So this weekend I was browsing through one of Norwich's second hand bookshops when I came across this little beauty.
I remember this book coming out in 1979, and that everybody I knew bought a copy except, for some reason, me. I also remember my friends not liking it much, and although I enjoyed it, I can kind of see why. It's a deeply bizarre, overwhelmingly nihilistic tale, a collaboration between Michael Moorcock & Howie Chaykin, although judging by the introduction, Moorcock really just outlined the bare bones of a plot for Chaykin to follow. But there are elements fans of both will recognize.
It's supposedly the third book in the Eternal Champion cycle, directly following on from prose novels The Eternal Champion & Phoenix In Obsidian.
( If you've never read Moorcock: The gist is that all of his characters, from Elric to Jerry Cornelius to Dorian Hawkmoon and all points inbetween, are actually separate incarnations of the same hero. Occasionally, like in the Elric story The Sailor On The Seas Of Fate, some of them meet up and have joint adventures. Personally, I can't bear 'cycles' and always thought it was just a way to get you to shill out for every book, which is why I gave up reading Moorcock.)
The incarnation of the Champion in The Swords Of Heaven, The Flowers Of Hell is Urlik Of Skarsol/John Daker, and even more so than Elric, he's a conflicted character. It seems that all his travelling through dimensions and becoming different people has affected his sense of self, his very existence fluid and uncertain from moment to moment:
Falling through the multiverse, Daker suddenly finds himself in a new body, in the middle of the desert:
Fighting off the savages, he finds out that this is Hell, ( or, at least, a hell. Neither God or The Devil appear, or are mentioned in this story ) and that he is Lord Clen of The Dream Marches, the border lands between the two, and that the pink creature the savages were trying to kill is, in fact, an angel.
Soon, Clen ( as he is now ) is led out of Hell by two, well, I guess you'd call them Valkyries, and after a night taking shelter from a mysterious downpour of acid rain, finally reaches The Dream Marches, where's he's met by his fellow knights & the voluptuous Lady Gradesmor.
Here at last, Clen begins to make sense of his new existence. There's a war brewing between Heaven & Hell, and the forces of Hell are, even now, advancing on the Marches, as their first step towards conquering Heaven. Apparently, the angels ( get this ) spend all their time sucking up the water from the atmosphere so that they don't fly too high. They then urinate on Hell, causing the acid rain.
With The Dream Marches about to fall, Clen rides for Heaven, which turns out to be a decadent, inhumane place, full of languid, effete pleasure seekers like it's ruler, Prince Fevror.
After fighting off a couple of monsters, Clen is captured by Fevror, and unceremoniously tied to an altar, to be fed to an angel.
Luckily, the angel's, grateful for Clen's earlier rescue of their friend, carry the by now totally confused warrior away to safety. We then find out that the angels' true forms are kind of bipedal insects, and that they are travellers from another dimension, partisans in the war, who just want to get home.
If only Clen had a way to enlist their aid. Luckily, Lady Gradesmor has a plan: having discovered that angel whizz opens the gateway to other world's ( if you paint it on the walls of her castle ), Clen is able to convince the angels to come over to his side and fight for the forces of good.
Pausing only to take care of Fevror, Clen is ready to save his hopelessly outnumbered warriors by having, and there really is no nice way to say this, the angels piss all over the armies of Hell, melting them down to their bones. And if you think that all sounds like one of the most insane comic's ever done, I, for one, wouldn't disagree with you.
Chaykin's painted art here is spectacular, similar to his work on the graphic novel Empire, but without the downside of that project's lacklustre layouts. Here, he's given free reign to do what he wants, and it's wonderful stuff. In fact, in places it looks like a comic strip by Gustav Klimt. There is some uncomfortable misogyny, but you kind of expect that with Chaykin. The writing's good too, Clen's puzzled narration giving the piece a dreamlike air of unreality. There's also a nice touch in the ending, which kind of makes this a prequel to Sailor On The Seas Of Fate. And of course, you get Burt Lancaster playing Clen. But it does sometimes read like what it is; The third part of a story. Maybe if I'd read the other John Daker books, I'd understand Moorcock's point better. Is he working out deep seated issues over the catholic church? Is it toilet humour? No idea, but The Swords Of Heaven, The Flowers Of Hell is a wild, hallucinatory ride, that's for sure.