Sunday, December 26, 2021
Wednesday, December 22, 2021
The end of the year is a time for reflection, and so here I offer up a look back on a swordly-and-sorcerous 2021.
2021 in hindsight felt a lot like 2020. The ongoing and seemingly eternal COVID-19 pandemic is probably the biggest culprit. As I noted in a previous post most of my waking productive hours are consumed by my day job, and ever since our company sent us home to work in March 2020 my days feel very similar, chained to a screen in the basement. Which explains the 22 months or so of relative sameness.
From a blogging/writing sword-and-sorcery standpoint I had a fairly busy and productive year. I wrote some original posts here on the blog, and a lot more besides between Tales from the Magician’s Skull and the blog of DMR Books. And, I contributed pieces for The Dark Man journal, The Journal of Popular Culture, and Whetstone.
As always, I wish I had done more.
Most popular posts
From a page-view only perspective, here were my most popular posts on the Silver Key.
What sword-and-sorcery needs, 814 views. Weird because this was very much a throwaway/10 minutes of inspiration/no forethought or planning-type post. Anyways, it picked up a lot of steam on various platforms, some praise, some criticism, and much discussion. Which is what sword-and-sorcery needs.
The Dying Earth: A case for sword-and-sorcery, 626 views. This one picked up a lot of traction from the folks over at Goodman Games, as that fine outfit was launching a Dying Earth RPG around this time. Also it seems to be somewhat unique, and mildly controversial. Some don’t think Vance’s The Dying Earth is S&S, and so your mileage may vary.
Of Heady Topper and the craft brewery revolution, 402 views. People like good beer? I know I do, and plan to drink my share over the next 10 days. Viva New England IPAs and the craft beer scene.
Signs of a (modest) S&S revival, 388 views. Another spur of the moment post, I was seeing a lot of optimistic signs of an ongoing S&S resurgence, led by the new rotoscoped animated film The Spine of Night, and this one got a lot of traffic from Facebook and elsewhere. Make no mistake, S&S is still a very niche and somewhat tenuous subgenre, and apparently anathema to major publishers. But, there is SOMETHING going on, and I hope it continues to gain steam.
Sometimes you get lucky: An S&S haul, 349 views. I scored a major win this year when a dude from a Facebook S&S group I’m part of who happened to be local to my home state of Massachusetts announced he was moving across the country, and needed to unload his cache of S&S titles to someone who would appreciate them. Needless to say, I’m that guy. People love book porn and there you have it, the recipe for a popular post. Also, I am grateful that I have a proper home for these books and my growing collection, and can add a newly renovated office/man cave to my 2021 accomplishments.
What can we take from this? Talking about sword-and-sorcery sells, as does beer (put both together and you’ve got a great evening of entertainment. I know, I’ve done it). More broadly, “meta” posts about sword-and-sorcery/the state of the subgenre/etc. rather than individual authors or titles seem to resonate, and occasionally gain traction on the likes of Reddit and Twitter, which in turn drive the most page views. Sword-and-sorcery literature as a whole drives most of the traffic to this page. Back when I started the Silver Key in 2007 I was getting an overwhelming amount of traffic from roleplaying blogs, as somehow I got picked up by a few sites devoted to AD&D and the Old School Renaissance (OSR) movement. That largely seems to have died off, as has large volumes of blog traffic in general. I still like blogs and blogging and find it an infinitely superior medium to the ephemeral viral this second/gone in 10 seconds reality of social media. I know there are other options, but I don’t really know what a substack is and can’t be bothered to research it. So, I anticipate continuing here as long as the Blogger platform exists and Google doesn’t yank the plug.
A few other noteworthy items to cover.
I was guest on three podcasts/panels in 2021, two of which are available (linked on the right of this blog). The other, an episode for Friends of the Merril Collection, I’m told will be published in the first quarter of 2022. I’m always on edge on these programs (thanks social anxiety) and much more comfortable behind the keyboard, but I love listening to podcasts, and I know they are great vehicles for learning and entertainment. And I’m getting more comfortable with them. I’m glad to be asked, and for the opportunity to step out of my comfort zone. Therein lies personal growth.
Flame and Crimson won the Atlantean award from the Robert E. Howard Foundation. What an honor this was. I still don’t know who nominated my work but I’m eternally grateful. The plaque with Howard’s engraved visage is hanging on the wall of my sword-and-sorcery bar/mancave. F&C continues to generate very positive reviews and ratings on the likes of Goodreads and Amazon.
Vikings and S&S
Although it didn’t garner the most page hits I’m happy with this recent post for DMR Books, (Not) Lost in Translation: The influence of Old Norse Saga and myth on Robert E. Howard and sword-and-sorcery. I made this connection in Flame and Crimson but expanded on it over on DMR. I’m proud of this bit of original scholarship; I have not seen the link between S&S and Old Norse Saga and myth made so forthrightly anywhere else.
My reading slipped a bit from 2020, just 40 books and counting, which means I will finish well short of my goal of 52 books. Anything I offer up would be an excuse, so I’ll just say I want to waste less precious evening hours in 2022 when I could be reading instead. My reading was a mix of old and new, and I’ll post the list before the year is out, but I can say that the best new (to me) sword-and-sorcery author I read this year was Schuyler Hernstrom (his excellent The Eye of Sounnu). My review can be found here on the DMR blog.
What will 2022 bring? Who can say. In the near future I will be attending a Whetstone Lantern Hour on Jan. 18 where Whetstone editor Jason Ray Carney and some other S&S fans will be gathering to discuss the first couple chapters of Flame and Crimson. Catch me there, or here on the blog, or at an Iron Maiden or Judas Priest concert near you. I’ll be seeing both bands in 2022, pandemic willing.
In summary, thanks for reading, and commenting, and following my meagre work here and elsewhere. I hope you all have an amazing Christmas and New Year.
