Friday, June 14, 2024

Not all books need be movies

I like movies. I really do. Need I say this? 

I mean, not liking movies is akin to not liking ice cream. It’s un-American. Heck, it’s inhuman.

I’ve posted numerous reviews of my favorite films. I seem to have a sweet spot for the early 80s, the likes of Blade Runner and Terminator and Excalibur and The Road Warrior (throw in Raiders and the Goonies for good measure). But I watch and enjoy new films too.

Now that I’ve paid my homage to celluloid, I’m not particularly fond of the fetishization of film by lovers of classic characters and IP. The incessant cry of, “this is such an awesome character, but when are we ever going to get the movie!”

Let’s take Conan. We have the amazing Robert E. Howard stories. We’ve got shit-tons of terrific comics, including great new material today from Titan. Pastiche novels. Even a loosely adapted but nevertheless magnificent 1982 film. So when I hear the incessant, when are we going to get a real Robert E. Howard film. We need one! It cheapens what has been done already. Just a bit, and IMO.

But you don’t understand Brian, we need a proper Conan film.

Why? Why do we need one?

I just don’t have the same hand-wringing urgency to get a movie made. 

Here’s my question to the people I can feel protesting this post.

When was the last time you said, “that was an AWESOME movie… they really need to write the novelization! Like, now!”

The answer is… never.

Seriously, when was the last time you ever heard ANYONE say, “I love Furiosa… when is George Miller going to get an author to write the novel? That’s what we really need.”

I’ll wait. 

When you always want “the movie” you are signifying an artistic hierarchy, one that places movies at the top and television in the middle (“it needs to be made into a Netflix miniseries!”) and poor old books at the bottom—perhaps just above static paintings or digital art.

Captain obvious incoming, but films and books are different mediums. Which means they do some things better than the other.

Films have many inherent advantages over books. The visuals are obvious. But also, sound. The wonderful dialogue, pregnant pauses and raised voices that convey additional levels of meaning are very hard to replicate in a book. And also, wonderful scores. Seriously, just hearing John Williams’ opening theme from Jaws immediately sends hackles up my spine and makes me nervous even when I’m in the neighbor’s swimming pool.

It’s awesome. Books can’t do this.

This combination of gorgeous visuals and stunning sound sweep us up, and make a great movie in an IMAX theater a thing of beauty. An event that I’m glad we have. Did I mention I love movies? I was blown away by Maverick and 1917 and of course The Lord of the Rings (though the book is better).

But books have their own distinct advantages too—advantages even over film. Like character interiority.  This is very hard to do in a film, without awkward voiceovers. 

Unbridled imagination is another. Film budgets and run times reign in possibility. Because budgets are an issue, the sprawling sweep of a book must be a dramatized compression on the screen. And thus worlds feel smaller than in the book. The Lord of the Rings is a prime example. I love the films, but Middle-Earth isn’t as big, or as grand, as Tolkien's vision.

The third is the unknown—HP Lovecraft can describe something awful beyond our imagination by not showing it. In film, which is purely visual, something must be shown. And it’s rarely as good as our imagination.

But the most important is artistic integrity.

Because movies are made by hundreds if not thousands of people, and because they cost so much, many fingers must touch the final product—including studio executives hungry for a return on their big investment, and their shareholders. Which means, compromises are made.

An author with a single artistic vision has inherent advantages, if they are talented and that vision is true and powerful. As a result books tend to have sharper edges and brighter colors.

I mean does anyone think we’d actually get an accurate “Red Nails” or “The Man-Eaters of Zamboula”? I don’t.

Even if homemade movies made on the cheap but well, by some guy in a basement with cutting-edge AI and a computer render some of these arguments invalid, the underlying principle remains: Books do some things better than film. Which means there are novels that will always, from now until the sun turns cold and dark and burns out altogether in the far-flung future, be better than any movie adaptation. 

OK, we do need a Dying Earth movie. 

But if we don’t get one? It’s OK.

The world will keep spinning.

We’ve already got Vance’s book … and the book is better.

Thursday, June 6, 2024

The 13th Warrior in the House, with Rogues

You think upon what is to come, and imagine fearsome things that would stop the blood of any man. Do not think ahead, and be cheerful by knowing that no man lives forever.

--Eaters of the Dead, Michael Crichton

The latest episode of the Rogues in the House podcast is out and I'm in the guest seat, talking the 1999 film The 13th Warrior with Matt and Deane.


I have to say I'm not a huge fan of the film. It has its rousing moments, awesome pre-battle speeches, and a couple epic scenes, but drags in other places. It has a bit of a "talky" introduction, too much telling and not enough showing, though this works better in the 1976 novel on which its based, Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead. The filming was beset with difficulties; Crichton came on for a script rewrite and took over as director, firing John McTiernan—but reportedly was happy with the end result. McTiernan disputes much of this. 

The film was a financial flop but has earned a bit of cult status, especially among fans of sword-and-sorcery. 

I liked the film well enough upon rewatch but remain a bigger fan of the book, which IMO does a better job addressing the theme of the past as a different place.

We have too schools of thought: One is that people are people, and only the times and technology and education, etc. are different. And I do think there is such a thing as a fundamental human nature—that we are social, that we are fundamentally good, curious, etc. 

But a second school says that the past (especially the deep past) was a different country.

As I state at one point in the podcast I think some modern S&S and other writers get this aspect wrong, with characters behaving like a 21st century man or woman would in certain circumstances. And I get it; these are fantasies, so historical verisimilitude is not necessarily the main objective. But if for example you believe that fate is inexorable, that there is a Valhalla awaiting the brave you will behave much differently than Joe Schmoe walking down Broadway in 2024. Death in the Viking Age was not nearly as traumatizing and all-encompassing as it is today. Death in combat was a celebration; young women willingly submitted to ritual execution by an “Angel of Death” to accompany a fallen chieftain on the other side. 

Their general acceptance of death so fully and without remorse, and disdain of fear, explains why the Northmen could go a-Viking, and kill and pillage and take slaves and hold their own lives lightly.

Today we recoil from such behavior but it makes for truly fantastic writing (i.e., displacement from the real).

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the episode.

Friday, May 31, 2024

Worms of the Earth, Eternal Champion

I found out last night that Eternal Champion bass player Brad Raub passed away, just 36 years old.

So on this Metal Friday I honor his memory with “Worms of the Earth,” off their wonderful album Ravening Iron. With its spectacular Ken Kelly album cover (now THAT would be an amazing original to hang on my man cave wall).

Beyond badass.

Still feeling my way out with this band but I’m really starting to dig Ravening Iron. "Worms of the Earth" should be a hit with any red-blooded sword-and-sorcery/Robert E. Howard/Bran Mak Morn fan. Here’s a sample of the lyrics, which are basically a faithful retelling of the tale:

Upon a Roman cross there hangs a man I cannot save

For this, Rome will have to pay

I must find the door to ebon depths where they degenerate

There's nothing I would spare to see Rome howl in pain

Eyes like golden stars shining in the dark

In Dagon's Barrow I will take the stone they must obey

The King of Picts has forced his claim

One of the all-time greats in visual adaptation. Fight me if you think otherwise.

The King of Picts has forced his claim... he certainly did. Love that.

