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A Sword & Sorcery Christmas

Tuesday, December 24th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

Flashing Swords-small

It’s Christmas Eve. Everyone in the O’Neill household is wrapping presents, munching Christmas cookies, and listening to music (so… much… loud… music…). Yesterday I gave up and turned off the portable Bose speaker next to my head, because the music coming out of the basement was so loud I couldn’t hear it.

Christmas break isn’t just about having our kids home, food, and taxing my eardrums. It’s also when I have time for more ambitious reading projects, and this year there’s one in particular I’m really looking forward to. Bob Byrne challenged me to read more Robert E. Howard, and suggested I started with The Best of Robert E. Howard Volume 1:Crimson Shadows from Del Rey. When I asked what was special about the stories in that book, Bob said:

You need to read a couple. The guy running Black Gate has to be a little more REH-read. Solomon Kane is good, but… Read “Worms of the Earth,” the Conan, and the el Borak. That book is where I read my first Solomon Kane. I bought the Kane book right after.

That seems like a good idea to me. I started investigating what others books I wanted to read over the 2019 Christmas break, and came across G. W. Thomas’s exhaustive survey of 44 S&S anthologies on his Dark Worlds blog on November 14. Sword & Sorcery Anthologies 1963-1985 was a handy resource, and helped inspire my reading project to grow into a deeper exploration of 20th Century Sword & Sorcery.

Here’s a snippet from Thomas’ introduction.

The Sword & Sorcery boom of the late 1960s was driven by the publication of The Lord of the Rings by Donald A. [Wollheim] at Ballantine Books. That happen in 1966. L. Sprague de Camp had been working hard three years before this to make sure S&S was not forgotten. He edited the first S&S anthology in 1963, appropriately calling it Sword & Sorcery. (The moniker “Sword & Sorcery” had been coined only two years earlier by Fritz leiber responding to Michael Moorcock’s suggestion in Amra…)

De Camp followed up his first book with The Spell of Seven in 1965 before Hans Stefan Santesson published the first of the Lancer collections, The Fantastic Swordsmen in 1967. The Sword & Sorcery book was on!

Thomas covers all the classics you’d expect over the next two decades, including Lin Carter’s Flashing Swords, Andrew Offutt’s Swords Against Darkness, Robert Lynn Asprin and Lynn Abbey’s Thieves World, Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s Amazons, and many others.

The Year's Best Fantasy Lin Carter 2-small

The one I’m most interested in this winter, however, is Lin’s Carter and Arthur Saha’s The Year’s Best Fantasy Stories, published in 14 volumes between 1975 and 1989.

I neglected this one when it appeared, though I dutifully collected all the volumes over the years. There are far too many books to read over the next two weeks, but these slender volumes look perfect for dipping into during chilly evenings as 2019 draws to a close.

The Year's Best Fantasy Lin Carter-small

If all goes according to plan, the long nights of the next few days will be filled with Sword & Sorcery by Robert E. Howard, Jack Vance, Fritz Leiber, C. J. Cherryh, John Brunner, Tanith Lee, Craig Shaw Gardner, Janet Fox, Phyllis Eisenstein, and many other of the finest practitioners of the art in the late 70s and 80s. Should be fun. Thanks for the suggestion, Bob.

Anyone else have an end-of-year reading project they’ve been looking forward to? I’d love to hear about it. Shout out in the comments.

40 Comments »

  1. I also just started rereading Conan. And also probably some Leiber, Moorcock, and Wagner as well. Been a few years since I read them and I think I’ve only now got enough understanding of these stories to truly appreciate them.
    Worms of the Earth gets a full endorsement form me. But I would also add the hilariously titled Pigeons from Hell. It’s a great Howard story outside the familiar fantasy.

    Comment by Martin Christopher - December 25, 2019 3:33 am

  2. all of the issues of grimdark magazine are kindle unlimited, so i am working my way through them all in a semi-cheating way to complete my goodreads reading challenge for this year (though they do have a decent page count), hahaha.

    what you are doing sounds like a blast though, i would love to have a lot of these digitally, but mostly i have to hit abebooks for them. jealous of your collection!

