Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Top 10 reasons why I don’t care about Amazon’s The Rings of Power

The Rings of... Meh.
Perhaps you might be wondering, hey, when is that guy from The Silver Key going to weigh in on The Rings of Power? He loves Tolkien.

Consider this that post, but it’s probably not the droids you’re looking for.

I haven’t watched ROP, and at this moment have no plans to. I explain why in this handy top 10 listicle.

A caveat: If you like ROP that’s great! The point of this post is not to (overly) criticize the show, because I haven't seen it. That wouldn’t be honest, or fair. It's to explain my lack of interest. 

That said, apathy for a richly budgeted, dramatic interpretation of a beloved property must have some basis in negativity or critique. In my case, I saw each of The Lord of the Rings films in the theater on opening night, buying advance tickets and braving big crowds and sticky theater floors to watch Tolkien on the big screen. In contrast, I have Amazon Prime, could watch ROP at the click of a button from the safety of my living room… and have yet to expend even that amount of non-effort on the show. Why? My answers follow.

If you like or love the show and think I should give it a chance, please explain why. Who knows, you might win me over. But it will be an uphill battle.

1. The rights weren’t enough. No Silmarillion? No coherent storyline to hang an adaptation upon? Big problem. I knew the writers of ROP were facing monumental issues after learning that they only had rights to the Appendices of LOTR, not the 12-volume History of Middle-Earth nor The Silmarillion. There is no cohesive story to hang a dramatic series on, which means much artistic interpretation is required. That’s a recipe for failure. J.R.R. Tolkien was a genius, and trying to recreate what made him great from appendices and notes is a near-impossible task. The Jackson films were at their best when they hewed to Tolkien’s story and dialogue. In short, the limited deal struck by Amazon was like planting seeds into a thin, arid field, and expecting a rich crop. 

2. The Hobbit wrecked me. If I were to critique the loudest critics of this show it’s with this point: Your Peter Jackson veneration has a large blind spot. Remember these awful films? Like LOTR I also saw them in the theater. Not only did they suck, but I blame The Hobbit for creating the template that film adaptations of Tolkien must be LOUD AND EPIC AND IMPORTANT. The Hobbit (book) is rather small and cozy, save for The Battle of Five Armies and Laketown. The focus should have been on atmosphere and character, and instead it became a wholly unnecessary nine-hour epic. ROP seems to be a continuation of this fundamental misunderstanding of what makes Tolkien great. It’s not bombast and spectacle, it’s story and heart.

3. Dumping Tom Shippey soured me early. I wish we had a better recounting of what led to this foolish decision, but Shippey is the closest human being on earth we have to Tolkien, now that Tolkien’s son Christopher has passed. To cut the World’s Greatest Tolkien Scholar from the project seems to me a major misstep. He was an advisor on the Jackson LOTR films and played a part in their successful adaptation. Plus, he’s a genuine good dude (I spent more than an hour with him years ago at a convention in Boston, and he was very kind and generous with his time). 

4. The reviews haven’t been good. I read and watch reviews (and have written a fair number myself), and I have learned enough to know this show has some serious problems. Many disregard critics (“those who can’t, teach,” etc., and other such nonsense). I don’t. If it’s a source I trust, or if the reviewer is objective, thoughtful, and fair, these hold weight for me. I’m too old and my time is too limited to mindlessly consume entertainment without some indication that it’s worth my time, which leads me to point 5.

5. I only have so much time. I’m 49 years old and am acutely aware that I have only so much time on this planet. I’d prefer to spend that time providing for my family, spending time with family and friends, writing/creating, and reading. The ROP is apparently set to run five seasons, x 8 shows per season, and one hour per episode. That’s 40 hours minimum time investment. That’s a big commitment on something which apparently is not very good (see #4).

6. I’m not a big TV watcher. Give me a book any day. My current TV consumption is some evening news, and the occasional football game. My daughter got me into Stranger Things and I enjoyed that well enough. Beyond that, I don’t watch TV. My friends are still in shock when I tell them I haven’t seen Breaking Bad or The Wire or Better Call Saul or Ozarks, or whatever the hot property is at the moment. I'd rather do other things with my time than suck on the glass teat.

7. I like movies better. Movies have much more appeal than episodic, open-ended series that may or may not end well... if they end at all. Sure, movies can suck too but at least it’s only 2 hours wasted, as opposed to the folks who sat through seven seasons of Game of Thrones only to suffer through a dumpster fire final season. Or folks that invested time in prematurely cancelled shows. I did watch The Walking Dead and was sorely disappointed when that show began to rot from within, ambling along like a mildly hungry animated corpse. Maybe it’s the sword-and-sorcery fan in me, but give me the quick-hitting single film (S&S short story) over the multi-episode, multi-season TV series (phonebook epic fantasy equivalent).

8. I’m old and jaded. Hype bounces off me. I’ve seen enough, and done enough, and experienced enough heartbreak and disappointment, that trailers, regardless of how well-made, aren’t going to move me. I need to find the commitment from within. The irony is this is coming from a guy who works in marketing. 

9. It’s Amazon. I don’t particularly like this company, even though I admire its efficiency in delivering my packages on time. Doesn’t Amazon own enough of the world already? Do we want to live in a world where it also owns all art and product, in addition to the means of distribution?

10. I don’t want to see Tolkien adapted anymore. Yeah, it’s selfish, maybe petty. I don’t know. We’ve got the books, some cool old cartoons, the Jackson films. That’s more than enough. There are wonders beyond compare in The Hobbit, LOTR, The Silmarillion, HOME, The Children of Hurin, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, his letters, etc., not to mention the hundreds of academic volumes examining his works. All of this should be enough. If the right director were to do the right adaptation, for example a Robert Eggers directed The Children of Hurin, I’d watch it. But even then, we don’t NEED it. We’ve got the books, and the books will always be better. You can’t out-do Tolkien’s unique brilliance, no matter how big your budget. Sorry Jeff Bezos.

Monday, September 26, 2022

Michael Moorcock and other Stranger Things

I was OOO (and frankly, only semi-coherent) this past Friday-Sunday, after a sorely needed guys weekend getaway. Me and four other dudes rented a house on Whaley Lake in Holmes, NY, consuming booze and retelling old college stories. Included in the trip was a stop at Darryl's House, a bar/restaurant owned by Darryl Hall, where we took in a wonderful Foreigner tribute band. If you ever come across Double Vision, check them out, they're highly recommended.

As a result I failed to mention my most recent blog post for Tales from the Magician's Skull/blog of Goodman Games is now up: Stranger Things in the Stories of Michael Moorcock.

I hope you like it. I enjoyed digging out the old AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide for this, and my treasured copy of S2: White Plume Mountain.

Friday, September 23, 2022

Headless Cross, Black Sabbath

I love discovering old shit that I missed in my indifferent, misguided youth. Yet another example: Headless Cross, Black Sabbath's 14 studio album.

Released at the tail end of the glorious 80s (1989), this was Sabbath's second album with singer Tony Martin... and so I had no interest at the time. I was too wrapped up in Metallica, Maiden, Priest, Anthrax, Megadeth, et. al, a story I relayed a bit during a recent appraisal of Nativity in Black for Metal Friday. I had abandoned Sabbath after the Dio years, and so this album came and sank beneath the waves without my notice or credit.

Credit YouTube's algorithms for recently recommending me this video, during a day when I was getting some housework done and only idly listening. When "Headless Cross" began I quickly snapped out of my torpor and realized, this is pretty damned good. "Devil and Daughter" cemented my opinion. 

This led me to another revelation.

Tony Iommi is Black Sabbath.

Not Ozzy Osbourne.

Not (RIP) Ronnie James Dio.

It's Tony Iommi, hands down, and if you think otherwise, you're wrong. His guitar tone, and songwriting, are what unites all these albums and disparate singers and makes just about every Sabbath album worth listening to.

Headless Cross is more evidence.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Before They Are Hanged, some thoughts on Joe Abercrombie's First Law trilogy

Some hanging... much stabbing.
I'm now two-thirds of the way through Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, having just finished the second volume Before They Are Hanged, and damn, I’m enjoying this (long) journey. 

These books are all over 500 pages, far longer than the lean and mean S&S I typically prefer. I’m not the biggest fan of this type of thing: Epic fantasy/Grimdark, multi-volume series of phonebook sized tomes. With a few exceptions. I’ll gladly read long series from the likes of Bernard Cornwell, for example. 

