Thanksgiving Day has come and gone here in the U.S. I almost didn’t put a page up today, but then remembered that at least some people in the world don’t celebrate all the American holidays. Go figure.
Ihaven’t forgotten the story contest, and I’ll announce the winner next week. Since all the votes are in the comments, I’m sure you can figure it out for yourself.
Last week was an odd…possibly disturbing…week. Although it wasn’t a holiday (at least not here) readership was down by over 50%. I have good days and bad days, and Fridays swing a little bit but within a pretty constant range. I don’t know if I missed some world shattering event, or whether some readers aren’t enjoying the little excursion into black and white and splotchy color. It’s not forever, as I’ve said. This is a planned sequence, to lead into the rest of the story.
I understand that doesn’t mean it’s to everybody’s taste. But I think in a few more weeks, when things have shaken out a bit, everyone will ultimately be satisfied. If not, oh well. Too late now.
I have some neat blog posts scheduled for after the first of the year. Like the comic, it’s better if I get a little ahead on them. Just know we’ll be hanging out with, among others, Semi Dual, Andrew Latter,Simon Iff and at least three different versions of Spring-Heeled Jack
Hvae a good weekend.
Varney the Vampyre, or the Feast of Blood is one of the most famous penny dreadfuls, written in the mid 1840s, by either John Malcolm Rhymer or Thomas Prescot Prest. Given that it runs 876 pages in its original two-columned form, I don’t see why both men couldn’t be credited. After all, spinning out eight page weekly parts isn’t as easy as it might sound, and two authors, especially two who might not get together all that often, would account for some of the wild inconsistencies in the story. For those of you brave enough to venture into Victorian popular fiction, the text is available here at Project Gutenberg.
The early penny dreadfuls are really hard to find anymore, and you can count on triple the difficulty if you go after the well known titles, like Sweeney Todd, Spring-Heeled Jack, The Wild Boys of London, or Varney. These serials ran from 40 to over 200 issues, so even if you find one, building a run is pretty nigh impossible. The stories themselves aren’t hard to find. A number of the print on demand folks offer copies at outrageously exorbitant prices, but go to Project Gutenberg or do a Google search and you can download them for free (which is what the print on demand people are doing.)
However, the downloads are usually just the text, and a mainstay of all this kind of fiction is the artwork that accompanies the story. So below, for your viewing pleasure, is all the available artwork from Varney the Vampyre. Most of the illustrations are unfortunately mundane, but there are a few goodies in here; It’s the totality that has the impact. As is all too often the case, the illustrator(s) is unknown.
A quick word about penny dreadfuls for those of you who aren’t familiar with the format. The stories were issued weekly for a penny (duh!) but with the intention that once one had all the parts (and even the authors didn’t know how many issues there would be; they would keep spinning the tale as long as it sold, then end it quickly), the entire group would be bound up into a book. Thus, they don’t have “covers.” Each part cuts off exactly at the end of eight pages, even if it’s in the middle of the sentence. The next part picks up that sentence where it left off, AND has an illustration on the first page. Once bound together, you had an illustrated novel. Unfortunately, the audience these books were aimed at were not the kind who would buy all issues, keep them neat and pay for the binding. Most were bought and shared by whole neighborhoods of boys. Few survived the manhandling, and fewer still were ever bound together. ‘Penny dreadful’ has become a kind of catch all term for any English serial fiction, just as ‘dime novel’ and ‘pulp’ are misused in this country. It’s convenient, but from what I’ve read, the true penny dreadfuls were gone by the late 19th century. But call ‘em as you see ‘em. They’re still great.
Last weekend I went to OAFcon. OAF (The Oklahoma Alliance of Fandom) is a club started in 1967, in a garage in Edmond. I was lucky enough to be one of those first thirteen guys. And here we are, 46 years later, still meeting, still collecting and still speaking to one another. It’s always great to get together,a nd this time I even made a couple of new friends, guys I’d known from Facebook but never met in person. Scott Sackett and ellis Goodson had tables in artist’s alley and seem to be remarkably fine fellows. Hope to spend more time with them soon, and maybe even run some art by them (hint hint.)
Received a fascinating (at least to me) new book this week, The Continental Dime Novel by Rimmer Sterk and Jim Conkright, and it features just exactly what the title indicates: dime novels in Europe, from the turn of the century to World War 2. I’ll give a more detailed report soon, but I am still agog at the cover reproductions. They could be bigger and better, but there are so many of them it’s hard to really complain. I’ll scan some of the more interesting science fiction and adventure ones and post them. The book is available only through print-on-demand, so it will likely one day be a quite rare book. Just saying.
That’s also a very broad hint at a treat I’ll have for you this next Wednesday, something I don’t think you will find anywhere else on the web or even in book form. All I’ll add is that vampire fans should alert their friends.
Now, the contest. You folks aren’t much for contests, are you? At least this time I got more than two entries, but it will be the last approach to contests for this fella. Still occasionally I like to give stuff away. Have to think of a new gimmick.
At any rate, for your consideration, here are the four entries, all of which purport to be the title and first paragraph of a story by Win Battler. You tell me which one you think is the real deal, and a copy of The Assaults of Chaos, by S. T. Joshi will go to the person who sent in the lost classic.
By Orwin Battler
“The only kind of firearm worth a dime is a rifle” Colt Mars declared. “Six – shooters are for saloon brawls- and I am a teetotaller”.
“There is a fine far lookout for shooting now, indeed”, said Tom Kristensen, whilst his steel-blue eyes swept the dank, grey horizons of a Danish swamp. “But what of the Rimtaage, the Ice-Mist? You will want a nip of my jaegermeister, then”.
