Friday, March 31, 2023

En Force, Queensryche

The Warning... feels a little more prescient every day.

We plead for the signs, give us a second chance
In hopes it will stifle the fear
The battered remains of world gone insane
We are near

Here's to a (metal) weekend.

Thursday, March 30, 2023

One month until Howard Days

This one escaped the pyre...
One month until Howard days…anticipation is building. A couple recent items of note as the clock counts down to April 27.

Longtime REH fan/observer/contributor Brian Leno generously sent me a free copy of The Cimmerian journal, vol. 4, no. 4 (August 2007), along with a pair of REH postcards from the foundation. I would be hard-pressed to even begin to provide the level of Cross Plains coverage here on the blog that Brian offered in this issue. Brian took a trip to Cross Plains in 1967 at age 11 with his parents and two brothers, and his TC article “Down the Rabbit Hole” details his second trip, 40 years later, this time to Robert E. Howard Days 2007.

This article has stoked a greater fire in me, if that’s possible. Brian writes eloquently of an evening trip to Howard’s gravesite in Brownwood, which he experienced in the moonlight. Of a wild evening in the company of whiskey-drinking Howard scholars. Of a long car ride to Fort McKavett, location of a famous REH photo; of a day trip to Enchanted Rock, near Fredericksburg, where Howard first envisioned Cimmeria. And a culminating tour of the Howard house with Don Herron as a tour guide. The same Don Herron who edited The Dark Barbarian and The Barbaric Triumph. Pretty amazing. And much more besides, including a bus tour of Cross Plains, a visit to the famous icehouse where REH once boxed, panel sessions in the Cross Plains library, and the Foundation Awards, of which he was a nominee for the Venarium (emerging scholar) that year. Plus some other interesting asides. This was a great primer for the trip.

Thank you Brian, for the generous gift!

I finished my paper for the Glenn Lord Symposium, tentatively titled “Far countries of the mind: The frontier fantasy of Robert E. Howard.” I hope it’s worthy of the occasion. A little longer than the 1500-1800 word cap Jason Ray Carney imposed, but not much. 

I’m planning to bring a few copies of Flame and Crimson and have heard from a couple folks who are attending with copies they want me to sign. I’ll gladly leave my mark. Maybe in blood.

A dream fulfilled... 40 years in the making.

Monday, March 27, 2023

Contemporary sword-and-sorcery: 2023 reading updates

A "striking" cover (<=see what I did there?)
This year I am trying to add more contemporary sword-and-sorcery into my reading. To date I’ve read four S&S titles, including:
  • Blood of the Serpent, S.M. Stirling
  • Sometime Lofty Towers, David C. Smith
  • New Edge #0
  • A Book of Blades
You can read my reviews of the first two books here and here.

Short stories collections are hard to review; inevitably there will be stories I like more, others less. That is true of New Edge #0 and A Book of Blades. But having finished the latter last night, I can say there were more hits than misses. Favorites included John C. Hocking’s “By the Sword,” Howard Andrew Jones’ “The Serpent’s Heart,” and John R. Fultz’s “The Blood of Old Shard.” The last story in particular is terrific, probably worthy of some type of end of year award consideration.

This is not to slight any of the others, I liked most of what I read in here. A whole bunch of fun, blood-pumping stories of adventure and the weird.

Coupled with some awesome art, both on the cover and then in an expected gallery at the back, I greatly enjoyed A Book of Blades.

Considering I’m in New Edge #0 with an essay, and am also slated to appear in issue no. 1, reviewing it seems a bit self-serving. But, I enjoyed the rest of the contents of issue #0. The standout story for me was David C. Smith’s “Old Moon Over Irukad.” T.K. Rex’s “The Beast of the Shadow Gum Trees” while not traditional sword-and-sorcery was well-done, and pushes the borders of what S&S is, which fits with the new magazine’s mission. I also very much enjoyed a pair of essays, one by Cora Buhlert on C.L. Moore, the other by Nicole Emmelhainz on Howard’s “Sword Woman.” Will be very interested to see what issues 1-2 will bring, as both met fundraising goals on editor Oliver Brackenbury’s recent kickstarter.

Next I’m hoping to wade into a couple recent titles from DMR Books.

Thursday, March 23, 2023

Why (Human Generated) Sword-and-Sorcery?

