Eric John Stark: Conan in space!

Last week I wrote a piece over at Castalia House talking about my experience thus far with Leigh Brackett. My interest in the Queen of Space Opera was initially piqued not really because of her inclusion in Appendix N, but because she apparently was involved in writing the script for The Empire Strikes Back, in addition to several other old kickasses like Rio Bravo, Rio Lobo, and El Dorado.

Clearly the woman knew how to write a romping good action story.

It took me a while to discover and appreciate her depth. Having read several of her short stories now, I can say with conviction that she’s not over-hyped by her fans in the Scientifiction scene. Her writing is not only engaging; I daresay it’s got an imaginativeness to rival that of any other pulp/Appendix N author I’ve read thus far.

And now that I’ve finished reading the first Eric John Stark book (one of Brackett’s premier recurring characters), I feel comfortable saying this – Stark is Conan in Space!

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Let me first expand upon this a little before crouching into a defensive posture to clarify that perhaps provocative assertion.

Stark is an elemental man of action. If he isn’t outright called a barbarian, he is portrayed as one. Though possessing of a keen wit and sharp, almost animal instinct, he is prone to rage and bloodlust. There’s one point in the story where Stark advances to kill an enemy who had unsuccessfully attempted to eliminate him (and in a rather underhanded way), despite knowing that the man is protected and a deathly punishment is certain. Stark doesn’t care, or rather he is beyond self-control.

He’s also both intelligent and charismatic. The whole plot of the Secret of Sinharat is spurred by a warlord’s invitation for Stark to sign on as a military trainer. Someone’s gotta turn those undisciplined hordes into Fighting Men ™!

None of this really surprises me, as I’ve read and been told that Brackett was a big fan of Rob E Howard, and I think that shows in her style. I don’t think her writing possesses the same bardic flair as Howard’s, but that’s akin to pointing out that Jason wasn’t as physically strong as Hercules.

Now I want to make a point of saying that I make this Conan comparison in the best way possible. You see, there’s a lot of Conan pastiche out there. A LOT. And plenty of it is sloppy, uninspired, and/or lacking in execution. Eric John Stark is none of those things. Just from the first Stark tale, I can tell he’s different enough from Conan to be his own, unshadowed character. Plus he’s black!

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Of course being that I haven’t read Tarzan yet, maybe I’m all wrong about this and Stark is actually Tarzan in space!

 

Addendum: H.P. and I finally come to almost the exact same conclusion on something!

-Bushi

bushi

 

 

 

PC Koshinbun: Castalia House and the PulpRev scene are bustling!

Jeffro’s been doing Sensor Sweeps for a while now, and I highly recommend checking them out from time to time for some good highlights of what’s been going on with the pulp/classic SFF crowd and some tabletop gaming commentary.

Back at my old blog, I used to do periodic roundups or features of interesting Japan-related content in that corner of the web. One of the things I really like about this neck of the woods is how much support there is for budding bloggers and other aspirants who want to get their thoughts out there and contribute to the scene. When I was starting out, I remember how exciting it was to get a plug from Jeffro or Cirsova (not that it’s not still exciting). Or getting a retweet from Daddy Warpig (11k followers and he noticed me…!).

Now that we’ve built a small but awesome audience, I hope to contribute in bringing light and eyes to some of the more excellent content I’ve been discovering. Unfortunately I can’t cover everything and everyone, but I’ll try to make sure these aren’t too infrequent. Also I beg your indulgence if I shamelessly highlight some of our own content, too.

Before I get to the meat – what’s a koshinbun? Well, shinbun (新聞) is the Japanese word for “newspaper.” During the early to mid Meiji period (mid-late 1800’s), there were two major types of papers in J-Land: the oshinbun (大新聞), which were the big, usually political publications, and the koshinbun (小新聞), which were more focused on “pop” topics, like local news or fiction.

Anyway, here we go:

Castalia House blog is booming!

Jeffro brought several new writers onboard this year to bolster an already strong stable of columnists. Daddy Warpig (Jasyn Jones) and Morgan have been stirring the pot with Jeffro in some sharp criticisms of Campbellian SFF. Worth reading, even if you disagree. For my part, here are the three pieces I’ve contributed so far:

Mount and Blade and the spirit of roleplaying
Man’s Best (SFF) Friend
Solomon Kane: The Original Dark Knight

 

Geek Gab is GREAT

Before straying too far from Daddy Warpig, I have to mention this podcast. I’d seen links to it before, but I don’t listen to much talk stuff on the computer. The other day it occurred to me that I could look for it on iTunes, as I do a lot of listening during my daily commutes. Hey – there it was! I’ve listened to two episodes so far and really enjoyed them both. It’s basically a bunch of intelligent, enthusiastic, nerdy guys sitting around talking about nerdy stuff. It’s a lot of fun! Daddy Warpig, along with Brian Niemeier and John McGlynn and their guests, are definitely worth a listen if you’re into SFF (and not just literary).

