Friday, May 26, 2023

A week of endings

Libby with her coach, Todd Ruland.

This is a week of endings.

My daughter Libby ran her last race yesterday. She finished her high school track career at the Div. 5 state championship at Norwell High, placing 19th in the 2-mile.

It was her best time of the year by seven seconds. But she had to grind to get it.

You won’t see her name in the box score—top eight place at the state and get points—but I’ll take a top 20 finish. Because I know how far she has come to make it to the finish line.

When Libby was younger she was not in terrific athletic shape. She hated running, even though she loved soccer. She’d be the first to admit that. But during the COVID lockdowns something clicked. She was bored and started running on our treadmill in the basement. And transformed herself, and decided to go out for the cross country team.

Wild. This stuff happens with kids sometimes. You can’t predict it.

She became a three-sport captain and earned nine varsity letters, and a Cape Ann League all-star.

She did it with an amazing group of teammates, but she also did it by finding strength within.

Track and in particular long-distance running is a lonely sport.

In softball you cross home plate and your teammates are there to embrace you. Likewise in football when you get the touchdown, others are blocking for you. In track, you’re running alone.

Yesterday only a few of her teammates qualified for the states and there was no one waiting at the end of her last finish line. Except her dad, and her coach. She cried, I hugged her and told her damned proud I was of her.

I know great things will await Libby, because she has a terrific will, an incredible work ethic, and is kind and cares about people. I’ll take those over raw ability any day.

This was a week of endings.

Soon there will be a week of beginnings. She goes off to college in the fall. My wife and I will be empty-nesters, and life will change.

But first there is the high school prom tonight, and senior celebrations. I hope she enjoys every minute of the fun, because she earned it.

Happy graduation kid. Here’s to endings and beginnings.

You Must Change Your Life

Do yourself a favor and listen to this episode of Weird Studies with hosts Phil Ford and J.F. Martel.

I don’t know what it was about precisely, except that it instilled a feeling in me that magic and the weird, and awe, might still exist in the world. If we are patient and quiet and persist long enough.

The episode is ostensibly about a deep reading of a poem I had never heard of before, “Archaic Torso of Apollo” by Rainer Maria Rilke. But you don’t have to have read it: They do it for you on the episode, and then talk about it. 

The poem is both a convincing case that inanimate art has a spirit of its own, and the call to the heroic is in all of us. The poem concludes with the line, “For Here There is No Place That Does Not See You: You Must Change Your Life.” A command from a stone from antiquity, the muscled torso of Apollo, that arouses you from your torpor and elicits action. Very sword-and-sorcery you might say. 

There are digressions on barbarism and He-Man and Skeletor, and references to RUSH and D&D. In and amongst philosophy and whether it is possible to derive an ought from an is. 

It touched many chords in me. 

The hosts are well-spoken and erudite but also fun and spontaneous. Just an amazing listen, even if I didn’t grasp everything they said after once through it.

Friday, May 19, 2023

If Heaven is Hell, Tokyo Blade

I was too young to appreciate the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (aka., NWOBHM, love that fucking acronym) back when it washed up on American shores, circa 1975-83 or thereabouts. 

The good part about this unfortunate time mismatch is that now I can explore its various bands. Though most have long since disbanded or faded into obscurity, they are new to me, and therefore as fresh and vital as they may have been whilst playing some dingy U.K. pub circa 1978. And yes I just said "whilst." I'm putting on my English cloak for this one.

The best band to come out of the NWOBHM movement, Iron Maiden, has passed into Godhood, but most of its acts sank into obscurity. This Metal Friday features a good one from one of the semi-lost, Tokyo Blade. Obscure but apparently they had a long career, go figure.

I won't claim "If Heaven is Hell" (1983) is the best song ever, but it's pretty darned good, possessed of that rough, unpolished, energetic, guitar-forward sound that I love from this era and region of the world. The U.K. birthed heavy metal from the foundries of Birmingham and they still do it the best, IMO.

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Glen Lord Symposium panel video up on YouTube

As noted in my recent writeup of 2023 Robert E. Howard Days, I was asked to present a paper at the Glen Lord Symposium. This is an academic panel and regular part of the event programming led by Jason Ray Carney, editor of Whetstone and a senior lecturer at Christoper Newport University.

