Maybe it's the books we read when we're young that stick with us the longest. That's the time when books not only excite us, but seem to tell us about ourselves and our futures. As a teenager I read (wallowed in and feasted upon, really) Tolkien, Evelyn Waugh, Emily Brontë, Jane Austen, "Great Expectations" and "David Copperfield," "Crime and Punishment," "The Great Gatsby," P.G. Wodehouse and Kafka. A predictably unstructured and non-academic bag, I guess. I also read, with mounting glee, and seized from different corners of the bookstore when my mother wasn't watching, the paperbacks of Michael Moorcock, especially those concerning the doomed prince Elric.
I didn't even know, back then, that Moorcock was already becoming one of the greatest British fantasy writers, the heir to Mervyn Peake, nor that his "Elric" books belonged to the "sword and sorcery" genre; and only later, as sword and sorcery swept like a virus through movies and games and into the digital universal, did I understand that I'd read works whose influence would prove to be immense -- strange and exhilarating stories from someone at the top of his game. Moorcock is a master, and though he's written more carefully, and more beautifully, and with much more high-minded purpose (in "Gloriana" and "Mother London" for instance, or the dazzling quartet of books concerning the dandy Jerry Cornelius), he's never quite slammed home runs as outrageous as these.
"His bizarre dress was tasteless and gaudy, and did not match his sensitive face and long-fingered, almost delicate hands, yet he flaunted it since it emphasized the fact that he did not belong in any company -- that he was an outsider and an outcast. But, in reality, he had little need to wear such outlandish gear -- for his eyes and skin were enough to mark him," is how Moorcock introduces his character in "The Stealer of Souls" (Del Rey: 496 pp., $15 paper). "Elric, Last Lord of Melniboné, was a pure albino who drew his power from a secret and terrible source."
Elric could be a fallen angel. Certainly he's more like a fashionably ailing pre-Raphaelite rather than a strapping superhero out of Nietzsche. He relies on drugs and sorcery to keep himself alive. He has a doomed relationship with his sentient runesword, Stormbringer, which sucks the souls out of those it kills. And it wants to kill everybody. Filled with ancient wisdom and self-loathing in equal measure, roaming the oceans and lands of a mysterious world where the forces of Law and Chaos are in constant struggle, Elric knows that he will cause the death of anyone unwise enough to love him. He's a loner, brooding and mistrusting the heritage of his decadent kingdom, Melniboné. Put bluntly, the formula is Conan meets Camus. Cool.
The stories that comprise the "Elric" saga were mostly first published in the 1960s and 1970s. They have been repackaged many times since then, though hardcore Moorcock-istas (there are boatloads) mutter obsessively about the 1977 DAW paperbacks, with cover art by Michael Whelan, that collected the tales according to their internal chronology. Now Del Rey is doing a new series. Thus far, four volumes have appeared: "The Stealer of Souls," "To Rescue Tanelorn" (Del Rey: 496 pp., $15), "The Sleeping Sorceress" (Del Rey: 368 pp., $14) and, most recently, "Duke Elric" (all Del Rey, $15). These new books aim to present the Elric material as it originally appeared, woven together with reproductions of original magazine artwork and cover art, commentary by Moorcock himself and introductions by famous writers and fans -- Alan Moore, Walter Mosley, Holly Black and Michael Chabon, no less. Moore's essay at the front of "The Stealer of Souls" is especially good, and that book is probably any new reader's best starting point, or else the masterly "The Sailor on the Seas of Fate," which appears in "Duke Elric."
The Del Rey reissues have a slightly meta feel to them, delicious if you like that sort of thing (I do), potentially irritating to anybody who wants to recreate their original experience with the work. Most everybody who's ever read Moorcock remembers when they first got sucked in. In no small part, as Walter Mosley notes (he bought his first Moorcock from a London tube station kiosk in 1968, while his California classmates were ingesting other aspects of British culture in sundry museums), this has to do with the mellifluousness of the prose, the intoxication that Moorcock almost raffishly creates.
"There was something mysterious about the chamber, a mystery that was not solely created by its vastness and the shadows that filled it. Without knowing why, Elric thought that it was bounded by miles of solid rock in all directions, it had no proper dimensions that could be measured by the means normally employed; it was as if it extended into planes that did not conform to the Earth's space and time -- planes that were, in fact, timeless and spaceless. He felt that he might attempt to cross the chamber from one wall to the other -- but could walk forever without ever reaching the far wall," Moorcock writes in "Stormbringer." "He made an attempt to dismiss these thoughts and put down his cup, breathing in deeply. There was no doubt that the wine relaxed and invigorated him."
The brew is, indeed, strange and addictive.
In 1964, when Moorcock was a powerhouse, near the beginning of his career, and sometimes writing a book in three days, he took over a moribund science fiction magazine called New Worlds and within a couple of years transformed it into a defining publication of its era, championing fiction that was speculative in both form and content, publishing early work by Thomas Pynchon, Thomas Disch, James Sallis, Keith Roberts and John Sladek, among others. But Moorcock's main man (the Dashiell Hammett to his Joseph Shaw) was his close friend and co-conspirator J.G. Ballard. New Worlds became the platform from which Ballard steered his writing toward the chilling pop-eyed surrealism of "The Atrocity Exhibition," "Crash," and, later, "The Empire of the Sun." New Worlds was the test-tube in which Moorcock himself experimented with styles, and began to morph Elric into other characters and metaphysical landscapes.
Ballard died just last week; Moorcock, another great British mage, is happily still with us. And Elric, meanwhile, broods moodily on and on -- further Del Rey volumes are in progress, and a movie is being developed by Universal.
Rayner's Paperback Writers column appears monthly at www.latimes.com/books.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times