The Northman, by Crom!

northmThe Northman, 2022, 137 mins, 4K UHD

Robert Egger’s The Northman is John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian by way of The Lighthouse; it is barbaric revenge with lots of meta-physical weirdness chucked in. Something like Robert E Howard via David Lynch.

As an intellectual exercise, I don’t mind all the meta-physical stuff, its Egger’s way of trying to get us ‘into’ the heads of the Vikings back then, of how they thought. It was something Eggers did well in his debut film The Witch, getting viewers into the mindset of Puritan settlers in 17th Century New England. Its something that often frustrated me, whether a film be a Roman epic, Medieval romp or indeed a futuristic space-faring saga – its wrong to pretend people back then (or indeed in the distant future) will be the same as us, with the same beliefs and points of view. Its one of the things that I think Kubrick nailed so well in 2001: A Space Odyssey, how dehumanised people are in Kubrick’s year 2001, how they interact, how soul-less old traditions like wishing someone a happy birthday seems, which I always thought was, deliberately or not, the films thesis of how technology dehumanises people (and the irony of how HAL 9000 seems the most human character in the film). Likewise in period films, we cannot really appreciate how people thought and rationalised back when superstition dominated short and uneducated lives, people absolutely convinced there were Gods in the sky or Devils lurking in the shadows. We can try putting ourselves in their places but will always fail- we know too much; even if its just knowing what those lights in the sky are. Whether we really need all the mystical nonsense and its weird imagery to do that is up to debate, or indeed if we need so much of it, but its what Eggers deployed to serve his ends.

All this of course is an intellectual point of view and doesn’t necessarily make for very good, enjoyable movies- so often film-makers ignore such exercises and make a film like Gladiator with Roman-era characters that are modern enough that we can fully identify with them, or films like Red Planet with astronauts that act like ordinary joes rather than professional level-headed engineers/astronauts. Films after all are entertainment first and foremost.

So I have to wonder is The Northman any better than Conan the Barbarian, as a film? It follows a very similar plot, in which a disenfranchised boy, separated from his people and home seeks revenge for the death of his father and ultimately arguably finds that revenge hollow, questioning the purpose that has driven him all his life. It features near-identical scenes of our hero finding a special sword in a tomb, taking it from the dead hands of an ancient warrior. It even looks similar, Milius and his art team (notably the late Ron Cobb and William Stout) influenced by Viking armour and Northern culture/lore from the Dark Ages to lend Robert E Howard’s Hyborian Age some verisimilitude onscreen.

I was actually surprised how often The Northman kept reminding me of Milius’ film- I know many have pointed to obvious parallels with Hamlet which was itself is based on Norse legend (Hamlet = Amleth), but to me it was Conan that kept tapping me on the shoulder. Indeed, while watching The Northman I often considered how cool it would be if Robert E Howard’s character could be given a serious treatment  similar to that of Egger’s film.  I particularly liked its treatment of sorcery/magic- the moment in which Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) invokes her Gods to summon wind to speed her boat on its way was pure, tangible Robert E Howard- no flashy visual pyrotechnics or animation, just an intonation followed by howling wind.

What The Northman lacked was a rousing score such as the Basil Poledouris classic that Conan was blessed by, and indeed interesting characters: Eggers film preferred to leave his film’s Vikings etc pretty much unknowable with largely unfathomable passions: intellectually fine I guess but perhaps opposed to traditional film narrative. Funnily enough, I can recall Conan being criticised for the same but its obviously cut from a different cloth to Egger’s film; one can believe Conan falling for Sandahl Bergman’s Valeria, feel their passion, and ironically, considering Arnie’s lack of acting prowess, he actually feels more human than Alexander Skarsgård does, but of course that’s maybe the point. Conan feels rather contemporary (Howards gritty Hyborian hero tinged with a hard-boiled, rather noir sensibility in his stories) while Amleth feels like some stranger wholly of his Dark Ages.

The Northman ultimately takes itself a little too seriously and takes far too long telling a very familiar, and surprisingly simple, story. It looks gorgeous and authentic, grounded in some kind of grey reality but maybe needed something bolder, more epic- it lacks a villain, really; Amleth’s uncle Fjolnir (Claes Bang) is almost a victim of fate himself (or maybe that’s the point), apparently manipulated by Amleth’s mother Queen Gudrun (a rather bizarre-looking Nicole Kidman) to betray his King and brother. Its likely more realistic (and realism seems to be Egger’s justification for everything with regard this film) but it leaves the film lacking some energy and, yes, the more traditional plot for viewers to hang onto: the film needs a complete and utter bastard for us to hold in contempt, rooting for our hero. We always knew James Earl Jones’ Thulsa Doom was an evil sorcerer who deserved Conan’s steel cleaved through his neck; instead I rather hoped Fjolnir would come to his senses, dump Gudrun and go find himself a better life. That’s clearly not the film Eggers was making though and would likely just confound viewers more than they are already. Me? I much prefer Conan the Barbarian.

