Stephen Fabian: An Artist Who Needs More Love

Stephen Fabian 01Many years ago, while stationed in Wildflecken, Germany, I bought the 2nd Edition AD&D new boxed set of the Ravenloft  role-playing game campaign setting.   I was exposed to artwork from an artist heretofore unknown to me: Stephen Fabian.  These were in the days where game companies couldn’t really afford to get much in the way of color interior artwork.  All of it was, with rare exceptions, black and white.  This didn’t mean there weren’t some damn fine artists putting out illustrations, but most game designers were smaller companies who didn’t have a stable of artists who could paint interior illustrations on a whim (and computer illustrations were purely theoretical.)Stephen Fabian 02

Along comes Stephen Fabian.  He had done illustrations for TSR (the creators of D&D before being absorbed by Wizards of the Coast,) but the Ravenloft setting allowed him to really shine.  For those unfamiliar, Ravenloft is a world setting for D&D that is essentially a combination of dark fantasy and Gothic horror.

Stephen Fabian 04Most of the other artists employed by role-playing games came from a more comic-book tradition.  Fabian, on the other hand, was very much a pulp illustrator.  He did very little line work, and instead he used solid whites and darks with gorgeous gray washes.  Where washes weren’t used, he would use stippling instead of hatching.  The moody and dark tone worked perfectly with the setting.

I had never seen anything like it before and fell instantly in love.  I snapped up every Ravenloft supplement I could find, and Stephen’s illustrations were a big reason.

Stephen Fabian 03 Stephen set a new standard in an era of very little experimentation in rpgs, as did the Ravenloft setting (most younger gamers have no idea how much Ravenloft shaped a lot of monsters they’re familiar with, especially undead–but that’s another subject.)  Stephen’s stark,eerie style struck just the right note.  He was also fond of graphic flourishes, such as stylistic borders and icons relevant to the subject material.  It turned mere game books into pieces of art.  He even did the illustrations for an entire deck of cards in the Tarot tradition called the “Tarokka” deck.

I discovered later that Stephen was no newcomer to the illustration field, and had been doing illustrations to fantasy and science fiction since the sixties.

Stephen Fabian 05He’d done illustrations for various pulp writers, such as Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, and A. Merritt and older writers such as William Hope Hodgson.  I dug up whatever artwork I could find and ordered an art book from Bud Plant.  His scope of work was impressive and he had been favorably compared to Virgil Finlay.  Virgil’s influence on Stephen was apparent and it definitely fit with his pulp style.

I haven’t seen many new projects since his memorable run on the early Ravenloft products.  He’s been nominated for a Hugo Award and in 2006 received the World Fantasy Award for lifetime achievement.

Stephen Fabian 06If you’re at all a fan of classic illustrations styles, pulp styles/subjects and an eerie, ethereal style, you should check out Stephen Fabian’s artwork.

 

 

 

 

 

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H. P. Lovecraft: The Dunwich Horror and ‘Getting’ Lovecraft

Dunwich Horror 01H.P. Lovecraft has achieved a modern cult status among horror fans through several sources.  I find a great deal of the people who talk about him, haven’t actually read his original material.  They’ve been exposed to the whole Cthulhu Mythos from other media.  Pop culture has created an entire Cthulhu brand name.  Just this evening I discovered that there are “Cthulhu Mints” at a local candy store.  I’m sure plenty of people have seen Cthulhu plush toys.

To be fair, Lovecraft isn’t the most accessible writer.  His style is ponderous, verbose and filled with arcane adjectives.  I can sympathize.

 

His horror fiction isn’t really ‘scary’ per se (with a couple of exceptions.)  What he does excel at, however, is creating a disturbing mood.  A feeling of uneasiness that he crams down your throat by seeing the events through the eyes of another character, who is often willfully ignorant of weird events, because they’re unable or unwilling to acknowledge the events.  They go through mental gymnastics to escape the awful truth.

His strongest works, in my opinion, are The Colour Out of Space, The Shadow Out of Time, and The Dunwich Horror.  I tend to enjoy Dunwich the most, since he takes the ‘unseen horror’ to a new level.  It, like Colour, it takes place in a backward, rural society in New England.  The claustrophobic nature of this insular society is a staple of Lovecraft.

