See you later, Vangelis

The news today regards the passing of Vangelis on Tuesday….

Soundtrack of my life, pretty much, certainly for the past 40+ years. His Nemo era, Heaven and Hell, China, his Jon & Vangelis albums, See You Later, Soil Festivities, Mask, Rapsodies... and of course, his Blade Runner soundtrack. Its ironic, that I was working this afternoon in my back room (yep, still working from home, over two years now) and was listening to Vangelis’ The City album when I learned the news of his passing. I listen to all kinds of stuff, but I always return to Vangelis eventually.

I can’t help it: if its raining, I tend to listen to Movement One from his Soil Festivities album.

Himalaya, the track from his China album, is my personal favourite; I’ve adored that piece of music since I first heard it used during end titles of an episode of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos tv series. I had it recorded off-air onto audio cassette and played it so often, while not knowing what the piece was, only that I loved it, and it was unlike anything else I’d heard. In those pre-internet days, it was tricky tracking music down, so you cannot imagine my joy when my friend Andy got a hold of a copy of China and was playing it, and Himalaya came on.

Naturally I’ve listened to his Blade Runner score far too many times to be considered healthy. I sometimes wonder if I would love Blade Runner half as much as I do if it was scored by someone else: the mix between the sound effects and Vangelis’ synths (that glorious Yamaha CS-80!) is so perfect you can’t always tell where the music ends and the sound effects take over. I suppose one could consider the film one long Vangelis pop video, or an arthouse installation for Vangelis’ electronic wizardry.

To be fair, there was always a love/hate thing though regards Vangelis. I think most of his fans will understand this. Vangelis always seemed to be very private, distant. A musical genius and remarkably prolific, it was said he recorded music constantly, and that the majority of it would never be heard by his fans. Following his Chariots of Fire success and the wealth it gave him, the gaps between his album releases would sometime stretch into years. We’d hear his succeeding scores for films and be frustrated by his refusal to release those scores on album (Bitter Moon, The Bounty etc) and indeed even taking twelve years to release his magnum opus, the  Blade Runner soundtrack, a score he sometimes seemed to hold some resentment towards: an album was supposed to be released back in 1982 (the film famously had a Polydor album referenced in the end credits which I searched for in record stores for months like some damned fool) but Vangelis had cancelled it as if on a whim, or perhaps because of an argument with somebody connected with the films production (we never really found out why, and perhaps will never know, rumours abounded for years- ego, money… hey, the music business he hated but made a fortune from).

One thing is certain. There was no-one quite like Vangelis. I actually often considered him akin to Prince. Both wildly talented, hugely prolific, incredibly contrary. We will never seer the like again, I’m sure.

Vangelis was 79. Same age as my dad. Vangelis passed away on the eve of my dad’s funeral. This has been some week.

Who cares about the Avatar 2 trailer?

avatartooAvatar. That was that glossy sci-fi adventure movie with a paper-thin plot liberally borrowed from other books and movies that was really kind of silly. Technically impressive sure, but… Unobtanium? Unobtanium? Goodness, I’d tried to forget about that; I was SO close, and then this Avatar 2 trailer drops and… yeah, James Cameron pulls me back in.

Avatar. Er, yeah… that’s that James Cameron 3D epic that took the world by storm about twelve years back and was promptly forgotten. A bit like that “3D is the FUTURE!” nonsense- do they even make 3D televisions now, and how much damage did Hollywood’s rush to making 3D films do to blockbusters in general?  Avatar rather represents most everything bad about blockbuster movies today, in which the medium, whether it be 3D or Dolby Atmos or a gigantic Imax screen, is the message, rather than quality of drama or acting. Avatar took eye-candy to some whole new level, as if the setting -the alien world of Pandora- was a place to visit and experience in 3D (admittedly it was the best 3D I ever saw) and the only real reason to see the film. Divorced from the 3D and giant screen, the film has to rely on its script, its acting, and, er, that’s where it was found wanting, clearly. I have a copy of Avatar on Blu-ray… haven’t seen it in years. I haven’t even THOUGHT about Avatar in years. Can’t imagine many people have. I mean, it wasn’t like Star Wars or anything; Star Wars, when it became the biggest film of all time and entered the cultural consciousness, it was on tee-shirts and memorabilia and in books and comics and…  Avatar? That thing came and went, except that it did half of what Star Wars did, albeit the important half: it made lots of money.