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.

Conan the Barbarian by Jason Aaron

conan jason aaronA very welcome oversized hardback collection of writer Jason Aaron’s twelve-issue run of Conan the Barbarian. The arc is titled ‘The Life and Death of Conan’ and is a pretty interesting take on the character for his return to Marvel: I suspect it was a deliberately introductory arc intended for new readers unfamiliar with the character, as it sweeps forwards and backwards in time referencing various parts of Conan’s life and adventures. It may also be a case of Aaron referencing REH’s habit of non-chronological stories, Howard depicting Conan as a King and then in his next story depicting Conan as a young thief, or later in his life as a pirate, writing stories at various stages of Conan’s life as if on a whim. It would be left for two fans to later write a probable chronological outline of Conan’s life piecing the REH stories into some kind of order (“A Probable Outline of Conan’s Career” by P Miller and J D Clark first published in a fanzine in 1938). 

One of the ways to judge how good a new Conan story is, is perhaps inevitably to compare it to the mood and spirit of REH’s original tales. This is something of a double-edged sword because there is no way for any writer to really create something that rings wholly true of Howard. Conan’s creator may have been a pulp writer quickly turning out the stories to pay the bills (and at the time of the Conan shorts were written this would include paying for, or contributing to, his mother’s medical expenses as her health failed) but their quality has ensured his work has been in print for close on a century now. Indeed, it can be argued that Howard’s best stories are those not involving Conan at all, but it can’t be denied that the best of the Conan yarns are really something special. 

So how does Aaron fair with such an unfair comparison? Pretty well I think. I’m not really convinced that he manages to capture Conan’s character; there is something a little too civilized regards Aaron’s Conan for all his narrative commentary otherwise, lacking some of the dark barbarian of Howard. There’s a literal fixation on Conan’s wanderlust, Conan’s drive to see over the next hill, an ambition to experience all the Hyborian Age’s wonders that I don’t think was such a character trait in the Cimmerian at all. It feels a little too on the nose, too modern a point of view. I rather thought Howard’s Conan lived more aimlessly, subject to his own physical whim and excess, whether it be wine, women or loot. Aaron further features a rather unwelcome explanation for Conan’s success, attributing it to a witches curse and the protection from a Dark God that needed the Cimmerians blood at the end of a long life in order for that Dark God to return. Hey, I’d prefer to attribute Conan’s length of survival to his own efforts.

The art and colours (chiefly by Mahmud Asrar and Matthew Wilson respectively) are beautiful; modern comic art is on this evidence rather more sophisticated than much of the 1970s art that featured in Marvel’s original Conan books, although I still think John Buscema’s Conan is the definitive one. This edition certainly benefits from the larger size- I initially bought this run in two softcover collections but really struggled with the small print, my eyes not what they were: no such problems here. Aaron left the title after issue twelve but I definitely hope that the successive issues with a new creative team can also be reprinted in OHC format eventually. While I am really enjoying Marvel’s omnibus reprints of both the colour and black & white Conan titles from the 1970s – 1980s, I would be fascinated to see where Marvel goes with this new generation of Conan titles.    

The Savage Sword of Conan Omnibus Vol.1

The b&w magazine The Savage Sword of Conan was probably my favourite comic of the 1970s – well, I say comic, it was indeed a magazine, as it didn’t have to conform to the Comics Code Authority as the regular four-colour comic books of the Marvel line had to. It enabled the writers and artists to create longer and more ‘adult’ adaptations of Robert E Howard’s stories- it felt more authentic to me, as far as REH goes, a feeling which was reinforced by the magazine running text articles about REH or his books; it was where I first learned about Glenn Lord and his book The Last Celt, and Howard himself and all the stories he wrote. Although I first encountered Conan in the pages of the four-colour Conan the Barbarian drawn by Barry Windsor Smith, it was in Savage Sword that I felt I encountered the genuine Robert E Howard Conan that launched my love and appreciation for his stories, and my fascination with the writer himself.