Sunday, December 19, 2021
|I was there, Gandalf. I was there 3,000--err 20--years ago.|
There was huge anticipation for these films. I was hoping against hope that they would be good, but I feared and expected the worst. The odds of them sucking were high. I could count on one hand the number of truly good fantasy films prior (Excalibur, Conan the Barbarian, Rankin Bass Hobbit, the original Star Wars trilogy should you count them as fantasy). And, my expectations were incredibly high. The Lord of the Rings is my favorite novel, across any genre. It is one of the greatest novels ever written, and stands alongside the best classic literature of the last two centuries, full stop. To put a work like this in the hands of a Hollywood studio was an invitation to butchery and disaster. Surely Jackson would not be able to meet the high standard I had set.
Nevertheless I had to see the films. They were getting a lot of hype and some advance praise from critics (which I largely avoided), and so made the trek to the theater on Dec. 19, 2001.
Opening night was pandemonium. There were people in line in elven cloaks and chain mail. Two dudes were swordfighting in front of the screen with boffer weapons. Most nerdy of all, a dude in the row in front of me watched the film with an LED headlamp on, following along with the book on his lap.
I kid you not. That's some hardcore nerdity right there.
When the opening title sequence came on with Howard Shore's atmospheric score the audience broke into cheering and applause.
I will admit, I was rapidly swept away into the film. The Shire looked largely as it had in my imagination. The cast was spectacular. I was moved to tears with Boromir's death. Shockingly, against all my fears, it worked. I left the theater blown away, surprised by joy beyond anything I had hoped. Over the next two years, I repeated the pattern with The Two Towers and the Return of the King. I cried again, when Sam put Frodo on his back on Mount Doom, and Theoden led the ride of Rohirrim on the Pelennor Fields.
I was sad to see it all come to an end.
So, twenty years later, how do they hold up?
Pretty darned great, in my opinion. Great does not mean flawlessly. When I watch them now there are a few parts that I actively dislike (collapsing bridge sequence in Moria, shield-surfing at Helm's Deep, and the green ghost army at Minas Tirith). The Paths of the Dead sequence is not particularly well-done. I don't miss Tom Bombadil and believe that was a smart cut, but I do miss the scouring of the Shire, and believe that its excision makes it a lesser film. The action is over-emphasized and some of the slapstick humor is out of place. Jackson would amplify these flaws a hundred fold in the absolutely abysmal adaption of The Hobbit a decade later.
Are the movies as good as the book? No, they're not, and they could not be, not even with 12 films and an unlimited budget. The world we see on screen is not as deep or wide as the one we encounter in Tolkien's text. Some of the themes and much of the complexity was removed.
All that said, I'm full of gratitude that we have these films. I think 20 years from now they will still be beloved. They hold up, quite well. I'd still love to see a proper Hobbit but I'm happy with the LOTR films. It might be time for a rewatch over the Christmas break.
Friday, December 17, 2021
Go on, listen to this one. And then name me a song that is more metal.
Judas Priest was firing on all cylinders--10 out of 10 for fans of the V-10 powered Dodge Viper--when it released Painkiller (1990). The title track is a MONSTER, and deserves all the accolades it gets. As do songs like Nightcrawler, and Touch of Evil.
But this one... Between the Hammer and the Anvil? Oh boy. If you don't like this, I don't like you. Listen and you'll agree. It's steel. 100% distilled heavy metal.
Storm warning, but there's no fear.
With a few more days of separation from my recent DMR Books blog post, I realize I missed an opportunity to plug this wonderful essay by the late, great Steve Tompkins: An Early, Albeit Pagan, Christmas in the Old North.
Steve's essay is worth reading for many reasons, but I think it sums up well a point I wish I had made better: Old Norse literature has not been mined to death, but rather its surface elements have been too frequently skimmed by subsequent authors. If you want to tap into a rich lode, mine the old, original material. But be wary of the wonders and terrors you will find, or the way they might stir some ancient, ancestral memory.
I don't think it's a coincidence that the likes of Tolkien, Howard, Poul Anderson, Moorcock, and Leiber read the Sagas and the stories of the Elder Edda and Prose Edda and drew inspiration directly from them, rather than second and third-hand re-imaginings.
Quoting Steve's piece:
Despite his occasional fallibility with regard to Robert E. Howard, and his near-lifelong wrongheadedness about J. R. R. Tolkien, Michael Moorcock is an extremely perceptive writer, and I don’t believe he’s ever said anything more insightful than this:
To this day I advise people who want to write fantastic fiction for a living to stop reading generic fantasy and to go back to the roots of the genre as deeply as possible, the way anyone might who takes his craft seriously. One avoids becoming a Tolkien clone precisely by returning to the same roots that inspired The Lord of the Rings.
I know thoughtful people who are convinced that “the Northern thing” has been done to death in popular culture. With the best of intentions they urge the fantasy genre, on the page and on the screen, to turn to other climes and other cultures, retiring a stripmined, ransacked iconography wherein the very aurora borealis might now seem as tawdry and insincere as a neon come-on. Christopher Tolkien’s presentation of The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise is not only a fascinating foreshadowing of The History of Middle-earth but a reminder that no matter how many meretricious and mercenary versions of the Ancient North’s mythology have been in our face, for many of us those gods and heroes and dooms, to the extent that the original texts preserve them, are also in our blood.
Wednesday, December 15, 2021
(Not) Lost in Translation: The Influence of Old Norse Saga and Myth on Robert E. Howard and Sword-and-Sorcery
My latest essay has been published on the fine blog of DMR Books. Check it out here.
Norse Saga was hard to access back in the day for obvious reasons (you had to be able to read old Icelandic). But that changed with the first English translations in the late 1700s/early 1800s. By the late 1800s they were pretty widely available, and by the early 20th century many casual readers were encountering them in the likes of the popular Everyman's Library.
Robert E. Howard read them early, and late, in his life, and they influenced his fiction. The Sagas also influenced all of the great names in sword-and-sorcery, including Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, Poul Anderson, and others. This essay is my attempt to shed some more light on how that all happened.
