The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes: Pratchett’s Cohen the Barbarian

Monday, January 26th, 2015 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Cohen_CohenI am an unabashed fan of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. Along with a lot of Carl Hiassen’s work, they are the only reads that cause me to laugh out loud. Unseen Academicals was the first Discworld book that I wasn’t really happy with when I finished it; which isn’t too bad considering it was the thirty-third in the series for me.

Though I have a very fundamental difference with Pratchett’s basic worldview, I think he is an absolutely brilliant satirist. Discworld isn’t nearly as well known generally as The Hitchhiker’s Guides to the Galaxy books, but I tell folks that if you like Douglas Adams, you should like Terry Pratchett.

Genghiz Cohen, better known as Cohen the Barbarian, appears in a few novels. He is Discworld’s greatest warrior, though now he is an old man in his late eighties or nineties, and he leads a band of senior citizen barbarians known as the Silver Horde.

Cohen/Conan. The Silver Horde/The Golden Horde. See? Get it? Discworld is full of this stuff.

Cohen is a skinny old man with a long white beard, a patch over one eye and a dirty loincloth. He has a set of dentures made from Troll teeth, which are pretty much the only things he has left from a wild life.

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Vintage Treasures: Echoes of Valor II, edited by Karl Edward Wagner

Sunday, January 18th, 2015 | Posted by John ONeill

Echoes of Valor II-smallKarl Edward Wagner continued his sword-and-sorcery anthology series with Echoes of Valor II, published in hardcover by Tor Books in August 1989, two years after the release of Echoes of Valor.

Wagner settled into an established pattern with this volume. The first one had been unusual for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it contained only novellas — three big stories by Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, and Henry Kuttner. Not that you can go wrong with Howard, Leiber, and Kuttner, but the next two books in the series offered a more varied table of contents.

Echoes of Valor had also been bare bones from an editorial standpoint. Not even an introduction, let alone commentary on the stories. Wagner rectified that with Echoes of Valor II, which included new and reprinted story intros and author retrospectives by C. L. Moore, Sam Moskowitz, Forrest J. Ackerman, and Wagner himself. This seems more what Wagner had in mind for EoV, which he clearly intended to be a definitive S&S anthology series.

In fact, it’s probable that the first volume was put together much more hurriedly than the last two. Not only was it missing the editorial content that would be the hallmark of the series, but it went straight to paperback. Echoes of Valor II appeared first in a handsome hardcover edition, and was reprinted in paperback in February 1991.

This one contains a rich assortment of classic S&S and heroic fantasy, including a Conan tale by Robert E. Howard, a Jirel of Joiry story and two Northwest Smith tales from C. L. Moore, a Venus novella by Leigh Brackett and Ray Bradbury, and a Hok the Mighty novella by Manly Wade Wellman… along with fascinating articles on how some of the stories came together.

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The Barbarism of Bullfighting and Archaic Diction in L. Sprague de Camp’s “The Rug and the Bull”

Tuesday, January 13th, 2015 | Posted by Gabe Dybing

1974 Paperback edition. Cover art by Frank Frazetta.

1974 Paperback edition. Cover art by Frank Frazetta.

One of the many freedoms of Sword and Sorcery, it seems to me, is that it enables the adoption of a world that allows the writer to comment on just about anything on which one would want. One of Robert E. Howard’s purposes in the construction of his own Hyboria was to create a conglomerate of cultures, no matter how anachronistic their juxtapositions, so that his hero Conan might have any kind of adventure that Howard might think up. Whereas for previous tales, Howard perhaps had to construct different heroes for different historical epochs (Bran Mak Morn for the Celtic Picts, Solomon Kane for the sixteenth century, Kull for Atlantis), in the Hyborian Age Conan might be a thief, a soldier, a pirate, and ultimately a king, his adventures all the while providing Howard with powerful commentary on “civilization.”

So, too, writers after Howard have utilized this purpose. Dave Sim, through his creation of Cerebus the Aardvark, begins by commenting on the Sword and Sorcery genre itself (as well as the mainstream comic books of Sim’s time) and then goes on to explore High Society, Church & State, marriage – and this last, in Jaka’s Story, is as far as my reading has taken me, but I understand that Sim is so far reaching in his exploration of topics that in a much later volume he even explores the life and works of Ernest Hemingway through Cerebus taking on the position of Hemingway’s personal secretary!

