Friday, July 31, 2009

Hrolf Kraki in the Guardian

As a longtime proponent of Poul Anderson's Hrolf Kraki's Saga, I was pleased today to see a review of this fine but mostly forgotten novel over at the online version of the British newspaper The Guardian, Cracking Poul Anderson's Kraki. The Guardian's Alison Flood is working her way through some of the fantasy genre's classics, including former British Fantasy award winners, which Anderson claimed in 1974 with Hrolf Kraki.

I don't agree with some of Flood's criticisms of the novel, including her disdain for Anderson's mythic language and poetry (which I think is part of the novel's unique charm and appeal, as well as a reflection of Anderson's faithfulness to the source material, the fragmentary Hrolf Kraki Saga and other ancient Icelandic sagas). But it's nice to see this mythic tale of a brief, shining period of peace in dark ages Denmark get some public recognition.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: King Arthur film to get 300 treatment

Ain’t It Cool News is reporting that comic book writer/novelist Warren Ellis is currently working on a script for a King Arthur movie that he plans to turn over to the producers of 300. For me at least (and I may be a chorus of one here), this news ain’t so cool.

I know 300 was a box-office hit, and by rights I should have enjoyed it more than I did. But while I wasn’t bored with the final product I don’t have the need to ever see it again. 300 was all spectacle and no heart, remarkably devoid of any of the pathos that should have accompanied a story about the noble sacrifice of a group of incredibly brave, well-trained, and loyal soldiers. It's a heartless, empty bronze cuirass with little to offer outside of its shouting, angry Spartan soldiers and CGI-happy, slow-motion, Matrix-style combat.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire did Thermopylae far, far better than Frank Miller or the one-note 300 ever did. Isn’t there more to fantasy films than the Helm’s Deep scene or knockoffs of Gladiator?

To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian Web site.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Review: How the Irish Saved Civilization

While Rome and its ancient empire faded from memory and a new, illiterate Europe rose on its ruins, a vibrant, literary culture was blooming in secret along its Celtic fringe. It needed only one step more to close the circle, which would reconnect Europe to its own past by way of scribal Ireland.

—Thomas Cahill,
How the Irish Saved Civilization

These days I find myself turning more and more toward non-fiction to satisfy my fantasy yearnings. After all, what is more fantastic than real events like the rise of the Roman empire, its conquest of great swathes of Europe, Asia, and Africa, and its decline and eventual overthrow at the hands of teeming barbarian hordes? At times it’s hard to believe that these events and the subsequent Dark Ages actually occurred, but of course they did, and I find their reality every bit as unearthly as most of the fantasy fiction I’ve read. Thinking about the enormity of these great events can take your breath away.

After reading Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization I again experienced a sense of awe regarding history itself. I marveled that the great movers and shakers of that era—Saint Patrick and Saint Columba, among others—actually lived and breathed.

How the Irish Saved Civilization seeks to give the Irish their due in early medieval history. Cahill says that many historians have overlooked the Irish contribution, largely because the Irish helped transition two periods of history—the classical and medieval—without serving as a cultural force in either period. “It is also true that historians are generally expert in one period or the other, so that analysis of the transition falls outside their—and everyone’s?—competence,” he writes.

Cahill’s book directly addresses the country’s role during this critical shift. He argues that a group of Irish monks, newly converted to Christianity, copied and preserved much of the ancient Greek, Roman, and other early Latin literature, saving it from loss and destruction in barbarian-overrun Europe and allowing future generations to learn from these priceless texts (sidenote: I've been to Trinity College in Dublin to see the Book of Kells, and it is pretty impressive). These same monks in the sixth through the ninth centuries emigrated to Dark Ages Europe and helped sew the seeds of learning and Christianity, founding monasteries that would in time become great European cities. Writes Cahill:

Wherever they went the Irish brought with them their books, many unseen in Europe for centuries and tied to their waists as signs of triumph, just as Irish heroes had once tied to their waists their enemies’ heads. Wherever they went they brought their love of learning and their skills in bookmaking. In the bays and valleys of their exile, they reestablished literacy and breathed new life into the exhausted literary culture of Europe.

And that is how the Irish saved civilization.

