C.L. Moore’s Tree of Life

C.L. Moore is one of those unfairly obscurified SFF writers of decades past. This summer I did a little gushing about Jirel of Joiry, a terribly great series of short stories, but since then I’ve been sampling different fare. Until the other day, when I was looking for some quick train reading and remembered that I’d downloaded an e-book version of “The Tree of Life” (available for free on Amazon and at Gutenburg).

I wasn’t quite as impressed with this one, but there’s still a lot to admire and enjoy about it. First off, it makes a case that Moore was another author skilled at writing diversely.

“The Tree of Life” belongs to Moore’s Northwest Smith series of short stories. Along with Jirel, Smith was one of her trademark characters and probably represents her most recognized foray into scifi. Although we don’t learn overly much about the protagonist in this tale, we see that he’s on the run and that he’s cut from the same cloth as Conan and Eric John Stark – namely that though he’s intelligent, there’s something primal and barbarian about him.

While we’re talking about Conan, I don’t consider that note about intellect to be of small significance. The mainstream perception of our favorite barbarian has come to envision him as a dumb, muscly brute, but in fact he was no dullard. For one, Conan spoke a number of different languages, and if you’ve ever tried to pick up a second or third, you’ll know this is not an easy feat. That struck me about Northwest Smith, actually – in this story Moore flat-out tells us that our protagonist is familiar with a number of different languages, and he’s able to brokenly communicate with some alien creatures that speak a language similar to one he’s picked up to a small degree. This commonality between Smith and Conan is no surprise, really, as we know Moore and Howard were at least friendly (if not friends) and enjoyed each other’s work.

As in her Jirel stories, Moore blends in a generous dose of semi-Lovecraftian horror. Combined with the somewhat romantic science fantasy of the Smith setting, we’ve got a nice, refreshing blend of elements going here.

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Moore’s way with language is characteristically impressive:

“It was no ordinary danger. A nameless, choking, paralyzed panic was swelling in his throat as he gazed upon the perilous beauty of the Tree. Somehow the arches and curves of its branches seemed to limn a pattern so dreadful that his heart beat faster as he gazed upon it. But he could not guess why, though somehow the answer was hovering just out of reach of his conscious mind. From that first glimpse of it his instincts shuddered like a shying stallion, yet reason still looked in vain for an answer.”

Though I was put off at a certain point in the story when she reuses the word “dynamo” a little too often for my liking…

I’m loathe to really say much about the story’s plot, as it’s not really very long and the buildup is part of the fun. So if any of this sounds enticing, go check it out!.

In summation, this is a great, free little SFF romp. It might not be my suggested entry point into her works, but it works as a standalone, it’s quick, and it’s imaginative, quality writing by a top-notch old great.

-Bushi

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Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser: Ironic Heroes

I recently finished up reading Swords Against Death, the second collection of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories.

If you’re not familiar with them, they’re a pair of adventuring rogues who’ve contributed a great deal to the Sword and Sorcery genre. They’ve also got an entry in the secretly famous Appendix N. Essentially they’re a couple of dude-bro friends, a barbarian and a more traditional (smaller) acrobatic thief type, who seek out riches and debauchery all over the world.

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The characters themselves, while not as iconic as Howard’s Conan, have many SFF-nerd-fans among the older crowd. As one would expect of the Greatest Swordsmen in the Universe (TM). At times I was reminded of Drizzt, actually, and I’m sure there’s a seed here in Fritz’s duo.

In many of the earlier tales, the two are fighter-thieves. Certainly powerful, but not really any more unbelievable than Conan or John Carter or Ender Wiggin (geez, I just realized I don’t even know any contemporary characters to allude to anymore). If you’ve read the first (chronological) collection, Swords and Deviltry, you’ll know that eventually they each morphed into some combination of fighter/ranger/rogue/wizard/barbarian/bard. In Swords Against Death, however, they’re simpler characters, and that is to the good.

It’s also worth noting that some of the stories take place in Lankhmar, which was one of the early fantasy cities that really came to model the “urban adventure” game setting. And the Fafhrd and Mouser stories are also one of, if not the earliest setting to make use of a “thieves’ guild.”

So what I’m saying here is that Leiber broke a lot of ground. Even if he doesn’t become your favorite author after reading these tales, there’s a lot to recognize and appreciate.

What did I think of Swords Against Death? Well, I’m glad I read it. And I liked it much more than Swords and Deviltry.

