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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Vintage Treasures: The Spell of Seven, edited by L. Sprague de Camp

Thursday, February 20th, 2014 | Posted by John ONeill

The Spell of Seven-smallIt takes real effort to keep on top of even a fraction of the exciting new work in the fantasy genre every week. Between the print magazines, online outlets like Subterranean and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, paperbacks, hardcovers, and self-published and independent work from talented folks just outside mainstream publishing, it’s exhausting. Luckily, it’s also extremely rewarding, and I feel fortunate indeed to be part of such a lively and vibrant branch of literature.

Of course, there are also weeks when I say, “The hell with it,” and settle in with a great vintage paperback.

This was one of those weeks. And the book that lured me away from the latest crop of promising new writers clamoring for my attention was L. Sprague de Camp’s The Spell of Seven, a slender sword & sorcery anthology from 1965.

I’ll admit up front that I thought that The Spell of Seven was a standalone title. I’m a child of the late 20th Century; when a book is part of a series, I expect the publisher to sell me on that up front. (It’s easier to mug me for more money that way.)

Fortunately, I have the collective hive-mind of Black Gate to call upon. One of the great lobes of that mind is Brian Murphy, who pointed out that the book was a follow-up to De Camp’s seminal S&S anthology Swords and Sorcery, and part of a successful series that would eventually evolve into a four volume survey from Pyramid Books covering the most important heroic fantasy of the time.

Here are Brian’s comments, taken from his 2011 review of The Fantastic Swordsmen.

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At the Intersection of Merritt and Howard

Tuesday, January 21st, 2014 | Posted by James Maliszewski

merrittI’m a big proponent of taking note of literary anniversaries, particularly of the birthdays of authors of whom I am fond. January is chock full of such birthdays – J.R.R. Tolkien on January 3; Clark Ashton Smith on January 13; Edgar Allan Poe on January 19. Had my weekly blog slot fallen on one of those dates, I almost certainly would have taken the time to commemorate their births, since they’ve all exercised an unshakeable influence over my imagination.

As it happened, though, my slot this week didn’t fall on the birthdays of any writer of my acquaintance. Instead, it fell between the birthdays of two scribes whose memories I hold dear. Yesterday was the birthday of Abraham Merritt and tomorrow is that of Robert E. Howard. Over the years, I’ve written multiple celebrations of these men and their contributions, both to the world of letters and to my own life. I think this only just, given how much enjoyment Merritt and Howard have offered to me, despite being decades in the grave before my own birth (indeed, both died before the births of my parents). And so I shall continue my practice this year.

The difficulty, though, is in finding something new to say about these men that I have not said before. That’s a tall order and, whenever this time of year rolls around, I worry that I’ll simply repeat things I’ve said many times before. Perhaps that’s not an unworthy anxiety, especially since truths does not become less true if they are repeated often.  The truth is that Merritt and Howard have each, in their way, made me the man I am today and it’s difficult to conceive of a version of myself that had not discovered and devoured their works.

Just as true, though, is the fact that I first made their acquaintance thanks to Dungeons & Dragons – and it’s on this foundation that I shall build this year’s commemoration of these two titans of fantasy.

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Prologomenon to Fantasy

Tuesday, December 17th, 2013 | Posted by James Maliszewski

bullfinchOne of the things that I frequently blather about is that, when I was growing up in the 1970s, “fantasy,” as it’s understood today didn’t really exist, at least not as a mainstream, popular genre.

Don’t get me wrong: the ’70s were a decade of fantasy par excellence, especially literary fantasy, from reprintings of earlier works, such as the Lancer Books Conan series (begun in 1966) and the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series (begun in 1969), to the Tolkien imitators, like Terry Brooks’s The Sword of Shannara (1977) and Stephen R. Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane (1977) – not to mention Tolkien’s own The Silmarillion (1977 once again!) – to modern classics like Fritz Leiber’s Our Lady of Darkness (guess what year?). The ’70s also saw fantasy rise to prominence in other media, like comic books, where Roy Thomas’s Savage Sword of Conan cultivated an entire generation of artists, and movies, where special effects artists continued to acquire the skills and technology to bring fantasy to life on the silver screen. And, of course, the decade also saw the appearance and flourishing of fantasy roleplaying games, beginning with Dungeons & Dragons in 1974.

