The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes: Solar Pons & The Dorak Affair

Monday, August 31st, 2015 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Dorak_BookOne of my favorite Solar Pons stories by August Derleth is “The Adventure of the Golden Bracelet.” If you’ve read that one, you know that an archeologist discovered a fabulous treasure horde at a mysterious woman’s house, made rubbings of the pieces, then found himself embroiled in a scandal when the items turned out to be stolen and no trace of the woman could be found. Pons figures things out and it’s quite a tale.

Derleth didn’t spin this tale out of whole cloth. It relied heavily on The Dorak Affair. James Mellaart was a well-known archeologist with some great successes in Turkey. Riding on a train in Turkey, a woman came in and sat across from him.

She wore a bracelet like the ones found at Troy. She gave her name as Anna Papastrati and said she had many more like it at home. Mellaart accepted her offer to go see them.

She revealed a large collection of artifacts, which she said came from tombs her family uncovered in the village of Dorak. The elated Mellaart was convinced he had proof regarding the Yortans, Troy’s sea-faring neighbors.

He spent three days and nights at her house (certainly bold for the married man), making sketches of the collection. She promised to send him photographs he showed her of the tombs. The photos never came, but after a time, Mellaart did receive a letter from her, saying he could use his sketches in an article.

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Discovering Robert E. Howard: David Hardy on El Borak – The First and Last REH Hero

Wednesday, August 26th, 2015 | Posted by Bob Byrne

ElBorak_EarlyToday, our ‘Discovering Robert E. Howard’ series talks about my favorite REH stories: those featuring El Borak. David Hardy wrote the introduction to the Robert E. Howard Foundation’s The Early Adventures of El Borak and he also contributed what is essentially the afterward to Del Rey’s El Borak and Other Desert Adventures.  There’s no one better suited to expound on Francis Xavier Gordon, so enough blathering from me. Let’s check out ‘The Swift.’

Francis Xavier Gordon, known from Stamboul to the China Sea as “El Borak”-the Swift-is perhaps the first of Robert E. Howard’s characters, and the last. El Borak is one of those distinctive characters that could only come from the fertile imagination of REH. He is a Texas gunslinger from El Paso, an adventurer, who has cast his lot in the deserts and mountains of Arabia and Afghanistan. There’s a little bit of John Wesley Hardin in his makeup, a bit of Lawrence of Arabia, and just a touch of Genghis Khan.

Howard described the origin of Gordon and other characters to Alvin Earl Perry: “The first character I ever created was Francis Xavier Gordon, El Borak, the hero of “The Daughter of Erlik Khan” (Top Notch), etc. I don’t remember his genesis. He came to life in my mind when I was about ten years old.”

That would put El Borak’s origins about 1915, the year Rafael Sabatini’s pirate novel The Sea Hawk appeared. The titular Sea Hawk is an Englishman who joins the corsairs of the Barbary Coast. There is also a supporting character named El Borak. Howard also noted that Bran Mak Morn, hero of “Worms of the Earth,” bore a resemblance to El Borak.

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Adventures In Benign Cults: Parable Of the Talents

Tuesday, August 25th, 2015 | Posted by markrigney

Parable Of the Talents-smallIf a book vaults from mere printed text to a work of serious literature by virtue of posing a question, and then exploring it through the course of the story, then Octavia Butler’s The Parable Of the Talents fits the bill very neatly indeed.

Its primary question seems to be discovering meaning in what is for Butler a necessarily godless world, but it takes on secondary questions galore. Among these: what is the difference, if any, between a religion and a cult? How fine is the line between healthy determination and destructive obsession? And just how often do we reject others simply on the grounds that they challenge those (shaky) convictions on which we’ve built our lives? In other words, we blame and hold accountable people who represent our own failings.

Butler has a field day with all of these and more in charting the life of Lauren Oya Olamina, founder of Earthseed, a cult that locates God in change — the concept of change — and sets its sights on the stars when life on earth (or at least in the Disunited States of the 2030s) is nothing but chaos.

Formally, Butler’s Parable Of the Talents (the sequel to Parable Of the Sower) is epistolary work. The story is related through select journal entries, mostly Olamina’s, with other voices interspersed. These include her husband, her lost daughter, and her estranged younger brother.

First published in 1998, Parable Of the Talents won the Nebula Award in 1999. Like a good many other Nebula winners (such as The Speed Of Dark, which I wrote about here recently), this is not hard science. If you’re looking for the nuts and bolts engineering or chemistry found in Kim Stanley Robinson or Andy Weir, look elsewhere. Butler’s near-future tale focuses on social disintegration, and its rebirth via the benign (?) cult of Earthseed.