I still have my old original issues of Savage Sword– original American editions and then later the Marvel UK edition (which lacked the background articles etc). I later bought the first few Dark Horse collected editions  from 2007/2008 that reprinted Savage Sword‘s Conan strips when Dark Horse acquired the Conan license from Marvel – big bulky paperback tomes a little like telephone directories, and really as cheap and nasty as that might sound. I always wished that one day they could be collected in hardback on quality paper with the attention the strips deserved. It was always an idle fancy. The magazine was decades old, of course, and I suppose old-fashioned, and the chance of anyone creating hardback editions for posterity seemed just that- an idle fancy. But over the years I’d look through my yellowing copies and often dream of a proper quality book collecting them.

Well, here we are, with Marvel having now re-acquired the rights to Conan from Dark Horse, this time it’s the original publisher collecting the originals and thank goodness, it has made them part of its Omnibus line, with hardback binding, quality glossy white paper (although I quite miss the old matte paper stock) and even including the supportive text articles and letters pages. Unfortunately, as the rights Marvel has now doesn’t seem to include all the REH characters, as this collection only features the main Conan strips, and not the support strips featuring characters like Kull or Solomon Kane. The only awkward thing about it is the sheer bulk of the thing- at 1,040 pages, it’s a bit of a monster, although I would have appreciated a larger page size- as the book is slightly reformatting the original magazine the pages are slightly reduced in size (in the examples here you may notice the slight window-banner at top and bottom detailing the issue number and omnibus page count), not helping my eyes at all.

It really is a joy reading these stories again and seeing them in such a durable edition at long last. Whenever I read REH’s original Conan stories, it’s always the Savage Sword images that come to my mind, over and above that of Frank Frazetta’s famous oils. The magazine’s art was something really special, particularly as it was always in black and white with intricate detail most of the time, looking like old-fashioned classic illustrated book style and not at all like contemporary comic-books of the day. They always featured pretty extraordinary painted covers, too (and which are printed in colour in this edition, heading each reprinted issue), which rivalled anything on paperback covers- it looked and felt like something really special, and I used to read it over and over. Of course, part of my love and fascination was because it chiefly featured my favourite Marvel artist, John Buscema. To my mind, Buscema’s work reached whole new levels of majesty when the magazine featured his partnership with Alfredo Alcala, starting with an adaptation of REH’s Black Colossus. Alcala, a popular Filipino artist of some renown in his own right, served as an inker of Buscema’s pencil layouts but added much of his own embellishments and details. The stories they did together are some of my favourite pieces of comic art of all time.

Imagine my shock and surprise then, to be reading Roy Thomas’ lengthy introduction to this collection and discovering that John Buscema himself hated what Alcala did to his pencils! I still can’t believe it. I suppose, thinking about it, a lot of that embellishing and detail and texture that Alcala was adding was more Alcala’s own illustrative style – looking at his own comic-book art, it’s clear it looks very much like those Savage Sword  strips that I love. Indeed, perhaps too much like Alcala and too little like Buscema, from Buscema’s point of view. To me of course, it offered the best of both worlds- Buscema’s brilliant layouts and framing and the sumptuous old-school illustrative details of Alcala. But really, when I read all those stories I had no idea, and in the magazine’s letters pages most readers seemed to think the same as I did- the two artists were a magnificent partnership.

So there you go- you learn something new everyday.

While this omnibus is pretty expensive, for fans of old this is surely a must-buy, as they tend to have limited print runs and I have to wonder if there will ever be another reprint after having waited over 40 years for this one. Roll on The Savage Sword of Conan Omnibus 2 in November of this year. Meanwhile I need some new reading glasses…

Coming up…

Hey, a quick glance at whats coming up over the next several weeks (I love this time of year, its like a second summer for movie buffs as consolation for when the rain comes).

rp1uhdReady Player One (UHD)- out tomorrow. If ever a film was screaming ‘vacuous eye-candy’ then this film is it. Have been looking forward to this for some time but expecting to be disappointed. One of those cases of declining the cinema visit figuring I’d use the money to buy the disc instead, as its likely got re-watch appeal if only for the visuals and 1980s easter-eggs. In the meantime I bought my new television and upgraded to a UHD disc over the standard Blu-ray. So hey, even prettier eye-candy. Review later this week no doubt.

