Tuesday, April 22, 2014
The new Needle Magazine for Spring 2014 is now available in print, here.
"Needle Magazine is hardboiled, lean and mean. Crime fiction from some of the best-- Heath Lowrance, Rob W. Hart, Patti Abbott, Taylor Brown, Jen Conley, Stephen D. Rogers, Court Merrigan, Sandra Seamans, Trent England, Christopher L. Irvin, William Boyle, William Dylan Powell, and Tom Joyce. Cover art by Scott Morse."
All for just seven and a half bucks on Lulu. A bargain.
Monday, April 21, 2014
Okay, we're back.
Three months ago I killed this blog. Well, okay, maybe not killed it exactly-- I decided to let it die of neglect. I started a new Tumblr account and began posting stuff there, and even went so far as to re-post some of the better Psycho-Noir posts (there weren't as many of them as I'd hoped, haha, sob).
In the last month or so, though, hits here at Psycho-Noir have gone way up, as many as 600 a day, even though no new material has been posted since the end of January. So okay, I reconsidered. I'm hereby reviving this thing, for what it's worth.
Not much new to report, except for the release from Beat to a Pulp of my new Gideon Miles novella, "The Axeman of Storyville". Gideon Miles, if you don't already know, is the creation of Edward A. Grainger, aka David Cranmer, and I've written about him previously in the long short story, "Miles to Little Ridge".
You can of course find Gideon's original adventures in "The Adventures of Cash Laramie & Gideon Miles, vol. 1" and "Vol. 2", by Edward A. Grainger.
"The Axeman of Storyville" has been doing pretty well, for one of these small press thingies. So well, in fact, that David Cranmer and I have begun talking about a novella-length sequel to "Miles to Little Ridge". More on that as it draws closer.
Also, this last month or so has seen the release of the long-awaited anthology, HOODS, HOT RODS & HELLCATS, edited by my friend Chad Eagleton, and featuring stories from Eric Beetner, Matthew Funk, Nik Korpon, David James Keaton, Thomas Pluck, Christopher Grant, and yes, me too, with a terrific introduction by the one and only (and sadly recently passed) Mick Farren. It is amazingly good, if I may say so.
That's all for now.
Monday, January 20, 2014
Well, I reckon it's about time to wrap things up at Psycho-Noir. When I started this blog a few years ago, I didn't really know what I wanted to do with it, and in its time it's been a platform for me to promote my own writing, to highlight the work of other writers I admire, to talk about books and movies and sometimes even personal anecdotes. I always tried to keep the focus on reading and writing, even in the most tenuous way (not always successfully). It's been fun, mostly.
But I think this particular blog has outlived its usefulness. For me, and for readers. My goal, early on, was to attract followers and new readers; I managed to do that, to some extent (although no one would ever tell you I'm a "world beater" over here). But my priorities have changed, the world has changed, everything has changed.
I invite you to follow me over at my new tumblr account-- here's the link to that. It's different from this blog in that it exists basically for me to have fun and not worry about content so much (a worry that plagued me here at Psycho-Noir). Mostly just photos I like, videos, the occasional short text piece. You know, the usual tumblr stuff. I imagine that, when I have something to promote, I'll use it for that as well.
I won't be shutting off the lights and locking up here for a couple of months, but if you pop in, just remember that the joint is empty. Some of the better posts here will eventually wind up at the tumblr account, in shortened form.
Thanks, everyone who supported this blog. Thanks for supporting the work of a small-press writer, leaving comments, and being my friend. It's much appreciated.
Thursday, January 16, 2014
Continuing a review begun here of THE COMPLETE CHRONICLES OF CONAN, Centenary Edition, published by Gollanz in 2006.
“Beyond the Black River”. This one is probably my all-time favorite Conan story. It’s terrific, and the first indication that REH wanted to take Conan in different directions. Settlers are pushing into the wild frontier territory of the savage Indians-I-mean-Picts, and our Cimmerian is employed at the fort to patrol the woods along the Black River for marauding natives. He meets brave young soldier Balthus, and outside the garrison the two of them come across the latest victim of Pictish wizard Zogar Sag, who has a mad-on against the settlers. The fort’s governor dispatches Conan and a select group of men (including Conan’s new friend Balthus) to penetrate into enemy territory and put an end to Zogar Sag. But the settlers have no idea that the various Pict tribes are gathering for a massive attack, and once across the river, Conan’s forces are slaughtered. Conan escapes, but Balthus and a couple of others are captured. Balthus witnesses first-hand Zogar Sag’s mystical power over savage animals before Conan swoops in to rescue him. The heroes escape, the Picts hot on their heels, and a few close calls later they finally make it downriver enough to cross—they have to warn the fort of the impending attack. They make it across, but too late; the fort is already done for. Conan and Balthus decide to rush on and try to save the settlers. They split up, Balthus to clear the outlying houses and Conan to alert some men who’ve gone off to… gather salt, I take it? The Picts are already starting to get beyond the ruined fort and things are looking bad. Balthus and a kick-ass dog called Slasher die heroic deaths, defending the retreat of some helpless settlers. Conan, meanwhile, gets the salt-gatherers out of harm’s way, only to come face-to-face with Zogar Sag’s demonic familiar. The Cimmerian kills the creature. Later, after the Picts have rolled back, Conan learns that Zogar Sag is dead, slashed and cut in the same manner as his familiar. But it’s a hollow victory, Conan knows; because, in a way, the Picts won. While this isn’t the story I’d recommend to a first-time Conan reader (it’s not really representative of the tone and subject matter of the Conan stories in general), it blew me away more than any other tale in this book. Balthus and Slasher were actually meant to be Hyborian versions of REH himself and his dog, which is a nice touch.
