What I’ve Been Reading Lately: December/2019

Monday, December 16th, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Oden_MenBronzeEDITED“What have I been reading lately, you ask?” Oh. You didn’t say that. Well, I’m going to tell you anyways.  When I ‘get into’ something, I jump in full-bore for a short time: up way past my elbows. That’s how most of my series’ here at Black Gate start. Fortunately, I can be reading a couple different books simultaneously, and I also listen to audiobooks to help cover more ground (though I ALWAYS prefer reading to listening).

SCOTT ODEN

And I recently went on a short Sword and Sandals kick. Scott Oden and I have become friends through our mutual love of Robert E. Howard: he did the “Devil in Iron” entry for Hither Came Conan. I grabbed the digital version of Men of Bronze (a STEAL at $3.99!). It’s historical fiction (non-fantasy) set in 529 BC in ancient Egypt. It’s near the end of the time of the Pharaohs and Egypt is trying to hold off the encroaching Persian Empire. As is often the case with faltering empires, it is relying heavily on mercenaries to keep order.

Hasdrabal Barca is the protagonist; the deadliest mercenary of them all, leading the fight to stop the betrayal of Greek mercenaries, and the ambitious Persians. I had trouble keeping the various names straight, but I very much liked this book. It’s got a grand sweep, and I love Scott’s depiction of Egypt. There’s a rough scene early on, but fortunately, that not the norm for the rest of the book. Much recommended. I also bought his Greek historical novel, Memnon, at the same time (same price). It’s on my massive To Read list.

HOWARD ANDREW JONES

Of course, I couldn’t just read one book of a type, and move on. That’s not me! Howard Andrew Jones was Black Gate’s first Managing Editor (a post recently assumed by Seth Lindberg) and is currently receiving rave reviews for his epic fantasy, The Ring-Sworn Trilogy. I had not yet read his two fantasy Sword and Sorcery novels, featuring the wise and learned scholar Dabir and the brave man of action, Asim (I was not totally unfamiliar with them – more on that below).

So, I got the audiobook for Desert of Souls, the first novel. The adventures take place in a fantasy-real version of Arabia, with sorcery and monsters. And there’s a Robert E. Howard Easter Egg near the end. I like the main characters, and their world, so I have started on the audio book of Bones of the Old Ones.

I had already read The Waters of Eternity; a collection of six short stories featuring the two men. I re-read it, and I actually prefer it to the novels. They are really mysteries, set in that fantasy Arabia. I like the mix of fantasy and detective work, and also the shorter length. You should check them out.

NORBERT DAVIS

For months, I have been listening repeatedly, to an audiobook of the five Max Latin short stories. I simply never get tired of them. The woefully under-appreciated Davis, who I wrote about last week, as well as last year, is on my Harboiled Mt. Rushmore. And the stories about the not-as-crooked-as-he-pretends Latin are the best of the bunch. I listen and read them throughout the year.

I also picked up volumes one and two of The Complete Cases of Bail Bond Dodd, the first series character that Davis created for Dime Detective Magazine. The Dodd and Latin collections are from Steeger Books. You should be reading some Davis.

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A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Spillane & John D. MacDonald

Monday, December 2nd, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

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You’re the second guy I’ve met within hours who seems to think a gat in the hand means a world by the tail.” – Phillip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep

(Gat — Prohibition Era term for a gun. Shortened version of Gatling Gun)

Fans of my writings here at Black Gate (both of you!) know that John D. MacDonald is my favorite author. And I think he’s one of the best in any genre. So today, I’m going to talk a bit about two times that Mickey Spillane, millions-selling author of Mike Hammer, entered into the JDM story.

THE ENDORSEMENT

Especially before the success of his Travis McGee series, MacDonald was “looked down at” during his time because his books were paperback originals. It was rare that he received reviews or high-profile comments. His work sold, but critics ignored it, or dismissed it with a sneer.
Many of his books were published by Fawcett, part of the (still-collectible) Gold Medal paperback line. His first novel, The Brass Cupcake (more on that below) came out in 1950. It was followed in 1951 by Murder for the Bride, Judge Me Not (Hammett-esque and one of my favorites), Weep For Me, and the science fiction novel, Wine of the Dreamers. Which leads us to 1952’s The Damned.

Ralph Daigh, editorial director at Fawcett, let Mickey Spillane read a set of galleys for The Damned. After I, The Jury, in 1947, every other crime writer out there wished he had Spillane’s sales. When the writer came back in to Daigh’s office and returned them, he said, “That’s a good book. I wish I had written it.”

Daigh was a good book man and he wrote it out on a piece of paper and asked Spillane to sign it, which the latter did. And that endorsement was prominently displayed on the cover of the book when it came out.  Spillane’s agent, editor, lawyer (possibly even his pool guy) contacted Gold Medal and said that Spillane didn’t endorse books, and they had to take that quote off of the cover

Unintimidated, Daigh told them all that he had Spillane’s signature, dated, to back it up. They went away. MacDonald remained a fan of Spillane’s.