I can’t express how glad I am to see a band like Eternal Champion lend their own artistic interpretation to REH. We’ve got pastiche novels, visual artists, comic adaptations, gaming supplements, and now heavy metal bands, all keeping Howard alive with their own inspiring visions of the greatest sword-and-sorcery author who ever lived. 

Raub added his own verse to that roll-call, no doubt.

Rest in peace brother.



Friday, May 24, 2024

The Light is Fantastic—stay positive

The fourth in a series about my personal values. Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here.

I write about some heavy shit on this blog. If you were a casual observer passing through you might think I was a grim, moralizing figure discontented with the world. An old man shouting at clouds.

That’s quite far from the truth. I’m a pretty cheery person. I laugh a lot. I appreciate what I have, and the world around me.

From time to time I find myself dwelling on darkness. But much/most of the time I’m happy. That’s because I work at it. A baseline state of optimism is so important to me that it’s become one of my values: Stay positive.

No one wants to hang out with bitter cynics. We all view the world through a glass darkly from time-to-time, but I’m talking about the types who complain about everything and can no longer see beauty, or realize how lucky they are to be alive.

Anger has a purpose, and a place. It’s a human emotion, and so needs expression. But I don’t think it’s a healthy default position. Anger also has proven ill effects on your health, not just mental but physical.

A much better way to live is a state of positivity, and general optimism.

I wasn’t always this way. And today from time to time I get angry and frustrated at the world, even flirting with despair. But I have discovered ways to break out of the malaise.

One is through engagement with my deep and abiding interests, including fantasy fiction and heavy metal. 

It might sound odd but something like a good Robert E. Howard story—even a really fucking grim tale like “Red Nails”—elevates my spirits, by stunning me with a reminder of the incredible human capacity to create beautiful art. Tolkien’s The Children of Hurin or a nasty Stephen King short story elevates me, by transporting my mind elsewhere. As does blasting Judas Priest and Iron Maiden.

I need fantasy, as an antidote to humdrum realities and worldly responsibilities. It hits the reset button.

Another way to break out is through human connection—spending time with my wife and family, and when I can find it, my friends. When I have my old friend Wayne over for a couple beers at the bar, and we talk about current times and the old times, and music, life is good. As is spending any time with my old man, still kicking at 80. Engaging with other people gets you out of your own head.

We need fantasy, AND we need human connection. I’m a big believer in balance. Which also keeps you positive. 

If you want to cultivate more positivity in your life, one practical tip is starting a gratitude journal. I’ve been keeping one every day since early 2017 (M-F religiously, sometimes on Saturday. I’ve got a basic template if you want it). Write down three things you are grateful for every morning. This also serves the purpose of recording the high points and best memories of my life, which I can then reflect back on at the end of the year (and blog about here).

Gratitude journaling was/is huge for me. I cannot recommend it enough. It pulled me out of some dark times in my life. You can quite literally retrain your brain, teaching it to focus on the positive over the negative aspects of life (which are inevitable, and real). The positive becomes more noticeable.

One recent example: I run a monthly Happy Hour for my company. We’re a small company, 100% remote, with 43-odd internal staff. Sometimes I get 28-30 on a given call, other times its only 16-17. Years ago I would have thrown up my hands at the low turnout, and called into question, “why am I bothering with this?” Now my default position is, “everyone here is having a great time—and so am I! Cool. Can’t wait for the next one.” 

I also recommend regular exercise. Lift some weight man, and get out for walk. Endorphins work wonders.

The best antidote to negativity is fostering mindfulness. Our greatest source of misery is our own thoughts. The mere act of noticing your thoughts and shifting your attention elsewhere, to the present, rather than ruminating on crap from the past you cannot change or an uncertain future, will shift your mind from negative to the positive.

In summary:

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; it also makes you a more likeable person.




Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Humans are meant to do hard things

In my professional life I serve a profession called medical coding. No need to look it up; it’s quite niche and rather impenetrable to the outsider, though very important to the quality and financial health of hospitals.

I hear complaints all the time from medical coders about the difficulty of the work, and proposed fixes that would make everything better.

“If only the doctors would document acute systolic heart failure!” “If only the official coding guidelines were clearer about which diagnosis to report as principal!” “If only the insurance companies and hospitals could all agree on the definition of sepsis… 

… then all our problems would go away!”

I don’t blame them for lodging these complaints, or for wanting fixes.

But what they don’t realize is they’d be replacing their day-to-day problems with a much bigger problem. Removing all the hard things would cost them their jobs. Because medical coding could be safely automated away.

And it would also cost them part of their life’s purpose, and stunt their development toward becoming an actualized human being.

I agree that their work is complex and often quite frustrating. Byzantine and possibly overly and needlessly complex in some aspects. 

In need of some fixes.

But in general I see things with a different lens.

These “problems” are a good thing. Hard is a good thing.

Coding is not only a well-paying career, but for many actually meaningful too. Granted not for all; many consider medical coding, clinical documentation integrity and other like/adjacent professions (trauma/oncology registry, for example) mere work. They’d rather be doing something else, they work for the money and for the weekend.

But others have launched meaningful careers, made lifelong personal and professional relationships, in this line of work. Grew as people, became better versions of themselves, through the struggle of mastering their profession. 

As have I.

What happens if it all goes away? And the machines take the work?

You might say, this is just how the world is, and how professions evolve. One line of work is replaced by another, displaced by technology. Some “optimists” argue: We can now spend our time doing more meaningful work instead of these lower-order tasks.

There is some truth to this, but this line of reasoning falls apart when entire human skillsets are outsourced to machines.

Let’s use the example of something more meaningful to readers of this blog: Writing and the visual arts.

If I just enter a series of prompts, and then prompt the AI for additional clarity, and publish a book in a weekend, this is not a meaningful achievement. If I can summon Dall-e to create an image, I did not create the art, the machine did.

You put in no sweat equity worthy of celebration. Had no stumbles, and failures, and doubts, and anxieties that, when you finally overcame them and published the work, made it your crowning achievement. Regardless of whether you ever sold a copy you did something amazing.

You created something and did something hard. You.

We need to do hard stuff.

Doing hard work will disproportionately reward people with greater ability. This leads to inequity … but that’s the way it has to be.

We don’t need to spend all our waking hours doing hard things (I would not be opposed to a four day workweek, for example). Nor am I calling for an end to technological development. Some jobs will inevitably be eliminated by labor saving technology. We don’t need to return to the good old days of horse-drawn wagons and polio.

If we could replace meaninglessly hard work, I’d be in favor of any such labor-saving device. I’m sure the suffering laborer would too.

But no one seems to have a plan for a world post work. Or far more frighteningly, life without difficulty. No one has addressed the fundamental underlying truth that doing hard things is good for us.

There is no intellectual I’m aware of who has painted a compelling--let alone non-dystopic and sane—picture of what a post-scarcity society would look like, and what it would mean for human flourishing. Could we still create believable, heartfelt art without any relationship to struggle? If we didn’t even know what struggle was, because everything was easy, available with the push of a button?

I would not call such a society a utopia, but a terrible dystopia. 

The most beautiful human art is about struggle, and loss, and sometimes overcoming it. Even if the victory is only temporary.

Without anything hard to do, we’ll all be eating soma.

Friday, May 17, 2024

As heavy as I’ll go

Slayer and Sepultura… really no heavier than that. There’s no need, from my perspective.

