For such a sedentary fellow (librarian for 40 years), it’s hard to explain why I like action fiction so much, but the truth is my heroes have always been Tarzan and Conan and Lancelot–fighting men who left a trail of dead foes behind them and never gave them a second thought. Perhaps it is the old rule that opposites attract. I don’t have the muscle or the blind courage to be Tarzan or Conan, but in my dreams . . .
In spite of the fact that Robert E. Howard is one of my favorite writers, I have not managed to read everything that the man wrote during his all too brief lifetime. (1906-1936). Yes, I have read all of Conan and Kull, and I think I’ve read all of Solomon Kane as well, but Howard had other heroes. A couple of weeks ago, I got a chance to acquire a book that was new to me. The title is BLOOD OF THE GODS. Paul Herman edited the book and Girasol Collectables published it in a limited trade papaerback edition of 1000 copies. Neil and Leigh Mechem own that business and seem to be devoted to keeping the Pulp Era alive with reprints of stories and magazines from that golden age of American fiction–a time when stories were king, and there were lots of them.
For the most part the pulp authors were not a particularly successful or talented bunch. The names of all but a few of them have faded into obscurity. Even those who succeeded, men and women like R. E. Howard, and H. P. Lovecraft, Henry Kuttner, and Leigh Brackett barely earned enough from their writing to stay alive. The only pulp writer ever known to have gotten wealthy from such writing was L. Ron Hubbard, and he did it by starting a science fiction religion. He wrote some great stories, but they are mostly forgotten today.
Some of the best writers started in the pulps and managed to escape from them. Ray Bradbury comes to mind. Raymond Chandler is another. Edgar Rice Burroughs and Otis A. Kline wrote pulp, but managed to transcend the medium. They all did it by getting their fiction published in books–books that would outlast the flimsy, gaudy magazines where the stories originally appeared.
Howard never made it to books during his lifetime. It remained for people like Martin Greenberg, who started Gnome Press, and August Derleth who started Arkham House to start collecting pulp fiction and immortalizing it in book form. Since Greenberg published the first collection of Conan stories in 1950 in book form, publishers have been making a killing by collecting and re-issuing Howard’s stories ever since.
BLOOD OF THE GODS contains four El Borak novelettes about an American adventurer named Francis Xavier Gordon in turn-of-the-century Afghanistan (and other parts of the mid-east). It also contains one Kirby O’Donnell story. Both men are very similar–black-haired Americans who can disguise themselves as Moslems of one form or another. I bought the book because I had read about El Borak, but had never seen the stories. El Borak was apparently a big deal for Howard. He had five stories about him published during his lifetime,and several others in manuscript. El Borak means the Swift, and he shares a lot with Conan. General appearance, titanic strength and vitality, and the ability to move like lightning. I wonder why Howard bothered with Kirby O’Donnell. The setting is the same as for the El Borak stories. The characters are very similar–so similar that it’s hard to believe two such men could have co-existed in the time and place that Howard gave them. In fact, that was Howard’s entire mythos–all of his heroes were fighters. Not stupid by any means, but more likely to fight their way out of trouble than to think their way out of it. I bought the book because I thought I might be getting all the El Borak stories in one place. I acted on impulse, and did not do my homework before purchasing it. I can’t help thinking that someone should collect all of the El Borak stories including the fragments and the stuff that appeared in fanzines and edit it together into an epic that makes sense. I wonder why it hasn’t been done already–there are many better Howard fans than me who could create such a work.
Objectively, the stories aren’t all that good. There is no character development. Howard’s Afghanistan is as imaginary as his Hyborean Age, but the barbarians have guns. He re-uses names and themes with little attempt to create a coherent tapestry of stories. Each story stands alone. Each story begins with the hero getting into some sort of jam, and each one ends with him fighting his way out of it. Along the way there is hardship, travel, friendship, furious action, and death to the bad guys. It’s all about as deep and real as the butter you spread on your toast. And yet, I love this stuff. No other American writer ever had a better sense of pace for headlong action that just picks the reader up and carries him along to the finish like being caught in the rapids of the Colorado river.
There is no magic in most of Howard’s non Hyborean fiction. Conan, Kull, Bran Mac Morn, and Solomon Kane deal with magic. El Borak, Breckinridge Elkins, Fighting Steve Costigan, and several others don’t go supernatural at all. But it is all fantasy–action fantasy, fighting fantasy. And Crom help me, I still love the stuff, long after I got old enough to know better.
If you’ve ever read an El Borak story, or if you are a fan of Robert E. Howard, why not leave a comment?
