Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Creating an Age Undreamed Of, and Video Scholarship


My esteemed Cimmerian blog colleague Jeff Shanks has adapted his excellent 2011 ACA/PCA paper that studied Howard's worldbuilding and his likely influences into a video presentation, especially looking to how "Men of the Shadows" and "The Isle of the Eons" led to the development of the Thurian and Hyborian Ages. It's really, really good, and well worth a watch.

I'd spoken before about video reviewers like Doug Walker, Noah Antwiler, Brad Jones and the like, but another favourite of mine is Kyle Kallgren, whose Brows Held High is excellent precisely because he does delve into "proper" criticism: that is, exploring and analysing what makes a work what it is, rather than do it entirely for comic purposes. There are others out there, such as SFDebris, C.G.B. Grey and MrBTongue who favour a more analytical, detailed approach, which shows that there definitely is an audience for people who want to learn something.

It got me thinking about the power of video presentations to disseminate information to those who may not necessarily sit down and read the many articles on The Cimmerian, Two-Gun Raconteur, REHupa.com, REH-e-apa.com and others. I had pondered some sort of REH-related podcast, but that might be thinking too big. But Jeff adapting his exploration, truncated as it is from the mountains of research he's done, led me to think of other REH essays that might benefit from exposure in this matter. There are so many excellent, paradigm-shifting essays out there that just aren't going to reach the Youtube generation.

*Thanks to Taran for pointing out a typographic error in the title, though I'd like to say I intended to use the word "scholarshop."

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Norris Chambers, 1917 - 2013

  *Picture courtesy of Patrice Louinet
I just got an email from Roger Chambers, Norris Chambers' son, informing me that Norris passed away peacefully yesterday; Friday 22nd.

Norris was, as far as I know, the last person who had known Bob Howard personally.
Over the years, I had been exchanging emails with Norris on a semi-regular basis, and he usually answered them within 24 hours. Less than a month ago, he had been extremely helpful when I asked his help identifying the poems he had furnished Glenn Lord when Glenn was preparing what would become Always Comes Evening. In one of those recent emails, he quoted from memory several lines from "To A Woman", explaining me how much this poem had struck him and had stayed with him all those years.
It will be hard to accept that Norris won't be there to answer my emails anymore.

  - Patrice Louinet

Norris Chambers was a link to the past. With his passing, I'm reminded of the tenuous nature of time, how fleeting it is, and how personal experiences can be lost to time forever. This time last year, the last person to see service in the First World War died. The year before, the last combat veteran passed away. And the year before that, the last speaker of the Bo language. There is no one still alive who bore witness to the nightmares of Paschendaele and the Somme, the horror of Jallianwalla Bagh, the sinking of the Titanic, the Christmas Truce, the October Revolution. There are no more Ottomans, suffragettes, sky sailors, Bedford Boys, Cockleshell Heroes, Castner's Cutthroats, or Golden Thirteens. None of the people who fought for the independence of Estonia, Latvia, Turkey, and Ireland now live to see their countries' freedom. And we've lost other literary connections in the past decade: the last people who knew Thomas Hardy and Harry Houdini have also passed away. And now Norris Chambers, the modern world's last personal link to Robert E. Howard.

All the moments of a lifetime are lost, as they say, like tears in rain. But Norris loved to retell those moments, and as long as his personal site is online, people from all over the world can hear them. But what better way to hear those stories than through the man's own words?


Thanks for all the memories, Mr. Chambers.

 I once wrote a fantasy tale about a society in some strange place where people entered into an amusement park and paid a sizeable sum of money to enter a dream parlor. Here a technologically advanced system took you through a lifetime on some fictional planet called Earth where you lived a full life from birth to death. After years of living in a strange land where you might have a great life or a terrible one you died and the journey was over. The experience seemed so realistic that you thought the existence on earth was real and that the life there was the center of the universe.

Visitors to this strange, unreal planet were shocked to find that the people there did not live in harmony but fought each other in strange conflicts called wars. Many of the participants actually died in battle and the dream was over for them. The entire population of that planet was composed of inhabitants living the dreams they paid for in another life.

While there they did not know about their real life but lived the life of the dream. None of the earth planet or the life on it was real!

Those who returned from this dream parlor experience had very vivid memories of the lives they lived there – some were short and some were long, depending on the unpredictable circumstances of that particular dream. Very few of the adventure seekers who took the dream trip wanted to try another experience on earth.

Dreams can be a lot of fun, but they can also become very confusing when you begin to wonder which is the dream and which is real.

Is there a lot of fun in dreaming? Sometimes there is and sometimes there is not. It seems to depend on what the dream is about and how you are involved. My advice would be if you must dream make it a good dream. Then it will be fun!

