Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Flame and Crimson has won the Atlantean award from the Robert E. Howard Foundation

When I started writing Flame and Crimson in 2014 I had no expectations. I did not think I was worthy of the attempt, nor did I know where it was headed, precisely, even with a detailed but tenuous outline to guide me. And for some time, at least two years, I suspected I would never finish. I kept waiting for my motivation to dry up and blow away, as it is wont to do, or I figured I'd hit some impasse in the story of sword-and-sorcery from which I would see no way forward, a sheer wall without hand or toe hold, and I'd be left stranded, with nowhere to go but back down. 

Many times I thought, well, at least I can take what I've got and spin it into a couple substantive essays, or blog series. Yeah, that's a better fit anyway. Who are you to write a book? Again and again, the voice of what Steven Pressfield calls Resistance (capital R) whispered in my ear, telling me to give it up.

I pressed on, through peaks and valleys, some small, others dramatic. Somewhere in 2018 I knew I was going to finish.

I'm going to bare my soul for just a moment and admit that I got a bit emotional when that realization struck me, like a thunderbolt. I knew, for better or worse, with or without a publisher, I was going to write a book, this book, and it would see the light of day, even if I stuck it in a .PDF without formatting and offered it up here.

From that point, my work intensified, and I finished the writing in 2019. 

I want to thank Bob McLain at Pulp Hero Press for publishing the book, and getting me in touch with Tom Barber for that striking, old-school cover.

I want to thank all my early readers, and reviewers, dudes like Paul McNamee and Davide Mana and Scott Oden, and later the likes of Bill Ward and David C. Smith and Jason Ray Carney, and many others. As of today it's gotten over 100 ratings, between Amazon and Goodreads, averaging in the mid-high 4 stars out of 5. The reception has been better than I ever anticipated, or hoped. 

A couple months ago Flame and Crimson received a nomination from the Robert E. Howard Foundation, and now after receiving definitive word from Rusty Burke I am over the moon to announce that it won the Atlantean award, for Outstanding Achievement, Book (non-anthology/collection, substantively devoted to the life and/or work of REH).

Extraordinary. 

I thank everyone who has helped me along the way, with advice and critique, or contribution (they are listed in an author's note in the book). When you write (quasi academic) non-fiction you are standing on the shoulders of many others who have paved the way with research, including books, articles, essays, letters, and introductions. I drew upon hundreds of sources to write this book, cited them, then tried to give the story of sword-and-sorcery a coherent narrative, and my own spin. 

I hope you've enjoyed it.

As for what is next for me as a writer, I have no idea. I have a demanding, full-time job. Family, friends. Those things, and reading and blogging, fill my time. Writing Flame and Crimson was a substantial sacrifice. Can I muster that type of effort again? Perhaps. If I could make writing a full-time gig I would do it in a heartbeat, but alas, sword-and-sorcery does not pay the bills. I feel a bit like a sword-and-sorcery hero who has survived a great adventure, spent his meagre coin in the local tavern, and now has the prospect of the next hair-raising scrape.

We'll see.

Friday, June 11, 2021

To the memory of Robert E. Howard (Jan. 22, 1906-June 11, 1936)

Into the west, unknown of man,
Ships have sailed since the world began.
Read, if you dare, what Skelos wrote,
With dead hands fumbling his silken coat;
And follow the ships through the wind-blown wrack–
Follow the ships that come not back.

 -- Robert E. Howard, "The Pool of the Black One" 

Over the years my appreciation for Robert E. Howard has grown, not diminished. He was an extraordinary, unique, meteoric talent that blazed across the sky and was gone, far too soon. It's almost incomprehensible that he produced so much great work in about a dozen years of professional writing. I'm currently reading the letters of C.L. Moore and H.P. Lovecraft, and for months and months after his passing, until Lovecraft's own death the following year, REH's name and legacy was a fixture in their conversation.

No one wrote like Robert E. Howard, and no one has since. He put himself into every story, and there was only one Robert E. Howard. 

He's not coming back, but we follow in the wake of the passing ship that was his body of work, into the unknown west, and marvel at the trail he blazed.

