Sunday, January 31, 2010


Candide by Voltaire

Not exactly SF – or even proto-SF – Candide is nevertheless a work of imaginative fiction the equal of any that might sit on a SF reader or writer’s shelf.

Filled with bizarre characters and situations and, even after some 250 years, uproariously funny, Candide has provided the template for many a literary odyssey through strange worlds.

When Candide is exiled from the cosy world of castle Thunder-ten-Tronckh for daring to fall in love with the Baron’s beautiful daughter Cunégonde, life takes him on a journey that encompasses war, earthquakes, the ministrations of the Inquisition and even to the fabled utopia of El Dorado. Throughout his privations, Candide clings to the notion that human beings are basically good and happy people and that he lives in ‘the best of all possible worlds’.

First published in 1759, Candide is a short, furious novel that rarely lingers on its catalogue of battles, disasters, rapes, murders and executions. As a result – and equally as a result of its universal themes – the novel has aged remarkably well and is most certainly more modern than, say, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) where the density of both language and situation can be somewhat daunting for the contemporary reader.

Filled with grotesque characters - such as the philosopher Dr Pangloss ( the professor of metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology. who’s optimistic refrain of ‘best of all possible worlds’ give the novel its ironic central theme) the beautiful Cunégonde (fresh-coloured, comely, plump, and desirable), Governor Don Fernando d'Ibaraa, y Figueora, yMascarenes, y Lampourdos, y Souza (who’s ‘air of noble distain… affected accent and stilted manner made everyone long to hit him’) and Candide himself, a man who’s stoic nature moves past caricature and into the mythic.

Candide is a remarkably ribald and, at times, brutal novel. Voltaire rarely spares the reader’s sensibility when it comes to his depiction of bloodshed and disaster, nor does he flinch from portraying the self-serving nature of his characters. Indeed it is a world where good is often portrayed as foolish and virtue is punished as often (perhaps more often) than wickedness: the fate of Cunégonde (one of slavery, violence and rape), for instance, is mirrored by the fate of the old woman with one buttock (an image which is at first hilarious then increasingly sinister and tragic as the truth of her condition is revealed).

But if Candide is a novel of multifold horrors, it is leavened by Voltaire’s ability to poke fun at many nations and their societies – including the French, Germans, Portuguese, English, Spanish and Dutch – with only the inhabitants of the mythical El Dorado escaping his scathing pen relatively untouched (although, by the same token, Voltaire implies that, wonderful as it may seen, El Dorado would be the worst place on earth if seen from a different perspective.)

At its heart Candide is a love story and Candide’s single-minded pursuit of Cunégonde provides the spine of the novel and much of its impetus. With a gleeful delight in coincidence, (characters presumed dead have a habit of turning up just as and when they are required) a scathing view of science, religion and philosophy, Candide is as much tragedy as comedy, a novel who’s titular character is an all-too human innocent abroad and who’s supporting cast prefigures the larger-than-life inhabitants of Dickensian fiction and the gothic novel.

Whereas many classic novels remain firmly of their time – reflecting the social mores and ills of the time in which they were written – Candide remains as boisterous and heartbreaking as ever.

If you only read one classic French novel this year, make it Candide.

Monday, January 25, 2010


My short story The Tower of Dreams is up at the very excellent Abandoned Towers. It's something of a departure from my usual doom 'n' gloom fiction and is (hopefully) rather funny.Check it out, why not? You can find it by clicking on the Fantasy link.

Saturday, January 23, 2010


I’ve been reading a lot of sword and sorcery comics recently, in particular titles like Dagar the Invincible, Claw the Unconquered, Deathdealer, Red Sonja and the various Conan titles written by the great Roy Thomas. But the one that has caught my attention most is a series that first appeared in the legendary Warren comic Eerie in the early 1970’s: Dax the Warrior a.k.a Dax the Damned.

Like many sword-swinging barbarians of the time, Dax is (or was) a distant relative of Conan (the template for virtually all the s & s fiction that followed in his wake - even Elric was a sort of reverse Conan, a cultured prince who loses an empire rather than an uncouth barbarian who seizes one) but what made Dax so very different from his comic book contemporaries was the brilliant artwork from Spanish writer/ creator Esteban Maroto and the strange, almost hallucinogenic, stories in which he appeared.

Whereas the Roy Thomas Conan stories were bright, colourful adventures where might and cunning were enough to overcome even the strongest adversary, the Dax stories were doom-laden, downbeat, borderline sadistic with a fascination for beautiful, often treacherous, women characters. While Dax frequently emerged victorious his victories were often pyrrhic at best and on occasions the stories would end with Dax mired in despair or hovering on the edge of death.

