Thursday, January 30, 2020

I've come around--Blaze Bayley is pretty awesome

I'll admit it, I more or less bailed on Iron Maiden in the mid-late 1990s. Metal in general appeared to be tipping into obscurity. Grunge ruled the airwaves. Rob Halford had left Judas Priest, Black Sabbath appeared done, and Metallica put out Load (and Reload). Yuck. Denim and leather had given way to flannel and hackeysacks. It was grim times, man, especially for a young man just off to college who suddenly discovered his passion for metal largely out of place on a hip campus of adherents to Pearl Jam.

So when Bruce Dickinson left Maiden, I checked out on the band. Not the previous incarnation with Bruce--I never stopped flying the metal flag, even when it was decidedly uncool to do so (a slightly ridiculous display of integrity that I still cling to). But I could not get on board the Blaze Bandwagon. I remember listening to a couple songs and being baffled by the guy's voice--powerful and rugged, but not operatic like Bruce's, lacking the same dynamism and range. I didn't buy The X Factor or Virtual XI when they came out. I probably had the chance see Maiden in some small venues, but couldn't be bothered to look.

In hindsight, that was a foolish decision. While of course Bayley is no Dickinson, and in humble fashion readily admits as much (in any interview you read with the guy he basically says he was keeping the seat warm until Bruce's inevitable return), they put out some pretty darned good songs in that era. Sign of the Cross. The Clansman. Lord of the Flies. Futureal. So good in fact that they put the former two in the setlist when I saw them last August. They were among the better songs Dickinson and co. played that night, IMO.

And of course, Blaze gets credit for singing the sublime Judgement of Heaven. Perhaps my favorite of this "dark age" of Iron Maiden.

Recently I found an acoustic version of the song during my Youtube crawlings, and felt compelled to share here. Blaze sings with such earnestness and genuine passion, you can't help but get behind the guy. And the lyrics in this one... wow. They resonate with me, deeply.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

The Evolution of Modern Fantasy

For anyone interested, I submitted a detailed review of Jamie Williamson's fine book The Evolution of Modern Fantasy over at DMR Blog. You can read it here:

In summary, if you can overcome the obstacles of price and academic language, it's absolutely worth the read. I have not read a book that does a better job of getting us from romantic poetry, lyrical ballads, and Gothic novels, up to the publishing juggernaut popularly known today as "fantasy." And it cements Lin Carter's Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series (1969-74, series proper) as a major catalyst.

If you've read it, or have any thoughts on my review or questions about the book, please leave them here (or there).

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Some more Tom Barber art

Sent to me via email and reposted here with his permission.

This first could/should be on the cover of a Dungeons and Dragons supplement. The latter is called "Holding off Distractions" and is beyond bad-ass, very sword-and-sorcery. Love the use of shadow in both. Amazing work here.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

A salute to Christopher Tolkien and Robert E. Howard

An important date and some notable news to acknowledge this week.

Christopher Tolkien, youngest son of J.R.R. Tolkien and his literary heir, passed away on January 16 at age 95.

Today, Jan. 22, is the birth of Robert E. Howard (1906-1936), the man who of course delivered unto us sword-and-sorcery, and the likes of Conan and Kull and Solomon Kane.

As should come as no surprise I’m a fan of both.

In Flame and Crimson I draw some sharp distinctions between sword-and-sorcery and high fantasy. Genres are defined as much by what they are as what they exclude, and sword-and-sorcery vs. high fantasy proved a useful comparison for helping me to establish a working definition for the former. But I’ll also admit that these distinctions are at times artificial and strained, and fall apart at the edges. Far more important than the bucket in which you place it is the quality of a given work. I’m obviously a big sword-and-sorcery fan, but I also admit that a lot of it is not very good. I’m not a fan of most multi-volume fat fantasy, but The Lord of the Rings is in my opinion the greatest work of fantasy ever written, and in my younger days I read the heck out of endless Dragonlance series, even (shudder) Dennis McKiernan’s The Iron Tower Trilogy.

