As if 2020 didn't feel apocalyptic enough already. Any teenager that grew up in my generation grew up headbanging to Eddie's riffs. I vividly remember blaring classic Van Halen tapes while riding around in by buddy's old '88 Camaro. This music was the soundtrack to our teen years, even if it came out almost 20 years earlier.
Eddie was timeless like that.
Run on, Eddie. I'll be headbanging this one for you tonight.
It's not every day that I get a cold call from a publisher asking me to review an upcoming collection. It's even rarer that said collection contains work from several of my favorite writers.
Folks, I can't tell you just how fast I jumped at the chance to be among the first to lay eyes on The Penultimate Men, scheduled to be published the first week in July by Pilum Press.
Longtime readers of the blog will know I'm a fan of post-apocalyptic stories. But truth be told, with lockdowns, global pandemics, riots, and other such pleasant subjects saturating the daily news cycle for the last several months, I haven't been turning to the genre as much.
It's not that I've lost my taste for it. Not exactly.
What I've lost my taste for is the way most authors—and filmmakers—present it. The apocalyptic genre is one that easily lends itself to nihilism and misery. Think back to some of the most foundational works of the genre, and you'll see I'm right: Max Rockatansky being double crossed and used as bait, after finally agreeing to help the survivors in The Road Warrior. Charlton Heston's helpless, maddened scream on the beach at the end of Planet of the Apes. The trigger-happy posse executing Duane Jones at the end of Night of the Living Dead.
Sorry, but I've been getting plenty of doom and gloom on the news lately. I definitely don't want any more of it in my entertainment.
But folks, that nihilism and misery is not intrinsic to the genre. As proof, you need look no further than the stories contained in The Penultimate Men. If a collection of post-apocalyptic fiction could ever be called a breath of fresh air, this is surely it.
Authors Jon Mollison, Neal Durando, and Schuyler Hernstrom give the reader tales of heroism, brotherhood, and community. These are hopeful stories, full of wonder, awe, and struggle. Yes, the apocalyptic world presented here is dark. But the light of humanity burns as brightly as ever against that darkness. So what if those humans are sporting a few extra arms or eyes?
The collection opens with a thoughtful introduction by Misha Burnett, in which he discusses genre, tropes, and the loosely-shared universe concept behind the collection: to use the setting of a post-apocalyptic RPG as a starting point (Gamma World, by inference), and for each of the authors imagine a sort of "retro-apocalyptic" future, expanding on it with their own unique, fresh takes.
You heard that right, folks. What we have here is basically an unauthorized Gamma World anthology, written by some of the strongest indie voices working in the #PulpRev.
Jon Mollison offers up two stories, and the range he shows between them illustrates why he's quickly becoming my favorite writer of the apocalypse. The first, "Fire and Folly," is a short, simple coming of age tale a that packs a deceptively powerful emotional punch in its final lines.
The second, "Wind on the Water," is much more action oriented. Opening with an unexpected sighting of strange sails on the horizon and a call of alarm, the story follows mutant hero Wind and the rest of the odd inhabitants of his lakeside village as they try to discern if the strange fleet is attacking, or fleeing from some even greater threat. What follows is a tale of a desperate stand against impossible odds, featuring everyday protagonists—or as close as you're likely to find in this book—wretched monsters, and high stakes. This is the stuff pure adventure fiction is made of. And quite frankly, Mollison's short came closer to capturing the peculiar magic of the late David Gemmell's work than just about anything I've read since the Big Man's passing.
Neal Durando is a writer whose work I was entirely unfamiliar with prior to reading this collection, so his "Root Hog or Die" was my first exposure to his work. This beautifully written short brings the reader into the mind of the mutant in a way that few stories ever do. Its opening lines are delightfully, deliberately off-balancing. The characters, particularly the two-headed narrator Walbur/Wilbar, don't "think" entirely human, and Durando does an excellent job putting us there. But the tribe leader, Gordo, clearly does think in somewhat human terms. He suspects there's more to life than rooting for scraps and hunting, and wants to lead the tribe to the strange lights on the horizon. Definitely a story that will reward multiple reads.
