Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Body Snatcher

Val Lewton's career as a Hollywood producer was dense with classic horror films packed into less than a decade. His films are moody, atmospheric, and infused with an air of gloom. Considered "B" pictures in their day, they've become classics of the horror genre.

The Body Snatcher is a particular treat for the horror fan, as it stars Boris Karloff, with Bela Lugosi in a supporting role. Set in a perpetually overcast Edinburgh in 1831, the story centers on a medical school run by Dr. MacFarlane, a brilliant surgeon. Played by Henry Daniell, MacFarlane is brusque, apparently more used to dealing with the cadavers he dissects than living patients. Dour and impatient, he has set up a scheme where he gets cadavers for his school from a mysterious cabman, Gray, played with impeccable menace by Boris Karloff. How Gray comes by his corpses is of little import to MacFarlane, though the assumption is that Gray is a grave robber. As disrespectful as it is, MacFarlane can at least rationalize that the ends justify the means; he genuinely desires to add to the body, so to speak, of medical knowledge.

The already distasteful situation becomes more complicated as a paralyzed little girl is in need of MacFarlane's expertise. MacFarlane needs to practice a complex spinal surgery that will help the girl. MacFarlane's kind but naive apprentice presses Gray for more cadavers, which sets off a chain of events that make an already dark situation even darker.

This is an unsettling film. Lewton was not afraid to challenge his audience with uncomfortable questions and downbeat endings. Fate and death hang heavy over Lewton's films, and no more so than in this one. MacFarlane's wife, a Highland woman with the gift - or curse - of foresight, sees doom for her husband. Gray's white horse is a portent of death, clopping slowly through the murky night. The shadows never seem to leave, even in the light of day.

Boris Karloff's performance is one of my favorites of his. He looms over the film, his smile an evil rictus, his lined face demonic. Cool, calm, and methodical, he moves slowly and deliberately, an avatar of death, or Death, prowling the streets. He is MacFarlane's conscience, history, and evil nature all in one, forcing the surgeon to confront and embrace his own shadow, driving the plot - both the movie's and MacFarlane's - forward with a profound inevitability. This is Karloff at his best, a true villain, almost supernatural in his ability to evoke dread.

The Body Snatcher is a brief film - 77 minutes - but it is densely packed. It is about death and the dark things that are often necessary for life. It is about where the boundary lies between good and evil, and where the gray area lies between them, and how that gray area changes for the individual depending on circumstances. It is also about the self-destruction that can come when the gray becomes all-consuming, until suddenly it snaps back into focus and one sees they have passed into full shadow.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Return from the Dead: A Brief Review

Return from the Dead is a collection of stories dealing with mummies, edited and introduced by David Stuart Davies. The bulk of the book is comprised by The Jewel of Seven Stars, a book I recently looked at here. The balance of the book is made up of short stories and, in one instance, an excerpt.

The first story, The Mummy, is the excerpted one. It's derived from an 1827 trilogy of novels called The Mummy! A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century, by Jane Webb. It's an imaginative story, with a greened-up Egypt colonized and dominated by Americans and British, and balloon-travelling adventurers arriving at the Great Pyramid to revive Cheops by way of electricity. The tone of the story is both whimsical and sinister, an odd combination. It's a brief glimpse into a larger story that reminds me a bit of Arthur Conan Doyle's Professor Challenger stories some 70+ years later.

Next, Edgar Allan Poe has an entry with Some Words with a Mummy. This story surprised me; given the author, I expected a dark, macabre tale. Instead, I found it to be a satirical piece, with a group of scientists managing to use electricity (again!) to revive a mummy. Instead of mayhem and horror, though, the revived mummy turns out to be an urbane aristocrat of an apparently more civilized time. He proceeds to settle himself into his new time, garbed in finest 19th-century fashion, sipping wine and puffing cigars, and talking down to his saviors. It's a mildly amusing story, infused with the absurd, meant to point up the foibles of Poe's time. I found it a bit tedious, overall, and while I can't fault Poe for a different type of story than I'm used to from him, I was still a little disappointed there was no real horror to be found here.

Arthur Conan Doyle makes the first of two appearances in this volume with The Ring of Thoth. This is a brief mood piece, and manages to pack a good amount of the macabre into its few pages. A student of Egyptology travels from England to the Louvre, where he encounters a strange museum caretaker who tells him a spellbinding story of love and loss and immortality that has become a burden. It's apparent that the bare premise of this story was used for the 1932 film, The Mummy, with Boris Karloff. Doyle's story is tantalizingly short, evoking a sense of wonder and dread. Its melancholy ending seems wholly appropriate. Still, somewhere in the Nile delta there lives an immortal cat...

