Forgotten Book: The Opener of the Way by Robert Block (1945 and 1976)

Many options, some very pricey, exist for purchasing Robert Bloch's The Opener of the Way

By Scott A. Cupp

This is the 186th in my series of Forgotten Books.

Like most readers, I go through phases where I binge on certain types of books and try to collect them in various editions. One of my longer manias involved Arkham House books. I went through several stages where I wanted the words to all their titles or I wanted nice collectible copies of all their volumes. That path, I can assure, you will lead to destitution and madness. That would particularly be true now if you are starting your collection now and do not have really deep, deep pockets.

Back when I was looking at the Arkham House titles, they were expensive. And, while I work with accounting and money and the like, I have never been one to let my better judgment stand in the way of something I want. Well, not quite true. In 1973, I was offered a presentation copy of Lewis Carroll’s Phantasmagoria for a mere $150. At the time, I was working maybe 20 hours a week, for less than $2 per hour while attending school. That $150 price tag represented close to two months take-home pay for me. I was barely able to stay in school and feed myself at the time, so I had to let it go. But that potential purchase always remains back in my thoughts. What might have happened? What might have happened was that I would have lost my apartment, been unable to pay my bills and I would have had to sell the book, along with many other nice things, in order to keep a roof over my head, my car running and food on the table.

That book was THE ONE that got away.

I have had many fine things over the years, but Arkhams were always one thing I loved. I once convinced a bookstore to order the entire available Arkham catalog and tried to buy them one at a time for a while. They were only $4 or $5 each at the time, but even then, I had trouble getting them paid for. It caused some stress in my relationship with the bookstore.

Arkham, for those who have made it this far and don’t really know what I am talking about, is a specialty publisher, that started as a venue for August Derleth and Donald Wandrei to publish a memorial volume for H. P. Lovecraft, since no commercial publisher was interested. They launched the enterprise with The Outsider and Others in 1939. They soon also published more Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, along with Robert E. Howard’s amazing Skullface and Others. They did the first books of many fine writers of the weird, fantastic and horrible. People like Ray Bradbury, Fritz Leiber, Seabury Quinn, William Hope Hodgson and Robert Bloch. Their volumes are wonderful, filled with stories only available to those with a fantastic pulp magazine collection and deep pockets. My first Arkham book was The House on the Borderland and Other Stories by Hodgson, which reprinted the title novel and three others. I ran across Hodgson through Ballantine’s Adult Fantasy Series and loved his work.

Over the years, I acquired several Arkham House books, some like the Hodgson expensive, others like Lord Kelvin’s Machine by James P. Blaylock not nearly so much. But I never had The Opener of the Way by Robert Bloch, which was published in 1945. It was Bloch’s first book.

For several titles, such as the massive Clark Ashton Smith volumes, I got the British publisher Neville Spearman’s 1970’s reprints. Sure, you had to order them from England and it took forever and the postage was expensive, but CAS was worth it. Spearman did The Opener of the Way in 1974 but I missed it. Again, funds were a big reason.

In 1976, British publisher Panther released the massive collection in two paperback volumes, The Opener of the Way and The House of the Hatchet. Last year, I got the first of those volumes, not realizing it did not contain all of the hardcover title. And that is what I read this week.

This volume contains ten stories from the hardcover edition, including the title story, “Beetles,” “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” and “The Fiddler’s Fee,” all stories I really liked. They suffer slightly from being together, as many of the stories contain that final line that serves as a “Gotcha!” with the Ripper story being a superb example. Others you could see coming.

I like Robert Bloch’s work. About 6 months ago I reviewed his novel The Will to Kill here and it was great. This volume holds up reasonably well. It does represent early work by Bloch who matured as he wrote more.

Those who want the whole volume can get the Arkham House volume (starting in the $400 + range on up to a price with a comma in it), the Neville Spearman edition ($30 to $750), the two paperbacks (between $10 and $20 each) or The Early Fears by Bloch (Fedogan and Bremer, 1993), which reprints all of Opener (except the introduction) and Pleasant Dreams, another early collection.

Go forth and collect.