I have to believe that if Howard ever had the chance to read The Lord of the Rings or The Silmarillion he’d be blown away. We do have an account from L. Sprague de Camp that Tolkien “rather enjoyed” the Conan stories (although some have speculated that Tolkien was merely being polite). But Tolkien also appeared to have a limited exposure to REH, having only read perhaps “Shadows in the Moonlight” in the L. Sprague de Camp-edited Swords & Sorcery. I believe if Tolkien were ever exposed to some of Howard’s verse, for example lines like these:

Into the west, unknown of man,
Ships have sailed since the world began.
Read, if you dare, what Skelos wrote,
With dead hands fumbling his silken coat;
And follow the ships through the wind-blown wrack–
Follow the ships that come not back.

He would have found a kindred spirit.

Christopher Tolkien has received his share of criticism over the years for being overly protective and litigious of his father’s works, and Middle-Earth in general. Having seen the latest Hobbit films, I can’t say I blame him. But Christopher was not just a preserver of the flame, he edited and published multiple volumes of his father’s writings on the history of Middle-Earth, stories from its elder Ages that otherwise would have been consigned to gathering dust in old notebooks. He did so with extraordinary patience and care, when he could have exploited his father’s legacy and sold the IP for millions. Here are a few examples over on Sacnoth’s Scriptorium.

Christopher struggled with how to present his father’s numerous notes and various and occasionally conflicting versions of Middle-Earth’s history, and after believing he may have missed the mark in his single narrative approach to The Silmarillion with Guy Gavriel Kay, decided to go all in on his 12 volume History of Middle-Earth. From volume 1, The Book of Lost Tales:

There are explorations to be conducted in this world with perfect right quite irrespective of literary critical considerations; and it is proper to attempt to comprehend its structure in its largest extent, from the myth of its Creation. Every person, every feature of the imagined world that seemed significant to its author is then worthy of attention in its own right, Manwe or Feanor no less than Gandalf or Galadriel, the Silmarils no less than the Rings.

Christopher’s work organizing and publishing these myths and histories was appreciated by millions. Layer on his service in the Royal Air Force during World War 2, and I have nothing but respect for the man.

So, respect to these deceased gentlemen. Though Howard, Tolkien, and now Tolkien’s son and editor have passed into the West, their works have achieved immortality.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Tom Barber's book is worth a look

If Flame and Crimson sells more than five copies, it will be in no small part due to its awesome Tom Barber cover art.

Tom of course is a minor legend in sword-and-sorcery circles, perhaps best known for his illustrations of Zebra paperbacks in the 1970s, including a Robert E. Howard title (Black Vulmea’s Vengeance), several Talbot Mundy reprints, and a trio of stunning covers for a Weird Tales paperback revival edited by the late great Lin Carter. Barber was a prolific fantasy and science fiction painter in the 70s and very early 80s, with credits on a wide range of paperback titles and magazines like Galileo and Amazing Science Fiction.

What you might not know is that Barber has also written a book of his own. Described as semi-autobiographical, What the F*** Was That All About? The Story of a Warrior's Journey Home is about a soldier returning home from a distant desert war with some heavy duty scars under the surface.

What the F*** was That All About? is available on Amazon (in print or as a Kindle book) at or from the publisher at

Tom recently had to beat a retreat from the small art studio that stands apart from his house, due to the cold New Hampshire weather (oil paints and freezing temperatures don't mix well, it seems). So if you're looking for a compelling read about a guy made it through to the other side of trauma and addiction, and would like to support a talented artist who did great work at the heyday of sword-and-sorcery (and is still doing good work), consider picking up a copy. It's also got some nice black-and-white interior art, by Tom, natch.

Tom has painted much more than just sword-and-sorcery and science fiction. The painting above is one of his best, and resides on permanent display at the Vet Center in White River Junction, Vermont. In my opinion it captures the spirit of what this book is all about: Soldiers extending a helping hand to their buddies who have fallen on hard times. 

