Tuesday 29 December 2009

Nostalgia Critic Reviews Barbarian & Destroyer - 19th January

I'm a fan of That Guy With The Glasses: he's a funny dude, and anyone who has Brazil as one of their twenty greatest films is alright.

Come 19th January, though, comes the single review I'm simultaneously anticipating and dreading: The Nostalgia Critic reviews Conan the Barbarian and Conan the Destroyer.

Witnesses to The Siege of Van Ostrand will know how nervous I am about this. The Critic is generally thorough in his research, although his greatest snafu--where he jokes about Mako's voice in a role sounding "like he smoked a million marlboros a day" unaware that the actor was suffering from oesophagal cancer during the recording--caused quite a bit of controversy. I dearly hope the Critic has the right sources, and that we won't have to order another assault in such a short time.

Still, even if NC trots out the same old nonsense, I doubt he has the malicious intent Van Ostrand did, and would be perfectly willing to apologise for anything he gets wrong, as he did with the Mako incident. Until 19th January, I'm hopeful.

Here's a couple of my favourite Nostalgia Critic Reviews:

Batman & Robin
Captain Planet
Saved By The Bell
Red Sonja
Alone in the Dark

Sunday 27 December 2009

Triangulation: Ishtar, Worms and Christmas Bounty

I still don't know why I celebrate Christmas. It's such a bloody hassle getting the dinner organized, strategically mobilizing the presents, and dealing with the madness of a West Coast family. Still, for all the trials and tribulations, it's great being with the family, and spending a bit of time to appreciate them. Unfortunately, it means I've been a bit light on the posting this week, but I'm sure you'll forgive me.

Saturday 26 December 2009

Savage Sword's "Worms of the Earth"

Savage Sword‘s “Worms of the Earth”

As I’m sure you will appreciate, Christmas over here in Bonny Scotland has veered between the agony of organizing an efficient Christmas dinner & present delivery route, and the ecstasy of knowing the madness is over for another year. Thus, I thought it an idea to stick to something cheerful and enthusiastic.

Generally, Howard fans have been blessed and cursed with adaptations. The films (which may or may not include Conan the Barbarian depending on your view), the cartoons, and the television series would naturally be considered on the “curse” side of things, but what of blessings? By far, the most numerous and accurate Howard adaptations are found in comics. The Dark Horse comics have their hits and misses, and while they are more faithful in some ways, they unbalance that with some annoying and sometimes baffling divergences of their own. In my opinion, Roy Thomas is the most consistently successful translator of Howard into a new medium, all the more effective when you have the likes of Barry Windsor-Smith, John Buscema and Gil Kane on the art side of things. He isn’t beyond reproach by any means–there are a great many of artistic or narrative decisions that just plain bug me, even in his Savage Sword adaptations–but his mantra of sticking to the text as closely as possible is one that certain other translators into other mediums would do well to adopt.

Diversions of the Groovy Kind has most kindly (and groovily) uploaded Roy Thomas’ adaptation of “Worms of the Earth.” Part 1 is here, part 2 here. It was printed in The Savage Sword of Conan numbers 16 and 17, featuring the artwork of Barry Smith and Tim Conrad. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you do a Robert E. Howard adaptation.

The essential themes of “Worms of the Earth”: the stark, bleak atmosphere, the sense of Bran going too far in his vengeance and damning him and his entire people in his lust for vengeance, the tragic revulsion of Atla, the inhuman horror of the Worms, the haughty arrogance of Sulla transformed into pitiable madness. All are present. Every one I could think of. Some of the dialogue was adapted prose, and it works fine, just a few switches of pronouns. The descriptions are nigh pitch-perfect, the story stuck to like glue, and the narrative brisk and tight, with no extraneous pastichery. A great job by Thomas: in this case, he fired on all cylinders.

The artwork, especially Conrad’s, is simply astonishing. It’s like a black-and-white film, with the contrast and mood of one of the classic 1940s horrors. The establishing shot of the crucified Pict is impressive, a real sense of scale. The vista on pages 40-41 of issue 17 is simply breathtaking. The misty, bleak, unforgiving landscape of The Hound of the Baskervilles, Kidnapped, Tam O’Shanter–and, of course, Howard’s Bran Mak Morn–laid out in a two-page spread. I love it.

The depictions of the characters are uniformly fantastic. Bran is the strong king of a savage people, with a sense of darkest tragedy looming about his noble features. The other Picts we see are the stunted giants we all know and love, and Gonar makes for an imposing and otherworldly figure. The Romans combine a sense of smug imperiousness with a strength that suggests they’ll back up that confidence–a nice parallel to Howard’s own grudging respect for the Romans, despite his antipathy for them when they’re against the Celts.

What I particularly love is the refusal to be constrained within the panels. The first part mostly keeps within the confines, everything contained in a box. This part, I believe, was primarily Barry Smith. However, on page 55 of issue 16, things start to change, as we’re faced with action bleeding out of the boxes. Page 58 is a riot of sweeping greys, stark whites and hellish blacks, amply illustrating the chaotic fury and frustration of Bran, faced with the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. Page 39 of issue 17, a “previously on…” catchup, has Bran’s spear and horse encroaching over the exposition, providing a sense of immediacy even with the necessary considerations to new readers. Page 45 starts to play with panel shapes, with two quarter-circles in the bottom.

Page 48 has one of the most ingenious uses of Howard’s dialogue incorporated into the very construction of a page I’ve ever seen: four panels, arranged in a semicircle, echoing that same masonry described in the text! Absolute masterpiece of textual and image synergy. 49 continues the technique, this time inverted, to mirror Bran’s descent into the underworld. 51 has Bran dominate the page in style, by physically clutching two foreground panels, thrusting them aside roughly and confidently, like the door to Atla’s hut–as indeed he does (thematically) in the text. Yet another masterstroke.

Ah, but the moment we meet the Worms on page 53… This is sequential art. The loathsome, serpentine forms of the Worms gather around Bran. Indeed, the panels are arranged in a spiral: Bran is trapped in the center of a veritable whirlpool of horror and nightmare. Then, page 54, the entire page–what would normally be a pleasant white–is pitch black, punctuated by the mad, distended eyes of the Worms. The five lone panels are enveloped by this swamp of darkness and glittering eyes. It’s an excellent use of panels–and breaking them. Absolutely brilliant.

When Bran comes upon the ruins of the Roman fort, the lone survivor’s recount of the horror is in distorted, cloud-like panels, like the design used to indicate thoughts or dreams. Soon, that cloudy shape distorts into a melting, disintegrating mess, until the survivor dies. Finally, the great confrontation with Bran and the Worms – again, excellently drawn. The final three panels overlap each other, suggesting the haste of Bran’s flight from that insane episode, pushing the terrors behind him as he rides into the night.

The good webmaster of “Diversions of the Groovy Kind” considers this second only to Thomas’ and Windsor-Smith’s adaptation of “Red Nails”. I respectfully disagree, as this, to my mind, blows the excellent “Red Nails” right out of the water: the artwork, the exemplary translation, and the clever use of panels just show how incredible Howard comics could be.

That’s not to say it’s perfect. It isn’t: there are two major flaws with the adaptation. First, Atla. The depiction here is far too grotesque, an outlandish exaggeration of the unloveliest aspects of her description. She also looks too old and hag-like: Atla was specifically stated to be “not old”, but with the weight of great age on her shoulders. Her reptilian & Wormish aspects are only noticeable up close, as Bran finds out. That’s what makes her such a horrific character, in my mind, the dichotomy of the beautiful and the hideous. Poisoned Honey. Taking away her youth and subtle attractiveness until the final revelation somewhat dilutes it.