Joe Abercrombie is another exception. I’ll read what the dude puts out. He’s an excellent writer and the First Law are easily among the best books I’ve read this year. His strengths as I see them are: 

Ear for dialogue. His characters speak with unique voices, with each other (not at each other, not in declarative speech, but dialogue), and through the dialogue the plot moves apace. He also adds a simultaneous internal dialogue that reveals the characters’ thoughts simultaneously—which is sometimes at odds with the carefully concealed lies they speak aloud.

Characterization. A series of this size requires a cast of characters and I would say at least 3-4 are something approaching fully realized. There are characters you remember, including Ninefingers, Ferro, Jezal, Glokta, and to a lesser degree West and Dogman, to whom you can’t wait to return.

Depictions of violence. If you like battles (who doesn’t?) these are taut, wildly dangerous, unpredictable. Abercrombie is up there with the likes of Bernard Cornwell and GRRM for desperate melees and violence that you can picture as you read it. There is an amazing sequence in which a main character who thinks he’s victorious is suddenly struck in the face with a mace, and after a detour into unconsciousness returns to the horror of pain and disfigurement. Grimdark, but very well done.

A few specific observations and a few critiques.

Abercrombie is at this best when he’s focused on the conflict of human beings and gritty reality, but seems slightly out of his element when portraying fantastic elements. I find his use of monsters/magic not entirely convincing, and not as compelling to read. Which is why his The Heroes resonated strongly with me—there’s nary of whiff of magic in it. I have a hard time picturing what the Shanka look like; they are called “flatheads” but are essentially orcs (I think?)—hordes of cannon fodder with less menace than any of the human protagonists. Likewise Bayaz, a great wizard of the first order, can move things with his mind with a psionic-like power, but it fails to awe or inspire. Bayaz in general reminds me of a much less likeable, highly irritable Gandalf. 

I could see Abercrombie morphing into an author of historical fiction. There is a lost Empire of Gurkhul that evokes the ancient Roman empire, of past glories of architecture and construction that can no longer be achieved by the peoples of the current (fallen) age, only glimpsed through ruins. I think he could do a wonderful series set in 6th or 7th century Britain, something like Cornwell’s Arthurian trilogy.

Despite the story moving apace, and the general high quality of the prose, the series does not entirely avoid the bloat endemic to almost all high fantasy. Some of the sequences, even when well done, feel like semi-indulgent detours into world-building. I think the overall page count could be safely reduced. Probably more of a preference-thing; some people love world-building. Not really my thing.

A final note: I was tickled at mid-book to read what is essentially a voyage into Moria complete with the bridge of Khazad-dum, a bridge “soaring across a dizzy space in one simple arch, impossibly delicate.” It is a work of some master maker, “undiminished. They shine the brighter, if anything, for they shine in a darkened world.” At one point the group’s guide, Longfoot, launches into an entirely un-Abercrombie-like soliloquy complete with archaic, high language that sounds as if it issued from Boromir or Aragorn, completely different than the rough, coarse, modern dialogue typical of the rest of the book:

“And this is why I love to travel,” breathed Longfoot. “At one stroke, in one moment, this whole journey has been made worthwhile. Has there ever been such another sight? How many men living can have gazed upon it? The three of us stand at a window upon history, at a gate into the long-forgotten past? No longer will I dream of fair Talins, glittering on the sea in the red morning, or Ul-Nahb, glowing beneath the azure bow of the heavens in the bright midday, or Ospira, proud upon her mountain slopes, lights shining like the stars in the soft evening. From this day forth, my heart will forever belong to Aulcus.”

Longfoot is then cut off by Ferro, raining on his parade by calling the sight a “load of old buildings,” which rips us back into the dark narrative. Perhaps Abercrombie (a big fan of Martin, his chief inspiration for the First Law) is taking a bit of a piss out of old JRRT. Interesting, nonetheless.

Saturday, September 17, 2022

Fantastic essay and other updates

Failed to mention that my post on Fantastic, that digest-size magazine that ran from 1952-1980 and published a fair bit of sword-and-sorcery, is up on the blog of DMR Books. The link is here.

Can you believe Fantastic had Fritz Leiber writing a regular book reviews column? Can you imagine Fritz F-ing Leiber reviewing your stuff? 

I found one column from 1975 where he reviews Poul Anderson's Hrolf Kraki's Saga. This is the sword-and-sorcery equivalent of Mike Tyson breaking down fight film of Muhammad Ali. 

What else am I working on? Bill Ward over at Tales from the Magician's Skull/Goodman Games is keeping me busy. I have a post on Michael Moorcock in his hands, and then will be turning my attention to a couple other pieces he wants me to write in October/November. Won't spoil any of them now.

Speaking of Tales from the Magician's Skull I'm supposed to be getting my hard copy of issue no. 8 in the mail any day now, along with a TftMS beer coaster. Will post pics when they arrive.

Friday, September 16, 2022

"Rockin' Again," Saxon

What? Saxon has yet to make an appearance on Metal Friday?

Consider that corrected. I could have thrown up something from Denim and Leather but instead went with this straightforward rocker off Innocence is No Excuse.

Love the slow atmospheric build on this. The drums are perfect, as is the guitar tone. Everything I love about mid-80s metal.

It's Friday, we'll be rocking again.

Friday, September 9, 2022

Blood Tears, Blind Guardian

Today's Metal Friday is a cut off Nightfall in Middle-Earth by the great Blind Guardian.

"Blood Tears" is typical of the work on this album... fucking awesome. The tempo changes in this At 1:33 the song transforms from an atmospheric and melodic medieval feel, to full-on mosh-pit. Then returns. There and back again.

Tolkien is on my brain a bit more than usual (JRRT never leaves this cranium) due to the recent Rings of Power, which I still haven't watched. Will I? I don't know, I'm feeling very apathetic about it all. I’m not a big TV watcher, but mainly I have no faith Amazon can recreate Tolkien's genius.

But I can say Blind Guardian channeled a bit of it, with Nightfall in Middle-Earth. Enjoy this bit of First Age storytelling. “Captured” and “Blood Tears” are about the capture of Maedhros, Morgoth’s chaining of the Elven hero by his wrist to a sheer cliff in the mountains of Thangorodrim, and his deliverance when Fingon hacks off his hand. Blind Guardian offers a moving look into the mind of Maedhros and the torment and pain he must have experienced:

And blood tears I cry

You've searched and you've found

Cut off your old friends hand


Thursday, September 8, 2022

A shout-out to five S&S voices on the interwebs

We don’t always stop to praise others whose stuff we read, or who are doing general good work in the spaces we enjoy. So here’s a shout-out to a few folks who deserve it for their work as S&S champions/commentators/historians/publishers/etc *:

Dave Ritzlin: DMR Books is the premiere publisher of all things S&S/S&P/heroic fantasy, which makes Dave, well, the premiere publisher of all things S&S/S&P/heroic fantasy. For that alone he deserves our praise. But on top of that he curates a must-read website and is a good S&S writer in his own right. Recently he’s been running a series of interviews with contemporary S&S authors, “Independent Author Spotlight,” to champion their work. So I thought I’d champion his.

Deuce Richardson: Deuce is an interesting dude. I have never met him in person but have corresponded with him a bit over the years and had a couple phone calls. I don’t believe I’ve ever met anyone with a memory like his, or quite as well-read (except for the late Steve Tompkins). His stuff at DMR Books is always worth reading. He never fails to recognize important anniversaries. Strong historian and champion of pre-S&S adventure writers. I love his posts unearthing artwork from artists I know well but whose full catalog I have not seen. 

Jason Ray Carney: The hardest working person in this space? I would say, yes, without question. I don’t know how Jason manages to do it, but he’s pulled off a small conference, established awards, edits several amateur magazines (Whetstone, Witch House), started up the Whetstone discord group, writes fiction and non-fiction books and academic essays, edits The Dark Man journal, creates Youtube videos, speaks at conferences, organizes online panel sessions, on and on. Boundless energy and erudition.

Oliver Brackenbury: Oliver has been hard at work bringing new voices to S&S. I’ve enjoyed several episodes of his So I’m Writing a Novel podcast, which has morphed into interviews with a diverse range of writers old and new. He is also the host of Unknown Worlds of the Merril Collection podcast, a moderator on the Whetstone server, and more.

