Friday, May 14, 2021

Flame and Crimson nominated by the Robert E. Howard Foundation

This was a heck of a surprise.

Flame and Crimson has been placed on the final ballot for the 2021 Robert E. Howard Foundation awards. You can find a complete list of the 2020 and 2021 nominees at the link above, which I can't resist sharing because it's probably the one time I'll ever get mentioned on Locus. Here is the initial announcement on the REH Foundation website.

I have been twice nominated for awards by the foundation, both times for print essays. These included "The Unnatural City" (from The Cimmerian, Vol. 5 No. 2), in 2009, and for "Unmasking 'The Shadow Kingdom': Kull and Howard as Outsiders" (from REH: Two-Gun Raconteur #14) in 2011. This time I've been nominated for The Atlantean — Outstanding Achievement, Book (non-anthology/collection). Per foundation rules, books nominated for the Atlantean may be print or digital, must be a minimum of 50,000 words, and must be substantively devoted to the life and/or work of REH. Reprinted works without significant revisions are not eligible.

I'm up against some stiff competition as Charles Hoffman & Marc Cerasini are legends in Howard studies, as is Fred Blosser, and their books are more purely aimed at Howard scholarship, as opposed to the broader S&S genre. But anyone who has read Flame and Crimson will note the substantial amount of attention rendered to Howard and the case the book makes for his place in S&S, fantasy in general, and as a writer of consequence.

Let's hope the third time is a charm.

The deadline for ballots is Sunday, May 16, at 11:59 pm CDT. I am a member of the REH Foundation (supporting member) and I haven't quite figured out how voting works. If you are a member, let me know how this is done, as there are several other worthy nominees on the ballot for whom I'd love to cast my vote. And I see the late Steve Tompkins has made his way into the nominees for the Black Circle Award for lifetime achievement. That's a pretty darned good group he's a part of, and Steve absolutely deserves to join that elite inner circle someday.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Some more S&S thoughts on the way; Keith Taylor news

Recently I've completed a couple of essays that will be published, both as early as tomorrow, by Dave Ritzlin over at DMR Books and Bill Ward at Tales from the Magician's Skull. "Myth manifesting in the present: Robert E. Howard’s “Marchers of Valhalla”* was a semi-spontaneous eruption of sheer joy to see Howard making myth, very much in the vein of J.R.R. Tolkien, with this wonderful, lesser-known story that Dave recently reprinted in Renegade Swords 2. Anything with Vikings in it gets my attention, and when you combine REH at his wild, poetic best with mythic Aesir I'm all in.

The piece for Tales from the Magician's Skull, "Keith Taylor and the Bard's Songs"* was likewise inspired by two new-to-me stories from Keith Taylor from Renegades Swords 2 (these stories were first printed in the revival of Weird Tales back in 1988). Since then, I was able to obtain Keith's email address and wrote to him, and he's generously and at length been answering a series of 10 questions I posed to him about his early influences, writing career, and current health and upcoming plans. Great stuff from Keith which I hope to publish in some form or fashion.

(*Bonus points to those who spot the Blind Guardian references in both essays; they're pretty obvious).

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Satsuma covers Ratt's "Lay it Down" and Judas Priest's "Hellion/Electric Eye"

At many points in my life I've debated picking up the guitar. I've always thought it would be awesome to be able to bust out a six string and entertain guests on the beach, or plug in and replicate some of the favorite riffs of my youth. Wouldn't that be cool?

Then reality smacks me upside the head. Specifically, the effort, and hours, it would take.

One of my friends brews beer. He spends hours, a couple weeks, to make a halfway decent batch. I've tried many; they're pretty good, though not great.

"Don't do it unless you love the process, man," he tells me.

"Why?" I ask.

"Because you can drive down to the local liquor store and buy something 3x better than you or I could make."

He's right of course.

The same words of wisdom apply to the guitar. I think about the amount of effort, and practice, hours upon hours, it would take to even muddle through a song. Is it worth it? Maybe? And then I think of this Japanese dude Satsuma, who exposes me to the futility of that dream. Look at this damn cover of Ratt's "Lay It Down." I'm in awe. This dude RIPS. So badass.

Check out his rendition of "Hellion/Electric Eye." I'm in awe of this guitar god. Stick around for the solo.

I can't even imagine the amount of practice that went into this.

So yeah, on second thought, I'll stick to watching Youtube, and dreaming of being a guitar god.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

A wall of S&S

I'm currently in the final stages of a basement office/bar renovation that will yield me a retreat worthy of the Gods. This lengthy project, which left me without ready access to any of my books, is finally wrapping up, allowing me to spend some time unboxing and reshelving my small arsenal of S&S and other titles.

I decided to devote one bookcase entirely to sword-and-sorcery. Or mostly. There's a few odd books of mythology mixed in here, some Tarzan and sword-and-planet, old swashblucklers and historical fiction, etc., but mainly it's a wall of S&S coming right at you. Click on the photo to zoom in and revel in its greatness, if you enjoy such things (I know I do).

Behold the wall! Fear the wall, mortal dog!

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Sometimes you get lucky: An S&S haul

Sometimes you just get lucky.