Once again I was surprised that the collection seemed to lead with the weakest material, for “The Circle Curse” is rather uninteresting.

The stuff in the middle is mostly good. There’s plenty of good adventuring and some cool ideas, like a house that eats people.

The final stories are interesting and my feelings are mixed. “The Price of Pain-Ease” held a compelling premise and a kind of cool adventure hook for any GM’s who are paying attention, but the foolishness and selfishness of the protagonists (who are supposedly as close as brothers) ultimately didn’t carry well.

“The Bazaar of the Bizarre” was an apt title. The main idea of this story was almost cool, but ruined by clumsy explanations and silly execution. One of the main shticks could have been direct forerunner to the whole idea behind the cult-classic film They Live, and it was an engaging idea here. As a weird story, The Bazaar works, but I think it’s one of the weaker entries here.

The idea of these two rogues becoming beholden to mysterious and powerful wizards struck me as a potent way to unlock future story ideas, but the way in which this developed could have been done better.

Another thing that niggled me throughout was the framing of Faf and GM as heroes, when they’re clearly not. As is often the case, Cirsova had some good insight into this for me, being the under-educated “critic” that I am.

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In summation, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are worth checking out if you enjoy Sword and Sorcery, if you’re a GM looking for game ideas, or if you’re an Appendix N archaeologist. Skip Swords And Deviltry and go for Swords Against Death.

-Bushi

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Evolving tastes

I’m very particular about the usage of the word “evolve.” Probably because in politics it’s so often misused. Some scummy politician will hand-wave away a long-held “conviction” by claiming that he’s “evolved” on an issue.

“Nevermind what I told my constituents for 7 years and that I’m now up for reelection. My views on abortion have evolved!”

Too often there has been no actual growth, no improvement; just a shallow change of position born of political calculus. True evolution implies a gradual process and often a beneficial change. Example – a child doesn’t like broccoli, but as he ages his tastes evolve and he grows to tolerate or even enjoy the healthy green vegetable and maybe other once-repulsive weeds.

Similarly, I once found little attractive about the old classic SFF covers of Frank Frazetta and his ilk. For whatever reason, they just didn’t do it for me. I think a large part of it may have just been that they belonged to old, musty books in my basement. I had not yet been exposed to the high adventure of Robert E Howard or the excitement of Burroughs, and so there was no association there, no fondness.

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I’ve read similar accounts online, and it makes me wonder. Is it age and experience that’s brought an appreciation for the work of Roy Gerald Krenkel?

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Is it my familiarity with the weird tales depicted by Margaret Brundage that have made her illustrations more alluring?

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How large a part have the stories themselves played? Or is it just that I’ve gotten used to this particular style of artwork?

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Either way I’m glad that I’ve come to enjoy it. At first, when I was just getting acquainted with the old greats, I didn’t pay much attention to the cover art of the Conan stories. But now I see. There are many beautiful (though a lot of admittedly strange) pieces to be found among the collections of these older artists, and the joy of discovering new cover art has added to the pleasure of finding classic SFF books.

How about you, dear readers? Do you like this kind of art? If so, have you always, or did it grow on you?

-Bushi

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Mazes and Monsters

There is a film from 1982 called Mazes and Monsters, starring a young Tom Hanks. What? You’ve never heard of Tom Hanks starring in a fantasy Dungeons and Dragonsy movie? That’s because this isn’t really a fantasy movie, and it isn’t a good movie.

Mazes and Monsters is about a group of college kids who play the titular game. Tom Hanks takes on the role of a transfer student looking to make a new start after becoming too absorbed in M&M to the detriment of his grades. Almost immediately he meets a young (and unconvincing) genius who also happens to be the Dungeon Master Maze Controller for a small group of players on campus. Hanks initially declines, but is eventually pulled in after meeting one of the other players, who happens to be a girl. The fourth member of the group is a hunky blonde dude who apparently can’t find love because nice girls are put off by his good looks.

The movie kind of crawls along. Things happen. There’s an inconsequential romance. The genius MC convinces the group to graduate from tabletop play to LARPing in a dangerous nearby cave.

For some reason Tom Hanks has some kind of psychotic break in the darkness, and he takes on the identity of his “holy man,” Pardieu. Somehow he’s living with this new personality for weeks and his friends don’t really notice anything other than him acting “a little weird.”

Then he disappears. His friends eventually track him down to New York City, where he’s gone to seek “the Great Hall,” some crazy fantasy version of his long lost and probably dead brother. Some punks try to mug him and he knifes one of them, seeing a lizard beast.

