An Irregular Sonnet

December 14, 2016

The dark lord is an enigma to them all.
What was Khosatral Khel ‘fore he oozed up into iron?
Was the Abhorrent an angel ere the fall,
and can he sit untroubled on the throne?

He crafts in dead and tortured refuse flesh
a dumb colossus, raising him on high.
But what god to worship (challenge?) save the flash
of his own genius raking at the sky?

A chronicler may puzzle out his birth—
what cosmogonous rupture turned his soul.
Queen Heggra’s spite had molded his self worth;
or she still hunts her lover, ever doomed to fail.

Though for each spidery Warlord, a reason can be shown,
yet no Aggressive Menace knows its very own.


The Devil in Iron

May 29, 2015

When I first read the original Conan the Barbarian stories, my favorite was “The Devil in Iron.”  It seems strange that I liked the tale so much at the time.  I reread it recently, after happening on a comment on the Web that suggested that it was one of Howard’s weakest Conan stories.  I don’t always agree with the conventional wisdom about such things.  (For example, while may readers consider “The People of the Black Circle” to be one of the best Conan stories, it is my least favorite of Howard’s original efforts.)

But I read “The Devil in Iron” again, and I agree.  It’s not a good story.  The plot requires two remarkable coincidences just to make sense.  Yet it’s no mystery why I particularly liked the story when I first read it.

There were two reasons, actually.  The first reason was that I like the cover art on the edition of Conan the Wanderer that I first read it in.

The Devil in Iron

I not usually much of a fan of Boris Vallejo, but I find this picture really evocative.  It’s not Conan I’m looking at here; the weird musculature of his back and the odd angle at which he’s holding his knife are rather off-putting, actually.  However, the scenery and especially the larger figure of Khosatral Khel are very creepy.  I can’t quite look away from that face.

The second reason I liked the story was in Howard’s prose itself.  This passage is just very powerful:

The tongue was Nemedian, but the voice was not human. There was a terrifying resonance about it, like a bell tolling at midnight.

“There was no life in the Abyss, save that which was incorporated in me,” it tolled. “Nor was there light, nor motion, nor any sound. Only the urge behind and beyond life guided and impelled me on my upward journey, blind, insensate, inexorable. Through ages upon ages, and the changeless strata of darkness I climbed—”

I like the idea that the demon-god was something entirely different before he emerged in this world.  It had to work its way up, through the physical and metaphysical bedrock, before it could take on a man-like body of impregnable iron.  I also like notion that its voice sounds like the tolling of a bell, because that enhances the feeling the story provides of Khosatral Khel’s metallic character.  When Conan inevitably defeats the monster, its corpse turns back into whatever it was before by the time it hits the ground.  It never says what Khosatral Khel’s true form was, but I believe it when the story says that it was horrible.

All in all, “The Devil in Iron” is not a particularly good story.  But it still has a few passages that really move me, and I wonder if other readers will still react the same way.



June 17, 2014

I watched Ladyhawke with my two older kids a couple of days ago. Initially, there was resistance to watching a medieval fantasy film with sword fighting and evil wizardry; however, once the film got going, they settled down and had an amazing time.

I first saw Ladyhawke in the theater, when I was eight. I don’t think I figured out what was going on until Leo McKern’s character explained it. However, my ten-year-old daughter figured out that the mysterious woman played by Michelle Pfeiffer was the transmogrified form of the hawk in her first appearance, and then my six-year-old son immediately provided the corollary that the black wolf was the hero, Etienne of Navarre.

I really like all the major actors in the film: Broderick, Pfeiffer, Hauer, and McKern. My brother is (or was) a huge fan of Rutger Hauer. I do not get quite as excited about his lesser work, but he has some impressive moments. His final speech in Blade Runner (which I do not like much, all in all) is rightly legendary. However, I think his finest performance is as the leader of the concentration camp uprising in Escape From Sobibor. It’s a great film, but I don’t think I could watch it again. It is simply too horrible.