In Hollywood, awards and critical plaudits are nice and all, but all they really care about is the money. Money talks, so Avatar is a pretty big deal. Outside of Hollywood, I’m not so sure, but in Hollywood, they care a bit less regards if a film is any good or not, as long as it makes gazillions of dollars, that’s where its at. And Avatar made a lot of money: $2.8 billion worldwide. That’s about as big as it gets until we start talking Marvel movies.

Doesn’t carry as much weight in my neck of the woods, mind; in my back room the Blu-ray is sitting on the shelf unwatched for years. I think that’s true of the collections of many film collectors and geeks and nerds (those two the same thing? I don’t know, maybe) and I don’t really think many people have been thinking about it or wishing to get more of Pandora in their lives, or that Unobtanium. I still can’t believe that Unobtanium nonsense, but I digress. I just don’t think people care.

I know James Cameron has spent the last twelve years or so not making movies. Well, not making movies that weren’t titled Avatar, because I think he has two or three of them coming out (or was it four?). I figured that was kind of sad, especially as it seemed to preclude him from signing-off on Blu-ray releases of The Abyss and True Lies, and derailed him making that Alita movie himself (a film whose failure possibly should have had him a bit worried about future Avatar movie prospects?). I mean, he’s off beavering away on more 3D CGI ‘movies’ (sorry MOVIES). and no-one cares, the darn king of the world doesn’t realise no-one cares about Avatar.

Or maybe not, maybe I’m wrong, because the trailer for Avatar 2 was revealed last week and it has at last count some 17 million views, which means somebody out there remembers Avatar, and is at least curious enough about it to watch the trailer. Who knows, maybe they are curious enough to don those 3D glasses again and pay top money to go watch it at the cinema this December. Maybe its going to be some kind of Second Coming.

But… but…

On the evidence of the new trailer for Avatar 2, the chief selling-point seems, depressingly, to be “look! Pandora is prettier than ever!” It doesn’t reveal much of the plot, but rather a sense of new places to see and ‘experience’ in 3D, i.e. more of the same, well, Avatar (except now some of the aliens are green). And the king of the world has spent the last decade making not one, not two, but three more of them? I may be wrong on that count, I never had much interest in Avatar sequels. I’m just wondering if I’m alone in that, and whether 17 million views of that trailer reveals I’m adrift of the cultural zeitgeist once again.

Casting kills Those That Wish Me Dead

Those That Wish Me Dead, 2021, 100 mins, Digital

Oh dear, I’ve copped another one. What you get out of Taylor Sheridan’s disappointing Those That Wish Me Dead mostly depends upon whether you can suspend your disbelief at the casting of the statuesque Angelina Jolie (and her make-up wizards) in the role of a death-baiting gorgeous wildfire firefighter haunted by a terrible guilt complex straight out of Cliffhanger. If, like me, you appreciate the eye-candy but scoff at what is patently ridiculous casting, then the film is sunk right from the start. Maybe the formidable pout of Angelina’s remarkable lips manages to distract one a little from the woefully generic script and surprisingly lacklustre fiery effects, maybe not, but if you’ve seen The Contract or pretty much any other thriller featuring ill-fated assassins hunting down quarry, you’ll think you’ve seen better films like this before, and you have.

