Sunday, March 27, 2011


By Robert E. Howard

Robert E. Howard is considered in some quarters as the ultimate writer of tales for guys about hyper-masculine men. Some might say he was the most testosterone-soaked bard of machismo to ever grunt and spit.

Maybe so, but there is another side to that. REH was fascinated with women who broke out of the restrictions society imposed on them. His tales have quite a collection of strong-willed swordswomen who contrast sharply with the rather passive and well-behaved misses his heroes rescue. The most striking of these is Dark Agnes de Chastillon, a 16th century Frenchwoman who ends her arranged marriage rather abruptly with a dagger.

So she heads to New York to sleep around and talk about shoes, OOPS! Sorry, she girds on a blade and proceeds to teach assorted French chauvinist cochons a thing or two about swashbuckling. This ain't Sex and the City, no siree.

This is a decent little set: “Sword Woman”, “Blades for France” are complete stories featuring Dark Agnes and her male sidekick Etienne de Villiers. Along with the skullduggery and sword play REH includes some intelligent observations about women’s roles in a man’s world and well-researched history.

Alas, the rest of the book doesn’t met the high quality of the first two tales (which do form over half the volume). “Mistress of Death” is based on an uncompleted Dark Agnes tale (finished by Gerald W. Page). But as Jessica Amanda Salmonson noted, the “posthumous collaboration” doesn’t live up to the quality of REH’s own work. There are two unfinished tales: “The King’s Service”, an adventure tale of a Gaelic sea-rover in Medieval India and “The Shadow of the Hun” a Turlough Dubh tale set in Russia.

One of the coolest parts is the introduction by Leigh Brackett, the multi-talented author of detective, science fiction, adventure, western stories, novels, and screenplays.

This is certainly one to add to your collection, if only because Dark Agnes is one of REH’s least known yet most interesting characters.

-Dave Hardy 
PS: Since writing this review, Del Rey has issued a new anthology of REH's historical adventure tales, titled,  Sword Woman and Other Historical Adventures. Even more thrilling adventure! -DH

Saturday, March 26, 2011


Dir. by Ulu Grosbard

Back in the ‘70s, before his apotheosis, Dustin Hoffman was just a damn good actor. In Straight Time he plays Max Dembo, an ex-con just out of prison. He tries to obey the rules, but he’s a stiff-necked and proud man. The bureaucratically bland arrogance of his parole officer (played by M. Emmet Walsh) leads him straight into a violent explosion and the life of crime he thought he could leave behind.

The film is based on No Beast So Fierce, by Eddie Bunker, an ex-con who took to writing to get out of his life as a criminal and ward of the state. Bunker also co-wrote the screenplay and tutored Hoffman in the life of parolees. It’s a gritty film, with taut and suspenseful robberies that have the feel of something you might see on a security camera, not Hollywood’s lens. Viewers of Reservoir Dogs will remember Bunker as Mr. Blue (he has a part in Straight Time as well). Quentin Tarantino has made no secret of his admiration of Bunker’s work and many little touches in Straight Time are echoed in Reservoir Dogs.

Ultimately viewers will have to decide to what degree they sympathize with Max Dembo. It would be easy to see him as just a victim. But that is to entirely miss the point. Dembo’s character creates his surroundings as much as his surroundings create him. The tragdy is that he is man who has deeply internalized the jailhouse world he has grown up in. Bunker’s and Hoffman’s genius was to show Dembo from both angles.
-Dave Hardy

Friday, March 25, 2011


By Robert E. Howard

(This is an old review, pre-dating the publication of El Borak & Other Desert Adventures)

Once upon a time, when people studied geography, there was a taste for swashbuckling adventure tales set in remote places. While best known for creating the fantasy world of the Hyborian Age where Conan dwelt, Robert E. Howard created his own fantastic versions of the Arabian Desert and the mountains of Afghanistan.

One of REH’s most popular series characters was Francis X. Gordon, called “El Borak”-The Swift. Arising from an imagined persona young Bob Howard created when he was ten-years old, El Borak took shape on paper as an El Paso gunslinger who has made his life among the unconquered tribes of Afghanistan and the Middle East. Along with The Lost Valley of Iskander and Three-Bladed Doom, Son of the White Wolf brings the El Borak stories together.

There are three stories in this collection and each one is a truly ripping yarn. In “Blood of the Gods” El Borak must rescue his friend, Al Wazir-a politician turned hermit, from a gang of cutthroats who want to steal a treasure Al Wazir is rumored to have. A sheik that has a blood feud with El Borak comes along for the massacre making things a bit unpredictable.

