Monday, April 29, 2013

Red Shadows (1928) by Robert E. Howard

    Solomon Kane was one of Howard's first adventure heroes. He certainly was one of his most unique. He was a sixteenth century English puritan driven to wander the Earth righting wrongs and battling evil. A religious fanatic, he himself believed that it was his god that drove him on, while Howard suggested that it was in fact his own wanderlust and insatiable desire for adventure. He was a tall, rangy man who dressed entirely in black and was an expert with both rapier and musket. He would track down an enemy relentlessly for years to exact vengeance, yet he also had a soft spot for all innocents and was described by Howard as a "kindly" man.
   Red Shadows was Howard's first published story about Solomon Kane, and it has some of the defects found in many of Howard's early tales from the 1920s. He had not yet mastered his style at this point, and the writing does not have the swift, smooth narrative flow that his later stories have. In fact, it seems a bit clunky in spots. What it has going for it is a brilliant plot, Howard's usual sense of dark atmosphere, and fully developed characters. The evil Le Loup, The Wolf, is in fact one of Howard's most memorable villains.
   The story begins when Kane encounters an injured girl lying in the shadows beneath some trees. She has been ravaged and stabbed by the evil Le Loup, who along with his bandits has sacked her small village. She dies in Kane's arms. Kane says simply, "Men shall die for this." He proceeds to hunt down and kill Le Loup's men one by one. He finally confronts The Wolf himself in a cave, but the villain escapes him.
   Eventually Kane tracks down Le Loup to Africa, a local that Kane will frequently return to in future stories. As one would expect, Robert E. Howard's Africa has very little relation to the real place. Most of what Howard knew of Africa seems to be what he read in H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Howard's Africa was a true "dark continent", a lost world as fantastic as Conan's Hyborian Age. It was filled not only with savage men and animals, but also monsters and magic.
   Le Loup has managed to insinuate himself among a native African tribe, where he has become second only to the king himself. Solomon Kane is captured and as a prisoner he meets the magician N'Longa, who becomes an important character later in the series. N'Longa is upset that Le Loup has taken some of his own prestige in the tribe and he offers to help Kane escape. Later Kane is, of course, tied to a stake to be burned alive. I shall not describe how N'Longa ends up helping Kane or how the story ends, so as not to spoil it for those unfortunate enough not to have read it. It is enough to say that it involves the raising of the dead, a vengeful Gorilla, and the brilliant final battle between Kane and the fiendish Le Loup. Yes, this story really does have a grand payoff at the end.
   In the Kane series one can really see how Robert E. Howard progressed as a writer. By his later Kane stories he had mastered his talent. Tales like The Hills of the Dead and Wings in the Night are pulp masterpieces. Howard was not there yet with Red Shadows, but he was getting close. Solomon Kane was already fully developed as a character at this point. Howard's plotting and sense of pace were excellent. It was only his writing style that he had yet to master, for at that point it still felt overly garish and a bit clumsy. Later he would take the best of pulp language and craft a unique narrative style that could create action, scenery and atmosphere beyond compare.
   Red Shadows can be found in The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane. And, just to show how highly regarded the tale is, it is also included in The Best of Robert E. Howard Volume One: Crimson Shadows.


Friday, April 26, 2013

Best Ghost Stories of Algernon Blackwood (stories 1906-1917)