Series organizer Patti Abbott usually hosts more Friday Forgotten Book reviews at her own blog, and posts a complete list of participating blogs.

Cocktail Hour: Guest bartender Mark Finn serves up the Blood and Thunder

The Blood and Thunder cocktail and its literary inspiration.

Mark Finn is many things: author, actor, essayist, playwright and renown Robert E. Howard scholar — his Howard biography, Blood and Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard, was nominated for a World Fantasy award in 2007. And I learned at the 2011 Armadillocon that Mark Finn also is one hell of a bartender. He took his role of toastmaster literally that year, shaking up signature cocktails during one of the room parties while wearing his signature fez.

As such, it only seemed natural for Mark to serve as my first Cocktail Hour guest bartender. Here, he pours us a bacon-spiked cocktail called the Blood and Thunder, inspired by Marly Youman’s recent novel Maze of Blood. Bottoms up!

Conall Weaver is tired. His mother is terminally ill, and he’s the only one who can care for her. His father, Doc Weaver, is one of several doctors living and working in Cross Plains, and he’s always making house call, delivering babies, tending to oil field injuries, and so on. So Conall has spent his adult life, scant as it is, tending to his mother’s needs as tuberculosis eats her away from the inside out. When she’s better, he can relax a bit. He can write. See, Conall Weaver is one of the greatest pulp writers of all time. His stories have appeared in Weird Tales and…oh, wait, you’ve heard this before, huh?

Well, think again. In Marly Youman’s Maze of Blood, we find the somewhat familiar life and times of Texas writer Robert E. Howard borrowed heavily from to prop up Youman’s magical realism novel, a dense and rich prose poem mash-up that reads fast and stays with you afterward.

If you don’t know anything about the life of Robert E. Howard (1906-1936), that’s okay. I wrote a book, and you can check it out here. For those of you who do know something about how one of Texas’ greatest writers spent his days in Cross Plains, this will feel oddly familiar to you. Youmans didn’t so much as borrow from Howard’s life and times as she simply filed off the serial numbers. This may only have been a problem for me, and I acknowledge that fully.

For fans of Conan, Bran Mak Morn, and the rest of Howard’s body of work, you’ll find no new insights here. Instead, you’ll see a man struggling with creative exhaustion, with his mother’s impending death, with rejection, and the grind of day-to-day living in a small Texas town as its sole creative artist. Divorced from Howard’s biography, Youmans has leave to explore some uncomfortable truths about those final days in a way that would be anathema to any die-hard Howard fan. But these are human truths, grounded in sweat and blood.

Youmans’ language is exquisite. She is clearly and obviously a poet, and her skill at choosing simple words to evoke complex pictures is well-served here. And, if I may be so bold, she knows a lot about Howard’s life, as well. I’m not sure if she’s a closet fan or an avid researcher. I’d like to find out what drew her to the subject matter. But Max of Blood is a transformative work, as each even in Conall’s life is given resonance and stories told to him are filtered through his experience and retold on the printed page. That’s the essence of understanding Robert E. Howard, and Marly Youmans gets it.

It was also nice to see her treating the delicate subject matter of Howard’s suicide with respect and gravitas. Her Conall Weaver isn’t so much like Robert E. Howard as the book goes on. Some of the more outlandish myths around Howard serve the fiction better than the man.

In the end, Maze of Blood is a book I would tentatively recommend to less-sensitive Robert E. Howard fans, and unreservedly recommend to lovers of magical realism and stories about writers telling stories. There’s a lot of layers in Maze of Blood, but it’s that complication that makes the novel so rewarding.

In Honor of Maze of Blood, I’m calling this twist on the Old Fashioned a Blood and Thunder. It uses bacon and more bacon. I shouldn’t have to explain to any of you why that’s wonderful.

BLOOD AND THUNDER

2 ounces bacon-infused bourbon (See recipe below)
1/4 ounce Grade B maple syrup
2 dashes Angostura bitters
A twist of orange
Optional cherry for garnish
Optional bacon slice for garnish

In a shaker, add 2 ounces bacon-infused bourbon, maple syrup, and bitters with ice. Shake for 30 seconds. Strain into a glass filled with ice. Squeeze the orange for a touch of acid, and garnish with the cherry and bacon.