I managed to acquire this haul for free, from a very nice gent who was selling his home, moving across the country, and didn't want to be bothered hauling boxes of books with him. This was someone who said they had 75 S&S books to give away, but I was thinking I might be wasting 2 1/2 to 3 hours on a round trip drive, if the "S&S books" turned out to be fat fantasy/Harry Potter/etc. 

Instead, it turned out to be a jackpot. I told the dude that rest assured, his books were going to a good place.

Presented here for your viewing pleasure.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Gateways to sword-and-sorcery

Monster Tales! 
What are yours?

I have many fond memories of youthful reading. When I was in elementary school I was enthralled with the likes of Fire-Hunter by Jim Kjelgaard, Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe (abbreviated/illustrated version), and was engrossed/entertained/scared shitless by Monster Tales: Vampires, Werewolves & Things. I'm still looking for a reasonably-priced copy.

With the benefit of hindsight I realize that these books were leading me, inevitably, toward sword-and-sorcery. Barbaric/pre-historic heroes. Warfare. Monsters and the weird. Throw into a bubbling cauldron and you get S&S. Soon I would find The Savage Sword of Conan, and my path was fixed. But I was already leaning heavily in that direction.

My gateways to sword-and-sorcery are here at Tales from the Magician's Skull. 

Friday, April 16, 2021

Flame and Crimson in Xuthal: Innsmouth Book Club Podcast is up

As mentioned on my last post, I was recently invited to guest on the Innsmouth Book Club podcast. That recording is now up; you can listen here (note: the podcast is hosted on Patreon but you don't have to be a patron to listen).

I have to say I was probably at my relaxed best; I had a lot of fun with this show. I spent a fair bit of my time on my childhood memories of what got me into S&S. I also relayed a story of the time I visited the abandoned Danvers State Hospital, one of the eeriest experiences of my life. I do after all live in Lovecraft country, a long stone's throw from the historical Innsmouth, Newburyport MA.

The two hosts were great and a lot of fun, and were well-read and asked some good questions that allowed me to ramble. It's amazing that you can just hop on a Zoom call and shoot the shit for an hour with two like-minded dudes from Britain. What a world.

The first 30 minutes or so are the two guests talking about Xuthal of the Dusk, with me joining later.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Some swordly-and-sorcerous goings-on, and guest appearances

If you want to get invited on a podcast, the thing to do is to write a book (it's that easy! Well, not the writing of the book part, which is rather hard). Then apparently you have become an authority, or a quasi-celebrity, instead of an average boring dad who likes to read about men stabbing monsters, and each other, during his spare time.

Tomorrow I will be serving as guest on the UK-based Innsmouth Book Club, a podcast which covers HPL, CAS, REH, and other like authors. The hosts will be covering "The Slithering Shadow"/"Xuthal of the Dusk," then I'll be on to talk S&S more broadly. Little do these guests know I live within a stone's throw of the historical Innsmouth, Newburyport MA. And have seen Deep Ones (or maybe they were just drunk bar patrons ... who knows).

Next month I've been asked to guest on a new show called Unknown Worlds of the Merril Collection, with the episode to appear sometime this summer.

I've also been told that a podcast episode I did with Robert Zoltan on the Literary Wonder & Adventure Show last June is nearing 2K views. Check that out here.

Among the reasons I love to write is that it allows me to express my true and actual voice, which due to a combination of natural introversion (I definitely recharge in solitude, away from people) and mild social anxiety is far easier for me to do in the written word than in conversation. That's why I've resisted starting a podcast myself. I fear I'm not very glib, or interesting. Just interested in certain things, like S&S and heavy metal, if that makes sense.

I hope I can deliver something of value to these programs. Even against my natural inclinations I'm leaning into the apprehension and doing my part to spread the gospel of sword-and-sorcery.

On the writing side of things, I recently had published an academic essay, "From Pulps to Paperbacks: The role of medium in the development of sword-and-sorcery fiction," in The Journal of American Culture. The publisher is the Wiley Online Library and it's behind a paywall, but if you're interested and/or have library or other free access, you can find it here. One of my discoveries during the research and writing of Flame and Crimson was that sword-and-sorcery was shaped as much by medium as by the idiosyncratic contributions of individual authors. That's what this essay is about, covering the role of pulps, magazines and fanzines (in particular Amra), and mass-market paperbacks, on how sword-and-sorcery came to be. It was done on a very tight deadline after Jason Ray Carney, editor of The Dark Man, asked me to fill in for someone else who had to bail last minute, and so it relies on much material from Flame and Crimson. But the focus is more squarely on the medium, not the authors. I do hope it opens up S&S to some academic-types and other cultural observers.

Friday, April 9, 2021

Man of Sorrows, Bruce Dickinson

If you're an Iron Maiden fan but have not given Bruce Dickinson's solo albums a listen, you're behaving in a criminally irresponsible manner. Please fix that.

Exhibit A; this is not even accorded one of Dickinson's better solo songs, but it's one that showcases that one of a kind voice that is the Air Raid Siren. "Man of Sorrows" (from Accident of Birth, 1997) is far more soulful and personal than we'd see on the likes of Piece of Mind, but Bruce belts it out with verses that soar.

Enjoy. Happy (metal) Friday.