Fuck you asshole... I'm here to write your sword-and-sorcery
Wherein I rage against the machine. Check it out here, on the blog of DMR Books. Then let me know what you think.

I am probably making a bigger deal out of this than the technology currently warrants, but GPT is only going to get better, and no one has answered the question of what we're to do when the machines can do everything better than we can.

One thing we could do is keep art off-limits.

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Eternity in a loon tattoo

Earlier this month my older daughter Hannah turned 21; today my younger daughter Libby turned 18. I don't have kids anymore, I've got two adults I brought into the world.

They are now joined together by this unexpected tattoo on Hannah's shoulder. Drawn by Libby (if you look closely you can see her initials amid the feathers), then inked by an artist.

This one got me. Hannah is not someone to run out and get a tattoo, and both kept it from the wife and I until a reveal last night over Facetime.

The loon is a symbol of the magic that is our family's multi-generational cabin, which sits on the shores of Highland Lake in NH. When you hear the weird and mournful cry of a loon in the early morning hours, or as the sun sets, it's unforgettable. That sound is in Hannah's blood and is now on her shoulder, along with the bond to her sister.

My daughters are my greatest accomplishment and I have done nothing to deserve such wonderful souls. I have tried to raise them right, aim them in the right direction when life would steer them wrong. I think the kids are all right. 

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Cross Plains Chronicle: Less than six weeks to go

Hither Came Conan... and thither I go, to Cross Plains
The Cross Plains countdown continues … less than six weeks until events kick off at Robert E. Howard Days.

A couple new items of note:

I have been added as a speaker. I recently received an invitation from Jason Ray Carney to present a paper at The Glenn Lord Symposium, a panel session held the afternoon of Friday, April 28 at the Cross Plains Methodist Church. Jason is the moderator and Dierk Guenther is one other presenter, the third TBD. This is an academic session so I have to prepare and then read a paper of 1500-1800 words.

I just need to figure out the small matter of a topic. Feel free to fire any ideas my way.

Secondly, Rogue Blades Foundation managing editor Jason Waltz will be attending and debuting Hither Came Conan, a collection of essays about Howard’s most famous literary creation that seeks to settle the question, which Conan story is best in life? Including one from me, in which I stump for “Rogues in the House.”

For the record I don’t think RitH is the best Conan story, but Waltz had a hole he needed filling and I stepped up. I do the love the story however and upon re-read discovered an interesting subtext that became the focal point of my essay. So … is Rogues in the House the best? Read and decide…

That reminds me, I need to figure out how much cash to bring. There will be many opportunities to spend including a silent auction, books from the Robert E. Howard Foundation, plus the not so small matter of food and beer. I’m figuring a wad. And maybe an extra suitcase for my loot on the return trip.

All the non-fandom (friends, family, co-workers) I speak to about this trip are VERY intrigued, though their initial reaction is that I’m going to some cultural hot-spot like Austin or Houston or San Antonio, a bustling city with live music and art exhibits and high-end restaurants and breweries. 

Then I show them a map of Texas and point to Cross Plains.

“What’s that near?”

“Wait, Cross Plains has fewer people than my high school?”

“Have fun man! Send pictures.”

Friday, March 17, 2023

Iron Maiden, "Stranger in a Strange Land"

Iron Maiden is perhaps my favorite metal band of all time.

"Stranger in a Strange Land" is perhaps my favorite Iron Maiden song.

Which should make "Stranger" ... my favorite song of all time?

No, not ready to say that. That's not a clean equation. But it is an absolute gem, 10/10 on the metal richter scale.

I love everything about this song. Steve Harris' melodic bass intro. The atmospheric build up. Bruce's off-the-charts vocals. And then,  Adrian's guitar solo. IMO his best. It's divine, I'll leave it at that. See 3:18. And damn, the counterpoint bass. It takes you to another planet, as does the entire album. Because it is Somewhere in Time.

I'll admit my analysis of this tune lacks any objectivity. I burned through TWO Somewhere in Time tapes in high school, listening to them so many times in my boom box and my car stereo that they simply wore out, the reels squeaking so much I had to discard them.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

My values

The most rewarding professional activity I have engaged in this year was working with a leadership team to develop our company values.

We’re working to incorporate them in everything we do. At our weekly all-team kickoff we give values shout-outs to people who have exhibited them in their work.

