Tuesday 30 October 2012

Bite-Sized Blog: Adventure Author News

Preview of "Kalina & the Baba Yaga," which goes on sale from Black Hearted Press on Hallowe'en 2012, with a launch party at 55 Parnie Street, Glasgow at 7pm.

Another round-up of links and musings before Hallowe'en, featuring Conan novelisations, Howard reviews, Howard-inspired poetry, Machen, Lovecraft, Lewis, Saunders and Smith.

Owen Williams of Empire Magazine posted an interesting overview regarding adaptations of Arnold Schwarzenegger films. He had this to say about de Camp's novelization of Conan the Barbarian and Robert Jordan's novelisation of Conan the Destroyer:

Oliver Stone’s barking mad original screenplay had been reined in by director John Milius’ subsequent rewrite, but Conan The Barbarian still bore scant resemblance to the writings of Robert E. Howard. The novelisation does an interesting job of relating Milius’ story in a pastiche Howard style, however. The book’s landscape isn’t quite as weirdly empty as the film’s; we spend more time with Conan during his pit-fighting years; and Conan escapes his gladiatorial life thanks to a handy earthquake, rather than simply being freed. He also has a lot more to say in the book than he does when Arnold plays him.
L. Sprague de Camp was Conan’s custodian in print for years, publishing collections of Conan stories that mixed Howard’s writing with his own. He even rewrote Howard on several occasions, taking Howard’s non-Conan stories and putting Conan in them. The business in the film with Conan chased by wolves and stumbling upon a cavern where he finds a sword on the body of a dead Atlantean comes from Camp’s own story The Thing In The Crypt. Roy Thomas had already adapted it for Marvel comics, which is where Milius likely first read it. So for that sequence, Camp, in the novelisation, is adapting Milius, who adapted Thomas, who adapted Camp. If a story’s worth telling, it’s worth telling four times.

Notoriously, Richard Fleischer’s Conan the Destroyer is a more family-friendly affair than John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian. It had a troubled writing process too, with Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway relegated to a mere story credit when their work was rewritten by Stanley Mann (they eventually published their own version as a comic). Jordan’s novelisation doesn’t have much to work with then, and it’s all wrapped up very quickly and conveniently. But like L. Sprague de Camp before him, Jordan makes an attempt to better tie the story in with Robert E. Howard’s work. Some locations are changed, Taramis is made a princess rather than a queen (it’s a continuity thing), and there’s more sex and violence than we see in the film. Mako’s wizard character actually gets to do some proper wizarding too, and Jordan’s special effects are better: Dagoth here is a sort of Lovecraftian bat-thing, rather than Andre the Giant lumbering around in a bad rubber suit.
Jordan got the gig because he was already writing Conan novels. Starting in 1982, he wrote Conan the Invincible, followed by the Defender, the Unconquered, the Triumphant, the Magnificent and the Victorious. The Destroyer is the second-to-last of his run though, and a few years after Conan he started a little project of his own called The Wheel of Time...

There are several other novelizations of Arnie films, some of which defy belief, and one film even got two novelisations: it's a very interesting read.

There was a time where I would only post links to reviews which I took issue with, but I think it's only fair that I bring attention to good reviews, even those I don't always agree with. Scott Lazerus, Professor of Economics at West State Colorado University, has posted a rather good review of the Conan stories, starting with a problem I know all too well:

Honestly, I didn’t think Robert E. Howard’s series of Conan stories, written and mostly published during the first half of the 1930s, would be of much interest to me. But given their importance as the tales that mark the beginning of a major subgenre that is still going strong today—what would come to be known as sword and sorcery—I thought my fantasy history tour would be incomplete without at least giving them a look. Given the continued popularity and influence of these stories, I should have known that there would be more to them than my preconceptions of a giant barbarian warrior with an equally giant sword hacking his way from one adventure to the next (not that there isn’t some truth to that description), and it turns out there are good reasons that Howard’s stories are considered central to the development of fantasy, and that the best of them are still interesting and enjoyable today.
One reason I hadn’t approached them before was my memory of the endless rows of Conan paperbacks on bookstore shelves while haunting the science fiction and fantasy sections during the 1970s, along with the multiple similar series, spinoffs, and even parodies. By that time, sword and sorcery had been stereotyped as the realm of muscular barbarians, scantily-clad damsels in distress, and escapist adventure, and the sheer repetitiveness of the cover images seemed to verify it. As it turns out, this reaction was unfair to Howard’s creation, which went through a long and confusing publishing history that in some ways took the character further and further from its origin in Howard’s stories.

