Thursday, January 16, 2020

Flame and Crimson now available on Amazon

https://www.amazon.com/dp/1683902440. That there is a book.

If you like sword-and-sorcery literature, Robert E. Howard, Conan the Barbarian (the 1982 film), or perhaps if you enjoy my ramblings in this little corner of cyberspace, I'd sure appreciate it if you consider picking up a copy. Read it, or skim for the good bits. Leave me a review.

If nothing else, Flame and Crimson: A History of Sword-and-Sorcery was a lot of work on a subject I care a lot about. I tried my best to give this thing we genre nerds call "sword-and-sorcery" a rough shape, a meaningful place in our culture and collective humanity, and a measure of dignity (not always possible), all while attempting to tell an interesting (non-fiction) story along the way. I tried to give my due to the authors that made it a publishing phenomenon in the 1960s and 70s, spawning a barbaric horde of movies, role-playing games, and heavy songs and bands. I'll leave it to others to judge how well I managed to do that.

Thanks to Bob McLain at Pulp Hero Press for getting this work into print. I'm looking forward to more titles from this powerhouse little publisher. Thanks again to the great Tom Barber for his awesome cover art. I am so looking forward to having the original Barber oil hanging over my man-cave bar, which if you think about it is pretty sword-and-sorcery. Once its up I'll toast with a drink out of a viking helmet, or perhaps the skull of one of my enemies.

I have a few others to thank for getting both me and this title across the finish line, but you'll have to read the book to find that out.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Farewell to a King


It always hurts, losing a piece of your past. Although you might have never met them, the passing of an artist that formed such a large part of your adolescence can make you feel like you have lost some vital part of yourself.

That’s how I’m feeling today, a day after the news that Neil Peart of RUSH succumbed following a three-year battle with brain cancer. This one hurts.

Growing up I idolized Peart. I climbed on the RUSH train somewhere around Hold your Fire (1987, my freshman year of high school), and remember buying Presto on tape shortly after it came out in late 1989. My introduction to the band were these polished, mature albums from a band at the height of its powers, and so I was both puzzled and delighted when I went back to their early catalog and discovered that they were a rougher, harder rocking, more byzantine band in the 1970. RUSH’s fantasy and sci-fi influences—songs like By-Tor and the Snow Dog, Rivendell, The Necromancer, 2112, Xanadu, and A Farewell to Kings—deeply resonated with me, as I was by then reading everything fantasy related I could get my hands on.

Truth
I experienced the same feelings of alienation RUSH captured with the brilliant Subdivisions. I loved their pentagram artwork. In short, loved everything about the band, and I knew (despite the fact that RUSH was deeply uncool with the popular kids) that they were three amazing musicians. But in particular, even though I’m not a musician myself and can’t play a lick on a guitar or read sheet music, I understood that even among these three titans Peart was something special. The guy was a freaking god with the drumsticks. I air drummed along with songs like Distant Early Warning and The Camera Eye and thought to myself, how can a human being do this? I beat the living shit out of the steering wheel of my 1982 Chevy Impala, pretending I was driving a Red Barchetta through the Rockies and hugging the cliffs at high speed. What times.

As I grew older I replaced “idolized” (I really don’t use that word for anyone now) with a deepening level of respect for the man himself, apart from the lighted stage. Peart endured massive tragedies in his life, including the loss of his 19-year-old daughter to a single car accident in 1997. Given that I have a 17-year-old and 14-year-old daughter myself, I don’t know if I could ever bear such a loss. Less than year later his wife passed away from cancer. I NEED to get a copy of Ghost Rider and read about his journey of 14 months on a motorcycle across the United States as he dealt with an unimaginable level of grief. That’s now on 2020 to be read list.

I’m glad he eventually returned to the band. I’ve seen RUSH in concert several times over their career, starting with Presto, twice on Roll on the Bones, Counterparts, and Test for Echo, then for Neil and the band’s return for Vapor Trails, Snakes & Arrows—at least eight times, counting my ticket stubs (possibly with one missing). Everyone in his passing has said it already, but I’ll say it again: You don’t take beer or pee breaks during RUSH’s drum solos. I have many times done so for KISS or Motley Crue, but Peart’s solos were bravura performances, arguably the highlight of the concert.

