Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Great Fiction Experiment Revisited

Last year, whilst suffering one of my periodic bouts of writer's block, I made an attempt to write my way out of it, vowing to write a thousand words a day, regardless of quality, narrative sense or any of the other things that writers should adhere to.

Wrote quite a bit, too, before the project got shelved.

Today, after a lapse of several months, I went back to the story, just to see what it was like.

And, do you know, it's not actually that bad.

Yes, some of the names will have to be changed when it comes to a redraft, there's a lot of repetition of phrases and a pulpish feel to the narrative (when in doubt, have someone come through the door with a gun, to paraphrase Raymond Chandler) and, yes, my influences are showing (there's a wee bit of Michael Moorcock in there somewhere beyond doubt)

On the other hand, it's quite fast paced, the characters are, if not exactly three dimensional, then at least recognisable as a certain type of character. There's an (internally) logical reason why they do what they do and the background, although done in fairly broad sweeps, comes across reasonably well (if not by any stretch of the imagination totally unique). And there's that wee bit of Michael Moorcock in there.

It's a fairly old-school sword and sorcery tale where a powerful, yet troubled hero goes a-questing (for Death himself in this instance) fights against, and overcomes, impossible odds, has a wisecracking sidekick, a couple of enchanted weapons (which, in terms of the story, he has to lose rather than gain) and a doom laden destiny.

Not the most original of tales, admitted, but there's a good feel to the story, I think, and it's more character than plot driven (probably due to the fact that it was made up on the hoof so the characters dictated what happens next rather than try to shoehorn things in for the sake of Plot).

I quite enjoyed reading it - so much so that I added another 1,200 words and a new plot development to the story.

More importantly, I want to see what happens next.

Writing, as I think someone once said, is an addiction.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Sword and Sorcery Cinema - A Brief Personal Overview

Since I have decided that February is my own personal sword and sorcery month (as opposed to any other time of the year when I'm reading s&s) I decided that the time has come to check out a few of the recent movies, that, broadly speaking, fall under the s&s banner.

I've already written at length about Nicholas Winding Refn's 2009 film Valhalla Rising, but it's worth mentioning again, if only because it's such an absorbing and intelligent piece of film making and because it seems to me that that relatively obscure gem has set the tone for quite a few of the quasi-historical fantasies that have followed in its wake.

Of course, it all depends on your definition of sword and sorcery and there's an argument to be made that movies like Zach Snyder's 300 (2006) or 2004's Troy (and, it goes without saying Peter Jackson's Lord of The Rings) brought fantastical warriors back to our screens, but these films are more epic in scope, more concerned with spectacle than the down 'n' dirty which is the hallmark of sword and sorcery.

That having been said, some of the films I've watched in the last while – Black Death (2010), Ironclad (2011), Solomon Kane (2009) and Season of the Witch (2011) wear their 'sorcery' aspects fairly lightly, Ironclad in particular being content to give its hero a mystic aura of sorts and leave it at that.

And then there is the recent remake/reboot of Robert E. Howard's iconic Conan the Barbarian (2011). Howard is inarguably the wellspring of sword and sorcery, although his legacy has rarely been treated well. But that, and the film, is a topic for another time.

One of the things that virtually all the above mentioned films do is to play fairly fast and loose with history (or in the case of Conan, with the established literary 'facts') never letting it get in the way of a rollicking good yarn – Ironclad is a particularly good example of this, with its bloody uprising in the wake of the Magna Carta and its re-envisioning of the Knights Templar as medieval supermen. Season of the Witch, on the other hand, sees no disparity between the shameless American accents of its leads – Nicholas Cage in fairly restrained form and Ron Perlman – even going so far as to tack a Transatlantic twang onto the Liverpudlian actor Stephen Graham. Similarly, all these films exist in an odd Mittle Europa, regardless of actual setting, that is sometimes reminiscent of a big-budget Hammer film or, perhaps more pointedly, the muck and slime of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Partly this is for the sake of expedience, we all know that the cinematic Middle Ages look like, with muddy green tones and sweeping untouched, if hostile, landscapes. What the best of these films (and to be honest, with the exception of Conan, most of them are worth an hour or two of your time) also manage is that moral ambiguity so common to sword and sorcery, the heroes here are troubled men, sure of nothing but their own prowess with a sword, racked with doubt (James Purefoy as Solomon Kane and as Marshal in Ironclad) or seeking redemption for past misdeeds (Purefoy's Kane once again and Nicholas Cage as Behmen in Season of the Witch “No man has spilled more blood in God's name that I.”). Mads Mikkelsen's One Eye in Valhalla Rising is, at first glance, an exception to this, but his still and sombre performance still hints at something deeper, some unspoken tragedy that haunts the character.

