Saturday, December 23, 2023

The Silver Key: 2023 in review

It’s the tail end of 2023. Another trip round the sun, another year of blogging on The Silver Key.

Many things of import happened this year.

I turned 50, and went places. To Las Vegas and Chicago for business conferences. Cross Plains TX for Robert E. Howard Days, and back to TX (Dripping Springs) for a fun company retreat. And to the Outer Banks, North Carolina, for a multi-family vacation and heavy metal party.

I delivered a keynote speech in May at a conference of 1500+ attendees to honor a former coworker and friend who passed away in 2022 at the age of 48 from breast cancer. By far my most meaningful accomplishment in 2023.

I spent a lot more time with my old man.

My wife and I found ourselves empty nesters. I have two daughters and my youngest went off to college in the fall. My eldest started her senior year in college, leaving us without children at home for the first time since… early 2002. It got oddly quiet all of the sudden, and we adjusted.

Life is changing. But I keep plugging away here on the blog.

I was making good headway until June, when my posting took a sharp downturn. This was due to my non-fiction heavy metal memoir taking sharp inroads into my free writing time. I went from 101 posts in 2022 to just 64 this year.

I hope to have the new book completed in 2024. I haven’t thought about publishing options as I’m focusing all my energy on making it the best book it can be. The first draft is 80-90% done and then comes revisions. But I’m liking how it’s shaping up.

Despite my posting falling off in the latter half of the year I passed 1,000,000 views since the blog’s inception. And wrote a few posts that resonated. So without further ado:

Most popular posts of 2023

1. 1979 Ken Kelly heroic fantasy calendar, month-by-month (231 views). We lost Kelly in 2022, and I covered his passing last year. But in June I gained a terrific Kelly keepsake, a mint condition 1979 calendar purchased at Robert E. Howard Days. It’s now hanging on my wall. The artwork is stunning.

2. The Big Excalibur Post (267 views). I think this was my best essay of 2023, written for the blog of DMR Books. I love Excalibur, I think it is the second or third best fantasy film of all time after The Lord of the Rings and/or CtB 1982. It’s gorgeous, but also literary--every allusion to the Matter of Britain is encompassed in John Boorman’s sprawling technicolor vision. No other film since has covered the Arthur myth with such savage, passionate beauty and intensity.

3. RIP David Drake (280 views). With every year comes the tolling of the bell for more sword-and-sorcery legends. Last year we lost Kelly, this year David Drake, best known for his Hammers Slammers series and military SF but also an S&S author of note. His “The Barrow Troll” made my top 25 favorite S&S short stories of all time.

4. My Howard Days 2023 Haul (287 views). People like book porn, and this post on my Howard Days haul was Triple-X. Something snapped inside of me at Cross Plains and I started buying up books with the abandon of a crack addict, taking home a massive glut that threatened to burst the bonds of my suitcase.

5. Sometime Lofty Towers, David C. Smith (293 views). An unexpectedly excellent sword-and-sorcery novel from Smith. Not that I don’t like his prior work (Oron, Red Sonja, etc.) but Smith delivered here his best work IMO, covering some thoughtful thematic ground in a fast-paced, bloody S&S novel.

6. Neither Beg Nor Yield and Other S&S Developments (306 views).  One of a handful of S&S kickstarters I backed this year. This gave me the chance to link to a two-part Keith Taylor interview I did for DMR Books (Taylor will appear in Neither Beg Nor Yield). I’m expecting this book soon and look forward to reading it.

7. Remembering The Cimmerian (316 views).  This now defunct print publication edited by Leo Grin was my introduction to Howard scholarship, and as a journal it has yet to be surpassed. I had an essay published in it and wrote for its website until it shuttered its doors in June 2010, an experience that deepened my understanding of all things Howard and heroic fantasy. I looked back on that here.

8. There and Back Again from Massachusetts to Cross Plains: A recap of 2023 Robert E. Howard Days (448 views). The full monty recap of my trip to Howard Days. Unforgettable, I can’t recommend this enough to any Howard heads. If you have yet to make the trip to the mecca put it on your bucket list. Somehow I found myself speaking on a pair of panels and working up the courage to recite a poem on Howards front porch, in between drinking Shiner Bock.