     Algernon Blackwood spent his whole life under the spell of nature. For him nature was not only an escape from the cruelties of urban life, it was a gateway to a larger world that existed just beyond our own. The trees, the rocks and the sky were all alive to him and harbored a consciousness. He felt that communication with this life was possible if only he could find a way. These feelings were behind all his work and it was a sense of awe rather than pure fear that he hoped to instill in his readers.
   All that being said, he wrote some of the most terrifying stories of the twentieth century. Most of his best are indeed found in this "best of" volume. I can't think of a better introduction to this great writer than this book.
   The best story is the first, The Willows. H. P. Lovecraft felt that this was the greatest weird tale ever written, and if Lovecraft had never written any stories himself it still would be. It tells the story of two friends who are traveling by canoe on the Danube river and camp on a small, sandy island surrounded by willows. Here they encounter strange elemental beings that seem to exist just outside our own world. No summary can to justice to this story. The building of suspense and horror are brilliantly presented and Blackwood succeeded in instilling a sense of cosmic awe. It is unlike anything that came before and it is small wonder that Lovecraft was so impressed.
   For pure horror The Wendigo is probably the stand-out story. A hunting party encounters the legendary Wendigo of Native-American legend. The encounter is uniquely different from anything one would expect, and really delivers the chills. Take this one on your next camping trip to the deep woods.
   The Glamour of the Snow is particularly interesting. It tells the story of a man's meeting with a woman who just might be a nature elemental. However, the story is truly about Blackwood's own feelings of conflict between urban life and living in the larger natural world. The main character is torn between them and he must choose between the two. A very dangerous choice as it turns out.
   For a classic ghost story, The Listener is one of the best. It is a creepy tale of  haunting and possession. The ending is probably more sad than shocking for today's readers but that seems to work to its advantage.
   I also must give special mention to the final story, Max Hensig. This is so unlike any other story in the book that it gives a great sense of Blackwood's range as a writer. It takes place in New York City with all its urban grime and it is not a supernatural story at all. It is a brilliant suspense story about an alcoholic reporter who becomes the target of a fiendish serial killer. Max Hensig, the killer, is a truly vile and menacing character that one would expect to find in more modern fiction. Blackwood spent time as a New York reporter himself, a bitterly unhappy period for him, and his experience gives this story a grim sense of reality.
   Nearly all the stories in this book are good. The Empty House, a typical haunted house story, is the only one that really falls short. This was one of Blackwood's earliest tales, and it shows. There really isn't an ounce of fear in the whole thing, and frankly the comic-relief characters are so annoying that one can't help but hope for their demise. That said, it is more than made up for by the other stories in the book. The rest are top-notch. 
   Blackwood is one of the most important writers of the early twentieth century. It is a real shame that he isn't better known today by general readers. For fans of horror fiction however, he remains a giant. If you are unfamiliar with him do yourself a favor and pick up this book. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Gods Of Mars (1913) by Edgar Rice Burroughs

   Edgar Rice Burroughs was not a fan of organized religion. He recognized it for what it all too often is: a tool by those in power to manipulate others. He knew that those in charge were just men, men with no more knowledge of the divine than he had himself. False religions were common in his fiction, but never more so than in The Gods of Mars.
   It was only a matter of time before John Carter returned to Mars. A Princess of Mars was a great success and Burroughs' readers demanded more. Fortunately Burroughs had a lot more to say about Carter and the red planet. Unlike some of his other series, the Martian tales never declined in quality and The Gods of Mars is the best of the series. Here John Carter faced his greatest challenges and faced  the deadliest dangers of his career. By this point Burroughs had mastered his profession and with Gods he delivered one of his most inventive and action-packed novels.
   The story begins with John Carter stranded on Earth in 1886. For ten years he had longed to return to his beloved Barsoom. Now, standing before the Hudson River, he again felt the pull of the red planet. Just as before he experienced a moment of cold and darkness as his soul is pulled mysteriously to Mars. He wakes to find himself in the very last place he would want to be on Barsoom: the Valley Dor.
   The Martians had a very peculiar religion. Eventually, if they managed to live long enough, every Martian took a voluntary pilgrimage along the River Iss, to the lost Sea of Korus in the Valley Dor. The Martians believed that the Valley Dor was heaven, a paradise where they would be reunited with loved ones and enjoy everlasting peace. John Carter discovered the ghastly reality. The Valley Dor was a deathtrap where pilgrims were torn apart and devoured by weird plant-men and the great white apes of Barsoom. Any survivors were enslaved by the Holy Therns, priests who also just happened to be cannibals.
   Here Carter encounters a group of pilgrims who are being attacked by the plant men. Among them is the green Martian Tars Tarkas, John Carter's best friend. Carter and Tars Tarkas survive and together they fight their way through the valley and into the domain of the Therns. They encounter the mysterious beauty Thuvia, who becomes a very important character in the series, and together they plan to escape and expose the false religion for the terrible lie that it is. The problem is that to return from the Valley Dor is heresy in itself, one punishable by death anywhere on the planet. John Carter not only has to fight men and monsters, he also has to try and defeat a deeply-rooted cultural superstition. A hard task, even for the superhuman John Carter. Once he manages to escape the Valley Dor his troubles are only beginning.
   Along the way Burroughs invents some of his most interesting Martian cultures yet. The Holy Therns are both menacing and repulsive. The Therns' enemies are the Black Pirates of Barsoom. The Black Pirates inhabit  a subterranean world by an underground sea and are particularly fascinating.
   Burroughs wrote many extremely entertaining books, but The Gods of Mars is something more than that. While it succeeds brilliantly as escapist adventure, it is also a story about the crippling power of cultural superstition. Fighting monsters is one thing. Fighting a whole world's ancient religion is something else again. It is here, in this book, that Burroughs takes John Carter to his greatest level as a hero.
   This is Burroughs at his best. Well worth checking out.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

