Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Night Winds blowing for Karl Edward Wagner, Kane

My latest post is up on the blog of Tales from the Magician's Skull: (Night) Winds Blowing for Kane--Toward a Karl Edward Wagner revival.

Will 2023 finally be the year we get good affordable editions of the immortal Kane? There have been stirrings at publisher Baen, with rumors that KEW's estate holders have been approached about the possibility. The current situation--wildly and fantastically priced Centipede collectors editions, tattered and increasingly expensive Warner mass-market paperbacks--is pretty untenable. The barrier to entry for new fans is high, and the property is languishing. I've heard the current kindle editions are lousy, laden with typos and other gaffes, and the cover art is certainly ... uninspired. I might say shit, if I were being less kind.

I'd love to see Kane back in print, the stories are terrific and an important piece of sword-and-sorcery's past. If you would too, send an email to

Monday, December 19, 2022

2022 in review

2022 is just about in the books. Gosh, this was a good year for me professionally. After more than 17 years with the same company I changed jobs in March, and my life and mental health improved immeasurably. Nine months post momentous change, my overriding thought is: Why didn’t I do this sooner? But I guess I wasn’t ready; every season in its turn and all that.

Here on the blog and this relatively small, alternative online sword-and-sorcery/heavy metal space I inhabit, I was reasonably happy with the work I produced. It was my most productive year since 2009, on the basis of sheer number of posts (exactly 100 as I press publish, and I'll have a couple more before the year is out). I wrote several posts for the blogs of DMR and Tales from the Magician’s Skull. I guested on two episodes of the Rogues in the House podcast, which is always a blast. I won a second award from the Robert E. Howard Foundation, co-winning the Venarium, given to an emerging scholar in Howard studies. It's an honor, and I’m planning on making the trip to Cross Plains in April.

2022 was a good year for sword-and-sorcery. We got a new Elric novel from Michael Moorcock, who is still with us and still writing. We got a new Conan novel, S.M. Stirling’s Blood of the Serpent, which I have in hand but have not read, but am planning to begin soon. There are an increasingly large number of outlets publishing sword-and-sorcery, too many to mention here. Tales from the Magician Skull (which I continue to back on Kickstarter) is the most prominent, and the new issues have been good. Whetstone is an important outlet for new writers. New Edge #0 pubbed and I contributed an essay for it. Schuyler Hernstrom’s revised Thune’s Vision was awesome. I hope this small renaissance continues to gain steam. I need to check out more new authors and titles in 2023.

It was also a year of loss for S&S. We lost Richard Tierney, Neal Adams, and Ken Kelly among others. Kelly was a hard blow; his art was a big part of my adolescence, adorning the albums of Manowar, KISS, and various covers of Conan books and other S&S titles. 

This blog is evolving. It’s gotten more personal since I dumped Facebook back in April. Facebook was a place where I would share occasional posts about my family. I don’t miss that platform, but my family is a huge part of my life and so I need to channel that expression somewhere. I also think it’s because of how I’m evolving as a person; I’ve worked hard to balance the personal and professional in my life, and family/friends with my esoteric interests and private writing. Expecting a sharp divide on a personal blog and never mentioning the events of my personal life seems unnatural. So, expect more of that on The Silver Key.

Top 10 most popular posts

Here are the posts that got the most traction on the blog in 2022:

Some ruminations on sword-and-sorcery’s slide into Grimdark, 528 views. The S&S to Grimdark transition was an interesting one that I did not cover in Flame and Crimson, and when I wrote about here it proved to be my most popular post of the year. Like all the highest-performing posts this was linked to elsewhere, driving traffic to the site and the post views up. 

Whetstone #5, a review, 398 views. Many authors who appeared in Whetstone #5 appreciated my review of this publication. I’m grateful to editor Jason Ray Carney for producing such a fine, free outlet for new S&S and am looking forward to reading issue no. 6. 

S&S updates: Dunsany, New Edge, book deals, and a fine response to a troubling essay, 333 views. Speaking of Carney, I still agree with his response. 

My top 5 Frank Frazetta paintings, 302 views. Who doesn’t like a top “whatever” list? Couple with Frazetta imagery and no surprise this one rounded out my top 5. 

Top 10 reasons why I don’t care about Amazon’s The Rings of Power: 297 views. The Rings of Power sank beneath the waves like Numenor, only this event will not pass into Atlantis-like myth. And I still don’t care, although it’s disappointing. The subject matter deserved better.

On suspect art, sword-and-sorcery, and good storytelling, 282 views. My first of two off-the-cuff editorializing posts. This one defends old S&S.

Raging against Twitter and the dying of the written word, 282 views. This one takes the piss out of Twitter but also the need to constantly shrink messages to the smallest possible word count (and the lowest common denominator). Engaging in that garbage risks your own artistic integrity and attention span, and it’s not even debatable. 

A shout-out to five S&S voices on the interwebs, 274 views. We need more praise; I need to do more of this here in between the rants. These five deserved the props.

Robert E. Howard Changed My Life, 274 views. A great read deserving of a Robert E. Howard Foundation award. 

I, Black Sabbath (with incredible Conan imagery), 252 views. The single best S&S music video on YouTube; watch and see if you don’t agree. Plus the song is an underappreciated stone cold classic of Dio-era Sabbath. 

My reading
Damn but I can’t seem to hit my stated goal of 52 books in a year (book/week). As of this post I have read 44 books in 2022, and hope to finish a couple more before year’s end.

The best books I read this year included Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, Who Fears the Devil? By Manly Wade Wellman, and Thune’s Vision. I also enjoyed re-reads of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword, all of which are spectacular.

Other news of note
I have started work on another book. I don’t want to say much more than that, other than (and sorry to disappoint readers of Flame and Crimson) it is not sword-and-sorcery related. It’s not fiction either, but I will say no more, as I’m not sure if I have the ability to write it. I’ve only just begun and it may derail or reach an impasse and I don’t want egg on my face if I can’t finish. But I have much more than just an idea, the outline is done and I’ve started principal writing. We’ll see where it leads.

I survived a bout of COVID, saw Iron Maiden and Judas Priest along with a handful of other live shows, and enjoyed several business and personal trips, including one with my family to Bar Harbor, a kickass guy’s weekend in New York, and a company retreat to Dripping Springs, TX. I’m grateful I have my health and my old man is still here.

To put a wrap on this overlong and semi self-indulgent post, thank you to everyone who has read and enjoyed anything I’ve written, on this blog or elsewhere. I hope you have a Merry Christmas and a wonderful New Year celebrating with friends and family, or with a broadsword and tankard of ale on the rolling deck of a longship. However you choose to celebrate.

