Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Closing the door on 2020, and a look ahead

That was a year to remember, no? 2020 will go down as a year many will look back upon in horror, or choose to forget and move on from, but I have to say it was not so bad for me, personally. I did not lose anyone in my family to COVID-19. I kept my job, bought a home gym, had published my first book, connected with some old friends, and managed to read 51 books. My oldest daughter completed her first semester of college while living at school and staying healthy. As a family we cancelled parties and trips, and missed dining out and seeing concerts and shows, but also hunkered down and grew closer as a family. 

As for The Silver Key, I cranked out 67 posts in 2020. A few that might be of interest to you:

Most popular: Of sword-and-sorcery, politics, and the Flashing Swords that Wasn't. With 862 views and 15 comments, this was both my most-viewed and most-commented upon post in 2020. This one tackled both a highly controversial issue (Robert Price's utterly out-of-place introduction to Flashing Swords 6) and was linked to from many places on the web, so no surprise there. In general I'm trying to stay away from controversy and shit-stirring (I came close to writing a post ripping Time's ridiculously garbage "100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time" list, for example, then canned the idea) but I felt compelled to comment on this story.

Second most popular: My Father, the Pornographer, a Memoir. My review of Chris Offutt's memoir of his father, Andrew J. Offutt, was my second most viewed post of the year. This book also happens to be one of my favorite reads of 2020. If you are interested in Offutt's sword-and-sorcery, growing up in rural Kentucky in the 70s and 80s, convention life, father-son relationships, or just appreciate good writing, I can't recommend this one highly enough. It's raw and honest and incredibly well-done.

A painful memory: 2020 sucked for many reasons, but the loss of Neil Peart back in January is particularly painful. I grew up listening to RUSH and idolizing the band for their lyrics and musicianship, and Peart was the brightest talent in an extraordinarily talented trio. I'll be playing a few RUSH songs on New Year's in honor of his memory. We also lost the great Charles Saunders this year, D&D artist Jim Holloway, and others.

Some great reads. Of the 51 books I read this year most were at least good/very good, a couple sucked, and a few were great. Some of my favorites included H. Rider Haggard's The Wanderer's Necklace (review on DMR Blog), the aforementioned Offutt memoir, A Canticle for Leibowitz, and Frans Bengtsson's The Long Ships. Right now I'm in the middle of a re-read of The Lord of the Rings, wrapping up The Two Towers, and I've no doubt that this is the finest work of fantasy ever written. I re-read The Broken Sword earlier this year and that too is as good as I remember.

A heavy metal party cataloged. If you haven't read my posts recollecting the heavy metal themed parties I threw at my house from 2011-2018, a couple with a live Judas Priest tribute band in my living room, give these a spin. I still can't believe that shit happened (and I remained married afterwards).

What's coming next? Your guess is as good as mine. I've decided not to launch a podcast, but I (think) I've hit upon my next idea for my second book. I'm going to keep blogging here, and guest-posting on a few sites around the web. If you have any ideas for subjects or topics, or authors or titles you'd like to suggest I cover (or not cover), leave me a comment here or send me an email. I always love getting comments and suggestions.

Thanks for reading, and here's to turning the page on 2021.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Tom Moldvay/Basic D&D "Inspirational Source Material" vs. Appendix N

Gary Gygax’s Appendix N has been the recipient of much analysis, praise, scrutiny, and exploration. With Appendix N Gygax provided a roadmap for the literary inspirations of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons in a now famous list located at the back of the first edition AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide, one that has since served as the launching pad for aspiring D&D historians, fantasy readers, authors, and podcasters. For example, we now have a work of non-fiction based on the list, Appendix N: The Literary History of Dungeons & Dragons, as well as the Appendix N Book Club podcast.

This is all well-deserved attention and praise, in my opinion. D&D can certainly be played as-is, without knowledge of the literary influences that gave to the ruleset its unique flavor and a suggested style of game play, but knowing and reading the sources Gygax used when drafting the rules makes for a better game, in my opinion. D&D is both a dice-based strategy game with wargaming roots, and an immersive roleplaying and shared storytelling experience, and the latter aspect is enriched by classic fantasy and sword-and-sorcery literature. I have not sat at a table and played a game run by a DM raised on a strict diet of modern videogames, for example, but I would bet good money that the experience would be quite a bit different than a game run by a DM steeped in Tolkien and Moorcock and Howard and Vance.

With that as a preamble, I believe that a similar list provided by Tom Moldvay in the 1981 Basic D&D rulebook, “Inspirational Source Material,” provides a slightly superior roadmap than Gygax’s Appendix N, and probably deserves a bit more attention. Like its more famous cousin, Moldvay’s suggested reading list is a wonderful gateway to a rich lode of imaginative material, and for many (myself included) served as a roadmap for stories sought out in the days of youth.

There is significant overlap between the two lists. Appendix N includes a few authors not listed in Moldvay including Frederic Brown, August Derleth, Margaret St. Clair, and Stanley Weinbaum. I have read some Derleth, and St. Clair’s The Shadow People is on my TBR list, but am not familiar with Brown or Weinbaum. Brown appears to have written mainly in the science fiction genre, as did Weinbaum, with Brown also branching out into mystery. These seem to be idiosyncratic choices unique to Gygax; not being familiar with their work I can’t readily say if there are aspects of their work that Gygax borrowed for AD&D. I’ll leave that for someone else.

Where Moldvay’s list eclipses Appendix N is in its completeness and attention to detail. Gygax has a tendency in Appendix N to settle for the shorthand Latinate “et. al” (“and others”). Gygax states that in some cases he meant to cite specific works, but when no works were listed he simply recommends all of a given author’s writings. This has the benefit of allowing for more open-intended interpretation, but lacks precision. This may not so much a problem now, but in the pre-internet days of 1979 it makes an aspiring readers’ job a lot more difficult. It was for me, and I found Moldvay’s list a lot easier to access (the same could be said for the clarity of the Moldvay rules themselves, which I find superior in many ways to AD&D first edition, but that’s a post for another day). Moldvay appends “et. al” to at least as many authors as does Gygax, but always lists at least one, if not multiple, actual book titles for the reader.