"The Judgement of Daganha" by Schuyler Hernstrom is a sequel to his acclaimed novella, "Mortu and Kyrus in the White City." In that story, Hernstrom used his barbarian and monkey duo to take on one of the sacred cows of science fiction, to wide critical praise. This time around, Hernstrom uses the pair to pay tribute to classic Sword & Sandal films of the 1960's, like Jason and the Argonauts or The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Tightly plotted, with plenty of intrigue, action, and humor, "The Judgement of Daganha" manages the difficult task of improving on its predecessor, already an acknowledged classic among #PulpRev fans. Featuring scorching deserts, scheming cults, and giant scorpions, it's like the best Ray Harryhausen film you never saw, the one that only ever existed in your wildest imagination.
Take my word for it. If you're a Hernstrom fan, you need to buy The Penultimate Men for this story alone.
Rounding the book out are two essays by Jeffro Johnson, who brings the same level of analysis and lucid commentary that earned him fame for his landmark book, Appendix N: The Literary History of Dungeons & Dragons. "Starship" is a retrospective look at the game Metamorphasis Alpha, and how it relates to the mega-dungeon and Old School play. The other, "Symbiot," is a look at the literary (and film) inspirations for Gamma World. This essay serves as a sort of coda to Appendix N, and if you found yourself wishing you could get just one more taste of Jeffro's gaming/fiction commentary, you'll at least find it here, as he tackles Gamma World's unofficial "Appendix G."
The final verdict?
A new Mortu and Kyrus novella would be reason enough to buy this collection. The fact that the other characters you'll meet here are more than worthy of sharing their company is just an unexpected and added bonus. Once you meet them, I can promise you'll never forget Spearshaker, Ironmane, Wind, Gordo, or Wilbar/Walbur. Jon Mollison, Sky Hernstrom, and Neal Durando have given us heroes for the end times. What's more, they're heroes worth rooting for, with virtues we'd recognize in ourselves. Men who fight for family, home, and one another, rather than the usual parade of nihilistic survivors, selfish loners, and emotionally broken scavengers.
This is the apocalypse we deserve, genre fans. And it's been too long in coming.
The Penultimate Men will be available to purchase on Lulu.com. You can get it here.
Say one thing for Alexandru Constantin: you can't accuse him of being a man who complains without taking action.
Case in point: when he felt there weren't enough conservative voices in the critical sphere--an opinion he is far from alone in sharing, by the way—he decided to organize the Short Story Book Club. His stated goal is two-fold: create a body of conservative, countercultural criticism, and draw more attention to indie writers overlooked by mainstream media outlets.
I believe both of these ideals are 100% worthwhile, so I'm throwing my hat into the ring to help out.
The fact that the first story Constantin selected for this project is Schuyler Hernstrom's awesome novella, "Mortu and Kyrus in the White City?"
Man, that's just gravy.
I first reviewed Hernstrom's story two years ago, when he released it as a standalone e-book on Amazon. You can find that spoiler-filled review here, and it still sums up my overall feelings on this story: It's a balls-to-the-wall awesome piece of science fantasy, the likes of which no one outside the #PulpRev community is writing anymore. It's also a brutally sincere and final rebuttal of Ursula K. Le Guin's Hugo-award winning parable, "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas."
I'm not going to rehash my old review here. Rather, I'm going to expand on it with a couple of details I noticed during last night's reread of both Le Guin's "Omelas," and of Hernstrom's vastly superior "Mortu and Kyrus." It's also probably going to be just as spoiler-filled as my first review, so be forewarned.
That said, a brief aside before continuing with the analysis:
In terms of pure entertainment, I can't recommend Hernstrom's story enough. And if all you're craving is a dose of pure, adrenaline-filled awesomeness with alien ruins, axe-wielding barbarians, motorcycles, and talking monkeys, then stop reading this review NOW. Buy Hernstrom's new collection, The Eye of Sounnu from DMR Books, which is where you can read this slice of pure heavy-metal havoc.
I promise, you won't be disappointed.
Reader, time has not been kind to my opinion of Le Guin's piece. I've never been much of a fan, mostly because the moral premise it presents is shoddy at best, but certain passages that I overlooked on previous readings jumped out at me last night.