Friday, April 2, 2021

Queen of the Black Coast, Manilla Road (and REH, too)

Did Robert E. Howard influence heavy metal artists?

Does a bear shit in the woods?

Among the many things I love about sword-and-sorcery are that its tentacles are everywhere, including some places you might not expect. Like the lyrics of a heavy metal band formed in 1977 in Wichita, Kansas.

Take a listen to "Queen of the Black Coast," off of 1982's Metal (aside: can an album name get more metal than Metal? Like Spinal Tap, it gets none more black than that). Many metal bands including early Black Sabbath appropriated fantasy and demonic imagery, while other bands incorporated sword-and-sorcery whole cloth into their music:

These dudes aren't everyone's cup of tea and probably never made to the metal mainstream (though they were close with 1983's Crystal Logic) due to Mark Shelton's odd singing voice, and esoteric subject matter. Shelton can be jarring at first, but he grows on you, and Manilla Road has hooked me deep. The REH content is icing on the cake.

I love this tune, and this story, and the fusion of old stories influencing subsequent artists in different mediums. And even though Manilla Road is gone with the death of Shelton, the bard's songs continue.

Spoiler alert.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Confess, Rob Halford (2020), a review

The Metal God tells all...
I’m a raging Judas Priest fan, and chances are you are too, if you like metal. I frequently vacillate between Priest and Maiden as the greatest metal band ever. When I hear the opening notes of The Hellion/Electric Eye I’m tempted to just say, fuck it, Judas Priest.

So I was pleased to be able to buy and finally read lead singer Rob Halford’s “tell all” Confess. This highly anticipated autobiography came out in September 2020 and a couple of my friends were like “you’re just reading that now?” But hey, what can I say, my TBR pile is towering and ridiculous.

Straight off, if you’re a gay-hater, you’ll hate this book (and you may also wish to engage in some self-introspection, there is no choice in the matter for a man like Rob Halford, who simply knew he was gay from a very young age). In places Rob went a bit overboard on his descriptions of his various and often sordid sexual encounters. I couldn’t believe the lead singer of such a hugely popular band had to resort to trolling in truck stops, for example. So if you’re squeamish about these things or a prude you should probably skip the book. But, these passages serve to underscore the double life Halford was forced to lead, and the separate identities—bad ass metal god, sensitive closeted gay man—he had to maintain and (attempt) to balance.

Not always well as it turned out.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Swords & Sorceries: Tales of Heroic Fantasy

KEW? Is that you?
Swords & Sorceries: Tales of Heroic Fantasy (2020, Parallel Universe Publications) was for most of its 219 pages an enjoyable read. I can recommend this one.

I tend to react to a lot of new sword-and-sorcery with indifference, but I don’t think S&S fares any worse than other subgenres or most writing in general (the same can be said of my blog, where a handful of posts I’ve written seem to get regular traffic, but most collect dust). This book had as many hits as misses, which beats par for the course for many anthologies. Four standouts for me:

“The Horror from the Stars,” Steve Dilks. This was my first story from Dilks and I will definitely plan on reading more from him (his Gunthar collection has been on my to-purchase list). Reminded me of Charles Saunders’ Imaro with its bad-ass black main character on a path of vengeance. Well-written heroic fantasy with some great fight scenes and real weirdness layered in.

“Disruption of Destiny,” Gerri Leen. A quiet story, probably will not be what most readers who purchase this volume want or expect, but I really enjoyed it. It reminded me of a couple tales in the Gerald Page/Frank Reinhardt-edited Heroic Fantasy that question the warrior’s path and the damage wrought by a violent lifestyle. The protagonists’ suffering and care for her son were palpable, and I liked that the ending was a bit ambiguous. It stayed with me.

“Red,” Chadwick Ginther. I think this was the best story in the antho. The style reminded me very much of Joe Abercrombie—a bit crass, unflinching in its violence, seasoned with humor. Very, very well written at the sentence level, and the main character, a swordswoman named Red, was skillfully developed, and her motivation in this relatively straightforward story convincing. No infodumps. A scene in which she is swimming for her life underwater was particularly effective, and the final monster was grossly satisfying. This line: “Her sword was a strangely comforting weight on her breast. It filled the hollow in her gut that told her Needle was already dead” made me take notice.

“The Reconstructed God,” Adrian Cole. I was initially put off by the non-human/familiar demon protagonist, but damn if Cole—author of the revived Elak stories and the Dream Lords series—didn’t make the little imp work. A fine cross/doublecross tale populated with a bunch of roguish, self-interested thieving/scheming types, in the vein of a Jack Vance Cugel story. Good world-building here, but deft, not heavy-handed.

I loved the homages to classic sword-and-sorcery sprinkled throughout. I mentioned the Dilks story owing something to Saunders; Steve Lines’ “The Mirror of Torjan Sul” took its style and verbage from Clark Ashton Smith, while Geoff Hart’s “Chain of Command” was a straight up homage to Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, albeit with a role/sex reversal (too Leiber on the nose for my tastes, but I appreciated the sentiment). Cole threw in a nice reference to an old classic with his use of “Thorgobrund the jeweler” (I see what he did there). And the introduction by editor David Riley pays tribute to one of the first volumes in the Pyramid anthologies that started it all, the classic L. Sprague de Camp-edited The Spell of Seven (1965).