“Shadows in Zamboula”. This story… well, where to start. It raises some issues that I’ll get to in a minute. Conan finds himself in bustling Zamboula, where he takes lodgings in a sinister inn. But the innkeeper has a regular deal going on with the roving bands of “black cannibals” that practically rule the streets at night. See, the authorities turn a blind eye to the human eating, because during the day, the blacks are just terrific slaves and it would be a shame to lose them. Attacked in his room, Conan slays his attacker; outside, he spots more of the nasty cannibals, dragging a beautiful naked (white) girl to her death. Conan does some impaling and head-chopping and rescues her. She says she was out of her home because her boyfriend went berserk—she gave him a love potion, but instead of making him swoon with desire it made him crazy. She convinces Conan (with the promise of her body) to help get her man under control and then kill Totrasmek, the wizard who sold her the faulty potion out of unrequited love and spite. Conan is game. He subdues the boyfriend, and then he and the girl break into Totrasmek’s temple. Almost immediately, the girl is whisked away through a secret door (as girls in Conan’s world are wont to do) and Conan is confronted by a behemoth of a fighter in the wizard’s employ. This was a great opportunity for a rousing fight scene, as it’s not very often Conan comes across someone as physically intimidating as himself. Unfortunately, it’s over in a couple of paragraphs. After dealing with the big guy, Conan goes after the girl, who is being toyed with by Totrasmek. Conan comes up behind the jerk and impales him very neatly on his sword. At that point, the girl reveals that she is in fact the princess of Zamboula, and her lover is the satrap. What she really needs is a magic ring she believes the wizard took from the satrap, but they are unable to find it. She gives Conan money and a horse to begin a search for the ring; he takes what she offers, then heads off—to the inn where it all started. After getting some tasty revenge on the villainous innkeeper, he leaves Zamboula… with the ring, which he took off the satrap earlier. It’ll fetch a nice price in the next town, he figures. There are a lot of things to like about this story—the pacing is good and moves along pretty quickly, and roving bands of scary cannibals in the city streets is a nice idea. But if REH’s work is often marred by an obvious racism, this story is positively destroyed by it. The racially superior attitude and the vile wickedness of all black people are impossible to ignore in “Shadows in Zamboula”, and it made it difficult to focus on the story’s merits.
“Red Nails”. LOVE this one. In many ways, you could call this the quintessential Conan story, as it has all the elements that make Conan and his world so fascinating, and REH, as a writer, was at the top of his game. Way south of the “Black Kingdoms”, formidable swordswoman Valeria is on the run after killing a sleazebag. Conan has followed her to help; he catches up to her far out in the jungle wilderness. She’s none too pleased to see him, but reluctantly accepts his help when they are set upon by a “dragon” that traps them atop a crag. Conan very cleverly gets the dragon to clear out long enough for him and Valeria to clamor down the cliff and strike off for an entirely unexpected city they see far out on the plains. The dragon gives chance through the woods and onto the plains in an amazingly thrilling sequence that ends with the dying beast braining itself on a tree (a dragon in REH's world, by the way, is actually a prehistoric leftover, like a brontosaurus, sort of, not a dragon in the Tolkien "high fantasy" sense). They make it to the city, only to find it’s actually an enormous palace, enclosed, apparently deserted—until Valeria comes across a man skulking through the ornate halls. She saves him from being killed by a creepy guy in a skull mask, and when they are set upon by more men, she kills them, with a little aid from Conan, who shows up just in time to lend a hand. Turns out there are two rival factions of people living in this strange place, and they’ve been at war with one another for decades. The man takes them to the leader of his people, Olmec, and Olmec convinces the adventurers to help him destroy their rivals. Valeria is a little concerned about creepy Tascela, the woman who sits beside Olmec but is not his queen. That night, Valeria is awoken when Tascela’s “sullen-faced maid” Yasala tries to drug her; she chases the conniving little wench as far as a door that leads to underneath the city-palace, but Yasala’s cry of horror stops her in her tracks. Meanwhile, the rival faction jumps the gun and stages a full-on attack, tricking their way into the enemy’s part of the city. Conan and Valeria help their new “friends” in a big fight scene that leaves virtually ALL of the rivals dead. Olmec convinces Conan to take two of his men and go to see if any of the enemy have survived. Valeria, slightly wounded, stays behind. But once away from the others, the two men with Conan try, without success, to kill him, on orders from Olmec. Meanwhile, Valeria is set upon by Olmec, who backs off when Tascela shows up and claims the swordswoman for her own. Tascela is an ancient sorceress who retains her youth by blood, and she intends to kill Valeria. Conan makes his way back, and Olmec leads him to Tascela—but he’s a devious bastard, and when he tries to literally stab Conan in the back, our hero does away with him. In the throne room, Conan finds Valeria upon an altar, Tascela ready to do her dirty work. The barbarian is trapped in a leg iron and can only watch in helpless rage. Things are going poorly, when suddenly Tolkemec, the original leader of the tribe, shows up. Long thought dead, he has wandered the eerie depths under the palace, living on the flesh of corpses. He has a magic wand sort of thing and he proceeds to kill everyone with it. Scared now, Tascela frees Conan and he kills Tolkemec. Valeria kills Tascela, and the two adventurers decide to forgo looking for treasure in this messed-up place. There will be other treasure, and other adventures. As I said at the beginning, this is a perfect example of a superior Conan story, and it also has the added benefit of a great female lead. I wish Valeria had appeared in more stories, instead of the usual simpering, helpless concubines or princesses we see so much of. She’s a great character who could probably carry a story on her own.