This exercise prompted me to clarify my own values, and I thought I’d share them here. Just doing this is a hard proof point for no. 3 (“authenticity, inward and outward”).

  • Truth—“When a man lies he murders some part of the world.” Without this everything falls apart. Lying makes me feel like shit, being lied to is the worst. So strive for truth, always.
  • Integrity. Do the right thing, even when it's hard, and no one is watching.
  • Authenticity, inward and outward—I’m the only one of me, I’m worthy of love, so I’m choosing to be me. Not being a chameleon in various people’s company, but bringing my unique self to everything I do. When you stop worrying what others think you free up huge headspace and feel liberated/empowered. Be true within; project that truth out.
  • Seek connection—relationships create meaning. Family and friends, community, are what make a meaningful life. Giving back to others is inherently rewarding. Strive for connection—whether that is fun/bringing joy, or something deeper. I’m a natural introvert and enjoy time alone to recharge, but the best times in my life have been in the company of others.
  • One life—You’ve only got one life, so don’t waste it, be productive. If something needs doing, do it right, and soon. Staying busy makes me happy. That also means operating with intention in everything I do, even my free time. Read the book on that Saturday afternoon; take the vacation. Enjoy it.
  • Stay positive—There is too much negativity in the world. Twitter has forgotten that life is beautiful. Adopt a positive mindset. Rather than attacking others, assume the best in other people and treat them well. It’s a better operating system, and it also makes you a more likeable person.

If you haven’t done this for yourself, I recommend it. It’s not easy—they’re an operating system, they don’t change with the wind, so you’re not going to whip these out in five minutes. 

But if you don’t operate with clearly defined values, someone else will make you operate by theirs.

I don’t always hit the mark. But they give me something to aim at.

Friday, March 10, 2023

Cross Plains Chronicle: Letters of Robert E. Howard, vol. 2

The West is the best...

One of the ways I’ve been mentally gearing up for my trip to Cross Plains is by reading Robert E. Howard’s letters, including a recent purchase of the new vol. 2 from the Robert E. Howard Foundation. These cover the years 1930-32. I want to get into the dude’s mind before I make my way to his hometown.

I found these fun, interesting, inspiring, and revealing. If you want to learn who Howard was and how he thought, his letters are a must. A large portion of this collection are long missives to H.P. Lovecraft, with whom Howard began corresponding in 1930.

Howard’s collected letters are just that, all the letters that HE wrote. Absent are Lovecraft’s responses that we get in A Means to Freedom (Hippocampus Press), which still makes that two volume set a must. Mixed in among the letters to HPL are letters to Howard’s friends, publishers, fans, snatches of poetry and verse, etc., and so the collected letters are absolutely worth reading for any Howard fan.

Understatement: REH was an interesting dude, thoughtful, full of wild passions, heights of ecstasy and depths of despair. He held his own in a spar of ideas with Lovecraft, a first-rate intellect, and in so doing reveals a whole lot about himself. This is first-rate correspondence.

He was also, undoubtedly, going to write at length about the history of Texas, had he lived longer. Look at this passage for example, of the hard men and women who settled the frontier, and recently passed into history:

Well they have gone into the night, a vast and silent caravan, with their buckskins and their boots, their spurs and their long rifles, their wagons and their mustangs, their wars and their loves, their brutalities and their chivalries, they have gone to join their old rivals, the wolf, the panther and the Indian, and only a crumbling ‘dobe wall, a fading trail, the breath of an old song, remain to mark the roads they travelled. But sometimes when the night wind whispers forgotten tales through the mesquite and the chaparral, it is easy to imagine that once again the tall grass bends to the tread of a ghostly caravan, that the breeze bears the jingle of stirrup and bridle-chain, and that spectral camp-fires are winking far out on the plains.

We would have had some amazing western literature from Howard’s typewriter, blending poetic flourishes with a higher degree of realism than you find in his fantastic stories. Possibly tales about Billy the Kid or John Wesley Hardin, whose tales he regales Lovecraft at length. He spends more time writing about Texas history than any other subject in these letters.

Some believe that Howard fetishized barbarians; he did not. He (merely) believed barbarism was the inevitable state of mankind. That fact was not to be celebrated as it reveals something dark and imperfectible and eternal in human nature. It means that civilization will ultimately decay and collapse, but also inevitably rise again—Howard wrote that “civilization is a natural and inevitable consequence” of our development. As others have noted he had a cyclical view of history, a natural rise and fall. Howard also held the physical realm in equipoise with the mental; he loved football and boxing and stories of strength and endurance. We get lots of brutal descriptions of athletic competition in the letters.

