THE SIREN'S CALL
Siren's Call: A talk with Michael Moorcock
The creator of Elric, Jerry Cornelius and so much more reflects on his work, his career and what it was like to be a sci-fi writer in the Golden Days of the 1960s.
Michael Moorcock, in his library. Photo by Andrew Crowley
Moorcock's works -- which include the Elric and Jerry Cornelius series, "London Bone," "Behold the Man" and much more (the SF Site has a good overview) -- are celebrated by the fine San Francisco-based, indie publisher Tachyon in the new anthology "The Best of Michael Moorcock" (Tachyon: 404 pp., $14.95 paper) edited by John Davey with Ann and Jeff Vandermeer.
With so much of Hollywood devoted to fantasy and science fiction today, there did seem, after all, to be one place to begin -- with Elric's future on the big screen.
Q: On your blog, you talk about an Elric movie. What is the status of this movie?
A: Universal has an option on it. We were moving ahead rapidly with Chris and Paul, the Weitz brothers, and Universal until they had a couple of big failures at the box office, on which they'd spent too much money -- both fantasy movies. This gave them pause. Did those fail because they were about antiheroes (they weren't really)? Wasn't Elric an antihero ? While they were paused, Chris and Paul had to keep working, so that's what happened. We expect, if all is well, to start work in earnest next year, though Chris and Paul will probably only be producing. We have a script, and I think this might be a better psychic time, if not an economic one, to be doing the movie.
A "better psychic time" -- that seems to be the case for Solomon Kane, a fantastic Howard character. He finally has a movie coming, directed by Michael J. Bassett (just interviewed at Comic Con). When I heard about that, I thought, "It's about time." Why do you feel "it's about time" for Elric?
We're winning wars and wondering why it doesn't feel like victory. Losing certainty in our assumed national virtues. Staring at Chaos and hoping we can find a way to support Law. Pulling hope out of despair. We're in a reflective mood and questioning our values now, I think. Kane was, if you like, Howard's most reflective character. Elric began to question his forefathers, knowing they put him on a road that was no longer right for the nation. Kane is about changing values and the end of empire. Elric never is quite certain what he's done or why. I think we're probably wondering about such things a bit at the moment, too.
Are you surprised that it has taken a long time for Hollywood to come around and realize Elric's saga is perfect for the big screen?
No. I had many offers from the mid-'70s on but turned them all down. I didn't want Elric to be a movie until the effects became secondary to the story. "Lord of the Rings" effects showed this was possible at last. If something goes wrong with the Weitz project, I'll wait until others I trust come along. There have never been many. I don't want Elric to appear on the screen unless he's in the hands of smart people.
In the new anthology, a brief introduction to a short story about Elric says that he was created as a response to Howard's Conan. Is that how one of your most famous characters came about?
Not exactly. When asked to write the original stories -- which I accepted as a working commission like any other job in those days -- I decided to try to do something a bit different, especially from the Conan stories, which were the benchmark in those days. There was very little "fantasy" -- Tolkien was still regarded as a bit marginal, like Morrison or E.R. Eddison, and I didn't want to write like him, either. There's a touch of Peake there, but I was a great admirer of a 1930s pulp character called Zenith the Albino, and I was working on a study of the 19th century Gothic novel, publishing bits of it in Science Fantasy, which the editor consciously modeled on Weird Tales and consciously tried to make as literary as possible. (I was the rough end, paid two guineas a word while Ballard and Aldiss were long-established enough to get two pounds, ten shillings!)
I pinched many of the aspects of Zenith and married them to characteristics found in such classics as Charles Maturin's "Melmoth the Wanderer" and so on. Americans like Poul Anderson were my main contemporary influence. The character was infused, of course, with my own teenage angst (I was 19 when he came into existence and 21 when he first appeared in print) and my own attitudes and complexes, so he quickly turned into the character who became so popular and influential. A version of myself. I wanted him to be popular, of course, so didn't forget the bits about Freud and Jung in that study (part of which saw print as the study "Wizardry and Wild Romance").
It makes perfect sense that, in "Behold the Man," there are only two people who could ever say that they belong to "the world to come and the world that is" and be completely truthful: a Messiah or a time-traveler. What was the origin of that story?
Sitting at my kitchen table around Easter time, discussing demagogues and how the public focuses on them, turns them into instruments of the common will. I came up with a number of examples, including Hitler. I come from an almost wholly secular background and have no quarrel with religion. I was very surprised that I got really good reviews from the Christian and Jewish press as well as the heavy U.K. weeklies and absolutely terrifying letters from American readers, mostly fundamentalists, who threatened to kill me. I grew up in a world which saw religion as having died out mostly in the 19th century, so I was very surprised when I first came to the U.S.! I have to live part of the year in Europe or I think I'd go crazy.
You've said that Jerry Cornelius (who makes a very brief appearance in the new anthology) is "as much a technique as a character" -- what does that mean? Do you regard him less as a fully dimensional character than as a cipher?
He is someone learning to exist, through all kinds of strategies, in our contemporary world. I wanted a character who was a bit like Elric (me) but dealing with modern mythology of various kinds. That's why the first few chapters of "The Final Programme" echo the first Elric story, "The Dreaming City." I had come to think that "fantasy" of the kind I was writing was able to deal with big philosophical issues but not the specifics of modern life. I wanted a character who was able to exist in a lot of different contexts in contemporary cities, especially London. I wanted to put London in her modern mythological context, which I then extended elsewhere -- rural America, Vietnam and so on. The first story which tried this was "The Deep Fix," which was about as close to Burroughs as I've ever written and which was intended as a kind of bridge for a reader between the fantasy they were reading in the magazine and what I was enjoying in the Olympia Press Burroughs books.
Cornelius, however, was the first work in which I felt I'd found my real literary voice. He is a character. I think of him as a fully rounded character playing an infinite number of roles. But he is also a device, a technique -- a way of examining the world.
"The Birds of the Moon" appears for the first time in print in this anthology -- what is this story about and what happened to it, why didn't it see the light of print sooner?
It appeared as a booklet, privately published by John Davey, soon after it didn't appear in the New Statesman. I was asked to write it by the NS (U.K. equivalent to the Nation) as part of an issue they planned to sell at Glastonbury. I wrote regularly for the NS during that period. Then there was an editorial shift, and I gather a bunch of neo-Marxists took over who thought the Glastonbury issue was frivolous. So they dumped that issue (or most of it), and that was the end of that.