I can’t do cookie monster vocals. That means that Death Metal and Black Metal bands are out. 

To be honest, I haven’t made a concerted effort to break into these genres. The barrier to entry is so high that I just can’t bring myself to do it, even though I can appreciate some of the riffs and melodies. 

I need to be able to understand what the vocalist is saying, and I can do that with Max Cavalera and Tom Araya. 

Sabbath is heavy enough for most mortals, and will raise an eyebrow in mixed company. Slayer and Sepultura will get you flat-out kicked out of parties … but I still greatly enjoy them. As with here, on Refuse/Resist, and South of Heaven.





Both awesome, and really fucking heavy. But I don’t feel the need to go any heavier.

What’s your “max heavy?”

Monday, May 13, 2024

Why we need fantasy: Some thoughts from a Blind Guardian concert, May 11, 2024 at the Worcester Palladium

I'm in there! Somewhere back left...

No one ever dares to speak
It's nothing else but fantasy
It's make believe,
Make believe
No one ever dares to speak
It's nothing else but fantasy
But One day it will all come to life

--Blind Guardian, Fly

How did you spend your Saturday night? I was in a hall you might know, called … VALHALLA!

Or maybe it was the Worcester Palladium. 

Either way, I was somewhere else. And that’s a good thing. 

We need fantasy in our lives.

Blind Guardian lead singer Hansi Kuersch screams at the end of “Valhalla,” No, we can’t live without gods! He and his bandmates put to powerful music what many of us who breathe deeply of this type of thing have come to know: 

We can’t live without fantasy. It is indispensable as air or water:

Songs I will sing of tribes and kings
The carrion bird and the hall of the slain
Nothing seems real
You soon will feel
The world we live in is another Skald’s
Dream in the shadows

--Skalds and Shadows

We’re all just telling stories. Reality is what we make of it. 

Blind Guardian knows this, and takes us to other places, fair and perilous lands where magic is real. Lands we once knew, but have forgotten. As we age our fantasies wither. We prioritize work and money, and embrace conformity and dull routine. 

Stranded in the real world
Left in the world
No place for daydreams
Serious life
I fall into
I fall into a dark hole
And I can't come out
Do you know if Merlin did exist
Or Frodo wore the ring
Did Corum kill the gods
Or where's the wonderland
Which young Alice had seen
Or was it just a dream
I knew the answers
Now they're lost for me


But fantasy calls, from the other side.

We might be lost, but Blind Guardian knows there is another world. Which can break down the walls around your heart. For a short time on Saturday at least.

Blind Guardian delivered on this stop on The God Machine tour. They were great. The setlist is below.

As always it’s a privilege to see a band of their magnitude in a place like The Palladium, which has a listed capacity of 2660. Blind Guardian plays to much larger crowds overseas.

Take a bow, dudes. 
Maybe you don’t need German power metal bands in your life. That’s OK, with a good book or a well-done movie you can get (some) of what Blind Guardian offers. Enchantment, to restore a disenchanted world.

What you don’t get in a book or a movie however is the power of being in a big group of like-minded people, all experiencing the same powerful call. Chanting, “Valhalla, Deliverance!” like Viking warriors of old.

Where was I Saturday night? The lands of Faerie, or Worcester? 

Both my friends.

Setlist

Imaginations from the Other Side
Blood of the Elves
Nightfall
The Script for My Requiem
Violent Shadows
Skalds and Shadows
Deliver us from Evil
Secrets of the American Gods
The Bard’s Song
Majesty
Traveler in Time
Sacred Worlds
Time Stands Still (At the Iron Hill)
Valhalla
Mirror Mirror

Here's a bit of "Nightfall" from my cell phone:



Friday, May 10, 2024

Curse My Name, Blind Guardian

They plead for their king 
And they pity their lord 
Put him to death, that's what I say

It's been a while since I did one of these. Too long. And I've got Blind Guardian on the calendar tomorrow. So, time for another Metal Friday.

Blind Guardian is great for so many reasons, but starting a song with a lute and either a flute (or perhaps a fife?) is one. Another is songs like "Curse My Name," which could be a number in an alternative metal universe performance of Les Miserables. 

This is a great song, atmospheric, melodic, epic... and underneath it all some hard critique of monarchy. We are the nation, we are the law, and we won't take it anymore. How do we depose the monarch? Put him to death, that's what I say. 

I wasn't even sure there was an electric guitar in this song... but yeah there it is at 4:38. Yet despite the lack of typical heavy metal trappings it's heavy AF, heavier than many guitar forward tunes. 

Very dark. 

And awesome.

Hard to believe this came out 14 years ago, on At the Edge of Time (2010). I feel like this album just came out yesterday. But time is subjective. The passage of years is different now than it once was.



Monday, May 6, 2024

Some blogging odds and ends

Some stuff that might be interesting to you, but at minimum is important to me.

I’m not going to Howard Days this year. I was never planning to do so, but enough people have asked me that I figure I’d make it official here. I LOVED my first Howard Days experience and would gladly go again, but time and budget won’t permit me to go every year. I’ll just have to enjoy it vicariously and remember my experience of a year ago, which Deuce Richardson recently recapped on the blog of DMR Books in fine fashion here and here.

No book review requests, please. A public message that I’m not accepting any further books for review at this time. Recently I’ve received several requests to review new S&S and S&S adjacent titles, from authors and publishers, even a work in progress. I just don’t have time, due to personal and professional obligations. For more reasons why I made this decision please read this prior post. This is not to say I won’t be reviewing books here on the Silver Key, but they will be books I voluntarily seek out.

A terrific Mad Max conversation. I listen to a fair number of podcasts on topics that range from political to self-improvement to all things fantastic. Weird Studies with hosts Phil Ford and J.F. Martel has remained in my rotation when others have fallen out because the hosts are so damned good—even though I probably skip 50% or more of the episodes. I’m just not interested in the occult or tarot or TV shows I haven’t watched (i.e., most of them), but when these guys turn to a topic I love—i.e., the Mad Max film franchise—I’m in. This episode does not disappoint, even though it’s (as always) lit-crit heavy and intellectual AF.

A one-star review and 5-star feedback. I got my first one-star review of Flame and Crimson on Goodreads, from an individual whose review reads, “Meh, DNF.” This bothered me to some degree; I would never one-star a book I didn’t finish. But whatever, the book is definitely not for everyone and evidently was not for this dude. On the other hand, this recent email from a reader warmed my cold heart all the way through:

Hi Brian, I just wanted to tell you I'm on my second read through of "Flame  

and Crimson" and I'm enjoying it equally as much. I first read CONAN in the  

late 1960's as a teenager and found a world and a hero to identify with on  

an internal level. Here were stories that led me to realms of the fantastic  

and a cast of characters to cheer or boo, they even convinced me buy some  

weightlifting gear. (I never achieved the frame of the fabled warrior.) So  

many thanks for the research, the writing and the publishing of this  

wonderful book. It makes a 70 year old feel young and vital again.

That makes it all worth it, including the one-star reviews.

Blind Guardian powers into Worcester MA on Saturday. My personal heavy metal tour makes its next stop at The Palladium in Worcester this weekend, where I’ll be taking in legendary German power metal band Blind Guardian. With my old friend Dana, who introduced me to these guys a couple decades ago to my delight. Thanks Dana. Any band who writes concept albums based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion gets my attention, and these guys are always amazing.