G.W. Thomas: A bit of an unsung hero in this space but deserves greater recognition. Every time I go to Google something S&S related, it turns up something with his name on it. I recently wrote a piece for DMR on S&S in Fantastic magazine and halfway through realized Thomas had already done something similar. He provides encyclopedic coverage of the genre in a fun way for Dark Worlds Quarterly and elsewhere. I’m indebted to his comprehensive, thorough, tireless work.

*There are many others of course but that’s for another post, another day.

Friday, September 2, 2022

Fantastic! And thoughts on pastiches

More witches! Art by Jones.
Recently I picked up seven issues of Fantastic. This former digest-sized magazine ran from 1952-1980 before folding. During that time it published many fine stories and authors, covering a wide, eclectic swath of fantasy, science fiction, and horror—including sword-and-sorcery. A lot of the history I covered in Flame and Crimson appeared in the pages of this now defunct publication.

Anyway, I got to reading these old back issues and that led me where my reading inevitably does—to thinking, and writing. I sent a lengthy article about S&S in Fantastic, including the four L. Sprague de Camp/Lin Carter Conan pastiches that appeared between 1972-75, over to Dave Ritzlin at DMR Books the other day. I expect that to appear on his website next week.

Speaking of pastiches, I recently started reading The Goddess of Ganymede (excellent thus far) and author Michael D. Resnick leads off the volume with this:

To Edgar Rice Burroughs Fans Everywhere

I hope you enjoy reading this Burroughs pastiche as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Finally, I see that we now have a cover of the new Conan novel by S.M. Stirling, Blood of the Serpent. I join a chorus of others in wishing the cover was more classic S&S, a Frazetta-esque painting of the Cimmerian perhaps, but hey, it’s clean, it works, there is a sword on it, and a snake. Two S’s, now that I think of it (too clever by half)? But now this new and latest Conan pastiche feels a lot more tangible.

I tie all of these experiences with pastiches into Deuce Richardson’s recent piece over at DMR Books and it’s got me thinking about this practice as well. 

I have mixed feelings on pastiches, and likewise think we need some better-defined terms. Resnick is here using “pastiche” in its original definition, as Deuce lays out “A literary, artistic, musical, or architectural work that imitates the style of previous work.” The Goddess of Ganymede is the story of American soldier of fortune, Adam Thane, on a mission to Jupiter. His spacecraft loses contact with earth and is forced to land on its satellite moon, Ganymede, where Thane is embroiled in swashbuckling adventure. Thane finds he can take huge jumps due to the weaker gravitational pull of the planet, encounters red-skinned inhabitants of the planet, etc. In other words, a transparent Burroughs homage/imitation/pastiche.

De Camp meanwhile used “pastiche” as the continued stories of an established literary character by a new author. That term became synonymous with what he and Carter did with the likes of the Conan story “The Witch of the Mists” (August 1972 Fantastic). This is sort of how we all think of “pastiche” today.

My current stance on (De Campian-style) pastiche is: I enjoy them (when done well) and have no problem with others continuing to write new stories of beloved characters. I do think fidelity to the original character/world/lore should be a very high priority. And I’m also of the belief that pastiches should contain a short introduction to the original series or other clear indicator that these are imitations, not the real McCoy, to prevent any confusion with new readers and point them in the direction of the source material. But if you want to write them (and have the rights), have at it. If it's good, I might read it.

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Ace Frehley lead guitar!

One of my fondest heavy metal memories is seeing Ace Frehley at the now-defunct Underground, a former rock club in Lowell, MA, back in March 1994. 

At the time my friend Wayne and I were a few months shy of our 21st birthdays. But we liked to drink (still do), and outside in the parking lot we pre-gamed in good Ace fashion, splitting a 12 pack of Zima. 

Yes, we split a 12-pack of that now-infamous malt liquor that (to quote David Letterman) “tasted like Zhit.” It did, but we weren’t picky. As I recall it was introduced that year and everyone was drinking it. It was “Zomething different.” Don’t judge me too harshly. 

Putrid, but fun.

Inside they were handing out wristbands to anyone 21 and older to ease the sale of liquor (it was dark, and crappy inside, hard to check IDs). But they weren’t checking these too close, and Wayne and I discovered that we could freely buy Bud from the young waitresses working the crowd.

All was going great until Wayne caught the eye of a bouncer with 3-4 songs to go. With a beer in his hand and no wristband, Wayne got tossed. And I had a decision to make.

Shit man, I said to myself. Ace hasn’t played Do Ya yet. Fuck it, I’m staying. And so I did. While Wayne cooled off outside, I rocked out to the encore. 

He still gives me shit about it to this day. No regrets from me though.

Anyway, tomorrow night Wayne and I will be seeing 71-year-old Ace again, this time at the Cabot Theater in Beverly. Can’t wait. The Spaceman oozes style, and always puts on a good show.

Ace was always the coolest member of KISS. Never a good singer by anyone’s imagination but he wrote and performed some good material. “Rock Soldiers.” “Shock Me.” “Strange Ways.” “Fractured Mirror.” “Snowblind.” “Rip It Out.” Covers of “Do Ya,” “New York Groove” and “2000 Man.” Live he plays a lot of old classic KISS songs, including “Gold Gin,” a stone-cold classic which he wrote, and “Parasite,” which he co-wrote with Paul Stanley. I think he was a talented guitar player, with a unique sound and style, even though he squandered a lot of that native ability beneath a flood of booze and drugs in the 70s and 80s.

His 1978 self-titled album is duly accorded as the best of the four solo efforts by KISS. 

Here's his cool guitar work from “Fractured Mirror,” off that same album.

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

A bookish nostalgia

Humans are on a path of upward progress. This is a good thing. We enjoy material comfort and personal levels of wealth unimaginable 200 years ago. We’re living longer, in less pain and with less physical suffering, than any generation prior. I’m not denying the looming potential catastrophes of China saber-rattling and the deteriorating climate. But I’m hopeful that cooler, economic heads will prevail, and the latter will be solved through emerging tech and greater corporate responsibility.

But, we lose things along this path of progress, too.

As a kid growing up in Reading, Massachusetts I had access to a bookstore that was so much more than just a place to plunk down your nickels. My memories are wreathed in a blanket of nostalgia so thick and cloying that they are likely unreliable, but for me and a few friends this bookstore was a place of wonder. 

I remember the smell, musty but not foul, the one you get when you thumb the pages of an old book near your face and let the breeze riff your hair. I remember the creaking floorboards under my feet. And the sprawling, semi-disorganized riot of it all, old and new titles and wild and fantastic covers colliding in color.

This bookstore carried tons of comics, all the new stuff on display, but reams of back issues, boxed and bagged, ripe to explore. Its book inventory was mostly second-hand, and I was eventually able to buy most of the Lancer Conans and many other old paperbacks too. Dungeons and Dragons and other assorted role playing games could be had. It carried Dragon and White Dwarf, which allowed us to keep up on the RPG news of the day. This was a place to learn.

Money was a limiting factor so we’d spend a lot of time looking through the massive collection of books and comics, reading, observing. I would eventually buy 3-4 issues of Savage Sword of Conan, perhaps, as many as I could afford, and trek home, barely able to contain my excitement at the reading I had ahead. I would stop for a can of soda at the firestation. This had a side door, open to the public, and the soda machine was programmed I think for 40 cents a can, 15 cents less than the corner drugstore. That’s a big difference when you’re living off an allowance or lawn mowing wages.

I’d go home, put my feet up on my desk, and get lost in the Hyborian Age, or the Avengers mansion, or the weird stories told in Heavy Metal or Epic illustrated magazine.

Life was moving slowly, but it was great.

You probably know what is going to happen next. That old bookstore succumbed to soaring real estate values. The owners probably couldn’t afford the rent anymore, or it might have been that the book traffic was getting sucked to the malls of a couple neighboring towns. I don’t know. But one day it closed, and eventually the building in which it stood along with a few other businesses was razed, and replaced with a … bank. Commerce won the day. 

This was near the time that the likes of Barnes and Noble and later Borders were eating up all the book traffic. But soon even those far more standardized, safe, generic bookstores that ate up the little guys would themselves suffer the same fate, succumbing to the grinding wheels of Amazon and online efficiency and convenience.

