Friday, 14 June 2019

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

I am the symbol of Creation and Destruction
I am the beginning and the end.
With my tail in my mouth
I am the Circle of Eternity.
Wisdom is in my eyes
And the dusk of wisdom lurks amid my coils.
My track circles the world
And I loop my coils around the Universe.
My head waves among the stars
And the nations fall prostrate before me.
Coiled, head upright, I am the spirit of the sea.
The world-shaking dinosaur was my henchman
And the flying dragons were my footmen.
The ancients knew me.
They reared shrines and altars
And I taught them dim, dusky wisdom...
 - Robert E. Howard, "Serpent"

It's obvious why there's such a divide between critics and audiences for Godzilla: King of the Monsters - because it isn't the kind of film most critics would like. This isn't a film you go to see for dialogue, character arcs, or plot points: it's a film to experience spectacle, and ponder what it's about. You will undoubtedly be disappointed by the human characters, the script, and the story - the "people" and "events" which take up the runtime - but that's not the point of a Godzilla film. It's fair to criticise those elements, of course, and there's no real barrier to a monster film having excellent characters, script, & plot: it's just their absense is not a mortal failure. To paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt: when it comes to monster movies, great critics discuss themes; average critics discuss plot; small critics discuss characters.

Since this is going to delve deep into the mythology of the Monsterverse, I'd wait until after you've seen the film - and I do recommend you see it - until reading.

Monday, 20 May 2019

Narrative Rebellion: The Last Song, Or, How A Song of Ice & Fire & A Game of Thrones Should End (But Probably Won't)

What A Song of Ice and Fire was always about for me.

So, that's the end of A Game of Thrones. I've written about it a few times on the blog, often quite sceptically, but generally more against the pundits than the show itself.

I, like I'll wager a great many other people, had my own idea about where the series was going. I'm sure many of us had our own theories about how the great struggle for the Iron Throne was going to end. Now, while 25-year-old Aly might've gone into rage over some of the decisions made over the course of the series - by Martin & the showrunners alike - 35-year-old Aly has mellowed out somewhat. I've realised that not only is it OK if a story makes decisions you find bad or terrible, it can be an essential creative spark.

When J.R.R. Tolkien experienced Shakespeare's Macbeth, he couldn't help but be deeply disappointed in its treatment of the Weird Sisters' prophecies: Birnam Wood didn't actually march on Dunsinane, a bunch of soldiers just tied sticks to their bodies to make it look like the forest was marching. Similarly, the entire justification for MacDuff killing Macbeth based on a painful semantic point over the definition of "born" was total weaksauce. As such, two of the most important & beloved elements of The Lord of the Rings - the Ents march on Isengard, & Eowyn's prophesied defeat of the Witch-King - could be traced back to Tolkien's displeasure at Shakespeare's perceived cop out. Whether you agree on that point - wordplay like this was a popular conceit in Shakespeare's time - is somewhat beside the larger point that, rather than complain about what he didn't like about the story, Tolkien did something creative about it.

Hence, while I'm not going to sign the petition making the rounds to remake the last season of A Game of Thrones (and certainly without presuming to be J.R.R.T. to Martin's Shakespeare!), I think creating our own alternate takes is a great creative outlet for any frustrations one might have, as well as possibly inspiring more productive, creative possibilities for the future.

So here's how I would've written the final stretch of A Game of Thrones.

Thursday, 4 April 2019

Amis Absents

Just over five years after Steve Tompkins' death, Miguel Martins died. Deuce Richardson has a fine tribute marking the fifth year of his absence. I still miss him. I wonder what he'd think about everything that's happened over the past five years: what would he make of the new Howard collections, the Conan games and comics, even things like current affairs in his home country and the continent. There was so much we could have talked about even before - fiction, adventure, history, art, all sorts. Maybe next life.

I stepped away from a more active involvement in Howard fandom for constitutional reasons. In retrospect, perhaps it was more than that too. We were reminiscing over Steve's passing mere weeks before we got the news of Miguel's death. The memory of Patrice & me sharing a quiet moment in memory of Miguel is one that will stay with me forever. For a while, to be part of Howard fandom felt like being in the Company of Death, waiting for the next to fall, dreading to hear about someone's ill health.