I’ve got a college graduate. My oldest daughter Hannah, 22, just graduated from Colby-Sawyer college with a degree in professional and creative writing, and already has a job offer which she’s accepted teaching at a local boarding school. I couldn’t be prouder. She’s both like her Dad and very much her own person and I’m looking forward to watching her continue to grow into young adulthood. I’m a lucky man. 

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Silk Road Centurion by Scott Forbes Crawford, a review

I am not a historian of ancient Chinese history nor the legendary Silk Road that served as crucial trade route, but author Scott Forbes Crawford seems (at least to this layman) to be, and to have done his research. His debut novel Silk Road Centurion feels historic while maintaining a page turning sense of adventure. And so is a successful book I enjoyed reading.

Overall it’s a fine read for fans of historical fiction, of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, or a gripping story well-told.

In 53 B.C. Roman soldier Manius Titinius is taken captive by a nomadic group of bow-wielding horsemen called the Xiongnu. Manius is led on a forced march across a thousand miles or more with a handful of other survivors and placed in a slave camp, exposed to the elements. Hobbled physically though never broken mentally, he swears an oath of vengeance. Ultimately his goal is to return to Rome, but over time he learns the language and culture of the locals, enters platonic and romantic relationships with some of them, and ultimately recommits to helping others from a culture very removed from his own.

This is a story of big stakes for the characters but small stakes when compared against the broader panorama of history. There are no big pivotal historical battles like you’ll find in Bernard Cornwell’s Agincourt for example; Silk Road Centurion is small scale and personal and so in this respect will likely appeal to fans of sword-and-sorcery.

What I appreciated most were not the battles (of which there are several, violent and well depicted) but the quiet moments. Meditations on healing and what it means to be healthy in body in mind; of differing belief systems and how they help us navigate the world; of family and legacy and how they give life meaning; and of the importance of codes of honor as an operating system for how we should behave. Manius is a man of his word and when he makes a promise he keeps it. He also comes to appreciate the people of the far east and their quiet endurance as farmers loyal to the earth and to each other.

I liked this book for the same reasons I enjoy some historical fiction more than other; when an author gets too bogged down in place and time details and loses the thread of a rousing story, I’m out. Silk Road Centurion did not suffer from this flaw, and keeps you turning the pages. Crawford focuses more on plot and action than place or setting, which I appreciated. 

While I would not say this book is much like Gladiator save for the period, Manius’ fixation on a figurine of the goddess Fortuna, or fortune, is an echo. The way he holds it and reflects on the nature of fortune in critical life and death situations or when hope is at its lowest ebb reminded me of the way Russell Crowe's Maximus Decimus Meridius would rub sand into his palms and let it fall through his hands, or feeling the wheat fields of his distant home—a ritual, pregnant with meaning, grounding him to something larger. There is much going on in these pages of the interplay of fortune and fate, and the one we make through our actions.

Silk Road Centurion is not without some first novel issues. In places the pacing sags; in other places it feels like there is too much going on; a scene near the end of Manius and his friend (endearingly named Ox) crossing an ice-cold river and suffering yet another near-death mishap feels like a bridge too far. How much suffering can a man endure before it stretches him to break, or breaks the reader? Finally, I think some of the revelatory character payoff, while powerful on the page, perhaps did not quite feel earned to me. 

So what. 

This is an impressive start for a new author. Anyone who not only writes but pushes a work of this length and scope and ambition through to completion deserves our praise. It gets mine (and the likes of Howard Andrew Jones, who is blurbed on the interior). Silk Road Centurion is a good book. Read it.

Monday, April 22, 2024

A review of Judas Priest, April 19 Newark NJ

Scott (of Scott's Thoughts) and
I waiting for the metal madness.
I love heavy metal culture, unapologetically.

These days it’s not quite the same as heavy metal parking lot. Fans are generally older (though they hail from all age ranges). There is less innocence, perhaps more conformity to codes. 

But, the enthusiasm and joy remains.

If you watched a mosh pit as an outsider without any knowledge you’d think you were witnessing some wild fight, and expect cops in riot gear to come and break it up. Moshing looks like a fight—arms flailing, bodies contacting one another, often hard, sometimes resulting in falls on cement, bruises and a little blood. 

A closer look reveals no intent to injure. Just people “dancing” in an odd, flailing sort of way, out of sheer love of heavy music and all the emotions it draws forth.

It’s a weird, quirky, and lovely phenomenon.

Just like being a Judas Priest fan. Loving a 50 year old metal band with a 72-year-old lead singer is not going to get you into the same social circles as Taylor Swift. But I doubt Swifties have any more fun.

Judas Priest on April 19, 2024 at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ had the feel of a spontaneous celebration, from a post-concert mosh pit (see below) to the concert itself.

I had an absolute blast.

The band sounded phenomenal. I knew they would, musically. It’s hard not to when you’ve got a killer rhythm section (Ian Hill and Scott Travis) and one of metal’s brightest guitarists in Richie Faulkner. What was surprising was Rob. 

Halford killed it, vocally. 

Today he uses some sort of voice extender that carries his notes and provides an echo effect, strengthening what he’s got. But it’s still obviously him singing. And damn, he can still do it. Rob moves around slowly, has to bend nearly in half to hit the high notes in the likes of Painkiller. But he can still do it. 

Amazing.

Setlist:
Panic Attack
You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’
Rapid Fire
Breaking the Law
Lightning Strike
Love Bites
Devil’s Child
Saints in Hell
Crown of Horns
Sinner
Turbo Lover
Invincible Shield
Victim of Changes
The Green Manalishi
Painkiller
Encore:
Electric Eye
Hell Bent for Leather
Living After Midnight

So many highlights, too many to mention, but here’s a few.

“Crown of Horns.” I enjoyed this new song off Invincible Shield from the first I heard it, but it was killer in concert. It’s a raw and soulful, weighty but ultimately hopeful song, rife with religious imagery (haven’t really talked about that aspect of Invincible Shield), defending the metal faith, and gratitude for life. Someone recorded it here; while I ordinarily hate cell phone recordings (the sound qualify is almost universally tinny and flat, and even a good recording fails to capture the loudness and atmosphere) this one is pretty good. 

Halford coming out on his motorbike for Hell Bent for Leather. You might think you're cool, but you’ll never be Rob Halford revving a Harley Davidson on stage at a heavy metal concert level of cool.

Love Bites and Devil’s Child back-to-back. Love both of these songs, and they were done well. The Nosferatu footage for the former added to the atmosphere.

The Green Manalishi (With the two Pronged Crown). I’ve always loved Priest’s rendition of this Fleetwood Mac song. No one remembers it’s a cover because Priest owns it, so hard. They did again this night. I was singing along very lustily.

The unexpected song disorder. I thought I was mishearing something when Priest launched into “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming” as the followup to set opener “Panic Attack” (which I did expect, and was awesome). Typically “Another Thing” is the closer or at least encore material. “The Hellion/Electric Eye” is the best metal opener of all time and Priest didn’t waste that impact, saving it to open the encore.