Missing (Indicator)- Sept 1st. Another Jack Lemmon film and one I’ve only seen in pan and scan television airings many years ago (remember those? Blade Runner‘s was really funny). This one has a lovely Vangelis score, too, so I hope the sound is as improved as the image. I have faith in Indicator (which reminds me, I still haven’t caught up with my The China Syndrome disc…)

Avengers: Infinity Wars (UHD)- Sept 3rd. While I enjoyed this at the cinema I’m feeling a bit ambivalent towards the disc release. Maybe it was that CGI-fest ending. Just looking forward to all the scenes with Thor in, to be honest. The less said of Spider Man’s horrendous pseudo-Iron Man suit with those bloody metal arms the better. No, looking back at this movie hasn’t made me grow any fonder- on the contrary. We’ll see if it sweeps me up for a second time, though- those Marvel guys are like a machine and hard to argue with ‘in the moment’ watching the stuff they do. Its just afterwards in the cold light of the day that you feel a little like you’ve been taken for a mug…  hey, that’s entertainment…

Deadpool 2- Sept 17th. Aha, another film I haven’t seen/deferred for a disc release that has been upgraded to UHD (the first film on UHD is a peach, too, which has gotten me really excited for this one). We even get a longer cut, to. I thought those extended cuts were something akin to an endangered species now? Nice to see there’s life in alternate cuts yet, though it may just be a curio, we’ll see. I’ve avoided spoilers for this one and haven’t seen any of the later ‘proper’ trailers so hopefully it’ll surprise me in a good way..

solouhdSolo (UHD)- Sept 24th. So yeah, September seems to be the summer blockbuster season in Ghost Hall. Gives me a warm nostalgic feeling, its just like 1982 all over again when we used to get films late. So Solo is possibly the most interesting title of all of these upcoming releases. Was it as bad as some said? Was it better than many claimed? Did it unfairly suffer a post –The Last Jedi backlash or was justice finally done to the Disney Star Wars juggernaut? One things for sure, the cover art is unfathomably ugly- ugliest artwork of the year, no doubt. Why couldn’t they just go with the cinema artwork featured on the soundtrack? (more on which later…)

Night of the Demon (Indicator) – Oct 27th.  Only recently confirmed, this one could be something special. Its a great old fave of mine which I’m surprised to say I haven’t seen for years- and this one might actually offer something new, as there’s different versions on it.

2001: A Space Odyssey (UHD) – Oct 29th. There’s still plenty of worrying on forums that Warner are going to mess this one up. For one thing, the extras are hardly anything to sing about- imagine if Arrow or Indicator got hold of something like this. I will never forgive Warner for stopping Doug Trumbull from making his documentary about 2001 a few years back. That would be so perfect for a release like this. Celebrating its fiftieth anniversary in a format that promises better image quality than I have ever seen the film in (I did see it theatrically a few years back, but that wasn’t exactly any revelation, unfortunately) so this could be the release of the season.

Other stuff on the radar: How will I resist A Matter of Life and Death on Blu-ray? The Matrix films on UHD? Candyman from Arrow? Westworld Season 2 on UHD? I’ll probably need to import The Expanse season 3. There’s sure to be a few surprises, too. Hopefully Mission Impossible: Fallout will make it out before Christmas. Over in Germany there’s some UHD releases of John Carpenters films- Prince of Darkness (which I really rather love), The Fog and They Live that look tempting.

swarcAnd of course there is the monster (600 pages? I need to go work out in the gym just to carry the damn thing) Star Wars Archives book from Taschen that is due next month (lets hope it slips into October, September is getting a little nuts already). Also on the book front, there’s a new REH book from the REHFP that I need to catch up with.




I Am Providence by S.T. Joshi

prov1I’m currently reading S.T.Joshi’s mammoth biography of H.P.Lovecraft, I Am Providence. ‘Mammoth’ indeed- I’m just 130 pages into volume one;  a two-volume work, the whole thing totals over a thousand pages across the two books. Its a sizeable undertaking just reading the thing, the amount of work writing it must have been formidable. While I read all of Lovecraft’s fiction in the mid-eighties (having at that point read most of Robert E Howard’s fiction) I have never really read much about the author himself or ever really been inclined to do so, hearing things from my friend Andy who was more obsessed by HPL than I that ‘filled the blanks’ as it were.

It has always been clear to me that Lovecraft was a decidedly odd fellow. Is that even a surprise, considering some of the stories that he wrote? My fascination  with Lovecraft is that his stories have haunted me for years and you see so much of his work in modern-day films and fiction- even if not in ‘straight’ adaptations, so much in the media has ‘Lovecraftian’ undertones (my first brush with such was Alien from 1979, clearly a Lovecraftian horror and indeed one of the very best). It is as if, after his death, he has gradually and increasingly infected the cultural zeitgeist in a similar way to how Philip K Dick did post-Blade Runner. Alan Moore recently wrote a brilliant horror comic-book/graphic novel, Providence, which had this ‘Lovecraftian infestation’ as its main theme and was particularly horrific for it.