In a nutshell, Le Guin's parable envisions a "perfect society," a perfectly happy city called Omelas, where that happiness is somehow maintained solely via the horrible abuse and neglect of a single child locked in a basement. The parable then talks about the "ones who walk away" upon learning of this suffering. They leave the city, never to return, and this is presented as "remarkable."
In previous readings, I guess I focused mostly on the "stinger" of the horribly abused kid sitting in his or her own filth, because I didn't really remember much of Le Guin's description of her vision of what Omelas' "perfect" society must look like—she repeatedly reminds the reader that they can picture Omelas however they like, as the details don't matter, just as long as the reader believes what he or she pictures.
Anyway, this short excerpt is rather telling, but the emphasis at the end is mine:
But even granted trains, I fear that Omelas so far strikes some of you as goody-goody. Smiles, bells, parades, and horses, bleh. If so, please add an orgy. If an orgy would help, don’t hesitate. Let us not, however, have temples from which issue beautiful nude priests and priestesses already half in ecstasy and ready to copulate with any man or woman, lover or stranger, who desires union with the deep godhead of the blood, although that was my first idea. But really it would be better not to have any temples in Omelas—at least, not manned temples. Religion yes, clergy no. Surely the beautiful nudes can just wander about, offering themselves like divine souffles to the hunger of the needy and the rapture of the flesh. Let them join the processions. Let tambourines be struck above the copulations, and the glory of desire be proclaimed upon the gongs, and (a not unimportant point) let the offspring of these delightful rituals be beloved and looked after by all. One thing I know there is none of in Omelas is guilt. But what else should there be? I thought at first there were not drugs, but that is puritanical. For those who like it, the faint insistent sweetness of drooz may perfume the ways of the city, drooz which first brings a great lightness and brilliance to the mind and limbs, and then after some hours a dreamy languor, and wonderful visions at last of the very arcana and inmost secrets of the Universe, as well as exciting the pleasure of sex beyond belief; and it is not habit-forming. For more modest tastes I think there ought to be beer. What else, what else belongs in the joyous city? The sense of victory, surely, the celebration of courage. But as we did without clergy, let us do without soldiers. The joy built upon successful slaughter is not the right kind of joy; it will not do; it is fearful and it is trivial.
Apparently, utopia is a place of guilt-free orgies in the streets, cheap drugs, and no soldiers. Not to mention no organized religion or temples. In other words, the perfect society—or at least the outward veneer of one—is a hippie Utopia.
Color me shocked.
At any rate, what's especially fascinating to me is that last part in Le Guin's excerpt, the part about no soldiers.
To casually dismiss "the sense of victory and the celebration of courage" felt by soldiers as "the joy built upon successful slaughter" is—at best—a remarkably narrow-minded view of what fighting men actually do, and why they do it. Soldiers fight for many reasons, not least of which is to preserve life from hideous vultures like the ones in Omelas.
Incidentally, the word she's looking for to describe that odd, swelling-in-the-chest feeling about victory and courage? It's "honor."
And no, I won't presume the unnamed narrator of Le Guin's piece is acting as a mouthpiece for her personal beliefs. However, I will say that it's no wonder her narrator—who only sees a soldier's honor as a celebration of killing for killing's sake—can't imagine of any response to evil other than meek compliance or running away.
A coward's worldview can only conceive of coward's solutions, after all, and Le Guin wrote a damnably convincing one.
Compare this to Schuyler Hernstrom's characters, when they encounter a more fleshed out version of Omelas in his White City.
When they learn this near-perfect utopia is maintained through stealing the life-force of orphaned children, Christian monk Kyrus wants to go get reinforcements from the nearby city of Zantyum. He wants to raise an expedition to bring the evil denizens of the White City to justice. Barbarian Mortu, however, refuses to wait that long. His response is destined to become one of the classic lines in Sword & Sorcery fiction:
"You may talk of cities and justice all you wish. Tonight, the pagan wins. My anger will be sated and these wicked people brought to ruin."
He then stalks out into the night to deliver bloody justice on the end of a blade.
Fortunately for lovers of action and adventure, Hernstrom's White City isn't quite as peaceful or devoid of soldiers as Le Guin's vision of Omelas. There's enough violence on display at the climax to be satisfying without being the least bit gratuitous, especially Mortu's final duel with rival Tomas.