The book sold two million copies and MacDonald was continuing to hone his novel-writing ability and increasing his sales.  The Damned is as packed full of tension (leading to an explosion) as any book I can remember reading.

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A Trip to Venus

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2019 | Posted by Thomas Parker

(1) the Uffizi Gallery

The Uffizi Gallery

The summer of 2019 is in the books, and for me, the dog days just past were the most memorable of my life. As an elementary school teacher, I have June and July off and as I’ve shared here before, for my summer breaks I have a plan that I never deviate from – I hew my way through a big pile of science fiction and fantasy paperbacks, just like I did during those long-ago vacations when I was a kid.

Why? I won’t deny that stoking the fires of nostalgia plays a big part in it. But beyond that, why do any of us read all this science fiction and fantasy in the first place, instead of, say, westerns or police procedurals or genteel comedies of manners? Your reasons may be different, but speaking for myself, in voyaging to another planet or to a realm of wizardry, I’m looking for some sort of transcendence, some intimation or even confirmation that this routine, workaday world is not all that there is. Ah, but how rarely does any work of fiction truly satisfy that deep desire.

This year was different, though. Instead of galloping through as many pages of pulp as my bleary old eyes could manage, I spent three weeks in Italy, seeing Rome, Florence, and Naples, wearing out my feet and my savings account as well as my eyes. Sorry, Edgar Rice Burroughs; I love you but I finally got a better offer. (I did manage to get some Jack Vance and Brian Aldiss read even in Europe, though.)

Not surprisingly, my trip was full of memorable sights and amazing moments, but there is one that stands head and shoulders above them all, because it supplied in spades that very glimpse into a world of deeper meaning that I’m always looking for in my reading.

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A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Duane Spurlock on T.T. Flynn’s Westerns

Monday, October 7th, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Flynn_DeepCanonEDITEDAnd we’re back live here at A (Black) Gat in the Hand. And we went big, making our first foray into that venerable pulp genre, The Western. I lobbied author Duane Spurlock to join in during the column’s first run, and he decided it was easier to write a post than have me pestering him again. I discovered T.T. Flynn through his Dime Detective stories about racetrack bookie Joe Maddox. But Flynn would go on to a long, successful career writing Westerns. Read what Duane has to tell us!

“You’re the second guy I’ve met within hours who seems to think a gat in the hand means a world by the tail.” – Phillip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep

(Gat — Prohibition Era term for a gun. Shortened version of Gatling Gun)

When we discuss hard-boiled narrative, the default topic typically is crime fiction—usually the pulp-magazine-era tales from Black Mask and its contemporary competitors through the digest era, culminating in the pages of Manhunt and engendering the rise of the paperback original novel. Bob Byrne  has been admirably addressing the earlier realm of hard-boiled narrative in his Black Gat essays.

But hard-boiled writing encompasses more than the works of Carroll John Daly, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and their followers. The western genre is a prime example.

These days, if someone mentions the hard-boiled western, what usually come to mind are the violent Spaghetti Western film genre and the resulting prodigious output from the Piccadilly Cowboys and The Man With No Name novels written by Joe Millard and others. Actually, the western and hard-boiled narrative have a long, intertwined history. It began at least with the novel that launched what we recognize as the literary western romance: the 1902 bestseller by Owen Wister, The Virginian, which includes the famous line, “When you call me that, SMILE!” If that’s not hard boiled, I’m not sure where we’ll go with this discussion.

(1902: Twenty years before Daly published ‘the first hard-boiled story,’ “The False Burton Combs” in Black Mask and before Hammett’s first stories, “Holiday” and “The Parthian Knot,” appeared in Pearson’s Magazine and The Smart Set; twenty-one years before Ernest Hemingway’s first short stories were published in Paris, “Three Stories and Ten Poems“)

Of course, the western and the crime story are closely related: since most involve robbers, rustlers, and murderers, we don’t really need John Cawelti’s The Six-Gun Mystique or Richard Slotkin’s Gunfighter Nation to make those connections. During the pulp era, many writers worked in both western and crime/mystery genres, as a number of contemporary authors continue to do – the late Ed Gorman, Loren Estleman, Bill Pronzini, Robert Randisi, and the late Bill Crider have all created excellent tales in both arenas). Among them was T.T. Flynn, whose writing career began in the 1920s.

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Mourning the Loss of a Way of Life

Friday, July 19th, 2019 | Posted by William Patrick Maynard

REHfrazetta barsoomIt may seem a bit peculiar to write an article about the decline in reading for a site that has done so much to promote the works of writers past and present. Most assuredly, regular visitors to this site are readers. Unfortunately, they are the exception and not the rule in the present day.