BACON-INFUSED BOURBON

4 slices of bacon, thick cut (I use Wright’s Applewood Smoked Bacon)
1 bottle of bourbon (common wisdom says buy a cheap bottle, like Four Roses, but I think a Texas brand is appropriate for this. Pick Something you like.

Cook your bacon in a skillet and reserve rendered fat. When bacon fat has cooled a bit, pour off the fan into a non-porous container, like a glass bowl. Pour the whole bottle of bourbon into a non-porous container. Don’t worry if you have some bits of bacon in there. You can even add a cooked piece of bacon to this mix. Cover it with plastic wrap and let it hang out overnight at room temperature, at least 6 hours. Put the bowl in the freezer for at least 24 hours. I like 72 the best. Very bacon-y. Strain the fat off of the bourbon and run the bourbon through some cheesecloth to catch the globs and bits. When the bourbon is clean and free of debris, put it back in the bottle and be sure to label it with a “B” for bacon on the cap, or you will get a surprise if you’re not careful!

 

 

Forgotten Book: Spicy Adventures by Robert E. Howard (2011)

Tame by today's standards, but enough to get you in trouble in the Bible Belt of the 1930s.

By Scott A. Cupp

This is the 161st in my series of Forgotten Books.

I love the work of Robert E. Howard. The man from Cross Plains is one of my literary heroes along with Jack London, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Neal Barrett, Jr. And this year I made my second trek to Cross Plains for Howard Days, where he is celebrated in the manner he should be.

I first discovered his work in the mid-1960s with the various Lancer, Ace and Dell editions, particularly the Conan and Kull stories. Then, in the 1970s, the Donald Grant hardcovers along with the Zebra paperbacks brought him deep into my grasp. I managed to get an Arkham House Skullface and Others from the university library. But I had to give it back. Later I got the Neville Spearman hardcover from the UK. When I sold my books I was sorry to see it go, so I was ecstatic when Half Price Books put it into their clearance for $3 about a month later. It’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

I was also pleased to co-edit Cross Plains Universe: Texas Writers Celebrate Robert E. Howard for the 2006 World Fantasy Convention, where we honored Howard’s centenary. It’s one of the best things I have ever done and I remain inordinately proud of the book.

So, this year, when I went to Howard Days, I got to revisit the Howard house and look at where the magic happened. I took my wife with me since she had never been. It was a great weekend.

And while I was there, I bought some books from the Robert E. Howard Foundation, including this week’s offering, Spicy Adventures. I have a fondness for old pulp stories, particularly the Spicy pulps. I blame Steve Mertz who introduced me to Robert Leslie Bellem and his skewed stories back in the early ’80s. Between him and John Wooley, I read a lot of those things.

By today’s standards, the Spicies are pretty tame. But in the ’30s, you could get in some trouble in the Bible belt if you were seen with one. The Spicies frequently had women in scanty clothing, sometimes ripped or missing. Sex was implied but never seen. And REH wrote several stories for them.

Here we have the five tales that Spicy Adventures bought from Howard, as well as three others written for the market but not purchased. And you also get four synopses and two earlier draft versions of a story as well as an informative introductory essay by fabulous Howard scholar and all around good guy, Patrice Louinet.

The stories are pure pulp adventure, fueled with adrenaline. “The Girl on the Hell Ship,” which has previously been the title story in a paperback collection called She Devil is the first offering. This one was written at the urging of E. Hoffman Price (the only man known to have shaken the hands of both Howard and H. P. Lovecraft, which got him many beers at conventions). Price was regularly selling to Spicy Adventures and found it to be easy money. (For a taste of Price’s work, a wonderful e-book titled The E. Hoffman Price Spicy Adventure Megapack from Wildside Press makes a wonderful experience for your Kindle).

