Tuesday, February 28, 2023

The Rhyme of the Viking Path, Robert E. Howard

Art by Tom Barber.

Reading the Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard, vol. 2 (1930-1932), and encountered this poem Howard fired off in a letter to his friend Tevis Clyde Smith, circa May 1930.


I followed Asgrim Snorri's son

Around the world and half-way back,

And 'scaped the hate of Galdarthrun

Who sunk our ship off Skagerack.

I lent my sword to Hrothgar then,

His ears were ice, his heart was hard;

He fell with half his weapon-men

To our own kin at Mikligard.

And then for many a weary moon

I labored at the galley's oar

Where men grow maddened by the rune

Of row-locks clacking evermore.

But I survived the reeking rack,

The toil, the whips that burned and gashed,

The spiteful Greeks who scarred my back

And trembled even while they lashed.

They sold me on an Eastern block,

In silver coins their price was paid,

They girt me with a chain and lock -- 

I laughed and they were sore afraid.

I toiled among the olive trees

Until a night of hot desire

Brought sharp the breath of outer seas

And filled my veins with curious fire.

Then I arose and broke my chain, 

And laughed to know that I was free,

And battered out my master's brain

And fled and gained the open sea.

Beneath a copper sun a-drift

I fled the ketch and slaver's dhow, 

Until I saw a sail up-lift

And saw and knew the dragon-prow.

Oh, East of sands and moon-lit gulf,

Your blood is thin, your gods are few; 

You could not break the Northern wolf

And now the wolf has turned on you.

Now fires that light the coast of Spain

Fling shadows on the Moorish strand; 

Masters, your slave has come again, 

With torch and axe in his red hand!

You could not break the Northern wolf, And now the wolf has turned on you might top the list of badass things I've ever read. 

Can't wait to hear the porchlight poetry readings at REH Days.

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Sword-and-sorcery updates: Howard Days, Flame and Crimson review

Headed to the hallowed homestead of REH...
A few items of note on the sword-and-sorcery front.

I’m headed to Howard Days! Yesterday I “locked in” with a non-refundable plane ticket and car rental. 

No turning back now. It’s official. Boston Logan to Dallas Fort Worth, April 27-30.

I’ve even got lodging lined up: I’ll be staying at an air BnB in Cisco with a couple dudes whom I’ve corresponded with, but never met in person: Deuce Richardson and Ken Lizzi. My wife is making me download a tracking app on my phone in case I wind up gagged and bound in the trunk of a car. 

Kidding, of course. I’ve spoken with Deuce on the phone and collaborated with him at The Cimmerian and now on the blog of DMR Books. He seems like a trustworthy fellow. Ken is an author with a website of his own who secured lodging for the three of us.

But I suppose if you don’t hear from me after April just assume I’m buried in the desert somewhere in the immediate radius of Cross Plains.

I plan to document the trip here on the blog, as this might prove to be a once-in-a-lifetime trip (or not). I’ve very much wanted to attend Howard Days for years, since I first heard about it via The Cimmerian. But cost and time commitments are formidable obstacles. 

I dropped $580 on airfare and another $335 on the car rental. Fortunately I was able to apply a lot of points to remove some of the sting. Three nights at the BnB split three ways looks to be another $160. 

That puts me over $1,000 and I have yet to buy beer, food, and books and other mementos. I figure I'll wind up $1,500-$2K in the hole.

But I imagine it will all be worth it when I set foot in the Howard homestead, which some have described as a near religious experience. I get to meet many of the personalities that I’ve only ever read accounts from, or seen in clips on YouTube. And see the place where it all started.

The theme for this year is 100 years of Weird Tales (first issue March 1923) so I look forward to the panels and programming, too. Weird Tales was the medium which published the majority of Howard’s stories and allowed him to earn a respectable income that outstripped his unsuspecting neighbors (until the fickle Depression Era checks ran late and unpaid obligations accumulated).

Much more to come here.

The review was kind and generous (and, not without thoughtful critique). There was a lot more in it than a typical Amazon or Goodreads review—both which I still deeply appreciate, but longer form essays are where I live.

Head over and read it. I particularly liked this observation:

I consider Flame and Crimson a case study in how the creation of a new forms distribution can cause massive change in an artform. It’s a lesson we should pay attention to in an age of rapid change in distribution and creation of media.