The panel is now available on YouTube. You can view it here

The title of my paper is “Far Countries of the Mind: The Frontier Fantasy of Robert E. Howard." I had fun writing it and reading it aloud, if a little intimidating. 

Love Jason's comment that I deserve an honorary PhD in sword-and-sorcery :). I'll take it.


Saturday, May 13, 2023

Edge of Thorns, Savatage

Metal Friday is a day late this week but I'm just getting back from a business trip to Chicago that has me all sorts of out of sorts. 12 straight days of work that is now over.

Admittedly I am not the biggest Savatage fan but "Edge of Thorns" checks every damned box I love about heavy metal. Great vocals. Tough, poetic lyrics. An incredibly powerful build up to a breakdown at 2:55, followed by an absolutely divine guitar solo by the late Criss Oliva.

Odd video, but hey, early 90s and all that.

Balanced your dreams upon the edge of thorns
But I don't think about you anymore

"All truth is relative" is not true

“All truth is relative.”

This comment was posted on a message board I frequent, in a conversation in which I was a part, and the person who wrote it apparently expected it to go unchallenged—as if lobbing a hand grenade into a room might go unchallenged. 

I disagree with this statement and here explain why in detail, which I could not do there.

Truth is relative in many circumstances. Two longtime spouses quarreling over who should clean the garage is a hard situation to untangle, and the truthful answer to the question: Who should clean it? very relative. Perhaps the man agreed at one point to handle all outdoor work, the wife indoor, and the garage is some liminal space that could be either. Perhaps the wife is (understandably) angry with the man because she has done all the cleaning and he has not held up his end of the social contract.

The world is full of countless, similar examples where both sides seem right, or at least share a version of the truth that point to a conclusion that all truth is relative. These range from small and domestic to the largest scale, i.e., wars between great powers.

However, there comes a point where truth is no longer relative. And when disagreement on what is true is dangerous, even hideous, and cannot go unchallenged. Particularly when applied to morality, which I believe at certain levels passes into an objective truth. At least, objective enough that we must all embrace it.

For example, take the following statement: Dashing an infant’s head against a wall is bad.

Is this only relatively true, based on the circumstances? Is bashing an infant to death permissible, even good, in some circumstances?

Or, It’s acceptable not to rescue a someone drowning in a pool. Is it OK to watch someone drown if the suit you're wearing is of sufficient high quality? When you’re perfectly capable, because you don’t want to get your nice clothes wet?

Of course, we can get absurd here on some theoretical, abstract plane that will never occur in real life (“what if you knew the baby would grow up to be Hitler?”) (“what if you thought your suit would weigh you down and you might drown?”) etc.? You might as well just say, “well I think we’re all living in a simulation and so nothing is real, and nothing matters!”

The fact is, we cannot know these things, and everyone with a healthy mind should recoil from these assertions. And that truth is truth.

On a philosophical/logical level, the statement “all truth is relative” is untenable, because it would mean truth can never be known—which is a statement of absolute truth. It's not a coherent statement, but a self-contradiction.

If you argue that "all truth is relative" because truth can only be understood through the subjective lens of an individual, that has a kernel of truth... but if everyone else sees the facts differently you are very likely, objectively wrong, and have misapprehended the truth. Which exists independent of you.

But the more important Truth of the matter is, having a coherent and broad set of rules about ethics and social mores that values human life is entirely necessary for a functioning culture. For example, if we can’t say, “hard work and discipline is a virtue,” but equally value sloth, then things will fall apart, very quickly. And life will become a hellscape. And I think even the postmodernists would agree that an ordered life is better than anarchy and apocalyptic disintegration.

“Truth is relative” allows you to absolve yourself of adult responsibilities. It might make you popular at parties of high culture. But it doesn’t do well when it meets reality. 

We need responsible people to avoid the descent into barbarism. Which, despite my love of sword-and-sorcery, is not an outcome I find acceptable.

Objective mortality exists, regardless of culture or upbringing, faith, creed, or race. 

If you lack the capacity to understand this, a few things are at play that are worth looking into. 