Maybe I’m just romanticizing a time that I’ll never get back to, or I'm becoming an old fart. Probably both. But I feel like I’m not just reliving lost and fond memories of childhood, but rather remembering a real time that was markedly different. One where I could just be. Before the Great Distraction.

The internet and its subsequent rapid adoption and proliferation has changed the nature of human interaction in ways we really don’t understand. Life was moving slower then. We learned differently, through books and word of mouth, inherited wisdom, or a once daily newspaper or evening newscast. Not an iphone. I know others feel like I do, that sustained reading is much harder today than it used to be.

We were also seemingly much less angry. Yes, humans fought a lot, in terrible wars. But the long spaces between were not filled with what they are now, unending nastiness and pettiness and virtue-signaling and screaming about injustices and offenses, 24-7.

We’ve lost something that we will never recover. 

J.R.R. Tolkien understood this. We move from magic to modernity, from superstition and myth to reason and science, and lose something beautiful. It’s inevitable, and many new things are beautiful, but during this process we discard the old. And it’s sad. 

It’s OK to mourn and honor the past, even as it slips through your fingers.

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Tales from the Magician’s Skull #6

They're back! 
Finally getting around to review of a magazine I have been subscribing to since its inception, Tales from the Magician’s Skull. I decided to go with issue no. 6 because of the new (and estate of Fritz Leiber authorized) Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser story by Nathan Long. 

I jumped straight to Long’s story and liked it. Credible, solid pastiche. The Gray Mouser was well-channeled, though Fafhrd felt a bit flat to me. The story suffers a bit from too many characters, I don’t need all the names and details for what are essentially one-act props for the main show. I liked the conceit of the story, a play infiltrated by F&GM on a thieving caper that turns (somewhat) deadly serious. Good stuff, I think Fritz would have been happy with this effort. Hope we see more F&GM from Long. I would love to hear more details on how Goodman Games secured the rights to produce the story.

On to the rest. 

Issue 6 leads off with a pair of S&S stalwarts, John Hocking and Howard Andrew Jones. Both serve up a pretty good story. Hanuvar is an interesting character, a later middle-aged centurion, deadly, honorable. I was not wild about this particular story, not as hard/heroic as I prefer. But very well-written, being Jones. The danger is palpable; swords are weighty, violence not casually handled. Nice use of snake monsters, Saathra, which felt dangerous. Hanuvar is pressed into finding a young woman, Tura, who has run away into the swamps in a bout of grief after her mother, a priestess, dies. Jones dangles some compelling threads that make me want to revisit this character (his missing daughter for example) and we’re going to get the chance in the upcoming Baen novels.

Hocking’s story “Calicask’s Woman” was likewise solid. Some good fight scenes, a reasonable twist at the end, nice closing image. The light titillation is a false front, as the story is an underlying critique of ill-treatment of women and warning against treating them like objects or chattel. All the bits about wands and figuring out number of “charges” remaining felt a little too D&D to me. Some cool spells flung about (“Wall of Demons”) that felt suitably dangerous.

Two other stories did not resonate with me because they are not what I’m after in sword-and-sorcery.

Greg Mele’s “Shadows of a Forgotten Queen” is almost all resolved through dialogue. “Isle of Fog” by Violette Malan suffers from the same malady, too “talky” and dialogue-heavy for me. The latter opens with a compelling intro (“No one comes back from the Isle of Fog”) but then gets bogged down. I need less, not more, when I read S&S. S&S at its best offers stories that stand on their own, plot-driven, adventure-focused. I prefer more swashbuckling, more happening, in my stories, and less motivations, politicking, world-building. These are short stories, keep them simple at least for simple readers like me with simple tastes. Again, this is MY preference, it’s no knock on the quality of the stories. These are authors with potential that deserve your attention.

We also get in the back half of the magazine “Cold in Blood” by James Enge which was the highlight of the issue for me. Morlock is pitted against a dangerous, murderous vampiress but the story is leavened with a wry sense of humor. Basic, entertaining, fun, weird, uncomplicated, even as it ends on a somber-ish note. Well written, well done. It strikes me I haven’t read enough Enge and need to rectify that. His stuff is consistently excellent.

The Leiber article is solid. I had forgotten that the Leiber estate allowed author Robin Wayne Bailey to write Swords Against the Shadowland (1998) featuring the two heroes, and now Nathan Long’s story.

Long story short: This is a good issue of the magazine. I am quite glad Tales from the Magician’s Skull exists. I will continue to support it as long as it keeps publishing. It is one of the few regular markets for sword-and-sorcery. It gives authors a chance to ply their craft. It just needs more S&S refinement—in my opinion. YMMV.

And, good lord is the supporting apparatus a blast. These include fun editorials, an S&S word search, humorous letters to the editor. Skull Scrolls is fun, letters to the editor as answered by the Skull himself, or hapless interns who will soon meet their death. It has considerable gaming related content at the back, mechanics assigned to the creatures and spells, etc. in the stories. It's a great idea, I’m glad it’s included even though gaming is largely in my past. It’s all well-packaged. Some of the art is crude and clunky but it’s quite welcome here, delivering an old school AD&D vibe and charm.

This reminds me, I felt the first tinge of fall the other day when I went into my local liquor store and saw a display of Pumpkinhead beer on the shelves. We’re about 10 weeks out from Halloween, and closing in on the next Day of Might (Oct. 23), the sword-and-sorcery national holiday as ordained by the Skull. Save the date.

Friday, August 12, 2022

Thin Lizzy, "Emerald"

Outstanding hard rock/metal from Thin Lizzy today. This band deserves more recognition than just the dudes who wrote "Jailbreak" and "The Boys are Back in Town." Nothing wrong with those hits, but "Emerald" is straight up sword-and-sorcery. 

Makes me want to hop in a van with Frazetta art and hit the open road, a 1970s viking in search of plunder or at least the nearest watering hole.

Down from the glen came the marching men
With their shields and their swords
To fight the fight they believed to be right
Overthrow the overlords

To the town where there was plenty
They brought plunder, swords and flame
When they left the town was empty
Children would never play again
From their graves I heard the fallen
Above the battle cry

By that bridge near the border
There were many more to die
Then onward over the mountain
And outward towards the sea
They had come to claim the Emerald
Without it they could not leave

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Getting political in fantasy fiction

A good idea? Or, should politics be avoided? Can it ever be avoided, when authors are humans and presumably possessed of some political bent, lightly or tightly held?

I think politics can be de-emphasized, and unless you’re setting out to write something like Gulliver’s Travels, think it usually should. Good writers show, not tell, which means showing life in all its richness and complexity, including the non-political sphere (it exists). But shorn of anything remotely considered political your writing runs the risk of being bland. Or becoming the Weird, otherworldly variety of Clark Ashton Smith’s wildest stories.

Getting political cuts both ways. For the liberal who’d like to see something closer to socialism implemented, punching up at corporate overlords through their fiction has understandable appeal. The bad guys can be Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk. But the perceived war on white men, capitalism, and the embrace of identity politics, has brought with it authorial counter-reaction from conservative authors.

Doing this type of work requires sophistication and a deft hand, or else it comes across as crass, activist screed. I don’t like reading painful, on the nose allegory. If you choose to write about the politics of the day, within a few years when the next leader is elected, you will find that your stories have aged, fast. Your clever references to political figures and hot-button issues will be rapidly outdated, obscure. Which is why I generally recommend either avoiding overt political messages, or better yet, focusing on reality—life as it actually exists, in all its forms, across the political spectrum and in the non-political sphere.

J.R.R. Tolkien was influenced by the events of his day, his Catholic upbringing, his World War I experiences (and World War II, despite his disavowal)—in addition to great swathes of non-political input including his deep knowledge of languages and medieval literature. But his stuff resists easy analysis. Is The Lord of the Rings conservative? In some respects, yes. A king is restored to his throne at the end. The Scouring of the Shire brushes up to outright critique of socialism. But the story is also about a multicultural fellowship who put aside their differences to beat a dictator. It reveres environmental preservation, critiquing the rapaciousness and industrial pollutions of Saruman. In other words, it depicts life in its richness and complexity. In so doing it presents glimpses of the truth, not a subjective political message of the day, which is one of the reasons why that work endures.

