Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Stephen King, Halloween, and the joy of reading

I own this edition,
just a lot more beat up.
Yesterday evening I experienced an unmitigated pleasure. The nonsense and hard work of the day was done, I had come back from a visit with my old man, it was drawing on 7:30. A delicious feeling had come over me that only comes in the lead up to Halloween. Out the window to my left was darkness. A weird glow on the porch, cast by the decorative seasonal orange lights we have around the frame of the front door.

I was looking forward to the next bit from the moment I woke up, and it had arrived.

Getting back into my heavily tattered old paperback copy of  'Salem's Lot. 

In a few minutes I was back in the old Maine town, the creepy Marsten House on the hill overlooking the small-town characters and their petty affairs and gossip, and the horror that would soon be visited upon them from messieurs Straker and Barlow. I know this story very well, but nothing in it is diminished. I still get the old thrill from the terror that comes on Danny and Ralphie Glick on the shortcut to Mark Petrie's house. They were planning to see his Aurora plastic monsters collection (remember those?) but Ralphie would never be seen from again. And Danny would be... changed.

Accompanying this was the realization that if I never had to turn on the television again, I'm quite certain I would survive.

I watch essentially zero television. With amazing intensity and the conviction of born again Christians I hear as people talk about Breaking Bad, or The Office, or Ozarks, or The British Baking Championship, or whatever show happens to be the most awesome/best show ever/you can't possibly miss this/I can't believe you haven't seen this! fad of the moment (inevitably such show gives way to the next such show, which cannot be missed but I can't believe you haven't seen The Sopranos!). It's a language I don't understand. I smile, and listen, but can't participate in it.

I don't think I'm superior to them, I don't begrudge their habits (I have my own), I would even admit that TV has probably gotten a lot better from the days when Harlan Ellison wrote of the glass teat and the banality of The Mary Tyler Moore show.

I just prefer reading. It's my go-to medium for entertainment. It's amazing how much joy I can still wring out of a $2 Signet paperback. 

I would miss horror movies. I will say that I'm pleased to have introduced my 15-year-old daughter, a budding horror movie fan, to the likes of Scream, The Shining, Silence of the Lambs, and The Ring. But for pure joy even these films don't beat old Stephen King, or Lovecraft, or Poe. Words on a page that can captivate, and terrify. I wish I could get her into these stories, man.

Work in progress.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Some new sword-and-sorcery titles worth a look

Here at The Silver Key I spend most of my time talking classic sword-and-sorcery, but I’ve been keeping track of some new releases that I thought were worth reporting on. My wallet will be feeling the pinch in the coming weeks. 

Swords & Sorceries: Tales of Heroic Fantasy: Volume 1. I’m really liking this old school cover by Jim Pitts, and the editor Steve Dilks knows sword-and-sorcery. Looks like a great new collection.

Necromancy in Nilztiria by D.M. Ritzlin and The Godblade by J. Christopher Tarpey, from DMR Books. DMR is the most committed publisher of sword-and-sorcery today, republishing classic titles and issuing original works. I haven’t been disappointed with Swords of Steel or Heroes of Atlantis & Lemuria, and Renegade Swords, another purchase, is on my TBR pile. These two new titles look excellent also.

New Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories coming from Tales from the Magician’s Skull. I’m a subscriber to Tales from the Magician’s Skull and am interested how they plan to handle these classic characters. Leiber had such a unique voice, and it’s not clear if author Nathan Long will be using the characters to tell new stories, or will try to imitate Leiber’s style (the way this release is written I’m leaning toward the former). I’m on record as saying I have no problem with pastiche, or writing new stories using classic characters, as long as they are not passed off as works of the original author. Adrian Cole has done some excellent work with new stories of Elak of Atlantis, for example.

Barbarians at the Gates of Hollywood: Sword and Sorcery Movies of the 1980s. Black Gate’s review by Fletcher Vredenburgh of this title convinced me I should give it a shot. Other than Conan the Barbarian and perhaps a couple others, sword-and-sorcery’s silver screen boom was uniformly terrible, but a detailed history of how this phenomenon came to be is up my alley.

Robert E. Howard: A Closer Look (Hippocampus Press). An update of a 1987 title by Charles Hoffman and Marc Cerasini. Looks like a solid study. More Howard scholarship is always welcomed.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Recording of "The Best Sword & Sorcery of the 20th Century" panel now available

Last night I spent the better part of 2 1/2 hours in an interesting, rambling discussion about sword-and-sorcery with the likes of Howard Andrew Jones, Jeff Goad, Bill Ward, and Jason Ray Carney, part of the ongoing Bride of Cyclops Con online convention. It was a blast. We covered a lot of ground in that time--the definition of S&S, its literary roots, must-read stories, a few dark horses, the late Charles Saunders, book porn (I couldn't stop myself from flashing multiple book covers), and many other fun side-trails and asides.

I'm far more comfortable behind the keyboard than on-camera, but I have to say the time flew by and I spent most of the panel grinning ear-to-ear. I hope I had a few insights to add about my favorite subgenre. I want to thank Howard and the folks over at Goodman Games for the opportunity.  

The highlight for me was learning that Jason owns a first edition, signed, hard-cover copy of Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword. That almost broke my geekmeter.

Check out the recording of the panel here.

Friday, October 9, 2020

Upcoming panel session: "The Best Sword & Sorcery Stories of the 20th Century"

On Friday Oct. 16 I'll be taking part in an S&S panel session, part of the (wonderfully named) Bride of Cyclops Con, an online convention hosted by Goodman Games. Goodman Games is the publisher of the fine Dungeon Crawl Classics line of role playing games, as well as the Tales from the Magician's Skull S&S magazine, of which I'm a subscriber..