“Even you vikings would most rather drink bog than that kraut firewater” Colt laughed.
“The vikings were those who fled the North” Tom grumbled.
“Some must have come back home. Heard you fish up old Roman weapons around these parts”
“And Romanish jewelry, pictured bronze drinking cups, coins of red gold. All strange to this land, all thrown into the swamp. Our Moselig, the Danish swamp-mummies, are all the stranger thralls, won in war, given up to our hungering gods, and to the sour black cold waters.”
“Pickled them like a herring” chuckled Colt “Leastways they were strung up first. Would not take kindly to drowning in any water that would shrivel and darken a body so, myself”
Abruptly, Tom signalled for silence. There was something bulky and black splashing in their direction, spreading the now slowly rising icy bog mists.
It was antlered.
Colt readied his hunting rifle. At times, moose ford the narrow seas between Norway and Denmark.
Then, he saw that the great black branching thing walked on two…..
Beneath the Book of Law
By Win Battler
Rochester was a level-headed man, but stubborn when his reputation was on the line. Such was the case, or at least he felt it so, the day he moved to the city. Having just situated himself in his new apartment, he was organizing his possessions when a police officer, accompanied by a neighbor, came calling at his door. The officer delivered the neighbor’s complaint: namely, that Rochester was illegally displaying his family crest at the entrance rather than the national crest. Rochester’s outraged protest was inevitable; he had come to this city to pursue his career, only after long hesitation giving up his ancestral estate. He did not want also to give up his name. He asked pointedly what local ordinance would take away a man’s heritage. He admitted that in this quarter he had seen no sign of family or local crests, but knew that in other parts of the city they were displayed freely.
The officer’s hesitant reply was interrupted by the offended neighbor. “Don’t expect such arguments to work in this city. Nobody knows what laws set originated our customs, but we do know what’s proper. And on this street it is improper to display any but the national crest.”
Incredulously, Rochester asked the police officer whether he knew his own city’s laws, but the neighbor was right. “No one digs up the laws. Inevitable in a city this old; why, some laws from the Aboriginals still have legal force. That’s part of the City Charter, from over a thousand years ago.” The officer was indignant now, not used to this being challenged.
“Well then, I’ll have to learn them myself,” Rochester pronounced. “Because until I know you’ve the legal right to make me, I am not removing my family crest from my doorway.” Those who knew Rochester, had any been nearby, would have known from his tone of voice that he would not be backing down. His neighbor simply chuckled.
“Learn the laws he says! I’ll have you know, the last person who tried to learn our laws went insane. That ancient gibberish hasn’t been decoded by our best scholars. The only ones who claim to understand it are mystics and swindlers!”
The Thirsty Tree
by Win Battler
You can get a bad tree, like you would a bad man or a bad dog. And I don’t mean a tree where the sap’s gone or the inside’s rotted out or it’s got the angriest bees around. I mean a bad tree. You need a place where evil knows to go to do what it does. And where it doesn’t go away, afterward – because it likes the place it found, and wants to stay. You have that happen enough… you have that place fill up with creatures killing for fun, or men, or something between the two… then when the roots go into that soil then it’s like they’re drinking poison. Most trees would just die from that. But some get bad, instead.
Menhir of the Damned
by Win Battler
The heat was oppressive. St. John stumbled on through the thick underbrush and clouds of niggling insects, a little ahead of the middle of the line of explorers. To his back was a handful of botanists and entomologists ill at home in the sultry jungle, to his front the boys hacking away at the tangled vegetation, the pair of towering Natives acting as the expedition’s guides, and the stout bear-like frame of Douglas Valen. As the gaunt ashen skinned Natives went on gibbering to each other in their guttural half-unpronounceable language, Valen struggled through the underbrush of the incline and complained to St. John about their position, a wild look in his eyes from the frustration and exhaustion and heat of the past few days.
“….I mean, this all comes from old book of hoodoo and superstitious nonsense, right? This von Sunts or van Hunts or whatever the Devil his name is wasn’t credible, was he?” St. John wiped his brow and took a sip from his canteen. “That’s actually debatable. The fellow wrote some crazy things, like how he supposedly visited Hell; but the main bulk of it was actually pretty accurate. The beliefs of all those cults he joined, and such. Besides, it’s not just because of the claims of some old Mystic that we’re out here. There’s also the story of that Longfellow boy.” Valen snarled back at St. John. “Oh, come on! Some sixteen year old kid gets lost in the wilderness and found weeks later, half mad from hunger and fever and telling tall tales? God’s Blood, Sinjin!”
I haven’t forgotten about the story writing contest. This is your last chance to send in a title and the first paragraph of a Lovecraftian story that Win might have written. First prize is a brand new copy of S. T. Joshi’s first novel, The Assaults of Chaos, wherein HPL teams up with Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood and others to fight…well, you know. I will put the entries up next week, and I’m going to let you folks vote.So there.
Short of being able to go back in time and live during the pulp era, we are in the Golden Age of the Pulps right now. No matter what your taste (unless it be westerns or romance stories, in which case you’re not likely to be reading this blog anyway), there is some small press out there re-issuing classic, often rare collections of stories. Prices on the original pulps have been climbing for some time now, and because of their paper, many copies in circulation are slowly flaking their way into oblivion. Early issues of the best magazines, like Adventure and Blue Book (and by early, I’m talking the 1910s) are almost impossible to find in any condition, and heaven forbid if you get caught up in one of the serial magazines like Argosy. I have so many incomplete serials I want to read that I don’t even like to bring the subject up. Argosy is reasonably priced for the most part, but inevitably, the final chapter of the serial you are reading will be in an issue that debuts a Burroughs story, or a Peter the Brazen cover.
