Thursday, January 30, 2014

Moby Dick by Voss

'Moby Dick' by Al Voss
from the January, 1982 issue of Heavy Metal magazine

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Book Review: Rune

Book Review: 'Rune' by Christopher Fowler

4 / 5 Stars

‘Rune’ was first published in 1990; this Ballantine paperback edition (339 pp., cover artist unknown) was released in July, 1992.

Author Christopher Fowler is prolific, publishing novels and short story collections in the crime and horror / fantasy genres. Two of the supporting characters in ‘Rune’, the elderly detectives Arthur Bryant and John May, went on to become lead characters in the ‘Peculiar Crimes Unit’ series of novels, the tenth of which was released in 2012.

‘Rune’ is set in London in the early 90s. It’s Spring, and the city is shrouded in chilly temperatures and continuous rain. As the novel opens an aged executive, possessed by a deep and abiding terror, is running through the city streets. After a series of mishaps with traffic and passersby, he comes to a gruesome end.

The deceased man’s son, Harry Buckingham, is an advertising executive and very much the self-assured Modern British Man. Stunned by the sudden nature of his father’s passing, Harry questions those who witnessed his father’s strange behavior during his last moments. 

It emerges that Harry’s father is one of a number of businessmen who recently have killed themselves under violent, inexplicable circumstances. There is a common link to these suicides: the victims had in their possession scraps of paper marked with an unknown script.

Aided by a punk rock girl named Grace, Harry Buckingham embarks on an investigation of the strange script. It turns out that the script is comprised of runes: a prehistoric form of writing used in pagan religious rituals. To his alarm, Harry learns that with the proper visual cues, exposure to the runes can trigger super-realistic hallucinations in susceptible viewers.

Someone is marrying runes with modern videotape and broadcasting technologies……. and for a nefarious purpose. Will Harry and Grace act in time to discover the agents behind a scheme to brainwash British society into a new state of consumer compliance ? Or will they, too, fall victim to the terrifying power of the runes ?

‘Rune’ is an entertaining combination of the corporate thriller, horror, and cyberpunk genres, leavened with a healthy dose of satiric humor. Author Fowler does a good job of giving his narrative a sense of time, place, and culture for the London of the early 90s. The subplots support, rather than leach momentum from, the main narrative, and the novel features an interesting (but manageable) cast of characters.

‘Rune’ is recommended for those who appreciate a worthy effort at introducing occult horror into a modern sensibility.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Conan: The Phemonenon

'Conan: The Phenomenon' by Paul M. Sammon

January 22 marked the 78th year since the death of Robert E. Howard, so it's as good a time as any to take a look at  'Conan: The Phenomenon', which was published in hardcover by Dark Horse Books in 2008. The trade paperback version reviewed here was released in September 2013.

C:TP is essentially a coffee table book devoted to the famous barbarian; the author, Paul M. Sammon, is probably the world's foremost Conan Fanboy. The book, which measures 9 inches x 12 inches, is very well made, featuring glossy, high-quality paper and very good reproductions of the artwork, many examples of which occupy not just an entire page, but sometimes a double-page spread.

The book features a Foreword by Michael Moorcock, who, in tendentious prose, somehow re-casts the barbarian as freedom fighter devoted to the overthrow of oppressive, exploitative capitalist societies (!?)

It's no secret that Moorcock (like many British authors and artists in the sf and fantasy realms) regards Marxism with undisguised affection and reverence, but branding Conan as a hero of the Class Struggle seems more than a little contrived.....

Anyways, the opening chapter, 'Birth of A Barbarian', provides a biography of Robert E. Howard, along with a variety of archived photographs of the young REH out and about in Cross Plains, TX. 

Sammon makes an effort here to refute the argument that REH was a Mamma's Boy with an Oedipal complex that obliged him to commit suicide following her death. Rather, Sammon believes that REH had planned all along to kill himself, but had delayed the act until the death of his mother, in order to spare her the trauma of discovering her only child had blown his brains out (despite the gunshot wound which pulverized a large portion of his brain, REH's robust constitution kept him alive, unconscious, for eight hours before he expired !).

