Something to Do with Deathlessness, Part Three: Splintered Shards of Time’s Reflection

Part One: Violence Reigns

Part Two: Eyes We Dare Not Meet in Dreams

Sergio Leone’s 1972 film Duck, You Sucker was released as Once Upon a Time, the Revolution in France. Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane, like Leone’s Sean Mallory, is a revolutionary, the very first revolutionary, and might nod understandingly at Mallory’s confession that “When I started using dynamite I believed in many things, all of it. . .Now I only believe in dynamite,” but Once Upon a Time, the Revolution works better as an alternate title for the 1979 Conan novel The Road of Kings than for any Kane story. Wagner wrote two Howard pastiches that redeemed the very concept of a Howard pastiche, and if The Road of Kings does not quite measure up to Legion from the Shadows it is in no small part because it is not the novel he had in mind. Just as Duck, You Sucker was a movie that Leone planned only to produce — in his head and heart he was already hard at work on Once Upon a Time in America — until the prospect of a walkout by Rod Steiger and James Coburn forced him back into the director’s chair, The Road of Kings is a fallback option, a salvage job necessitated by L. Sprague de Camp’s veto of Wagner’s original idea. The usurpation epic Day of the Lion was smothered in its cradle to make room for de Camp and Carter’s War-of-the-Roses-with-plastic-petals Conan the Liberator.

Duck, You Sucker was conceived as a riposte to spaghetti Westerns like Damiano Damiani’s A Bullet for the General or Sergio Corbucci’s A Professional Gun and Vamos a matar, compañeros, all of which involve uneasy alliances between cynical gringo or northern European mercenaries and initially apolitical campesinos who down tools and take up arms in response to injustice. Mallory, Leone’s northern European, is an explosives effort but also a full-time revolutionary, an IRA man with a British price on his head, while Juan Miranda is a bombastic bandit who is duped into a new role as “a great, grand and glorious hero of the revolution.” Wagner’s Northern mercenary is none other than Conan, ideologically naïve — his co-conspirators tease him about there being no word for “republic” in Cimmerian — but not a naïf. As a title, Day of the Lion was intended to evoke The Hour of the Dragon, and Wagner, than whom Howard has had no more alert and attentive reader, clearly picked up on the extent to which Zingara in the REH novel is not post-reconquista Spain but rather the anarchic Mexico of the same period covered by Duck, You Sucker.

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Something to Do with Deathlessness, Part Two: Eyes We Dare Not Meet in Dreams

Part One: Violence Reigns

Part Three: Splintered Shards of Time’s Reflection

For a Few Dollars More is the second film in Leone’s Dollars or “Man with No Name” trilogy and the only one equipped with an epigraph: “Where life had no value, death, sometimes, had its price. That is why the bounty killers appeared.”

They also appear in Wagner’s “Raven’s Eyrie,” the basic situation of which — “ruthless, half-wild outlaws hounded by killers as remorseless as themselves” — recalls For a Few Dollars More, as does the disclosure that “The Combine cities of Lartroxia’s coastal plain had set a high bounty on Kane, and Pleddis meant to claim it.” Colonel Mortimer in the Leone film is out to avenge his sister, who killed herself while being raped by Indio; Ionor, raped by Kane seven years before the events of “Raven’s Eyrie,” does not kill herself but only her maternal instincts while scheming to be her own Mortimer. If Kane seems to be cast in the Indio role in “Raven’s Eyrie,” he behaves like the No Name of For A Few Dollars More in “Sing a Last Song of Valdese,” intervening at the moment of truth to secure another man’s vengeance for a rape and murder. As Leone once said, “An assassin can display a sublime altruism while a good man can kill with total indifference.”