 - "Big Dreams are Big Fun," Norris Chambers

On Adaptations and Illustrations of Literature

 It may have taken them 5 issues to stop messing around with pastichery and finally start seriously adapting some Howard stories, but it's well worth the wait.

This year's Howard Days, which I shall indeed be attending for all those who wish to see the Greater Bearded Scot, is centered around Howard in comics. The guest of honour is Timothy Truman, currently writing the upcoming King Conan: The Hour of the Dragon adaptation from Dark Horse. And the fandom rejoiced, for Truman is popular among Howard fans for his comparatively faithful adaptations and appreciation of Howard. Well, most Howard fans: there's always one, isn't there?

No, I doubt there'll be any tense stand-offs between myself and Mr Truman, because I'm a gentleman and a scholar as well as a raving blaspheming lunatic. Besides, although I have my share of misgivings on his decisions ("Why is Kutamun such a big wimp?" "Why did he reveal the Gray Ape so early?" "What's with this chronicler business in his King Conan stuff?") there is a lot to like in his adaptations, particularly when some of the changes - gasp! - are actually interesting. Yes, you heard me, I thought some of Truman's changes were something other than terrible, heinous and disrespectful to Howard! What on earth has come over me?

In any case, the subject of Howard in Comics is obviously highly tied to the long and celebrated history of adaptations, from the famous Marvel Conan the Barbarian to the current franchise at Dark Horse, with a gamut of writers and artists adding their interpretations to Howard's works. There have been stories that practically transpose Howard's prose straight onto the page, and others that took a more Hitchcockian approach. From the sublime to the ridiculous, as it were.

Being an aspiring comic artist myself, it seems an appropriate time to turn up to Howard Days with my musings on the medium's relevance to an author who died in 1936.

Friday, 22 March 2013

The Bones of the Old Ones

Technically speaking, I shouldn't be reading this book, since it isn't out in the UK. However, I just couldn't wait, so I ordered one from the US.

Howard Andrew Jones' The Bones of the Old Ones is part of the new generation of Sword-and-Sorcery, and very much in the tradition of its predecessor, The Desert of Souls. Indeed, the narrative structure is superficially similar to the first book: Asim & Dabir encounter a woman who isn't where she's supposed to be, they go on a journey with the girl to find magical macguffins, one of them falls for the girl, they pick up an elderly scholarly friend to help them out, and have to contend with evil sorcerers with unnatural constructed servitors, for The Fate of the Caliphate is in the balance. That isn't necessarily a criticism, of course, and it doesn't mean the tale is predictable or repetitive in the slightest. In fact, it offers something of a mirror image to Souls' plot, with the other member of the duo falling for Najya, and the pair's friendship and experience leading them to adapt better to unusual circumstances. Plus there are certainly enough differences in the details to make this more than a retread.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Lara Croft & Me

We have not even to risk the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time have gone before us — the labyrinth is thoroughly known. We have only to follow the thread of the hero path, and where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence. And where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.
 - Joseph Campbell, The Hero with A Thousand Faces

So you might've noticed I'd been talking about Lara Croft recently, in mostly very harsh tones about the sexualisation and agency of her character following Crystal Dynamics' newest reboot. The game's been released, and reviews have been spectacular across the board: even more critical ones like Ellie Gibson's give it a good score. Evidently it succeeded in every way it needed to - gameplay, production values, and crucially, story and character. Sounds like a solid title all the way.

So why am I still not going to buy it?

It's... complicated.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Bite-Sized Blog: Fantasypunk

Ever since Lost Soul Andy introduced me to MrBTongue's series "Tasteful, Understated Nerd Rage" to me, I've been enthralled by his videos, and I may well be using them as starting-off points of discussion in future posts. This one is interesting all on its own, but some of the things he said got me thinking...

A thought came to me watching this video that I might investigate further. An abstract: I'd argue that Howard's brand of Sword-and-Sorcery could be to traditional fantasy what Cyberpunk is to science fiction.

 - Both CP and S&S typically draw from noir styles: Noir is visually styled after German Expressionism, and the typical noir hero could be considered a variation on Nietzche's Übermensch. In this form, the Übermensch is a cynical, magnetic, powerful man who nonetheless operates with a strong internal morality not governed by law, religion, or any other social construct. Sound familiar?