During the pulp era, writers were sometimes referred to disparagingly as the Penny-a-Word Brigade. Flash forward to the end of the second decade of the 21st Century and you’ll find far too many pulp writers who would salivate at the thought of earning a penny a word for their efforts. Far too many receive no financial compensation at all, some do not even receive comp copies of their own titles.

The purpose of this article isn’t to disparage small presses that are labors of love for publishers who regularly soldier on year after year failing to turn a profit. When you are a small operation, economies of scale aren’t even a concern. You could publish two dozen titles a year and still lose money. Paying writers or artists is not always possible for those who are in it for something other than financial return.

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A Medieval Castle and Spanish Civil War Bunker on the Outskirts of Madrid

Wednesday, May 29th, 2019 | Posted by Sean McLachlan

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In a previous post about Spanish castles I wrote six years ago, I talked about the Castillo de Alameda de Osuna, a fifteenth-century castle on the northeastern fringes of Madrid. Back then it was rather neglected, standing as an enigmatic ruin in the middle of a field. Now it’s been restored and has opened as a museum.

The site first became important in the 12th century with the founding of two towns in the area, Barajas and La Alameda. Together they became the manor of the Mendoza family in 1369, only to be transferred to the Zapata family in 1406.

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Spectacular Church Frescoes in Valencia, Spain

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2019 | Posted by Sean McLachlan

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In my last post, we looked at some of Valencia’s ancient ruins, but of course this historic Spanish port has more to offer. Perhaps the city’s most impressive sight is the Church of San Nicolás.

Like so many other European churches, it’s built on the remains of an old pagan temple from the Roman times. The first Christian building on the site was founded by James I of Aragon (ruled 1213-1276) and donated to the Dominicans.

In the 15th century, the church was greatly refurbished, taking on a Gothic style and the addition of a rose window.

When I visited a couple of weeks ago, I barely noticed those medieval elements. They’re almost invisible next to the flamboyant Baroque frescoes covering the entire vault. Painted between 1690 and 1693 by Juan Pérez Castiel, these frescoes have been brilliantly restored in recent years.

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Archaeological Discoveries Beneath Valencia, Spain

Wednesday, May 15th, 2019 | Posted by Sean McLachlan

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A portion of the cemetery of Valentia, from the Roman Republic

Last week, work took me to Valencia, a city on the east coast of Spain. Like many Spanish cities, it is built on layers of history, and luckily for the visitor, archaeologists digging under one of the city squares found a rich collection of remains from various periods. These have been preserved as El Centro Arqueológico de l’Almoina.

With some 2,500 square meters of remains uncovered between 1985 and 2005, it displays numerous buildings from the Roman, Visigothic, and Moorish periods. Some of them date back to the city’s founding in 138 BC during the Roman Republic as a home for retired soldiers. The city, called Valentia, expanded with typical Roman efficiency until it was obliterated, with equal Roman efficiency, by Pompey in 75 BC during the Roman civil war. It remained abandoned for more than 50 years.

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The Golden Age of Science Fiction: 2001: A Space Odyssey

Friday, May 10th, 2019 | Posted by Steven H Silver

05-10 2001 1 05-10 2001 2 05-10 2001 3

The Balrog Award, often referred to as the coveted Balrog Award, was created by Jonathan Bacon and first conceived in issue 10/11 of his Fantasy Crossroads fanzine in 1977 and actually announced in the final issue, where he also proposed the Smitty Awards for fantasy poetry. The awards were presented for the first time at Fool-Con II at the Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kansas on April 1, 1979. The awards were never taken particularly seriously, even by those who won the award. The final awards were presented in 1985. The Film Hall of Fame Awards were not presented the first year the Balrogs were given out, being created in 1980. The SF Film Hall of Fame was given to two films each in its first and final years.

Filmed by Stanley Kubrick and based on several short stories by Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: a space odyssey was released to theatres in April of 1968, it was nothing like the B science fiction films which preceded it.  Kubrick, guided by Clarke, attempted to make a realistic portrayal of space flight, even if it did have an ending that would appeal to the drug culture of the period.

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Inquisition Dungeons, Decapitated Heads, and Fighting Gentrification: A Creepy Tour Through Lavapiés, Madrid

Wednesday, May 8th, 2019 | Posted by Sean McLachlan

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“Anarchy in the nursery!”

Madrid is a walkable town. Most of the city’s interesting barrios are clustered close together, and even if you have to take a quick trip on the bus or Metro, you’ll find that each barrio has all you need within an easy stroll. That makes Madrid feel a lot smaller than it is, because you can shop, dine, drink, work, and go to school all in the same barrio.

Several tour companies offer interesting walking tours of the city, focusing on Madrid’s history, nightlife, or culture. The latest addition is The Making of Madrid, which specializes in history. I recently took a tour of the working class barrio of Lavapiés, known for its left-leaning politics and large immigrant community.

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