Friday, December 16, 2022

Theater of Salvation, Edguy

Today a sprawling, epic track. 12:22 in length, but awesome the whole way through. Incredibly inspired near-masterpiece by the underrated Edguy.

Edguy is a German power metal band, and while they sing in English it sometimes seems like it's a ... distant second language for them. I find a lot of their lyrics a bit odd, occasionally nonsensical. But damn it if doesn't work anyway. Heavy metal after all is really about emotion. Romance over reason. And of course volume. Crank this one up and enjoy; it feels like you're in church, but the coolest, heaviest service ever. 

Tobias Sammet is a terrific singer and is particularly inspired on this one. The closing bit starting at 8:58 is divine. Pardon the pun.

Take a look at the open gate
Walk on and don't be afraid

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Plant a seed today, it may bear fruit tomorrow.

Recently I attended my daughter’s season-ending cross country banquet. Libby is a senior captain, and so was one of four girls who gave a speech in front of the crowd of about 150-odd athletes, parents, and coaches.

I was blown away when hers began, because, very unexpectedly, my words were coming out of her mouth.

My daughter is a terrific student, ranked no. 3 in her class, and a talented runner. But she’s also a teenager. That means, we often get nothing from her. One-word answers, or silence.

(Typical conversation over dinner: “How was the sleepover at Lia’s last night?”


“Wow, coach must have been happy with the way you guys ran today!”


And so on).

Of course, we love her just the same. And, she’s far from a robot. I’m generalizing here; sometimes she’s conversational, even chatty. But that’s not the norm. She’s a default teen, as she should be, at 17. She’s also had her share of struggles, but that’s for another day.

Then came her cross country speech.

A year ago I was inspired to write Libby a poem, the day after her team won a hard-fought Cape Ann League championship in the mud and rain. When the results were announced they were overjoyed, and embraced, a group of girls grown into a tight circle, bonds forged through the fire of competition and tough practices.

But I also knew it would not last. It was already becoming a memory as they got their medals on the podium and boarded the bus for home.

That scene of the girls in a circle in the rain inspired me to go home and write a poem, “Running Against Time.” I printed it out with a picture of Libby and a teammate and left it on her desk.

In typical Libby fashion she did not make a big production out of it. I think she sent me a text with a couple of hearts. She did hang it on her wall, so that was a win.

Fast forward a year. I had almost forgotten about the poem until the banquet when she began her speech with those same words I had written a year ago.

It was an incredible moment. To see her so articulate. To appreciate something I had left for her.

To think that I had made an impact, very unexpectedly.

If you want to read “Running Against Time” click the image above. I’m OK sharing it since she did, so beautifully, for a crowd. It was part of a broader speech about the amazing memories she made in cross country, the people who impacted her, and fun memories.

I loved her words of wisdom to the freshmen and sophomores not to take it for granted. Because her race was now run.

So, plant a seed.

Do it without expectation. Many of your seeds/deeds will wither, or remain dormant. But some will flower. And surprise you.

Libby, blue dress/center, and the rest of the Pentucket XC captains. Great kids.

Friday, December 9, 2022

Manilla Road, "Flaming Metal Systems"

Damn, I wish I had discovered these dudes decades ago when they were at their peak circa Crystal Logic or thereabouts, and Mark "The Shark" Shelton was still alive. RIP.

Manilla Road encapsulates everything I like about Classic Heavy Metal. Guitar-driven. Quasi-medieval, swordly-and-sorcerous subject matter. Well-constructed songs that take you on a journey. Varied material, from dirges to headbangers to haunting melodic journeys. A singer that sounds like Skeletor. 

All delivered with attitude. Great example is this week's Metal Friday.

"Flaming Metal Systems" has a lengthy intro, then kicks into a massive higher gear at about the 1:10 mark. It then reaches an incredible crescendo starting at the 4:32 mark that sends chills down my spine. Nice work boys. 

I'm still tickled that bassist E.C. Hellwell writes sword-and-sorcery, and I've got one of his stories, "The Riddle Master," on my shelf, in DMR Books' Swords of Steel.

Beware, the shrapnel flies 
Flaming through the night, this night, tonight 
The fever of blood runs high 
Lightning strikes from the sky, this night, tonight

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Your critics aren’t in the arena. Ignore them.

Here’s something I’ve learned from decades of publishing.

When you are a writer (or podcaster, or visual artist) with something to say, you will inevitably attract an audience. 

And you will inevitably become a target of critics.

When you express yourself clearly, with conviction and experience and wisdom as your guide, you will inspire readers. But, you will also piss a segment of your audience off. 

The latter are people who recognize something they don’t like about themselves in your words, and through social media are conditioned to think that drive by insults are permissible (because of course, in the real world, they are not). They will troll you, claim their second of “victory,” and then return to their regular diet of YouTube videos and porn.

Ignore them. They are beneath you.

Because you are something they are not. 

You’re a creator.

This is not a call to be aloof, and wear blinders to criticism. Stay alert. Listen to legitimate feedback. You will be wrong from time to time. I’ve been wrong, and made mistakes, many times in my life. Own up to errors; use them to get better.

But, when you write from a place of strength, genuine expression, and your own unique  viewpoint, i.e., a place of Truth, a handful of haters will have a problem with it. Recognize that the problem is in them, not you. Understand that they have work to do on themselves. Ignore them, and if you can find it in your heart, find pity for them. They can’t see their own limitations and pettiness; one day they may. 

But above all, don’t give them the gift of your precious attention. Time is your only irreplaceable resource. Stay on your path. Keep creating.

Here’s a helpful coping strategy: Critics and haters are an inevitable part of the game. They are indicative of success. Despite my annoyances, I like them because it means I’m writing well. 

This is not a call to be an edgelord, to produce antagonistic and needlessly provocative material. But if you don’t piss anyone off, ever, you’re probably doing something wrong.

One of the quotes I return to again and again is Teddy Roosevelt’s Man in the Arena. You probably have heard it before, but if not, here it is:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

I am the man in the arena. I’ve written thousands of newspaper stories, and newsletter and journal articles. Thousands more blog posts, for this blog and a dozen other websites. I’ve written dozens of print essays. And now a book. I’ve hosted and produced hundreds of podcast episodes. Spoken in front of audiences larger than a thousand, for more than a decade. I’ve mentored young writers and editors, and led teams.