All the other tales had points of merit. “The City of Silence” started excellent, with a shocking injury suffered by its protagonist, but ended flat (there were a few flat endings to otherwise fine stories, including “Trolls are Different” by Susan Murrie Macdonald). “The Mirror of Torjan Sul” had a fine, hot, demonic foe and was set in a well-drawn, atmospheric necropolis.

Of course I have to mention the nice artwork by Jim Pitts. I love seeing these veteran sword-and-sorcery artists get work thrown their way (I was pleased to be able to do the same for Tom Barber, who illustrated the cover of Flame and Crimson). I liked the cover illustration but also the skulls and motif art throughout.

I am looking forward to volume 2, and hope that vol. 1 sells well enough to encourage further volumes in the series—and helps spur the steady trickle of new sword-and-sorcery/heroic fantasy that we’re currently seeing.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

A review of Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road (Neil Peart)

Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road (2002) did not quite meet my expectations, both the book itself and in a larger sense who I believed/expected Neil Peart to be. In life Peart was such a private person that I knew very little about him, even after listening to Rush for decades, seeing them in concert some 6-8 times, and reading articles and interviews here and there. With Ghost Rider I spent 460 pages inside Peart’s head, and now feel like I know him a lot better.

The bulk of the book consists of reprinted letters to his friends written and sent while on the road from approximately 1998-2000, during some 2 years of solo motorcycling that took him across Canada, North America, and Mexico. Peart would get up early and ride his BMW motorcycle all day, stopping at hotels around 4 or 5 p.m. to eat, drink, and smoke, occasionally tour the local scenery, and write letters. He often rode through the rain or navigated unpaved roads, putting a beating on his bike which necessitated frequent repairs. Peart is revealed as a lover of nature, an aficionado of good food and wine/scotch whiskey, books including the likes of Jack London (he’s a fellow The Sea-Wolf and Martin Eden fan, I was pleased to discover), and someone who valued staying connected through letters and evening calls with a circle of friends. Peart also put a premium on staying private from the general public. He was rarely recognized during his travels and when he was, was intensely uncomfortable with the attention. Ghost Rider reveals that Peart had some low(ish) self esteem issues, and was amazingly humble given that he was/is a top 5, maybe top 3, rock drummer of all time. I’d also put him way up in the pantheon of all-time great rock lyricists.

Of course this trip was prompted after the crushing loss of his daughter and common-law wife within a year of each other, the first at age 19 in a single car accident, the latter from cancer but also depression and a broken heart. Heart-rending stuff. These experiences destroyed the former Peart and left him rootless, unmoored from his past, and severing him from what he thought to be his chief interests, including drumming, which he abandoned for more than 18 months. Certainly he lost all interest in touring and playing with Rush, which clearly he considered his work/professional life, separate from the interests that fed his soul. Rush and music are mentioned surprisingly little in Ghost Rider.

Ghost Rider is also raw at the edges.Peart is at a few points angry, even petty, in his criticism of “fat Americans,” and an inattentive waitress. Some of these passages come across as a bit mean-spirited, directed at people who didn’t seem to actually interact with him, and were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. But these incidents were most prevalent earlier in his ride/early in the book, when he was angry at the world. A few times Peart expresses (understandable) anger that loud, boorish people are alive, while his wife and daughter are dead. I can’t blame him—that’s a catastrophe that I cannot imagine enduring, and I’m sure it led to emotions spilling out of which he had no control. I give him a pass.

Peart on the road.
In short, Ghost Rider is recommended, but probably only to Rush fans. At more than 400 pages it gets a bit repetitive on the travelogues, and could have been trimmed down. I would have liked to have seen less emphasis on letters, especially letters recounting old stories with old friends that lack emotional impact and relevance to an outsider, and more self-reflection on his healing journey. Some of the passages about him going through his daughter’s effects (stuffed animals, books) were heart-breaking and will remain with me. Peart’s time wintering in Canada, fending off the depravations of a squirrel intent on his bird feeder, with a nerf gun, were good fun, and revealed surprising sides of a complex person I never knew. I was so glad to see him meet the love of his life at the end, and say goodbye to the “Ghost Rider” persona he adopted on the journey (he adopted a few others too, pseudonyms, which seemed to be an ongoing theme in his life, a coping mechanism for not being fully comfortable in his own skin, but this aspect was not as well explored as it could have been).

I find myself these days listening to more Rush than I have in a long time. It’s fueled by a love of great music of course, but I suspect it’s also nostalgia for my youth, and for my days seeing Rush in concert, which will no longer happen again after Peart passed away in early 2020 from a glioblastoma.

Farewell Neil Peart, you are gone but never forgotten. Thank you for Ghost Rider, and the music, and your life.

Friday, March 5, 2021

Should readers of pulp sword-and-sorcery be worried about McElligot's Pool?

What are we to do with books from a bygone era that contain stereotypes or racist or sexist attitudes deemed harmful today?