Yet while I rather adore his best stories, Lovecraft has never struck me as someone I would actually like, were I to somehow meet him. Genius begats strangeness sometimes and like fellow Weird Tales writer Robert E Howard, Lovecraft was surely a little peculiar and outside of ‘normal’ society. Although I freely admit I’m likely fooling myself,  I always feel like I could have had a beer with Bob Howard and would have liked him, and would love to jump into a time machine and meet him (I once had an incredibly vivid dream in which I did just that, and stopped him from his suicide). As far as Lovecraft is concerned though, I doubt any meeting between us would have gone very well, but hopefully this book will allow me to understand him and his worldviews and his writing more.

Initially the book was rather a struggle, to be honest, with a dry, rather academic summary of the history of Lovecraft’s paternal and maternal family backgrounds up to his birth and the place where he lived. Joshi spares no detail in his account. Indeed, at the point I am at now some 130 pages in,  Lovecraft is still just 14 or so, some years away from any of his weird writing that I am familiar with. Instead the book has been concerned with his spoiled, insular childhood- the precocious, albeit over-sensitive, very intelligent young boy and the depressed recluse he became following his fourth and most traumatic ‘breakdown’ (which is what I am up to).

It has been fascinating, considering my knowledge of Lovecraft’s genuine strangeness and his racist views, to see where it possibly all arose. His racism, abhorrent as it is, is a tricky subject. I would never, to be honest, wholly condemn Lovecraft  for his racism as it was as much a product of the times he lived in, and the place he lived in, and while yes, he should have known better it can be perhaps understood if not forgiven. People are simply of their time and it’s wrong I think to view him wholly negatively from the enlightened perspective of today. The fact that his childhood was rather dysfunctional explains a great deal the man he would become. His maternal grandfather becoming his father figure after his actual father wound up in a mental asylum, and his mother, with her own increasingly fragile mental state, describing her teenage son as ‘hideous’ indicating she treated him with love and hate in equal measure (and I thought Bob Howard has mother issues, go figure). A solitary child, Lovecraft’s best freinds were his family’s library of books  that he simply devoured, enjoying intellectual interests rather than the usual childish playful ones of his peers. Not that any of this excuses his worldviews, but they do perhaps allow us to understand them

Perhaps I shall write more about these two books and any revelations in the weeks to come. I’m definitely enjoying it and looking forward to the later sections dealing with all those weird horror stories I am so familiar with.


My REH Bookshelf Pt.1

Last week I received the three most recent Robert E Howard books from the REH Foundation Press, so I thought it timely to post some pictures of my Robert E Howard collection. I’ve been collecting REH books since 1978, and I think it is true to say that REH fans have never had it as good as they do now, thanks to the efforts of the folks at the REHFP. There is still, and always will be, a unique thrill to receiving a box from them postmarked from the post office at Cross Plains, Texas, a special place in Howard lore.

reh1So here’s my first photograph, and this is pretty much my collection from the last few years and it clearly demonstrates how much I have benefited from the REHFP. While many of these books contain stories I already owned in earlier books, they also contain a wealth of fragments and drafts, and informative essays. And of course they are handsomely collected in hardback format in very limited editions, usually only 200 copies. I can never figure out how REH fandom is so limited that these books don’t seem to sell-out. They aren’t cheap, but when I think back to the bad old days of buying paperbacks these are more that worth the investment, and will hopefully last the rest of this REH readers life.

Highlights are almost too numerous too mention. The Collected Poetry is a hugely important volume, and the Collected Letters also. If these were the only books that the REHFP had ever printed, that would have been more than enough to satisfy collectors. In all honesty though I adore all of these books and only wish I could make the time to properly re-read them all enough. I often think that if ever I manage to retire one day I will enjoy the fruits of my collecting by spending years reading and re-reading these volumes -I only hope I can keep my marbles in order to do so! But I’m certain in the meantime I’ll give it a good go whenever I have time- currently I’m reading through the Breckinridge Elkins books. At any rate, though their frequency of books is somewhat haphazard, I’m certain that the REHFP have yet more books in the pipeline.

One anecdote I must make- my copy of the Collected Poetry was actually delivered across town as the address hadn’t been written properly on the package. As it wasn’t tracked, I had no idea, but thankfully it was delivered to me by the recipient of the package who had subsequently managed to track me down. I don’t think I ever had opportunity to thank him enough, as I was quite bewildered when he turned up at my door late one summer evening with the box. I’m really not usually that lucky a person -the ghost of Howard was looking over me that night!