And, I’ve been paid well to do it. I earn my living at the keyboard. I’ve won multiple awards.

This is not boasting; these are facts. I am now at the place where I can distinguish cheap attacks from legitimate critiques, because I know far more than just about all my critics. More about my own work, and about what it means to be a professional, then they do.

If you’ve written, or painted, or coded a website, built a house, made anything using your creativity and your heart and soul, you too are that man in the arena. You are a striver and doer of deeds; your critics are the cold, timid souls hurling insults from the sidelines. Never donning the pads and getting dirty in the playing field, where it counts.

Win or lose, you are striving, and your striving is admirable. That makes me your fan. 

My advice to anyone reading this who creates for a living: Keep doing it. You’ve already accomplished more than 90% of the world ever will. Don’t take praise as a sign you are unassailable; stay humble. But likewise, don’t take criticism personally; stay the course. 

If you can do this, you will win.

Friday, December 2, 2022

"Thunder Road," Judas Priest

Point of Entry is not a beloved Judas Priest album. In fact, most view it as a stumbling block in between the off-the-charts iconic brilliance of British Steel and Screaming for Vengeance. A misstep in their career.

I don't share that opinion... but I understand it.

I recognize PoE as oddly out of place, incongruent with what Priest seemed to be building toward. Priest's sound was evolving over the 70s, and the album prior is as pure a metal album as you will find; British Steel is steel purified. The album after, Screaming for Vengeance, is probably their best. In contrast, PoE is far more commercial sounding, thanks to songs like "Heading out to the Highway," "Hot Rockin" and "Don't Go." I like all these, but it's an obvious departure from what fans were expecting, and presages what we'd later see with "Turbo." Vengeance was a return to form.

Nevertheless PoE has some gems on it, and a unique sound that's hard to explain. I love "Desert Plains," and also the underrated "Thunder Road." It's a simple, up-tempo, kick-ass rocker. Just what I need this Metal Friday.

Red light, green light
I'm coming home tonight
Burning the freeway
Out of control

Red light, dead lines
We streak from town to town
It's too much, I need your touch
I've been away too long

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Piecing together Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword

My review/revisit/recap of/love letter to Anderson's magnificent 1954 novel is up on the blog of Tales from the Magician's Skull. Check it out here.

I wrote this without re-reading the book, but writing it prompted me to pick up The Broken Sword once more and go to war against Trollheim. It's as good as I remembered; I don't feel betrayed by my considerable nostalgia.

TftMS has a 1,000 word cap which I sometimes stray over a little but is nevertheless challenging to write within. I allude to some things in my review that are deserving of a standalone essay. Like Skafloc/Valgard being two halves of a broken sword. Tyrfing feels to me like a symbol of unleashed weaponry best left on the scientists' notebook. I can't help but wonder if Anderson felt the shadow the mushroom cloud, writing as he did in 1953-54. "Yet this is the curse on it: that every time it is drawn it must drink blood, and in the end, somehow, it will be the bane of him who wields it."

We have a potential end to unending conflict in the teachings of the new White Christ. "Was the White Christ of whom she had told a little not right in saying that wrongs only led to more wrongs and thus at last to Ragnarok; that the time was overpast when pride and vengefulness give way to love and forgiveness, which were not unmanly but in truth the hardest things a man could undertake?"

Alas we have forgotten the lesson. No one turns the other cheek, but strikes back with harder force. And so it escalates.

I love this line too; we can meet Ragnarok with bravery at least:

"None can escape his weird; but none other can take from him the heart wherewith he meets it."

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Raging against Twitter and the dying of the written word

“Does anyone go sit down and read an entire blog post anymore? Most people aren’t going to go read an entire 500 word blog.”

These sentences were posted, unironically, on LinkedIn by a VP of Marketing (B2B, SaaS, and other fancy business acronyms). Just yesterday. He seems to have quite a following too. This post got many “likes.”

As the young kids say, “I’m shook.”

We’re now officially at the point where information must fit into a Tweet, or a 60-second TikTok video, if it is to be read or consumed. No one has longer than that to spend on learning, apparently.

Makes sense, we’re all too “busy” these days to possibly read something 500 words long. Not quite 2 pages in a book.

“Too busy.”

Too busy doing … what?

We’re not too busy. We’ve been hijacked into thinking we are. By our devices, by sensory overload, and the accompanying mental fatigue that comes with consuming a cacophony of shit.

We’ve been trained by the limitations of the platforms on which we’re consuming surface-level content. By Twitter. And when these get old, we switch to the next platform to keep consuming. Gotta get on Mastodon, on Discord, while still juggling Facebook and YouTube. “My project will be a success once I figure out how to optimize Instagram.”

Sure it will man.

Take a look at what you’re actually doing. Scrolling your phone. That’s not busy. That’s an addiction.

You’re not making progress, or creating. You’ve become a consumer of the shallow.

Fuck that.

I’m holding the line, and you should too. On my side of the line is immersion, and an attention span. And comprehension. That’s one of the reasons why I steadfastly keep blogging, even though I’m writing to an audience so small it could comfortably fit in my living room. 

Its principle. And the people who I serve here are the ones I value. By the way, these folks have gone on to buy my book, Flame and Crimson, and I hope they choose to buy my next book too.

Not because I need the money. Because I like producing things of value, that might last, after I shed my mortal coil. You won’t find anything of lasting value on Facebook.

The “content” this VP of Marketing is talking about is not actually meant to inform, or enlighten. Its sole purpose is to grab the attention of the attention-less. It’s the equivalent of shooting colorful fireworks into the sky, a pop, a “wow.” Then … gone. It’s the type of content we consume by scrolling on our phones, skim with the eyeballs, and shed in seconds. No thought rendered, just a few seconds of time stolen from you in this “attention economy.”

But that shit doesn’t last. It's ephemera, like so much of the garbage we’re getting online. You’ve learned nothing by consuming it. In fact, you not only haven’t learned a thing, but your mind has been weakened, atrophied.

If you want to understand anything at more than a surface level, sometimes you have to … read more than a Tweet.

Finally, its not even good for the person producing it, the junior marketer who at heart wants to be a better writer. The only way to do that is to put in the work and write something with some substance and length to it. Every day.

If you want to be a good soccer player, you’ve got to put in long hours on the pitch, improving your footwork, conditioning your body.

If you want to be a good guitar player, you’ve got to learn your chords, learn how to read music, how to hear a note and replicate it with your fingers on the strings. This takes thousands of hours.

And if you want to be a good writer, you’ve got to read and write. A lot. 