Friday, December 10, 2021
|Khan!! I mean, Kane!!|
In short, it's excellent. If you love KEW you'll love this. Pick it up. Lots in here to love including many reminisces from friends and colleagues who knew him, KEW stories including the wonderful "In the Pines" and "Sing a Last Song of Valdese," a detailed interview with the makers of the recent documentary The Last Wolf, rare interviews with Wagner himself, scads of cool artwork, and much more.
Saturday, December 4, 2021
Free sword-and-sorcery, you say?
Whetstone, a new amateur digital magazine devoted to short works (2,500 words maximum) of sword-and-sorcery, yesterday published issue no. 4. You can download it here, free of charge.
Managing editor Jason Ray Carney asked me pen a short introduction, and I was happy to do so. While I'm behind on my reading of issues 1-3, I wholeheartedly support this effort, and I've derived hours of enjoyment on the Whetstone Discord group. I was glad to kick off the issue and the TOC looks great.
Time to do some reading.
While I'm on the subject of new(ish) sword-and-sorcery(ish), I recently finished Viking Adventures by DMR Books. While it got off to a bit of a slow start, this volume gained serious steam, and I positively could not put down the closing tale, "Vengeance" by Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur. This is easily one of the darkest (near black), most intense tales of revenge I've ever read. I was floored to learn it was published nearly a century ago in 1925. It is as dark as the darkest Grimdark fiction, and while the prose is not modern it's highly readable, and beautiful in places.
Henry Kuttner's "Ragnarok" was a magnificent closing note, a fine poem about the twilight of the Northern gods. There are some other great entries in the volume too.
In short, I recommend Viking Adventures. Then again I'll read about anything with a Viking on the cover.
Tuesday, November 23, 2021
|You pulled the trigger on my Love Gun, indeed. Thanks Ken Kelly.|
Friday, November 19, 2021
In Flame and Crimson I advanced the claim that one of the principal reasons behind the demise of sword-and-sorcery was its poor reputation. I was mainly referring to critics and academics and cited many which were regularly lampooning the subgenre, but publishing houses were beginning to consider it anathema as well.
I feel pretty confident in that claim, and believe I backed it up pretty well in the book, but here's some more evidence courtesy of James Maliszewski of the Grognardia blog. This post includes some screenshots of an interview conducted with the late, great Greg Stafford in the pages of White Dwarf #17, published in early 1980. Here Stafford relays a story about submitting a sword-and-sorcery story to the editor of a semi-pro 'zine, and meeting with a harsh rejection slip stating that "all S&S is the same hackwork."
Worse, Stafford mostly agreed with the assessment.
The cool bit is that he used that rejection as fuel, and a springboard to create a highly innovative role-playing game, Runequest, which I played the hell out of back in the 80s.
If it took a kick in the balls to S&S to produce Runequest, that rejection slip was probably worth it.
But, like a kick in the balls it doesn't hurt any less.
It's an interesting post, and leads to unanswered questions about sword-and-sorcery and whether it can continue as a viable art form. How do we maintain its traditions and archetypes and themes, while not falling into the same repetition and pastiche trap that led to its demise in the mid-1980s?
Tuesday, November 9, 2021
Look around, you can see the drips. Slow, and few, but persistent.
|That's pretty sword-and-sorcery.|
Podcasts and videos popping up, led by Rogues in the House, and now Skull TV.
The appearance of new writers with promise (Schuyler Hernstrom), slowly swelling the ranks of the few and the proud (Scott Oden, Howard Andrew Jones, James Enge) who have been working all along.
Tales from the Magician’s Skull exceeding its modest kickstarter funding goal of $10,000 more than fourfold.
New publishing venues appearing on the scene. The likes of Whetstone. New volumes of Swords and Sorceries, and Savage Realms. An outfit called Flinch Books announcing a forthcoming anthology, Blood on the Blade.
DMR Books cranking up the volume with new titles and classic reprints.
More fans connecting, led by the Discord Whetstone server.
More critical awareness and historical perspective of the subgenre’s roots, of which I like to think I played a part. As have the likes of Deuce Richardson, and others.
The latest is the new film The Spine of Night. You can find a spoiler-free, good review here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aeiAswHi790. The reviewer describes it as a cross of Fire and Ice and Heavy Metal, violent and bloody as hell, with rotoscoped animation. I’m all in.
So, what can we deduce from this? Maybe nothing. A coincidental confluence, a mild nostalgia-fueled blip.
But maybe, a portent, something larger, brewing at a low simmer.
Saturday, November 6, 2021
Not Jean Valjean. But, maybe not quite who you’d expect, either.
On this blog I have assumed a certain persona, centered around my various interests, which you can deduce through my posts. A guy who loves sword-and-sorcery, heavy metal, horror. All true, and I will remain a fan of these things until the day I die. A published author, recently, of Flame and Crimson: A History of Sword-and-Sorcery, a book I’m glad I wrote, and that I believe my favorite subgenre needed.
But then I realize, from that esoteric online profile you may deduce I’m some long-haired tattooed buff dude, or maybe a basement dwelling nerd trapped in the 80s. For the record, I claim just a little bit from each of those descriptions. But my posts here would likely lead you to an inaccurate perception of the man behind the keyboard.
The truth is a lot more prosaic. The truth is, I’m just an average guy.
Sword-and-sorcery is maybe 2% of my story. I live a full life as a knowledge worker, a dad, a homeowner, and all the other trappings and commitments typical of a middle-age (48 year old) dude living in 21st century suburbia.
So, feel free to stop there, but if you want more, here’s a little about me.
Wednesday, November 3, 2021
Tales from the Magician's Skull has launched a second kickstarter, More Tales from the Magician's Skull, to fund additional issues beyond no. 6. You can find the kickstarter here.
I backed it today, going with an option that includes five print and digital issues.