    Comment by silentdante - December 25, 2019 4:44 am

  3. I love Flashing Swords!

    I won’t get to it over the holidays (I’m still in early stages of reading P.C. Hodgell’s excellent Kencyrath series), but at some point early next year I’m planning to reread two of my favorite Lin Carter anthologies, Kingdoms of Sorcery and Realms of Wizardry. They were hardcover collections from 1976 or so that I found at the public library, and were my first introduction to H. Rider Haggard and A. Merritt, amongst many others.

    Comment by Joe H. - December 25, 2019 9:30 am

  4. John, I second Martin’s comment: I implore you to start with REH’s best short story, PIGEONS FROM HELL. Gut-punching horror that has lost none of its power to shock. I DARE you to read this story alone in the house past midnight. . . .

    Comment by carlreed - December 25, 2019 10:31 am

  5. Those lin Carter Year’s Best Fantasy anthologies had a lasting influence on my tastes. I tried a Saha edited Year’s Best and didn’t care much for it.

    Comment by Charles_Martel - December 25, 2019 11:42 am

  6. > I would also add the hilariously titled Pigeons from Hell. It’s a great Howard story outside the familiar fantasy.

    Martin,

    Good choice! The great “Pigeons From Hell” was the first Howard story I ever read. I enjoyed it so much I even bought Scott Hampton’s gorgeous graphic novel adaptation from Eclipse Comics in 1988.

    Pigeons From Hell Scott Hampton-small

    Comment by John ONeill - December 25, 2019 2:05 pm

  7. > All of the issues of grimdark magazine are kindle unlimited, so i am working my way through
    > them all in a semi-cheating way to complete my goodreads reading challenge for this year

    Dante,

    A fine choice. That’s a great way to get caught up on the writers producing modern S&S. Of those you’ve read so far, who’s worth a shout-out?

    GrimDark Magazine 17

    Comment by John ONeill - December 25, 2019 2:14 pm

  8. > I’m planning to reread two of my favorite Lin Carter anthologies, Kingdoms of Sorcery
    > and Realms of Wizardry. They were hardcover collections from 1976 or so

    Joe,

    I tracked down Kingdoms of Sorcery when someone here mentioned it a few years ago… but I had no idea it had a companion volume until today. Looks like there was never a paperback edition, but the hardcover doesn’t look very expensive. Thanks for the great tip!

    Realms of Wizardry Lin Carter

    Comment by John ONeill - December 25, 2019 2:24 pm

  9. > I implore you to start with REH’s best short story, PIGEONS FROM HELL. Gut-punching horror that has lost none of its power to shock

    Carl,

    It’s been many, many years since I read “Pigeons from Hell” (at least 30, by my guess). So depending on how my other reading goes, I may take your advice.

    Comment by John ONeill - December 25, 2019 2:29 pm

  10. > Those lin Carter Year’s Best Fantasy anthologies had a lasting influence on
    > my tastes. I tried a Saha edited Year’s Best and didn’t care much for it.

    Charles,

    I never got to the Saha volumes. What stories and authors do you remember from the Carter books? Did you have a favorite volume?

    Comment by John ONeill - December 25, 2019 2:33 pm

  11. “Pigeons From Hell” got a great adaptation on the old Boris Karloff Thriller television show. Steven King considered it the greatest hour of horror ever done on TV.

    Comment by Thomas Parker - December 25, 2019 3:00 pm

  12. Those worth a shout out? hmm…

    i finally took the dive into Mark Lawrence work based on the strength of the story “Bad Seed” in the first issue, after hearing good things about him. glad i did.

    i also found Mike Brooks and the Keiko books series (so excerpts can and do work), they are good, the kind of space stuff i am looking for over the more seemingly popular military space stuff.

    i LOVED the short story In Brazen Dreams by Matthew (matt) Ward, who i guess worked or works for Games Workshop. i want a whole series in this setting and even though i looked around, i dont think he has written much other fiction, but i hope he does. loved this.

    i also enjoy the stories by T.R. Napper, but i am a sucker for anything cyberpunky. i also saw that grimdark will be publishing a collection of T.R. Napper stories soon, so i will most likely pick that up.