Moldvay’s list is more comprehensive, while still managing to be confined to a single page in the basic rulebook. Some big names I’m very fond of jump out at me immediately: Moldvay lists Karl Edward Wagner (Bloodstone, Death Angel’s Shadow, and Dark Crusade), E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros, Lloyd Alexander (The Book of Three, The Black Cauldon, the Castle of Llyr), Talbot Mundy’s Tros of Samothrace, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, and The Last Enchantment, and T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. None of these appear on Appendix N. Perhaps most noteworthy, Moldvay also lists Clark Ashton Smith (Xiccarph, Lost Worlds, Genius Loci). Many have pondered why Gygax did not include the third of the Weird Tales holy trinity along with REH and Lovecraft, as Smith’s lush, ornate prose recalls something of Gygax’s writing style, and his dark necromancers and evil spellcasters seem like they could easily have stepped out of The Vault of the Drow.

Moldvay cheats a bit and gives us a quick list of “additional authors of fantasy fiction” which allows him to slide in authors like James Branch Cabell, H. Rider Haggard, John Jakes, C.L. Moore, Meryvn Peake, and others. Both Gygax and Moldvay list Lin Carter as recommended, though they target different titles (Gygax lists Carter’s “World’s End” series, while Moldvay cites Carter’s contributions as editor of The Year’s Best Fantasy Stories as well as Flashing Swords).

In general Appendix N seems to be far more idiosyncratic and indicative of Gygax’s particular tastes, while Moldvay’s is curated with a broader base and general fantasy reader in mind. Moldvay’s specific call-outs to adolescent fantasy appears indicative of an intended younger target audience for Basic D&D. B/X served as a gateway to the hobby (“Ages 10 and Up,” it noted on its cover), while AD&D and its dense, encyclopedic manuals were probably better suited for later teens and early 20-somethings. Moldvay also lists several recommended works of non-fiction.

I would say, you can’t go wrong using both lists as a basis for your own reading and filling in gaps in classic works of the imagination. Certainly any work that makes both lists is something you probably should read while you’re still making rounds around the sun. You can read Appendix N in its entirety here. I have included a screenshot of Moldvay’s Inspirational Source Material below.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

What I've read to date, in 2020

I keep a relatively modest goal of reading one book a week, about 52 books in a year. I wish I could increase that total, but between work, family and friends, keeping a modicum of physical fitness, writing, housework, other obligations, and occasional bouts of laziness, a book a week is the most realistic number for me these days.

It appears that I'm not going to quite hit that goal this year, though I'm going to come real close (I've just begun The Two Towers and I have the rest of the year off from work). Yes, I fudged a bit with a bunch of disparate short stories I read in preparation for the Goodman Games S&S panel, but I figure the combined page count was about right to qualify as a "book."

The list follows:

1. Tolkien and the Critics, Neil Isaacs and Rose Zimbardo (finished 1/5)

2. Hap and Leonard, Joe Lansdale (finished 1/12)

3. The Evolution of Modern Fantasy, Jamie Williamson (finished 1/26)

4. Getting Things Done, David Allen (finished 2/2)

5. Can’t Hurt Me, David Goggins (finished 2/6)

6. The Last Celt, a Bio-Bibliography of Robert E. Howard, Glenn Lord (finished 2/9)

7. Jack London Stories, Jack London (finished 2/16)

8. The Door to Saturn, Clark Ashton Smith (finished 2/29)

9. Kothar and the Conjurer’s Curse, Gardner Fox (finished 3/1) 

10. Kothar of the Magic Sword, Gardener Fox (finished 3/8)

11. Steppenwolf, Herman Hesse (finished 3/19)

12. The Wanderer’s Necklace, H. Rider Haggard (finished 3/28)

13. Tarnsman of Gor, John Norman (finished 4/5)

14. Outlaw of Gor, John Norman (finished 4/10)

15. The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien (finished 4/14)

16. The Return of Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs (finished 4/23)

17. The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell (finished 5/7)

18. Hannibal, Thomas Harris (finished 5/13)

19. The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, Robert E. Howard (finished 5/22)

20. The Swords of Lankhmar, Fritz Leiber (finished 5/28)

21. Swords and Ice Magic, Fritz Leiber (finished 6/9)

22. Swords Against Darkness, Andrew Offutt ed. (finished 7/3)

23. The Knight and Knave of Swords, Fritz Leiber (finished 7/6)

24. Witches of the Mind, Bruce Byfield (finished 7/12)

25. The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman (finished 7/17)

26. Darkness Weaves, Karl Edward Wagner (finished 7/22)

27. My Father, the Pornographer: A Memoir, Chris Offutt (finished 7/25)

28. The Conan Companion, Richard Toogood (finished 7/26)

29. A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller Jr. (finished 8/5) 

30. Heroes of Atlantis and Lemuria, Dave Ritzlin ed. (finished 8/11)

31. The Knight of the Swords, Michael Moorcock (finished 8/24)

32. Artists, Outlaws, and Old-Timers, Tom Barber (finished 8/30)

33. The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers (finished 9/7)

34. “Laughing Shall I Die”: Lives and Deaths of the Great Vikings, Tom Shippey (finished 9/20)

35. Sword-and-sorcery short story mix (“The Shadow Kingdom,” “The Tower of the Elephant,” “Black God’s Kiss,” “Hellsgarde,” “Liane the Wayfarer,” “Turjan of Mir,” “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros,” “The Seven Geases.” Etc.). (finished 10/2)