The second is that the Worms are revealed too completely, too soon: it ruins the revelation at the end, and much of the horror is somewhat neutered. A single flash revealing semi-obscured features would’ve been so much more powerful. I do feel these problems let the comic down substantially, but not quite enough for me to stop fawning over it. After all, just about everything else is pitch perfect: though it would be remiss of me to not comment on the faults, neither shall I totally condemn it for them, even with their relative magnitude.

This comic shows exactly why I have no time for the “Howard is too difficult to adapt” crowd. Give me one good reason, one, why this story wouldn’t make a solid film, or an episode of an anthology series. It’s cinematic, it’s powerful, it’s multi-faceted and multi-layered. I’m not going to be making any bold statement when I say that, if any one story could be considered Howard’s best, “Worms of the Earth” is a worthy contender for that title. There is absolutely no reason to change this intelligent, atmospheric, frightening, exciting, brilliant tale, as Thomas’ adaptation (for the most part) illustrates.

Even beyond the fact that “Worms of the Earth” is faithful to the story in a way no film or television adaptation could even dream of approaching, the very style and construction of the comic is bold and pushes the medium to the limits. A film based on a Howard story cannot merely adhere to the text, and presume to be any good: a director  must be willing and able to use the power of cinema, to be as inventive and striking as Howard’s own prose. It would be pointless and counter-productive to ape Conan the Barbarian or 300, or even Alexander Nevsky. Howard deserves more than a routine genre movie.

You filmmakers working on the film adaptation of Bran Mak Morn, take note. The new Conan film will not be The Hour of the Dragon. The new Solomon Kane film will not be “Wings in the Night.” You have a chance to make “Worms of the Earth.” Don’t be like Doppenheimer or Bassett, making a superfluous origin story that ignores Howard’s meticulously crafted words, with characters and stories alien to his creations. Thomas showed a near word-for-word adaptation was possible.
Make your film Bran Mak Morn. Make it Robert E. Howard. Make it great.

Monday 21 December 2009

Strength of the Sea: The Ship of Ishtar on Dial P for Pulp!

Abraham Merritt is criminally underexposed to modern audiences. Considering his impact on the pulp juggernaut that is the Weird Tales Trinity, it’s a bewildering state of affairs: even Blackwood, Machen and Dunsany seem to have a greater following, with more recent reprints than Merritt. In addition, he was one of the select few to collaborate on the legendary round-robin tale, ”The Challenge From Beyond,” with Howard, Lovecraft, C. L. Moore and Frank Belknap Long. The most recent release I can find of Merritt’s work (apart from the aforementioned “Challenge”) is a reprint of "The Metal Monster" in “Lovecraft’s Library,” a series that seeks to hook the Lovecraft fan-base into reading the material which fired the Man from Providence’s imagination. As an aside, who else would like to see a “Howard’s Library,” featuring Lamb, Mundy, and other under-appreciated authors?

Luckily for Merritt fans, Paizo came to the rescue. Paizo’s Planet Stories series consists of some of the best pulp fiction of the early 20th Century, some of which hasn’t been reprinted in decades. From the redoubtable Robert E. Howard, to early stalwarts Henry Kuttner, C. L. Moore, Otis Adelbert Kline and Leigh Brackett, to modern contributors Michael Moorcock & Gary Gygax. Future additions include Manly Wade Wellman and Piers Anthony, and hopefully even more in the years to come–especially more A. Merritt.

Wednesday 16 December 2009

S.H.I.E.L.D.W.A.L.L. Operation Defenestration - SUCCESS!





Outstanding news, gentlemen!

Operation Defenestration is a complete success. Although Ms Van Ostrand's essay has not been removed from Fandomania, it has been effectively neutralized by an Editor's Note detailing the controversy.

S.H.I.E.L.D.W.A.L.L. New Orders: Operation Defenestration





Disturbing news, gentlemen.

The Enemy has many faces, some connected, some sprouting from the quagmire of intellectual pretension independently. Regardless of the origin, the heads of the Enemy must be relieved of their shoulders. Howardom has advanced far in the past few decades, and we cannot allow the old mistakes, myths, misinterpretations and outright lies to gain a foothold.

Your target is Margaret Van Ostrond. She is a humour writer, most well known for writing the insufferable gags of countless game shows, light opinion pieces in minor newspapers (light in tone and light in opinion), and her own technicolour-bordered website. However, this does not make her any less dangerous than former adversaries, for the power of The Enemy is subtle and insinuous. Already, two subjects known as Kelly Melcher & Summer Suzuki have been compromised, believing Van Ostrond's outrageous nonsense as truth. She must be stopped. A photograph of the target is provided here:

Your orders: review Margaret Van Ostrond's essay "Was Conan the Barbarian Really a Fictional Character" and post your response in the comments section. Van Ostrond's poisonous, sensationalist tract must be destroyed and discredited as the sub-literary hackwork it is. Many allies of S.H.I.E.L.D.W.A.L.L. and fellow proponents of The Cause have made their presence known: Damon Sasser, Scott Oden, David Gentzel, Dennis McHaney, Frank Coffman, Rob Roehm, Scotty Henderson, James Reasoner, Lisa Tomacek-Bias, and the mysterious al-Harron. S.H.I.E.L.D.W.A.L.L. are the front line in defense of Robert E. Howard, and we must lead by example. Suffer not the hack to lie.

Shields Up,

Agent Taranaich

Sunday 13 December 2009

Troll & Flame, Living Up to the Name

As I've mentioned more than a few times, I quite like Conan the Barbarian. It ain't Howard, it ain't Conan, but it's a fun film. Great music, good set & costume design, good acting by the actual actors James Earl Jones and Max Von Sydow, a real atmosphere of a ruder, barbaric time. I'm always willing to defend it on the grounds that it deserves, despite it being about as Conan as Ally-Oop.

However, I'm not going to defend it for what it isn't: a good Howard film, a good Howardian-in-Spirit film, or a good Conan film.

What brought this on? This post.

Triangulation: Of Snow-Things and Female Hobbits

I neglected to put a Triangulation post for last week, sorry 'bout that folks.

Friday 11 December 2009

Transformers: War for Cybertron

You know what I did this morning? I played the voice of a toy. Some terrible robot toys from Japan that changed from one thing to another. The Japanese have funded a full-length animated cartoon about the doings of these toys, which is all bad outer-space stuff. I play a planet. I menace somebody called Something-or-other. Then I'm destroyed. My plan to destroy Whoever-it-is is thwarted and I tear myself apart on the screen.

- Orson Welles on Unicron, his final film role

You know, it only just occurred to me that despite being listed third of my main interests up underneath the blog's title, I haven't really talked about Transformers that much. I'd been meaning to, though, especially things that I've noticed few really talk about: the themes, history and metaphors of the Transformers. Most people tend to dismiss the Transformers fiction as little more than a soulless means of advertising an increasingly commercialized childhood, and that's certainly how the comics and cartoon came into being. However, the various writers took the inherently surreal SF mantra of gargantuan robotic organisms that, somehow, transmogrify themselves into vehicles, and they ran with it. Bob Budiansky & Simon Furman are probably the most famous of these, the latter in particular famed for bringing some much needed explanations & gravitas to a setting that could so easily have become a campy, trashy mess.