I was admittedly a bit dismayed to read the news that some of Dr. Seuss’ books have been removed from circulation. And a little abashed. As little as 10-12 years ago I read the likes of If I Ran the Zoo, McElligot’s Pool, and And to Think that I Saw It on Mulberry Street, to my now teenage daughters. These were not the annoying, cloying, sing-song rhyme-y likes of The Cat in the Hat or One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, but narratives about children exploring the wider world, and returning enriched from their adventures. They loved them, and so did I.

Now these have been pulled from the shelves by Dr. Seuss Enterprises, never to be published again.

Certainly it’s their prerogative, and of course they have every right to do so. But I now ask myself, was I a bad father for having read my kids these books? Further, do I remain a person of questionable character because of the kind of books I still read and enjoy today?

I’d be lying if I said I was not at least somewhat worried about the future of old pulp literature and classic sword-and-sorcery.

I’m not a publishing libertarian. I don’t think anyone should be able to publish whatever they want. Certainly new books that lead a reader to the conclusion that the Jewish race must be exterminated, or that children can and should be exploited, have no business being published. The question of to publish or not publish is a spectrum, and at the extreme end certainly almost all would agree that some books should never see the light of day.

But what about a book that contains a stereotyped image among an otherwise fun, harmless story about a kid using his imagination to weave a story about the wonders that may lie beneath the waters of an ordinary pond in a hayfield? McElligot’s Pool offers a meaningful metaphor about the power of the imagination. Are the presence of “Eskimo Fish from Beyond Hudson Bay” sufficient cause for its cancellation? Because if so, then perhaps Ballantine/Del Rey should stop publishing The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, which contains “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” and “The Vale of Lost Women,” as well as The Conquering Sword of Conan, which contains the likes of “Man-Eaters of Zamboula.” All of which have been criticized for containing offensive material.

Canceling Howard would of course be terrible. I’m not a fan of clich├ęs but certainly the old saying “throwing the baby out with the bath water” applies. You toss out “Man-Eaters of Zamboula” and you lose amazing passages, like the iconic trial of strength between Conan and Baal-pteor:

Conan's low laugh was merciless as the ring of steel.

"You fool!" he all but whispered. "I think you never saw a man from the West before. Did you deem yourself strong, because you were able to twist the heads off civilized folk, poor weaklings with muscles like rotten string? Hell! Break the neck of a wild Cimmerian bull before you call yourself strong. I did that, before I was a full-grown man—like this!"

And with a savage wrench he twisted Baal-pteor's head around until the ghastly face leered over the left shoulder, and the vertebrae snapped like a rotten branch.

You may say of this post, "apples to oranges." And you may be right. Dr. Seuss wrote children’s books, and Howard’s stories are for adults. Adults can read with historical context, but children cannot, and therefore it’s not worth leaving the images in Dr. Seuss’ books. Fair enough. Besides, most of his catalog remains intact. Few are likely to miss these relatively obscure titles, and it’s just easier to get rid of them (and less costly to hire an artist to re-do the images, and reprint books that might not be selling well to begin with). 

But put enough pressure on a publisher of adult fiction, and they too will be faced with such a choice.

You might argue, “well, it’s Del Rey’s right to stop publishing Howard, and someone else can publish the Conan stories.” But it’s not that simple. What if the current publisher holds the exclusive rights, and then opts to sit on them, rather than surrender them?

Or, in a more sinister fashion, what if another publisher picks them up—a publisher with a name, and a family. Does that mean that this publisher is therefore a racist, by association? And fit to be ruined in the public sphere?

Or, what if the current atmosphere of shaming and fear continues to escalate, leading to only a disreputable publisher willing to pick up the Howard stories? Couldn’t that further damage Howard’s reputation, by association?

It’s not an easy issue.

My current proposal is to put a warning label on the cover, and let the reader decide. “This book, written in 1933, contains caricatures and stereotypes that readers may find offensive. They are preserved for the sake of artistic integrity and historical accuracy. Proceed with caution.” Similar to what the record labels did in the 80s with the “Parental Advisory/Explicit Content” stickers. 

Except we’d need something more concise, snappier, than what I’ve suggested. “Warning: Old Pulp” might do it.

I’m probably worrying over nothing. Sword-and-sorcery is a niche within a niche, not taught in schools, unknown to most readers, unknown even to many who read fantasy. But I can’t help but worry, just a bit, about the future of these old stories I still hold dear.

Postscript: I hesitated to write this post, as I recognize and acknowledge that your opinions may well be very different than mine. I acknowledge that some will find Howard or Burroughs’ words, or Seuss’ images, deeply offensive and harmful. I cringe at them as well. I don’t defend them, and I certainly don’t celebrate them. But I recognize them as of their time, and I believe that the larger art within which they are contained is very much worthy of preservation, and continued reading and enjoyment. And continued discussion. Let’s have the discussion whether they are works of art, and works worthy of preservation. I would also ask you to think about what is lost when you stop publishing old books because some part of them is offensive by our modern, enlightened standards. I think that decision exacts a higher toll than you might realize.

Monday, February 22, 2021

A Fitting, Final Honor for Charles Saunders, Author of Imaro

My latest post for DMR Books is up: A Fitting, Final Honor for Charles Saunders, Author of Imaro

Check it out for my thoughts on the late, great Saunders, who fled the circles of this world in May 2020, but left a warrior behind.