But print on demand has been a blessing to all of us who love pulp and obscure fiction. Some of the books offered are definitely no frills editions, with no cover art and little proof reading of the OCR used to extract the text. But others are really handsome affairs, and, given the price and difficulty of obtaining some pulps, eminently afforadable.
I’m only relying on my memory for chronology, but it seems like the first two publishers of this material were Adventure House and Girasol Collectibles. Adventure House’s High Adventure is a smaller format, and alternates between full issue reprints of Operator 5 or Wu Fang and others, and selected stories of a particular character or author. Girasol started with high quality replicas of The Spider. They’ve added other Popular Publication titles, and some of the Spicys to their line-up, but the Spider books are still their bread and butter from the looks of it.
Sanctum Press has done the same thing for the Street & Smith titles. Their The Shadow and Doc Savage books reprint two stories in each handsome trade paperback, plus the original covers. Slowly, the rest of the S&S books are coming on board; thus far we have The Whisperer and Nick Carter. I’m holding my breath for Pete Rice and The Skipper.
Taking a far more general approach, Age of Aces Press specializes in aviation fiction. Of greater personal interest, Black Dog Press is issuing chronological anthologies of the best stories from Adventure magazine, which had some of the most consistent writing quality in the whole genre. Murania Press, in addition to handling the semi-prozine, Blood ‘n’ Thunder, is publishing obscure sf and adventure novels that really don’t fit in with any master genre. This is a real blessing, as so many great stories have been overlooked through the years because they were too off-beat for any anthology theme.
Without doubt, though, my two favorites are Altus Press and Black Coat Press. Altus is issuing complete collections, often in multiple volumes, of rare and downright obscure pulp characters in chronological order. The first books of Peter the Brazen and Singapore Sammy supply some very elusive stories. And where else are you going to find the adventures of Jim Anthony, the most interesting of the Doc Savage wanna-bes? The Cardigan stories, of which there are many, have already filled three books, and Secret Agent X more than that. I’d never even heard of Jogar…and I’ll leave you to find out about him for yourself at their website. In addition, Altus is publishing the new series of Doc Savage novels, of which more in a moment.
Black Coat Press has been around for quite awhile, and is the French version of Altus, though as far as I know they are unrelated. Black Coat reissues collections of French pulp heroes and science fiction that are obscure in France, and almost totally unknown in this country. How many stories of the Nyctalope have you read? Sar Dubnotal? The Black Coats? Yeah, didn’t think so. The bulk of their catalogue consists of stand-alone stories, which include a couple of Doc Savage predecessors, mad scientists, interplanetary adventure, and horror. They also produce quite a bit of new fiction. Their Shadowmen series is one of those Wold-Newton things where all the characters live in the same world. All new stories by a variety of authors have filled seven volumes and more or planned. But there are also stand alone continuations of Fantômas that I find far more interesting.
Shadowmen could be classified among the new pulp movement. If you’re not up on that, there ae a large number of fans adding to the canons of Secret Agent X, Capt. Hazzard and others. By fans I don’t mean to imply the stories are inept; many are, but there are lots of experienced author with a deep love of this material. I’m not a big fan, more because there is so much of the original material that I have yet to read that I don’t see the point in reading continuations by people who, however well intentioned, are far removed from the time and place and conditions in which the originals were composed.
The new Doc Savage stories have far more legitimacy, of course, so they can’t really be counted among the new pulp movement. Will Murray, who is the executor for Lester Dent’s literary estate, wrote six earlier Doc novels as the Bantam run was winding down. He is now working on a second series for Altus under the title, The Wild Adventures of Doc Savage, and there are six books thus far in that run. What sets them apart from the rest of the new pulp writings is that Will is not only a true expert on the character, having researched and written about almost every aspect of Doc’s “career,” but he is working from unused Doc outlines found in Dent’s papers. These are, as he willingly admits, collaborations. Well, Ok, the newest one, Doc Savage: Skull Island, is a total original, which is why it is by-lined with Murray’s name and not Kenneth Robeson’s. But that doesn’t keep it from being a fine Doc novel, consistent with the rest of the series.
I can’t even begin to list all the small presses that reprint horror fiction and items related to its most famous pulp authors. I sometimes wonder if we won’t eventually get The Shopping Lists of Robert E. Howard or “Laundry Tickets of Clark Ashton Smith.” But seriously, the field in which Lovecraft, Howard and Smith trailblazed is well represented.
Take advantage of this. Time passes, tastes change, and there could come a time when this material could well slip back into obscurity. Dime novels were a huge collectible field int the 1950s, yet are largely forgotten by all but academics today.
Have a good weekend.
I’ve never had time to finish up my post on my trip to Gloucester and Rockport, Massachusetts; these were the towns upon which HPL based Innsmouth. One of these days I’ll get it done, but I do feel the time has come for the world to be made aware of this establishment, located on a side street in Rockport. A Barber shop? Suuuuurrrrre it is…..
Have a good weekend….
Ok, I’ve had several requests for character profiles, so here they are. Keep in mind two things: many of my characters are original and did not appear in Lovecraft’s stories, and those that did appear are not exactly the same characters Lovecraft created. And Lord knows I haven’t listed every single character in the entire series; below you will find short descriptions of most of those characters currently active in the story. It doesn’t include new characters, either.