King Solomon's Mines (1885) by H. Rider Haggard

   King Solomon's Mines was the first English adventure novel to be set in Africa. Fortunately, it was written by a man who had spent  considerable time in Africa and had extensive contact with native Africans. Because of this his Africa has the realistic feel of an actual place, unlike the fantasy Africa later presented by Edgar Rice Burroughs and so many others. While Haggard's colonialist attitudes are obvious, he presented the natives as actual human beings as opposed to the stereotypes so common in later literature of the period.
   The hero of the novel is big game hunter Allan Quatermain, who became very popular and returned to star in a whole series of stories. He is remembered now, if at all, mostly through film adaptations. Allan did not fare well in the movies. The Quatermain from the movies is a far cry from the novel's short, grizzled, fifty-five year old with false teeth.  As a matter of fact, Quatermain from the novel is a humble, plain-spoken man who is not even particularly heroic. One can't help but like Allan, despite his unfortunate habit of slaughtering whole herds of elephants.
   Quatermain is hired by Sir Henry Curtis to find his missing brother, who was last seen searching for the legendary King Solomon's Mines. As it turns out, Allan Quatermain was the last to have word of this brother. He also happened to own a map to the mysterious Kukuanaland, where the mines were said to be. Allan was not very eager to set out on this adventure, since he didn't think any of them would live through it, but since Curtis promised to leave money to Allan's only son he agreed. They were accompanied by Captain Good, a likable fellow who functions as comedy relief, and the noble African Umbopa. After a series of harrowing adventures they make it (barely) to Kukuanaland where they become involved in a bloody revolution among the natives. They encounter dastardly villains, harrowing dangers and loyal allies.
   Probably the most interesting thing about this book is Haggard's presentation of English colonialism. He seemed to view it as natural and desirable that England should rule over the native African cultures. At the same time, having known natives personally, he recognized that they were as human as he was and he presented them as such. His Africans were complex individuals who were sometimes heroic and sometimes villainous. Umbopa, a character as important as any other in this story, is a perfect example of this. While Quatermain is constantly annoyed by Umbopa's attitude toward the white men, this is only because Umbopa has no doubt that he is their equal. We are lucky that Haggard did not have the hateful racist attitudes of so many of his many imitators.
   Of course, while it is much more than mere escapist fiction, King Solomon's Mines does work wonderfully as a pure adventure novel. It has a tremendous sense of pace and deftly-written action scenes. The characters in the novel are all finely drawn and come across as actual people. The style is straightforward and unadorned. Most of the dialogue is realistic, though the natives tend to speak as if they just walked out of the King James Bible.
   This book spawned a whole genre of "lost world" novels. Authors such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard were all deeply influenced by Haggard. Haggard himself continued in this vein and wrote dozens of adventure novels. Many were very good, though eventually he started to repeat himself somewhat. King Solomon's Mines is the great original and is well worth the time of any adventure fan.


