Wednesday, March 25, 2020

COVID-19 diaries and Haggard’s The Wanderer’s Necklace

Yes my work desk is a bar. First world problem.
It has been an interesting last couple weeks living in the shadow of COVID-19. My company gave us the order to start working from home on Friday March 13, and save for a brief run into the office to grab my computer monitor and a couple power cords I’ve complied with that order.

This is a picture of my home office. Not a bad place to work, save for the fact that my basement is unheated. It’s quite nice for three seasons and blessedly cool in the summer, but the winter can be a challenge. It’s a lot warmer down here than the typical New England winter clime but a fair bit colder than most folks set their thermostat. With a heavy flannel shirt and often a winter hat, I’m good. I’ll supplement with a space heater as needed.

The biggest challenge I have faced is the loss of gym access. I have been a regular with the weights for my entire adult life. The timing of COVID-19 couldn’t have been worse. Back in December long before I knew of the coming pandemic I made the commitment to finally buy a home gym—rack, barbell, bench, weights. My plan was to sell off a bunch of old toys on Ebay, which have been sitting in boxed storage for decades but had some value (as it turns out, about $1,600 all said and done). I was about 90% done selling everything off and getting set to place an order when the virus hit.
If you’ve tried ordering anything from Rogue Fitness you’ll understand my pain. They are completely overwhelmed with backlogged orders. I placed my order for gym equipment on Tuesday, March 17 and it hasn’t budged. I’m doing the best I can with bodyweight exercises but it just ain’t the same as heavy iron.

Happily I have been making good progress on an H. Rider Haggard novel, The Wanderer’s Necklace (1914). This one is a classic romance in the old, pre-corrupted sense of the word. Olaf is an eighth-century Northman who is betrayed by his beautiful bride-to-be Iduna the Fair, resulting in bloody conflict. Olaf revolts against the bloodthirsty Pagan gods of the North and flees to Byzantium, where he rises in the ranks of the Byzantine Empress Irene, becoming a general in personal bodyguard. More romance ensues.

Prior to his betrayal Olaf had robbed a tomb at Iduna’s request, taking from the well-preserved corpse a fabled necklace and heavy bronze sword. The necklace is a prize beyond measure but also has a rumored curse that it will bring woe to its wearer. Thus far it has brought considerable ruin to Olaf and his circle of acquaintances. We’ll see in the next 200 pages or so the full extent of its curse.
The opening 100 pages alone have made this novel worth reading. Haggard is a skilled writer and his work describing a polar bear hunt is extraordinarily taut and well-done, fraught with ominous signs of danger and an eventual whirlwind of violence. Olaf is a reasonably well-drawn character and the plot moves apace. As a fan of “The Northern Thing” I was disappointed when the action switched from Jutland to Byzantium, but so far this one is highly recommended.

Zebra sword-and-sorcery...
It’s fascinating to me that Zebra Books retroactively claimed The Wanderer’s Necklace as sword-and-sorcery. Certainly all of the hallmarks are there: The book has some light fantastic elements grounded in a setting that is firmly historical, Olaf is an outsider and a fierce warrior when roused, etc. Plenty of action and reasonable amounts of swordplay. Haggard frames the book with a reincarnation device, as the unnamed “editor” is modern writer recalling a previous life when he once was Olaf and lived a life of adventure. Any fan of S&S will enjoy this one, methinks.

Stay healthy all, and I hope you're enjoying some good
reading of your own.

Monday, March 16, 2020

This, and that, and Black Gate

I haven't felt much like posting or writing these days. Coronavirus/COVID-19 has got me down, to the point where I'm expecting the arrival of zombie hordes. By day I work for a company that provides healthcare training, fortunately a blend of books and online resources and e-learning that provide some diverse income streams, but also several live events that are now very much in jeopardy (a big conference we have scheduled for Vegas in early May, after the MGM properties just announced that they are not accepting room reservations until May 1, is not looking good). That, and a heartbroken daughter in her senior year of high school who is (rightly) worried that her prom and graduation may be cancelled, has cast a bit of a pall over the Murphy household.