Tuesday 8 December 2009

Trouble brewin' at the Ol' Conan forums

Recently, the Official Conan forums had been discussing a second leaked script for the upcoming Conan film. There were a number of differing details within the script, but nothing that saves it from the mediocrity of the previous iteration.

The posters over at the board thus expressed their discontent at the state of affairs. I myself noted some of the differences between the two scripts. However, that post, and others, have now been deleted:


In regards to any illegal links - such as links to the new Conan script - and all snippets that have been obtained illegally have been removed from this site. Posting illegal links is a forum violation and will be result in official warnings that may lead to suspension/banning from the site. Snippets obtained from such illegal links will also not be tolerated. All such posts have been removed or are in the process of being removed.

Worrisome news. Such a post and mass culling of messages did not occur when the first script was released, nor for the Solomon Kane script: there were reminders, but I don't recall messages being deleted as well. I don't hold the Mods or Admins, ever tireless and beyond reproach as fans, responsible for this. This is clearly the doing of CPI/Paradox.

Why now? I'm guessing the script is fairly close to the final draft. That bodes ill for the film, since outside one or two "improvements" (or rather, excisions of particularly odious elements), the script is no closer to Howard than the original was.

This is the first time something like this has happened on the forums, to the best of my knowledge. I really hope it's the last.

*Edit: originally, I called the mods "tiresome", when I meant "tireless": a very funny slip of the tongue in retrospect, but I certainly didn't want to offend any of the fantastic fellows bearing the Twin Spears of Moderation. You guys are great!

**Edit the Second: It has been made clear that CPI/Paradox were acting at the behest of Lionsgate. Damn you, Lionsgate!

Sunday 6 December 2009

Triangulation: Turtles All The Way

After a veritable hurricane of posts (by my standards anyway), I've kinda burned out a bit, so only one this week, about the upcoming Discworld fan film.

I really dislike shallow parodies. They bug the hell out of me. Now, I like Terry Pratchett's work, even if I've only read the first half of his ouvre (and The Last Hero), but to be frank, certain aspects kind of rear their ugly head. One is Hrun the Chimerian: a big, dumb barbarian with a magic sword from a Land of Mists which "only exist to produce heroes" who is involved in much derring do. Now one could make the point that Hrun is a parody of pastiche or movie Conan, or the poorly-disguised Conan clones who transplant only the surface elements, but it's pretty evident Hrun is meant to be Conan himself. Thus we get lovely phrases like "The strength of twenty men, the speed and agility of a black panther and the intelligence of a garden snail."

Honestly, if you're going to go to the bother of parodying Conan, then at least parody him right. Musclebound, hulking numbskulls just doesn't cut it: that could describe dozens of half-price barbarian protagonists. Luckily, Pratchett got more involved with his next Conan-alike in Cohen, though there are still a few annoying things like the permanent loincloth.

I don't know, maybe it's iconoclasm for the sake of iconoclasm.

Wednesday 2 December 2009

S.H.I.E.L.D.W.A.L.L. New Recruit, Codename: Le Vyonnaise





Gentlemen, we have another new agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.W.A.L.L. joining us today. As with Agent Theagenes, Agent Scammonjam had him under observation for some time, and is assigning him to the main division of S.H.I.E.L.D.W.A.L.L. Agents.

Agent Le Vyonnaise' role will be the search for news and information pertinent to The Cause. While it is the duty of all S.H.I.E.L.D.W.A.L.L. agents to be ever watchful of such matters, Agent Le Vyonnaise will be primarily active in this regard. All agents are encouraged to peruse Agent Le Vyonnaise' MINAC reports, the first of which, Assignment P-7920, has been delivered to S.H.I.E.L.D.W.A.L.L. HQ and disseminated online. Assignment P-7920 reports on Scott Oden, ally of S.H.I.E.L.D.W.A.L.L., and the release of his new book, as well as Tantor Media's release of Kull - Exile of Atlantis in audiobook form, The Men Who Made Argosy, and the latest work by Steve Jones.

We at S.H.I.E.L.D.W.A.L.L. welcome a new shieldbearer to the cause, and look forward to what he brings to the game.

Shields up,

--Agent Taranaich

Saturday 28 November 2009

Friday 27 November 2009

Is it possible for a man to love a blog?

Every so often, I come across a blog that I just fall utterly in love with: The Cimmerian, The World We Don't Live In, The Anthropogene. This one is new to me, begging the question of just where it has been all my life:

Prehistoric Pulp is a blog dedicated to fantastic fiction about dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals, with reviews, cover blurbs and news about upcoming works.

Also covered here, although less comprehensively, are comics and board/roleplaying games featuring prehistoric critters. There are no reviews for movies or television shows, but I do include news items about upcoming films.

Already I'm smitten. However, it's here that I truly fall head over heels:

Most fiction featuring prehistoric animals is targeted at children, and a few of those works are covered here. This site, however, is mainly about books and stories with an adult audience in mind, from Journey to the Center of the Earth to Jurassic Park.

If I could swoon, let me assure you, I would be having difficulty typing this as I lie prostrate on the floor. Sadly, being a Scots highlander, I cannot swoon of my own accord.

Unfortunately, the site hasn't been updated since 2007, but there's still a wealth of reviews and information. Count me in!

Sunday 22 November 2009

S.H.I.E.L.D.W.A.L.L. New Recruit, Codename: Theagenes





Gentlemen, we have a new agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.W.A.L.L. joining us today. Agent Scammonjam had him under observation for some time, and is assigning him to the main division of S.H.I.E.L.D.W.A.L.L. Agents.

Agent Theagenes specializes in archaeology and historical research: his expertise will be a considerable boon to S.H.I.E.L.D.W.A.L.L., and I don't doubt his input will be vital in future operations. His first assignment is complete, and the first report in. Assignment P-7515 is an introductory exercise highlighting the Agent's vast span of material pertinent to S.H.I.E.L.D.W.A.L.L.'s goals, which will be interned in Area CP-A.

Agent Theagenes' weekly MINAC reports will be submitted on Sundays. We at S.H.I.E.L.D.W.A.L.L. welcome a new shieldbearer to the cause, and look forward to what he brings to the game.

Shields up,

--Agent Taranaich

Wednesday 18 November 2009

Conan: The Wrath of Singh

I was initially happy with calling the new "Conan" film Conan the Rehash, but over at the conan.com forums, Conan: The Wrath of Singh has gained footing.

This is delicious. Why? Because it's a play on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (obviously), a film which is dominated by a revenge story, the difference being that it's the antagonist rather than the protagonist acting as Captain Ahab. It's thus an appropriate title that encapsulates how utterly derivative the script is: the revenge plot, the Ceti eels, and best of all, the villain.

Why best of all? Because Khan's full name is Khan Noonien Singh.

Saturday 7 November 2009

Triangulation: Conan the Rehash

Seriously, I've written over 5000 words on the Conan film, and I'm barely a third of the way through the script. I decided to concentrate on only the most important points for the Cimmerian article. No sooner do I publish it, then Waldgeist drops this bombshell.

Tuesday 3 November 2009

Conan the Barbarian Review Reviews: Empire Magazine

Part of the reason I started up a blog was to discuss things which I didn't feel were appropriate for my usual haunts. Too low-brow for the esteemed Cimmerian blog, too off-topic or impolite for the Conan forums. One of these is "reviews of reviews", where I spend a little while ranting and raving like a loon about a particular reviewers' interpretation of Howard, usually via Conan the Barbarian.

Sure, there are plenty of good reviews out there, but there are also lots of terrible ones. While not truly horrific, Clark Collis' Empire Magazine Review is flawed, with one or two very annoying elements.