If you’re a writer, getting overtly political is one way to appeal to an audience, find your tribe, sell books. Certainly there is an appetite for all things political today. But it runs a risk. For example, in an anthology your tribe may discover other authors embrace views antithetical to its beliefs. The crudest example of this is the Flashing Swords #6 incident.

I keep going back to Howard for how to do this the right way (or at least the way I prefer my fiction). Are his Conan stories political? In a broad sense, yes. We can read Conan cutting through corrupt judges and monarchs as rebellion against the established order, a counterreaction to the injustices wrought by the Great Depression. But they are not direct critiques of Herbert Hoover (or maybe they are; if someone makes the case I’ll read that essay). They take a much broader, longer view of the course of human history, offering a dark view about the cyclical rise and fall of civilization and the imperfections in human nature, which makes them far more dangerous and memorable than mere of-the-day political commentary. It’s part of what has made Howard’s stories last. As has their non-political elements, like Howard’s incorporation of the literature of the west, and the Texas landscape.

I also think Leiber is instructive. Leiber’s critique of civilization was more subtle than Howard’s, his view of barbarians less romanticized (see “The Snow Women”). Rime Isle, the heroes’ end, was perhaps his statement on the need to break away from gods and cities, religion and politics. Perhaps old Fritz was on to something here, even though I found most of these latter stories wanting. Which maybe tells you something about our inability to ever flee reality.

I have said that my credo is literary freedom, and I stand by it. If getting overtly political in your fiction is what you want, it’s well within your rights, under the First Amendment. It should be this way.

If you want to write about a hero who rips down a wall built by a dictator, and opens the borders to a suffering neighboring community, you might be meet with cheers (from some). Others will boo your effort. How about a story about a barbarian who hacks his way through crime-plagued inner cities, solving violence with violence? Will you/should you accept that story?

Be prepared for criticism, both of the unfair/ugly variety from readers with axes to grind, but also of the thoughtful kind who see things from a different angle. 

Life is lived in the middle. Political theory must meet reality. If you can live with that, have at it. 

Saturday, August 6, 2022

More awesome Tom Barber art

Tom Barber was kind enough to send me a few more digital images after my recent visit to his home and studio a couple weeks ago. I'm posting them here with his permission, appended with a few comments.

Enjoy the hell out of them. I sure did. I'm particularly fond of the first. That's talent, folks.

(per Tom:) The ‘monster’ is a scientist scarred by burns received in a laboratory fire, and he’s rescuing his little friend from the ignorant crowd of scared townspeople who hurt her. He’s taking her deep into the swamp where he’ll bring her back to health. One of my earliest. Don’t know where the story came from. Never in print.

This is Harlequin, the band/friend of Tom's mentioned in my prior post. Not the Harlequin from Canada. Started in Florida and ended up in Boston.


Compadre of the skeletal warrior from the cover of Flame and Crimson.

Friday, August 5, 2022

The Crue, Poison, Def Leppard, Joan Jett

This Metal Friday will actually be a Live Metal Friday. Of the Hair Metal variety.

Tonight I trek into Boston to Fenway Park to see an quadruple bill of aging 80s rock legends: Joan Jett, Def Leppard, Poison, and Motley Crue.

I have seen 3 of these 4 bands separately (never Jett) and each was fun. Nothin' But A Good Time, you might say. But, put them all together and you've got fireworks. You might have to Kickstart My Heart at this show-stopping lineup.

I'll stop there.

As anyone who follows this blog knows I'm much more a fan of what I call (in an admittedly gatekeeping/obnoxious way) real heavy metal, bands like Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, etc. But, I do like pop metal/hair metal too. I have to be in the right mood, which is usually Friday or Saturday night with plenty of cheap cold beer. 

Both boxes are checked, all systems go. Let me get through today and then I'll be time-traveling back to the 80s. There's a shitload of fun, rocking hits from these bands that regularly make my playlists. Can't wait to hear them again tonight.

For today's song, I'll go with "Same 'Ol Situation (S.O.S)." Always loved this one.

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Some ruminations on sword-and-sorcery’s slide into Grimdark

Sword-and-sorcery continues to show stirrings, and life. Outlets like Tales from the Magician’s Skull, DMR Books, new projects like Whetstone, New Edge, etc., are publishing new authors and new stories that embrace its old forms and conventions. Obviously the genre ain’t what it used to be circa 1970, but who knows what the future may hold for us aging diehards.

I speculate on some of the reasons why S&S died off in Flame and Crimson (which, by the way, just surpassed 100 ratings on Amazon—thank you to everyone who took the time to rate or review the book, as these help with visibility in some arcane, Amazon protected manner). I won’t rehash them all here, they are available in the book.

What I haven’t written as much about is why Grimdark filled the void, what makes that genre popular with modern readers, and what we might have to learn from this transition.

First, I am of the opinion that Grimdark is the spiritual successor to S&S. One of them, at least. I agree with the main thrust of this article by John Fultz. S&S has many spiritual successors, from heavy metal bands to video games to Dungeons and Dragons. But in terms of literature, the works of Richard Morgan, Joe Abercrombie, and George R.R. Martin, bear some of the hallmarks of S&S, while also being something markedly different. 

I believe this occurred as part of a natural evolution within S&S, with some things gained, others lost. As occurs during the general course of all progress.

First, I think this shift mirrored a broader cultural change. If we accept that Grimdark is marked by graphic depictions of violence, as well as a bleak/everyone is shit/might is right outlook (grossly simplified), then we can see what was acceptable in the 1950s-early 70s was different than what we saw in the popular culture in the 1990s and into today. Heavy metal was born in 1970 with the gloom and doom of Black Sabbath, before Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, then Metallica and Megadeth and Slayer, took the form to 11, giving the hard rock of the late 60s/early 70s a much harder, darker, aggressive edge. Popular westerns went from the tough but heroic John Wayne to the spaghettis of Clint Eastwood, reaching a culmination in Unforgiven that essentially deconstructed the genre and cast the “hero” in a very different light. War films gave us Platoon instead of The Longest Day. Frank depictions of sexuality also became acceptable. Essentially “the culture” decided this shift, artists and directors and musicians needed to break norms and explore new territories to keep their visions fresh and original. It’s a natural process, the way art always evolves. But things are lost, old forms abandoned along the way. S&S was a casualty.

I also think the ascendance of Grimdark mirrored a change in publishing trends. Grimdark borrowed from high/epic fantasy in form and length, and with its emphasis on world-building. This aspect is less appealing to me, for the most part (I love Tolkien, but I think very few if any authors have done the world-building aspect of Tolkien as well). But it seems many fantasy readers love getting lost in worlds and so gravitate toward multi-volume series. I won’t argue with that impulse, though I think a really good writer can accomplish that with few words and deft sketches of detail. Trilogies and stretched-out stories offer a far more reliable and lucrative business model for publishers and authors. But less cynically they also allow for greater character development, a thought which struck me during a recent read of Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself (Glokta and Logen Ninefingers and Jezal all feel very real, and three-dimensional, as we consistently read/hear what they are thinking). Again, some like this aspect of fiction, some don’t. S&S can do this, and has, albeit across multiple stories (see Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser), but it’s not a typical hallmark of the subgenre. But readers seem to want that, hence our fascination with origin stories, identification with characters "like us" rather than larger-than-life or abstract heroes, etc.

The general cultural trend of amplified violence and post-Vietnam war-weariness led to grittier literary material like David Gemmell’s Legend and Glen Cook’s The Black Company. Before Martin gave it full life with A Game of Thrones and his multivolume A Song of Ice and Fire, and Joe Abercrombie picked up the torch with The First Law trilogy. And we have what we have today in Grimdark, a sort of mash-up of S&S and epic fantasy and other influences.

Grimdark’s ascendance doesn’t mean we can’t have S&S too, with its greater emphasis on the short form, wonder and weirdness, and less emphasis on world building and cast of characters stories. But whether it will become commercially viable again remains to be seen. Baen is about to give it a shot with its signing of Howard Andrew Jones, and Titan Books set to publish a new Conan novel. 

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Skulls, crusaders, and all things esoteric: Meeting up with Tom Barber

Our annual week vacation at our family camp in Andover, NH afforded me the opportunity to again spend a few hours hanging out with the man, the myth... Tom Barber. This was my third meetup with the classic S&S and science fiction illustrator, and as always it was time well spent with a one-of-a-kind, all around good dude. We hung out in the detached studio behind his house to escape the hot sun, and it was a place of wonders.