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The White People and Other Weird Stories (1894-1916) by Arthur Machen

   Arthur Machen believed deeply in a very personal form of mystic Christianity. For Machen, powerful forces lurked behind the material world, forces that were dangerous to disturb. He deeply resented the growing secularism of his time and had a bitter hostility toward the results of scientific thought in society. For him the world was, and needed to stay, full of awe-inspiring mystery. Because he was an immensely talented writer he was able to infuse his fiction with this unique view of the world. The results were some of the weirdest and most unsettling stories in all of horror fiction.
   For the past few decades most of Machen's fiction was pretty hard to find outside a couple often-reprinted stories in anthologies. It was good news for horror and fantasy fans when Penguin published this edition of his stories. We can thank the editor, S. T. Joshi, for pushing for its publication. Nobody knows weird fiction of this era like Joshi and he understands Machen's importance. Machen, after all, was a major influence on H. P. Lovecraft and figures prominently in his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature.
   The title story, The White People, is the book's stand-out. It is by far his weirdest and most disturbing work. It is a "found diary" story creepier than any of the "found footage" horror films that have been churned out during the past few years. The diary belonged to a fourteen year old girl whose ignorance of the true meaning of her experiences amplify their horror. I hesitate to give any details for fear of spoiling the story for those who have not read it. It is enough to say that it is one of the most powerful and disorienting stories in all of horror literature.
   Another very good story is The Novel of the Black Seal, one of Machen's many meditations on the consequences of seeking knowledge best left unknown. It is one of the stories to feature his "little people"; a race of ghastly creatures that live in the wild hills of Wales. These creatures have survived from ancient times and are the dark basis for the lighter legends of elves and fairies. They have control of evil forces long forgotten by human beings. A Professor Greg goes looking for conclusive proof of the existence of these creatures. That turns out to be a very bad idea.
   I also must mention The Novel of the White Powder, if only because it is so gloriously revolting. An unfortunate man gets the wrong medicine from the druggist with nightmarish results. His mental and physical transformation is particularly ghastly.
   If there is any failing to this volume it is that Machen's best known story, The Great God Pan, is inexplicably not included. For the life of me I cannot understand why this is so. Not only was it Machen's first critical success, it is also one of his best stories. It can't be because of space, as it is a better story by far than some that were included. The Terror, for example, is a decent enough story but it is not close to being as good as Pan. Perhaps Joshi was looking to make this more of a well-rounded book, including works where the supernatural is only touched upon such as A Fragment of Life, than a book of his "best" work. To make its exclusion even more frustrating we have that beautiful painting of Pan right on the cover.
   If Machen had a major fault in his work, it was his reliance on coincidence. The coincidences in his stories were a crutch that he often relied on to get his plots where he wanted them to go. Sadly, they often stretched credulity to the breaking point. However, this fault is a forgivable one when balanced out against the atmosphere and uniqueness of his work.
   If you have any interest in weird fiction this book is very rewarding.


Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Time Machine (1895) by H. G. Wells