If you enjoy sword-and-sorcery and want to see it survive and thrive, you have to support these types of publishing ventures. I'm not trying to shame anyone who doesn't have the cash, but if you do, why not give it a go? You're helping to foster new writers, new stories, and a pretty cool outfit. I love what Goodman Games has done with the magazine and the Skeletor-esque, tongue-in-cheek Skull mascot who immolates interns like a bug zapper. Lots to love here.
Saturday, October 30, 2021
|I own this same edition...|
I have some history with this book. My grandfather, a WWII veteran whose experiences in the Pacific I detailed here on the Silver Key, liked to read--specifically, he favored thrillers, horror, men's adventure, war novels, and other fun potboilers. He kept a few shelves of books in his basement, and a couple more shelves of paperbacks behind his leather easy chair. As a boy of probably 8-10 years of age I remember creeping behind his chair in his living room, reviewing the spines of books he had on his shelf, and selecting The Wolfen purely for its evocative title. The menacing eyes on the cover reflecting a woman in terror assured me I had made a good selection.
I still remember reading it, all those years ago, and being absolutely terrified, beset with nightmares in the days after. The book opens with a highly effective scene of two cops assigned to dump duty, marking up abandoned cars in need of crushing at the Fountain Avenue Automobile Pound. The place is typically no threat, with only a few homeless, rats, and stray dogs to contend with. But on this night the two policemen are surrounded, savaged, and eaten by a pack of werewolves in the most savage manner imaginable. These creatures are so fast that the cops aren't able to clear guns from their holsters.
Streiber's great conceit with The Wolfen is that werewolves have been living among us for thousands of years. Only scant, half-forgotten accounts remain. These are not classic Lon Chaney werewolves--men by day which transform into beasts by the light of the full moon--but an advanced series of semi-intelligent predators, wolf-ish but with fearsome paws that can grip like hands and end in razor claws, rudimentary intelligence, and faces that have something of humanity in them. Living stealthily on the edges of society, these incredibly efficient hunters and killers live off humanity, who exist side-by-side with the packs in blissful ignorance. The Wolfen plays on the theme of the threat of urban decay. Recall that New York in the 1970s was in deep crisis, a time when "wholesale disintegration of the largest city in the most powerful nation on earth seemed entirely possible." The wolfen are symbolic of the rot that accompanies urbanization.
I still have my grandfather's same paperback copy, and I loved it almost as much during this recent Halloween inspired re-read as I did as a kid nearly 40 years ago. I know that Streiber has gone off the deep end and is a bit of a pariah in horror circles, but he wrote The Wolfen (1978) very early in his career, and the book throws off sparks. If you like monsters and mayhem and hard-boiled police investigations and gunplay, you'll like The Wolfen.
Friday, October 29, 2021
Holy fuck. I'm back after 11 straight days of work, including a six-day conference in Dallas that consumed as much as 16 hours on given days. Delayed return flight, finally got in this morning around 2 a.m.
I'm officially on E. Time for a short break.
During this epic stretch Tales from the Magician's Skull published my latest piece, "Unearthing David Drake's 'The Barrow Troll.'" I love this particular story and enjoyed my most recent re-read. Seek it out; as you will see from the linked piece it's been published a shit-ton over the years, and for good reason. It's great.
Saturday, October 23, 2021
Today has been decreed The Day of Might by the Skull, and the fine folks over at Tales from the Magician's Skull. It's a day to celebrate our most favorite of all fantasy subgenres, sword-and-sorcery. Learn more here.
I wish I could do more; alas fate has conspired against me as I'm on the road, working a conference far from home in Dallas, TX. Nevertheless, I'm glad to see this happening and hope this generates more interest in S&S.
Grab your favorite title, hoist a tankard of ale, and Hail to the Skull!
Friday, October 15, 2021
For this Metal Friday, an obscure song by Judas Priest that nevertheless kicks some serious ass.
"Heart of a Lion" was supposed to appear on Turbo, but did not fit the album and so Rob Halford offered the song to the band Racer X, who parlayed it into a minor hit. Racer X admittedly do a nice version, but it doesn't compare to peak Halford wailing the chorus.
On Fridays at least I have the Heart of a Lion.
Listen and enjoy. And have a very metal weekend.
Tuesday, October 12, 2021
In full disclosure I'm not a big prog fan, unless you count the likes of RUSH, and perhaps a bit of Yes' back catalogue. I'm metal all the way. But I've had the pleasure of discovering the band Glass Hammer recently after hearing from one of the band members, bassist/lyricist/co-founder Steve Babb, who is a reader of this blog.
Glass Hammer was founded in 1992 and possess a deep catalog of material based on the likes of The Lord of the Rings, C.S. Lewis' Space Trilogy, and sword-and-sorcery. In 2020 they released Dreaming City, an album inspired by Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melnibone stories. Glass Hammer is now about to release “Skallagrim – Into The Breach,” the second album of a proposed trilogy, on October 15th. As Babb explains:
“The project began as a nostalgic homage to the Sword & Sorcery genre, and to a lesser extent, the stories of H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. It’s turned into much more, however, and my story of the Skallagrim, the thief with the screaming sword, has evolved into my first full-length fantasy novel which I plan to release next year.”
“Skallagrim is a thief who lost his memory and the girl he loves,” he goes on to say. “He’s up against dark magic and terrifying monsters to reclaim both, but finds an ally in a sentient, eldritch sword. Now his fate is bound to the sword as much as to the quest to find his love.”
Friday, October 8, 2021
My latest post is up on the blog of Tales from the Magician's Skull: Ten Sword-and-Sorcery Tales for the Haunting Season.
I'm feeling the Halloween season. Over the last three nights, while doing some late evening bookkeeping, I've had in the background Poltergeist, The Witch (2016), and Scream. I do love horror movies... but I also love sword-and-sorcery, and as my post shows one needn't necessarily choose one over the other.
What are your favorite horror-infused S&S tales?