There are no substitutes, I’m afraid. But that’s how it should be.

A question for the skeptics: Do you think you will learn more about fantasy fiction reading Wizardry and Wild Romance, or spending the same amount of time scrolling r/fantasy? 

An attention span is a muscle that you must cultivate, practice, and strengthen, or it will atrophy. We’re losing it, thanks to enlightened “VPs of marketing” who spread the kind of nonsense above. Who themselves think they are being “productive” by rapidly skimming their social feed on LinkedIn and liking memed photos. 

Imagine if instead of “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” Ursula LeGuin boiled down her magnificent essay into an infographic. No one would remember the fantastic advice that she herself followed to write the timeless A Wizard of Earthsea and Tombs of Utuan.

Imagine Tolkien trying to fit “On Fairy Stories” into a TikTok video. I’m sure someone has done this; I’m sure no one who has consumed that video remembers it. They certainly have no comprehension of what Tolkien actually wrote. They’re too busy looking at a single bone, instead of enjoying the complex soup.

I’m not immune to this. I dumped Facebook, but I’m a LinkedIn user, heavy, for work. I like some of what I see on the platform but am also dismayed by the inevitable dumbing down going on. I do too much scrolling.

To play nice for a moment, there is a place for infographics, short videos, and chopped up Twitter-esque posting. But this blanket “does anyone even read 500 word blogs” is not a sign of enlightened sophistication by a marketing pro. It’s a sign of rot. It’s the words of the athlete who no longer thinks he has to practice. Who thinks he can just show up on Sunday and win football games.

I know that guy. His name is Ryan Leaf.

Innovation is real, but you have to learn how to block and tackle. Master your craft, before you can tell others how to do it better.

A truth about writing: It’s hard. The blank page is a fearsome opponent. It challenges us with its blank stare: Better blankness than your drivel, it seems to say.

But when you beat the resistance and really get rolling the process of writing is generative. It activates parts of your brain that are numbed by scrolling, snow-blinded from the flash of images and video and sound.

We’ve got to hold the line, each in our own way, against the decline of writing and reading, and comprehension over consumption. I’m holding the line on this one. In the voice of Aragorn at the Black Gate: 

For Long Form Content! 

(Or at least, 500 words. Max).

If you want to fight this battle yourself here are some practical tips.

  1. Write every morning. A good word count to aim for is 500 (yeah, that same mark no one has time to read). I'm a morning person and my mind is freshest then; write at night if you are a night-owl and/or have no other options.
  2. Read every night. Opt for paper if you can get your hands on it. If not, make sure your tablet is disconnected from easy internet access. Place your phone out of reach.
  3. Limit your phone usage. Instead, observe the world with your eyes. Take a walk and think. Listen to people, and see how they behave.
If you’ve made it this far, congratulations. You’ve read more than 1,000 words in a sitting and proved that VP of marketing wrong. 

Friday, November 18, 2022

Sea of Red

Late Judas Priest, off their most recent studio album, Firepower.

Hits me right in the melancholia/nostalgia sweet spot, remembering those who came before us. Lovely song.

As the sun goes down
The silence is profound
For they gave so much
So we might go on and live
Laying peaceful they forgive

Rob's voice is of course not what it was 40 years ago, but it works quite well with material like this. 

Thursday, November 17, 2022


I’m almost 50 and still don’t really know who I am, and at turns, what the fuck I’m doing.

Outwardly I’m successful. Married. Two children. Nice house. Good job. Friends. A life.

All indicative of success.

But what do I stand for? What do I believe in? 

What values do I hold, not just firmly, but eternally? What torch do I bear? What lantern do I hold aloft in the prow of a ship in the night of a storm-tossed sea?

Do values even exist, in this postmodern age where objective truth is apparently a myth, and reality subjective?

Yes, they do. There are Universal Truths. From whence they derive, I’ll leave for another day. But they exist, and they are the framework for leading a meaningful life. 

I’m still figuring mine out. But here’s a hard-earned one I believe in. One I can say, you’re not moving me off of, motherfucker.

Truth is what holds civilization together. Everything depends on people who outwardly commit to a course of action and then inwardly follow through. Who don’t swindle, cheat, or otherwise elide the truth. Who resist the temptation of lying in the service of other “commitments” -- quarterly reports, shareholders, whims of their spineless, shit bosses, their cock. And commit to doing the right thing.

Even when it hurts.

Because everything depends on it.

When a man lies, he murders some part of the world. 

When you don’t tell the truth, you murder something in you. 

I try to operate this way. I don’t always succeed … but I largely do. On the important matters. 

I like to think others largely abide by truth, though they often don’t, with spectacular collapses and destruction left in their wake. See the 30-year-old shitbag “genius” CEO from FTX who cost his investors billions with his lies. 

Elizabeth Holmes. Bernie Madoff. The examples stagger. Read “Rogues in the House” and you see what’s at stake.

Without a commitment to truth, everything we stand on is shifting sand. Collapse is imminent. 

Easy to say, very hard to implement. It means you must take accountability for your actions. But you've got to do it. Hold the line.

Above all, it must be Truth.

Sunday, November 6, 2022

An observation about heavy metal and sword-and-sorcery

Blue Cheer and Deep Purple = Lord Dunsany and James Branch Cabell
Black Sabbath = Robert E. Howard
Judas Priest and Iron Maiden = Fritz Leiber and Jack Vance
Metallica and Megadeth = Poul Anderson and Michael Moorcock
Queensryche and Danzig = Karl Edward Wagner and Charles Saunders
Slayer, Sepultura, Pantera = Ramsay Campbell, David Gemmell, Glen Cook
Warrant, Poison, Def Leppard = Gardner Fox, Lin Carter, L. Sprague de Camp
Black metal, death metal with cookie monster lyrics = Any Grimdark writer

Obviously meant as fun, not some profound observation.

Every art form probably goes through the same evolution, of early experimentation/breakthrough/pinnacle/steady state/commercialization and exploitation, collapse, followed by further cycles of experimentation.

I don’t have enough expertise in other types of art to say that for sure, but horror comes to mind, going through a similar arc.

If I missed your favorite author or band, no offense meant.

Friday, November 4, 2022

The Clansman, Iron Maiden

Still riding an Iron Maiden high after seeing the Boys from Britain last week, and so I figured I'm due for another shot of Maiden in the Metal Friday rotation.

The Clansman kicks some serious ass, both the studio version (off the oft-derided Virtual XI), but in particular when played live. I heard this live last week at the Prudential Center in Newark NJ; in fact Maiden thought enough of it to save it for the first encore.

