Saturday, May 30, 2015

Herbert West - Reanimator -- H.P. Lovecraft

I decided to alternate back and forth between the Thibaut Corday stories and another collection I've got on my kindle, ZOMBIES FROM THE PULPS!, edited by Jeffrey Shanks.  That story starts off with the classic "Herbert West - Reanimator," by H.P. Lovecraft.  It's been ages since I read this story, and it was a treat to come back to it.

I've actually seen it listed as among Lovecraft's worst work, but I have to disagree.  Yes, he wrote it strictly for a paycheck, and yes, he was making fun of Mary Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN the whole time, and he hated the "cliffhanger" format that was imposed on him by the magazine, but it's a story that proves Lovecraft could write comedy, which is worthwhile in and of itself.

The story details the major incidents in the life of Herbert West, from his time as a medical student at Miskatonic University, to holding a practice in nearby Bolton, to serving in the Canadian Army in WWI prior to American involvement in the Great War.  West's interest is in finding a cure for death; to this end, he spends years experimenting with ways to reanimate dead tissue.  He has a number of issues along the way, mostly dealing with the "freshness" of his test subjects -- if the brain cells aren't fresh enough, his subjects revive as violently insane, cannibalistic horrors.  As he goes, West becomes more and more callous and hardened to the sources of his test subjects, sinking deeper and deeper into criminality in pursuit of his obsession.  Of course, eventually the fruits of his obsession begin to pursue him...

I actually really like this story.  I like how, with the cliffhanger structure imposed on Lovecraft, each chapter is it's own complete short story, capable of being read divorced from the others and still making perfect sense.  Lovecraft also displays a wicked sense of dark humor here, one that calls to mind Ambrose Bierce's "The Damned Thing"'s chapter headings.  For example, here's a passage from "Herbert West":

It is uncommon to fire all six shots of a revolver with great suddenness when one would probably be sufficient, but many things in the life of Herbert West were uncommon. 

This is an excellent example of the humor of understatement, or as Lovecraft would undoubtedly prefer it, the humour of understatement.  Given Lovecraft's well-documented Anglophilia and the fact that understatement forms the basis for British humor, I'm not surprised that Lovecraft would show a preference for this style of humor.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Better Than Bullets - Theodore Roscoe

As part of my birthday present, Gina got me the first collected volume of Altus Press' release of Theodore Roscoe's stories of the Foreign Legion - specifically those featuring the elderly, tale-spinning Legionnaire Thibaut Corday.  Having finished Zanthodon, I dove into these next, starting with the very first story, "Better Than Bullets."

In this inaugural tale, Corday recounts to us the story of an unauthorized night out that turned into one of the strangest and somehow funniest fights of his life - garrisoned outside the shelled-out city of Casablanca, he and his friends Christianity Jensen the Dane and Bill, the Yankee Elephant (so called for his nationality and size) slip past the guard into the city to see what they can scrounge up in terms of food and drink.  They quickly find fifteen bottles of wine, which they proceed to drink, and two piglets that Bill plans to turn into chops the following morning.

Unfortunately, the house they're drinking in is soon surrounded by Muslim fanatics, and the three Legionnaires are without so much as a single bullet or knife between them.  What follows is a desperate siege of improvised weapons - empty wine bottles, boots, and beehives are all employed by the trio to fend off their attackers.  Astonishingly, they're successful, with Bill going so far as to capture the leader of the fanatics and turn the man over to the Legion for justice.  I won't tell you how, other than to say it's pretty delightfully politically incorrect in this day and age.