Wednesday, September 29, 2021
My latest entry for DMR is up. Check out Moorcock's Missed Elric Opportunity here.
This one seems to be gaining a lot of traction on Facebook and elsewhere. Combine a classic fantasy property with an interested director in 1970s Hollywood, and season with reminiscence by the author himself culled from a recent podcast--wham.
For the record, I don't need to see my favorite books adapted into film--I'm perfectly happy if they remain on the printed page. But I can't help but wonder what a Ralph Bakshi adaptation might have looked like. A mess quite likely, but perhaps something glorious, or at least messily memorable. The point is, we'll never know.
Maybe one day Elric will be adapted to the screen, but Moorcock had the opportunity 43-odd years ago, and there's been nothing of substance since. Just speculation and development hell.
Saturday, September 18, 2021
Friday, September 17, 2021
I'm still in the discovery/absorption phase of Senjutsu, Iron Maiden's new album. This has been my pattern with all of Maiden's releases of the last two decades. Starting with their first post reunion album, Brave New World, Maiden has tended to write longer material that takes time to absorb. I've been busy with work and other things and so haven't yet gotten a proper feel for the album in its entirety.
A couple of songs grabbed me right out of the gate, however, among them "Darkest Hour." This is the latest entry in their various odes to World War II ("Aces High," "The Longest Day," etc.), and is a powerful, heartfelt ode to Winston Churchill and his refusal to accede to his critics and bend the knee to the Nazi war machine:
To blaze in glory like a dying sun
One last burning giant till Jupiter moves on
Turn the ploughshares into swords
You sons of Albion awake defend this sacred land
Saturday, September 4, 2021
I now consider ERB one of the holy trinity of speculative fiction, along with Howard and Tolkien. He’s right up there with those two in influence and imagination. Your mileage may vary but that’s my power trio, with H.P. Lovecraft coming up close in the rear-view mirror.
Sometimes you can find clues of what makes a great writer by analyzing the facts of his or her life. From a young age ERB was a restless, free spirit. He was highly imaginative, and playful, but he was also relentless. He didn’t stay at any one job for long as he was always searching for the next move, the next scheme, or the career that would lend his life meaning. The string of low-paying jobs he held did not.
These traits often got him into trouble as a youth and resulted in financial woes as a young man. He preferred the outdoors to studying in class. In the army, his nonconformist streak caused him to get busted down in rank and never made him a great fit for the discipline of the armed services. Upon discharge in 1897 he had to overcome a number of struggles all the way to early middle age. These were often of his own making. At several junctures he could have settled for a life of normalcy, but time and again opted out. At one point he was on his way to financial security with a great job at Sears, and senior leadership loved him, but he quit, abruptly.
I know I could not have made the choices he did, which often left he and his young wife penniless. But, his choices ultimately gave us worlds beyond worlds.
ERB finally broke through as a writer in 1912 with “Under the Moons of Mars,” and later that same year “Tarzan of the Apes,” both published as serials in The All-Story. That’s a hell of an opening combination right there. By then he was in his late 30s, a relatively late start for a writer, but the stage was set for a torrent of production. He had lived a life of scarcity and brushes with poverty, and when he finally found his calling the creativity rushed from his pen.
ERB famously wrote that “entertainment is fiction’s purpose,” and his stories are entertainment first, of the highest order. But they weren’t just that. He explored themes of nature vs. nurture, and the evils and depravity of civilization vs. the (harsh) purity of nature. Destructive man with all his vices is contrasted with the beasts of the jungle, who kill and eat but not out of malice or wanton destruction. ERB was also a skilled satirist, critiquing organized religion for example in “The Gods of Mars.” His stories offer a coherent and compelling worldview and a richness deeper than just story.
ERB was influenced by H. Rider Haggard, the grandfather of adventure fiction. Tarzan was derived from the Romulus/Remus myth in which the two founders of Rome were raised by wolves, and to a lesser degree Kipling. But by his own admission ERB was not a big reader of fiction; these were childhood reads. Perhaps as a result, stylistically he is probably the weakest of the major fantasists mentioned above. But his stories are propulsive, and his ideas and storytelling and creativity are on another level. He was doing things no one else was, breaking away from the more formal Victorianism of Haggard et al and writing stuff the people of the age could not put down.
More than 100 years later, they still can’t.
It’s a shame that ERB did not live a bit longer to see the resurgence in interest in his works in the Burroughs Boom of the 1960s. Like REH I’m not sure how widely read he is these days. But both men’s creations are immortal. Just like we’ll always have Conan, John Carter and Tarzan are with us to stay.
Porges’ bio starts slow, 170-odd pages of military and schooling detail that run a bit tedious. But once “Under the Moons of Mars” is out, it hits its stride. In my reading it’s currently October 1912 and Burroughs is finally meeting with success. He’s just completed “The Gods of Mars” for All-Story editor Thomas Metcalf, reader demand for more is huge, and although he has not yet landed a book deal his fortunes are about to dramatically shift.
It’s like I’m reading one of his stories, and I can’t wait to see what dramatic twists and turns come next.
Friday, August 27, 2021
|Fafhrd and GM going at it, |
for show, in "The Lords of Quarmall"
In a time when publishers looked down upon the still-nascent subgenre, and authors like Leiber had to abandon S&S and write SF to make a living, Goldsmith (1933-2002) went out on a limb and published the likes of Leiber, Moorcock, Roger Zelazny, and John Jakes in the pages of a magazine in which she served as editor--Fantastic Stories.
From Moorcock’s introduction:
In those days the kind of supernatural romance which dominates today’s best-seller lists had virtually no commercial market. Leiber had done no better with his first Gray Mouser book than I had done with my first Elric book. Not only publishers scoffed at the notion of mass-market editions of these books, we authors scoffed equally. We knew there were only about twenty of us—readers and writers—spread thin across Britain and America… So Cele Goldsmith, when she commissioned Fritz Leiber to write a new series of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories for Fantastic, was taking a big gamble with her circulation figures.