36. The Tritonian Ring, L. Sprague de Camp (finished 10/4)

37. The Knight of the Swords, Michael Moorcock (finished 10/8)

38. Bloodstone, Karl Edward Wagner (finished 10/12)

39. The Broken Sword (1971), Poul Anderson (finished 10/19)

40. Hammer of the Gods, Gavin Chappell ed. (finished 10/24)

41. ‘Salem’s Lot, Stephen King (finished 11/1)

42. Nine Princes in Amber, Roger Zelazny (finished 11/8)

43. The Guns of Avalon, Roger Zelazny (finished 11/15)

44. Sign of the Unicorn, Roger Zelazny (finished 11/17)

45. The Hand of Oberon, Roger Zelazny (finished 11/22)

46. The Courts of Chaos, Roger Zelazny (finished 11/26)

47. The Long Ships, Frans Bengtsson (finished 12/7)

48. Mythago Wood, Robert Holdstock (finished 12/14)

49. The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien (finished 12/22)

Monday, December 14, 2020

The Last Wolf, a review

If you are a fan of Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane, or his horror fiction—or even if you’re only mildly interested in Wagner but have a broader interest in the development of modern horror fiction and its commercial boom in the 1970s and 80s—I recommend you seek out and watch The Last Wolf.

Last night I rented this new documentary which debuted on what would have been the 75th anniversary of Wagner’s birth. It’s available on Vimeo for rent ($2.99) or purchase ($5.99) and runs just north of an hour and 40 minutes of screen time.

The Last Wolf covers the details of Wagner’s life, from his birth in 1945 to his untimely death in 1994, as told through a series of wide-ranging interviews. Filmmakers Brian McKnight and Brandon Lunsford have done a wonderful job seeking out and arranging thoughtful interviews with Wagner’s siblings, his ex-wife, childhood friends including John Mayer, and several horror and fantasy luminaries including the likes of Peter Straub, Dennis Etchison, Stephen Jones, David Drake, S.T. Joshi, and Ramsey Campbell, among others. We get everything from Karl’s precocious early days in the classroom as the youngest of four children in Wagner household, to his days as a medical student, breaking into writing, hanging out with the likes of Manly Wade Wellman, founding Carcosa Press, and tearing up the scene as a charismatic figure at fantasy and horror conventions. It includes some actual footage of him speaking on panels and the like, which is surprisingly hard to find.

The filmmakers also used a substantial amount of footage of Wagner’s former residences and schools, artistic long shots of creeping Kudzu vines and menacing sticks, and the like, which lends the film an arresting visual appeal. Wagner is feted as underappreciated but major horror author and editor who married pulp traditions and Weird Tales with a modern horror sensibility and helped ring in the horror boom of the 1970s. The film takes its time (which I loved) on the mimeographed fanzines and small press magazines of the 1970s, the likes of Whispers for example, that provided Wagner and many other authors an important outlet to tell their stories. “Sticks,” perhaps Wagner’s greatest story, appeared in Whispers. A LOT of love and care and effort went into this documentary, and it shows. Kudos to everyone involved in this project and I gladly would have watched another hour of run time.

The Last Wolf is not perfect. I think it suffers a bit from a lack of a strong narrative thread. The absence of an agenda is refreshing and the interviews carry the documentary along, but the story meanders without an omniscient voice overlaying some basic facts and dates. This will not impede or deter any of Wagner’s hardcore fans, but will make the film less accessible to a general audience.

The film is broken up into four parts. Part 3 (“Undone by his Own Bad Habits”) treats with Wagner’s alcoholism, which ultimately cut his life short at age 49. This tragic aspect of his life was not sugar-coated, and The Last Wolf spends time examining the terrible impacts wrought by booze on his professional writing life and his personal friendships. There is also talk at the end from his siblings about his languishing literary estate, and the apparent lack of interest in his works by major publishing houses. This helps explain why his works remain hard to obtain in print (although I have to think some smaller press publishers would gladly take up the offer to reprint the Kane stories, at least). Straub theorizes that Wagner’s lack of novel output is partially to blame, as short stories are a hard sell these days unless your name happens to be Stephen King.

You should support these types of efforts with your dollars. Per the producers all the money made streaming the film will help produce a limited edition DVD/Blu-ray copy with some additional scenes. Show your appreciation and go watch The Last Wolf.

Friday, December 11, 2020

The Last Wolf is out

I'm really looking forward to this new documentary on Karl Edward Wagner. "The Last Wolf" has been some time in the making by Brian M. McKnight and Brandon Lunsford and is now available for purchase on Vimeo. 

Check out the trailer here:

There is a huge dearth of critical and biographical material on Wagner and I hope this film helps to rectify that.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

The Long Ships, Frans Bengtsson (or, what a year was 1954)

I have this very edition.
I’m not sure what was in the water in 1954, but can we have a little bit more of that, please?

That fabled year saw the publication of none other than:

  • The first volume of the greatest work of high fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings
  • Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword, arguably the finest book-length example of sword-and-sorcery/heroic fantasy
  • The complete English language translation of Frans Bengtsson’s The Long Ships, one of the finest examples of historical fiction I have encountered.

Not a bad year (he says, with typical tongue-in-cheek Viking understatement).

To be fair, Bengtsson’s novel was first published in the early 1940s in a two volume set, but in Swedish, the author’s native tongue. Book one (The Long Ships contains four short books) was published in the United States in 1942 under the title Red Orm. But 1954 was the first time the complete book was made available to an English-speaking audience.

The Long Ships is quite simply terrific in almost every way. It’s a highly readable page turner, with adventure packed onto almost every page. It’s studded with good humor and some laugh-out-loud funny moments and exchanges, even in the midst of some pretty grim events. And it is the distillation of the Northern Thing. The Long Ships channels the old Icelandic Sagas into a modern style, while keeping some of the cadence of the language and literary conventions of this old story-style and preserving the spirit of that heroic age. The Sagas were known for their deadpan delivery of heroic deeds, nasty misadventures, and terrible tragedies that would leave us moderns standing slack-jawed in awe, horror, or incomprehensibility, and The Long Ships likewise delivers. For example: “The year ended without the smallest sign having appeared in the sky, and there ensued a period of calm in the border country. Relations with the Smalanders continued to be peaceful, and there were no local incidents worth mentioning, apart from the usual murders at feasts and weddings, and a few men burned in their houses as the result of neighborly disputes.”