Bounty killers presuppose the existence of men on whom a bounty can be collected, and due to costuming and casting constraints and perhaps a venerable European susceptibility to New World noble savages, spaghetti Westerns tended to ignore Indians and the skirmishing associated with John Ford’s cavalry films in favor of bandits by the dozens and hundreds. Wagner’s repertory company is also chockablock with desperados. In “Sing a Last Song of Valdese” we meet Mad Hef, who is by no means resigned to his capture by Ranvyas the ranger: “There was other smart bastards all set to count their bounty money, but ain’t one of them lived to touch a coin of it.” Hechon in Bloodstone doesn’t know enough to get out of Kane’s way, and Grey’s bandits in “Lynortis Reprise” are particularly Leone-esque: “A circle of grinning wolfish faces, casually moving in across the space of washed stone and dry bones.”

Orted ak-Ceddi in Dark Crusade could be straight from an Italian Western — “for all his pose as a popular hero and champion of the downtrodden, Orted the bandit chieftain had been a ruthless outlaw who left a wake of murder and rapine wherever his band passed through” — and just as Indio’s dependence on marijuana was a departure for a Western in 1965, Wagner’s matter-of-factness about “the tingling rush of cocaine” after Orted has “snorted, sneezed, [and] swallowed” marked an arrival: sword-and-sorcery had caught up with the Seventies.

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Something to Do With Deathlessness, Part One: Violence Reigns

Part Two: Eyes We Dare Not Meet in Dreams
Part Three: Splintered Shards of Time’s Reflection

[On October 13 it will have been 14 years since we lost Karl Edward Wagner. On April 30, 2009 we will have had to do without Sergio Leone for 20 years. These are wounds that don’t heal, absences that are always present, and what follows is an attempt to honor both men by way of a two-great-tastes-that-taste-great-together approach]

In his own way he is, perhaps, the most dangerous man who ever lived!
(From the United Artists advertising campaign for the 1967 American release of A Fistful of Dollars)

Once upon a time, two genres got the troublemakers and Maker-troublers they deserved. What Sergio Leone did with — and to — the Western, Karl Edward Wagner did with and to modern heroic fantasy. Both men toyed with clichés and conventions cat-and-mouse–style, and both subjected the phatic discourse of the retread and the rehash to brutal interrogations. Neither, however, was simply a revisionist. Leone and Wagner came not to revise but to revive, and where the revisionist impulse often expresses itself in harangues, they favored the parable and silver-scalpeled illusionectomies.

Nor were the two men iconoclasts, except insofar as iconoclasm involves smashing existing sculptures and thus yields detritus from which even larger and more mythic figures can be fashioned. Christopher Frayling, the author of Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys & Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone and Sergio Leone: Something to Do with Death, draws a crucial distinction by describing Leone’s “melodramatic expressionism” as “an act of demythologisation, rather than demythicisation.” Wagner’s Kane and Leone’s pistoleros are liberated from ossified mythologies while suffering no shrinkage in stature. Their mischief-making remains mythic in both reach and grasp, and their anarchic activities cannot be plea-bargained down to hero’s journeys.

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Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance — Plus Bodysnatching?

The tug-of-war for the remains of a fallen champion is a motif as old as the Iliad, and in today’s New York Times Ian Urbina fills us in on just such a struggle for Edgar Allan Poe’s corpse and corpus:

…Last year Edward Pettit, a Poe scholar in Philadelphia, began arguing that Poe’s remains belong in Philadelphia. Poe wrote many of his most noteworthy works there and, according to Mr. Pettit, that city’s rampant crime and violence in the mid-19th century framed Poe’s sinister outlook and inspired his creation of the detective fiction genre.
“So, Philadelphians, let’s hop in our cars, drive down I-95 and appropriate a body from a certain Baltimore cemetery,” Mr. Pettit wrote in an article for the Philadelphia City Paper in October. “I’ll bring the shovel.”
So far, no one has taken up Mr. Pettit’s call for Philadelphia’s best grave robbers to bring home the city’s prodigal son before the bicentennial of Poe’s birth in January 2009. But the ghoulish argument between the cities over the body and legacy of the master of the macabre has continued in blogs and newspapers, and on Jan. 13 Mr. Pettit is to square off with an opponent from Baltimore to settle the matter in a debate at the Philadelphia Free Library.
“Philadelphia can keep its broken bell and its cheese steak, but Poe’s body isn’t going anywhere,” said Jeff Jerome, the curator of the Poe House in Baltimore and Mr. Pettit’s opponent in the debate.
“If they want a body, they can have John Wilkes Booth,” Mr. Jerome added, referring to Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, who is also buried in Baltimore.

