Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: The Long Crawl of Hugh Glass

There is no chin behind Hugh Glass's beard. There is only another fist.

For today's Roger Zelazny review, I'll be looking at The Long Crawl of Hugh Glass.

I suppose I've been thinking about Hugh Glass for a while now, what with the coverage of Rep. Gabby Giffords, her shooting and her ongoing recovery, which is frankly, nothing less than astonishing. People die from the stupidest things all the time, and sometimes happenstance allows us to survive catastrophic trauma that should by all rights, kill us outright.

First things first. The Long Crawl of Hugh Glass is such a great title for a story.  I first read it in the Varley/Mainhardt Superheroes collection in about 2000, give or take. These were the days before the Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny undertook their mammoth endeavor, back when a fan had to look in the pages of random magazines or largely unpublicized anthologies to find works that hadn't been collected elsewhere. I was already partial to superheroes (as I've talked about elsewhere on this blog)  and I probably would have picked up the collection even if it didn't have Zelazny's name on the cover, though once I saw it, it certainly sealed the deal.

Personally, I think it's quite a stretch to include this story in a superhero anthology, as it's only a superhero story in the extremely broadest sense.

 Hugh Glass is a hunter mauled by a bear. Zelazny sets up the opening scene beautifully.

Hugh Glass had one chance to kill the bear, and whether his shot struck it or went completely astray, he never knew.It charged him, brushing aside the rifle before he could club with it as its paw fell upon his face, smashing his nose, tearing through the skin of his brow. Then its great forelimbs came upon him, its breath awful, fetid of ripe flesh and the musky smell of skunk, overlaid with a sweetness of berries and honey that made him think of a waiting, perfumed corpse too long aboveground while distant mourners hurried for the viewing.

His spirit seemed to turn slowly within his head and breast, a white and gray eddy of dissolving perceptions, as his blood ran into his eyes and traced trails down his frosted beard. A large man, bearlike himself in the eyes of his fellows, he did not cry out, did not know fear; a great gasp had rung much of the air from him, leaving him voiceless and the attack had come so quickly that there had been no time to be afraid. Now what he felt seemed familiar; for he was a hunter, providing game for eighty men, dealing daily death as a way of business of life. And it was suddenly his turn. It would have been good to say farewell to Jamie, but there are always things undone. The cracking of his ribs was not such a terrible thing through the falling white and gray; the sound from his thigh might have been a snapping branch in some distant forest. He was no longer there to feel the ground as he crashed against it.

The first page is just one of those times an author gets everything perfect. The choice of words, the repetition, the descriptions of the smells and the distant sensations. Flawless.

The meter of the opening line strongly parallels the introduction of John D'Arcy Donnerjack, which is also a bit of writing I happen to particularly enjoy.
  • Hugh Glass had one chance to kill the bear, and whether his shot struck it or went completely astray, he never knew.
  • John D'Arcy Donnerjack loved but once and when he saw the moiré he knew it was over.

Immediately after the attack, Hugh's companion Jamie comes upon the scene, recognizes "the shaggy totem shape" of the bear and kills it. He then goes to mourn Hugh, only to find that the big man is still alive. He decides to sit with his friend so that he might have companionship through his final hours. But Hugh hasn't died by the next morning.

I like how Zelazny is true to both his distinctive style and the style of the frontier. I don't know if phrases like  "Looks a sight, too" or "Amazing strong" are factually representative of the manner of speaking in that time and place, but they certainly feel like they are.

As a rule, I generally don't like fictionalized accounts of actual events. I touched on this briefly in an earlier review, where I said of Forever After "The cover pages reads 'created by' Roger Zelazny, which reminded me of something my high school sociology teacher said, 'If the label on your spaghetti sauce reads 'flavored with meat', it just means they walked a cow past it.'

After reading this (possibly apocryphal) account of an encounter between the author Honoré de Balzac and Eugène François Vidocq (founder of the French Sûreté) I warmed to the process of tweaking the specifics of a story, but keeping the essence.