I'd previously read Roscoe's Corday story "Snake Head" in Otto Penzler's Big Book of Adventure Stories, which is where I got my first taste of Legion fiction and why Roscoe's work was in my Amazon wishlist in the first place for Gina to find.  I feel like between that story and "Better Than Bullets" I've got a pretty good feel for the Corday series now, and I like what I see - I like the blend of humor and action, and I like the narrative device of an elderly Corday telling stories of his years of adventure over wine in a cafe in Algeria.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Concluding Zanthodon (ERIC OF ZANTHODON)

Here we go, I've come to the end of Lin Carter's Zanthodon series with the fifth novel, ERIC OF ZANTHODON.  With the exception of the villainous Xask of Zar getting some form of comeuppance, there's very little plot to speak of here, mostly just Carter tying up loose ends and reassembling his cast of characters in one spot.

No less than five weddings conclude the arcs of several characters, making this one of the happiest endings I've encountered yet - notably, even the two secondary villains, Khairadine Redbeard and Zarys of Zar, get a happy ending upon discovering themselves enthralled with each other, getting married, and disappearing into the wilds of Zanthodon never to trouble anyone ever again.

We're also introduced to another new group of surviving relics from the Surface World in the form of a trio of Afrika Korps soldiers, the last survivors of a group sixty-strong that found their way into the Underground World during a sandstorm and never found their way out again.  They're presented as particularly noble - even more noble and chivalrous than the Cro-Magnons - men who'd known in their hearts that Hitler was a madman but got swept up in the spirit of the age in joinin the German Army.

Once all is said and done and our cast has returned to the Cro-Magnon village, Eric Carstairs, Professor Potter and the leader of the Germans immediately begin planning out how to teach the Cro-Magnons agriculture, animal domestication, brick-making, city-planning, iron-smelting, and all the benefits of civilization that they didn't already have.  Why do they suddenly want to take away everything that made the Cro-Magnons hale, healthy, honorable and all that jazz, and replace it with city life? Because that's what David Innes did in Pellucidar! They talk about building a better society than the surface world in Zanthodon, but I think what the Cro-Magnons had before Eric and company showed up was already better - sure, there was a greater likelihood of being eaten by a bear or a tiger, but nobody seemed unhappy or sickly, there was no poverty, everyone had fulfilling jobs and the lifestyle left everyone with great hunky and sexy bodies.  Will penning the people up inside stone walls really improve on that?

The novel also features one of the most egregious misfirings of Chekov's Gun I've ever seen in the form of Eric Carstairs' .45 automatic.  The gun has been a Macguffin since the second novel, being fought over, schemed over, stolen back and forth, etc., but most notably, not fired -- not after Xask learns of its power by taking down a charging Stegosaurus with it in the second book.  I really thought that Carter was setting up a climactic sequence where either Eric was going to finally shoot Xask with the .45, or Xask was going to get the .45 and try to shoot Eric, only to discover that the gun's empty - that the bullet that took down the Stegosaurus had been the last one in there.  Instead we got...nothing.  It's as if Carter just forgot about the .45 all together.

I'm glad I read the Zanthodon books, but I'm also glad to be finished with them.  They were all right for what they were, but I was really hoping for more from them.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Continuing Zanthodon (HUROK OF THE STONE AGE/DARYA OF THE BRONZE AGE)

Since my last post, I've finished reading both HUROK OF THE STONE AGE, the third of the Zanthodon novels by Lin Carter, and its sequel, DARYA OF THE BRONZE AGE.  In addition to the similarities of setting to Burroughs' better known Pellucidar novels, we've got another odd link between the two series; DARYA and HUROK take place simultaneously, each novel following a different group of characters and their adventures in the underground world, much as TARZAN AT THE EARTH'S CORE, the fourth book in the Pellucidar series, and its follow-up, BACK TO THE STONE AGE, take place simultaneously while following different groups of characters following their separation.  TARZAN AT THE EARTH'S CORE, incidentally, was my first exposure to Pellucidar; I'd picked it up in a two-novel omnibus back in the '90s, packaged with, I think, TARZAN THE TERRIBLE.  The cover art with Tarzan crouching over a freshly-stabbed Pteranodon was not one my 10 year old self could resist.  