S&S was born in the pulps and I believe it is at its best when it bears some of the hallmarks that heritage (i.e., shortish, pulse-pounding action, and the weird). Unfortunately, today there is no comparable market to Weird Tales, though many are trying. WT not only paid its top authors a livable wage, but was permissive and experimental with form, and served as sounding board and ideas exchange between authors and fans. Genres not only grew, but were born in its pages. Today it still seems like most authors are writing multi-book epic fantasy, which holds little appeal for me.

Also this:

Always there is tension between the stasis of too much Law and the formlessness of Chaos! Too much of either is damaging and destructive. It is difficult but ideal to find the balance between a narrow and restrictive vision and one that is overly expansive. The best work within a genre is created by artists who explore the boundaries of its universe without straying into shapeless dimensions.

There is a tension of form in genre fiction. When you write for a commercial market you are faced with the pressure of reader expectations vs. authentic expression. Like the Grumpy Wizard, I enjoy fiction that pushes edges, but remains something recognizable…

… Along with stuff that is unrepentantly S&S. 

In the end, what matters most is not the boxes you check, the genre you work in, or the boundaries you cross, but the quality of the writing

Anyway, thanks Grumpy Wizard, for the non-grumpy, thoughtful discussion of F&C.

Friday, February 24, 2023

"Let it Go," Def Leppard

Sometimes you just need hair metal. Or the equivalent. Def Leppard is close enough. 

I'm a fan of Leppard up through and including Hysteria; after that they lose me. But you have to respect their ongoing commitment to musicianship and good performances, even at this point in their career. I saw them in concert last summer in a monster quadruple bill that included Motley Crue, Poison, and Joan Jett. 

Leppard was by far the tightest, best-sounding band of the four. They rocked.

"Let it Go" is a fine example of their early work, before they went ballad-heavy. This one is a fun little rocker, with lyrics that leave absolutely zero to the imagination, unless you can't fill in the "C."

Cool woman, cool eyes, you got me hypnotized
So head down, get a rhythm
Stop your stalling and your bitching
I'm rock steady, I'm still shaking
I'm ready for the taking
So make your move, yeah, make me
And get ready for the big "C"

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Dullness on the edge of rage

I used to rant a lot more here on the blog, and elsewhere. But today I find that most things in my small corner of pulp culture aren’t worth getting angry over.

These days I just can’t summon the rage anymore.

I still get angry. Very recently I’ve had my keyboard poised to write about that something that irritated me— Roald Dahl book alterations, ChatGPT-authored manuscripts spamming magazine publishers—but wound up saying, eh, fuck it. 

It’s probably because I’m getting older. I turn 50 in June, and I’m not taking testosterone injections. I’ve seen a lot, enough to know that the small stuff is not worth getting worked up over. The venom I once spat at overzealous J.R.R. Tolkien or Robert E. Howard critics has largely dried up. I’ve heard the critiques, the spats, the righteous anger; both artists remain beloved and always will be.

I think this recent change possibly limits my writing prospects. The easiest essays I’ve ever written were done in a blind heat of righteous anger and fury. Thoughtful writing is harder. And on some level I fear that maybe what I do produce will prove dull, milquetoast.

But, in general I think this is a good development. Certainly for my blood pressure, but also because I enjoy the calm that comes with a relative certainty that the world isn’t caving in. People aren’t actually coming for your old books. AI not only can’t hold a candle to good human writing, but in all likelihood the next evolution of the technology will be authentication systems that reign in the current chaos.

I also know there’s nothing I can actually do about these things, nor do I know all sides of these issues, and screaming about it with digital ink certainly won’t help. 

I can’t promise I won’t unleash a good rant now and then, but I’m going to continue to lean into positivity. If you want that stuff, Twitter serves it up 24-7.

Edit: OK, I am kind of pissed about Roald Dahl.

Thursday, February 16, 2023

Remembering The Cimmerian

I own these guys, and others besides...
When I first got into this “thing” --writing about sword-and-sorcery and heroic fantasy, on the internet, and launching The Silver Key blog, more than 15 years ago—I had no idea what I was doing, or why. Only that I had a powerful urge to write about stuff I loved, and a few ideas to share. That I suppose I hoped someone, somewhere, might read. And maybe even take some amount of pleasure in, or learn something new from my scribblings.
One of the first people to take notice of this blog on any scale was the late, lamented Cimmerian website, and the editor of its accompanying print journal, Leo Grin. Back in November 2007 Grin penned a short post praising my newbie efforts. That post is now gone, but the uplift it gave me remains.