Dunwich Horror 02I, like many people, got my first education in Lovecraft via role-playing games.  In the old 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Deities and Demigods books there was a set of the Cthulhu Mythos, illustrated by Erol Otus.  The mythology was put into an AD&D product for some reason, even though it doesn’t really fall into the ‘high fantasy’ or ‘heroic fantasy’ line of fiction.  Although, interestingly enough, the Conan sword and sorcery series does technically take place in the same universe as Lovecraft’s cosmic horrors.  This is actually not as strange as it sounds, as there was a definite aura of nihilism and dark horror in the original Robert E. Howard books.  The two authors were actually pen pals and swapped ideas.

In any case, Lovecraftian fiction mixing with Tolkienesque elves, dwarves and halflings doesn’t work easily.  It certainly didn’t give me a decent understanding of Lovecraft, nor was it easy to find copies of Lovecraft’s stories at the time.  Ergo, I ended up with a distorted view of his works until many years later when I actually read them.  Even then, I didn’t start to ‘get’ Lovecraft until I read The Dunwich Horror.

Dunwich Horror 03Lovecraft has two great strengths that were brought to the fore in Dunwich: establishing a disturbing background and keeping the horror hidden for most of the time.  In this case, it was impossible to see the final horror and its worst aspects are seen through its deeds in a slow, increasing fashion.  Even throughout its rampage, Lovecraft keeps building on what else is worse out there.  There are terrible things out there and they’re quite literally incomprehensible.

If you take Lovecraft’s monsters out of their element, they don’t work nearly as well.  Is a shoggoth horrifying?  Sure, but not nearly as much without its build-up in At the Mountains of Madness.  Lovecraft’s setting and mood sells them, the same way he sells Wilbur’s brother in Dunwich.  When I put down the book, Lovecraft’s ‘package deal’ clicked.  I got it.

Sadly, I only see a minority of fandom out there who ‘get’ it.  Modern fans are used to seeing the horrors in great, High-Definition, 3-D detail.  Lovecraft understood that the human mind will always come up with a worse horror without seeing a thing.  Once you see the horror, no matter how awful, at least you know what you’re up against and can try to deal with it.  The unseen, cosmic horrors of Lovecraft are beyond that.  You simply can’t deal with them because you only catch glimpses of them.  The horror comes from what they do or (more often) what they suggest about the nature of reality.

Dunwich Horror 04Lovecraft isn’t for everyone.  If you have a low tolerance for a kind of fatalistic nihilism, you’re liable to avoid Lovecraft.  There aren’t any heroic efforts or happy endings.  The best the protagonists usually do is merely escape the ancient horrors that still lurk within the outer dark, or a brief pause before the ultimate doom wipes mankind from the face of the Earth.

It’s also difficult to translate Lovecraft into Hollywood movies.  They’ve been mostly quite bad, with such crap as Die, Monster, Die!, The Haunted Palace, The Necronomicon and–unfortunately–The Dunwich Horror.

Dunwich Horror MovieIt’s worth seeing–once–at least for the oddball nature of Dean Stockwell and Sandra Dee in a Lovecraft adaptation.  It’s not a completely terrible movie, but it’s definitely a terrible Lovecraft movie.

There have been better Lovecraft movies, but I plan on talking about them in a future post.

The Lords of Dus by Lawrence Watt-Evans

Lawrence Watt Evans BasiliskThe Lords of Dus were the first fantasy novels I ever read by Lawrence Watt-Evans–way, way back in the early 80s.  I’d seen the four novels sitting on the rack at Waldenbooks for a while and finally decided to give the first one, The Lure of the Basilisk, a try.

Lawrence hooked me right from the start.  He had a way of making even the mundane interesting as his inhuman protagonist “Garth” tried to navigate a human world.  (Apparently he named the character “Garth” because he had only slits for a nose like the character “Simon Garth, the Living Zombie” from Marvel Comics.)  The character is far different from most fantasy antagonists up to that point, as he was entirely inhuman–an “Overman” that had been created by magic as soldiers in ancient wars.

What truly hooked me, however, was that unlike most of the fantasy epics I’d read before, Garth didn’t have some mystical ‘gift’ or ‘insight’ that allowed them to pluck a magic sword or toss a magic ring.  No, he just cobbled together solutions out of whatever makeshift plans or ideas he could come up with.  He got things done, but it was usually messy and haphazard.  Like Indiana Jones’s line from Raiders of the Lost Ark: “I’m making this up as I go.”  It did turn out later that Garth had a mystic ‘destiny’–but the destiny kinda sucked and it was completely unwanted.

