Thursday, June 18, 2009

Beast On The Road - Robert E. Howard Days

Every year in June the small Texas town of Cross Plains holds the Howard Days celebration. Robert E. Howard was a prolific writer. He wrote short stories, poems, and a novel or two. His most famous creation is Conan of Cimmeria, who (unfortunately) most know from the Ah-Nold films. His other characters include Solomon Kane, a Puritan driven to destroy evil in its many forms; Kull of Atlantis, a barbarian who becomes king by his own hand; and Bran Mak Morn, king of the Picts, who fights to keep his land and people free from the Roman Empire. Howard's stories range from serious to comedic, covering genres such as horror, historical adventure, Western, sports, and of course Heroic Fantasy, a genre which he pretty much defined, if not created. He was born in 1906 and died by his own hand in 1936.

Cross Plains is where Howard's house stands, and it has been designated an historical landmark. The town is small, with one stoplight, a Dairy Queen, a Subway, and a few local restaraunts (more on that later). Each year fans of Howard's work descend on Cross Plains to see the house where the author did his work, attend panels, take in the Barbarian Festival, and just hang out with fellow Howard aficianados. The townsfolk are friendly for the most part...being a small town, strangers stick out, especially ones with long hair and tattoos(like me), and there are the occasional stares and glares, but it's no big deal. The folks who run Project Pride, the organization that takes care of Howard's house, are always happy to see us all, and you couldn't find a nicer bunch of people anywhere.

The only motel in town is the Motel 36. It has only a dozen or so rooms, so it books up fast. It's close walking distance to the Howard House , and there's the town grocery store next door, and next over from the store is Jean's Feed Barn. Jean's is the best place to eat in Cross Plains, and I would put their breakfasts up against that of any eatery, be it chain or independant. The biscuits and gravy are worth killing for, and the bacon and hashbrowns are always crispy and perfect...and the portions are generous as well. If you leave Jean's hungry, it's your own damn fault.

It was raining when we arrived on Thursday, and the dark clouds brought a welcome lowering of the temperature for the rest of the day. It started to hail a bit at one point, but not for long. Dinner was had in nearby Brownwood at a place called Humphrey Pete's, where I had a bison burger, which was pretty good.

This year's Howard Days focused on his poetry, and guests included Donald Sydney Fryer, and Larry Thomas, Texas Poet Laureate. Both gave entertaining readings and had interesting things to say about Howard's work in the arena of poetry and writing in general. Thomas was this year's Guest of Honor at the Friday night banquet as well. Afterwards, at the Pavillion next to the Howard House, a Poetry Throwdown, complete with prizes was held. It was fun, with lots of participation besides the usual suspects. Saturday the Barbarian Festival took place's your basic small-town festival, with pony rides, tents selling all kinds of crafts and things, and eats from snow cones to funnel cakes to hot dogs. Saturday evening was the Caddo Peak BBQ. The folks who own the Caddo Peak Ranch are kind enough to host a picnic for us each year. The food is good and the view is spectacular. Near the end of the evening, the sun was obscured by hazy clouds, making it look like the eye of Odin was peering down at us, giving his blessing for our celebration of a great skald.
The main reason I enjoy attending Howard Days (besides the fact that he's my favorite author) is to see everyone and hang out with folks I usually only see once a year, and meet new people,too. Oh, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the Mead Circle. This is a variation on an old Nordic ritual ( known as sumbdel, I think) that my good friend Big Mike started including in our own gatherings years ago, and we had one at Howard Days after hours. It involves a very large drinking horn and several bottles of mead. All willing participants stand in a circle, and partake of the horn. When the horn reaches you there are three proclomations you must make. The first time the horn gets to you, you are to drink to an ancestor or hero . The second time you are to drink to one who is present. The third is to make an oath, or boast of an achievement you have made. After these three hails are made, the horn is passed until all are completely drunk or the mead is all gone. There are two more modern elements that have been added to the Mead Circle: 1) If someone yells "Hail Ragnar!", all must respond by yelling "Hail Ragnar's Beard!"...if you don't know what that's about, go watch The Vikings with Kirk Douglas and Ernest Borgnine, and all will become clear; 2) If the horn reaches you and it is empty, you are to look at the person who had it last and say to them, "Bastard!", and go refill the horn. I wish I had some pictures of the Mead Circle that was held, but I was too busy drinking to take any pics ( big surprise, I know...such rituals call to my Nordic mead is the drink of the Gods). Yes, a good time was had by all, I think, although I did miss some of my good friends that couldn't make it this year ( it just wasn't the same without you, Charles).