On the brighter side, Flame and Crimson got a couple good plugs, one direct and one indirect, over on Black Gate. I was a regular writer for that site circa 2010-2012, after the demise of The Cimmerian website, so it was nice to make an appearance there once again.

Here is a short, nice review by John O'Neill, An Exuberant Celebration of a Century of Fantasy: Flame and Crimson: A History of Sword-and-Sorcery by Brian Murphy

Today Black Gate posted my essay Sword-and-Sorcery and the Problem of Genre, a piece which details some of the difficulties I had to overcome while researching and writing the book. Readers of Flame and Crimson or general sword-and-sorcery fans may find it interesting.

I also heard from veteran sword-and-sorcery author Adrian Cole who left me a couple of nice messages about the book.

Anyways, I hope everyone remains healthy, and safe from the swirling contagion.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

My surprise signed copy of L. Sprague de Camp's Time & Chance

Among the many books I had to track down and buy while researching Flame and Crimson was the L. Sprague de Camp autobiography Time & Chance.

I picked up a nice Donald M. Grant hardcover online at a reasonable price from a secondhand dealer whose name I no longer remember. When it came I was pleased to find it in excellent/near mint condition.

Sharp cover, eh? De Camp looking pretty dapper here.

My happiness turned to mild shock when I found this on the half-title page:

Holy shit!
Needless to say this was unexpected. I doubt the bookseller realized that both the author and his wife and editor Catherine Crook de Camp addressed it, to someone named "Sandy." Bonus points for anyone who knows who the mysterious Sandy may be.

As for the book itself, worth the read. De Camp is surprisingly self-deprecating, admitting on more than one occasion regarding the Lancer Conan Saga that he may not have been the best man for the job:

While I often write about things of long ago and far away, I do not share the illusion of Robert Howard and H.P. Lovecraft, that I should have been happier if born in some former era ... No, I am well pleased to have lived in my own century.

Anyway, it's nice to own a little bit of authentic de Camp on my bookshelf.

Monday, March 2, 2020

A belated farewell to Mark Shelton

During my many months and years away from this blog I missed several notable events that otherwise would have called for a post. One of those was the death of Mark Shelton in July 2018.

I was a (very) latecomer to Manilla Road, to my eternal regret. They were a rather fringe band compared to the likes of Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Anthrax, Metallica, Megadeth, et. al., and as a result largely escaped my radar in the late 80s. It wasn't until the dawn of the internet age somewhere in the early 2000s that I first started getting acquainted with them.

These guys were sword-and-sorcery through-and-through, with lyrics straight out of the stories of Robert E. Howard. Witness songs like Necropolis:

The world is full of mysteries
That men have never seen before
Magic lives in all dynasties
The light of love shines ever more
In the crypt of Atlantean Kings
I found what I was looking for
Magic Trident of Valusia's Sea
I know it's like living inside a dream

And of course Queen of the Black Coast:

Take me back, across the sea
Of Vilayet, to my queen
No kingdom hers, but for the sea
A coastal curse, a pirate's dream

Manilla Road has a deep catalog of incredible songs, including the likes of the face melting "Flaming Metal Systems," the sinister "Crystal Logic" and the atmospheric "The Deluge" and "Mystification." Yes, the vocals sound a little like Skeletor on the microphone, but damn, it works. Shelton's guitar work is incredible--his riffs, and his writing, make these songs, and elevate them above a lot of other metal fare. 

Speaking of sword-and-sorcery, one of Shelton's collaborators, E.C. Hellwell, contributed the story "The Riddle Master" to DMR Books' Swords of Steel, a song which inspired Shelton to write a great Manilla Road track of the same name. Pretty cool.