Opening act Sabaton. These guys were very good—I entered knowing almost nothing about them, and left willing to give them a concerted listen. What stood out most was their harmonic vocals, like old Viking chants set to heavy metal guitars. The drummer sat on top of a giant tank armed with a pair of gatling guns. Despite singing about war and death exclusively they were having fun and didn’t take themselves too seriously, which I appreciated. At one point the singer slipped while running across stage and fell flat on his back, but sung a couple lines from the prone position. A little Spinal Tap.

Way more people in attendance than I anticipated. Sure, a couple of the topmost sections were curtained off, but the place was probably 85-90% full. 16,755 is the listed capacity of the Prudential Center, so there had to have been 13-14,000K in attendance. Amazing for JP, I thought those days were behind them. Among the crowd was an all-time record number of metal gear wearers—denim vests with quilts of backpatches, studded leather vests and wristbands. Chicks in black leather miniskirts and tall boots and black eyeshadow. It was glorious.

Damn this was good...
but probably not $18.25 good. 
A cold 25 oz Stella.
Giant beers rock, though at $18.25(!) one was enough for my wallet.

The mosh pit after the concert, outside on the sidewalk of the Prudential Center. It started when an enterprising street performer set up shop with a small drumkit and a couple speakers. Exiting the arena we heard “Aces High,” and as we drew closer saw a ring of concert-goers watching this guy pound out a very credible Nicko McBrain, with all the Maiden music minus the drum track emanating from the speaker. And then people started moshing, most notably an incredibly drunk dude wearing full Rob Halford getup circa 1979’s “Unleashed in the East,” complete with jaunty cap and studded leather vest. He was knocked to the ground a few times but kept getting up. I’m quite sure he and some other middle-aged dudes felt it the next day.  But on this night, no pain.







Saturday, April 13, 2024

Metal spring (and summer) kicking off, plus metal memoir update

This spring and summer I’ve got four bands/five shows on the docket. We get started this Friday with the legendary Judas Priest, touring in support of their killer new album Invincible Shield. Time to break out the denim.

Friday April 19: Judas Priest (with opening act Sabaton), Prudential Center, Newark NJ

Saturday May 11: Blind Guardian, Palladium, Worcester MA

Friday August 2: Metallica, Gillette Stadium, Foxborough MA

Wednesday, Nov. 6: Iron Maiden, DCU Center, Worcester MA

Saturday Nov. 9: Iron Maiden, Prudential Center, Newark NJ

Coupled with a pair of shows I’ve already seen (tribute bands Foreigner’s Journey and Lotus Land) that’s seven concerts this year. And who knows, I may add one or two yet. Not bad for an old fart.

Are you going to see any of these shows or bands? Which excite you the most? I’m sure I’ll have some after reports here on the blog.

***

The heavy metal memoir continues. This is easily the most difficult work I’ve attempted … which is not necessarily what I expected when I began. The challenge is trying to tell a well-paced, compelling story, with the right amount of detail and audience applicability. All while avoiding needless details and navel-gazing. I’ve been writing my whole life, but I’ve come to realize that journalism, academic work, and non-fiction are different disciplines altogether than memoir. 

Plus, many of the details of the book are obscured by time and the haze of alcohol.

Not easy, at all.

But I’m pushing, a few times a week, and making progress. I’m working on a second draft now. My goal remains to have it finished by the end of the year.

Monday, April 1, 2024

Scott's Thoughts II: On sincerity

(Editor’s note: Scott’s Thoughts are occasional guest posts penned by my friend Scott. And by occasional, I mean, once every sixteen years or so. You might recall the prior entry in this series, a list of his top 3 Arnold movies, Stallone movies, and heavy metal albums. Today is a more reflective post. I hope you enjoy it. Please stay tuned for part 3 expected sometime in 2040).

Back by popular demand..... Scott's Thoughts! Something you don't need or want, but here we go!

Today's thought concerns sincerity. 

When you're down in the dumps, you need Scott's Thoughts
to Cool You Off! --Paul Stanley
(probably)
In the old cartoon "It's the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown", Linus explains that the Great Pumpkin searches the Earth looking for the pumpkin patch that is the most sincere. I always thought that was funny because it was so over the heads of the 5-year-olds watching the cartoon. Many times in sports or music people will comment on when someone should call it quits. For me, it comes down to sincerity. Obviously it's not easy to watch Ali get pummeled by Larry Holmes or see Michael Jordan as a Wizard, but if it is perceived as sincere and not a money grab, I'm good with it. 

To me the difference between Kiss and AC/DC is sincerity. 

Murph and I have discussed before how Kiss was going through the motions the last 15 years of their touring career. It reeks of a money grab. AC/DC continues to put out albums and tour, yet it seems like they truly enjoy it. Actor Michael Caine at least had the guts to admit that the only reason he did Jaws the Revenge was because his mother needed a new house! You can't fake sincerity, or at least you shouldn't.

Over the next eight months Murph and I are going to see three concerts: Judas Priest, Metallica, and Iron Maiden. Three bands who would never be mistaken for young, yet all three are still producing new material. As Murph recently reviewed, the new Priest album is incredible! If you don't enjoy the newer Maiden progressive trend, that's fine, but I haven't heard of them being accused of going through the motions. Some bands like to experiment and try new things over the course of their career (Maiden, Rush) while others stay the same yet still kick ass (AC/DC). I'm OK with all of it (even though I prefer early Rush). 

Once I perceive a band to lose sincerity, I'm out. Stay Sincere! 

That’s all for now, time to watch Jaws the Revenge.

Friday, March 29, 2024

Some observations while reading Bulfinch’s Mythology

From the warm and pleasant climes of the civilized Mediterranean to the wastes of the frozen north, every civilization and culture had a strong belief in gods. Yes, there were atheists in ancient times--but very few. Only very recently in the long history of humankind have we abandoned the gods. Even today, I think most people possess an underlying spirituality—just less formal and codified, less ritualized. Human nature hasn’t changed much if it all over thousands of years—these stories prove it—and I don’t think our yearning and need for something beyond the material world will ever change. Christianity is a refinement; one benevolent god offers a safer narrative than many petty and vengeful ones. Though I’m not sure a better one. The existence of gods at war with one another, constantly interfering with mankind, might better explain the world we currently inhabit than the Christian.

The Greeks were big on STAYING THE FUCK IN YOUR LANE. There are things that are province of the gods, tread upon them to your peril. So many of the stories are about people pushing too far and being condemned to death or eternal torment. Pride cometh before the fall—and hard. Cross the gods? You’ll have your liver torn out by vultures. And that’s just the beginning. It will regrow and be torn out again. Rolling rocks uphill, only to have them roll back down again. And you’ll do this, forever. The underworld was real … but so were the Elysium fields. Scandinavia had Valhalla, and Hel. Teeth to enforce ethical behavior.

The Arthurian material rocked. I love the concept of chivalry—a code to govern behavior. Yes, these codes were violated (and quite frequently) by lawless knights, but there were standards to live up to. If we all did what’s right—and we know what’s right—there’d be no need for heavy-handed laws and stifling regulations, we’d have paradise on earth. Which is what Camelot was, for a time. Until Arthur’s betrayal by the affair of the all-to-human Lancelot and Guinevere, and it all came down.

The Charlemagne/medieval romances section was short and disappointingly “meh.” I enjoyed the historical introduction to Charles Martel and his battles against the invading Muslims and his massive win at Tours, but otherwise this section felt very rushed and tacked on. The “Horn of Roland” lacked the gravitas I had expected. The book is an abridgement and this section seemed the most abridged.

