Sunday, August 21, 2011

Conan the Librarian!

     OK, Conan was never a librarian (that was the title of one of the spoof TV shows in Weird Al Yankovic's film "UHF”), but before he helped make Arnold Schwarzenegger a star, Conan was at least passingly acquainted with libraries. Several volumes of his stories, originally written for the pulp magazines by Texan Robert E. Howard in the 1930s, were collected in hardcover volumes in the 1950s.
     The tales, set in an ancient time described as being between the sinking of Atlantis and the beginning of recorded history, usually combined swordplay with an element of the supernatural.
Another theme was the barbarian vs. the civilized man, with the latter proving inferior to the former.
     Howard's first Conan story depicted him as a king, a post he rose to by slaying the previous, decadent monarch, but later included his earlier life as a wanderer, thief and soldier. He was never quite a hero, though in general if he wasn't on the side of right, he was on the side of not-as-bad.
     Howard's writing, while it would never be mistaken for Shakespeare, sometimes had poetry to it, which is painfully apparent when you read Conan tales by other hands. Howard also had strong ideas about history and philosophy, which he sometimes incorporated into his fictional historical narratives.
     Two stories I particularly enjoyed when younger were "The Tower of the Elephant" and "Rogues in the House." In the first, Conan scales a sorcerer's glass-walled tower to steal a jewel known as the Heart of the Elephant, where he encounters the otherworldly being who is the jewel's true owner. In the second, Conan is freed from prison by an aristocrat to assassinate a blackmailing priest in his booby-trapped home, only to face an inhuman, possibly supernatural menace.
     Unfortunately, the first Conan film drew very little from Howard's stories (there are elements from "Queen of the Black Coast," plus a few iconic images from other stories, devoid of original context, such as the tower scene and a crucifixion; the villain's name, Thulsa Doom, came from a non-Conan Howard story, but the character himself bore little resemblance), and the second took nothing besides the Conan name.
     Arnold's Conan was even a bit of a passive, posturing, musclebound wimp by comparison. The "literary" Conan came from a frozen northern country, where he feuded with rival kingdoms, before leaving in search of adventure and fortune. He wasn't verbose, but neither was he monosyllabic. He wasn't educated in the civilized sense, but he was shrewd and self-reliant.
     The new Conan film seems similarly divorced from the stories, though maybe his character is intact.
     Howard's original Conan stories were rearranged and supplemented by other Howard stories, rewritten to change the protagonist's name and milieu to Conan's, and story fragments completed by other authors as well as new stories by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter (plus one entry by Bjorn Nyberg) to create a unified 12-volume saga. Many of them have been adapted into comic book form.
     If you're curious about the original stories, all the Conan fiction written by Howard has been collected in three volumes, including variant drafts and incomplete fragments, as "The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian," "The Bloody Crown of Conan" and "The Conquering Sword of Conan" (Del Rey). There's also a one-volume collection (sans variant drafts and Howard's only Conan novel, "The Hour of the Dragon"), published as "Conan the Barbarian" (Prion).
     Howard wrote many other stories in his short, tragic life, from modern day supernatural horror to regional Texas adventure. A particular favorite is "Pigeons from Hell," which was adapted for TV in the 1950s and whose admirers include Stephen King.
     For a look at Robert E. Howard the man, see the film "The Whole Wide World," based on an ex-girlfriend's memoir and starring Vincent D’Onofrio and Renee Zellweger.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Brevity is the soul of wit: Short stories vs. novels