It is Thanksgiving Day, 2012. I just posted a list of things I’m thankful for on Facebook, but it occurs to me that list will rotate out of sight in less than a day. So, I’m going to post the same list here, but on this site, I know how to illustrate it. If you’re reading this blog, you probably fall into one of the 20 categories of things I’m thankful for, or are associated with such a category in some way, and that means I’m also thankful for you. Thank you for existing, reading, and enriching the world!
Shut up and count your blessings! I’d count mine, but I run out of fingers and toes too quickly. Things I’m thankful for:
1. Family (and if I enumerated each member of my large and extremely talented and personable family, I’d use up the whole page.)
I was thinking of posting several pictures of the members of my family, but it occurs to me that might not be a good idea, so I’m just putting up this one shot of my mom. She is really the center of the whole family–the one person who made it all possible, and the one we love most of all. Which is not to say that the rest of you aren’t very important, because you are–very important indeed.
2. Living in America. With all our problems (political and economic and personal) we still have it good–better than most other countries in the world. Just goes to prove, it’s better to be lucky than good.
Arizona is my corner of America.
3. My freedom. (Several things are covered under that topic.)
4. My health which is still improving as I get stronger in my young age.
5. My friends. I have great friends, some of the best in the world and I admire you all more than I’ll ever be able to tell you.
New friend Carter.
6. Comics. (sequential narrative in pictures–what a great artform!)
I bought this when it first came out, and I still buy every Conan comic published in the U.S.A.
7. Gaming. (both my games and other people’s games–it’s all good and fun.)
Playing Tunnels and Trolls at GenCon with new friends who were happy to be there.
When I was young I loved to play football. I’m older now, but I still love to watch it.
Americans love cars. Mine looks like this–nothing special, but still very nice.
10. Food–especially today’s food. 🙂
11. the internet and all that it makes possible.
I was a librarian for 37 years, and there is no finer feeling for me than being in a room full of interesting books.
13. Bookstores (both new and used)
Bound to be good stuff in this bookstore. In fact, there is always good stuff in every bookstore.
14. My books and games–all 2000 of them.
15. Martial arts–I study tai chi, but every martial art is amazing.
This man teaches tai chi with patience and humor, and has taught me everything I know about this martial art.
16. Illustrative art. I know a lot of artists and they enrich my life daily.
17. God. I suppose one should be thankful to God instead of for God, and that it should be a lot higher on the list, but really, if we didn’t have the good gods (all of them) then the devils and demons would rule and ruin our lives.
18. Animals, especially pets, though I don’t have any right now. I am thankful that they exist to brighten the daily lives of other people, and mine, too, when I encounter them.
19. Fantasy fiction. (Fantasy is my life.) I’m going to include science fiction in this category. It’s just another category of fantasy, after all.
I love heroic fantasy fiction. Things like Conan, or Lord of the Rings, or Elric of Melnibone, but of it all, I really like my own stories best. An author should love his own creations best, i think.
20. Challenge. Life is full of challenges–not all of them good, achievable, or beneficial, but still–the challenges that we face that enable us to grow as individuals. And there is so much more to be thankful for, but a list of 20 seems like more than enough for right now.
Well, that’s a quick look at some of the things I’m thankful for. One could write praise of the wondeful things our lives give us all day long, but lunch is calling me. The things I am thankful for also amuse me. If you’d like to leave a note about what you’re thankful for, please do.
I went to see the new Conan the Barbarian movie on Sunday. I had been looking forward to seeing Robert E. Howard’s epic hero on the big screen again for months, hoping and praying that Hollywood wouldn’t ruin it. I was not disappointed, although I take it from the reviews that many movie critics were. I’m not surprised. Movie critics never get the point of fantasy or science fiction movies. They use the wrong set of guidelines to judge the movie, and thus they fail to see the real virtues of such films.
I am not going to talk about the plot of the story. If you want to know that stuff, go see the movie. It is, in my humble opinion, worth the $7 it will cost you to get in. I’d go see the ordinary 2D version–the special effects are good, but not so good that you need to see them bursting out of the screen at you. Maybe the tentacles scene would be worth it (grin).
Critics like to see character development. Conan isn’t about character development–the personalities of the main characters are pretty much static. The bad guys stay bad, the tough guys stay tough, the sexy women stay sexy–and that is a good thing in a movie like this. Critics like to see complex story lines. Conan doesn’t do complex stories. Conan stories, for the most part, are simple and direct–like a sword thrust to the gut. But there is a story in this movie–a pretty strong story, even though it has been often told before. A sorcerous threat to the world arises–a hero emerges to defeat it. In a way, the movie has the same plot as the first Schwarzanegger movie back in 1982–bad guy destroys Conan’s family and tribe while Conan is a child. Many years later, Conan gets his vengeance. Same plot–different events and characters equals different story.