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His friends wind up saving him before he takes a dive off one of the Twin Towers, but the film ends on a bleak note. Despite his mother saying that he’s much better, the group discovers that he’s trapped thinking of himself as Pardieu. He tells them that the inn he’s been staying at (his parents’ house) is a good place and asks them to accompany him on an adventure to the dark forest beyond the enchanted lake, just off the family’s property.

So this isn’t a fantasy story of magic and adventure. It’s the story of a stressed out kid who goes crazy and retreats to a game world. Shame. I was hoping for something like Dragonslayer but with Tom Hanks instead of the guy from Ghostbusters 2.

If for some reason you’ve read this and still want to see it, it’s currently on Amazon Prime.

-Bushi

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Poctober: the Spinx and the City in the Sea

“The Sphinx” turned out to be an interesting choice for starting off the month. Set against the backdrop of a cholera outbreak in New York, Poe immediately establishes a potent undertone of dread. In the tale, he is staying at the country cottage of a friend for the summer. Though they are distanced from the plague and surrounded by the beauty of nature, the peacefulness is tainted. Daily they receive messages about the passing of acquaintances and friends.

Poe relates his growing anxiety amid the gloom, and eventually shares the story of an experience beyond his explanation. He describes witnessing a giant horror across the river and admits that the sight made him question his sanity. This thread of madness-inducing (or sanity-questioning) horror places Poe’s influence on Lovecraft on full display, for this would become HPL’s brand through and through.

I’ll forgo explaining the ending here, in case you’d like to read it (it’s quite a short story), but suffice it to say it ends on a somewhat humorous note. Rather than madness or death, Poe issues something of a sad trombone to his literary persona.

“The City in the Sea” is a dark piece about a city in the West where Death sits upon a throne. The titular city is visited by a “long night-time” and untouched by the light of heaven. It is a place of riches and impressive constructions – domes and fanes and Babylon-like walls, and towers, and shrines.

In the end, the waters turn red and Hell rises to do reverence to the city.

I was quite impressed by the poem, though I can’t say I fully grasp every element of it. It sounds much as if the city is a domain of Hell on earth (how’s that for a commentary on Western civilization), and yet one of the earliest lines says

“Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best
Have gone to their eternal rest. ”

Perhaps this line is speaking of the West in general, rather than the city. Otherwise I’m not quite sure what to make of this haunting place, beautiful and yet foul, if the best be there as well as the worst.

In an earlier form, the poem was titled “The Doomed City,” and was later reworked and renamed “The City of Sin” and then finally “The City in the Sea.” Inspirations for the work are said to include the Biblical city of Gamorrah and Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” It would go on to inspire other creators, including Danish composer Poul Ruders:

Overall, I’d say this was a pleasing reintroduction to Edgar Allan Poe. Much like Howard and Lovecraft before I’d read and researched further about them, his work was more varied than I’d realized.

-Bushi

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Poctober

“Poevember” would probably have been catchier, but here we are. Last year, in honor of Halloween, HP of the Every Day Should be Tuesday reviews blog and I did readings and critiques of Frankenstein. This year, as HP has a look at Rob Howard’s horror stories (an excellent choice), I’ve decided to return to gothic fiction with Edgar Allan Poe.

My exposure to the man’s work is pretty limited. I remember reading his seminal work, “the Raven,” in my school days. I also read the “Cask of Amontillado” at some point. I don’t recall much of my high-school reading, but that one stuck with me.

After soliciting some recommended reading from the tweet gallery, I’ve come away with the following list for this month:

The Sphinx

The Telltale Heart

The Fall of the House of Usher

Imp of the Perverse

The City in the Sea

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym

I may explore some others over the course of the month, but it’s my goal to get through and share some thoughts on each of the above by All Hallow’s Eve. This morning I read “the Sphinx” and “the City in the Sea,” and it’s readily apparent how great an influence Poe was on H.P. Lovecraft in particular, and probably the likes of Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and many other scifi-fantasy-horror greats, as well.

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Stay tuned!

-Bushi

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Thoughts on Tarzan: it was fine

I recently finished up reading Tarzan of the Apes, because I could no longer respect myself as an Appendix N/old school SFF blogger who hadn’t done so yet (though it may be worth noting that Tarzan isn’t actually Appendix N). I’ve been meaning to write sooner, but my flesh husk has been busy regenerating from a viral plague, among other preoccupations, some of which might involve simulated trucks.