This was the norm for Lawrence’s characters.  Courtesy of stumbling and seeking, they found their ways through tough situations by improvisation, stubbornness and wits.  The solutions usually weren’t perfect, but they would get them done.  This is what endeared me to him, and still does.  He has definitely influenced my style of writing and character development.

Lawrence Watt Evans Altars Lawrence Watt Evans Sword Lawrence Watt Evans Book The series incorporates a lot of fantasy cliches but manages to turn them on their head in most respects.  Mystic destiny?  Yes, but it’s mostly an unwanted curse that will kill a lot of people.  Rescuing a maiden?  Yes, but as an Overman, Garth has zero romantic interest in her.  Great quests?  Yes, but they’re never what they seem and wreak havoc on innocents.  A powerful wizard as a patron?  Yes, but he’s an apathetic nihilist.  Etc., etc.

If you crammed together elements of Robert E. Howard’s Conan, Moorcock’s Elric, and some wry snippets of L. Sprague de Camp’s characters, you might get a rough estimate of what this series is like.

It’s well worth reading.  If you like these, you’ll enjoy the Ethshar series by Lawrence.

 

 

Roger Zelazny and The Chronicles of Amber

This is my first post in a long time, and I apologize.

Amber-Nine Princes in AmberAmber-The Guns of AvalonAmber-Sign of the Unicorn

Amber-The Hand of OberonAmber-The Courts of Chaos

Okay, I wanted to talk about a subject and individual I care deeply about–The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny (May 13, 1937 – June 14, 1995.)  Usually the response I get from people–especially younger ones is: “Who?  What?”

This is rather depressing since I consider him one of the 20th century’s greatest masters of fantasy.  He has one of the most unique styles of anyone I know and came up with an entire genre of fantasy which had nothing to do with elves, dwarves, hobbits, etc., yet remains virtually unknown outside of fandom.  The closest he’s come to real fame was a horrible movie adaptation of his 1967 novella, Damnation Alley which he later expanded into a novel for the movie.  There was also the attempted adaptation of his novel Lord of Light which was never produced due to legal problems, but elements of the film, including concept drawings by Jack Kirby were later used by the CIA in an operation to smuggle people out of Iran during the Iranian Hostage Crisis in 1979.  The fake movie was renamed Argo and a film concerning the events was filmed in 2012.

Other than those undistinguished blips, he’s virtually unknown outside of fandom.  This is a crime, since the man was brilliant.  Foremost among his achievements is the creation of the Amber series of novels.  This is a fantasy series which is breathtaking in scope and yet a personal squabble between family members.  It starts out fairly straightforward and then spirals off in directions which you never would have guessed.

What I usually say to people when I try to describe it is: “It’s a family of Machiavellian demigods fighting a war for the seat of creation–and that’s just the first book.  After that, things get really interesting.”

I consider my writing most strongly influenced by Zelazny and if I could be half the writer he was, I would consider my life complete.

What made me bring this up and make a blog post about it was the news that apparently, after many, many decades, it appears that The Chronicles of Amber is going to make its presence felt on television.  I am both delighted and horrified by the prospect.  Delighted, in that maybe there will be a chance for this man to received the accolades he’s due, yet horrified that they’ll screw it up.  I am glad to see Robert Kirkman of Walking Dead fame producing, so that fills me with some optimism.  I know George R.R. Martin considers Game of Thrones inspired by Amber.

But don’t wait for an Amber series.  Go out and read them yourself.  There are ten of them in two story arcs.  The first five are generally considered superior, but I thoroughly enjoyed all of them.

Haven’t updated in a while . . .

Apologies with my long hiatus.  Been rather busy doing other things.  Ten chapters into a new book The Clockwork Cavalier.  It’s a steampunk novel that emerged from a fairly simple premise/concept.  A variation on ‘a boy and his robot’ done with a clockwork automaton.  Actually had two false starts on novels.  I got several chapters into both my horror novel Hell’s Subdivision and an urban fantasy/horror called Lodestone.

Just put a bunch more paintings on the color gallery.  Should have a few more in a few days.  Here’s one:

Fire in the SnowI have another idea for a ‘Moment of Coolness’ and hopefully I can find a video clip for this one.  Every one I’ve looked up has been conspicuously missing.