Let’s talk about the things that make this picture good–very good in my opinion–i give it 4 stars out of 5. First, there is the acting. Considering how ridiculous the fantasy is compared to the real world, the fact that the actors all really got into their parts, and portrayed all the villainy, lust, terror, courage, love that the characters in the movie were feeling really impressed me. When you watch the movie, you believe it. The acting isn’t wooden or hoaky–it’s real. The less important the actor in the film, the better the acting was. Conan the kid was fantastic. So was Ron Perlman as his father–the blacksmith chieftain of the Cimmerian tribe.
With his village in flames, Conan as a boy is full of fight and determination.
Conan is renowned for his ability as a fighter. Jason Momoa, or his stuntman, does a great job portraying a fighter. Conan is fearless and deadly. The critics complain that the movie is one blood-soaked battle after another. In fact, that is what it is supposed to be. And the battles are great–cinematic, exciting, fast. No two fights are alike. After reading what the critics said about bloody mess, I was kind of disappointed. There wasn’t that much blood. All too often the killing stroke was not shown–they were often left to the imagination of the viewer. I was expecting great gushing fountains of blood such as you get in Japanese Samurai movies, but we never got any fountains of gore–just a stain, or a cut here and there. So, no, the movie isn’t as gore-spattered as the critics might lead one to believe. Use of blood was actually rather tastefully done. But the battles were great.
Conan does now what Conan does best.
Another great thing about the movie was the scenery. Much of Conan was shot on location in Eastern Europe–looks like Romania or the Carpathian Mountains. Beautiful, wild, exciting terrain. It looks like a primal world. Some of it was Hollywood special effects magic–no doubt about it–but the real parts were magnificent in their own right. Again, I think the critics fail to take into consideration the sheer beauty of the movie–the attention to detail, the splendor of the settings. We moviegoers are so jaded. We take the settings for granted in our films–and yet hundreds of people worked hard to make those settings believable and real for us. They deserve some credit for doing great jobs. A movie that looks good is not an accident, and deserves some consideration.
Giant tentacles are the quintessence of movie monsters!
Although sorcery is at the heart of the plot, the movie is a bit light on actual magic. And there weren’t as many monsters as you would find in your average fantasy role-playing session. No elves, dwarves, or orcs. No dragons or trolls. But there were some marvelous sand warriors, and there was a gigantic tentacled horror that no hero could possibly defeat. (I have to admit that the tentacled monstrosity didn’t make much sense, but it sure was fun to watch.) Conan lives in a world of men. Men are enough.
And the movie also had what all Conan movies need–beautiful women. I like beautiful women for their own sake–I love them in my fantasy escapist fare. I was not unhappy with the women in the Conan movie–from the bare-breasted wenches in the beginning to the kinky evil witch to the beautiful fighting heroine–they were all great.
This witch girl has grown into one of the nastiest villainesses ever, but all she really wants is her father's love.
Marique offers herself to her father--this is kinky and could have gotten pornographic very easily. It didn't.
Lastly, there is a veiled element of eroticism in this and all Conan movies. The handsome half-naked hero is attractive to both men and women–there is a homoerotic element to the movie that most people simply refuse to see. The picture above clearly shows a kind of perverted love interest. The beautiful women that appear all through the film are there for those of us who are straight, and also for women who like women. Every sexual taste is subtly acknowledged and catered to in Conan the Barbarian. You won’t see critics deigning to mention or even talk about that, but at least half of the fantasy element is these movies is the sexual fantasy part. Sex and Death are always connected. Conan the Barbarian carries the sexual parts of the fantasy very well. It is erotic without ever becoming pornographic. I say it was well done.
Those are the things I really liked about Conan the Barbarian. Let me talk about the weaknesses just a little bit. First, the story was not that original–basically the same story that they used for Arnold’s first movie–the names and places and events were different, but the plot and result were the same. I half expected Conan to confront the villain at some point and say, “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die!” Well, he would have said Conan, not Inigo Montoya, but you know what I mean. Second, the movie has the usual Hollywood ending–the villain’s fortress collapses and more or less explodes around the heroes at the end. There was no need for that. Third, they played fast and loose with the geography of the Hyborian world. Only a dyed-in-the-wool Conan purist fan like me would notice such things. Those things are quibbles. The movie isn’t about revenge, or fortresses, or geography. It is about being Conan the Barbarian in a barbaric world.
The movie contains one line that is pure Robert E. Howard–kudos to the script-writers for getting it in there. Tamara asks Conan if he believes the gods have a purpose for everthing. He answers “I know not and I care not. I live, I love, I slay, and I am content.” As moviegoers we get to watch him live, love, and slay, and we should be content with that. I am.
Tell me how you liked the Conan movie or didn’t in your comments.