Lay on, Macduff, and damn'd be him that first cries, 'Hold, enough!'

Monday 2 November 2009

Well, it was bound to happen...

Anime Conan.



And not just anime: Bishōnen Conan. Ye gods. If anything, though, I'm surprised it hasn't been done before, with the incredible popularity of anime in recent years. Something done in the style of Berserk, Hellsing or Fist of the North Star (graphics-wise, not necessarily style or story-wise) probably wouldn't be too bad, come to think of it.

Sunday 1 November 2009

Triangulation: The Letter of Glenn Schuyler Hoffman

A little bit of fun for Samhain.

There are two major inspirations for this post: my own weird idea for Howard, Smith and Lovecraft to roam the world fighting crime and solving Cthulhoid mysteries, and this marvellous video based on the work of Andrea Bonazzi. I very much hope Mr Bonazzi doesn't mind my use of his artwork in such a blasphemous exercise.

I might turn "Weird Tales Investigations" into a mini-series of its own. It'd be of the same scary/absurd nature of Sam Raimi's horror more than anything else, but chock-a-block with references and allusions to pulp fiction. There's already a popular counterpart for the Inklings in Here There Be Dragons (which I haven't read, but really should) featuring Tolkien, Lewis and Charles Williams going off on high adventure, but apart from certain works which I won't dignify by naming, nobody's really done the Weird Tales Troika.

Of course, the holy grail is the one that few people really consider: a Howard/Tolkien mashup. Bob & Tollers fighting off modern Morgoth cultists, battling the "nameless things" that gnaw in the deep places of the earth, uncovering the lost histories of Middle-earth and the Hyborian Age. Deuce'll probably kill me for trying to mash-up the two again, but I'll think of some copout.

Until then!

Saturday 31 October 2009

Running the Asylum: The Land That Time Forgot

While I have a special place in my heart for the 1975 Doug McClure romp co-penned by Michael Moorcock, it wasn't as close to the novel as I was hoping. As with a certain other adaptation of great pulp source material, however, it seems the earlier iteration will still be the most faithful in comparison to their modern counterparts.

Caspak 90210. How utterly depressing. Any dinosaur worth their salt would've chomped those idiots within the first minute of their landing.

Thursday 29 October 2009

It Is The End Of All Hope

When Thomas Dean Donnelly and Joshua Oppenheimer were announced as scriptwriters, I tried to be positive: perhaps they just didn't have their break yet. When Kickinger was rumoured, I was optimistic: it was just a rumour. When Nispel was attached, I looked on the bright side: Pathfinder was fairly nice visually, perhaps a good script and supporting crew will balance it out.

I mean, with Nispel directing, Donnelheimer writing and the insistence on an origin story, there was no chance it would be a good Robert E. Howard movie. It probably wouldn't even be a good Conan movie. I had no hopes for the film to be anything like the film REH and his fans deserved. Still, I was interested in seeing how it turned out.

No more. The movie holds no further interest to me, save to criticize and decry.

Sunday 25 October 2009

Triangulation: "And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by..."

Following on Karl Edward Wagner day, the Cimmerian has led the charge in a celebration of 25th October, a day of blood and thunder if ever there was on.

I extol the Thin Red Line, Deuce commemorates Agincourt, and Barbara imparts a magnificent three-part odyssey on the famous Charge of the Light Brigade.

October has one last day of fame and infamy: Samhain itself, 31st October. One wonders what horrors and wonders will come that day...

Tuesday 13 October 2009

Triangulation: The Terror of the Absurd: Karl Edward Wagner's "Sticks"

On this day fifteen years ago, Karl Edward Wagner passed away. Deuce shares his reflections, while I contribute with a look at my favourite of his stories.

Karl Edward Wagner is one of those authors I'm eating my heart out to read more of. To date, I've only read precious little of his work: "Sticks," "Beyond Any Measure," "The River of Night's Dreaming" and a few others. I hope to rectify that.

Monday 12 October 2009

Triangulation: Things are Looking Up

My first triangulation post with The Cimmerian discusses Pixar's Up.

While I adored the film, that's not to say it was perfect. Spoilers ahead!

Thursday 24 September 2009

Van Helsing 2 1/2

I've been following a very talented film editor's work: Dan Oles, going by the handle "bloodrunsclear" on youtube. He's made some very impressive "fake" trailers for films that will never come out, but you wish would: a more faithful Neverending Story, a brilliant conception of Neil Gaiman's Sandman, and a truly extraordinary teaser for Fallout that I can see as a genuine article. He also made a nice trailer for a computer animated Conan, using footage from various game cutscenes.

Then he made this.

This doesn't exactly help with the Solomon Kane/Van Helsing comparisons, but it's scary how easily the two films bind together. It's slick and professionally done, but it kind of makes my skin crawl at the same time.

Wednesday 23 September 2009

Barack the Barbarian

Oh Yes.

"Know, O Prince, that between the years when economics drowned the Soviets and, and the years of the rise of the Sons of the Fallout, there was an age Undreamed Of, when shining cities lay spread across the world like scattered diamonds beneath the stars. Germany, France, Great Britain, The Russian Federation, Brazil with its dark-haired women and towers of industry, India that bordered on the mountainous land of Pakistan, Japan with its shadow-guarded tomes, China with its accountants of steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was America, reigning supreme in the Dreaming West. Hither came Barack, the barbarian, black-skinned, solemn-eyed, axe in hand: an attorney, a senator, a slayer, with gigantic economic trials and gigantic promises of reforms, to tread the old ways of the US under his shined size-11 shoes..."

Saturday 19 September 2009

Monday 14 September 2009

Saturday 12 September 2009

Van Helsing 2

The film Van Helsing was released in May of 2004. The hero, Gabriel Van Helsing, is not the same character as Bram Stoker's 1897 Dracula character Abraham Van Helsing, the character whose name and role as Dracula's foe - and nothing else - inspired the former.

Kyūketsuki Hantā Dī, or Vampire Hunter D, was first published in 1983, predating Van Helsing by twenty-one years.

Solomon Kane first appeared in the August 1928 issue of Weird Tales, in the story "Red Shadows," one of the first Sword-and-Sorcery tales. It predates Vampire Hunter D by fifty-five years, and Van Helsing by seventy-six years.

The next person who says Solomon Kane is a Vampire Hunter D ripoff or unofficial sequel to Van Helsing, is going to get shot by a cannon.

Thursday 10 September 2009

And so it hath begun...

Introductions are in order: I'm Al Harron, literary adventurer. To date, my claim to internet fame is being a blogger on the esteemed Cimmerian blog, one of the premier websites for discussion and news regarding Robert E. Howard, J.R.R. Tolkien and other classic fantasy authors. I also go by the handle Taranaich at the official Conan forums, and developer of the Conan: Total War modification for Medieval 2: Total War.

Being a very scholarly website, The Cimmerian requires a rather high level of composition and sobriety, and dealing with subjects related to its primary aims. This blog, then, is devoted to anything else my wandering brain trips upon during its meandering through the desert of musings, running the gamut of higher subjects like history, folklore, mythology and palaeontology to pop culture like Transformers, Star Trek, Futurama, western animation and comics.

Since The Cimmerian is the primary focus of my free time, with Conan: Total War secondary, this blog will be occasional and rambling, little rhyme or reason, and nowhere near as rational as I try to be elsewhere. So, watch this space...