    Comment by silentdante - December 25, 2019 9:54 pm

  13. I’ve got Tales From the Magician’s Skull vol 3. Specifically the Hanuvar story. Really I need to go back and read everything from the previous volumes as well.

    I’ve told myself the past three Halloween’s that I would read Pigeons From Hell.

    But I’m way to much of a coward. Horror stuff tends to stick with me for too long afterwards.

    Comment by Glenn - December 25, 2019 10:01 pm

  14. John — I’d say there’s a non-zero chance that the someone who mentioned Kingdoms of Sorcery was me … I’m always banging on about those two volumes. :)

    Comment by Joe H. - December 26, 2019 12:49 am

  15. John, It has been a long time since I read the anthologies but about every issue had a Charles Saunders story in it which might be why I’m a fan today. I remember liking the Janet Fox and Pat McIntosh stories that were in most volumes.

    What I remember most about the volumes was Lin’s commentary about the year in fantasy. He had such enthusiasm for the genre. He raved about newcomer! Tanith Lee’s The Birthgrave. He hated Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara. He thought it was a blatant rip off of The Lord of the Rings. Even at the time I thought that might be hypocritical of Lin since about everything he wrote was a pastiche of something.

    Comment by Charles_Martel - December 26, 2019 6:55 am

  16. At the every end of Carter’s ‘Year’s Best..4’, there is an extremely short but volatile rant about The Sword of Shanarra being the biggest rip-off (of Tolkien, of course) in the history of books.

    Comment by Bob Byrne - December 26, 2019 3:09 pm

  17. He wasn’t wrong … And he did, in his rant, acknowledge that he himself did a lot of pastiche work, but the distinction he drew was that he wasn’t actually copying entire Howard or Burroughs stories beat-for-beat the way Shannara did with LotR. For whatever that’s worth.

    Comment by Joe H. - December 26, 2019 3:18 pm

  18. That link to the G. W. Thomas Sword & Sorcery Anthologies post sent me on an AbeBooks run for S&S as well.
    I immediately ordered the 1963 Sword & Sorcery anthology edited by de Camp and I also have de Camp’s 1965 The Spell of Seven and his 1967 The Fantastic Swordsmen on the way. I voraciously read the Sword & Sorcery anthology in just two days.
    But my appetite for S&S was so whetted, and since I’m still waiting on the other two volumes, I began to pick through some other fantasy anthologies I own, such as Lin Carter’s The Young Magicians. Though not strictly S&S, there are a few S&S gems in there, including an REH tale that I hadn’t read in over twenty years: “The Valley of Worm”!
    Thanks for setting me on to S&S again. I have to admit, at the end of the day, no matter how much I love Tolkienesque stuff, S&S is my true fantasy love.

    Comment by James McGlothlin - December 26, 2019 5:12 pm

  19. > “Pigeons From Hell” got a great adaptation on the old Boris Karloff Thriller television
    > show. Steven King considered it the greatest hour of horror ever done on TV.

    Thomas,

    Wow. I knew there were other adaptations, but I’d never heard of that one.

    YouTube has the complete episode here (approx 50 minutes long):

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vOG7D1r412M

    Comment by John ONeill - December 26, 2019 5:38 pm

  20. > i LOVED the short story In Brazen Dreams by Matthew (matt) Ward, who i guess worked or works for Games Workshop. i want a whole series
    > in this setting and even though i looked around, i dont think he has written much other fiction, but i hope he does. loved this.

    Dante,

    Thanks for the recs! Yeah, ISFDB lists only four stories by Ward, half of which were published by GdM.

    http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/ea.cgi?198421

    Plus his first novel, Legacy of Ash, just published in hardcover last month by Orbit. I will definitely check it out.