A few months later website editor Steve Tompkins emailed to ask me to join a few other writers to contribute to the relaunch of The Cimmerian website, which was moving beyond its Howardian roots to include a broader focus on heroic fantasy and J.R.R. Tolkien. 

Hell yeah. That decision took about three seconds to reach in the affirmative. Steve, I’m in.
Grin and Tompkins asked only that we post once a week and consistently hit our deadlines. That proved to be harder than expected with a full-time job that included travel. But I nailed it; I don’t think I ever missed a deadline.

Writing for the website led to my first submission for The Cimmerian print journal, which I believe was the first time I had ever been paid to write about fantasy, and, barring my work as a sports editor for a local newspaper, my first print appearance. Steve edited my piece, strengthened it significantly with some references to REH’s letters, and it went on to earn a nomination for best essay by the Robert E. Howard Foundation. I think Leo had some input on the essay as well.
The Cimmerian Journal was all killer, no filler, and served this space far better than any publication since perhaps Amra. Others have attempted similar projects and journals, most of which either faded away or failed. This should come as no surprise, given publishing reality. I have a pretty good idea of the time and effort that goes into high-quality print productions. The time required vs. the financial return just isn’t there. These efforts only work as a labor of love.

I don’t know how Grin did it but for five years he produced an incredibly high-quality, regular print journal with outstanding essays by the likes of Glenn Lord, Don Herron, and Mark Finn, reviews, recaps of Howard Days, original research, contentious and fun letters to the editor, and much more. Poetry by the likes of Richard Tierney and Darrell Schweitzer, for example. One of my favorite all-time essays, not just in the pages of The Cimmerian but favorite essays, period, was Steve Tompkins’ “The Shortest Distance Between Two Towers,” which I first read online but had to get in print. And did. It’s a wonderful comparison of J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard that appeared in vol. 3 no. 3. (March 2006).

I’ve got a few of these issues in digital format, and the following print editions:

Volume 1 Number 1, April 2004
Volume 1 Number 2, June 2004
Volume 2 Number 2, April 2005
Volume 3 Number 2, February 2006
Volume 3 Number 3, March 2006
Volume 3 Number 12, December 2006 (yeah for a time The Cimmerian was being published monthly)
Volume 5 Number 1, February 2008
Volume 5 Number 2, April 2008
Volume 5 Number 3, June 2008
Volume 5 Number 4, August 2008
Volume 5 Number 6, December 2008
My first post for The Cimmerian website, “Mourning the loss of print fantasy pubs,” appeared on Feb. 7, 2009. You can read the start of all my old posts here; I would post the first few paragraphs and then link to the rest.

This glorious golden age with The Cimmerian was cut lamentably short. Steve passed away March 23, 2009, far too young, and the world lost an utterly unique, irreplaceable voice. Steve took a backseat to no one as an essayist and walking encyclopedia of the fantastic. I think he was a genius. Deuce Richardson stepped in admirably as managing editor and our work continued, but Grin shut down the operation for good on June 11, 2010. A subsequent crappy controversy and fallout with many former authors resulted in many posts coming down, and a splintering of its archive. 

Along with the end of the website came the end of the journal, in spectacular and melodramatic fashion. Grin declared that all the back issues were going up for sale, and any remaining copies would be burned like the pagan kings of old. I never saw pictures of said burning, but am told it occurred and that there were witnesses. Grin said he wanted to honor the investment of those that bought the journal and not have their collectibles and commitment diminish in value with hundreds of remaindered copies flooding the market. Every issue of The Cimmerian was individually numbered with ink, BTW. Pretty awesome.

On the one hand I respect this decision, on the other the gesture was a little too Viking, even for my Old Norse tastes. At the time I did not have the financial wherewithal to purchase all the back issues of The Cimmerian, so I bought what I could afford based on TOCs that most interested me. 

I cried out, once, when the proverbial torch was lit, and the journal pushed flaming out to sea. I believe they are still accessible in the archives of the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, the Ray and Pat Browne Library for Popular Culture Studies at Bowling Green State University, Ohio, and the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

I keep meaning to go back and repost all my old Cimmerian essays in full on the blog, and one day may still. But my voice sounded different back then, and moreover I can’t get into that same headspace. I was a different man, the world was different, and I feel they’re someone else’s words, spoken from far beyond. Or perhaps it’s because I was part of a special crew committed to writing about all things sword, sorcery, Robert E. Howard, and J.R.R. Tolkien, a fellowship that has broken up. 

