Pulp Appeal: Highlander

There can be only one!

Well, that might have been true back in 1986, but Highlander, the movie featuring Christopher Lambert as the immortal Scotsman Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) spawned two other feature films, two separate live action television shows, an anime series, and one television movie.

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So what about this movie made it so popular? Was it the idea of immortals existing throughout time, experiencing different cultures and periods? Was it the implied backstory with the arcane rules (there can be only one, no fighting on holy ground)? Or was it the simple fact that watching a swordfight in the modern day turned out to be strangely compelling?

In case you weren’t aware, HIGHLANDER traces Connor MacLeod’s humble beginning as a clan warrior in the highlands of Scotland through the centuries to modern (okay, 1980s) New York. It is in that time and place where there will be The Gathering, where the immortals who exist at that time will gather together until there is only one remaining. The one, of course, will gain The Prize. Yes, the Prize is poorly defined (there is some sense that winning the prize will make the winner mortal and able to have children… but then why the concern over an evil immortal winning it?). Perhaps the nature of the Prize is governed by what the immortal who wins it wants.

All of that is well and good, but what drives the conflict is the personal animosity between Conor MacLeod and the Kurgan, played to the hilt by the inestimable Clancy Brown. The Kurgan has been tracking Connor down through the centuries, and is in fact responsible for the death of Connor’s immortal mentor, Ramirez (Sean Connery), an ancient Egyptian by way of Spain… who just so happened to spend some time in Japan.

What the film does well, despite being an action-film, is addressing some of the deeper concerns over immortality. Connor, despite finding another love interest (or two, or three) throughout the centuries, still remembers and cares about his first wife, and the fact that he was forced to watch her grow old while he retained the same appearance obviously weighed heavily on him. The film also addresses the ways that immortals attempt to blend into society but the movie also makes clear that modern forensics is catching up and is able to expose them… if not explain them. Finally, despite the Gathering and that immortals are destined to fight until only one is left, the idea is explored that some of them at least get along quite well with one another… because they are the only ones that understand the experiences and trials they face.

HIGHLANDER is also noteworthy for having one of the more memorable villains in the Kurgan. Unapologetic, crass, and more than a little mean, he acts as a perfect foil to the more urbane, modern Connor. Connor is a character that has adapted, at least partially, to modern life, while the Kurgan remains a barbarian, caring only for his own needs and seeing the teeming throngs of mortals as beneath him. The movie also does an excellent job of showcasing what kind of threat he is more than once… when he fights and kills Ramirez in Scotland in the first case, and then again when he kills Connor’s friend Kastagir. And who can forget his immortal line: “I have something to say! It’s better to burn out than to fade away!”

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You know he’s evil because he’s wearing a bear skull as a hat.

With a killer soundtrack by Queen as well, this is a movie you should check out again if it’s been a while… and well, if you’ve never watched it: what are you waiting for?

 

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Pulp Appeal: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS is the latest release by the Coen Brothers and just so happens to be part of Netflix’s original catalog. The amount of talent represented is noteworthy. The writing is excellent. But, at the end of the day, the whole piece falls weirdly flat. Fair warning: some spoilers ahead.

The structure is non-traditional as well. Instead of a flowing narrative, the film is divided into six unrelated vignettes and uses the concept of a short stories in an anthology as a framing device. Each story is preceded with an illustration, as well as a small bit of text preceding and ending as if one was reading a story.

The vignettes start with story of a singing cowboy (the eponymous Buster Scruggs) as he makes his way through the Old West. The story is a weird juxtaposition of songs with brutal violence, including one part where Scruggs kills a menacing Curly Joe (a gravely under-utilized Clancy Brown) with Curly Joe’s own gun. At the end, however, Scruggs is undone when a different, younger singing cowboy entered the picture. As an added bonus, the cowboy who ends up out drawing Buster enters playing a harmonica, bringing to mind Harmonica from ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. The entire piece is meant as a shout-out to the singing cowboy, with Roy Rogers probably being the most famous example.