Nan Mercy – Assistant Librarian at Brown University, in the special collections department. Her goals are unclear, but apparently have to do with gathering all the rare occult books on earth and building a big bonfire with them. We know that her mother and father were involved in an occult group with the man we now know as Dr. Kartophilus back in 1908. Nan was forced to be part of the ceremony, but a mysterious pendant apparently saved her. It’s history has been slowly revealed over time. It might be an alien organism.
Win Battler- A young pulp writer from the Oklahoma panhandle. His weird fiction led to a correspondence with HPL. Going east to visit him, Win finds himself embroiled in the mystery of his friend’s disappearance. Win has struggled with a dim awareness that something about the way things are happening is not…..”right.” But he can’t seem to hold onto the thought. A scar on his right shoulder has some as yet unknown significance
Father Munsford Jackey – A priest apparently dedicated to fighting the occult. From the looks of him, he’s taken some pretty hard licks in the process. He was an anthropologist in his earlier life, but an unexpected trip to a forgotten little corner of New York changed his life, and put him on the road he is currently traveling. Despite the fact that he is in charge of our group, we really don’t know much about him or his motives.
Dr. Kartophilus – Count St. Germain – Melmoth – A self-regenerating sorcerer, possibly immortal, possibly a living tumor. His real name is unknown; the aliases he uses are all names of fictional immortal characters. His origin corresponds in great detail to H. P. Lovecraft’s description of the death of Abdul Al-Hazrd. His goals are still a bit on the vague side.
Dr. Muñoz – Head of the Morowbie-Jukes Asylum, suffering from what appears to be a terrible skin disease, who has allied himself with Count St. Germain. His reward is to be the gift of immortality, though he has much more ambitious plans than being dependent on some serum or elixir from the count. He is secretly plotting some alternative plan with Belvan Wendt, and has taken control of Belvan’s mind. With this advanced technology, he plans to seize control of whatever creature is raised in the forthcoming climactic ceremony.
Belvan Wendt -A social dilettante whose actual allegiance is uncertain. He seems to be allied with St. Germain, Dr. Muñoz and M. Powell Tobbin, though the three are working against one another. Currently, he is under the control of Dr. Muñoz.
Kreskin – Assistant to Dr, Muñoz, who believes the doctor and St. Germain are working together to create an idyllic world free of the inferior races. He has grown closer to St. Germain, which has led him into some unexpected physical changes.
M. Powell Tobbin – Nan’s boss at the library, who is also the leader of a conspiracy involving Nan’s dead mother and possibly Nan’s pendant. He and Mummy are apparently lovers. A private ceremony at Wendt’s home on the same night as Dr. K’s big venture is designed to let Tobbin seize control of the proceedings.
Mummy – Nan’s psychotic mother who is now trapped in another dimension, and is possibly no longer human. It was recently revealed that she has some relationship with Tobbin. And she has a nasty habit of continuing to turn up.
Inspector John Raymond LeGrasse – A New Orleans detective who has been working with Father Jackey since they first met in 1908, after LeGrasse’s first run in with the Chtulhu Cult.
Harley Warren – An anthropologist who has also worked with Jackey; he has spent the last ten years or so as a prisoner of a now-deceased bookseller, apparently as part of an undercover operation. He was recently rescued by LeGrasse. Earlier, his work alone as well as that with Arthur Jermyn, set the stage for much of what is going on now. In particular, he helped decipher the use of the Santapau Device, made the first studies on Nan’s pendant, and has helped crack the abstract mathematical code found in Lovecraft’s works
Luther Fickes – a jazz clarinetist and physics savant who is closing in on the solution to the entire mystery without knowing it.
Eely Billings - He’s been with Jackey for almost 20 years, playing various roles, including working as an editor at Weird Tales to intercept stories of interest, many by H.P. Lovecraft.
Richard Upton Pickman -A painter of the macabre who disappeared some years ago. But his history with Nan goes back to her childhood.
Erich Zann – A composer whose music is valuable within occult circles, though the exact nature of that value has yet to be established. He is currently held captive by Kartophilus.
Auntie Gamwell – H.P. Lovecraft’s aunt, who lives in the same boarding house from which he disappeared.
Ma & Pa Battler- Win’s parents, salt of the earth types, who’ve scraped by in the tiny town of Tough Luck, Oklahoma
Milo Bowers – Son of the the granary foreman; a bully with an especial dislike of Win, and an especial fear of his father.
Mr. Bowers – Milo’s dad, and one of the local heads of Cthulhu worship in the small town.
Miss Hurter – A sweet little old lady who works with Bowers running the local cult.
Let’s start off with something terrific: an original picture by pal Randy Elliot, noted comic artist and inker, of Cthul-you-know-who. Surely this beautiful piece of work is worth a vote at top WebComics:-).
Ok, refreshed? That’s good, because there’s not much going on here these days to speak of. In addition to the comic, I’ve been researching a series of articles on dime novels that I’m writing for Ed Hulse’s spectacular zine, Blood ‘N’ Thunder. The first is about the transition from the Dime Novel Era to the Pulp Era, which took over 30 years to complete. In our modern world, the idea of a “trend” breaking over that period is inconceivable. Others are about dime novel characters in the movies, the Printer’s Strike of 191 (it’s interesting, honest!) and how a cowboy character suddenly found himself fighting Germans in France after World War 1 broke out.
One interesting thing that has come out of some of my delvings into dime novels is the copy of Frank Reade Library #1, which I downloaded from some site on the internet. I printed it out, but as I’ve seen the cover many times, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the name written on the cover. But when I went to put it in a folder, I saw…E.P. Latham! I have no idea who he was, or if we are in any way distantly related, but it was still a shock to see a magazine over 100 years old with my own last name written on it. Shades of “The Shadow Out of Time!” Add that curiosity to the fact that the man who invented (or at least took credit for) inventing the way film loops through a movie camera was also named Latham; it’s the Latham loop. As a friend said, this stuff is just in my blood.
