A Look at the Opening Chapter of Tarzan Triumphant

I started reading Tarzan Triumphant yesterday, and once again Burroughs has managed to blow me away. The setup is so entirely unexpected, especially given what one always hears about Burroughs and the pulps and the “toxic masculinity” of the era and eeeeeevil colonialism and all of that. But it’s exactly what I’ve come to expect from Burroughs.

Burroughs is always very deliberate in his writing. Nothing is wasted, and there’s meaning and purpose to his prose, so the order in which he establishes things is important. The stories he tells often are comprised of many threads that eventually weave together to tell a tale, and the suspense in a Burroughs story is when those threads threaten to become frayed or unwoven — what must come together seems to come apart until, at last, everything is tightly and neatly tied up where it should be. It is unsurprising he begins this tale with a prologue with the words “Time is the warp of the tapestry which is life,” and aims to pursue this analogy most directly in this work.

It is important when Burroughs chooses to first establish his story’s heroine, second establish his hero, thirdly bring in his villain, and finally Tarzan. Yes, the protagonist of Tarzan Triumphant is a woman, Lady Barbara Collis; her try-hard love interest shall be the young Lafayette Smith, who will clearly need to bootstrap his way up to being awesome enough; the villain shall be Leon Stabutch, the vile cats-paw of Stalin; and at last we know that Tarzan will at some point aid both Barbara and Lafayette while protecting Africa from filthy commies.

AS far as I know the first Earl of Whimsey has nothing to do with this story, and so we are not particularly interested in the fact that it was not so much the fine grade of whiskey that he manufactured that won him his earldom as the generous contribution he made to the Liberal party at the time that it was in power a number of years ago.

Being merely a simple historian and no prophet, I cannot say whether we shall see the Earl of Whimsey again or not. But if we do not find the Earl particularly interesting, I can assure you that the same may not be said of his fair daughter, Lady Barbara Collis.

The African sun, still an hour high, was hidden from the face of the earth by solid cloud banks that enveloped the loftier peaks of the mysterious, impenetrable fastnesses of the forbidding Ghenzi Mountain range that frowned perpetually upon a thousand valleys little known to man.

From far above this seeming solitude, out of the heart of the densely banked clouds, there came to whatever ears there might be to hear a strange and terrifying droning, suggesting the presence of a preposterous Gargantuan bumblebee circling far above the jagged peaks of Ghenzi. At times it grew in volume until it attained terrifying proportions; and then gradually it diminished until it was only a suggestion of a sound, only to grow once again in volume and to again retreat.

For a long time, invisible and mysterious, it had been describing its great circles deep in the concealing vapors that hid it from the earth and hid the earth from it.

Lady Barbara Collis was worried. Her petrol was running low. At the crucial moment her compass had failed her, and she had been flying blind through the clouds looking for an opening for what now seemed an eternity of hours to her.

She had known that she must cross a lofty range of mountains, and she had kept at a considerable altitude above the clouds for this purpose; but presently they had risen to such heights that she could not surmount them; and, foolishly, rather than turn back and give up her projected non-stop flight from Cairo to the Cape, she had risked all in one effort to penetrate them.

For an hour Lady Barbara had been indulging in considerable high powered thinking, intermingled with the regret that she had not started thinking a little more heavily before she had taken off, as she had, against the explicit command of her sire. To say that she was terrified in the sense that fear had impaired any of her faculties would not be true. However, she was a girl of keen intelligence, fully competent to understand the grave danger of her situation; and when there loomed suddenly close to the tip of her left wing a granite escarpment that was lost immediately above and below her in the all enveloping vapor, it is no reflection upon her courage that she involuntarily caught her breath in a quick gasp and simultaneously turned the nose of her ship upwards until her altimeter registered an altitude that she knew must be far higher than the loftiest peak that reared its head above any part of Africa.

Rising in a wide spiral, she was soon miles away from that terrifying menace that had seemingly leaped out of the clouds to seize her. Yet even so, her plight was still as utterly hopeless as it well could be. Her fuel was practically exhausted. To attempt to drop below the cloud banks, now that she knew positively that she was among lofty mountains, would be utter madness; and so she did the only thing that remained to her.