Saturday 20 June 2009

Diabolus Vult, Fiat Sanguinarius, Calvaria Ad Victoriam: A Look At Cormac Fitzgeoffrey

Diabolus Vult: A Look at Cormac Fitzgeoffrey, Part One

Black hair, light eyes, mighty build, a touch of the Celt. Such descriptions suit many a Howard protagonist, as much a blessing as a curse, both in terms of character and criticism. It is a frequent accusation that Howard’s heroes are all copies, xeroxes of the great Gaelic hero that is typical of his historical and fantastic adventures. However, a closer examination between the heroes reveals not only nuances unique to a character, but surprising gulfs of personality, to the point where even suggesting the character be a copy of another seems ludicrous.

In a happy coincidence as I was working on this post, Paradox announced that the fourteenth volume of the essential Del Rey collections would be devoted to historical tales, specifically citing Dark Agnes and Cormac Fitzgeoffrey. Knowing that Del Rey will produce a fine book with new illustrations of the sorely neglected Norman-Gael, I couldn’t be more thrilled. Thus it seems timely for me to begin an exploration of the enigmatic and intriguing Cormac Fitzgeoffrey, one of my very favourite Howard characters, despite the few stories he graced with his shadow.

Because of the phenomenal popularity of Conan, it is inevitable that he be considered the “archetype” for such heroes among critics: of the Gaelic heroes, Cormac Fitzgeoffrey is often called the most “Conan-like.” Indeed, it gave rise to the popular myth that Conan and Cormac were “physical doubles at 6’2″ and 210 lb.” However, despite being mentioned on wikipedia, not only are there no references to such a comparison among Howard’s letters that I am aware of, but the very numbers are inaccurate. In “Hawks of Outremer,” Cormac FitzGeoffrey’s dimensioned were defined quite specifically: “a fraction of an inch above six feet” and was “two hundred pounds of iron muscle.” The other tales are more abstract in description: in “The Blood of Belshazzar” his height is given as “above six feet” and in “The Slave Princess,” “over six feet in height.” I have no clue to the source of this misconception, though I’d be very interested in tracking down the origin of this “factoid.” Citation needed indeed.

Yet if we discard this fallacious claim, there are still some notable similarities betwixt the Cimmerian and the Hiberno-Norman. Both have the characteristic sable lion-manes and volcanic blue eyes of the Howardian Gaelic hero. Both men are exceptionally powerful, performing feats of strength that would stupefy a common man. Both are renowned killers with formidable skill on the battlefield throughout the world’s war zones. Both are children of two tribes from paternal ancestors far from their homeland, though Cormac’s parentage is further removed than Conan’s. Indeed, both spent their youth stalking their war-torn home country in wolfskins, experiencing battle from a young age.
Reading through the list of shared aspects it would be understandable to question how fundamental any differences could be to their characters. However, there is one: anger.

Terrible as his battle fury is, Conan is not an angry person at heart. Quick tempered, perhaps, and when roused to seek vengeance very little will dim his brooding wrath, but these do not define him. He has his famous “gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth” fully in evidence in the tales, wide-eyed wonder, stark fear. He has moments of quiet contemplation as well as instances of catlike alertness. Even in battle, his burning fury is tempered with icy alacrity. Perhaps the only time Conan truly loses himself to rage is in “Iron Shadows in the Moon,” with the butchering of Shah Amurath. Days upon days of crawling through the wilderness, surviving on rats and water, something within Conan finally snaps, and he ceases being a human, and transforms into a red-handed psychopomp, sending the Turanian on his way to Erlik on a tide of blood and entrails.

What Conan is on a bad day, Cormac Fitzgeoffrey is by default. Cormac shows little of amusement, sadness, fear or any other emotion, if indeed he truly experiences those feelings at all. Any smiles which appear are either minute grins, or mirthless, teeth-baring snarls. Even in reminiscence, his mind wanders back to battles and bloodshed past. Cormac is defined by his anger. The furious rage Conan displays only in “Iron Shadows” is seen in every battle Cormac fights: not only is the enemy to be defeated, the enemy is hated. The pragmatic Conan does not hate all his foes; some deathly blows he was loath to deal. Not so with Cormac. If you were on the other side of the battlefield, Cormac hated you. If you are even a member of the enemy’s race or country, Cormac hated you. Indeed, one gets the impression that if you were not actively “with” Cormac, you were against Cormac – and if you were against Cormac, then he hated you.

What could be the catalyst for Cormac’s anger and hatred? What parallels does Cormac have in history, myth and fiction? Why does this make Cormac so fundamentally different from Conan and the other Gaelic heroes? All will be addressed next week in part two.
Cloigeand abu!

Fiat Sanguinarius: A Look At Cormac Fitzgeoffrey, Part Two

A quick recap: in my previous post, I started a look into one of my favourite Robert E. Howard creations, Cormac Fitzgeoffrey. I briefly discussed certain elements of Cormac’s character, specifically his anger, and his relation to Conan. In this post, I will go into more depth about Cormac’s life, as well as a bit of amateur psychoanalysis of his personality and character.
Unlike some of REH’s other historical characters, it is quite a simple matter to date and age Cormac Fitzgeoffrey. In “The Slave Princess”, Cormac divulges some fascinating information about his origins in Ireland.
“Wars and massed battles I have seen in plenty,” said he, lifting his great goblet. “Aye–I fought in the battle of Dublin when I was but eight years old, by the hoofs of the Devil! Miles de Cogan and his brother Richard held the city for Strongbow–men of iron in an iron age.”
Strongbow’s forces arrived at Dublin in September, 1170, making Cormac’s birth year eight years before: 1162. This is a most intriguing date for Howard to choose, for it marks the arrival and departure of two immensely important historical figures, not least in Middle Eastern politics. First of all, the death of Baldwin III of Jerusalem: Baldwin’s demise marks the division in fortunes for the Crusaders which would lead to the famous events of the Third Crusade, which Cormac would take part in. The second interesting fact is that this is the year of Temujin’s birth: obviously, Ghenghis Khan’s affect on world and especially middle eastern history cannot be understated. I do not know if this interesting corroboration was intentional on Howard’s part, but I considered it noteworthy.

Another enigma is that of Cormac’s father, Geoffrey the Bastard. In “Hawks of Outremer,” Geoffrey is called “a renegade Norman knight… in whose veins it is said coursed the blood of William the Conqueror.” William himself was known by the Bastard epithet, making it fitting to be carried down the family line. What is odd about this is that the Norman invasion of Ireland would only begin in 1167, five years after Cormac’s birth. Obviously the renegade Geoffrey fled here, his presence and offspring serving as a grim prelude to the days to come. As the child of native and invader, outcast of both peoples, Cormac serves a prophetic, almost eschatological symbol of the Norman invasions themselves.

Cormac’s early life is harsh and unforgiving, and a possible origin for his later demeanour is revealed in “The Slave Princess”:
“So Wulfgar and I came into the battle and the first wounded man I saw was an English man-at-arms who had once crushed my ear lobe to a pulp so that the blood flowed over his mailed fingers, to see if he could make me cry out–I did not cry out but spat in his face, so he struck me senseless. Now this man knew me and called me by name, gasping for water. ‘Water is it”‘ said I. ‘It’s in the icy rivers of hell you’ll quench your thirst!’ And I jerked back his head to cut his throat, but before I could lay dirk to gulley, he died. His legs were crushed by a great stone and a spear had broken in his ribs.”
Just as Cormac was about to hand a receipt to a man who had done him wrong, fate strikes, and the man dies before Cormac has the luxury of killing him. In rage and frustration, Cormac looses his arrows blindly and rapidly into the throng of Normans and Vikings, not knowing if any arrows hit, nor if any hit a foe. Yet after the cosmos snatched away Cormac’s chance for vengeance, another opportunity comes, this time to carry out his bloody duty as a warrior. Wulfgar, lifeblood seeping away fast, commands Cormac to slay Miles de Cogan: eager to prove himself by slaying a mighty lord, Cormac draws his bow. The arrow flies… and splinters harmlessly on de Cogan’s breastplate. He is dragged before De Cogan, and though he is shown leniency, in the years to come he would gain some measure of satisfaction in drawing a life-lasting wound on Miles’ face. Still, the fact that he did not succeed in killing de Cogan must have eaten away at Cormac.