Moments of Coolness #3: Wrath of Khan first skirmish

Okay, for you youngsters out there you might not realize how groundbreaking Wrath of Khan was.  You just see the repeated jokes with Shatner screaming “KHAAAN!” and not think much more of it.  See, thing about it is, back in 1982 when it was first released, it hit like a bomb.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture had come out three years earlier and was a snoozefest.  Sure, it looked pretty and it was pretty cool seeing all the characters back together after over a decade but essentially it was just Paramount trying to capitalize on the sudden boom in interest in Sci-fi movies after Star Wars had taken the world by storm.  Suddenly they were a bankable commodity instead of ‘B’ movie fodder.

Anyway, I wasn’t exactly chafing at the bit to see the sequel.

I changed my mind in a hurry.

First thing that hit me was that they were wearing uniforms–that looked like military uniforms.  They weren’t wearing t-shirts or leotards–they were in uniforms.  Second thing was that the ship and sets had a definite look of grim, military purpose to them.  They weren’t day-glo lit and friendly–they meant business.  Third, the movie had a definite brutality that had been lacking.  People bled, burned and died in some hideous fashions.  It hearkened back to the more martial episodes of TOS like “Balance of Terror” except it was taken to the next level.

I think these elements sparked my interest in military sci-fi and such authors as Pournelle, Drake, Weber and others.

The opening skirmish with Khan encapsulates all these elements perfectly, along with some grim humor and cleverness.

Lastly, in what might seem a trivial matter to a generation brought up on CGI effects, was the problem of the special effects.  There hadn’t been an actual space combat in the new ST universe and no one was quite sure how they were going to do it.  Everything was filtered through the behemoth known as Star Wars at the time.  It had to be as interesting and as flashy as SW but it had to be true to the source material.  How were they going to do the phasers?  How would the ships move?

The special effects crew outdid themselves and it set up a new standard.  The power of the scenes still holds up even after 30 years.

Very annoying

The last three subjects for my “Moments of Coolness” have been frustrating.  I haven’t been able to find video footage of any of them and I would rather not upload and edit a few minutes of a movie just to accompany my article.  Unfortunately, I may have to at some point.

Vexation

I’ve got another ‘Moment of Coolness’ I want to do but I can’t seem to find a video clip of the scene.  There have been some but they’ve been blocked by Sony pictures.

Not sure why, considering the movie wasn’t exactly a blockbuster and wasn’t all that good.  How very annoying.  I suppose I can upload the movie and put the clip in but I don’t want Sony attacking me.

Grrr . . . !

Moments of Coolness #2: Uncanny X-Men #108–Wolverine punched into orbit.

Okay, this pivotal moment in my childhood was in 1977.  For those geeks out there, you’ll remember this was the year Star Wars hit the screen–and all the titanic cultural baggage that followed.  I was deep in comic books at the time, although I found it difficult to keep up with regular issues and I was easily distracted with cool covers and such.

But I do remember being hypnotized by X-Men very quickly.  Maybe it was the bizarre character designs or the trippy stories, but I was hooked.  Dave Cockrum had handled the art chores quite competently for several years and was no slouch.  However, to this day I remember the instant I fell in love with the John Byrne/Terry Austin combination.  It was their first issue: #108.  The X-Men had been teleported to another galaxy where they were fighting to keep a nutbar emperor from destroying the universe.

Last issue the X-Men had fought the Emperor’s “Imperial Guard” who were a bunch of super-powered soldiers who outnumbered the X-Men by a large number.  They’d held out for a while before numbers and power were overwhelming them.  They were saved at the last minute by the Starjammers and pulled a win.

Background stuff:  The Imperial Guard were actually a thinly-veiled ‘homage’ to DC’s “The Legion of Super-Heroes”.  My assumption was that this was done either at the urging of Dave Cockrum (who drew The Legion for several years) or as a nod-and-a-wink to Cockrum before he quit X-Men.

I leave Legion geeks to figure out which one is which.

Anyway, they figure they’ve got the emperor where they want him until the big gem he’d been trying to use starts to cause reality to ‘blink’ across the entire universe.  It’s about this time that a little, Muppet-lookin’ critter called “Jahf” jumps out of the gem and says how he’s the guardian of the gem and he’s going to kill them all.  Jahf is one of Byrne’s quintessential creations and looks kind of cool even through he doesn’t look threatening.