Friday, June 4, 2021

Battle Beast, "Armageddon Clan"

I've shown some love to Battle Beast before, in what seems like a lifetime ago (10 years?). This morning while working out "Armageddon Clan" inspired me to get an extra rep on the overhead press, so I figured it was worth sharing here, and pumping you up on your Friday.

This song has got all the elements I love. The lead singer, Nitte Valo, screams like a banshee. What a voice. A great opening guitar riff. Driving bass and drums that get your blood pounding. Relentless energy. 

I also dig the apocalyptic imagery and fun lyrics. As a child of the 80s who grew up in the shadow of the mushroom cloud and the searing imagery of The Terminator, this song hits all the right notes for me. Pun. Fully. Intended.

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Bran Mak Morn: The Last King, a few thoughts

I recently finished a re-read of Bran Mak Morn: The Last King (Del Rey, 2005), inspired by a reading of the Karl Edward Wagner pastiche Legion from the Shadows. Some thoughts, rattled off rather quickly as a formal post is not in the cards:

Bran Mak Morn is like an ancient, savage, King Arthur. He is a once and future king, who will unite all the original tribes of Britain, drive out the “civilized” Roman and post-Roman invaders, and restore existence to a primitive ideal. His Camelot/round table will be the Cromlech, an inscrutable symbol of the unknown. Poul Anderson did this sort of thing with Hrolf Kraki’s Saga, but Howard’s “Arthur” is even deeper in time, the late third century.

A lineage of Picts connects all of REH’s material, like a savage through line. They make appearances in the Kull, Bran Mak Morn, James Allison, and Conan stories. Brule the spear-slayer’s lineage goes back to the very beginning (the Thurian Age of Kull, the days of Atlantis and Lemuria). The Last King contains a nice essay on this topic by Rusty Burke and Patrice Louinet, “Robert E. Howard, Bran Mak Morn, and the Picts.” Bran Mak Morn taps into and unites this ancient spirit, successfully uniting the tribes before eventually dying in battle. But his image persists, a literal effigy in stories like “The Dark Man” and “The Children of the Night.” Will he come again, a once and future king?

Picts are Howard’s image of the primal, original state of man, whether that state is good or ill. Howard’s Picts are a primitive race. They organize in tribes, live off the land as hunter-gatherers (notably they do not farm, which makes men soft), don’t build cities, and work with flint. Howard saw himself in these slanted forehead, dark complexioned, brutish, un-guiled race.  The Picts are a step below barbarians in Howard’s taxonomy, unchanging, and eternal. Barbarians would eventually organize, and civilize, and grow soft—not so the Picts. A description of the Pictish chieftain Gorm from Howard’s “The Hyborian Age”:

In the seventy-five years which had elapsed since he first heard the tale of empires from the lips of Arus—a long time in the life of a man, but a brief space in the tale of nations—he had welded an empire from straying savage clans, he had overthrown a civilization. He who had been born in a mud-walled, wattle-roofed hut, in his old age sat on golden thrones, and gnawed joints of beef presented to him on golden dishes by naked slave-girls who were the daughters of kings. Conquest and the acquiring of wealth altered not the Pict; out of the ruins of the crushed civilization no new culture arose phoenix-like. The dark hands which shattered the artistic glories of the conquered never tried to copy them. Though he sat among the glittering ruins of shattered palaces and clad his hard body in the silks of vanquished kings, the Pict remained the eternal barbarian, ferocious, elemental, interested only in the naked primal principles of life, unchanging, unerring in his instincts which were all for war and plunder, and in which arts and the cultured progress of humanity had no place. 

The Picts did contain a purer, nobler strain, as exemplified in Bran, from the Thurian Age. They morphed in conception in Howard’s mind as he wrote the stories, and was exposed to new theories.

Howard uses the term “heather” very frequently when describing the landscape of ancient Britain, and its wilds, again and again, like an incantation. I have no knowledge of plant-life, but a quick Google search reveals that heather is a dominant plant in the heathlands of moorlands of Europe, yet is hardy and has been successfully introduced to many other continents and climates, including North America. The way in which Howard uses the term invites comparisons with his nostalgia for the frontier; I wonder how much he had in mind old, pre-cultivated, pre-industrial Texas, before the cattle farms and barbwire taming, while writing these stories.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Teenage wasteland and examining the unexamined life

I did not look like these dudes,
but was, in spirit.
Reading Donna Gaines’ Teenage Wasteland: Suburbia's Dead End Kids (1991), an otherwise unremarkable sociological study about troubled teenagers living in suburban New Jersey, has made me think a bit more about my own life, my story, and trying to knit it into a consistent whole. Like many other boys and young men, I’ve always been interested in things--Music, D&D, weight lifting, the military, history, fantasy fiction—over people. Maybe more so than your average person. I’ve always sucked at small talk, and relationships, and spent very little time examining myself, instead enjoying music and books and the like. Most of my life has been existing, and living without examination. I’ve decided in my middle age (47) to do more of that, maybe here on the blog.

