Wednesday, March 25, 2009


In many ways, Michael Chabon’s ‘Gentlemen of the Road’ is a novel of contradictions. First, of course, it is an unabashed adventure story from a writer who has been best known for his, as Chabon himself notes in the after-word with a slightly self deprecating air, ‘serious, literary’ fiction. Secondly, there is the title of the book itself. Chabon’s preferred title was, and is, ‘Jews With Swords’ which Chabon mocks once again with the image of ‘Woody Allen… and a wavering rapier’.

Those points aside, the novel itself is rife with contradiction – an historical novel which reads like a sword and sorcery adventure (with exotic, and real, names and settings that echo the work of Harold Lamb as much as Robert E. Howard). His two protagonists – Zelikman the Frank and Amram the Abyssian – are poles apart physically and psychologically and form the central contradiction of the novel – being the principal Jews with swords (of the preferred title).

Then there is the writing itself, where Chabon eschews the straightforward narrative and plain English of many a genre writer in favour of a more literary approach - long, meandering passages, shifts in perspective and a pre-occupation with the inner rather that outer life of the characters in a ‘tell, rather than show’ fashion.

There is a long and (sometimes) glorious history of ‘mainstream writers’ working in the speculative realm – Orwell, Robert Harris, Doris Lessing, PD James, Len Deighton, Janette Winterson et al – which brings with it a certain sense of reinventing the wheel. Chabon, to his credit, does not attempt such reinvention, rather he has a genuine sense of respect for what has gone before (hence the dedication of the novel to Michael Moorcock) and never seeks to break with genre convention simply for the sake of it, or indeed to claim the genre as his own private playground (something he shares in common with the historical swashbucklers of Arturo Perez -Reverte).

The plot of the novel is fairly straightforward variant on ‘restore the disposed noble’ replete with a number of plot holes - lives are spared when logic dictates that the character should be slain, coincidence abounds, at one point Amram reaches for his sword when hitherto and henceforth he uses a ‘Viking axe’ and any moderately well read reader will spot the various plot twists long before they come.

All of this, naturally, is subservient to the main question: is it any good?
Well, yes it is. The strengths of the novel far outweigh its weaknesses – the sense of an exotic past is beautifully evoked, but never in a rose-tinted manner, the kingdom of the Khazars is a dangerous, exciting place and Zelikman and Amram (two heirs to Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser) are amiable, competent companions for the book’s short length and Chabon’s dry sense of humour permeates the novel on every level.

Added to this is the fact that the UK edition is, quite simply, a very handsome object that in its physical appearance evokes a bygone age when books were things to be treasured as well as read.
In Gentlemen of the Road, Michael Chabon has succeeded in bringing swords to the literary market place and for that, if nothing else, he should be applauded.

Friday, March 20, 2009


Directed by Terence Fisher. Starring Peter Cushing, Shane Briant. Madeline Smith. Dave Prowse.

Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell marked a definite milestone in both the history of British horror films and of Hammer Films in particular. It was the last pairing of the great Peter Cushing and the equally great Terence Fisher, the last time that Hammer would tread its trademark ground of MittleEuropa Gothic and the last time that Peter Cushing would play the Baron.

By the time Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell was made, Hammer was in dire straits. The once ground-breaking formula that had seen such films as The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula (aka The Horror Of Dracula) break box-office records in the late 1950’s was starting to look very old fashioned, its major stars were starting to age and at least one of them – Christopher Lee – beginning to tire of the increasingly lame vehicles offered to him. More than that, a new breed of horror films was beginning to emerge, mostly from the USA, that were edgier, often gorier and, quite frankly, a lot more hip than Hammer – Night of the Living Dead (1968), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).

Against this, what could poor old Hammer do?

Actually, with Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell, quite a lot. Eschewing the boobs n bums approach of many Hammer movies of the early 1970’s (particularly films like The Vampire Lovers, Twins of Evil and Lust For A Vampire) and going instead for a much more claustrophobic feeling, combined with a gleeful approach to the gore, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (daft title to one side) manages to be a final, joyfully bloody, roll of the dice for the ‘traditional’ Hammer movie.

Set almost entirely within the confines of an insane asylum where Baron Frankenstein (now known as Dr Karl Victor) has set himself up as resident surgeon and resident monster-maker, the movie initially follows the story of Simon Helder (an icy Shane Briant) committed for body snatching, illegal surgery, and all sorts of shenanigans inspired by his hero, Victor Frankenstein.