     One of the truisms of the publishing trade is that Americans don’t like short stories. That’s not entirely true, but given their druthers, most readers will select a novel rather than a short story collection by the same author.
     Some popular “novels” are actually short story collections that the publisher tried to disguise by use of a clever framing narrative.
     Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles is one of the more successful ones. Bradbury had written a couple of dozen stories about Earthmen on Mars, but without any continuing characters. In fact, it doesn’t seem he wrote them with any overall plan or even a consistent background. But the book was published as a pseudo-novel and was very popular. Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” was also cobbled together from stories, though these did have a common background and worked better as a novel. (All the Bradbury stories with that background and/or thematic connections have just been collected as A Pleasure to Burn: Fahrenheit 451 Stories.)
     Isaac Asimov’s initial “Foundation Trilogy” was made up of short stories, novelettes and novellas (subsequent volumes were novels), with a common progressive background, and some characters in common, and also lent themselves to “novelization.” They don’t really read as novels either, yet it’s one of the most popular “novel” series of all time.
     Maybe Americans like short stories if they don’t know they are reading – or at least buying – short stories.
     While I like short story collections, especially if they’re by an author I know from experience that I like, I understand why most people prefer novels.
1.       A short story collection takes longer to read than a novel of similar length. When you read a novel, you often develop momentum as you go along. With collections, you lose that momentum and have to start over again.
2.       Similarly, in some novels at least, you develop an emotional attachment to the characters and want to prolong the experience. With short stories, you don’t always have time to develop that connection. I’ve read this described as novels are about character, and short stories are about plot.
     But if you don’t read short stories, you miss out on some of the greatest writers of all time. Edgar Allan Poe was a master of the short story. “The Cask of Amontillado” is considered by some to be the greatest short story ever written. Jorge Luis Borges, an Argentinean writer, once a candidate for the Nobel Prize for literature, wrote almost entirely in the short story form. So does Harlan Ellison, a modern American fantasist. Other American writers who wrote predominantly in shorter lengths include O. Henry (famous for his twist endings) and Saki (“The Open Window” is another universally praised classic). And while Ernest Hemingway and Mark Twain are best known for their novels, many readers believe the short story was where they did their best work.
     In the past few years, I’ve read three books by Joe Hill: 20th Century Ghosts, The Heart-Shaped Box and Horns. The latter two are novels; the first is a short story collection. I read Ghosts first and might not have read the others if I hadn’t.
     Box is a horror story about a curse. A rock musician receives a dress in a heart-shaped box. The dress belonged to an old girlfriend who killed herself, perhaps because he dumped her. Now someone has cursed him, apparently on her behalf, and he has to try to outrun the curse or somehow break it. This basic idea has been the subject of short stories and movies (such as “Casting the Runes” by M.R. James and its film adaptation The Curse of the Demon), but I found the book to be too long and drawn-out. A note I made at the time suggested that it might have worked better at 150 pages rather than 350.
     Horns is about a man who suddenly starts turning into a caricature of a demon: horns, red skin, impervious to flame – or at least he heals fast. Another side effect is that while no one seems to notice the change, in his presence they unknowingly tell him what they think about him in their worst and deepest thoughts. Again it seems to be related to guilt and the death of a girl he loved. But worse than just dragged out, I found the physical change that occurs to him pointless. The story could have been told without the supernatural angle, and his supernatural “powers” don’t do him much good in finding out what happened or gaining retribution on those who wronged him.
     Ghosts, however, was marvelous. Not all the stories are horror or supernatural, though most are disturbing. Two stories stand out in my memory. “Best New Horror” is about the editor of a “best horror” stories anthology who tries to track down the author of a particularly disturbing tale. “Pop Art” is about a boy’s friendship with another boy who – though born of man and woman and boy-shaped – is a balloon. It’s told as matter-of-factly as in E. B. White’s Stuart Little (the book, not the movies) when it’s written that Mrs. Little gave birth to a mouse. (Joe Hill, incidentally, is the son of Stephen King, which I didn’t know when I read Ghosts.)
     Do you read short stories? Do you have a favorite? Let me know what you think.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Lesser-Known Vampires

     If the only vampire novels you’ve read are Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse/Southern Vampire series or Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” volumes, you’re missing out. Serious vamp fans should read the classics ‑ “Dracula” by Bram Stoker, “Carmilla” by J. Sheridan Le Fanu and “The Vampyre” by John Polidori – but here are six of my favorite, lesser-known vamp stories.
     If you’re surprised to learn that “I Am Legend” by Richard Matheson (Orb Books) is a vampire novel, that’s because the recent Will Smith film adaptation decided vampires were overdone and old-fashioned, and so replaced them with “fast zombies” (yeah, they’re not overdone, are they?). The novel treats vampirism as a plague caused by a virus, and comes up with pseudo-scientific explanations for most of a vampire’s powers and weaknesses. It’s deservedly a classic; someone should film it sometime.
     Another science fictional treatment of vampires is found in “The Empire of Fear” by Brian Stableford (Skyhorse Publishing), which postulates a 19th century dominated by vampires who zealously guard the secret of conversion, and the scientists who try to find and replicate the cause. These vampires are not evil per se, at least no more so than they were when human, but they are potentially immortal and extremely hard to kill. Some real historical characters are made vampires in the book, including Vlad Tepes (the historical Dracula). This book is back in print in the U.S., after barely being released (and with a misleading and ugly cover) years ago. It’s probably of more interest to science fiction than horror fans.
     More historical personages, and virtually every literary vampire, shows up in “Anno Dracula” by Kim Newman (Titan Books). The book starts out by wondering what would have happened if Dracula had defeated van Helsing, Harker and the rest and continued his invasion of England. Among other things, he changes Queen Victoria and makes himself her Royal Consort, making him virtual ruler of the British Empire. Also, being a vampire is now seen as desirable for political advancement. Meanwhile there’s a Jack the Ripper type killing vampires with a silver scalpel. Most of the vampires are evil, but at least one is an ally of the humans. This is also again in print, riding a wave of steampunk it seems, though it’s not really steampunk.
     If you extend the definition of vampire beyond bloodsucking, then Dan Simmons’ “Carrion Comfort” (St. Martin's Griffin) is another fine book. The vampires in this volume have mental powers and can control other people, deriving nourishment from the mental feedback. Their preferred method is to make their victims commit horrible deeds.
     I first heard about “The Family of the Vourdalak” by Alexis Tolstoy (out of print, to the best of my knowledge) because it was the basis for “The Wurdulak,” a segment of the 1963 Mario Bava Italian horror film “Black Sabbath.” It starred Boris Karloff as a type of Slavic vampire who preys on those he loved. (Very creepy. Karloff would have made a good Dracula.) For years after I saw the film on TV, I tried to find the story in vampire anthologies. I finally found it in the 1992 book “Vampyres: From Lord Byron to Count Dracula,” edited by Christopher Frayling. The reason it was so hard to find, apparently, was that it had never been translated into English. Now that book is out of print, and I don’t know if the story has been published elsewhere.
     Finally, "The Power and the Passion" by Pat Cadigan (included in “Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror,” edited by Ellen Datlow, Tachyon Publications) is about a vampire killer who is as nasty as the vampires themselves, which the story argues is the only type of person who could be an effective vampire killer.
     Another time I may list some of my favorite vampire films and television shows. If you have any favorites, let me know.