Now, my neighbor sometimes lets his leaves sit on his lawn a little too long for my liking, and these sometimes blow onto my greensward. But I don’t burn his house down (with him in it) out of retribution. But I do live in a very different age (for which I thank God—mostly. An occasional murder at a feast would be nice).

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Where to start with Karl Edward Wagner's Kane

My latest essay can be found over on the Goodman Games website. "Where to Start with Karl Edward Wagner's Kane" is my first piece for the website of Tales from the Magician's Skull

I had fun with this one. If you're not interested in clicking through, spoiler alert: I went with the collection Night Winds. I always favor checking out an author's short stories, if available, before committing to a novel, and Night Winds offers a nice representative offering of Kane stories. But it's hard to go wrong with anything Kane.

I've been writing a lot about Kane lately but this is merely a coincidence. Bill Ward asked me to write this latest essay following our recent sword-and-sorcery panel session at Bride of Cyclops Con. I had already been working on the DMR piece prior. And as Deuce Richardson reminded me recently, December 4th marked what would have been Wagner's 75th birthday.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Doom scrolling and distraction

I caught myself yesterday mindlessly scrolling my iphone, reading comments on stories about the end of capitalism. Then a story about the inability of developing countries to remove their dependency on fossil fuels, and the accompanying inevitability of the planet’s ecological destruction. Depressing numbers on climbing COVID-19 cases and a looming possibility of 200K more deaths. Political gridlock. Rampant graft and hypocrisy. On and on. Depressing, in a time when the cold weather has arrived and we’re driven inside, and there’s no escape. Winter is coming and it’s not looking good, folks.

Or is it?

This is all part of a larger issue that I think has been conflated and labelled as “fake news.” I would not call all of the aforementioned problems fake, but the feeling of impending doom these types of stories engender is a symptom of being constantly in the news, and people’s Twitter opinions. In short, of this phenomenon called doom scrolling, 24-7. You get to hate it all, you come to hate new media and tech companies for spawning this new world of inattention and distraction and doom scrolling, and so it all becomes fake news. It doesn’t feel real anymore, and it feels like the only ones who are winning are companies like Facebook who are selling my data in increasingly troubling targeted ads (I was talking to my wife about wine yesterday, and sure enough an ad for a wine subscription service came up in my social media feed. And yes, I have Alexa, and it’s probably listening to everything we say at the counter).

So, what do we do about it? What do I do about it?

I’m coming to loathe Facebook, even though it has SOME tangible value. I like seeing what beers are hitting my local liquor stores (I follow a couple liquor store pages), or when a water main breaks in town (I follow Merrimac news), or when someone posts something sword-and-sorcery related (I follow Pulp Sword-and-Sorcery, and a few other groups). I like seeing when people who I’m friends with, post something genuine. That happens too, albeit infrequently.

I could do without all the rest. Either I start mercilessly cutting shit out, and unfollowing, or I limit the amount of usage, maybe to a couple windows of time each day. And get back to living in the real world of my own life, of my job, my private work, my family, my circle of friends. Reality, and not this consumption of digital 1s and 0s that tells me the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and the only way out is to surf the cutting edge by consuming more information and reading the next snarky comment or the next platitude left by some celebrity I vaguely like.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Update: Flame and Crimson reviews

It's hard to believe but I'm closing in on one year since the publication of Flame and Crimson: A History of Sword-and-Sorcery. I sent the final edits over to Bob McLain at Pulp Hero Press in December 2019, and the book was available on Amazon shortly after the turn of the new year. I waited some 5-6 weeks with baited breath for the first reveiws, not knowing if the book sucked, was wildly off-base, boring, etc. To anyone who has ever written a book, we are brothers in arms and I can safely say I don't envy you this experience. I would sort of compare it to baring a piece of my soul with total strangers. Fear of rejection, ridicule, etc. are very real obstacles.

To say that I'm happy with the response is an understatement. As of this post it's received 32 reviews on Amazon, averaging 4.7 out of 5 stars. Goodreads has tracked an additional 17 reviews, averaging 4.35 out of 5 stars.

Beyond the numbers, I've been thrilled with the words of those who have taken the time to share their thoughts about the book. I don't know these folks from Adam, but to read comments like these is incalculably rewarding:

I feel like I have been waiting years for someone to write a book like this. Sure, others have tried on occasion, but no one really did a comprehensive capture of the genre before now. And this is not just a history, but a thematic synthesis and-dare I say it-a work of literary criticism. 


Well structured, researched, and written, this is a great text for those who wish to write in the genre and those who've done some reading, but aren't sure about the best path to take in exploring it further.


I admit my vision is rose colored. The author is nearly my age and came upon his love for Swords & Sorcery (he actually prefers swords and sorcery—I am not as picky) in an almost identical way as I. He even shares my adoration of Heavy Metal tunes. 


Much self-published sf and fantasy criticism is not very good - but Murphy's book is very well written. He is not an academic so we are spared the typical turgid prose that comes from University presses. Highly recommended. 


All that is most interesting, but Murphy is also ENTERTAINING while explaining. The book is never boring and always fun to read; sometime I actually laughed out loud. But you always feel that he is serious about his topic and the involved research, so it never gets silly. Do yourself a favor and buy this book.


If you are at all interested in the history and cultural impact of S&S literature, this book is definitely worth your while. Every time I wanted to raise a little quibble with something the author said, my objection was answered within two pages. Informative and entertaining!