Alone in the cold wet clouds, far above an unknown country, Lady Barbara Collis breathed a little prayer as she bailed out. With the utmost meticulosity she counted ten before she jerked the rip cord of her chute.

We often hear about women being relegated to background roles, being there to prop up the big strong men, etc. etc.  Not so, here!

While one might argue that Burroughs starts with his protagonist’s father, his dismissal of him is very important. The prologue speaks of the far reaching importance of long ago events and individuals well known and obscure; in the opening of his first chapter, Burroughs is simply reminding us that it is Barbara who is important.

No damsel, but a true dame – smart, clever, capable… but in a bit of a scrape, else there’d be little drama to unfold. This budding Amelia Earhart has parachuted into danger and adventure, where the first person she meets and bonds with will not be a man but another clever woman who sees this lady-from-the-skies as an opportunity to get out from under the thumb of the zealous old codgers of her tribe, but I’m getting ahead.

At that same instant Fate was reaching out to gather other threads—far flung threads—for this tiny fragment of her tapestry.

Kabariga, chief of the Bangalo people of Bungalo, knelt before Tarzan of the Apes many weary marches to the south of the Ghenzi Mountain.

In Moscow, Leon Stabutch entered the office of Stalin, the dictator of Red Russia.

Ignorant of the very existence of Kabariga, the black chief, or of Leon Stabutch or Lady Barbara Collis, Lafayette Smith, A.M., Ph.D., Sc.D., professor of geology at the Phil Sheridan Military Academy, boarded a steamship in the harbor of New York.

Mr. Smith was a quiet, modest, scholarly looking young man with horn rimmed spectacles, which he wore not because of any defect of eyesight but in the belief that they added a certain dignity and semblance of age to his appearance. That his spectacles were fitted with plain glass was known only to himself and his optician.

Graduated from college at seventeen the young man had devoted four additional years to acquiring further degrees, during which time he optimistically expected the stamp of dignified maturity to make itself evident in his face and bearing; but, to his intense dismay, his appearance seemed quite as youthful at twenty-one as it had at seventeen.

Lafayette Smith’s great handicap to the immediate fulfillment of his ambition (to occupy the chair of geology in some university of standing) lay in his possession of the unusual combination of brilliant intellect and retentive memory with robust health and a splendid physique. Do what he might he could not look sufficiently mature and scholarly to impress any college board. He tried whiskers, but the result was humiliating; and then he conceived the idea of horn rimmed spectacles and pared his ambition down, temporarily, from a university to a prep school.

For a school year, now, he had been an instructor in an inconspicuous western military academy, and now he was about to achieve another of his cherished ambitions—he was going to Africa to study the great rift valleys of the Dark Continent, concerning the formation of which there are so many theories propounded and acclaimed by acknowledged authorities on the subject as to leave the layman with the impression that a fundamental requisite to success in the science of geology is identical to that required by weather forecasters.

But be that as it may, Lafayette Smith was on his way to Africa with the financial backing of a wealthy father and the wide experience that might be gained from a number of week-end field excursions into the back pastures of accommodating farmers, plus considerable ability as a tennis player and a swimmer.

We may leave him now, with his note books and seasickness, in the hands of Fate, who is leading him inexorably toward sinister situations from which no amount of geological knowledge nor swimming nor tennis ability may extricate him.

Now we are introduced to the man who will inevitably become the love interest. Here we have the “adorkable” male lead, the Milo from Atlantis, the Dr. Jackson from Stargate: a glasses wearing pointdexter whose peers and colleagues don’t give him what he feels is his due. He is smart, perhaps brilliant, and more fit than his fellow nerds, but Burroughs reminds us that smart and fit aren’t going to be enough on a jungle adventure. A veritable leitmotif of Burroughs’ Tarzan stories is “The Jungle Makes You A Badass Or You Die”. So we know Barbara is a cool customer who will become badass. And Smith is strong, smart dude who will eventually have to become badass enough to be worthy of Barbara over the course of his jungle adventure.

Now, on to our villain!