They are also, without exception, unashamed and unabashed about their violent content. Great gaping wounds and clouds of CGI blood decorate Ironclad, Mad Mikkelsen is a remorseless killer, Cage and Perlman are seen happily slaughtering huge bands of Infidels (“You take the three hundred on the left, I'll take the three hundred on the right”) Sean Bean in Black Death does not flinch from killing a suspected witch and there are few problems in these films – physical or ethical - that cannot be solved the point of a sword (or a spear, dagger, axe or, in Ironclad, by beating an opponent to death with a severed arm).

So much for the sword, what about the sorcery?

Since at least two of the films mentioned above (Ironclad and Black Death) purport to be historical adventures (or historical action films, although Black Death does have a suspected necromancer as its central maguffin) rather than out-and-out fantasies, the sorcery aspect is fairly low key, but nevertheless resonates in the background - the fighting ability of the Templars in Ironclad, its seemingly invincible antagonist (the Elric-like Tiberius) or the unexplained mysticism of One-Eye in Valhalla Rising. Both Solomon Kane and Season of the Witch have no such compunction, Season of the Witch in particular relishing its status as an unashamed fantasy (featuring witches, demon possession and the blackest of black magic). But in some ways, sorcery is a state of mind in these films, since the milieu in which they are set is one far removed from the modern mindset, a time of deep religious belief and equally strong superstition. The default tone here is a dark one, where cruelty is common and violence never far from the surface.

Another thing that the majority of these films share in common is the use of venerable, mostly British, actors in minor, if important roles – Christopher Lee in Season of the Witch, Charles Dance in Ironclad, David Warner in Black Death, Max Von Sydow in Solomon Kane. More importantly what they all share is a sense of being outside contemporary Hollywood pattern, frequently being financed by European backers, with small budgets compared to the average Hollywood production – Season of the Witch, the most costly of the films looked at here, cost $40 million, whereas Conan the Barbarian, its big budget counterpart, cost $70 million (and a mere $6 million in the case of Valhalla Rising).

The crux of all this meandering – and there should always be a crux – is to suggest that sword and sorcery cinema is in relatively good shape at the moment, the seemingly endless parade of loincloth clad barbarians that wandered across our screens in the wake of the John Milius/ Arnold Schwartzenegger version of Conan the Barbarian (1982) have been replaced by a new breed of cinematic sword-swingers, grimmer and more 'realistic'.

It might not always declare itself as such, and sometimes the trappings are hidden just beneath the surface, but sword and sorcery cinema is alive and well, if not always on prominent display at the multiplex.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

John Christopher 1922 - 2012

News from the British Fantasy Society that the British author Samuel Youd, who wrote under the pen-name of John Christopher, has died.

Best known as the author of the Tripods series of young adult novels (which was dramatised by the BBC in the 1980's) and, perhaps more importantly, as the author of the bleak eco-disaster novel The Death of Grass (retitled No Blade of Grass in the USA).

Seen by some as a response to the 'cosy catastrophe' novels of John Wyndham, The Death of Grass is a powerful and relentlessly downbeat novel, that in many ways prefigures the early work of J.G Ballard and is without question one of the high water marks of British sf in the 1959's.

The novel was filmed by Cornel Wilde as No Blade of Grass in 1970 and is a fine example of Wilde's more esoteric work; staying relatively faithful to its source material while embroidering it with Wilde's trademark surrealistic touches (something that can also be seen in other Cornel Wilde films such as The Naked Prey and Beach Red).

As well as Samuel Youd and John Christopher, the author wrote under a number of other pen-names (including Stanley Winchester, Hilary Ford, William Godfrey, William Vine, Peter Graaf, Peter Nichols, and Anthony Rye) but it is for his sf that he is probably best known and admired.

His other novels included The Year of the Comet and The Caves of Night.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Many Worlds of Magnus Ridolph by Jack Vance

It's amazing how easily things can get derailed. It was my fullest intention to start reading Lin Carter's The Wizard of Lemuria - the first in his Conanesque Thongor series - but while searching for the book in question I stumbled across my copy of The Many Worlds of Magnus Ridolph by Jack Vance.

I have to confess that I haven't read much Jack Vance recently, and The Many Worlds of Magnus Ridolph has the advantage of being a short story collection. So, I thought, a quick bit of Jack Vance and then on to Lin Carter. However, I'd reckoned without the rather seductive power of both Jack Vance and Magnus Ridolph and quickly found myself lost in his many worlds.

The Magnus Ridolph stories are early Vance (the lead story, The Kokod Warriors first appeared in 1948) but still display the light touch and wild inventiveness that characterises his best work. The prose is nowhere near as jewelled as, say, The Dying Earth, but the stories are flamboyant and Ridolph himself an engaging central character.