So, there I was, in my reading chair, with Wolves of the Calla, vol. 5 of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower epic, and all I can do is think, “What the heck happened to Berni Wrightson?”
All books in The Dark Tower series are illustrated, the first and last by Michael Whelan, and one volume each by Phil Hale, Dave McKean, Bernie Wrightson, Ned Dameron and Darell Anderson. Frankly, none of them besides McKean’s do much for me, but then I had no expectations for them either. But when I was a teen, Berni Wrightson was a god! His pen and ink work brought the Graham Ingels E.C. Comics style into the modern world. Swamp Thing. The Frankenstein Portfolio. Killer stuf. But while the other illustrators did solid work even if it didn’t interest me, Wrightson’s illustrations look…I can’t believe I’m going to say this..amateurish. The anatomy is bad, the painting technique is bad, the compositions are bad. If his name wasn’t on the book and the book wasn’t being sold in retail outlets, you’d never convince me that they were his work.
Though this is blowing my mind, it shouldn’t really be enough to keep from starting reading. But I’m feeling a great resistance. That’s not good.
Fortunately, Wolves of the Calla turns out to be the most entertaining of the books so far, even though (or perhaps because) it is King’s admitted rehashing of Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven. Roland that the others come to the aid of a town that suffers from raider s known as the Wolves who, once a generation, steal half of the children in the village. The children are gone for awhile, and then sent back “roont,” that is, brain fried. For reasons that may not matter but which are still never explained, all the offspring in Calla Byn Sturgis are twins. The raiders don’t seem to differentiate between boys and girls, they take one or the other. All that is known is that the children are for the Breakers, whoever they may be. The townspeople have never fought back, though there are always a few that want to. Roland, being a gunslinger and all, is the equivalent of a knight. Once the town agrees to ask him for help, he cannot refuse (only fair since he largely manipulates the proceedings so that they will ask.)
The plot follows the general outline of Kurosawa’s classic, with variations for the new characters involved. But the critical aspect of this volume, the one that has the most impact on the rest of the story, and on my final opinion of it all, is the introduction of Father Donald Callahan, a long-time resident of the Calla..and a major character in King’s novel, Salem’s Lot. And it is that character, not someone with the same name. Late in the book he tells his story, and it’s the story of his confrontation with Barlow, and his loss of faith and the years he traveled afterwards before finding himself in Calla Byn Sturgis. He informs us that vampires are part of this world–which I’m thinking is NOT the one from which Roland originally came, but I’m losing track of all that by this time. There are also a group of people abroad in the multiverse known as the low men who work for the Crimson King.
And did I mention the sneetches? They are little hand grenades that follow whomever they are thrown at. There’s no outrunning them. If they sound a bit familiar, think Harry Potter.
At the end of the battle we know that the Wolves are actually robots. More, they look a lot like Dr. Doom…..seriously.
And as the novel climaxes (well after the big battle,) we are left with Donald Callahan dealing with the paperback copy of Salem’s Lot by Stephen King that has been brought over from Jake’s particular when and where. The sickening feeling that this story has just officially jumped the shark is overwhelming.
Frankly, I don’t want to read vol.6, Song of Susannah, but then I feel I’ve come this far, I might as well finish. It’s a struggle, but I finally decide I need to do this, to review the series if nothing else. And King might just turn this around.
But Song of Susannah is sheer drudgery to get through. Earlier in the series, Susannah, as Detta, had sex with a demon while Eddie was working to bring Jake into Roland’s world. Well, she got preggers, and that constituted one of the main subplots of Wolves of the Calla. This time around, her pregnancy is the entire book, and, of course, it’s not a simple thing. We learned back in vol. 5 that yet another personality had arisen in Susannah, named Mia, who is the “mother” of the child she calls”her chap.” Mia fantasizes eating gourmet banquets to provide sustenance for the chap but as Roland sees when he follows Susannah one night, Susannah is eating live frogs and anything else she can find.
The subplots by this time are whizzing about like the Santa Monica Freeway just before rush hour. It is more effort than I am willing to put out to track them. But all of Song of Susannah takes place in various alternate worlds. Susannah and Mia are struggling for control as the time for birth approaches; Roland and Eddie are looking for the “real” Stephen King, whom they think might just be the creator of all worlds; and Father Callahan and Jake are working to find Susannah and save her.
I struggle, I push forward. I fight to maintain interest as we meet Stephen King and he is given the great job of finsihing his Dark Tower series, which is boxed up in the cellar. I swallow my groans as new elements and characters are added that seem to have no purpose (and ultimately, I’ll be proven right.) Although I no doubt missed a lot of the references, the tying in of many (all?) of King’s other fiction feels like I’ve been sold a ticket to see a bad roadside attraction out in the Arizona Desert. I strive NOT to skim, find myself doing it and force myself to go back and re-read the passage. When Stephen King gets killed by a drunk driver while out on an afternoon walk, I shake my head. I know the accident in our world was a life-changing event. I hate that it happened. I don’t want to read anymore about it, anymore than Stephen King would want to re-read a story of a tragedy from my life for the umpteenth time.
I start vol. 7, The Dark Tower, knowing that I really don’t care. I could walk away right at that moment and never once think about what I might have missed. This feeling will grow: I will feel it even more strongly 100 pages from the end of the book.
