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Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Juliette, or Vice Amply Rewarded (Historical Fiction)

By The Marquis De Sade

Publisher: Grove Press; 1st Complete American Edition (January 31, 1994)

Softcover, 1205 pages

“I proceed to compare the pleasures vice and virtue procure; I start with virtue, I sample it, savor it thoughtfully, thoroughly, critically. How dull, how vapid! How tasteless, how bland! It leaves me cold, nothing moves me in this, nothing stirs me, virtue makes me listless, the pleasure has gone to whom I have served and, in return, for reward, I have nothing but his distant and aloof gratitude. Now I wonder: is this pleasure? And what a difference between this virtuous exercise and the next one of vice! How my senses, my nerves are brought alive, how my organs bestir themselves! I have nothing just to caress the misdemeanour I am plotting and lo! The divine sap starts up and rushes through my veins, I am all afire, fever assails me; the thought hurls me into ecstasy, a delicious illusions spreads aureate across the whole landscape of this world I am about to conquer through a crime.” Originally published anonymously in several parts between 1797 and 1801, this is the companion novel to Justine, or Good Conduct Well Chastised which is about a young girl who constantly clings to her ideas of morality and chastity and is abused in every conceivable manner. Julliette is her sister whose travels take her down an opposite route. She becomes a nymphomaniac libertine, who has no regard for any philosophy, morality, or individual. She lives entirely for her own pleasure, which eventually leads her down the path of criminality, murder, and cannibalism. It is considered one of the most provocative (to put it mildly) and condemned works of literature ever penned. Not putting his name on the cover did not save De Sade from public scorn. Napoleon himself demanded the arrest of the author. He spent the last thirteen years of his life in prisons and insane asylums. Paying for his art with loss of freedom. 
Only known portrait of the Marquis De Sade
The general flow of the story has the titular character bounce from one type of libertine to another, learning that there is no limit to the depravity she can reach, nor any reason for her to feel shame in her actions. The cadence of the book follows a standard routine: she finds herself in a new place, a libertine does something horrible, then spouts a long diatribe on how the morality around the act is wrong, followed by an orgy. The sex scenes become increasingly weird and less credible from an anatomical standpoint- the arraignment of bodies and animals seems completely ridiculous. De Sade leaves no stone unturned in his assault on what is considered to be moral. His main focus is to demonstrate the base hypocrisy of morality, especially when so many successful leaders seem to ignore such conventions. The descriptions are often extreme. For example, “Cunt-fuck was all I had time to do. For I did not foresee you would wish to stop so soon; twenty fours hours is my usual stint at that house, and do not swing my ass to the fuckers until they have made a hash of my cunt. A hash, yes. Transformed it into an open wound.” or “this particular libertine’s delight was, upon nearing the spilling of his seed, to rip open part of his victim’s chest, cut a hole into the heart, and discharge into the valve.” This novel has revealed to me some new words relating to various sexual acts. Leave it to the French to have a rich lexicon in this manner. To add to my list of nasty terms, we have the verb “encunt” and “encunting” which means “to penetrate vaginally with some sort of object; a penis or otherwise.” Then we have the adjective “sapphic”- derived from the ancient poet Sappho of Lesbos, where we also get the term lesbian- this refers to women sexually enjoying each other. And so we don’t leave the men behind, there is the term “Socratic” which refers to anal sex. “Buggery” or ass-fucking is the sexual position of choice for De Sade’s libertines, with either men or women. Coprophagia (shit-eating for sexual pleasure or due to mental illness) seems to be a major source of arousal for the truly demented and libertine. There are many passages describing this activity. I’m not one to automatically ascribe the actions in a book to the author, but DeSade discusses this relatively obscure type of sexual pleasure so often and with such zest, that I am driven to believe he indulged in it himself. Nowhere, however, does any of his numerous libertines indulge in urolagnia- the drinking of urine for sexual pleasure. Why? I’m not sure. It certainly fits in his list of outrages. Several historical figures are mentioned and a few show up to take part in the action. The most notable being Pope Pius VI, the current Pope at the time of publication and an enemy of Napoleon. His scenes are the longest in the book. The Holy Father indulges in several bizarre orgies with Juliette involving apes, five year old boys, ninety year old women, goats, and all manner of instruments. At one point he impales himself in a turkey’s anus, then climaxes when the animal’s head is cut off, claiming the sphincter’s death contractions were the greatest sensation of all. He proceeds on a long diatribe on that murder should not be considered a sin, as it was part of the cycle of life. One needs death in order for more life to grow and that the idea of sin was ridiculous. After which he plants a communion wafer on the end of his penis and bangs Juliette on the high altar of St. Peter’s Basilica. As you can imagine this portrait of the Holy Father does not exist anywhere else in recorded history. Whether it was based on De Sade’s own gathering of rumors during his time in Italy, or just another example of how the powerful are all truly corrupt, is open to interpretation. Although I would choose the latter. 
