Vintage Reads – The Sword of Rhiannon

Sword of RhiannonFirmly in the Edgar Rice Burroughs tradition of sword and sorcery adventures on Mars, Leigh Brackett flips the John Carter story on its head by making her hero, Matthew Carse, an interplanetary archaeologist in the distant future who, through some mystical force, is transported millions of years into the past. The Mars he winds up in is vastly different from the dusty world of dry sea beds and ruined cities he knows. Here, the seas of Mars are brimming and roamed by slave galleys while the empire of Sark and the realm of the Sea-Kings are locked in an uneasy stalemate.

Matt Carse winds up in this ancient world after being guided to the tomb of the legendary Rhiannon, a renegade god who was walled up for giving advanced technology to mortals. Carse is sucked through space and time and finds himself in a savage age with only Rhiannon’s fabled sword to defend himself with. Falling in with a rotund thief called Boghaz, the pair are soon captured and placed on the slave galley of Lady Ywain of Sark. Recognizing the sword, Ywain demands to know where Carse got it. He responds by initiating a mutiny and taking her hostage, thus upsetting the fragile balance of power between the Sarks and the Sea-Kings. Things are further complicated by the revelation that Carse has been possessed by the spirit of Rhiannon who seeks to right the wrongs done an age ago.

Originally published as ‘Sea-Kings of Mars’ in Thrilling Wonder Stories in June, 1949, the story was retitled for paperback release in 1953 as an Ace Double D-36 along with Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Conqueror. An individual Ace paperback followed later that year. Leigh Brackett’s career was an interesting mix of planetary romance and hardboiled noir. Her first novel was the 1944 Chandler-esque detective story No Good from a Corpse which earned her a job helping adapt Chandler’s The Big Sleep to the screen. Other screenwriting credits include Rio Bravo (1969) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Unfortunately her death in 1978 prevented her from seeing the Star Wars sequel to fruition and it is debatable how much of her work ended up on screen.

Borrowing as much from Robert E. Howard as Edgar Rice Burroughs, The Sword of Rhiannon is a breezy 128 pages of fast-paced action and vivid settings although not without the occasional moments of deep contemplation. Published in the post-war wasteland between the end of the pulp era and the beginning of the sword and sorcery renaissance spearheaded by Lin Carter, L. Sprague de Camp and the other members of SAGA, The Sword of Rhiannon harkened back to the planetary romances of Burroughs while heralding a new era of sword and sorcery writing.

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Vintage Reads – The Tritonian Ring and Other Pusadian Tales

Tritonian_Ring_1953First published along with H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine in Two Complete Science Adventure Books in 1951, The Tritonian Ring was later collected with three other ‘Pusadian’ tales for paperback release in 1953. It was this book that was de Camp’s credential when he, Lin Carter and John Jakes formed SAGA; the Swordsmen and Sorcerers Guild of America (SAGA) in the 1960s.

Set in a prehistoric world much in the style of Robert E. Howard’s Conan tales, L. Sprague de Camp approached his sword and sorcery series with a more academic mindset. Ever the rationalist, de Camp had thoroughly researched the legend of Atlantis and other lost worlds and was much praised for his 1948 study Lost Continents: The Atlantis Theme in History, Science, and Literature. As a result, his ‘Pusadian Age’ is a believable antediluvian world where Eurasia and Africa are joined and its various peoples are remembered in the mythology of Ancient Greece. For example, the myth of Atlantis is a faded memory of the flood that separated Europe from the Atlas Mountains, the Gorgons are a warlike tribe and the continent of Pusad is remembered in the name of Poseidon, the sea god.

The titular story is a novel-length yarn which starts much in the style of 1981’s Clash of the Titans with the gods arguing about prophecies and meddling in the affairs of mortals. Prince Vakar, heir to the throne of Lorsk (part of the continent of Pusad) is apparently a great threat to them and the gods decide to destroy Pusad. This prompts a quest to find ‘the thing which the gods most fear’. Prince Vakar and his thieving and long-suffering slave Fual head south to lands of crocodiles, sorcerers, amazons and headless slaves. Meanwhile, Vakar’s villainous brother has allied himself with the Gorgons and is planning to steal the throne in his absence.

