor of rear-rank spearholders. And they are all the more fascinating for it. 

If you are unfamiliar with the premise, The Big Time tells of the Changewar between the Spiders and the Snakes, two mysterious factions battling for control of space and time. Their mode of battle is to change history, their foot-soldiers are agents recruited from all of history and every planet in the universe.

But forget all that, Leiber never tells you what any of the missions mean, only that faceless, nameless commanders say it’s important. And if they order a British WWI vet to help the Nazis win WWII, he just has to assume they know what they're doing. The central character is not a soldier, but an entertainer at a trans-tempoal USO station. Tangled webs of love, jealousy, and mutiny swirl through the lives of the entertainers and the time-soldiers they care for.

The Big Time is all Fritz Leiber, starting with his love of the theater. In fact The Big Time is written much like a play, with a very rigorous observance of Aristotle’s unities (I’m not being very original in noting that). Indeed, the one place, one time approach is perhaps the only way to make sense of a concept as big as the Changewar. Leiber’s love of word-play and his interest in Germans and Shakespeare are very much in evidence.

The Big Time is a science fiction novel you can recommend to people who don’t read science fiction.


-Dave Hardy

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

ALMURIC

By Robert E. Howard

There is a certain sub-genre of science fiction that is sometimes called “sword & planet”. It has its roots in A Princess of Mars and other tales of John Carter on Barsoom by Edgar Rice Burroughs. The hallmarks are an alien world filled with decadent science, barbaric warriors and an outsider from earth who shakes up the scene.

Robert E. Howard of Conan fame made his own foray into the field with Almuric, perhaps his most extended science fiction work. In fact Almuric is one of REH’s few novels (it was serialized in Weird Tales but never issued as a novel until the ‘70s). The hero is Esau Cairn, a man too strong for civilized life. When fate puts him outside the law a kindly scientist helps Cairn out with a dimensional transporter that shoots him to Almuric, a planet remote from earth. The inhabitants are shaggy ape-men and gorgeous barbarian princesses. On Almuric, a fellow is judged by his courage and strength, not his bank account so Esau Ironhand fits right in.

Alas, there is always a hitch. The demonic Yagas, a race of winged fiends, tyrannize over Almuric. When they massacre Cairn’s friends, it means war. 

While not as well developed as the Hyborian Age, Almuric is an entertaining imaginary world. I enjoyed the na├»ve and romantic story telling of A Princess of Mars. In Almuric we get REH’s take on that style of story telling: bold, direct, and swashbuckling.


-Dave Hardy
 
 
 


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

BLACK VULMEA’S VENGEANCE

By Robert E. Howard

Robert E. Howard, though best known for his horror and sword & sorcery, was at heart an adventure writer. He buckled anything that swashed. What better subject for swashbuckling adventure than piracy on the high seas?

Black Terence Vulmea is REH’s pirate hero. He is an Irish sea-rover, a survivor of England’s tyrannous rule over the Emerald Isle. We get two Black Vulmea stories: “Blades of the Red Brotherhood” and “Black Vulmea’s Vengeance”. “Blades” should be familiar to many Conan fans. It was originally a Conan tale and re-written as apirate sotry. L. Sprague de Camp re-re-wrote it as “The Treasure of Tranicos”. It’s a darn fine adventure as Black Vulmea finds himself stranded on a remote shore and involved with an exiled French nobleman, a rival pirate, hostile Indians, and a legendary lost treasure. It’s a festival of sword-play, double-crosses, and thrilling action.

“Vengeance” lets us get much closer to the pirate’s character. Vulmea is captured by Wentworth, a haughty Royal Navy captain. But the pirate is nobody’s fool and soon the tables are turned. This yarn is an interesting one in that REH gives full vent to his feelings on England’s rule of Ireland, and how a strong man deals with a bully. You might be surprised.

“Isle of Pirates Doom” rounds out the book. While it is a pirate tale, Black Vulmea is not present. Instead REH gives us one of his one of his sword-women: Helen Tavrel, the wildest she-pirate afloat. While Helen Tavrel has never gotten the notice that Belit (“Queen of the Black Coast”), Valeria (“Red Nails”), or Dark Agnes (“Sword Woman”) have received, this is an interesting story. Helen Tavrel isn’t just a man in drag or a sex-kitten with a sword. She has her own complex web of relationships and womanly sense of propriety. She’s no man-hater, but don’t take liberties, you’ll regret it.

Sadly out-of-print, Black Vulmea’s Vengeance is as fine a set of pirate yarns as was ever penned by a salty sea dog.


-Dave Hardy
 
 

Monday, July 26, 2010

ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS

ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS: MORE STORIES MY MOTHER NEVER TOLD ME
ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS: STORIES TO BE READ WITH THE DOOR LOCKED
ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S BEHIND THE DEATH BALL

Back when magazines contained stories and not just 893 pages of ads, they used to collect them and publish them in book format. Stories, not ads, that is.

One of the old reliables was the “Alfred Hitchcock” sets. Not that the great director actually selected the stories for these books (or maybe he did), but it tied in with Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and the Alfred Hitchcock Presents tv show.

Don’t look for “locked door” puzzlers or accounts of how Mrs. Gillysquid the elderly librarian showed up Scotland Yard (except maybe as parodies). These collections focus on crime stories, stories told from the point of view of a criminal, a victim, a bystander. The emphasis is less on detecting than the motivation and effects of crime. Mostly the effect on the reader, the more outlandish the better.