When it is two hours before noon in New York it is an hour before sunset in Moscow and so it was that as Lafayette Smith boarded the liner in the morning, Leon Stabutch, at the same moment, was closeted with Stalin late in the afternoon.

“That is all,” said Stalin; “you understand?”

“Perfectly,” replied Stabutch. “Peter Zveri shall be avenged, and the obstacle that thwarted our plans in Africa shall be removed.”

“The latter is most essential,” emphasized Stalin, “but do not belittle the abilities of your obstacle. He may be, as you have said, naught but an ape-man; but he utterly routed a well organized Red expedition that might have accomplished much in Abyssinia and Egypt but for his interference. And,” he added, “I may tell you, comrade, that we contemplate another attempt; but it will not be made until we have a report from you that—the obstacle has been removed.”

Stabutch swelled his great chest. “Have I ever failed?” he asked.

Stalin rose and laid a hand upon the other’s shoulder. “Red Russia does not look to the OGPU for failures,” he said. Only his lips smiled as he spoke.

Leon Stabutch needs little introduction. He is a commie. He is working for Stalin, the super evil commie grampa who plans on carrying out all sorts of evil commie plans in Africa to the detriment of the African people.

Tarzan is going to have to fight commies and you just know it’s going to be awesome. But he’s going to have a lot of other things to deal with first. You know he’s going to be tangled up with Barbara and Lafayette somehow. So, let’s see how!

That same night Leon Stabutch left Moscow. He thought that he left secretly and alone, but Fate was at his side in the compartment of the railway carriage.

As Lady Barbara Collis bailed out in the clouds above the Ghenzi range, and Lafayette Smith trod the gangplank leading aboard the liner, and Stabutch stood before Stalin, Tarzan, with knitted brows, looked down upon the black kneeling at his feet.

“Rise!” he commanded, and then; “Who are you and why have you sought Tarzan of the Apes?”

“I am Kabariga, O Great Bwana,” replied the black. “I am chief of the Bangalo people of Bungalo. I come to the Great Bwana because my people suffer much sorrow and great fear and our neighbors, who are related to the Gallas, have told us that you are the friend of those who suffer wrongs at the hands of bad men.”

“And what wrongs have your people suffered?” demanded Tarzan, “and at whose hands?”

“For long we lived at peace with all men,” explained Kabariga; “we did not make war upon our neighbors. We wished only to plant and harvest in security. But one day there came into our country from Abyssinia a band of shiftas who had been driven from their own country. They raided some of our villages, stealing our grain, our goats and our people, and these they sold into slavery in far countries.

“They do not take everything, they destroy nothing; but they do not go away out of our country. They remain in a village they have built in inaccessible mountains, and when they need more provisions or slaves they come again to other villages of my people.

“And so they permit us to live and plant and harvest that they may continue to take toll of us.”

“But why do you come to me?” demanded the ape-man. “I do not interfere among tribes beyond the boundaries of my own country, unless they commit some depredation against my own people.”

“I come to you, Great Bwana,” replied the black chief, “because you are a white man and these shiftas are led by a white man. It is known among all men that you are the enemy of bad white men.”

“That,” said Tarzan, “is different. I will return with you to your country.”

And thus Fate, enlisting the services of the black chief, Kabariga, led Tarzan of the Apes out of his own country, toward the north. Nor did many of his own people know whither he had gone nor why—not even little Nkima, the close friend and confidant of the ape-man.

After his early years, Tarzan has normally followed the prime directive when it comes to getting involved with native conflicts. There are tribes he works with, who are under his protection, and those tribes will often go to bat for him. Heck, the deus ex machina of Tarzan at the Earth’s Core was the crack-team of African riflemen showing up to save the day, because dinosaur-riding snakemen and stuck-in-the-16th-century-pirates are no match for 20-odd blacks with modern long-barrel rifles.

But Tarzan hates the colonial exploitation of the indigenous African peoples, so when he hears that it’s white folks who are causing problems for the Bangalo, he is ready to strip down to his loin-cloth and spring into action!