Pope Pius VI
Part of what fascinates me is the reactions from critics towards this work and how dismissive of they are of the actions of the characters in order to embrace the philosophy. His idea of “total freedom”, that is freedom to act and freedom from any sense of morality, as laurelled by Camille Paglia, is always displayed by De Sade’s characters in the most vicious of manners. For example in the first book, the titular character is corrupted by the Abbess of her convent boarding school. The height of their depravity involves deflowering a nine year old girl with a twelve inch strap-on dildo. At the end, Julliette and her lover, Noirceuil, take turns destroying their own children. The man sodomizes his son, then cuts the boy’s heart out and eats it. After which Julliette tosses her twelve year old daughter into a fire and they take turns jabbing her with a poker while she tries to escape, driving her back into the flames. The philosophy of total freedom presented in Julliette means stripping yourself from all constraint placed upon a person by religion and society, or at least those portions that go against what he calls “Nature”. Essentially this Nature is what others would call “Natural Law”, IE acting similar to animals. Look at animals in nature, do they worry about killing, or incest, or theft, or rape? Do they hesitate from giving in to their desires or impulses? Then why should we? That’s our natural state. In reality, it is barely even a philosophy. It is more a half-assed justification for a person to commit whatever depraved act pops into their skull. De Sade attempts to demonstrate his ideas with some sketchy examples on how these concepts are already embraced by various other cultures. I say sketchy, because several of his examples are either misrepresentations or outright lies. For example he writes, “Every American is much addicted to theft” and “American women enjoy being buggered by monkeys.” As most Americans will agree, that is nonsense. Other snippets come from antiquity, such as “In Athens, in Sparta, hospitality was forbidden; those who implored were put to death.” Which is the exact opposite of any source I’ve read about the ancient Greeks. Others I had not heard of, but I presume that anyplace which lauds thievery, rape, or incest is not a place one would want to live if they can help it. 
1791 edition of the sister novel Justine
DeSade certainly does not shy away from the inevitable horrific end of the idea of “total freedom”- murder, rape, cannibalism, bestiality, pedophilia, incest. Only those at the top can enjoy “total freedom” because they have the power, money, and influence to get away with it- not much different from today’s world. The concept of total freedom means misery for the majority of people. It is difficult to know how to take De Sade in his writing. Does he believe it? Is he explaining a mentality that is pervasive throughout his social class? Or did he just feel like taking a giant dump on society? It could be that we are mistaking the man for his work. A person who writes about serial killers, usually is not a serial killer himself. But the whole of his work (not just this book, several more thousands of pages) revolve around these themes, which seems on the level of obsession. So did he truly endorse these concepts, or was it all for shock appeal? Most writers who are trying to peddle an alternative societal lifestyle try to upsell their views, giving them a utopian appeal. De Sade does not. Perhaps his personal views are not important. Perhaps it is all political opinion after all. For one message is consistently clear in his writings. That is, the people who are supposed to protect you from such atrocities are the ones who are inflicting them. And if those who are supposed to be the paragons of society are false, then all ideas of morality must be a farce as well. Thus indulge yourself as much as you like, it won’t matter in the long run. Perhaps the message is even simpler than that. “Might as well be bad, because being good will get you nowhere.” 
It is interesting to note that many of the views he takes (wild and blasphemous at the time) have become embraced by various liberal causes. Abortion is constantly toted by De Sade, though he goes further and says women should have the right to kill their child at any time if they tire of the brat. Atheism is another example. Apparently his belief is that barely anyone believes in the religious myths, but are afraid to say anything. “To what then must we ascribe the existence of this dogma amongst this particular people? Either to the people’s fancy or to the plotting of its priests; these being the sources of superstition, how can you allow them any substance?” And with both of these in hand, comes the general sense that the individual (in this case Julliette) is the center of the universe, and the narcissistic impulse to treat all other people as objects for their sexual gratification. 
The world presented here is a jaundiced view of reality. There is no love, or warmth, or care. It is simply absent. People are there to be used then thrown aside by the powerful. Children are either burdens or instruments of incest for their parents. You are either treated with respect if you have money or a title, or are the dirt beneath the powerful feet. Narcissism is the common denominator. Perhaps this was the way that world was in the privileged upbringing of the Marquis de Sade. In a very real sense this is look at the world view of Hollywood and the entertainment industry. Where else does the aspect of libertinage, as described by De Sade, thrive. Where else are rape, sexual assault, pedophilia, substance abuse, and self-involvement viewed as business as usual as in Hollywood?

