The Return of Captain Clegg

inham6Quite how a film like Captain Clegg becomes subject of a double-dip is rather bizarre- its a wonderful little gem of a Hammer film but two copies on Blu-ray seems as financially irresponsible as NHS spending on PPE during the heights (depths?) of a pandemic. But who could have guessed back in 2014 when I bought the disc from Final Cut Entertainment that it would be part of a sixth Hammer boxset in 2021? Crikey, Indicator wasn’t a even a thing back then, and here it is rivalling Criterion in the boutique label arms race (if there was such a thing).

So anyhow, this is the fourth and last film in this sixth Hammer boxset that I’ve watched- last only because its the one that I’d seen before. Have to confess, re-watching the film after several years, I was surprised to realise just how good a film it is: certainly its a ravishing-looking film by Hammer standards, with some fine location photography boasting lovely golden light in some landscape shots that suggests considerable care and attention was made and the sets etc are really good too. Best of all, Peter Cushing is clearly relishing his role here and the result is one of his best performances in any Hammer- and he’s not alone, even Michael Ripper, a frequent Hammer veteran who can irritate sometimes, is possibly never any better than he is in this.

cleggI have often remarked that Peter Cushing would have been the perfect actor to play Robert E Howard’s puritanical anti-hero Solomon Kane, and its never clearer than here, when he was possibly the right age and eminently looks the part with his character’s own puritanical stylings (he plays village priest Reverend Blyss). There are moments that are uncanny; that jawline, those steely eyes… how ironic that Cushing himself probably never even heard of the character during his lifetime, totally ignorant of a role he seems born to have played. A trick of fate and  unfair timing, I guess, and certainly our loss- another one of those movie ‘what-ifs’ to haunt us film fans.

Captain Clegg (‘Night Creatures’ in the US) really is the little Hammer film that surpasses expectations, and clearly deserves the extra attention re: supplements that it gets in this Indicator release (which also ports across the extras from the earlier Final Cut edition). They even fixed the colour-timing issues that plagued the day-for-night shooting that  troubled that earlier release. Its a whole lot of fun and its such a pleasure to witness Peter Cushing in such fine form. I don’t think I’ll be waiting seven years for my next re-watch…

The Vengeance of Fu Manchu (1967)

fu manchu boxIndicator are releasing in October a Blu-ray box-set of the Fu Manchu film series starring Christopher Lee as the nefarious super-villain- a huge fan of their Hammer box-sets, I was pretty intrigued they would go to all that effort – its the usual bonanza of restored films, commentary tracks, archive audio recordings and new video interviews – considering that the films are largely frowned upon today in just the same way as similar Hammer material of that era. Discarding all the racial stereotyping issues, I was unimpressed, really, by Hammer’s The Terror of the Tongs (1961) that appeared in Indicator’s third Hammer set last year- I thought it was a very lacklustre effort only enlivened by a typical Christopher Lee performance elevating it to Shakespearean drama. Someone obviously noticed something in Lee’s unofficial Fu Manchu to warrant hiring him for the real thing, because five official Sax Rohmer adaptations followed: The Face of Fu Manchu (1965), The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966), The Vengeance of Fu Manchu (1967), The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968) and finally The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969).

I’d never seen any of them, but the geek and film-fan in me seems to be instinctively drawn to box-sets such as this, in a similar way as Arrow’s The Complete Dr Phibes Blu-ray set with its gloriously rotten films staring the wonderful Vincent Price. I imagined that the Fu Manchu series were at least as politically incorrect and racially blundering as Hammers The Terror of the Tongs, and marvelled at how ill-timed the release seemed to be, considering everything going on in the world today.