     I first read The Time Machine when I was twelve years old. I had seen the 1960 movie on television and was entranced by it (it remains one of my favorite films). Luckily for me, my step-father had impeccable taste in literature and had an old copy of Seven Science Fiction Novels of H. G. Wells that included The Time Machine. It is a very short novel and I managed to read it through in a couple days. It was a transforming reading experience. I suspect my taste in fiction is in a large part due to Wells and this story.
     While it was Jules Verne who created the "scientific romance", Wells took this type of story to a whole new level. Verne's books often read more like travel-adventure stories with fantastic vehicles than science-fiction fantasies. Wells would take a completely fantastic element and give it a rational explanation. This was groundbreaking for a time when the fantastic was usually only represented as supernatural in fiction.
     Wells' Time Traveler (we never learn his name) builds his machine and uses it to travel eight hundred thousand years in the future. He expects to find an advanced culture that has solved all the problems of human society. What he finds instead are the Eloi, doll-like people of limited intellect who inhabit a world of wild-growing gardens and massive buildings crumbling from neglect. He has a lunch of futuristic fruit with a group of Eloi and afterwards finds that his Time Machine has disappeared. Then things get really bad when he discovers the dreadful Morlocks; albino ape-men who live in a series of underground tunnels. It is the ghastly relationship of the Morlocks with the Eloi that drives the plot.
     Wells had the good fortune to study under T. H. Huxley and he taught biology before he became a professional writer. The idea of the possible end-result of natural selection on human beings haunted him. What would become of human beings who live in a protected society where all natural predators are no longer a danger? Add to that the changes medical advances and technology just might make to the human species. These speculations fuel The Time Machine.
     The Time Traveler himself is tough and smart but very fallible. As the story progresses he speculates on the mysteries of the Eloi. They seem like lazy children who do no work at all. Where does their clothing come from? Or their food? Why are they all so young? Most of his speculations turn out to be horribly wrong. Unlike most heroes from adventure novels he begins dangerously unprepared for what he finds and makes a series of tragic mistakes. No Jules Verne hero would be caught so unaware or make such blunders! Unfortunately for the Time Traveler, he seems just as human as we are.
     The Morlocks deserve special mention as a particularly ghastly menace. Their threat builds throughout the story. I find them just as creepy now as I did when I was twelve. The scene where the Time Traveler makes his way through their pitch-black tunnels armed only with a handful of matches is an unforgettable piece of horror writing.
     The Time Machine is a very dark story and that is one of the things that makes it so satisfying. Wells pulls no punches here. Perhaps he is a bit heavy handed with his message, but I tend to doubt it. I find his telling of the story extremely well crafted. This book has earned its fame and it is not surprising that it has remained in print for over a century.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian (stories 1932-1934) by Robert E. Howard


    I think the best way to read this book is to try and forget everything you know about Conan before you start it. If you are like most people you probably only know Conan from the movies. Or maybe the comics. The guy you saw on film or read about in the comics isn't really Conan. The real Conan only existed  in the fiction of Robert E. Howard, and it is small wonder most people have not read his Conan stories. For years they have been very hard to find, at least in their original versions. I have no wish to go into the long, tortured publishing history of Conan. It is enough to say that until this book was published ten years ago the Conan stories had never been presented as Howard wrote them in the order he wrote them.
   Robert E. Howard was a pulp writer. There were better writers who wrote for the pulps, H. P. Lovecraft and Dashiell Hammett for example, but they were not purely pulp writers. Robert E. Howard was and he was the greatest who ever lived. He towered over the rest like a great mountain over low hills. He used the language of the pulps and turned it into poetry. One does not so much read a Robert E. Howard story as experience it. He lived those tales as he wrote them and that is why they have such power. That is why they will live forever.
   By the time Howard created Conan he had been writing for a few years and had gained valuable experience in the craft of telling stories. He had already created Solomon Kane, King Kull and Bran Mak Morn. By the time he wrote the stories in this book he was at the top of his game. Not all the Conan stories are his best, but most of his best were Conan tales. With Conan he had created a fully rounded character and a believable human being. Howard made him so much more than the loincloth wearing brute most people think they know. He was violent and dangerous but he felt a great sense of responsibility for those who depended on him and could be moved to great pity by the suffering of others. He raised himself up from a teenage thief to the greatest King of his world; the Hyborian Age. It was a world that existed before the dawn of our history, with a vast landscape of dangerous and fabulous kingdoms. He fought terrible monsters and evil sorcerers who wielded dark magic (the magic in the Conan tales was always dark). His saga was a hugely epic one. When Howard dreamed, he dreamed big.
   This volume has some of the best of the Conan stories, starting with his first; The Phoenix on the Sword. The Tower of the Elephant and The Scarlet Citadel are the real standouts in my opinion but there are many more great ones here. There are a couple not-so-great ones also but thats OK. Howard was writing as much as he could during the depression so he can be forgiven a few flops, especially when his flops are so entertaining. These are tales of Conan as a teenage thief, a pirate, a mercenary captain, an outlaw and the King of Aquilonia. After reading them you will feel like you have been to the Hyborian Age yourself.
   I should mention that the art in this book by Mark Schultz is fantastic. He really did a wonderful job interpreting these stories. The illustrations alone make this edition of Conan the one to get.
   This book was followed by two others; The Bloody Crown of Conan and The Conquering Sword of Conan. The three books include everything Howard ever wrote about the Cimmerian.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A Princess of Mars (1912) by Edgar Rice Burroughs