So, right in the first chapter, we have a lot of stuff we constantly hear about old works flipped on its head; the story starts with female lead, and after these introductions, continues with her; the “adorkable” male hero, often thought to be a much more recent modern trope, is described in his dorkiness and we are shown how he will grow through the listing of what he lacks; Tarzan is going to fight communists – this is 1931, and Papa Joe is shown to be a cold, calculating and evil man who needs to be stopped – this isn’t Cold War spooks, Burroughs knows Stalin’s a rotten dude; Tarzan is anti-colonial – we always hear about the colonialist attitudes of the pulps, or that the pulps failed to examine and address colonialism, but we’re straight up told that Tarzan doesn’t want white dudes exploiting and messing with the tribes in Africa.

Anyway, Tarzan Triumphant is available from Gutenberg Australia. I’m only a couple chapters in, but I can already tell this is gonna be at least as awesome as the other three Tarzan novels I’ve read.

What better way to celebrate Tarzan’s birthday week than with a story about Tarzan fighting to stop a Commie plot?

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“Planet Stories” ::finger quotes::

Why do I dislike Paizo’s Planet Stories imprint and recommend against people buying from them when the opportunity presents itself? Well, besides the fact that I hate Paizo and dislike several of the folks who work for them, their “Planet Stories” brand is a bit of a misnomer.

From what I’ve pieced together, Paizo found out that no one had owned the Planet Stories name and trademark for decades. The original Planet Stories folded back in the 1955 along with Love Romances and its parent company, Fiction House. The name had probably been free and unprotected for ages.

It would be like if I decided to swoop in and register the trademark for Thrilling Wonder Stories or some other dead pulp magazine.  Paizo found Planet Stories’ corpse by the roadside and decided to wear its skin while publishing stuff that, ironically enough, wasn’t really Planet Stories. Paizo’s Planet Stories line is decidedly more Sword & Sorcery and Weird Fiction focused than the actual Planet Stories ever was, but I decided to take a closer look at just how little Paizo’s now-discontinued line had to do with its namesake.

  1. Anubis Murders – Gary Gygax – post pulp
  2. City of the Beast – Moorcock – post pulp
  3. Black God’s Kiss – CL Moore – Weird Tales
  4. Elak of Atlantis – Henry Kuttner – Weird Tales/Strange Stories
  5. Secret of Sinharat – Leigh Brackett – Planet Stories
  6. Northwest of Earth – CL Moore – Weird Tales/Leaves/Fantastic Universe/Fantasy Magazine
  7. Lord of the Spiders – Michael Moorcock – post pulp
  8. Samarkand Solution – Gary Gygax – post pulp
  9. Almuric – RE Howard – Weird Tales
  10. The Ginger Star – Leigh Brackett – post pulp
  11. Masters of the pit – Michael Moorcock – post pulp
  12. The Swordsman of Mars – Otis Adelbert Kline – Argosy
  13. Infernal Sorceress – Gary Gygax – post pulp
  14. Worlds of Their Own – Various modern – post pulp
  15. The Hounds of Skaith – Leigh Brackett – Post Pulp
  16. The Dark World – Henry Kuttner – Startling Stories
  17. Death in Delhi – Gary Gygax – Post Pulp
  18. Reavers of Skaith – Leigh Brackett – Post Pulp
  19. Robots Have No Tails – Henry Kuttner – Astounding
  20. The Outlaws of Mars – Otis Adelbert Kline – Argosy
  21. The Sword of Rhiannon – Leigh Brackett – Thrilling Wonder Stories
  22. The Ship of Ishtar – A. Merritt – Argosy
  23. Steppe – Piers Anthony – Post Pulp
  24. The Complete Silver John – Manly Wade Wellman – MoF&SF (Post Pulp/non-pulp)
  25. Sos the Rope – Piers Anthony – Post Pulp
  26. The Walrus & The Warwulf – Hugh Cook – Post Pulp
  27. Template – Matthew Hughes – Post Pulp
  28. Before they Were Giants – Various Authors – All Post Pulp
  29. Sojan the Swordsman/Under the Warrior Star – Michael Moorcock – Post Pulp
  30. Battle in the Dawn: the complete Hok the Mighty – Manly Wade Wellman – Amazing Stories
  31. The Planet Killers – Robert Silverberg – Post Pulp
  32. Hunt the Space Witch – Robert Silverberg – Post Pulp
  33. The Chalice of Death – Robert Silverberg – Post Pulp

So, we have 21 books that are either post-pulp novels or collections of stories that were not published in the pulps, 4 books that are wholly or primarily from Weird Tales, 3 works from Argosy, and one each of Amazing Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Startling Stories, and, yes, Planet Stories.