           For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Saturday, December 2, 2017

The Foot Doctor Letters (Horror)

Here is chapter one of the new novel The Foot Doctor Letters: A Serial Killer Speaks Out. The plot probably seems self explanatory: a serial killer describes how he became one.  It is available on Amazon in paperback and digital format. Enjoy and Caveat Emptor!

1 - Dear Dan

It’s been awhile. How are you? I suppose you might not want to hear from me, but I have a few things I want to explain. You’re my oldest friend. As far back as I can recall you’ve been in my life. I don’t even remember how we met, you were just always there-in the best days.
I have no real memories from my early life, just sensations. The sounds of screaming and cursing, and breaking glass, and dull thuds of flesh on flesh. The smells of blood and vomit and pungent alcohol. The feeling of a hard slap and the ache of a solid fist. All of that filled me up before I could walk.
My first solid memories were those days of kindergarten when you and I would run around, up and down the block, playing hide and seek, and freeze tag, and horse, and shoot the badger. There was that one time when I slipped while scampering up a tree and my ankle got caught on the crotch of a forked branch. Remember the sound of the snap, loud as a pistol crack? I hung there one foot straight up, like the Hanged Man from a tarot deck, until your mother came out and got me down. She stayed with me as I whimpered and pushed my head into her fat breast, until the ambulance came and I was whisked away to the land of the antiseptic.
Then there were the lazy summer afternoons when the sun beat down and the water boiled up and stepping outside felt like walking through soup? It must have been around kindergarten or first grade, when we played in your driveway and our green army men committed massacre after massacre. Over all of the normal neighborhood sounds, we could hear the jingle-jangle tones of the Mr. Softee truck as it shuddered onto our street. Everything stopped immediately and, tongues lolling about our faces, we galloped to beg for a creamy treat. Your mother always had an extra dollar for me to buy a cone.
Life drifted on; it seemed so long then, but so short now, and we were forced into those horrible days of elementary school, where three times five was a complex mathematical equation. There was that time when we were playing on the seesaw in the park and the Hand of God overtook me. I became flushed with fear and fell from the ride in a rhythmic, frothing fever. My temperature was one hundred and three degrees. No one in my house would get off their asses to pick me up, so your mother volunteered to take me in and be my nurse.
I spent those two weeks in a primordial state, with the Bearded Saints crowded around me, praying to Christ on the Cross for my immortal soul. Their halos glowed and their beards flicked down and tickled my nose. All the while, winged seraphs and barbed devils battled in the background. Your mother stayed with me the whole time. She wiped my nose, wiped my ass, and mopped up my puke. Without her I would have died. No one at my parents’ house seemed to notice my absence.
Then, after first grade, we went to summer camp. Well I almost didn’t because there was no money for little me to stay in the inn. No penance or appeals above or below would shift the wallets of my parents, until your mother offered to help. She scrimped and saved, and cut down on the Fritos and orange tinged soda pop, to raise the money. Do you remember? I hope you do because it was one of the best times in my life. It is special to me and I want it to be so for you too.
And oh, oh, oh remember all of the impromptu sleepovers which happened whenever my mother was having one of her little spells and needed some “special alone time” and my father was out doing whatever. They usually happened when my brother was in prison. One time in particular sticks out. It was when my brother was locked up for public indecency and corruption of a minor, I’d had some very special bad dreams and ended up peeing all over my sleeping bag. I went to your house crying at two o’clock in the morning, my Underoos soaked and stinking. Your mother woke up and saw me and changed my clothes. She held me close and said, “Everything will be all right, baby.” Then I asked her if she could be my mommy and she just smiled and hugged me again. How silly we were then.
For a while I lapsed and stopped believing in Angels and God and the Bearded Saints, because my every wish wasn’t granted. We talked about it, with our small understanding of how the world worked, and in the debate you made an excellent point. Just because we couldn’t see them, doesn’t mean the Angels aren’t there, like those insects who live in your eyebrows. It made so much sense that I slapped my forehead over and over again, until you made me stop. Don’t you see? You restored my faith in God and his plans.
There is a confession here I need to make. Something terrible I’ve done to you. I’m telling you this so you will believe what I say later is the truth and we can have a clean slate. Remember the cat you had, Poxer? The calico with orange stripes across its face and the weird pattern in the fur on the left side, like a black heart. Why was he called Poxer? I used to know, but I forget. I think it was some word you mispronounced as a child and everyone thought it was cute.
You thought he ran away, except he didn’t. I wanted to know. I was curious and thought, “Why not?” Or perhaps the idea wasn’t really as coherent as that. It was more of a sensation I gave into. Whatever the result, I knew the cat couldn’t tattle.
I took a Swiss army knife my uncle Dick had left in the couch. It was dull and rusty with a cracked brown waffle covering. Looking back, I’m surprised it even worked it was so old. I took the cat behind your garage and cut him right through that black heart. He cried and clawed, and I yelled at him until the blood ran out and he stopped. I looked and saw a few things, then buried him behind the garage and washed myself down with the garden hose.
