Sunday, December 29, 2019

On reading in 2020 and beyond

In the last six or so years I have spent less time reading, and the amount of books I read annually has declined. I’ve identified a few reasons for this.

Flame and Crimson. Writing a book is a lot of work. The hour or so I spent writing in the evenings after work was time that I would have ordinarily spent reading. Writing this book made me chase a lot of S&S titles that I hadn’t read for research purposes, but a lot of my “reading” was hunting and picking for references, excerpting, and the like. This made sustained reading efforts a lot more challenging.

My smart phone and general accessibility of the internet. I was a late smart phone adopter—late 2013—which is right around the time I noticed a drop in my reading output. This is no coincidence. Back in the day I had to sit down at my desktop computer to get online, and when I was not at my desk I had no internet access. Smart phones have made it way too easy to hop on Facebook, or Youtube, or check football scores on ESPN. I’m a digital slave and I hate it.

Family obligations. As my daughters have grown older in some respects my demands have increased. This is no fault of theirs and I would not have it any other way: They are the best things that ever happened to me. But attending weekend soccer games, and driving my older daughter Hannah to and from work (which has finally ended this year after she got her license) has cut into reading time.

Laziness. An excuse I don’t like to admit but will cop to. Reading has gotten harder than it used to be. I’m not sure if it’s the fast-paced nature of modern existence and the re-wiring of my brain, or the fact that work and obligations and my advance into middle age has robbed me of some of my old vitality, but I find harder to concentrate on books. It takes a little more practice and if I go a few weeks without reading it’s as though I’m suffering from the effects of too much time away from the gym. Or maybe I’m just too fat and lazy.

Now that the excuses are out of the way…

My goal for 2020 is to carve out more time in the evening for reading. I want to read widely and deeply. I’ve read a lot of sword-and-sorcery in the last six-eight years in research and in preparation for writing Flame and Crimson, and while it’s still my favorite subgenre and I will undoubtedly read more of it this year—including catching up on back issues of The Sorcerer’s Skull—I am looking forward to branching out. I’m eyeing some books that have been too long on my to-be-read pile: Iron John, Lonesome Dove and True Grit, Neil Peart’s Ghost Rider. I also think it might be time for a Lord of the Rings re-read. My last reading was in 2012-13, and I’m feeling the call of The Road.

For the interested, at the moment I’m reading a collection of George Orwell essays, Inside the Whale and Other Essays. Orwell’s clarity of thought and incisive writing style are remarkable. So much he was writing at the time (the essays were written in the early-mid 1940s) are very applicable to today. I now wish I had read “Politics and the English Language” prior to Flame and Crimson; I’m certain it would be more sharply written. “England Your England” has helped me understand the character of that country better than any news piece or dry history I’ve read. “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool” is an incredible review of a review, in which Orwell takes apart Leo Tolstoy’s harsh criticism of Shakespeare by turning his review upon the reviewer. I’m looking forward to reading the last few entries.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

A brief history of the Fourteenth Engineers, and William A. Murphy

Railroading under fire was a test of a man’s nerves. For the most part it had to be done at night—with uncertainty as to whether the road ahead had been blown up by the enemy. With a car load of high explosives the truck was doubly dangerous. 

“Railroad Regiment Daredevils,” Portsmouth Herald, February 5, 1919

I still remember him, from my childhood: A kindly old man, quick to laugh, who liked his peanuts, and The Wide World of Sports, and his easy chair. He loved my brother and sister and I, his grandchildren, and took an interest in our board games and action figures. He kept old books about the house and when I took a particular interest in Life Goes to War and its amazing pictorial history of World War 2, he gave it to me. I still have it.

My dad was a dutiful son and loved his parents, and so we used to take many trips on Sundays after Church to their home in Brighton, Massachusetts, where William and his wife Irene lived on the first floor of a two-story tenement home.

But I was too young to ask my grandfather about his own experiences with war. William A. Murphy (1893-1983) died on June 5, 1983 when I was just nine years old. He was 89, 10 days shy of his 90th birthday.