Terry Pratchett uses the Sword and Sorcery milieu to ingenious satirical effect, cribbing directly (I believe) from Fritz Leiber in order to forecast to his readers, in the very first pages of the very first Discworld novel, just what tone and material his readers may expect. Pratchett’s initial perspective characters, soon abandoned, are Bravd and the Weasel (Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, obviously). I quote the following description in order to give an example of Pratchett’s satirical treatment of Sword and Sorcery and to underscore, specifically, Pratchett’s debt to Leiber. For more humor, one might want to pick up this book and enjoy the way that these characters talk to each other – it’s impressively Leiberesque.

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Four Tricks for Dealing with The Unsightly Scars of Righteous Battle

Friday, January 9th, 2015 | Posted by mariebilodeau

Arnold as Conan-smallIt occurred to me while writing about the benefits of chainmail bikinis that one of the major downfalls is the vast amount of exposed skin. Not for any morality or mortality reasons (although those do make for interesting points), but rather for the sheer amount of maintenance that would require. I’m not even talking about shaving and waxing. (We all agree that Conan *must* wax to pull off that oily muscled look, right?)

And let’s be realistic. Wow, the scars adventurers must have. I mean, I once had a tick removed from my tender tender belly flesh. That’s what you get for running in the woods fully clothed, so I flinch at the thought of running half-naked in the woods. You’d become a tick magnet.

Anyway, a 70-year old mostly blind doctor went at me with a scalpel to remove the tiny leg still stuck in my flesh and, I gotta tell you, that left a scar. Now that was one tiny, super sharp and badly wielded knife. So let’s pause and imagine how many scars inappropriately armored individuals must have.

This is more about the unsightly scars left behind by being thrust at with swords, spears, arrows, knives, mystical weapons, spells, and large pachyderms. Obviously there are ways of dealing with such minor scars, leaving visible only the major nod-to-backstory ones.

In my continued efforts to support sword and sorcery fashion adventurers, here’s an undoubtedly incomplete list of tricks to deal with scarring while wearing almost nothing.

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Vintage Treasures: Echoes of Valor, edited by Karl Edward Wagner

Monday, December 22nd, 2014 | Posted by John ONeill

Echoes of Valor-smallIn 1987, a decade after he’d edited the three volume definitive editions of the Berkley Conan (The People of the Black Circle, Red Nails, and The Hour of the Dragon), Karl Edward Wagner set out to create a major reprint anthology of heroic fantasy.

He succeeded with flying colors with Echoes of Valor, the first volume of which was published in 1987. This volume is unusual for several reasons. First, it contained only three stories – three complete novellas by Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, and Henry Kuttner, wrapped in a rather terrible cover by Ken Kelly.

Second, it includes the first publication of the original version of Howard’s 100-page Conan story “The Black Stranger.”  Unsold in Howard’s lifetime, it had previously appeared — heavily revised by L. Sprague de Camp — in the February 1953 issue of Fantasy Magazine; it was later re-titled “The Treasure of Tranicos” when it appeared in the Gnome Press Conan editions. ”The Black Stranger” has become the definitive version, and it has re-appeared many times since.

Third, while later volumes in the series included lengthy introductions by Wagner, Sam Moskowitz, and Forrest J. Ackerman, this volume contains only fiction. The other two stories are Leiber’s 1947 Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser novella “Adept’s Gambit,” originally published in his collection Night’s Black Agents, and Kuttner’s “Wet Magic,” the tale of Morgan le Fay in World War II Britain, originally published in the February 1943 issue of Unknown Worlds magazine.

Wagner managed two more Echoes of Valor volumes, in 1989 and 1991, before he died. All three are highly collectible today and I hope to cover them in future posts.

Echoes of Valor was published in Feb 1987 by Tor Books. It is 286 pages, priced at $2.95. The cover is by Ken Kelly. It has never been reprinted, and there is no digital edition.


The Fantasy Roots of Fan Fiction

Thursday, October 16th, 2014 | Posted by John ONeill

Conan of the Isles-smallMy fifteen year-old daughter is a voracious reader. I thought I read a lot, but I’m not even in her league. She reads fairy tales, a great deal of YA fantasy, and a smattering of horror. Just a few days ago, she asked me where to find Stephen King in our library. I wonder if that means she’s finally going to stop re-reading The Hunger Games.