In some ways Magnus Ridolph could be a second cousin of C.L Moore's Northwest Smith, inasmuch as both men are interplanetary adventurers, but where Smith was a hard-bitten, wanderer with a quick gunhand, Magnus Ridolph is a much more urbane figure - older, for a start, part consulting detective, part businessman, a character who solves problems with his intellect rather than his fists.(To get Hollywood about it, think Sherlock Holmes meets Indiana Jones... in Space!).

In The Kokod Warriors, Magnus attempts to solve an age old problem on the planet Kokod, where the inhabitants indulge in ritual and very bloody warfare as a very basic survival method and, at the same time, he seeks to get some revenge on couple of double-crossing former business partners.

Double crossers also feature in The King of Thieves, in which Magnus briefly finds himself as king of the Men-men, and in The Howling Bounders where a business opportunity that is too good to be true turns out to be just that... except the tables are turned by some clever thinking on the part of Magnus Ridolph (and some wonderfully comic support from an alien cook who's idea of breakfast, dinner, lunch and supper all boil down to the same dish - stew!)

Coup de Grace (my personal favourite) is a who-and-why-dunnit in space where a murder and a murderer are not all they seem, and shows Vance at his dazzling best, piling idea upon idea to create an engaging little mystery and, at rarest of things, a genuinely funny sf story that doesn't rely upon subverting genre conventions but rather actively embraces them.

Of course, what's so good about these stories is the sly humour in them and the deft ways in which Jack Vance creates the various alien worlds and environments which Magnus Ridolph passes through. Sure, there's an occasional info-dump here and there (and Magnus always seems to find just the information he's looking for when he's looking for it) but it doesn't take the shine off the stories.

Colourful, inventive and hugely entertaining, the Magnus Ridolph stories (six of which are collected in The Many Worlds... ) are a refreshing change from some of the more blaster-happy Earthmen who have roamed through science fiction over the years and a reminder that sf can be great fun sometimes.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Bill Hinzman RIP

The actor Bill Hinzman - best known as the first zombie seen in George Romero's Night of the Living Dead - has passed away at the age of 75.

He also appeared in the Romero movies There's Always Vanilla and The Crazies as well as directing a number of feature films, perhaps most notably Zombie Nosh aka Flesheater (1988) which capitalized upon his most famous role.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Lemuria, Here We Come...

I'm going back to my roots, reading wise, this month. In practical terms this means reading a heapin' helpin' of sword and sorcery. I've had Lin Carter's Thongor and Brian Lumley's Primal Land series sitting on the shelves for a few months now, and the time has come to get stuck into them.
I know that for some critics/aficionados of the fantasy, Lin Carter is practically He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, but I recently read Imaginary Worlds, his excellent (although somewhat dated now) history of fantasy/sword and sorcery. If nothing else, it's clear that Carter genuinely loved fantasy, even if his own work within the genre was often perceived as 'second hand' (if not downright derivative and heavily influenced by writers such as Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Jack Vance).
However, he seems as good a place as any, Thongor was, so to speak, one of the first direct descendants of Conan (a lineage that also includes John Jakes Brak the Barbarian and Gardner Fox's Kothar Barbarian Swordsman, both of whom I've intended to read for a while now)
As a genre (or rather as a sub-genre) sword and sorcery has been somewhat maligned, sidelined even, by the growth of epic fantasy, although epic fantasy tends to use some of the tropes of s&s, especially in some of its more down 'n' dirty incarnations (Joe Abercrombie's First Law trilogy and subsequent novels or Peter Brett's Demon series, for instance). However, and to paraphrase Lin Carter, sometimes there's nothing quite so enjoyable as a bit of s&s for pure fun.
I read a lot of Michael Moorcock in my early teens, particularly the Elric stories, and it was only after these that I started to explore other writers like Howard and Clark Ashton Smith (both of whom I have 'rediscovered' in the last few years) and then later again, Fritz Lieber. Charles Saunders and Karl Edward Wagner.
Sword and Sorcery has been described by wiser heads than I as 'the genre that wouldn't die' and even now there are writers producing colourful tales of warriors, wizards and magical lands. In some cases the writers are moving the genre on, moving it away from the Eurocentric, quasi-Medieval settings and such other trappings that have defined sword and sorcery for so long, happy to explore new ways of telling a story.. Others are embracing the traditions of the genre, favouring action over characterisation, straightforward prose as opposed to a more experimental approach.
Still, the fact is that the genre that refused to die has, quite simply, still refused to die. Hence my delve back into its history..
Lemuria, here we come.