 

Here be dragons

I’ve been following Oghma on Twitter for a while now, and his blog has gotten off to a roaring start. His stuff has been very thoughtful and thought-provoking. He’s shared some very candid life tales as well as some lighter nerd fare. To start, I’d draw your attention to:

In RPG’s do we even need races? – what do Hobbits bring to the table?
Props in Narrative Gaming – some great music and how-to’s on making a super cool scroll and other props that may liven up your pen and paper sessions.

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Edgar Rice Burroughs on fiction

Over at the Pulp Archivist, Nathan reminds us of some wise words from Edgar Rice Burroughs – that “entertainment is fiction’s purpose.” We would all do well to remember this!

 

The Mixed GM schools his players 

I’ve written before about how there’s merit to newer editions of D&D, which afford players more room to be awesome (or overpowered, as the case may be) and is less punishing when it comes to player character death. Many old hands resent this approach to dungeon crawling, but it is what it is. Just because I’ve advocated for the more recent style of play doesn’t mean I’m in favor of coddling players when they play stupidly. The Mixed GM illustrates a good example here of where and how to draw the line.

 

HiLo Brow’s top adventure stories of 1907

Very specific! This one caught my eye because I’m an Oz fan, and Joshua’s number 2 pick is Frank Baum’s Ozma of Oz. Baum was actually mentioned on Geek Gab recently as one of the more underrated fantasy authors of his time. Other names you may recognize on the list – H Rider Haggard and William Hope Hodgson.

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Legends never die

In what’s shaping up to be a series of posts, Kestutis Kalvaitis has been writing about Timothy Zahn and his Thrawn trilogy – arguably some of the best work of the Star Wars Expanded Universe. He also mentions some of Zahn’s other scifi work in passing. I never did explore anything he did outside of Star Wars, but sounds worth a look.

 

Defending the screwdriver guys

Keith West expounds on how many of us enjoy both the pulps and Campbellian SFF, and lands on the fact that there’s room for both subgenres. I’ve argued this point myself, recently, and I think Keith’s voice strengthens my own view of the matter.

 

Howard out-Lovecrafted Lovecraft!

Alexandru Constantin puts forward a somewhat provocative idea –

“I think Howard writes Lovecraftian fiction better than Lovecraft. I like the idea of Lovecraftian more than I actually like Lovecraft’s writing. I find all his crap boring as all shit, filled with idiotic purple prose.”

He goes on to talk about how Howard manages to get that sense of weird and horror, but employs exciting, competent protagonists who take it to the unspeakable evil. Alexandru also brings up Howard’s pioneering of the “weird western” subgenre!

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Some homegrown SFF for ya

Our own Kaiju and Gitabushi have been working on some sweet stories, both as of yet untitled. Feel free to check’em out:

Kaiju’s sword and sorcery-type: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Gitabushi’s zombie outbreak: – Part 1, Part 2

 

-Bushi

bushi

 

Solomon’s key

 

A fun little NES game, to be sure. But I only mention it because it sprung to mind when thinking about the real topic at hand.

A holy man may or may not have once said “[T]he [K]ane is the remedy for every passion.” In other words, Solomon Kane is a kickass character whose stories can cure what ails you, if what ails you is a lack of sweet fantasy stories.

Last week my first post for the Castalia House blog went up. Jeffro had asked me if I’d be interested in joining the recently exploded cadre of talented writers over there by contributing a biweekly post on my SFF meanderings. I’ve long held to the proscribed wisdom of surrounding yourself with people smarter than you are, so I gladly signed on.

Largely at Kaiju’s prompting, I’ve circled back to Robert E Howard of late. As if I don’t have enough unread authors to get to! But the gift of  the Savage Tales of Solomon Kane was on point, as is usual from my friend. I’m nearing the end of the volume now, and savoring each story about our grim hero.

One thing that’s become clear to me is the error of Tor’s 2008 piece on Kane. While it’s true that the crusader is tortured and cursed, describing him as a “functioning madman” just doesn’t do the character justice. It’s true that what we see of Kane’s attitude towards evil does seem to change over time. In the jungles of Africa, Kane picks up a powerful ally – the sorcerer N’Longa.