Below are the panel details.

A lot more S&S goodness is going on in the track, with sessions with publishers, authors, and RPG designers. Apparently you can watch these sessions free of charge on the Goodman Games Official "Twitch" channel (what is Twitch? I don't know, now get offa my lawn!).

It's a great group of panelists and I'm honored to be part of it.

“The Best Sword & Sorcery Stories of the 20th Century” – Friday, October 16, 6:00 pm-8:00 pm EST

Six sword-and-sorcery fans and scholars compare notes about the important works in the genre, starting with foundational fiction and moving on to more recent times. This panel will talk details, not just an author’s name, but why a particular story or novel is worthy of note.


Brian Murphy, author of Flame & Crimson

Dr. Jason Ray Carney, author of Weird Tales of Modernity, editor of Whetsone and co-editor of The Dark Man

Bill Ward, Online Editor for Tales From the Magician’s Skull

Howard Andrew Jones, Editor Tales From the Magician’s Skull

Jeff Goad, co-host of the ENnie nominated podcast Appendix N Book Club

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Steve Tompkins at 60

Deuce Richardson at DMR Blog asked me to write something to commemorate what would have been Steve Tompkins 60th birthday today, had he had not passed at the far too early age of 48 back in March of 2009.

I chose for the occasion a look back at Steve's first official post on the old Cimmerian blog. "Maybe Not a Boom, But a Drumbeat" isn't a classic, sprawling, deep essay like the ones Steve carved out a legacy writing, but it's a fun, witty, inside look at the state of Howard scholarship and questions regarding his legacy circa 2006.

Check it out here if you're interested. RIP Steve (and since I'm in a mourning mood, RIP to the great Eddie Van Halen, who today passed at 65 after a long battle with cancer). 

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Heavy metal party and The Priest, part 3

(This is a story about how from 2011-2018 I hosted the ultimate heavy metal party and survived to tell the tale. Read parts 1 and 2 here and here).

Are you ready for some
Judas Priest-style heavy metal?

Despite the metal party to end all metal parties in 2016, my house was not destroyed, my neighbors did not unite to force the sale of my home, and so the metal party would return in 2017. As always it was a blast. We upped the costuming. I went with Gene Simmons face paint and an Iron Maiden T-shirt. Others showed up with big hair, leather pants, and denim jackets with back patches. We sang karaoke. Late night featured a bucket of ice cold Zima, that semi-nasty clear malted beverage which made a reappearance after disappearing from the shelves for more than a decade (after drinking one, I quickly came to the realization that it was probably better off staying retired). I suppose I didn’t need those Fireball shots at the bar but we did them anyway. KISS or Fiction made another appearance.

Later we voted on which videos had the hottest chick: “Kiss me Deadly” with Lita Ford, a recut version of Cinderella’s “Shake Me” featuring a gorgeous stripper, or “Here I Go Again” with Tawny Kitaen (if I recall, the latter won). We also cast our votes for worst heavy metal video ever, with Manowar’s “Gloves of Steel,” Thor’s “Anger is my Middle Name”, and King Kobra’s “Iron Eagle (Never Say Die)” competing for the dubious title. Thor was a runaway winner, for the record this video is bad beyond belief and I don’t recommend subjecting yourself to it, unless you’ve imbibed 6-8 Zimas to numb the pain.

But despite the fun I couldn’t help but compare the party to the year prior, when we had nearly blown the roof off the house with a live band. In hindsight it seemed rather anticlimactic.

For 2018, I once again put in a call for The Priest.

They responded, Screaming for Vengeance.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

A review of Tom Shippey’s Laughing Shall I Die: Lives and Deaths of the Great Vikings

The man, the myth... Tom Shippey
As a Professor Emeritus of Saint Louis University, Tom Shippey understands the current trends shaping historical research, far more than I. For example, I did not know that historians have been re-interpreting the record to paint Vikings as well, less Viking-y. Less savage, more tame. Less raid-y, more farmer-y and trade-y. Many of the corny old myths surrounding Vikings—horned helmets and drinking wine from skulls of their enemies and the like—have rightfully been reframed as romantic sentiment rather than historical reality, but I didn’t realize the extent to which this re-evaluation of the Viking character was working overtime in the halls of academia.

Laughing Shall I Die: Lives and Deaths of the Great Vikings (2018, Reaktion Books) is Shippey’s semi-bombastic rebuttal to the revisionists and whitewashers. It’s not that Vikings weren’t also great traders, or slowly shifted from raiders and slave-takers to land-owners and eventually settlers, but Saga literature and even the archeological record paints a picture of savagery and warrior ethos that can’t be so easily explained away.

“Academics have laboured to create a comfort-zone in which Vikings can be massaged into respectability,” Shippey writes. “But the Vikings and the Viking mindset deserve respect and understanding in their own terms—while no one benefits from staying inside their comfort zone, not even academics. This book accordingly offers a guiding hand into a somewhat, but in the end not-so-very, alien world. Disturbing though it may be.”

Shippey lays out these uncomfortable facts in entertaining style in Laughing Shall I Die. This book takes a close look at the old Norse poems and sagas, and uses them to create a psychological portrait of the Viking mindset. But it also goes a step further: It interprets the findings from archeology and recent excavations to lend these literary interpretations tangible and physical reinforcement. For example, Shippey describes the discovery of two recent Viking Age mass graves in England, one on the grounds of St. John’s College, Oxford, the other on the Dorset Ridgeway. Both were organized mass executions, the latter the single largest context of multiple decapitations from the period. Fearsome stuff.