Friday, July 2, 2021

What sword-and-sorcery needs

I've been seeing some promising signs of a modern day sword-and-sorcery revival, with a growing number of small publishers putting out new works or collections of reprinted works from the old masters. Digital and print magazines are springing up (Tales from the Magician's Skull, etc.), and there's some good scholarship going on in certain corners (DMR, The Dark Man, etc.). All encouraging, and maybe there's a kernel here that will grow.

But sword-and-sorcery is still a niche within a niche. If it's ever going to reach its former heights it needs a lot of help.

Here's what I think sword-and-sorcery needs in order to flourish once again.

1. More readers. We are now seeing many small outlets for S&S fiction crop up, but nothing resembling real commercial markets. It needs to get mainstream, with a larger audience, and more paying consumers to create a viable market for writers and artists. Morgan Holmes once said something along the lines of, what is needed is the modern equivalent of the mass-market S&S paperback of the 1960s and 70s--cheap, eye-catching covers, with good, simple, page-turning stories to back up the packaging. With wide distribution, although times have changed. Printing costs are higher and the days of the drugstore wire-spinning racks have gone, replaced by the online juggernaut Amazon.

2. Good authors. From what I have read there are a few talented modern S&S authors working in the genre today, but who will be our next Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, or Jack Vance? There are a few modern bestselling fantasy authors that I dig--Joe Abercrombie and George R.R. Martin come to mind. Could we see them or their equivalent attempt an S&S splash?

3. A cohesive community, perhaps organized around a fanzine. Guys like Jason Ray Carney are building this right now, with the likes of Whetstone, an amateur magazine that also has a Discord group. I belong to several good Facebook groups, and there are some reasonably well-trafficked Reddit groups and the like. You've got the Swords of REH Proboards and a few other hangouts for the diehards. But it all feels very disparate. Sword-and-sorcery lacks a common gathering space and watering hole, like Amra used to serve. Leo Grin's now defunct Cimmerian journal is the type of publication I'm thinking of.

4. Some type of award, a recognition of excellence for authors and publishers and the like. The closest we had were the Gemmell Awards, which recently died off. I'd love to see a "sword-and-sorcery" category at the Hugos or the Locus Awards but I'm not holding my breath. 

5. A crossover hit, probably a film (or a video game). There's a lot of debate over whether these types of media foster readers, but an actual good sword-and-sorcery film (if such a thing were possible) that garnered a lot of good press, and led some mainstream journalists and bloggers to take the time to point the way to the fiction, could spur new interest and new blood. A wildly popular video game may have the same effect. I don't think comics are popular enough these days to spur the level of interest we saw with Conan the Barbarian in 1970.

We will never see the likes of 1968 again but I do think we could experience a third S&S renaissance, if we could make a few of these happen.

Thursday, July 1, 2021

Swords & Shadows kickstarter underway

In July (starting today, in fact), Dream Tower Media is running a 30-day fundraising campaign to finance issue 4 of Sexy Fantastic magazine: Swords & Shadows! This is a quarterly SF and fantasy digital magazine of art, literature, and culture, produced and managed by Robert Szeles (aka, Robert Zoltan) of the Literary Wonder and Adventure Show podcast.

This issue is all about sword-and-sorcery. Supporting patrons can unlock a few gifts, one of which includes a signed copy of my own Flame and Crimson, as well as Ryan Harvey's science fantasy novel Turn Over the Moon, Szeles' sword-and-sorcery novel Rogues of Merth: The Adventures of Dareon and Blue, and other goodies, including art, podcast interviews, and more.

I've written a piece on C.L. Moore for Swords & Shadows and her unique contributions to the sacred genre. This issue will also feature four heroic fantasy/sword-and-sorcery tales, including one by the outstanding Adrian Cole.

Consider becoming a patron here.

Friday, June 25, 2021

The Dying Earth: A Case for Sword-and-Sorcery

Check out my latest post up on the blog of Goodman Games... The Dying Earth: A Case for Sword-and-Sorcery.

As I told blog editor Bill Ward after sending this one in I'm not sure I'm entirely thrilled with this piece. I don't like drawing hard lines around what is/is not S&S, like some purity test. The Dying Earth stories are bad-ass, no matter how you classify them. Vance was a master stylist and I love stories like "Liane the Wayfarer" no matter whether you consider them fantasy, science-fiction, heroic fantasy, or some other sub-genre (dying earth?)