Straight up fantasy is not neglected either. Theodore Sturgeon’s classic tale "Shottle Bop" is featured in Stories to be Read with the Door Locked, and there is a fine homage to Lord Dunsany in More Stories My Mother Never Told Me, titled "The Man Who sold Rope to the Gnoles" by Idris Seabright. And of course one must read John Keefauver’s How Henry J. Littlefinger Licked the Hippies’ Scheme to Take Over the Country by Tossing Pot in Postage Stamp Glue because it has such a cool title, if nothing else.

Should you come across an Alfred Hitchcock collection, it’s worthwhile to take some time to peruse. 

-Dave Hardy
 

 

Sunday, July 25, 2010

THE BUCCANEERS OF AMERICA

By Alexander Exquemelin

No it’s not about an NFL team from Tampa, it’s about swaggering, cut-throat desperadoes who terrorized all in their path. No, I don’t mean the creative team that brought you Gigli either, I mean real pirates.

Alexander Exquemelin was a young Dutchman who went to the West Indies as an indentured servant, a slave with a contract that is. Finding the life of  a servant brutal, he went off to join the buccaneers, roving bands that hunted wild cattle in the interior of Hispaniola (nowadays Haiti & the Dominican Republic). These men were in constant conflict with the Spanish and many had taken to the sea to rob passing ships. In Exquemelin’s day they had grown strong enough that under leaders like L’Ollonais, Rock Brasiliano, Bartholomew the Portuguese, and Captain Henry Morgan, that they could form powerful fleets capable of seizing major cities and pillaging extensively.

Exquemelin gives us a unique first hand account of the hardships of frontier life in the West Indies. He is concise but there is a wealth of detail about the plants and animals, daily life among the colonists, and the trades they engaged in (besides armed robbery). Above all this is an account of the most notorious buccaneer chiefs and their war against the Spanish Main. The portraits of L’Ollonais and Morgan dominate the book. L’Ollonais is shown as a sociopath, practicing savage cruelty as matter of routine, but possessed of reckless personal courage in battle. Morgan comes across as a smooth, cozening rogue, but also as a man capable of using his abilities to unite disparate outlaw crews to undertake military campaigns of surprising strategic finesse and daring.

If you have any interest in piracy in the days of sail, you MUST read this book.

-Dave Hardy
 

 

Saturday, July 24, 2010

BRAN MAK MORN: THE LAST KING

By Robert E. Howard

This is Wandering Star's comprehensive collection of Bran Mak Morn tales and it’s a stunner [Note: While WS has moved on, Del Rey still publishes this book as a trade paperback]. It is very thorough and includes all the Bran Mak Morn tales (“Men of the Shadows”, “Kings of the Night”, and “Worms of the Earth”) and the Turlough Dubh yarn, “The Dark Man”. It also has another Pictish tale, “The Lost Race” as well as poetry, fragments, an early draft of “Worms” and a whole chronology (including excerpts from REH letters) of REH and the Picts. Even so it is still not a complete Pictology when you consider the import of Pictish supporting characters and foes in the James Allison stories, the Conan series and the Cormac MacArt tales. To get all that in there you’d need another volume.

For those readers unfamiliar with Bran Mak Morn and the Picts these were some of Robert E. Howard’s favorite themes. The historic Picts were the inhabitants of Northern Britain outside of Roman control. Historians and archaeologists believe their culture was a mix of Celtic and indigenous, pre-Indo-European peoples. For Howard they represented the old-people, the precursors of his beloved Celts. They were his Big Other, playing Indians to the Celtic cowboys. Bran Mak Morn is their last hope as Rome’s power grows. He knows his people’s time on the stage of history is just about up, but they ain’t going quietly.

The stories range from the ok (“The Lost Race”) to the outstanding (“Worms of the Earth”). Quite frankly, “Worms of the Earth” is one of REH’s best yarns. Don’t expect tons of blazing action, this is the story where REH displayed his talent as a creator of mood and atmosphere. The feel is closer to Lovecraftian horror than Conan-style sword-and-sorcery. It is also a good example of REH at his most thoughtful as Bran must repeatedly confront the question: how far would you go to strike at a foe?

The illustrations by Gary Gianni are magnificent. Gianni depicts bloody hand-to-hand struggle as deftly as he captures the moody, fog-bound feel of the Celtic twilight.  True some have criticized the cover art as making the Picts look too much like dwarves. Well, how the hell do you depict people regularly described as stunted giants?

As for the historical Picts, their kingdom survived into the Dark Ages. Finally, racked by internal wars and Viking invasions, the Picts succumbed to a take-over by the Scots of Dal Riada. The kingdom of the Picts became the home of the Gaelic Highlanders.


-Dave Hardy

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

BARBARIAN DAYS: THE TRAILER

I just recently saw the trailer for "Barbarian Days" a documentary from the fellows at Goodspeed Productions about the annual gathering of Howard Heads in Cross Plains, Texas and the people who make it special. The film follows Rusty Burke, Mark Finn, Chris Gruber, all super REH scholars and, I am proud to add, good friends of mine. Watch the trailer for special appearances from Paul Herman, Lee Breakiron, & Mrs. Dave. Not to mention a very special guest!

You can find it on FaceBook at: http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#!/video/video.php?v=434270614084&ref=mf