Tom hasn't done a lot of work of late, but did show me an incredible album cover he painted for a heavy metal band out on the west coast. They were very happy with the end product, buying the original and all the licensing rights, and they should be (it was an image of a faceless apparition, chains dangling, hands grasping. Could have made the cover of any Zebra paperback in the 1970s. I hope we see it online soon). He also told me he sold three paintings to the owners of a development company that is building some high-end condos in the neighboring city of Franklin.

This time I got to meet his significant other, Terri. Tom broke out an old tape of a band he once hung out with, Harlequin. Very cool, 70s hard rock/proggy/proto heavy metal stuff, epic sound (I don't believe it's the Canadian band that turns up first in Google... might be wrong though). Tom painted a wonderful picture of the lead singer in renaissance garb back in the day and plans to ship the painting out. 

He also showed me some of his old artwork that he did for Amazing Science Fiction, and some much more recent work for Amazing Stories, as well as an unrelated work in progress. Pictures below. We chatted about all kinds of stuff, including Vikings (Tom is a fan of The Last Kingdom Netflix series; which I haven't seen yet; I recommended he watch The Northman film) and all things esoteric. It was cool to see an old cover of the Andrew Offutt Cormac Mac Art novel The Undying Wizard on his wall, as Barber is a huge fan of the talented Jeffrey Catherine Jones. He left me with a copy of The Lucifer Principle. I plan to read it.

Again if you are interested in obtaining any of Tom's paintings this is only a fraction of what he has for sale. Hit me up and I'll share his email address.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Literary freedom: My stance, and an explanation

Literary freedom is my credo. With very few exceptions, I think you should be able to write whatever you want.

What does this look like in practice? It means that 99% of the time, people will use this sacred right to create stories or write essays or draw pictures about rocketships and rayguns, spies and intrigue, or knights and swords, and life is good.

But it also means that, 1% of the time, someone will write a story that someone will object to, and all hell will break loose.

For example, let’s say you want to write a spy story with a protagonist who is a sexist, i.e., an old school James Bond-type who has dalliances with women that later are dropped unceremoniously out of the picture after a night of passion. Something that harkens back to an older age.

Or, let’s say, you want to want to write a sword-and-sorcery story with a powerful, gay, female protagonist who kicks ass, and smashes jerky men’s faces in. Then she gets the girl at the end. Something that defies or upends old genre conventions.

Should you not be allowed to write that character? Some readers may be offended.

My position? Fuck no. Have at it.

Let me provide an analogy for someone who thinks I’m just defending S&S. I am of course, but I have no problem defending other genres that I have no interest in, because literary freedom is my credo.

Romance is a billion dollar industry. 84% of its 29+ million readers are women.

But as I understand it, some romance caters to stereotypes, because that’s what some of its readers want. We know what they are. Shirtless buff dudes, handsome, full set of hair. Great lovers. Flush with cash. Hearts of gold. 

Now, were I more sensitive, I might say, I’m offended by the depiction of men in some of these stories. These are standards I don’t live up to. I wish I were more buff, and wealthy, and my hard heart was softer.

Are these stereotypes harmful to men? Some might say yes.

Personally, I don’t find it harmful, but mostly, I don’t care, and if someone wants to read it, have at it. Moreover, I think reading a book, (almost) any book, is superior than consuming passive entertainment. So please do read your romance novels, if you love them. Even the trashy ones.

I’ll be over here reading my trash S&S, with the barbarian who throws the gal over his shoulder after hacking through hordes of Picts. And we’re all happy.

I do think psychological harm is a thing, but I also think it’s far too subjective to do anything with. Something that you find hurtful will not be hurtful for me, and vice-versa. Rather than seek to eliminate anything potentially offensive, and sacrifice artistic freedoms, or place neutering guardrails on fiction, my preference is, leave it in, and buyer beware. I’m also of the opinion that you shouldn’t deliberately be a dick, and write fiction designed to needlessly provoke people. But again, your definition of a dick or edgelord will always differ from mine. So again, I’m erring on the side of freedom of expression.

To minimize offense, I’m also perfectly OK with warning labels. “Warning: Old Pulp sensibilities” on a cover of a book works for me. I finally got to watching Stranger Things season one (it’s good BTW), and every episode starts with a list of things in it that you might find harmful. Violence, swearing, smoking. I’m fine with this approach. It’s an elegant way around a thorny problem. We can keep in the stuff of that period—yeah smoking was incredibly prevalent in the 1980s—by letting you know in advance that it’s coming. Feel free to turn it off if you have impressionable young kids. Us adults can make up our own minds.

This is where I fall. YMMV--and I respect that, and you.

If you think this stance makes me a closeted bigot defending racism, sexism, etc., or “betraying sword-and-sorcery sensibilities” by not gatekeeping, that’s your prerogative. You don’t know me, or what I believe in, how I vote, etc. I don’t exist to make you, or the world happy. Not my job. I’d rather spend my time following my bliss, wherever that leads me. I am aware that this attitude may not make me welcome in some communities, may keep me out of some anthologies, etc, whatever.

My advice: Follow your heart, read what you love, support what you believe in. Vote with your dollars.

I’m going to answer a few questions that naturally arise with the stance of literary freedom.

Am I saying you can write blatantly, provocatively racist shit? I really wish you wouldn’t, as you’re hurting yourself, other people, and the communities in which you work. Have at it, but if you want to be an asshole, know that the market will decide, the public will have its say, and you’ll be out your commercial career. I also don’t think this is a wholesale problem, in fiction.

Do I think you can write literally whatever you want? The answer to this is no. I draw the line when writing promotes actual, physical/material, in the world harm. For example, a how-to manual for child abduction, or instructions for breeding Anthrax in your basement and shipping it undetected to your local politician. Please don’t write these things. I'd be OK with someone dropping the ban-hammer.

But as for fiction? My tolerance is way higher. 

I’m not interested in adjudicating edge cases or arguing who is the club because of what they write. I’d rather spend my time in a positive manner, for example discussing good stories and why they work. Writing about interesting literary tropes, styles, and historical trends. And yes, even keeping old works of dead authors alive, because the positive things they bring to the table far outweigh the negative. I’m glad to see publishers reprinting old pulp stories. Add a helpful introduction that contextualizes the racism and sexism, or a warning label, and then let the reader decide.

It’s fruitless to codify what every “ism” means and what is acceptable vs. non-acceptable. Any definition that boils down to “whatever I think is racist/sexist/ageist” etc. is untenable, beyond slippery slope. A slope that plunges you off the side of Mount Everest to a fiery doom. Trying to do so kills communities from infighting, ends careers for authors who make inadvertent mistakes. Take a glance at the Hugos and you will see a community eating itself from the inside out.

This is a thorny problem to write about, primarily because it is aligned with political thought, and politics inevitably make their way in. Authorial freedom naturally aligns with the likes of John Locke, and the exaltation of the individual; writing with group unity in mind strikes me as Rousseau-ian, where our rights are indistinguishable from the cohesion of the state. But, because this argument comes up again and again in every community I frequent, I thought it worth clarifying my own thoughts, and produce something I can point to, when the argument inevitably comes up for the 4000th time. 

In summary: Write what you want. 

Sunday, July 24, 2022

This makes me happy

Typically when you put “sword-and-sorcery” into a search engine (I do this from time-to-time, being a glutton for punishment) the results are discouraging. Usually you see a board game, a bad 80s film, or generic YA fantasy where someone well-meaning has used the term to describe their new book about princesses and unicorns.

But sometimes, you get returns like this.

I did not know musicians were still putting out tapes. Or that anyone was still manufacturing them, for that matter. But when you couple dinosaur media with S&S, I’m in. 

I’ve been wondering where the new metal bands are these days. Better step up my Twitter game. 

Saturday, July 23, 2022

The Blade Itself

Nice and stabby
Obvious sword-and-sorcery fan here but recently I was moved to pick up an S&S adjacent work, the first in The First Law trilogy, The Blade Itself. I guess its Grimdark, as its source is Lord Grimdark himself, Joe Abercrombie. Finished it this week and was more than engaged and hooked enough where I’ll be picking up the second volume in the trilogy, Before They Are Hanged. 

