Saturday, September 18, 2021

Sifting Through a Sword-and-Sorcery Definition

Latest mini-essay is now up on Goodman Games/blog of Tales from the Magician's Skull.

The metaphor of sword-and-sorcery as a sifter came to me while cutting the grass. I wish I could say it was a more profound process but that's it. The drone of the John Deere is apparently my muse.

It's frankly not possible to create a definitive, unassailable list of sword-and-sorcery authors or stories. Nor is it advisable. Trying to do so is not only a fruitless endeavor, but ultimately unhealthy for the process of art. I love the rush of enthusiasm when someone sends me a link to a new comic book or animated film and writes, "dude, check this out, it's SO sword-and-sorcery!" Most who are familiar with the subgenre will know what this sentiment means; whether it ultimately qualifies is always going to be subjective, and in the eye of the beholder. As I argue in the linked essay, it all depends on how fine your definition of S&S is, and what you will allow to pass through your personal sifter, or be caught and held.

I've already seen a comment on Facebook in my response to my essay that "all labels are stupid," which is rather ill thought-out. I wonder what this same person would say if I slapped a mustard label on his ketchup and he proceeded to pour it over his hot dog (who adds ketchup to a hot dog?). Labels have a purpose; broadly they get us where we need to be, and ultimately we decide if we want Heinz or Hunt's or French's or whatever. Your mileage may vary, of course.

Friday, September 17, 2021

Darkest Hour, Iron Maiden

I'm still in the discovery/absorption phase of Senjutsu, Iron Maiden's new album. This has been my pattern with all of Maiden's releases of the last two decades. Starting with their first post reunion album, Brave New World, Maiden has tended to write longer material that takes time to absorb. I've been busy with work and other things and so haven't yet gotten a proper feel for the album in its entirety.

A couple of songs grabbed me right out of the gate, however, among them "Darkest Hour." This is the latest entry in their various odes to World War II ("Aces High," "The Longest Day," etc.), and is a powerful, heartfelt ode to Winston Churchill and his refusal to accede to his critics and bend the knee to the Nazi war machine:

To blaze in glory like a dying sun
One last burning giant till Jupiter moves on
Turn the ploughshares into swords
You sons of Albion awake defend this sacred land

Saturday, September 4, 2021

Remembering the life of Edgar Rice Burroughs

Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) was born on Sept. 1, and as this coincides with my current read: Edgar Rice Burroughs: The Man who Created Tarzan, a massive two-volume biography by Irwin Porges, I thought it was time for a post in honor of ERB, albeit a couple days late.

I now consider ERB one of the holy trinity of speculative fiction, along with Howard and Tolkien. He’s right up there with those two in influence and imagination. Your mileage may vary but that’s my power trio, with H.P. Lovecraft coming up close in the rear-view mirror.

Sometimes you can find clues of what makes a great writer by analyzing the facts of his or her life. From a young age ERB was a restless, free spirit. He was highly imaginative, and playful, but he was also relentless. He didn’t stay at any one job for long as he was always searching for the next move, the next scheme, or the career that would lend his life meaning. The string of low-paying jobs he held did not.

These traits often got him into trouble as a youth and resulted in financial woes as a young man. He preferred the outdoors to studying in class. In the army, his nonconformist streak caused him to get busted down in rank and never made him a great fit for the discipline of the armed services. Upon discharge in 1897 he had to overcome a number of struggles all the way to early middle age. These were often of his own making. At several junctures he could have settled for a life of normalcy, but time and again opted out. At one point he was on his way to financial security with a great job at Sears, and senior leadership loved him, but he quit, abruptly.

I know I could not have made the choices he did, which often left he and his young wife penniless. But, his choices ultimately gave us worlds beyond worlds.