Perhaps Cormac’s frustration at this first battlefield experience provides an impetus to his ferocity: his shame and anger in his shortcomings as an eight-year-old forcing him to push himself ever further, so that he does not fail again. Even though he shows incredible prowess for a child’s standards, I doubt someone as proud as Cormac would take much solace in such relativism. It might not be the defining factor, but it’s intriguing to think that frustration in failure could be a contributing reason for Cormac’s anger.

Ultimately, failure would likely be a common hurdle in young Cormac’s life. For all the valour of Irish kings and the Norse lords of Dublin, the Norman conquest was simply too powerful to resist. With the support of an English pope, constant squabbling among the petty kingdoms and clans, and the assistance of allies from Flanders, Wales and Leinster, the Irish were fighting a losing battle. Even in the Crusades, the victories of Richard would be undone by the awesome forces of Saladin, Jerusalem becoming a Muslim dominion just after it was retaken by the Crusaders.

Nevertheless, none of these grander failures can be attributed to Cormac himself, and he rarely suffers the indignity of personal defeat after his boyhood. How frustrating must it be for Cormac, a man who can crush a man’s head with a punch and hurl battle-axes like they were hatchets, to know that no matter how ferocious or devastating an individual can be in battle, it could still not be enough to secure victory, or even to ensure that victories last? It may not just be a matter of Cormac’s own inability–being a historical series, Howard could not have Cormac rewrite history to a dramatic extent, no matter how gratifying it might be to see him storm into London at the head of an army of ceithernes and gallóglaigh, crash into the Palace of Westminster and tear the gory crown from the unlucky King John’s head, to become High King of the British Isles and utterly change the history of the world. Alas, it was not to be, though Paul Herman asserts that this inability to forge gigantic happenings in historical adventures may have been one of the dramaturgical chains Howard snapped free from in his creation of the Conan tales.

At the same time, it would be simplistic to tie down Cormac as a “crusader” considering his outlaw status in the stories, and the state of flux of the Fertile Crescent during his time means that lands rotate between Muslim and Christian control on almost a yearly basis. Cormac’s anger finds a suitable outlet in this hellish, war-torn place, which would be forever stained red if the burning sun did not bleach the sand. An ideal place for an angry, violent man to vent his murderous tendencies in the name of King, Country and God.

In The Neverending Hunt: A Bibliography of Robert E. Howard, Paul Herman suggests that it is Cormac, not Kull, who is the true predecessor of Conan. Richard L. Tierney concurs in his introduction to Tigers of the Sea, noting his “rude, basic chivalry” and his implacable fighting prowess. I think there is very much evidence to this claim. Herman cites his barbaric ferocity, his stature, the unapologetic darkness and grimness of his actions. There is also the fact that the Cormac tales were written only a short time before “The Phoenix on the Sword,” compared with the longer time between the Kull and Conan stories. However, I would say that Cormac’s unrelenting rage and starkly sober demeanor separate him from Conan as much as Kull’s intellectualism, insecurity and introspection separate the Atlantean from the Cimmerian. In my opinion, Conan is an amalgam of Kull and Cormac, in some ways: he has the barbarian-to-adventurer-to-king biography and occasional intellectual musings of Kull, with the strength and dynamic nature of Cormac. Of course, there are still things which set Conan apart from both men, most notably his appreciation of wine, women and song.

Just as one can trace the beginnings of certain Conan plots, characters and moments from the Kull stories, there are certain times in the Cormac tales one can sense a flash of the Cimmerian. These, along with other comparisons to historical characters, a look at Cormac’s later life, and an overview of the Cormac tales, will be discussed in Part 3 of my look at Cormac Fitzgeoffrey. Suffice to say, however, that even with only two complete stories and a single draft, Cormac Fitzgeoffrey still has a fascinating history with many intriguing connections to Howard’s other characters, which make him a standout character even among the iconic giants of Howard’s fiction.

Calvaria ad Victoriam: A Look At Cormac Fitzgeoffrey, Part Three

In my first foray into the life of Cormac Fitzgeoffrey, I made some basic observations on his character, and what makes him different from other Howard protagonists. In the second, I put forward some theories regarding his psychological development, and an overview of his early life. In this final chapter, I will look at Cormac’s life and character as a whole, and present a possible biography.

Early Life

Cormac is born to a woman of the O’Brien clan in 1162, his father Geoffrey coming to Ireland ahead of the Norman invasion. He has two brothers: Shane and Donal, indicating Geoffrey stayed long enough to father two boys in the O’Brien clan. It is unclear whether they are true brothers, or half-brothers to different mothers, or possibly triplets, but since Shane has “Fitzgeoffrey” blood, he at least is Geoffrey’s son. He is raised as an Irish lad: as the O’Briens have feuds with just about every other Irish clan, he experiences plenty of fighting.

In 1170, he participates in the battle of Dublin at the age of eight, following Wulfgar the Norseman and his chief Jon the Mad in Hasculf Mac Turkill’s attempt to retake Dublin for the Danes. The three Danes were slain in battle, and Cormac captured: while Richard de Cogan suggested his Irish descent would make him dangerous, his brother Miles reasoned that as the son of Geoffrey-and by extension, William the Conqueror–he would make a good soldier for the Normans. Ultimately both were right, as Cormac became a great warrior, but one that caused as many problems for the Normans as to their foes. Some years later, Cormac met Miles in battle, where he would give him a permanent scar.

In 1174, at the age of twelve, he runs with the kerns in wolf-skins, weighs fourteen stone–almost his adult weight–and has killed three men. Cormac would spend his adolescence and early adulthood, roughly from 1174 to 1190, fighting in the war-torn land of his birth: rival Gaels, Danes, Normans, possibly even his brother Donal, with whom he had a disagreement later in life. During this time his brothers are slain. Shane was killed by a Norwegian sea-king in a Norse raid into Munster, who himself is killed by Cormac, using the very sword that killed his brother. This blue-steel sword is of obvious Norse design, with runes along the blade and a remarkable hardiness. Cormac’s other brother, Donal, was slain in a battle at Coolmanagh–a very obscure Irish settlement–by Eochaidh O’Donnell. Perhaps as maddened by O’Donnell killing Donal before Cormac got the chance, as much as his outrage in a Fitzgeoffrey being slain, Cormac burns O’Donnell in his own castle. Some time in his early adulthood, Cormac threw his lot in with the Fitzgeralds, a Norman-Welsh family who had adopted Irish customs and culture, and the feuds that go along with it.