Yet the Company of Death does not care what you're doing with your life. Death visited my family in the last month: my grandfather is now the last of his generation following the passing of his two surviving siblings, mere days apart. Relatives, friends, all fled - all done. The price of having a large extended family is the dry cleaning bill for your best suit.

Yet we live, and through us, their memories live. In Taoism, there is no past or future, only the present, which is in a constant state of change. When someone dies, they don't proceed to an "afterlife," but transpose themselves to the other side of the Universe (think of the Yin & Yang). Your body has simply outlived its usefulness, & your spirit carries on in some other form which we mortals cannot perceive. Sometimes the spirit dissipates & joins the Tao, sometimes your spirit is transported back to our side of the Universe in a "new life." In the meantime, those who were left behind retain some contact, as all life is connected with the Tao.

As I say: maybe next life.

Saturday, 23 March 2019

The Immortal Memory of Steve Tompkins

Here at TC Central a schism wider than the Hyrkanian steppes has long separated me from site-founder Leo Grin and Silver-Keywielder Brian Murphy. Is John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian Li’ Abner versus the Moonies, as Karl Edward Wagner discerned so many years ago, or the most stirring sword-and-sorcery epic ever filmed? Well now Al Harron, who posts as “Taranaich” at the REH Forum, has graciously given us permission to run El Ingenioso Bàrbaro Rey Konahn de Simaria, an attempt at reconciling the Howard and Milius Conans that far surpasses the L. Sprague and Catherine Crook de Camp CtB novelization. Mr. Harron is clearly the greatest Scotsman since Sean Connery, and Gordon Brown should knight him forthwith:

- Steve Tompkins, “Wheel of Pain, Tree of Woe, Throne of Tinfoil, Or, The Daze of Highly Insulting Adventure”

This, aside from an email to Deuce Richardson enquiring about my wee parody (“my day, she is made!”), is the only personal contact I had with SteveTompkins, at the time editor of the twice World Fantasy Award-nominated fantasy blog The Cimmerian. I can't tell you how thrilled I was: Steve Tompkins – editor of The Cimmerian, as well as The Black Stranger and Other American Tales, contributor to some of the finest critical anthologies on Robert E. Howard's work from The Barbaric Triumph to The Robert E.Howard Companion, whose online 'zine Visions, Gryphons, Nothing, and the Night was no small inspiration for me to get into blogging in the first place – liked something I wrote!

I had been posting feverishly on the Robert E. Howard Forums, conversing with serious Howard critical scholarship and fans who just enjoy good stories for being good stories. From talking about the literary and historical influences of Conan's world, to Howard's own authors & life, all the way to arguing over what Howard would make of his creations' impact on the world today - all discussions were welcome. I looked to The Cimmerian, Two-Gun Raconteur, REHupa, and other sites as “the big leagues,” something that “real” scholars and writers get involved in, not simple fans from Scotland who hadn't so much as contributed to a fanzine yet.

But Steve republishing that daft pastiche gave me that boost of confidence: this guy thinks my writing's good enough to go on The Cimmerian. From then on, I started thinking about writing about Howard more seriously. “Scholar” has all sorts of connotations which, naturally, rankled some among Howard scholarship, so I was constantly battling feelings of imposter syndrome in deigning to debate with the likes of Rusty Burke, Damon Sasser, Rob Roehm, & others. With the help & encouragement of Deuce Richardson, I began writing articles in the hope that, perhaps one day, I'd see my name on the byline of a site like REHupa, or REH: Two-Gun Raconteur, or even The Cimmerian. Less than a month after I made my unofficial debut on the site which would be my home for the three years until its closing, Steve died. My second post on The Cimmerian was a euology to him.