  • You may be mentally deficient, in which case you are worthy of sympathy and social support.
  • You are weary of life and in a bad place, as I have been at points in my life. You have my sympathy; keep fighting and one day you will emerge from this malaise.
  • You might be a postmodernist thinker, and simply enjoy arguing in the abstract. In which case, I will simply disagree and take my ball somewhere else.

However, if you refuse to recognize and differentiate good behavior from bad, and actively seek to tear down the social fabrics that allow us to enjoy some measure of order and security, I’m quite comfortable calling you a psychopath. If you desire to burn down the courts and our system of law and order, please read Grendel and start over at Go. Do not collect $200. You have embraced the Dragon, have arrived at the point where naked Power is the only arbiter of truth, hoarded gold the only value, and revealed yourself as the monster. 

The good news is, there is always a path back to the truth for those willing to seek it. This too, is true.

Friday, May 5, 2023

RIP to Canada's finest singer-songwriter, Gordon Lightfoot

Gordon Lightfoot is probably—nay, definitely—not metal. Not even metal-adjacent. 

Yet he is the subject of this Metal Friday. For obvious reasons.

I mourn the passing of this great man. He had a hell of a career and a hell of a life. 84 years is a pretty good run. 

But it was still tough news to hear that he passed on Monday.

I listen to Gordon Lightfoot on vinyl every summer up our family’s lakehouse. His music takes me straight to our pontoon boat, circling the lake in the early evening with a cocktail. Not quite so hazardous as Lake Superior when the gales of November come early.

Lately I had found myself listening to Gordon more often. Perhaps because I’m getting a little more mellow as I age. Metal is still my go-to but his stuff is timeless, beautiful.

Last year I got to see Gordon with my old man and brother and am so glad I did. Tomorrow isn't guaranteed.

I’m not going to waste any words explaining why Gordon Lightfoot is great, and worth listening to. He’s been extolled by Bob Dylan, Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson, Billy Joel, countless other iconic musicians. He's probably the greatest Canadian musician ever, this coming from a raging RUSH fan. Hell, if Geddy Lee says it, good enough for me.

If you want more of that here’s a tribute from one of my favorite YouTubers, Rick Beato, who gives him a proper sendoff.

I’ll just say: He’s way better than you think. Every song on Gord’s Gold is gold. He has more good songs on one album side than most artists will record in a lifetime.

Instead I’ll just offer a song.

I was thinking of going with “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” or “If You Could Read My Mind” or “Sundown” as evidence (all awesome, and deservedly remembered) but here’s “Early Morning Rain.” 


Thursday, May 4, 2023

Going Rogue(s) with another 2023 Howard Days recap

This week I was invited to join the wonderful sword-and-sorcery podcast Rogues in the House to continue the discussion about Robert E. Howard Days 2023. You can listen to the episode here.

Joining me were Jason Waltz (publisher, Rogue Blades Entertainment) and Jason Ray Carney (publisher, Whetstone) a pair of fellow attendees whom I met for the first time last week in Cross Plains.

The show as always was a blast. Give it a listen, if for no other reason than to hear host Matt John deliver "Cimmeria" in his dead-on Arnold imitation. This had me in stitches. Dude should take this act on the road.

In addition to Howard Days recaps we also talked about the ongoing sword-and-sorcery revival. Jason Waltz and I served on the S&S panel organized by Deuce Richardson at 2023 Howard Days, while Jason Ray Carney was one of our avid front-row listeners. We get into some of the same territory here on the podcast, covering recent S&S history as well as current venues, authors, and trends. Good stuff.

Tuesday, May 2, 2023

My Howard Days 2023 haul

Somewhere under here is a bar...

Many amusing escapades and scrapes unfolded during Howard Days 2023, not the least of which was my complete and utter lack of restraint around anything vaguely book shaped. I was like a Grateful Dead fan in a pot shop or a PETA member in a rescue shelter, unhinged and helpless, grasping and wanting everything at once.

Someone should have taken my wallet from me.

I came home with 20 “books.” In my defense 9 of these were free, 11 were purchases. But the count is actually higher.

Two of those “books” were bundles of Fantastic magazine won in the silent auction, basically the entire run of issues published in 1961 and 1962. So that is technically an additional 23 digest sized "books" (May 1963 is missing). I also purchased a calendar. So technically I came home with 41 separate items, loosely classified as books. 

