Saturday, April 17, 2021

Gateways to sword-and-sorcery

Monster Tales! 
What are yours?

I have many fond memories of youthful reading. When I was in elementary school I was enthralled with the likes of Fire-Hunter by Jim Kjelgaard, Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe (abbreviated/illustrated version), and was engrossed/entertained/scared shitless by Monster Tales: Vampires, Werewolves & Things. I'm still looking for a reasonable copy.

With the benefit of hindsight I realize that these books were leading me, inevitably, toward sword-and-sorcery. Barbaric/pre-historic heroes. Warfare. Monsters and the weird. Throw into a bubbling cauldron and you get S&S. Soon I would find The Savage Sword of Conan, and my path was fixed. But I was already leaning heavily in that direction.

My gateways to sword-and-sorcery are here at Tales from the Magician's Skull. 

Friday, April 16, 2021

Flame and Crimson in Xuthal: Innsmouth Book Club Podcast is up

As mentioned on my last post, I was recently invited to guest on the Innsmouth Book Club podcast. That recording is now up; you can listen here (note: the podcast is hosted on Patreon but you don't have to be a patron to listen).

I have to say I was probably at my relaxed best; I had a lot of fun with this show. I spent a fair bit of my time on my childhood memories of what got me into S&S. I also relayed a story of the time I visited the abandoned Danvers State Hospital, one of the eeriest experiences of my life. I do after all live in Lovecraft country, a long stone's throw from the historical Innsmouth, Newburyport MA.

The two hosts were great and a lot of fun, and were well-read and asked some good questions that allowed me to ramble. It's amazing that you can just hop on a Zoom call and shoot the shit for an hour with two like-minded dudes from Britain. What a world.

The first 30 minutes or so are the two guests talking about Xuthal of the Dusk, with me joining later.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Some swordly-and-sorcerous goings-on, and guest appearances

If you want to get invited on a podcast, the thing to do is to write a book (it's that easy! Well, not the writing of the book part, which is rather hard). Then apparently you have become an authority, or a quasi-celebrity, instead of an average boring dad who likes to read about men stabbing monsters, and each other, during his spare time.

Tomorrow I will be serving as guest on the UK-based Innsmouth Book Club, a podcast which covers HPL, CAS, REH, and other like authors. The hosts will be covering "The Slithering Shadow"/"Xuthal of the Dusk," then I'll be on to talk S&S more broadly. Little do these guests know I live within a stone's throw of the historical Innsmouth, Newburyport MA. And have seen Deep Ones (or maybe they were just drunk bar patrons ... who knows).

Next month I've been asked to guest on a new show called Unknown Worlds of the Merril Collection, with the episode to appear sometime this summer.

I've also been told that a podcast episode I did with Robert Zoltan on the Literary Wonder & Adventure Show last June is nearing 2K views. Check that out here.

Among the reasons I love to write is that it allows me to express my true and actual voice, which due to a combination of natural introversion (I definitely recharge in solitude, away from people) and mild social anxiety is far easier for me to do in the written word than in conversation. That's why I've resisted starting a podcast myself. I fear I'm not very glib, or interesting. Just interested in certain things, like S&S and heavy metal, if that makes sense.

I hope I can deliver something of value to these programs. Even against my natural inclinations I'm leaning into the apprehension and doing my part to spread the gospel of sword-and-sorcery.

On the writing side of things, I recently had published an academic essay, "From Pulps to Paperbacks: The role of medium in the development of sword-and-sorcery fiction," in The Journal of American Culture. The publisher is the Wiley Online Library and it's behind a paywall, but if you're interested and/or have library or other free access, you can find it here. One of my discoveries during the research and writing of Flame and Crimson was that sword-and-sorcery was shaped as much by medium as by the idiosyncratic contributions of individual authors. That's what this essay is about, covering the role of pulps, magazines and fanzines (in particular Amra), and mass-market paperbacks, on how sword-and-sorcery came to be. It was done on a very tight deadline after Jason Ray Carney, editor of The Dark Man, asked me to fill in for someone else who had to bail last minute, and so it relies on much material from Flame and Crimson. But the focus is more squarely on the medium, not the authors. I do hope it opens up S&S to some academic-types and other cultural observers.

Friday, April 9, 2021

Man of Sorrows, Bruce Dickinson

If you're an Iron Maiden fan but have not given Bruce Dickinson's solo albums a listen, you're behaving in a criminally irresponsible manner. Please fix that.

Exhibit A; this is not even accorded one of Dickinson's better solo songs, but it's one that showcases that one of a kind voice that is the Air Raid Siren. "Man of Sorrows" (from Accident of Birth, 1997) is far more soulful and personal than we'd see on the likes of Piece of Mind, but Bruce belts it out with verses that soar.

Enjoy. Happy (metal) Friday.

Friday, April 2, 2021

Queen of the Black Coast, Manilla Road (and REH, too)

Did Robert E. Howard influence heavy metal artists?

Does a bear shit in the woods?

Among the many things I love about sword-and-sorcery are that its tentacles are everywhere, including some places you might not expect. Like the lyrics of a heavy metal band formed in 1977 in Wichita, Kansas.

Take a listen to "Queen of the Black Coast," off of 1982's Metal (aside: can an album name get more metal than Metal? Like Spinal Tap, it gets none more black than that). Many metal bands including early Black Sabbath appropriated fantasy and demonic imagery, while other bands incorporated sword-and-sorcery whole cloth into their music:

These dudes aren't everyone's cup of tea and probably never made to the metal mainstream (though they were close with 1983's Crystal Logic) due to Mark Shelton's odd singing voice, and esoteric subject matter. Shelton can be jarring at first, but he grows on you, and Manilla Road has hooked me deep. The REH content is icing on the cake.