Anyway, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

It was an amazing time, and one likely never to be repeated. 

A monthly print journal? We won’t see that again.

Saturday, February 11, 2023

Sometime Lofty Towers, David C. Smith

There is a metaphor in this tower, for sure.
I can’t help but feel sorry for Charles Saunders, Richard Tierney, David C. Smith, and others working in the “second commercial wave” of sword-and-sorcery. Writing in the wake of the Lancer Conan Saga, the Elric DAW paperbacks, and Fritz Leiber’s “swords” series, this group of authors appeared poised to bring S&S to a new generation of readers in the late 70s and early 1980s. Only to have the bottom fall out as the decade of excess got underway.

For reasons I can’t get into here, lest I derail this review, it suddenly seemed no one wanted to read this unique blend of swashbuckling action, horror, and fell magic. By the early/mid 80s it was over for S&S, at least commercially.

For a time it seemed Smith’s writing career was over as well. After spending some years away from writing altogether and later branching out to write realistic novels and epic fantasy, Smith recently returned to sword-and-sorcery under Pulp Hero Press with Tales of Attumla (2020). 

Sometime Lofty Towers (2021) is his latest. It’s an ambitious novel that is recognizably sword-and-sorcery, but also contemplative, dark, mature, with an emphasis on exploration of character over typical fast-paced S&S plotting. 

And in my opinion, is wonderful. 

I have read some of Smith’s early material, including a few of his Oron stories and a smattering of Red Sonja, and the odd short story elsewhere. I’m hardly an authority on his body of work. But Sometime Lofty Towers is easily the best I’ve read from him.

Hamlin is a veteran of many battles and bears many scars, internal and external. The short novel (194 pages with afterward material) explores his struggles to overcome a great betrayal in his past, an ambush and the death of his comrades in a literal river of blood. The plot is essentially secondary to Hamlin’s story, but concerns the designs of the wealthy and avaricious Lady Sil who sets her sights on the native lands of the Kirangee. Sil hires a troupe of mercenaries to force out the natives at swordpoint, including Hamlin’s longtime friend-in-arms Thorem. Hamlin joins forces with the natives and so the conflict unfolds.

The book critiques colonialism and unbridled capitalism while plumbing matters of the human heart—the cancer of vengeance and vendetta, and the difficulty of letting go of painful past memories and finding peace in an unjust, cruel world.

Smith does a nice job building the culture of the Kirangee, which feels Native American but also a-historical, perhaps owing something to Robert E. Howard’s Picts. The method by which he does this reminded me of Charles Saunders’ Ilyassi from his Imaro series, complete with italicized native words that are unfamiliar but offered up in a way as to be understandable. No infodumps, Smith handles this all skillfully while telling a compelling story.

Sometime Lofty Towers contains some incredibly strong/queasy scenes of violence and brutality, including graphic depictions of torture. It reads angry, and in a helpful afterward we learn why: The story was born out of Smith’s bitterness and grief over the death of his father, who was exposed to asbestos for decades (even after the dangers of the substance were well known) and suffered for 17 years with declining health, hospitalizations, and treatment before his death in 1997.

The style of the writing is sparse and strong, which makes the reading easy. There is perhaps some sag in the middle of the novel. Looking back I think it’s when Smith moves away from Hamlin’s story and relays the unfolding external plot, which is interesting but not as compelling as Hamlin’s internal saga. When Smith returns to Hamlin for the third and final act it reaches a satisfying conclusion. There is a definite feel of Clint Eastwood’s William Munny here; Hamlin is not as rusty as the aged gunfighter we meet in Unforgiven, still every bit as vital and dangerous at 40 as he was in his youth. But he’s the equivalent of an aging, scarred gunfighter who wants to be rid of the ghosts of his past, and his memories to fall quiet. And when roused to violence is terrifying, because killing is second nature.

Overall this is the work of a mature author who has lived much and experienced life with all its griefs and disappointments and loss. When I read something like this I can’t help but wonder about REH, and whether had he managed the storms of his own clinical depression might have produced something similar in his latter years. Imagine Conan looking back on his adventures—the loss of BĂȘlit and Balthus, the betrayals of Amalrus and Strabonius--returning to Cimmeria to perhaps find some measure of peace, perhaps with Zenobia in his arms. 