Some kid’s dad has done the right thing and has gotten dangerous evidence that wrong-doers want him dead for, but which is oddly never explained – I mean, really, what’s dad done, what’s he found, what’s the evidence, who are the bad guys, what have they done, none of it is explained at all. So anyway, these faceless bad people hire a pair of mind-bogglingly inept killers – they cheat their way into one household, kill their targets but instead of slyly walking away leaving cops clueless they draw newscaster attention to their act by then immediately blowing the house up, said news items promptly alarming kid’s dad he’s next on the list. So kids dad decides its time his kid bunked off school and join him on a race into wild country and the safety of some freinds at a safety retreat, but our two bad guys have flown ahead and are waiting on the road. The trap goes awry, dad gets killed, but the kid goes on the run having pocketed the evidence and having seen the assassin’s faces, the chase is on. Just as well he bumps into death-daring death-wish-baiting unbalanced firefighter Angelina Jolie who can atone for previous failure (blames herself for the deaths of some kids the year before) by saving her new ward from the bad guys. I mean really, its that generic you’ll be rolling your eyes several times.

Formulaic and poorly staged as it is, its the casting that kills it. Angelina looks gorgeous even in her firefighter workwear which still somehow manages to show off her shapely butt and sports bra (really, don’t objectify her?) but I didn’t buy her in this for even a minute. Like the millionaire actors playing carnie bums in Nightmare Alley, this is casting which convinces no-one, surely and I have to wonder if its ever possible for some actors to function in films etc when their real-life fame eclipses their acting fame. Not that many others fair much better- Jon Bernthal (The Walking Dead, The Punisher, Baby Driver), Aiden Gillen (Game of Thrones), alongside Angelina they all suffer from underwritten characters and predictable plotting. Maybe Taylor Sheridan thinks looking good and spouting witty one-liners is enough; well, maybe it is for a Marvel movie. In Sheridan’s defence this film is based on a book, so maybe I should point some blame towards that, but that being said, I can’t believe the book likely contained firecracker dialogue that screams this-might-be-crap-but-its-cool at me all the time, and did I really hear Angelina say “I’m lean, not skinny”? Ugh. I hate all this self-concious movie-cool nonsense (see also Copshop etc). I don’t think film-makers realise that we demand more from our movies than what typifies glossy generic Netflix Originals, and frankly, it may not be one, but Those That Wish Me Dead has Netflix Original all over it.

Why is the Shawshank Redemption so popular?

shawshIs it the nail-biting finale in which the cornered Warden Norton (Bob Gunton) threatens to blow up the prison killing all of its inmates with the tons of explosives he has deviously placed under the prison foundations?

Is it the thrilling final battle on the roof of the prison block between Andy Dufresnse (Tim Robbins) and the dastardly Captain Handley (Clancy Brown) in howling rain amidst flashes of lightning and a vomit-inducing virtual camera spinning around the roof  in circles?

Is it the brilliant cliffhanger ending when Ellis (Morgan Freeman) reaches the beach at the movie’s end only to discover a note that Andy has been captured and incarcerated in another prison, and that cinemagoers now have to go watch another movie in which Ellis breaks his friend out of prison, in SHAWSHANK II: ANOTHER REDEMPTION?

Well no, funnily enough it has become incredibly popular possibly because its none of the above.

The Original Nightmare

NightmareAlley_grabs_0005_Layer 46.jpg

Nightmare Alley, 1947, 110 mins, Blu-ray

Edmund Goulding’s Nightmare Alley (although it feels better calling it Tyrone Power’s Nightmare Alley, as he owns the film, every scene he’s in) is like many films of its era, particularly those that are noir, an exercise in taut, efficient film-making. There is a lovely rhythm to it, the snappy dialogue that informs character and plot at the same time (without telegraphing anything, a neat trick), the brisk pacing, the way the scenes flow. No moment seems wasted. While the film is saddled with an unfortunate (likely studio-mandated) positive ending, it does everything up that last scene so well that its a forgivable cop-out; indeed, just stop the film before that very last scene and you’ve got a nigh-on perfect movie.  In comparison the 2021 version feels lazy, wasteful, padded, self-indulgent. It tells largely the same story but takes forty minutes longer, never earning it.

Sure, Del Toro’s film may be prettier, slicker, bigger, but it is so curiously badly staged compared to the original- I cannot fathom why, except to suspect that Del Toro became too seduced by noir’s visual qualities, losing himself in the image, the lighting, and failing to manage the storytelling, the narrative, becoming a slave of style over content. Sadly typical of so many films now.