Goldsmith had a reputation for bucking commercial trends throughout her career and so published Leiber's less-fashionable S&S. In so doing she improved the climate and conditions that allowed sword-and-sorcery to reach full flower later in the decade with the publication of the unauthorized The Lord of the Rings, the republication of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, and the publication of the Lancer Conan Saga.
The great publisher Donald A. Wollheim later gave Leiber an even greater boost by commissioning him for the now-famous “Swords” paperback series (Swords and Deviltry, Swords Against Death, Swords in the Mist, etc. But it’s questionable whether Leiber would have been afforded that opportunity without first showcasing some of his best work in Fantastic (note: I am not discounting Leiber’s start with F&GM in the pages of the John W. Campbell edited Unknown). Under Goldsmith’s editorship Fantastic published a huge number of the all-time Fafhrd and Gray Mouser classics, including the likes of “Bazaar of the Bizarre,” “Lean Times in Lankhmar,” “Stardock,” “The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar,” and “Scylla’s Daughter,” the last of which was later expanded into the 1968 novel The Swords of Lankhmar. Again from Moorcock/White Wolf introduction:
Perhaps because [Goldsmith and Wollheim] worked mostly as pulp fiction editors, they have never been given the considerable credit they deserve, just as Fritz himself—who wrote so much that was illuminating on the subject of literary fantasy and who wrote some of the best examples there will ever be—still does not receive sufficient credit for his enormous contribution to the genre.
It strikes me that I failed to mention the efforts of Goldsmith in Flame and Crimson, though I did mention Fantastic Stories and other magazines as being important vehicles for S&S in the early 1960s, as well as the efforts of Wollheim and his great DAW volumes. I missed a chance to give Goldsmith her just due, and that is my error. I do not own the White Wolf edits of Fafhrd and GM so was oblivious to the existence of this essay. An unfortunate oversight I will rectify when I get to a second edition.
*A great watering-hole for fans of S&S. I was unaware of the Discord platform until joining, which in contrast to its name is a cohesive and welcoming community.
Wednesday, August 18, 2021
Saturday, August 14, 2021
Just heard of the passing of game designer Steve Perrin, best known as one of the key creators of perhaps my favorite RPG of all time, Runequest.
Greg Stafford is the figure most strongly associated with RQ, and for good reason, as he was creator of its setting, the wonderful world of Glorantha. But Perrin was the mind behind the game's engine. He created RQ's core rules, the elegant and flexible basic role playing (BRP) mechanics that were successfully transported across multiple iterations, including the likes of Call of Cthulhu and Stormbringer.
For a time RQ was my preferred alternative to Dungeons and Dragons largely because of its fun and deadly mechanics for combat, including rules for parrying, hit points by body location, and armor that absorbed damage. I also loved its spell points system, allowing anyone to cast spells. Back in the day we used RQ2 and RQ3 interchangeably, mixing and matching rules as we saw fit, passing many fun hours with these wonderful boxed sets.
Perrin was 75 years old. He'll be missed.
Monday, August 9, 2021
I took a (small, calculated, $8) risk on the latest volume of The Dark Man: Journal of Robert E. Howard and Pulp Studies, purchasing it based on the table of contents and the fact that editors Jason Ray Carney and Nicole Emmelhainz-Carney are talented and invested in this venture.
I was not disappointed.
Some may not be happy with the direction taken by this semi-venerable journal, which has published 27 issues since its debut in 1990. Jason and Nicole have decided to branch out to the broader field of pulp studies, rather than a laser focus on Robert E. Howard. I think it was a great move. We need a journal that fosters discussion on other Howard-inspired or Howard-adjacent writers, such as Karl Edward Wagner. And we get that with the latest edition.
Vol. 12.1 includes seven pieces, ranging from editorial to interview, to scholarship to book review, and runs 113 pages.
First the news: I was thrilled to hear that Gary Hoppenstand, editor of the short-lived but highly regarded fanzine/semi-pro zine Midnight Sun, is under contract with McFarland to write a book analyzing Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane studies. McFarland is an independent publisher of academic nonfiction with a bent towards pop culture. I’ve got a couple of their books on my shelf, including J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, and the Birth of Modern Fantasy (which I reviewed for Skelos #1) and Michael Moorcock: Fiction, Fantasy, and the World’s Pain, by Mark Scroggins. The latter was an invaluable help to me in the writing of Flame and Crimson. I am very much looking forward to this new book on Kane, for which the scholarship is lacking. The preface will be written by the great David Drake.
This news was revealed in an interview conducted with Hoppenstand by Luke Dodd, one of the co-hosts of the Cromcast podcast. Dodd for the same issue contributed a publication history of Midnight Sun, about as thorough a treatment of that long defunct ‘zine that we can hope to get. Dodd used available resources form the likes of the ISFDB with additional information from Hoppenstand to fill in some of the blanks. Hoppenstand launched Midnight Sun as a teenager to help place some of Wagner’s Kane stories. Hoppenstand had written to KEW enthusiastically after reading Death Angel’s Shadow, starting a correspondence that led to Hoppenstand placing the likes of “Lynortis Reprise,” “In the Lair of Yslsl,” and “The Dark Muse,” among other stories, poems, and artwork. Wagner had experienced difficulty placing some of his Kane stories and Hoppenstand and Midnight Sun filled the void, later branching out and publishing other genre authors including David Drake and H.H. Hollis. Midnight Sun published its fifth and final issue in 1979, a victim of Hoppenstand's lack of funding.
Given the scarcity of material published on Karl Edward Wagner I was particularly happy to read Dodd’s pieces, but there are some other entries in TDM vol. 12.1 worth talking about.