The novel is followed by three short stories set several centuries after the events in The Tritonian Ring. The first is The Stronger Spell, first published in Fantasy Fiction in 1953. It’s a bar-room brawl type of tale where a druid bearing a powerful weapon reminiscent of an early pistol is set upon by various characters. The second tale – The Owl and the Ape (first published in Imagination Stories of Science and Fantasy in 1951) has a sorcerer dispatch his slave, Gezun, to bid at an auction for an ancient manuscript of spells which could either slow or accelerate the gradual flooding of Pusad (as initiated by the events of The Tritonian Ring). Matters are complicated by a rival sorcerer who also wants the manuscript. In the third and last tale – The Eye of Tandyla (first published in Fantastic Adventures in 1951) King Vuar of Lorsk dispatches his sorcerer Derezong and apprentice Zhamel Seh to steal a jewel from a statue of the goddess Tandyla.

Belting along at a fast pace and with well-written action scenes, it’s easy to see why de Camp went on to edit Robert E. Howard’s Conan tales for various publishers over the years (although his ‘butchering’ of Howard’s texts has angered many). I think his own work holds up and, in this book at least, he proves himself to be a worthy successor to Howard, if something of an antithesis to him. Where Howard reveled in barbarism and regularly sneered at civilization, de Camp was all for progress. Prince Vakar represents change and is more interested in science and philosophy than superstition (no wonder the gods don’t like him). However, he is not particularly likable. He is arrogant and regularly beats his slave Fual, only questioning this when he is flogged himself at the hands of an angered chieftain. I enjoyed spotting the mythological references throughout the book and the reality of the titular Tritonian Ring is an interesting foreboding deeply connected to human history but I won’t give it away here (HINT: the book’s setting is PRE-Iron Age).

 

Vintage Reads – The Dying Earth

Dying EarthIn a post apocalyptic Earth, civilization is a thing of antiquity and the world is populated by strange creatures and homicidal wizards who constantly steal from and try to kill one another. The dying sun is an ever dimming red disc in the sky and the line between magic and science is blurred. The aforementioned wizards primarily concern themselves with creating life in their laboratory ‘vats’.

Published in 1950, the narrative takes the form of six interrelated stories, each focusing on a particular character. A bit like Pulp Fiction but with swords, sorcery and lizard men. In the first story – Turjan of Miir – the titular wizard Turjan seeks perfection in his experiments and journeys to the world of Embelyon where he creates the beautiful T’sain; a twin of the flawed artificial human T’sais. These twins appear in subsequent stories with T’sain attempting the rescue of her creator Turjan from a rival in Mazirian the Magician while T’sais seeks the meaning of beauty in her own eponymous tale. During her adventures she encounters the villainous Liane who is the subject of Liane the Wayfarer and the book concludes with two novella-length quest stories; Ulan Dhor, who seeks two halves of a fabled tablet and Guyal of Sfere whose quest for knowledge leads him to an appointment with the mysterious ‘Curator’.

Vance paints a wonderfully descriptive vision of a doomed world full of crumbling, mossy ruins overgrown by exotic plants of all hues. This is primarily a fantasy book in the sword and sorcery vein but there is some crossover with science fiction. The final story does veer into some very surrealist territory that had me re-reading some pages in desperation but the book is an excellent and highly influential entry in the S&S genre which earned Jack Vance his membership in the rather tongue-in-cheek Swordsmen and Sorcerers Guild of America (SAGA).

Jack Vance went on to write several Dying Earth short stories for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction which (along with one original story) formed the novel The Eyes of the Overworld in 1966. Another novel –  Cugel’s Saga – appeared in 1983 as well as a short story collection – Rhialto the Marvelous – in 1984.