“The Girl on the Hell Ship” features Wild Bill Clanton, who finds young maiden Raquel trying to flee from two brutes from the ship Saucy Wench on a South Pacific island. Things get wild and Clanton eventually assumes command of the ship with the prize of his passion. “Ship in Mutiny” finds Clanton and Raquel displaced from the ship by mutineers who inadvertently kill the only person other than Clanton who can steer the vessel. Unfortunately, the local man-hungry queen of the natives has her eyes on him.

Other fun stories include “The Purple Heart of Erlik,” which Roy Thomas made into a Conan comic (if I recall correctly and I may not) that features a young female grifter trying to escape from the Far East and trapped into a scheme doomed to failure. And then there’s “The Dragon of Kao Tsu” with more Eastern adventure.

Wild Bill Clanton appears in several stories. He is kind of fun.

The book is relatively short, a mere 211 pages. But it has a great cover from premier Howard artists Jim and Ruth Kreegan. It’s a little pricy, but the sales benefit the Robert E. Howard Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving and presenting the works of REH as he wrote them. If you read the deCamp Howard collections, you did not get the full, real Robert E. Howard. So buy books from the foundation.

I picked up 7 books while I was at Howard Days. I didn’t want to spend that much money, but I really, really, really wanted the titles. This particular book is limited to 250 copies. If you are interested, do not hesitate. Check out their website to see all the various volumes available.

Also, if you’re a Howard fan, check out Project Pride, the lovely locals in cross Plains who maintain the Howard House and help host Howard Days.

It’s all worthwhile. And may Crom ignore you when you need it.

Series organizer Patti Abbott hosts more Friday Forgotten Book reviews at her own blog, and posts a complete list of participating blogs.

 

Horny Toads and Ugly Chickens: A&M’s speculative fiction collection

The first issue of Amazing Stories is just one of the items in Texas A&M's speculative fiction collection.

Ever heard of the 1975 novel “Doomsday Clock,” published in San Antonio with an actual fuse sticking out of its cover? What about “Overshoot,” a 1998 Ace paperback about an elderly Alamo City woman reflecting on how global warming brought down civilization? Or the Asimov’s story “One Night in Mulberry Court,” in which a blue-skinned alien anthropologist moves into a San Antonio trailer park?

Don’t feel bad. Until a couple days ago, I hadn’t either.

I discovered their existence virtually via the online site for Texas A&M’s Science Fiction and Fantasy Research Collection. Seems the Aggies have amassed a 54,000-piece collection of speculative fiction plus related history and criticism, much of it Texas-related. The collection houses the papers and manuscripts of Chad Oliver, Michael Moorcock and George R. R. Martin. What’s more, it contains over 90 percent of the American science fiction pulp magazines published prior to 1980, including the 1923 debut issue of Weird Tales.

Perhaps even cooler, it’s all searchable by author, title, imprint, and subject terms via an online database.

As an added perk, the A&M site also includes Bill Page’s 1991 essay “Horny Toads and Ugly Chickens: A Bibliography on Texas in Speculative Fiction,” which draws the “Ugly Chickens” part of its title from Austin writer Howard Waldrop’s wildly imaginative short story of the same name.

“The mystique of the old west has long been an alluring subject for authors; even Jules Verne and Bram Stoker used Texans in stories,” Page writes. “As one reads science fiction and fantasy novels set in Texas, certain themes repeat themselves. There are, of course, numerous works about ghosts, vampires, and werewolves. Authors often write about invasions of the state, not only by creatures from outer space, but also by foreigners, including the Russians, the Mexicans, and even the Israelis.” (There he goes with another Howard Waldrop reference. This time, Waldrop and Jake Saunders’ novel “The Texas Israeli War.”)

The essay gives an exhaustive listing of Texas sf/fantasy/horror authors, both known (Robert E. Howard and Joe R. Lansdale) and not-so-known (Leonard M. Sanders and Joan Johnston), and a list of stories and books by non-Texans set in the Lone Star State. Bummer it’s almost 20 years old, though.

And while you’re there, you might as well peruse other features, including extensive bibliographies of Robert Heinlein, Judith Merril and Sam Moskowitz.

All told, the A&M site is an impressive resource for those of us who just can’t get enough Lone Star lore in our speculative fiction.