This “blood brother” gifts him a mysterious staff, which has the power to vanquish evils that cannot be harmed by steel or other mundane weapons. For a time Kane is conflicted on both N’Longa and the stave.

Of N’Longa, Solomon at first thinks that he is conspiring with a Satanic wizard, but is resigned to do so in order to fight a darker evil. After a time and the ju ju man’s assistance in slaying a horde of vampires, however, Kane reassesses:

Kane listened unspeaking, seeing for the first time in N'Longa's
glittering eyes something stronger and deeper than the avid gleam of
the worker in black magic. To Kane it seemed almost as if he looked
into the far-seeing and mystic eyes of a prophet of old. - "The Hills of the Dead"

It seems that there is more to the old magic man. Perhaps something divine or divinely guided.

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Similarly, Kane has misgivings about the staff, but determines once again that it may take evil to defeat evil. It ultimately turns out that the wood is the very same wielded by Moses and Solomon in the Bible. Kane’s faith and determination is vindicated once again.

Though I originally compared our dark avenger to Batman, Tor’s evocation of the Punisher also seems apt. Or Judge Dredd, perhaps? Yes, Kane sees a divine purpose in his “just murder.” But the tales seem to indicate a sort of providence both guiding and vindicating this belief.

The fact that he clearly wrestles with these issues, though, and that he acknowledges that someday he may be punished by God for his deeds, indicates that he is both sane and morally driven. He doesn’t know for a fact that what he does is right, but that’s what faith is about – living out your beliefs without ever being presented with ironclad proof.

Were he mad, he would likely not suffer doubt or regret, nor would he grapple with weighty decisions. It’s true that Kane is resolute; a man of action. But he is also introspective.

No, Kane is not a madman. His sanity has not slipped away. Rather, he’s seen some shit. Horrors of both fantastic and human nature. Call it PTSD; call it age and countless unwanted, haunting memories. But Conan and Kull could take it, and Solomon Kane is no less a mensch than they. These are Howardian men; men of valor and blood. This strikes me as key to understanding our dark knight.

 

-Bushi

bushi

 

The secret legend of Appendix N

I’m going to dare to say that it’s not a novel observation to point out that there are different kinds of nerds.

Nerdom (or you may prefer the “geekdom” nomenclature) is a broad and varied discipline, spotted with perhaps as many rabbit holes as there are stars: comic nerds, yes; game nerds both tabletop and video; train nerds and figurine nerds and audio/visual nerds and computer nerds. For many of us, these fascinations bleed over and encroach upon other territories. I think most nerds come to find a broad range of interests.

There are also Deep Nerds, one might call them; distinct in some ways from the Deep Ones. Trekkies and Star Wars nerds; Babylon 5 nerds; LARPers and that guy who’s read every Stephen King novel five times. In Japan some of these people fall into the otaku category, which in the native culture largely remains a pejorative despite attempts in the West to appropriate the term as a badge of fandom. Being super into Naruto is cool if that’s your thing, even if some people might find it a little weird. Hibernating for weeks at a time in the dark recesses of your sleeping place is anti-social and ill-advised.

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Image Source

 

My own nerdacles have been growing out steadily and grasping at various objects. Sometimes the stickers stick, and sometimes there’s just no suction. What can you do?

Repeatedly I have found myself surprised or amazed and certain previous perceptions smashed to bits. I’ve had to do a lot of gluing.

Over the past several months, I’ve discovered a number of nerd-bloggers who belong to a somewhat aged and well-established enclave. This group is welcoming but quiet. Largely unassuming but deep in tradition. While some of these folk do dabble in video games and more mainstream nerd media, their main focus is upon either tabletop gaming and/or classic SFF.

I thought my love of Herbert and Asimov and Lewis qualified me as a classicist of sorts, but there are older and deeper magics still. I’ve only recently come to know the works of Vance and Burroughs. Robert E. Howard remained at my periphery for far too long. And there’s a much longer reading list.

Upon infiltrating the society of which I speak, one encounters references to a mysterious text known as Appendix N. At first I glossed over these mentionings. I’ve played a few tabletop games, but my interest in the older incarnations of D&D is thin, though respectful, and mostly academic. As you linger, however, these rumblings will continue, and will be invoked not only in the context of gaming, but of literature and great works.

This blog entry provides a fair explanation, along with a list of the works. Or you can see here for the original words and block-of-text sources of Appendix N.