But mostly what she reads is fan fiction. I mean, a ton of fan fiction. She reads it online on her Kindle, curled up on her bed. Walking Dead fanfic, Buffy fanfic, Harry Potter fanfic, Fairy Tail fanfic… I know all this because every time she reads something she really likes, she comes bounding downstairs to breathlessly relate the details. Having trouble communicating with your teenage daughter? Here’s a tip: shut the hell up and listen when you’re drying dishes, or trapped with her on a long road trip. I think I can name every character on The Walking Dead, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an episode.

Anyway, the point is, my daughter treats fanfic with the same respect and enthusiasm as published fiction. It’s fully legitimate to her. There’s also a certain sense of ownership — her friends read fan fiction, but she doesn’t know any adult who does, so there’s a generational divide. Fanfic belongs to her generation, the way Dungeons and Dragons and Star Wars belonged to mine. Part of her love for fan fiction stems from the fact that her generation is the first to really discover it.

Except it’s not, of course. Not really. Yes, the explosive growth in the fan fiction community is relatively new, but the phenomenon is not. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, and it all stems from a comment Fletcher Vredenburgh made in his review of Lin Carter’s Kellory the Warlock:

Most of his fiction, rarely more than pastiches of his favorite authors (Howard, Burroughs, Lovecraft, and Dent), never garnered enough attention to be republished…  Most of the time, he was trying to create fun, quick reads that were recreations of his favorite writers. In a way, he was writing fan fiction; it’s just that he got his published.

I think this is fairly astute. I think Lin Carter might be more appreciated today if he were reassessed for what he truly was: an imaginative and extremely prolific fanfic writer. The same is true of many other writers, in fact, who are long out of print and in danger of being forgotten, including L. Sprague de Camp, Andrew J. Offutt, August Derleth, and even folks like Karl Edward Wagner.

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My Inspiration: Black Canaan

Thursday, August 14th, 2014 | Posted by Elwin Cotman

Black Canaan-small

He was clad in ragged trousers, but on his head was a band of beaten gold set with a huge red jewel, and on his feet were barbaric sandals. His features reflected titanic vitality no less than his huge body. But he was all Negro — flaring nostrils, thick lips, ebony skin. I knew I looked upon Saul Stark, the conjer man.
– “Black Canaan,” by Robert E. Howard

A poor man, a black man, but still a king. A king with a realm he carved out himself.

In my first story collection, The Jack Daniels Sessions EP, there is a novella about a young boy who sees dead people. Very original, I know. The gist is that he has shamanist powers that have lain dormant in his genes. At one point, he is told a story about a plantation shaman who empowered the slaves with his magic, enabling them to sabotage the farm. There is also a legend about runaways joining up with Indians in the swamp, my own riff on the Black Seminoles. The boy’s exposure to his African roots is an uncomfortable one for him, sometimes physically so, as it is a part of his lineage he had no awareness of.

The episodes of slave revolt are based on history. It was also history I had to seek out myself. The teaching of black history in schools is such an insidious con job, it angers me to write about it. Fifty years ago, there were downtrodden blacks, then good white people passed laws and they could sit at a lunch counter. One hundred and forty-six years ago, there were slaves, then good white people passed a law and they were free. (Oh, I’m sorry, I forgot that slavery ended 500 years ago, or 600, or whatever it is now.)

The most we learned about slavery in elementary school was the cakewalk, and that as a form of cornpone entertainment, not the satire on whites that it was. American history classes largely leave out the stories of blacks’ role in their own liberation. They also leave out any information on Africa, continuing the stereotype of the continent as a savage place, not the fertile land of kingdoms it was prior to colonization.

Ironically, one of my earliest introductions to black liberation was a story by someone decried as a racist, Robert E. Howard’s “Black Canaan.”

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Balance of Power

Wednesday, July 16th, 2014 | Posted by Jon Sprunk

People of the Black Circle-smallFantasy is generally about power. Who wields it, who wants it, and the price they pay for it. Magic (the supernatural world) is often the metaphor used for power in fantasy lit. But there are plenty of other kinds, such as fighting prowess, political power, and so on, that can also be incorporated.