Cahill sets the stage for the Irish contribution by reminding us of the glory that was Rome, summarizing in the first chapter much of the existing theories on how it fell. He deftly sums up the state of learning that existed at the time, religion and philosophy and political thought developed by the Greeks and incorporated and expanded upon by the Romans. Much of this knowledge was in danger of eradication after 476 A.D., the year in which Romulus Augustulus, the last Roman emperor, was deposed by the barbarians. It’s also the date after which the western Roman empire generally ceased to exist.

The Irish monks—and thus, much of classical writing—would not have existed were it not for St. Patrick, Cahill argues. Originally a Roman citizen, St. Patrick helped convert Ireland from a warlike, pagan country that still practiced human sacrifice to a more peaceful Christian society, one that fostered learning and the transmission of knowledge. Cahill admits that much of what he has written concerning St. Patrick is conjecture, but the light evidence he does provide of St. Patrick’s pivotal role is convincing.

Unfortunately, How the Irish Saved Civilization overlooks the contributions of other countries and cultures during this era, including the fact that Byzantium in the east housed a great deal of classic literature and was at least as, if not more important, in preserving the Greek and Roman traditions. The book is also rather light (218 pages, plus some footnotes and a pronunciation guide), and feels a bit like an essay or term paper padded out with background, conjecture, and opinion. Many reviewers more history-savvy than I savaged some of its omissions and conclusions over on

Still, its faults aside, How the Irish Saved Civilization is an engaging introduction to a fascinating (and literally) dark period of history. Cahill is a good writer with a strong, playful voice, and How the Irish Saved Civilization is such an easy read that even those who believe that history and non-fiction are dull subjects will likely enjoy it. In the end, I think it accomplishes what primers in general are supposed to do—get you interested in reading more, and more deeply, on the subject at hand.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: Will World War Z translate to the screen?

War and zombies are two of my favorite subjects. So it should come as no surprise that Max Brooks’ terrific tale of the zombie war that nearly ended of all humanity—World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War—made for some damned fine reading in my household. Pardon the pun, but I devoured this book the minute it came in the mail.

The best zombie stories are not only fun and gruesome, but also reveal truths about the human condition. In this regard, World War Z can stand alongside the George Romero films with its combination of violence and horror sandwiched around a heaping helping of thoughtful social and political commentary.

The zombie plague of World War Z is deliberately left unexplained—it starts in the heart of China, half-hinted as the result of some undescribed industrial waste leak. But beginning with “Patient Zero,” an infected, gray-skinned, 12-year-old-turned zombie, Brooks manages to paint a very convincing picture of how the plague quickly spreads and threatens to overwhelm all of humanity. Brooks has done his research on politics, world economics, plague outbreaks, military tactics and technology, combat fatigue, and climate conditions, and the result feels like history, an event that really happened (or, chillingly, could actually happen).

To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian Web site.

Monday, July 20, 2009

A scare from the deep mists of time: Monster Tales

Were you ever seized by the intoxicating memory of reading a much-loved book as a child, only to despair that you'd never remember the title? This happened to me today. From some subterranean depths in my brain came the tale of a boy who exacts revenge on his family's killers by voluntarily taking on the form of a werewolf. I remembered it being a short story contained in a red hardcover book, filled with startling black-and-white illustrations. I remember reading it over and over again in my elementary school library in the 1970s. But that was the extent of my recollection.

I plugged in "werewolf stories for children" and "horror anthologies for children and 1970s" into Google to see what would come up... and eventually came across this marvelous link, courtesy of The Haunted Closet:

Did anyone else ever read Monster Tales: Vampires, Werewolves & Things? Along with The Hobbit, this is one of those seminal books from my childhood that was responsible for developing my lifelong love of fantasy and horror. Click through the above link and tell me those illustrations aren't darned creepy. I recall the stories as being genuinely scary and containing some surprising scenes of bloodshed--and not much in the way of happy endings. I didn't realize until now that Robert Bloch penned the introduction, and longtime horror writer/reviewer Thomas Monteleone wrote the first (and arguably best) story, Wendigo's Child.