I happen to welcome them into the S&S fold for reasons described in the linked piece. Your mileage may vary. Enjoy!

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Racism, Robert E. Howard, and historical context

I don't particularly enjoy discussions about racism and so tend to steer clear of them. As a white dude, I feel like I can shed very little light on the topic, and am at far greater risk of saying something incorrect, out of touch, and/or offensive, than add meaningfully to the conversation. Race and racism also gets more than enough play in mainstream news, social media, etc., and I'd rather focus on other things here on the blog.

But, I've decided to risk a post on it, mainly because I believe it might shed some new light on the subject as concerns pulp fiction and sword-and-sorcery.

So I'm currently reading H.P. Lovecraft: Letters to C.L. Moore and Others (Hippocampus Press, 2017) and my eyes widened when I read this bit:

What you say of English as the dominant tongue is interesting, and full of speculative possibilities. How would the language be affected, I wonder, if the Russians for instance, or the Orientals, overthrew our civilization and we lost our proud supremacy as a free and conquering people. I was wondering the other day, too, whether if the Negroes should take their place in the sun as a conquering race, they would continue to sing their plaintive ballads of oppression. Rulers singing the songs of slaves. Probably not, though since I understand their songs are very largely composed on the spot, begin highly topical. My father tells of experiences in bossing gangs of n*****s loading river boats in his youth, and the way they would make chants as they worked about the most trivial incidents. And then it's highly unlikely that the Negro race will dominate from some time to come. Though interesting to observe the effect of two or three generations of highly intensified culture imposed upon the raw savage out of African jungles. Who knows to what further heights they may rise in a few more generations?

These are not the words of the incorrigible racist Lovecraft, but are from the pen of C.L. Moore herself (I have redacted use of the n-word).

I offer this here not to engage in "whataboutism," or to excuse anything Howard wrote, or prop him up by knocking other authors down. Howard wrote some ugly stuff that can and should be critiqued.

But, what this quote does demonstrate is that racism was incredibly pervasive in the 1930s. Moore was a college-educated, 22-year-old banking secretary from nowhere Indianapolis when she wrote the above passage. It's further evidence that while Howard was a racist by our own, enlightened, 21st century standards, it seems increasingly clear he was probably not any more racist than your run-of-the-mill citizen of his era. 

Racism was an unfortunate reality of the 1930s. You can clearly see that Moore inherited her beliefs from her father. And so it goes.

I didn't broach the subject of race and racism in Flame and Crimson, save superficially, because I believe that to do so thoughtfully, in the manner in which it should be treated, would require a book-length work of its own. If you want to call that a cop-out, or a dodge, that's fine. I happen to think it's an incredibly important, interesting topic, and I welcome the discussion. But it's one that needs to be handled with care, and precision, and thoughtfulness, and research, which many people unfortunately can't be bothered to take the time to perform. It's far easier to engage in drive-by attacks on the likes of Facebook and Twitter than to stop and think about the cultural and socio-political landscape of the 1920s and 30s, and approach the subject of Howard's racism with what it absolutely demands: Historical context. It's just not productive or remotely interesting to call Howard a racist. By our standards today, of course he was. Shouting "Howard was a racist!" is no more enlightening than saying "Howard lived in Cross Plains Texas!"

The real question is: Was he any more racist than your run-of-the-mill citizen of 1930s America? The more I learn and read, the more I don't believe he was. What he was, was an eloquent, passionate writer who committed his thoughts and emotions and convictions to paper. Thus the record of his racism remains on the page for subsequent generations to see, when it was also in the hearts and minds of many, many others of his generation.

Monday, June 21, 2021

A look at the new (sword-and-sorcery) man-cave

One of the few positive by-products of the COVID-19 pandemic was that it finally forced my hand on a new home office. Since vacating the work office and being sent home by my employer on March 13, 2020, I had been working in an unfinished basement. I carved out a decent space but it was quite crude, with my meager furniture surrounded by cement walls and floor and exposed insulation. Worst of all, the basement lacked a heat source, and fell to the low-mid 50s in the winter here in New England. Many days I would slap on a winter hat and heavily insulated work shirt (a very liberal definition of office casual) before descending into the "office."

I needed to make a change. At first I was thinking a dedicated heat source and continuing with the previous setup, but ultimately decided it was time for an upgrade to a legit home office.

I contracted my friend Wayne, who recently started his own carpentry business (W.C. North, which I recommend unreservedly for any of my Massachusetts followers). Work commenced in April and wrapped up with finishes in May. I laid the carpet and did the painting myself.