The very first Dax story, which appeared in Eerie # 39, set the tone for what was to come:

Returning home from service in a bloody war, Dax spies a beautiful young woman bathing in a pool. Smitten by her, Dax dives into the water and the two become lovers in a very short space of time (regardless of his doomed status, Dax remained ever the ladies man, something that would land him in trouble time and time again). The girl, Freya, tells him that she wishes to escape from this land since it is “not the land for a love such as ours.”

Almost immediately afterwards, Dax and Freya are attacked by a monstrous winged creature and Freya is taken away. Following them, Dax comes to a cavern filled with visions of terrifying creatures tearing at human women. Upon entering he is confronted by a cloaked figure who orders him to leave the cavern forever.

Since Dax is a hero, he does not heed the warning and presses on, finally finding Freya at the mercy of a lizard-like creature whom Dax promptly slays. As he carries Freya from the cavern, the cloaked figure appears again and as Dax is about to kiss Freya warns him that she has been infected by a severe and utterly infectious form of leprosy.

The story ends with a final image of Dax with Freya in his arms – triumphant yet defeated at the same time.

In a very short space of time (about eight pages) Maroto conjures some startling images and throws up enough questions to make the reader scratch his head in wonder. It is to Maroto’s credit that the questions are never answered since the stories are very much seen from Dax’s perspective and Dax is very much a ‘slay first, slay second and, if anyone is left after that slay them’ kind of guy (and indeed, in subsequent stories, more questions about Dax and his world would emerge, never to be answered).

This is not to say that the Dax stories were either badly written or just simple barbarian adventures but rather that the obscurity of the stories give them a quality all their own, their style deeply surreal and unmistakeably European rather than American.

Over the course of a dozen stories, running from Eerie 39 – 52, Dax would encounter mad gods, vampiric witches, sirens, snake-demons and a whole host of other strange creatures with the saga finally ending on a typical downbeat note.

For issue 59 of Eerie, ten of the original twelve Dax stories were extensively re-written by Budd Lewis and the character rechristened as Dax the Damned in an attempt to give the series a little more continuity and to explain a few of the more esoteric aspects of the character and his world. The re-written Dax tales were fine (as they still retained Maroto’s wonderful art) but were robbed of much of their mystery and surrealism.

A minor addition to the world of sword and sorcery, to be sure, but Dax deserves to be remembered, if only because he is/was a surreal oasis in a genre where experimentation can be rare.


Imaro: The Naama War is the ‘book that was, then wasn’t, now is again’. The checkered history of the Imaro books is semi-legendary – first published by DAW in the 1980’s then by Nightshade Books a little more recently, Imaro faltered not once but twice, leaving both the character and fans of the series in limbo.

Until now.

Thanks to Sword and Soul Media, Imaro: The Naama War has finally been unleashed and it has has been well worth the wait.

For those who don’t know, Imaro is an Ilyassai warrior in Nyumbani (a brilliantly imagined and realized alternative Africa) who moves from outcast to bandit leader and, ultimately, to holding the fate of the entire continent in his hands. Comparisons with Howard and Conan are both inevitable and somewhat misleading since Imaro is much, much more than an African Conan - although fans of Howard will find much to enjoy here – and is very much his own man and, equally, so is Charles R. Saunders. A writer who is capable of both great subtlety and great action in his stories, Saunders’ muscular prose blends with very human (and in some cases inhuman) characters to create a world that is far beyond the usual cod Medieval Europe that predominates much of sword and sorcery.

Following on directly from The Trail of Bohu, The Naama War racks up the odds, pitting nation against nation, gods against gods, and, ultimately, Imaro against his nemesis/ doppelganger, Bohu. Battles, both epic and personal, are fought, a harrowing quest is undertaken, the fate of Nyumbani hangs in the balance and, in some cases, the characters find that the true cost of war is not always paid in blood.

One of Saunders’ great strengths is – like Howard and David Gemmell - his ability to create a world that is simultaneously familiar and totally different to our own. There are parallels with both Zulu and Maasai culture in the Ilyassai and Abamba nations and echoes of pre-apartheid South Africa in Naama (although Saunders’ is too subtle a writer to ever indulge in simple parallels or fictional recriminations) and the continent of Nyumbani is vividly realized and evoked.

While this isn’t the best place for new readers to start with Imaro, for fans of the series The Naama War is a delight from start to finish, answering questions that have hung in the air for nearly a quarter of a century (depending on when you first started reading Imaro, although I must confess that I am a recent convert) and delivering the sort of all-out action and utterly believable characters which have become a hallmark of both Imaro and his creator.