And a Robert E. Howard Museum t-shirt. With Conan on it, of course. Not pictured.

I think I need help.

Worse, I packed lightly with just a carry-on suitcase and a separate carry-on leather bag. The latter is something resembling a leather briefcase, with some extra pouches on the side. I was warned to bring an oversized suitcase for the spoils and promptly ignored those warnings. 

Come Sunday I found myself in deep shit. After carefully packing up all my books first (of course! they're the most important items) I was nearly full and hadn’t touched my clothes yet. That left me shoving items for which no room remained into every conceivable pocket. I wound up stuffing dirty underwear into my computer bag to make room. 

Not proud of this, just stating the facts.

Anyway, somehow I made it home with a 60 pound carry on that was a beast to lug, even with wheels, and threatened to burst its zippers. I'm a pretty strong dude but I felt like Vasily Alexseyev on a max clean and jerk getting that thing into the overhead bin.

Following is a complete list of my gross take:

  • The Collected Poetry of Robert E. Howard, vol. 1
  • The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard, vol. 3
  • Thick as Thieves, Ken Lizzi
  • Cross Plains Pilgrimage, Bobby Derie
  • The Robert E. Howard Trivia Book, Bobby Derie
  • Hither Came Conan, Jason Waltz (editor)
  • Scott Oden Presents The Lost Empire of Sol, Rogue Blades Foundation
  • Death Dealer 3, Tooth and Claw, James Silke
  • Chacal #2
  • The Dark Man Journal vol. 13.1
  • Stan Lee Presents Conan the Barbarian #1 (paperback collection of first 3 comics)
  • The Filming of Conan, Cinefantastique Special Double Issue
  • Skelos #4
  • REHUPA Oct. 2012 (no. 237)
  • From the Heart of Darkness, David Drake
  • 2018 Investigations of the Robert E. Howard House Cellar, Jeff Shanks et. al
  • Kagen the Damned, Jonathan Maberry
  • Ken Kelly’s Robert E. Howard Heroic Fantasy Calendar, 1979
  • Fantastic 1961 bundle
  • Fantastic 1962 bundle

Good thing my wife doesn’t read the blog.

Monday, May 1, 2023

There and back again from Massachusetts to Cross Plains: A recap of 2023 Robert E. Howard Days

Ken Lizzi, me, and Deuce, on sacred ground.
That Saturday morning long ago remains fresh in my mind. The day I stumbled across a hoard of Savage Sword of Conan magazines

The moment I became spellbound with the worlds of Robert E. Howard.

SSOC spoke to me on a level my then-favorite Avengers or Captain America could not. It was dangerous, barbaric, sexy, violent. Adult, with articles and photography to accompany the gorgeous black and white interior art, welcoming 10- or 11-year-old me to the savage Hyborian Age.

This wonderful, fortuitous find set me on a lifelong love of Howard and the subgenre of fantasy he founded, sword-and-sorcery. Little did I know that 40 years later it would also lead to an unforgettable trip to his hometown.

This past weekend I traveled to Cross Plains for 2023 Robert E. Howard Days. This was not a lightly-made decision. I live in Massachusetts, some 1600 miles from the small town in West Texas that Howard called home. With a wife and family, domestic obligations, and a busy professional career to manage, there is never a good time to do something like this, even though Howard Days had been on my bucket list for years.

Part of the whole wide world of Cross Plains.
But this year the stars and planets aligned. Two dudes whom I knew mainly from online interaction, Deuce Richardson and Ken Lizzi, had rented a house in neighboring Cisco, so I had company and a place to sleep. 

The time had finally come to head to the mecca of all things Howard and sword-and-sorcery.

Last Thursday I flew into Dallas Fort Worth and picked up a rental car. Shortly after 5 p.m. Ken, Deuce and I arrived in Cross Plains. The Howard House had closed for the day but two and a half days of non-stop celebrations were about to begin.

Thinking this could be a once in a lifetime trip, I wanted to see it all—the town, the house, the gravesite, the panel sessions. I also wanted to give myself adequate time to hang out and talk to the throng of Howard fans and Howard Days volunteers that make this event so special.