I couldn't be happier with the final product. Unofficially I've taken to calling it the mullet room. It is business in the front, party in the back, divided between my computer and work desk, and bar and book collection.

Party in the back!

Work desk. Not a lot of excitement here.

Frazetta and beer, two tastes that go great together.

Original oil by Tom Barber.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Flame and Crimson has won the Atlantean award from the Robert E. Howard Foundation

When I started writing Flame and Crimson in 2014 I had no expectations. I did not think I was worthy of the attempt, nor did I know where it was headed, precisely, even with a detailed but tenuous outline to guide me. And for some time, at least two years, I suspected I would never finish. I kept waiting for my motivation to dry up and blow away, as it is wont to do, or I figured I'd hit some impasse in the story of sword-and-sorcery from which I would see no way forward, a sheer wall without hand or toe hold, and I'd be left stranded, with nowhere to go but back down. 

Many times I thought, well, at least I can take what I've got and spin it into a couple substantive essays, or blog series. Yeah, that's a better fit anyway. Who are you to write a book? Again and again, the voice of what Steven Pressfield calls Resistance (capital R) whispered in my ear, telling me to give it up.

I pressed on, through peaks and valleys, some small, others dramatic. Somewhere in 2018 I knew I was going to finish.

I'm going to bare my soul for just a moment and admit that I got a bit emotional when that realization struck me, like a thunderbolt. I knew, for better or worse, with or without a publisher, I was going to write a book, this book, and it would see the light of day, even if I stuck it in a .PDF without formatting and offered it up here.

From that point, my work intensified, and I finished the writing in 2019. 

I want to thank Bob McLain at Pulp Hero Press for publishing the book, and getting me in touch with Tom Barber for that striking, old-school cover.

I want to thank all my early readers, and reviewers, dudes like Paul McNamee and Davide Mana and Scott Oden, and later the likes of Bill Ward and David C. Smith and Jason Ray Carney, and many others. As of today it's gotten over 100 ratings, between Amazon and Goodreads, averaging in the mid-high 4 stars out of 5. The reception has been better than I ever anticipated, or hoped. 

A couple months ago Flame and Crimson received a nomination from the Robert E. Howard Foundation, and now after receiving definitive word from Rusty Burke I am over the moon to announce that it won the Atlantean award, for Outstanding Achievement, Book (non-anthology/collection, substantively devoted to the life and/or work of REH).


I thank everyone who has helped me along the way, with advice and critique, or contribution (they are listed in an author's note in the book). When you write (quasi academic) non-fiction you are standing on the shoulders of many others who have paved the way with research, including books, articles, essays, letters, and introductions. I drew upon hundreds of sources to write this book, cited them, then tried to give the story of sword-and-sorcery a coherent narrative, and my own spin. 

I hope you've enjoyed it.

As for what is next for me as a writer, I have no idea. I have a demanding, full-time job. Family, friends. Those things, and reading and blogging, fill my time. Writing Flame and Crimson was a substantial sacrifice. Can I muster that type of effort again? Perhaps. If I could make writing a full-time gig I would do it in a heartbeat, but alas, sword-and-sorcery does not pay the bills. I feel a bit like a sword-and-sorcery hero who has survived a great adventure, spent his meagre coin in the local tavern, and now has the prospect of the next hair-raising scrape.

We'll see.

Friday, June 11, 2021

To the memory of Robert E. Howard (Jan. 22, 1906-June 11, 1936)

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.

 -- Robert E. Howard, "The Pool of the Black One" 

Over the years my appreciation for Robert E. Howard has grown, not diminished. He was an extraordinary, unique, meteoric talent that blazed across the sky and was gone, far too soon. It's almost incomprehensible that he produced so much great work in about a dozen years of professional writing. I'm currently reading the letters of C.L. Moore and H.P. Lovecraft, and for months and months after his passing, until Lovecraft's own death the following year, REH's name and legacy was a fixture in their conversation.

No one wrote like Robert E. Howard, and no one has since. He put himself into every story, and there was only one Robert E. Howard. 

He's not coming back, but we follow in the wake of the passing ship that was his body of work, into the unknown west, and marvel at the trail he blazed.

Friday, June 4, 2021

Battle Beast, "Armageddon Clan"

I've shown some love to Battle Beast before, in what seems like a lifetime ago (10 years?). This morning while working out "Armageddon Clan" inspired me to get an extra rep on the overhead press, so I figured it was worth sharing here, and pumping you up on your Friday.