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Buster Scruggs himself.

“Near Algonodes” follows, where James Franco is an unnamed cowboy looking to score big with a bank heist. He’s no match for the teller, however, and finds himself strung up to be hanged. His hanging is interrupted by a Comanche war party, and he finds himself in the company of a drover who informs hm that he’s now the drover’s sidekick. Only problem is, the cattle have been rustled, and the cowboy finds himself with a noose around his neck again. Again, there are elements that call back to other Western movies that highlight outlaws such as BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, and the shooting down a hanging man puts one in mind of the ending of THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY. I couldn’t help but chuckle at the literal gallows humor when the cowboy turns to the weeping man next, also to be hanged, and asks if it’s his first time.

“Meal Ticket” could very well be the most problematic section of the film. An older man (Liam Neeson) runs a mobile theatre, with its soul attraction being an armless and legless young man with a voice turned to oratory (played by Harry Meeling- better known in the role of Dudley Dursley from the HARRY POTTER films). The overall piece plays it sympathetically for the most part, with the old man taking care of his star, making sure he is fed and clothed and otherwise cared for. However, when the crowds start coming and another opportunity presents itself, the old man shows just how callous man can be in the worst sort of way. At least one person I know of gave up on the film at this point, feeling that the general theme running through it is “ALL about how much life sucks.”[1]

“All Gold Canyon” was easily my favorite segment, starring as it does the incomparable Tom Waits. Interestingly, Waits inhabits the segment almost entirely alone, except for the introduction of another man halfway through… who has no speaking roles. Easily the strongest segment of the six, it is also the one that is the most uplifting, showing that perseverance (and, well, maybe being a bit touched in the head) go a long way to getting ahead. The fact that Waits fills up the space with his presence and voice also certainly helps.[2]

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It doesn’t get much better than Tom Waits, which is good, because he is the best part.

“The Girl Who Got Rattled” finally puts the spotlight on someone other than a white male. Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan) is on her way to Oregon with her brother where he hopes to see her married to an associate of his. Of course, they have to get there, and that means a wagon train journey. Alice suffers one setback after another, including her brother dying unexpectedly, the loss of any money she might have had, and her brother’s dog running off. She does, however, catch the eye of one of the guides travelling with the wagon train. He proposes to her, as he is tired of a life in the saddle and would like to settle down instead of turning into his partner, a taciturn man who seems to have lost all care and compassion. Sadly, she comes to a tragic turn by the end. What didn’t sit right by me with this piece was that there were six vignettes and all of them focused more on men than women. With this piece, which was a better chance to focus on a woman, by the end of it the question was how the older partner was going to break the news of Alice’s death to his partner and with that being the pressing concern. Yes, the terrible thing happens to a woman, but the question is how are the men going to deal with this problem as opposed to keeping the focus on the woman for a change.

“The Mortal Remains” ties up the film, with four men and one woman sharing a coach ride in the dark. What follows are a series of discourses on the danger of isolation, the nature of love, whether humanity can be divided into different groups, and what it is like to watch a person die. Given that it was an extended piece of dialogue with little actually happening, it was the one I was the least impressed with (though Brendan Gleeson singing was a rare treat). There’s some allusion that there might be some supernatural element at play (the Irishman and the Englishman describe themselves as Reapers), the whole tone was more philosophical discourse as opposed to anything as vulgar as a Weird Western.

Overall, I was disappointed with THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS. Disappointed in the focus of the stories (come on, the Old West wasn’t quite that white, folks). Disappointed that the only Native Americans seen were either plot devices or perpetrators of unexplained and unexamined violence. Disappointed that given the wealth of stories out there to tell, these are the stories that the Coen brothers decided to put their energy behind. In many ways THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS feels like a love letter to Westerns as a genre, and more divorced from the reality of what the West was like than anything post-DEADWOOD has a right to be.

[1] Hat tip to Cynthia Ward who also noted “the weirdness of the whiteness” of BALLAD.