By this time the rambling, self-indulgent threads are so spread out, the pop culture references so prominent, and the reason behind it all so mind-numbingly vague that I look forward not to finishing the book, but to having been long finished with it, to be six or eight months down the road. I find myself wanting to mow the lawn instead of reading. I find myself starting other books, then forcing myself to put them down. I am so close. I’ve put in all this time. I must go on.
More characters are added, more new lands to journey through appear. If they are from other King novels, I don’t know or care enough to find out. I kind of resent having to have a concordance at hand to read even an acknowledged classic. The Crumson King is now apparently awaiting Roland at the tower.Mia and Susannah’s child, a were spider, is following the ka-tet as they prepare for one last battle, the one to take down the Breakers, who are mentally breaking the beams that hold together all realities. And how could I forget to mention that, due to a convoluted seriesof events, the child’s father turns out to be the Crimson King AND Roland! Jake is killed saving Stephen King. Eddie dies at the end of the battle with the Breakers. Susannah continues with Roland until she is finally sent home. Roland defeats the Crimsn King and prepares to enter the Tower.
And here”s where things get really confusing. Susannah ends up in yet another alternate New York (the Beams have been saved, you see.) There she is befriended by an Eddie that doesn’t know her but feels that he does. His younger brother, Jake, is also there. All one big happy family.
King (author King, not the one in the book) tries to dissuade us from following Roland into the Tower After 3900 pages, after all the tedium and bullshit that I’ve been through to get here, I’m going all the way.
Roland climbs the steps of the Tower. Each level is a chapter of his lie and he has some time to reflect on the things that have happened to him the things he has done. At the top, he finds a door, which he opens. At that moment he realizes that he has found the tower and climbed it and opened it countless times before. Fight though he might, he is pulled forward to begin his journey all over again. The difference this time is an object from that long-ago last battle of Gilead. There is just the slightest chance that this go ’round will lead him to redemption.
And you know what I liked the ending. In his afterword, King doesn’t seem to think readers are going to be happy with it, even expresses his own dissatisfaction with where it all ended up. But I agree with his insistence that it is the right ending. It’s the story leading up to the ending that fails here.
As the first sentence of the first book repeats, the ending is marred somewhat by the questions that spring to mind. Have Eddie, Susannah/Detta/Odetta and Jake always been the companions in Roland’s previous trips? Are they likewise mired in the wheel of ka? If so that happy ending in New York is meaningless, and the universe is suddenly far crueler than ever before. But if they aren’t perennially Roland’s companions, then each turn through fate is different, which I suppose supports the chance of redemption but kind of emasculates the power of the ending. And all those poor people along his way, the various incidental characters, almost all of whom lead wretched lives at best, what about them? If this recurrent journey is of Roland’s making, if it is somehow his punishment or penance, are all those others inextricably bound to him?
And then there’s those pesky Beams. If the quest for the Tower was to save the Beams, are they broken again when Roland starts over again? Does time not progress at all, meaning that the world ends and begins again when Roland enters the tower no matter what else happens? Or is a new alternate reality created, an alternate reality of all the alternate realities, but one whose Beams are still broken? I know this is fiction, but these kinds of questions should come up, if at all, a long time after you finish reading, not as you are perusing the final pages.
Throughout the book we’ve been told that time runs differently “over there.” Roland has been searching for the Tower for a thousand years. The ruins of the cities are said to be thousands of years old, despite the fact it’s not all that hard to find a working lamp or loudspeaker. Does time reset as Roland re-starts his journey? Or does time continue to pass? During his first round-trip, was the world younger?
I’m glad it’s done. I’m not glad I didn’t enjoy the trip. Did this journey really need seven (and now eight!) books to tell? The Harry Potter series the nearest equivalent, had more story in any one of its last four volumes than the last four volumes of The Dark Tower combined. Other serial novels, like The Lord of the Rings feel complete and finished, and if they drag here and there, that can be said of all stories if one reads closely enough. But I haven’t read any that overstay their welcome like The Dark Tower. In fact, I wouldn’t have finished them in the first place.
I don’t say this is true, but the appearance is of someone, whether it be King or an editor, unwilling to lop off large chunks from the work of the world’s bestselling author.
Roland Deschain is an intersting character as is the world he lives in, at least as it is originally sketched in the first three books. But the final outcome doesn’t motivate to read the eighth book, or to read the various comic book series, or to have any interest in a film version. I’ll probably even sell my set of The Dark Tower. I can assure you, I won’t be reading it again.
Assuming I’ve counted correctly–and with all the amended and alternate and additional pages I’ve juggled throughout this run, there’s no guarantee–today’s page is the 200th page of Lovecraft is Missing. Wow. That’s almost ten regular newsrack comics…in five years. And we have a long way to go yet.
So, CONTEST TIME! And for first prize I have a a brand new copy of S. T. Joshi’s first novel, featuring HPL and the other macabre writers who influenced him (Machen, Blackwood, etc.) as they join together to deal with The Assaults of Chaos. I’ll look around here for second and third prizes as well.
The question is, what contest? I’ve had several in which there was minimal participation. Trying something different, howzabout we award the book for the best first page of one of Win’s stories? You come up with the title and opening paragraph of a pulp story Win might have written for Weird Tales. Keep in mind his background: son of a pig farmer in a small Oklahoma panhandle town in the 1920s. It should be in a Lovecraftian vein, but not an imitation of HPL; Win is his own fellow. But, like Robert E. Howard down in Cross Plains, Texas, he’s a fellow traveler.
I’ll accept entries until November 8. I’ll be the final judge, of course. Win doesn’t write in Lovecraft’s style, but let your voice be your own. I’ll print the best three in the blog. Now, get writing. Send entries to firstname.lastname@example.org. Put LIM Contest in the subject line so I won’t miss it.