This song has got all the elements I love. The lead singer, Nitte Valo, screams like a banshee. What a voice. A great opening guitar riff. Driving bass and drums that get your blood pounding. Relentless energy. 

I also dig the apocalyptic imagery and fun lyrics. As a child of the 80s who grew up in the shadow of the mushroom cloud and the searing imagery of The Terminator, this song hits all the right notes for me. Pun. Fully. Intended.

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Bran Mak Morn: The Last King, a few thoughts

I recently finished a re-read of Bran Mak Morn: The Last King (Del Rey, 2005), inspired by a reading of the Karl Edward Wagner pastiche Legion from the Shadows. Some thoughts, rattled off rather quickly as a formal post is not in the cards:

Bran Mak Morn is like an ancient, savage, King Arthur. He is a once and future king, who will unite all the original tribes of Britain, drive out the “civilized” Roman and post-Roman invaders, and restore existence to a primitive ideal. His Camelot/round table will be the Cromlech, an inscrutable symbol of the unknown. Poul Anderson did this sort of thing with Hrolf Kraki’s Saga, but Howard’s “Arthur” is even deeper in time, the late third century.

A lineage of Picts connects all of REH’s material, like a savage through line. They make appearances in the Kull, Bran Mak Morn, James Allison, and Conan stories. Brule the spear-slayer’s lineage goes back to the very beginning (the Thurian Age of Kull, the days of Atlantis and Lemuria). The Last King contains a nice essay on this topic by Rusty Burke and Patrice Louinet, “Robert E. Howard, Bran Mak Morn, and the Picts.” Bran Mak Morn taps into and unites this ancient spirit, successfully uniting the tribes before eventually dying in battle. But his image persists, a literal effigy in stories like “The Dark Man” and “The Children of the Night.” Will he come again, a once and future king?

Picts are Howard’s image of the primal, original state of man, whether that state is good or ill. Howard’s Picts are a primitive race. They organize in tribes, live off the land as hunter-gatherers (notably they do not farm, which makes men soft), don’t build cities, and work with flint. Howard saw himself in these slanted forehead, dark complexioned, brutish, un-guiled race.  The Picts are a step below barbarians in Howard’s taxonomy, unchanging, and eternal. Barbarians would eventually organize, and civilize, and grow soft—not so the Picts. A description of the Pictish chieftain Gorm from Howard’s “The Hyborian Age”:

In the seventy-five years which had elapsed since he first heard the tale of empires from the lips of Arus—a long time in the life of a man, but a brief space in the tale of nations—he had welded an empire from straying savage clans, he had overthrown a civilization. He who had been born in a mud-walled, wattle-roofed hut, in his old age sat on golden thrones, and gnawed joints of beef presented to him on golden dishes by naked slave-girls who were the daughters of kings. Conquest and the acquiring of wealth altered not the Pict; out of the ruins of the crushed civilization no new culture arose phoenix-like. The dark hands which shattered the artistic glories of the conquered never tried to copy them. Though he sat among the glittering ruins of shattered palaces and clad his hard body in the silks of vanquished kings, the Pict remained the eternal barbarian, ferocious, elemental, interested only in the naked primal principles of life, unchanging, unerring in his instincts which were all for war and plunder, and in which arts and the cultured progress of humanity had no place. 

The Picts did contain a purer, nobler strain, as exemplified in Bran, from the Thurian Age. They morphed in conception in Howard’s mind as he wrote the stories, and was exposed to new theories.

Howard uses the term “heather” very frequently when describing the landscape of ancient Britain, and its wilds, again and again, like an incantation. I have no knowledge of plant-life, but a quick Google search reveals that heather is a dominant plant in the heathlands of moorlands of Europe, yet is hardy and has been successfully introduced to many other continents and climates, including North America. The way in which Howard uses the term invites comparisons with his nostalgia for the frontier; I wonder how much he had in mind old, pre-cultivated, pre-industrial Texas, before the cattle farms and barbwire taming, while writing these stories.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Teenage wasteland and examining the unexamined life

I did not look like these dudes,
but was, in spirit.
Reading Donna Gaines’ Teenage Wasteland: Suburbia's Dead End Kids (1991), an otherwise unremarkable sociological study about troubled teenagers living in suburban New Jersey, has made me think a bit more about my own life, my story, and trying to knit it into a consistent whole. Like many other boys and young men, I’ve always been interested in things--Music, D&D, weight lifting, the military, history, fantasy fiction—over people. Maybe more so than your average person. I’ve always sucked at small talk, and relationships, and spent very little time examining myself, instead enjoying music and books and the like. Most of my life has been existing, and living without examination. I’ve decided in my middle age (47) to do more of that, maybe here on the blog.