Rad quotes encountered while reading.

You will go most safely in the middle. -- Ovid

Yield thou not to adversity, but press on the more bravely. – Virgil

The descent to Avernus is easy; the gate of Pluto stands open night and day; but to retrace one’s steps and return to the upper air, that is the toil, that the difficulty. – Virgil

Multiple layers of meaning in 1 and 3, but that’s what makes myths so powerful and enduring.

Saturday, March 23, 2024

One of those mind-blowing I'm old/time is short/all a matter of perspective/WTF type posts

The first time I saw Black Sabbath live was on the Ozzfest tour, Mansfield MA, June 1997.

27 years ago.

Black Sabbath released its debut album, the self-titled Black Sabbath, in 1970.

27 years prior to Ozzfest.

That means, Sabbath had the same distance from its earliest days playing clubs in Birmingham to that warm June night in 1997 as I do, right now. 

Ozzy was 49 years old then, a year younger than I am now.

Kind of mind blowing.

What made me just think of this bit of ephemera, other than it came to me in the shower and compelled me to fire off an inconsequential blog post? What does it matter?

Don't ask me, I don't know.

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Of internet induced “Panic Attack” and Judas Priest’s Invincible Shield

False metal cowers before this shield.
Even as I’m feeling dragged down by the state of “reality” such as we know it, I’m buoyed, once again, by the new Judas Priest release.

The boys from Birmingham haven’t let me down, yet. Heck I even like Turbo

Could they do it again?

Yes they can, and they have. Rob Halford is 72 years old and this is JP’s 19th studio album. They’ve earned the right to do nothing, even coast on mediocrity… but they’re still bringing the heat.

Really, the new album is a marvel.

If you’re a true fan you’ve probably already read the reviews. Invincible Shield is about as good as the press it’s getting. I say “about” because I still perhaps enjoy Firepower a bit more, but that might be because I’ve listened to it far longer. I need a new more spins of the new disc before I decide. 

It’s way better than I hoped.

I was trying to think of how to review the album and honestly, there’s not much I can say that hasn’t already been said. Though I have said something, and you will find that below. I lack the technical music vocabulary to be a good music critic. I know what I like (classic metal) and Invincible Shield is it.

What you might not have heard so much about (at least I haven’t, though admittedly haven’t gone digging, either) is the lyrical content of the opening track, “Panic Attack.” Which to me is a brilliant critique of almost everything that’s wrong with the world today.

(note: if you don’t want to hear this semi-rant and just get the review skip to the section break)

I actually think there isn’t nearly as much wrong with the world today as we believe there is. With one massive exception. The internet.

Judas Priest isn’t necessarily known for its thoughtful lyrical content as compared to say, Iron Maiden. Priest is more apt to write up tempo rockers, songs about motorbikes on the highway, powerful metal warriors, or gay sex (I love “Eat Me Alive” BTW, no bigotry here). 

But of course Priest can write thoughtful stuff from time to time, and “Panic Attack” is one of these songs. I’m not saying it’s Neil Peart level lyrical content, but it is an on-point critique of the internet fueled panic that I believe is the root cause for the high rates of teenage anxiety and depression, and adult political division, we’re seeing today.

Really, are things actually worse today than they were in say, 1940? Or 1860? Or 1660? Do you actually believe this?

You know the answer. They’re not.

We are wealthier, healthier, in almost every measure today than we have been at every point in our history. But I don’t blame you if you don’t agree. You’ve been programmed to think that way.

So have I. So have we all. 

Yes, we have problems today. I’m not making light of foreign wars, terrorism, global warming, bad politicians, inflation, on and on.

But what you don’t hear about are the rapid elimination of poverty. Medical improvements. We’re wealthier, better fed, live longer lives, with higher IQs (YouTube comments to the contrary).

But we’ve all been deluded by the virtual reality we live in, which is rapidly becoming reality. At least in our minds.

If everyone in the U.S. had a cellphone in 1863, or 1918, we would not to be able to get out of bed. We’d be watching thousands slaughtered on the battlefields of the South, or dying in the millions from the Spanish Flu. 

Things aren’t great all over, there is cause for alarm… but the world is getting better overall. But our mindsets? Worse. 

I always say when you’re looking for an answer to a complex problem, follow the $. Bad news attracts eyeballs, it’s part of our flawed human nature, so news outlets and independent creators on YouTube focus on telling these stories and sewing division to get more ad revenue. The platforms want you to spend every waking hour on them, and reward that behavior. 

Politicians know they get airtime when they sling mud or label everything a crisis, or describe the outcome of every election with the solemn intonement “our democracy hangs in the balance.” 

We’re so reduced to soundbites that this is what passes for thoughtful discourse.

The result is an endless supply of apocalypse. On call, 24-7, on your mobile phone. A twisted funhouse mirror on what is actually real, the world outside your window. Until, as Halford sings, “there’s no way left to tell what’s right from wrong.” Unless you “disconnect the system.”

We all need to put our phones down and touch grass. I hate that fucking phrase but there you go.

Division sells. We’re doing this to ourselves, fueled by a constant stream of technology driven negativity. The winners are Google and Apple and TikTok and Facebook.

The Priest has exposed this problem with “Panic Attack.”

The clamour and the clatter

of incensed keys

Can bring a nation to its knees

On the wings of a lethal icon

Bird of prey (aside: is this a Twitter reference?)


It’s a sign of the times when 

bedlam rules

When the masses condone

pompous fools

And the scales of justice tip

in disarray

The good news is that I see some signs of people pushing back on this, booing AI for example, which is as inhuman and fake as it gets.

 

The actual album review 

As for the album? Short review: It kicks ass.

Longer review? It kicks serious fucking ass.

The first time I heard it, I was like OK, “Panic Attack” is killer. Now how about “The Serpent and the King?”

That destroys too. I like it even better. Might be my favorite song on the album. At least at the moment. The guitar behind the chorus mimics the sway of a serpent, I swear. Love it.

Now we’ve got “Invincible Shield.” Title track, so it’s got to be good… and yep it is. It’s awesome.

Surely it must let up at “Devil in Disguise.” Or “Gates of Hell.”

Nope, and nope. If you’re keeping track at home that’s five fucking straight songs of all killer, no filler, for a metal band whose first album, Rocka Rolla, came out FIFTY YEARS AGO. “Gates of Hell” might even be my favorite track on the album.

I even really like song six, “Crown of Horns.” It’s a melodic, slow tempo song, but we NEED it here, to break up the metal destruction. You can only take getting your ass kicked so much.

OK finally, things let up a bit with song seven, “As God is my Witness.” But it’s good. 

The rest of the album is uniformly good, even if it doesn’t rise to the height of the first half. But “Giants in the Sky” is wonderful, would make for a terrific coda to Priest’s career and the end of the metal era (“homage to the legends ‘til the better end, leaving such a legacy my friends.”)

Giants indeed. 

Overall, the production and sound of the album is a 10/10. Halford can still sing (and he’s not what he was circa 1974-87, but who is?). Richie Faulkner is a guitar hero. I’m incredibly pleased with it, and happier yet I’ll be seeing these guys next month and will get to hear some of it, live.