The second chapter, 'Conan Rising', covers the publishing history of the Conan character following Howard's death in June, 1936, on till the late 1960s. 

Sammon does a good job of explaining the convoluted nature of the legal agreements governing the franchise, agreements which led to a seemingly unceasing stream of lawsuits. It's difficult to come away from this chapter with anything other than dismay at the role L. Sprague de Camp (and to some extent Lin Carter) played in milking the REH canon for his own financial gain.

This chapter also gives deserved coverage to the pivotal role Frank Frazetta played in the marketing of the Lancer Books series of Conan adventures, a publishing move which brought the barbarian, and by extension REH's entire catalogue, into pop culture prominence.

'Conan the Ubiquitous' covers the further dissemination of the character into pop culture, occasioned by the arrival of the Conan comic book franchise, launched by Marvel in August of 1970. 

This chapter reproduces covers and interior art of these comic books, and is sure to spark nostalgia in anyone who remembers seeing those comics on the rack in their drugstore of convenience store back in the day.

While Sammon gives appropriate credit to the role Barry Windsor Smith's artwork played in heightening the impact Conan had on the buying public, he over-praises (in my opinion) Roy Thomas, who wrote much of the content from 1970 - 1974 before taking over as editor-in-chief for Marvel.

Thomas, Stan Lee, and Martin Goodman were unwilling to recognize that Windsor-Smith had brought a new approach - modeled on European attitudes towards graphic art - to artistic quality as far as comic books were concerned. Lee and Goodman were loathe to part with the additional sheckels that would've retained Smith's services, as well as loathe to alter the publishing schedule to accommodate his intricate draftsmanship. Unsurprisingly, Windsor-Smith left Marvel, and to a great extent the entire comics industry, for greener pastures.

For me, the Windsor-Smith issues remain the apogee of the franchise's appearance in four-color comics.

'Conan the Thespian' is devoted to the two feature films, Conan the Barbarian (1982) and Conan the Destroyer (1984). There are stills, and insider accounts, of the movie-making process that may strike some readers as going overboard into vaguely disturbing realms of Fanboy territory ( a feeling reinforced by the photo of diminutive co-producer Edward Summer posing for a 'buddy photo' with an amiable Arnold Schwarzenegger).

The chapter also makes note of the exploitation of the REH estate throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, when a glut of Conan novels churned out by avaricious publishers (such as Tor Books) diluted the quality of the franchise.

The final chapter, 'Conan the Triumphant', deals with the franchise from the mid 90s to the late 2000s. Not surprisingly, since this is a Dark Horse book after all, Sammon gives plenty of favorable coverage to the efforts of Mike Richardson, the founder and publisher of Dark Horse comics, to acquire the licensing rights to revive the comic book Conan.

I haven't invested much effort to acquiring any of the Dark Horse Conan comics, with the exception of the Tim Truman / Joe R. Landsdale miniseries Conan and the Songs of the Dead. So I can't say if the Dark Horse incarnation does justice to the character or not, although Songs of the Dead certainly was a top-notch effort.

This chapter also covers the favorable changes to the handling of the REH franchise that came about in the mid- 1990s, when the Baum family of Texas inherited a majority of the publishing rights and acted to reduce the quantity of pastiches that had flooded the market with low-quality product. 

As a result, high-quality volumes of the REH canon, including the Del Rey illustrated versions, provided readers for the first time with content that was free of the clumsy editorial decisions of de Camp and others.

'Conan: The Phenomenon' closes on an optimistic note, as the Del Rey lineup of R. E. Howard volumes promises to attract and sustain a new generation of Conan fans. 

Whether you're a dedicated Conan Fanboy, or a fan of sci-fi and fantasy literature in general, its quality and affordability make Conan: The Phenomenon a worthwhile purchase.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Bus by Paul Kirchner

'The Bus' by Paul Kirchner

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Third Game by Charles V. De Vet

Book Review: 'Third Game' by Charles V. De Vet

4 / 5 Stars

‘Third Game’, by Charles V. De Vet, is the sequel to the novelette / novel 'Second Game', which was first published in Astounding in March 1958 as a short story of the same title. An expanded version of 'Second Game' was released in 1962 as ‘Cosmic Checkmate’, part of Ace Double F-149.
The novel was expanded again for a May, 1981 DAW Book

‘Third Game’ appeared as a novelette in the February 1991 issue of Analog Science Fiction / Science Fact.