What follows is an essay at the end of What the F*** Was That All About? I'm including it here with Tom's permission.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Flame and Crimson now available on Amazon That there is a book.

If you like sword-and-sorcery literature, Robert E. Howard, Conan the Barbarian (the 1982 film), or perhaps if you enjoy my ramblings in this little corner of cyberspace, I'd sure appreciate it if you consider picking up a copy. Read it, or skim for the good bits. Leave me a review.

If nothing else, Flame and Crimson: A History of Sword-and-Sorcery was a lot of work on a subject I care a lot about. I tried my best to give this thing we genre nerds call "sword-and-sorcery" a rough shape, a meaningful place in our culture and collective humanity, and a measure of dignity (not always possible), all while attempting to tell an interesting (non-fiction) story along the way. I tried to give my due to the authors that made it a publishing phenomenon in the 1960s and 70s, spawning a barbaric horde of movies, role-playing games, and heavy metal songs and bands. I'll leave it to others to judge how well I managed to do that.

Thanks to Bob McLain at Pulp Hero Press for getting this work into print. I'm looking forward to more titles from this powerhouse little publisher. Thanks again to the great Tom Barber for his awesome cover art. I am so looking forward to having the original Barber oil hanging over my bar in the man-cave, which if you think about it is pretty sword-and-sorcery. Once its up I'll toast with a drink out of a viking helmet, or perhaps the skull of one of my enemies.

I have a few others to thank for getting both me and this title across the finish line, but you'll have to read the book to find that out.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Farewell to a King

It always hurts, losing a piece of your past. Although you might have never met them, the passing of an artist that formed such a large part of your adolescence can make you feel like you have lost some vital part of yourself.

That’s how I’m feeling today, a day after the news that Neil Peart of RUSH succumbed following a three-year battle with brain cancer. This one hurts.

Growing up I idolized Peart. I climbed on the RUSH train somewhere around Hold your Fire (1987, my freshman year of high school), and remember buying Presto on tape shortly after it came out in late 1989. My introduction to the band were these polished, mature albums from a band at the height of its powers, and so I was both puzzled and delighted when I went back to their early catalog and discovered that they were a rougher, harder rocking, more byzantine band in the 1970. RUSH’s fantasy and sci-fi influences—songs like By-Tor and the Snow Dog, Rivendell, The Necromancer, 2112, Xanadu, and A Farewell to Kings—deeply resonated with me, as I was by then reading everything fantasy related I could get my hands on.

I experienced the same feelings of alienation RUSH captured with the brilliant Subdivisions. I loved their pentagram artwork. In short, loved everything about the band, and I knew (despite the fact that RUSH was deeply uncool with the popular kids) that they were three amazing musicians. But in particular, even though I’m not a musician myself and can’t play a lick on a guitar or read sheet music, I understood that even among these three titans Peart was something special. The guy was a freaking god with the drumsticks. I air drummed along with songs like Distant Early Warning and The Camera Eye and thought to myself, how can a human being do this? I beat the living shit out of the steering wheel of my 1982 Chevy Impala, pretending I was driving a Red Barchetta through the Rockies and hugging the cliffs at high speed. What times.

As I grew older I replaced “idolized” (I really don’t use that word for anyone now) with a deepening level of respect for the man himself, apart from the lighted stage. Peart endured massive tragedies in his life, including the loss of his 19-year-old daughter to a single car accident in 1997. Given that I have a 17-year-old and 14-year-old daughter myself, I don’t know if I could ever bear such a loss. Less than year later his wife passed away from cancer. I NEED to get a copy of Ghost Rider and read about his journey of 14 months on a motorcycle across the United States as he dealt with an unimaginable level of grief. That’s now on 2020 to be read list.

I’m glad he eventually returned to the band. I’ve seen RUSH in concert several times over their career, starting with Presto, twice on Roll on the Bones, Counterparts, and Test for Echo, then for Neil and the band’s return for Vapor Trails, Snakes & Arrows—at least eight times, counting my ticket stubs (possibly with one missing). Everyone in his passing has said it already, but I’ll say it again: You don’t take beer or pee breaks during RUSH’s drum solos. I have many times done so for KISS or Motley Crue, but Peart’s solos were bravura performances, arguably the highlight of the concert.