Sunday, March 17, 2024

50 years of Dungeons and Dragons

No save... but lots of fun.
This is the year of golden anniversaries. On the heels of 50 years of Savage Sword of Conan comes a half century of a game that meant and still means a hell of a lot to me. It’s a game in my past, but I might play it again. Hell, I bought my first comic book/illustrated magazine in 33 years, Stranger Things could happen (<=intentional D&D reference inserted here).

I can’t begin to tell you how much fun I had with Dungeons and Dragons and other role playing games. But mostly, with D&D.

I still have all my old core materials. All/most of the AD&D 1E, 2E, and 3.5 hardbacks, plus Moldvay/Cook B/X and the Mentzer sets through Immortals. Approximately 60 modules, and at least 100 issues of Dragon and Dungeon. Once in a while I take them off the shelf, thumb through for the illustrations and the quirky and rich Gygaxian prose.

D&D was my gateway to the RPG hobby. I don’t know the precise year I began but it was definitely in elementary school in the early 80s. The Tom Moldvay basic set was the first RPG I ever owned. I still own those same battered, careworn books.

I remember playing Traveler in elementary school with the black books during lunch. I was fascinated by the crunchiness of the game and the fact that you could die(?) with a series of unfortunate rolls during character creation. I went on to play other RPGs as well, but always came back to Dungeons and Dragons.

This picture paints a thousand words.
We spent many years not playing “right,” misinterpreting rules and playing Monty Haul ultralevel characters that slew demons and devils and collected artifacts and relics like I collect battered S&S paperbacks. Murder-hoboing our way through The Keep on the Borderlands. But having a blast all the while. I remember the excitement when a magic-user would level up, unlock a new spell level, and spend hours agonizing over whether to memorize “Polymorph Self” or “Wall of Ice.”

Eventually our games got more refined as our grasp of the rules improved. Middle school was a step up. Some of my fondest memories of those awkward years were walking home from school with a few friends where an afternoon of adventure awaited: A ping-pong table with hundreds of painted lead miniatures. I was obsessed with the game at this time, carting off piles of books on family camping trips, vacations, and Boy Scout retreats. I created worlds on lined notebook and graph paper in three-ring binders. I painted miniatures, including a skeleton army. I vividly remember the blast I had running a group through A4, In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords, in which the party starts out as loinclothed prisoners deep in the caverns of the wicked slavers and must rely on their wits and pluck to escape to the surface. 

I even got to play D&D during school, during a Friday afternoon 7th period elective in eighth grade. How cool is that?

As an adult I returned to the game I loved, and played for more than 10 years with a new group of friends  made while rolling D20s together. And lost one of those friends, far too early.

I once wrote to Gary Gygax, and to my eternal amazement he wrote me back. I remain indebted to Gary’s work co-founding TSR and am inspired to pick up a good general history of the hobby, possibly Game Wizards or Slaying the Dragon. If you have any recommendations let me know.

For a while I thought computer RPGs would kill off this great old game. Back in the day I loved games like Wizard’s Crown and Ultima and Phantasie and The Bard’s Tale, but these were in the end fairly primitive graphics-wise, a little clunky in their execution, and most of all greatly limited compared to what you could do at the game table. Which was (and is) essentially, limitless, contained only by the imagination of the players and DM. CRPGs have gotten far better, richer, and freeform since, but that hasn’t seemed to hamper the growth of traditional tabletop RPGs. They seem as healthy or perhaps even healthier than ever, at least from my vantagepoint as a casual observer.

Today (and despite some recent missteps by Hasbro) I don’t believe D&D will ever die. It fulfills a need all humans have, for good company and shared storytelling around the table. 50 years ago D&D was created by enthusiasts who recognized this need and married it to their joint love of wargaming and fantasy fiction. The result was magic. I remain forever grateful.

Saturday, March 9, 2024

The Savage Sword of Conan no. 1, Titan Comics: A review

I haven’t bought a new comic book in 33 years, when I purchased the April 1991 Savage Sword of Conan as a high school senior. The venerable magazine ended its long run four years later. I was in college in these waning days of SSOC and so had no spending money for comics; what little funds I had went toward beer. 

I've purchased a handful of back issues of SSOC since, but that’s it. And had no intention of ever buying a new comic again … until now. The hype around the relaunch of SSOC by Titan Comics piqued my interest and I decided to give it a go.

Before I get to the contents I have to say the packaging/mailing is a 10/10. I have never ordered a comic book by mail and dreaded it would arrive mangled by the postal service, but it was secured with cardboard backing in a plastic sheath and packaged in a rigid cardboard flat. The magazine arrived in wonderful shape.

I opened it up and immediately thought, this is what I wanted it to be.

Black and white interior art on newsprint pages, just like the old magazine. Savage and sexy with beheadings and nudity. Pinup art, text articles. The cover callback to the classic Frazetta Conan the Adventurer, featuring Conan astride a mound of corpses with a woman clutching his knee. A shot of nostalgia.

It checked all the boxes.

Yes, it has some well-documented issues with the art being too dark. Not every panel, and the Solomon Kane story does not suffer from this problem. The Hyborian Age map suffers the most, as does a pinup image of Belit. Equally annoying was the lack of page numbers; there is a TOC with page numbers cited but no corresponding numbers on the pages themselves. These were either forgotten or cut off during the printing.

I’m sure these glitches will be fixed.

On to the contents.

I loved opening the issue and seeing an introduction by the legendary Roy Thomas. As if the iconic cover drawn by SSOC veteran Joe Jusko wasn’t enough, Thomas’ recap of the magazine’s history was a perfect way to kick off the issue. Thomas also alluded to having “a story or three” planned for future issues, which would be a very welcome development.

I enjoyed the main feature, “Conan and the Dragon Horde” by writer John Arcudi and artist Man von Fafner. I appreciated it being self-contained to the issue, a big plus for me. The story kept me interested, with enough twists and turns and no lulls. Conan was well-drawn, especially his savage facial expressions. It features a couple well-done “boss fights” with dragon-like dinosaurs and two hulking bodyguards, and a necropolis. The story is quite gritty and has no overt sorcery, even the monsters could be atavistic survivors of a pre-Hyborian/prehistoric age. I perhaps raised an eyebrow at the accuracy of the siege engines (they accurately target moving people, one is used to drop a noose around a man in a melee?) but otherwise was on board with what I was reading.

That said I thought the second-tier Solomon Kane story “Master of the Hunt” was even better. A historical curse laid on a medieval Welsh Lord gives rise to a vengeful demon, and the horror atmosphere is palpable (it reminded me a bit of the beginning of An American Werewolf in Londonkeep off the moors!). The story ends on a cliffhanger which makes issue #2 a must-buy. The art in this story was perfectly clear and non-murky, and it’s good. Kane is well-rendered.

I’m not sure why the need for the prose Jim Zub story “Sacrifice in the Sand,” other than it pairs with the cover. I would have preferred to see a photo essay like we had in the old SSOC days, perhaps a recap of Howard Days or the like. I hope Titan brings those back. Zub did a nice job writing this short two-pager, and I found his prose atmospheric and poetic. It could have made for a nice 6-8 page illustrated short.