This second photograph is a sample of the REH volumes I’ve collected over the past few decades-

reh2Now this picture contains a few real finds that REH collectors out there will likely recognise and which will mean nothing at all to most everyone else, so please bear with me. First is The Last Celt, which I bought from Forbidden Planet back in, 1985 I think, on a rare trip down to London. I couldn’t really afford the book but I couldn’t resist it. Its a hugely influential book about REH, at one point the bible of REH collecting. Written and compiled by the late Glenn Lord, who was the most important REH fan there ever was, its a cornerstone of my collection. Glenn was kind enough to reply to an email from me many years ago.

Next along the shelf are, like The Last Celt,  a number of REH books from Donald M Grant, one of the most important publishers of REH material, certainly in the 1970s/1980s- the highlight of these is the rare Post Oaks and Sand Roughs, a semi-autobiographical novel by Howard. Another favourite from my collection is a book about Howard rather than one by him- a memoir by Novalyne Price Ellis titled One Who Walked Alone. She was a friend of Howard and was the only girl he ever dated or had any kind of relationship with, and as she had literary leanings herself, she kept journals and diaries of their times together. This book is a particularly candid, first-hand document about Howard and formed the basis of a later film. Remarkably vivid, reading this book is like stepping into a time machine and the closest one can get to meeting Howard.

Then we come upon the expensive section of my collection- back before the REHFP rescued Howard collectors, the British publisher Wandering Star instigated an ultimately too-ambitious project of luxury limited editions. The books proved a contentious issue in REH fandom, but I well remember my thrill back when they first came out and I’m grateful to everyone involved in the (ultimately abortive) project. Having had to put up with cheap paperbacks and those old second-hand Donald M Grant editions that I could get hold of, new, luxury hardbacks of curated Howard material were a godsend. I remember picking up a flyer in Forbidden Planet announcing the three-volume Conan books. It was like winning some kind of lottery, it was so exciting! The first Wandering Star book was the Solomon Kane book, lavishly illustrated and bound, complete in slipcase with prints and a cd of some recited Kane material.  I bought that from the old Andromeda Bookshop in Birmingham- it was an expensive purchase but I never regretted it.

Further along the shelf you will see my copy of the Neville Spearman edition of Skull-Face Omnibus. In the history of REH publishing, this is one of the important volumes, originally published in 1946 by Arkham House. Dating from 1975, I bought this copy of the Neville Spearman edition from Andromeda Bookshop in 1983. Although I had bought some Conan paperbacks years earlier, it was this book that truly sealed my fate regards collecting REH books. The typeface is so small just reading a paragraph now is enough to induce a major headache, but fortunately all the books material has since been reprinted elsewhere and more legibly.

A few more Donald M Grant editions follow, and L Sprague de Camp’s rather inflammatory biography of Howard that I bought for £8.75 in 1986 (I know, because I have the receipt slipped inside the book), back when I was deep into buying the many REH  paperbacks of the time. I don’t have any of those paperbacks at hand to display, as they are stored up in boxes in the loft- but there were lots of them.

Finally (for now) on the shelf are two deluxe reprint volumes of the Roy Thomas/Barry Windsor-Smith Conan comics that pretty much started my whole affair with REH when I first read the weekly reprints here in the UK in 1975. So in a way they bring things full circle.

I have some other REH books I haven’t photographed here -the Bison books from several years ago, the Del Rey books based on unpublished Wandering Star volumes, the aforementioned paperback pile from the 1970s-1980s boxed away and several volumes of critical works about Howard’s work, as well as a number of comic collections from Dark Horse. Plenty there for an eventual Pt.2 indeed,  but what I have featured here is pretty much the bulk of my collection. I certainly don’t consider myself an hardcore REH collector but it has become something of a lengthy fascination that somehow defines me- any other REH collectors care to share details of their collections?


Poledouris’ Triumphant Barbarian

barb1This CD cover here on the left must be one of the craziest, most unexpected releases I can imagine. Released a few weeks ago, its the majority of Basil Poledouris’ Conan the Barbarian score transcribed for organ. You know, like they play in churches- indeed this recording was made at Claremont United Church of Christ in California, so it has that authentic ‘sound’. Once you get used to it (and after thirty years listening to the score in orchestral form, yes it does take a little adjusting to), it is a remarkable sounding work. There’s something primal about it, as if the music is reduced to its most raw state, at times brutal but also warm, and often richly religious-sounding with the associations of hearing organs in churches. Its more successful than you might think, and for any fan of the score its a must. Listening to it I wonder what Poledouris, who sadly passed away in 2006, would have thought of it (I’d like to think he would have been absolutely thrilled). Then I consider the long road that led us here some thirty-plus years after the original film was released. Quality wins out, and that is never truer than with this music. Say what you may about the film, the score is a monumental piece of work, Poledouris’ masterpiece, and its wonderful to have seen the music get appreciated and revered separate from the film.