[2] Matt Spencer noted the theme of the entirety could be “Don’t fuck with the crazy old man” and I have to say there’s more than a bit of truth to that.

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Pulp Appeal: Castlevania (Part 2)

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Has it been a week already? Okay then, it’s time to continue Castlevania franchise nerd-out. As I said last week, this article ballooned on me. While you could conceivably read this Pulp Appeal cold, it might be best if you went back and read last week’s, either for the first time or as a refresher for today’s article. As with last week, I’m linking you to a soundtrack to listen to while you read, but it will only work if you have Amazon Prime, as the music is proprietary and not under weird video game music laws. Honestly, Trevor Morris has made some great music for filmed properties, and the soundtrack is worth purchasing.

Last week I spent time talking about the inspiration behind Castlevania, the history of the first three games in the series, and a bit about their impact on video games that came after. This week I’m going to tackle the most recent iteration of the franchise, the Netflix animated series. But first, more history!

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Illustration from original serialized publication of Carmilla

Castlevania as an intellectual property is a mish-mash of vampire lore, and includes all the horror-adjacent properties from myth and legend. It even ropes in an original contemporary for Dracula, Carmilla. Actually the novella Carmilla predates Stoker’s novel, which makes her legend as a lesbian seductress and master vampire even stranger when reflecting back on historical standards of sexuality, publication, and censorship, except that if you read it, you’ll see the author, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (another Irish novelist!) does not empathize with Carmilla and sees her sexuality as a deviant threat. In any case, Carmilla shows up as an enemy in Simon’s Quest and some of the later games, as Castlevania has no qualms about sucking in any public domain vampire lore and bleeding it dry.

Since Dracula and its contemporaries are clearly in the public domain, their use in video games is clearly fine from a legal standpoint, but making Castlevania itself into a tv series is another beast altogether. Video games make poor movies for the most part, although much of that could be the fault of the one director who ruined it for many other people, Uwe Boll. There are some exceptions, but even listing them might be contentious. Suffice to say, I liked Angelina Jolie’s Lara Croft, but that’s neither here nor there. Castlevania, as I was saying, is a complex property to do justice to all its aspects, and choosing which of the games to use as a tentpole for a film interpretation was bound to cause consternation.

What’s surprising is when it came down to the actual interpretation, Netflix seems to have chosen the most solid, strongest part of the franchise to rest its initial run, Castlevania 3: Dracula’s Curse. I’m not sure why I find that so surprising given the general high level of quality for many Netflix produced shows, but it is for some reason. Anyway, Dracula’s Curse is not only the game series’ prequel, thus setting the stage for any later stories, but also one of the more complex storylines to follow, if you can consider 2D 8-bit platformers as having stories. But before we dissect the plot, let’s talk about the writer, Warren Ellis.

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Spider Jerusalem, main character of Transmetropolitan

I am a comic book nerd, too. Right, like that wasn’t obvious. And as a good comic book nerd, I’ve read Warren Ellis comic books for about two decades. Ellis is the writer behind the superhero deconstruction The Authority (not my favorite, if I’m honest), and also Transmetropolitan, the cyberpunk-dystopian homage to Hunter S. Thompson, perhaps one of the most important literary comic books series this side of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. I read both of those books after I’d discovered Ellis in the pages of Hellblazer, the comic book exploration of John Constantine, a noir-esque wizard first created by Alan Moore during his run on Swamp Thing. Ellis’ portrayal of Constantine was captivating, so I followed his trail through the industry whenever I had disposable income to throw at him, including his successful visionary web-comic FreakAngels.

When I first heard Ellis was attached to a Castlevania film property, I was all ears. But those inklings started in the mid-2000s and nothing came of it for a long time. Then last year all of a sudden Netflix dropped four episodes, and those episodes simply blew my mind. I admit that I was a bit taken aback by the first time the word “fuck” was uttered in the show, and felt like it was unnecessary. Then I saw Warren Ellis’ name in the credits and it made a lot more sense. I still think it may be a bit of overkill for the property of Castlevania, but I’ll allow it.[1] Then the series went dark for over a year. When the “second season” dropped just a few weeks ago at the end of October, I was pleasantly surprised, but didn’t have the time immediately to tackle it, so I watched it all through two weeks later.