The kids wanted to watch Ladyhawke again the next day, but other business intervened, and we haven’t gotten around to seeing it again yet. However, when perusing the LEGO catalog*, the kids noticed that there were Ghostbusters LEGO sets now. My daughter suggested that there should be Ladyhawke LEGOs as well, since the movies were about the same age. As much as I enjoy Ladyhawke, it’s not the cultural icon Ghostbusters is. I would love having Rutger Hauer in LEGO form, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. (There are already LEGO Catwoman figures, so I can pretend those are Michelle Pfeiffer.)

Failed Chapters

June 15, 2014

I missed posting an excerpt from Hollowed Memories last week, but I’m sure nobody noticed. One reason was that I’ve been very busy, handling undergraduate researchers at the university. However, the big thing was that I had been having an awful lot of trouble with my writing.

I don’t mean I was having trouble writing chapter 3. That’s been composed and edited for months. However, chapter 8 has really been giving me trouble. I wrote a version of it, then decided it did not work. So I started composing another chapter, with a significantly different plot, but that seemed to be coming out even worse. This chapter was supposed to mark the end of one of the book’s major divisions, but I couldn’t come up with a plot that wrapped things up adequately before a major shift in focus.

Eventually, I just needed to take a break from the story. I think I know what I’m going to do with the storyline now, plucking bits from each of the drafts I’ve written. However, I still needed time away from the story to catch my breath, so I took a week off. (I also too some time to do some writing in my professional capacity as a physicist.)

Molten Gold

May 12, 2014

A couple days ago, I took my car in to the Honda dealership because one of the warning lights had turned on. (It turned out the problem was a bad seat belt buckle, for which there is apparently a lifetime warranty.) While I was waiting for the service techs to diagnose the problem, I saw a couple minutes from what I assume was the very end of the second Hobbit movie.

I didn’t realize it was The Hobbit at first though—not until I recognized Martin Freeman. In fact, I saw the dragon, but I discounted the possibility that this might be one of Peter Jackson’s efforts almost immediately. The reason was that the quality of the computer animation was pretty bad. I saw a stories-high gold statue of a regal-looking figure (probably Thror, although I thought it looked more like a normally-proportioned Norseman than a dwarf), which the good guys seemed to be trying to gull the dragon into melting. The dragon fell for it, and the result was one of the worst CG sequences I have seen recently, in which they hope to drown the dragon in the molten gold. (As I watched, I couldn’t help but think of Alice in the pool of her own tears.)

Animating liquids is hard. (I remember that this was parodied in an early episode of Rick Mercer’s black comedy about the Canadian film industry, Made in Canada. The producer in charge of one film was explaining to the head of the Toronto studio that a German firm was going to add CG water to all the lake scenes, which were actually being filmed on dry ground, and that nobody would be able to tell the difference. The boss’s response: “We’re ninety minutes away from one of the largest lakes in the world, and you’re having the Hun add the water in post?”) But the gold in this movie did not look anything like a real liquid—not like water, not like liquid metal either. (Liquid metal is wonderful to watch. Try some YouTube videos of mercury flowing around.) It looked like the kinds of effects I would expect to seen on television, or a strictly children’s movie, or even a children’s television show. So I was astounded to discover that this was indeed a high-budget production.

I did not plan to see any of the Hobbit movies anyway, but this really convinced me I would not be missing much.

As I was reading The Last Legionary novels,* something occurred to me. I actually had an even more compelling version of the same experience when I reread the Tripods novels with my daughter a few years ago. As I read these books, I drew pictures in my mind of what the aliens looked like, but I was later exposed to illustrations that displaced my own creations in my memory. For years, when I thought of the masters from The City of Gold and Lead, I thought of the illustration from Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials. That persisted in my mind for years. I had completely forgotten that I had my own idea of how the masters looked, until I was reading Christopher’s words again, and then my image came back, as clear as ever. It was an interesting how by immersing myself in the story once again, my imagination pulled itself back up to show off its work.

Many novels are published with important illustrations, especially if they are aimed at children (although I personally think there should be more illustrated books for adults). In some cases, the pictures can’t really be separated from the text. In Alice in Wonderland, for example, I view John Tenniel‘s illustrations as a key part of the story. Some of the most famous features of the character were the illustrator’s own innovations. Although the real Alice Pleasance Liddel had dark hair, she was drawn with blond hair and wearing a pinafore dress, so that has become unalterably part of the character’s identity. Tenniel also had important input on the content of the second volume (he preferred to draw a carpenter for Tweedledum’s and Tweedledee’s poem, rather than a baronet, or a butterfly, any of which would have fit the stress pattern); moreover, some of the jokes are only explained in the illustrations—such as the identities of the Anglo-Saxon messengers Hatta and Haigha.