“Country of the Knife” follows Stuart Brent, a gambler who goes to Afghanistan to find El Borak and ends up in the mysterious City of Thieves where the Black Tigers hold sway. Led by a ruthless adventurer, this secret society holds the key to empire in Central Asia, but El Borak is guarding the door.

The title story is the only El Borak tale set in the Arab Revolt in WWI. While Lawrence and the geopolitics of the Great War hover in the background, in true REH style the conflict is personal. A Turkish lieutenant stages a mutiny and decides to found a new, pagan Turkish empire on the ruins of the old, Muslim one. When Lt. Osman kills one of El Borak’s friends, the hero must step in.

Son of the White Wolf is classic swashbuckling adventure in pulp style. You could say it mates Conan to Kipling, but without the sentimentality and devotion to empire that Kipling had. The closest approaches are Talbot Mundy’s Jimgrim and King series. But Mundy’s heroes are team players, they prefer to use verbal power to firepower. El Borak is a flickering blade, roaring guns, and blazing passion.  

-Dave Hardy

Thursday, March 24, 2011


By Robert E. Howard

Robert E. Howard’s tales of Solomon Kane are some the best and least noticed works of early Sword & Sorcery. Kane is very much an REH action hero, but decidedly quite different from the lusty, brawling Conan. Kane is a 16th century Puritan, a man of deep piety, self-denying, relentless in his pursuit of wrongdoing, and a stone killer with a sword!

The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane is Del Rey’s (once it was  a Wandering Star book, but that's another story) collection of Kane tales. It is absolutely thorough and includes all published and unpublished Kane stories as well as poems about Kane, synopses and fragments. This is a Kaniac’s dream.

REH is often assumed to have an affinity with the brutal and the bloodthirsty. His stories sometimes have a reputation for misogyny. Reading the tales of Kane will correct that. One of REH’s friends commented that of all his heroes, Howard was most like Kane, a believer in justice and chivalry.

The Kane stories are set in various places in Europe and Africa. “Red Shadows” is the tale that blasted the explosive force of Kane’s fury across the printed page. It is essential reading as it details Kane’s obsessive hunt of a French bandit, Le Loup. M. Le Loup is no Robin Hood, he is a rapist and cold blooded killer. Kane stalks him all the way to Africa, and meets his great ally and spiritual mentor N’Longa the Witchdoctor. Other yarns tell of battles with tribes of bloodthirsty revenants, visits to lost civilizations, and warfare with demonic hordes.

The book is richly illustrated by Gary Gianni, the full color plates that adorn the Wandering Star edition appear in half-tones in the Del Rey trade paperback. There are tons of black and white sketches. 

The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane is the definitive collection of Solomon Kane stories and a landmark in Sword and Sorcery. If you are a serious S&S fan, buy this book.
-Dave Hardy

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


By Chester Himes

Chester Himes’ Harlem is always full of dreamers, but where there are dreamers there are those who prey on dreams.

Sister Alberta has announced her dreams of money in the temple of Sweet Prophet Brown. There’s reason to believe that her dreams may be reality. Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed are soon investigating the theft of the contents of a ghetto apartment and sundry acts of violence related to same.

As in many Himes’ novels, the detectives are secondary to the assorted street characters that populate the story. There is Sugar Stonewall, street-smart hustler, Dummy, the deaf-mute pimp, and Rufus, the guy who knows how to live off a woman who works as a maid for white people among others. Unraveling the mystery is entertaining enough. Following the characters from one ludicrously funny encounter to the next makes Himes’ writing a true treat. 

-Dave Hardy

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


By Harold Lamb

Harold Lamb began his career writing historical fiction for top quality pulp magazines like Adventure and Argosy. In the process he became an expert on history and became known for his biographies of noted conquerors such as Genghis Khan, Hannibal, and Sulemein the Magnificent. In this work he tackles the life of Alexander the Great. The story is part novel, part straight history. In fact, it is far more novelistic in the opening chapters than the later parts as if Lamb found the family life of Alexander easier to treat in detail while the conquests and journeys called for a historian’s broad brush.

For myself, Alexander is a subject that never gets old. Lamb's biography of Alexander is an entertaining interpretation of the conqueror.

-Dave Hardy

Monday, March 21, 2011


By Leigh Brackett

What if Tarzan moved to Barsoom and Raymond Chandler wrote the story? You’d end up with Eric John Stark: Outlaw of Mars (a title that gives a nod to noted fictioneer Otis Adelbert Kline). That’s not to say that Brackett’s work is derivative, rather she absorbed the tropes and styles of pulp icons and turned them into her own unique manner of story-telling.