Beware: spoilers may abound from here going forward, so if you care about that sort of thing, or would rather watch the show without such foreknowledge, you might want to just go watch the show and then come back. We’ll still be here. I’m not going to do a complete episode by episode breakdown, but the first four episodes set the stage for the rest of the series.

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Alucard, dhampir son of Dracula

In the first episode, a woman seeks out Dracula in order to learn from him. There’s an indication that because of Dracula’s very long life he is in possession of advanced science, including medical advances that seem to parallel modern medicine, but the setting is medieval Europe, so there’s a disconnect here that I don’t quite understand. The woman, Lisa, and Dracula form a relationship, the result of which is Alucard, but we don’t see this until later in the series. What we do see is Lisa being arrested by the Catholic church, accused of witchcraft for her medical knowledge, and then burned at the stake by the archbishop. Dracula vows vengeance, which he enacts a year later, launching a full-scale assault on humanity, feeling as though all of humanity must pay for the church’s actions.

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Trevor Belmont, whip-wielding hero

The second episode introduces Trevor Belmont, the last survivor of an ancient vampire hunting clan, who is wasting away in a bar, drinking through his troubles. He fights off a wave of the undead, corrupted humans, and demonic entities who make up a portion of Dracula’s army. Along the way he meets up with a sect of wizards and agrees to help them find one of their number who was lost on a mission to awaken a legendary sleeping soldier who could help them fight Dracula. This transitions into the third episode, where Trevor comes across the lost wizard, who was frozen by a cyclops. Trevor kills the cyclops and in doing so awakens the wizard who turns out to be a beautiful young woman named Sypha. After confronting the archbishop, who thinks Sypha and the rest of her wizard enclave are to blame for Dracula’s attacks, Trevor and Sypha fight off another night-time assault by the undead minions. They fall into the catacombs beneath the city and accidentally awaken the legendary sleeping soldier. This turns out to be Alucard, and after a brief fight between Trevor and Alucard, the two fight to a standstill and begrudgingly accept each other’s company on the quest to fight Dracula.

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Sypha Belnades, a wizard

If any of that sounds familiar, it should, because it’s effectively the first five stages of Castlevania 3: Dracula’s Curse, and so the show introduces three of the four playable characters from the game.

The second season breaks from established game canon, which is both welcome and necessary, and introduces Dracula’s vampire generals, who include the Viking Godbrand and Carmilla, who I talked about above. While I have no problems spoiling the first season of the series, here’s where I’ll exercise my judgment and tell you just to watch it yourself.

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Dracula

The action sequences are animated with surprising precision, considering how complex the movements of the characters and their weapons are. The subplots and individual machinations of characters as they seek to work together, undermine each other, or carry out their own plans are more complex than even the fight scenes, and make the series fun to watch closely. Dracula’s generals and vampire allies are given depth, and Dracula himself is shown in a sympathetic enough light that viewers may end up feeling sorry for him, even while rooting for Trevor, Sypha, and Alucard.

The big fight scene is one I won’t describe other than to tell you it is amazing, and if you are a fan of the video game series you’ll get an even bigger thrill when a certain iconic song finally plays as background music. The direct connection is nice to hear, especially since it was the one missing piece for me. I’m hopeful there will be more inclusion of video game music going forward, especially if it’s done as well as it is here.


[1] As if Netflix needs my approval.

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Pulp Appeal: Castlevania (Part 1)

Alright readers of Broadswords and Blasters, it’s time for a full on nerd-out, and the topic is the Castlevania franchise. This article ballooned on me. In fact, it practically metastasized, so there will be a part 2 in next week. I guess you can say I’m a Castlevania fan. I even forgot until just now that my wallpaper on my iPad is fan art for Castlevania, with nearly every character from the game series history present in the piece. So…yeah. Also, you should listen to this playlist of some really awesome video game music as you read.