So Wolverine isn’t too impressed by Jahf (probably because he’s the only villain they’ve run into who’s shorter than Logan,) and talks smack to him.  What happens next is . . . well, take a look:

Wolverine can break orbit faster than Superman–provided one gives him a boost!

I remember the smug look, the rearing back of the fist and the big “POW!” that filled the whole panel.  Not only was this a moment of sublime coolness (punched into orbit?!–AWESOME!) but it really featured Byrne’s narrative art skills.  I have never forgotten this one page and it’s been (Dear God!) thirty-six years!

Moments of Coolness #1: Golden Voyage of Sinbad Kali fight.

Alrighty.  This whole exercise in “Moments of Coolness” is essentially to find snippets of movies, television shows, comics, books, etc. where I’ve experienced a sublime moment of coolness.  Sometimes it’s from a very good movie, etc.–and sometimes not.  Sometimes a mediocre or wretched piece of cinema or piece of art has a moment where they surpass everything else before or since within the piece.  Everyone has these ‘moments’, I believe.  Some are universally shared in pop culture and others are not.

To begin, I’ll share a moment from one of my favorite movies: The Golden Voyage of Sinbad.  This Ray Harryhausen gem is from 1974 when I was a mere 6 years old.  I don’t believe I saw this one in the theater–but I might have.  The memories are a tad dim.

Anyway, this is essentially a ‘B’ fantasy movie that gets almost everything right.  John Phillip Law plays our title protagonist, Caroline Munro plays the love interest (and gets to constantly show off her impressive and well-oiled cleavage) and Tom Baker (yes, that Tom Baker!) is the villainous Koura.  Apparently this role was what convinced the BBC to allow Tom to take over the role of the fourth incarnation of The Doctor on Doctor Who.

John Phillip Law had few other notable roles in his career and Caroline Munro was mostly known as a model and a Hammer Girl.  So this movie is basically a bunch of unknowns or B-listers.

And it doesn’t matter in the slightest.  It starts off grand and only gets grander.  Few of the actors have much resemblance to Arabic sailors, mind you, but they try the accents as best they can.  Hey, it was the seventies.

As much as I’d like to go on at length about the movie in general, my ‘moment’ comes near the end.  Koura has been gloriously chewing scenery through the movie up to this point.  Koura and his man-servant have been looking for the movie’s MacGuffin (three magic golden tablets) in competition with Sinbad and company.  They’ve reached the lost land of Lemuria in search for the last tablet and gotten ahead of Sinbad through some alchemical skullduggery.  They’re captured by a bunch of green-painted (or maybe they were supposed to be green-skinned–not sure) natives who are getting ready to sacrifice them.  Koura–nobody’s fool–smacks a stone statue of Kali with a vial of magical goodness and animates it.  The natives grovel to this wonder as Kali dances at his whim.  He eventually bores of this, commands it to stop and sends the natives away so he can search their shrine for the last tablet.

So Koura is tearing up the place, chewing scenery and generally acting like a good villain should act when Sinbad and company catch up with him–apparently alone.  Sinbad has a bit of a bone to pick with him since he had tried to murder him a couple of times.  But, being a good guy, he tosses Koura a sword and announces: “To the death!”

Koura agrees and tosses the sword to Kali, who catches it and proceeds to spring identical swords from each of her six hands!  Yikes!

The situation instantly changes.  Sinbad thought he had Koura exactly where he wanted, only to find he was facing a giant, homicidal, fantasy-equivalent of a Cuisinart.

Now the really cool part.  Nobody says a word.  Sinbad and Kali circle one another while the rest of Sinbad’s crew looks on in horror.  Sinbad doesn’t look frightened or panicked as he faces this death machine.  They pace back and forth . . . the music builds . . . is he crazy enough to fight this thing?  The music reaches a crescendo, Sinbad reaches a decision and the fight begins!

I won’t try to describe the rest of the fight–as cool as it is–but that one moment was just an electric moment as a child.  Because damn, that thing looked mean!  And the method used in the scene was something you rarely see today.  The director just let the tension build with zero dialogue.  Everyone knows what the score is.  There’s no need for dialogue for those moments.  He lets it ride.  And it works beautifully.

I’d like to see a modern director do something as cool.

Anyway, for those of you who’ve never seen this movie, I can’t recommend it highly enough, for Harryhausen’s effects and Tom Baker’s over-the-top villainy if nothing else.