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In short, Appendix N is a list of works at the end of the original Dungeon Masters Guide for Dungeons and Dragons. It lists the major influences of game creator Gary Gygax, and includes authors who are well known today and some who have fallen into obscurity outside of most circles. For my part, once I finish with the John Carter stories, I’m excited to seek out more Vance and discover this Poul Anderson I keep reading about. With Appendix N as a reference, my reading list has expanded substantially.

Alex at Cirsova sometimes predicts that a new pulp SFF Renaissance is either approaching or has already begun. Given the resurgent popularity of Tolkien and Lewis in recent years and the expansion and mainstreaming of the genre by Hollywood and authors like Rowling, he may be right. I certainly hope he is, and I hope his efforts at bringing back business-sustainable pulp SFF magazines is a roaring success.

I also hope that through my own current awakening and whatever meager influence I have as a blogger and Twitter denizen, I can contribute to this rediscovery of great SFF by others, before it is lost to antiquity.

-Bushi

bushi

Feelings

I have been reading a lot of Robert E. Howard recently.  In case you are unfamiliar with that name here is a picture of him in his glory:

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Image:Wikipedia

Howard is one of the greatest pulp-fiction authors, and is the creator of Conan the Barbarian.  If you are unfamiliar with Conan the Barbarian you need to stop reading this post now and familiarize yourself. Much of Howard’s work is concerned with the idea of barbarism against civilization. Barbarism and savagery to Howard’s works are not negative concepts. Barbarism is the natural and preferable state of man. Civilization, to Howard, breeds weakness, corruption, or both. Conan is the only character that is every truly “free” in any of these stories. Allies Conan might encounter are only free in so much as they embrace their natural barbaric state. A conversation between Conan and his female “captive” Queen Yasmina from “The People of the Black Circle” illustrates my point further:

“But I must return to my kingdom!” she repeated helplessly.

“Why?” he demanded angrily. “To chafe your rump on gold thrones, and listen to the plaudits of smirking, velvet-skirted fools? Where is the gain? Listen: I was born in the Cimmerian hills where the people are all barbarians. I have been a mercenary soldier, a corsair, a kozak, and a hundred other things. What king has roamed the countries, fought the battles, loved the women, and won the plunder that I have?

“I came into Ghulistan to raise a horde and plunder the kingdoms to the south—your own among them. Being chief of the Afghulis was only a start. If I can conciliate them, I’ll have a dozen tribes following me within a year. But if I can’t I’ll ride back to the steppes and loot the Turanian borders with the kozaki. And you’ll go with me. To the devil with your kingdom; they fended for themselves before you were born.”

She lay in his arms looking up at him, and she felt a tug at her spirit, a lawless, reckless urge that matched his own and was by it called into being. But a thousand generations of sovereignship rode heavy upon her.

“I can’t! I can’t!” she repeated helplessly.

The People of the Black Circle

 Queen Yasmina knows that Conan’s words are true, but civilization has rendered her trapped. She is unable to truly live, love, and cleave skulls with Conan. Civilization is a weight foisted upon humanity.

So why am I writing about Conan and Howard? Two reasons:

  1. Conan is a badass. He once killed a vulture with his teeth while being crucified.
  2. I’m starting to think that Howard might have been on to something.

Reason one requires no further explanation, but for reason two I offer the following example: http://www.thirdbasepolitics.com/oberlin-feminists-accuse-christina-hoff-sommers-of-supporting-racists/

Following the above link will take you to a story about legal adults terrified of a person with a different opinion. These words of disagreement from the campus visitor constitute “violence,” and make their college community less “safe.”

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We have reached the point in our civilization where there is such little fear of real violence that we must now be concerned with “violence” against feelings. Crom forbid someone should get a case of the feelbads or butthurts. One should not bring words to a knife fight.

Our civilization has rendered us weak and ineffectual. Does anyone actually think these students who are so terrified of verbal “violence” will be able to function outside of their collegiate daycares? What if they were called upon to actually defend what the love? We are a fat, lazy people suckling at the teat of our all encompassing state. This will not last. It can not last. The rot will affect all parts of our society eventually. People who are willing to take what they want by force have never gone away. The wolves are at the gates. It is only a matter of time before the gatekeepers decide that a people unwilling to provide and protect themselves and their families are no longer worth dying for.

-Kaiju

Update:

Looks like we probably won’t have to wait for the guards to give up the gate.  The wolves will eat them first. Nothing like high-heels to make soldiers combat ready.

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