 - The worlds of CP and S&S tend to be full of corruption, oppression and stagnation, the haves treading on the faces of the have-nots. The world is populated with several archetypes: women are downtrodden or trapped by social circumstances, or resort to using their wiles to gain some measure of control over their destiny; brutish thugs carry out the will of craven magnates who earned their fortune either through genetics or villainy; the few genuine law enforcers contend with crooked police and greedy judges as well as outlaws; politicians are in the pocket of some sort of criminal society and more invested in holding onto their station than improving society for the disadvantaged. Over all is hanging a cloud of despair, and a sense of imminent collapse: the world is walking a tightrope between the dominance of a totalitarian regime, and the chaos of all-out anarchy, depending on which part of the world you're in. Sounds rather like the Hyborian Age, does it not? Heck, it sounds like most of Howard's work in general.

 - The "punk" aspect of CP's name suggests youth, impetuousness, the angry young 'un, critical and suspicious of authority, treasuring freedom and self-actualisation. Adding "punk" to something gives a certain sort of impression, of a surly delinquent with a sharp mind, rattling cages, tipping over bins, tearing down campaign posters. Howard began writing professionally in his teens, and his works are certainly full of this sort of thing even as he approached 30.

 - The video alleges that CP operates in a sort of "danger zone": while science fiction operates in the far future and fantasy in the far past/another world analogous to earth's past,* CP is typically set in the Not Too Distant Future, and so the issues of today can be reflected as they are, instead of applied with futuristic/fantastical examples. For example, Cyberpunk could deal with racism directly, instead of alluding to it via fantastic racism between elves and dwarves, or robots and organic life, or aliens and other aliens. You'd think this might fall apart with Howard, but I think there are two very crucial elements: first, Howard's worlds are cyclical. Civilizations rise and fall, peoples flourish and vanish, kingdoms conquer and disappear, and we have no knowledge of them save through smatterings of legends and word cognates finding their way into our languages - to apply a slight reinterpretation on George Santayana's original phrase, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." The second is that the Hyborian Age is just as informed by Howard's contemporary world as it is by the past: Mark Finn explains it perfectly in Blood & Thunder, when he discusses how the huge number of migrant workers into the small town of Cross Plains, and subsequent industrialisation and economic upheaval, would have affected Howard's world. Indeed, stories like "Beyond the Black River" are as much about then-modern development as they were about Cowboys & Indians, or Spaniards & Aztecs, or Normans & Gaels, or Romans & Picts (etc), while the much maligned "The Vale of Lost Women" is given much more relevance when compared with the Cynthia Anne Parker story. The Hyborian Age is thus much closer to our modern world than the vast gulfs in time might indicate.

Thoughts?  Am I mad, or just a fool?

*Of course I disagree strongly with this very arbitrary and, frankly, untenable distinction: there's fantasy set in the future, and science fiction set in the past, and plenty of both set in the "danger zone" he discusses. But that's neither here nor there.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Swords & Sorority

"When I was younger, as well as liking Conan, I was a fan of Red Sonja," says Scott. "so I do firmly believe that if you're writing a fantasy book, if you can't have an axe-wielding barbarian woman in a chainmail bikini - and the chainmail bikini is very important - then there's no point in writing it, really."
 - Christopher Wright, and while I suspect he's being a little facetious, he's being far too subtle about it

I like “pulp” and “Sword and Sorcery” in all its gory, sexist, glory. Big, awesome barbarians, though an occasional wizard or rouge can slip in. Women are to be barmaids, princesses, slave girls, dancers, victims to be rescued, etc. Blacks and MezoAmerican like peoples are either rare “Noble Savages” or hideous cannibals with filed teeth. Orientals are sinister characters, though their women look hot but unless they are “Rescued sacrifice victim” also very sinister. Of course, awesome “Noble Savages” think Kubotai from “Conan the Barbarian”! Mix in lovecraft, westerns, maybe some not too queer Burroughs like stuff…
Really, do women, blacks, orientals, Mexicans, etc. buy “Heroic Fantasy/Sci-Fi” enough that the damage of not sucking sucking sucking up to them will be less than the damage of alienating your base customer market?
 - Green Gestalt on John O'Neill's post on Realms of Fantasy

I don't see posts like this very often, but when I do, they leave a bad taste in my mouth. I'm reminded of the Cross Assault sexual harassment scandal over which the Internet had once again exploded (one wonders how the series of tubes could survive all these conflagrations):

Those are jokes and if you were really a member of the fighting game community, you would know that. This is a community that's, you know, 15 or 20 years old, and the sexual harassment is part of a culture, and if you remove that from the fighting game community, it's not the fighting game community — it's StarCraft."
 - Bakhtanians "justifying" the concerted verbal abuse which caused a fellow player to drop out

Sword-and-Sorcery has often been accused of being one of those genres that belongs to the past, a different time when "all men are strong, all women beautiful, all life adventurous, and all problems simple." Sword-and-Sorcery, some might say, is outdated, an embarrassment, relevant in our more enlightened times only to show how far we've come since the bad old days of 1950s advertisements.

