Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Grasp for Power - The Bloody Crown of Conan

It was time to revisit the Robert E. Howard and his Conan novels. I enjoyed the first set of stories I read by him. He has a great way with words and pacing, bringing a kind of breathless energy to his adventure stories. Sure some of his pulp writing tendencies would shine through a little too much; he loves using "black" as an adjective for everything. But for a thrilling ride into some very raw and red sword and sorcery tales, you have a lot to enjoy.

In this collection, I read the only novel length work by Howard for his Conan character. It's called "The Hour of the Dragon", and so far I think it may be my favorite Conan story. One of the interesting things about the story is why it was written. Howard was trying to sell a collection of his stories to a publisher in England. The publisher wrote back and said they liked his material, but that story collections weren't selling well in England at the time. They recommended that he send a novel along the same lines and that they would be more than happy to consider that. Howard got to work, taking bits and pieces of all the short stories he had worked on, wove them into another tale he had been working on, and then smoothed the whole thing out.

The result is what could be called the quintessential Conan story. Not only does it contain all of the typical adventure elements of his previous stories (giant snakes, resurrected sorcerers, massive battles between armies, harrowing escapes and plenty of half naked women), but he makes a ripping good story out of it too. One thing I liked, as a writer, was the fact that some of his story elements were also borrowed, altered and shined up. I could recognize them, but in almost every case, I enjoyed what he did with them in this incarnation over the previous appearances.

After reading the book, I picked up Stephen King's "Dance Macabre". That book was the first one to really point me in Howard's direction. I was curious to see what King said about a specific story I had read in the collection (The People of the Black Circle). I also found an interesting take on fantasy writing by Mr. King. In his opinion, the best fantasy stories deal with the finding of power and the understanding of how to use that power. If the story takes a tragic turn, the power is lost. He even sited Conan stories as being an example of badly done fantasy stories, because Conan has the power, uses it without any consequences and already understands that he is invulnerable.

In most cases I agree. Some of the Conan stories do feature a lead character that is invincible and overcomes all his enemies through strength and cunning. But "Hour of the Dragon" is a bit different. In this story Conan loses his power completely. He is literally paralyzed by a spell and watches helpless as his armies are crushed, and his kingship taken from him. He is imprisoned and told that he will be broken in spirit and body soon enough. Against him is the resurrected sorcerer I spoke of earlier. Conan escapes the prison (thanks to a half naked women and makes for his former kingdom. He tries to rally support for a revolution against the conquerors, but no one is willing to help him. They all fear the sorcerer and his limitless power.

Nearly halfway through the book we find that the gem used to resurrect the sorcerer is also the only thing that can destroy him. The sorcerer thought he had the gem in a safe place, but his own scheming underlings stole it from him, believing it was the source of his power. Conan goes after the gem, understanding that it is the only way he can regain his kingdom. Then you have your standard quest material, with Conan in hot pursuit of the gem and facing all kinds of obstacles. Once he gets the gem and returns to his kingdom he is ready to wage war against the usurpers and the sorcerer.

What is interesting is that the gem is called The Heart of Ahriman. This heart was literally located in the center of Conan's kingdom. Without the heart and the king who knows how to wield it, the people and land suffer. While the heart may provide Conan with the power to conquer other lands, he only wishes to use it to save his kingdom and people. This understanding allows him to use the heart and stop the sorcerer.

So going by Mr. King's definition, I think this story works as a "good fantasy" novel. But it's also a fun read as well. There are a few other interesting themes in the book. The essay at the end of the book points out a connection to The Grail Legend, that I found interesting. I also enjoyed the little nod to H.P. Lovecraft's ghouls. All in all if you are looking for one of the best Conan tales, check out this book. And any writers of fantasy stories would probably find plenty to enjoy with the drafts and synopsis at the end of the book, giving you a picture of how Howard constructed his tales.

What did you think of "Hour of the Dragon"? Do you agree with Mr. King's definition of fantasy stories? Do you have a favorite fantasy story that fits this definition? What's your favorite Conan story?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

A Written Variety Show - Smoke and Mirrors

I didn’t intend on reading all of “Smoke and Mirrors” by Neil Gaiman. I was just gonna read a few stories until the books I ordered were delivered. It was gonna take a week and I figured that “Smoke and Mirrors” would give me enough reading material for lunch.

The thing is that Gaiman’s easy storytelling, his skill with words, and his ability to weave tales that jump from short poems to sci-fi to Lovecraftian parody to horrific fairy tale caught my imagination just like it did a few years ago when I first read this compilation of short stories. I remembered why I was so excited to read more of his stuff after this sampling, and I realized why I always refer to this collection whenever I talk about Gaiman. Just looking over my blogs for “Stardust”, “Anansi Boys” and “Coraline” I notice that I make reference to his short stories every time.

So what is it about Gaiman’s work in “Smoke and Mirrors” that is so interesting? I have to say that it’s his skill in telling the story, no matter what type of story or what type of format it is in, he pulls you in. He also knows just the right length to make the stories compelling.

One of my favorites is the opening story, “Chivalry” which has a very Monty Python feel to it. It basically tells the story of a kind old woman who happens to find the Holy Grail at an antique store and what happens when she buys it. “The White Road” is a poem that tells a medieval type legend with horrifying loveliness. “Shoggoth’s Old Particular” is a tongue in cheek tale that twists H.P. Lovecraft’s “Shadow Over Innsmouth”. Fans of the horror writer will find a lot of chuckles in this one. “Only the End of the World Again” is a more serious take on Lovecraft and provides an intriguing protagonist. “We Can Get Them For You Wholesale” is a dark piece with a very dry British sense of humor and horror. “Murder Mysteries” combines Catholic mysticism and detective fiction. The finale is the wonderfully black “Snow, Glass, Apples”. People who don’t like to see their fairy tales tainted should avoid this little gem. Anyone who sees the darkness in fairy tales will dive right in.

Any writers looking for a set of short genre fiction stories to examine and inspire should really look no further. Gaiman has a couple stories that could arguably be considered non-genre, but for the most part he works with fantasy, horror and all the shades in between. Even his pure sci-fi stories have a bit of the fantastic about them. I can say that next time I’m feeling at a loss for short story material – I’ll just read a couple of stories from “Smoke and Mirrors” and grab that energy. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a short story to work on.

Have you read “Smoke and Mirrors”? What did you think of it? What was your favorite story? Do you have a book you read to recharge your creative inspiration? Do you have a favorite short story compilation?