Sunday, December 26, 2021

Things That Are Undone and Ought Not To Be: A Sword-and-Sorcery Studies Wish List

My latest post is up on the blog of DMR Books. Check it out here.

I blasted this one out in a couple hours while reflecting on what still needs to be written about sword-and-sorcery and the impact it has had on popular culture. The list is long, and I don't pretend this is exhaustive. And I've already realized I inadvertently left off a proper history of all the rock and metal bands that have been influenced by S&S.

I'm not a collector, and even in the case of books I buy readers' copies, not rares or first editions. But I'm sorely tempted to drop a grand on Lost World, just to have and ogle. That artwork is sweet.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

2021 in review

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.


Talking sword-and-sorcery

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.


The future

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

20 year anniversary of the Fellowship of the Ring/LOTR films

I was there, Gandalf. I was there 3,000--err 20--years ago.
20 years ago today New Line Cinema and director Peter Jackson delivered unto the world the first of the three Lord of the Rings films, The Fellowship of the Ring (release date Dec. 19, 2001). I was there on opening night.

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

Between the Hammer and the Anvil

Go on, listen to this one. And then name me a song that is more metal.

I'll wait.

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.

Old Norse Saga part deux: I missed an opportunity to plug Steve Tompkins

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

Review of KEW special edition Phantasmagoria

Khan!! I mean, Kane!!
I recently finished a special edition of Phantasmagoria dedicated entirely to the life and works of the late, great, Karl Edward Wagner. You can read the review here, at the blog of Tales from the Magician's Skull.

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

Whetstone #4 is available (free sword-and-sorcery!), plus Viking Adventures

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.