Sunday, May 31, 2020

Talking sword-and-sorcery with Robert Zoltan

Today I recorded an episode of the Literary Wonder and Adventure podcast with host Robert Zoltan (aka, Robert Szeles). It was an enjoyable, wide-ranging, 90 minute or so conversation on sword-and-sorcery, Robert E. Howard, Flame and Crimson, fantasy fiction and the power of myth, publishing, genre, and more.

I’m not sure exactly when the episode will be posted as Robert does a lot of post-production and editing, and as I understand it co-host Edgar the Raven will be making an appearance on the show. But I’ll announce when the episode is live.

Learn more or subscribe to the podcast here.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Remembering my friend, and Dungeon Master, Rick Langtry

Three years ago I lost my friend Rick Langtry to cancer. Rick was a guy that readers of this blog would have liked—a fan of fantasy fiction, hard rock, role-playing games, history, beer. He had an enviable sword mounted on the wall of his living room, real Toledo steel purchased in Spain. In other words, he appreciated all the good things in life. He was a family man with a son and a daughter and a great wife, Charlene.

I met Rick in about the shadiest place imaginable, and under shady circumstances. I believe it was April 2001. Dungeons and Dragons third edition was newly on the scene, promising a “back to the dungeon” approach and a fresh update of a tired, bloated rule set. I was married but without kids at the time and suddenly found myself possessed by the urge to dust off my dice bag and get back in. The only problem was, I didn’t have anyone to play with. A web search turned up the EN World site, which had a “Gamers seeking Gamers” forum. Rick was living in Southern New Hampshire and at the time I was living in Northern Massachusetts, and through the online forum we brokered a meetup at The Tavern in Methuen. My wife was so paranoid that I was going to be murdered by some madman that she made me take her cell phone (I did not have one at the time), thinking that I could at least call from the trunk of a car.

Our meetup at The Tavern was very apropos for what was in store, since as any veteran gamer knows most of the D&D adventures ever played begin with the player characters meeting up awkwardly in a tavern, downing ale served from a comely tavern wench before embarking on adventure. Ready to serve together in arms in life or death circumstances, regardless of the fact that they just met, and barely know one another’s names. Which again, proved prescient.

At the time smoking in restaurants was still a thing, and when I walked into The Tavern it was like the streets of Victorian-era London, with dim lighting and (cigarette) smog straight out of the East End. I looked around and there was Rick, with a beard a beer. Fortunately not Jack the Ripper.
In hindsight it was a meeting solely to make sure we both had one head and a reasonably complete set of teeth. But I knew after a single beer with Rick that he was the kind of guy I’d enjoy hanging out with. I walked out of the Tavern absolutely stiff with smoke, but confident that I found a Dungeon Master, and possibly, a friend.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Remembering Ronnie James Dio

Voice of an angel (and a demon). The great Ronnie James Dio.
Can it really be 10 years since Ronnie James Dio fled the circles of the world? Somehow, yes. A decade has passed since his death, but his music remains as vibrant and awesome as ever. Today I expended a few words explaining why over on DMR Blog. Check it out here if you're interested.

There's been some nice Dio tributes on the interwebs today. Here's a nice collection of short remembrances from the likes of Rob Halford, Scott Ian, and others. 

Glad to hear that in addition to being a once-in-a-lifetime talent, he was also humble and a great guy who took the time to help out new musicians and stick around to sign for the fans.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Sword-and-sorcery: A divergent path of the hero’s journey

Hey, this hero is made up of a thousand
faces... I see what they did there.
The following are some ramblings and observations conceived after a recent reading of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces. I’m not sure if I believe the ideas I’m advancing. I’m no Campbell scholar. Just presenting some thoughts here for commentary/disagreement/dismissal. Have at it.

Among the claims I make in Flame and Crimson is that sword-and-sorcery offers a sandbox in which to explore themes alternative to mainstream/high fantasy. The latter often closely follows the “hero’s journey” as described by Joseph Campbell in his classic 1949 study The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Sword-and-sorcery I am positing here offers an alternative exit ramp.

To set the stage a bit: Campbell (1904-87) was a teacher, lecturer, author, and editor who achieved fame with his compelling theory that mythologies the world round—ancient Greek, African, Native American, Northern European, occidental and oriental, and more or less everything in between—share striking similarities and patterns, including their use of the hero’s journey. The journey entails three major stages—Departure, Initiation, and Return—defined by familiar hallmarks and tropes like The Call to Adventure (which the hero may initially refuse), Dragon-Battle (symbolic of the fierce guardian the hero must overcome), and Whale’s Belly (our hero is swallowed, sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively,  in a near death experience). The hero undergoes a supreme ordeal to obtain a reward, then re-emerges from the kingdom of dream and returns with a boon that restores the world. It’s a work that builds on the theories of Carl Jung, including the collective unconscious.