In fact, what a fantasy story says about power is usually one of the most important elements to me.

In Robert E. Howard’s Conan series, Conan represents the superiority of the barbarism over decadent civilization, and also the power of the individual against society. He is the fulcrum that swings the balance of power away from the rich nations by the force of his will and the strength of his arm. Until, of course, he eventually comes to rule one of those soft civilized nations….

In The Black Company, Glen Cook creates an epic saga about a company of grunts trying to survive during a massive war between supercharged sorcerers. Not only do the soldiers of the Black Company survive, they manage to thwart the wizards and witches who try to use them, showing that the common man and woman are the true shapers of history.

Steven Erikson’s The Malazan Book of the Fallen features a stunning array of factions and individuals across many levels of society, many of them jostling for power and some just trying to stay out of the way.

My own Book of the Black Earth series has only just begun, but already in the first book I’ve laid down the underlying conflict of rival powers. Religious cults vie with secular government. City-states compete for regional power. Individuals strive against the institutions of slavery and caste in a world where sorcery is the province of the ruling class.

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King Conan Gets a Movie Poster

Sunday, May 18th, 2014 | Posted by John ONeill

King Conan poster-smallSo here’s a fun thing. The King Conan movie poster at right, featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger as everyone’s favorite barbarian monarch, was spotted at the Cannes Film Festival this weekend, and is now making the rounds on the Internet.

Before you get too excited, the existence of the poster does not actually imply the existence of a movie… or even a soon-to-be-movie. Apparently, this is a thing at Cannes: using promotional posters to generate excitement among possible investors.

Still, it warms my heart. And it sent me on a hunt for the latest news of the next Conan film, which everyone seems certain will be announced Real Soon Now. Last summer, producer Fredrick Malmberg provided some details on the plot, clarifying that “this takes place AFTER Conan has been king… if we do this right, we can do two more Conan movies right after.” Andrea Berloff  took over script duties from Chris Morgan last October.

Schwarzenegger has expressed clear interest and has been tied to the film since word first leaked. In an interview last year, he shared his thoughts on the project:

The important thing with Conan is to make it into an A-movie, to treat it like a 300, or any of those great movies, rather than a B-action movie… The audience today, and the fans, are very sophisticated… They’ve seen it all. They demand something — when they see a Conan movie — that isn’t just a spectacle.

Opinion is divided on whether the final version will be called King Conan or The Legend of Conan. Whatever the case, we’ll keep you posted as things develop.


Conan in Manhattan: The Relationship Between Urban Fantasy and Sword and Sorcery

Thursday, March 13th, 2014 | Posted by Jonathan Wood

The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian-smallUrban fantasy? You mean that genre where everyone gets to shag a vampire? What the hell has that got to do with fighting off the corruption of civilization with only a broadsword and a loincloth? At least, that’s pretty much where my head was at a few months before I started writing No Hero.

See, I never really expected to write an urban fantasy novel. Except now I’m on my fourth…

Back when I started writing my first urban fantasy novel, No Hero, what I really wanted to capture was my love of the old pulps, to create some good old-fashioned two-fisted action. Men of moral fiber refusing to bow down and be beaten. I was flailing around for a way to channel that when a friend said to me, “You know, urban fantasy is just sword and sorcery with a modern day setting.”

Now, obviously this is a slightly problematic statement. But as I thought about it, I realized the argument had more heft than I’d originally considered.

In an article in this magazine, “The Demarcation of Sword and Sorcery,” Joseph A McCullough V lays forward a pretty clear blueprint for the subgenere. First he deals with characters, stating that they are: 1) self-motivated, 2) outsiders, and 3) of heroic stature.

The first two of those characteristics are perhaps taken best together. The quintessential urban fantasy character is probably the private investigator. By definition these are outsiders: they are not part of any larger legal organization, they operate alone or within a small support network of other loners and social oddities, and they are outside of the world they investigate. They stand apart from the criminals they pursue. What’s more, they are self-motivated: they decide the cases they take. They decide how to pursue them. While not all characters are private detectives (none of mine are), they do all tend to share these traits (yep, I’m covered).

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