Despite these strides, spearheaded by the faddish popularity of D&D and its imitators, I’d argue that fantasy didn’t really come into its own as a pop cultural phenomenon until much later. Consequently, when I first encountered Dungeons & Dragons very late in 1979, I had almost no direct experience of what we’d nowadays call fantasy. Indeed, I wouldn’t read a word of The Lord of the Rings or the tales of Conan until after I’d begun rolling polyhedral dice. For that matter, I don’t think I’d even heard of J.R.R. Tolkien or Robert E. Howard until I encountered both their names in the pages of the J. Eric Holmes-edited D&D rulebook that was my introduction to the game. The same goes for Lovecraft, come to think of it, and most of the other authors whom we typically regard as the “founders” of fantasy. In that respect, my youth is very different than that of 21st century fantasy aficionados, almost all of whom I’d bet didn’t make it to the age of 10 without at least being familiar with the characters and ideas these authors birthed.

However, this isn’t to say I had no experience with fantasy before I discovered Dungeons & Dragons, only that my introduction to it was of a different sort, one I expect I shared with many kids of my generation.

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The Hero’s Struggle

Wednesday, November 20th, 2013 | Posted by Jon Sprunk

The Swords of Lankhmar-smallConan the Barbarian. Elric of Melnibone. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Gilgamesh. Hercules. Hector of Troy.

These giants of heroic fantasy (and the mythology from whence it springs) strode across the landscape of my imagination as a young man. They were my guiding stars when I started to write my own stories. But what were they teaching me?

When I think about these heroes, one thing that comes through is their incredible lust for life. Even when they lapse into melancholy, they never stop striving, never stop fighting, and that struggle is the essence of life. Whether it’s Conan carving out a place for himself in the kingdoms of Hyborea, or Elric fighting to keep his fragile body alive with potions and sorcery, or Hector facing the dread Achilles to protect his home, these heroes confront the challenges of their ages.

Their struggles say a lot about humanity. How far would we go to protect our own? Where is the line between justice and vengeance? Is violence ever warranted?

So when it came time to create the heroes for my own stories, I didn’t set out to emulate these characters, but time and time again I noticed certain parallels. For instance, Caim (the main character of my Shadow Saga) has many of the physical traits of the Gray Mouser, but married to a personality more like Conan. Caim is direct in his sneakiness, deliberate in his dealings, and he possesses a code of honor that, although rather bleak and brutal to most people, elevates him above his peers.

Heroes often fight. They tend to love and mourn with superhuman passion. But first and foremost, they struggle. With their enemies, with their societies, with the gods, and oftentimes even with themselves. They struggle, and so must our contemporary heroes who wish to tread in their titan-sized footsteps.

Passive vs Active Heroes

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013 | Posted by Alex Bledsoe

Ask any established actor, and s/he will always say something along the lines of, “it’s much more fun to play a villain than a hero.” It’s no wonder: villains tend to get the best lines (“No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!”), certainly their share of the trophy companions, have a higher standard of living, enjoy life more, and many go to their eventual demise laughing.

There’s another difference, though, that strikes at the very core of the hero/villain dynamic. The villains get to be pro-active. That means that traditional heroes are always re-acting.

It’s in the nature of heroes to simply sit around and wait to be needed. The most vivid example of that is in Batman Returns, when Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) is shown sitting alone in the dark until the bat signal calls to his alter ego. Superman can’t act until Lex Luthor unveils his nefarious plan. Philip Marlowe has to wait for a client to walk in the door.

Just chillin' wit my batz waiting for yur signal.

Just chillin’ wit my batz waiting for yur signal.

And this goes against one of the great Rules of Writing, which is to never let your hero be passive. But it’s in the very nature of heroes to be passive, to wait until the villain makes a move, to respond to a threat. After all, how do you act like a hero pro-actively?

Well…ask Conan.

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