9. Are We in a New Sword-and-Sorcery Renaissance? Not yet. At least not commercially (795 views). I’ve enjoyed watching the recent resurgence in interest in sword-and-sorcery fiction (and like to think I played a small part in that, with Flame and Crimson). But I would not call what we’re seeing a third renaissance. There might not ever be one given publishing realities. The days of paperbacks on wire spinners in every drugstore are long gone, our attention fragmented, reading is in decline, and subgenres ever more narrowly and inwardly focused. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t building toward … something. Howard Andrew Jones’ Lord of a Shattered Land—a series of episodic stories that can be read singly but build toward a larger narrative arc—is a promising new title that takes the venerable subgenre in new directions while still very recognizably S&S.

10. Assessing the sword-and-sorcery glut (836 views). A polarizing post and these always attract the eyeballs. I piggybacked off an observation from Jason Ray Carney that we’ve gone from an S&S desert to a (relative) glut of new titles, making it hard to keep up as a reader. This topic sparked broad conversation in the S&S community. Some were critical (there can never be enough S&S! non-issue!), but unfortunately the underlying issue remains: Not enough readers to make this a sustainable genre for working authors. See no. 9. Of course given a choice I’d much rather have a glut than no new fiction, and this post was never meant to discourage new authors, just to point out that it was once possible to buy and read every new S&S release, and it’s now a lot more difficult.

My reading

This year I’ve read 44 books. I’m currently in a re-read of Bernard Cornwell’s highly recommended Warlord Trilogy, finishing up book two (Enemy of God). My favorite reads included The Silence of the Lambs, The Goshawk, The Art of Memoir, Night Shift, and Watership Down.

A personal note

My life is better than ever, a development tied to a commitment to my mental and physical health. I firmly believe that the more self-responsibility you accept, and the less time you spend doom scrolling on social media, the better your life will be. Take the time to discover your values. Make room for exercise. Eat less calories. Practice mindfulness. 

Yeah, I’m not a fan of generative AI as it is applied to art. I’m concerned with political divisions here in the U.S., foreign wars abroad, climate change, the mental health of our youth, etc. These are real problems, possibly existential. But to dwell too long on issues you cannot personally change is not a good use of your time. Start with you, then slowly work outwards. Read more. Write, or create in the way that suits you. Lift more weights. Listen to more heavy metal, and Rush. Rinse and repeat. My advice to you, free of charge.

Merry Christmas all, and thanks for reading.

Thursday, December 21, 2023

Feeling like it's time to watch these again

Have you ever been called home by the clear ringing of silver trumpets?

I have. To this book. And to the movies.

But it's been a while.

Today was my last day in the office until I return on January 2, 2024. A blessed 11 days of downtime. I think it's time for a rewatch of one of my favorite films (yes, I consider this one film) of all time

Great, not unreservedly so, but great.

I saw these one by one as they premiered in theaters and still love them. And am pleased to own the extended versions on DVD. Were I to watch them all back-to-back-to-back (which I never have done), Google tells me it's 11 hours and 36 minutes. An investment. 

But it's time.

Wednesday, December 20, 2023


The second in a series about my personal values. Part 1 here.

The best definition of integrity is, doing the right thing even when no one is watching. A line often attributed to C.S. Lewis, though it seems that may be apocryphal. 

Integrity is standing for something good and right, and doing that thing even when it’s hard. The trait of trustworthiness. It comes from the soul of an ordered individual, and projects out into his or her actions.

Integrity does not mean you stand fixed and immovable in your beliefs forever. We should be learning over our lives. 

But on certain principles you don’t bend, even if it costs you physical or social capital. Possibly, everything.

The same holds true with integrity. You can’t let that go.

Integrity is related to truth though it is action oriented. We should do the right thing. Truth acknowledges that the right thing exists; integrity is how we operate with that first principle.

Acting with integrity doesn’t mean you must behave in private exactly as you do in public. No one walks around in their underwear in public when doing so in the privacy of your home is (fairly) acceptable. You can behave one way in private, and another way in public. 

But not on the things that matter.

Acting with integrity you don’t cheat others … even if you’re 100% certain you can get away with it. 

People who screw over others because they can get away with it destroy the fabric of a healthy society. Countries fail because enough people in them lack integrity. Leaders accept bribes and flaunt or bypass the rule of law with selfish, unilateral decisions. The individual at the street level sells rotten product or accepts money for a promised service he doesn’t deliver. 

Under these conditions life devolves into a squabble over who has more power (physical, or social). Debates are resolved not with reason but naked force. Might equals right. And the right thing becomes not only meaningless, but irrelevant. A nightmare, hell on earth. 

Integrity is anathema to hypocrites. Nothing is more craven than those who outwardly demand moral purity from others …  and then cheat on their spouses, accept bribes, lie to the board of directors, or exploit the weak to line their own pockets. Do these things, and you have no integrity. 