With a chorus of either "OOOH, OOOH OOOH OOOOOOHHH!" or "FREEEDOM," it's quite easy for Maiden to get the crowd into it, screaming and fists pumping, pretending they're an extra in "Braveheart." They got me. Enjoy.

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Post Halloween roundup: The Willows, mysterious writing projects, and other news and ephemera

I carved this! Thanks template.
I always feel a bit sad when the pumpkin candles burn out and I turn off the porch light on Halloween. My favorite holiday has come to a close for another year. Now the days get shorter, colder. Winter is coming. Etc. We were light on trick-or-treaters this year but had maybe 20 kids come by for candy. A few costumes made me smile, including a chubby illuminated ghost, one of those inflatable units. I could see him coming a long ways off, an eerie shade of green. He was unsteady, couldn’t see his feet, and his aim on his candy bag was off by a good six inches. I picked up the candy from my stoop, put his treats into his bag for him, and sent him on his way, watching as he waddled across the lawn to catch up with his friends.

A bit of the season is still kicking around, some leftover candy. My essay on Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows” was published on Goodman Games/Tales from the Magician’s Skull website. I’ve read this story perhaps three times now, it has incredible atmosphere and delivers a chill. It was nice to revisit the haunted island in the Danube again for this piece.

In other news…

I’m writing an essay for a future Rogue Blades Foundation book. I don’t know what (or if) I’m supposed to say about it, I’ve seen no official announcements, so I’m staying mum. But the contract is signed and the short essay largely complete. I’ll give it another edit before submitting. More to come there.

Speaking of staying mum, I’ve got a Big Idea for my next book. A cool concept, a detailed Table of Contents, even. I don’t want to say much more until I start writing and reasonably believe it’s something I can pull off. I may yet decide it’s a bad idea, or beyond my ability to write. I’m superstitious about these things. But, it’s a subject near and dear to my heart. Far more memoir than Flame and Crimson. Not academic, but personal. And fun.

Working my way through the final volume in Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy, Last Argument of Kings. Another massive tome, just after Lonesome Dove? Not like me. But, so far so good. Inquisitor Glokta is up to his creaky immobile chicken neck in political machinations and weighted favors that may cost him his life, Logen Ninefingers is back from the dead and with the old gang on the front, and the war in the North is about to erupt in fresh violence. Good stuff here from Joe.

I head down to Austin, TX next week for a three-day bender—err, company retreat. The CEO and founder of my new company is flying all 30-odd of us out to Camp Lucy, a resort hotel in Dripping Springs. All expenses covered, prepared meals onsite, open bar, axe throwing, archery, other assorted awesomeness. It’s tough being me sometimes. I’ll probably need a liver transplant after this.

Friday, October 28, 2022

Iron Maiden: No compromises

Me and Scott... and 24 oz. Miller Lite

It strikes me that I haven’t reviewed nor mentioned the recent Iron Maiden show I attended last Friday at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ. I went with an old buddy of mine, Scott, a dude I brought to his first Maiden show back in 2008.

I first saw Maiden back in 1991 on the No Prayer for the Dying tour, so I was an old hand when I broke Scott’s Maiden cherry 14 years ago. It was great to see Maiden with him again. We may be getting older but we’re still rocking.

What can I properly say about Iron Maiden that hasn’t been already said? Very little. They’re probably the greatest heavy metal band of all time. They are to metal what the Beatles are to pop rock, or Johnny Cash is to country. Fucking legends, full stop.

But I have to say something. So here's a statement.

What makes Maiden special to me is that they don’t compromise. They have integrity. They do what they want, they don’t change with the times, or blow with the winds of fashion. If you don’t like it, tough shit.

Not everyone likes their current direction. Yes, they are writing long songs, and perhaps deserve some criticism for too much repetition.

But I’ve come to accept that it’s what they want to do. They’ve earned the right to do what they want, after 40 years of entertaining us. And frankly, I still like what they are putting out. Not unreservedly, but some of it.

Maiden opened up with three songs off their new album, Senjutsu. That’s probably the kiss of death for many bands. But not these dudes. The crowd was into it. And the third song, “Writing on the Wall,” was met with a roaring reception. “Writing on the Wall” was written pre-COVID-19, but it has an apocalyptic feel, apocalyptic lyrics, and the timing of its release makes it feel like a commentary on the state of the world circa March 2020. It still feels like we’re on the brink of disaster every day, between climate catastrophe, looming nuclear war with Russia, saber-rattling with China, and the general savage in-fighting between Republicans and Democrats, and everyone else on Twitter and Facebook. We’re living in a shit-show and this song captures the Four Horsemen quite well. I love it. Listen below.

I also liked that Maiden played “Sign of the Cross” and “The Clansman,” despite the fact that both of these songs are from the Blaze Bayley era, a time when Maiden was at its lowest ebb. It doesn’t matter; they’re great tunes, and are just awesome in concert. Kudos to Bruce for swallowing his pride and playing songs from an era where he voluntarily left the band. He knows they kick ass. 

Again, integrity.

My one criticism? No songs off Somewhere in Time or Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, the two albums where I believe the band hit its creative peak. But, I can’t complain too much. Maiden has begun advertising a 2023 “The Future Past Tour,” which if you see the imagery will feature a heavy dose of SiT. So, I’m OK with it. They still cranked out “Revelations,” “Fear of the Dark,” “Aces High,” “The Trooper,” “Flight of Icarus,” and of course “Hallowed be thy Name” and “Run to the Hills,” among other hits. A great mix of classics and new material. “Blood Brothers” has become a classic from the modern/post Bruce reunion era of Maiden, a pean to the spirit of the brotherhood of men, and of boys and their fathers. Bruce sounded great.

So, there’s Maiden. No compromise. Still kicking ass in 2022. I’m so glad they’re still around when they could be enjoying their retirement years on a beach in Maui. 


Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry

The shame he felt was so strong it stopped the words in his throat. Night after night, sitting in front of Wilbarger’s tent, he had struggled with thoughts so bitter that he had not even felt the Montana cold. All his life he had preached honesty to his men and had summarily discharged those who were not capable of it, though they had mostly only lied about duties neglected or orders sloppily executed. He himself was far worse, for he had been dishonest about his own son, who stood not ten feet away.

--Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove

Lonesome Dove will probably wind up as the best book I’ve read this year.

At 860 pages, it is a lot longer than I typically prefer in my fiction. It is also a western, which aren’t typically something I gravitate to.