   Welcome to my first blog. In the blogs ahead I will be looking at the fiction of legends like H. Rider Haggard, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, H. P. Lovecraft and many others. But where to start? I figured where else but Edgar Rice Burroughs and John Carter. 
   After all, A Princess of Mars changed fantasy and science fiction forever. Just look at John Carter's decendents: Flash Gordon (a direct John Carter rip-off...awesome though it was), Buck Rogers, Star Wars, Avatar...the list goes on and on. Sadly, the plots, situations and characters of Burroughs' Mars books have been so often recycled that when the John Carter film was at long last released, it often felt like we had seen it all before. 
   Edgar Rice Burroughs is of course known best as the creator of Tarzan of the Apes. A Princess of Mars was written first however, and I wouldn't be surprised if it ends up being his most influential work. I wonder about the eventual fate of Tarzan. He just might end up an interesting relic from the 20th century, one that makes many of us just a bit uncomfortable now. I have no doubt that John Carter will live forever on the brilliant fictional landscape of Barsoom (the martian's own word for Mars). A Princess of Mars is a book that has aged remarkably well, its fast-moving and impossible plot as engrossing now as it was a hundred years ago.
   It tells the story of ex-Confederate Captain John Carter of Virginia, who just happens to be an immortal warrior who never ages past thirty and has no memory of childhood. He is trapped in a cave by Apaches, where he is somehow transported to the Planet Mars. He wakes up there naked, the planets lesser gravity giving him super-strength. Carter is captured by fifteen foot tall, four armed Green martian nomad warriors. He learns the language and earns a high place among them thanks to his fighting ability (he is now the greatest swordsman of two worlds, as he never gets tired of telling us). The green martians also later capture Dejah Thoris, the title's Princess, a naked beauty who looks entirely human save for the fact that she is a copper red color. John Carter helps her escape and later becomes embroiled in a civil war between two great Martian cities. Needless to say, he wins out at the end, though tragically he is transported back to Earth while saving the whole planet from extinction.
   A pretty wild plot to be sure and one peppered throughout with ghastly monsters, airships, daring escapes and violent battles. The genius is in the telling. Something about Burroughs style could often make the most outrageous happenings seem believable enough, at least while you are reading the book. He had plenty of failings, all plenty apparent in Princess. He never mastered the ability to reproduce human speech in dialogue for one. Whatever his failings he had a towering imagination and instinctually understood how to tell a story. He also had the rare ability to write action extremely well indeed. 
   It is remarkable just how easily most readers can get past the fact that John Carter so casually mentions that he is immortal ( Edgar Rice Burroughs hated aging and found a way to make most of his heroes ageless). The human inhabitants of Barsoom are also easily accepted. If anything seems to bother fans of the book it is how John Carter is transported to Mars in the first place. He is paralyzed and then finds himself looking down at his own body. Looking outside the cave he sees the red planet, a red star in the sky. He closes his eyes, stretches out his arms and feels himself drawn through the "trackless immensity of space". Before he knows it he is on Mars. For some reason this never bothered me at all. 
   One criticism that is often leveled at Burroughs is how he handles the issue of race. Burroughs, like many white men of his time, grew up believing that his particular race was the highest type of human being. This becomes a real issue in Tarzan, as I will bring up in the future. So it is very interesting to read how John Carter falls in love with a red woman from another world and how his best friend ends up being a four-armed green martian. One gets the sense that his view of race was a bit complicated.
   The real magic of A Princess of Mars is just how well Burroughs tells the story. It is the ultimate in escapist fiction. His readers loved it and he ended up writing what amounted to eleven books set on Mars, and through them he created an intricate portrait of a dying world. For anybody interested in fantasy or adventure, they are must reads.