In healthy societies people who act without integrity are penalized with jail sentences and public shame. Recently the CEO of BP suffered this treatment, deservedly so. Because we have a choice to act with integrity.

Free will exists. And because that is the case we can choose to behave with integrity.*

Integrity is more important than politics. You cannot have an ordered political system without ethical people operating within it. I vote across both party lines for this reason, because I’m a believer in the person, not the affiliation. 

Integrity is more important than laws. The law cannot be everywhere, even in a surveillance state. Not to mention that the law must be applied fairly and enforced, which requires men and women of integrity. 

Imagine if everyone operated with integrity? What would that look like, at the micro and macro levels?

But we’re fallen creatures. Imperfect, and I don’t think we’re perfectible. 

We don’t always operate with integrity. We know what’s right, we know how we should act in accordance with integrity, but pressures make us waver. We succumb to weakness, and act outside the lines. 

That doesn’t mean we can’t forgive. 

FYI, I’ve failed. I’ve fallen on my face. I’ve done things that I’m embarrassed by.

But I pick myself up. And keep walking on the path of integrity.

It is encouraging to believe that the Holy Grail is within our grasp.

*Even very smart people who claim free will does not exist (i.e., Sam Harris, whose work I enjoy) almost always do not behave in accordance with this outwardly stated belief. 

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

RIP David Drake

David Drake has passed away.

I’m no Drake scholar and unqualified to evaluate his life and career or the majority of his creative output, including the popular Hammer’s Slammers. I’ll leave all that up to someone else.

That aside I greatly enjoyed his sword-and-sorcery work wherever I encountered it. I’ve praised his short story “The Barrow Troll” on several occasions and link to the article I wrote for Tales from the Magician’s Skull. You can find this story in literally a dozen or more collections at this point, and for a reason: It’s damned good, a wonderful little subversion of S&S and Drake’s take on the dragon sickness, a topic that also interested Tolkien and the unnamed author of Beowulf.

I’m also a fan of The Dragon Lord, which, now that I’m re-reading Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Trilogy, did for King Arthur what Drake already did, two decades prior: Offer up a grim and gritty historical take on the myth.

In S&S circles his greatest legacy is probably his Vettius stories, published in various venues but collected in Vettius and His Friends. Swords Against Darkness I contains his excellent “Dragon’s Teeth” which I recommend as a good starting place/sampling of that character. DMR Books recently reprinted “Killer” (written in conjunction with Karl Edward Wagner) in Renegade Swords II, one of Vettius’ “friends” stories featuring the monster hunter Lycon. Also highly recommended; many have described it as “Predator” set in ancient Rome.

I recently picked up a copy of From the Heart of Darkness at Howard Days and will elevate that up the TBR. Drake wrote a lot of horror and this one looks like a great representative sample.

Drake was also recently interviewed in the Karl Edward Wagner documentary The Last Wolf. He knew Wagner as closely as few living people did.

I would put him up there with Wagner, Charles Saunders, Keith Taylor and maybe 1-2 others as the best new authors working in the 70s S&S revival.

RIP Mr. Drake. Thanks for the wonderful stories, and for your service and sacrifice to the country.

Sunday, December 10, 2023

One million views, and counting

I passed a quiet milestone a couple weeks ago, of which I was unaware until a recent look at Google analytics data confirmed it.

One million views. 

As of this moment in history the creaky old blog has 1,008,307 views, to be exact.

Not sure what that really means, other than its a big round number. Before you celebrate, this includes bot traffic, one-time visitors that find the blog via image search, etc. Junk traffic.

But also good traffic, returning visitors who have taken some value in what I have to say.

1,000,000 views isn't anything worth celebrating for a website that's going on 16 years. I've never made any attempts to optimize it, monetize, etc. I've gone long stretches without posting. 

But I guess if there is anything to celebrate it's the endurance of the thing.

Of late I haven't been posting nearly as much as I'd like. A long-form non-fiction work in progress has eaten up most of my creative free time. But I have no plans to shutter this bit of cyberspace down, either, unless Google unplugs blogger.

If you've enjoyed the blog over the years thanks for reading. 

Thursday, December 7, 2023

The hellscape of KISS avatars and AI art

KISS (holograms) love you!
KISS just wrapped up a 50-year career in typical KISS fashion.

Selling product.

Not content to leave the stage with a remaining shred of dignity intact, KISS left their fans with a message, and a sales pitch: “The new KISS era starts now!” And unveiled the next era of KISS.