Just today I was treated to an amazingly kind review from Bill Ward over at Tales from the Magician's Skull (which if you're a fan of S&S and not subscribed to, you're doing yourself a disservice). This last paragraph made every bit of the six+ years of effort that went into the conception, research, and writing of Flame and Crimson worth the struggle:

I’ve been searching high and low for this book for years, but of course, no one had written it yet! I’m glad Brian Murphy finally did because he has produced no less a seminal work than Lin Carter’s Imaginary Worlds (1973) or Don Herron’s The Dark Barbarian (1984). In recent decades we’ve had some amazing essays and deep scholarship in the field, and a first-rate biography of Robert E. Howard (Mark Finn’s Blood & Thunder), but no one had filled the real need for a single volume, narratively coherent history of sword-and-sorcery until Flame and Crimson. But make no mistake, Murphy’s book isn’t simply good because it’s necessary, it’s indispensable because it’s magnificent.

There are other reviews worth sharing, and I will at some point. Flame and Crimson is certainly not perfect, and there are things I wish I had done differently. 

But for now, to anyone who has read and enjoyed this book, THANK YOU. I hope in some measure I have helped to illuminate the highs (and fun lows) of this remarkable fantasy subgenre. And have entertained you along the way.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Bloodstone and The Lord of the Rings post up on DMR blog

During a recent re-read of Karl Edward Wagner's Bloodstone I was struck by what appears to be some parallels and similarities to certain scenes in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. I started jotting down a few notes, and that became this 3,500 or so word essay over at DMR Blog. Check it out if you're interested.

For the record, I don't know for certain if KEW read LOTR prior to Bloodstone, and if he hadn’t that renders the observations in my essay entirely coincidental. There are many folks who knew Wagner personally who might be able to shed more light on this subject. But with all three volumes of LOTR available by 1956, and drafts of Bloodstone dating back to the early 60s before it was finally published in 1975, its possible KEW read it. The timing works out.

I don't think Bloodstone owes much to LOTR at all, and I don't think Karl was particularly influenced by it, other than riffing off certain scenes, sequences, and perhaps the nature of the ring. Regardless, this was a fun one to write.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Love it or hate it (I have done both)—a re-examination of Judas Priest’s Turbo

Better run for cover...
Back in the mid-1980s a civil war was brewing in heavy metal. On one side were the standard bearers of “true metal,” fans of Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath, and Anthrax and Metallica. These bands rocked hard and built loyal fanbases with almost no commercial airplay or MTV time (the exception was Headbangers Ball, which safely confined them to the midnight hour when all respectable watchers were tucked safely in bed). Their fans were tough, wore denim and leather, and were proud of their bands. On the other side were the manufactured pop metal acts, bands like Poison and Warrant and Winger, who may have believed in what they did and often were quite capable musicians, but nevertheless had a pretty boy, teased hair look and shallow bubble-gum lyrics designed to appeal to a broad audience. These acts were known as “hair metal,” or in some corners (including my own), "false metal."

This division was best articulated in the lyrics of the loinclothed and sword-wielding American heavy metal band Manowar, which sang loud and proud that the War was On, man, and it was time to choose a side:

Every one of us has heard the call
Brothers of True Metal proud and standing tall
We know the power within us has brought us to this hall
there's magic in the metal there's magic is us all

Heavy metal or no metal at all whimps and posers leave the hall
Heavy metal or no metal at all whimps and posers go on get out
Leave the hall

Now the world must listen to our decree
We don't turn down for anyone we do just what we please
got to make it louder, all men play on ten
If you're not into metal, you are not my friend

(Manowar, “Metal Warriors”)

As an impressionable teenager and fan whose identity was tied to heavy metal music, I can tell you that I was in fact swept up in this faux conflict, and was a real man who played his boom box on ten. I knew with certainty which side I was on, and so I joined the ranks of those who mocked Judas Priest’s Turbo (1986). OK, so I did not actually outwardly mock the album, but I viewed it with a definite feeling of disappointment. It was hard to swallow that the same metal gods who gave us songs like “Beyond the Realms of Death” and “Victim of Changes” were in fact all too human, and could succumb to the forces of commercialism with an album that so obviously sought to capitalize on the popularity of the likes of Motley Crue and Def Leppard.

In short, Turbo felt a little like Priest had left the ranks of true metal and joined the false. There is nothing worse than a Benedict Arnold. I felt betrayed.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Some thoughts on Jack Vance's "Liane The Wayfarer"

There wasn't a whole lot going on in the 1940s for sword-and-sorcery. You had Skull Face and Others by Arkham House, published in 1946, Unknown published 4-5 Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories. There were a few other exceptions. But in general it was like someone pressed the pause button on the subgenre after the creative outburst of Weird Tales.

Then came Jack Vance's The Dying Earth, published by Hillman Periodicals in 1950. Boom. I want to talk about one of my favorites from that fine collection, “Liane the Wayfarer.” Apparently this story also appeared in the December 1950 issue of Worlds Beyond magazine, though the details of this are sketchy.

The main character Liane is a genuine prick—S&S through and through. Mercenary, but much worse than the selfish Cugel. He casually kills a merchant, and is put out that the man dared to splash blood on his sandals. The nerve! He’s ready to rape a golden haired “witch” named Lith after spying on her as she bathes in a stream. She barely manages to fend off his amorous advances with the threat of ensorcelled knives. Liane is possessed of a “manifest will and power” and so believes that gives him the right to take her.

But Lith is cunning. The witch is in possession of a beautiful tapestry depicting an idyllic valley, but it's ripped in half. The other half is with a being called Chun the Unavoidable. Lith tells Liane he can have her, if he gets the other half of the tapestry.

Liane is cocksure of his success, as he has in his possession a magic ring, which he found while digging a pit for the body of murdered merchant. When worn the ring transports him to an alternate plane of existence, rendering him invisible to the eye or perhaps whisking him away from this plane entirely. It works like a D&D bag of holding.