Doyle finishes up the collection with Lot No. 249. Oxford students meddle with ancient magics, with predictable results. Regardless of predictability, Doyle crafts a well-done, creepy story, with a lot of atmosphere. I have no idea what Oxford is like, especially Oxford of the late-19th century, but Doyle's attention to detail, from descriptions of the architecture to the sports talk amongst the university students, rings true to me. There are some nightmarish moments, too, which are even more horrific because the world and the characters in it are convincing. The ending is, to me, refreshingly amusing in how straightforward it is. I winced a bit, and the words of Indiana Jones rang in my mind as the conclusion drew down - "that should be in a museum!" This was a fun adventure story.

This Wordsworth Edition collection is worth a read. Besides the stories themselves, Davies' introduction is brief but informative, and gives literary and historical context. In addition, this book contains both endings for The Jewel of Seven Stars, which provides the reader a chance to decide for himself which is better - the bleak original, or the more upbeat, but less memorable, revision. What's interesting to me is the implicit paucity of good mummy stories in general, given the selection presented here. Besides The Jewel of Seven Stars, it's a pretty thin volume.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Beyond the Fields We Know: the Southern Reaches of Middle-earth: Far Harad, Greater Harad, Nazgul's Citadel, and Shadow in the South

'I have crossed many mountains and many rivers, and trodden many plains, even into the far countries of Rhun and Harad where the stars are strange.' - The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter II, The Council of Elrond

Far to the South of Minas Tirith, beyond even Umbar, lie the lands where, as Aragorn said, the stars are strange. It is a land of deserts and jungles, where the Shadow has fallen heavily in a land where the Sun shines brightest. This land is Harad.

Harad is a word in the language of the High Elves which means, simply, "South." Also called Haradwaith, or "South-folk" for the people who live there, it must be a wide land, one with many people, as the Dark Lord drew much of his strength from there.

It seems unlikely all Haradrim, the collective word for the folk of Harad, have fallen under Sauron's sway. It seems likely that a struggle was fought there, too, a centuries-old battle between good and evil. The heroes and villains of that battle were never detailed by Tolkien. It's interesting to me to think about that conflict, raging for millennia, with few in the North and West of Middle-earth to mark it, but which directly affected all the Free People of Middle-earth. Great armies marched from Haradwaith, made up of deadly warriors and massive creatures called mumakil or oliphaunts, which were used as living siege engines. These armies helped Sauron almost conquer the world. Perhaps, though, these great hosts were but a portion of the strength of Harad as a whole. Just as Sauron could corrupt even the stoutest hearts, there were those who could resist his offers of power and threats of destruction. No doubt Harad had its share of such courageous folk, resisting the darkness spreading from Mordor. Perhaps, yes, again, perhaps, such folk helped prevent an even more overwhelming force to be drawn North by Sauron. Such an assumption is not baseless; Tolkien was careful to show that even in the midst of darkest evil, there could be found hope and strength. Such a premise is upon which Iron Crown Enterprises based their sourcebooks for Southern Middle-earth: Far Harad, Greater Harad, Nazgul's Citadel, and Shadow in the South.

I am dealing with these book in one post, as a multi-part unit. It was an ambitious undertaking, to derive such extensive amounts of material from as little as Tolkien wrote of the lands in the South of Middle-earth, and keep it true to the spirit of Tolkien's work. It's impossible to know just how close they came to what Tolkien might have done, but I suspect they didn't come close at all. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, and the more important matter is whether they created something that at the least does not conflict with anything Tolkien wrote. In that regard, I'd have to say the project was a success. Regardless, the books go so far afield that I decided to group them into this single post. First up, Far Harad.

Far Harad is based around a relatively fertile, hilly land called Raj, to the South of the great Haradwaith desert. Much of the culture centers on two holy cities, Bozisha-Dar and Tresti.

There is a bit of an Arabian Nights feel to this region, with a tinge of Medieval India, and the architecture resembling that of Native Americans of the Southwest desert regions. It is a land of deserts with hard-packed floors, oases, baked hills, and, oddly enough, a great rain forest just to the north called Suza Sumar. The land is criss-crossed by ancient Numenorean roads, traveled by caravans plying their trade between the larger cities and the numerous smaller settlements and oases. As written, Far Harad seems less touched by the darkness of Mordor than many other regions of Middle-earth. Though it is not entirely free of danger and evil, it seems more a region ripe for desert swashbuckling and caravan guarding by adventurous characters.