I don't agree with everything he says, but it's mostly personal disagreements on the merits of individual stories, which is of course what literary appreciation is all about.

On another academic note,  Tony Barnston, Professor of English at Whittier College has written a most evocative poem called The Death of Conan the Cimmerian. Here's the first passage:

There is the feel of skeletons beneath your feet
_here in this scrubland, brick-box downtown in a busted
boom town in Central Texas, nineteen thirty-five.
_Depression years. Even the sky’s blue steel has rusted.
A Chevy noses by a dust-chalked mule and pulls
_up to a tipsy fence, a gabled house, the home
of Robert Erwin Howard, writer of pulp fiction.
_He steps out from the car and stretches to the sky-dome
of faint dusk-stars, walks to the house. He’s back from Lincoln,
_“A mummy town, a town of bones,” he writes his pal
H. P. Lovecraft. “And that’s not fancy. Every now
_and then some farmer’s plow ploughs up a human skull.”
Even this town of Cross Plains has its skeletons
_and ghosts: a headless woman hauls at something dead
in Bee Branch Stream, and at moonburst the white-veiled lady
_of the park howls, a hatchet stuck into her head.

It's certainly bound to push people's buttons in some regards - I know it pushed several of mine - but this is appears to be a partially autobiographical poem, so keep that in mind. I wish I could write poetry.

To break up the text, here's an unexpected piece of Howardian (to me) art. Normally I'm not a fan of Damien Hirst's work, but this intrigues me.

Well, Cimmerian women fought naked (according to an early draft of "Black Colossus") and Conan was born on the battlefield: this could be Damien Hirst's tribute to Conan's mother. That how I want to look at it.

Shifting gears to other authors is an article on Cosmic Horror and "Sacred Horror" by Jonathan Ryan, which includes a discussion of H.P. Lovecraft and Arthur Machen - one that debuts in interesting circumstances (courtesy of Matt Cardin):

What's this? A discussion of current horror cinema that contrasts H. P. Lovecraft's worldview of cosmic horror, pessimism, and despair with Arthur Machen's worldview of redemptive sacred terror? And it's published by -- wait for it -- Christianity Today magazine? The stars, it seems, are aligning.

Indeed, and while I hesitate to describe Machen's worldview as necessarily redemptive (I think it's a bit bleaker than Cardin implies), it's a worthwhile read, as is Cardin's response. Just try not to smart at the characterisation of Lovecraft as "boy's fiction" (seriously, Jonathan, what?), and you'll find some good nuggets of information, like this wonderfully menacing C. S. Lewis quote which I'm adding to the "list of reasons C.S. Lewis is awesome":

"Some people talk as if meeting the gaze of absolute goodness would be fun. They need to think again."

Too true, Jack. To skirt a little close to my No Religion Talk rule: angels as depicted in the Bible are awesome, terrifying, and brilliantly Lovecraftian. Don't believe me? Look up pictures of Seraphim, Ophanim, and the Living Creatures. You could make a Lovecraftian horror story using angels, and not have to change a thing about them. Which leads me to another great Lewis quote:

It should be (but it is not) unnecessary to add that a belief in angels, whether good or evil, does not mean a belief in either as they are represented in art and literature. Devils are depicted with bats’ wings and good angels with birds’ wings, not because anyone holds that moral deterioration would be likely to turn feathers into membrane, but because most men like birds better than bats. They are given wings at all in order to suggest the swiftness of unimpeded intellectual energy. They are given human form because man is the only rational creature we know....
In the plastic arts these symbols have steadily degenerated. Fra Angelico’s angels carry in their face and gesture the peace and authority of Heaven. Later come the chubby infantile nudes of Raphael; finally the soft, slim, girlish, and consolatory angels of nineteenth century art, shapes so feminine that they avoid being voluptuous only by their total insipidity—the frigid houris of a teatable paradise. They are a pernicious symbol. In Scripture the visitation of an angel is always alarming; it has to begin by saying “Fear not.” The Victorian angel looks as if it were going to say, “There, there.”...
I like bats much better than bureaucrats.