Steve left behind an incredible volume of scholarly explorations, from including essays in Howard collections like Del Rey's Kull: Exile of Atlantis and The Best of Robert E. Howard, Volume II: Grim Lands. His essays on The Cimmerian are still available to read, including personal favourites like “The Conscience and the Kisses of a King,” (an exploration of Bran Mak Morn) “What a Mummer Wild, What an Insane Child,” (which compares motifs in the seemingly unrelated The Dark Knight to The Hour of the Dragon) “After Aquilonia and Having Left Lankhmar,” (a look at Sword-and-Sorcery fiction since the 1980s) and the “Something to Do With Deathlessness” and “Derleth Be Not Proud” trilogies. As well as Visions, Gryphons, Nothing, and the Night, several of his other essays are collected in this thread in the Swords of Robert E. Howard Forum, the spiritual successor to the Robert E. Howard Forums.

There are some essays which I always return to. The first I ever read, “The Chants of Old Heroes, Singing in Our Ears” is one of the most concise, compelling, and eloquent treatises on why Howard's original work, free from the editing and censorship of folk who think they know better, is so powerful, and worth preserving. “The Shortest Distance Between Two Towers” is perhaps the best piece of scholarship comparing Robert E. Howard and J.R.R. Tolkien I've ever read, and unlikely to be topped any time soon. While some Tolkienists sneer at the perceived low-brow, low-culture Howard, and some Howardists similarly dismiss Tolkien as overrated or airy-fairy, Steve respected both authors immensely, and treated them as the dual Argonath of 20th Century fantastic fiction. Similarly, while many speculate what new stories Howard may have written had that fateful day in June 1936 gone differently, few offer the convincing & exhaustive extrapolations Steve produced in “Newer Barbarians,” one of the best essays in The Cimmerian print journal. In the end, it's impossible to find a Tompkins essay that I didn't find rewarding, illuminating, or worthwhile. Like the works he so expertly analysed, they're always good to return to, and reward repeat readings.

On this tenth anniversary, I drink to his shade: always present, never obscured even in brightest day or darkest night.

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

The People of the Heather: Robert E. Howard and Scotland

Books dealing on Scottish history were easier for me to obtain than those dealing with Irish history, so in my childhood I knew infinitely more about Scottish history and legendry than Irish. I had a distinct Scottish patriotism, and liked nothing better than reading about the Scotch and English wars. I enacted these wars in my games and galloped full tilt through the mesquite on a bare-backed racing mare, hewing right and left with a Mexican machete and slicing off cactus pears which I pretended were the heads of English knights.
 - Robert E. Howard, letter to H.P. Lovecraft

Robert E. Howard's Irish fascination is well-known and explored among Howard scholars. Nearly every genre and series he wrote had some connection to Ireland and the Irish: several series starred Irishmen in lead roles, and a few of his most famous stories are set in Ireland. But Ireland is not the only Celtic nation Howard wrote about: Scotland too can boast her share of Howardian heroes and histories.

Howard counted Scottish authors like Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert W. Service, and Walter Scott among his very favourites, and plenty of his favourite non-Scottish authors like Edgar Allan Poe, Harold Lamb, Talbot Mundy, and Lord Dunsany wrote a few Scots tales in their time. As seen above, Scottish history was a significant influence on Howard's imagination. The theosophical writings of Scots Lewis Spence & William Scott-Elliot were foundational to the Thurian and Hyborian Ages of Howard's most famous creations, Kull of Atlantis and Conan of Cimmeria. My Floridian pal Jeffrey Shanks goes into great detail here:

Howard was far from alone in setting his Weird Tales in Scotland: Edmond Hamilton's "The Atomic Conquerors" is a wild yarn which supposes a rather otherworldly origin for the mysterious vitrified forts populating the Scottish wilderness; H. Warner Munn's "The Werewolf's Daughter" is a grand trilogy detailing the adventures of the Werewolf of Ponkert; Weird Tales regular Seabury Quinn even got in on the action with "the Bride of Dewer," a Rumpelstiltskin tale with a tartan twist.

So, on Robert E. Howard's 113th birthday, I wonder: what would a "Scottish" anthology of Robert E. Howard stories look like?