Deuce had wise words for navigating this dilemma: “Balance the living and the dead.”

So, I gave it my best go to honor the man and explore the town while also spending time with as many attendees as I could. I feel pretty good about the balance I struck.

With Jeff Shanks (left) and Mark Finn.
Meeting Rusty Burke, Fred Blosser, Patrice Louinet, Chris Gruber, Mark Finn, Jeff Shanks, John Bullard, Gary Romeo, Will Oliver, Dierk Gunther and others was incredible. I felt like I already knew many of them from YouTube videos, articles, and podcasts and the like, but talking and shaking hands with them all made it tangible. It was wonderful meeting fellow S&S aficionados Jason Waltz, Keith West, Jason Ray Carney, Aaron Cummins, Chuck E. Clark, and many, many others whose names I’ve unfortunately forgotten or failed to ask.

Far too few know the name Robert E. Howard and the opportunity to talk shop and swap REH nerdity comes very infrequently. At Howard Days its endless. “What’s your Howard origin story?” “What’s your favorite Conan tale?” “Have you read his westerns?” These spontaneous conversations happen in line to get your barbecue, perusing the tables at the silent auction, and especially in the evenings at the pavilion. It’s glorious.

The pavilion.
I thought for my first trip I’d simply soak it all in, but instead found myself serving on two speaker panels. On the first, the Glenn Lord Symposium I found myself sandwiched between two PhDs. But both proved incredibly gracious and down-to-earth. I enjoyed Dierk Gunther’s paper which attempted the formidable task of answering the charges of racism in “The Vale of Lost Women.” Will Oliver’s session was fascinating, offering up statistical evidence including recorded interviews with oil field workers to corroborate that Cross Plains was plagued by crime and violence during the oil bloom. This colored Howard’s worldview and creative output and helps to explain why he thought enemies might be lurking around the next corner.

I offered up “In a far country: The Frontier Fantasy of Robert E. Howard,” making the case for Howard as a writer experiencing the absence of a recently closed frontier, unlike his literary hero Jack London who experienced the gold rush of the Klondike first-hand. This absence caused Howard to turn to fantasy and frontiers within. I indulged the audience and myself with a few passages from Jack London and REH, which I greatly enjoyed reading aloud. It seemed well received and I expect it and the other panels to eventually appear on YouTube, courtesy of videographer Ben Friberg.

The atmosphere at the pavilion made it extra sword-and-sorcery
On Saturday I served on a second panel at the pavilion, “Sword-and-sorcery revival,” an informal, impromptu discussion of the recent upsurge in S&S publishing and authorship. I would describe the panel setting as a raucous tavern in the heart of the Maul. I’ve both run and attended many conferences, and at some point attendees hit panel fatigue and want to get down to the business of socializing. We hit the tipping point midway through and it was hard to control the volume in the pavilion; some 30 or so were quite interested in the panel but others were more interested in beer and conversation. I get it. We soldiered on and gave a pretty good rundown of current sword-and-sorcery publishers, authors, other outlets (podcasts, comics, etc.) and in general stoked enthusiasm for the revival of a genre Howard started back in 1929 with “The Shadow Kingdom.” John Bullard helped us greatly with the panel by making flyers and securing space. Thanks John!

Among the more unexpected experiences was feeling like a quasi-celebrity. I must have signed at least 20-25 copies of Flame and Crimson, Hither Came Conan, New Edge #0, and other odds and ends. Watching former Weird Tales editor John Bettancourt select Flame and Crimson as his raffle prize at the S&S panel and note that he had been looking forward to reading it was a strange, rewarding feeling. 

So, a lot of socializing and hanging out. But it’s also important to honor the dead.

Thank you Project Pride!
Nothing can quite prepare you for the first view of Robert E. Howard’s home and ultimately the humble bedroom where did the majority of his writing. Others have made the same observation many times, but its stunning that Howard was able to birth and deliver such vivid creations to the world from such small, prosaic quarters. It’s a testament to his unique genius. The volunteer docents who serve as tour guides, women from the Cross Plains community, were patient and wonderful. I learned that Howard’s father, Isaac, treated bloodied oil field workers right in the Howard home. One docent noted poetically that blood has seeped its way into the roots of the home.