Back in late summer of 1982, I read an issue of Starlog that featured an interview with Basil Poledouris, composer of the score for John Milius’ film Conan The Barbarian. I’d been a reader of the Robert E Howard stories since the mid-seventies and while I wasn’t at that time a big fan of the movie, I was very curious about the score. It seemed to ‘fit’ the Conan I knew from the original stories perfectly, a monumental piece of work that I have always been convinced was one of the finest scores for any movie, ever (it was just a shame that the film didn’t match the music but subsequent viewings on VHS turned me into a fan of the film too).

Oh, but that music. I’ve always been a supporter of what Douglas Trumbull described as Pure Cinema, moments or sequences with minimal dialogue or exposition, in which visuals and the score tell the story. Conan The Barbarian was just that. “I wrote two hours of music for Conan,” Poledouris said in the Starlog interview; “It was always in John (Milius’) mind that Conan would be solid music – much like an opera, but without singing. Even the first three reels of the film is wall to wall music. From the first frame of reel one to the end of the Wheel of Pain sequence somewhere in the middle of reel three, is one long cue without any break.” More than that, dialogue during this first twenty minutes -barring a brief prologue between father and son describing the Riddle of Steel- is non-existent; it’s just the music and the visuals telling the story.

Handicapping this however was a deeply flawed decision by the film-makers to release the film in mono only. Looking back on it, it seems a crazy decision to make, especially in these times of home cinema systems, but back then televisions were square and mono, and home video undreamed of- films had limited lifetimes in cinemas before being consigned to network airings years later and cinemas themselves were hardly -in the main- the surround sound auditoriums they are today.

But still, it does seem short-sighted and clearly impacted the movie. Here’s a big movie with huge sets and a (literally) huge imposing star, accompanied by this massive score that serves film and story in purely cinematic terms, and you hamper it with a mono soundtrack just to save some of the budget (which presumably ran over). Poledouris commented about this in the Starlog interview: “I think its a crime that with a movie of this size that the soundtrack doesn’t come close to what Milius has on the screen. the monophonic optical track does the picture no service. For demonstration purposes, we mixed the first reel in stereo to show the producers what it should really sound like when all of a sudden those horsemen come charging through the snow. You really feel the terror of those hooves thundering through the snow with the drums and chants. The sound works on a gut level resurrecting primitive memories of fear”.

barb3The only way to hear any of that two-hour score in stereo was to buy the soundtrack album, which totalled 47 minutes of music. The soundtrack presentation was very good, including all of the main themes and highlights from the film. For some reason the only edition of the soundtrack that I could get was this version from Europe, a French import I believe, although it had Italian stickers on it if i recall correctly. I don’t think I ever saw a UK or American import at all. This was in those distant days of vinyl, and I damn near wore this sucker down. To save serious wear I recorded it onto cassette, placing the tracks into film order and played that over and over; it was really a soundtrack to my life back then, played in the background while doing my paintings during my A-level art days and playing fantasy RPGs with friends. Back then of course it would never occur to me that one day we might get a better, more complete release of the music.

A few years later the score would return, this time on CD, first on a Milan disc and later a slightly expanded Varese Sarabande release. At the time this was deemed the most complete release that would ever be possible, as the master tapes had been believed lost or destroyed. A complete and chronological release (C&C in filmscore geek parlance) of Conan would be the stuff of dreams for years, and of course, as the years went by, ever more unlikely.

barb2Poledouris himself was said to be disappointed with the performance and recording of the original score in Rome, and in the mid-nineties discussed with producer James Fitzpatrick the possibility of the composer having the opportunity to conduct a new re-recording of the score. At the time these plans didn’t come to fruition, and it wouldn’t be until 2010 that the full re-recording would become a reality- alas, some four years after Poledouris’ untimely passing. Fitzpatrick would do Poledouris proud, using the composer’s original manuscripts and a large orchestra accompanied by a 100-voice chorus to record the complete score. For fans of the score it was a dream come true, even though some would voice reservations. This was, essentially, the score as Poledouris had always intended it to be heard, but for some fans whose ears were used to the original, for all its faults, this re-recording sounded a little odd at times. I guess its in the nature of re-recordings. Deviate too far from the original and you get cries of heresy, stay too close and you question the point of a re-recording at all. But there was yet a twist in the tale of Basil Poledouris’ Conan.