ERB finally broke through as a writer in 1912 with “Under the Moons of Mars,” and later that same year “Tarzan of the Apes,” both published as serials in The All-Story. That’s a hell of an opening combination right there. By then he was in his late 30s, a relatively late start for a writer, but the stage was set for a torrent of production. He had lived a life of scarcity and brushes with poverty, and when he finally found his calling the creativity rushed from his pen.

ERB famously wrote that “entertainment is fiction’s purpose,” and his stories are entertainment first, of the highest order. But they weren’t just that. He explored themes of nature vs. nurture, and the evils and depravity of civilization vs. the (harsh) purity of nature. Destructive man with all his vices is contrasted with the beasts of the jungle, who kill and eat but not out of malice or wanton destruction. ERB was also a skilled satirist, critiquing organized religion for example in “The Gods of Mars.” His stories offer a coherent and compelling worldview and a richness deeper than just story.

ERB was influenced by H. Rider Haggard, the grandfather of adventure fiction. Tarzan was derived from the Romulus/Remus myth in which the two founders of Rome were raised by wolves, and to a lesser degree Kipling. But by his own admission ERB was not a big reader of fiction; these were childhood reads. Perhaps as a result, stylistically he is probably the weakest of the major fantasists mentioned above. But his stories are propulsive, and his ideas and storytelling and creativity are on another level. He was doing things no one else was, breaking away from the more formal Victorianism of Haggard et al and writing stuff the people of the age could not put down.

More than 100 years later, they still can’t.

It’s a shame that ERB did not live a bit longer to see the resurgence in interest in his works in the Burroughs Boom of the 1960s. Like REH I’m not sure how widely read he is these days. But both men’s creations are immortal. Just like we’ll always have Conan, John Carter and Tarzan are with us to stay.

Porges’ bio starts slow, 170-odd pages of military and schooling detail that run a bit tedious. But once “Under the Moons of Mars” is out, it hits its stride. In my reading it’s currently October 1912 and Burroughs is finally meeting with success. He’s just completed “The Gods of Mars” for All-Story editor Thomas Metcalf, reader demand for more is huge, and although he has not yet landed a book deal his fortunes are about to dramatically shift.

It’s like I’m reading one of his stories, and I can’t wait to see what dramatic twists and turns come next.

Friday, August 27, 2021

The Fantastic S&S contributions of Cele Goldsmith

Fafhrd and GM going at it,
for show, in "The Lords of Quarmall"
Oliver Brackenbury, host of the Unknown Worlds of the Merrill Collection podcast, recently posted on the Whetstone S&S Tavern Discord group* some screenshots of the introduction to a 1995 White Wolf ominous edition of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. In the volume’s introduction Michael Moorcock writes a bit about the resurgence of sword-and-sorcery in the early 1960s, crediting the subgenre’s rise not only to the talents of the criminally underrated Leiber, but the efforts of Cele Goldsmith (later Lalli when she married in 1964).

In a time when publishers looked down upon the still-nascent subgenre, and authors like Leiber had to abandon S&S and write SF to make a living, Goldsmith (1933-2002) went out on a limb and published the likes of Leiber, Moorcock, Roger Zelazny, and John Jakes in the pages of a magazine in which she served as editor--Fantastic Stories.

From Moorcock’s introduction:

In those days the kind of supernatural romance which dominates today’s best-seller lists had virtually no commercial market. Leiber had done no better with his first Gray Mouser book than I had done with my first Elric book. Not only publishers scoffed at the notion of mass-market editions of these books, we authors scoffed equally. We knew there were only about twenty of us—readers and writers—spread thin across Britain and America… So Cele Goldsmith, when she commissioned Fritz Leiber to write a new series of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories for Fantastic, was taking a big gamble with her circulation figures.

Goldsmith had a reputation for bucking commercial trends throughout her career and so published Leiber's less-fashionable S&S. In so doing she improved the climate and conditions that allowed sword-and-sorcery to reach full flower later in the decade with the publication of the unauthorized The Lord of the Rings, the republication of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, and the publication of the Lancer Conan Saga. 