Dungeons & Dragons creator Gary Gygax listed The Dying Earth as an influence in his legendary ‘Appendix N’. The book shows a clear influence on the rules of the game in that spells are used up once cast (and need to be relearned) and a wizard only has the capacity to carry a few around in his head at any given time.

 

Greatest Ever Pulp Stories #8 – The Curse of Capistrano

capistrano2 By: Johnston McCulley

Appeared in: All-Story Weekly (August – September 1919)

Character/Series: Zorro

The All-Story magazine (which had published Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan and John Carter novels) switched to a weekly schedule in 1914, becoming All-Story Weekly (and eventually Argosy Weekly in 1920). In 1919 the magazine featured the first tale of another character which would join Tarzan’s company as one of the most influential pulp characters ever.

Zorro (Spanish for ‘fox’) is the eponymous ‘curse’ in the title and Capistrano refers to San Juan Capistrano in California which was under Mexican rule in the early 19th century. It’s easy to see the influence on Batman in this masked crusader for justice and his foppish, playboy alter-ego, Don Diego Vega. Don Diego is a wealthy but cowardly caballero in love with Lolita; the daughter of a local aristocrat who has fallen upon hard times. Her father, Carlos, is thrilled at the promise of a union between the two, but the feisty Lolita is infatuated by Zorro; the dashing bandit and hero of the people (having no idea they are one and the same). Also vying for Lolita’s hand is Ramón; a captain in the Mexican army.

When Lolita is left home alone for an evening, Captain Ramón  visits her and comes on a little too strong. Zorro appears and defends her honor. Ramón swears vengeance on both of them and writes to the governor that Lolita’s family are aiding Zorro. The Governor arrives and has Lolita and her mother and father thrown into jail. Zorro sets about rallying the local caballeros into a band committed to fighting injustice and their first task is to free Lolita and her family, thus thwarting the dastardly Captain Ramón and his oafish henchman Sergeant Gonzales.

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Douglas Fairbanks in The Mark of Zorro (1920) – the first of over 40 movies to feature the character.

The story is a fairly simple swashbuckler and is essentially Robin Hood in Mexico with a liberal helping from The Scarlet Pimpernel. As well as being jam packed with sword fights, gun play and horse chases, it also has a good deal of humor largely stemming from Don Diego’s cover as the idle son of a rich man and his lack of interest in anything approaching adventure or romance. McCulley laid down the groundwork for generations of ‘masked crusader’ characters like Batman and The Shadow and created a timeless character who became synonymous with swashbuckling adventure from the early days of cinema to the present day.

Silent star Douglas Fairbanks purchased the rights to the story as the first production for his new company United Artists. The Mark of Zorro (1920) was so popular that McCulley’s novel was renamed and released in book form in 1924 and has remained The Mark of Zorro ever since. The character’s appeal has barely diminished on film and page with McCulley writing over fifty sequels and many authors and comic book writers picking up the torch after his death in 1958. The Mark of Zorro was remade in 1940 as a ‘talkie’ starring Tyrone Power and there have been countless film and TV appearances of Zorro from serials like Zorro’s Fighting Legion (1939) to the more recent movies starring Antonio Banderas.

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Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta Jones in The Legend of Zorro (2005)

 

 

Greatest Ever Pulp Stories #7 – Under the Moons of Mars

aprincessofmars-c3By: Norman Bean (Edgar Rice Burroughs)

Appeared in: The All-Story (February – July, 1912)

Character/Series: John Carter/Barsoom

More commonly known as A Princess of Mars or John Carter of Mars these days, this swashbuckling sci-fi adventure penned by the author of Tarzan almost single-handedly created the Planetary Romance genre (where action and exotic settings take precedence over science), as well as influencing generations of science fiction writers from Robert A. Heinlein to Arthur C. Clarke.