Stark, aka N’Chaka the Man-Without-a-Tribe, is the eponymous hero of this brace of Martian novellas. He is of Earth descent, but born on the remote frontier of Mercury. His parents died in an accident and Stark adopted by the sub-human aborigines of Mercury. N’Chaka grew up more animal than man. Now he is a hard-bitten soldier of fortune, living by his sword in the dreary Martian canal towns.

That may sound a bit corny, and perhaps it is. But so what? Brackett mined some classic archetypes of modern myth: the Jungle-Boy, the Gunfighter, Dying Mars and put them trough their paces. Her vision of Mars is fantastic, but with a hard-boiled attitude. Brackett began her career writing detective stories (including the screen-play for Chandler’s The Big Sleep). That unsentimental school stood her in good stead.

The first novella, “The Secret of Sinharat”, sees Stark on the run from Earthman law. With twenty years in the tough Lunar prison system hanging over his head, Stark must infiltrate the leadership of a Martian rebellion and prevent a bloodbath. Inter-planetary renegades and gangsters from the Low Canal Martian city-states have joined forces with the barbarian hordes of the Martian Drylands. What seems like a war for power and resources has a dark riddle and an ancient curse at its heart. Stark must resolve that riddle or Mars’ canals will run with blood.

“People of the Talisman” also uses the theme of barbarian hordes and outlaw city-states. Stark helps a dying thief return the sacred artifact he stole long ago from his home city of Kushat. The only hitch is that a barbarian horde is about to overrun Kushat. The only people that will help Stark are the underworld rabble of the Thieves’ Quarter. Returning the artifact is only the beginning of Stark’s arduous quest on behalf of Kushat.

Readers who find themselves wanting more N’Chaka will also want to read Stark and the Star Kings. This omnibus collects two space opera yarns by Edmond Hamilton as well as other Stark stories. The titular Star Kings rule the galaxy thousands of years hence. When earthman John Gordon gets a chance to leave behind his tedious twentieth century life for living as a prince in the far future he gets quite a bit more than he bargained for. The sequel to The Star Kings, Return to the Stars, features further adventures by John Gordon in the stars. The stories are good, but Gordon, like many other Hamilton heroes, is basically a good-hearted, regular guy with a zest for adventure. That style of pulp-hero contrasts strongly with the trend that Stark fits into. Stark, like Conan, Elric, Sam Spade, or Philip Marlowe, is a consummate outsider, iron-willed, and a killer.

The volume includes the original versions of “The Secret of Sinharat” and “People of the Talisman, “Queen of the Martian Catacombs” and “The Black Amazon of Mars”, the latter is so greatly re-written as to be a different story. There is an adventure set on Venus, the steamy fog-bound alternative to the Martian drylands. “The Enchantress of Venus” is a blend of gothic horror and sword & planet swashbuckling. “Stark and the Star Kings” is a Brackett-Hamilton collaboration that pits N’Chaka against the most clever rogue in all the worlds of the Star Kings. By bringing Stark into Hamilton’s space opera playground, Hamilton and Brackett united the two greatest trends in adventure-oriented science fiction. The result is highly entertaining.

If A Princess of Mars is the naïve infancy of Sword & Planet adventure, Outlaw of Mars is its full maturity. Brackett’s eclectic pulp background mingles styles with a wild abandon. It’s like encountering Caspar Gutman in the Maul of Spider-Haunted Shadizar or riding with Billy the Kid to meet Tars Tarkas. Brackett’s fast-paced action and unique style is one to savor.

-Dave Hardy

Sunday, March 20, 2011


By Howard Andrew Jones

If you are a fan of Harold Lamb, Howard Andrew Jones should be a familiar name. Jones is the editor of the Bison Book series of Harold Lamb’s adventure tales of Cossacks, Crusaders, Mongols, Rajputs, and all manner of swashbucklers. One of the hallmarks of Lamb’s fiction is his sharply drawn historical Asian settings. As an author Jones follows in that tradition while treating his readers to a fantasy of generous proportions.

Desert of Souls’s narrator is Asim, a doughty warrior in Sword & Sorcery tradition. Asim’s comrade is Dabir, a scholar of arcane knowledge. A chance encounter in the Baghdad’s marketplace sends them on a quest for a lost city in order to prevent a wizard from utilizing the dangerous magical secrets hidden there.

