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).

Extraordinary. 

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.