I first played Castlevania on the original Nintendo back in 1987. I was probably at my friend Michael’s house, as he was the only kid in the neighborhood I knew who had a Nintendo. I got my first Nintendo three or four years later. I didn’t have the original Castlevania in my library, but I did have the sequel, Simon’s Quest. To this day I’ll fight people over the importance Simon’s Quest had not just to the Castlevania series, but to video games in general. But before all that, let’s talk about why Castlevania even deserves to be discussed in an article for a pulp fiction magazine.

Look, it’s impossible to talk about horror, particularly pulp horror, without including a discussion about Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and the advent of the now-oversaturated genre of vampire fiction. Although vampires had existed in cultural histories for centuries, and although there had been novels before the Irishman tackled the lore, it’d be silly to somehow conclude Stoker wasn’t the progenitor of vampires as we conceive of them in the world today. Shortly after the novel was published there was a glut of Dracula literature. There were plays, other novels in the same vein, and even early films like F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu,[1] an unauthorized production of the original novel, which was almost lost to history as Stoker’s widow sued for copyright infringement and nearly every copy of the extant film was destroyed. Luckily for history, the destruction was not complete and versions of the film survived.

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Christopher Lee

Bela Lugosi

In 1931 the most famous film adaptation of Dracula came to life with Bela Lugosi playing the undead Wallachian count. This version has become iconic for his widow’s peak and his accent, and the tropes it established are still around today (Hotel Transylvania is one example. I’ll leave it to you to decide if that’s a good thing or not). In the late 1950s what was old was new again, and Hammer Horror did a bunch of remakes of 1930s films, the most famous being Dracula but this time portrayed by Christopher Lee.

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While Lugosi may be looked upon as iconic, he only played the role in two films whereas Lee played Dracula in seven. It’s this latter portrayal that has a direct impact on Castlevania. In 1986 Konami made the first game, titled Akumajō Dracula (Devil Castle Dracula) for the Famicom Disk System, an add-on for the Famicom, the Japanese home computer system that was later modified and sold in US as the Nintendo Entertainment System. A year after its release in Japan, Castlevania hit shelves in America. This name change was to avoid the religious terminology, something Nintendo of America has done its best to keep out of games for much of its existence. (But they kept the crosses, holy water, and demonic elements of the gameplay…) Two other versions of the game, with two other title switches, were released on the MSX2 computer and as an arcade cabinet. The former, Vampire Killer, is named after the main character’s whip, and the latter, Haunted Castle, serves as a de facto sequel to Castlevania, though it’s not in the official game canon and is often forgotten (sometimes deliberately) because it’s just not very good.

As you can see in the image at the top of this page, the opening screen for the game is designed to look like a film strip and sets up the central conceit running through the rest of the game into and through the end credits. Essentially Castlevania is a Hammer-Horror-style film, right down to the names in the credits, which are deliberate tongue-in-cheek corruptions of real names. The game says Dracula is played by Christopher Bee, Death is Belo Lugosi, Frankenstein is Boris Karloffice, and the Mummy is Love Chaney, Jr. The screenplay is even “written by” Vram Stoker. It’s an obvious homage to anyone who knows these properties, and to pretty much anyone else who osmotically absorbed such information.