Balzac was munching a Montreuil peach, when Vidocq said to him, "Monsieur de Balzac, you go to a lot of trouble to create stories of the other world, when reality is here under your eyes, near your ears, under your hand." Balzac laughed. "So you believe in reality! You delight me. I would not have believed you could be so naive. Reality! Talk to me about it. You have just come back from that beautiful country. We make reality." Vidocq protested: "No, Monsieur de Balzac." Balzac persisted: "Yes, Monsieur Vidocq." He held up his peach. "You see, the true reality is this beautiful peach from Montreuil. The one you would call real, you, that one grows naturally, in the forest, on the wild peach tree. Well! that one is nothing; it is small, bitter, sour, impossible to eat. But here is the real peach, the one I hold, which has been cultivated for a hundred years, which has been obtained through cuttings here and there, through transplantation in dry or light ground, some kind of grafting; the one one eats, which perfumes one's mouth and heart. That exquisite peach, we made it, it is the only real one. Same thing with me. I get reality in my novels, as Montreuil gets reality in peaches. I am a gardener of books."

TVtropes calls it Adaptation Distillation and I think that's as good a name for the technique as any.

...The bear approached Hugh again and he couldn't run from it. It was as if his feet had grown roots. The bear walked upright , its face flowing like dark water. He saw his father there, and the faces of men he had had to kill. Dark birds flew out of the bear, flapping their wings in his face.

Did Hugh Glass really have this nightmare following his bear attack? I doubt it, but it conveys the delirium and desperation he must have felt as he hung suspended between life and death.

Hugh was "Amazing strong" but that strength was working against him. After several days, his companions dig him a grave, take his gun and his gear and split, because they have noticed signs of Ree (Arikara) in the area.

Hugh, like other Zelazny protagonists is moved by "a hate so big it would burn the innocent to reach the guilty", and like Corwin, by an indomitable will to survive. The story is nothing less than astonishing. He was so weak he could only crawl at first, he rolled on to a log and let maggots eat out the infected flesh; he did everything he needed to to survive.

I found the flashbacks to his time as a pirate less interesting, but only because the account of his saga in the wilderness was so good.

I like it a lot. As is typical with me, I prefer the shorter work in the form of The Long Crawl of Hugh Glass to the version interspersed with accounts of John Colter in Wilderness.

I'm not as huge a science fiction fan as I used to be. As a kid, I would devour whatever trash you put in front of me as long as it had aliens and ray guns. Now, I'm just as omnivorous, but in a different fashion. I'll read anything as long as it's good. The Collected Stories touches on this a little bit, but for a variety of reasons, Zelazny never published a large amount of non-genre material, which is a bit of a shame, because the little bit he did is every bit as good as his well-known works.

According to the Wikipedia entry on Glass, Christian Bale may portray him in an upcoming movie, though it seems that this is in the very preliminary stages, as the IMDB doesn't even have an entry for it as of this writing.

Also, I don't play World of Warcraft, but apparently Hugh is there as an NPC with a pet Grizzly Bear. How awesome is that?!


  1. My only disagreement with you here is that I think Wilderness, the novel with Gerald Hausman, is even better and ranks with the best of Zelazny's work (and is by far his best collaboration). It appears to be out of print, which is a crime . . . but then so much of Zelazny is currently out of print. I realize that sci fi is a moribund genre and the backlist is a dead concept in publishing, but Zelazny was beyond category. The Collected Stories is superb, and definitive -- now if we could just get his novels back into print.

    --Chris DeVito

  2. I can't remember if I ever mentioned it in a review here, but I have a friend who is a huge fan of all kinds of fantasy and sf, and neither of them had even *heard* of Roger Zelazny until I made them a gift of some of his stuff. They've both become Zelazny evangelicals in their own right, I'm pleased to report.

    I'm an acolyte of the cult of the used book store (another concept rushing towards extinction, I'm afraid) but I would love to see more of his works in print, either in hard copy or in electronic format.

    Wilderness is one of the few Zelazny books that I never owned. The copy I read was from our local library, and I was happy enough with Long Crawl that I never felt obligated to go out and get my own copy.

  3. At age 50, I guess I'm a dinosaur -- I still like books, the physical objects themselves. We have two very good used bookstores here in Urbana-Champaign IL, Priceless Books in Urbana and Jane Addams Book Shop in Champaign. Jane Addams is a used-bookstore-lover's dream -- it's in a rambling old house with books everywhere, lots of small rooms and convoluted hallways. I've literally gotten lost in there.