    Comment by John ONeill - December 26, 2019 5:44 pm

  21. > I’ve got Tales From the Magician’s Skull vol 3. Specifically the Hanuvar story.
    > Really I need to go back and read everything from the previous volumes as well.

    Glenn,

    Good choice! Howard Andrew Jones’s Hanuvar tales are consistently the standouts in Tales From the Magician’s Skull for me. But maybe I’m biased, since he sent me the first two when we were first published Black Gate, and I’d hoped to be the first person to get them into print. Alas! It was not to be.

    Comment by John ONeill - December 26, 2019 5:48 pm

  22. > John — I’d say there’s a non-zero chance that the someone who mentioned Kingdoms of Sorcery
    > was me … I’m always banging on about those two volumes

    Joe,

    Could be! I’m glad copies of Realms of Wizardry aren’t too expensive. There’s a copy in Very Good condition available on eBay for just $3.99 (with free shipping)…. if only I could figure out some way to buy it!

    https://www.ebay.com/itm/Realms-of-Wizardry-by-Lin-Carter/142986081324

    I’ve never had this problem with eBay before. It seems to be immune to purchasing.

    Comment by John ONeill - December 26, 2019 5:53 pm

  23. > Thanks for setting me on to S&S again. I have to admit, at the end of the day, no matter how much I love Tolkienesque stuff, S&S is my true fantasy love.

    James,

    You’re very welcome! And at the risk of sounding like an old curmudgeon, I wish there were more sources of good modern S&S. Tales From the Magician’s Skull and Heroic Fantasy Quarterly can’t carry the banner all by themselves. The other magazine I enjoyed, Skelos, seems to have died.

    Comment by John ONeill - December 26, 2019 5:59 pm

  24. It’s not just you, John — something screwy with that listing, it looks like.

    Comment by Joe H. - December 26, 2019 6:00 pm

  25. > What I remember most about the volumes was Lin’s commentary about the year in fantasy. He had
    > such enthusiasm for the genre. He raved about newcomer! Tanith Lee’s The Birthgrave. He hated Terry Brooks’
    > The Sword of Shannara. He thought it was a blatant rip off of The Lord of the Rings. Even at
    > the time I thought that might be hypocritical of Lin since about everything he wrote was a pastiche of something.

    Charles,

    LOL! Yeah, it was easy to rip on Shannara, but I think the biggest beef wasn’t that it was a Tolkien ripoff. As you say, Carter was busy copying countless other writers on his own. What so many couldn’t stand (and Carter certainly wasn’t the only one) was that Shannara was a spectacular success — the first #1 New York Times bestselling SF or fantasy novel.

    It was a prize the entire industry had its eye on for decades, until it was snatched by a debut author who blatantly copied Tolkien. COUNTLESS full-time writers who’d dreamed of doing the same seethed about that.

    Comment by John ONeill - December 26, 2019 6:07 pm

  26. > At the every end of Carter’s ‘Year’s Best..4’, there is an extremely short but volatile
    > rant about The Sword of Shanarra being the biggest rip-off (of Tolkien, of course) in the history of books.

    Bob,

    It wasn’t something that Carter was able to let go of easily.

    Comment by John ONeill - December 26, 2019 6:09 pm

  27. > he did, in his rant, acknowledge that he himself did a lot of pastiche work, but the distinction he drew was
    > that he wasn’t actually copying entire Howard or Burroughs stories beat-for-beat the way Shannara did with LotR.

    Joe,

    A pretty weak defense, in my opinion. It was fairly obvious what Carter couldn’t stand about Brooks was that he was so successful. If his book had sold as poorly as his own, I’m certain Carter would have welcomed him with open arms and made space for him in his warm fellowship of modern fantasy.

    Comment by John ONeill - December 26, 2019 6:12 pm

  28. > It’s not just you, John — something screwy with that listing, it looks like.