I love this tune, and this story, and the fusion of old stories influencing subsequent artists in different mediums. And even though Manilla Road is gone with the death of Shelton, the bard's songs continue.

Spoiler alert.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Confess, Rob Halford (2020), a review

The Metal God tells all...
I’m a raging Judas Priest fan, and chances are you are too, if you like metal. I frequently vacillate between Priest and Maiden as the greatest metal band ever. When I hear the opening notes of The Hellion/Electric Eye I’m tempted to just say, fuck it, Judas Priest.

So I was pleased to be able to buy and finally read lead singer Rob Halford’s “tell all” Confess. This highly anticipated autobiography came out in September 2020 and a couple of my friends were like “you’re just reading that now?” But hey, what can I say, my TBR pile is towering and ridiculous.

Straight off, if you’re a gay-hater, you’ll hate this book (and you may also wish to engage in some self-introspection, there is no choice in the matter for a man like Rob Halford, who simply knew he was gay from a very young age). In places Rob went a bit overboard on his descriptions of his various and often sordid sexual encounters. I couldn’t believe the lead singer of such a hugely popular band had to resort to trolling in truck stops, for example. So if you’re squeamish about these things or a prude you should probably skip the book. But, these passages serve to underscore the double life Halford was forced to lead, and the separate identities—bad ass metal god, sensitive closeted gay man—he had to maintain and (attempt) to balance.

Not always well as it turned out.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Swords & Sorceries: Tales of Heroic Fantasy

KEW? Is that you?
Swords & Sorceries: Tales of Heroic Fantasy (2020, Parallel Universe Publications) was for most of its 219 pages an enjoyable read. I can recommend this one.

I tend to react to a lot of new sword-and-sorcery with indifference, but I don’t think S&S fares any worse than other subgenres or most writing in general (the same can be said of my blog, where a handful of posts I’ve written seem to get regular traffic, but most collect dust). This book had as many hits as misses, which beats par for the course for many anthologies. Four standouts for me:

“The Horror from the Stars,” Steve Dilks. This was my first story from Dilks and I will definitely plan on reading more from him (his Gunthar collection has been on my to-purchase list). Reminded me of Charles Saunders’ Imaro with its bad-ass black main character on a path of vengeance. Well-written heroic fantasy with some great fight scenes and real weirdness layered in.

“Disruption of Destiny,” Gerri Leen. A quiet story, probably will not be what most readers who purchase this volume want or expect, but I really enjoyed it. It reminded me of a couple tales in the Gerald Page/Frank Reinhardt-edited Heroic Fantasy that question the warrior’s path and the damage wrought by a violent lifestyle. The protagonists’ suffering and care for her son were palpable, and I liked that the ending was a bit ambiguous. It stayed with me.

“Red,” Chadwick Ginther. I think this was the best story in the antho. The style reminded me very much of Joe Abercrombie—a bit crass, unflinching in its violence, seasoned with humor. Very, very well written at the sentence level, and the main character, a swordswoman named Red, was skillfully developed, and her motivation in this relatively straightforward story convincing. No infodumps. A scene in which she is swimming for her life underwater was particularly effective, and the final monster was grossly satisfying. This line: “Her sword was a strangely comforting weight on her breast. It filled the hollow in her gut that told her Needle was already dead” made me take notice.

“The Reconstructed God,” Adrian Cole. I was initially put off by the non-human/familiar demon protagonist, but damn if Cole—author of the revived Elak stories and the Dream Lords series—didn’t make the little imp work. A fine cross/doublecross tale populated with a bunch of roguish, self-interested thieving/scheming types, in the vein of a Jack Vance Cugel story. Good world-building here, but deft, not heavy-handed.

I loved the homages to classic sword-and-sorcery sprinkled throughout. I mentioned the Dilks story owing something to Saunders; Steve Lines’ “The Mirror of Torjan Sul” took its style and verbage from Clark Ashton Smith, while Geoff Hart’s “Chain of Command” was a straight up homage to Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, albeit with a role/sex reversal (too Leiber on the nose for my tastes, but I appreciated the sentiment). Cole threw in a nice reference to an old classic with his use of “Thorgobrund the jeweler” (I see what he did there). And the introduction by editor David Riley pays tribute to one of the first volumes in the Pyramid anthologies that started it all, the classic L. Sprague de Camp-edited The Spell of Seven (1965).

All the other tales had points of merit. “The City of Silence” started excellent, with a shocking injury suffered by its protagonist, but ended flat (there were a few flat endings to otherwise fine stories, including “Trolls are Different” by Susan Murrie Macdonald). “The Mirror of Torjan Sul” had a fine, hot, demonic foe and was set in a well-drawn, atmospheric necropolis.

Of course I have to mention the nice artwork by Jim Pitts. I love seeing these veteran sword-and-sorcery artists get work thrown their way (I was pleased to be able to do the same for Tom Barber, who illustrated the cover of Flame and Crimson). I liked the cover illustration but also the skulls and motif art throughout.

I am looking forward to volume 2, and hope that vol. 1 sells well enough to encourage further volumes in the series—and helps spur the steady trickle of new sword-and-sorcery/heroic fantasy that we’re currently seeing.