    The scenes in "Colter's Hell" alone make Wilderness worth owning. And of course there's much more than that, not least of which is Hugh's final confrontation with Jamie -- and yet another example of one of Zelazny's hard-ass characters seeking revenge, but finding something else entirely. Beautiful.

    --Chris DeVito

  4. I do love both used book stores and used books dearly, but I am afraid that they're not as sustainable as they were in the past, due to the ubiquity of the online presence. I have two bookstores I really like as well, one in New Hamster, where I used to live, where conversations with the owner have led me to believe that the actual place is an increasingly unnecessary adjunct to the web store.

    I find that really disappointing, because that's where I found the anthology containing Long Crawl, and even in this age where we have so much information literally at our fingertips, it's possible to walk into a store like this and walk out with a handful of stuff which you never knew existed, but which may become one of your favorite books.

    The other bookstore is also a coffee house that serves light meals. I've been told that that the food is really where they make their money, and while the book store doesn't hurt, it's more to attract people to the place than something that creates revenue on its own.

    Regarding electronic copies, I think they're very convenient for reviews like this, but when I'm reading for pleasure, I prefer a physical book. My main argument for getting Zelazny out in e-book format is that it will hopefully lead to larger exposure.

    I don't have a strong recollection of Wilderness, but I'll see if I can track it down.

  5. It may interest you to know that Trent Zelazny and Gerald Hausman have been recording an audiobook version of WILDERNESS which will be released by Speaking Volumes. Maybe the release of that will spark the re-release of the physical book.*

    I prefer the version in WILDERNESS because I find there was too much of a rough edit in the short story version, where Hugh is still recovering/dreaming and then all of a sudden it's weeks later when he's walking. But then again, I read WILDERNESS first and I might have felt differently if I'd read "The Long Crawl..." first.

    Chris Kovacs

    *Also, Speaking Volumes have been remastering and digitizing the unabridged audiobook versions of the nine Amber books that Zelazny recorded, and they are releasing them one at a time on CD and MP3 every few months. The fourth is due out next month. The seventh (BLOOD OF AMBER) was never released even though the eighth (SIGN OF CHAOS) was, and the ninth (KNIGHT OF SHADOWS) was only ever released as abridged even though it was recorded as unabridged. No word yet on what they're going to do about the tenth book, which Zelazny never recorded. They've already released A NIGHT IN THE LONESOME OCTOBER and they plan to release EYE OF CAT too. I'm quite pleased about all of this because I thought we were stuck with cassette tapes and that the unabridged master tapes of BLOOD OF AMBER and KNIGHT OF SHADOWS had been lost.

  6. Essential as the Collected Stories is, I think a one-book Best of Zelazny volume would be a good thing. I realize NESFA Press might not be too interested in this kind of project right now, having just released the six-volume Collected Stories, but maybe a few years down the line a one-volume best-of collection might be a good idea. Here's my preliminary suggestions for the best Zelazny short fiction:

    • The Graveyard Heart (Fantastic, Mar. 1964 [novella])
    • He Who Shapes (Amazing, Jan. 1965 & Feb. 1965 [novella]; ms. title: “The Ides of Octember”)
    • Damnation Alley (Galaxy, Oct. 1967 [novella])
    • 24 Views of Mt. Fuji, by Hokusai (Asimov’s, July 1985 [novella])
    • Come Back to the Killing Ground, Alice, My Love (Amazing Stories, Aug. 1992 [novella; Kalifriki 2])

    • A Rose for Ecclesiastes (F&SF, Nov. 1963 [novelette])
    • The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth (F&SF, Mar. 1965 [novelette])
    • The Furies (Amazing, June 1965 [novelette])
    • For a Breath I Tarry (New Worlds, Mar. 1966 [numerous typesetting errors]; corrected version: Fantastic, Sept. 1966 [novelette])
    • This Moment of the Storm (F&SF, June 1966 [novelette])
    • The Keys to December (New Worlds, Aug. 1966 [novelette])
    • This Mortal Mountain (If, Mar. 1967 [novelette])
    • The Last Defender of Camelot (Asimov’s SF Adventure, Summer 1979 [novelette])
    • Unicorn Variation (Asimov’s, Apr. 13, 1981 [novelette])
    • Permafrost (Omni, Apr. 1986 [novelette])
    • Kalifriki of the Thread (Hidden Turnings, Methuen Children’s Books [hc], Feb. 1989 [novelette; Kalifriki 1])
    • Godson (Black Thorn, White Rose, AvoNova/William Morrow [hc], Sept. 1994 [novelette])