“The Hour of the Dragon”. This was the only full-length novel REH ever wrote about Conan, and, fittingly enough, it was the last to see publication during Howard’s life. It also sort of brings things full-circle for our barbarian hero, as he is once again the King of Aquilonia in it, just as he was in the first two published stories. This is an absolutely terrific novel, full of action and intrigue and suspense, with an unflagging pace that leaves the reader breathless. Since it’s a novel, I’m not going to try to summarize it like the others, but in a nutshell: Conspirators plot against King Conan to usurp his throne; they revive the corpse of an ancient evil necromancer to aide them, and Conan’s armies are destroyed by magic in a decisive battle. Everyone thinks Conan dead, but he is actually captured by the necromancer. He escapes, and what follows is a hair-raising, pulse-pounding series of adventures as Conan pursues the Heart of Arhiman, the only thing that can counter-act the necromancer’s magic, from one corner of the Hyborian world to the other. There’s a great sense of our hero careening madly from one encounter to the next, and REH uses the opportunity to explore the full range of the world he created. He touches on many of Conan’s past aspects as well—corsair, thief, fugitive, warrior. If it had been the final Conan story, no one could have complained, as it would have been perfectly fitting. This novel has also been published a number of times as CONAN THE CONQUEROR.
“The God in the Bowl”. It’s clear from this story that REH was anxious to take Conan in new directions and to stretch his writing muscles a little, as this is a totally unique story in the canon. A brash young Conan is operating as a thief in Zamora, when in the act of stealing from the temple/museum of the filthy rich Kallian Publius, he stumbles across a watchman, who, in turn, has just stumbled across the murdered Kallian.The watchman holds Conan at bay long enough to call the authorities, and once the Inquisitor and his men arrive, the story turns into a classic locked-room murder mystery. Suspicion falls on several individuals in turn as the circumstances of the murder are worked out by the Inquisitor, but when a solution can’t be reached, it looks as though Conan is going to be their scapegoat. At that point, the story takes a turn for the horrific and fantastical, and, unlike the other stories in this volume, the entire thing depends upon the big reveal at the end—which, this time, I won’t give away. This one is a nice change of pace, a well-done mystery/horror tale, and I quite liked it.
“The Black Stranger”. This is a novella-length tale that didn’t see publication until long after REH’s death, again taking place in the Pictish wilderness, after the events of “Beyond the Black River”. While the setting is just as terrific and effective as in the other story, this one isn’t quite as good—although it still has much to recommend it. The story: Conan has escaped the clutches of the Picts, but in their pursuit they’ve driven him west, toward the ocean. After hundreds of miles, a weary Conan finds sanctuary just in time on a bluff that the natives seem afraid to go near. He finds an opening, goes inside, and… blacks out. Meanwhile, fleeing a demonic entity intent on destroying him, Count Valenso and his court have wound up stranded on the coast of the Pictish wilds, where they’ve built a fort of sorts. Along with Valenso are his niece Belesa, and the young girl Belesa takes care of, Tina. Menaced constantly by the barbarians in the woods, their situation is made even worse by the arrival of two different pirate crews, both in search of a treasure rumored to be buried nearby. Just to complicate matters, the demon (called The Black Man) seems to have tracked Valenso down, and the count is teetering on the edge of a complete mental breakdown. The pirate chiefs, Zarono and Strom, hate each other passionately, and after some violence against each other and against Valenso, the three of them sit down to negotiate. Their bickering is interrupted by the arrival of a hale and confident Conan, who tells them he knows where the treasure is. He forces them into an uneasy alliance, although everybody seems to know that everybody plans on killing everybody else first chance they get. Conan leads the pirates to the treasure cave, where he’d planned on letting the deadly vapor inside it kill them. Things don’t work out and a massive fight ensues, interrupted by an attacking band of Picts. The survivors rush back to the fort, chased by the Picts, and many die defending the place from the natives, including first Zarono and then Strom. The whole place is on fire, and Conan rushes into the manor house to save Belesa and Tina. Inside, he finds Valenso, who has hanged himself, and encounters the Black Man. Conan hefts a 100-pound silver bench at the demon, who stumbles into the fire and dies. The next morning, they hail Strom’s ship, which had been anchored out at sea—Conan intends to take the girls somewhere safe (even gives them jewels enough to be set comfortably for life) and then take himself back to sea for more pirating. Some good action in this one, and the Picts are formidable enemies. The scene where Conan holds Valenso, Strom and Zarono over a barrel is classic clever Conan stuff, and Belesa is one of the better females in a Conan story, all the more so because she has her own thing going on and is not a love interest for our Cimmerian.
“The Frost Giant’s Daughter”. Taking place very early in young Conan’s career, this short tale finds our hero north of his home in Cimmeria, fighting with the blond-haired people of Asgard against the red-bearded warriors of Vanaheim. Conan is the only survivor after a brutal battle in the icy snow, and he’s not sure if he can believe his eyes when an unearthly beautiful, nearly naked girl with ivory skin appears before him. He is overcome with desire for her, and gives chase when she glides away, laughing and mocking. The ethereal girl leads Conan right to her “brothers”—two axe-wielding giants. Much to the girl’s surprise, Conan slays the giants, and grabs her. She cries out for help from her father, the god Ymir, and vanishes. Conan passes out, and when he awakens he finds he’s been rescued by warriors of Asgard. They almost convince him he hallucinated the entire thing, until he realizes what he’s gripping in his fist—the beautiful girl’s silky gossamer veil. This is a pretty minor Conan tale, and is the last completed story in the volume.
