Monday, February 11, 2008

How Not to Write a Pastiche

Back in the 80s and 90s Tor published a lot of pastiches featuring Robert E. Howard's Conan. Many authors, including Robert Jordan, wrote some of these books. Most were not very good. Here's my review of one of those books, with some asides on problems with the story and characterization that may help the writers among us think about our own works in progress.

Sean A. Moore, Conan the Hunter, Published by Tor. 1994. 245 pages.

This was Moore's first book and I haven't read anything else by him. I do think he showed promise but none of us will get to see it developed since he died in a car crash in 1998 at age 33. This book's strengths included fast pacing and generally pretty good descriptions of physical combat. The book also got better toward the end, and I found myself turning the pages to see what would happen next. That’s a step forward compared to other pastiches I've read.

There were, however, a number of problems that made the book less than a standout. First, Conan the Hunter failed to capture the flavor of Robert E. Howard. Anyone who has read REH's Conan would never be fooled into thinking that Moore's Conan is the same character. In fact, Conan in this story was only one of several central characters, and there were times when he didn't even seem the major one. Had the book been called "Gorum the Hunter" I probably would have enjoyed it more, but when you do something called "Conan" it seems to me that you try to stay true to the character as Howard created it. This was the weakest part of Moore's book. In fact, in several places the author seemed to draw Conan as little more than an ineffectual buffoon. For example, on page 13, a city guardsman, admittedly described as very strong, grabs Conan by the wrist--and snaps it just like that. It appears Conan needs a few calcium tablets in his diet.

On page 54, Conan is trapped in a sewer when he is attacked by a tentacled monster (from the cover drawing by Ken Kelly). Conan leaps into the air to avoid the creature, misjudges the tunnel’s height, and cracks his skull against the ceiling hard enough to bring down rocks and dirt. This stuns Conan long enough for the creature to get hold of him. By the way, it also sets off an avalanche of dirt that opens the sewer to the outside (described as 80 or 90 feet above.) This dirt, described as "tons," buries the creature.

On page 60 Conan becomes a total buffoon. He tries to sneak up on a gardener to steal his clothes to get inside a palace, but he screws this up and ends up on his face in the dirt with the gardener yelling for the guards. He then knocks the gardener down, but as he stands up the gardener's horse bolts and the cart it is pulling hits Conan's shoulder,
knocking his sword out of his hand. In reaching for his sword, Conan sticks his foot into a loop of the harness; the horse bolts again, and Conan is dragged unceremoniously along behind. When Conan finally gets free of the horse, he stands up and the gardener walks up and knocks him out with one punch. Just who is this gardener? Mike Tyson?

In yet another place, page 92, Conan takes a swing at a guard and ends up punching his fist into the other fellow's armor. Now true, Howard did not show Conan as infallible or as never making mistakes, but all this just seems a little too much for me. As I said, this might have been fine, or even appropriate, for "Gorum," but it just didn't fit "Conan."

What else? Well, despite the fact that Conan's wrist could be broken simply by being grabbed by another fellow, his head certainly seemed to be hard enough. On page 94, a man who is apparently incredibly strong hits Conan upside the head with a direct, sidearm blow from a heavy mace. Conan is merely stunned! Does that seem reasonable to you?

My overall evaluation is that Conan the Hunter was readable, and even enjoyable at some level, but that its attempt at a pastiche of Howard was unsuccessful. The main problems were with the characterization of Conan, and with the occasional lapse in internal logic. This book should have been published as a non-Conan book and should have had the more egregious errors edited out or toned down. I mean, did anyone along the production line for this book even stop to imagine what would happen to a human skull when impacted by a mace traveling at full speed?


Monique said...

What I like most in this problem section is the fact that Conan is dragged by a bolting horse. Yet when he frees himself, the gardener just walks up ... That horse didn't run very far did he? But of course when a horse bolts, nothing can stop it. It will run on and on until it collapses.

I hate inconsistencies in books TV and films. Being a stickler for detail, I always make sure in my scripts that every move is correct.

Shauna Roberts said...

One of my pet peeves of action movies is the hero who through sheer will power does something physically impossible. In one movie, whose title I can't remember, a man is infected with a fatal virus that nearly kills him but he clears the virus in a few minutes and beats up the bad guys. In one of the Rocky movies, Rocky fights a Soviet boxing star whose punch has a pressure of 900 pounds per square inch. The guy punches Rocky in the jaw without breaking it (or his knuckles).

Steve Malley said...

My hunch? The book *was* submitted as 'Gorum the Hunter', and the editor found room for it in the Conan line.

Charles Gramlich said...

Monique, I'm not a stickler for details like does that buckle belong on that shoe really, but when it comes to what humans can really do, or what animals really do, it just casts me out of the story if the writer doesn't stay within the realm of the possible.

Shauna, I think I've seen that virus movie myself. And yes, Rocky versus the 900 pounds per squre inch punch guy was totally unbelievable. One, that the guy had that kind of punch, and 2, that Rocky could take it and stand up.

Steve Malley, that could well be.

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

I never read Conan - but if he gets knocked out cracking his own head on a ceiling by jumping up, how would a mace not almost kill him? Details like that would really bug me.

Inside our hands, outside our hearts said...

Charles you are so informative. Maybe that comes from teaching I am not sure. But I never leave here not understanding. Sure you do not want to teach at my University?

Soft love,

virtual nexus said...

I had to laugh...

surprising what writers (pastiche or otherwise) actually get away with, thanks to suspension of good old common sense....

SQT said...

