If Chins Could Kill : Confessions of a B Movie Actor by Bruce Campbell (2001, St. Martin’s Press)
Bruce Campbell could be termed “the action hero next door”. He’s not built like Arnie or a martial arts master; he’s a fairly normal-looking guy with an expressive face and the physique of someone who looks like he works out occasionally. He has parleyed his starring role in a low-budget horror film, Evil Dead, into B-list movies like Bubba Ho-Tep and television series such as Brisco County, Jr. and Burn Notice, all while maintaining his role as Ash in the various Evil Dead sequels.
His book is much more engaging than it should be. Most hollywood autobiographies have three segments: the “private life” part, featuring highlights of their youth; the “behind the scenes” part, discussing what went on with other stars during the filming of their most famous roles, and the “where I am now” part, detailing their current interests. Some will add information about their continuing marital and social troubles as a running commentary. Many will include pictures.
Campbell works to make his book fun. The pictures are there, for example, and there are far more of them than normal – one or two on almost every page. They’re kept small, to keep them from overwhelming the text (which has the ability to turn a 300 page book into 100 pages of text, a standard way of ripping off the curious reader.) While there are tales of sex and violence, they tend to be exclusive to the movie filming; for example, he admits that his entire sexual experience in college manifested in the form of one proposition – from a gay man in his acting class, who he politely turned down.
Because Campbell knows where his fans are, much of the book is devoted to The Evil Dead movies; that said, because they were low-budget, that means the book is focused heavily on giving the reader a behind-the-scenes look at how much of Hollywood works – the scrambling to get a movie made, the many functions a person may perform without being noticed (such as his sound work on Darkman, where he basically filled in for Liam Neeson with different noises and yells until the actor could come back and voice them himself) and the value a single noteworthy patron may have in getting a movie made.
It’s a great expose of Hollywood without any of the trashy tell-all that “expose” normally entails. It’s just a look at the guts of the industry from the standpoint of someone who enthusiastically enjoys his work.
Conan by Robert E. Howard, L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter (1967, Lancer)
The Conan series by Robert E. Howard is exceptional. It is at the pinnacle of pulp-era writing: action-oriented with a naturally quick pacing and an eye for minimalist descriptions that nevertheless convey a concrete sense of presence. Howard had a natural ability to produce heroes who performed at the peak of human prowess and were nonetheless (generally, except for his tall tales) grounded in reality.
The twelve-book Ace/Lancer series mutes that, in a way which may or may not be palatable for the discerning reader.
The Conan stories released in a paperback by Lancer, and finished under the Ace banner when Lancer folded, were heavily edited by L. Sprague de Camp – a fantasy master in his own right – and included many story fragments which were fleshed out by de Camp and Lin Carter.
The original tales had internal contradictions and occasional grammatical errors. The end result was an unreliable narrator (“Hey, didn’t he tell me that guy had died in the last story? How is he still alive?”) and a sense of conversational tone, as if you were being told the Conan tales by a person in a bar who insisted he had been there. de Camp cleaned everything up, then found story fragments – often story fragments which had been revised and turned into stories in another series like Kull, by Howard – and worked with Lin Carter to expand those story fragments into full tales.
The end result is a very clear timeline of tales of Conan’s extraordinary life, from his youth through to his final days. His strength wanes somewhat as he ages, his youthful exuberance is tempered by experience and wisdom – it is not simply the story of an eternally youthful champion but rather the story arc of an amazing life.
Conan lives in a prehistoric fantasy land, with giant monsters, magical spells, evil sorcerers, and a series of governments which tend toward kingdoms or independent cities. There is always the chance for adventure, and always the threat of death.
The de Camp edit tempers the original Howard, in a way that many Howard enthusiasts feel cheapens the stories, but they add value to the saga and make it more accessible for the casual reader. It is the difference between having one’s coffee black or tempered with cream and sugar.
Either way, it’s still coffee. And either way, the Conan stories of Robert E. Howard are worth reading.