I enjoyed Jeff Shanks’ Solomon Kane essay, which paired well with the story. Shanks is a first-rate Howard scholar whom I met at last year’s Howard Days. His “Hyborian Age Archeology” is a must-read, and I relied upon and cited his essay “History, Horror, and Heroic Fantasy: Robert E. Howard and the Creation of Sword and Sorcery” in Flame and Crimson. In comparison to his academic work this Kane essay is sleight, but that’s what you’d expect in a comic magazine. I found it to be a good overview for a new reader of Kane’s publishing history and the character himself.

Oh and REH himself makes an appearance with a reprint of his poem "The Road of Kings."

I thought the riskiest move was the dead horse on the cover; these days people seem OK with every manner of violence inflicted on humans but revolt at the sight of dead animals. Unfortunately corpses of horses littered the battlefields of every historical engagement, well into the 20th century. I have no problem with it, I’m sure some will.

Overall I’m quite happy with issue #1. If you’re a Conan fan you should be too. SSOC is back.

Friday, March 8, 2024

Look what came in the mail

 


Looking forward to reading this. It’s the first new comic book/illustrated magazine I’ve purchased since 1991.


Feeling optimistic after reading the introduction by none other than Roy Thomas, who appears to be “writing a story or three” for the relaunch. 


Monday, March 4, 2024

Our modern problems with reading

We don’t have infinite time. The amount of reading attention any new book must compete with is getting progressively smaller. So we have to be selective.

It’s basic math.

Robert E. Howard read Edgar Rice Burroughs and Jack London and H. Rider Haggard (and many, many authors besides, but bear with me as I make this point).

Michael Moorcock read Howard and his contemporaries C.L. Moore and Clark Ashton Smith… but is obligated to read ERB and London and Haggard.

Writers today read Moorcock and his contemporaries Karl Edward Wagner and Jack Vance and Poul Anderson. But also should read Howard and Moore and Smith … and ERB and London and Haggard.

The demands on new generations of readers multiply. What about readers and writers three generations from now?

Oh, and we all must read the classics. Shakespeare and Milton and Homer and Hemingway.

Make sure you read outside your genre. One should read history, too. 

The accumulated reading, generation on generation, cannot continue. The math doesn’t add up. How many books can anyone read in a lifetime?

Some books must fall by the wayside.

This is just the beginning of the problem. We have many more demands on our attention than previous generations. Movies, TV, video games, TTRPGs, YouTube, doom scrolling, etc., all compete for our attention during “free” time. And despite all the breathless predictions of the techno utopians, we don’t seem to be working any fewer hours.

That means we’ve got choices to make. As you get older, you realize you cannot fritter your time away. It’s far too precious.

So, what are we to do?

My advice: Read what you want. Just read, as long as its not Reddit forums or Twitter threads.

Read new sword-and-sorcery or read the classics. Read comic books, or graphic novels. Just make sure it’s something someone has created, with care. 

Don’t listen to what other people think. I don’t. Because I’ve read enough to spot illogic and ad hominem and the rest. 

Just because a book is old, published 60 or 80 or 400 years ago, does not render it out of date. C.S. Lewis tells us to rid yourself of “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find out why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood.”

And our age is prone to its own illusions.

Anything still in print 60 years after it was published is probably worth your time. Because it survived the test of time. The books that influenced your favorite author(s) are probably worth reading too, even if out of print. 

But don’t feel obligated to plow through classics that are going to kill your love of reading, either. 

Read what interests you, and carry that fire against public opinion. Which is often shit.

That’s another benefit of reading widely and deeply—read enough good stuff and you’ll develop a sensitive and accurate bullshit detection meter.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

50 years of Savage Sword of Conan, and beyond

Ahh, no. 29, I love you. Love them all...
Savage Sword of Conan debuted August 1974. 

I was just one year old. Probably a little young to be reading this great old magazine. But looking back, I love the thought that when I was born, it existed. Imagine a not yet two-year -old me toddling over and placing a chubby hand on Conan nailed to the tree of death, a grinning skull leering in the distance. Boris Vallejo’s stunning artwork gracing the cover of issue #5, which I proudly own.

SSOC changed me. It was my gateway to Robert E. Howard, and to sword-and-sorcery. It introduced me to a darker, more brutal, savage, and sexy brand of fantasy than I was used to from the Chronicles of Prydain and The Hobbit, books I was first encountering around that same time. 

I might not be here blogging were it not for SSOC.

I’ve recounted this story a few times now. Here on the blog, in the foreword to Flame and Crimson, possibly on a podcast or two. But I still remember that initial shock upon finding a horde of back issues of the magazine circa 1984-85. Some of the fondest memories I have in my life are buying a couple at a time as I could afford them, bringing them home, leaning back in my second-hand split leather desk chair, putting my feet up on my desk. Sipping a cold Pepsi and eating a candy bar bought at a local drugstore. And getting utterly lost in the Hyborian Age. I was gripped in the potent spell of a necromancer.

As I write this essay an overflowing comic box sits to my left. The same ones I bought back in the mid-80s, with a couple issues added here and there over the years. One day I will probably finish my collection.

SSOC had it all. Great art of course, which goes without saying. Considerable diversity in its artists, but with some powerhouses to anchor the title, big names with which I’d become familiar—Adams, Vallejo, Norem, Buscema, Alcala, Chan. And others.

After the art, the terrific map of the Hyborian Age topped by an excerpt from the Nemedian Chronicles. Opening SSOC and seeing this splash page made it feel as though I was being guided into a lost world--perhaps due to the way it presented a lost text disclosing an even deeper layer of history (a layering technique J.R.R. Tolkien used in his works, to great effect). It felt real, lived in, once upon a time, impossibly dim and remote, but possibly our own, historical earth before the time when the oceans drank Atlantis.

Beyond that, SSOC featured stories about other Howardian characters, like Red Sonja or Solomon Kane (whom I did not know at all at the time). Beautiful art portfolios. Letters columns. Prose articles. I even loved the ads, pointing to treasures that I hoped I might one day acquire.

I just pulled out no. 29 at random (see above). And it’s just as awesome as I remember. 

Issue 29 TOC.

That map made me a child of sorcery...


Conan's Ladies... easy on the eye.


Holy balls that's some good artwork... Almuric at left (Tim Conrad)

I desperately wanted to participate.

Would they still honor these prices?

RIP John Verpoorten. I'd read every article, regardless of subject matter.

Swords and Scrolls... first letter by one Andrew J. Offutt. With praise for issue #24 and "Tower of the Elephant."

Listening to an interview with Jim Zub on The Rogues in the House podcast got me interested in subscribing to the new incarnation of the magazine, published by Titan. Which is a bit surprising, I suppose, as I’m no longer a comic book guy (or even an illustrated magazine guy). I’m not opposed to them by any means, but they’re just not in my wheelhouse anymore. 

But with the new SSOC the urge is deeper. It’s tapping into my nostalgia, sure, and that’s a potent vein. But it’s also akin to paying my respects. And seeing what new hands and minds might bring to this beloved old character.

OK, I did it. I ordered issue no. 1. It’s been so long since I bought a comic that I’ve never bought one online. I’m nearly certain the last SSOC I bought was issue 184 (April 1991), featuring “An All New Epic Adventure! Disciple!” I hadn’t yet graduated high school. There was no internet.

I thought I might be prompted to subscribe, but instead I purchased the issue as a standalone.

Here we go again.

Here’s to 50 years of this wonderful old magazine, and for what the future may yet bring.