Then again...

Is sexism inherent to Sword-and-Sorcery? It's the sort of thing many have wrestled with in print and on the 'Net. Well, I figure the best way to address that is talk about my favourite female Sword-and-Sorcery characters, hopefully showing that not only is Sword-and-Sorcery not the exclusive domain of manly men, but that it never was. And since it's International Women's Day, it seems appropriate to post some of my favourites.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

World Book Day 2013

World Book Day 2013 falls on my 29th birthday, which makes me almost as happy as this little chap:

So I'm going to try out something different - tiny capsule reviews of short stories I've read or reread recently.

"The Jewel of Arwen" by Marion Zimmer Bradley
(From The Year's Best Fantasy Stories (1975) edited by Lin Carter )
The best Lord of the Rings fan fiction I've ever read - or, rather, the only good Lord of the Rings fan fiction I've ever read. It was written before The Silmarillion came out, so it relies only on the LotR appendices, and yet it still manages to be more in-tune with Tolkien than any number of Middle-earth pastiches I've experienced.

"The Sword Dyrnwyn" by Lloyd Alexander
(From The Year's Best Fantasy Stories (1975) edited by Lin Carter)
There should be a rule in fantasy fiction: if you encounter a black sword, do not look at it, do not touch it, do not pick it up, just walk away and leave the blasted thing alone. But then, if that was a rule, then we wouldn't have stories like this.

"The Double Shadow" by Clark Ashton Smith
(From The Year's Best Fantasy Stories (1975) edited by Lin Carter )
This is one of those Smith stories like "Empire of the Necromancers" that is told almost like a parable, and manages to achieve a sort of timelessness. It's also a perfect example of Smith's use of the exact perfect word for the situation, no matter how esoteric: it isn't purple prose, this is Tyrian loquaciousness. It also has a sapient snake as the protagonist, which is brilliant.

"The City of Madness" by Charles R. Saunders
(From The Year's Best Fantasy Stories (1975) edited by Lin Carter)

Who's the black Ngombe's pal
That's a sex machine to all the gals?
You're damn right!

Who's the barbarian
That would risk his neck for his brother man?
Can ya dig it?

Who's the chui that won't cop out
When there's mchawi all about?
Right on!

You see this chui Imaro is a bad mother -
(Shut your mouth!)
But I'm talkin' about Imaro!
(Then we can dig it!)

He's a complicated man
But no one understands him but his pompous pygmy priest friend...

(also read The Wasp's review)

"The Small Assassin" by Ray Bradbury
(A Chamber of Horrors unlocked by John Hadfield)
This is one of Bradbury's most evil stories when you think about it: what's most unsettling is the outcome is horrific whether the protagonist is right or wrong. It's one of those amazing stories where even the possibility of the protagonist imagining everything is just as monstrous as if the supernatural/uncanny aspect was actual - perhaps more so. Gave me the shivers, so it did.

"More Spinned Against" by John Wyndham
(A Chamber of Horrors unlocked by John Hadfield)
People love calling Wyndham's work "cosy catastrophe," as if comfortable surroundings or circumstances mitigate or even remove horror and terror, but as with Bradbury and others, I find that it can multiply that sense of unease and threat. "More Spinned Against" is a delightfully grim tale that has Wyndham's typically pointed critique of social mores and hypocrisies, while throwing you a lovely (if, in retrospect, clearly signposted) final twist.

"The Abyss" by Leonid Andreyev
(A Chamber of Horrors unlocked by John Hadfield)
A deeply unpleasant and malevolent story that doesn't have any overt supernatural elements, but is pregnant with supernatural subtext, if you will. It's not a happy story at all.

"The Monk" by M. G. Lewis
(A Chamber of Horrors unlocked by John Hadfield)
Another very horrible story in the sense that it left me feeling nauseous, but in this case it has a certain spiritual power and resonance by virtue of the protagonist's occupation and the setting.

"The Yellow Wall-Paper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
(A Chamber of Horrors unlocked by John Hadfield)
Required reading for psychological horror aficionados. One of the most beautifully conceived, poignant and eloquent meditations on frustration, anxiety and perception degradation I've read.

"The Things" by Peter Watts
If you've ever seen John Carpenter's adaptation of John W. Campbell's "Who Goes There?" (or the short story for that matter), then this is a simply magnificent perspective switch.