Penguin Classics has announced that a colection of Howard's work will be released soon...this is good news, because Howard's work has been snubbed by critics for decades . This is because he primarily wrote for the pulp magazines of his time, and critics seem to have a hard time considering any type of genre work as serious literature. This will go a long way to validate his works, and maybe get some readers who are stragers to his work to take a look.

One last side bit...there was a monkey theme running at the grocery store next door to the motel. In the candy section, this item was found...when full, it looked like this screaming cartoon monkey had a mouthfull of multi-colored worms...this amused me, for some reason. Later that weekend, I looked at the toy vending machines outside the store. I always loved these as a kid, and, Hell, I still think they're pretty cool. Guess what one of the machines contained...that's right, monkeys! It's a good thing I didn't spot it earlier , because I probably would have put $20 worth of quarters in it to get all ten. As it was, I managed to restrian myself ( mostly because I dropped a lot of cash at the Howard House gift shop) to only getting one monkey. He looks like he may be carrying an invisible platter, or he's holding up his hands in the universal gesture of "What the Hell?" Yes, I, a supposedly adult man, spent 50 cents on a tiny plastic monkey, and I make no apologies for it.

All in all, it was a great mini-vacation. I got to see old friends, spend time at the house and town of my literary hero, eat lots of good-tasting-but-bad-for-you-food, pass the mead horn, read some poetry, buy lots of books, and get a tiny plastic monkey, who now resides on my desk. Life is good, sometimes. Hail to you all!

Hail the Tiny Monkey!

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Odds and Ends

I'm feeling lazy today, so here's a few pics of some things I've been up to lately.

My brother Dan and I built a deck in my backyard a couple of weeks ago...nothing too fancy, but it's better than the little slab that's been back there for years.

The finished I just need one of those big-ass umbrella/stand things to provide some shade. I sat out here the other night under the was very peaceful and relaxing. I like sitting out here, beverage in hand... fact, here are several people, beverages in hand on my deck (insert jokes here).

I also made a trip to the Zoo recently... are the new black leopards, cat-napping. One cracked his eye ever so slightly open to look at me for a split-second, then closed it. I don't like having my naps interrupted, either.

Here's another cat at the Zoo.

Here's the resident tiger, making faces at me.

I hope everyone is having a good weeknd ...I may have some more film reviews posted later, if I get ambitious enough. See you later!

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Beast's Movie Cave- Planet Terror

In 2007 a film titled Grindhouse hit the theaters. It was supposed to be a throwback to the classic days of exploitation films. It was actually two films released as a double feature, which I thought was great. One of the films was Death Proof, by Quentin Tarantino, a tale of a serial killer that used his car as a weapon. The other film in the double bill was Planet Terror, by Robert Rodriguez, and it was my favorite of the two by far. Both films have been released on DVD separately, and I waited because there was supposed to be a special edition with both flicks together...this has yet to happen, and with both titles running about ten bucks each, I decided to quit holding out, and picked up a copy of Planet Terror. It was about damn time, too.

Planet Terror starts with the character of Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan) leaving her job as a go-go dancer. As the night progresses, she (and the whole town) gets involved with an outbreak of a military chemical weapon that happens to turn most people into pulsating, murderous mutants; runs into her old boyfriend Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), who is more than he appears to be; loses her leg to said mutants; gets captured by a rogue military group(led by Bruce Willis); becomes a killing machine; and ultimately achieves her destiny and finds her role in life. Sub-plots include a couple who are both doctors (Marley Shelton, Josh Brolin) whose relationship is on the skids, and a pair of brothers consisting of the town sherriff(Michael Biehn) and the local BBQ king (Jeff Fahey) who constantly bicker over a certain recipe.

Planet Terror , to me, has the feel of an 80s Italian-made horror film. The action takes place in a small town, and things quickly go from bad to downright Apocalyptic...this reminds me of the films of Lucio Fulci, such as City of the Living Dead (1980), or the small island confines of Zombie (1979). Also, the presence of the hordes of infected mutants, or 'sickos', is like the shambling army of zombies in the aforementioned films(for more info on these films, see my entries from last October). To further achieve the feel of an old exploitaton flick, the film itself has 'aging' effects, to make it look as if the film has been around for a while...scratches, jumps, and even a missing reel bring the feel that this film has made the rounds at the drive-ins and dive theaters. There's even a fake trailer before the main feature ( more on this later).