I can't imagine a book like this being released upon unsuspecting children and young adult readers nowadays, but I'm glad I read it. I must own a copy...

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Heroic Fantasy Quarterly issue #1 debuts!

Action, bloodletting, foul magic, swordplay, and epic poetry are all featured in the debut issue of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, now available for a free read here at the HFQ Web site.

The first issue features three pieces of fiction and two poems. These include the following:

Fiction Contents

Rising star Lecky delivers classic sword and sorcery across a desert frontier. This story will stay with you.

MAN OF MOLDANIA, by Richard Marsden
Marsden brings it in an historical setting. Just when you thought dragon-slaying-heroes were all washed-up, Marsden gives a fresh perspective.

Marshall comes in at the bell, a Brit holding his own against Irish and American contributors and throwing a potent punch of epic fantasy sure to satisfy the most bloodthirsty of fans.

Poetry Contents

ANSEL’S ARMY, by Elizabeth Barrette
In a word: universal.

The truth as to why most of us don’t go adventuring in the first place.

I very much enjoyed the issue, and it was pretty wild to actually read heroic fantasy inspired verse. Every story was well-written, fast-paced, and packed a twist or two to keep you guessing. If I had to pick a favorite, I’d probably go with the action-packed "Beyond the Lizard Gate" with its compelling theme of revenge, extending beyond even the realms of death.

"Man of Moldania" featured a very well-portrayed and believably dangerous dragon, and a likeable, humorous, aging dragon slayer. "The Black Flowers of Sevan" was the most unique and ambitious of the three stories and contains some great visual imagery and imagination. All three pieces of fiction feature main characters that could become recurring heroes.

My one mild disappointment is that I thought HFQ was going to be available as a laid-out, downloaded PDF instead of single story downloads. With no advertising of any kind on the site, it’s unclear how these guys are paying their authors ($100 per story, $25 for a poem). But regardless of how or why they’re doing it, the editors of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly deserve our thanks and praise for making the effort to revive fantasy fiction and poetry in the spirit of Elric and Conan and Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and putting together a very solid and entertaining first issue. Now head on over and get reading!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Highwayman: With more songs like this, I might be a country fan

I was a highwayman

Along the coach roads I did ride

With sword and pistol by my side

Many a young maid lost her baubles to my trade

Many a soldier shed his lifeblood on my blade

The bastards hung me in the spring of twenty-five

But I am still alive.


As is well-known by anyone who reads this blog, I'm a heavy metal fan--and I always will be. But I do take forays into other genres of music from time to time. Country typically is not one of them.

I like country in principle, but very often not in execution. I enjoy its trappings: the old west, cowboys, guns, horses, are all cool. But I find the music a)Too similar sounding; and b) Too much concerned with the here and now of lost loves, lost jobs, lost youth, etc. There's too much pining and whining in its lyrics and not enough heroic adventure or imagination. I wish there was more Louis L'Amour and Unforgiven in country music and less Dixie Chicks and George Jones.

But I can't say enough good things about the song Highwayman by the supergroup of the same name (The Highwaymen, which consisted of legends Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, and Johnny Cash). If more country sounded like and had the lyrics of Highwayman I'd be a raging fan.

The bad-ass lyrics of Highwayman could have been stripped from the pages of a Jack London novel or Robert E. Howard story, or perhaps more accurately a few of Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champion stories. The song crosses time and history, telling the story of the soul of a wandering spirit who at various times in his life is a coach-robbing highwayman, a sailor on a schooner, a high-risk dam builder, and eventually a starship pilot. The spirit of the rugged individualist and salt of the earth laborer is in each man, reincarnated again and again through history when he dies. You can almost believe in an afterlife when you hear this song.

There's an excellent live version of Highwayman here on Youtube. Check it out and let me know what you think. As much as I like Cash, Jennings steals the performance with his one of a kind pipes.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: Celebrating a pair of milestones in Howard studies

In studying Howard’s philosophy, one thing becomes abundantly clear: if there is a single overriding reason for critically analyzing Howard outside of the pulp ghetto, it’s that he so often managed to write himself out of it. In Howard’s best work one sees fantasy clichés bowled over like ten-pins in his pulsing rush to portray hate and vengeance. In doing so Howard forces the stories, at sword-point, out of the clichéd trappings of genre and into a different realm altogether: the realm of real literature.