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The Speed Of Dark: Paksennarion vs. Autism

Monday, August 10th, 2015 | Posted by markrigney

A Dark coverWhile wandering the aisles of Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon – the kind of store that first leaves my jaw on the floor, then leaves my irises doing swirls straight out of an animated Warner Brothers short – I found myself in the Fantasy & Sci-Fi aisle.

Can’t imagine how that happened. Especially when my shopping list could also have led me to Photography, Sports (Tennis), Literature, Horror (Anthologies), and “Unisex Apparel.” Suffice it to say that I wound up face to face with my old buddy, Elizabeth Moon. Plenty of space opera on those shelves, sure, but also the various editions of the trilogy that made her name, her Deed Of Paksennarion series, together with the two less popular follow-ups, Surrender None and Liar’s Oath.

Then came the surprises. Turns out, Ms. Moon has resurrected Paks’s world, and some few of the characters from the various Paksennarion books in Oath Of Fealty, Kings Of the North, etc.

I was sorely tempted. I was. But in the end, I decided to let my fond memories remain exactly that: fond memories. As books with second-world settings go, and especially of the sword-swinging variety, I rate the Paksennarion trilogy very highly indeed, and as for Surrender None, well, I flat out love it.

The risk of spoiling all those warm recollections was just too great.

Even so, I would have picked up one of those newer titles – risk be damned, you only live once – but then I chanced upon a Moon title that didn’t seem to fit with her other work. The cover was different, for one thing. Not illustrative. Conceptual. No high fantasy or space opera here. No, indeed. But it had to be speculative fiction of some sort, since this unlikely loner of a book, The Speed Of Dark, had won the 2004 Nebula Award.

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The Genre Game

Wednesday, July 29th, 2015 | Posted by Sarah Newton

Dostoyevsky comicsLike many people, I have mixed feelings about genres – those pesky labels we use to sift and sort writing into neat little silos, isolated and bubbling away in incestuous fermentation. Both as a reader and a writer, I’ve never seen the world that way.

In some ways, thinking about genre reminds me of the “Honk if Pluto is a planet” campaign. For some, it’s a major, emotive issue if Pluto is categorized as a “planet”, or a “dwarf planet”, or a “Kuiper Belt object”, or something else entirely. But, ultimately, the designation affects nothing outside the minds of men: Pluto continues in its long, elliptical orbit, completely oblivious to the impassioned squirmings of one subgroup of carbon-based lifeforms on the third planet; it’s still beautiful, cold, distant, mysterious, regardless of the “planetary genre” we decide, in our assumed omnipotence, to place it in. It ain’t gonna vanish if we all look the other way.

So, genre. Is it hard science-fiction? Is it cyberpunk? Is it space opera? Dystopian? Maybe it’s all four? Or more? It’s a truism, but every written work stands on its own merits. You can sell it at Borders, Barnes and Noble, or Walmart; you can call it dark fantasy, low fantasy, heroic fantasy, swords and sorcery: it’s still the same book, even if the observers and surroundings differ. Genre is something which shelf-stackers and catalogue creators love – it neatly segments the literary world into easy-to-digest packets, with no ambiguity, a black-and-white demarcation of the soul. Like people trying to get their five pieces of fruit a day, it seems to make sense – until people start fighting over what a “piece of fruit” really is. Oranges – whole or segmented? Melons? How big’s a slice?

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The Worst AD&D Spell Of All Time

Monday, July 27th, 2015 | Posted by markrigney

Arcana UnearthedSo there we stood, surrounded. Demons in all directions, converging fast – and we’re not talking garden variety patsies. Even for our major league party, the future looked bleak, bloody, and painful. On the plus side, we had our pizza in place, our dice at the ready. Beers and sodas hovered with popped caps and bated breath, anticipating action.

“Initiative!” cried the DM.

We each rolled. One of the demons, which just happened to moonlight as a spell-caster, moved first — and what did that pipsqueak no-good blackguard cheat of a demon cast our way?

Chain Lightning.

At fifteenth level.

Two hours later, with the pizza cold and stiff, the beers stale and the sodas flat, we finally finished adjudicating the effects of that single spell. We were in shock, and grumbling to beat the band. The DM, equally weary and perplexed, said, “Okay. Still first round. Who gets to take the next action?”

That I no longer recall, but this I know: we won the battle, and the demons lost. So did Chain Lightning. We made a solemn pledge that very day to never again allow that spell to eclipse the glory of our triumphant campaigning. Banned it was, all but ripped from the pages of the rulebook. And good riddance, too.

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Hugh Hancock and Why Geeks Love Lovecraftian Magic

Thursday, July 23rd, 2015 | Posted by M Harold Page


If you like the short film, you might enjoy his — NSFW– Carcosa Lovecraftian web comic.

How come geeks like Lovecraftian magic so much?