Monday, 31 December 2018

Putting the Terror Back Into Terrible Lizards

The depiction of dinosaurs as monsters has long been a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, dinosaurs-as-monsters has kept them in the public consciousness, and acted as a gateway for more nuanced & naturalistic media, like documentaries. On the other, it can be dispiriting to see them depicted as run-of-the-mill bogles. One of the things I still applaud Jurassic World for its recognition of this dichotomy, exemplified by the Indominus & Indoraptor - warped, disfigured, monstrous abominations which bore little resemblance to the animals from whence they came.

So while I love media that presents dinosaurs as animals, or with a wide variety of temperaments, I also appreciate new ways of making them scary. The Velociraptors in Jurassic Park were iconic because not only were they savage & dangerous, they were also intelligent. This added a certain existential dread to their threat: you could outsmart a T.rex or a Dilophosaurus, but could you be so sure you could outsmart a Raptor?

With that in mind, a fellow RPG aficionado posed this question to me:

I need some truly nasty dinosaurs, real bastards, things that could lay waste to a tough band of adventurers. Real nightmare fuel. Thrill me.

Well, I couldn't not respond, could I?

Because I had such fun writing this, I thought I'd write it down on the blog for posterity.

Friday, 14 December 2018

Mortal Engines & the Tyranny of Realism

Urgh. How very unrealistic.

I love realism in my speculative fiction, but I am by no means beholden to it. I can enjoy realistic science fiction like The Andromeda Strain, 2001, Interstellar, Silent Running, and Moon at least as much as I relish scientific romance & space operas like the Space Trilogy, the Barsoom saga, & Star Wars. It's answering the question "Do you like hard or soft science fiction" with "yes."

Take dragons, for instance. I greatly enjoy the likes of The Last Dragon/Dragon's World: A Fantasy Made Real, which offered a fascinating pseudo-palaeontology for dragons, from the early draconic creatures of the Late Cretaceous which survived the K-T extinction, to the variety in forms which led to Marine, Occidental, and Oriental forms. Similarly, Gordon R. Dickson's The Dragon and the George and its spiritual companion, Peter Dickinson's The Flight of Dragons (both inspiring the fascinating Rankin-Bass cartoon sharing the latter's name) offer inventive extrapolations into dragon society in fantasy settings, as well as the anatomical nature of dragons.

8-year-old Aly ate stuff like this right up. In this age of the Internet, daft nerds like me can explore further than ever. Shad Brooks' series Fantasy Re-Armed does for other fantasy beings what has been done for dragons, from dwarves to elves, orcs to mermen, minotaurs to centaurs, fairies to giants, while also exploring traditional fantasy elements like dungeons, castles, paladins, and barbarians. It's a great time for those people in the middle of that very niche Venn diagram that loves hard science and complete invention.

At the same time, however, I don't need my fantasy creatures to be realistic (imagine that). I don't scoff at the unrealism of Ancalagon the Black being ludicrously huge, nor will I be over fussed if one dragon or another defies the laws of aerodynamics. I will not immediately dismiss a work of fiction because one thing or another isn't realistic, and I cannot believe I'm actually saying these words about stories with freaking dragons in them. Speculative fiction does not have to adhere to the constraints of our current reality: it doesn't even have to acknowledge them. All it has to do is be true to what it is trying to achieve.

Thursday, 11 October 2018

HistoScotInktoberFest, Day 11: Margaret, Queen of Scots, ca 1070 AD

Let me speak first of all about her prayerfulness. In church no one was so silent and composed as she, no one so wrapt in prayer. Whilst she was in the house of God she would never speak of worldly matters, or do anything which savoured of the earth; she was there simply to pray, and in praying to pour forth her tears. Only her body was then here below, her spirit was near to God, for in the purity of her prayer she sought nothing but God and the things which are God's. As for her fasting, I will say this alone, that the strictness of her abstinence brought upon her a very severe infirmity.

To these two excellent gifts of prayer and abstinence she joined the gift of mercy. For what could be more compassionate than her heart? Who could be more gentle than she towards the necessitous? Not only would she have given to the poor all that she possessed; but if she could have done so she would have given her very self away. She was poorer than any of her paupers; for they, even when they had nothing, wished to have something; while all her anxiety was to strip herself of what she had. When she went out of doors, either on foot or on horseback, crowds of poor people, orphans and widows flocked to her, as they would have done to a most loving mother, and none of them left her without being comforted.