And that first quote is from an even more awesome quote, which shows you can even make a Lovecraftian Horror story starring God Himself, and not deviate unnecessarily from scripture:

For the trouble is that one part of you is on His side and really agrees with His disapproval of human greed and trickery and exploitation. You may want Him to make an exception in your own case, to let you off this one time; but you know at bottom that unless the power behind the world really and unalterably detests that sort of behaviour, then He cannot be good. On the other hand, we know that if there does exist an absolute goodness it must hate most of what we do. That is the terrible fix we are in. If the universe is not governed by an absolute goodness, then all our efforts are in the long run hopeless. But if it is, then we are making ourselves enemies to that goodness every day, and are not in the least likely to do any better tomorrow, and so our case is hopeless again. We cannot do without it, and we cannot do with it. God is the only comfort, He is also the supreme terror: the thing we most need and the thing we most want to hide from. He is our only possible ally, and we have made ourselves His enemies. Some people talk as if meeting the gaze of absolute goodness would be fun. They need to think again. They are still only playing with religion. Goodness is either the great safety or the great danger—according to the way you react to it. And we have reacted the wrong way.

I love this guy. Again, not getting into any sort of religious debate one way or another, but you have to admit it's provocative reading. Why haven't I read The Screwtape Letters again?

Charles R. Saunders has put up an interview conducted by the great Steve Tompkins which originally appeared in The Cimmerian print journal five years ago, and I encourage everyone to read it:

Charles R. Saunders has done as much for Howard's legacy by demonstrating what else the Howardian subgenre of Sword-and-Sorcery can do as he has by writing numerous articles about REH characters and concepts. Nobel laureate Toni Morrison is one of many to note the past availability of an "accommodatingly mute, conveniently blank" Africa for a variety of popular culture purposes: "It could stand back as scenery for any exploit or leap forward and obsess itself with the ways of any foreigner; it could contort itself into frightening malignant shapes... or it could kneel and accept elementary lessons from its betters." Within heroic fantasy it was Saunders who called a halt to all this, who insisted on an Africa for the Africans, as dreamed by an African-American. His Nyumbani is an iridescent, many cultured mosaic of the lost but real kingdoms of Africa, shadowed by sorcery, bloodied by the wars and banditry to be epxected wherever human beings coalesce as peoples and polities, and stalked by the barbarian warrior Imaro, a direct descendant of Conan in his indestructibility and uncontrollability."

I'd already read it in its print version, but it's always great to revisit.

Finally, a piece of great news for fans of the Weird Tales Trio: Clark Ashton Smith finally joins his literary brethren in Penguin Classics, courtesy of S.T. Joshi (thanks to Deuce Richardson for the heads-up):

In his newest blog, S. T. Joshi has announced that he has finally convinced Penguin Books to bring forth an edition of the poetry & prose of Clark Ashton Smith!!! CAS has long held reign as one of the three main writers of weird and fantastic fiction to emerge from the pages of Weird Tales (the other two writers being Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft). Night Shade Books has published, in five handsome volumes, the fantastic fiction of Clark Ashton Smith, and there have been various paperback editions from Panther Horror and others; but this Penguin Classics edition will bring Smith's work to his largest audience yet. Joshi is working closely with one of the co-editors of the Night Shade volumes, Scott Connors, who is also the co-editor of the volume of Smith's correspondence that was published by Arkham House. Scott is helping with the selection of texts for the Penguin edition, and is in fact the book's co-editor. The book will include the classic weird tales of Smith, plus a generous sampling of his fantastic poetry and prose-poems. Wow!!!!
From Joshi's blog:

I ran out of time to write a new blog before my latest trip, but in some ways that’s all to the good, for I am now prepared to make a momentous announcement: I have at last been given the go-ahead to compile a volume of Clark Ashton Smith’s writings for Penguin Classics. This book was long in the making, and I suppose my persistence paid off. It could appear as early as next year. The editors want a roughly 80/20 split between prose fiction and poetry, recognising (alas) that poetry does not sell. I had wanted a somewhat higher proportion of poetry, but that’s a small point. I have already consulted with Scott Connors (who has forgotten more about Smith than I ever knew) on a list of the stories to be included; there will also be a substantial section of prose-poems, where Smith also did outstanding work. Whatever the actual contents, it will be a landmark in the recognition of Clark Ashton Smith as a significant American author.

All I can say is about blasted time. It was obvious Lovecraft would be inducted first of the Three Weirdos, but I was sure Smith would be in before Howard due to the pop-culture baggage associated with Conan. Still, I'm not going to complain: I just hope Joshi continues his recent streak of reasonableness in regards to Howard and Smith. Now we just have to speculate on the stories that'll be included from his vast resume... Fingers crossed for "The Empire of the Necromancers"!


  1. Great article as always and its great about Smith. But what I really enjoyed was the preview page of artwork for your first published comic work.

    I love your style, man.

  2. Scholar and artist extraordinaire! Is there anything you can't do Al?