Digitally created avatars.

The new beginning? Artificiality.

KISS presumably means to render themselves, and their income streams, immortal. “The band will never stop because the fans own the band,” explained frontman Paul Stanley.

Paying fans, with their money going to KISS in perpetuity. 

Fuck I hate the world right now.


Artificial entertainment is not unique to KISS. We’re being increasingly inundated with images spun out of DALL-E, text spit from ChatGPT. Fake videos with AI trained voiceovers are making it increasing harder to tell what is real.

Now we’ve got AI KISS. Holograms, programmed to move based on training data, not spontaneity.

A nightmare.

I ask, with earnestness: What is the point?

Before the advent of AI, had you asked me why I liked KISS I would probably have answered “the music."

But now I realize, it was also the band members.

People made the music. Putting aside debate about their actual talent, Gene, Paul, Peter, and Ace blended their unique backgrounds and experiences to write songs. They had several false starts and tentative steps toward their final brand image. It was a messy path of false starts, playing shows in high school gyms in front of a dozen disinterested fans, before they finally hit it big.

The end product was, almost miraculously, pretty awesome, at least from an entertainment perspective. 

Paul Stanley is a human being possessed of loves and interests, passions, faults, foibles, and flaws. As were the other members of KISS. Together they wrote great songs and terrible songs. Classic albums and awful clunkers. They did some amazing tours, limped through others, and put out some really shitty merchandise.

I love it all.

I love it because KISS is unique, and every member that served in the band, unique (especially Vinnie Vincent). It’s what makes them entertaining. This humanness is an incalculable part of what makes KISS endearing to its fans. 

KISS is easy to pick on, and mock. “They were already artificial!” OK, fair enough. But they were and are real people who against long odds, built a career most would envy.

The next era is a mockery, and its only just begun.

Will AI generated Paul Stanley paint pictures, bang groupies, have children, fight with digital Ace Frehley on Eddie Trunk? Will the band members write ChatGPT generated memoirs about their “tours”? Inspire new AI artists?

Are we supposed to go to concerts and cheer on holograms?

There is no point to AI generated art. It is soulless in every sense of the term. Because there is no soul behind it, not even a ghost in the machine. Just scraped and aggregated data, vectored and served up.

One small bit of good news is that it appears AI generated art is not copyrightable. And it doesn’t deserve to be, because there is nothing worth preserving in it. It is the pinnacle of corporate, Silicon Valley soul-lessness, a golem of circuitry built from the flesh and blood output of real artists.

If we had any sense as a species, AI would be put to use solving actual big problems like climate change and nuclear fusion. Detecting cancers unseen to the naked eye. Or automating soulless, mind-crushing tasks.

To be fair AI is being used in some of these applications. I hope these succeed. But most of the product development is being applied in the creative industries, and white collar businesses. 

Why? As with any open question about business, the answer is the same here as with any other: follow the money.

Companies are now rapidly training niche AIs and then selling them as subscription products. Businesses are already outsourcing human labor to machines, reducing overhead expense and increasing their profitability to shareholders.

This is commerce, not art.

Worse, kids are using it to write papers, teachers to grade these fake papers, “creators” to fuel their content pipeline. What are we learning? What is more impressive, a guitar virtuoso who has spent 25 years mastering his craft, a generational talent like Frank Frazetta painting with fire, or some kid putting prompts into DALL-E?

People are the losers in the AI race. As are dignity, hard work, effort, and talent.

So is the future. We’re sacrificing that, too. And we’re making a mockery of the past.

A massive part of the appeal of Conan and Solomon Kane and Kull is its creator, Robert E. Howard. Howard was rooted in Cross Plains, possessed of a voracious reading habit, writing talent, and an imagination as big as Texas. He was complex, contradictory, full of great passions, “giant melancholies and gigantic mirths.” All of it formed the wellspring of his art.

AI has none of this. There is no background to excavate, no influences to explore, no literary legacy to debate, no arguments over places in the pantheon. 

AGIs have no history. They never worked on oil fields, felt the sting of lost loves, experienced the alienation of an artistic soul in a town whose residents despised its craft.

AI generated writing is the death knell of literary criticism. How can one say anything about the output of a program, scraping and training itself on massive data sets of already existing content? A hellish, endless loop of sophisticated repetition and large-scale copying, including everything Robert E. Howard ever wrote?

To recap: AI generated art, including images and text, but also AI avatars, AI music, all of it, is void of meaning. It is shallow, empty, and purposeless.


I will not be part of creating it, or consuming it. 

Neither should you.