Friday, December 14, 2018

Forgotten Books: FLAME WINDS by Norvell Page (1939/1969)

I first heard of Norvell Page in the mid-seventies, when I was into all things sword & sorcery. His two novels, Flame Winds and Sons of the Bear God, were widely recommended, so I picked them up, along with the several series by Michael Moorcock, Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Gray Mouser books, a couple by Poul Anderson, some Kothars by Gardner Fox, and even one featuring a forgettable character created by Lin Carter. (Bear in mind that used paperbacks were dirt cheap back then.) 

I read the Moorcocks, enjoying them all, and the Leibers, liking them even more, but never got around to the others (and when it comes to the Gardner Fox and Lin Carter stuff, I'm sure I never will).

But back to Norvell Page. Unbeknownst to me, I had already read and grokked on six of his Spider novels, beginning with Wings of the Black Death and City of Flaming Shadows, numbers 3 and 4 in the Berkley paperback reprint series that never went any farther. I then went on to read the four updated novels printed by Pocket Books in an attempt to cash in the Executioner craze. By ignoring the silly changes, I managed to enjoy them too. (I yapped about one of those HERE.) These days, Page is acknowledged as the best and busiest of the Spider scribes, but back then I was clueless. 

Now, having read many more of his Spider novels, a collection of weird detective stories (City of Corpses, HERE) a Spicy Western collection (Brand of the Cougar, HERE) and a few other shorts, I figured it was time to pluck Flame Winds off the shelf and give it a go. 

As you might expect, the book is sort of a cross between Conan and the Spider. Originally published in the Street & Smith pulp Unknown in 1939, it was written before the Spider was born. (Not so, Matt Clark has reminded me. The Spider's mag debuted in 1933.) But the manic driving force that makes Page's Spider so compelling is presaged here in Prester John--the hero of this novel and the follow-up, Sons of the Bear God

Like Page's version of the Spider/Richard Wentworth, Prester John is supremely confident and slightly crazy. He always seems to balancing on the edge, as if the next looming crisis might plunge him into stark raving madness. "Prester John was a man careless of death, but just now he thought it would be a good time to live," we are told.  "So, with a smile on his lips--and the blade of his sword between his teeth," he charges into danger.

Lest we be confused, the author's foreward explains that while this may well be the Prester John of legend, his story takes place a long time before the Crusades, way back in the First Century. A legend as large as his, Page reasons, would take that long to percolate. Except for a few instances, our hero is referred to as "Wan Tegri," which supposedly translates as "Hurricane John." This adventure is set in China--a China infested with sorcerors. 

As the paperback cover proclaims, there's plenty of Conan influence, including a giant serpent and a giant ape. The tale was even once adapted for a Conan comic book, which I'll have to dig out of a box for a second read. But there are differences. 

Instead of swishing about bragging about their powers, these sorcerors hide their identities, living among the populace as ordinary--and extraordinary citizens. They also have an ability I don't recall from the Hyborian Age, to "call back" anything stolen from them, making it vanish from the hands of the thief. That trick would have really pissed Conan off.

Like Conan, Wan Tegri is big, strong, comely and not-too-bright, but he differs in that he's able to hold more than one thought in his head at the same time. He's able to formulate both short term and long term goals, and pursue both at once. And unlike Conan, we're pretty much always privy to what he's thinking. He does a lot of scheming, proving himself occassionally clever, and laughs (a lot) at danger.

And Page does an adequate job with the style. As a sample, here's the passage on which the Unknown cover is based:

     Wan Tegri's brilliant gray eyes narrowed, and he scanned the tower with a soldier's mind, saw then the farther barrier he would need to pass. In the court beyond the heat of the flames, a great fountain threw up a spray like coruscating jewels, and ever in its jet there danced a great crystal ball, rising and falling, bouncing on the rising water as if it beat a deep rhythm for those dancing girls of flame. And around that fountain stood ranks of guards, seven ranks deep. Each row of them wore a different livery. Their tunics were crimson and blue and purple, cloth of gold and silver, and one was green, and the innermost rank faced outward, drawn swords in hand; but the other six ranks faced each other, two by two, and their naked swords rested each on the throat of the man who confronted him!

Will I be reading Sons of the Bear God? Yeah, I reckon so, and when I do you'll hear about it.

P.S. Some years back I posted a complete story from Spicy Detective, as by N. Wooten Page, which I invite you to squint at HERE.


Rick Robinson said...

I remember seeing these in the mostly vanished used book stores back in the day, but doubt they are to be found now. Not that I'd want one; I have too many - WAY too many - books in hand already. Great post.

Evan Lewis said...

Say it ain't so, Mr. R. Surely there can't be such a thing as too many books!

Mike Taylor said...

"Originally published in the Street & Smith pulp Unknown in 1939, it was written before the Spider was born."

Actually THE SPIDER began in 1933...

Evan Lewis said...

Oops. Brainfart.