Where the earlier Imaro novels, in particular Imaro and Imaro 2: The Quest For Cush, were somewhat episodic in their structure (reflecting their origins in Saunders’ short fiction), The Naama War is very much a novel: epic in scope but more importantly, deeply human at its core. Saunders makes you care about his characters, both major and minor, and the plot springs from the characters never the other way round.

The Naama War is difficult to review without giving too much away – for fans of the series it is a welcome return to Nyumbani and provides an extremely satisfying end to the current saga of Imaro while laying the groundwork for a continuation of the series (and if there is any justice in the universe then we will see more Imaro stories and novels)

If you care about sword and sorcery (or just good fiction in general) the Imaro books are a must have – a unique and brilliant creation.

Welcome back, Imaro.

For more information on Imaro and his creator:

Thursday, January 14, 2010


Just got word from the lovely people at Morrigan Books that their new anthology The Phantom Queen Awakes is available for pre-order. It features new fiction from Katharine Kerr, Elaine Cunningham, Anya Bast, C.E Murphy and, well, me!

Love, death and war…

The Morrigan goddess represented all three to the ancient Celts. Journey with our authors as they tell stories of love, war, hatred, revenge and mortality - each featuring the Morrigan in her many guises.

Re-visit the world of Deverry, and of Nevyn, with a previously unpublished tale by Katharine Kerr, watch the Norse gods meet their Celtic counterparts with Elaine Cunningham, meet a druid who dances for the dead with C.E. Murphy and follow the path of a Roman centurion with Anya Bast.

These are but a few offerings from the stories collection in The Phantom Queen Awakes. If you are searching for a rich blend of dark fantasy, then this is a collection perfect for you.

The Phantom Queen Awakes stories:
Rising Tide: Ruth Shelton
Kiss of the Morrigan: Anya Bast
I Guard Your Death: Lynne Lumsden
GreenGifts of the Morrigan: Donald Jacob Uitvlugt
Cairn Dancer: C. E. Murphy
Washerwoman: Jennifer Lawrence
The Raven’s Curse: Sharon Kae Reamer
Ravens: Mari Ness
The Lass from Far Away: Katharine Kerr
The Trinket: Peter Bell
The Dying Gaul: Michael Bailey
The Children of Badb Catha: James Lecky
The Plain of Pillars: L. J. Hayward
The Silver Branch: Linda Donahue
The Good and Faithful Servant: Martyn Taylor
The White Heifer of Fearchair: T. A. Moore
She Who is Becoming: Elaine Cunningham

Friday, January 8, 2010


The 2010 Preditors and Editors Poll is open from now until 14 January.

It's a chance to vote for your favourite magazines and stories of 2009.

Not wishing to try and sway anyone, but I'd recommend a few excellent magazines that you might like to consider: Heroic Quarterly Fantasy, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Sorcerous Signals.

Happy voting.

Monday, January 4, 2010


Dir Gordon Hessler. Starring Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Alfred Marks.

There was a period in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when British horror films took a serious and extended trip into the weird side of things. The gothic feel of Hammer was starting to become passé and the old monsters (particularly Frankenstein and Dracula) were showing a little wear around the cinematic edges (although, ironically, some of the finest Hammer films such as Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, The Devil Rides Out and Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter were made around this time) even the Amicus portmanteau movies had begun to look a little moribund (although again, films like Asylum and Beyond the Grave have a lasting appeal for certain aficionados.).

As a result, the British horror film diversified in an attempt to broaden its appeal and as a result threw up quite a few oddities.

One of the strangest of them all was 1969’s Scream and Scream Again – based upon the novel The Disorientated Man by Peter Saxon - a film for which the words ‘confusing’ and ‘compelling’ hardly do justice to the wild mix of science fiction, serial killer and police procedural contained within its hour and a half of strange doings, multiple plot strands and funky fashions.

Any kind of précis would be difficult to write in a few words, but here goes:

An athlete collapses in the street during the opening credits. He awakes to find himself in a hospital bed and to discover that his limbs are being removed one by one. A blood drinking serial killer is at large, targeting young women and dispatching them in various brutal ways. Simultaneously, strange experiments are being carried out in an unnamed European country (ostensibly East Germany but closer in appearance to a black-clad fascist state) while Dr Browning (Vincent Price) is also carrying out experiments of his own in his stately mansion cum laboratory. As the police begin to realise that their killer is more than human (difficult to stop, capable of tearing his own hand off in order to escape from handcuffs) the trail finally leads to Price and his convenient tub of acid into which the killer plunges himself rather than face capture.

The plot strands finally come together to reveal that Dr Price – aided and abetted by the homicidal Konrad (Marshall Jones) - has been creating a race of superhumans of which Lugosi’s Dr Vornoff from Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster would be justifiably proud.