As luck would have it, Helder finds himself taken under the wing of the now clearly insane Frankenstein/ Dr Victor (his hands ruined in a fire, presumably the same fire that ended Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed) and together they continue the Baron’s experiments to cheat death and create life.

Fortunately the asylum is a rich source of raw materials – a hulking ape-like, homicidal inmate here, an insane sculptor there and, most importantly, the brain of an only slightly deranged violin playing genius to top it all off. In time honoured fashion, however, nothing quite goes to plan and instead of creating a violin-playing genius they create a revenge-fuelled madman (played with remarkable subtlety by Dave Prowse) who is eventually torn to pieces by the other inmates after a murderous and hugely entertaining killing spree.

Put in such bald terms there is nothing to elevate Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell above a slew of other monster-maker films and, indeed, the film suffers badly from its obviously low budget – the miniature shots of the asylum are unconvincing, the make up for the creature is less than satisfactory, the sets obvious cardboard and polystyrene and the rich Eastman Color that had been such a feature of the earlier movies is here replaced with a dull, if fitting, grey and green colour palette – but what elevates it are the performances from both the stars and the supporting cast.

Cushing is excellent as usual, his Frankenstein now a man prepared to go to any lengths and his insanity bubbling under the surface for all to see. Shane Briant (as icy and imperious here as in Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter) exudes the same chilling charm as the younger Cushing did in Curse of Frankenstein, John Stratton as the oily Asylum Director is enough to give anyone a delicious shudder of disgust and Madeline Smith as the mute Angel brings a vulnerability to what might have been simply a decorative role.

But it is the inmates of the asylum themselves who create the essentially uneasy atmosphere of the film – the strangely camp man in lavender who flits in and out of several scenes, the old man with a Jesus complex who is first seen mock-crucified against his cell wall, the cackling women and the howling men that could have come straight from Marat/Sade.

Added to this is Fisher’s unflinching eye for gore and viscera – always a feature of his best films and here, particularly given the relaxation of British censorship laws, given free reign – the hanging of Professor Durendel with his own violin strings, the jars of staring eyeballs, the Baron’s perfunctory treatment of a discarded brain, the brutal death of the creature, all of which bring an unsettling feeling to the film, best summed up in the moment when Baron Frankenstein, unable to use his hands, holds a severed vein in his teeth to assist Helder in an operation.

Depending on your point of view, Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell is either a fitting swan-song for the once great Hammer or a feeble attempt to recreate past glories at a time when the cinematic landscape had irrevocably changed (ironically due in great part to Hammer itself). Me, I incline towards the former rather than the latter.

Sunday, March 8, 2009


Like a lot of writers, I spend a fair amount of time reading submission guidelines (truth to tell, like a lot a writers, I read the guidelines a little more diligently than I read the magazines they apply to… but that’s another story).

After a while you become familiar with certain conventions, mostly along the lines of what the magazine won’t publish rather than what it will – no fanfic is always a popular one, as indeed are strict limitations on the overuse of vampires. However, recently I came across a magazine that has put something of a moratorium on the use of first person perspective in submissions, along with very strong instructions that the inner life of the character should be kept to an absolute minimum (something along the lines of ‘we want to see the character slay the dragon rather than have him explain why he is about to’).

As a form of shorthand this could, and has been, referred to as ‘cinematic writing’ – the writer using his words in the same way that a film director uses his camera – where virtually everything is externalized rather than internalized and a character’s actions, dialogue and appearance say everything about them.

Now, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the omniscient third person perspective (the old God’s Eye View) but I think that once you start to limit even that to a narrow focus you removed some of the most important tools in the writer’s toolbox.

Taken to its logical extreme it strips the narrative of anything subjective, making even dialogue conform to cinematic rules: if it can’t be heard then the reader can’t be aware of it. In turn, of course, it also means that any signs and signifiers have to be stripped away since, in general, they are also subjective: simile and metaphor can have little or no place in cinematic writing at its logical extreme since the camera makes no differentiation between objects. Thus even simple metaphors such as ‘He was as big as a house’ cannot be used unless their use is literal.

More than this, the narrative language of cinema and that of the page are very different animals. The tools that the novelist or short story writer has at his disposal are not exactly the same as those of the film director – who has movement, camera angles, voiceovers, use of colour, music, slow-motion et al – so that were a writer paints a picture with words, a director essentially paints a picture with many different brushes and palates.