In 'Third Game' Kalin Stranberg, the son of Second Game protagonist Leonard Stranberg and his Veldqan wife, travels to Veldq. Kalin is on a special mission: discover why Veldq - despite having 'won' the war against the Federation - is beset by increasing civil unrest .

To try and understand the causes of the troubles afflicting Veldq, Kalin consults Yondtl, the corpulent, but brilliant, social outcast that aided Leonard Stranberg during his clandestine mission on Veldq years before. But Yondtl offers no easy solutions, for he himself is growing resentful with Veldqan society.

It's up to Kalin to visit different areas of Veldq and discern the pathology underlying the planet's troubles. One clue may lie with the Kinsmen, a clan occupying the lowest levels of Veldqan society....but learning more about the Kinsmen may be problematic, for  Kalin has been targeted for assassination by enemies of the state.....

 'Third Game' is a satisfactory sequel to Second Game. The plot moves at a quick pace, and the author never tips his hand as to whether Kalin Stranberg will succeed in his mission. I do recommend reading Second Game before taking on 'Third Game', as it will make grasping the subtleties of the narrative a bit easier.

If you liked Second Game, then 'Third Game' is worth searching out.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Father Shandor: The Hand of Glory from Warrior No. 8

'Father Shandor, Demon Stalker'
'Hand of Glory'
from Warrior (UK) No. 8, December, 1982

Our hero is featured in one of the more striking covers sported by Warrior.....

Friday, January 17, 2014

Book Review: The Holmes-Dracula File

Book Review: 'The Holmes - Dracula File' by Fred Saberhagen

4 / 5 Stars

‘The Holmes-Dracula File’ (249 pp) was published in 1978 by Ace Books, with cover art by Robert Adragna.

London, late May, 1897. The city is preparing for June 22, and the celebration of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.

A middle-aged man awakens with amnesia. He discovers he is bound with steel cuffs to a mattress atop a wheeled cart. He is lying in a tenement room, somewhere close to the harbor. Still stupefied from the blow to the head that led to his abduction, he can only lie helplessly while he is wheeled into an adjoining laboratory. A team of gowned and masked researchers press a cage of insects onto his naked chest……..

At 221B Baker Street, Sherlock Holmes and John Watson have a client. Sarah Tarlton, a young American woman, is distraught over the disappearance of her fiancé, the scientist John Scott, in Sumatra. Scott had embarked on an expedition into the unexplored depths of the jungle to study tropical diseases. After five months without contact, Tarlton fears that Scott has fallen victim to misfortune.

To Sarah Tarlton’s consternation, equipment from Scott’s Sumatran expedition recently has arrived at a warehouse in London, and been picked up by a man who eyewitnesses state bears a strong resemblance to John Scott; as well, the signature on the receipt is that of John Scott.

Is John Scott alive and well in London ? If so, why has he not contacted his fiancé ?

As Holmes and Watson embark on their investigation into the fate of John Scott, they will discover a conspiracy that threatens the fate of the entire city….. a conspiracy with a disturbing link to the supernatural..........

‘The Holmes-Dracula File’ is quintessential proto-Steampunk, and the thematic and spiritual predecessor to novels such as Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula and K. W. Jeter’s Morlock Night. Saberhagen’s borrowing of prominent fictional personalities as main and supporting characters, and use of a plot that is referential to well-known Victorian-era fiction, were innovative back in 1978. Nowadays these approaches to crafting a narrative are a given for many Steampunk sf and fantasy novels.

Were it written in 2013, ‘Holmes-Dracula’ would have been 400 or more pages in length, burdened with over-written prose and the management of several simultaneous sub-plots. 

Because that’s what a lot of contemporary Steampunk fiction is like, as epitomized by Felix Palma’s The Map of Time, a mass market paperback that is not only 720 pages long……..but the first volume of a trilogy.