The whole thing ends in a welter of acid as Price decides to destroy his creations rather than allow them to be used for evil and the viewer is left with the nagging feeling that he has just seen something so ludicrous that it is either the work of a genius or a madman.

Actually, Scream and Scream Again is a decent enough (if often confusing) potboiler and if one doesn’t think too hard about the various glaring plot holes that abound left, right and centre, it passes a decent enough ninety odd minutes. It has a mad charm all of its own and with the behind the scenes involvement of Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky is basically an Amicus movie masquerading under a different banner (much like Horror Hotel or the two Dr Who movies in which Cushing played the Doctor).

Although Price, Lee and Cushing are the ostensive stars of the movie, their various contributions amount to little more than extended cameos (Cushing in particular appears for just long enough to be dispatched by Konrad with a sort of Vulcan nerve pinch, while Lee’s appearance is not dissimilar to the part he would play in Death Line, as a sort of catch-all ‘Man from the Ministry’ character).

The real star of the movie is Alfred Marks, whose irascible Inspector Bellaver is one of that small but honourable group of irascible policemen who’s ranks include Donald Pleasance in Death Line and Robert Hardy in the similarly bonkers Psychomania (Marks’ brief soliloquy on the nature of a Police issue sandwich is particular fine: “Smells like cheese. Looks like ham. Oh, no problem, it’s chicken”) and there are enough familiar faces in the supporting cast to make it a fun evening of ‘what else was that guy in?’ for anyone who enjoys identifying British actors slumming it for the pay cheque.

Strange, confusing and wonderful in parts – Price in particular appears to relish his mad scientist role (although both Cushing and Lee, Lee in particular, appear to be slightly unsure as to what they are actually doing here) – Scream and Scream Again is something of a mixed bag. Not a classic by any means, but passable enough and any film that features Vincent Price, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in its line-up automatically becomes a must see for anyone who has an interest in British horror cinema.

And it all makes sense in the end. Sort of.

Saturday, January 2, 2010


For aficionados of sword and sorcery, Charles R. Saunders is one of its great, unsung, heroes. His Imaro novels are wonderfully written, action packed fantasies set in a mythical Africa.

The long-awaited fourth Imaro novel Imaro: The Naama War is currently available from Saunders’ own Sword and Soul Media.

"Warfare on a cataclysmic scale is convulsing the continent of Nyumbani from north to south. Soldiers fall. Cities burn. Blood reddens the sea. Sorcery sears the land. Deities gather in opposite dimensions, poised to unleash unimaginable cosmic power on a land already battered by the conflict between the Cushites of the north and the Naamans of the south.In the midst of this massive struggle, Imaro, warrior of the Ilyassai, wages a personal war against his nemesis, the sorcerer Bohu of Naama. This individual vendetta mirrors the larger clash between the forces of good and evil – a confrontation that threatens to tear Nyumbani apart. The destiny for which Imaro has been honed like a living weapon now lies directly before him. Imaro vs. Bohu. Cush vs. Naama. War. Magic. Blood. Fire. The losers in this wide-ranging battle for the fate of a continent face oblivion. But the winners will not emerge unscathed."

If it’s anything like the other novels in the series, it should be brilliant.

Friday, January 1, 2010


Another bit of New Year Cheer. My short story Infected is currently up and available to read at Golden Visions (about half way down the page):


“If there is one thing I learn from a life of magic it is never trust a hobgoblin.”

Just got word from Abandoned Towers that my short story The Tower of Dreams has been accepted for publication later this year (a decent enough start to 2010, says I).

I’m rather pleased about this for a number of reasons. Firstly, because Abandoned Towers is an excellent market and, secondly, because the story marks something of a departure for me in fictional terms.

I’ve long been a fan of the brilliant Damon Runyon and his stories of the colourful denizens of Broadway and equally I’ve always been a fan of Robert Bloch, who produced some of the finest genre fiction of the twentieth century. Bloch and Runyon had something of a collision in Bloch’s Lefty Feep stories, written when Bloch was suffering from a minor creative drought. Doggedly told in the first person present tense, the Left Feep stories are a hoot from start to finish and pay an affectionate homage to Runyon and his work.

The Tower of Dreams is my own homage to both Damon Runyan and Robert Bloch, working on the principle that if doing something very, very different could help to lift the great Robert Bloch out of a creative dip, then it might just do the very same for me.

The vast majority of my fictional output is somewhat gloomy, to say the least (strangely, since I am an optimistic and fairly upbeat person generally speaking) so the chance to do something a little lighter and (hopefully) funny, was a welcome change of pace.

I enjoyed writing it and, with a little luck, people may enjoy reading it, too.

Here’s to a creative and prosperous New Year to one and all.