–Leo Grin, “The Reign of Blood,” from
The Barbaric Triumph

This year marks a milestone for two classic anthologies of Robert E. Howard criticism: The Dark Barbarian (1984) and its sequel, The Barbaric Triumph (2004) turn 25 and five years old, respectively. If you don’t already own these volumes, now is the time to go hunting on Ebay: According to editor Don Herron’s Web site, the two books have recently gone out of print, and prices are likely to climb:

The five-year contract with Wildside Press just ran out on Don’s two critical anthologies about Robert E. Howard, The Dark Barbarian and The Barbaric Triumph, and he’s decided to let them lapse out-of-print and see where the prices go on the collectors market. The Dark Barbarian has been in-print for twenty-five years, originally in a 1250 copy hardback edition from Greenwood Press — looks like the trade paperback reprint from Wildside moved out approximately 275 more copies. The Barbaric Triumph is going to be tougher to land someday, since it was only available in print-on-demand for that five-year window and critical anthologies don’t tend to sell fast — the Wildside hardback seems to have sold approximately 150 copies while the trade paperback state edged close to 300 copies sold. Hardcore collectors have a perverse love for those low numbers, since they make the game all that much tougher and correspondingly more fun — and good hunting to the folk who didn’t get their copies while they were easy to order new.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian Web site.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: I scored a copy of Savage Sword of Conan #1

I would guess it’s been well over a decade—perhaps 15 years or more—since I bought my last issue of The Savage Sword of Conan, the great old magazine that was my introduction to the writings of Robert E. Howard. But I’ve kept all my back issues safely tucked away in a magazine box and I still break them out from time to time. They remain great reads.

Given that I’m hardly a collector of the magazine it was with great surprise that I opened a birthday present from by brother last week to find SSOC # 1 inside. I’m not sure why he bought me the issue—perhaps because he knows I now write blog posts for The Cimmerian—but regardless, I was thrilled.

For those who don’t own a copy—or for those die-hard collectors who have it hermetically sealed and have never read its contents—I’m including a full review of SSOC #1, and my initial thoughts on opening this holy grail of Conan collectables.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian Web site.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

My contribution to The Dark Man: Robert E. Howard as escapist writer

Although I have definite political and social leanings, I'm probably what most would consider a moderate. When I see something I feel passionately about going too far in any one direction, my tendency is to want to pull it back to the center.

This trait is the likely inspiration for my recently published piece in The Dark Man: The Journal of Robert E. Howard Studies (Volume 4, No. 2). There's been a trend in recent years to classify Howard as a hard-boiled realist, a product of Texas who wrote about his environment and the people he knew. Based on some letters he wrote late in his life, critics and observers have speculated that Howard was ready to abandon the literature of the fantastic entirely for the western.

These opinions are certainly valid and raise many fine points worthy of consideration. Howard's gritty realism infuses even his most fantastic stories of Conan and Kull. This quality is undoubtedly due to his keen powers of observation. Howard wrote about what he knew and used his surroundings and life experiences to lend an air of realism to the Hyborian Age. He also wrote in a broad range of genres, including boxing, historic fiction, and westerns.

However, I feel that this analysis of Howard has gone a bit too far. By focusing on the Howard that might-have-been (had he not taken his own life at age 30), aren't these voices undermining the great works of fantasy that he did leave behind? I think so. Howard was a complicated man who voiced many intentions and beliefs in his too short life, including a profound dissatisfaction with modern life and its banal realities. Through his massive imagination and talent as a writer he found a place to escape in his tales of the fantastic. More than 70 years after Howard's death, legions of loyal readers continue to revisit his tales for the refuge they offer us--and Howard himself.

In short, I believe that there's a reason why Conan and the fantastic Hyborian Age are Howard's most enduring and fully realized creations. I explain these reasons in full in "An Honorable Retreat: Robert E. Howard as Escapist Writer."

I'd like to thank editor Mark Hall and the review board of the Dark Man for the opportunity to publish this opinion piece, my first (and hopefully not last) contribution to this fine journal.