Planet Terror is a lot of fun. It's a wild, gory, entertaining ride from start to finish. Rodriguez seemed to truly want to give filmgoers a crazy cinematic experience, from the gooey mutants, to the gory setpieces, to Cherry's machine-gun leg. This is not an overly serious film, obviously, but it's never boring, that's for sure( unlike the second part of the double feature ...Tarantino seemed more interested in having lots of 'cool' dialogue, making the first half of his feature about as interesting as watching paint dry...but I digress). The only thing missing from Planet Terror that would truly make it a classic exploitation flick is gratuitous female nudity. Now, there are a lot of scantily-clad female forms on view here, but actual buck-nakedness is not to be seen...I guess that's what happens when you get a lot of name actors in your movie.

Back to the fake's for a film called Machete. If you've never seen this , go to YouTube right now and watch it. Seriously, you'll thank me later. Everyone I know that has seen this fake trailer wants this to be a real movie (and word has it that it will become just that). It compresses everything cool about exploitation/action flicks into a couple of minutes, and we even get the gratuitous female nudity that we are denied in the feature. Danny Trejo portrays the title character, Jeff Fahey shows up as a corrupt politician(like there's another type), and Cheech Marin is Machete's brother, who happens to be a Catholic priest. I hope that if this does actually get made into a feature that it lives up to the trashy exploitive greatness that is displayed in the trailer.

If you're up for a fun, violent, crazed night of movie madness, go visit Planet Terror. The Beast gives it his official Seal of Approval. Now go watch it already!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Beast On The Prowl- Riot, Scout Bar

I've been a fan of the band Riot (no, not Quiet Riot) for a long time now. I can remember hearing 'Swords and Tequila' on the radio when I was a young beast, and in the late 80's one afternoon, I was listening to Z-Rock, a syndicated staion that played Metal and hard rock, and a song came on with amazing guitars and stratospheric vocals. This song was the title track from the album Thundersteel, and it was by Riot. Riot was primarily a good hard rock band, but this was straight -up Metal. Riot, like many bands that have been around for a while, has had many line-up changes over the years. The main member has always been lead guitarist /songwriter Mark Reale. Thundersteel, and the following album, Privilege of Power, were more Metallic than Riot's previous output...this may have been due to the era ( Metal was big), and the band members( vocalist Tony Moore's voice was in the multi-octave range, and drummer Bobby Jarzombek is a double-bass monster). Whatever the reasons, these two albums were probably Riot's heaviest. Subsequent releases were with a different line-up, and as a result were in more of a hard-rock direction...don't get me wrong, they're great albums, and I love them, but they lacked the Metallic drive of the previous recordings.

Fast-forward many years and recordings later. I'm looking at the local rock rag and I see an ad for a gig at the newest rock club here in San Antonio, the Scout Bar, where I saw Kamelot back on Halloween. It was an ad for the Riot Thundersteel Reunion tour. I was surprised that this particular line-up got back together ( I saw a more recent version of Riot back around 1999-2000, and they did kick ass), but then, Metal is kind of big again. I knew I had to see this show.
I was tired as Hell( short handed at work), and it was a Tuesday night(last night, to be exact), but I had to go. The opening bands were good, but when Riot hit the stage, it was like Time went backwards. Sure, a couple of the guys had put on a few pounds, but the Metal magic was definately there. The line-up was essentially the same as when I saw them last, with the exception of local boy Don Van Stavern ( drummer Jarzombek is from S.A. also) on bass and Tony Moore on vocals. I didn't have many doubts as far as Van Stavern was concerned, as he'd played in another local outfit called Pitbull Daycare through the 90s, but I wondered about Moore's voice. Would he be still able to hit those high notes ? Oh, ye of little faith...he hit those notes like he was beating a rented mule. The band was tight and in good form as they ripped through their signature songs from that particular era ('Flight of the Warrior', 'Thundersteel', 'Storming The Gates of Hell', 'Bloodstreets', etc.), as well as older pre-Moore tracks like 'Outlaw' , 'Rock City', and 'Swords and Tequila'. They even played a new track(!) titled 'Wings Are For Angels'.The crowd was a good one , especially for a Tuesday night, and there was an interesting mix of older folks and young Metal/Rock fans in attendance. The band was appreciative of the great reception they got from the crowd. At one point, right before Riot played, a guy with grey hair wearing khakis and a polo shirt sat down next to me with his wife, saying, "I'm too old for this !", to which I replied, " Shit, you're never too old for this!" There was a guy with a walker in attendence( I was told he was a family member of one of the band), as well as a gal in a wheel chair, plus lots of younger folks , too.
I wish I'd have taken my phone takes shite pics. It was a great show, and even though I went to work with only about 3 hours of sleep this morning, it was worth it. The show was a great trip down Metal Memory Lane for me. All hail Riot!