It was a little hard to break into, a good 100-150 pages before I started to get involved in the story. But by the end I didn’t want it to be over, and plowed through the final 100 pages in a sitting.

This one took a long time for me to read, and taking a week-long business trip followed by a bout of COVID didn’t help my pace. I have now officially fallen off my goal of 52 books this year (one book/week). But, it was worth the investment. Again, I’m no western aficionado, but personally I liked Lonesome Dove better than Cormac McCarthy’s acclaimed Blood Meridian. 

It’s hard to say exactly what spoke to me, but probably mostly the characterization. Woodrow Call and Augustus McCrae are pretty damned real, despite being from an age and place (1870s Texas) that seems very dim and remote. These dudes are Texas Rangers but also quasi outlaws, violent, and no one you want to cross. When Call’s rage is summoned, watch out. Each have killed dozens of men, stomped and kicked the teeth out of many more. But they’re not cardboard cowboy cutouts. They and the rest of McCarthy’s characters are very real, believable, human.

Lonesome Dove is obviously not fantasy/sword-and-sorcery but it puts you in another place and time, another world, the old west in the waning days of the rapidly closing frontier. We meet some really, really bad actors (Blue Duck, a frightening, murderous, outlaw Indian with no sense of morality, no mercy). We experience what an epic cattle drive from Texas to Montana might have been like—life on the open plains exposed to every manner of weather, a lack of water, occasional run-ins with Indians, cattle thieves, and outlaws, getting thrown from a horse or gored by a bull and having no access to medical facilities. The violence is rare but shocking and faithfully depicted. All of this material takes you out of 21st century living and into a past that is both fascinating, and one I’m glad I was not born into. Robert E. Howard may have longed for such a past, but not me. Though I would love to see the pristine landscapes of untouched Montana.

One of the book’s major themes is duty vs. social obligations and family. Gus’ priority is on people, and relationships. He wants to get married, he never stops talking, he enjoys life’s pleasures. Though Call criticizes him for not carrying his weight when it comes to chores, everyone (including Call) loves him. This is how he has organized and prioritized his life. It mostly works out—but some of the women in the story (who are all wonderfully drawn by McMurtry) see through his act. You can’t just be a romantic player; you’ve got to commit.

In contrast Call’s highest priority is to duty, Getting Things Done. Living by a code. You promise to do something, you do it. This makes him admirable, a born leader, but like Gus he’s also flawed. I found myself identifying with Call, more than I suspected. I’m nothing at all like him—dude is an old school Texas Ranger you don’t want to cross, self-sufficient alpha to the core. But, he cannot form personal connections; he can’t show love to his son, form meaningful relationships with women, or even admit the boy Newt is his own blood. Toward the end of the novel in a shocking scene he gets his shit called out, and has no rejoinder. In a flash he wonders if he’s been living his life wrong, all along. The gulfs between men and women are wide. Most everyone in this book is quite lonely, even in the company of others.

I’m not this emotionally stunted. But, I’m introverted, I don’t form true, deep friendships/relationships easily or lightly, and this has occasionally bitten me in the ass. I found myself understanding Call on a deep level, because I have some of him in me.

The book is also about virtue, what makes men virtuous and what makes them fall short. The handsome cowboy Jake Spoon—dreamy brown eyes, natural charisma, always gets the girl—is not an irredeemable bastard, but he’s not a man worthy of our respect, because he doesn’t value helping other people, nor duty or obligation, but ultimately his top priority is his own self-interest. Gambling. Drinking. Woman chasing. He’s also a relative coward. This all comes back to bite him, hard. 

We need something to follow, some North star, that’s not just us. You better find it, or life will lead you to bad places.

Lonesome Dove does not romanticize the old west. It’s funny in places, touching, even uplifting, but also grim. Death comes easy, and unfairly, to several characters. Despite its hardness, it’s hard to leave behind. You want to keep inhabiting this world.

But now it’s time to say goodbye to the novel. Perhaps I’ll watch the television miniseries.

Sunday, October 23, 2022

The Day of Might!

I realized this day has come and largely gone, and I've yet to acknowledge it. I'm rectifying that now before the Skull reduces me to ash.

Read sword-and-sorcery, mortal dogs!

I didn't spend the day reading sword-and-sorcery but did watch Evil Dead II, which features the Necronomicon as well as a protagonist who morphs into an S&S hero about 2/3 of the way into the film (the incomparable Bruce Campbell). Close enough.

Happy Day of Might, sword-brothers.

Thursday, October 20, 2022

A very metal week: Judas Priest/Queensryche/Iron Maiden

Not Rob Halford sickness, nor a personal bout with COVID, could stop me from seeing the Metal Gods. I finally caught up with Judas Priest this past Sunday at the MGM Music Hall at Fenway (Boston). Opening act, Queensryche (or what passes for Queensryche these days, sans Geoff Tate, Chris DeGarmo, and Scott Rockenfield).

It was an excellent show. Both bands were in good form, and played great sets. Queensryche opened up and played almost entirely classics from The Warning/self titled EP/Operation Mindcrime/Empire, save for a couple of new songs. Todd La Torre even dared "Take Hold of the Flame" and pulled it off credibly. He's not Geoff Tate in his prime, but no one is/was, certainly not Tate himself these days.

Judas Priest played some great material, including the likes of "Steeler," "Beyond the Realms of Death," "Hell Bent for Leather" and "Between the Hammer and the Anvil," though for me the highlight might have been "Halls of Valhalla," a classic off of 2014's Redeemer of Souls. I love this song, and the background imagery was suitably viking. Halford can still crush the scream in this one.

The MGM Music Hall is a brand-new venue, a small three tiered arena (seating capacity about 5,000) and was a lovely place to take in a show. Clean, comfortable, many bars serving overpriced beer.

In addition to enjoying the show we took my friend's 13-year-old son for what was his first-ever concert. Kid loves metal and is a pretty solid guitar player. I'm told you can't wipe the grin off his face, and he's already learned the licks to "Living After Midnight."

Tomorrow night I head down to New Jersey to visit an old friend and take in Iron Maiden. That's how you cap a metal week, man. Arguably the two greatest metal acts in history, same week. None of us are getting any younger but we can still rock hard.

My upload of "Beyond the Realms of Death."

Saturday, October 15, 2022

Why bother blogging? And other personal updates


Why do I continue to keep this blog?

I’ve been doing this a long time, since Sept. 2007, save for a long break circa 2013-2019 to write Flame and Crimson and tend to other matters in my life.