However, most novels do not have illustrations that are as canonical as the drawings of Alice and her dreams. In most cases the illustrations are determined after the whole text is composed, based only on the artist’s impression, often without any consultation with the writer of the text. The pictures may change from edition to edition; cover pictures on an otherwise unillustrated novel are especially likely to change. Here for example, are four covers for Day of the Starwind:

(Here’s one more, but it contains a significant spoiler if you haven’t read the book, which seems like bad form for a cover illustration.) The all depict the Deathwing tower that is the center of the book’s action, but obviously in very different styles.

The villain in the book has his whole body, except for his hideous face, encased in golden metal:

At first glance the person looking down at him was beautiful, in an inhuman way. A tall, broad-shouldered, imposing figure that seemed to have been carved from gold—or from some smooth
and burnished metal that was the colour of gold. It might have been a sculpture of some mighty ancient god. Yet it moved—the flexible seams at the joints hair-thin and almost invisible. For an instant Keill thought the golden figure was a robot, but then he saw the face more clearly, and knew otherwise—sickeningly otherwise.

If the metallic body was that of a god, the face was that of a devil. A devil made of flesh, human flesh, and revoltingly ugly. The skin was a sickly grey, puffy and mottled. And the features were small, clustered in the centre of the grey face—close-set eyes that lacked brows or lashes, a nose not much more than two gaping slits, a small blubbery mouth held partly open to reveal tiny, blackened teeth.

I had my own idea of what this character looked like. The top of his head was peaked, and the metal surrounded him, looking almost like a robe. It’s hard to describe, but I can see him clearly in my mind, although again, I had forgotten what this Deathwing agent looked like until I started rereading. The reason was the cover illustrations, not for this book, but for the next one:

They’re all quite similar thematically, with the Altern the golden giant and the tentacles. (There are images of one more cover online that actually features something different, but I’ve never actually seen that edition.) They all depict the golden figure in a similar fashion as well; I suspect that the later illustrators were heavily influenced by the way he appeared on the original cover, at the bottom. That’s not how I saw him though. My giant, having come out of my mind, seems much scarier to me, but I had forgotten entirely about that imagery until I was reading the books again.

It’s not just forgotten images that resurface when I’m exposed to the story again. It was important that I had dreamed up the evil aliens I saw myself. The situation with the Tripods imagery is interesting because the books were not the first exposure I had to that world. The BBC made a two-season television series out of the first two books. (The second series was so bad, apparently, that the third never got made.) This was during the 1980s heyday of the original Doctor Who‘s popularity in America**, and Oregon Public Broadcasting started showing one episode of The Tripods every week, right after (or was it before?) Doctor Who. (Doctor Who itself was on every weekday.) There were no masters in the first book/season (and the ones in season two apparently bore no resemblance to the ones from the books), but there were plenty of the tripods. However, the way they looked on the show was so different from the way they were described in the books that as soon as I started reading, I developed my own mental image, which was based on the text and the novel covers. (I don’t think I had even noticed the serialized versions of the books in Boys Life magazine at this point.) As I was writing this, I didn’t even have a clear picture of what the television tripods had looked like, and I had to find the images online to refresh my memory.

Ultimately, what I guess what I found remarkable was the strength of the internal images I had created. Professional illustrations shoved them out when I wasn’t actually engaged with these books, but as I was actually reading, my own, original illustrations came back to me—a remarkable demonstration of priming in memory.

*For anyone interested in discussing the second volume, Deathwing over Veynaa, feel free to comment on it at the other post. I may write something specific about Day of the Starwind when I take a couple hours to finish it, but my memory of the second book—that it was not especially impressive—was confirmed on rereading. The plot is serviceable, but the villain just seems to be too far over the top. He’s an unnaturally tall and skinny albino, with telepathic abilities, who is also one of the galaxy’s preeminent physicists. (Did the telepathy help his scientific work?) I see the author’s reason for making the obvious Deathwing agent so outre; his weirdness ultimately serves a contrastive purpose, but it’s just too overdone.