And that brings me to the plot summary, such as exists for an action-platformer, for the game. Simon Belmont sets out to rid the world of Dracula, as the undead count has launched an attack on humanity. After selecting start, the next screen has Belmont walking up to the gates of a gigantic castle in the middle of the night. From there Belmont makes his way through the castle under the player’s control, utilizing the aforementioned whip, Vampire Killer, which can be upgraded in length and strength, and a series of optional subweapons like a cross-boomerang, an axe, a dagger, or jars of holy water. At the end of each major stage, there is a boss battle where each boss is one of the standards from the Universal/Hammer horror films. There is a giant bat, Medusa, The Mummy (two of them, really), Frankenstein and Igor, the Grim Reaper, and Dracula himself, but he has two separate forms: the human-appearing count, and a demon.[2]

24055-castlevania-ii-simon-s-quest-nes-front-coverCastlevania 2: Simon’s Quest is a direct sequel to the first, and carries with it the same conceit of film homage. In this one Dracula’s minions are still around, despite Simon Belmont having killed Dracula, so Belmont has to gather the pieces of Dracula’s body from where he scattered them, resurrect the vampire again, and this time kill Dracula in the proper fashion. The gameplay while appearing similar in that it’s an action platformer, is actually significantly different. It’s more of a side-scrolling roleplaying game. The player has to actively gain currency, level up the character, purchase items, including whip upgrades, and go back and forth between towns and wild areas, much as is common in games like Zelda and Metroid. While there is much derision hurled at Simon’s Quest because of its cryptic clues and unclear dialogue translations,[3] it was a huge path diversion in terms of how the game was structured. The non-linear progression, multiple paths, and puzzle/clue nature of exploration founded the direction the game would take for most of the rest of the series. At the end of the game, depending on how quickly the player finishes, there are several different endings, ranging from dour and black and white to full color and triumphant, something that was also somewhat rare for the time period, but which went a long way to making video games more interactive, and also increasing their replayability.

Castlevania_III_-_Dracula's_Curse_-_(NA)_-_01Castlevania 3: Dracula’s Curse is the high point of the game series for me. It takes the linear progression of the first game, adds in some of the branching path ideas from the second while paring down on some of the roleplaying elements, and overall improves on both of its ancestors to make a superlative game. It also introduces more protagonist characters into the world of Castlevania. The game is effectively a prequel to the first two games, a common occurrence for part threes in the video game world. In this game you start the game as Trevor Belmont, the ancestor of Simon from the first two games. During this game players have branching path choices and can rescue three other people along the way, though each time the player rescues someone, they end up having to choose which person to keep around as the game only allows the player to keep Trevor and one companion. The people are rescued after first battling them, either to remove a curse or to prove Trevor’s worthiness as a hero. The characters are the pirate Grant, the sorceress Sypha, and Dracula’s son Alucard, in a direct rip-off/homage to the Hammer films. Each of these characters grants the player the ability to swap between them and Trevor, and has different skill sets to augment Trevor’s whip and subweapon abilities. Grant is much faster, nimbler, and better at jumping than Trevor and can climb walls. Sypha can use magical spells to freeze or burn enemies, but she’s slower and doesn’t jump as high. Alucard is perhaps the most powerful. He’s a dhampir, half vampire/half human, and can turn into a bat at will or shoot fireballs. He’s not as nimble as Grant, but can access areas no other character can simply because he can fly. Each of these characters provides the player access to even more branching paths, but the player can never see them all during one game session. They’d have to beat the game four separate times to see all the possibilities. One of the more popular endings is to keep Sypha around until the end, at which point she and Trevor become romantic. Keep this game in mind for next week’s article.

I’m not going to do this same deep dive on the rest of the game series here or else you’d be here reading for the next couple of hours. There are literally dozens of other games, ranging from Tiger Electronic LED versions to GameBoy, from Sega Genesis/Megadrive to Super Nintendo, from Playstation to Nintendo 3DS. There may even be a game in the future for the Nintendo Switch. At least, I bloody well hope so.

As a matter of fact, the reason I first started writing this Pulp Appeal was to talk about the Netflix animated series, which both Matt and I really like, but I’m at a good stopping point for now and will spend my next article tackling the show and wrapping up my opinions on Castlevania and its impact on me and its appeal for fans of pulp. See you in two weeks.


[1] It’s in the public domain, and below is an excellent, high quality restoration you can watch on YouTube.

[2] Incidentally, in the speedrunning community this demon form is known as the Cookie Monster. See for yourself why.