Again, if one takes the principle of cinematic writing to the extreme, even a straightforward statement such as ‘The town was called Little Cutting’ cannot be written: someone has to mention the name of the town in their dialogue or someone has to see a road sign that tells them the name of the town. Similarly one cannot say ‘Jeff and Peter were brothers, Peter was the elder’, there needs to be a definite statement from one or another of the characters. At its basest this boils down to: “‘Hello, older brother,’ Jeff said as he entered the room.”

Of course, every writer makes a choice about how to tell a particular story and perspective is, well, a matter of perspective, but to utterly dismiss the first person is, to my mind, completely wrong. There are those writers who believe that first person perspective is a cowardly refuge – but this is to dismiss many, many fine stories and novels. Would Dracula be as interesting if told from a third person perspective? Frankenstein? The Wasp Factory?

What the omniscient/ cinematic form of narrative cannot do is look into a character’s thought processes or soul, and most certainly cannot give the same perspective as the camera. If one considers, say, the climactic gunfight in Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, with its use of mid-shot, close-up, extreme-close up and music one realizes that such a scene with all its tension is difficult if not impossible to recreate on the page. Certain quirks of an actor’s face, the colour of their eyes, their particular way of moving, their clothing, the cinematic baggage they bring with them all add to a scene – when Harrison Ford loses his hat in the Last Crusade, for example, the audience reacts to it for various different reason, all linked to both character and actor, a reaction which is hard to recreate by simply saying ‘as the tank hurtled towards the abyss, Indy’s hat flew off.’ Clint Eastwood narrowing his eyes in ‘Unforgiven’ has a resonance that mere words cannot hope to match.

To use a really extreme example of first person-most-positively-definitely-not-cinematic narrative:

Remembering- Do you hear, my little red?
Hold me softly. The cold grows.
I remember:
- I am hugely black and hopeful. I bounce on six legs along the mountains in the new warm… Sing the changer, Sing the stranger! Will the changes change forever… All humans have worlds now. Another change!
Eagerly I bound on sunward following the tiny thrill in the air. The forests have been shrinking again. Then I see. It is me! Me Myself, MOGGADEET-I have grown bigger more in the winter cold! I astonish myself, Moggadeet-the-small!
Excitement, enticement shrilling from the sun-side of the world. I come!… The sun is changing again, too. Sun is walking in the night! Sun is walking back to Summer in the warming of the light!… Warm is Me Moggadeet. Myself. Forget the bad-time winter.
Memory quakes me.
The Old One.

Love is the Plan, The Plan is Death by James Tiptree Jr

Any attempt to render the above passage as a purely objective narrative would miss so very, very much. Moggadeet’s internal thought processes could never possibly be captured by a straightforward, third-person omniscient/ cinematic narrative.

As human beings we experience life subjectively, everything we see, hear, touch, taste and smell is filtered through our senses and has a resonance for us which is unique to us (the taste of rich tea biscuits and orange squash, for example, takes me back to my childhood almost instantly and the smell of wood smoke on a warm summer’s day does much the same thing).

Ultimately, the writer of fiction has many, many tools at his disposal, tools which are unique to prose (as opposed to script writing) and it strikes me as being very wrong to dismiss any or all of them, cinematic writing included.

It all boils down to the right tool for the job - after all, you wouldn’t use a screwdriver on a nail, would you?

Saturday, March 7, 2009


My short story All That Grows has been accepted for the June issue of The Absent Willow Review. So what better time to indulge in a little more shameless self promotion:

Emerald Eye, The Best Irish Imaginative Fiction

Yesterday Today Tomorrow: A Fable
Everyday Fiction

The Song The Soldiers Sang: A Fable:
Everyday Fiction

Deepest Black
Jupiter SF

The Substance of A Dream
Mirror Dance

The Fearsome Knight and the Little Dragon: A Fairytale
Mirror Dance

The Season Without Sun

What Dread Words
Sorcerous Signals

The Iron Morning In The Metallic Sunrise
The Nautilus Engine

The Glass Cage

Coming Soon:

The Children of Badb Catha
The Phantom Queen Awakes, Morrigan Books

The Bone House
Beneath Ceaseless Skies

All That Grows
The Absent Willow Review (June 2009 issue)

Thursday, March 5, 2009


For anybody who doesn’t know – and if you don’t, what have you been doing – Robert E. Howard was and remains one of the key figures in the development of modern fantasy fiction. His most famous creation, Conan, can probably take his place with such literary figures as Dracula and Sherlock Holmes in that minor pantheon of fictional characters who have taken on a life of their own after the death of their creator.