When I posted last, I had reached the point in HUROK where Professor Potter had realized his error in giving the Empress of Zar the secret of gunpowder and Eric Carstairs and his friends had been led away to await being sacrificed to Zar's god.  

Zar's god being, incidentally, an extra-large Tyrannosaurus, the only (normally) carnivorous dinosaur
a properly-vintage Tyrannosaur
we've seen so far in Zanthodon - oh sure, in proper pulp fashion the Triceratops' and Stegosaurus' of Zanthodon have forsaken their normal diet of plants to instead hunger for adventurers, but this Tyrannosaurus is the only properly carnivorous dinosaur we've encountered (I'm not counting the pterodactyls or plesiosaurs, because properly speaking they're not dinosaurs, but instead cousins).  The encounter with this god contains some of the best-written sequences I've come across so far in these books, with the aftermath of the Tyrannosaurus stepping on a cluster of Zarian convicts being very effectively described.

The one thing I struggle with here is the Tyrannosaur's name.  The Zarians refer to it as "Zorgazon," which sounds terrible to me.  That's something a 14 year old names his D&D character.  The Zarians are supposed to speak a pidgin of ancient Greek and the language of Zanthodon, something their names definitely don't reflect, but there's much more unity and sense of being from the same language among the names of human Zarians, and "Zorgazon" feels like a bizarre outlier, like Lin Carter was using it as a place-holder until he came up with something better.  

Zar also feels a lot less like Pellucidar and a lot more like an iconic location from the Tarzan novels - the city of Opar, last outpost of drowned Atlantis, buried deep in the African jungle.  In both cases we have a society descended from the mythical Atlantis (with Zar being descended from Minoan Crete, which likely provided the germ of the idea for Atlantis - in either case, the Zarians still have the legendary orichalcum metal of Atlantis), ruled by a beautiful queen who falls hard for the hero, only to be spurned - something she will not tolerate.  And while I know there was at least one attempt to sacrifice Tarzan to the "Flaming God" of Opar, I forget if Queen La was the one who initiated that or not.  I know in later books she sheltered him from the priests of the Flaming God, but I forget if his first encounter with her ended so well.  

In DARYA OF THE BRONZE AGE, we follow Darya (unsurprisingly), Eric Carstair's Cro-Magnon sweetheart, following her abduction by the pirates of El-Cazar, an enclave of surviving Barbary Coast pirates.  It's interesting that Carter chose to make them Barbary pirates, where Burroughs' Korsars were Spanish Main.  It puts a significant time difference between their origins, and as such the pirates of Zanthodon still maintain vague oral histories of their descent from the surface world.  They're also far more savage then the so-called "savages" of Zanthodon's jungles, with the same sort of byzantine plots and counterplots that we'd previously encountered in Zar.  I'm not sure if Carter's trying to make a Howardian point regarding civilization vs. barbarism with these cultures or not by having those dwelling in cities being so much worse than those dwelling in bamboo huts in the jungle.  

Another Howardian element comes in, I think, with how often Darya gets whipped in a very S&M-y sort of context.  The pirate that kidnaps her in the first place, Khairadine Redbeard, flogs her for not letting him rape her in his cabin on his ship, and he specifically is flogging her across the breasts and buttocks.  Later, when Darya is captured by Zoraida, the woman who'd held Khairadine's affections until Darya came along, Zoraida "avenges" herself of this "insult" by whipping Darya, and this time she's focused on whipped her not just across the breasts, but across the loins as well.  She gets whipped in the vulva and Carter makes sure to describe the whip itself and the act of whipping in luxuriating detail to emphasize the cruelty of the act.  I don't even have that sort of equipment and I'm cringing in pain as I read this.  

I don't know; it reminds me heavily of some of the C-list Howard Conan stories, like XUTHAL OF
more cavewomen like this, please!
THE DUSK, THE VALE OF LOST WOMEN, or A WITCH SHALL BE BORN.  