I grew up in the time period and was a teenager in the same timeline of Teenage Wasteland, the late 1980s. My own experiences were different from the kids in the book—I would say that my hometown of Reading, MA was more affluent than Bergenfield, New Jersey, with more promise in my particular geographic area, more jobs due to the presence of a good economy in nearby Boston and its suburbs. My family was not affluent—my dad held a blue collar job building and developing centrifuges at a production plant in Brighton, while my mom took care of her three kids and did odd jobs (office cleaning, baby sitting) to help make ends meet, before eventually taking a job as a legal secretary as we got older. We were not anything close to wealthy, we didn’t always get what we wanted for birthdays or Christmas, and we wore hand me downs and a mixture of new and used clothing, and lived in a modest cape on a dead-end, blue-collar street. My town had its burnouts like those described in Gaines’ book: Reading High had a back parking lot where (incredibly, looking back from today) you could smoke. We had the metal kids, long-haired and denim jacketed, opposite the jocks. Some went to the nearby vocational school and became mechanics.

I had brushes with the burnout culture, but had a foot in each camp, which in hindsight may have made me somewhat unique. I played football, and track, and kept my hair short, and my grades were unremarkable, C’s and B’s, save for English, where I could pull As with little difficulty. But I also wore metal T shirts and hung out with a semi-fringe, though not burnout crowd. We loved metal, we drank when we could get our hands on beer or cheap vodka. A few of my friends smoked—cigarettes, and again when we could get our hands on it/post high school, weed. But, we didn’t do hard drugs, and we mostly stayed out of trouble with the police, a few scrapes here and there aside.

Like the kids in Teenage Wasteland I didn’t know what the fuck I wanted to do with my life. Not even a clue. I went to state college because I was a decent student, but mainly because it was the thing most kids did—not all kids, not for example my friend Wayne who went from retail to house siding to carpentry, and now today has his own small business. Not a couple other acquaintances and occasional drinking buddies who drifted into substance abuse. But most. Although thankfully I didn’t drift down that latter path, I was nonetheless a drifter, sliding into college, going along for the ride, partying and going to class. At college I had two major, life-altering occurrences—I met my future wife (we started dating as sophomores, and got married a year after graduation, in August of 1996) and I discovered a love of reading and writing after a false start in sociology and criminal justice. Eventually I chose English as a major and worked on my college newspaper. I excelled in all my English and writing classes because I loved the material.

I guess I was lucky, and met the right girl, which led to buying our first town house, setting me on the path of home ownership (two houses later, I’m living in the dream in a large colonial), and starting a family with two girls of my own. My love of reading and writing turned into a job on a small local newspaper, at the tail end of viability of local journalism. That later turned into a job at a medical b-to-b publishing company and my current, well-paying job and stable career.

Given my modest upbringing, the opportunities I had to take my life in a different, darker, direction, how did I end up where I am today and not in some dead-end, like that described in Teenage Wasteland?

The 80s had their issues. It was the decade of excess (again, for some), and probably the beginning of the have/have not wealth divide that is plaguing the country today. Manufacturing, blue-collar jobs like my dad held were being steadily eroded (my dad retired at the right time, in the late 90s, just as his company was bought and moved overseas. His old plant is now a condo). I stayed out front of ruin by cashing out on our first home (though taking a hit on our second), and getting out of print journalism just as the internet killed newspapering. I was competent—I’m being unnecessarily humble, I was an editorial star at my current job—which allowed me to survive the financial crisis of 2007-2008 and a deep round of layoffs. Due to severe mismanagement at the same company we endured an even worse series of layoffs and eventual purchase in 2012/2013, and I again survived those.