And then, wouldn’t you know it, but I noticed Talking Pictures, yet again proving to be a marvel as they broadcast the third entry in the series just a few days ago. I set the Tivo (Talking Pictures always schedule stuff at exactly the time that its impossible to watch it), and yesterday gave it a go.

fu manchu1I’ll cut to the chase- I’ve ordered the Indicator Fu Manchu box. Yes it was bad, but it was bad in a good way; surprisingly well made (far more ambitious and successful than Hammer’s effort) with a good cast and impressive locations and sets, and I found it a great pulp yarn. Yes its very politically incorrect and you’d never get this kind of thing made today, but that’s exactly part of the films appeal: its all rather insane and feels so wrong but I couldn’t tear my eyes away from it. The Vengeance of Fu Manchu is the third film in the series, which means, in the time-honoured tradition of film cycles, that’s its worse than the first two but better than the last two, and gauging those other films on the merits of this one, I have to say, this series could well prove to be a delirious blast this Autumn. 

fu manchu2There’s a scene in The Vengeance of Fu Manchu set in the super-villains lair in which an American crook perpetually doffed with  a cowboy stetson is torturing a woman stretched out on a rack while her father is forced to look on from a cage suspended above: its decidedly strange and as crazy as it might sound. Considering the sensitivities regards western actors playing Asian characters these days, this film also features the novel spin (I doubt it qualifies as serious social commentary) of a plot-point in which an Asian character is given plastic surgery in order to pose as white man and commit murder.

I should point out my affection for a series of Robert E Howard yarns, Skull-Face in particular, but he did a run of Weird Menace stories for the pulps, which Howard wrote obviously inspired/indebted by the Sax Rohmer tales of Fu Manchu and the Western world under the threat of degenerate Asian menace. Clearly they are of their time and have to be accepted as such, but Howard was a masterful storyteller and wrote incredibly powerful potboilers (Skull-Face just blew my teenage mind back in the day). I can’t speak for the original Rohmer yarns as I never read them but Howard was a brilliant pulp writer. The Vengeance of Fu Manchu rather appealed to that love of mine for those Howard stories.

So I look forward to rewatching this film in high quality- all five films have been remastered in 4K from the original negatives for Indicator’s box-set – and naturally watching all the films in order.  Should be a guilty blast, if nothing else. We can’t get The Abyss on Blu-ray but we can get these Fu Manchu films… its a crazy bloody world, but I figure you just have to go with it.

 

Happy Birthday, Robert E Howard

bobToday I shall have a drink to the memory of one my heroes, the great Texan author Robert E Howard, who was born today in 1906, in Peaster, Texas. A master storyteller, author and poet, his words have inspired, excited and scared me for most of my life. Probably most famous today for his sword and sorcery yarns featuring Conan the Barbarian, he wrote Boxing stories, Westerns, Historical fiction, even a few Detective tales. His poetry is particularly notable, his word-craft quite extraordinary and vivid.

They say never meet your heroes- well of course I never had a chance with Bob, as he died some sixty years before I was born. I have often wondered what it would be like, though, to sit a share a cold beer with him, and wonder if we would get along in conversation. Meeting Lovecraft, say, would be pretty horrific I expect, but I have always had the suspicion that meeting Bob would be a much more positive experience. Mind, although I often had the hope that he would be a kindred spirit, that’s possibly more than wishful thinking on my part. Bob was a complex man who lived in a very different world and his mental health has often been debated by readers over the decades.

I once had an incredibly vivid dream of walking to his house in June of 1936, and dissuading him from his act of suicide. It possibly says more about me, that I can dream of Time Travel and of going back to that one day, and try to stop that one event, instead of, say, dreaming of Dinosaurs or Rome. But we are all  full of weird tales that way, and our dreams often seem to follow a whim all their own.

Anyway, here’s a beer to you, Bob.

 

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

murder3Here’s another case where my ignorance of past adaptations (1974 movie for one), and the original source material likely results in rosier remarks than might have been the case- I have no idea how honest it is to that source material, for one thing, or whether it takes diabolical liberties. Its a bit like someone who has never read a Robert E Howard story watching any of the Conan movies and judging them just as movies, ignorant of the fact that each of them ruinously ill-serve the original Howard stories and characters. Indeed, I’m not one for this whole murder-mystery genre at all, and have only recently in the last year or so watched any adaptations of Agatha Christie’s stories. So I’m hardly qualified then. Bye.