Their exchange during the climactic fight is another one that escaped me last reading, among all the other great lines Hernstrom delivers in this tale. Again, the emphasis is mine:
...Mortu smiled down at him and spoke. "The souls of the children cry out for vengeance."
That exchange might as well be a thesis statement for this tale, and for why I love these two characters so much. In Mortu and Kyrus, Hernstrom gave us a pair of heroes who couldn't just walk away from Omelas. He gave us heroes who not only had to do something, but who had both the courage and strength to tear the whole rotten thing down to its foundation.
Of course, that's a solution requiring a less cowardly worldview than the one presented in Le Guin's story. For one thing, it requires such "fearful" and "trivial" things as honor, a subject about which her narrator apparently knows nothing.
Fortunately, the same can't be said for Mortu and Kyrus. Nor could it be said, one would suppose, for Schuyler Hernstrom.
This Tweet from writer Alexandru Constantin crossed my feed a little over a month ago, and like all good truth bombs, it's been stewing in the back of my mind ever since:
I'll have a great deal more to say on this subject in the coming weeks, because it touches on more than I can really drop into one single blog post without rambling.
Suffice to say, plenty of folks in my Twitter timeline have been talking about Westerns this past month or so.
I suspect there's a good reason for that.
With much of the country living under lockdown orders, restricted to "essential" travel only, and having to abide a government-mandated list of new social protocols when out in public, it's not hard to see the appeal of stories about rugged loners living by their own rules. Nor is it difficult to see the appeal of books and movies that dwell on the majestic beauty of wide open spaces.
Above all, Westerns are stories about personal freedom. After so many weeks being told where we can and can't go, how close we can and can't get to people, and what businesses we are and aren't allowed to patronize anymore, who can blame viewers for looking to John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and Yul Brenner for a little cathartic release? Sure, the sound of a booming sixgun and the sight of a dying cattle baron or two might not get us out of lockdown any quicker.
But damn, will it feel good.
That said, here are a few suggestions as to where to start looking at the quintessential American Fantasy.
I first read this novel by Jack Schaefer back in middle school, and have probably watched the classic 1953 film version over a dozen times. It's one of my father's all time favorite movies, and every time we watch it together, he repeats Shane's taunt to the villainous Wilson (Jack Palance) out loud during the climax: "I've heard that you're a low-down Yankee liar!"
The story of a wandering gunfighter who temporarily finds peace after hiring on for a season with the Starrett family, Shane is pretty close to being the most archetypal of all Westerns. Both the film and the novel are awfully close to perfect in terms of execution. Themes of manhood, life on the frontier, family, and coming-of-age all come together in this tale. Book or movie? Take your pick. I heavily recommend both.
If you only ever see—or read—one Western, make it this one. You'll be richer for the experience.
The Man who Shot Liberty Valance
I watched this movie a few weeks back at Alexandru Constantin's recommendation, and it immediately become one of my top Western films. Directed by genre titan John Ford and starring John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Lee Marvin, The Man who Shot Liberty Valance is about a young tenderfoot lawyer named Ransom Stoddard (Stewart), and his arrival in the town of Shinbone. After being brutally victimized by the titular Valance (Marvin), Stoddard attempts to get the locals to organize a legal response through the marshal. But local tough hand Tom Doniphon (Wayne) scoffs. He knows the only law out west comes from the barrel of a gun. And as far as he's concerned, it's in Stoddard's best interest to learn how to use one before Valance comes back.
The rest of the film is a well-told drama about clashing world views: Stoddard and his steadfast belief in law and order, and Doniphan and his conviction that bullies like Valance only understand one thing.
While most Westerns play with themes of civilization versus lawlessness to some degree, The Man who Shot Liberty Valance arguably handled the idea better than any of them. In fact, it just might be the genre's final word on the subject.
After Shane, I consider this film an absolute must-see.
Elmore Leonard is mostly known for his crime fiction, but he got his start writing pulp Western novels. Hombre is routinely mentioned among fans as one of his best. Published in 1961, it's the story of John Russell, raised among the Apache, but traveling among the white men. When the stagecoach passengers he's riding with realize that Russell's odd ways and mannerisms come from his "savage" Apache upbringing, they refuse to ride with him. They demand he ride up in the boot, next to the driver.
