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?