March 13, 2019

Binging on Fiction: A Welcome's Blast From My Geeky Past

Some choice reads from my bookhoard
Know, O prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of… (1)
Eating up a lot of fantasy and fiction of late, I revisited many old favorites, like Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, Ernst Jünger’s Eumeswil, and Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. I also tackled Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, both of which have been on my reading list for some time. 
Every now and then I go through these phases and glut myself on certain subjects or authors until I’ve exhausted the material or been taken with another topic. Inspired in part by the ongoing J.R.R. Tolkien exhibit at the Morgan Library, it was doubtlessly the recent loss of my father that really led me to reading all this escapist material. At first I just wanted something unchallenging, but well written and diverting enough to help distract my harrowed mind, then it quickly snowballed into an expansive menagerie of speculative fiction (Fantasy, SF and Grimdark).
Robert E. Howard’s The Ultimate Triumph, illustrated by Frank Frazetta and The Complete Chronicles of Conan, illustrated by Les Edwards
During this stretch, I especially enjoyed rereading the epic sword and sorcery tales of Robert E. Howard featuring Conan the Barbarian and the last Pictish king, Bran Mak Morn. It’s been awhile since I last leafed through them and almost forgot how graphic and “politically incorrect” they are. Included in these, of course, were the stories by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, who took on the Conan saga, somewhat controversially, after Howard’s untimely death in 1936.
While looking for something new, I unexpectedly stumbled upon L. Sprague and Catherine Crook de Camp’s The Incorporated Knight (Baen Books, 1988) and The Pixilated Peeress (Del Ray Books, 1991), which surprisingly enough are set in an alternative universe where Naples, not Rome, was the seat of Empire. Though they’re nothing like Howard’s pseudo-legendary Hyborian Age, the books are filled with action, adventure, and amusing mishaps and escapades.
Deluxe editions of Robert E. Howard’s Savage Tales of Solomon Kane and Bran Mak Morn: The Last King, illustrated by Gary Gianni
I always liked discovering stories with connections to southern Italy, even tenuous ones, like Mary Shelly’s Victor Frankenstein being born in Naples (2) or Robert E. Howard’s proud kingdom of Aquilonia being named after a town in Avellino. Interestingly, Howard also named his proto-Celtic Cimmerians, the sturdy stock from which the "black-haired, sullen-eyed" Conan sprang, after the nomadic Indo-European tribe of troglodytes who settled in the “lonely lands” of Cumae near Naples. (3)
Strangely enough, I remember seeing both of the de Camp’s books at the Brooklyn Public Library when I was younger and passed them up for others with more appealing (i.e. explicit) cover art. Luckily for me Frank Frazetta, Sanjulián, Gary Gianni and others, illustrated some of the greats, like Tarzan, John Carter of Mars and Solomon Kane. However, one can’t help but wonder what other entertaining reads I missed out on because I didn’t much fancy the packaging. To be sure, this was just one of many unfortunate youthful indiscretions. 
L. Sprague and Catherine Crook de Camp’s The Incorporated Knight and The Pixilated Peeress
Without giving too much away, The Incorporated Knight is the story of Eudoric Dambertson, esquire, a budding nobleman from the Kingdom of Locania. It begins with the enterprising lad setting off on a quest to slay a dragon in the faraway lands of Pathenia, east of the Neapolitan Empire. He hopes the heroic deed, plus two yards of dragon hide, will help him get knighted and win the enchanter Baldonius' daughter Lusina's lovely hand in marriage.
The Pixilated Peeress recounts the tale of Sergeant Thorolf Zigramson of the Fourth Commonwealth Foot and the haughty, yet captivating Yvette, Countess of Grintz. While trying to escape the unwanted advances of Duke Gondomar of Landai, Yvette is accidentally transformed into a cephalopod by the slightly senescent sorcerer, Dr. Bardi. In an effort to change her back, Thorolf undertakes a series of hapless ventures, including a rather disturbing encounter with Bza, a monstrously ugly trolless.
Though not exactly what I was looking for, the de Camp’s books were worthwhile and fun.
A big fan of Marvel's old Savage Sword of Conan comics, I especially enjoyed the art of John Buscema and Tony de Zuniga. The issue on the right was the first comic book I ever bought without parental supervision. Ten-years-old, I used my allowance and it was at John’s Sweet Shop in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn
A welcome blast from my more geeky past, the stories afforded me the opportunity to temporarily lose myself during this trying spell and called to mind a simpler time, when my father use to take me to comic book conventions and flea markets around the city so I can buy old pulp magazines (Savage Sword, Weird Tales, etc.) and paperbacks. What’s more, this interlude has reminded me how rewarding “less weighty” material can be and that I need to make a concerted effort to read more fiction.  
                                         ~ John Napoli, Brooklyn, March 12, 2019, The Feast of San Gregorio Magno
My 1979 Comic Art Con button with detail of the premiere issue of the Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian (August 1974) featuring the Cimmerian and Red Sonja, the "She-Devil with a sword," illustrated by the great Boris Vallejo
Notes:
(1) Robert E. Howard, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” The Complete Chronicles of Conan, 2006
Know, O prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars - Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west. Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandaled feet. ~ The Nemedian Chronicles
(2) Mary Shelly, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, 1831 edition
From Italy they visited Germany and France. I, their eldest child, was born at Naples, and as an infant accompanied them in their rambles.
(3) Homer, Odyssey, Book XI
There, in a lonely land and gloomy cells,
The dusky nation of Cimmeria dwells;
The sun ne’er views the uncomfortable seats,
When radiant he advances or retreats.
Unhappy race, whom endless night invades,
Clouds the dull air, and wraps them in shades.