This is Vance, a master stylist, so the writing of course is exquisite. Describing the Dying Earth, Vance writes of “the red sun, drifting across the universe like an old man creeping to his death bed.” Vance does a brilliant job building up the suspense, dropping clues about Chun and steadily increasing the menace (and in turn the unease in the reader). For example, Liane mentions Chun to a group of wizards in an inn. They slink off, avoiding conversation. Liane finds a series of corpses, some warriors in armor, brave men, but all without eyes, staring up at the sky with empty sockets. 

But he presses on. Liane encounters an old man trying to warn him off from Chun. Liane casually kills him by dropping a rock on his head. Did I mention he's an absolute bastard?

Liane approaches Chun's lair, and you can feel the quiet and the dull thudding of Liane’s heart as he eyes the tapestry. This is so well done (fiction writers take note, and read this scene).

Then comes the ending, which is a terrible shock. “Behind came Chun” repeated, inevitable, “running like a dog.” And the end is simply chilling, utterly disturbing. Lith gets another thread in her tapestry.

One final detail about "Liane the Wayfarer"--it was converted into a brief D&D scenario. Does anyone remember the RPG magazine White Dwarf? White Dwarf no. 48 (October 1984, which I have, and bought fresh off the newsstand from a local game store, and you cannot have) contained the mini-module "Chun the Unavoidable" of course based on this story. The accompanying artwork was simple but effective, depicting Chun as a creepy ape-like being with a skull face and a cloak made of human eyeballs.


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.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Heavy metal party and The Priest, part 2

The Quilt, made of Judas Priest concert Ts
Murph's 6th annual Metal Party is back, and this one goes to 11! The can't-miss metal event of year will feature the live music of The Priest, New England's premier Judas Priest tribute band. Wear your faded concert t-shirts and denim jackets and strap your leather cod pieces on tight. Prepare for yet another round of "classick" metal trivia, bad late night videos, and oft-told, slightly exaggerated stories of metal concerts from decades past. Metal rules, my friends, so "head out to the highway" to celebrate.

Food, some booze, and locale provided, but bring your own favorite drinks and apps or desserts welcomed. Hat will be passed around to defray some costs of band.

--Description from the Facebook page of Murph’s Metal Party, 6th annual

I knew I was in trouble when Tom, aka, KK Downing, pulled into my driveway with a minivan LOADED with equipment. I mean, this thing was jammed floor to ceiling with amplifiers, sound board, wires, guitars, god knows what.

“Holy shit, you guys brought a lot of equipment,” I said, bug-eyed as I stared at the pile of noise generating electronics that would soon be making its way into my living room.

“Oh no, that’s just mine,” Tom replied. His face was utterly dead pan and humorless.

Oh shit, I thought.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Heavy metal party and The Priest, Part 1

For five years, from 2011-2015, I hosted an annual heavy metal themed party. And had a blast. Ultimately it grew into something much more. Here’s the story…

It started out modest, a gathering of 8-9 buddies. My wife and daughters were out of state visiting my sister-in-law, a girls’ weekend. To celebrate my short-term bachelorhood I decided what I needed was a guy’s weekend, a gathering to drink beer and listen to heavy metal with some dudes. No more no less. We’ve all been there.

That first year we drank too much beer and ate ribs off the smoker. My old man did the cooking and stuck around for a few cold ones. I threw a few bags of chips on the table. We may or may not have ended up at a gentlemen’s club late night. No different than your average guy’s hangout. If there was one underlying commonality an outsider to the gathering might have noticed, it was the soundtrack and the garb: We listened exclusively to heavy metal, and many of us were wearing metal t-shirts.

A theme began to coalesce.

I think it was my friend Scott who eventually dubbed the gathering “the metal party” because of the music, the general crude nature of the affair, and the scarcity of women (metal concerts are largely sausage fests). The name stuck, and an informal guy’s hangout became something more.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Heavy metal. It's coming.

I've got a hell of a story to tell that I'm working on for the blog. Will be a few more days. Stay tuned.

Friday, September 4, 2020

Farewell to Charles Saunders

Word spread on Facebook last night that Charles Saunders, author of Imaro, has passed away. It is being reported he died in May. Odd that an obituary search turns up empty. 

Let's hope it may be a rumor, but it does not appear that way. Author Milton Davis, who continued in Saunders' "Sword-and-Soul" tradition, broke the news, and many authors, friends, and peers have chimed in since.

Imaro and its subsequent volumes deserves a longer post than I have time for at the moment, but I consider these terrific works of sword-and-sorcery. If not at the level of Howard/Leiber/Moorcock/Anderson, they rank up there with Henry Kuttner, Karl Edward Wagner, David Drake, and many other fine authors. 

I regret not contacting Saunders when I had the chance to let him know how much I enjoyed his work. Nyumbani, Saunders' fantastic parallel of Africa, is a rich and sharply realized setting worth exploring, and Imaro is a memorable character with a dark past whose relentless search turned inward, far more than most sword-and-sorcery heroes. As a black author working in a largely white field, Saunders was a pioneer and penned many thoughtful essays on his complex relationship with fantasy fiction and sword-and-sorcery ("Die Black Dog!" is worth seeking out). His stuff absolutely deserves a bigger following. The late Steve Tompkins of The Cimmerian website was one of Saunders' biggest champions and found a rich, mythic layer to the Imaro cycle.

Rest in peace.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Masculinity in S&S? It’s complicated

Sword and sorcery is strongly masculine and appeals to men. We can see this same ethos in the Arnold Schwarzenegger movies of the 1980s and early 90s. Take a look at this scene from Predator and ask yourself what it plays to.

The most manly handshake ever, bar none.

And then ask yourself, is this cool? Is it OK to like this? My answer is an emphatic hell yes. Men who read S&S tend to like fictional depictions of violence and strength. As I’ve said elsewhere, dynamism, power, and muscular strength are among the elements that draw me to the work of Frank Frazetta, for example.