“Drums of Tombalku”. This is a fragment of an incomplete story, and Conan himself appears only near the very end. The majority of it features Conan’s lifelong friend Amalric. He and Conan were part of a mercenary army fighting against Stygia, but after an attack that left everyone else dead, including, apparently, Conan, Amalric hooks up with some thieving desert wanderers an one of the wanderers finds a beautiful woman lost in the desert—Amalric fights a pitched battle against three of them to save the honor and life of the girl. He kills them all, but sustains enough injuries to pass out (this guy ain’t Conan, remember). When he awakens, the girl is tending his wounds. Her name is Lissa, and she’s come from a nearby city called Gazal. Already, Amalric is half in love with her. They ride back to that city, and what Amalric finds is a run-down, falling-apart place with listless, distracted people, resigned to eventually becoming the victims of some horrible creature who periodically lurches out of a mysterious red tower through to claim victims. That night, the creature comes again. With Lissa’s life in danger, Amalric fights the thing, destroys it with an incantation he happens to know, and the two of them ride out of Gazal. It isn’t long before they are pursued by seven creepy black figures on horseback. At the last moment, Amalric and Lissa are rescued by a group of armed riders led by none other than Conan. The Cimmerian explains that, after being taken captive and transported to the mythical kingdom of Tombalku, he eventually worked his way into a position of power there. The fragment ends with Conan promising to take the couple to Tombalku, where the pickings are easy. It’s hard to make any sort of judgment based on only part of a story, but what exists is entertaining enough. It’s odd, though, that there would be so much action sans Conan. And I get the impression that the tale was about to go off into something completely unrelated to Amalric’s adventure, which makes me wonder why REH would have spent so much time with it.
“The Vale of Lost Women”. Another fragment, the beginnings of a story REH either abandoned or never got a chance to finish. A high-bred Ophirian woman named Livia is captive of a tribe somewhere in the jungles of the Black Kingdoms. They’ve already mutilated and killed her brother, and she is sure the fate that awaits her is a horrible one. Hope comes to her when the tribe parlays with another, led by Conan himself (how Conan came to be the leader of a black tribe is a story not told here). She steals into his hut and bargains with him to rescue her; he does so, of course, setting his men on the other tribe. In the bloody fighting, Livia freaks out and takes off on horseback. She rides for hours before coming across a beautiful, restful valley, beyond the reach of men. But her idyllic interlude is interrupted by a group of strange, brown women who secure her to an altar. She is almost killed by a winged, Lovecraftian thing, but Conan shows up just in time to save her. He agrees to get her out of there and back to civilization, where she belongs. I’m not sure where REH intended to take it from there, but I imagine it would have more to do with the strange cult of women in the valley (hence the title, right?) Potentially, it would be a good story, but remember the overt racism I mentioned in “Shadows of Zamboula”? It’s even MORE prominent here; this is no subtle racial hatred, but full-on “all black people are vile and evil” type racism that I’m sure would have been objectionable even to many people in the ‘30’s, when it was written. I won’t go into a tirade about Howard’s unfortunate racism, as the subject has already been written about extensively, but for someone who is a fan of his work, it’s a glaring problem that can’t be resolved or justified, and just as the issue of slavery is a great stain on American history, hateful racism is a stain on the legacy of REH. And that’s all I have to say about that.
“Wolves Beyond the Border”. This fragment is sort of the odd-man-out in the collection, for two reasons: Conan himself doesn’t appear in it at all, except in passing reference to his bid for the throne of Aquilonia, happening concurrently with this story. Secondly, it’s told in first person, something REH rarely did. It takes place, again, on the Pictish frontier, which he was clearly enamored of—Howard really wanted to be writing Westerns at this point in his career, and writing of the settlers and the Indian-like Picts was the next-best-thing. It’s actually the beginning of a very good story: a garrison “forest-runner” named Gault Hagar’s son, witnesses a secret Pict ceremony, and much to his shock spies a white man among them. He escapes back to a fort, where he tells of what he’s seen, and also delivers the news that his people are eager to support Conan. Everyone is in agreement about that, and happy. Then Gault spots the Lord Valerian—the same white man he’d seen consorting with the Picts. Valerian is arrested, but later that night Gault is attacked by a, yes, ape-creature under the Lord’s guidance. Gault and his allies rush to the jail, to find Valerian has escaped. They gather up a crew and go after him. At this point, the story becomes more a rough outline for what follows—they overhear Valerian’s plans to start a Pict siege on the forts, follow, and after a great battle save the day. I liked where this one was going, and REH really shines when writing about the Pictish wilderness. Shame he never got a chance to finish it.
“The Snout in the Dark”. Another fragment, and not really enough to tell where REH intended to take it. A commander of the spearmen in Kush’s army, Amboola is imprisoned by the (queen?) Tananda and is slaughtered in his cell by a demon with the face of a pig. A power-seeking wizard called Tuthmes (who controls the demon) uses the murder to make a bid for power; he orders his people to spread a rumor that Tananda was responsible for the killing. The people, who loved Amboola, attack Tananda in the street and only the timely arrival of Conan, lately a corsair but now a penniless drifter, saves her. She promptly makes him the captain of her guard. Honestly, there’s not enough to work with here to determine whether or not this would have been a good story.
“The Hall of the Dead”. This is a very short summary of a tale REH never got around to. Too bad, because it sounds like a fun one. To summarize a summary: Conan and a Gunderman named Nestor put aside their differences long enough to steal some treasure from an ancient ruin, and have to do battle with some undead warriors in the bargain.
“The Hand of Nergal”. In this fragment, basically one and a half scenes, Conan saves a girl horribly wounded on the battlefield. The scene then switches to the city of Yarlalet, plagued by supernatural happenings; presumably this is where Conan intends to take the girl. We briefly meet a rogue-philosopher called Atalis, who is conversing with the handsome Prince Than. That’s it. No idea about what REH had in mind, but from the unanswered questions brought up in the brief first scene, I bet it would have been a good one.
That’s it for the stories in THE COMPLETE CHRONICLES OF CONAN. Following is “Notes on Various Peoples of the Hyborian Age”, which is very interesting and also gives some insight into the political turmoil around Conan becoming King of Aquilonia.