RIP Charles Saunders (July 1946-May 2020)

Friday, February 19, 2021

Up the Irons and eff the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

The Boys from Britain don't need no stinking HOF!

Iron Maiden has been nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

My reaction? Who gives a shit.

Evidently I’m supposed to be excited by this news… I find myself feeling rather apathetic, with a smattering of bemusement and a (slight) bit of anger.  I do recognize the considerable irony in stating “who gives a shit” and then spending my time writing a post about the news. Evidently I have some level of investment. But I’m writing this as much for as my own amusement as anything else.

A little history on my relationship with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In the past I have kept tabs on the list of inductees. I was happy to see the likes of Black Sabbath and KISS eventually get in, though both are kind of no-brainers. I didn’t get too wrapped up in either nomination, because I figured it was a done deal. And it was (an aside: it took KISS, eligible for induction since 1999, FIFTEEN YEARS to get in, which it finally did in 2014).

My typical level of detached minor interest ratcheted up in 2018 when stupidly, I got wrapped up in the fan vote for Judas Priest. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame includes a fan vote, with the top five acts in the popular vote earning what amounts to a single “vote.” These five bands then get that one vote added to the couple hundred votes cast by the real power-holders, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Committee, a shadowy cabal of unknowns who hold all the power of who gets in and who gets left “Out in the Cold” (pun intended).

As should be obvious by the formula, one fan vote stacked against a couple hundred “educated” votes by the “critics,” counts for next to nothing. I spent time--too much, as you can vote over and over again, though only once per day--voting on the HOF platform, only to see Priest—which did get in the top five in the fan vote—get croaked by the committee.

So, in 2018 Judas Priest—a band who revolutionized heavy metal by adding an iconic sound (the twin guitar attack) and establishing its iconic look (leather and studs), immortal songs like “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming” and “Breaking the Law,” and a 50+ year legacy of influencing countless bands—lost to the likes of Nina Simone.

Since then Priest has failed to make it any further, to the Hall’s eternal shame.

That brings me to Iron Maiden, another personal favorite band of mine about whom I’ve made my love abundantly clear here on the blog.

Maiden has had a career that would turn 90% of the previously inducted acts’ faces green with envy. I don’t think people outside of heavy metal circles understand how massively popular and influential these guys are. They’ve been selling out sports arenas (pre-COVID of course) for 40 years. They’ve sold more than 100 million copies of their albums worldwide, all without any commercial airplay or support. At one point VH1 ranked them No. 24 in their “100 Greatest Artists of Hard Rock.”

It’s utterly absurd to think that they need to add a Hall of Fame credential to justify whether or not they are great, or influential on the development of rock-and-roll. But frankly, it’s the “hard” part of “hard rock” that makes Maiden an unlikely candidate for Hall of Fame acceptance.

The fact is, the voting on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is calculatedly political, and archly snobbish, and therefore actively hostile to brash, loud, metal acts. Heavy metal can never get its just due in this stifling, narrow-minded environment. Even relatively safe, mainstream party rock acts like KISS only get a look when their case is so overwhelmingly obvious that to leave them out would compromise any shred of validity the enterprise still holds.

Bruce Dickinson has voiced his opinions very clearly on the Hall of Fame, calling the Hall "an utter and complete load of bollocks" that is "run by a bunch of sanctimonious bloody Americans who wouldn’t know rock ’n’ roll if it hit them in the face." Go Bruce.

So in the end, it does not matter whether Maiden gets in. Their career speaks for itself. When Maiden is finally retired and gone, the echoes of “Hallowed be thy Name” and “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” will ring through the ages, long after most of the acts in the Hall of Fame have been forgotten.

Unlike 2018 I will not waste a moment voting for Maiden. Not because I don’t love the band, but because the institution itself is corrupt. No Maiden, Priest, or Motorhead renders the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame utterly irrelevant.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Parasite, "Night Winds"


The first 1:02 of "Nightwinds," an obscure song by an obscure Swedish metal band named Parasite, encompasses everything I love about the heavy metal genre. Atmosphere. Grandeur. Power. Artistry.

Unfortunately the song is undone by its underwhelming chorus. Also, "breaking the nightwinds" sounds suspiciously like a nocturnal emission under the sheets. Oh well. But I also love the incredibly cheesy depths that metal occasionally descends into. It's all part of the charm.

Anyways, crank up this clip from Youtube, and listen to at least the first minute or so. You have to play metal loud or it doesn't work.

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Some ramblings on old school tastes in music, reading

Now that's old school.
I was glancing at my bookshelves recently, as I’m wont to do when I’m in between books and scanning for the next title … or if it’s just Tuesday. And it struck me that my reading tastes are rooted firmly in the past.

My top shelf has got the collected works of Rudyard Kipling, Rafael Sabatini’s Scaramouche, and several books by E.R. Eddison and Poul Anderson. The next shelf down are the Lancer Conan Saga, Karl Edward’s Kane, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Not exactly George R.R. Martin, Patrick Rothfuss, or John Scalzi. Any of which I could be into, but am really not, even if some day I do plan to finish A Song of Ice and Fire, if Martin ever gets around to it.