Brackett is the one (perhaps the only) name on here who is solidly associated with the original imprint, though many of her classics were also in Startling and Thrilling (she was probably the best Thrilling ever had). Kline wrote stories you might have seen in Planet Stories, but due to the time frame he was writing in, he was primarily a writer for Argosy and Amazing.

Sturgeon’s Law and the Pulps?

I see this over and over and over again. That the pulps only have a bad name because only 90% of them are bad, because Sturgeon’s Law says 90% of everything is bad, so don’t hold that against the pulps!

Euro-style games R something like the SF/F pulps. Most R trash, a minority R good, a small fraction transcend the formulas to become great. – Lewis Pulsipher (@lewpuls) 

Out of the many stories I’ve reviewed, I’ve yet to hit what I’m now calling “Sturgeon’s Pocket”, that rich, thick vein of 90% crap lying just below the surface crust. I’m thinking that maybe, just maybe, Sturgeon’s Law isn’t the best thing to use to defend (yes, defend) the pulps, because it’s just not true. This line of thinking is generally used to try to defend the “good pulp” from the reputation of the “bad pulp”, except most of the “bad pulp” is pretty good, just not amazing, and the “really bad pulp” has been rather sparse. Hell, I’ll even break it down by the names and numbers:

Exceptionally Good: 14

  • The Moon that Vanished, Leigh Brackett
  • Black Amazon of Mars, Leigh Brackett
  • Stalemate in Space, Charles L Harness
  • Queen of the Martian Catacombs, Leigh Brackett
  • Priestess of the Flame, Sewell Peaslee Wright
  • Raid on the Termites, Paul Ernst
  • Enchantress of Venus, Leigh Brackett
  • Coming of the Gods, Chester Whitehorn
  • Raiders of the Second Moon, Basil Wells
  • Red Witch of Mercury, Emmett McDowell
  • The Bubble Dwellers, Ross Rocklynne
  • Lorelei of the Red Mist, Leigh Brackett & Ray Bradbury
  • The Martian Circe, Raymond F. Jones
  • Moon of Danger, Albert de Pina

 

Very Good: 18

  • Miracle Town, William F. Temple
  • I Like You, Too, Joe Gibson
  • Asteroid of Fear, Raymond Z Gallun
  • Garden of Evil, Margaret St. Clair
  • SOS Aphrodite, Stanley Mullen
  • Hellhounds of the Cosmos, Clifford D. Simak
  • Vulcan’s Workshop, Harl Vincent
  • Captain Midas, Alfred Coppel Jr
  • Cosmic Yo-Yo, Ross Rocklynne
  • Mists of Mars, George A. Whittington
  • The Spider Men of Gharr, Wilbur Scott Peacock
  • Grifters’ Asteroid, HL Gold
  • The Sword of Johnny Damokles, Hugh Frazier Parker
  • The Last Monster, Gardner F. Fox
  • Juggernaut of Space, Ray Cummings
  • Quest on Phoebe, James R. Adams
  • Mo-Sanshon!, Bryce Walton
  • And Then There Were None, Eric Frank Russell

Pretty Good/Okay: 17

  • Softie, by Noel Loomis
  • Reverse English, John S. Carroll
  • Date Line, Noel Loomis
  • Cosmic Jackpot, George O. Smith
  • Yesterday’s Doors, Arthur J. Burks
  • Duel on Syrtis, Poul Anderson
  • Peril Orbit, C.J. Wedlake
  • Action on Azura, Robertson Osborne
  • Signal Red, Henry Guth
  • Ordeal in Space, Ralph Sloan
  • The Giants Return, Robert Abernathy
  • Battlefield in Black, George A. Whittington
  • And the Gods Laughed, Fredric Brown
  • Beer Trust Busters, AR Stuart
  • Mutiny, Larry Offenbecker
  • The Venus Evil, Chester S. Geier
  • Vassals of the Lode-Star, Gardner F. Fox