Shelton died very early in the morning of July 27, 2018, shortly after after performing at the Headbangers Open Air Festival in Germany. He passed in the arms of his bandmate Bryan Patrick, like some fallen warrior of old on the battlefield. From the obit linked above:

"Last night I was able to hold Mark in my arms until the paramedics got there," vocalist Bryan Patrick says. "I comforted him. He felt no pain, folks. He went quick. He suffered a heart attack. The stage was very hot last night — a lot of smoke. I was even struggling for a moment. And there were a couple of moments where I checked on him to make sure he was okay, and he gave me the nod. 'Keep poundin', brother.' He went out on top."

I hope Mark is somewhere in Valhalla, plugged into an amp and cranking out "Road of Kings" before a headbanging hall of ale-sotted warriors who died that day on the battlefield, only to rise for a night of feasting and wenching. Peace brother.

Friday, February 28, 2020

My top 25 sword-and-sorcery "stories"

One of my “whiff” moments in Flame and Crimson was failing to include a “seminal works” or a “suggested reading” list. So without further ado here are my top 25 sword-and-sorcery stories, by approximate publication date.

Some explanation.

Yes, they are dated, with nothing coming after 1981. I like a lot of new authors, but they don’t displace anyone on this list.

These are my favorite S&S stories that I return to again and again, not necessarily the “most important” or foundational.

These are in approximate order of publication, although some of the printings I am referring to (Imaro, Sailor on the Seas of Fate), contain stories that were written earlier. A couple of these are obviously not “stories,” but collections. But they can be read as such, and are strongly associated in my mind that way.

The first three stories are really proto sword-and-sorcery, but they tap the spirit of the genre and are among its direct spiritual predecessors.

Four Robert E. Howard, and four Fritz Leiber. Excessive? Perhaps. But these two are the best pure sword-and-sorcery authors in the cosmos, IMO. I can’t live without “Elephant,” “Red Nails,” “The Shadow Kingdom” or “Beyond the Black River,” the latter of which is arguably the finest story on the list. Although you can make a case for The Broken Sword. Some may not consider Anderson’s 1954 novel to be S&S, but I can’t bear to part with it.

As for Leiber, I think he hit his writing peak on “Stardock,” “Ill Met,” and “Bazaar,” but upon recent re-read of “The Snow Women,” I found Fafhrd’s origin story so rich and multi-layered and well done that I had to include it.

Clark Ashton Smith appears only once, and I could have included a few other of his amazing atmospheric catalog (“The Dark Eidolon,” among others) but he didn’t write a lot of S&S, and “Satampra” is everything I like about the genre. Just one by C.L. Moore, who again did not write a lot of S&S, but “Black God’s Kiss” is that good. I have a soft spot for Kuttner and “Dragon Moon” is probably his best.

I’m not a big fan of de Camp’s cynical posturing, but I have read and enjoyed The Tritonian Ring many times, and I think it captures the humor and whimsy and titillation found in certain corners of the genre.

Moorcock is uneven as a writer, but “The Dreaming City” and Sailor on the Seas of Fate are must reads, rich with atmosphere and imagination and the weird.

Three by Karl Edward Wagner is again a lot, but hey, I love the Kane stories. I called Bloodstone the Rosetta Stone of S&S in Flame and Crimson, and “Cold Light” and “Lynortis Reprise” are just bad-ass. Anderson makes his second appearance with “The Tale of Hauk.” I’m a fan of Norse mythology and the Sagas, and this tale is all about The Northern Thing. As is Drake’s “The Barrow Troll,” an extremely well done tale of action and horror.

I had many Vance tales to choose from but Chun the Unavoidable, unavoidably made his way onto this list. Terrifying villain/monster. And if you haven’t read any Imaro, what are you doing? Fix that pronto.

Thoughts? What are your favorites? Post them here.