Kids were troubled back in the 80s. I saw some of that first-hand, and some of the consequences. But, kids were also troubled in the 60s, and 70s, and the 90s. And now today, with everyone wondering about the effects of staring at cell phones all day. “Kids these days” has probably been muttered by every single adult since ancient Greece, and in fact it has. Socrates himself wrote, “the children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.” Sound familiar?

1994? Sue and I, just getting started.
I was fortunate enough to go to college and fall in love twice—once with my wife, and again with the likes of Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot and John Keats. I thank my parents for putting me through college, and scraping to do so, so that I did not graduate with a mound of debt. My wife had some, but together we managed it, and paid it off. We lived on nothing for the first year of marriage, living in an apartment in Burlington, VT on scraps. She was a grad student and I worked selling insurance, and later as a security guard, making almost nothing. That continued until we moved back to MA, and I started stringing for a local newspaper, where I got hired full time. My wife became a speech-pathologist and has since moved into school administration.

I guess you could say (to use modern vernacular) that I was “privileged.” Some of that is true, in that I grew up in a stable if unremarkable U.S. suburbia of the late 20th century, not war-torn Bosnia. But I reject that as the sole story. I worked consistently, my entire life. I have had jobs since I was 11-12, and worked at every school break, doing every odd job you can possibly imagine. Shagging carriages, digging fence post holes, sweeping floors, delivering newspapers. As a professional I didn’t take work home with me, I didn’t kiss ass, but I always (and still) believed in obligation, and keeping promises. Maybe it’s the old Northern European/Danish blood in me, and my reverence for the oath and/or Protestant work ethic, but when I’m being paid to do a job from 8:30-5, I work, and I do it to the best of my ability. I don’t believe in half-assing anything I commit to. I don’t always commit, but when I do I’m in, and my work, if not always brilliant, ranges from well-done competence, to exceeding expectations. When you do this, over and over again, you will eventually be noticed, and promoted. I have seen others in very similar circumstances and with similar abilities fail.

The world is a troubled place, and always has been, and despite our best efforts to socially engineer it, probably always will be. Some people will get shit breaks. But I think hard work and dogged persistence can still lift you up from teenage wasteland.

Friday, May 28, 2021

Sword-and-sorcery news and goings-on

Some recent news and items of interest that readers might find interesting.

My Q&A with Bard author Keith Taylor has been posted in two parts on the DMR website. If you're at all interested in his life, early writing career, collaboration with Andy Offutt, health, and current plans and writings, and much more besides, I recommend checking them out. Keith was super generous with his time composing these wonderful answers. Part one is here, and part two here.

The dudes over at the Cromcast released their final episode of season 13, covering Karl Edward Wagner's Bloodstone, and gave some good coverage to my DMR essay on the (possible) influence of The Lord of the Rings on that book. This is why I write these essays--not for the fortune and fame, but in the hopes that people will read them, interact with them, maybe leave thinking a little differently about their favorite works and authors.

I sent an essay over to Bill Ward at Tales from the Magician's Skull asking and attempting to answer the question, "Is Jack Vance's The Dying Earth Sword-and-Sorcery?", in 1,000 words. Not easy. That I believe will be published in June.

My buddy Wayne hung up my beloved Miller Lite sign in my new basement office/bar/man cave last night. And with that final flourish, it's done, man, and I'm pretty darned happy with the finished project. I'll post some pictures here soon. I describe it as a mullet--business in front (work station and desk) party in the back (bar and bookshelves featuring much S&S and other books).

Friday, May 21, 2021

Queensryche, "Take Hold of the Flame," Live in Tokyo 1984

Time to gush for a moment.

Geoff Tate circa 1983-88 was a vocal god on earth. Extraordinary range, power, expression. Soaring octaves that leave you speechless, wondering how a human voice can produce this sound. I have yet to see his peer in this window of time.

Here is arguably his greatest live performance, Queensryche ripping the roof off some dome in Tokyo in 1984. Move over Godzilla. If you haven't yet seen "Take Hold of the Flame," I envy your first experience. It's nuts.

Queensryche fell from its lofty perch, hard, after the smashing commercial success of Empire. But I choose to remember them here, when they were at their best, circa The Warning, Rage for Order, and Operation Mindcrime.