That said, though, far to the South and East is a great fortress held by a lieutenant of Sauron, no less than one of the Ringwraiths. During times when the Dark Lord and his minions wax in power, a great force, the Army of the Southern Dragon, is based there. But it seems more concerned with the lands to the East of it. Still, Far Harad may be something of a safe base for adventurers heading even further into the Sunlands. It may even serve as a landing spot and jumping-off point for the forces of Gondor and Rohan when King Elessar and King Eomer head South in the early Fourth Age to vanquish the last remnants of the Dark Lord's forces. Surely by that point those great kings will reward scouts and warriors who have knowledge and experience in the region.
Greater Harad is to the Southeast of Far Harad, across a vast desert land. Its northern and western reaches are blistering deserts, with more fertile lands butting against the mountains in the south, and especially surrounding the rivers that run through the land. The folk seem much like Medieval-era Arab cultures. A vast forest runs along the coastal regions, inhabited by Druadan folk, the same basic race as the Wood Woses who live in a small forest in Rohan to the north. Here, the writers of this sourcebook seem to give these people a culture and appearance much like Amazon rainforest people. Greater Harad is a varied land, one of the more interesting regions climatically and terrain-wise.
The best of an awful series of pictures. The general region can be made out, I hope.
Culturally and politically, the region is dominated by the seven cities of Sirayn, which are colorful, towered, elegant settlements, perhaps some of the most striking cities in Middle-earth.
The region's cities also seem more cosmopolitan than any other cities in Middle-earth, especially in comparison to Northwestern Middle-earth at the end of the Third Age. The Fourth Age, though, may be another matter...
A teeming city of Greater Harad.
It's a big, colorful land, with a sprawling civilization. Bustling trade routes, both on land and the sea, are maintained. Fortunes and fame are waiting to be earned, won, and stolen, for the enterprising adventurer.
A spectrum of cultures, most Mannish, but including Dwarves in the mountains that border the Southern edge of the land, interact and trade with each other. Culture approaches a high point for this entire hemisphere of Middle-earth.

Yet, it is also plagued by the forces of the Shadow, more than just about any other area of Southern Middle-earth. Dark cults worship the Silent One, an aspect of Morgoth, to whom Sauron himself is but a servant. Morgoth was cast into the Outer Dark at the cataclysmic end of the First Age, leaving Sauron to carry on his work of corruption. To see a remnant of his memory remaining in Middle-earth is unsettling. His priests have temples within the cities of Greater Harad, as well as mountain lairs. They hire out as assassins, skulking among the shadows. To the Southwest is a vast mountain fortress where Akhorahil, a one-time Haradan lord and now one of Sauron's Nazguls, gathers great armies of Men, Orcs, and other fell creatures.
A map from Nazgul's Citadel. Ny Chennacatt, the Citadel, is near the southwestern edge of the map. North of the mountains is Greater Harad.
Even in the times when Sauron and his greatest servants are dormant, this place of evil looms in the background of Greater Harad, always a threat. Sauron's reach is long, and his grasp is powerful, witnessed by the forces that marched to his call in the time of Frodo.
 Nazgul's Citadel details the fortress of Akhorahil that threatens Harad. 
It's an impressive book of an impressive place. The size of the place is staggering.
This is just part of one of several levels in the Nazgul's Citadel.
One of many types of towers that bolster the walls and defenses of the Nazgul's Citadel of Ny Chennacatt.
It is also pure folly for players to have their characters attempt to attack or infiltrate the place. But, that's exactly what the draw of the place is - the entire point of games like Middle-earth Roleplaying is daring, or, more to the point, foolhardy, adventures into the unknown, the facing of great dangers in hopes of rich rewards.
Any bad guy with a throne like this just has to have something worth looting laying around somewhere.

It's a complex place. It includes elevators...
"Err, no thanks, guys, I'll take the next one..."
...operated by hydraulic power derived from cisterns.
It's a pretty fancy place, ornately carved and decorated with...
...impressive gates...

...and complex water systems.
It doesn't seem all that menacing from these pictures, but I haven't gotten to the best part...
...a multi-level dragon head carved on the top of the mountain...

...where Akhorahil the Ringwraith can hang out in the dragon's mouth with his favorite Fell Beast.
The place is stocked with traps and troops, and even in fallow periods it would be pretty much a death sentence to tackle the place. It is a great underground city of evil, commanding passage into and out of much of Harad. It is also self-contained, always important in game terms, since the place can be dropped down into other places and worlds. Still, I like the idea of the Nazgul's Citadel being a rallying point for Sauron's servants left leaderless after the One Ring was destroyed. The armies of the Reunited Kingdom and Rohan will face a formidable obstacle to bringing peace to Harad with Ny Chennacatt occupied, even if its master has fallen into oblivion with his master. Even with Far Harad and Greater Harad pacified and freed from evil, King Elessar and King Eomer may still face the Nazgul's Citadel fully manned, because there are still lands to the Southwest that had been tainted by evil. 