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[3] The most famous criticism of Simon’s Quest comes from the YouTube series Angry Video Game Nerd. Simon’s Quest was the first episode of the AVGN series. In the episode, the nerd calls out the game’s obnoxious day-night transition and the cryptic clues, which are often factually incorrect as some of the townsfolk Simon talks to actually lie. The nerd’s seeming hatred for the game set the stage for James Rolfe’s character as a cranky, foul-mouthed, beer-swilling detractor of piss-poor video games. His over-the-top antics are not for everyone, but with 2.7 Million YouTube subscribers, DVD and Blu-ray releases of extended episodes, and even a feature-length movie, the nerd is a fixture in the YouTube community. I mean, he’s even considered important enough to have a Wikipedia page.

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Pulp Consumption: The Adventure of the Dux Bellorum

The Adventure of the Dux Bellorum

By Cynthia Ward

 

The Adventure of the Dux Bellorum is the sequel to Cynthia Ward’s The Adventure of the Incognita Countess, which we previously reviewed here.

Overall, everything is bigger and broader in this follow-up novel. The scope of the adventure is expanded from the confines of a certain doomed ocean liner to the trenches of World War I. The stakes are higher as a famous British politician is taken captive. And the action is ramped up as the focus is less on intrigue and cloak and dagger in favor of more overt action and adventure. In fact, one of my main complaints about the first novel, that some of the action is delivered second hand, is addressed in this novel, as Lucy plays a much more active role than she did even in the first novel.

The Adventure of the Dux Bellorum (Conversation Pieces Book 62) by [Ward, Cynthia]

Ward continues the series with calling out other pulp (and proto-pulp) properties. The main character is Lucy Harker, the daughter of Mina Harker and Dracula. The Holmes brothers make an appearance, albeit mostly off camera. There’s references to a Martian invasion, hollow earth expeditions, wolfmen, mechanical menaces and lost races of dinosaurs. There’s even a reference to the infamous thief Fantomas, and while that illustrious criminal doesn’t directly grace the pages of this particular volume, there’s plenty of opportunity for him to appear later.

All that is well and good, but where Ward’s work shines is in the development of the relationship between Lucy and Clarimal (better known as the vampire Carmilla). There’s the question of whether a love can be immoral when two people deeply care about each other. There’s also a sense of the tension between the old world and the new, as old superstitions and rites lose their efficacy and science becomes more predominant. Ward doesn’t quite answer the question as to whether the two can coexist, though the sense in her work is that there is a scale and science is weighing heavier than religion… a difficult prospect when some of the characters remember when religion ruled over all.

Suffice to say, if you are looking for a simple, quick, pulse pounding read, you may end up disappointed because Ward is able to layer in additional nuances to her work that are typically missing in classic pulp but that speak to the world at large. Despite being a historic fantasy, the questions posed in the Dux Bellorum are as relevant now as they would be during World War I.

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Pulp Consumption: The Shadow of the Torturer

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This is the copy I have in paperback.

First, Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun series of books may not be seen as pulp by many modern readers in the new pulp scene, but Dying Earth stories certainly trace their history directly through the pulp greats. There’s a direct line back from Wolfe to Jack Vance through CJ Cherryh, Lin Carter, and Poul Anderson, among others. And Vance absolutely traces back to Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique series, so while Wolfe’s writings in the early 1980s might not hit the bullseye where pulp resides, it’s definitely close to it in the overlapping Venn diagram of genre fiction.

Before I go much further, I have to come clean and say this is my second crack at Wolfe’s novel. The first time I tried to get through it was about 15 years ago when I was looking at books that inspired the Dungeons and Dragons creators when they were forming the game. D&D, being published first in 1974, predates Wolfe’s 1980 debut, but I got to Wolfe when I finished Vance and was hungry for more Dying Earth stuff. Wolfe wasn’t Vance, and I felt much the same as when I moved onto Lin Carter’s Conan after exhausting Howard: let down. As with Carter, the overall stories shared the rough outline of their predecessor’s, but they were clearly pale imitations. I realize now it’s less fair a comparison because unlike Carter, Wolfe wasn’t just picking up where his predecessor left off, but at the time it hit the wrong nerve. So I dropped the book onto a bookshelf where the rest of my D&D-a-like books sat and moved on to something else. 