And, to wrap it all up, there’s a terrific afterword by Stephen Jones (who, incidentally, edited this volume and based on his work with the ongoing MAMMOTH BOOK OF BEST NEW HORROR is my very favorite editor) about Robert E. Howard and Conan. I found it immensely entertaining and informative; Jones is clearly a fan of REH, but approaches the writer’s work with a level head and not an ounce of hero worship.
You could make an argument for the Conan stories being Howard’s crowning achievement, and the stories in this volume would lend weight to the argument. He wrote about 800 stories during his career-- tales of adventures in the Orient, grim Westerns, contemporary horror, broad comedy, boxing stories, historical adventure… there wasn’t a genre he didn’t work in at some point. And his work was uniformly entertaining and memorable. And of course, Conan wasn’t his only series character—there was Sailor Steve Costigan, Bran Mak Morn, Kull, Solomon Kane (a favorite of mine), and others besides.
But there doesn’t seem to be much doubt that Howard put more of himself into Conan than any other of his literary creations, and more of his own philosophy about civilization vs barbarism. These are stories with spirit and heart, told with wild, infectious enthusiasm.
Monday, January 13, 2014
“I’ve roamed far; farther than any other man of my race has ever wandered. I’ve seen all the great cities of the Hyborians, the Shemites, the Stygians and the Hyrkanians. I’ve roamed in the unknown countries south of the black kingdoms of Kush, and east of the Sea of Vilayet. I’ve been a mercenary captain, a corsair, a kozak, a penniless vagabond, a general—hell, I’ve been everything except a king, and I may be that, before I die.”
Conan the Cimmerian speaks these words in the novella “Beyond the Black River”, and it sums up the breadth and range of the barbarian’s adventures, but barely scratches the surface of the excitement, intrigue, thrills and action these tales deliver. In a period of less than four years, and apparently in a fever of wild imaginings, Robert E Howard wrote like a man possessed, churning out one Conan story after another for Weird Tales Magazine, inventing a genre of literature all by himself (what we call sword & sorcery), and creating one of the most enduring and memorable characters in the history of fiction.
THE COMPLETE CHRONICLES OF CONAN is just that. It collects every Conan tale published in REH’s lifetime, as well as the few stories which weren’t, and also whatever fragments, outlines and summaries still exist. Some of these stories are brilliant. Others are fine but forgettable and a couple are even… well, not very good at all. But even the worst Conan stories have a narrative flow that is almost impossible to resist, due to REH’s muscular, excitable prose and unflagging sense of propulsion. The best of these tales are classics.
Following are brief summaries of each story in CCoC. NOTE: SPOILERS AHEAD. I thought about trying to avoid giving away the endings, but honestly I don’t think it matters. Many of these stories I’d read before, and knowing the endings didn’t really affect my enjoyment of them. But I’m giving fair warning because you may feel differently about that.
The massive volume opens with “The Hyborian Age”, a long outline Howard wrote of the history of the Hyborian world Conan stalked through. It’s a remarkably detailed and fully-realized overview that covers millennia, and the rising and falling of great powers, to be replaced by other powers. While not Tolkien-level detailed (if you’re into that sort of thing), it’s still pretty impressive world-building. I re-read it after finishing the stories, and actually got a bit more out of it than I did on the first read.
The short poem “Cimmeria” sets the tone after that.
“The Phoenix on the Sword”. The first published Conan story takes place late in his life, after years of battle and plunder and adventure; the Cimmerian has wrested the crown of Aquilonia away from its fat, corrupt king and now rules with an iron but just fist. But some of his subjects chafe under the rule of an uncultured barbarian, and a group of royals and power-seekers plot to assassinate him. Former esteemed Stygian wizard Thoth-Amon, now bitterly forced into servitude, plans to not just do away with Conan, but with his fellow conspirators as well—he magically summons a hideous ape-demon, and, as the villains attack Conan in his chambers, the monster enters the fray just in time to unwittingly save the King. Conan dispatches the assassins and the monster as well, but Thoth-Amon escapes punishment. A very good story, but Conan isn’t as fully-developed as he’ll be in later stories; in fact, this one started as a tale of King Kull, REH’s Atlantian hero, and was re-written with new hero Conan after failing to sell.
“The Scarlet Citadel”. Almost a direct sequel to “Phoenix on the Sword”, this one finds King Conan and his small army lured into a trap by his enemies on the battlefield, captured, and imprisoned in a dark, creepy dungeon. For some reason, the wizard/villain isn’t Thoth-Amon, but the similarly-named Tsotha. After encountering a giant devil-snake and some other nasties, Conan escapes with the help of Tsotha’s arch-enemy wizard, whom the barbarian king has rescued. Conan races back to his kingdom in Aquilonia just in time to keep the city from falling to his enemy’s forces. There’s a beautifully written, epic battle scene, before the bad guy’s forces are routed and the capitol city is saved. Conan pursues Tsotha on horseback, catches up to him, and cleaves the wicked bastard’s head off his shoulders. This is a great story, already a huge improvement over “The Phoenix on the Sword”.
“The Tower of the Elephant”. A young, brash Conan, in the depraved capitol of Zamoria, decides to try his hand at thievery when he hears the tale of a priceless jewel locked within a supposedly impregnable tower. On little more than a whim, he breeches the outer walls, encounters the “Prince of Thieves”, Taurus, and the two of them defeat the roaming lions that stand guard. They scale the tower, Taurus is killed by a monstrously huge spider (very creepy bit, this) and, alone, Conan encounters the Tower’s great secret—Yag-kosha, an ancient, alien being with the body of a man but the head of an elephant, kept prisoner by the evil sorceries of wizard Yara. All thoughts of profit forgotten, Conan puts the wretched Yag-kosha out of his misery, then visits vengeance upon the wizard using the Jewel of the Elephant. A must-read Conan adventure.