Short review: It is quite good. Abercrombie can write.

If I’m being honest, one of sword-and-sorcery’s features is also at times a drawback. Typically its written in the short form, either short stories or novellas. The emphasis is on the story, the plot and setting, and the action, the clash of blade against weird magic. All great, but this often leaves little room for characterization. There just isn’t enough time to give characters the opportunity to breathe. 

(Note I am saying typically; and there are many memorable S&S characters, but you don’t really get to know Conan or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser until you’ve read them across multiple stories).

The Blade Itself is 527 pages and introduces a large cast of characters, albeit with most of its focus on three—scarred veteran and legend of battles and duels Logen Ninefingers, the dreaded, merciless Inquisitor Sand dan Glokta, and the young upstart fencer Jezal dan Luther. I really like all three of these dudes, and that is a miracle in and of itself. Dialogue and character-building, delivered with a strong narrative voice, are what make Abercrombie something special. And his fight scenes kick ass, too. He also knows how to break the grimness with humor; I don’t find his stuff unrelentingly bleak, as for example I did reading Richard Morgan’s The Steel Remains, or George R.R. Martin. The tight-ish focus on Logen, Glokta, and Jezal keeps the narrative pace moving, instead of sprawling out too much as epic fantasy often does.

Per this entry on his website Abercrombie read a fair bit of high/epic fantasy in his teenage years but got out for much the same reasons I did. Bloat, sameness, cheesiness. He branched out into other literature. And then had his mind blown by A Song of Ice and Fire (as I did, but by then I had already discovered S&S). A Game of Thrones clearly influenced his writing, and led directly to The First Law trilogy and a pretty remarkable career of his own.

(By the way re-reading my old post on A Game of Thrones in 2007 was a hoot; I predicted Martin was on pace to finish his series by… 2018. Oops. Still waiting).

This is the second time I’ve dipped into Abercrombie (not counting a short story or two along the way) and yeah, enjoying the trip.

Friday, July 22, 2022

Necropolis, Manilla Road

In the crypts of Atlantean kings, I found what I was looking for

If I had to pick my top three sword-and-sorcery inspired metal bands, I'd go: Manowar, Eternal Champion, and Manilla Road. In no particular order.

Come to think of it, Manilla Road is to metal what sword-and-sorcery is to fantasy literature. On the periphery. Rough around the edges. Not to everyone's tastes. Largely out of date these days, near forgotten by the mainstream. But those who get it, get it.

Every sword-and-sorcery collection would be improved with a necropolis. And every metal fan's Spotify playlist would be improved with this song.

Listen, I know Mark Shelton (RIP) sounds a bit like Skeletor, but he grows on you. And the guitar work on this one is impeccable. 

Come to think of it, the artwork on the cover of Crystal Logic (1983) looks like it could be on a 70s S&S fanzine. Nice job Jon Jinks (?)

TGIF. Enjoy.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

S&S updates: Dunsany, New Edge, book deals, and a fine response to a troubling essay

Hail to the King of Dreams, baby.
A roundup of recent-ish news and updates on the sacred genre.

My most recent essay for Tales from the Magician’s Skull is up, a piece on fantasy in the era of Lord Dunsany. You can read that here. I’ve recently been digging into a short, informal, but interesting quasi-biography by Hazel Littlefield (at right), who visited Dunsany in his home country and later hosted him late in his life during a trip to the United States. “Fantasy” was a different country back then, wilder and with almost no borders and boundaries, not the oft-discussed, greased publishing machine with its various subgenres and conventions that we have today. I get into a little bit of that in the essay, restrained a bit as TftMS has a hard-ish cap of around 1,000 words.

New Edge, a new S&S digital magazine headed up by Oliver Brackenbury of the “So I’m Writing a Novel” podcast, is now open for registration. The first issue (#0) is free and I believe the plan is to gauge interest for a paid ‘zine, supporting new authors and artists. Recently I agreed to write an essay on the outsider trope in S&S for this debut issue (got to get cracking on that).

Not “new” news, but new-ish to me, is the forthcoming Conan novel Blood of the Serpent, a prequel to “Red Nails” now available for pre-order. I have not read anything by author S.M. Stirling, but after a recent conversation with Deuce Richardson I feel confident that he’s a solid choice for this novel. Stirling has a reputation as a good writer with a big imagination and knows REH inside and out. Time will tell. I hope it’s better than the average novel in the TOR line.

Baen signs Howard Andrew Jones to a five-book deal. I’m glad to see a publisher with some budget and clout invest in S&S, and HAJ is a good author to get behind. I have enjoyed his The Desert of Souls and some of his short fiction in Tales from the Magician’s Skull, and these books will feature his exiled general Hanuvar. Let’s hope this is just the tip of the spear for a continued S&S revival.

I have yet to say anything on the new Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, of which we’ve now seen a couple trailers (or maybe “teaser trailers”?). I’ve been underwhelmed at the generic, CGI-heavy glop I’ve seen to date. The core problem is Amazon’s lack of rights to Tolkien’s actual material. A large, multi-interest conglomeration does not possess Tolkien’s soul and vision, his unique time-and-place honed brilliance with languages, and love and care for his creation. The odds are this will disappoint. The Jackson LOTR films worked because they largely stuck to the source material, and his Hobbit films flopped when they deviated from the book. Amazon has precious little rights to Tolkien’s source material. What we really need is Robert Eggers directing The Children of Hurin.

Finally, I wanted to point folks in the direction of this lengthy but fine post by Jason Ray Carney, rebutting a recent article which made the case that sword-and-sorcery needs to be updated for a modern audience (part of a natural process of discernment), and its old works discarded. We all engage in the process of discernment; it’s why we read Shakespeare instead of instruction manuals, and admire and preserve the Sistine Chapel instead of a child’s crayon drawings. Discernment helps explain why we might love the Chronicles of Narnia or the Chronicles of Prydain as a child, but choose not to read them as adults; though they might still be good books, we’ve developed a more refined palate for adult prose styles or complicated storylines and themes. Likewise, through a process of discernment, many readers have moved away from S&S over the years. But, personal discernment strikes me as very different than a general call to discard literature that someone, somewhere finds problematic. When reading old pulp or pulp-inspired S&S of the 60s-80s, my advice remains consistent: Detach and apply historical context, or as Carney suggests, adopt an egalitarian attitude of “chronopolitanism.” We can like old and new things, simultaneously. We can enjoy old barbaric works as entertainment without becoming barbarians ourselves. 

In summary; If this “new edge” movement embraces the likes of Renegade Swords and Schuyler Hernstrom alongside the likes of the Whetstone crew and Howard Andrew Jones, etc., I’m in. If it draws lines based on adherence to certain political views, or places bounds on artistic freedoms, I’m out.

Saturday, July 16, 2022

Master of Puppets

Metal Friday comes a day late, as I'm checking back in after a four-day business trip to Houston TX.

This week highlights an old favorite from 1986, Metallica's "Master of Puppets," off the album of the same name.

Any fans of Rick Beato out there? Beato is a musician with an informative, engaging Youtube channel where he breaks down/recreates some of the great classic rock songs, with occasional forays into metal and grunge and other related genres. Here he offers an analysis of the construction of MOP in typical nerdy but fun Beato style; worth the watch:

Master of Puppets was recently given new life due to its appearance in the final episode of season 4 of Stranger Things, which gave it a massive boost and moved it to the top of Spotify downloads and the like. Hey, if this is what it takes to get Gen Y into metal, bring it on. You'd think I be a fan of the show with the obvious crossover appeal (1980s, D&D, general fantastic subject material) but have yet to watch an episode. My older daughter Hannah, a raging fan, is ready to kill me and I owe it to her to watch it. 

I think I'll take her up on it, but only if we can take the journey together. I doubt she'd take much convincing.

Full song; this thing rips as much as it did in 1986. Immortal. RIP Cliff Burton:

Monday, July 11, 2022

LORDS OF DESTRUCTION! A review of Death Dealer book 2

If you're looking for sword-and-sorcery turned up to 11--but not in a particularly good way--look no further than James Silke's Death Dealer series, the second volume of which I've reviewed over at the blog of DMR Books, so you don't have to. Read it here, if you dare.

To give you an example of some the passages in all their ridiculously awful but simultaneously glorious style, here is a screen shot. 