All of this led him to an inevitable clash with Lovecraft. HPL had no use for the physical and no use for barbarians. His loyalties lay with Roman order, Howard’s with the oppressed native tribes, barbarians, and the outsider. “Sometimes I think Bran is merely the symbol of my own antagonism toward the empire, an antagonism not nearly so easy to understand as my favoritism for the Picts,” he wrote. 

Above all, Howard believed in freedom of the individual, and distrusted government in all its forms, as well as the overreach of big business, and the pressure to conform to societal expectations. “In the last analysis, I reckon, I have but a single conviction or ideal, or whateverthehell it might be called: individual liberty. It’s the only thing that matters a damn.”

I don’t like to set up an artificial "winner" of these debates but Howard proves to have a very balanced, reflective mind, open to change, and so fares well. Yes, he waxes romantic and poetic and extols the virtues of barbarians, and also broods darkly to the point of despair, all of which colors and distorted the reality that lay around him. But, he also displays a surprising level of introspection and nuance. For example, he counters Lovecraft quite effectively by arguing that the physical and the mental must work in harmony. Modern science confirms this (our brains are gray matter, and require adequate sleep, nutrition, and regular exercise to operate at a full capacity. HPL fell short in that regard, and likely did himself in by neglecting the physical—he had a notoriously bad diet). 

Lovecraft is consistently revealed as the more extreme of the two men, politically and socially, and Howard often the more prescient. But beneath their disagreements both had a genuine underlying respect for one another. Howard at times seems awed by the correspondence, and deferential to the elder Lovecraft. And he’s spot-on with this observation: “And indeed, many writers of the bizarre are showing your influence in their work, not only in Weird Tales but in other magazines as well; earlier evidences of an influence which will grow greater as time goes on, for it is inevitable that your work and art will influence the whole stream of American weird literature, and eventually the weird literature of the world.”

Howard was mostly of Irish ancestry and adored Celtic mythology, but he maintained a particular affinity for the Norse. His first foray into fiction was about a young Viking, he read and enjoyed the Sagas, and he wrote passages like the following:

All that is deep and gloomy and Norse in me rises in my blood. I would go east into the sunshine and the nodding palm trees, but I bide and the dream of the twilight of the gods is on me, and the dreams of cold and misty lands and the ancient pessimism of the Vikings. It seems to me, especially in the autumn, that that one vagrant Danish strain that is mine  predominates above all my Celtic blood.

Norse Saga and myth underpins and unites much of sword-and-sorcery, as I piece together in Flame and Crimson.

We get interesting insights into Weird Tales and editor Farnsworth Wright’s editorial decisions and publishing choices. Impressionable bits of Howard's youth that help explain why we see so many snakes in his stories (Howard nearly stepped on a rattler as a boy and declared he had a sixth sense for their presence, feeling a wave of a nausea when one was nearby). “I hate snakes, they are possessed of a cold, utterly merciless cynicism and sophistication, and a sense of super-ego that puts them outside the pale of warm-blooded creatures.” See "The God in the Bowl," Satha, etc. for how this played out in his fiction. He was constantly peppering his letters with poetry, either snatches of verse or full completed verse and meter, some of outstanding quality. We get his desire to have his poems published in a volume for which he had already chosen a title, Echoes from an Iron Harp. We see him writing about the rise of Conan into his mind, and the conception of the Hyborian Age. We see his Agnostic beliefs on display, blended with a half-belief in reincarnation and ancestral memory. His loyalty to blue-collar workers, on and on. Of course the letters put Howard’s racism on display so be prepared for that, too.

They are him, bold, full-blooded and four-color, on the page.

Sunday, March 5, 2023

Cross Plains Chronicle: Less than eight weeks to Howard Days

The Robert E. Howard Days website is counting down the days, as am I. Less than eight weeks until I make the trek to central Texas and the Howard homestead for Howard Days 2023! Anticipation is building.

REH is not exactly selling me on the trip though. From his Collected Letters vol. 2: “I live in a section of the country not particularly stimulating to the imagination, unless the inhabitants continual struggle against starvation can be said to be a stimulant.”