I grew up in the time period and was a teenager in the same timeline of Teenage Wasteland, the late 1980s. My own experiences were different from the kids in the book—I would say that my hometown of Reading, MA was more affluent than Bergenfield, New Jersey, with more promise in my particular geographic area, more jobs due to the presence of a good economy in nearby Boston and its suburbs. My family was not affluent—my dad held a blue collar job building and developing centrifuges at a production plant in Brighton, while my mom took care of her three kids and did odd jobs (office cleaning, baby sitting) to help make ends meet, before eventually taking a job as a legal secretary as we got older. We were not anything close to wealthy, we didn’t always get what we wanted for birthdays or Christmas, and we wore hand me downs and a mixture of new and used clothing, and lived in a modest cape on a dead-end, blue-collar street. My town had its burnouts like those described in Gaines’ book: Reading High had a back parking lot where (incredibly, looking back from today) you could smoke. We had the metal kids, long-haired and denim jacketed, opposite the jocks. Some went to the nearby vocational school and became mechanics.

I had brushes with the burnout culture, but had a foot in each camp, which in hindsight may have made me somewhat unique. I played football, and track, and kept my hair short, and my grades were unremarkable, C’s and B’s, save for English, where I could pull As with little difficulty. But I also wore metal T shirts and hung out with a semi-fringe, though not burnout crowd. We loved metal, we drank when we could get our hands on beer or cheap vodka. A few of my friends smoked—cigarettes, and again when we could get our hands on it/post high school, weed. But, we didn’t do hard drugs, and we mostly stayed out of trouble with the police, a few scrapes here and there aside.

Like the kids in Teenage Wasteland I didn’t know what the fuck I wanted to do with my life. Not even a clue. I went to state college because I was a decent student, but mainly because it was the thing most kids did—not all kids, not for example my friend Wayne who went from retail to house siding to carpentry, and now today has his own small business. Not a couple other acquaintances and occasional drinking buddies who drifted into substance abuse. But most. Although thankfully I didn’t drift down that latter path, I was nonetheless a drifter, sliding into college, going along for the ride, partying and going to class. At college I had two major, life-altering occurrences—I met my future wife (we started dating as sophomores, and got married a year after graduation, in August of 1996) and I discovered a love of reading and writing after a false start in sociology and criminal justice. Eventually I chose English as a major and worked on my college newspaper. I excelled in all my English and writing classes because I loved the material.

I guess I was lucky, and met the right girl, which led to buying our first town house, setting me on the path of home ownership (two houses later, I’m living in the dream in a large colonial), and starting a family with two girls of my own. My love of reading and writing turned into a job on a small local newspaper, at the tail end of viability of local journalism. That later turned into a job at a medical b-to-b publishing company and my current, well-paying job and stable career.

Given my modest upbringing, the opportunities I had to take my life in a different, darker, direction, how did I end up where I am today and not in some dead-end, like that described in Teenage Wasteland?

The 80s had their issues. It was the decade of excess (again, for some), and probably the beginning of the have/have not wealth divide that is plaguing the country today. Manufacturing, blue-collar jobs like my dad held were being steadily eroded (my dad retired at the right time, in the late 90s, just as his company was bought and moved overseas. His old plant is now a condo). I stayed out front of ruin by cashing out on our first home (though taking a hit on our second), and getting out of print journalism just as the internet killed newspapering. I was competent—I’m being unnecessarily humble, I was an editorial star at my current job—which allowed me to survive the financial crisis of 2007-2008 and a deep round of layoffs. Due to severe mismanagement at the same company we endured an even worse series of layoffs and eventual purchase in 2012/2013, and I again survived those.

Kids were troubled back in the 80s. I saw some of that first-hand, and some of the consequences. But, kids were also troubled in the 60s, and 70s, and the 90s. And now today, with everyone wondering about the effects of staring at cell phones all day. “Kids these days” has probably been muttered by every single adult since ancient Greece, and in fact it has. Socrates himself wrote, “the children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.” Sound familiar?