It was quite a disgusting experience actually. I didn’t like it. Very messy and smelly, with all sorts of slimy things sliding about and getting the blood out took forever. I had a sense of myself very early on and this was not me.
Later on, when you were all looking around for it, I said, “Did you look behind the garage?” and giggled. Your mother gave me a sidelong glance, as if something about me bothered her. I never forgot the look.
Then a turbulent time came upon us. We all graduated to sixth grade and had to go to a new middle school building. And I hated it! No more naps or free time or fun. It was all just class, class, class, then lunch. You had lunch, I didn’t have lunch. They wouldn’t give me a free lunch because my mother wouldn’t send in the paperwork. She said she didn’t want people to think we were poor, so she got me a yellow plastic lunch box and told me to fill it with something in the mornings. The first day I piled Oreos into it and when my mother found out, she hit me with the belt because those were her Oreos. Your mother later noticed the welts on my back and asked why. After that, there was always some food for me in your lunch box, but I think you kept the desserts for yourself.
When we moved from sixth to seventh grade and were put on separate teams, which was even less fun. They stuck me in the “remedial team” or as all the other kids called it, “team retard”. I had no friends in this new group of people. They were all deformed, spacy weirdos. The teachers hated us. Maybe they thought they were wasting their time. The worst was having to deal with that one evil woman, the vile cunt, with all her ugly smells and warty face. You remember her? Mrs. Brockington, the math teacher, and her bad temper.
There was the one terribly bad day, when the clouds blackened in my head and every other second I felt as if I was going to vomit up the handful of stale Cheerios I had scarfed down for breakfast. Mrs. Brockington was unhappy with how messily I had written my multiplication problems. She grabbed my arm and yelled at me. Her disgusting hot breath hit me and sparked a storm in my brain. Like lightning, the idea struck to stab her with the Swiss army knife. Then apparently, I did. I don’t remember really doing it, but it happened, about six or twenty times. I’m not sure. I went at it until I was pulled off her, saturated in blood.
 I was surprised to see they knew who I was down at the police station. I had never been there before, but then I realized I was known via the other members of my family who got out more than me. The cops called me by my first name and had me phone someone. I knew no one would show up from my house, so I called your mother. She came down very nervous-like and brought me some new clothes, as the police had taken away the ones I’d been wearing. She didn’t give me a hug, only stared with that same look again, as if scared by something around me. She just put her left hand kind of near me, so I could feel the heat, but would not make actual contact.
She went into an indoor room with windows and talked to the police for a long time. When they came out, she smiled briefly and then hesitatingly patted me on the arm. For a second, I thought everything would be all right and I could go home. Then they took me away. Now you won’t remember this because you weren’t there, but I wrote lots of letters to you about what happened, which were sent on. At least they told me they were.
After a brief stay in a prison cell where I received no visitors, we went to court. There were lots of talking and sitting around and standing. The people all doing this looked really creepy, like windup toys. A monkey banging his symbols. A plastic dog stiffly walking forward. The clerk briskly rattling off the charges. The stenographer with her teased-out hair lightly tapping in response to the slightest sound.
To keep me quiet, the lawyer gave me some crayons and a few sheets ripped from a coloring book, so I don’t remember much beyond the general stale atmosphere of the room. It was dull, lifeless. Everyone was going through the motions, not really interested in what they were saying or what was being said. The coloring was much more interesting and I spent a relatively happy afternoon carefully shading in between the lines of Donald Duck and his three nephews, and Charlie Brown and Snoopy.
The only specific words I remember are when the lawyer came over and practically stuck his finger in my eye. I don’t think he noticed because he wasn’t looking at me, but gesturing for semi-dramatic effect while mechanically clipping, “Your honor, this boy isn’t here because of what he has done. He’s here because his family is poor. Too poor to afford the help he needs. Can we punish him for that?”
I guess so.
Over the two days we were in court, I looked around and didn’t recognize anyone. I didn’t expect to see anyone from my family, but I didn’t see your mother either. I had assumed she would show up, but nothing.
No one was there for me at all. Then or later. No one but evil faced boys with pink lips who had been beaten and raped their whole lives. They waited inside, just counting the time until it was their turn to get some. No one but droopy-eyed, minimum wage guards who didn’t care what the hell happened as long as it was quiet. No one but exhausted and exasperated social workers with one thousand and one child inmates on their plate. No one but ragged-looking teachers, not good enough for even the ghetto public schools.
All these authority figures said the same thing. They raged and recited platitudes about ideas and morals and themes and pledges. All of them meant nothing. They said the words because it was the official party line. None of them seemed to believe it. Pure regurgitation.