Okay/Not So Good: 10

  • The Referent, Ray Bradbury
  • Galactic Heritage, Frank Belknap Long
  • The Diversifal, Ross Rocklynne
  • The Envoy, Her, H.B. Fyfe
  • The Star Saint, A.E. Van Vogt
  • The Starbusters, Alfred Coppel Jr
  • Madcap Metalloids, WV Athanas
  • Prodigal Weapon, Vaseleos Garson
  • Formula for Conquest, James R. Adams
  • The Little Pets of Arkkhan, Vaseleos Garson

Terrible: 4

  • No Winter, No Summer, Damon Knight & James Blish
  • Square Pegs, by Ray Bradbury
  • That Mess Last Year, John D McDonald
  • The Wheel is Death, Roger Dee

 

Note that this ONLY includes pulp stories I’ve read and reviewed from the 50s and earlier. If I included stuff from the 70s Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction that I’d read and reviewed, the numbers would skew significantly towards terrible. For post pulp-era stories I’ve reviewed (*: or read to review but wound up not actually reviewing it), here’s the breakdown, which includes some F&SF, Flashing Swords, and one Vance story from an old Universe. (parenthesis is F&SF-only)

Exceptionally Good: 4(3)

  • The Bagful of Dreams, Jack Vance
  • Doctor Rivet and Supercon Sal, Gary K Wolf
  • The Horse Lord, Lisa Tuttle
  • The Mars Ship, Robert Thurston

Very Good: 4 (2)

  • The Tupilak, Poul Anderson
  • Storm in a Bottle, John Jakes
  • Not With a Bang But A Bleep, Gary Jennings
  • Nina, Robert Bloch

Pretty Good/Okay: 9 (7)

  • The Mountains of Sunset, the Mountains of Dawn, Vonda McIntyre
  • Time is Money, Haskell Barkin
  • The Lands Beyond the World, Michael Moorcock
  • Assault on a City, Jack Vance
  • The Exiled, The Hunted, George Guthridge
  • The Final Close, J.P. Dixon
  • The Holdouts, Kit Reed
  • The Star Eel, Robert F. Young
  • A Star is Born, Joseph Green*

Okay/Not so good: 4 (3)

  • Shoes, Raylyn Moore
  • In Rubble, Pleading, Michael Bishop
  • Swords Against the Marluk, Katherine Kurtz
  • Horror Movie, Stuart Dybek

Terrible: 7 (7)

  • A Delightful Comic Premise, Barry Malzberg
  • Mouthpiece, Edward Wellen*
  • The Attack of the Giant Baby, Kit Reed
  • Those Good Old Days of Liquid Fuel, Michael G Coney
  • Friday the Thirteenth, Isaac Asimov
  • My Boat, Joanna Russ
  • Graveyard Blues, Dennis Etchison*
  • A Game of Vlet, Joanna Russ*

Monsters Vs. Mobs

In my experience, mobs have always presented the bigger threat to PCs than big-bad monsters. There are a number of reasons for this, some mechanical, some psychological. Why does this seem to be the case?

First of all, adventurers are usually prepared for a monster. They have often heard of the monster they will soon fight and have taken precautions based on the information they have gathered. Indeed, the reason they might be in a specific location is for the sole purpose of finding and dispatching said monster.

When fighting the monster, there’s often an economy of force which the adventurers are able to match 1/1 or better, whether it’s in terms of damage, overall hit points, or most significantly, perhaps, number of attacks.

One large monster will typically get to make 1 attack for every 3-6 attacks it receives; even if it is doing more damage and hitting more often, PC tactics can often compensate for hits and spread damage in an effective manner to minimize irrecoverable losses.

Mobs are different story. Even if the players are prepared for a big fight, they may not be prepared for handful of mooks that are waiting at the mouth of the dungeon to take the treasure the heroes just recovered.

The PCs’ economy of force may be matched or reduced. Mobs will often be attacking at a 1/1 ratio or better; the man-to-man fighting will also prevent use of certain tactics which the PCs might more effectively use against stronger foes who are fewer in number.