Still here? Well then. One thing is for certain- this film is utterly gorgeous to look at. I saw it via streaming in HD on Amazon Video on a rental, but that is hardly doing the term ‘HD’ justice really. I cannot imagine (well I can, and it has me salivating) what this film looks like on Blu-ray or 4K UHD. The colour palette, lighting and production design are all exquisite. Of course it could also be argued that it is all overly fanciful and possibly even distracting, but I found the look of the film utterly charming and impressive, and yes quite cinematic. This is, at all times, clearly a ‘MOVIE’ and not at all the kind of thing you’d see from a Netflix Original- well, that seems to be the clear intent.  There is also the very modern trend of the film clearly setting itself up as the start of a possible franchise, with a not at all subtle lead-in to a sequel based on Death on the Nile.

murder2Equally impressive is the cast- a list of A-listers indeed and a throwback to the ‘Old Hollywood’ habit of throwing great casts at prestige films or novelty projects like Irwin Allen disaster movies. Kenneth Brannagh as the sleuth Poirot, of course, but also a list of suspects as esteemed as Judi Dench, Olivia Coleman, Daisy Ridley, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Michelle Pfeiffer, Derek Jacobi, and Johnny Depp (the wrap party must have been legendary) as well as a supporting cast no less impressive. There is something almost comforting about seeing so many recognisable faces hamming it up in this old-fashioned 1930s murder mystery.

And ‘hamming it up’ does seem to be the order of the day- it would be fair to suggest that only Brannagh himself really gets into it and chews up the scenery sufficiently. The rest of the cast rest on their laurels, mostly, as if just bringing their familiar faces on-set and saying their lines is going to be enough. Perhaps there is something to be said that the script hardly demands anymore of any of them, and as far as the huge talents at hand, most get wasted.

As a pleasant matinee diversion this film ticks all the boxes, and I can imagine, with its snowy vistas and starry cast, this film is destined to become a mainstay of Christmas schedules in years to come. Perhaps I should criticize it for lack of ambition and failing to really stretch either itself or any of its genre boundaries- the denouement may be faithful to the book, for instance, but I did feel it rather jumped the shark and threatened to spoil the whole experience. But would that be unfair complaining about the film when it should be the original author taken to task? Or does the film have a different solution to the mystery than the book did?

So yes, maybe I’m not at all qualified to measure the worth of this film. I will just say that I quite enjoyed it, distracted throughout, admittedly, by how lovely it looked and by each famous face that appeared onscreen. Certainly a guilty pleasure then.

murder1

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.

 

In the Jungle of Madness: The Lost City of Z

z2017.74: The Lost City of Z (2016)

This is an old-style period adventure, akin to a combination Greystoke and Apocalypse Now in tone, based on the true-life odyssey of British explorer Lieut. Col. Percy Fawcett at the turn of the 20th Century, whose expeditions in search of a fabled lost civilization in the wild jungles of Amazonia came to take over his life. It’s a fascinating film that likely undermines viewers expectations with a languid pace (hence my reference to ‘old-style’) and a grim denouement that rewards simply because it confounds traditional expectations.

The sense of time and place is pretty wonderful, harking back to an age when the world was still full of mysteries with corners yet unexplored. The sequences in the jungle have an almost tangible feeling of heat and sweat and smell, and in its search for lost civilization lost in the primeval Jungle it reminded me of quite a few Robert E Howard yarns, especially in its hints that civilization is transitory and the Jungle eternal. Sequences back in England have an authentic feel and a section depicting Fawcetts period in the trenches of WW1 also impresses.

Indeed there is very little to find fault with here. It is very well-staged with a fine cast and solid script, and beautifully shot. The pace may be problematic for fidgety modern audiences, but that’s their problem-like with BR2049 I found it refreshing for a film to be allowed to breathe and tell its tale confidently at its own pace. I suspect the film’s title in this day and age may have suggested an adventure romp such as the Indiana Jones series ot the Mummy films but it’s far from that, and much the better for it, even if it likely led to trouble at the box-office from annoyed audiences. Its great that films such as this can still be made.  I really enjoyed it- one of this years pleasant surprises.

 

 

1982

As I write this, 35 years ago.

Half a lifetime ago I guess. I was sixteen.

