Friday, August 27, 2021

The Fantastic S&S contributions of Cele Goldsmith

Fafhrd and GM going at it,
for show, in "The Lords of Quarmall"
Oliver Brackenbury, host of the Unknown Worlds of the Merrill Collection podcast, recently posted on the Whetstone S&S Tavern Discord group* some screenshots of the introduction to a 1995 White Wolf ominous edition of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. In the volume’s introduction Michael Moorcock writes a bit about the resurgence of sword-and-sorcery in the early 1960s, crediting the subgenre’s rise not only to the talents of the criminally underrated Leiber, but the efforts of Cele Goldsmith (later Lalli when she married in 1964).

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

Men of Iron, Howard Pyle

Any Howard Pyle fans in the house? If so, or if you're looking for fun, old-school, historical fiction adventure, my review of Pyle's Men of Iron is now up on DMR Blog.  

Check it out here.

Saturday, August 14, 2021

RIP Steve Perrin

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

The Dark Man: Journal of Robert E. Howard studies, vol. 12.1

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

Technopoly, Neil Postman

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

Sepultura, The Hunt

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:

We went into town on the Tuesday night
Searching all the places that you hang about
We're looking for you
In the back street cellar, in the drinking clubs
In the discotheques and the gaming pubs
We're looking for you
You will pay the price for my own sweet brother
And what he has become
And a hundred other boys and girls
And all that you have done

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

The problem with reviews

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.