I knew he served in World War I as an engineer, but that was about it. Until now. My dad was recently given a copy of The History of the 14th Engineers (1923), which I just finished reading. It’s an absolute gold mine, a unit history written by a handful of men who served in the unit five years after they returned home from the War to End All Wars.

I’m glad I can now share his story here, and that of the “Railroad Regiment Daredevils,” as dubbed by the Portsmouth (NH) Herald. I never knew how close he was to the front line, and can now say he was pretty darned close. As in, right on top of it in many instances. The 14th Engineers were the first troops of the United States to arrive at the Front, and among the last to leave. They spent most of their service attached to the Sixth British Corps, who formed an unbreakable bond with these men from New England.

William Murphy (right) holding his son--my father.
It’s amazing how near we are to history, and how short time really is. I once sat on the lap of my grandfather, a man who wore a uniform stained with the mud of Flanders Fields. My grandfather could recall parades through the streets of Boston, with men in Civil War uniforms filing past—veterans of that war, so long ago. But not really, as time in the universe is counted.

Readers of this blog can find a two-part article I wrote about the World War 2 service of my grandfather on my mother’s side, Donald Teschek, here and here. I am proud to have the blood of both these amazing men, and veterans, in my veins. I never had to serve in the military or in combat, thank the Lord, and I have their service and sacrifice to thank for the blessed peace in which I have lived my life and raised my family.

Thank you men, and rest in peace.


Thursday, December 19, 2019

The Bard's Song

Blind Guardian is a top 10 band for me. Not quite at the level of Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, or KISS, but way up there. If you’re a fan of power metal, and/or fantasy literature—The Silmarillion, The Once and Future King, the Elric Saga or The Lord of the Rings—and haven’t dipped into their catalog, you’re missing the boat. Find Imaginations from the Other Side and give it a spin. And be transported on a journey through the dark.

This past September I had the fortune of seeing Demons & Wizards at the Worcester Palladium. Demons & Wizards is a side project of Blind Guardian lead singer
Hansi K├╝rsch and Iced Earth guitarist Jon Schaffer. ‘Twas a great show. I’m always dumbfounded that fans in the U.S. get to see these bands in such small venues, when over in Europe and South America they play in front of far larger crowds and headline festivals.

Demons and Wizards did not play The Bard’s Song but they did launch into Blind Guardian hits Welcome to Dying and Valhalla. They also played the magnificent Fiddler on the Green. I haven’t gotten into Demons and Wizards like I have Blind Guardian, but Fiddler is worthy of any BG album.

But the Bard’s Song…few songs move me as this one does.

Now you all know 
The bards and their songs 
When hours have gone by 
I'll close my eyes 
In a world far away 
We may meet again 
But now hear my song 
About the dawn of the night 
Let's sing the bards' song 

Just beautiful, man. Terrific acoustic guitar work, and Kursch is himself a bard, of the metal/Germanic variety.

Despite my many travels, my work, the years that have passed, I still am drawn to the bard’s song. I always will be.

In my thoughts and in my dreams 
They're always in my mind 
These songs of hobbits, dwarves and men 
And elves 
Come close your eyes 
You can see them too 

What’s next for me, post Flame and Crimson? I don’t know, but I still hear The Bard’s Song, and I’m sure I will follow wherever it may lead.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Flame and Crimson headed to the printer

Behold the kick-ass cover of Flame and Crimson, mortals!

It’s done.

At 11:10 a.m. EST this morning I made a handful of cosmetic edits to the manuscript. Flame and Crimson: A History of Sword-and-Sorcery is back with Pulp Hero Press. In the next few days I anticipate the book will be available online at Amazon, B&N, and other fine retailers.

What can I say? I’m nervous. I’m exhilarated. And I’m glad it’s done. How well it is received is out of my control at this point, but I have accomplished something big that I set out to do. I’m pretty happy with the end product.