I remember, walking with a group of friends (most of whom I have not seen in decades- in that pre-social media era freindships had a habit of splintering off forever,  lives spinning off like shattered shards of glass). We were walking to another’s house on the other side of our council estate, to play Dungeons and Dragons (we were RPG-junkies for a few years back then). I remember walking down a street as we made our way across, talking about Blade Runner, thinking about the film’s year of 2019. Worked out how many years ahead it was, how old I would be in that year. A time so long-distant to a sixteen-year-old! 2019 was some incredibly far-off shore, a distant alien landmark, way past that other notable year, 2001, that figured so highly in our geek estimations.

It’s odd to consider that Kubrick’s special year was such a landmark to my generation and those before us-  2001: A Space Odyssey! Those very words were exciting, powerful, they carried some kind of arcane meaning. People now, kids, likely look back on it as just any other date, just another old movie. For us it was something bigger than us, something evocative of a space-faring future ambition. We had visions of returning to the moon, going to Mars. Even in 1982 it all seemed a matter of when, not if.

In hindsight, we were pretty stupid. But 1982, 35 years ago, it was another world.

1982 was a year for other worlds. Dungeons and Dragons, Traveller, Runequest, Gamma World. Well, I could go on and on about those RPG days. Back when the acronym TSR meant so much, Gary Gygax was some kind of genius, and Games Workshop was a gateway to incredible places- each of us of our group would pick a game system and create adventures we would later gather to play.  I ran a campaign titled Shadow World using the AD&D rules that went on for years. I still have books and folders of work I wrote for it, up in my loft- it was such a passion of mine that took so much time it’s hard to fathom now. I should have been out fooling around with girls but instead was inside my room dreaming up dark dungeons and evil sorcerers. Well, either that or reading or painting.

I read so much back then- Arthur C Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Robert E Howard…

1982, Arthur C Clarke was still alive and writing, as was Ray Bradbury. Frank Frazetta was still alive. John Buscema and Gil Kane and Gene Colan and so many others I grew up with were still working in comics. I was reading 2000 AD in those days, the comic still in its prime. 1982 was the year they ran the 26-issue Apocalypse War saga in the Judge Dredd strip. Each week after reading each installment I was trading comments with my mate Andy in the halls of our secondary school. Block Mania, East Meg One, War Marshall Kazan, Stubb guns, 400 million dead... it was some glorious soap opera, a comicstrip punk-Charles Dickens that unfolded each week, and we would marvel and moan at the various turns of fate as the saga progressed.

I remember the threat of global nuclear armageddon was very real, so that Apocalypse War storyline seemed very pertinent. We actually went to war that year, an old-fashioned war: Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands and we sent an armada to those small islands thousands of miles away that no-one had even heard of. I remember the daily updates on the news.

1982 was a very good year for films. Its why this blog has its name, for one thing.

Blade Runner, ET, Poltergeist, Star Trek: Wrath of Khan, The Thing, Mad Max 2, Conan.People often refer to it as the ‘summer of 1982’ and of course it was if you were American, but in other countries that incredible summer of genre films was spread out across the year, as releases were not so immediately global then. Wrath of Khan was here in July, The Thing in August (what madness was that?), Blade Runner and Poltergeist in September, Tron in October, and finally E.T. not until December when likely everyone had already seen it on pirate VHS. Video piracy-  how I first saw The Thing and Conan and Mad Max 2 (and The Exorcist, too, that Autumn).

I could never get my head around being able to watch films on-demand at the press of a switch. Even today it seems a bit weird, a bit like sorcery. In 1982 of course it was a slice of the future, but always over someone else’s house; at home we couldn’t afford a VHS machine until we rented one in late 1983.  Those dark Autumn nights of 1982 when we gathered over a freinds house when his parents were out and watched those VHS copies, they linger in my head forever, so intense it almost seems like yesterday. I giggled like some kind of idiot on first watching The Thing (it just seemed so extreme, in hindsight it was probably nervous laughter, not funny ‘ha-ha’ laughter, but I hadn’t seen Dawn of the Dead at that point). I detested Conan for not really being honest to the Howard books (though I made peace with it soon enough on subsequent viewings) and I remember being gobsmacked by the wild kinetics of Mad Max 2.