I am glad I got to see a true artist at the height of his craft. The Professor made my world brighter, and brought magic into my life through not only his playing, but his phenomenal works as a lyricist. As I hopped around Youtube last night listening to some of my favorite RUSH songs, this lyric from “Closer to the Heart” remains as true today as the day it was written: “And the men who hold high places, must be the ones who start, to mold a new reality, closer to the heart.” The men who hold high places and make decisions based on power and money and fear and greed are the source of so many of the world’s problems. We could all use a little more kindness.

Listening to a song like “Mission” makes me think of the brilliant artistry of Robert E. Howard and Frank Frazetta. I came to grips long ago with the fact that I would never be a fiction writer. It was no small source of grief and disappointment, but the lyrics of “Mission” made me realize that such passionate intensity and emotional attachment to art comes with a cost:

It’s cold comfort
To the ones without it
To know how they struggled
How they suffered about it

If their lives were
Exotic and strange
They would likely have
Gladly exchanged them
For something a little more plain
Maybe something a little more sane

We each pay a fabulous price
For our visions of paradise

After hearing the news of Peart’s passing I reached out to some friends via text. We shared a few old RUSH stories and our disbelief that Peart was gone. It made me feel a little closer to humanity. I forged friendships with some of these guys in part out of our common admiration for RUSH, and I’m still friends with them today. That’s pretty cool.

In short, I’m grateful that Peart lived, shared his amazing talents, and made the world more awe-inspiring. Thank you for the music Neil. If there is an afterlife I hope you find deserved rest after a life writing fearless lyrics for a band that never compromised its artistic integrity. Rock on.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Star Wars, nostalgia, and the insanity of fandom appeasement

(Warning: Spoilers if you have not seen the new Star Wars film. And rant coming).

Over the Christmas break I made a trip to the movie theater with my family to watch Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker. I had seen the prior entries in the new trilogy, and found them to be entertaining, fun, and occasionally moving, if somewhat predictable/formulaic action films.

I expected nothing less out of the third and got about what I was looking for: A reasonably satisfying conclusion to the arc that sees Rey (Daisy Ridley) go from homeless desert scavenger to self-actualized being and member of the Skywalker family, through making her own choice. This wasn’t done with particular grace or subtlety or complexity, and it was amid the usual wash of edge-of your-seat space battles and alien spectacle, but for what it was—a character narrative bolted on an action film that appeals to children, which is what the Star Wars franchise is and always has been—it worked, at least for me.

Then I watched Youtube to catch a few reviews. Big mistake.

I’m always curious to hear about others’ opinions of media I enjoy. In this case I wish I hadn’t. What I found was great swaths of 40-year-old man children in their basement complaining that the new Star Wars films did not meet their expectations.

That last bit is the key to why the fandom is pissed off: Unmet expectations. I might add, unrealistic expectations. I love A New Hope, and still feel a swelling in my chest when I hear the theme song kick in, or when Luke is staring into the sunset of Tatooine and into his future. But if I’m being honest, it’s also clunky and childlike. The acting is fairly wooden. I love the characters and the underlying mythic elements, the hints of the force and the scattered bits of references to the Old Republic and the Jedi Knights. But director George Lucas has admitted on several occasions that he was creating a film meant to be enjoyed by children. It worked. In 1983 I was 10, and thought Return of the Jedi was the best thing I’d ever seen, Ewoks and all. If I’m being fully honest my perception of the original trilogy is awash in nostalgia and my objectivity is severely compromised as a result.

Nostalgia is an amazing emotion, and part of the human condition. But nostalgia is the longing for something that you cannot recover. We’re never going to recover “Star Wars” as we knew it because we’re no longer kids ourselves. And the man-children and fandom at large have not come to grips with this fact.