I do take comfort in the fact that I’m not alone. An adherent of Anglo-Saxon literature and Icelandic Saga, J.R.R. Tolkien was of the mind that anything after the Canterbury Tales was (mostly) not worth his time. I’m glad I’m not that extreme, or else I never would have discovered The Lord of the Rings or “Beyond the Black River.” But, in another sense I’m quite like Tolkien, my eyes cast ever backwards at the literature of a lost age. We’ll never have another golden age of sword-and-sorcery, when drugstores carried Conan the Buccaneer on their wire spinners and Thundarr the Barbarian thundered through living rooms on Saturday mornings. But that doesn’t mean I’ve moved on from those glory days. Today my drugstore is Abe Books and Ebay, where I hunt down old copies of Pursuit on Ganymede and Raven 5: A Time of Dying. And I know there are many others like me, based on what I’ve seen in the Facebook groups I belong to.

My tastes in reading are analogous to my tastes in music, which is likewise the music of my youth. My favorite bands are Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, KISS, Rush, and AC/DC. Some of these guys are still writing new material—some of it damned good—but mostly they are associated with their heyday in the 70s and 80s. If you’re a fan, you’re ancient history, pal.

I would not say I’m a hopeless case, irrevocably trapped in the past. I can and do enjoy some new stuff. Battle Beast, a young Finnish metal band for example, caught my attention, and now have muscled their way into my playlist alongside the likes of Blind Guardian and Pantera. I like Joe Abercrombie, including the likes of The Heroes (2011). At this very moment I’m reading and enjoying Brian Keene’s The Lost Level (2015), which just came out in the last decade.

But on some level even these “new” finds are anachronistic, often deliberately so, which continues to prove my point that I like old shit. For example, The Lost Level is a clear homage to the likes of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Pellucidar series. Battle Beast is an unabashed throwback to the 80s. It should come as no surprise that the band draws inspiration for its sound and lyrics from that era. Even in the new stuff I consume, I’m drawn inevitably to older forms of expression.

I do wonder: Do we develop our tastes during a formative time in our lives and become part of us forever? Does some biochemical process shape our malleable brains between the ages of 8-18, and permanently alter our mental wiring? Musician and musicologist Nolan Gasser offers some answers along those lines, arguing that the music you listened to as a youth placed you within a culture that formed part of your identity:

“I actually use the term ‘intraculture’ to describe cultures that take place within a culture,” he explains, likening them to subgenres of music. “A lot of it has to do with where you grew up and what kind of musical influences are in the air, but we participate in so many subcultures of affinity, just based on what we like. Intracultures provide us with access to music just because you’re a part of a group, and that group means something to you.”

“Music becomes that stake in the ground — ‘this is who I am,’” says Gasser. “But at the same time, the music people listened to at an early age becomes their native home comfort music. When they grow up, that music will be part of who they are, tied in with memories and growing up. All of these powers are why music is so important to us.”

There is no doubt that heavy metal had its own culture and ethos, one that I participated in, and on some level still do. I may be indistinguishable from your average everyday middle-aged middle class dude, but I have a metal spirit in me, an anti-authoritarian streak and a pride in having tastes that are harsher than the mainstream, even anathema in some quarters. I’m sure that’s part of the reason why I maintain such an enduring loyalty for these bands.

Interesting is my lack of nostalgia in other areas—I enjoy the latest psychology and self-help books, for example. I delight in the latest and greatest beer from new breweries (Heady Topper is way better than Pabst Blue Ribbon). I’ve come to enjoy podcasts as a new medium for consuming information and entertainment, even though I still prefer the printed page over e-books.

It’s really only certain forms of art, in particular music and fantasy literature, where my preferences clearly lie with works pre-1990.

Another possible explanation: Were the authors and musicians of my youth simply better at their craft? Were these subgenres—heavy metal and sword-and-sorcery—more widely practiced because they were more lucrative, or more creatively vital, and hence attracted more and greater talent, producing better art than we see today? Perhaps. Some authors can and did make a living writing for Weird Tales back in the day, and of course many metal acts made a fortune in the 80s. Artists don’t enjoy the same market realities today. The bar to writing and publishing stories and music is easier than ever, but I don’t believe it’s as easy to make a living at either these days.

Who knows. Be it a matter of identity and cultural imprinting, or idiosyncratic tastes, it’s hard to say why I enjoy the old shit. All I know that is that heavy metal and Tolkien and sword-and-sorcery were my obsessions then, remain so today, and likely always will be.

Friday, February 5, 2021

Sword-and-Planet Love-Letter: Gardner Fox’s Warrior of Llarn

Warrior on a blue zebra with horns! In space...

New post up at the blog of Goodman Games, publisher of Tales from the Magician's Skull: Sword-and-Planet Love-Letter: Gardner Fox’s Warrior of Llarn.

I enjoyed this immensely and without reservation, too much for my own good. So much fun, and the pacing is basically a dead sprint. If you're bored reading Warrior of Llarn there's minimal to no hope for you. Definitely worth seeking out and reading. If you're a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars series it will feel intensely... familiar. It's basically an homage to A Princess of Mars. But still great. Thief of Llarn doesn't rise to the same heights, but it's still good.

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Of Heady Topper and the craft brewery revolution

The OG, Heady Topper.