How does traditional sword-and-sorcery fit into this model? There is some significant overlap. We see calls to adventure in S&S, journeys into dark pits and underworlds. We see magical aid, from time to time. And plenty of battles against fearsome monsters and wizards. Robert E. Howard’s “The Scarlet Citadel” fits this mold very well, with Conan heeding the call to adventure (taking the bait on a trap set by plotters to steal his kingship, but riding out to heed that call). Captured, he is imprisoned in a dark hell-like underworld, swallowed if you will, and battles a giant serpent. He is offered magical aid by Pelias the wise wizard in the form of a flying mount. And he returns to lay waste to his enemies and would-be usurpers on the battlefield.

But I would argue that sword-and-sorcery diverges with the hero’s journey, often sharply, in the return, and what a return portends. Sword-and-sorcery heroes return (though not always, particularly in the works of Clark Ashton Smith, where they often die ignominiously). But when they do return, typically they do not bring with them a boon that restores the world. In fact, they usually refuse to return or reintegrate to society, and occasionally bring radical upheaval or destruction home with him.

Friday, May 8, 2020

My "new" Frank Frazetta post up on DMR blog

If you're interested in my latest ramblings, head over to DMR Blog to read "A Savage Strength: A Tribute to the Muscular Art of Frank Frazetta." The estimable Dave Ritzlin, publisher, posted my essay on his website yesterday. A slightly different version previously appeared on The Cimmerian website, for which I used to write.

While you're there check out Deuce Richardson's excellent post on Rafael Sabatini, a (semi) forgotten master of historical adventure fiction.

Frazetta, the greatest fantasy illustrator of all time (in my not so humble opinion), passed away on May 10, 2010, so we're closing in on the 10th anniversary of his death. Frazetta was to the painted canvas what Robert E. Howard was to pulp fiction--a fantastic, blazing talent, a pioneer, and an artist who changed the face of fantasy. All you need to do is take a look at the way Conan was portrayed from his initial Weird Tales depictions in the 30s through the early 60s, before Frazetta hit like a thunderbolt with Conan the Adventurer (1966). His fierce, muscular depiction of the Cimmerian took Conan beyond the wiry Roman legionnaire inspired covers of the Gnome Press editions of the 1950s, and remains definitive. It probably always will.

I've got a framed print of Frank's cover art for the John Jakes novel Brak vs. the Sorceress ("Apparition") in my man-cave. It's not a very good book, but Frank's artwork is stunning.

NOT an original canvas (I wish)

Saturday, May 2, 2020

The balance

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic the argument rages: Freedom of the individual vs. accountability to society. Pick your side in a binary choice; one is right and the other is wrong. It’s a math problem, right, and we just need to arrive at the right answer?


Life is not a math problem, the truth does not lie with one set of political beliefs. I have found in my life that the truth is found in balance.

We cannot place individual rights at the apex of truth in the midst of pandemics. If you throw off PPE and spread germs (which happens asymptomatically), you can sicken and kill others and/or overwhelm our hospital capacity. Epidemiology doesn’t care about your politics.

Likewise, if you insist on locking down the country until we have a reliable vaccine administered to every man, woman, and child in the country, you crush the economy so badly it will take multiple years to recover. If you are one of the fortunate who has a job that allows you to work from home and maintain your income, please note that millions do not enjoy the same privilege, and small business owners are getting crushed in the lockdown.

Solution: The balance. Start widespread testing. Isolate spreaders and implement contact tracing. Move forward smartly and in stages. Get construction back up and running. Open up businesses like restaurants and hair salons that can’t exist without physical customers, but with social distancing measures and PPE requirements.

Freedom advocates will cite freedom of the individual as our nation’s founding principle. I am a sovereign individual, I will tell you how I will live my life, big daddy government does not. Don’t tread on me. Etc. These same folks however seem to have forgotten the U.S.’ history of the draft, which in the Civil War, World War I, World II, and Vietnam sent men against their will to fight and die. They abhor “draft dodgers” who are derelicts to duty and their country, but have no issue violating federal orders to stay at home and social distance—which is this year’s supreme duty to country.* There comes a time when duty to country, and your fellow man, trumps the concerns of the individual. This must be if we are to maintain societal cohesion. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is not a license to trample others' rights to life and liberty.

I believe in the second amendment, and own a gun. But I realize that the right to bear arms does not permit me to own a modern machine gun or hand grenades. I believe in rigid enforcement of the National Firearms Act. Home defense and hunting culture, of which I am both a firm believer, must be balanced against public safety.

If this viewpoint makes me a whimpering “beta” milksop, call me that if it makes you feel better. Just know that I stand for reason, and common sense, and moderation, over blind allegiance to party or principle.

*The draft had the conscientious objector option, but this involved an application and review process, objectors were not always accepted, and if they were, were reassigned to non-combatant duty in service of the war and the country. They still had to serve.