Despite what the little blurb on the header says, I very rarely ever blog about books. But with almost two-thirds of the school holidays gone already, I can boast that I’ve read Saints of the Shadow Bible and the Impossible Dead by Ian Rankine; The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney; Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, Dr. Sleep, Revival and Duma Key; and I’ve started The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.
But that’s not what I’ve come here for today. Yesterday, on my other blog Some Fantastic Place, I posted about my regular summer holiday in Galloway, which is the place I most associate with the Heroic Fantasy or Sword and Sorcery genre. It’s that dubious strand of lurid pulp fiction that made me a reader ( and a teacher of English, ultimately, like Roy Thomas)
In Stranraer in 1977, I got the second Conan Treasury Edition at the rainy end of the week Elvis died. I wrote yesterday about my fourth Conan comic, bought in the same county three years earlier and contemporaneous with DC’s adaptation of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Marvel- and more specifically the aforementioned Thomas- converted me to S&S but I never realised in the 70s that Leiber’s swashbucklers had already made a cameo of sorts in Conan’s sixth issue:
Thomas’s “Fafnir” survived that stabbing by “Blackrat” and turned up in my very first Conan, a Gil Kane story, The Gods of Bal-Sagoth. That issue had been preceded, more or less, by the first appearance of Moorcock’s Elric in comics:
and it was Elric’s stories that I first turned to, in Strathaven library in the late 70s, when I’d temporarily exhausted the Conan Sphere paperbacks.
It took me almost an hour and a half to get from Ayr to Stranraer last Wednesday. The train journey becomes a little boring as it climbs out of Girvan, with the mass of Ailsa Craig far below to the right, and over the moorland at Barrhill. When I last went to Sandhead, two years ago, I re-read Sailor on the Seas of Fate. This time I was reading Michael Moorcock’s The Sleeping Sorceress.
With the aid of the eponymous Myshella, Elric tries to defeat his sorcerous enemy, Theleb K’aarna. Next, he infiltrates the disgusting city of the repellent Beggar King. In the final third of the book, Moorcock returns to his multidimensional avatar concept, the Eternal Champion, in a sequence where Elric teams up with two of his other aspects, Corum and Erekose ( just as in Sailor). They attempt to rescue an aspect of Jerry Cornelius from the Vanishing Tower which gives the novel its alternate title.
Despite the evocative imagery and inventive psychedelia- the Burning God, Myshella’s giant, jewelled talking bird and her gruesome master-spell, the Noose of Flesh- Sorceress is a gloomy, unsatisfying fable about futility. The episodic nature of the book and the comic book-y team ups give the impression of a Goth Flash Gordon. To be absolutely honest, I got more enjoyment out of Lin Carter’s The Tower at the Edge of Time.
I remember reading, in the Mitchell Library about 25 years ago, a scathing dismissal of Carter by Moorcock for his sentimentality and formulaic writing. I also read a blog a few years ago that ruthlessly and hilariously lampooned chapter after chapter of one of the Thongor books. Carter adored italics and ellipsis: ” The inhuman thing…lived!” But then, Moorcock’s own motifs -the doomed, world-weary hero, for example- are equally comical in their portentous symbolism.
Thongor was another barbarian I discovered through Marvel and the one Stan Lee really wanted to launch. His adventures are a mash-up of Conan and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars – just what the bookish teenage comics fan wants. I first read a Thongor book in East Kilbride Library and devoured them all. In Amsterdam in 1979, the Callisto series supplanted the Lemuria books for me and then, in 1981, back in the Netherlands. I discovered the Green Star series.
Just as in the three sagas above, Thane of the two Swords, the hero of Tower rescues a princess , following the ERB formula to the letter. The difference is that the setting is a distant, exotic future and a trippy quest into entropy itself. (I wonder if he’s named after Moray’s Thane of Glamis and Cawdor, Macbeth?)
Carter’s super-heroes are ciphers but usually have one distinguishing feature: Thongor’s golden eyes; Ganelon’s silver hair; Kellory’s burned, dead hand. Here, just like Marvel’s latter-day Thongor, Thane is a ginger. Carter’s heroines are equally bland Dejah Thoris types- gorgeous, aloof trophies. Personality only enters the stage in the form of a number of stock characters, like a troupe of strolling players- the fat, comic wizard; the fat, comic pirate; the elderly gent; the deformed, unhygienic thief; the Amazon; the effete prince; the scamp; the adorable pet.
But Tower made an impression on me as it moves inexorably from Barsoomian pastiche, with its telekinetic barbarian swordsman, to a cosmic freak-out.
Carter employs a similar ultimate trip in Thongor at the End of Time; I should re-read it to see if the similarity is deliberate. As Thane and his companions travel through time and space, Carter writes thrillingly about The Red Witch of Altair; The Fifty Two Thousand Year War; the Mind Bomb; the Astromancers; The Men Who Do Not Speak and “sculptospheres of alien artistry”. I was reminded of the best of Stan Lee’s transcendent hoopla with Eternity, the much lesser-known Infinity in Thor and the FF’s Overmind.
The upshot of this Aquarian odyssey is that I plan to track down more of the derided Carter’s standalone novels like Flame of Iridar or The Black Star. He was a pasticheur, undoubtedly, but one of boundless imagination.
In future posts, I’ll be writing about Roy Thomas returning to Conan in the Nineties. Here or on SFP, I’ll also discuss Batgirl and Robin, Spider-Gwen and Silk; more about the Legion of Super-Heroes; Dracula and the Two Masters.
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