Their fortunes turn quickly, however, when the stage is overtaken by outlaws. Stranded in the desert with no horses, one canteen, and only two guns, the passengers—none of whom regarded him as good enough to share a space with white folks before—are forced to follow him if they want to survive.
More than just a tale of desert survival, Hombre is a story about pride, honor, and doing the right thing, as well as being a tightly-paced chase story. John Russell denies the bandits their money early on, which gives them cause to pursue the stagecoach survivors to the bitter end.
Honestly, Leonard's slim little book is probably one of the best jumping-on points if you want to sample the genre's written works. Faster-moving than Shane and containing none of that book's family drama or coming of age themes, fans of thrillers and mysteries will find a relatively easy transition here.
The 1976 film version starring John Wayne was the last movie the Duke released before passing away. It also reunited Wayne with his costar from The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, Jimmy Stewart. Based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout, The Shootist tells the story of an aging gunfighter dying of terminal prostate cancer.
This simple set-up, however, allows for an incredibly rich and powerful tale.
Set in January of 1901, just after Queen Victoria has died, The Shootist is a story about a modernizing West that no longer has a place for men like gunfighter J. B. Books (Wayne). Automobiles, electricity, and streetcars have come to Carson City, Nevada, alongside the carriages and horses.
And it's to Carson City that Books has come to die. With his diagnosis finalized by his old friend Dr. Hostetler (Stewart), and his days numbered, Books takes up at a local rooming house run by the widowed Mrs Rogers (Lauren Bacall). There, he sets about getting his final affairs in order. He also decides he doesn't want to go out in a stranger's bed, wracked with pain.
If the right people knew he was in town—and on his last legs—maybe the great shootist would have the opportunity to go out on his own terms: standing on his feet, with his gun in his hand, facing down the bad men one last time.
The Shootist is also the story of Books' relationship with the people of Carson City, especially Mrs Rogers and her son Gillom (Ron Howard). More than anything, it's the story of the siren song violence has over the young and the untested. The book goes into this theme in far more detail than the film does, and with much more satisfying results.
I'll have more to say on the subject in a future post, when I compare The Shootist to Eastwood's Unforgiven. For now, let's just say that if you want a less revisionist take on the same themes, The Shootist is the story you're looking for.
The film and the book also contain some sharp observations on the nature of violence and gunfighting, including one of my favorite lines ever given to a Western character when discussing his trade: "It isn't being fast. It is whether or not you're willing. The difference is, when it comes down to it, most men are not willing. I found that out early. They will blink an eye or take a breath before they pull the trigger. I won't."
My personal favorites of all Westerns are the Fargo books written by Ben Haas under the pseudonym John Benteen. The reason being that they're just so damned fun. Haas conceived soldier-of-fortune Neal Fargo after watching Lee Marvin's performance in The Professionals, and reading Fargo's physical description makes it obvious: Campaign cover concealing prematurely white hair, cropped short. Weathered face. Long Jaw. Craggy nose. Solid chin.
Fargo is as much a man's man character as you can get in fiction. He's only interested in fighting, women, and money, and when he has too much of one, he gets restless for the others. Best described as "Conan with a shotgun," the books take place across a 10-15 year spread in the early 20th century, following Fargo as he takes contracts in places as near as Texas, and as far away as the Philippines.
There were 22 Fargo books, of which Haas wrote 17. The one I read most recently was Phantom Gunman, in which Fargo is contracted by a mysterious oil baron to find—and kill—Billy the Kid. Of course, everyone knows Billy the Kid has been dead for over 30 years. Fargo thinks it's a put-on. But the $15,000 payday isn't a put-on. Neither is the deadly-serious gunman who just happens to show up in Lincoln county on the same trail as Fargo. Could there be some truth to the rumor after all?
Like any good pulp series, you can read the Fargo books in any order. While I haven't read the entire series, I've read several, and I haven't encountered a bad one yet. It is worth noting that Haas didn't write Sierra Silver, Gringo Guns, or Dynamite Fever. Many fans who have read the entire run say the writing quality on these three volumes is noticeably different.
So, why Westerns? Or more accurately, why Westerns now?
Like Alexandru says, they are the quintessential American fantasy. There's always been something powerful about the tough loner with a personal code, about a man who ranges the wide open spaces when and where he pleases. That's always been a part of the American fantasy, and I think that's a part of the fantasy we need more than ever right now.