“You are here to fit in with society. So, you can go out and get a good job and have a good life. Do as we say and everything will be all right,” they told us.
I learned very early liars were in charge and the world is rotten because everyone’s too lazy to change it.
The memories keep flooding back. What comes up next is when I was released after a year in the pen. There was no one to meet me except some wrinkly-faced, sour-mouthed battleaxe from Child Protective Services, who coldly dragged me off in a broken-down Honda. She put me into the car seat like I was a thing, a dirty ragdoll instead of a person, and would not look at me the entire trip.
I could feel her disgust towards me. She acted as if not looking at me would cause me to disappear. I wanted to cut her throat. I wanted to stab her eyes. I wanted to make her go away. The whole trip I burned and thought of nothing else.
The social worker took me to a house filled with broken children, both older and younger than myself. All molested and molesters. Each one on a different spoke of the same vicious cycle. The house “parents” were disinterested slobs who always wore dirty clothes. The place was bare, drab, and worn- the thinnest veneer of civilization draped over starvation bones. We had the basics-three hots and a cot. That’s all they had to give us and that’s all we got, and they were constantly annoyed at having to provide even the bare minimum. They took their low pay and let us do whatever we wanted the rest of the time.
I tried to call you, but I had forgotten the number. I walked around the streets a lot looking for your place, but all of the houses were strange and hostile. I wanted to hear your mother’s voice. For some reason, I thought just the sound of it would make the Angels beam down on me again. But that didn’t happen for there was a monster in the house.
His name was Jobiah and he was bigger than me. He had been forcibly removed from his crack whore mother, who had pimped him out since he was five. I remember the way he licked his stupid thick lips and the slow sideways glances he would give me out of his almond eyes and the ugly black birthmark, like a clover, by his left eye. The adults around never knew or cared what he did.
The first time was late at night when I had gone to the bathroom. He followed me out and kicked the door open as I tried to close it. He stuck a towel over my mouth and pushed my face hard against the wall. I tried to struggle, but he kept slamming my head until I was too dazed to fight back. He pulled down my footie pajamas and stuck his knobby penis up into my anus. I remember him grunting and groaning, until his filthy seed had been spent and he left his oily stink all over me. It was my first sexual experience, a homosexual rape.
That was not the only time. Whenever he got me alone and could threaten me with a knife, he fucked me. It got to the point where I stopped struggling and just let him get it over with. I learned to almost stop feeling anything. When he was in me, grunting and sweating, my mind would soar off and take tea with the Bearded Saints, who stroked me and told me it will all be good in the end, everything happened for a reason, and the lights would one day explode revealing the Lord’s smile. Then all of the karmic secrets of the universe would expose themselves for a split second and slip away.
I suppose I should have told an adult, a teacher, a cop, one of the lumps hanging around the group home, but I was afraid and ashamed. I also didn’t think anyone would care. It was easier to pretend nothing had ever happened and throw myself into a fairy tale world where things were nice.
Then one day I was told someone was coming to visit. A song sang high in my soul, because I was sure it would be your mother. I pictured her grabbing me in her arms, hugging me near to death, and holding a swinging purse overflowing with chocolate treats.
But no. Unfortunately, it was just my Mother, the alcoholic whore. Now she seemed different however. Clean and alert, not the dopey crag-faced woman I had seen all of my life. She carried a desperate hope in her eyes and swore to me things would be better. She had found Jesus, or the equivalent thereof, and would be taking me home soon. She hugged me and told me my life would be filled with joy, but I didn’t believe her. Still, I was happy to go for obvious reasons, not the least of which was I would be with you and your mother again.
I had to wait two entire weeks, which to a child is three lifetimes. Sensing I was going to slip out of his grasp, Jobiah increased his assaults, especially at night. I was near despair and half convinced it was all a cruel hoax against me.
Then it happened; the yawning house “father” took me to court and the judge officially remanded custody of myself back to my mother. I was talked about in court, but my name was never used once. My “care and well-being” was discussed as one would talk about raising a ferret, or weeds on the back of a chia pet. No one looked at me. Neither judge, nor jury, nor executioner acknowledged I was there. Except once, when my Mother turned around and saw me, and seemed almost surprised at my presence. She smiled quickly and turned away, back to the more important proceedings of listening to the lawyers drone on. When she smiled, her face crinkled with five thousand lines. For the first time I noticed the sagging flesh on her face and the red unhealthy splotches from decades of chemical abuse. I wanted to throw up right there, but I didn’t.
When it was over, my Mother took me by her puffy hand and led me out. She asked if there was anything else I wanted from back at the group home. No. It could all stay behind and burn. I needed nothing.
Speaking of droning lawyers, I’m going to have to stop here because mine is whining that I’m not paying attention while he’s going over his “strategy” with me. If you ever need a lawyer, do not get Laurence Sims. He’ll get one bad idea in his head and then won’t shut up about it. I’ll write again soon.