We also folded in a visit to Brownwood to visit the family gravesite. We timed our trip just right, pulling into the sprawling cemetery in the golden sunlight of the late afternoon and paid our respects to Howard and his parents, laid side-by-side. Someone had left behind a book and figurine; I wish I had thought to do something similar.

I left with a more detailed depiction of Howard’s environs. All the tours including a bus tour of greater Cross Plains were absolutely worth doing. I found it to be a charming little community that feels a little like a relic of a lost age, with a few modern updates (a Dollar Store and the like).

Other highlights:

Witnessing the incredible dedication of the volunteers that makes Howard Days possible. The Cross Plains community rallies together to do wonderful things, and preserve Howard’s legacy is a year-round effort.

Buying enough books to break the back of a camel and strain the uttermost capacity of my suitcase. As I shoved volumes in every pocket and cavity I was advised my clothes were expendable. My haul included a pair of winning bids for two large stacks of Fantastic magazine (including the first appearance of Fritz Leiber’s “Bizaar of the Bizarre”) and a couple new hardcovers from the Foundation, the collected letters and poetry. Perhaps my favorite find was a 1979 calendar illustrated by the late great Ken Kelly. I'll share a pic of my hoard later.

Drinking beer at Red Gap Brewing on a gorgeous day while listening how Foundation board member John Bullard assembled the collected letters of REH for the second edition. Monster effort worthy of an award.

Attending the Robert E. Howard Foundation awards. Clapping for many deserving winners including John Bullard and Bill Cavalier, Willard Oliver, and Jason Ray Carney. I have not read Dennis McHaney’s Robert E. Howard in the Pulps (winner: The Atlantean), but was very impressed thumbing through Deuce’s copy. That definitely earned its award, too.

Listening to experts like Bobby Derie, Finn, Shanks, Louinet, guest of honor John Betancourt, and others at the panel sessions. The theme this year was “100 Years of Weird Tales” (founded 1923, still publishing) and the panelists were deeply informed experts and a pleasure to listen to. Derie in particular struck me as a walking encyclopedia of the Weird. 

Taking a break from Howard to visit Woody’s, a classic car and baseball memorabilia museum just across from the Howard house. This contained an immaculately maintained collection of stunning automobiles once owned by a wealthy private donor.

What's best in life? This.
Hearing “Cimmeria” recited aloud on the front porch of the Howard house in Italian, Spanish, Gaelic, and Latin. The first man up after “Cimmeria” recited “Solomon Kane’s Homecoming” FROM MEMORY, a tough act to follow. Best performance went to some dude from North Carolina who ROARED a poem Howard wrote about the joys of drinking and fighting, punctuated with accusations addressed to “You Sons of Adam!” He had us all laughing and cheering. Howard would have approved.

Working up the courage to read a poem myself, “The Rhyme of the Viking Path.” I gave the last few verses some appropriate barbaric emphasis and was pleased with the outcome and the crowd reaction. 

Talking heavy metal with a fellow fan as we waited for the poetry readings to commence (I need to check out Dimmu Borgir).

Walking across the same scenic iron bridge that Howard once traversed, which later inspired a scene from “The Whole Wide World.”

Chatting about Red Nails and Margaret Brundage with the great Fred Blosser—a dude I was reading FORTY YEARS ago in the pages of SSOC—in the Cross Plains public library as I scanned through REH manuscripts and a beautiful collection of Weird Tales magazines. Surreal.

Watching Master and Commander with Deuce and Ken while drinking Shiner Bock, a Texas classic.

Conversing with a great group about all things Howard and S&S during our final evening at the pavilion. I learned that Will Oliver is working on a Howard biography and is as passionate about the works of Karl Edward Wagner as I am. In short, finding my tribe.

So, there you have it. Robert E. Howard Days 2023 proved to be a quirky, fun, charming, welcoming, and utterly unique event that every Robert E. Howard fan ought to attend at least once in their lifetime.

I wish I could have done more, but 2 ½ days pass quickly. And I suppose that’s what return trips are for. Many prophesized that if I came once to Howard Days it would be forever in my blood, and I’d be back again. 

I suspect one day I will. 

Here's to Howard Days.