Smith has demonstrated the heights to which sword-and-sorcery can aspire with Sometime Lofty Towers, which to me is a welcome return from someone who experienced personal loss and professional disappointment but emerged from these trials to offer us a rich, thoughtful story.

Friday, February 10, 2023

Kill Devil Hill, Bruce Dickinson

It's no secret I'm a Bruce Dickinson fanboy. I straight up think he might have saved heavy metal (or at least, threw me a lifeline I desperately clung to during the demoralizing grunge era).

Bruce is not only the lead singer of the world's greatest heavy metal band, but he also has an amazing side solo career. Today's Metal Friday features a wonderful cut off his 2005 solo effort Tyranny of Souls, "Kill Devil Hill."

This song is a paean to the birth of flight and Bruce's aviation obsession. Maiden is notorious for teaching history in their songs, whether you want them to or not/find it tedious or not, and this tune is no exception: 

On December 17th, 1903, the Wright Brothers launched off a downhill track in Kill Devil Hills, and their airplane flew for a full 12 seconds. These 12 seconds would prove to be revolutionary, and the first airplane had successfully taken flight. 

Bruce is in full-throated, top form on this one. The song soars, literally and figuratively, when he leans into the chorus at 1:14. 

As the wind whips over the hillside

Twenty knots over Kill Devil Hill

Steady wind blows over the sand

Twenty knots over Kill Devil Hill

If you're a Maiden fan who hasn't yet explored Bruce's solo career, get on that now. 

Saturday, February 4, 2023

Las Vegas is pretty sword-and-sorcery

Kind of like Lankhmar, but a little less stabby.
I've been to Las Vegas at least a half dozen times, all for work, and have emphatically decided that I'm a Vegas guy. Sin City is a "love it or hate it" destination, and I'm decidedly in the former camp. I would gladly visit every other year or so. Take in a show, gamble, watch the train wreck of humanity slouching down the strip, stay up late drinking until I join the train wreck of humanity slouching down the strip. 

... but only for 3 days at a stretch, after which no shower can get me clean and I need to head straight into mental and physical detox. Which is all very sword-and-sorcery.

Anyways, I'm back after three nights at the Palms Casino Resort for a healthcare conference. I managed to fit in some fun, including 3-4 hours of gambling my last night there. I set a cheap $100 cap and was up as much as $155 at the blackjack table, gave about all of that back at roulette, and called it a night after breaking even.

In addition, the long flights from my home on the east coast to the west and back again afforded me some rare sustained reading time that I took advantage of.

I managed to finish That Hideous Strength, the third and final volume of C.S. Lewis' space trilogy, which I started this year and can now cross off the bucket list. I feel rather guilty saying it, considering how celebrated these books are, but they didn't do a whole lot for me. Some great ideas in here, but I found the execution lacking. Lewis left a lot of drama on the table and it was all too dialogue-heavy, even plodding in places. But, I loved the concepts and appreciated the modern-day parallels with N.I.C.E. (the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments).

On the way back I started reading David C. Smith's Sometime Lofty Towers and man, this is simultaneously grim, dark, personal, and well-done, at least through the first 60 pages. Looking forward to finishing it and giving it a proper review.

On the subject of reviews, I have admittedly not kept up with contemporary S&S and am planning to rectify that this year. Here is a partial list of works I either want to purchase and read, or already have purchased and are part of my 2023 TBR list:
  • Worlds Beyond Worlds, John Fultz
  • The Penultimate Men: Tales from Our Savage Future (Schuyler Hernstrom and others)
  • Sometime Lofty Towers, David C. Smith
  • Arminius Bane of Eagles, Adrian Cole
  • Frolic on the Amaranthyn, Chase Folmar
  • A Gathering of Ravens, Scott Oden
  • Swords of the Four Winds, Dariel Quiogue
  • S&S magazines including New Edge #0 (full read), and my backlog of Tales from the Magician’s Skull issues
As previously noted I've started the year with S.M. Stirling's Blood of the Serpent.

I also backed the New Edge kickstarter (and recommend you do too), and am 100% confirmed for Robert E. Howard Days, with lodging lined up. 

More on that later, once I complete my Vegas detox.