I'm also starting to get really uncomfortable with Lin Carter's choices of descriptors for the women in these books, specifically Darya and another young Cro-Magnon woman who appears, Yualla.  In both cases these women are specified as being "about 17" but the way Carter describes their physiques it sounds like he's describing 13 year old girls, especially in regard the "delicate, petite buds" of their breasts.  It never comes across as if he's using "bud" euphemistically for their nipples; it consistently comes across as "bud" as in their breasts are just beginning to develop, and I really just wish these were proper Frazetta-esque cavewomen with heaving bosoms and asses you could bounce a quarter off of.  


Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Lin Carter's Zanthodon (JOURNEY TO THE UNDERGROUND WORLD/ZANTHODON/HUROK OF THE STONE AGE)

I figure I should start off by talking about what I'm currently reading - and to tell the truth, I'm not sure why I'm still reading this series.  I got the five-novel Megapack of Lin Carter's Zanthodon series on my Kindle for 99 cents on Saturday night, and I've polished off the first two novels, JOURNEY TO THE UNDERGROUND WORLD and ZANTHODON, and I'm almost done with HUROK OF THE STONE AGE now.

I'd never understood the derision with which Carter's work has been considered in those circles that know of him - I mean, yeah, he did do those Conan pastiches with L. Sprague de Camp (which is where his name first came to my attention), and his Cthulhu Mythos stuff was more pulp-action than not, but it never seemed that bad.

Zanthodon, to me, is bad.  And I get the derision.

Zanthodon is Carter's loving homage/pastiche/shameless ripoff of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Pellucidar series.  And I do mean shameless.  The first novel here starts off at least a little fresh - our Abner Perry stand-in, Professor Percival P. Potter, PhD, has deduced the existence of a hollow space within the earth and is trying to put together an expedition to investigate this space for fossil remains of prehistoric life, as opposed to Perry's "Iron Mole" mining equipment going haywire and taking them to a hitherto-unsuspected hollow earth.

But once we're in Pelluci- I mean, Zanthodon...


  1. Our narrator is a virile man of action who accompanied/financed the Professor.
  2. We're on the inside of a hollow sphere.
  3. There's permanent daylight.
  4. Dinosaurs and ice age mammals freely mingle.
  5. Cro-Magnons and ape-like Neanderthals are locked in a state of perpetual war with each other.
  6. Our heroes are taken as slaves, and while in slavery learn the local language.
  7. Our narrator falls in love with the "princess" of a Cro-Magnon tribe.
  8. There's an enclave of pirates descended from refugees from the surface (Barbary Coast in Zanthodon, while the Korsars of Pellucidar were Spanish Main)
  9. There's an intelligent race of non-human creatures with hypnotic powers who dwell in a secret city, employ a special sub-species of humanity as guards and slavers, and capture other forms of human to use as food! While Pellucidar's had its Mahars which were intelligent pterosaurs, here the Sluaggh are giant, intelligent, six-eyed leeches.  
Lin Carter is also overly fond of Burroughs' trope of having characters get separated and following each character's narrative path until they reunite; the characters never seem to reunite for more than an hour or so before being separated again for days or weeks at a time - give or take the fact that, in a world of permanent noontime sun, "time" doesn't really exist.  

The first novel is almost wholly set-up, just introducing a whole cast of characters from our narrator, Eric Carstairs, and Professor Potter to Darya the princess, Hurok the noble Neanderthal, Jorn the Hunter, Darya's father Tharn, Darya's scheming, cowardly former suitor Fumio (who, like Dian the Beautiful's violent suitor in Pellucidar, Jubal the Ugly, suffers a grotesque facial injury, though in all other aspects he resembles the character of Hoojah the Sly), the Machiavellian Xask of Zar, etc., and move them around Zanthodon to get them in place to all be in the City of the Sluaggh at the same time in the second novel in the series, ZANTHODON.  In fact, he spends so much time setting up the City of the Sluaggh, I was actually stunned at how little time he actually spent on and in the city.  It seems like the characters are barely there two chapters before they've successfully led a slave uprising, slaughtered all of the Sluagghs' servants, and Carter actually glosses over the extermination of the Sluaggh.