Scenes like Stanton handing Pete the wrong, deadly drink by accident, and then his horror the next morning at what he’s done, is oddly confusing in the remake; is it supposed to be deliberate, if so why be so obtuse? It felt like shots were missing, it was so clumsily edited. Later, in the 1947 film, Molly’s appearance as the fake ghost out in the moonlit garden is spine-tingling, you can understand Ezra Grindle being absolutely convinced that its the dead returning to him- its bewitching and creepy, whereas in the remake the same scene is so lazily staged its almost to the level of perfunctory (Molly just walking up the path in the snow, whereas in the original there’s a sense of wonder- she’s walking between the trees, glimpsed for a moment then hidden, then caught in the moonlight, Grindle getting more enraptured at every glimpse).

nightmarealley47bThe most devastating difference between the two, and possibly the most alarming, is the quality of the cast and the acting. I think there is no performance in the 2021 film that is equal to the comparable performance in the 1947 film. Joan Blondell’s Zeena is more lively and motherly than the cardboard Toni Collette, Coleen Gray’s Molly is a far more enchantingly passionate innocent than Rooney Mara’s listless version. Helen Walker is absolutely convincing as Dr Lilith Ritter, an intellectual equal of Stanton Carlisle who outwits him with both smarts and charm, against whom Cate Blanchette suffers terribly in comparison, Blanchette all pose and style and no substance, her face literally becoming a mask.

I think similar things can be said regards all the cast: in the 1947 film, the actors have passion and conviction, in the 2021 film, they bluster and frown, largely lacking any real chemistry. Bradley Cooper invokes ‘Indiana Jones and the fun fair of Doom,’ more than Stanton Gate’s descent into Nightmare: in the 1947 film, Tyrone Power charms first, then horrifies as he becomes a heartless monster, before further descending into -literally- a physical monster when he is undone. His arc is the story of a guy who sees an opportunity but is eaten alive by it, whereas in the 2021 film, I’m not sure what Stanton’s arc is: but maybe its because Cooper can’t really convince as a bad guy, he can only do moody, as if that’s all his range. I’m surprised at this, he’s seemed pretty fine in most previous films I’ve seen him in but he seems out of his depth here, and it looks like Del Toro wasn’t helping.

The 1947 Nightmare Alley is a lean, brutally efficient tragedy of a man’s rise and subsequent fall, and a shining example of a time when films just told stories better. Its the one thing I’ve noticed in many of the noir b-movies I’ve watched this past year or two  their ability to be concise and effective in telling a narrative (and to be fair, Nightmare Alley is surprisingly ‘A’, its not a b-picture at all, its production values are obvious, clearly a sign of Tyrone Power’s clout).

Certainly, Nightmare Alley can seem dated at moments, like other films of its day maybe betrayed to some extent by the limitations of what censors would allow, but one can argue conversely that this is often one of their strengths; suggestion: we hear the geek eat a chicken, the sounds giving us a minds-eye picture more daunting than graphically seeing it as we do in the remake. There’s a lesson there which maybe current film-makers should heed.

How refreshing to see a film in which a man cannot be saved by the love of his woman (barring the films jarring coda). There is something genuinely quite haunting about this film as it gets under your skin; massively impressive for a film that is so obscure its arguable that it was buried by it studio, and one I hadn’t even heard of until the remake was announced. Well, at least some good came from that Del Toro film.

The crushing disappointment of Nightmare Alley

nightmare2021aNightmare Alley, 2021, 150 mins, 4K UHD

Well I guess the title of this post tells it all; Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley is a misfire, vastly inferior to the 1947 noir original. After seeing all those gushing reviews at the end of last year and all that talk of Oscar (whatever that really means) I finally watched this imported 4K disc and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Sure its pretty, that is typical of Guillermo, he’s a great visual stylist, but I was actually shocked how badly staged this film was- scenes that are disturbing in the 1947 original just seem staid and even confusing in this version, and the star-studded cast are left wasted, Guillermo unable to extract any interesting performances from them: they look like millionaire actors playing bums and are about as convincing. I usually like Bradley Cooper but he lacks sufficient intensity to pull this off, and now that I think about it, most of the cast seem unaware they are in a noir, their performances tuned for something else. So I was left at the movies end wondering had I seen the same movie as those adoring critics, had I missed something?