I am glad I got to see a true artist at the height of his craft. The Professor made my world brighter, and brought magic into my life through not only his playing, but his phenomenal works as a lyricist. As I hopped around Youtube last night listening to some of my favorite RUSH songs, this lyric from “Closer to the Heart” remains as true today as the day it was written: “And the men who hold high places, must be the ones who start, to mold a new reality, closer to the heart.” The men who hold high places and make decisions based on power and money and fear and greed are the source of so many of the world’s problems. We could all use a little more kindness.

Listening to a song like “Mission” makes me think of the brilliant artistry of Robert E. Howard and Frank Frazetta. I came to grips long ago with the fact that I would never be a fiction writer. It was no small source of grief and disappointment, but the lyrics of “Mission” made me realize that such passionate intensity and emotional attachment to art comes with a cost:

It’s cold comfort
To the ones without it
To know how they struggled
How they suffered about it

If their lives were
Exotic and strange
They would likely have
Gladly exchanged them
For something a little more plain
Maybe something a little more sane

We each pay a fabulous price
For our visions of paradise

After hearing the news of Peart’s passing I reached out to some friends via text. We shared a few old RUSH stories and our disbelief that Peart was gone. It made me feel a little closer to humanity. I forged friendships with some of these guys in part out of our common admiration for RUSH, and I’m still friends with them today. That’s pretty cool.

In short, I’m grateful that Peart lived, shared his amazing talents, and made the world more awe-inspiring. Thank you for the music Neil. If there is an afterlife I hope you find deserved rest after a life writing fearless lyrics for a band that never compromised its artistic integrity. Rock on.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Star Wars, nostalgia, and the insanity of fandom appeasement


(Warning: Spoilers if you have not seen the new Star Wars film. And rant coming).

Over the Christmas break I made a trip to the movie theater with my family to watch Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker. I had seen the prior entries in the new trilogy, and found them to be entertaining, fun, and occasionally moving, if somewhat predictable/formulaic action films.

I expected nothing less out of the third and got about what I was looking for: A reasonably satisfying conclusion to the arc that sees Rey (Daisy Ridley) go from homeless desert scavenger to self-actualized being and member of the Skywalker family, through making her own choice. This wasn’t done with particular grace or subtlety or complexity, and it was amid the usual wash of edge-of your-seat space battles and alien spectacle, but for what it was—a character narrative bolted on an action film that appeals to children, which is what the Star Wars franchise is and always has been—it worked, at least for me.

Then I watched Youtube to catch a few reviews. Big mistake.

I’m always curious to hear about others’ opinions of media I enjoy. In this case I wish I hadn’t. What I found was great swaths of 40-year-old man children in their basement complaining that the new Star Wars films did not meet their expectations.

That last bit is the key to why the fandom is pissed off: Unmet expectations. I might add, unrealistic expectations. I love A New Hope, and still feel a swelling in my chest when I hear the theme song kick in, or when Luke is staring into the sunset of Tatooine and into his future. But if I’m being honest, it’s also clunky and childlike. The acting is fairly wooden. I love the characters and the underlying mythic elements, the hints of the force and the scattered bits of references to the Old Republic and the Jedi Knights. But director George Lucas has admitted on several occasions that he was creating a film meant to be enjoyed by children. It worked. In 1983 I was 10, and thought Return of the Jedi was the best thing I’d ever seen, Ewoks and all. If I’m being fully honest my perception of the original trilogy is awash in nostalgia and my objectivity is severely compromised as a result.

Nostalgia is an amazing emotion, and part of the human condition. But nostalgia is the longing for something that you cannot recover. We’re never going to recover “Star Wars” as we knew it because we’re no longer kids ourselves. And the man-children and fandom at large have not come to grips with this fact.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

On reading in 2020 and beyond

In the last six or so years I have spent less time reading, and the amount of books I read annually has declined. I’ve identified a few reasons for this.

Flame and Crimson. Writing a book is a lot of work. The hour or so I spent writing in the evenings after work was time that I would have ordinarily spent reading. Writing this book made me chase a lot of S&S titles that I hadn’t read for research purposes, but a lot of my “reading” was hunting and picking for references, excerpting, and the like. This made sustained reading efforts a lot more challenging.

My smart phone and general accessibility of the internet. I was a late smart phone adopter—late 2013—which is right around the time I noticed a drop in my reading output. This is no coincidence. Back in the day I had to sit down at my desktop computer to get online, and when I was not at my desk I had no internet access. Smart phones have made it way too easy to hop on Facebook, or Youtube, or check football scores on ESPN. I’m a digital slave and I hate it.