Here is a marketing description I put together for Bob McLain over at Pulp Hero Press:

Little did then-obscure Texas writer Robert E. Howard know that with the 1929 publication of “The Shadow Kingdom” in the pulp magazine Weird Tales, he had given birth to a new and vibrant subgenre of fantasy fiction.

Sword-and-sorcery went from pulp obscurity to mass-market paperback popularity before suffering a spectacular publishing collapse in the 1980s. But it lives on in the broader culture and today enjoys a second life in popular role-playing games, music, and films, and helped give birth to a new literary subgenre known as grimdark, popularized by the likes of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series.

Flame and Crimson: A History of Sword-and-Sorcery provides much needed definitions and critical rigor to this misunderstood fantasy subgenre. It traces its origins in the likes of historical fiction, to its birth in the pages of Weird Tales, to its flowering in the Frank Frazetta-illustrated Lancer Conan Saga series in the 1960s. It covers its “barbarian bust” beneath a heap of second-rate pastiche, a pack of colorful and wildly entertaining and awful sword-and-sorcery films, and popular culture second life in the likes of Dungeons & Dragons and the bombast of heavy metal music.

I think readers of this blog will very much enjoy it, as will historians of the fantasy genre. Maybe some die-hard fans of Manowar, too. But I’ve been telling my family and curious non-fantasy reading friends to steer well clear, with this analogy: My wife is a speech-language pathologist. Had she written a book about Asperger’s and speech therapy treatment, I’d be ecstatic for her.  Proud beyond measure, in fact. But I wouldn’t read it (maybe I’d give it a polite skim). I tried to make Flame and Crimson very readable, even fun, but it’s got 24 pages of Works Cited. It’s loaded with citations from the literature, quotations from Amra and The Dungeon Master's Guide, and my geeky analysis and interpretation.

More than that, it’s about a subgenre of fantasy fiction (not even a proper genre). We’re talking beyond niche, here.

But it’s a topic I believe will resonate with readers of The Silver Key. I hope you consider making it a very sword-and-sorcery Christmas and picking up a copy. More to come soon.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Michael Moorcock on the airwaves: New interview up on the Appendix N Book Club podcast

I was very pleasantly surprised to discover that one of the podcasts in my regular listening rotation, Appendix N Book Club, recently conducted an hour-plus long interview with Michael Moorcock.
Author of the Elric, Corum, and Hawkmoon stories, along with many other fantasy and science fiction titles including Gloriana and the non-fiction fantasy genre treatise Wizardry and Wild Romance, Moorcock is the only living author left on the famous Appendix N, a list of fantasy authors cited by Gary Gygax as principal influences upon the Dungeons and Dragons role playing game. Appendix N appears in the first edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide, published in 1979.

Moorcock turns 80 years old on Dec. 18, and it was great to hear him sounding very hale and hearty. He was buoyant, ebullient, and enjoying the discussion.

I knew most of what was contained in the interview, but it made for a wonderful listen. It covered a wide range of topics, including Moorcock informally and casually allowing both Gygax/D&D and Chaosium to simultaneously use his settings and characters for their role playing games, with disastrous consequences (Chaosium threatened a lawsuit against D&D, and Moorcock was never fairly compensated for his work); his (very) early days as a writer and editor of an Edgar Rice Burroughs fanzine; a little about his exchanges with Fritz Leiber in the pages of Amra, and Leiber’s subsequent coining of the term “sword-and-sorcery”; his admiration of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories and general antipathy for Lovecraft’s works; the general lack of a viable fantasy market until the publication of the unauthorized J.R.R. Tolkien Ace paperbacks by Donald A. Wollheim; his dislike of The Lord of the Rings, which he places in the category of children’s fantasy literature, differentiating his own works as pulp-inspired; and his eclectic Elric influences including the opium cigarette smoking Zenith the Albino (“Pretty much Elric in a top hat and tails, really”). Moorcock reveals that of all his characters, Elric remains the closest to his heart. He has returned to the character again and again over his career, with death of the character no obstacle to penning subsequent stories.