I approached “REH N-grams: A Study of Cultural Trends Related to Robert E. Howard” by Williard M. Oliver with some trepidation; even for an REH and S&S nerd this one seemed rather esoteric and data-geeky. I have read the related “Statistics in the Hyborian Age: An Introduction to Stylometry” in Conan Meets the Academy and that one, while having some points of merit, left me a bit cold, mainly because it dwells too long on explaining what stylometry is and too little on its application to REH; Oliver’s piece however was on point. The author used a tool called the Google Books N-gram Viewer to analyze the recurrence of terms related to Howard and his creations and popular phrases. While the Viewer only includes books published up through the year 2000, the tool helped Oliver demonstrate a Howard presence in the 1930s, a slight but minor rise in the 1940s and 50s, then a significant increase from the late 60s through the 1980s. Which tracks rather nicely with the Arkham/Gnome, Lancer/Ace, publications, and the oft-told stories of how these latter books brought many readers into the fold. In short, it adds statistical rigor to conjecture.
Quinn Forskitt’s “Building a Universe: An Analysis of the Works, Lives, and Influences of the Lovecraft Circle” is an invited essay, a boiled down version of Forskitt’s master’s thesis. While this information is likely well-known to the die-hards, it’s great to see new scholars and scholarship in the field. Very readable and engaging work. I found “Adapting Lovecraft to Video Games: What is Lost, What is Gained,” to be less interesting, only because I’m not a video gamer, but I have to say this is highly original, and probably a must-read for players of Hidetaka Miyazaki’s Bloodborne. The author also has a strong grasp of what makes Lovecraft’s stories unique, and hard to adapt in a visual medium.
Rusty Burke has a review of the new REH biography by Todd Vick, Renegades and Rogues. While Burke invites the work, defends the need for further REH biography, and so welcomes it on his shelf, he does declare it only half successful in its stated purpose: It answers the question of who Robert E. Howard was, but not why he was important, Burke concludes. In full disclosure I have not read Renegades and Rogues.
All in all, I enjoyed the heck out of this issue of TDM. And I’m greatly looking forward to Hoppenstand’s book.
Saturday, August 7, 2021
Finished Neil Postman’s Technopoly the other day, and loved it, and was enlightened by it, challenged by it. It was very interesting to read a book published in 1992, pre commercial internet, with the premise that technology had (even by then) been so mindlessly and carelessly adopted wholesale, and given such primacy, that it quickly wiped away our norms and culture and destroyed its sanctity and symbols. It's hard to argue with this when we spend all our time with our heads down in our phones these days (self included). One wonders what Postman would have had to say about Tik-Tok.
There is great stuff in here about the insidiousness of "invisible technology," for example standardized testing and our harmful desire to assign IQ scores when intelligence cannot be measured with a single score. Basing our decisions on polling data when this data can change dramatically based on the subtle wording of a question and a given poll taker’s mood, and thus forfeiting our sovereignty or outsourcing it to the crowd. How ruthless efficiency and skill building has risen to prominence over liberal arts education in the drive to create skilled workers who can add to the GDP, warping the true purpose of education. The inevitable advance, today led by neuroscience, to reduce humans to 0s and 1s.
Postman asks some deeply penetrating questions on how we can fight back against Technopoly, which include establishing an academic curriculum rooted in history, across all subjects, that offers a narrative of the ascent of man and why decisions were made and from where our current beliefs/practices/scientific advances/theories have derived. In short, an education that makes us think, not conform, and embrace humanity and the human ideal, not machines. Education is not a means to an end; rather being educated, broadly and richly, is the end goal.
These issues and solutions may sound a bit like cranky conservatism or “old man shouting at cloud” but I happen to agree with many of them. There is something in these narratives that speaks to me, I think anyone who can take a step back and observe will realize that progress is not always for the good, but for the good and bad, simultaneous. More to the point, technology changes the landscape, forever, and while we make gains we inevitably lose something in the translation, including our individual sovereignty. J.R.R Tolkien was acutely aware of this, as was Robert E. Howard (see his letters to H.P. Lovecraft).
I am aware of my own hypocrisy, writing these words on a blog on the internet, with immediate distribution. I am a beneficiary of technology. But I also shake my head at our mindless adoption of the latest shiny that comes along.
In summary I like this damned blog just fine, I don't need a Twitter following.
Friday, August 6, 2021
I was a huge Sepultura fan back in the day, when Max Cavalera was fronting the band. They put out 3-4 stone cold classic albums in that period, with my favorite probably going to Chaos A.D. I was lucky enough to catch them in concert a couple times.
Here is "The Hunt" from that album. The lyrics are a straight up apology for vigilantism, which some days and for some types of offenders I can get behind:
Searching all the places that you hang about
We're looking for you
In the discotheques and the gaming pubs
We're looking for you
And what he has become
And a hundred other boys and girls
And all that you have done
Wednesday, August 4, 2021
I get asked for book reviews, with some amount of frequency.
I don’t blame anyone for asking me, or asking others, to review their book. Now that I’m an author I empathize with that sentiment, quite deeply. All authors want and need readers, and reviewers. More than money, or at least on equal footing, writers crave readers who enjoy their work. They seek validation that their work is good, and connects with a reader on some emotional level. And most want others to write about their book.
But please know that when I get your email, it makes me wince, and hurt a little inside, as reviews present many problems to the reviewer. Here are a few:
They’re a huge time commitment. Reviewing a book requires you to read the book (you better read it; “reviewing” a book because you know the author is unethical), and read it closer than you might if you were reading for pure enjoyment. Then comes the writing. To write a review of any substance requires some degree of planning, and thought, and care. You can certainly go the route of a four-five sentence capsule of what you liked about a book, and there is a place for those, particularly on Amazon. But I think careful reviewing is an art form. An honest review should do more than breezily sketch the plot and end with “I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys Robert E. Howard.” A good, earnest review should teach you something new about the book, or the genre, and place the author in a community of like authors. There should be some indication of the style and manner in which the story is told. In short, a good review is itself an art form, and takes time to craft properly.