Family obligations. As my daughters have grown older in some respects my demands have increased. This is no fault of theirs and I would not have it any other way: They are the best things that ever happened to me. But attending weekend soccer games, and driving my older daughter Hannah to and from work (which has finally ended this year after she got her license) has cut into reading time.

Laziness. An excuse I don’t like to admit but will cop to. Reading has gotten harder than it used to be. I’m not sure if it’s the fast-paced nature of modern existence and the re-wiring of my brain, or the fact that work and obligations and my advance into middle age has robbed me of some of my old vitality, but I find harder to concentrate on books. It takes a little more practice and if I go a few weeks without reading it’s as though I’m suffering from the effects of too much time away from the gym. Or maybe I’m just too fat and lazy.

Now that the excuses are out of the way…

My goal for 2020 is to carve out more time in the evening for reading. I want to read widely and deeply. I’ve read a lot of sword-and-sorcery in the last six-eight years in research and in preparation for writing Flame and Crimson, and while it’s still my favorite subgenre and I will undoubtedly read more of it this year—including catching up on back issues of The Sorcerer’s Skull—I am looking forward to branching out. I’m eyeing some books that have been too long on my to-be-read pile: Iron John, Lonesome Dove and True Grit, Neil Peart’s Ghost Rider. I also think it might be time for a Lord of the Rings re-read. My last reading was in 2012-13, and I’m feeling the call of The Road.

For the interested, at the moment I’m reading a collection of George Orwell essays, Inside the Whale and Other Essays. Orwell’s clarity of thought and incisive writing style are remarkable. So much he was writing at the time (the essays were written in the early-mid 1940s) are very applicable to today. I now wish I had read “Politics and the English Language” prior to Flame and Crimson; I’m certain it would be more sharply written. “England Your England” has helped me understand the character of that country better than any news piece or dry history I’ve read. “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool” is an incredible review of a review, in which Orwell takes apart Leo Tolstoy’s harsh criticism of Shakespeare by turning his review upon the reviewer. I’m looking forward to reading the last few entries.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

A brief history of the Fourteenth Engineers, and William A. Murphy

Railroading under fire was a test of a man’s nerves. For the most part it had to be done at night—with uncertainty as to whether the road ahead had been blown up by the enemy. With a car load of high explosives the truck was doubly dangerous. 

“Railroad Regiment Daredevils,” Portsmouth Herald, February 5, 1919

I still remember him, from my childhood: A kindly old man, quick to laugh, who liked his peanuts, and The Wide World of Sports, and his easy chair. He loved my brother and sister and I, his grandchildren, and took an interest in our board games and action figures. He kept old books about the house and when I took a particular interest in Life Goes to War and its amazing pictorial history of World War 2, he gave it to me. I still have it.

My dad was a dutiful son and loved his parents, and so we used to take many trips on Sundays after Church to their home in Brighton, Massachusetts, where William and his wife Irene lived on the first floor of a two-story tenement home.

But I was too young to ask my grandfather about his own experiences with war. William A. Murphy (1893-1983) died on June 5, 1983 when I was just nine years old. He was 89, 10 days shy of his 90th birthday.

I knew he served in World War I as an engineer, but that was about it. Until now. My dad was recently given a copy of The History of the 14th Engineers (1923), which I just finished reading. It’s an absolute gold mine, a unit history written by a handful of men who served in the unit five years after they returned home from the War to End All Wars.

I’m glad I can now share his story here, and that of the “Railroad Regiment Daredevils,” as dubbed by the Portsmouth (NH) Herald. I never knew how close he was to the front line, and can now say he was pretty darned close. As in, right on top of it in many instances. The 14th Engineers were the first troops of the United States to arrive at the Front, and among the last to leave. They spent most of their service attached to the Sixth British Corps, who formed an unbreakable bond with these men from New England.

William Murphy (right) holding his son--my father.
It’s amazing how near we are to history, and how short time really is. I once sat on the lap of my grandfather, a man who wore a uniform stained with the mud of Flanders Fields. My grandfather could recall parades through the streets of Boston, with men in Civil War uniforms filing past—veterans of that war, so long ago. But not really, as time in the universe is counted.

Readers of this blog can find a two-part article I wrote about the World War 2 service of my grandfather on my mother’s side, Donald Teschek, here and here. I am proud to have the blood of both these amazing men, and veterans, in my veins. I never had to serve in the military or in combat, thank the Lord, and I have their service and sacrifice to thank for the blessed peace in which I have lived my life and raised my family.

Thank you men, and rest in peace.