 "... All You Zombies..." by Robert A. Heinlein
Heinlein is fascinating as much due to his choice of subject as to his approach, and "... All You Zombies..." may well take the biscuit in terms of "What in Jove's Name Were You Thinking!?!" This approached Vonnegut levels - even Palahniuk levels - of Why Science Fiction Is Frightening As All Get Out. For the man who brought the word "grok" into popular usage, I don't think it's possible for any human being to grok Heinlein. He's... ungrokkable.

So, hope you all had as happy a World Book Day as I had a good birthday!

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Arthur Machen's 150th

 Image by the inestimable Andrea Bonazzi
The fault I find with so many so-called horror-tales (particularly including my own) is that the object of horror too swiftly becomes too solid and concrete. It takes a master of the pen, such as Machen and yourself, to create a proper SUGGESTION of unseen and unknown horror. The illusive shadows lurking at the back of the brain are so much more monstrous and blood-chilling than the children of the actual mind. I’m not saying this like I’d like to say it. But the rustle of leaves when there is no wind, the sudden falling of a shadow across a door, the furtive trying of a window-catch, the sensation of unseen Eyes upon one, these give rise to speculations more monstrous and terrors more cosmically icy, than any chain-clanking apparition, or conventional ghost, that appears in full glory. When a writer specifically describes the object of his horror, gives it worldly dimensions and solid shape, he robs it of half its terrors. Somewhere, somehow, there must lurk in the dim gulfs of our racial memories, titanic and abysmal horrors beyond the ken of the material mind. For how else are we able to half conceive and fear entities we are not able to describe? Seek to draw their images for the conscious mind and they fade away. We cannot shape them in concrete words. Well, I seem to be repeating myself without saying yet what I’m trying to say. But I’ll say this: humanity fears floods and starvation, foes and serpents and wild beasts, but there are fears outside these concrete things. Whence come these fears from the OUTSIDE? Surely in its infancy mankind faced beings that live today only in dim ancestral memories, forgotten entirely by the material mind. Otherwise, why is it we half-visualize in that other, subconscious mind, perhaps, shapes beyond the power of man to describe?
 - Robert E. Howard, Letter to H.P. Lovecraft, ca. September 1930

A big anniversary for Arthur Machen, one of the finest practitioners of the uncanny weird tale, an influence on countless authors, and one of the great under appreciated progenitors of modern horror. For my part, I haven't written much on him: for whatever reason I never "got" The Novel of the Black Seal or The White People, so I guessed he wasn't for me.  But then I read "The Great God Pan," and man did I get it. He truly masters the technique of horrific suggestion in a way I've only seen equalled by Blackwood. I reread it recently, and it remains one of my top twenty horror stories. When I get back on 80 Years of Conan, I'll be discussing "The Great God Pan" and its possible influences on "The Frost-Giant's Daughter."

I don't have much else to say, so here's a great post on the man's work from Stewart Lee.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Writing What You Know

Back in University, I made this cover for one of the most important books in my early life. Sadly the ACD Estate never got in touch with me, but them's the breaks.

Been very quiet here on The Blog That Time Forgot. A little too quiet. But, as ever, don't mistake lack of information as dearth of activity, for I've been very busy on what amounts to a perilous journey of self-discovery, where I'm looking at myself, my place in the world, and how I can help others in my situation.

Truth is, despite wearing my heart on my sleeve and being very open about my emotional reactions to artistic stimuli, there are some things I don't want to share with the world at large. Things that are a part of me,  which are most certainly not harmful or wicked by any standard, but which are still deeply misunderstood and prone to misinterpretation. It seems preposterous to not want to "come out" about something that you shouldn't have to "come out" about, but recent events - tragedies, scandals, whatnot - have led me to be reticent about it. At the same time, I look at the people I know who share this thing: younger than me, maybe more naive, growing up in a very different environment that's better in some ways, worse than others.

I'm not ready to be fully open about just what that thing is. Truth be told, I'm sure if I told some of you, you'd say "what, that's it?" and it wouldn't change your opinion of me whatsoever. If that were your reaction, then trust me, I had no doubts. But until then, this is going to be a part of myself I only reveal to few.

What I have no difficulty sharing is my feelings on art, and specifically, where I want to go with it. Being a fan of Conan Doyle, Burroughs, Howard, Merritt, Haggard, and all manner of adventure authors, it should be no surprise that my artistic aspirations are very much in their field: tales of brave and bombastic souls seeking out new worlds and people and life, challenging the universe to unveil its secrets, trekking and voyaging and journeying through hostile terrain and uncharted territory. Certainly I've watched a lot of fellow fans of the genre go on to produce their own works. I'll have a look at some of them here.