Oftentimes, the most devastating party losses come at the hands of a mob AFTER defeating a large monster. Why? Players assume an air of invulnerability after successfully dispatching single dreadful foe, but are brought low in an evenly matched fight when forced to fight one-on-one with few or no assists from fellows.

Does this jibe with the ‘heroic’ notion so woven into D&D?

I think it does.

Many iconic heroic battles throughout history and literature consist of 1-v-1 fights or one or a few heroically holding off a much larger force until they are wiped out.

On one hand you have Beowulf & Grendel or David & Goliath, while on the other, you have Benkei at the bridge or the Spartans at Thermopylae. One advantage of a game like D&D is that the game isn’t over for the player when the guy or guys left to cover the others’ retreat finally succumbs to the tides of battle. They can just roll up a new character. Of course, this doesn’t work if you’re building a fictional character franchise – Conan can’t be killed by mooks (though he and many other pulp characters have come close to being brought down by them many times). But I don’t think that characters dying to mobs is necessarily antithetical to pulp-style heroics, since those heroics draw heavily on earlier literary heroic traditions, ones where heroes DO die.

And when a character makes a heroic last stand,  that character is gonna be remembered.

Now, there ARE mechanics that do give PCs an advantage over mooks in ways that reflect those scenes of one character killing dozens. Fighters get extra attacks against single hit-die opponents. 1HD monsters and most human opponents should fall into this category. Mid-level fighters have a decent chance of cutting through several such opponents each round! Can they get overwhelmed? Absolutely! Lots of mobs are going to be tougher than 1 HD, but then that’s not like a hero being overwhelmed by mooks, is it? That’s more being overwhelmed by not one but several monsters.

Sometimes, heroes just need to run away. Plenty of pulp S&S stories start with the hero running from a fight that they know they can’t win, usually involving a large number of mooks who are after them. The difference between your characters who died and Conan could be that Conan knew when to run and you didn’t.

Fall and Winter Review Round-Up

Been a long time since I shared a list of the stories I’ve been covering at Castalia House.

planet_summer49

http://www.castaliahouse.com/46255-2/ (Queen of the Martian Catacombs, by Leigh Brackett)

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-madcap-metalloids-by-w-v-athanas/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-s-o-s-aphrodite-by-stanley-mullen/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-starbusters-by-alfred-coppel-jr/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-peril-orbit-by-c-j-wedlake/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short_reviews_garden_of_evil_by_margaret_st_clair/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-stalemate-in-space-by-charles-l-harness/

planet_stories_march_1951_cover

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-black-amazon-of-mars-by-leigh-brackett/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-duel-on-syrtis-by-poul-anderson/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-star-saint-by-a-e-van-vogt/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-envoy-her-by-h-b-fyfe/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-asteroid-of-fear-by-raymond-z-gallun/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-diversifal-by-ross-rocklynne/

Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them: Bigger Potential Makes for a Bigger Letdown

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them came so close to being a good movie that it hurt. It had so many things going for it, and all they needed to do was just fall into place to tell a story far better than any of the Harry Potters. But alas, it was not meant be! The refusal to take the last necessary steps into awesome territory and a final fifteen minutes that came crashing down around what had been built up, as though to telegraph just how badly I was about to be disappointed, managed to drag the whole thing into the rubbish bin. When I found myself thinking “Oh, my God, a pulpy story in the Harry Potter universe?!” I realized that there was no way I would not be disappointed, and no amount of finger crossing could save me.

Fantastic Beasts has a lot of stuff going for it, especially early on. In fact, up through the scene where they’re at the goblin speakeasy, I’m thinking “Man, this is fantastic!”

To begin with, FB starts essentially the same way as Mo-Sanshon!; an outsider crosses the path of a normal guy and drags him off on a wild adventure. Newt Scamander, a squirrely wizard with a menagerie of monsters enlists the help of the unwitting Jacob Kowalski to help him recover creatures that have escaped. Kowalski is the normal joe, everyman hero like the kind you’d see in the pulps – he was a part of the expeditionary forces in World War One, he’s a blue collar worker, and he has a dream of starting his own business.* Where these two cross paths is in the bank where Kowalski is trying to get a loan to open a bakery; at this point, we don’t know if Scamander is going to be a shifty villain or wild trickster, given the trouble he’s causing, but we know right away that Kowalski is someone we’re going to be rooting for!