Hope you enjoyed it.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Serpent King: Shadow and Light (Science Fiction)

by Brian Barr

  • Publisher: Brian Barr Books (October 31, 2017)
Softcover 305 pages 

This is a great action-packed space opera taking place over two overlapping generations of a world conquering alien family, the Ur. A family shrouded in power, magic, and secrets, which eventually leads to the downfall of their civilization. The struggle presented within these pages is the classic conflict of the old versus the new- or perhaps the old once again becoming new and striking down the existing order. In this case the Naga society is under an insidious and hidden attack by a horde of demons, lurking just outside the bounds of physical reality.
The society is a caste system mixed with a meritocracy with the Emperor and his family on top, the Supreme class just below, the Elites, and then the plebs below. The interesting part is that the meritocracy is based not only on an individual's achievement, but on that person having a competent heir to future serve the society. Thus one could struggle a lifetime, only to lose everything if they produce a loser child. This is a fascinating concept and one that could be explored if the author wishes to add on to this universe in the future.
Author Brian Barr

The culture has an obvious connection to Earth. Their deity is Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent, of the ancient Nahuan, Mayan, and Aztec civilizations. Various interpretations of the deity’s legends exist, but often he is associated with having been conceived in outer space, created the fabled fifth world of the Mayan’s out of the bones of the previous one, and then set himself on fire after possibly having an incestious relationship with his sister. His ashes rose into the sky and his heart followed into space. The legends of his return lead to the destruction of Aztec society.
Additionally, Ur, our protagonist’s family name, is the name of an ancient coastal in Iraq, from around five thousand ago. It is near the city of Uruk, the central city as mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh. It is one of the oldest, if the not the oldest city, build by man. There is also clever use of the caduceus- the heralding staff of the ancient Greeks, often confused with the modern symbol of the medical community (there is a reason for the mix up, but it’s too much to go into here). Here the caduceus is a symbol of evil magic, essentially heralding in the arrival of the new dominant race.