And that glossing over is kind of indicative of the Zanthodon series as a whole, at least so far.  I feel like I'm reading a clip show, or "Greatest Hits," of Pellucidar, with Carter giving each sequence just enough attention to get us to the next one.

The biggest difference I've experienced so far between Pellucidar and Zanthodon is in how the introduction of gunpowder and firearms is treated by the authors.  Burroughs never stops to consider the cost or greater ramifications of giving firearms to Stone Age tribes - he's very much, "Yes, we're lifting these fellows up into the greatness of the industrial revolution, we're teaching them to make boats, to build houses, the make guns to exterminate the hated Mahars, all great things as we impress on them the value of 20th century civilization!" And most notably, in Pellucidar it's David Innes and Abner Perry teaching the noble Cro-Magnons how to make and use guns in order to rid themselves of the loathsome, anthropophagous Mahars.  There's no moral ambiguity or question of right - the Mahars are unequivocally evil creatures while the Cro-Magnons are the noblest of Noble Savages, whom the Mahars are using as cattle.  

In Zanthodon, Professor Potter is tricked into revealing the secrets of gunpowder by the guile and lies of Xask of Zar, a society descended from Minoan Crete and deep in the throes of decadence.  Xask got thrown out of Zar for being too devious a schemer even for Zar, and he hopes to use the secret of the "thunder weapon" to get back in the Empress' good graces (that he might supplant her as ruler of Zar, naturally).  The weapon is thus put in the hands of an already-technologically-advanced, though morally-depraved, empire with an expansionist slant controlled by a power-lusting autocrat, and Carter makes it very clear how bad this is for the rest of Zanthodon, most especially the people who have befriended our heroes.

This, of course, is due to the time difference between the nineteen-teens when Burroughs created Pellucidar, and 1979, when Carter's first Zanthodon novel was published.  Colonialism was still very much a thing when Burroughs began his writing career, while by the 1970s anti-colonialism and a greater respect and understanding of indigenous peoples had come into being.

Getting back to the stripped-down "clip show" nature of Zanthodon vs. Pellucidar, I think that's actually a big part of why I haven't put these books down yet.  By pastiching Pellucidar with less-florid prose, Zanthodon gives me a better opportunity to "look under the hood," as it were, of Burroughs' fiction, and examine its strengths and weaknesses without my long-time adoration of Burroughs tinting my vision rose.  Until I started reading the Zanthodon books, it never dawned on me how reliant Burroughs is on the trope of having his characters get separated, for instance, and given that I've been reading Burroughs for around two decades now and hadn't noticed that, were it not for Zanthodon I might never have noticed.

I'll still take the villainy of the Mahars over the Sluaggh any day.  

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Re-Opening the Library

Two years ago, I started a blog to share my thoughts on "pulp" fiction - tales of crime, mystery, suspense, horror, action, and the Weird, dating primarily to the first half of the 20th century - as I rad them.  I lost interest or got lost in other hobbies for a while, and then discovered I'd forgotten my logins for that blog.  So let's try this again, now that I'm working harder to avoid spending all my leisure time staring at a screen (irony of ironies, then, this blog and the fact that much of my reading is done on a Kindle) and have begun making time to read for pleasure again.

Who am I?

Hi, I'm Bill.  I'm 28, reside in Rochester, New York, and I've been "pulp" as long as I can remember.  John Carter has been the ideal of manhood I've held myself up to (and fallen far short of) since I was in the 5th grade, and I've thrilled to the adventures of Tarzan, David Innes, Conan the Barbarian, Randolph Carter, Solomon Kane, Doc Savage, the Shadow, Zorro, and others ever since.