I wonder if I’d known how long this would take back when I started out, would I have gone ahead? I like to think I would have, but I can tell you I thought I’d be at this for six months or so and then on to other projects.
I’m also wondering what the heck I was thinking when I started the new sequence I’m working on. You won’t see it for another month, but let’s just say I got all experimental with the storytelling….and keeping it straight and clear is proving to be quite the challenge. I think it’s going to work, but you all will be the final judges on that score.
Have a good weekend.
I enjoy spending time in a Stephen King book. Even when the story isn’t top notch (say, The Tommyknockers, or Insomnia,) I still feel as if I’m in the company of a good friend. That’s part of his success, I’m sure, and I don.t make the mistake of thinking that he and I would necessarily BE friends. The artist isn’t the art. When he’s firing on all cylinders –The Green Mile, Thinner, Dolores Claiborne, The Stand–he is a magician. The only King novel I ever just gave up on was Desperation, though I’ve sometimes felt like I was slogging through mud with others
A guy with a slightly lower opinion over at Ain’t It Cool News refers to King as “The Man Who Likes to Type.” There’s a lot of truth in that. King is in love with the sound of his own voice, and why wouldn’t he be, having sold more books than anybody ever. What editor is going to do anything much more than correct continuity or point out inconsistencies, or an occasional repetition. “Mr. King, this whole section is just too wordy!”
And that brings us to The Dark Tower, vols. 1-7. I’ve had them on my shelf for years, buying each one as they came out, promising to read the whole series once the final book was published, if ever. Most of you probably know the history, but for those that don’t, King has been working on The Dark Tower Saga for over 30 years now. Many years passed between the publication of the first four volumes; the last three all burst forth within a year in 2004, in the aftermath of his car accident. Since that time, he’s added an eighth book and produced or overseen any number of prequels, sequels, in the middle-quels and what not. Not wanting to make this review my life’s work, I’m just sticking with the first seven novels as originally presented.
King has declared The Dark Tower to be his magnum opus, literally, “the great work.” It is indeed the longest, largest and of the grandest scale of his books. But don’t confuse magnum opus with masterpiece. An author can determine the former about his work; the latter is decided by the audience. One’s magnum opus is not directly equivalent to one’s finest, most enduring work.
Before we go on, I will let you know that there are SPOILERS ahead. I can’t review an almost 4,000 page story without getting into some of the salient details.
So, we begin with volume 1, The Gunslinger (Donald Grant, 1982). Even after the 2003 revisions that brought it more into line with the rest of the saga, it is still by far the work of a young man. His imagination is afire, and through the clumsy story progression, King pulls us forward with his vision of an alternate world, one that is decaying, dying, bleak, populated a strange mix of technology and landscape from our own history. Remnants of Amoco refineries exist alongside shabby western towns out of Sergio Leone movies. Roland Deschain, the last Gunslinger, is the Clint Eastwood of this world, and we will learn little more of what he looks like until late in the series when we find he looks like Stephen King. Or not. Me, I’m sticking with the Eastwood model. At any rate, whatever the past of this world, it has now “moved on.”
Roland is traveling through this bleak, arid West, trailing his nemesis, the Man in Black. A stop in a gritty frontier town underscores the resemblance to our west, but adds a few details that set it apart: “Hey Jude” is an ancient ballad in Roland’s world; cattle and other animals are severely mutated from some unnamed exposure to radiation; paper is as rare to this world as gold is to ours; and the Man in Black can reanimate corpses and the folks around the table don’t even blink an eye.
Roland finds a young boy, recently deceased in our world, whom he includes in his travels, but when the time comes that Roland must choose between saving Jake and catching the Man in Black, Roland let’s Jake tumble into a dark void. The Man in Black, also known as Walter O’Dim, is both the key and the obstacle to Roland’s quest to reach the Dark Tower, said tower being Roland’s obsessive goal. In a conversation that lasts ten years, Walter reads Roland’s future with tarot cards.
There’s a lot packed into these few pages, and the basic foundations of this world are established. But what seems mysterious at the beginning of the long march turns out to be merely vague by journey’s end. Why is paper so rare, and why is it important that we, the readers, know this? If it’s just a gimmick to set the worlds apart, then too much is made of it. There’s no real reason that some kind of writing medium couldn’t be produced in Roland’s world, despite the fact that the ancient technology littered about is beyond the comprehension of the world’s inhabitants. They can, after all, make guns and bullets.
Roland has a history with Walter, aka the Man in Black, whom we will also come to know as Marten Broadcloak, Randall Flag, Richard Fannin, and kinda-maybe-sorta John Farson. In all these guises, Walter is Roland’s primary nemesis. Except that in the end, he isn’t. Despite seducing Roland’s mother, inciting the rebellion that ruined the world, and his unexplained desire to constantly thwart Roland, Walter is only a diversion. But we won’t find this out for another 3,000 or so pages.
Vaguest of all is the Dark Tower and the part it plays in Roland’s life. Even now, having completed the series, I am not clear on the why of Roland’s quest. The meaning of the tower is mysterious and menacing in this first book, but though much information will be added, the Dark Tower’s meaning and place seems to shift, and even occupy multiple (vague) purposes at the same time, until it comes to be the center of all things. Or not. But more on that in later volumes.