“Black Colossus”. The entire Hyborian world finds itself threatened by the hordes of Natohk, the Veiled One. His forces sweep ever northward, but Natohk has a thing in particular for the princess of Khoraja. Horrified, the princess consults the god Mitra, who instructs her to hand her kingdom’s defense over to the first man she sees—the man turns out to be Conan, now a mercenary in her army. With all his barbarian wiles, the Cimmerian leads Khoraja’s forces into a huge, fierce battle against the invaders, repelling and slaughtering them at the pass of a bluff, in what has to be one of the best battle sequences anyone has ever written. I don’t know much about ancient military tactics, but I was convinced of the soundness of it. Anyway, facing defeat, the evil Natohk sweeps in and steals the princess away; Conan gives chase on horseback, all the way to the ruins from which Natohk originally came. He impales the villain on his blade, rescues the princess, and even manages to enjoy a little passion before heading back to his armies. The battle scenes are beautifully done, as I say, but in most respects this is a fairly standard tale.
“The Slithering Shadow”. This one appears to take place shortly after the events of the previous story. Conan (still a mercenary soldier) and a lovely concubine named Natala (no idea what happened to the princess) are lost in the desert after having survived the slaughter of the army the barbarian was riding with. They stumble across a strange city in the desert wilderness where the few scattered inhabitants spend all their time lost in blissful, drugged dreams, only occasionally pulled into reality by the morbid hunger of a horrifying, shadowy demon who feeds on them. A femme fatale sets her sights on Conan, kidnapping Natala, but the femme is attacked and devoured by the shadow-monster. After a pitched battle against the city’s recently-awoken inhabitants, Conan arrives just in time to save his girl. He manages to fling the monster down a pit, but not without sustaining serious injuries. Fortunately, the wine of the city acts as a sort of medicine, saving his life. Conan and Natala flee the bizarre city and make for an oasis a day’s journey away. Fast-paced and enjoyable, but not one of Conan’s more memorable adventures.
“The Pool of the Black One”. Fresh from an unrecorded adventure on an island somewhere, Conan insinuates himself onto a passing Zingaran ship, the Wastrel, and becomes a pirate. The captain doesn’t like him, but it doesn’t take long for the crew to begin thinking of him as a leader. They set aground on a weird island, where Conan kills the cruel captain in a bid to take command. But there are other inhabitants here—a race of tall, black humanoids who kidnap the Zingarans—and the captain’s woman, Sancha (who naturally has eyes for our barbarian hero)—to sacrifice them in their unearthly green pool. Conan rescues his ship-mates, and a fierce battle ensues. The survivors race off the island, seconds ahead of the pool’s waters, which have taken on magical life. Back on board the Wastrel, Conan takes charge, and off they sail. A strange story, but one I like a lot.
“Rogues in the House”. This is one of my favorite Conan stories. In a small border kingdom of Zamora, Conan is betrayed by his current female and thrown in a dungeon, until a baron named Murilo offers him a deal: Murilo will secure Conan’s escape if the barbarian will kill Nabonidus, the Red Priest, for him. Conan agrees, but the escape goes wrong and Murillo takes matters into his own hands, finds Nabonidus’s servant dead, and the place terrorized by Nabonidus’s pet man-ape,Thak, who’s apparently gone mad. Meanwhile, Conan escapes on his own but decides to keep his word to the baron. After dispatching his woman’s lover (and throwing the wench into a filthy cesspool), Conan arrives in time to hook up with Murilo AND Nabonidus; the three of them work to figure a way out of the place without having to fight the unnaturally strong Thak. Doesn’t work out. Conan engages in hand to hand combat with the beast, and, being Conan, wins. They’re about to make good their escape, when the Red Priest shows his true stripes and betrays them. Conan bashes his brains in with a chair, and decides to leave the ugly city behind. Excellent story with equal parts action and creepiness.
“Shadows in the Moonlight”. Conan rescues Olivia from a cruel nobleman in the grassy reeds, and the two of them set off in a boat and wind up on the shores of a strange island. There’s a threatening presence there in the trees that makes Conan uneasy; but the uncannily life-like iron statues they find in some ruins makes Olivia uneasy—she has a dream that they come to murderous life in the light of the moon. A lusty band of pirates arrive on the island, taking Conan captive. That night, Olivia steals in to rescue him before the statues can animate. They make their escape, only to encounter that threatening presence in the trees, a vicious man-ape (there’s a lot of those around in the Conan stories, almost as many man-apes as giant snakes). Anyway, Conan gorily dispatches the beast, and he and Olivia are shaken by the sounds of slaughter coming from the ruins as the iron statues come to life and kill most of the pirates. The next morning, the survivors stumble out to shore to find Conan on their ship, informing them that he is their new captain. They’re good with that. I’m not really crazy about this story, as, aside from the action set-piece with the man-ape, there’s not too much memorable about it.
“Queen of the Black Coast”. One of the great Conan stories. Escaping from some city authorities in Argos, Conan hops on to the Argus, and it isn’t long before the ship is raided by the Tigress, led by the notorious Queen of the Black Coast, the beautiful and deadly Belit. The pirates kill the entire crew, save Conan, whom Belit is instantly smitten with; the barbarian returns her lusty affections, and accepts her offer of being her right hand man. They sail and plunder together for some time (it’s hard to say how long, exactly, maybe a year or more?) before Belit decides she wants to raid an ancient city far up the jungle river Zarkheba. And what Belit wants, Belit gets. The crew arrives, plunder begins, but they are menaced by what appears to be a winged ape—the last of a once superior, ancient race now degenerated. Conan is lulled into a black lotus sleep while the winged ape’s pawns, a bunch of were-hyenas, slaughter the crew. Conan awakes to find them all dead, including his beloved Belit. In a rage, he kills the monster hyenas before facing the winged ape; he’s about to die when Belit appears in a ghostly form to save him, as she promised in life she would. Conan sets her on a funeral pyre on the Tigress, lights the fire, and watches as the ship drifts out to sea, aflame. The closest thing you’ll find to a love story in the Conan chronicles, and a must-read.