But when she had distributed all she had brought with her for the benefit of the needy, the rich who accompanied her, or her own attendants, used to hand to her their garments, or anything else they happened to have by them at the time, that she might give them to those who were in want; for she was anxious that none should go away in distress. Nor were her attendants at all offended nay rather each strove who should first offer her what he had, since he knew for certain that she would pay it back two-fold.

Now and then she helped herself to something or other out of the King's private property, it mattered not what it was, to give to a poor person; and this pious plundering the King always took pleasantly and in good part. It was his custom to offer certain coins of gold upon Maundy Thursday and at High Mass, some of which coins the Queen often devoutly pillaged, and bestowed on the beggar who was petitioning her for help. Although the King was fully aware of the theft, he generally pretended to know nothing of it, and felt much amused by it. Now and then he caught the Queen in the very act, with the money in her hand, and laughingly threatened that he would have her arrested, tried, and found guilty. Nor was it towards the poor of her own nation only that she exhibited the abundance of her cheerful and open-hearted charity, but those persons who came from almost every other nation, drawn by the report of her liberality, were the partakers of her bounty. Of a truth then this text may be applied to her, "He hath dispersed abroad, he hath given to the poor, therefore his justice remaineth for ever."

 -   The Life Of St Margaret, Queen Of Scotland, Turgot, Bishop Of St Andrews

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

HistoScotInktoberFest, Day 10: Lady Fenella of Angus Assassinates Kenneth II, ca 995 AD

The principal of these were Constantine the Bald, son of King Culen, and Gryme, son of Kenneth, son of King Duff; and, plotting unceasingly the death of the king and his son, they at length found accomplices for the perpetration of such a crime. The daughter of Cruchne, Earl of Angus, who was named Finele, consented unto their deeds and design, her only son having formerly been ordered to be put to death by the king at Dunsynane, whether by the severity of the law, or for what he had done, or in some other way, I know not.
This wily woman, therefore, ardently longing for the king's death, caused to be made, in an out-of-the-way little cottage, a kind of trap, such as had never before been seen. For the trap had, attached to it on all sides, crossbows always kept bent by their several strings, and fitted with very sharp arrows; and in the middle thereof stood a statue, fashioned like a boy, and cunningly attached to the cross-bows; so that if any one were to touch it, and move it ever so little, the bowstrings of the crossbows would suddenly give way, and the arrows would straightway be shot forth, and pierce him through.
Having thus completed the preparations for perpetrating the crime, the wretched woman, always presenting a cheerful countenance to the king, at length beguiled him by flattery and treacherous words. The king went forth one day, with a few companions, into the woods, at no great distance from his own abode, to hunt; and while pursuing beasts hither and thither with his dogs, as he hunted, he happened by chance to put up hard by the town of Fettercairn, where the traitress lived. She saw him; and, falling on her knees, she besought him with great importunity to come into her house -
"otherwise," said she, "I shall, without fail, think myself mistrusted by your Majesty's Grace. But God knows - and thou, my king, shalt soon know - that, although the tattling of the spiteful may repeat many a lie about me, I have always been faithful to thee - and shall be, as long as I live. For, what thou not long ago didst to my most wretched son, I know right well, was justly done, and not without cause;"
and tripping up to the king, she whispered in his ear, saying: -
"When thou be come with me, I will explain to thee, my lord, who are the accomplices of that accursed son of mine, and the manner of their treachery. For they hoped to get me to join them in their conspiracy to deceive thee; but I straightway refused to countenance their heinous treachery Nevertheless, they forced me to lay my hand on the Gospel and swear never to betray their secret; but, though I promised them this on my oath, still I should be most false and traitorous towards thee, my lord king - to whom, above all others, steadfast and loyal fealty is due - were I to conceal the danger to thy person. For who knows not that no sword covenant holds good against the safety of the king's majesty. 
Thus that crafty woman cunningly misled the king's mind, and drew him, alas! too ready of belief, into the house with her, everything speeding her design. Why say more? Why dwell on so sad a tale? After the king had alighted from horseback, she took his hand, and quickly led him, alone, to the house where the trap was concealed. After she had shut the door behind them, as if with the view of revealing the secrets of the traitors, as she had promised, she showed him the statue, which was the lever of the whole trap. He naturally asked what that statue had to do with him; whereupon she answered, smiling
- "If the top of the head of this statue, which thou seest, my lord king, be touched and moved, a marvellous and pleasant jest comes of it."
So, unconscious of hidden treachery, he gently, with his hand, drew towards him the head of the machine, thus letting go the levers and handles of the crossbows; and immediately he was shot through by arrows sped from all sides, and fell without uttering another word. The traitress then went hurriedly out by the back-door, and hid herself in the shades of the forest for the time; but, a little after, she safely reached her abettors. The king's companions, however, after having long awaited his return from the house, wondered why he delayed there. At last, having stood before the gate, and knocked persistently at the door, and hearing nothing, they furiously broke it open; and when they found that he had been murdered, they raised a great outcry, and ran about in all directions, looking for the guilty woman - but in vain: they found her not; and, not knowing what to do, they consumed the town with fire, and reduced it to ashes. Then, taking with them the king's blood-stained body, they shortly afterwards buried it with his fathers in lona, as was the custom with the kings.
 - John of Fordun, Chronicles of the Scottish Nation
 The death of Kenneth II of Scotland is shrouded in mystery, with little compelling contemporary evidence. Lady Fenella - or Finella/Finele, depending on the source - is even more mysterious, with some suggesting she was even fictional. While John leaves Fenella's fate unclear, the locality of Den Finella in Kincardineshire is alleged to be the location of her death: chased by the king's men, she leapt from the cliffs into the sea.