In a small defense of Rocky, I've been a fighter for years and not every punch packs the same wallop. (Though the criticism can still stick since they made the point of showing the 900lb punch)

I think I would've hurled this book across the room. I tend to think of Conan as being tough to the point of inhuman so it would bug me to no end to read that he was knocked out with one punch.

Randy Johnson said...

Charles, I have to agree about the quality of the Conan pastiches. I kept buying them and gradually stopped reading them. I have a number of them that I meant to get back to, but never have. I wasn't sure why until I read your entry! This one is one of those I haven't read yet.

ivan said...

Not familiar with the pastiche concept, but it seems to me you've done a pretty good job right here.

AvDB said...

I'm not familiar with the Conan books. I've only been indoctrinated to the character via Governor Arnie's portrayal. So, I may be wrong in assuming this, but, wasn't Conan simply made strong by being a slave? No supernatural abilities? If so, it makes the being cracked in the skull with something large and metal a tad unbelievable. Especially since, as you brought up, someone else was able to snap his wrist like grandma.

That sort of discontinuity in a novel bothers me (and makes me ultra paranoid about my own work).

Erik Donald France said...

This cracked me up -- it's like Conan as one of The Three Stooges . . . "It appears Conan needs a few calcium tablets in his diet" . . . hilarious.

Charles Gramlich said...

Ello, definitely some continuity errors in this one. Conan is not, I think, Robert E. Howard's best character. I like Solomon Kane a lot, and especially a character named Bran Mak Morn.

Tara, thanks. Hum, maybe I would if they paid more than my university.

Julie, yes, just stopping to think, does that seem reasonable, ought to have cleared up some of the errors.

SQT, for me, that whole sequel with Dolph was just too unbelievable, although I really liked the first two Rocky movies.

Randy, I picked up quite a few of them at books sales or used book stores back in the day and read a number until I burned out. I still have a fair number unread around the house but almost never get the urge to pick one up.

Ivan, pastiche actually has a pretty long history. It just means other authors writing stories using the main character of one author. There have been pastiches of Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, Doc Savage, James Bond, etc. To me, pastiche seems to have the same kind of elements as when a new actor takes on a beloved role, like having a new Kirk. At times they work; often they don't.

Avery, certainly in the Arnold movie Conan started as a slave. This is actually one thing that many fans of Howard really dislike. Howard had Conan growing up wild and untamed along the frontier and his personality was shaped by absolute freedom rather than slavery. Although I thought Arnold did pretty decent in that role, the story itself was very much not about a Howard Conan. Howard's Conan certainly did not have any supernatural powers though so a mace upside the head would certainly have done more than stun him.

Charles Gramlich said...

Erik, Lol. Yeah, I was kind of proud of that line.

Angie said...

Oh, good grief. :/ Yes, I ran into a lot of that back when I was reading Star Trek novels in the seventies and eighties. Same kind of thing; I often wondered whether the writer had ever actually seen the show. In this case, apparently a lot of these writers had never actually read any of Howard's Conan. And that's not even addressing the common sense issues.


Bernita said...

A wall-banger for sure.

SzélsőFa said...

I have not read/seen any Conan pieces and I don't think I ever will.
Inconsistencies and unbelievable capapilities are funny at first sight, but get quite boring finally.
WTF the writer was thinking about his readers mental capacities, anyway?
I, as a reader want some respect.

Tyhitia Green said...

I've never read Conan, but what you said reminded me of the old Rambo movie. Even though Stallone stood in front of several guys with guns, he was never hit and killed all of Some writers can get away with some of the funniest stuff.

RRN said...

Interesting. One of the many reasons I enjoy reading your blog is that it is often filled with knowledge and things I was unaware of. I have never heard the term Pastiche before. I had to research it for a moment before I read this.
I felt what you were saying here a lot. I had a drama teacher go on at length once about "suspending your belief in reality" while engaging in the Arts. He then marked me down for writing a piece that was "too far fetched".
I think there is a fine line between imagination and insulting your audience with sillyness.

Loved this post.


WH said...

And speaking of the production line, do they even have such anymore (rhetorical question # 682)? There were 37 major grammatical errors/mixed constructions in Da Vinci Code. As far as violations of logic and other problems, such as those you mention, one can only wonder when it comes to any book published nowdays. Are the junior agents and editors--the English majors fresh out of college--in charge of editing, leaving their bosses to be strictly "acquisitions people"? The word I hear is "yes."

Charles Gramlich said...

Angie, "Good Grief" indeed.

Bernita, quite likely if I hadn't been reading it with the mind to review it I would have thrown it into the wall.

Szelsofa, you might find the actual Robert E. Howard stories to be enjoyable. He was a much better writer than the pasticheurs. He also wrote a lot of humorous stuff, westerns and boxing tales, but there is a fair amount of violence in most of his work.

Demon Hunter, to me, if the writer or movie maker makes the action hero do things where he survives just by sheer luck then I consider that a weakness.

RRN, it is often a fine line, and that line differs for different readers, but some of these mistakes are just so out of the realm of possibility that they cause more frustration than enjoyment.

Billly, you should check out Candice Proctor's blog. She has some stories about the horrible copy editing that she's gotten sometimes. It would be funny if it weren't so sad.

Shauna Roberts said...

"Pasticheurs." What a great word.

Miladysa said...

LOL @ Steve Malley.

I suppose it depends on how seriously you take the book in the first place. With some books and characters inconsistencies would be easily dismissed with those I care about they would be sacrilege!

I enjoyed the review :]