Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Howard Days are upon me

Two days from now I shall be standing upon the soil of Cross Plains attending my first Robert E. Howard Days.

This shit is real.

Some news since my prior updates…

The sword-and-sorcery panel of panels IS happening. I’ve got confirmation from moderator and organizer Deuce Richardson that “Sword-and-Sorcery Revival,” an epic, two-hour S&S-fest, will occur on Saturday, April 29 from 10 a.m.-noon. It's an unofficial panel—you won’t find it on the REH Days agenda. Which is very sword-and-sorcery come to think of it. 

Rounding out the panel are authors Ken Lizzi and Jason Waltz (the latter of Rogue Blades Foundation). Possibly a fifth dude. Expect wide-ranging discussion, from S&S’ beginnings in Weird Tales (this is the centennial of that legendary publication, after all) straight on through to the present day and the new flurry of activity we’re seeing. Throughout we’ll be raffling off some books to a few lucky attendees. A horned helmet may or may not be worn, a skull or two split.

Coupled with the paper I’m presenting at the Glenn Lord Symposium I’m going to be doing my share of gabbing. But mostly taking in a place in the dreaming west I’ve only ever dreamed of attending.

Deuce has also mentioned a brewpub in Cisco which has piqued my interest. I’m prone to quaff my share of ale.

In other news, Flame and Crimson publisher Pulp Hero Press has rebranded as Cimmerian Press. I am told they are finalizing a website that will launch as early as June. Cimmerian Press will focus on Robert E. Howard and other sword-and-sorcery non-fiction, and is seeking new authors to help build out its catalog. Let me know if you’re interested.

Expect a stream of pics and a post-action report here on the blog and elsewhere. 

Howard Days here I come.

Saturday, April 22, 2023

Judas Priest, "Traitors Gate"

Close your eyes, listen to the dude signing this song. Try to reconcile what you're hearing with a man (then) in his late 60s. 

Impressive. Aging warriors still fighting the world with metal.

Firepower (2018) is Judas Priest's 18th studio album. If it were their last, it would be a hell of a swan song. I love this album, almost every song on it, and "Traitors Gate" is one of my favorites. It might be the best song on the album. The lyrics speak of an impending execution for a man convicted of treason, but believing he's in the right. Uncompromising, and very metal.

The river shows no mercy
The tower looms into my view
I sense my execution's closing
With darkness all around me
The axe is ground to end my days
The raven's cry proclaims repentance

Few bands carry on for more than 50 years; fewer still continue to produce good original work in the twilight of such a long career. Judas Priest is a notable exception, but then again they've always been exceptional.

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Howard Days looming larger...

That red dot? I'll be there.
Just over one week until Robert E. Howard Days. Next Thursday, April 27 I’ll be flying out of Logan International and touching down in Dallas Fort Worth.

I can almost taste the Shiner Bock.

The CEO of my company lives in Austin and when I told him where I was headed he answered, “Cross Plains? Never heard of it.” 

He will after I come back. I'm sure I'll have some stories to tell.

At this point I’m buttoning up the final details.

I’ve gotta get some cash out of the bank and put together a list of the books I want to buy from the Robert E. Howard Foundation. I’ll be coming back 15-20 pounds heavier, from the books and the beer. 

I’m also putting together a list of books I plan to bring. These include a few author copies of Flame and Crimson and a couple contributor copies of Hither Came Conan, either as giveaways or to donate to the Silent Auction. Perhaps a few old S&S paperbacks of which I have duplicates. And any titles I want to get autographed from attending Howard-heads who have contributed to them--perhaps my copies of the Del Rey Conans and the like.

I suppose I oughtta pack some clothes as well.

Jason Waltz from Rogue Blades Foundation sent all of us contributors an electronic copy of Hither Came Conan. I plan to go through it over the next couple days to prime the pump and be prepared to talk about it in case I get any questions. I read the initial essays when they appeared on Black Gate a few years ago, but there is a lot more original material in the book.

I sent my paper for the Glenn Lord Symposium over to organizer Jason Ray Carney. This is a three-person session (we’ll each read a paper, one after the next) scheduled for Friday, April 28th, from 2:30 to 3:30 pm. The details:

Brian Murphy will present "Far Countries of the Mind: The Frontier Fantasy of Robert E. Howard.”

Will Oliver will present "Robert E. Howard and the Oil Boom Towns: Crime, Disorder, and Reality."

Dierk Guenther, topic TBD

Oliver (professor, Sam Houston State University) and Guenther (Tokushima University) are both academics and I am not, but hey, I have a blog and once attended college. I’m excited to do this, I hope what I prepared is worthy of the occasion.

I learned that Jeff Shanks, former co-contributor at The Cimmerian website and an essayist whose work I admire, will be at Howard Days. Awesome! I had hoped that Paul Sammon, author of The Conan Phenomenon and Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner, might be attending as well, but it seems I missed him by a year. That’s a bummer, I’m a big fan of Paul’s work.

Deuce Richardson is planning an informal sword-and-sorcery panel of which I’m going to be a panelist, but no other details on that as of yet. More to come there.

Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Are we in a new sword-and-sorcery renaissance? Not yet. At least commercially.

Some corners of the internet are speculating whether we’re in a third sword-and-sorcery wave. This assumes a first, unnamed wave in which S&S was invented (roughly 1929-36—thanks REH), and a second in which it rose to commercial prominence (roughly 1965-75).

Following a collapse in the early 1980s S&S lay moribund for decades, with a few authors soldiering on and a couple outlets toiling in corners of the internet. This was the general state of the genre until the last few years. 

Today there is a new interest in this old, weird, gritty, sword-slinging alternative to epic fantasy. A non-exhaustive, top of mind list of publications and publishers includes:

  • Tales from the Magician’s Skull
  • New Edge
  • Whetstone
  • Savage Realms
  • DMR Books
  • Swords and Sorceries
  • Heroic Fantasy Quarterly
  • Rogues in the House
  • The Cromcast
  • Old Moon Quarterly
  • Baen
  • Swords and Sorcery Magazine

Recently we’ve had a few successfully funded kickstarters: New Edge magazine, which landed Michael Moorcock for issue no. 1, and now Swords in the Shadows, which features authors like Joe Lansdale, Stephen Graham Jones, and Brian Keene.

Conan is the closest thing we have to a sure thing in S&S and new Conan material is out. Titan Books published a new Conan novel, Blood of the Serpent, with more titles to come. Rogue Blades Foundation has just published Hither Came Conan.

In short, there is quite a bit of contemporary S&S to sink your teeth into, sample, and enjoy. At all levels, from amateur and free, to traditionally published mass-market paperbacks and hardcovers.

But what is actually going on, commercially?

Despite all this output, much of which I have backed and all of which I am grateful for, we are nowhere near a commercial renaissance. While great enthusiasm exists in many quarters, and some good authors and artists serve this space, the simple fact remains: there isn’t enough readers. 

Publishing is a winner-take-all enterprise, existing on what marketing guru Seth Godin and others have described as the long tail theory. One on side, a few huge winners, making millions due to their mass appeal. Think Stephen King, GRRM, J.K. Rowling, Brandon Sanderson. As the tail stretches rightward, we find more writers able to make a living writing, some comfortably, but not as many as you’d think. And then a LONG tail of authors selling hundreds or perhaps tens of copies of books, laboring in obscurity. The same theory applies to publishers. 

This is not necessarily a bad thing, as the long tail is also to serve the needs of niche consumers with obscure interests in a manner that The Big Five (now four) cannot.

The problem is that S&S is way out on the end of that tail, a highly specialized subgenre that appeals to a small subset of readers. How small?

I feel like there could be as few as 1000 hard core S&S fans keeping this enterprise afloat. Some evidence to support that claim:

  • Swords in the Shadows: About 600 backers (as of April 11), pledged $16,400 to launch the project.
  • Tales from the Magician’s Skull: 640 backers pledged $68,975 to help bring this project to life.
  • New Edge: 479 backers pledged CA$ 22,846 to help bring this project to life.
  • Whetstone: 755 followers on Facebook
  • Contemporary S&S: 743 followers on Facebook
  • The Cromcast: 1,000 followers on Facebook
  • Rogues in the House: 1.3K followers on Facebook

Pulp Sword and Sorcery is an outlier with 5,200 members on Facebook. But are they just nostalgia-seekers? Nothing wrong with nostalgia, I dwell in it daily. But the numbers don’t support more than 5,000 buying new product.

DMR Books has 2,800 followers and is a publisher that offers its readers old and new material. Perhaps this is our most accurate number.

Admittedly I’m an old fart with so many blind spots I should have my license revoked. I’m not on Instagram and I don’t have much of a handle on Twitter. There are comics to consider, and S&S inspired video games. Both of these have fanbases that might be tapped for the prose fiction S&S I’m speaking about here.

But I’m skeptical, and based on my limited data set these are not big numbers.

A lot closer to home, as of Feb. 1 of this year, Flame and Crimson sold 842 copies. Frankly, better than I had hoped when Pulp Hero Press published the book in Jan. 2020. But, if you add up what I made, and divide by hours worked, its pennies on the hour. 

It is still much too early to say anything definitive. Baen has just published a new book by Larry Correia, Son of the Black Sword, which could be a hit. I have read and enjoyed Correia’s Monster Hunter International. Later this year we’ll see two Hanuvar books by Howard Andrew Jones, whose stuff I enjoy, also from Baen. 

We need just one series to catch a little fire, garner some good press, and attract new blood to this thing we enjoy. That might be enough to build some momentum and lift additional boats.

S&S is undoubtedly going through a spiritual renaissance. People are talking about it again, enjoying the old stuff, and celebrating the new. Exploring what it’s all about, the aesthetic itch it scratches. I will be participating in an informal S&S panel at Howard Days and will do my small part to keep spreading the word. I've read a few really good stories by the likes of Schuyler Hernstrom, John Fultz, and others. This is all a good thing, regardless of whether we see commercial sales the likes the Lancer Conan Saga enjoyed.

But if S&S is ever going to approach what we saw circa 1962-82, we need the type of commercial successes that allow talented writers and artists to do their best work. We’re not there yet and the jury remains out if we will. 