Having now reread The Shadow of the Torturer (and being about 50 pages into its sequel The Claw of the Conciliator) I’m at a different place. In hindsight I still prefer Vance as a storyteller, but Wolfe is probably more technically skilled as a writer.

Wolfe’s novel is a first person narrative, ostensibly the written record of a torturer, Severian, as he comes of age on Earth as the sun is burning down in its death-throes. Severian is at best an unreliable narrator, so there are contradictions and loose ends which I’ll bet are never fleshed out (I’ll know for sure once I finish all four books, but I’ve a sneaking suspicion I’m right). The actual setting is Nessus, a gigantic walled city ruled over by the Autarch, an autocratic administrator at the head of a very rigid caste and guild system. The torturers, officially the Seekers of Truth and Penitence, carry out the Autarch’s wishes by torturing people deemed to be criminals or rebels. The torturers treat their occupation as a life-work and follow their duties with exacting detail, both to actually obtain information in interrogations and to inflict harm and eventually death upon their “clients,” as the guild members refer to their victims.

Severian is charged with accompanying a high level prisoner, a woman who is being held hostage for political reasons, which he does until it becomes her turn to undergo torture. Out of compassion Severian slips her a knife with which she commits suicide. As a result of this action, Severian is exiled from the guild. The rest of the novel follows Severian as he walks through Nessus to get to the outpost city of Thrax where he is to take up the role of executioner. As the book is older, the risk of spoiling is practically non-existent, but then there really isn’t a whole lot to spoil. He makes some friends and some enemies along the way and eventually ends up at a gate in the wall at the edge of Nessus proper. And that’s where this story really diverges from the pulp tropes of old.

While Wolfe is an entertaining writer, adept with description and dialogue, the story itself does seem to have an inordinate amount of philosophical navel-gazing, common to speculative fiction during and after John W. Campbell’s tenure at Astounding (now Analog). A certain amount of that can help with characterization, but Wolfe clearly had aspirations to literary greatness. Navel-gazing isn’t enough for literary greatness, but it does seem to be a prerequisite. There was definitely merit to Wolfe’s aspiration as he won some major awards multiple times, including the World Fantasy Award, Nebula Award, Campbell Award, and Locus Award. But there’s a reason he doesn’t have as wide a readership as, say, Stephen King or Jim Butcher (to pick two authors at random…nope, nothing at all to do with their books being within my eyeline while I was searching for examples…except that’s totally the case).

Wolfe’s awards are certainly well deserved from the standpoint of literary legitimacy, but if I’m honest, I did find sections of the novel to be a slog. I had to force myself through paragraphs of text I’m not sure added much, if anything, to the story beats. That said, the overall effect of the work left me wanting to continue reading the tetralogy, so in the grand scheme of things the critics and award committees are right: Wolfe is master craftsman and highly recommended for readers of speculative fiction. Just don’t expect much in the way of pulp pacing or action-fronted fight sequences.

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Cry Havoc! Submissions are Open!

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BROADSWORDS AND BLASTERS is officially back open for submissions from now until November 30th, 2018! So send us your sword & sorcery, your horror, your noir, your Westerns, your Weird and your retro sci-fi stories. Mash-ups are perfectly acceptable. Dazzle us with your prose, but most importantly make sure that you entertain!

Official guidelines can be found here!

Want a sense of what we are/aren’t looking for? Take a look at what co-editor Matthew Gomez is looking for when he reviews submissions (hint: it’s the same kind of thing that Cameron is looking for as well).

Also, this will probably be helpful as it tells you the most likely reason your story will be rejected.

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