Writing on Charles Stross’s blog, Hugh Hancock, Machinima guru turned live-action filmmaker and web comic — um — maker(?) who — disclaimer! — has been a mate since he threw me through a pile of chairs, thus curing the suspected RSI in my shoulder — thinks it’s because Lovecraft pings the things that horrify geeks:

What if too much knowledge really was bad?

What if there were no life hack to divert the apocalypse?

What if the Inquisition were right?!!?

Obviously he’s onto something. It is all pretty horrifying and creates a wonderful double bind; we readers simultaneously want the protagonist to satisfy our curiosity, and at the same time want them to flee the horrid fate that will result.

However, I think there’s more than Horror at work.

Before I go on to explain why, go and watch his short Lovecraftian film HOWTO Demon Summoning so we have a common reference point (and because it’s funny and horrific, and makes surprising use of CGI given Hugh is an indy filmmaker).


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The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes: Sherlock Season 3 – What Happened?

Monday, July 13th, 2015 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Sherlock Season 3Now, it’s certainly possible that I’m clueless (and I do LOVE Without a Clue), but I don’t think I’ve got the following all wrong regarding BBC’s Sherlock.

Except for the grumpy old man contingent (‘Get Sherlock out of modern day!’), fans of Holmes, including scholarly geeks like me who make their own newsletter, overwhelmingly liked this new show and the three episode season one.

I don’t know too many Holmes fans (other than GOM group: see above) who disliked this show. Even those who were moderately approving seemed pleased and intrigued with it and willing to tune in for another season.

So, season two came along, and more huzzahs and approval. I don’t remember Holmes friends of mine thinking it was going south. I certainly didn’t: I thought the first two seasons were brilliant and fun updatings of the great detective. I found cool references to Doyle’s tales all over the place.

Once again, no comments that it jumped the shark. Folks were absolutely looking forward to seeing how Holmes survived his Reichenbach Fall. It was one of my five all time favorite tv shows and probably battling Justified for number one.

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Discovering Robert E. Howard: Damon Sasser on 2015 Howard Days

Tuesday, July 7th, 2015 | Posted by Bob Byrne

HowardDays_HouseI’m not sure there’s quite anything like Howard Days, held each summer in Cross, Plains, TX. It’s a weekend celebration of all things Robert E. Howard and it’s helped to keep Howard’s legacy alive. Though I lived in Austin, TX for a few years, I never made it to Howard Days. So, I turned to the best fan journal (newsletter/fanzine…) I’ve ever come across, REH: Two-Gun Racounteur.

And founder Damon Sasser (2014’s Featured Guest) was kind enough to write a post about the 2015 Howard Days, which also featured a healthy (or perhaps, unhealthy) dose of H.P. Lovecraft as well. Thanks, Damon!

This past month on June 12th and 13th the annual Howard Days celebrating and remembering Robert E. Howard was held in Cross Plains, Texas. Even though it is a two day event, fans start drifting into town early in the week, with Thursday afternoon being sort of a soft kick-off for the weekend. The Howard House Museum was unofficially open allowing fans to wander through it and visit the gift shop.

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Adventures In Cards: Munchkin!

Monday, July 6th, 2015 | Posted by markrigney

Munchkin coverHow was my day, you asked? Well, I’ll tell you. My Halfling wizard and I spent the last hour fleeing from a Gazebo, leveling up by way of a Drooling Slime, and staying alive by means of the Kneepads Of Allure and a (basic but useful) Huge Rock.

What on earth could cause such havoc and silliness? Surely not Dungeons & Dragons?

Nope. It’s D&D’s hell-spawn little brat of a brother, the card game Munchkin. Now possibly I’m late to the table on this (I often am), but Munchkin has to be the geekiest, most asinine, not to mention juvenile, card game going. It’s also a diverting homage to AD&D, and better yet, it makes both kids and grown-ups laugh.

Consider Munchkin’s very own press: “…the mega-hit card game about dungeon adventure… with none of that stupid role-playing stuff.”

Of course D&D remains a clear progenitor, and possibly Munchkin owes something to Magic: the Gathering, but it strikes me that Munchkin’s most direct sire is a horse of a very different color, the irreverent and insouciant Killer Bunnies, which, if you’ve never played it, is a must for any gaming fan’s bucket list.

That said, you’ll need a lot of patience (or a sensai) to figure out how to play Killer Bunnies. But. Once you’ve “mastered” this obscenely complicated, impossible-to-predict killing spree of a game, enjoyment and strategy abound. I’d even be willing to state in a court of law, no less, that killing rabbits has never been so pleasurable, or so downright wicked neat. After all, who wouldn’t want to do in a (purple) Congenial Bunny while wielding a piece of flying burnt toast?

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