Like Holmes and Dracula, Conan has gone on to appear in countless works by other hands – most notably L. Sprague De Camp, Lin Carter, Robert Jordan and Karl Edward Wager – as well as appearing in comics, video games and two feature films starring Arnold Schwartzenegger (three if you count Red Sonja where his character is Conan by another name).

Yet before Conan there was another barbarian who sprang from the fertile mind of Robert E. Howard – Kull, exile of Atlantis.

Often unfairly dismissed as little more than a prototype for the more famous Cimmerian, Kull is a fascinating character in his own right, the stories often philosophical in tone and touched with a macabre atmosphere that lends them further weight.

There are similarities, of course, between Kull and Conan, both are barbarians-in-exile (Conan from Cimmeria and Kull from Atlantis) who seize a kingdom, both are men of action who find themselves alienated from civilised society by both nature and nurture and, in more concrete literary terms, the King Kull story By This Axe I Rule became the basis for the first published Conan story The Phoenix On The Sword.

But to my mind, Kull is the more interesting of the two: less of an innocent abroad than Conan, more world-weary (uneasy lies the head that wears the crown), a man who is searching for answers and his place in the world rather than an adventurer who regards the world as his playground.

The majority of the Kull stories remained unpublished during Howard’s lifetime, perhaps because they were so out of step with the action-oriented style of the pulps (the Conan story ‘The Frost Giant’s Daughter’ suffered a similar fate despite being one of the finest Conan tales) and only three –The Shadow Kingdom, Kings Of The Night and the Mirrors Of Tuzun Thune - saw the light of day prior to the rediscovery of Robert E. Howard in the 1960’s.

Yet the stories still remain largely unappreciated and undervalued, which is unfair on them. There is action aplenty in stories such as The Shadow Kingdom and By This Axe I Rule. But other Kull tales such as The Cat and the Skull (aka Delcardes’ Cat) The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune and The Striking of the Gong show another side to Howard’s writing, one in which action is sublimated by introspection – in these stories Kull finds himself placed in danger as a result of his own intellect and curiosity rather by a simple physical threat, and it is this aspect of the character that sets him apart from the swarm of muscle-bound barbarian heroes that followed in Conan’s wake.

Another delight of the Kull stories is the rich supporting cast with which Howard surrounded his hero – Brule the Spearslayer, once an antagonist who becomes Kull’s boon companion, Ka-nu the wily Pictish statesman, Tu the Chief Counsellor who provides a stark, and sometimes comical, counterpart to Kull himself – there is a sense of cohesion and a hint of the epic in the saga of King Kull which the Conan stories sometimes lack. Added to this is Howard’s muscular, energetic prose which, certainly in terms of pulp fiction, was streets ahead of the majority of his contemporaries.

Kull with a single mighty leap hurled himself into the room. Tu spun, but the blinding, tigerish speed of the attack gave him no chance for defence or counterattack. Sword steel flashed in the dim light and grated on bone as Tu toppled backward, Kull's sword standing out between his shoulders. The Shadow Kingdom

Then came a day when Kull seemed to catch glimpses of strange lands; there flitted across his consciousness dim thoughts and recognitions. Day by day he had seemed to lose touch with the world; all things had seemed each succeeding day more ghostly and unreal; only the man in the mirror seemed like reality. Now Kull seemed to be close to the doors of some mightier worlds; giant vistas gleamed fleetingly; the fogs of unreality thinned; "form is shadow, substance is illusion; they are but shadows" sounded as if from some far country of his consciousness. He remembered the wizard's words and it seemed to him that now he almost understood--form and substance, could not he change himself at will, if he knew the master key that opened this door? What worlds within what worlds awaited the bold explorer? The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune

Del Ray’s rather handsome 2006 edition of Kull, Exile of Atlantis, collects all the Kull stories including a number of unfinished drafts and fragments and some earlier scraps featuring Am Ra of the Ta-an (himself an earlier incarnation of both Kull and Conan) and features stunning interior artwork from Justin Sweet

Indispensable reading for those interested in the evolution of fantasy fiction, fascinating for those who wish to explore the literary origins of Conan and a bloody good read for anyone who likes their sword and sorcery with an intelligent and philosophical twist, the Kull stories deserve to be re-evaluated and rediscovered once more.