While this is a good story, I wanted to see more of was the history, culture, technology, and customs of this species. We have race that conquers others, Roman Empire style, leaving the titular heads in place as long as they pay suzentry to the lords above, but we don’t have enough on how this great race achieved their first conquest. There is some material present, but it isn’t enough. A society like this should be rich with tradition, or a lack of it as they’ve shunted off the past, or a struggle between the two. This last is somewhat present in the story, but more could have been made of it. As they are alien, I wanted to be immersed in alien ideas and thoughts.

           For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Humbug (2 Volume Set) (Humor)

by Harvey Kurtzman, Jack Davis, Will Elder, Al Jaffee, Arnold Roth

Publisher: Fantagraphics; 1 edition (March 23, 2009)

Hardcover 476 Pages

“We won’t write for morons. We won’t do anything just to get laughs. We won’t be dirty. We won’t be grotesque. We won’t be in bad taste. We won’t sell magazines.” - Harvey Kurtzman
After the commercial failure of his Jungle Book (which I reviewed here) and Hugh Hefner pulling the plug on his glossy magazine Trump (which I will review in the future) after two issues, Harvey Kurtzman had an idea for another Mad clone. This one was a little different however, it was a creator owned humor magazine run by the original staff that made Mad great: Kurtzman himself, Bill Elder, Al Jaffee (who went onto the create the Mad fold out back page), Wally Wood, Jack Davis, Arnold Roth, and Larry Siegel. If any of those name are unfamiliar to you, their work probably isn’t. If you have read a Mad magazine from the later half of the twentieth century or enjoyed any of the old EC horror comics, then you have more than likely seen their material.

Like his previous hit, Humbug satirizes every aspect of American life from sports, to politics, to films, to television, to music, to the idiosyncrasies of American life at that time. Again this is all very similar to Mad, in fact more than similar. In all intents and purposes, it was Mad by another name. So why did it fail after eleven issues?
It failed primarily because all of the people that were involved were writers, artists, and creators,- not businessmen. Financially, they were on shaky ground from the get-go and the market had reached saturation point for magazines earlier in the previous year. Several big name periodicals had gone under, so what chance did a new magazine, a clone of a more popular one, have? Additionally, the size of the magazine presented a problem. Halfway between a comic and a magazine, it didn’t fit with the comics and easily got lost amongst its larger brethren. It was mostly black & white and priced at fifteen cents, whereas most comics were ten cents and full color. Even with the best material at the time, it wasn’t enough.

Reading it now, some sixty years after its first publication, fills me with mixed feelings. The art is excellent, particularly anything done here by Al Jaffee, Bill Elder, or Jack Davis. It is some of the best they’ve ever done but what dates this book is that the humor is too topical. It is trying too hard to rise above being a labeled a Mad magazine rip-off, so it uses a lot of topical humor . However, topical humor is the type of humor that goes stale the fastest. They do include annotations in the second volume explaining what the parody is off, but that dulls the humor rather than accenting it. When you have to explain the joke, it ceases to be funny. And there are just too many references to Confidential (A gossip mag), Sputnik, Dave Beck (Teamster’s Union boss prior to Jimmy Hoffa), and so on.

When dealing with parody there tends to be two types. The first takes the source material and does a funny take on it that stands alone, as in the source is not really needed. Monty Python and Mr. Show did this best. Secondly, there are the parodies which are only funny if you have a passing familiarity with the source material. WIthout that, the entire piece falls flat. This is not something unique to Humbug. A lot of  humor falls by the wayside. Even the still running Mad magazine has a lot of material in its old issues that is stale. From that perspective, you should look at Humbug as a slice of history, a written relic of its time. While it isn’t as humorous as it once was, it still has value of the old days.