“The Devil in Iron”. An ancient wizard, Khosatral Khel, comes back to horrible life when a witless fisherman removes the magic knife from his chest that was keeping him inert. Meanwhile, in the border countries of the east, Conan has taken up with the kozaks—hill raiders and thieves, and become an enormous thorn in the side of Jehungir Agha. So Agha sets a trap for the Cimmerian on a mysterious island called Dagon (a little nod from REH to his pal Lovecraft?). Conan finds a bizarre green-walled city that wasn’t there, like, the day before, as well as (in a plot development that makes ZERO sense) Octavia, Agha’s recently escaped concubine. Conan saves Olivia, tussles with the silent, iron-hided Khosatral, and the two of them make their escape out of the city just as Jehungir Agha’s men, not knowing about the weird stuff going on, rush in to kill Conan. They instead get slaughtered by the robot-like wizard. Outside, Conan and Olivia run smack into Agha; Conan dispatches the villain easily enough, but it gives Khel time to catch up to them. With the magic knife, Conan is able to kill him. This is one of my least favorites, I’m afraid. While Khosatral Khel is a formidable and creepy enough opponent, his exact purpose, other than walking around looking scary, isn’t really clear, and oddly enough there’s never a point in the story where we feel like our hero is in real danger.
“The People of the Black Circle”. A novella-length adventure, and one of the all-time best Conan stories. There’s a lot going on in this one, but I’ll do my best to be as clear as possible. In the far eastern kingdom of Vendhya, the prince has died from a magical curse placed by Khemsa, a disciple of the Black Seers who has gone somewhat rogue. The prince’s sister Yasmina vows revenge. Meanwhile, governor Chunder Shan, long harried by Conan and his marauders, holds seven of Conan’s men ransom. Conan shows up to negotiate, but spots Yasmina, recognizes her as the princess, and being the opportunistic fellow he is, grabs her and makes off with her. They are pursued by Chunder Shan’s men, as well as by the wizard Khemsa and his… girlfriend, I guess. Conan and Yasmina take refuge with some of Conan’s hill tribe allies, but a magical attack turns them against their former friend, and the Cimmerian and the princess are forced to flee again. Farther up the mountain, they come face-to-face with Khemsa, and are almost killed but for the sudden arrival of the Black Seers. They kill Khemsa’s lady-friend, and then dash Khemsa himself to the jagged rocks below. But they aren’t there to save the day; they kidnap Yasmina and fly off to their stronghold with her. Conan gives chase, runs directly into Chunder Shan’s men, and they all form a temporary alliance to save the princess. As a group, they storm the castle, as it were. Most of them are killed by the Black Seer’s disciples, the ones that make it in are not that lucky. Men drop like flies in a beautifully written battle sequence, until only Conan is alive to face off against the final Black Seer. He kills him, rescues Yasmina, and they make their way out and back down the mountain. But the story’s not over yet: In a narrow pass, Conan’s former allies have been cornered by the militant forces of Yasmina’s political enemies. Conan rushes down to aide them while Yasmina swears to go and fetch Chunder Shan’s forces, which are not far behind. The two units defeat the bad guys, and Yasmina rides off with her men as Conan watches her off with admiration in his eyes. I love how this one plays out—lots of great adventure, with Conan at his most sly and devious, and one of my favorite Conan females in Yasmina.
“A Witch Shall Be Born”. Taramis, Queen of Khauran, is shocked and horrified when her twin sister, the witch Salome, shows up, throws her in a dungeon, and assumes her identity. With the help of the wicked Constantius, the witch begins dismantling the queen’s good name with wild debaucheries and vengeful behavior. There’s a general revolt in the city, and one of the leaders of the revolt is the brash soldier Conan. Our hero is crucified by Constantius for his trouble, but escapes (a very memorable scene!) and hooks up with the outlaw chief Olgerd. After he recovers, Conan wrests control of the outlaws from the weak-willed Olgerd and sets about instituting his bloody revenge against Constantius and his forces. Meanwhile, former soldier Valerius learns that the woman on the throne is an imposter and that Taramis is a prisoner; he kills Salome and rescues the real queen, and with Conan’s help escapes the weird ape-like creature that serves Salome (yep, another ape-creature) and slays Constantius’ men. In a nice epilogue, Conan captures Constantius and crucifies him; a little turn-about is fair play, after all. It’s funny, but when I finished this one my initial thought was that it was a fairly weak tale, but thinking about it now I realize it’s not without its merits. The crucifixion scene, and Conan’s tasty revenge at the end really carry it, though.