At the risk of becoming the one PulpRev-oriented site that speaks occasionally unflatteringly and repeatedly of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan was okay.

I’ve never been big on jungle adventures, honestly. The Solomon Kane tales that did were excellent because Robert E. Howard is a baller. Seriously, if you haven’t read any of the Kane stories, you should. It’s arguably some of his best stuff – even better than Conan.

But the Jungle Book media that I’ve consumed never impressed me, and I’ve never found King Kong (I know, it doesn’t all take place there) to be particularly interesting.

If you’ve never read it, your image of Tarzan, shaped by clips of old black and white films, the Disney animation, and parodies like George of the Jungle, probably amounts to an adult Mowgli-type dude who was raised by gorillas and swings around on tree vines yodeling.

As is the case with Frankenstein and probably numerous other classics, the modern perception is far removed from the reality of the character.

For one thing, the apes that raised Tarzan aren’t gorillas. They are more intelligent (even having a primitive vocal language of their own) and distinct from the other apes of the jungle.

Tarzan himself may owe a spark of inspiration to Mowgli, but the character is basically a superhero, and I think it helps to think of many of ERB’s protagonists in this way. Tarzan is incredibly strong and adaptable, possessed of superior intellect, and is both primal and cultured. It takes him mere weeks or months to go from a savage ape-man to a European gentleman in speech and manner.

Also, Tarzan does not yodel when he swings around. He gives a ferocious cry after making a kill.

By the way, mild spoiler alert here.

I grew to like the Tarzan character. My main complaints with the story aren’t with him, for the most part. I do think he’s a little too perfect, but again, if you think of him as a proto-Superman (similar to John Carter in some ways), this is fine.

Mostly I found almost all of the supporting characters to be unbelievable and irksome. Tarzan’s French captain companion isn’t bad. He serves his purpose as Tarzan’s main gateway to civilization and the world of Man, building upon the groundwork laid by the cabin of Tarzan’s father.

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The hero’s cousin, Clayton, is also a fine man and a decent character. This presents its own problems. Namely, Clayton is a rival for Jane’s affections and for Tarzan’s title and inheritance. This sets up Tarzan to be noble and self-sacrificing, but it’s also a somewhat uncomfortable feeling for the reader (or at least for me). Clayton is shown to be handsome, brave, and noble. But he’s also an obstacle for the hero.

I don’t intend to read the sequel, so I read the plot synopsis for the Return of Tarzan and I see that ERB deals with this by changing Clayton and making him a coward. This enables Jane to break off their engagement because he is now a cad. Poor Clayton. It would have been better for him had he died in the jungle, it seems. But oh well – Jane has to end up with Tarzan somehow, and we can’t have anyone feeling guilty on Clayton’s account!

Before we get to Jane, her father and his companion are almost insufferable. Wandering into the jungle for no reason, arguing academic and philosophic points while being chased by a predatory cat and then rescued by Tarzan, and then refusing to follow him: perhaps these antics were meant to be comical, but I just found them exasperating.

As for Jane, I agree with my friend Alex of Cirsova, who commented that she is the worst of the ERB women. She is alternatingly indecisive and rash, as well as fickle. Jane is part of the reason Clayton doesn’t work as well as he could have. At the start of the story, the two are taken with one another. And why not? She’s pretty, and he’s a handsome, brave, virtuous, rich British noble. But as soon as she gets a look at Tarzan, she’s instantly over Clayton and smitten with our jungle god. Because man is he hawt.

This may cut close to reality, and we pulp fans do like our alpha males who take what they want. But it reflects poorly on Jane, I think. Clayton is a fine, upstanding man whose only demerit here is that he’s not an exotic demigod. He’s a likable character and he’s just been spurned by the female lead for purely superficial reasons. Understandable, perhaps, and realistic, sure. But not very admirable.

Besides this, at least in the first book Jane doesn’t really show any of the fierceness (or of course loyalty) that Dejah Thoris and even Dian of Pellucidar do.

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A couple things in the book’s favor – ERB was masterful at both action and at hitting certain emotional beats (that he seems to hit in every story, but they keep working!). The same is true in Tarzan. There’s some epic action, and some gripping feelzy moments. I especially liked the story of Tarzan’s parents.

So it was an enjoyable read. I’m glad I read it. But I don’t really feel much desire to continue with the series. I’ve still got a bunch of Barsoom waiting for me!

-Bushi

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