Finella is one of many Scottish historical and folkloric figures that featured in Disney's groundbreaking and fascinating series Gargoyles - though, as with many of these individuals, her story is rather different from established history - voiced by none other than Sheena Easton.

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

HistoScotInktoberFest, Day 9: Máel Brigte slays Sigurd the Mighty... Posthumously, 892 AD

Earl Sigurd made himself a mighty chief;  he joined his fellowship with Thorstein the red, son of Olaf the white and Aud the deep-minded, and they won all Caithness and much else of Scotland, Moray and Ross;  there he caused to be built a burg southward of Moray.  These two agreed between themselves to meet, Sigurd and Melbricta toothy the Scot-earl, that they should meet and settle their quarrel at a given place, each with forty men.  And when the day named came, Sigurd thought to himself that the Scots were faithless.  He made them mount eighty men on forty horses;  and when Melbricta got to see them, he said to his men: 
“Now are we cheated by Sigurd, for I see two feet of a man on each horse’s side, and the men must be twice as many again as the steeds that bear them.  Let us now harden our hearts, and let us see that each has a man for himself ere we die;”  and they got ready after that.  And when Sigurd saw their plan, he said to his men: 
“Now half of our force shall get off horseback and come on them in flank when the battle is joined;  but we will ride at them as hard as we can, and break in sunder their array.” 
And so they met and there was a hard battle, and not long ere Melbricta fell and his followers, and Sigurd caused the heads to be fastened to his horses’ cruppers as a glory for himself.  And then they rode home, and boasted of their victory.  And when they were come on the way, then Sigurd wished to spur the horse with his foot, and he struck his calf against the tooth which stuck out of Melbricta’s head and grazed it;  and in that wound sprung up pain and swelling, and that led him to his death.  And Sigurd the mighty is buried under a “how” at Ekkjalsbakka.
 - The Icelanders Saga, Volume 3: The Orkneyingers' Saga

Sigurd "the Mighty" Eysteinsson was Earl of Orkney. In 892 AD, he met Máel Brigte of Moray in battle: he slew the Pict, and to add insult to injury, beheaded him, and tied his head to his saddle as a gruesome trophy.

On the ride home, the head's teeth started to graze against Sigurd's thigh. After hours of this, a wound emerged, and Sigurd died of infection.

Máel Brigte thus joins the likes of El Cid and Arrichion of Phigalia in managing to achieve victory over his foe from beyond the grave.