**The global maximum of Doctor Who’s popularity in America must be right now, however. Just this week, one of my students showed me a TARDIS dress she was wearing, which she had been able to purchase not at ThinkGeek but Hot Topic.

Knife of Fire

May 5, 2013

We have reached the climax of the second book—and what may be Chup’s greatest moment of glory. I noticed that there is an interesting parallel and contrast between the titles of the last two chapter of The Black Mountains: “Lake of Life” and “Knife of Fire.” However, I can’t say whether Saberhagen did this intentionally or not.

In this chapter, all three of the lords of the Black Mountains—of life, of death, and of evil—are on the field of battle. The reader gets one really good look at Som’s power over death. A missile fired at him reverses course and kills the man who fired it instead. I would actually have liked to see more of Som, but most of the focus is on the Lord of Beasts and the Lord of Demons.

Draffut and Zapranoth must have had a strange relationship prior to the events of this chapter. They hate each other—Zapranoth because he hates everything, Draffut because of his intense, unthinking devotion to helping humans and, more generally, all animals. They must simply have avoided interacting. Draffut seldom left the Lake of Life, and so Zapranoth steered clear of that place. Yet Draffut must, at some level, have understood the paradox of his own nature—that he was aiding the allies of the East’s demons, which he hated more than anything in existence. When he’s offered a chance to give pure service to humankind by wrestling the tormenting Demon Lord, he is ecstatic. So he and Zapranoth battle, and in the end, both of them are gone. The Demon Lord is destroyed, and the Beast Lord flees to where he will not have to witness any more suffering that he is powerless to alleviate.

The reader is left to wonder how Draffut feels about killing Som the Dead. Does the viceroy still count as a human in Draffut’s mind? Or is he merely a monstrosity of sorcery like Zapranoth? After all, he does not even leave a corpse when he goes. It’s notable that Som’s death is much, much briefer than his demonic subordinate’s; by this point in the series, the demons are taking over as the primary antagonists. It’s also one of the clearest examples of a collision between the powers of technology and magic. Moreover, the way Som’s undeath is terminated by the Lake’s waters is reminiscent of the earlier death of Ekuman. There’s no prophecy this time, but Som’s very nature suggests the challenge of finding something that is capable of destroying him, by avoiding the defenses he has against direct attack.

That something is the water from the Lake of Life, which is described even more fully in this chapter than the previous one. In chapter 10, Draffut mentioned that the healing machines had come to life under the influence of the Lake. When the Beast Lord steps out of the mountain, his wet feet bring even the stone he touches into a semi-animate state. In my imagination, that scene is rendered in something like Claymation, with the rock oozing and flowing like protoplasm when Draffut steps on it.

When Draffut grapples with Zapranoth, the Demon Lord has taken on a humanoid form, although it’s not quite clear to me why. I suppose there are things that a demon can do in a corporeal shape that would not be possible as a dark cloud, although I don’t know just what. As a thunderhead, Zapranoth was able to swallow up men and djinn, in much the same way that the demon’s human form evidently gobbles up Draffut. I suppose the humanoid form may have been needed to deal with the more concentrated dangers of Chup and Draffut. Also, the change made explicit Zapranoth’s ability to assume a corporeal shape of the demon’s own choosing.

The most important thing that Zapranoth does while he and the Beast Lord are dueling is cracking the mountain and puncturing the Lake of Life. He evidently does this out of pure malice. There is no tactical reason to destroy the Lake (and some excellent reasons not to). Zapranoth only does it to spite Draffut

Draffut holds Zapranoth back long enough for Chup to reach Lisa. I am actually impressed with Saberhagen’s ability to have this girl “hidden in plain sight.” Even though I’ve read the book numerous times before, the servant girl Lisa never really stood out. She is a minor background character, although the description of her appearance and the fact that she’s serving Tarlenot’s mistress seem like obvious clues in retrospect. I’m not quite sure how Saberhagen manages so effectively to make her ignorable, even when I already know how the story is going to end, and I would be interested in others’ opinions on this point: Is she as easy to overlook for other readers? And why?