Is it as simple as the critics thinking Guillermo their new darling (after the over-rated The Shape of Water), who can do no wrong, or that they are largely ignorant of the superior 1947 original film demonstrating how it should have been done? This one is just too long, horribly paced and curiously uninvolving, considering that the original freaked me out and had me disturbed for weeks afterwards. The original was as much a horror film as it was a noir and like so many noir, briskly paced with no fat at all, like some runaway train pulling its despairing character to his doom. There’s no relentless nightmare down this particular alley, little sense of its character at the mercy of terrible fate, and none of the surprises of the original.

So I am left wondering, what film were those fawning critics watching? I cannot understand, for instance, how none of them seem bothered by some glaring continuity errors that seem rather odd for such a well-regarded film. One early one bothered me so much that it likely spoiled the film for me entirely, as my head kept on referring back to it thinking it would constitute something of a twist, eventually, but it was a twist that never came. The Carnival is taken down to be moved some twenty miles to join another carnival site, and soon after arriving there, the geek escapes and following a tense search in which Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) suffers a head injury mysteriously absent the next day, the geek is captured and returned to his cage- but this location/tent is the one they left behind at the previous site. They carnies have not had time to put up the tent etc or dig the pit, and it wouldn’t be so clearly identical if they had, right down to rows of formaldehyde jars and their grisly contents. It doesn’t make any sense, frankly, and in that way that continuity errors sometimes do, took me straight out of the movie, and I struggled to get back ‘into’ it.

So instead I’m just left with an urge to re-watch the 1947 original again and a pretty 4K coaster. I don’t know, maybe I need to muster the courage (and time, this thing is 150 minutes long) to give Guillermo’s film another try with lower expectations. But unless The Batman proves different next month, I fear this Nightmare Alley could likely be the biggest disappointment of the year.

At last (?) the Action Hero

actionheroThe Last Action Hero, 1993, 130 mins, Amazon Prime

Practically thirty years after its original release, I’ve finally gotten around to watching John McTiernan’s The Last Action Hero, a thoroughly peculiar film that maybe performs better today than it did back in 1993. Or maybe not. On one level the advantage of watching The Last Action Hero today is that it has now become, after close to thirty years, a nostalgia-fest for how action films and also television shows like The A-Team were back then. More than that, its a nostalgia-fest for a time when movies were projected on reels of film and the idea of a magic ticket pulling us into the screen has that analogue charm lost in these days of digital movies on hard drives: these days a film like this would conceivably be more something like Tron, a character pulled into a digital world. Where’s the romance in that?

At any rate, The Last Action Hero isn’t a very good film; its clearly something of a folly, one of those films that has too many cooks and a script that was still a draft or two away from being a good shooting script. Its always a wonder to me, the chaotic way some films get made, there’s definitely eerie echoes in The Last Action Hero of the ill-fated genesis of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and the bizarre way studios mandate premiere dates that just can’t be possibly met. Here’s another film without a proper final cut, rushed into cinemas not properly finished or fine-tuned.

The real problem for The Last Action Hero is that’s practically two different movies itself. In one its a kid’s adventure film with a child becoming a part of one of Arnie’s onscreen adventures, a kind of wish-fulfilment for film lovers of all ages who would love to have that magic ticket to transport us to our favourite film universe, while in the other, its a self-knowing send-up of action movie tropes and movie violence. Its likely that if the film were made today it would be two movies- it seems a perfect premise for a Part One/ Part Two, the first film featuring the kid going into the movie world and the second film with the movie characters brought into our world. Doing both in one film leaves it pulling in two seperate directions, from which so many of the film’s problems arise.