“Jewels of Gwahlur”. In the kingdom of Keshan, Conan learns of a vast treasure hidden in an ancient fabled city called Alkmeenon. He insinuates himself into the good graces of Keshan’s royal court as a fighting man, offering to train their army—but what our hero really wants is to get to that treasure. He has a rival, the Stygian Thutmekri. Realizing he’s beat, Conan goes after the treasure on his own, scaling a massive cliff and entering the ancient city. After a close call involving a collapsing floor and a wildly rushing underground river, Conan finds what appears to be the never-aging, never-dying body of the Oracle of Alkmeenon—but it is in fact an amazingly irritating female named Muriela, employed by Thutmekri to convince the ruler of Keshan to turn the jewels over to the Stygian. Conan makes her change her tune and she sides with him, presumably because he’s got huge muscles. When the Keshan priest Gorulga arrives with his entourage, the fake goddess tells him he must give the jewels to Conan and give Thutmekri the boot. But no sooner do the holy men leave when the girl is snatched away by some unknown creature through a hidden door (another Conan staple, the hidden door) to be replaced by the REAL oracle. Conan fights Thutmekri’s henchman, doesn’t quite kill him (much to his later regret) and goes after the priests, hoping they’ll lead him to both the missing girl AND the treasure. After one more run-in with the huge henchman, Conan finds Muriela chained up, rescues her, and arrives at the treasure chamber just in time to see the priests set upon by savage hairy devils and slaughtered. When the coast seems to be clear, he and the girl steal down, grab the treasure, and start to make their way out of the cave. But they are spotted by one of the creatures, and Conan fights him on a stone bridge over the madly rushing underground river. He kills the thing, but in the process the treasure and the girl both wind up teetering over the river and Conan can only save one. He chooses the girl, of course (stupid girl!) but shrugs it off with his typical philosophical indifference. There will be other treasure, in other places. This is a fair story, with a fun, solid plot, but Muriela is probably the most annoying of all Conan femmes.
This takes us to just about the half-way point in the collection. Here is Part Two.
Sunday, December 29, 2013
You guys are gonna hate me a little bit for this, but honestly I didn't read a lot of new stuff this year. It was a year of going back to my reading roots, cramming old paperback originals from the '50's into my head, some old school Matheson and John Collier, and a bunch of Alfred Hitchcock anthologies. Some books by writers I really admire are still waiting to be read as I continue to try and scratch the itch for old stuff.
My point is, there's no doubt lots of brilliant stuff I missed this year. But there are TWO I didn't miss, two stunningly good novels by stunningly good writers that even months later have stayed with me. They are my two picks for best novels of the year:
THE RAPIST, by Les Edgerton
Forget "hard-boiled", forget "noir", forget everything you think you know about what a genre story is supposed to be. THE RAPIST brushes all of that aside with a disdainful sneer and instead presents something that aspires to far more than any single genre can provide. More than anything else, this novel occupies the same uneasy space that Dostoevsky's "Notes from Underground" rests in-- a controlled testament of misanthropy and delusion. But whereas the great Russian's protagonist was fueled by rage, Edgerton's narrator is fueled by a sharp, ugly narcissism, and a beastly inhuman nature that peeks like a stalker through his eloquent language and high-minded ideas. Not so much a plot-driven novel as a narrative, Edgerton guides us into the mind of his narrator and leaves us there alone to fend for ourselves and make our own way back from the darkness. How much of what Truman says can we dismiss as the ravings of a damaged mind? And how much must we stop and listen to, hunting for a glimmer of truth?
THE RAPIST is a challenging novel, not for the squeamish, and definitely not for anyone who dis-likes being pulled out of their comfort zone. It quite simply blew me away. Destined to be a classic.
CORROSION, by Jon Bassoff
CORROSION, by Jon Bassoff, is a well-done psycho-noir. No, it's more than that-- it's a bit of a masterpiece, really, probably the best I've read since Allan Guthrie's SLAMMER. It's devious and disturbing, with an underlying sense of dread that keeps your guts in an uproar and absolutely refuses to let you stop reading.
Bassoff tells a sort of a duel story here, first with the horribly disfigured Joseph Downs, an obviously disturbed veteran of the war in Iraq. Joseph gets involved with the wrong woman (a tried-and-true standard starting point for noir stories) and it inevitably leads to violence and depravity. But Bassoff takes a left turn after that, subverting the old noir tropes and focusing on Joseph's fragile psyche after being betrayed.
The second part of CORROSION skips backwards a few years and tells the first-person story of Benton Faulks, a lonely, messed-up kid dealing with his dying mother, a father going slowly insane, and his insatiable lust (love?) for an older woman who wants nothing to do with him. Reading Benton's slow descent into a kind of madness that makes even his father look sane is hard; when Benton begins acting out his fantasies of being a sort of super-hero soldier, it's horrifying.
Some reviewers have compared his style and his themes to Flannery O'Connor, William Faulkner and Jim Thompson, and I suppose that's all true. But Bassoff has a style of his own, obsessions deeper and darker than those three brilliant influences would probably have dared to go.
Thursday, December 19, 2013
For a few years after that, there was nothing, until the TV show "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" hit the airwaves. By that time, Hitch wasn't just a household name, he was a full-blown PRODUCT, a sure-fire commercial entity. Someone had the bright idea of reviving the Hitchcock anthologies, as a way to sort of tie in to the success of the TV show. Hitchcock himself, by that point, had nothing to do with the enterprise, but he gladly lent his name to it. A writer/editor named Robert Arthur did most of the story selection in those early days of the Hitchcock anthologies, even doing pitch-perfect Hitchcock impressions for the pithy introductions.
What followed, for the next 25 years or so, was about 70 anthologies, not counting the original six (some of which were eventually reprinted under different titles in the early and mid '60's) and not counting the ones that came out after Hitchcock's death in 1980 (the ones without cheesy titles but were annual or bi-annual numbered anthologies).
A very good publication history of the Hitchcock anthologies can be found at Casual Debris, which saves me the trouble of writing one myself. This history was one of my primary sources when reviewing the anthologies I own.
Oh yeah, that. That's the point I was getting to, in my unfocused way. I own about 20 of the Hitchcock anthologies, and have been reading my happy way through them for a couple of weeks now. I'm currently on my seventh one. Over the next few weeks (or however long it takes me to read them), I'll be posting reviews over at Goodreads. If you're interested, check in.