Friday, April 7, 2023

Caught in the Middle, Ronnie James Dio

Metal Friday this week, we're going with an upbeat rocker from the late, great Ronnie James Dio. 

"Caught in the Middle" is not the first song most think of on Holy Diver, and of course it's not the iconic title track, but it's a fun, energetic, guitar forward tune I greatly enjoy. A great pairing with a cold beer and the start of the weekend.

Oh yeah, and that band you like, with that lead singer you dig? Dio is a better singer than that guy. Will put Dio up against anyone, anywhere, anytime.

Sunday, April 2, 2023

The Goshawk, T.H. White

Enraptured by a raptor...
The author of a blog I follow mentioned in an off-hand way the life-affirming power in this obscure title by T.H. White. Prior to that I had never heard of The Goshawk (1951). But I love The Once and Future King, so with nothing more to go on than this sleight recommendation I purchased and read it over the last few days.

And found it to be a wonderful little book.

In the summer of 1936 White holed himself up in an old workman’s cottage in the woods, miles from civilization, with only a pet dog, a wireless radio, and some booze for company. And set to work training a goshawk (a male hawk) based on the methods of three archaic books on the subject, including one volume originally printed in 1619. These books explained that a hawk could not be forced to submit to training and the will of the falconer, you had to win its love through patience and persistence and closeness. Part of this process of acclimation included staying up for three straight days/nights (!) with the bird, so that it would perch on its master out of sheer exhaustion. Man and bird becoming one. Something akin to love.

White actually did this, and it’s all described wonderfully in The Goshawk, as only White can. His descriptions of the bird and its unpredictable moods and odd quirks are lovely. It's a snapshot into a world that feels almost alien, so far removed from 21st century life.

I knew essentially nothing of falconry and left with an understanding of how it might have been practiced by medieval falconers. Which is about as practical as learning how to master hoop rolling or leaded window installation.

What’s the point, and why read something like this? Fair question.

To which I would answer: Because there are difficult crafts worth pursuing for their own sake. That we might pour two months or more of training to tame a wild raptor to see if it can be done, and to have had that experience and sense of accomplishment. And might learn something about nature, human and animal, if we carefully observe the process.

The Goshawk is mainly focused on the training of the bird but does have a few wonderful asides and commentary. Little observations like this, of the end of the old ways of falconry:

It happened like this in the world. Old things lost their grip and dropped away; not always because they were bad things, but sometimes because the new things were more bad, and stronger.

Or this, on writing and more broadly on any craft practiced well, which touched something in me. It’s something I love about writing, that if done well can achieve a sort of small and unassuming immortality:

To write something which was of enduring beauty, this was the ambition of every writer: as it was the ambition of the joiner and architect and the constructor of any kind. It was not the beauty but the endurance, for endurance was beautiful. It was also all that we could do. It was a consolation, even a high and positive joy, to make something true: some table, which, sat on, would not splinter or shatter. It was not for the constructor that the beauty was made, but for the thing itself. He would triumph to know that some contribution had been made: some sort of consoling contribution quite timeless and without relation to his own profit. Sometimes we knew, half tipsy or listening to music, that at the heart of some world there lay a chord to which vibrating gave reality. With its reality there was music and truth and the permanence of good workmanship. To give birth to this, with whatever male travail, was not only all that man could do: it was also all that eclipsed humanity of either sex could do: it was the human contribution to the universe. Absolutely bludgeoned by jazz and mechanical achievement, the artist yearned to discover permanence, some life of happy permanence which he by fixing could create to the satisfaction of after-people who also looked. This was it, as the poets realized, to be a mother of immortal song: To say Yes when it was, and No when it was: to make enduringly true that perhaps quite small occasional table off which subsequent generations could eat, without breaking it down: to help the timeless benevolence which should be that of this lonely and little race: to join the affection which had lasted between William the Conqueror and George VI. Wheelwrights, smiths, farmers, carpenters, and mothers of large families knew this.

Observations like these are what make White worth reading.

Is this book The Once and Future King? No, it’s not. The Goshawk is far less awesome in breath and scope, and not as artful. But I can’t really describe it as lesser. Just less ambitious. It’s a little slice of White’s life, utterly charming, a bit of sanity disconnected from the modern world, in between two savage world wars.

Saturday, April 1, 2023

Heroes behaving badly: The wondrous and bastardly creations of Jack Vance

S&S protagonists: Occasionally lovable scumbags.
Cugel the Clever probably isn’t a guy you want to invite to dinner.

You’d be guaranteed belly laughs and an unforgettable night’s entertainment … until later, when the check comes due. And you discover he made off with the priceless silverware set you inherited from your grandmother, and tried to make time with your wife.


Cugel is a loveable rogue, nicknamed “the Clever” for good reason; he consistently escapes harrowing scrapes and near-death through pluck and quick-thinking, which makes him and his adventures entertaining for the reader, even when he’s behaving badly. Which is quite often.

Read the rest on Tales from the Magician's Skull. My latest essay for Goodman Games. Had fun writing this one and revisiting a couple of Vance stories while doing so.