What is its purpose? What is my purpose, continuing to post after all these years?

Occasionally I ask myself, why bother? But such feelings always pass, and I continue my scribblings into the electronic ether. 

I don’t know why I’ve continued. But let’s see what I can come up with.

I love old authors and old bits of popular culture that are slipping away, and I want to preserve them. Jack Vance, Poul Anderson, Fritz Leiber, etc. are grandmasters of fantasy and SF, towering talents better than most authors you will read yesterday, today, or tomorrow, but I’d be surprised if their combined annual sales are 1% of Brandon Sanderson. And then you’ve got dudes like Karl Edward Wagner, Charles Saunders, Gardner Fox, C.L. Moore and others who, outside of some diehard horror and S&S circles, are rapidly fading into yesteryear. I like talking about their stuff and keeping it alive, because it’s damned good, and they need champions.

I am pushing back against Twitter and the dying of the light of (semi) intelligent conversation. Not fighting Twitter in a literal sense (I have no more or less disdain for that platform than any other), but the notion that our thoughts can be compressed into 280 characters, and that history is meaningless. I’m not exactly a purveyor of profundity here, but I try to write the stuff I like to read, that has some amount of context and substance. You can see every post I ever wrote here on this site if you choose to do so, no account necessary. Does anyone read old social media posts? They are vaporware, spoon fed by algorithms over which you have no control. I don’t think they can even be searched in any meaningful way. I like that this page is static AF, boring even. Just read it and leave. But here it remains.

I am fighting the trend of “hot takes.” By which I mean, unqualified gushing praise, or unwarranted criticism, of new and hot properties, for clicks, followers, and ad revenue. My takes are about as hot as reruns of the Golden Girls. I’m OK with not having 500,000 followers as a result.

I’m stubborn. I am aware that blogs are so like, 2008 man. This platform has been supplanted not by Facebook, but by MySpace … and then Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok. It’s a dinosaur way to do “this thing,” whatever that may be. I sometimes wonder if Google will just up and delete the Blogger platform. But I despise the need to obsessively create accounts on the latest and greatest platform, again and again. Why? Where does it end? Maintaining 26 social media accounts, and pouring your entire existence into a digital vortex of bullshit? I think most people would be best served picking one or two platforms and settling in. But I’m aware that patience and attention span are in short supply.

So in summary, I’m an old fart who likes old things, including evidently a fondness for outdated blogging platforms. I guess that means I’m here to stay, at least until Google says otherwise.


A few other matters less contemplative.

I am reading Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. I’m not much of a western reader, at all. Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, a Zane Gray novel or two. Some Breckenridge Elkins… that’s about it. But this one had caught my eye (reviews exclaiming, “if you only ever read one western, make it this one,” Pulitzer Prize winner, etc.) and I needed a sword-and-sorcery break, so I pulled this one off the shelf. It was a slow slog at first, 200 pages of OK slow build, but I’m really enjoying it at the moment. Incredible character studies, outstanding portrayal of frontier life in the waning days of the frontier, some shocking violence. McMurtry skillfully puts you into what a long distance cattle drive in the 1870s/1880s must have been like. Some absolutely beautiful passages. I’m glad I’ve made the effort as the damned book is a monster (858 pages).

Simultaneous with this western foray I’m also in full-blown Halloween mode. I wrote a piece on Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows” for Tales from the Magician’s Skull. Last night I re-watched The Lair of the White Worm (1988). Campy as hell, fun. Recommended. Prior to that watched “The Vampire Lovers” (1970, Hammer). Also campy and fun, and recommended. Both films star absolutely gorgeous female leads, too.

If you sign up for the mailing list (free) for New Edge Sword and Sorcery magazine you will be entered for a drawing to win a free hard copy of Flame and Crimson. I will mail the book myself, how about that? And make my mark on it, should you want that.

I am committed to going to Howard Days next year. You read it here. More to come on that later. 

I’m on Day 4 of COVID and feeling much better this AM. In another day or two at most I should be back to regular form. Note to self: Get the booster. Dealing with this is a pain in the ass. I’ve had worse cases of the flu, but COVID places your life on hold as you isolate. Not cool to miss your daughter’s senior day cross country meet.

Friday, October 14, 2022


I've got it, it sucks, that is all.

2 1/2 years of avoiding the 'vid and finally it got me on a business trip. Plane rides and a big conference, coupled with a few nights out at restaurants/bars, so probably no surprise. The opportunities for exposure numbered in the thousands.

I'm feeling tired, achy, spiked a small fever which seems to have broken. Otherwise OK, but posting here has suffered and likely will continue to suffer in the next few days. We'll see.

Friday, October 7, 2022

Blood Red Skies, Judas Priest

Can it really be I haven't put JP in the Metal Friday rotation since December of last year? Fixing that, stat.

Priest is on my mind a bit more these days because I'll be seeing the Metal Gods in just over a week's time. On Sunday Oct. 16 I'm heading into Boston with a friend of mine to see them at the MGM Music Hall at Fenway Park.

And get this, his 13-year-old son is coming too.

The kid LOVES Judas Priest, and was inspired to pick up a flying V guitar in large part due to their music. He's a damned good player.

This is his first ever concert. He just found out. How's that for a birthday present?

Today I'm going with Blood Red Skies. I can't believe I haven't featured this song yet.

Very, very bold claim coming--the studio version of Blood Red Skies MIGHT be Rob Halford's best vocal performance. Unfounded? Well, listen first, then decide. 1:15 on... yikes. 6:28--he surely shattered glass in the studio.

I don't think anyone else on the planet could sing this, like this. Halford's vocals are ethereal, transcendent, otherworldly on this one, which features lyrics straight out of the Terminator. 


Thursday, October 6, 2022

Secret Fire

What is the “fire” borne by characters and otherwise present in the works of Cormac McCarthy and J.R.R. Tolkien?

“I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the Flame of Anor.” – Gandalf, Fellowship of the Ring

"Therefore Ilúvatar gave to their vision Being, and set it amid the Void, and the Secret Fire was sent to burn at the heart of the World; and it was called Eä." ― The Silmarillion

I want to be with you.  
You cant.
You cant. You have to carry the fire.
I dont know how to. Yes you do.
Is it real? The fire?
Yes it is. 
Where is it? I dont know where it is.
Yes you do. It’s inside you. It was always there.
I can see it.

--Father and boy, The Road

He just rode on past and he had this blanket wrapped around him and he had his head down and when he rode past I seen he was carryin fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it.

--Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, No Country for Old Men

There’s been a fair bit written about the meaning of carrying the fire in McCarthy's The Road, and the origin of Gandalf's "secret fire," but comparably less on what the fire actually is. As I see it:

The creative impulse; the drive to make, rather than destroy. 

The life force. Life comes from somewhere, not from nothing.

That which we must pass on, to the next generation, lest we slip back into darkness. Kindness, opposing selfishness.

Hope, in dark places.

That which makes us good.

The divine spark, if you believe in that.

That it can be “carried” without outward sign tells us it is metaphorical (in Tolkien, it is sometimes more, but Gandalf still describes it as “secret,” rarely unveiled). It is something out of myth, not meant in a literal sense, but conveying a larger Truth.

Carrying means that it requires some effort to sustain. It also seems to signify it can be passed on, to another willing recipient.

I try to do good things with my life. I have been better at this at various times, worse at others. I try to teach my daughters, at least by example. Here is how you behave, watch me. I am trying to give back to others, more than I have as a younger man.

The fire flickers, I lose sight of it. I breathe into the embers, keep it kindled.

What fire sustains you?


I make no claim that the fire described by Tolkien and McCarthy share a similar source—though both are Catholic—only that there are similarities of expression and interpretation.

A couple good interpretations here: 

The Art of Manliness: “Carry the Fire” 

Sunday, October 2, 2022

New Edge #0 is out

If you're looking for some new sword-and-sorcery fiction and non-fiction in a compelling package, New Edge #0 is now out. The editor of this new magazine is Oliver Brackenbury, who also hosts the podcast "So I'm Writing a Novel." I've got an essay in it, "The Outsider in Sword-and-Sorcery."

I have not read or perused the issue yet and don't know what to expect. I see the likes of Dariel Quiogue and David C. Smith have fiction in it. There are articles by Howard Andrew Jones, Cora Buhlert, Nicole Emmelhainz, and others, authors with whom I have some level of familiarity. Looking forward to checking it out! Cover art is by Gilead Artist, who was kind enough to send me a sketch inspired by his reading of Flame and Crimson.

Brackenbury is offering epub/PDF versions for free, and selling print copies at cost, and if interest is high enough plans to publish subsequent issues.

Stories include:

The Curse of the Horsetail Banner by Dariel R.A. Quiogue

The Ember Inside by Remco van Straten & Angeline B. Adams

Old Moon Over Irukad by David C. Smith

The Beast of the Shadow Gum Trees by T,K. Rex

Vapors of Zinai by J.M. Clarke

The Grief-Note of Vultures by Bryn Hammond

Articles include:

The Origin of the New Edge by Howard Andrew Jones

C.L. Moore and Jirel of Joiry: The First Lady of Sword & Sorcery by Cora Buhlert

Sword & Soul - An Interview with Milton Davis

The Outsider in Sword & Sorcery by Brian Murphy

Gender Performativity in Howard's "Sword Woman" by Nicole Emmelhainz

The Obanaax and Other Tales of Heroes and Horrors, a review by Robin Marx

What is New Edge Sword & Sorcery? by Oliver Brackenbury

Saturday, October 1, 2022

Of Jack London, Earle Labor, and William Dean Howells

I was listening to a recent Art of Manliness podcast in which host Brett McKay replayed “Jack London’s Literary Code,” an episode originally broadcast in January 2020. His guest, Dr. Earle Labor, died on Sept. 15 at the age of 94, leading to the rebroadcast. Labor was one of the world’s foremost London scholars, which makes him a man worthy of respect.

What caught my ear was a comment early in the program about why it took so long for London to be recognized as a major American author worthy of study. Labor cast the blame on William Dean Howells, a shady character I first heard about from Deuce Richardson over at DMR books, years ago. See a more recent piece, "The Dead Hand of William Dean Howells."

From the interview (about the 8 minute mark of the podcast):

Brett McKay: For your PhD you did the first major study on Jack London as a true literary artist, and you were really breaking new ground because for a long time the literary establishment didn’t take London’s work seriously, and very few scholars had studied his craftsmanship. Why was that and what is the status of London today in literature, particularly in terms of scholarship?

Earle Labor: It’s on the rise for sure, and has been for the past generation or so… but for a long time he was dismissed as little more than a hack writer for adventure stories and what have you. Fortunately there have been a number of breakthroughs just in the last two or three decades… I have a lecture I give sometimes on the politics of literary reputation, and I explain to my students, look, the books you read, the ones you read in high school and many that you read in college, were not handed to Moses on that tablet, they were selected by a certain group, and those are the so-called elite. They decided what you were going to read. They decide for example that you are going to read Shakespeare and maybe Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, which is fine, but they should be also assigned Jack London’s The Sea Wolf or something in addition to Call of the Wild. 

London was not part of the group that makes those decisions. For one thing London was a western writer. They were not part of the eastern establishment that pretty well dictated the literary selections at the time in the 19th/even 20th century. Eric Miles Williamson uses the term the “Ivy Mafia”… that may not be quite fair but I think it’s kind of fun. Anyhow, the ideas that it’s those easterners, back in the 19th century, even the early 20th century centered around Boston/New York. William Dean Howells was the leader of that group for a generation. Interesting that he encouraged writers like Hamlin Garland, Stephen Crane, even Emily Dickinson, and here’s London at the time, the most popular of all of them, and virtually ignored by William Dean Howells. Now that’s got to have been deliberate I think. All of that ties in to what I call the politics of literary reputation, which has impeded the reputation of Jack for a number of years, but finally we’re getting that recognition. 

Howells dismissal of London strikes me as the same attitude met by Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft in their writing days, and in the decades after their death: “Pulp hacks” ignored, or certainly not worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Hemingway or Fitzgerald, or more recently the likes of Updike or Irving. Such elitist attitudes persisted well into the late 20th century, and possibly still do in some circles.

I think (or I’d like to think) that the portrayal of fantasy/speculative fiction as something categorically lesser than realistic novels is now a thing of the past. I’ll admit I don’t keep up with academia or current literary theory. But it does seem like fantasy has moved from its former place in mom’s basement to the adult’s table.

Or, it might be that there is no more literary establishment/intelligentsia, what with the reshuffling of the western canon and the death of Harold Bloom and others of his ilk.

Regardless, adieu Dr. Labor, and thanks for your lifelong work illuminating the contributions of London, a forefather of sword-and-sorcery and one of the great authors of our time.

Apropos, a link to an old piece I wrote for The Cimmerian on Jack London's The Call of the Wild.

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.