***

Thursday, December 19, 2019

The Bard's Song

Blind Guardian is a top 10 band for me. Not quite at the level of Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, or KISS, but way up there. If you’re a fan of power metal, and/or fantasy literature—The Silmarillion, The Once and Future King, the Elric Saga or The Lord of the Rings—and haven’t dipped into their catalog, you’re missing the boat. Find Imaginations from the Other Side and give it a spin. And be transported on a journey through the dark.

This past September I had the fortune of seeing Demons & Wizards at the Worcester Palladium. Demons & Wizards is a side project of Blind Guardian lead singer
Hansi Kürsch and Iced Earth guitarist Jon Schaffer. ‘Twas a great show. I’m always dumbfounded that fans in the U.S. get to see these bands in such small venues, when over in Europe and South America they play in front of far larger crowds and headline festivals.

Demons and Wizards did not play The Bard’s Song but they did launch into Blind Guardian hits Welcome to Dying and Valhalla. They also played the magnificent Fiddler on the Green. I haven’t gotten into Demons and Wizards like I have Blind Guardian, but Fiddler is worthy of any BG album.

But the Bard’s Song…few songs move me as this one does.

Now you all know 
The bards and their songs 
When hours have gone by 
I'll close my eyes 
In a world far away 
We may meet again 
But now hear my song 
About the dawn of the night 
Let's sing the bards' song 

Just beautiful, man. Terrific acoustic guitar work, and Kursch is himself a bard, of the metal/Germanic variety.

Despite my many travels, my work, the years that have passed, I still am drawn to the bard’s song. I always will be.

In my thoughts and in my dreams 
They're always in my mind 
These songs of hobbits, dwarves and men 
And elves 
Come close your eyes 
You can see them too 

What’s next for me, post Flame and Crimson? I don’t know, but I still hear The Bard’s Song, and I’m sure I will follow wherever it may lead.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Flame and Crimson headed to the printer

Behold the kick-ass cover of Flame and Crimson, mortals!

It’s done.

At 11:10 a.m. EST this morning I made a handful of cosmetic edits to the manuscript. Flame and Crimson: A History of Sword-and-Sorcery is back with Pulp Hero Press. In the next few days I anticipate the book will be available online at Amazon, B&N, and other fine retailers.

What can I say? I’m nervous. I’m exhilarated. And I’m glad it’s done. How well it is received is out of my control at this point, but I have accomplished something big that I set out to do. I’m pretty happy with the end product.

Here is a marketing description I put together for Bob McLain over at Pulp Hero Press:

Little did then-obscure Texas writer Robert E. Howard know that with the 1929 publication of “The Shadow Kingdom” in the pulp magazine Weird Tales, he had given birth to a new and vibrant subgenre of fantasy fiction.

Sword-and-sorcery went from pulp obscurity to mass-market paperback popularity before suffering a spectacular publishing collapse in the 1980s. But it lives on in the broader culture and today enjoys a second life in popular role-playing games, music, and films, and helped give birth to a new literary subgenre known as grimdark, popularized by the likes of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series.

Flame and Crimson: A History of Sword-and-Sorcery provides much needed definitions and critical rigor to this misunderstood fantasy subgenre. It traces its origins in the likes of historical fiction, to its birth in the pages of Weird Tales, to its flowering in the Frank Frazetta-illustrated Lancer Conan Saga series in the 1960s. It covers its “barbarian bust” beneath a heap of second-rate pastiche, a pack of colorful and wildly entertaining and awful sword-and-sorcery films, and popular culture second life in the likes of Dungeons & Dragons and the bombast of heavy metal music.

I think readers of this blog will very much enjoy it, as will historians of the fantasy genre. Maybe some die-hard fans of Manowar, too. But I’ve been telling my family and curious non-fantasy reading friends to steer well clear, with this analogy: My wife is a speech-language pathologist. Had she written a book about Asperger’s and speech therapy treatment, I’d be ecstatic for her.  Proud beyond measure, in fact. But I wouldn’t read it (maybe I’d give it a polite skim). I tried to make Flame and Crimson very readable, even fun, but it’s got 24 pages of Works Cited. It’s loaded with citations from the literature, quotations from Amra and The Dungeon Master's Guide, and my geeky analysis and interpretation.

More than that, it’s about a subgenre of fantasy fiction (not even a proper genre). We’re talking beyond niche, here.

But it’s a topic I believe will resonate with readers of The Silver Key. I hope you consider making it a very sword-and-sorcery Christmas and picking up a copy. More to come soon.