To get Zapranoth’s life in his hands, Chup needs to shave all the hair off Lisa’s head. I really like the description of how her facial features change, as if a heavy weight of evil had been lifted off her. Then the former satrap has to burn the locks, while speaking the right kind of incantation. This is the only part of this entire novel where Ardneh has clearly intervened, and he manifests himself through Chup, not his most favored servant Rolf. Before Ardneh comes to his aid, Chup invokes the powers of the West, as Rolf did in the cave of the Elephant. However, he does not call Ardneh by name, and he seems to be unfamiliar with that name when he later utters it (alongside another sobriquet appropriate for Indra). I wonder again whether there are different chants that would have achieved the same purpose. The specific invocation of Ardneh suggests that there may be; after all, what if the aspiring demon slayer were not allied with Ardneh? However (although it hasn’t been revealed at this point), Ardneh does have a very special relationship with demons, and I don’t think there is any other equivalent deity that could be called upon in his place.

I mentioned two weeks ago that the depiction of the way demons have to be destroyed through their soul objects is my favorite element from this series of books. The core of this chapter is Chup’s destruction of Zapranoth, and during this process, the reader sees something that was suggested during Gray’s obliterations of Yiggul and Kion but not made explicit. It is clear that, as long as Chup is engaged in the process of destroying the Demon Lord’s life force, the demon cannot harm him. If he looks away—responds to Zapranoth’s increasingly pathetic attempts to bargain—Chup knows that he will be destroyed, but as long as he keeps feeding the hair into the fire and chanting the words Ardneh puts into his mind, he is safe.

What happens to Zapranoth as he is defeated is very different than what happened to the other major demons slain by Gray. Something I really liked about the first demonic death scenes was the way the mangling of the soul objects was mirrored by the breakups of the demons’ shadowy forms. Yiggul breaks into pieces as the leaves are cut from his plant, then the fragments collapse as the leaves and stems are incinerated. Kion becomes a screaming fireball, which grows smaller and smaller as Gray melts the metal bauble holding his essence. In contrast, Zapranoth undergoes a series of transformations. Some of the shape changes are clearly of the Demon Lord’s own design—in particular, when he takes the form of a human female and tries to seduce his destroyer. However, most of the changes seem to be based on the words of Chup’s incantation: “I fetter him with metal,” causes bands to enwrap the mass of grease and ashes that Zapranoth has become; “I force him to vomit what is in his stomach,” frees Draffut and the monster’s other victims from its craw.

I’m not sure the “Death Chant of Zapranoth” (as I called it) is high-quality poetry, but I have a rather fond memory of it. In my seventh-grade Literature I class, a lot of my male classmates did oral book reports about books by Stephen King. They seemed to be trying to make them as gross as possible. Some of the other kids in class got grossed out, but the teacher was evidently immune to that kind of manipulation. I was not reading Stephen King (or anything else from the horror genre at that point in my life), but I decided that I wanted to do a comparably grim oral presentation. When we had to select and read aloud a poem, I chose the words that Chup uses to destroy the Demon Lord of the Black Mountains. I was a little concerned that the poem might not be quite complete; the reader might actually not get to hear all of it, as the action skips around. However, here is the entirety of what I read to my classmates in January 1990:

You will fall by the flame.
The knife of fire is in your head.
Your ears are cut off.
Opening him with this knife of fire.
Separating flesh, piercing hide.
I give him to the flames.
In the name of Ardneh,
In the name of He-Who-Wields-the-Lightning, Breaker of Citadels,
I fetter Zapranoth.
I fetter him with metal.
I make his members
So that he cannot struggle.
I force him to vomit what is in his stomach.
With the knife of fire I cut off feet and hands,
Shut his mouth and his lips,
Blunted his teeth,
Cut his tongue from his throat.
Thus I took away his speech,
Blinded his eyes,
Stopped his ears,
Cut his heart from its place.
I make him as if he had never been!
His name is not any more.
His children are not.
Nor his kindred.
He existeth not, nor his record.
He existeth not, nor his heir.
His egg cannot grow.
Nor is his seed raised.
It is dead.
And his spirit, and his shadow, and his magic.

Next week, with the opening of Changeling Earth, we finally get to meet the emperor.