Backtrack a few months to Easter, 1982, and Tron: I remember playing an RPG over a freinds house and we paused to watch Disneytime on his portable telly. Imagine five or six of us enthralled when they showed a clip of Tron: it was the Lightcycle chase, and this little portable b&w television was suddenly a window into the future. Hell, I was still playing videogames on my Atari VCS and they were nothing like the cgi being thrown around in Tron. We had seen nothing quite like it, it was like something that arrived out of nowhere.

It was like that back then. Films did seem to come from nowhere. I remember every month going into the city to the specialist bookshops, reading all the latest movie news in the latest issues of Starlog, Fantastic Films, Starburst, Cinefantastique, Cinefex. Marvelling at the latest pictures, reading the latest previews/reviews/interviews. There was no internet, films were spoiled less and information harder to come by. Trailers were rarely seen (not available at a whim as they are now).

When I saw Blade Runner that September, I had never seen a single scene beforehand, hardly any pictures. I do remember a film-music programme on the radio on which I heard the sequence of Deckard meeting Tyrell- that was my only experience of that film beforehand. I wonder if that was why the film had such an impact on me back then? Nowadays we see so much, learn so much, before we even see a film. It steals the surprise somehow. It’s so hard to avoid these days.

Back in 1982, films kept their surprises.

 

 

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?

 

The Contradictory Runaway Train (1985)

runaway1I confess to being rather nostalgic whenever I see the Cannon Films logo animation/fanfare music before the opening credits of a film. Most of the films were very bad but its still a particular period of films that I can look back at with fondness. Usually they carried the kind of bad-but-cool action film vibe that The Expendables movies aspire to. One-note movies starring Charles Bronson or Chuck Norris, say what you like about them, you usually knew where you stood with their films and their no-nonsense kind of indie film making. Cannon were masters of the b-movie, so bad their films, looking back, appropriate the definition of cool that Tarantino has to work at achieving but for them was perfectly natural.

Runaway Train is that rarest of things- a good Cannon Films movie. Granted, it has many of the staples of  a Cannon production; dodgy acting, stilted scripting, limited production values. The scenes in the control room, in particular, are painfully bad with poor dialogue and rotten acting from all involved (or are stunningly realistic/down to Earth, I’m not sure which) . The scenes on the train are much better, if only because they centre on the films main plus-points, the fabulous leads, but much else of the film feels staged and awkward. Part prison escape movie, part action movie, part nihilistic journey into oblivion, its a strange mix. Maybe that’s due to it being based originally on a Japanese project (a script by Akira Kurosawa, no less), or it being directed by a Russian (Andrei Konchalovsky) with his nation’s own particular sensibilities, and being produced by a company renowned for its simple exploitation fare.  Yet the film also has these great iconic performances by its two main stars, great effects (practical and miniature) and a multi-layered script bordering on art house level sophistication.

runaway2There are all sorts of contradictions regarding Runaway Train.  A particular fascination is the dangerous convict Oscar `Manny’ Manheim (Jon Voight). Here is a far deeper and nuanced character than might be expected in a film like this. Manny is a  man simply born out of his own time, reminding me of Esau Cairn from Robert E Howard’s Almuric. A hero to his fellow prisoners and a dangerous, savage criminal to normal society, Manny always seems at war with the world around him- he has the manner of a wounded animal hitting out at everything. At the start of the film he has spent three years welded to his cell, a convicted bank-robber in a bitter feud with the prisons sadistic warden Rankin (who is actually dedicated to seeing Manny dead, ideally at Rankins own hands). And yet there is a scene later on the train, when Manny tries to persuade fellow-escapee Buck not to waste his life in criminal activities, but to instead get a job – even the lowest and most menial of jobs. Buck, aghast at the notion, asks Manny if he could do that and Manny sadly replies, despairingly, “I wish I could.” Manny knows he is not that kind of man, but he wishes he could be. Instead, the runaway train is hurtling Manny to his oblivion, and by films end Manny is finally at peace with that, embracing it as he races through the Alaskan wilderness. Suddenly an exploitation prison-escape movie has become a work of poetic grandeur, complete with soaring Antonio Vivaldi music. Its an utterly brilliant transformation.

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?