Desert of Souls is a novel that isn’t exactly easily classified. It is a fantasy that takes its inspiration from the classic Arabian Nights, yet it is not a naïve fantasy for children that one might expect from source material that has been so relentlessly tamed and sugar-coated. Rather Jones crafts his own characters while staying true to the setting. Asim and Dabir serve in the household of Jaffar the Barmecide, the historical wazir of Harun al-Rashid (763-806) the third Abbasid caliph in Baghdad’s Golden Age. If Desert of Souls is rooted in history and traditional legend, it flowers in a modern manner. Betrayal and mistrust are at the heart of all relationships ever striving with friendship and loyalty. It is an if Jones layered in a 1950s noir crime film with the hard-charging adventure. Of course the old Arab storytellers understood human frailty very well, the original Arabian Nights are thick with every species of treachery, oppression, and kanvery ever practiced. The cinematic comparisons don’t end just there, Desert of Souls has the kind of wide-screen cinematic destruction that we expect from a good disaster movie. Finally, there is an echo of the 21st century in Desert of Souls, just as in the current world of terrorism and political violence, so too in Jones's tale personal motives—revenge, lust for power—mingle with religious and ethnic fanaticism.

Desert of Souls has a lot to offer, characters with depth, a setting that is at once believably real and filled with wonders, fast-paced adventure, and excellent story telling.

-Dave Hardy

Saturday, March 05, 2011


By A. Merritt

Did you ever wonder what heroic fantasy was like before Conan and Kull? It looked like The Ship of Ishtar, big, bold, and fantastic.

Abraham Merritt is perhaps best known as an sf writer, though like many early scientifictioneers, he could switch hit on the sword & sorcery side. He hit a homer with Ishtar. The tale is about John Kenton, a WW I vet who can no longer relate to the everyday world. When a friend sends him a mysterious inscribed stone unearthed at Uruk, Kenton releases an ancient curse that draws him into the world of Ishtar’s ship. The crew live under an age-old curse where they must forever fight the battles of Ishtar, goddess of Love and Life, against her hated rival, Nergal, Lord of Death.

Kenton proves a first class sword & sorcery hero, and has quite a match in Klaneth, the Black Priest of Nergal. The supporting characters include a beautiful priestess of Ishtar, a wayward Viking, a Persian from the time of Cyrus the Great, and Gigi, a bald dwarf from Nineveh who is one of the coolest sidekicks a hero could have.

I read the 1949 reprint with b/w illustration by Virgil Finlay. That in itself was a treat as Finlay was one of the greats of magazine illustration from the ‘30s on. Yes, some of his magic girls look a bit more like pinups from the hanger of an Army Air Corps base than Sumerian priestesses, but hey where you gonna get a Sumerian to model for ya?

The Ship of Ishtar is a neglected sword & sorcery classic. Give it some attention, it misses you.
-Dave Hardy


By Rafael Sabatini

Rafael Sabatini’s most famous tale of piracy at sea is, of course, Captain Blood, with The Sea Hawk coming in a distant second. Though it got enough attention in the ‘20s to result in a Hollywood movie based on the novel, it isn’t so well remembered today. That’s perhaps odd given the resurgence in interest in piracy that began in the ‘90s. All of which is beside the point.

The Sea Hawk tells of Sir Oliver Tresillian, a Cornish gentleman privateer in the days of Good Queen Bess. The first third of the novel follows his love for Rosamund Godolphin and his feud with her brother Peter and how same brought about Sir Oliver’s downfall. The rest of the tale follows Sakr-el-Bahr, the Sea Hawk and the deadliest corsair captain as ever shipped out from the Barbary Coast. I’m not giving away too much if I let slip that same is Sir Oliver, now turned Islamic Fundamentalist privateer. Suffice to say a lot of scores are settled. Sark-el-Bahr/Sir Oliver displays a mercurial temper as he switches from bloody-minded vengeance to remorse. Overall he comes off as a man in the mold of Captain Blood, one who has been wronged and seeks revenge, but fears he has gone too far.

I have mixed feelings about Sabatini as a stylist. He is too prolix and big blocks of exposition clutter that landscape like decorated boulders, fancy but not much use. On the other hand, Sabatini had a way with dialog, his characters speak a version of Elizabethan English that is archaic, yet modern enough to move and express feeling and color. That’s a pretty good trick to steer between the Scylla of Ye Olde Englishe and the Charibdis of making everybody sound like they’re from SoCal (or Essex, as the case may be).