    Short Stories:
    • Horseman! (Fantastic, Aug. 1962 [short story])
    • The Stainless Steel Leech (Amazing, Apr. 1963 [short story]; as by Harrison Denmark)
    • Devil Car (Galaxy, June 1965 [short story; Sam Murdoch 1])
    • Divine Madness (Magazine of Horror, Summer 1966 [short story])
    • Comes Now the Power (Magazine of Horror, Winter 1966–’67 [short story])
    • The Man Who Loved the Faioli (Galaxy, June 1967 [short story])
    • Angel, Dark Angel (Galaxy, Aug. 1967 [short story])
    • Auto-da-Fé (Dangerous Visions, Doubleday, Oct. 1967 [hc; short story])
    • Way Up High (Donald M. Grant [hc; chapbook, with illustrations by Vaughn Bodé], Sept. 1992 [short story; written 1968])
    • Dismal Light (If, May 1968 [short story; Frances Sandow 1])
    • Come to Me Not in Winter’s White (F&SF, Oct. 1969 [short story]) with Harlan Ellison
    • The Engine at Heartspring’s Center (Analog, July 1974 [short story])
    • The Game of Blood and Dust (Galaxy, Apr. 1975 [short story])
    • The Naked Matador (Amazing, July 1981 [short story])

    Like I said, just preliminary suggestions. But I really think a "Best of Zelazny" volume would be important in a lot of ways.

    --Chris DeVito

  7. The 2002 collection from ibooks, which reused the title THE LAST DEFENDER OF CAMELOT, was a "best of" collection with the titles ostensibly chosen by Robert Silverberg. I doubt NESFA Press would be interested in publishing another "best of" collection since it's already published the complete short works. But maybe another publisher will be interested, sometime. I can't disagree with any of your choices; that would be a very big book, I think.

    Chris Kovacs

  8. I wasn't familiar with Speaking Volumes, but thanks for the tip. A quick trip to their website shows that they're right up my alley.

    I agree that this looks both very large and very good. It seems strange to have such a big Zelazny collection without an Amber work, but I don't fault their omission, as I just don't think the short stories are of the same caliber of the other works here.

  9. The Silverberg-edited collection is a bit of an odd duck, not least because of the confusion caused by the duplicate title, and I certainly wouldn't consider it "definitive" (as it claims on the cover). In any case, ibooks is defunct far as I can tell.

    I don't think any of the Amber short stories are first-tier Zelazny. Then again, I'm not sure if I think any of the Amber novels are first-tier Zelazny, either. But that's another discussion.

    --Chris DeVito

  10. Been immersed in the saga of Hugh Glass lately. Looking up the short version in the Collected Stories, I was surprised at just how short it is -- it consists of only Chapters 2 and 14 of Wilderness. It omits Chapters 4, 6, 8, and 10 (over 60 pages) -- almost the entire crawl of Hugh Glass, from his return to consciousness (next to his own grave, which he pisses in before beginning the long crawl) until his discovery of the dead bison. It also omits the end of Hugh's story, where he tracks down Jamie Bridger. After reading the novel, for me the short version has no impact at all.

    For an alternative version of Hugh Glass's story, I just read The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge, by Michael Punke. Punke's version has been optioned for a movie. Though the book is generally well written, it has some obvious Hollywoodisms that lend it to movie adaptation. In Punke's interpretation, the man who is the cause of Glass being left for dead is named Fitzgerald (Zelazny called him Le Bon), and he's quite the bad guy -- a brutal, sadistic bully with no redeeming qualities. And when Glass finally seeks his revenge, there's no Zelazny-esque epiphany: First he beats Jamie Bridger to a bloody pulp (only sparing him out of pity when the boy won't fight back), then he tracks down the evil Fitzgerald and shoots him (though not fatally). The latter events are entirely fictional, as the author acknowledges. But hey, what's a Hollywood revenge story without some actual, violent revenge?

    I hope Wilderness comes back into print soon.

    --Chris DeVito

  11. I really need to reread it then. I didn't read the Hugh Glass chapters as closely as I would have otherwise, because I was operating under the assumption that it had been lifted wholesale from the Long Crawl. Thanks for the update!