1. Eric Brighteyes, H. Rider Haggard
2. The Sword of Welleran, Lord Dunsany
3. The Ship of Ishtar, A. Merritt
4. The Shadow Kingdom, Robert E. Howard
5. The Tale of Satampra Zeiros, Clark Ashton Smith
6. The Tower of the Elephant, Robert E. Howard
7. Black God’s Kiss, C.L. Moore
8. Beyond the Black River, Robert E. Howard
9. Red Nails, Robert E. Howard
10. Dragon Moon, Henry Kuttner
11. Liane the Wayfarer, Jack Vance
12. The Tritonian Ring, L. Sprague de Camp
13. The Broken Sword, Poul Anderson
14. The Dreaming City, Michael Moorcock
15. Bazaar of the Bizarre, Fritz Leiber
16. Stardock, Fritz Leiber
17. Sailor on the Seas of Fate, Michael Moorcock
18. Ill Met in Lankhmar, Fritz Leiber
19. The Snow Women, Fritz Leiber
20. Cold Light, Karl Edward Wagner
21. Bloodstone, Karl Edward Wagner
22. Lynortis Reprise, Karl Edward Wagner
23. The Tale of Hauk, Poul Anderson
24. The Barrow Troll, David Drake
25. Imaro, Charles Saunders

Monday, February 24, 2020

Flame and Crimson Kindle edition released, and reviews!

Some important and encouraging news to share today regarding Flame and Crimson.

First, the book is now available on Kindle for the low price of $7.99. If that's your preferred medium (full disclosure, I'm a paper guy and have yet to take the plunge into e-readers) head on over to Amazon and grab an (e) copy.

Second, there's been a few reviews posted and I'm happy (and humbled) by this small sample reaction to date.

Here's an outstanding piece on Spiral Tower, the blog of Jason Ray Carney. Jason is co-editor of The Dark Man, an academic journal dedicated to Robert E. Howard and the broader field of pulp literature, and is a professor at Christopher Newport University. He teaches some classes I wish I had the opportunity to take back in my undergrad days.

Here's another very comprehensive review over at Karavansara by Davide Mana.

These two pieces are honest, with praise but also some critique and disagreement. I like them because they show a deep engagement with the book, from two authors who took the time to read it and write thoughtful responses. I agree with most of their critiques. I had to do some amount of editorializing and interpretation in Flame and Crimson, and I fully anticipated some disagreements, large or small, with my approach, the definitions I laid out, and the conclusions I reached.

As I've stated I'm hoping the book gets more conversation started around my favorite subgenre, and these reviews have already accomplished a bit of that. But I'm glad they also enjoyed reading it and recognize Flame and Crimson as something S&S sorely needed.

Finally, if you'd prefer something shorter that cuts straight to the chase, Paul McNamee offers that here.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

News and updates: Jack London, Flame and Crimson reviews

A few items of note to share.

Buck and John Thornton, ready for adventure
Today I have a post running on DMR Blog, "Jack London, the Frontier, and Sword-and-Sorcery." Check it out here if you're interested. This past weekend I finished up a fat anthology of London's stories, 500+ pages of pure adventure in the Yukon and beyond. It was a needed palate cleanser after years of near mainlined sword-and-sorcery. I had almost forgotten how good London was, and many of these stories were new to me, and I wound up burning through it in no time. The particular edition I read is pictured here, a collection by Platt and Munk first published in 1960. I was given a 1980 printing of this book as a Christmas present that year, when I was just a young lad, I believe from my father. I'm glad I held onto it all these years.

In other news, a few reviews of Flame and Crimson are starting to trickle in, and so far I've been very encouraged. These include three reviews on Amazon, two four star and one five star, and two reviews on Goodreads, both five stars. A few folks have reached out to me via Facebook messenger or email with very positive comments and support. I had one relatively critical review from a member of The International Robert E. Howard Fan Association, who wanted something more fannish, with more checklists, and thought it too much of an overview. I will say he raised some valid points. Flame and Crimson is not an encyclopedic resource, and it lacks a comprehensive bibliography. I believe the genre needs such a book, something like Grady Hendrix' Paperbacks from Hell perhaps. And I'm kicking myself for not including a list of recommended reading or a top 20 list of S&S stories in the appendix. Ah well.

Overall I'm very encouraged with the positive responses. If you at all enjoyed Flame and Crimson, the best thing you can do is leave me a brief review on Amazon or Goodreads or elsewhere. I appreciate all who have done so!