Legion from the Shadows by Karl Edward Wagner

Tuesday, March 10th, 2015 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

oie_9192021nLnODdJxFor those raised in this day of pure unadulterated Robert E. Howard texts, it may interest you to learn that once upon a time a flourishing industry of pastiche publication existed. There were only so many Howard stories to satisfy hordes of swords & sorcery fans, so the powers that were created more. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, the masterminds as it were, behind the pastiche industry were either greedy exploiters of Howard’s legacy or passionate fans who saw the need for further Howardian adventures. As a fan myself at the time, I was quite happy to buy and read a lot of them. Most weren’t better than alright but they scratched an itch.

De Camp (who fiddled mercilessly with Howard’s own short stories) and Carter wrote some of the weakest pastiches. For all his involvement with Howard’s fiction, de Camp never seemed to understand its nuance and why it worked. By education he was an engineer, and the need for things to be logical and systematic undermines his fiction. Carter, sadly, just didn’t have the talent to mimic the writer whose work he loved so dearly.

Unknown Swedish author, Bjorn Nyberg wrote The Return of Conan (1957). Decades later famous authors such as Poul Anderson and Andrew Offut tried their hands at the game. Howard Andrew Jones wrote a good piece on the pasticheurs a while back. Eventually a critical mass of fans and academics rose up, rightly so, to decry the inferior copies — and really, most were — of Howard’s creations.

There’s one Conan pastiche novel I remember truly liking: The Road of Kings (1979) by Karl Edward Wagner. It was good; equal parts dark and exciting. You can read Charles Rutledge’s review from a few years back here.

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Fantasy Literature: That Conan Thing & The Sword of the Lady, Part 1

Friday, February 27th, 2015 | Posted by Edward Carmien

The Sword of the Lady-smallAs the treasure map says, here there be spoilers. This isn’t exactly a review, and besides this is just Part 1 of my look at The Sword of the Lady, of S. M. Stirling’s Emberverse series. As the novel begins, the CUT are determined to kill Rudi McKenzie no matter the political cost of attacking him and the leader of Iowa, a powerful post-change entity. After the attack fails (naturally), Iowa becomes a Good Guy, Rudi & Co. head off to Wisconsin, Major Graber & Co. regroup with some new allies, and the quest continues.

But enough plot. Let’s talk Robert E. Howard’s Conan. Let’s talk S. M. Stirling’s Rudi McKenzie. Let’s talk the hard-eyed desert of the real making it with the saucy romantic.

In Fantasy Literature: The Scourge of God & “I See You” I referred to Conan/Rudi as a way of highlighting how Stirling manages, in a somewhat realistic way, to portray the ultimate warrior at work. Able to reach down and tap deep bodily resources at will, in a tall, well-muscled frame, with a lifetime of martial training (from the very best instructors), and equipped with the best that can be made, Rudi is indeed like Conan himself, a practically unstoppable killing machine. Yet Stirling keeps it real, or a reasonable facsimile of real, making the danger to Rudi palpable. For example, Odin foretells Rudi shall not live so long as to see his hair go gray with age. Better yet, Rudi will die with a blade in his hand.

Conan himself could wish for no better end. Indeed, as mercenary, thief, pirate, and eventually king, Conan risked far worse during his career. Of course, when it comes to career path, Rudi McKenzie, Artos, Ard Ri of Montival, owes more to Aragorn than to Conan, but for now a comparison of how melee is portrayed serves us better than mere kingly politics.

Let us first enjoy some Conan, dug from the very roots of Sword & Sorcery (for this IS Black Gate, isn’t it?).

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Monolith’s Conan Board Game Raises Over $2 Million on Kickstarter

Sunday, February 8th, 2015 | Posted by John ONeill

Conan Monolith-small

Earlier today the Kickstarter campaign for a new Conan miniatures game from start-up Monolith Board Games surpassed $2 million — more than 25 times the $80,000 goal. Monolith has no track record, but they’ve done a fine job generating excitement. Game components  – including double-sided boards and over 70 plastic miniatures — look excellent, and the art, chiefly by Adrian Smith, is terrific. Here’s the description of the core game:

Conan is a miniature-based board game that pits one player, the overlord, who controls hordes of savage tribesmen, no-good lowlifes and undead minions against 1 to 4 players who incarnate the legendary Conan and his fellow adventurers. The gameplay is asymetric, as the overlord possesses a large selection of models and objectives which are his own, whereas the brave heroes are played from a first person perspective, much like in a role playing game. An adventure can be played out in 1 hour on one of the beautiful game boards as you pit your wits, daring and tactical acumen against your opponent.

Who the heck is Monolith, and why should you be giving them your hard earned money?

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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. Here are the next two:

Echoes of Valor II (1989)
Echoes of Valor III (1991)

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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