maf7123Trays.inddShortly after the re-recording was released, rumours began to fly about the original master-tapes of the Conan scoring sessions finally being found after years of fruitless searches. Finally in 2012 Intrada records presented its definitive Conan The Barbarian set; a three-disc epic that encompassed everything any fan could have hoped for over all those years. Two discs of the original, complete score recording, supplemented with never-before-heard alternates and a remastered edition of the original 1982 album on the third disc to preserve Poledouris’ original album presentation of the score. Maybe it gives some hope to those of us still waiting for a complete release of Vangelis’ original Blade Runner.

So here we are. Basil Poledouris’ Conan the Barbarian is surely utterly triumphant after all these years, with a stature far above that of the actual movie and enjoying a life all its own. Philipp Pelster’s rendition of the score on organ just further cements this position and breathes fresh life of its own to the score. It is fascinating, really, to hear a track like “Anvil of Crom” on the Intrada album and compare it to Pelster’s version. “Orphans of Doom/Awakening”, always one of my favorite moments of the score, is particularly spine-tingling on the Pelster album. Then we have the Fitzpatrick/Nic Raine re-recording with its huge orchestra to compare to both. Fans have never had it so good, and the score for the barbarian remains as valid and powerful as it did all those years ago. I don’t know how many times I have listened to this score, but I’m certain I will continue to do so for many years to come, in all its guises (who would ever guessed I would ever have such choice in that regard?). They don’t score ’em like they used to, and the loss of Poledouris remains to film music as great as ever. I’m sure we won’t hear his like again. But we do have his Conan The Barbarian.

Swords of the North

Swords-smLast Monday the latest book from the REHF arrived in the post, all the way from Cross Plains, Texas*. Titled Swords of the North, its a collection of Robert E. Howard’s Celtic/Viking adventure stories, including his ‘past lives’ stories wherein the characters recount adventures they lived in long-forgotten distant ages. Great adventure writing, and full of the tragic pessimism that is at the core of much of Howard’s writing. I’ve read many, if not all, of these stories before of course over the years in various collections but this book is surely definitive and a welcome opportunity to re-read them in one handsome hardback volume.

The past several years have been quite special with the REHF producing so many excellent Howard books, including collections of his letters and poetry. For a Howard fan its been a wonderful chance to collect definitive editions of his stories, and of course his letters and poetry have been the proverbial icing on the cake. The Foundation has done a fantastic job. Years ago all of this seemed impossible, and I often look at the REH books on my bookshelf and have a ‘pinch me I must be dreaming’ moment.

This book also arrived at just the right time, because I’ve just FINALLY finished reading Game of Thrones. That damn thing took over six months (looks like I’m two, maybe three seasons ahead of the HBO series now, with two books yet to come if ever the author gets around to completing them). I’ll be a little contentious here; I think I prefer the HBO series to the books. Its strange, some of the ‘big’, emotional moments in the series would, I thought, have been better in the books, but its seems that George R R Martin put his emphasis elsewhere, to other beats and characters and moments. The HBO series certainly seems more focused, which is inevitable really for such a huge sprawling saga, but I must say, having now read the books, I think the makers of the HBO series have done a remarkable job of tackling something I would have considered almost unfilmable. I suspect the series and books will begin to diverge from one another though, and it does look increasingly likely that the series will catch up and pass the books**.

So anyway, yes I can get back to reading Bob Howard (got a backlog of the last few REHF books to get through) and Philip K Dick (books 4 & 5 of the collected short stories have been waiting patiently), and there’s a few Stephen King novels that I have on the shelf too. I do wonder if I can get any movies watched at all if I do get into all this reading. Game of Thrones (I read all the books in one marathon run-through, having never read them before) created something of a backlog, taking much longer to read than I expected (had them on a kindle, which rather disguised what I was getting into), and no doubt had some impact on how many films I got to see last year. There’s only so many hours in the day, after all.




*I don’t think I’ll ever get over seeing that ‘Cross Plains,Texas’ postmark on the boxes that the books arrive in. Ever since I was a teenager reading Robert E Howard books in the mid-seventies, Cross Plains,Texas is a place has had a strange and mystical aura. A place I’d love to visit someday (looking less likely every year, but you never know….).

**Which raises the possibility of the stories having two completely different endings, doesn’t it?