While prospecting in Arizona, Civil War veteran John Carter hides in a cave from pursuing Apaches. Through some sort of astral projection, he wakes up on Mars (known locally as ‘Barsoom’). Being written in 1912, this version of Mars has breathable atmosphere, water and is inhabited by many colorful multi-legged creatures at war with one another. Due to the planet’s weaker gravity, John Carter has superhuman strength and is able to make great leaps into the air a la Superman.

Captured by a tribe of Tharks (tall, green-skinned creatures with tusks and six limbs), Carter gains their respect by slaying two great white apes and saving the life of Sola; his female guardian. When the Tharks shoot down an airship belonging to the red-skinned people of Barsoom, they capture Dejah Thoris; the beautiful princess of the city of Helium. Kept under guard by Woola – a ten-legged guard dog-like creature – and tutored by Sola, Carter learns more about Thark culture. He develops a strong bond with a warrior called Tars Tarkas and gradually falls in love with Dejah Thoris who is scheduled to be executed.

Carter, Sola and Dejah escape the Tharks and fall in with Kantos Kan; a red-skinned warrior who is leading a massive search party for the missing Princess of Helium. Helium is under threat by another red-skinned people called the Zodangans and, after many further adventures, Carter saves Helium by leading an army of Tharks (now under the chieftainship of Tars Tarkas) to victory over the people of Zodanga, thus forging an alliance between red and green Martians and becoming Prince of Barsoom.

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Cover art for the 1970 paperback by Frank Frazetta

Norman Bean (a typo – it should have been ‘Normal Bean’) was a pseudonym for Edgar Rice Burroughs who wanted to distance himself from some of his more outlandish work as well as joke that he was, in fact, a normal guy and not a lunatic for writing this stuff.  Under the Moons of Mars was republished in hardback as A Princess of Mars in 1917 and Burroughs penned ten sequels although John Carter largely bows out of the series after book 3 with his children by Dejah Thoris as well as other characters taking over as the protagonists.

Under the Moons of Mars is very much a product of its time. Burroughs utilized contemporary science, most notably the theories of Percival Lowell, who postulated that Mars had waterways that were steadily drying out, thus dooming its ancient civilization. Presenting a dying world and the possibility of using technology to change the ecology of a planet, Burroughs left a huge mark on science fiction. We can see his influence in Frank Herbert’s Dune and in the terraforming company in Aliens (1986). By blending the exotic with elements of the Western and creating a feudal alien world where medieval values of honor and chivalry are fused with advanced technology, the Planetary Romance genre was born eventually leading to Flash Gordon and Star Wars (1977).

There was a movie in 2012 with the rather dull title John Carter. Although it took some liberties with the plot and blended in elements from the sequels, the film is generally well-liked by fans. Unfortunately it failed to do much business at the box office shutting down plans for a series. Many blame Disney’s marketing of the film for not playing up the pulpy side and failing to make it clear that this was written a century ago by the creator of Tarzan.

Greatest Ever Pulp Stories #6 – The Man of Bronze

By: Kenneth Roberts (Lester Dent)

Appeared in: Doc Savage Magazine (March, 1933)

Character/Series: Doc Savage

Both Superman and Indiana Jones owe a debt to this classic pulp character created by publisher Henry W. Ralston and editor John L. Nanovic of Street & Smith Publications. Hoping to replicate the success of their recent hit The Shadow magazine, the series was handed to Lester Dent who churned out over 150 Doc Savage novels between 1933 and 1949 under the house name Kenneth Robeson (changed from Roberts after the first issue). A too-good-to-be-true hero of almost superhuman strength, Clark ‘Doc’ Savage Jr. is a bronze (literally) giant with gold eyes and hair. An adventurer, scientist and detective combined, Doc was trained from the cradle by his father (a wealthy philanthropist and all-round do-gooder) in martial arts, medicine and surgery to follow in his footsteps of righting wrongs throughout the world. Living on the 86th floor of a skyscraper in Manhattan, Doc’s pad is penthouse and research lab combined. A high speed underground train leads from Doc’s apartment to a vehicle hangar on the Hudson River filled with trucks, boats and planes. Doc also has a ‘fortress of solitude’ in the arctic which he occasionally uses as a retreat to meditate and train his mind (hello Superman).