The Road to Outremer

Richard’s Crusade would mobilize in the summer of 1190, but Cormac’s journey to the Holy land is predicated by trouble at home. James Fitzgerald, the lord of the Fitzgeralds, planned to make peace with the English King–perhaps Henry Curtmantle, or Richard Lionheart early in his reign–and Cormac feared part of the negotiations would involve him being surrendered to the English. Evidently he spilled as much Norman blood as Irish and Danish. With Ireland too hot for him, he prepares to make his fortune in Scotland. Scotland during this time was not much less violent than Ireland, with strife between the oppressed Gaelic Highland clans and the Norman lords, the shadow of the Treaty of Falaise hanging heavily over the nation, and Domnall Meic Uilleim ‘s claim to the Scottish throne had been brutally thwarted. However, Cormac’s plans change with the rumours of a third crusade into the Holy Land.

Cormac became friends with a young Fitzgerald by the name of Eamonn. Bitten by the proverbial Crusade bug, Eamonn’s enthusiasm to liberate Jerusalem from Saracen hands was enough to inspire Cormac to join him on the long road to Outremer. The two warriors join Richard I’s forces, and make for the Mediterranean. At the same time, Philip Augustus mobilizes his French army: among his many soldiers are Rupert de Vaille and Sieur Amory. Also traveling is the mighty host of Frederick Barbarossa. During a sea voyage, possibly during the crossing from Constantinople to Anatolia, the French knight Sieur Gerard de Gissclin bests the German knight Conrad Von Gonler in a duel, in the presence of Barbarossa himself. This slight would be one of the factors leading to the events of “Hawks of Outremer.”

Richard’s journey to Outremer would not be a bloodless voyage, however: in addition to his campaign to expand Norman holdings in France, he invaded Sicily and conquered Cyprus. Cormac and Eamonn would doubtless have exercised their sword-arms eagerly in this prelude to the Crusade proper.

The Lion and the Skull

On the 8th of June, 1191, Richard’s forces arrive at Outremer. At the siege of Acre, young Eamonn is slain, possibly during one of the many attempts to breach the walls. His enthusiasm to split Mohammedan heads may well have gotten the better of him. With no companion, Cormac has no one to call his master: nonetheless, the oppurtunity for battle and plunder is ripe in Outremer, and Cormac follows the Crusaders. It is at Acre that Cormac first gains the attention of Saladin: his skull-shield and the circle of death around it is impressive enough to garner the attention of the Sultan himself.

Cormac and Rupert de Vaille are present in the Battle of Azotus. Cormac is crucial in assisting the fallen Richard when his horse is brought down by a mob. Dismounting himself, Cormac gives Richard enough time to right himself, where he earns the king’s gratitude. Despite this, Cormac’s pride prevents him from humility, even in the face of a king. After the battle, Cormac falls in with another young knight: Sieur Gerard de Gissclin. Gerard is said to be a noble, gallant knight with a deep faith in Christ: he may have reminded Cormac of his fallen friend Eamonn. In the ensuing campaign, Cormac fights alongside Gerard: at some point, Gerard even saves Cormac’s life, perhaps in the battle of Joppa, where Cormac’s sword breaks inopportunely, or at the battle of Arsuf.

In the summer of 1192, Cormac and Rupert are also present at the Battle of Joppa, as is Kai Shah, a high-ranking Seljuk. It is rumoured that the white scar on Kai Shah’s jaw was dealt by none other than Richard, who presumably switched from his great mace to a sword for this fight. As at Acre and Azotus, Saladin notices Cormac’s death-dealing of the Faithful.

The bravery of Cormac’s acquaintances is well rewarded. Rupert is given the most prestigious office of Seneschal of Antioch, second only to Jerusalem in importance to Christian strongholds of the Holy Land. Gerard’s valour earns him a castle, too: Ali-El-Yar, which is near an oasis frequented by himself and his men, also near the Muslim stronghold El Ghor. Though Ali-El-Yar is not immune from attack, Gerard proves a formidable defender, as Turkoman raiders and wild eastern tribes learn to their expense, a Turkoman chief being hung on a gibbet near the castle. With a base of operations to work from, Cormac could spend time becoming more acquainted with his liege, as well as others. He may have become friendly with Michael de Blois, one of Gerard’s squires. He may have had dealings with Sieur Amory. He may even have known Conrad Von Gonler, who Cormac notes was “a man” before complacency and greed got the better of him.

The Lion Departs

Eventually, the Crusade ends in failure. In the winter of 1192, the English, French and Germans leave for home with a treaty that leaves Jerusalem in Islamic hands, though several Christian strongholds remain, notably Antioch, Ali-El-Yar and the Sieur Amory. Cormac then comes to a crossroads: he hears of possible war between the Fitzgeralds and the Le Boteliers. Does he return to fight with the Fitzgeralds, or does he remain with his new ally Gerard? Being a highly chivalric and honourable man, Gerard understands Cormac’s dilemma, and allows him to take his leave and support his old friends. Cormac sets sail for Ireland, but off the coast of Sicily, the ship is accosted by Moorish corsairs. Cormac fights valiantly, but is knocked unconscious by a ballista stone.

Somehow, Cormac makes his way back to Ireland, perhaps after the wholesale slaughter of the corsairs who dared to hold him captive. On arrival, Cormac learns that James Fitzgerald has been slain by Nial Mac Art, and Cormac joins the Fitzgeralds in a vengeful raid on Ormond. Combined with the fame gathered during the Third Crusade and his loyalty to the Fitzgeralds, it’s possible that this is how he becomes a chieftain. With the Le Boteliers defeated and no conflict on the horizon, Cormac decides to return to Ali-El-Yar, his debt to Gerard not yet repaid. During his journey to and from Ireland, Nurredin’s imperial plans are put into motion. The first casualty of his schemes is Ali-El-Yar, which is razed to the ground after Gerard was ambushed in a devious trap. In 1192, Cormac returns to Outremer and makes for Antioch, where he plans to meet an old ally.

“Hawks of Outremer”

Considered by many to be the best of the Cormac Fitzgeoffrey tales, “Hawks of Outremer” is at its heart a revenge tale. For a grim, taciturn warrior, one feels that Cormac truly feels a sense of duty and loyalty to Gerard, making his hatred even more piercing. It also has some of the most striking action moments in any Howard tale: his dispatching of Von Gonler, the slaying of the hapless Turk guarding Michael, and especially the contemptuous display of raw power against the mute are classic Cormac moments.

The blood debt repaid in full, Cormac stays in Outremer, even though the slaying of Conrad von Gonler results in him being a wanted man among the Christian territories, and being a Frank has him viewed with suspicion by Muslims. Rupert is captured by Ali Bahadur: searching for funds either to ransom his friend or raise an army to rescue him, Cormac seeks out Bab-el-Shaitan.

“The Blood of Belshazzar”

“The Blood of Belshazzar” is one of those Howard tales I feel is just too short to contain its many ideas, characters and story, one that would benefit greatly with an expansion to novellette: something along the length of “The People of the Black Circle” or perhaps even “Skull-Face.” Certainly the wide cast of characters would put many high-fantasy doorstoppers to shame, and the history of the malevolent jewel is grand enough to allow for an expanded narrative.

Cormac ends the tale with the titular gem, believing it sufficient to ransom Rupert de Vaile, with the cycle of blood and ambition likely to continue with Ali Bahadur as it did with the ill-fated kings and warlords before him. Whether he is successful or not is unknown, but Rupert is never referred to in “The Slave Princess.” It is possible that Rupert did not survive captivity, or that Cormac simply felt Amory was a better accomplice, perhaps because Rupert was too busy as Seneschal to be involved in such dealings.