In its movie in-jokes and self-aware humour, it does seem rather prescient, but I can’t decide if its references to other films/characters -cameos for Sharon Stone’s Catherine Tramell (Basic Instinct (1992)) and Robert Patrick’s T-1000 (Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)) amongst others- is either a reference to the conceits of Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) or instead offering a glimpse of something like the multiverses becoming so popular these days in genre offerings. Are the in-movie mythologies referenced in The Last Action Hero an anticipation of how Matrix: Resurrections references earlier Matrix films, to the point of even projecting clips from them around on-screen characters, films within films? Or is it a prediction of the film multiverses such as we have seen in Spiderman: No Way Home which retcon earlier films/reboots into their narrative to such an extent that it actually becomes the narrative. Films are so meta now. They used to be just movies.

Monkey Business

twelveTwelve Monkeys, 1995, 129 mins, 4K UHD

Arrow seems to have run afoul of a faulty master provided by Universal for its new 4K UHD edition of Terry Gilliam’s wonderful, bizarre and disturbing Twelve Monkeys. It actually features on their Blu-ray edition from a few years back, which I didn’t buy because I was hoping to see a 4K edition sometime down the line (pity I didn’t adopt same practice with their Robocop release, but hey-ho). Its a glitch in the edit, somehow, in which about 15 seconds of video is repeated, while the audio track continues correctly. The weird thing is, very few seem to have noticed it on that Blu-ray; it occurs at a fortuitous ((if that’s the right word) moment during some disorientating camera moves and tight edits and can easily pass people by; I’m sure most viewers never twigged it- I’m not even sure I would have noticed it had I not been warned/enlightened.

Didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the film at all, and its rather curious noting on forums that many are refusing to unwrap their copies and are returning them or getting increasingly irate over a replacement disc. Essentially those people are right, there is something wrong with the release and purchasers have every right to expect a ‘proper’ copy without any faults or glitches at all. My old VHS copy got it right, after all, so shouldn’t a brand-spanking new top of the line 4K UHD disc be the same? Of course it should. But this film isn’t broken, and unless you’re really looking for it, it doesn’t pull anyone out of the movie. Indeed in an odd way, it seems rather fitting for a Gilliam film, a sort of meta-reference to the nightmarishly inept bureaucracy of Gilliam’s earlier masterpiece Brazil (now THERE’s a film I want to see on a 4K UHD SE release). Maybe Gilliam himself would appreciate the humour in it. The important thing is that the film looks gorgeous in 4K, its really quite lovely and of course the film is only more effective/more harrowing than ever in our post-Covid world.

But it set me thinking about the theatrical cut of Blade Runner in 1982, complete with dialogue continuity errors, visible continuity errors, scenes played with the wrong dialogue take so that lips weren’t moving when we ‘heard’ someone talking, sequences with cables clearly hauling up spinner vehicles into the air or sitting off-corner where we’re not supposed to see it yet. The film wasn’t accidentally mastered and released like that, it was literally made and finished like that. Now that’s a broken movie- even though I loved it all the same.

A second punch of REH

ghostapril1929Further to yesterday’s post regards the Bob Howard boxing story “The Spirit of Tom Molyneaux”, I’ve since discovered online -its always amazing what you can dig up with a search or two- this image of the cover of the Ghost Stories pulp in which that story first appeared (as The Apparition in the Prize-Ring”). There’s no indication on the cover of why so many REH fans are aware of that particular issue (more because it was REHs first sale to a pulp magazine that wasn’t Weird Tales than any high quality in Howards story). I often get startled by those old pulp covers that were contemporary of REH, the old style of them proving sobering reminder of just how long ago REH lived, and how different those times were.

I often wonder what it would be like to have sat down with him over a beer. When I first read all those paperbacks of his stories my somewhat isolated, socially uncool teenage-self recognised much of my own awkwardness in descriptions of Bob Howard in Cross Plains, who was something of an outcast and considered rather peculiar by his neighbours/fellow townsfolk. But Bob Howard was such a product of his time, and that time is so alien to mine, to the atitudes and beliefs of today. Would we get along as much as I would have hoped?