In a nation where the next vice president could very well be a politician whose first instinct after taking office as mayor was to ban various books in her town’s library (Which might explain why she attended so many colleges in so few years: she kept being offended every time she ventured into the stacks of the successive institutions of learning), it’s reassuring to see cities fighting over a major writer. Urbina briefly considers the claims of not only Baltimore and Philadelphia but also Richmond and New York (The fact that Poe was actually born in Boston now seems as incongruous as Rusty Burke’s Brooklyn birth).

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Howard on the Menu at the Shagadelicatessen

Decades later it remains a fiendishly effective piece of stage-setting:

For ten thousand years did the Bright Empire of Melnibonè flourish — ruling the world. Ten thousand years before history was recorded — or ten thousand years after history had ceased to be chronicled. For that span of time, reckon it how you will, the Bright Empire had thrived. Be hopeful, if you like, and think of the dreadful past the Earth has known, or brood upon the future. But if you would believe the unholy truth –then Time is an agony of Now, and so it will always be.
Ravaged, at last, by the formless terror called Time, Melnibonè fell and newer nations succeeded her: Ilmiora, Sheegoth, Maidakh, S’aaleem. Then memory began: Ur, India, China, Egypt, Assyria, Persia, Greece, and Rome –all these came after Melnibonè. But none lasted ten thousand years.
And none dealt in the terrible mysteries, the secret sorceries of old Melnibonè. None used such power or knew how. Only Melnibonè ruled the Earth for one hundred centuries — and then she, shaken by the casting of frightful runes, attacked by powers greater than men, powers who decided that Melnibonè’s span of ruling had been overlong — then she crumbled and her sons were scattered. They became wanderers across an Earth which hated and feared them, siring few offspring, slowly dying, slowly forgetting the secrets of their mighty ancestors. Such a one was the cynical, laughing Elric, a man of bitter brooding and gusty humour, proud prince of ruins, lord of a lost and humbled people; last son of Melnibonè’s sundered line of kings.
Elric, the moody-eyed wanderer — a lonely man who fought a world, living by his wits and his runesword Stormbringer. Elric, last lord of Melnibonè, last worshipper of its grotesque and beautiful gods — reckless reaver and cynical slayer — torn by great griefs and with knowledge locked in his skull which would turn lesser men to babbling idiots. Elric, moulder of madnesses, dabbler in wild delights. . .

Very cool indeed. The temporal indeterminacy (borrowed by Robert Jordan?) makes for extra hauntingness, while in the insistence that “Time is an agony of Now” — such a Sixties sentiment — the reader can almost feel the tremors of the coming youthquake. And the “powers greater than men” who step in so banefully, do they echo the Olympians’ animus against Atlantis?

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Habemus librum!

It’s The Arabian Nights meets REH’s Oriental Tales, set in a version of 12th century Cairo that’s still in the shadows of ancient Egypt. It’s got sorcery, baby!

That’s Scott Oden, announcing the completion of his third novel The Lion of Cairo: 126,000 words, none of them wussified. Although his career is still in what a Flashmaniac might call “the earlies,” Scott has already joined Karl Edward Wagner and Charles R. Saunders on the short list of Howardists’ Favorite Authors Other Than REH Himself, and at his blog he reports “IMO, it’s the best thing I’ve ever written, as full of intrigue as it is full of ass-whuppery.”

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