But more than anything else, Westerns are fun. With all that talk of deep themes and stuff up there, what sort of gets lost is how much fun you can have—and how much comfort you can get—from a simple story with real good guys and real bad guys drawn in larger than life terms. A good, old fashioned shoot-em-up, coupled with a little romance and melodrama. Where the bad guys wear the black hats, and the good guys where the white hats.
Maybe that's part of it, too.
The Western gives us heroes, and it gives them to us unapologetically. The genre doesn't have to hide them in layers of irony, self awareness, or self deprecation.
Some might say that's unsophisticated or one-dimensional writing.
I say horse shit. While the daily news cycle is a never ending trash fire, you can keep your chronically depressed, fatally flawed "heroes." I sure as hell don't want to read about someone working through their personal issues right now.
Give me a larger-than life Tom Doniphon, a Shane, or a Neal Fargo. Give me a rat-bastard of a villain, a tense standoff, and a cacophony of roaring guns. Give me something to escape to, damn it. Give me some action, some adventure, and some heroes.
If that's too tall an order for other genres, then pardner, maybe it's time to saddle up and head back to the Mythic West.
Sorry for the lack of updates lately, folks. Fact is, with so much of the country having to deal with lockdowns, layoffs, and curfews as a result of COVID-19, I haven't been sure what to write about.
I did have a whole slate of 'Pocky-clypse Now reviews planned, but I get the feeling they'll go over like a lead balloon right about now. Something about a deadly disease dominating the news cycle 24/7 just makes reading about the end of the world a little less recreational for some people.
That said, if you are looking for a great post-apocalyptic read, I want to draw your attention to the work of Jon Mollison. I read his A Moon Full of Stars recently, with the intent of dedicating a full-length 'Pocky-clypse Now review to it soon. I do still plan on doing that. But I'm probably going to wait until after our daily news cycle looks a little less like the opening credits to the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake.
Anyway, Mollison's book is a fantastic, fast-paced story full of adventure, action, and capital-R Romance in the classic Burroughsian sense. It's well worth your time, especially if you want a post-apocalyptic tale that doesn't wallow in nihilism and misery. You can buy it here.
The other thing I haven't wanted to do is shill or give updates about my upcoming Fantasy Vietnam project. Money is tight for lots of folks right now, and it's not really much of a priority for me to put out a game that no one is going to have the disposable cash to buy for the foreseeable future. I'm still going to work on it. But at a slower pace.
So, what does that leave?
Well, Adam Lane Smith had some thoughts on that a couple of weeks ago, when discussing the possibility of his day job shutting down:
He's completely right about that. What will continue throughout this—and likely for a long while afterward—is a desire for cheap, good entertainment. Pure, fun escapism is what people want right now.
To that end, I've started work on something I hinted at about three weeks ago on twitter, in a joke exchange back and forth with Smith.
That's right. The bad guys would have gotten away with it, if not for those meddling kids. Only this time, two of those meddling kids are recently returned Vietnam Vets, one is the take-no-shit daughter of a Boston cop, and the other knows how to mix a bomb in the bathtub. They'd better hope the police get there first...
The other thing I'm doing with this project is test-driving Smith's outlining and writing process, as described in his writing book, Write like a Beast.
Longtime readers will remember the glowing praise I gave Smith's book a few months back, as well as the eagerness I expressed to try out some of his methods to see how they affect my own productivity.
My impressions so far? Smith's method is working for me.
I feel like I have a stronger outline than I've ever had in the past. I also feel like the characters are more fleshed out, with clearer goals and motivations. My total time, from planning the characters, to plotting the story, to choreographing the two most difficult scenes ahead of time with individual beat sheets, was about two days of solid writing.
While I'm not up to Smith's impressive speeds yet, this is already a vast improvement. Over my usual two weeks or more. I can already say this book was worth every penny. At least in my case.
Anyway, I'm planning to start drafting this week. Meddling kids, (sort of) talking dogs, and (almost) ghosts await. As do some vicious beat downs, explosions, and hellacious firefights.
I'm an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer based out of North Carolina. This is where I scream into the digital void. I like cookies.