1994? Sue and I, just getting started.
I was fortunate enough to go to college and fall in love twice—once with my wife, and again with the likes of Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot and John Keats. I thank my parents for putting me through college, and scraping to do so, so that I did not graduate with a mound of debt. My wife had some, but together we managed it, and paid it off. We lived on nothing for the first year of marriage, living in an apartment in Burlington, VT on scraps. She was a grad student and I worked selling insurance, and later as a security guard, making almost nothing. That continued until we moved back to MA, and I started stringing for a local newspaper, where I got hired full time. My wife became a speech-pathologist and has since moved into school administration.

I guess you could say (to use modern vernacular) that I was “privileged.” Some of that is true, in that I grew up in a stable if unremarkable U.S. suburbia of the late 20th century, not war-torn Bosnia. But I reject that as the sole story. I worked consistently, my entire life. I have had jobs since I was 11-12, and worked at every school break, doing every odd job you can possibly imagine. Shagging carriages, digging fence post holes, sweeping floors, delivering newspapers. As a professional I didn’t take work home with me, I didn’t kiss ass, but I always (and still) believed in obligation, and keeping promises. Maybe it’s the old Northern European/Danish blood in me, and my reverence for the oath and/or Protestant work ethic, but when I’m being paid to do a job from 8:30-5, I work, and I do it to the best of my ability. I don’t believe in half-assing anything I commit to. I don’t always commit, but when I do I’m in, and my work, if not always brilliant, ranges from well-done competence, to exceeding expectations. When you do this, over and over again, you will eventually be noticed, and promoted. I have seen others in very similar circumstances and with similar abilities fail.

The world is a troubled place, and always has been, and despite our best efforts to socially engineer it, probably always will be. Some people will get shit breaks. But I think hard work and dogged persistence can still lift you up from teenage wasteland.

Friday, May 28, 2021

Sword-and-sorcery news and goings-on

Some recent news and items of interest that readers might find interesting.

My Q&A with Bard author Keith Taylor has been posted in two parts on the DMR website. If you're at all interested in his life, early writing career, collaboration with Andy Offutt, health, and current plans and writings, and much more besides, I recommend checking them out. Keith was super generous with his time composing these wonderful answers. Part one is here, and part two here.

The dudes over at the Cromcast released their final episode of season 13, covering Karl Edward Wagner's Bloodstone, and gave some good coverage to my DMR essay on the (possible) influence of The Lord of the Rings on that book. This is why I write these essays--not for the fortune and fame, but in the hopes that people will read them, interact with them, maybe leave thinking a little differently about their favorite works and authors.

I sent an essay over to Bill Ward at Tales from the Magician's Skull asking and attempting to answer the question, "Is Jack Vance's The Dying Earth Sword-and-Sorcery?", in 1,000 words. Not easy. That I believe will be published in June.

My buddy Wayne hung up my beloved Miller Lite sign in my new basement office/bar/man cave last night. And with that final flourish, it's done, man, and I'm pretty darned happy with the finished project. I'll post some pictures here soon. I describe it as a mullet--business in front (work station and desk) party in the back (bar and bookshelves featuring much S&S and other books).

Friday, May 21, 2021

Queensryche, "Take Hold of the Flame," Live in Tokyo 1984

Time to gush for a moment.

Geoff Tate circa 1983-88 was a vocal god on earth. Extraordinary range, power, expression. Soaring octaves that leave you speechless, wondering how a human voice can produce this sound. I have yet to see his peer in this window of time.

Here is arguably his greatest live performance, Queensryche ripping the roof off some dome in Tokyo in 1984. Move over Godzilla. If you haven't yet seen "Take Hold of the Flame," I envy your first experience. It's nuts.

Queensryche fell from its lofty perch, hard, after the smashing commercial success of Empire. But I choose to remember them here, when they were at their best, circa The Warning, Rage for Order, and Operation Mindcrime.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Bran Mak Morn: Your favorite cover?

I'm currently on a Bran Mak Morn kick, having read Karl Edward Wagner's Legion from the Shadows (good, not great) and now am going back to the original REH stories themselves.

What is your favorite cover? I'm partial to the Dell Bran Mak Morn--a dark, brooding Frazetta painting, with savage Picts looking very much like a prehistoric race bridging the Hyborian Age and our own ancient world. I prefer it over the Gianni and Jeff Jones covers, but your mileage may vary.

Awesome art by uncredited Doug Beekman

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.