Make no mistake: I love this stuff. I was drawn to it as a kid, and inspired to pick up weights to try to look like my heroes of the comics and silver screen. Today I continue to champion and defend it. I push back, hard, against censorious critics who want this type of fiction memory-holed. You can pry my sword-and-sorcery from my cold, dead fingers. There’s a reason I and if I daresay the broader “we” are drawn to tales featuring swordplay, bloodletting, and fast-paced action. These stories tap into the same psychological wellsprings and biological impulses that help explain our love for professional football, boxing, and strongman sports.

Sword-and-sorcery is loaded with beefcake and masculine heroes. Here is a typical description of Conan, from “The Devil in Iron”:

As the first tinge of dawn reddened the sea, a small boat with a solitary occupant approached the cliffs. The man in the boat was a picturesque figure. A crimson scarf was knotted about his head; his wide silk breeches, of flaming hue, were upheld by a broad sash which likewise supported a scimitar in a shagreen scabbard. His gilt-worked leather boots suggested the horseman rather than the seaman, but he handled his boat with skill. Through his widely open silk shirt showed his broad muscular breast, burned brown by the sun.

The muscles of his heavy bronzed arms rippled as he pulled the oars with an almost feline ease of motion. A fierce vitality that was evident in each feature and motion set him apart from common men; yet his expression was neither savage nor somber; though the smoldering blue eyes hinted at ferocity easily wakened.

I’ll stick my neck out a bit, risk the critical axe of politically correct criticism, and say that as a result of its emphasis on violence and power, sword-and-sorcery appeals to boys and men, in far larger quantities than women.

But like life, art, and politics, even sword-and-sorcery is not this simple.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

The best heavy metal guitar solo ever

I'm not qualified to render this judgement. I've got the time in to make an educated guess, as I've been listening to heavy metal since the mid-1980s, some 35 years I'd guess. But what I lack is the required breadth. I'm not a big fan of death metal, or black metal, or doom, or some of the other peripheral subgenres, and so can't speak to any solos that might exist in these far-flung corners of metal. Nor was I ever a fan of the true guitar virtuosos. I admire and respect the craft of the Steve Vais, Yngwie Malmsteins, and Joe Satrianis of the world, and admit they are probably the most talented guitarists to come out of metal, but I find I lack an emotional attachment to their music that keeps me from being a fan.

Most damning of all I don't play guitar. I cannot tell you what makes one solo better from another from a learned musician's perspective, and I lack the technical vocabulary to analyze music properly.

So to make a long story short your mileage may very well differ.

But for me, my favorite heavy metal guitar solo and the one that continues to leave me speechless with wonder is Marty Friedman's solo in "Tornado of Souls." I appreciate guitar solos that don't insist upon themselves. I love it when they fit the song, take off from a logical place and return to the rhythm. Friedman's solo almost breaks that spell, but does not.

I recommend not jumping immediately to 2:10 where the madness starts to build, or 3:09 where it becomes a solo proper, 3:28 where it blasts straight up into the stratosphere and parts beyond, or 3:48 where you're like, "what the fuck?" Do it if you must, but realize that this solo works best as the orgasmic culmination of an awesome song. It's worth the 5 minute investment. His skill and artistry and sound are evident right from the electric shocks of the opening notes.

If you're a metal fan and somehow have missed this one, I beg you to rectify that right now. For non-metal fans who appreciate great guitar work, I realize that Dave Mustaine's voice can be off-putting, but don't let that stop you. Just listen.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

A Canticle for Leibowitz, a review

A nuclear firestorm has caused the downfall of civilization, followed by a wave of benighted barbarism and book-burning. But the wake of the holocaust sees a slow unearthing from oblivion. Monks transcribe the literature of a lost age of mankind over centuries, cloistered in monasteries in the arid landscapes of the Southwestern United States.

This is the world of Walter M. Miller Jr.’s wonderful A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) which I recently had the pleasure of re-reading after a span of many years.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is a fragmented read, consisting of three discrete stories separated by centuries of time. Each were short stories originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. As a novel this stitched-together structure helps to reinforce one of Miller’s central messages: The painstaking, fragmentary, and precarious state of knowledge transmission and preservation.

At its heart Miller’s book is a re-imagining of what the medieval monks did with classical Greek and Roman literature, transcribing it laboriously and preserving the flame of past knowledge until it could be used in a more enlightened age. While historical monks survived barbarian predation and Viking raids, in Miller’s novel nuclear war and predatory radiation-scarred scavengers are the equivalent of barbarian invasions circa 476 AD. The survivors of the nuclear exchange are subject to a brutal period called the “Simplification,” where mobs of bitter, vengeful survivors attempt to eliminate any trace of the science that led them down the path to oblivion. Books and men that dare to read them are burned and destroyed.

This scenario is played out again in A Canticle for Leibowitz, with the monks of Albertian Order of Leibowitz carefully preserving the old scientific literature, resurrecting an arc lamp from old electrical blueprints. By the second and third act technology has again risen from the ashes.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Checking in with Tom Barber

Tom outside his home.
This past week I had the privilege of dropping in for a visit with the great Tom Barber. As followers of this blog might know, Tom was a prolific fantasy and science fiction illustrator in the 70s and early 80s, with credits on a wide range of paperback titles and magazines like Galileo, Heavy Metal and Amazing Science Fiction. He did that wonderful skull with the rat that we all love, adorning the cover of the Lin Carter paperback revival of Weird Tales (he was never paid for this piece by the way, thanks to a shady agent).

You can find a couple write-ups of my previous meet-ups with Tom here:

Tom dropped out of painting for a few years while battling alcohol addiction, but has since returned with a vengeance, getting some steady work from Bob McLain over at Pulp Hero Press. One of his recent projects was the cover of Flame and Crimson. I was incredibly honored to have someone of Tom’s caliber on the book.

Tom is a fun, interesting dude. We talked for a couple hours about some experiences he had meeting the likes of Harlan Ellison and Andrew J. Offutt at conventions (Ellison purchased one of Tom’s paintings at WorldCon in Phoenix), meditation and Zen states and humanity stuck in cycles of violence, checks bouncing for work he sold to Amazing Science Fiction, and the tension artists face trying to reconcile illustrating for money vs. pursuing their true muse. All while outside on his front lawn, socially distanced of course, and enjoying the sunny 80 degree weather.