If you want a shot of piracy on the high seas, exotic locales, and swashbuckling action, The Sea Hawk won’t let you down.
-Dave Hardy

Friday, March 04, 2011


By Yukio Mishima

One of Yukio Mishima's most notorious novels. In some ways Mishima's eccentric life and bizarre end overshadow his work. While a strict adherence to the concept of the "Death of the Author" would militate against any biographical interpretation of Sailor, it's hard not see some of Mishima's fictional themes played out in his life.
The Sailor who Fell from Grace with the Sea is about a single mother in love with a sailor and her adolescent son, Noboru, who is obsessed with his image of the sailor as a model of masculinity. When the sailor can’t live up to that loony ideal, Noboru undertakes to destroy his idol. 

It's not just a tale of right-wing hysteria wrapped up in homoeroticism, though those are all plenty good fun. Rather I find that a mediation on the interplay of idealism, desire, and the image of one's ideals is not out of place in the 21st century. 

-Dave Hardy


Thursday, March 03, 2011


By Dashiell Hammett

Red Harvest is to detective novels as Jaws is to Finding Nemo, they are both about a fish. Dashiell Hammett didn’t invent the hard-boiled PI genre, but by God he perfected it!

This is a tale of a town called Personville, aka Poisonville. In true Hammett style the essence of the place is revealed in a parable. The narrator, Hammett’s nameless Continental Op, tells of a Duke in Renaissance Italy who promised his mercenaries a free hand if only they would subdue the Duke’s rebellious subjects in his city. Thus the Duke put down the rebels and lost his city just the same. The Continental Op moves in to clean up a Montana town with a bloody history of labor strife and gangsterism. In the process he nearly loses his tenuous grip on humanity in the bloody maelstrom of all out gang war. It is a dark tale with no clues in locked rooms to be picked up by elderly spinsters. Just people killing each other for greed or revenge and one man determined to wash a place clean in its own blood.

If you read this novel and find it overstated, just stroll on down to your library and pick up Bloody Williamson or A Knight of Another Sort for the true history of all-out war between strikers and strikebreakers, Klansmen and bootleggers in the small towns of Southern Illinois. You’ll find fiction was more restrained than fact.
-Dave Hardy

Wednesday, March 02, 2011


By H. Beam Piper

What if you could visit, not another time, but another timeline, a world where things turned out differently? The “alternate universe” story has endless appeal. Consider that it is practically emblematic of the Christmas holidays.

Time travel and alternate universes were a principle interest of H. Beam Piper. Granted they didn’t involve self-sacrificing saving & loan managers (we used to have lots of ‘em in Texas), but something a bit more hard-boiled. Piper created an entire cosmology of them in his Paratime series, it’s not a spoiler to tell you the world we know is just one of them, in fact a rather barbaric and dull one.

This collection leads off with "He Walked Around the Horses", based on the true story of British diplomat Benjamin Bathurst who disappeared in 1809. Piper fills us in on where he went and what befell him.

Most of the stories concern Verkan Vall, a Time cop who keeps order among the various timelines. His universe developed the ability to travel among the timelines and subtly exploit them. Some unscrupulous characters go too far. Often the secret of paratime travel is in danger of being revealed. In "Last Enemy" Verkan has to investigate his ex-wife who has set up shop in a civilization where reincarnation is being developed to an exact science. The rival factions of Volitionists and Statisticalists push the logic of reincarnation in a society deeply divided by class: who gets to reincarnate in a good life? What if your previous incarnation is responsible for a crime? Piper’s conservative libertarianism is at work here, but not oppressively.

Piper walks a fine line between the philosophizing and the action and gets it right in these stories. Sometimes Verkan Vall wins a bit too easily, but there are worse faults. There is also an excellent introduction by John F. Carr that gives background on Piper’s beliefs and the cosmology of Paratime. These stories have also appeared with the tales from Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen.

-Dave Hardy

Tuesday, March 01, 2011


By Clark Ashton Smith

This collection from Arkham House showcases short stories by Clark Ashton Smith over a period ranging from the 1910s to the 1950s. The tales are apparently arranged by length with some long space opera yarns up front and shorter Oriental fantasies in the back.

If you are a CAS fan, then this is a must read. The sf tales are fairly basic stuff. They are picaresque shoot-‘em-ups on strange planets. They don’t compare to his much more polished fantasy and horror, though "The Immeasurable Horror" is a good sf-action thriller.

The shorter works manage to pack a punch (not surprising since they lean and mean). The standouts in this collection are "Told in the Desert", "An Offering to the Moon", "Monsters in the Night", and "A Tale of Sir John Maundeville". CAS is rather hard to find these days and relatively little of his work is in print. That’s a pity, but as long as libraries still have copies of his books, you’ll be able to get ‘em on interlibrary loan.
-Dave Hardy