           For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Witchlord and the Weaponmaster (Fantasy)

by Hugh Cook 

Publisher: Corgi (December 3, 1992)

Softcover 720 pages

  The Witchlord and the Weaponmaster is the notoriously difficult to find tenth book in The Chronicles of an Age of Darkness series (known as the Wizard War series in the US).  The first edition of it was barely published at all, while the second is available as a print-on-demand novel through Amazon for around $40. I first came across it as a free PDF on the author’s, Hugh Cook, website but that was taken down after his death from brain cancer in 2008.
2nd edition cover
The Chronicles of an Age of Darkness is a series of interconnected books all of which occur at the same time (or roughly the same time) and the events of each impact the others. This leads to some very interesting storytelling as in some cases you saw the impact (it would come across as a rumor in a novel), before the event was described in another book. Each novel centers on a different protagonist and that person would often show up in another novel in a brief reference or as a minor character. So while every book technically stands alone, they all coalesce to make a greater whole- a literary collage.  He must have had one hell of a chart to keep track of it all, but it was one of the things that made this series stand out.
        Originally the series was to be twenty books long, with two additional series planned The Chronicles of an Age of Wrath, and The Chronicles of an Age of Heroes- making for a total of 60 books. Unfortunately poor sales aborted that idea and Cook wrote The Witchlord and the Weaponmaster to wrap up the entire series- after which he put it completely behind him. I had contacted him in the mid-2000s offering to work with him on the series, releasing some more as ebooks – a very new idea then- but he was uninterested. Which is understandable, he had recently been diagnosed with cancer, but he also stated that he had moved past the series. Perhaps that was presumptuous of me, but I loved the world and the characters in it and I did not want it to end- especially not with this novel.
Cover of the 1st book-
American Edition
   I first encountered the series when it was published as Wizard War in the late 80s. I was immediately drawn in by the imagination, scope of the book, and the wonderful descriptions. What attracted me most though was the amorality which hung heavy in the setting. This was no typical fantasy fight against the forces of darkness. The protagonists were not shining examples of goodness and heroism. These were men, neither good nor evil (or should I say, both good and evil), struggling against each other, each with their own agenda. Reading it was a breath of fresh air.  As I continued with the series, I saw how one intimately slid into the other, like a great jigsaw puzzle. In fact there are many little things mentioned in the first and second books which are much larger deals in the tenth. Cook really did construct a beautiful literary architecture.
2nd book- Original cover
           The Witchlord and the Weaponmaster centers around the character of Guest Gulkan- The Weaponmaster, also known as The Emperor in Exile- and his father Onosh Gulkan – The Witchlord- as they rule their empire, lose it due to internal strife, then attempt to regain it. Guest Gulkan has appeared as a minor character in several other novels- The Wordsmiths and the Warguild (book 2), The Women and the Warlords (book 3), The Walrus and the Warwolf (book 4, though he isn't named) and The Wishstone and the Wonderworkers (book 6)-  always with a sinister agenda which is finally revealed.  He begins the novel at the age of 14 (earlier than any other story in the series) and ends with his quest for power uniting many of the plot elements of the series. His eventual success is of a different order from that of the previous protagonists, giving him enough control over his world to change it entirely and shows us the end of the Age of Darkness- and probably therein lies the problem with this book.

2nd book- American cover
  I had several problems with this novel. The first being, despite its length (724 pages), it appears to be hastily written. There is a great deal of repetition of past events (some of them which happened only three or four pages earlier) and the titles of characters (some of which are quite long). Often the same information is repeated almost word for word on the same page. It seems very sloppy, almost like a first draft. An odd thing is that this repetition appears to have gotten worse between the first and second editions. I know when he re-edited the book he was suffering from brain cancer and had vision problems, but it still needed to be smoothed out. He obviously just wanted to get it over with. Perhaps it's understandable with his dreams of a huge series blowing up. 
3rd book- Original cover
        This is also probably the only book in the series which could not be read as a stand-alone book. A lot of the action that we get is either covered entirely in other novels or is skipped over in a few lines. Especially towards the end, the entire story mostly relates Guest zipping to and fro across the world, stopping some place for a few years (covered in a few pages), and then moving on. It wraps up the series, but is not a good story by itself. It feels more like a synopsis in many places.

3rd book- American cover
And because of this, the character of Guest is not very fleshed out. He’s just there. We are told of how he grows and changes, but we don’t feel it. Everything is hastily assembled. The opening of the book is the Collisnon Empire, also the setting for the third book. In the previous novel we get a real feel for this land. It is very distinct, filled with old customs and its own sense of history. All of this is missing here. It feels like just some generic country, not the interesting place described before. The flavor is missing from this novel and we are left with a bland concoction.
            Again I love this series and I’m happy I have this book. It’s simply that the last of the novels is also the least of them.

           For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst.