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.