Some time before finding Zuleika, Cormac rode with the Turkomans. Three years before the story, Princess Zalda is scheduled to marry Khalru Shah of Kizil-hissar, subsequently kidnapped by Kurds. Hearing of an assault on the city Zuleika was situated in, he rode hard for battle and plunder, only to come late.

“The Slave Princess”

As is the case with so many unfinished Howard tales, it is both tantalizing and frustrating to read “The Slave-Princess”: starting out so strongly and dynamically, yet leaving the ending hanging for eternity (posthumous collaborations notwithstanding). Zuleika is a fascinating character, and the relationship between her and Amory is rather touching, rather like that of Amalric and Lissa in the Tombalku fragment.

The Sowers of the Thunder

In 1194, after the Zalda adventure, Cormac embarks on his desire to take an eastern city, raiding Shahazar with “a handful of Franks”–possibly allies linked to Rupert, Gerard or Amory. This adventure is not described first hand, rather, it takes place fifty years before the story begins, and Cormac is only referred to in past tense. Since the Battle of La Forbie of 1244 is also featured in “The Sowers of the Thunder,” Cormac’s most audacious adventure likely happened soon after the documented ones.

Beyond the Third Crusade

With that, the saga of Cormac Fitzgeoffrey has ended. Or has it? The Third Crusade and the decades following were a turbulent time, with plenty of opportunities for plunder and bloodshed. Cormac’s credentials would ensure he would be a powerful factor in Outremer and beyond. One does not have to look far in space or time to possible campaigns, places and adventures. The death of Saladin shortly after the Third Crusade would have left the Fertile Crescent in turmoil. The Northern Crusades may offer a desert-weary Cormac a new climate; perhaps he stays in Outremer for the Fourth Crusade; maybe he embarks on the Albigensian Crusade. It may be that, somewhere in the frenzied melee at Freteval, Shamkor, Alarcos, Basian, Zara, Constantinople, Adrianople, and others, the dreadful skull-shield can be seen at the centre of a red whirlwind. Perhaps he even joined Prince Madog of Gwynedd on his mythical voyage to the unknown continent of the furthest west, or travelled to lost Nagdragore in India, or ventured to mysterious Black Cathay in the far east.

So what can be learned from Cormac Fitzgeoffrey? It’s clear that even with only two finished tales and a half-written synopsis, he is as fully-formed and identifiable as any of Howard’s characters. Despite the sparse exposition, a rich and enthralling history of the man can be suggested when put in a “chronological” context, revealing untold past adventures and the seeds of future tales. It’s impossible to say whether Howard would have eventually returned to Cormac had he continued writing, but with the existing precedents of Howard virtually abandoning characters, it’s unlikely. Nonetheless, the stories Howard did write featuring the Norman-Gael are there, and stand proudly beside the greatest examples of Howard’s historical fiction. When it comes to showing the Crusades in all their fervent fanaticism, bleakest hopelessness, and bloodiest violence, the tales of Cormac Fitzgeoffrey are second to none. Even in the shadow of Conan, one can see the glinting of a grinning silver skull, the blue sheen of a dripping rune-sword, and blue eyes burning with deepest hate.

Saturday 30 May 2009

A Scholar for the Ages

(Originally published on The Cimmerian, 30th May 2009)

Although I made my official Cimmerian debut last week, this is not the first time the name Al Harron has appeared on this site. A little yarn by the name of El Ingenioso Bàrbaro Rey Konahn de Simaria was unleashed on the unsuspecting website, causing a bit of a ruckus in its shameless parodying of Milius’ film. This story means immeasurably more to me now than it did when it was written, since it was the basis of a connection between myself and the late Steve Tompkins. Even at the time, the playful, tongue-in-cheek praise he espoused for my little tale was an incredible source of confidence, and knowing that this is the last communication between the two of us until the Valkyries come for me, I wish to share my own thoughts on a man whose brilliance has illuminated so much.

As a latecomer to Robert E. Howard studies, I have been fortunate to have a huge catalog of past essays to discover. Going through tomes of scholarly criticism such as The Dark Barbarian, The Barbaric Triumph, The Hyborian Heresies and others, I was enthused by the sheer range of Howard scholars, how their views, backgrounds and personal history could all be so different, yet find a unifying quality in a writer from Texas. Though I found every writer fascinating, Steve Tompkins in particular intrigued me. Though half a world apart and twice my age, I believe that had circumstances been different, I would have met him, we would have talked and laughed and disagreed violently, but always coming away with a new view, discovery or appreciation of the subject discussed. I have no doubt in some multiverse, Tompkins is yet on Midgard, and an alternate version of me would have a chance to talk to him in person, and thank him for what he has done for Howard studies, Howard fans, and myself.

Since reading my first Tompkins essay, “The Chants of Old Heroes, Singing in Our Ears,” I knew he was someone special even in the field of Howard studies. I went out of my way to find anything he wrote, scouring the internet for more. Be it in celebrated, Cimmerian Award-winning pieces like “The Shortest Distance Between Two Towers,” rousing rallies like “Pan versus Peter Pan,” or sly homages such as “Night Falls on Whoheim,” Steve Tompkins never failed to enthrall, and his works remain a testament to his incredible mind.

Perhaps one of my favourite Tompkins pieces is “What A Mummer Wild, What An Insane Child,” a surprising discussion on the similarities The Dark Knight shares with Howard’s fiction. This, I believe, encapsulates Tompkins at his best: he convincingly explores how far-reaching and universal Howard’s themes are, beyond the mere blood-and-thunder boy’s fantasy many a critic accuses him of. The subcutaneous truths of barbarism’s war against civilization in society and the individual, humanity’s defiance against cosmic indifference, and the battle of hate and death are so strong that they can be seen in all manner of films that one would not normally associate with Howard. Above all others, Tompkins showed me that Howard is relevant, his themes are relevant, his words are relevant: they can be felt in mythology, the ancient sagas, in legend, in modern fiction, and even in modern blockbusters. For inspiring that realization to me through his work, I will forever remain in his debt.

Saturday 23 May 2009

Nameless Tales: Labeling Howard’s Untitled Fiction

(Originally published on The Cimmerian website, 23rd May 2009)

I think an introduction is in order: my full name is Alexander James Harron. Though a relative newcomer in the vast field of Howard studies at 25 years of age, few authors have galvanized my imagination quite as much as the Man from Cross Plains.

As a young boy, I devoured adventure fiction: Burroughs, Haggard, Conan Doyle, Stevenson, Dumas, Verne and Wells were my inspiration, the lost worlds and grand struggles of history my tonic. I also read Almuric during this time, then unaware that the author of one of my favourite books wrote anything else. Soon I would discover Tolkien, Moorcock and Le Guin, but finding other such fantasy fiction lacking I almost gave up on the genre entirely, until I picked up a copy of Gollancz’ Fantasy Masterworks collection of the original Howard Conan tales. Through Conan I discovered the vast field of Howard’s writings, and it is by way of REH that I found the other great writers of the Weird Tales era: Smith, Merritt, Moore, Brackett and others.

So what can this upstart from Scotland offer to the study of a dust bowl period Texan author? Well, my exposure to Howard has been relatively bereft of pastiche material: I neither watched the films, nor read the Lancers and comics until after I had the fortune to read the Del Reys. Arguably my first experience of Conan was the recent animated series Conan the Adventurer, though considering Robert E. Howard did not receive so much as a credit (nor did he deserve the shame) I would confidently call The Conan Chronicles my first “true” Conan experience. Whether this shaping results in new insights or just the reanimation of dead horses to flog anew remains to be seen. So let’s jump right in.