But as a novel written in ’78, ‘Holmes-Dracula’ benefits from having short chapters, the presence of just two plot threads, prose that avoids being overly descriptive, and an absence of too many internal monologues and overwrought explorations of the emotional angst and personal traumas of its lead characters. 

That said, ‘Holmes-Dracula’ isn’t perfect. Without disclosing spoilers, I’ll admit that Saberhagen’s rationale for the appearance of Dracula in the aftermath of the events of Stoker’s novel is more than a little contrived, and the major revelation that confronts Holmes in the novel’s closing pages also seems contrived. As well, Saberhagen chooses to depict the Count less as a monster, and more as a thoughtful aristocrat; this approach may seem a violation of the essence of the Stoker version of the character, and may be disappointing to some readers.

I also should emphasize that this is not a ‘Holmes Vs Dracula’ adventure, such as Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula: The Adventure of the Sanguinary Count (1978) from Loren Estleman, or the DC / Wildstorm comic series / graphic novel Victorian Undead: Sherlock Homes Vs Dracula (2011). Rather, ‘Holmes-Dracula’ is a mystery novel, in which Holmes and Dracula are the main characters.

‘The Holmes-Dracula File’ remains one of the better proto-Steampunk novels and markedly superior to much of the Steampunk stuff being churned out nowadays. Used copies can be had for affordable prices (i.e., under $5.00).

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Space Clusters by Cover and Nino

'Space Clusters' by Arthur Byron Cover and Alex Nino

'Space Clusters' was published in 1986, as one of a number of 48- to 64-page DC 'Original Graphic Novels' devoted to fantasy and sf themes.

As 'Clusters' opens, Lieutenant Kara Basuto, a galactic bounty hunter, is in pursuit of Ethan Dayak, thief and murderer and the galaxy's most celebrated outlaw.

Dayak has the uncanny luck to escape from Basuto's grasp time and again, although not without cost.

In a desperate move to escape the relentless Basuto, Ethan Dayak decides to place his spaceship on autopilot, lock himself in suspended animation, and leave the galaxy altogether.....

Kara Basuto has no intention of letting her quarry escape. She follows Dayak into the depths of space....where both of them will become something no human has ever become: 'Space Clusters'......

'Clusters' is a mixed success. The narrative starts off reasonably well, but becomes increasingly fragmented and incoherent, as if author Cover was intent on retaining the New Wave stylings he used in his novels and short stories of the 70s ('Autumn Angels', 'The Platypus of Doom', 'In Between Then and Now') even though the graphic novel format is not particularly well-designed for such an approach.

What salvages 'Clusters' is Alex Nino's artwork. Doing away with a linear, panel-based structure in favor of full-page collages, Nino's art is vibrant and imaginative and gives the book an integral 'graphic novel' aesthetic.

For this reason, fans of sf comics and art may want to pick up a copy of 'Space Clusters'.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Holiday acquisitions: 2013

Holiday acquisitions: 2013

Here's what I picked up from Thanksgiving through Christmas of last year. Most of these were purchased from an antique mall in Owego, New York, for $1 - $4 each.

The 'Mutants Amok' entries got favorable reviews from Glorious Trash ('Mutant Hell is even more brain-addled than its predecessor, and I mean that as a compliment'), so they were worth getting. 'Passport to Eternity', The Ballard anthology, would seem to be an Old School Treasure......

The Avram Davidson anthology and the Manley Wade Wellman volumes are the top 'finds' here......the Ace version of 'The Languages of Pao' is nothing more than a direct copy of the typeset of the smaller-sized, 1966 Ace paperback (#F-390), which tells you that Ace could at times be utterly cheap and mercenary in how they approached publishing.

The 'Brak' volumes caught my eye, what with their understated, highly stylized Charles Moll covers. The Zelazny book is one of the Ace 'illustrated' sf mass-market paperbacks, and a member of a series that launched in the mid-80s. It features copious, high-quality black-and-white illustrations by Esteban Maroto. 