I picked a good year to attend. 100 Years of Weird Tales is a theme which packs plenty of appeal for me. As you’d expect the panel sessions focus on the magazine that published its last pulp issue in 1954 but never really died. It soldiered on in fits and starts as a paperback and a magazine, all the way up through the present. Weird Tales played a critical role in the creation of sword-and-sorcery due to its permissive editorial policy which allowed for genre mixing and experimentation. And, as some scholars have noted, through its role as a "discourse community," which included a supportive but sometimes acerbic letters column called The Eyrie. Think message board and listserve pre-internet, and you're on the right track.

Let’s take a dive into the programming.

I fly into DFW just after 12:30 p.m. CST on Thursday April 27. We’re planning on heading into Cross Plains that afternoon and there are a couple events on schedule. Not sure if we’ll be hitting these or not, or just hang out informally at the pavilion. 

From the events page:

  • 2-4 PM: The Robert E. Howard Museum is open to the public. There are no docents on duty. The Gift Shop is open and the grounds and Pavilion are available to all.
  • 5-7 pm: Fish (and Chicken!) Fry at the Cross Plains Senior Center. Pending.

Friday April 28 is a full day. I definitely want to hit the bus tour of Cross Plains and surrounding areas (9-10:45 a.m.) and see the Cross Plains public library.

The first panel, 100 Years of Weird Tales, runs from 11-noon. Guest of honor John Betancourt, publisher at Wildside Press, is one of the panelists, as is Bobby Derie, whose “Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein” email newsletter I’ve been subscribed to for some time. Looks promising.

Here’s the rest of the official programming on the 28th:. 

  • 1:30 - 2:30 pm: PANEL: The 3 Musketeers of Weird Tales: Panelists: Mark Finn, Bobby Derie, Jeff Shanks + others.
  • 2:30 - 3:30 pm PANEL: The Glenn Lord Symposium. Jason Ray Carney, Moderator. Presenters: Dierk Guenther + two others. At Cross Plains Methodist Church
  • 9 pm PANEL: Fists at the Ice House. Our perennial favorite presentation about Howard's most prolific writings, his boxing stories. Presented behind the Ice House on Main Street (next to Subway) on the concrete slab where Howard actually boxed! 

Beyond the content I’m looking forward to meeting the panelists. I’m a fan of Mark Finn’s biography of REH, Blood and Thunder, Jeff Shanks’ many essays, and Patrice Louinet’s work in the definitive Del Rey editions of Howard. I’ve corresponded with Jason Ray Carney and “met” him once via virtual seminar. Seeing and meeting all of these dudes in person will be something speical.

Saturday April 29th is also a full day:

  • 11 am - Noon: PANEL: REH and Weird Tales. Panelists: Patrice Louinet, John Betancourt, Bobby Derie, Dennis McHaney.
  • 1:30 - 2:30 pm: PANEL: The Art of Weird Tales. Panelists: Dennis McHaney, J. David Spurlock, Michael Tierney + others.
  • 2:30 - 3:30 pm: PANEL: What's Up with REH? This is our wrap-up panel, devoted to the latest news of Howard publishing, entertainment and how his influence continues. Panelists: Paul Herman, Heroic Signatures + others. 

Of course, the tour of the museum grounds by Rusty Burke (4 p.m.), BBQ, and porchlight poetry readings to wrap up the 29th are a must. 

That’s a full three days and then I head back to DFW early Sunday morning.

Friday, March 3, 2023

Meliah Rage, "Beginning of the End"

Any other Headbangers Ball fans out there?

I remember staying up late one Saturday night to watch this MTV lifeline for metalheads. I was fading, half-in, half-out of a sleep state. Exhausted from either football practice or bagging groceries.

Ricky Rachtman (or was it Adam Curry?) teed up Meliah Rage and I came to, quick. Instant smelling salts.

"Beginning of the End" has a great hook of a riff, a nice guitar solo around the 1:35 mark. Simple, powerful lyrics. Basic structure, no frills, all power. No subtlety; it needs none.

Old school thrash, gotta love it.

Thursday, March 2, 2023

Viking and dark age art, Tom Barber

Some cool images by the great Tom Barber, posted here with his permission.

All painted and sold in the dim past, I am told.

Says Tom, It was Cornwell who introduced me to the shield wall. I painted the warriors long before I encountered him, and the painting became part of the Frank Collection.