Not only does it have the perfect pulp adventure setup, it’s got dames! Tina Goldstein is tough and no nonsense; she takes her job seriously and she’s capable – unfortunately, her compassion (and a bit of temper) had put her in a bad spot with her superiors and it’s shaken her confidence a bit. Her sister Queenie is smart and sexy, a powerful master of domestic arts (I know how this sounds, but watching her make dinner for Kowalski was absolutely one of the best scenes in the whole movie), and devilishly clever, but even though she can read people’s thoughts, she doesn’t resent men for thinking she’s a bombshell. She even falls for the normie every-joe!

The fact that Kowalski holds his own fairly well, a few bumbles aside, and isn’t reduced to a punching bag works out really strongly for a good chunk of the film. Unfortunately, the movie can’t fully embrace the fact that Jacob Kowalski is the real hero of the story. Wizards can do, get into, and get out of just about anything; Kowalski can’t, which is why the stakes for him as a mere mortal who’s won the heart of a gorgeous wizard dame are incredibly high and why he’s the one to root for. Unfortunately, when things reach their head with the uninteresting A-plot-that-feels-like-a-B-plot with whatshisname the evil wizard and the crazy orphan boy, Kowalski never gets his big-damn-hero moment that he desperately needs…that WE desperately need. Frankly, Scamander doesn’t get one either, and the whole unmasking of the bad guy as being some other bad guy felt incredibly anti-climactic. I didn’t care about the kid with the crazy chaotic magic powers or the guy trying to manipulate him; I cared about whether or not Kowalski would be able to break the no-normies-hooking-up-with-wizards taboo and if he’d get that bank loan!

Spoilers! There have been spoilers before, but I’m really going to spoil it now.

Even though the movie was starting to completely fall apart by the big wizard… conversation at the end, I’m thinking “Okay, there’s still a chance… there’s still a chance!” President Wizard Lady says ‘this is a disaster, we can’t wipe the memories of everyone in Manhattan’, and Scamander says ‘lol, yeah we can, cuz this thing I have’. Kowalski has to get wiped. There’s a teary scene as Kowalski steps into the rain where he’ll forget his big adventure and his love with Queenie. While Scamander gets pardoned and is allowed to go off back to England with his monsters and publish his book, the best he gets is an awkward derpy scene with Tina; we needed a moment of ‘Damnit all, New York is the publishing capital of the world, I’ll stay!’ with a big kiss on the docks. The final scene where Kowalski has his bakery with pastries shaped like the half-forgotten monster and a smiling Queenie shows up tries to bring things back around, but it’s nowhere near as good as we’d gotten to see him stand up to the President Wizard and say “I’ll have any dame I want, and I want her, and she wants me, and you wizards be damned if you’re gonna stop us!”

 

This movie came SO CLOSE to being what I wanted from a gonzo fantasy movie set in the Roaring 20s New York, and that’s what makes it hurt the worst. Frankly, the characters were far more likable than anyone else in the Potterverse. But one of the major problems the movie had was trying to work in a good versus evil conflict that just wasn’t nearly as interesting as the main good-guys and the host of cool, scary, and cute monsters. If they had completely excised the stupid and inane plot about Grindelwald pretending to be Graves and the kid who’d gone crazy supernova from being forced to hide his magic powers by a crazy magic hating orphanarium marm and just made it about tracking down a bunch of weird monsters that had escaped and undoing the damage they’d done, it would’ve been a much better story, because all of the parts of the movie focusing on the later were absolutely wonderful. Supposedly, there are going to be several more movies about Grindelwald, which sucks, because his storyline was the worst part of the movie that dragged the whole damn thing down. I don’t care about what the wizards do with boring generic evil wizard-guy, I wanted to see Scamander throw his British reserve to the wind and give Goldstein that hero’s kiss she obviously wanted and was literally crying because she knew she would not get.

*:Normal joes tended to be a lot more awesome back then; it’s a law of averages thing.