The Vance anthology may constitute a 'find' (or not). 'Uncut', the anthology of stories by British author Christopher Fowler, is rather obscure, but may be worthwhile. I suspect the Philip Jose Farmer novel 'Flesh' is filled with New Wave Excess, but I'll give it a try......

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Book Review: The 'Timeliner' trilogy

Book Review: The 'Timeliner' trilogy by Richard C. Meredith

3 / 5 Stars

Richard C. Meredith (1937 – 1979) wrote a number of sf novels, such as ‘We All Died At Breakaway Station’, ‘The Sky is Filled with Ships’, and ‘The Awakening’.

‘At the Narrow Passage’ was first published in 1973 in hardcover, followed by ‘No Brother, No Friend’ in 1976, and ‘Vestiges of Time’ in 1978.

Meredith made arrangements with Playboy Press to republish a revised edition of the ‘Timeliner' trilogy, starting with ‘Passage’ in September 1979, and continuing with ‘Friend’ in October and ‘Vestiges’ in November. Shortly after the revised trilogy was released, in March, 1979, Meredith died suddenly of a stroke.

The Playboy Press versions thus represent the final editions of the Timeliner novels. All three volumes have cover artwork by Kenn Barr.

The Timeliner novels borrow from H. Beam Piper’s ‘Paratime’ canon, in that they posit an infinite number of parallel universes simultaneously co-existing, without knowledge of one another’s existence.

As ‘At the Narrow Passage’ opens, the protagonist, Eric Mathers, a Captain of the British Infantry, is preparing for a commando mission. It’s Spring, 1971, and on para RTGB-307, the First World War is raging.

Eric Mathers is an agent for a lizard-like alien race called the ‘Krith’. The Krith have the ability to travel at will across paratimes, using a kind of teleportation unique to their physical makeup. Acting in shadow and stealth, the Krith manipulate human affairs on hundreds of paratime worlds. Eric Mathers has signed on an as agent for the Krith because he believes their argument that they are working for the ultimate good of the human race, by preventing paras from destroying themselves in nuclear wars. According to the Kriths, the loss of too many para civilizations to self-destruction can jeopardize the stability of adjoining paras. 

The mission the Kirth have selected for Eric Mathers and his comrades is dangerous: they are to sneak behind the German lines and infiltrate a chateau in Beaugency, where a German officer named Count Albert von Heinen is staying. They are to capture von Heinen and transport him back to British lines. Why is von Heinen important ? Because he is in charge of the German effort to construct an Atomic Bomb – the first one to exist in this particular paratime.

Eric Mathers embarks on his mission, albeit with reservations, and soon finds that all is not what it seems. Have the Krith been less than open with him about their true intentions ? When Mathers decides to investigate the motives of the Krith, a decision that takes him across a wide span of parallel universes, he comes to a growing awareness that a vast and brutal struggle is being waged across the paratimes. And that the fate of the Universe, not just Mankind, may come to rest on his shoulders…..

Overall, the Timeliner trilogy succeeds as adventure sf, with the inclusion of some ‘cosmic’ aspects to lend a note of sophistication to the run-and-gun actions sequences that dominate the first two volumes. 

There  also are plenty of Sexytime passages (Meredith evidently published a volume of erotic poetry ?! at one time in his writing career), involving an array of oversexed females who are ever-ready to unlcothe for the benefit of our square-jawed hero......but, then, this is not unheard- of activity for any 70s adventure novel.

The third volume is the weakest; while I won’t disclose any spoilers, it spends much of its length devoted to the somewhat clichéd sf trope of the Disembodied Consciousness Wandering the Universe. 

As well, Meredith made an effort to address Deep Metaphysical Questions about the meaning of life, time, and existence; this sort of thing is difficult to pull off in what is essentially a space opera, and the third installment suffers because of it.

However, despite the underwhelming nature of the final volume, the Timeliner trilogy is one of the better adventure series to appear in the 70s, particularly when you consider that at the time it first was published in the early- to mid- 70s, that sub-genre of straightforward, entertaining sf was being neglected in favor of novels that were self-consciously 'literary', a consequence of the changes wrought by the advent of the New Wave. 

That makes all three volumes worth searching out; they can be purchased for reasonable prices at your usual online used-book dealers.