Shadow in the South reveals lands far beyond even the lands of Harad, but which still felt the oppression of the Lord of the Rings.
This book details a land that is unlike the deserts of Harad. It's a well-watered land, with lushly-forested hills and lowlands, wetlands, and rich fishing areas along the coasts. Much more hospitable than the arid plains and mountains to the north of it, it's home to a wide spectrum of cultures and civilizations, including those of Dwarves and Elves.
Part of Middle-earth's Terra Incognita, according to the good folk at Iron Crown Enterprises.
The writers of the book posit a heavy colonization by Numenoreans of this land in the Second Age, with it becoming a haven for, among others, the evil "King's Men" who also controlled Umbar. They came as colonists and conquerors, and fought with and subjugated many folk in the region. Still, many of them are not wholly lost to evil, seeking to maintain a semblance of peace, and are descended from Numenoreans who colonized the continent before Numenor was corrupted by Sauron. Many of them still maintain a nominal resistance to Sauron, working against his machinations, though many remain true to their Black Numenorean origins as arrogant tyrants. Still, the cultures they encountered were vigorous in their own right, and absorbed and changed the Numenoreans more than they were changed.
A sampling of character art by Liz Danforth.
Danforth's art seems especially appropriate for this book.
This is a vibrant setting, with numerous factions weaving interlocking webs of intrigue. Evil cults, guilds of thieves, merchant "unions," sinister rangers, mercenaries, assassins, magical monks, and the Army of the Southern Dragon all vie for power here. It's potentially more complex than anything far to the North, where the attention of the Dark Lord has been turned for millennia, exhausting the lands there with centuries of war, devastating plagues, and unchecked cultural decline due to such close proximity to Mordor. Here in the South, the Shadow has been less active, though perhaps more subtle, and eventually as insidious if nothing is done to check the spread of evil.

Shadow in the South is, as far as I'm concerned, the most successful of the MERP books set in the South. It's filled with story hooks, adventure sites, a wide range of groups to interact with, but much less conflict with anything Tolkien wrote. In many ways, this is a standalone sourcebook. It only tangentially ties into the Middle-earth story we're familiar with, which might be a downside for anyone looking for more insight into Tolkien's works, but this also makes it an intriguing foray into unknown territory for Middle-earth Roleplaying gamers.

Taken as a whole, Far Harad, Greater Harad, Nazgul's Citadel, and Shadow in the South make up an interesting game setting. It's not Tolkien, and may turn off some purists, but it's an interesting place. A Fourth Age game, especially one that involves the forces of good coming South to help throw off what is left of Mordor's evil, would have a lot of possibilities. Still, anyone wanting to play in Middle-earth is likely to want to stay up in the realms they have known and loved from the books and movies. That's not a knock on these books, which are some of the better ones done for MERP.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

No-Frills Books

There was a "generic" product craze in the early 1980s. Black-on-white labels covered products from soap to beer. In 1981, I remember seeing generic books appear in the check-out counter racks of grocery stores. They were a buck-and-a-half, less than sixty pages, covered four genres: Mystery; Romance; Science Fiction; Western, and promised a story with exactly the conventions you would expect from their respective genres. I read the Western and the Science Fiction volumes. They were definitely done tongue-in-cheek, but were good enough that I was disappointed that only the four were published.

Recently, I got on a nostalgia kick and tracked them down. I had to use the internet to do so; in all the years since 1981, I never, not once, saw any of them show up in used bookstores. They had always been a bit of a mystery to me, but the internet being the wonder of our age, I was able to run down some info about them. This blog, especially the comments section, is one of the best sources of information I've seen about them.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

More Middle-earth housekeeping.

This is another brief post to let those interested know that I've gone back and expanded and revised even more of the earlier Middle-earth Roleplaying posts. New images have been added, and I wrote some new material to beef up the analyses and overviews, which were often pretty anemic in those early posts.


Weathertop, Tower of the Wind

Calenhad, a Beacon of Gondor

Lorien & the Halls of the Elven Smiths

Fortresses of Middle-earth: Halls of the Elven-King


Ents of Fangorn

As always, feel free to let me know what you think, either as a comment, or by way of the email address located somewhere below my smirking mug to the right.