    Joe — Glad to hear it ain’t just me! Ah well… this is why book collecting is not for the faint of heart. :)

    Comment by John ONeill - December 26, 2019 6:14 pm

  29. I’m tackling Tanith Lee’s “lost” epic THE BLOOD OF ROSES (1990) right now. Love that YEAR’S BEST FANTASY series.

    Comment by John R. Fultz - December 26, 2019 7:09 pm

  30. >I’m tackling Tanith Lee’s “lost” epic THE BLOOD OF ROSES (1990) right now. Love that YEAR’S BEST FANTASY series.

    John, I’m about half way through Night’s Master right now. I read Delusion’s Master in the early 70’s but never read the other Flat Earth books. I’m remedying that.

    I never even heard of The Blood of Roses. So lost seems apt.

    Comment by Charles_Martel - December 26, 2019 7:47 pm

  31. er early 80’s

    Comment by Charles_Martel - December 26, 2019 7:48 pm

  32. > I’m tackling Tanith Lee’s “lost” epic THE BLOOD OF ROSES (1990) right now. Love that YEAR’S BEST FANTASY series.

    John — That’s a lost epic indeed. It’s been out of print in English since 1991… nearly 30 years!

    Just one more reason I love these old fantasy anthologies. They can point you towards neglected classics you will find no other way!

    Comment by John ONeill - December 26, 2019 7:51 pm

  33. Charles: Those books are amazing!
    John: You know it —the paperback set me back $50. I heard that Immanion may do a new printing of BLOOD, but there is no telling when it will happen.

    Comment by John R. Fultz - December 26, 2019 9:45 pm

  34. Charles: DEATH’S MASTER is my personal fave.

    Comment by John R. Fultz - December 26, 2019 9:51 pm

  35. This warms the heart. Sharing the post in the Goodreads S&S group, which has its annual Jan-Feb Anthology group read. All are welcome to recommend and share experiences on any collection, classic or contemporary. Many are reading the ones listed above, like Realms of Wizardry.

    https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/80482-an-earthier-sort-of-fantasy-sword-sorcery

    Comment by SELindberg - December 26, 2019 9:55 pm

  36. > John: You know it —the paperback set me back $50.

    John — wow! That’s a rare paperback indeed. I don’t think I’ve paid more than $25 for any vintage paperback in my entire collection.

    Comment by John ONeill - December 27, 2019 11:37 am

  37. > Sharing the post in the Goodreads S&S group, which has its annual Jan-Feb Anthology group read.

    Seth,

    Thanks for the link! This sounds like a fantastic project. The only thing better than reading great S&S is reading it together.

    Comment by John ONeill - December 27, 2019 11:39 am

  38. The world always needs more Sword & Sorcery. Always good to see the interest is still there.

    Comment by Martin Christopher - December 28, 2019 6:40 am

  39. Wish I could say I was fast enough to have a reading project I could do in the remaining days; but I’ve been totally dazzled by the Inquestor series (space opera) by the staggeringly underrated SP Somtow. He’s started publishing new written works recently and continuing some of his best loved series.

    I tried to count the number of priority writers to read as soon as possible and ended up with a stupid number like 90. I wish I grew up reading this stuff. I still haven’t read a lot of the first books I bought.

    “Pigeons From Hell” should be reprinted far more often, it’s one of my favorite horror stories.
    Scott Hampton regretted not painting the climactic scenes in colour and fixed this in the reprint contained in Spookhouse 2.

    I think Immanion has Blood of Roses planned for 2020. Their Tanith reprinting project has been going thick and fast, so I think it seems like a safe bet.
    I bought an old copy in 2015 for £27. It had a ripped page I had to tape, but it’s readable.

    Doesn’t Beneath Ceaseless Skies do sword & sorcery? Weirdbook?

    Comment by Robert Adam Gilmour - December 28, 2019 2:18 pm

  40. > Doesn’t Beneath Ceaseless Skies do sword & sorcery? Weirdbook?

    Scott Andrews at Beneath Ceaseless Skies DOES publish S&S semi-regularly. To be fair, Charlie Finlay at F&SF buys the occasional story as well. Doug Draaa at Weirdbook is more reliable, although the fiction there tends to be very short.

    Comment by John ONeill - December 29, 2019 1:34 am


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