I expend a lot of digital ink on The Silver Key writing about how my eyes were opened to a new kind of fantasy when I discovered Robert E. Howard, and the great passion and respect I possess for the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. But I have a couple of additional passions as well. One of them happens to be beer. And I can say without reservation that my life changed in 2014 when I drank my first can of Heady Topper.

I’m not sure how many of my visitors are from the New England region of the United States, but among the many reasons why I enjoy living here (along with fall, and the mountains of New Hampshire, and the seacoast) is the beer scene. New England gave birth to a style of beer that has become my favorite, the New England India Pale Ale, or NEIPA.

NEIPAs are characterized by their hazy appearance, citrus aroma, and hop-forwardness. Some are double dry hopped, with the likes of Citra, Mosaic, and Galaxy hops added in whole, late in the brewing process, to add even more hoppy goodness and piney bite. In the last decade the NEIPA has exploded in popularity and has become a staple at breweries everywhere. But we largely have Heady Topper, the OG, and the Alchemist Brewery in Vermont to thank.

I’ve never been a beer snob. I started with the likes of Budweiser, Miller Lite, and Coors, and will still drink a cold Coors Lite on a hot summer day. But in the late 90s I began to branch out and discover the joys of smaller breweries and styles beyond Lagers and Pilsners. Sam Adams Boston Lager was an early favorite, as was Harpoon IPA and Long Trail IPA. Blue Moon, a Belgian White, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, and Magic Hat #9, another pale, were also early favorites. These were “craft beers” before the true small, local craft beer scene began to emerge in the late 2000s.

As the 21st century rolled around I started hearing about this new beer called Heady Topper. An article in the Boston Globe described Massachusetts residents driving for three hours up to Stowe, then waiting for another 2-3 hours in line, to get it. Who the hell would wait for a beer, when my local packie offers immediate convenience?

How good could it possibly be?

I had the chance to find out in 2014 while up in VT visiting some friends. My friend had picked up some Heady Topper, Focal Banger, and Crusher from the Alchemist, and I finally got to crack a few cans with him, in front of a wood fire in the cold mountains outside of Burlington.

Mind blown. My eyes were opened to what beer could truly be. I didn’t weep, but something inside me was moved, and since then I’ve been all in on the craft beer craze. Later I took a trek up to Stowe to buy a two-case allotment from the Alchemist. My wallet and waistline have paid the price.

Heady Topper is 8% ABV and packs a punch. It’s also very hop forward. You can’t give a new beer drinker a Heady Topper or any of the high IBU IPAs right out of the gate. It’s cruel, like plopping a wobbly new skier on a double black diamond ski run. You need to build up to it, condition your palette, before taking that kind of plunge. I don’t believe I could have enjoyed Heady had not I had a history of drinking Harpoon and Sierra Nevadas and the like.

Since Heady Topper many other amazing NEIPAs have come along with their own takes on the style, and many believe the Alchemist has been surpassed. That could very well be the case. My personal favorite is Bissell Brothers Brewing in Portland, ME, whose Swish (which can only be purchased at the brewery, in limited releases, and for which I have waited nearly 2 hours in line to obtain) is so good that words fail me. I also love their flagship Ale, Substance, as well as Reciprocal. They don’t make a bad beer.

Heavy hitters. From left to right, Trillium Fort Point, Battery 
Steele Flume, Kettlehead The Agent, Swish (Bissell Brothers),
Sip of Sunshine, and Focal Banger (Alchemist)

Other favorite beers and breweries include:

  • Fort Point, Trillium Brewing, Boston MA (actually a pale, but double dry hopped and in same ballpark as the New England IPA
  • Ponyhawk, Resilience Brewing, Littleton NH
  • Flume, Battery Steele Brewing, Portland ME
  • Sip of Sunshine, Lawson’s Finest Liquids, Waitsfield VT (though brewed elsewhere)
  • It’s Complicated Being a Wizard, Burlington Beer Company, Shelburne, VT
  • The Agent, Kettlehead Brewing, Tilton, NH
  • Fiddlehead IPA, Fiddlehead Brewing Company, Shelburne VT

I do like other styles of beer beyond the IPA. There is an amazing brewery about 10 minutes from my house in neighboring Amesbury, Brewery Silvaticus, which makes wonderful German inspired ales and lagers and stouts, amazingly well-balanced beers that are a joy to drink. It’s wonderful to walk into Silvaticus and see the stainless steel brewing tanks set against old brickwork, drink a beer or three, shoot the shit, and watch the world go by.

Today local craft breweries are springing up everywhere. While the pandemic has certainly slowed their growth and put a few out of business, from 2008 through 2016 craft breweries grew sixfold. Their superior product has put a major dent in the goliaths. Over the same period shipments from the likes of Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors, Heineken, Pabst, fell 14%. Local craft breweries have the advantage of producing fresher, unpasteurized beer, hyper-locally, and often offer great atmosphere and personality. The small breweries of today remind me somewhat of the classic Irish Pubs. Instead of loud music and 20-somethings pressed shoulder-to-shoulder, swilling shit beer, craft breweries gather folks of all ages to gab, and revel in well-made local product.

I’m very glad to be living in this golden age of beer.