The great publisher Donald A. Wollheim later gave Leiber an even greater boost by commissioning him for the now-famous “Swords” paperback series (Swords and Deviltry, Swords Against Death, Swords in the Mist, etc. But it’s questionable whether Leiber would have been afforded that opportunity without first showcasing some of his best work in Fantastic (note: I am not discounting Leiber’s start with F&GM in the pages of the John W. Campbell edited Unknown). Under Goldsmith’s editorship Fantastic published a huge number of the all-time Fafhrd and Gray Mouser classics, including the likes of “Bazaar of the Bizarre,” “Lean Times in Lankhmar,” “Stardock,” “The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar,” and “Scylla’s Daughter,” the last of which was later expanded into the 1968 novel The Swords of Lankhmar. Again from Moorcock/White Wolf introduction:

Perhaps because [Goldsmith and Wollheim] worked mostly as pulp fiction editors, they have never been given the considerable credit they deserve, just as Fritz himself—who wrote so much that was illuminating on the subject of literary fantasy and who wrote some of the best examples there will ever be—still does not receive sufficient credit for his enormous contribution to the genre.

It strikes me that I failed to mention the efforts of Goldsmith in Flame and Crimson, though I did mention Fantastic Stories and other magazines as being important vehicles for S&S in the early 1960s, as well as the efforts of Wollheim and his great DAW volumes. I missed a chance to give Goldsmith her just due, and that is my error. I do not own the White Wolf edits of Fafhrd and GM so was oblivious to the existence of this essay. An unfortunate oversight I will rectify when I get to a second edition.

*A great watering-hole for fans of S&S. I was unaware of the Discord platform until joining, which in contrast to its name is a cohesive and welcoming community.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Men of Iron, Howard Pyle

Any Howard Pyle fans in the house? If so, or if you're looking for fun, old-school, historical fiction adventure, my review of Pyle's Men of Iron is now up on DMR Blog.  

Check it out here.

Saturday, August 14, 2021

RIP Steve Perrin

Just heard of the passing of game designer Steve Perrin, best known as one of the key creators of perhaps my favorite RPG of all time, Runequest.

Greg Stafford is the figure most strongly associated with RQ, and for good reason, as he was creator of its setting, the wonderful world of Glorantha. But Perrin was the mind behind the game's engine. He created RQ's core rules, the elegant and flexible basic role playing (BRP) mechanics that were successfully transported across multiple iterations, including the likes of Call of Cthulhu and Stormbringer.

For a time RQ was my preferred alternative to Dungeons and Dragons largely because of its fun and deadly mechanics for combat, including rules for parrying, hit points by body location, and armor that absorbed damage. I also loved its spell points system, allowing anyone to cast spells. Back in the day we used RQ2 and RQ3 interchangeably, mixing and matching rules as we saw fit, passing many fun hours with these wonderful boxed sets.

Perrin was 75 years old. He'll be missed.

Monday, August 9, 2021

The Dark Man: Journal of Robert E. Howard studies, vol. 12.1

I took a (small, calculated, $8) risk on the latest volume of The Dark Man: Journal of Robert E. Howard and Pulp Studies, purchasing it based on the table of contents and the fact that editors Jason Ray Carney and Nicole Emmelhainz-Carney are talented and invested in this venture.

I was not disappointed.

Some may not be happy with the direction taken by this semi-venerable journal, which has published 27 issues since its debut in 1990. Jason and Nicole have decided to branch out to the broader field of pulp studies, rather than a laser focus on Robert E. Howard. I think it was a great move. We need a journal that fosters discussion on other Howard-inspired or Howard-adjacent writers, such as Karl Edward Wagner. And we get that with the latest edition.

Vol. 12.1 includes seven pieces, ranging from editorial to interview, to scholarship to book review, and runs 113 pages.