Related to the above, reading something new must always close other doors, possibly to something better. Years ago I wrote a post for Black Gate on the problem of the glut of fantasy in the market. An intractable problem facing new writers is the weight of history, and the hundreds of thousands of authors that have gone before them. In my middle age is it apparent that I will NEVER be able to read all the books I want to. Right now I’m barely managing a book a week, which puts me at 52 books a year. At age 48, I might have another 40 years of life in me, if I’m lucky… that’s a little over 2,000 books, at best. A sobering thought. My time is finite and I want to spend it well. Should I read a new book by an unknown author, or should I read the Poul Anderson and Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock titles I haven’t gotten to yet? Or re-read a beloved old classic?
The moral quandary of reviewing bad books, or books you don’t enjoy. What if you don’t like a book, either one you’ve sought out, or one you’ve been asked to review? Do you write the review, or say nothing? Do you write a (semi) dishonest review, focusing perhaps on a few things you found OK, while leaving out your valid critiques? I still think of this brilliant review of Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, a highly regarded book which I detested. Like a surgeon Adam Roberts dissects his problems with that book, comparing it unfavorably with The Children of Hurin, released at the same time by the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien. Roberts’ review is perhaps a little arch in places but it’s not mean-spirited. I find it illuminating, with much to teach us about the potent spell good fantasy can place on the reader, and the importance of being taken out of the modern world. Some might object to this line of criticism. If you have nothing good to say, don’t say anything at all. I do believe there is a time and place for that sentiment, but I also believe that good critique serves a valuable function. The problem is that I don’t think most authors want to hear it. And I’m not sure I want to write it, as I don’t like hurting anyone’s feelings.
Now that I’ve spent some considerable digital ink expressing my deep reservations of the book review enterprise, believe it or not I do want to do more reviews of new works—as I am able. I want to support the sword-and-sorcery community, and there are many worthy publications and authors and titles that deserve the exposure and the commentary. I’ll mix them in as I can.
Friday, July 30, 2021
DMR Books to publish Viking Adventures in August. Just take my money. Although I've read a fair bit of Viking historicals and Viking flavored fantasy, I'm not familiar with these tales which makes it all the better. In particular I'm looking forward to reading "The Trader and the Vikings." With works like The Broken Sword and Hrolf Kraki's Saga, Poul Anderson does the Northern Thing as well as any author past or present. And damn, that cover (see right). Speaking of DMR you can now pick up Flame and Crimson at that fine publisher.
If you like Conan the Barbarian (1982), this 2 1/2 hour+ video by The Critical Drinker (how fun is that name?) and guest Andre Einherjar is worth the watch. This is an incredibly in-depth, informed, interesting, and just plain fun and compelling listen, with lots of interesting asides on Milius, Dino DeLaurentiis, the riddle of steel, the train wreck that was Conan the Destroyer, and more. I realize a lot of Howard fans don't like CtB, mainly because Schwarzenegger's Conan is not REH's Conan, but these guys make a compelling case that it's a work of surprising depth, and exceptional artistry and quality. I happen to agree.
As for me, I've got an essay on C.L. Moore that will definitely see the light of day as Swords & Shadows has met its funding goals, ensuring that this special sword-and-sorcery themed issue of Sexy Fantastic magazine will be published. I'm also working on a review of Fred Blosser's The Annotated Guide to Robert E. Howard's Weird Fantasy for The Dark Man journal (spoiler alert: It's good).
Tuesday, July 27, 2021
The great Iron Maiden (my favorite heavy metal band ever, sometimes Judas Priest ekes out the no. 1 spot) has released a new single, The Writing on the Wall. I was on vacation when this hit and experiencing it first over shitty iPhone speakers was a mistake. I made myself wait until we got home and had proper sound/headsets before the next attempt. I haven’t given it enough listens to make up my mind, but with each spin it gets better. Love the opening hook and the Celtic feel. No, Bruce is not the same singer, but damn, he’s 60. Who is at that age? Regardless of what the album holds, new Iron Maiden is always a cause for celebration, as is the prospect of seeing the boys from Britain live on their inevitable support tour. The fun I’ve had at these shows over the years is off the charts. I suspect “The Writing on the Wall” will kick ass in concert. I CAN’T WAIT.
Concerts galore. I’ve got three shows lined up for the summer and fall:
- KISS, Mansfield MA, August 18. Save for the fact that this falls on a Wednesday (blech) and getting out of Mansfield after a concert is like trying to escape from the Hanoi Hilton, I’m always glad to see KISS. My buddy Wayne is an even bigger KISS fan than I.
- Alice Cooper, with opening act Ace Frehley, Gilford NH, Sept. 18. The best thing about this show is its on a Saturday night. Tied for second is the great double-bill of Alice and Ace. Another show with Wayne. Afterwards we plan to crash at my family’s lake house, a short drive from Gilford, to avoid a long trek back to MA. I’ve seen Ace several times and he’s always good. Alice of course is wonderful (trivia: My first ever concert was Alice on his Trash tour, March 1990).
- Judas Priest, Lowell MA, Oct. 31. Are you kidding me? The Gods of Metal on Halloween night, at a venue about 30 minutes from my home? Like Maiden, Priest is no mere nostalgia act. I was blown away with their last album Firepower, in particular “No Surrender” and “Traitor’s Gate.” You get new material, but of course with a catalog stretching back 50 years (!) most of what Priest plays are the classics.
Let’s hope this new Delta variant of COVID-19 cooperates and
I can get all these in.
Also wanted to mention the passing of Mike Howe, lead singer of Metal Church, dead at 56. A
reminder of our mortality. This is why going to shows and enjoying life today is
so important because damn, once it’s over it’s over. Apparently he was a family man and in great shape and no cause of death has yet been released. I was not the biggest
Metal Church fan but loved a few of their songs, in particular “Badlands,” “Fake
Healer,” and “Date with Poverty,” among others. I’m pretty sure I still own the
cassette of The Dark. Time to crank some Badlands
and remember Mike. RIP.