Five years passed before volume 2, The Drawing of the Three (Grant, 1987.) King’s style and imagination have matured greatly, and the length of the book has doubled. Fulfilling Walter’s prophecy, Roland wanders along a bleak shore, finding doorways into various different whens in our world, and kidnapping (drawing) the people destined by ka to be his partners in his quest. Eddie Dean is a young junkie from 1987 New York; Odetta Holmes, a black double amputee from 1964 who has a split personality, one a rich black Civil Rights Activist, the other a nasty, streetwise piece of hate named Detta Walker. These stories are separate but related, feeling more like two short novellas stitched together. The third story takes Roland to 1977 where much is made about Jack Mort, a psychopath who seeks to maim rather than kill his victims. We find out he is responsible for both the accident that caused Odetta to lose her legs AND the head trauma that brought Detta to the fore; Mort will also be involved in the actions that bring about Jake’s death in the next volume. But once Mort is mort, we’re done with him. The idea of coincidence is is laid on thick, hinting at some kind of connection between all things but never achieving much more thanthat.
That these three personalities clash is obvious. Eddie is going through withdrawal, Odetta is leaping back and forth between personalities, and neither are happy about being kidnapped into a dark, barren world where doorways rise up out of the sand along a vast coastline. Giant lobster creatures rise from the sea each night –lobstrosities!– and prey on the group. In fact, early in the story, the gunslinger himself loses two fingers from his right hand to a lobstorsity, and fights an infection for the rest of the book. Roland survives only when Eddie grabs some keflex and packets of aspirin from 1987. Roland hears it as astin; he also hears tuna fish as tooterfish. He never learns to say them correctly. What is amusing the first time becomes annoyingly cute after awhile.
The Wastelands (Grant, 1991) is volume 3. Jake is having a bit of trouble in his own 1964 because he, uh, died once before and then was dropped into an abyss by Roland. This conflicts him, to say the least. He is drawn to a rose growing in a vacant lot, and to a used book store run by one Calvin Tower. He also has a near run in with a younger (and possibly alternate) Eddie. Most of all, he feels pushed forward towards a door that will lead him….where?
Well, Roland, Eddie and Susannh (the combined Odetta/Detta) have made their way to a circleof stone in the forest. Eddie has been obssesively carving a key. In order to use this, the demon of the clearing needs to be distracted, and Susannah is on deck. Detta comes forward to take on the monster, with enough gusto to trap the monster inside her —that’s in a sexual way, not some silly mysticism, God forbid. This is going to have major consequences later on.
Jake avoids a third death at the hands of Jack Mort (driven, dare I say, by Walter O’Dim), heads to the local haunted house, evades a monster made of the houses timber and tumbles through a door and into the clearing. He becomes part of the group and they head on.
If that’s not enough for a single story, we also have the first indication that some of the super technology created by the Old Ones is still operational. First, in the form of a gigantic cyborg bear, guadrdian on one end of the Beam. I should say of the Bear/Turtle Beam. There are eight beams in all, all of which intersect at the Dark Tower. Some of them have been broken, though what exactly they are remains unclear. Suffice to say, the clouds travel along those paths, and Roland and co. follow the clouds.
The city of Lud is more oe less New York after an atomic attack, though there is at least one WW2 fighter plane on the ground, and a Nazi one at that. Adventures ensue. Conveniently some of the lights and loudspeakers that are thousands of years old still work.
Eventually–and trust me, I am leaving a lot out–the ka-tet, the one out of many, makes their way through the city to a sentient but psychotic monorail who loves riddles. Eddie is the great riddle master here, though riddling is an ancient tradition in Roland’s world. The correct answer gets them on the train in time to escape the destruction of the city (and its still working computer terminals.) But the fun is only beginning.
Blaine has planned a suicide run. He has also planned to take his passengers with him, but his love of riddles moves him to one concession. If they can stump him before he gets to the end of the run, he’ll let them go.
To the anger of many fans, the book ends with the riddle game just begun. Since the next book in the series didn’t come out until 1997, I’d say they were justified.
Wizard and Glass (Grant 1997) takes an abrupt detour, though it does wrap up the riddle game. The ka-tet makes it through, though there is some question as to whether they are still in the world they started in or an alternate one. Fans of The Stand will recognize the slightly altered landscape, and will possibly be amused by it, not realizing what it actually portends. Not long after that, the ka-tet arrives at an Emerald City from another famous alternate world. Be very afraid.
As a break, Roland tells the story of his youth, of his first love, of his two great friends, and of the beginning of the war that would end the world as he knew it. It’s an entertaining but ultimately slight story as far as I’m concerned. Roland still remains an unknowable figure; his friends, Cuthbert and Alain, are more likeable, and his lover, Susan Delgado brings a little light into what has thus far been a pretty dreary world. Several characters are introduced here that will have some impact on later doings, and we see that oil is at the heart of the last great war, but what should be an interlude is distended and bloated into an entire novel. Susan is burned at the stake, more old myths are told, Conoco trucks are blown up.
In the end, a magic glass reveals to Eddie, Susannah and Jake that Roland killed his mother after she had an affair with Marten Broadcloak, aka The Man in Black, aka Walter O’Dim, and so on. Being Roland’s friend, it seems, is rough on your own life.
Although progress toward the Tower has been made, the whys and wherefores are no more clear than when we started. The beams intersect at the tower, but what the tower is beyond some large antenna is scrupulously avoided. Alternate world theories begin to filter in until there is such a flood of them that I never again knew where I was, except in the Key World, which we won’t get to for quite a while yet. (And for those that can’t wait, the Key World is NOT our world, though you’d be hard-pressed to tell them apart.)
So, here I am, well past the half-way point in this epic, and I’m asking myself the same question you are currently asking yourself about this review: does this really need to be this long?
Next week: Part 2