First the news: I was thrilled to hear that Gary Hoppenstand, editor of the short-lived but highly regarded fanzine/semi-pro zine Midnight Sun, is under contract with McFarland to write a book analyzing Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane studies. McFarland is an independent publisher of academic nonfiction with a bent towards pop culture. I’ve got a couple of their books on my shelf, including J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, and the Birth of Modern Fantasy (which I reviewed for Skelos #1) and Michael Moorcock: Fiction, Fantasy, and the World’s Pain, by Mark Scroggins. The latter was an invaluable help to me in the writing of Flame and Crimson. I am very much looking forward to this new book on Kane, for which the scholarship is lacking. The preface will be written by the great David Drake.

This news was revealed in an interview conducted with Hoppenstand by Luke Dodd, one of the co-hosts of the Cromcast podcast. Dodd for the same issue contributed a publication history of Midnight Sun, about as thorough a treatment of that long defunct ‘zine that we can hope to get. Dodd used available resources form the likes of the ISFDB with additional information from Hoppenstand to fill in some of the blanks. Hoppenstand launched Midnight Sun as a teenager to help place some of Wagner’s Kane stories. Hoppenstand had written to KEW enthusiastically after reading Death Angel’s Shadow, starting a correspondence that led to Hoppenstand placing the likes of “Lynortis Reprise,” “In the Lair of Yslsl,” and “The Dark Muse,” among other stories, poems, and artwork. Wagner had experienced difficulty placing some of his Kane stories and Hoppenstand and Midnight Sun filled the void, later branching out and publishing other genre authors including David Drake and H.H. Hollis. Midnight Sun published its fifth and final issue in 1979, a victim of Hoppenstand's lack of funding.

Given the scarcity of material published on Karl Edward Wagner I was particularly happy to read Dodd’s pieces, but there are some other entries in TDM vol. 12.1 worth talking about.

I approached “REH N-grams: A Study of Cultural Trends Related to Robert E. Howard” by Williard M. Oliver with some trepidation; even for an REH and S&S nerd this one seemed rather esoteric and data-geeky. I have read the related “Statistics in the Hyborian Age: An Introduction to Stylometry” in Conan Meets the Academy and that one, while having some points of merit, left me a bit cold, mainly because it dwells too long on explaining what stylometry is and too little on its application to REH; Oliver’s piece however was on point. The author used a tool called the Google Books N-gram Viewer to analyze the recurrence of terms related to Howard and his creations and popular phrases. While the Viewer only includes books published up through the year 2000, the tool helped Oliver demonstrate a Howard presence in the 1930s, a slight but minor rise in the 1940s and 50s, then a significant increase from the late 60s through the 1980s. Which tracks rather nicely with the Arkham/Gnome, Lancer/Ace, publications, and the oft-told stories of how these latter books brought many readers into the fold. In short, it adds statistical rigor to conjecture.

Quinn Forskitt’s “Building a Universe: An Analysis of the Works, Lives, and Influences of the Lovecraft Circle” is an invited essay, a boiled down version of Forskitt’s master’s thesis. While this information is likely well-known to the die-hards, it’s great to see new scholars and scholarship in the field. Very readable and engaging work. I found “Adapting Lovecraft to Video Games: What is Lost, What is Gained,” to be less interesting, only because I’m not a video gamer, but I have to say this is highly original, and probably a must-read for players of Hidetaka Miyazaki’s Bloodborne. The author also has a strong grasp of what makes Lovecraft’s stories unique, and hard to adapt in a visual medium.

Rusty Burke has a review of the new REH biography by Todd Vick, Renegades and Rogues. While Burke invites the work, defends the need for further REH biography, and so welcomes it on his shelf, he does declare it only half successful in its stated purpose: It answers the question of who Robert E. Howard was, but not why he was important, Burke concludes. In full disclosure I have not read Renegades and Rogues.

All in all, I enjoyed the heck out of this issue of TDM. And I’m greatly looking forward to Hoppenstand’s book.