Answers via a Time Machine, Mr Wells. Anyway, today I followed up that story with another boxing yarn; “Double Cross”, which was another Ace Jessel story- Bob Howard had a habit of writing series of tales featuring the same character seeing that it was a way of securing more sales; if the first sold, then surely readers (and editors) would be interested in further tales? Unfortunately for Howard, his first Ace Jessel story didn’t sell to the market it was originally intended for (Fight Stories) and only eventually sold to Ghost Stories because of its supernatural bent. This second Ace Jessel tale, a more traditional boxing yarn minus any supernatural undertones, would obviously lack any appeal to the Ghost Stories crowd, so “Double Cross” remained unsold after Fight Stories rejected it, and was Ace Jessel’s last adventure, Howard moving on….

“The Spirit of Tom Molyneaux” by Robert E. Howard

fists1While he’s most popularly known for his fantasy creations of Conan, King Kull and Solomon Kane, Bob Howard’s love of boxing is well documented-both a fervent admirer of the sport of his time, deeply knowledgeable of its history, and also as an amateur pugilist in his own right, taking part in bouts behind the ice-house at Cross Plains, and his passion for boxing is clearly evidenced by the number of boxing yarns he wrote during his short-lived writing career. The Robert E Howard Foundation’s Fists of Iron series, ensuring all his boxing stories, drafts. poems and ephemera are in print, is spread across four substantial volumes of material. My copies have sat on the shelf waiting my attention for far too long- the shipping note and customs declaration for my copy of the first volume, complete with that magical Cross Plains Post Office stamp, is dated June 2013. Other than picking a volume up to browse through or read an isolated story or two, these collections of his Boxing stories have been waiting. And waiting. But 2013? Yikes. And I thought some of my DVDs/Blu-rays had it bad.

So I have decided to strike out and try work my way through these Fists of Iron volumes (albeit I’m sure to become distracted by the pull of some of his other yarns before long, such as his Westerns or Fantasy works, because I suspect constant boxing stories may become wearing, in time, no matter how enjoyable they are). Many of the boxing stories contained in these books are familiar to me, having read most of them at least once before over the decades that I’ve been reading Howard’s fiction, but nonetheless I am certain there are many gathered here that I haven’t read at all, certainly in the pure ‘original text’ versions that the REH Foundation prides itself upon. In the case of this story, there are two different versions, one had featured in Bison Books’ Boxing Stories collection and the other Del Rey’s The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard collection, and both feature in this first Fists of Iron volume. Seems double and triple-dipping isn’t just reserved for home video formats…

The Spirit of Tom Molyneaux” is a lesser tale of Howards that is perfectly fine, and which has a particular fame for being Howards first professional sale outside of Weird Tales.  As one might suspect from it being sold to Ghost Stories (following rejections from the Fight Stories and Argosy pulps), this is a boxing short with a supernatural bent. Its less pronounced in the version here, from one of Howard’s own carbon copies- likely the version Fight Stories rejected.  The ghostly stuff features more prominently in the published version- possibly at the request of the Ghost Stories editor or perhaps more an example of Howard tailoring his stories to a particular market, adjusting its tone to more likely get a sale (he even retitled it to “The Apparition in the Prize-Ring”).

Its the story about Ace Jessel and his epic bout with Mankiller Gomez, a brutal, almost primordial fighter who has swept all before him, taking the title from a fighter who Ace had been in line to fight. Ace is clearly outmatched but seems to take courage from a painting of his lifelong hero and inspiration, the boxer Tom Molyneaux, a black boxer who died a hundred years prior. Unbeknownst to Ace, his concerned manager John Taverel is compelled to bring the painting to ringside, and when Ace is bloodied and near-beaten, Taveral unfurls it so that Ace can see it, and the ghost of Molyneaux comes to Ace’s aid.

Which is a lousy summary of a simple story which, while it doesn’t really at all surprise, nonetheless proves to be a perfect example of just how great a storyteller Bob Howard was. I haven’t read any other author who can capture action like Howard could- his description of the bout is riveting and exciting and its impossible not to get caught up in it. I can’t say I have any particular interest in boxing at all, but I really enjoy Howards boxing yarns (the humorous ones are the best, as they demonstrate Howard’s surprising grasp of comedy) and the supernatural element gives this one a particular flavour worthy of a Twilight Zone segment. Its really pretty good.