Yes, this actually says:

The nymph herself, of course, was a total surprise. Goddesses were supposed to be regal, and formal, and robed in heavy velvets. But this one was housed in the body of a coltish savage, and there was enough delicious mischief behind her bright eyes to make sin look like the only endeavor worthy of life's trials and tribulations. If anyone doubted this, her brazen nudity would end the argument before it started, and unbuckle your belt as well.

Friday, July 8, 2022

Wild Child, W.A.S.P.

I'm a wild child, come and love me
I want you
My heart's in exile I need you to touch me
Cause I want what you do

I was never a big W.A.S.P. fan, even back in the day when they had their day as a heavy hair metal/shock rock band, tearing out of the Los Angeles heavy metal scene like a bunch of leather-clad bikers.

But this one? 1985's Wild Child? Yeah, big fan.

Simple, great energy, propulsive, outstanding guitar tone. Badass lyrics. Basically everything I want in this type of song. 

As an aside, whomever made this video probably deserves a medal of freedom or something. Outstanding work here, extraordinary visuals to supplement the kick-ass vibe of this tune.

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Post vacation, back in the saddle again

A couple shots of Bar Harbor

There are the shores of Faëry
with their moonlit pebbled strand
whose foam is silver music
on the opalescent floor
beyond the great sea-shadows
on the marches of the sand
that stretches on for ever
to the dragonheaded door,
the gateway of the Moon,
beyond Taniquetil
in Valinor.

--from “The Shores of Faëry,” J.R.R. Tolkien

Last week I took a vacation with family and friends to scenic Bar Harbor on the beautiful coastline of Maine. Highly recommended. Sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and the 47,000 acres of Acadia National Park, it’s a bit of paradise on earth. Worth going to at least once in your lifetime, regardless of your proximity to New England.

This was my first time off in 2022, save for a hectic few days in between a job change, and was sorely needed time to disconnect and just be. We followed that up with a 4th of July weekend up to the family lake house in NH, culminating with a friend touching off a wicked black powder cannon to celebrate Independence Day. That’s what you call ending things with a bang, one that I’m still feeling in my sternum.

It’s over now, but I’m finding myself glad to be back home in and familiar surroundings and the old comfortable routine.

A few swordly-and-sorcerous updates.

Man, there are some good new S&S podcast episodes I’ve gotten caught up on.

The Cromcast published nine episodes of panel sessions, academic paper readings, and casual conversations from the recent Robert E. Howard Days in Cross Plains, TX. Again I’m reminded of how much I missed by not attending, and how I’m publicly vowing to attend in 2023 (I’m writing this here again to make sure I hold my own feet to the fire—the more I write this the harder it becomes to back out without completely losing face and looking like an asshole). I enjoyed them all but in particular the sessions on Robert E. Howard in 1932, the 40-year remembrance of Conan the Barbarian by Paul Sammon, and the Glenn Lord Symposium papers. I was tickled to hear my name mentioned in two of the sessions, in particular the citation of Flame and Crimson by an academic presenting a paper in the Glenn Lord Symposium, on Charles Hoffman's "Conan the Existential." It’s still hard to believe I won a Venarium award, as I don’t consider myself a particularly deep or notable scholar of Robert E. Howard. Just a hardcore fan who happens to write a lot about his works and their obvious overlap with sword-and-sorcery.

So I’m Writing a Novel has a great episode out, part 1 of a 2-part interview with second age sword-and-sorcery author David C. Smith of Oron and Red Sonja fame. Some great nuggets in here about Smith’s origin story as an author, the importance of fanzines in cultivating and encouraging writers in the 1970s, and the general S&S publishing scene of the mid-late 70s. Plus some info on the rumored but unpublished (and apparently never written, or at least never finished) Karl Edward Wagner Bran Mak Morn novel Queen of the Night.

While I was away I managed to read the second Death Dealer novel by James Silke, Lords of Destruction. This was… not very good. Some chapters/pieces were fun, even laugh out loud, so it delivered some entertainment value, but it reads like an unintentional parody of S&S. It’s representative of the late stage, bloated barbarian S&S that played a role in the genre’s downfall in the early 1980s. I’ll get a review up soon.

Friday, June 24, 2022

Top Gun: Maverick, a review

From Mustangs to modernity... looking forward, and back.
I had more fun watching Top Gun: Maverick than I had any right to.

I trekked to the theater the other night to catch a viewing and am so glad I did. You could not wipe the grin off my face. Not from the moment Tom Cruise delivered a classy, simple, direct, pre-movie thank you message to the audience, to the end credits, where I said to myself, damn, that was fun.

This film was just what I needed at the moment, and I think a lot of Americans did as well.

I cannot begin to express how much I enjoyed the absence of political messages. The cast is diverse, but naturally so. There is no demoralizing, divisive moralizing. No 50 shades of gray, everyone is shit including the heroes-type messages. 

And yet, this film has a heart, and more complexity than the original. It is pro-American but without being jingoistic. Just optimistic. 

Optimism … remember that? We all could use some of that right now, in this torrent of daily negative news, and divisive nastiness. The film delivers it. I suspect it’s part of the reason for its smashing box office success. A needed message, at the right time.

Top Gun: Maverick could have gone in a different direction. The broad lines of the plot are that the Navy calls upon an aging Cruise/Maverick to instruct a group of young pilots, who are needed to fly a dangerous, low altitude bombing mission to destroy a nuclear enrichment plant. This naturally raises some questions. Who is the country that wants to enrich uranium? Shouldn’t a sovereign country have this right? Why should the U.S. be the world’s police? Etc.

The film avoids asking them.

These are fine questions … but they don’t belong in a film like this, which served a different purpose. That Top Gun: Maverick doesn’t dwell on them not make it a bad film. Just a film with a different lens. You can say that this simplicity is a fault, but I disagree.

So, is this just a simple, dumb action film? Surprisingly, no. It is a commentary on aging gracefully. Letting go of the need to control everything, and accepting help—which is not a weakness, but rather a sign of growth and maturity. Tom Cruise’s character was finally able to do this, completing an arc which began in the first film when he famously abandoned his wingman.

I loved the commentary on the role of humans in an increasingly technological age. The drone revolution is coming, unmanned planes are on the horizon. We can all see this, and wonder what it will mean. But as Cruise says in the film—that time ain’t yet. Bravery and ambition still have a place, people have a role to play in the fortunes of the world. You can feel that same sentiment at a meta level, in the film goer experience too. Leaving your house and watching a movie on a big screen with a group of people in all their messiness, still has value, still delivers something that a solitary Netflix viewing on a computer cannot replicate.

Top Gun: Maverick acknowledges that the world has changed in the last 35 years, and that more changes are on the horizon, but also acknowledges there is still value in the old ways. If that makes the film conservative on some level, then so be it. But without any tradition, shorn of our old stories, what do we have? There is value in looking forward, and back.

I’m not afraid to admit that I enjoy nostalgia. I understand it can be manipulative, even harmful if the intent is to obscure the truth. In large, heavy doses it becomes cloying, even sickening, like eating too much sugar. This movie struck the right balance. A love and respect for the original film, many nostalgic callbacks and references but not obnoxious.

It is far-fetched? Of course. [MINOR SPOILER ALERT] When Cruise and Goose’s son find a fueled up, fully operating enemy F-14 to effect their escape, it nearly broke the third wall for me. Nearly, but not quite. And hell, was it ever fun.

Speaking of fun… the jets are a marvel, but then again I'm smack-dab in the target audience. My dad used to take me to air shows as a kid and I have seen the Thunderbirds and Blue Angels fly. I have seen F-14s and F-16s and F-18s up close, felt the roar of their afterburners in my chest. I’ve been to the Air Force National Museum in Dayton, OH. I have a deep respect for military aircraft. Fighter jets are impressive, their raw power and maneuverability. And in Top Gun the F-18 is on full, glorious display. The film contains very little CGI compared to most modern action films and as a result felt entirely convincing. The stunts are real, performed in real planes flown by highly skilled pilots with the actors filmed in the same planes, experiencing the same G forces. 

This is one you should catch while it’s still in the theaters. The studio held this until the pandemic subsided and I can see why. The medium, the message, factored in the decision to get people back in the flesh in real theaters, enjoying the experience together. It worked, at least for this guy.