Thursday, August 25, 2022

Ace Frehley lead guitar!

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

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

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

Putrid, but fun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

A bookish nostalgia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life was moving slowly, but it was great.

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

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

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

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

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

We’ve lost something that we will never recover. 

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

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

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Tales from the Magician’s Skull #6

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

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

On to the rest. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 12, 2022

Thin Lizzy, "Emerald"

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Getting political in fantasy fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 6, 2022

More awesome Tom Barber art

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

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

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

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


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

Friday, August 5, 2022

The Crue, Poison, Def Leppard, Joan Jett

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

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

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

I'll stop there.

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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