The coolest bit to come out of our meet-up is the news that Tom is working on a short memoir of his own for Pulp Hero Press, one that will focus on his addiction years (his “drinking years”) and eventual recovery. The working title is Artists, Outlaws, and Old Timers. As befits the author it will be illustrated throughout with Tom’s own artwork. Tom is still writing the manuscript but is nearing completion. It will contain some amusing scenes from his early days in the late 1960s attending art school and breaking into commercial work, convention life, crazy bohemian days in Arizona, and recovery and lessons learned.

Train to Nowhere
Tom also gave me a look at some of his recent pieces, scanned onto his PC. These include the cover for an upcoming novel by Adrian Cole (a piece called Train to Nowhere; I’m not sure if this will be for a reprint of Cole’s previously published short story or a collection).

Sunday, August 9, 2020

My Father, The Pornographer: A Memoir

Andrew J. Offutt was a complex, deeply flawed man. A resident of rural Kentucky, Offutt was a husband and a father who supported his family with a successful insurance business, a job which he did not love and ultimately abandoned to make the bold leap into full-time writing. He was at one time a promising science fiction writer. He also subjected his children to emotional neglect, held baseless grudges against various personages, lacked a full emotional maturity and cohesive personality, and held a life-long obsession with pornography.

His son, author Chris Offutt, tells his father’s story with incredible bravery and honesty and a raw, pull no punches style in My Father the Pornographer: A Memoir (2016). I found this book to be absolutely fascinating and extraordinarily well-written, and burned through it in a matter of two days.

Andrew J. Offutt was “controlling, pretentious, crude, and overbearing” and spent most of his hours “in the immense isolation of his mind,” according to Chris. He demanded dead silence in the house while he hammered away in his office at this typewriter, churning out content. Chris often took to the woods to escape a stifling home existence.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

The "later Leiber"

Recently I re-read The Second Book of Lankhmar (pictured, right), the 24th entry in the Millennium/Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks, a series that boldly declared itself comprised of "some of the greatest, most original, and most influential fantasy ever written." And, as I am wont to do, began taking a few notes on a piece of scrap paper, that quickly became a flood, then a formal review. Which I planned to post here.

Yech... fugly, bland cover.
The review got so long and detailed that I split it into two, then offered it up to the honorable Dave Ritzlin of DMR Books. If you haven't been checking out the excellent works Dave has been pumping out, you're missing out. Follow their blog here.

I am told that the posts will appear on DMR Blog on Monday and Tuesday.

The Second Book of Lankhmar includes the later works of Fritz Leiber, including The Swords of Lankhmar (1968), Swords and Ice Magic (1977), and The Knight and Knave of Swords (1988). These latter two in particular are not among Leiber's more popular or well-regarded Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories at least among S&S fans. They are certainly far removed from Leiber's pulp roots and his days writing for the likes of Unknown, and are in my opinion only loosely sword-and-sorcery/heroic fantasy. There is little to no swordplay, they meander, and the adventures are more inward than outward facing. 

But I think they are interesting, and well worth reading at least once. And thinking about. Enriching my reading was Bruce Byfield's Witches of the Mind, which makes a clear-cut case for the considerable influence of Carl Jung on Leiber's stories, particularly after 1960. 

Friday, July 31, 2020

Of sword-and-sorcery, politics, and the Flashing Swords that wasn't

I'm not naive, and I'm aware that politics leeches into all walks of life, art included. Consciously or subconsciously, ones religious beliefs, political affiliation, or sexual leanings make their way in.

But please for the love of God keep your overt political rants out of my fantasy. It's lazy and I don't like it.

I tried very hard to stay away from politics in Flame and Crimson and restrict my analysis to S&S as an art form, along with the artists, broad themes and conventions, and publishing facts and figures. For many reasons, one of which was made evident today.

Editor Robert Price could have and should have used this opportunity as editor of Flashing Swords 6 to talk about Lin Carter's legacy, the importance of the previous 5 Flashing Swords anthologies, and introduce some hard working new authors to a new readership. Instead he chose to pen an ugly, divisive, political screed, one that will win no one over to his side and is guaranteed to alienate more than than 90% of the book's intended audience. That includes anyone who identifies as a liberal, or a progressive, would prefer to live and let live, is female, or who has a daughter. Or frankly, has a brain.

Sword-and-sorcery appeals to strength, wish-fulfillment, acknowledges our species' fascination with violence, and celebrates self-determination. The subgenre has a history of muscular dudes lording over mounds of corpses, often with a scantily clad female clinging to their muscular thigh. I'm on record as saying I'm OK with all of this--its gorgeous art, I'm a sucker for all things retro, and moreover it's a product of its time. I also think that its OK to like stories about kicking ass, and getting the girl, and carving out one's path from street level thief to King of Aquilonia.

But I think these old S&S tropes can be successfully re-imagined for a modern audience. The anthology Heroic Visions (1983, so not exactly yesterday) for example was based around the thematic concept of strength, whether male or female, mental or physical, and proved that S&S could result in powerful new stories that did not require a muscular barbarian in a loincloth to prop them up.

For the record I don't like censorship. I don't like the implication that, because I enjoy Conan or Kane, I must be a misogynist. When I read old stories that contain casual generational racism or sexism, I apply historical context and move on. I wish more people would do the same.

But Price's introduction is poor, confusing, laughable, completely out of place, diminishes and tarnishes sword-and-sorcery, and has no business kicking off and celebrating what should be a nice relaunch of an old beloved series. We've got to do better. The genre that also gave us C.L. Moore, and Leigh Brackett, and powerful heroines like Valeria and Jirel of Joiry, deserves better.

Feel free to hit me up here or over email with your thoughts or comments. But don't expect more politics on the blog.