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The Man of Bronze being the first Doc Savage novel, opens in the wake of Clark Savage Sr.’s death from a suspicious malady. Doc is visited by Monk, Long Tom, Johnny, Renny and Ham; friends he met during the war who become his companions throughout the series, each a specialist in a particular field (archaeologist, chemist, attorney etc.). Doc discovers hidden papers pertaining to his inheritance; a concession of several hundred acres of land from the government of Hidalgo to his father. An assassin who speaks only ancient Mayan tries to kill Doc by sniping at him from a nearby skyscraper before jumping to his death telling us that not everybody wants our hero to get his hands on his inheritance. Setting off for Central America the companions discover a lost Mayan city populated by a people living in fear of the mysterious ‘Red Death’. Aerial dogfights, fisticuffs, princess-rescuing and killer sharks are all present and correct making this a quintessential pulp story.

A fairly tongue-in-cheek movie called ‘Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze’ was released in 1975 and is largely forgotten but there is talk of ‘The Rock’ himself, Dwayne Johnson taking on the role in the near future.

Greatest Ever Pulp Stories #5 – Twelve Peers

12peersBy: Max Brand (Frederick Schiller Faust)

Appeared in: Western Story Magazine (serialized) February – March, 1930

In the fictional town of Wham, Texas, Harry Destry is a hard-drinking, hard fighting, irresponsible lout who likes nothing more than brawling and chasing after his ‘best girl’ Charlie Dangerfield. When he is found spending large amounts of money and whooping it up in a saloon after the Express is robbed, he is immediately fingered for the crime and convicted by a jury of locals who despise him.

Serving six of a ten year sentence, Destry returns to Wham a broken man who will not even lift a finger to defend himself when pushed around. Distraught, Charlie breaks off her engagement to him. Thinking themselves safe from his wrath, the twelve jurors begin to relax. But they have sorely underestimated Destry and by the time they realise his meekness is just a sham, it is too late as he begins hunting them down, one by one.

This isn’t any old by-the-numbers revenge plot. Destry doesn’t just gun ’em down. He tricks them, lures them and exposes them for the crooks and cowards they are, proving that he has more brains than anybody ever gave him credit for. His stint in the slammer has also changed him morally. After killing one of the jurors (in self defence) he is overcome with emotion. He grew up with these men, went to school with them, and Max Brand gives us a thoughtful discourse on small town feuds and the futility of violence.

max-brandMax Brand was the pen name for Frederick Schiller Faust; perhaps one of the most prolific writers of all time. Under about 19 different pen names he wrote over 500 novels. Westerns were his main output but he also created the character of Dr. Kildare. 12 Peers has become one of his most famous novels. It was republished in paperback as Destry Rides Again and inspired several movies of the same name. The first came in 1932 and only loosely follows the basic plot. The more famous version came in 1939 and starred James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich but bore no resemblance to Brand’s novel. A remake of this called Destry appeared in 1954 and a short-lived TV series (also called Destry) followed in 1964.

Choosing a few quintessential pulp western stories is no easy task. There were over 200 western pulp magazines and literally thousands of stories put out between 1920 and 1960. Writers such as Zane Grey, Max Brand, Bill Burchardt, Frank Gruber, Elmore Leonard, Ernest Haycox, Luke Short and Louis L’Amour all enjoyed great success in the pulps, and those are just some of the really good ones. Long-running series were constructed around characters like Walt Slade and Texas Ranger Jim Hatfield, often penned by teams of writers under a house pseudonym. With series entries numbering in the hundreds along with all the great stand-alone novels that are now considered classics, picking a select few westerns that stand tall over the others ain’t easy!