How to Put the Sword in Sword and Sorcery

Saturday, February 23rd, 2013 | Posted by Violette Malan

The Princess BrideI love sword fighting. All of my favourite movies involve sword fights, and most of my favourite books. I love the Star Trek TOS episode where Sulu runs around with a sword, so it should come as no surprise that I primarily write sword and sorcery novels.

The sorcery part’s easy – pretty well everyone knows I’m making that up, and so long as I keep things internally consistent, I’m in the clear.

But what about the sword part? I can’t just make that up, can I? Viz. this exchange, which took place on a martial arts panel at Ad Astra back in the 90’s:

Panellist: “You know in the movie when Wesley and Iñigo are fighting? Well, they’re not really using the moves they say they’re using.”

Called out by a wit from the back of the room: “Gee, they are in the book.”

And there’s at least part of your answer. You can write whatever you like, but, like William Goldman in The Princess Bride, it behoves you to do some research.

There are some great books that explain all kinds of things about swords and swordplay. There’s Captain Sir Richard Burton’s The Book of the Sword. There’s By the Sword, Richard Cohen’s excellent book on the history of duelling and fencing from ancient into modern times. And there’s also John Clements’s Renaissance Swordsmanship, which has illustrations showing fighting with different kinds of swords, against different kinds of  weapons. It also describes fighting moves in such a way that you can put together a fight — so long as it’s not too complicated.

But is book learning enough? I don’t think so.

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The Ground Rules Have Been Put in Place: Flame and Crimson: A History of Sword-and-Sorcery, by Brian Murphy

Tuesday, March 31st, 2020 | Posted by David C. Smith

Flame and Crimson-small Flame and Crimson-back-small

Cover by Tom Barber

Flame and Crimson: A History of Sword-and-Sorcery
By Brian Murphy
Pulp Hero Press (282 pages, $19.95 in trade paperback/$7.99 digital, January 16, 2020)

At long last, we have a history of the sword-and-sorcery genre, and a very welcome and erudite study it is. Brian Murphy is to be commended for his honest appreciation of our frequently dismissed and often mocked genre. He intelligently surveys the expanse of the sword-and-sorcery field warts and all, low points and high, putting the genre into its proper literary perspective.

To present a linear history of the sword-and-sorcery genre is in fact to dissect an Yggdrasil of many branches, which is precisely what Murphy has done here. His challenge in undertaking Flame and Crimson was great—confronting a century of work and reducing discussion of it to the reasonable length of about 250 pages. He has risen to the challenge.

(Full disclosure: I am mentioned a few times in Flame and Crimson and am cited in a pull-quote in the header to chapter 1. I am also published by Pulp Hero Press, the imprint that has brought out Flame and Crimson.)

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Between the Years When the Oceans Drank (Henry Kuttner’s) Atlantis, and the Rise of COVID-19 — Elak Lives Again!

Wednesday, July 15th, 2020 | Posted by Greg Mele

Elak lives again! Just released by Pulp Hero Press, Adrian Cole continues a saga Kuttner abandoned 80 years ago.

Elak lives again! Just released by Pulp Hero Press, Adrian Cole continues a saga Kuttner abandoned 80 years ago.

Adrian Cole is hardly a stranger to fantasy fiction.

Born in Plymouth, Devonshire in 1949, Adrian first read The Lord of the Rings in the late 1960s while working in a public library in Birmingham, and was inspired by the book to write an epic entitled “The Barbarians,” which was eventually revised into The Dream Lords trilogy, published by Zebra Books in the early 1970s. He has been writing various ghost, horror, and fantasy tales, in both short-story and novel-length, ever since. His career is well-established and diverse, from psychological, alien-horror, to superheroes, fantasy trilogies to young-adult novels.

So it is particularly interesting that Adrian’s newest work is an anthology of stories about the adventurer Elak of Atlantis: Elak, King of Atlantis, which was just released earlier this month by Pulp Hero Press.

Atlantis? A vogue setting in early to mid-20th century fantasy fiction, we don’t really see novels or short stories in Atlantis anymore. Ah, but you see, Elak is himself a piece of history…

After Robert E. Howard’s unfortunate suicide in 1936, a number of authors stepped up to fill the void. Most wrote reasonable, working tales, that were largely forgettable, and they themselves were forgotten. One, however, was the masterful Henry Kuttner, who danced easily between fantasy, horror and science fiction, and had a stellar career, made the more so by his collaborations with his wife, C. L. Moore. Kuttner wrote four Elak of Atlantis stories, which appeared in Weird Tales between 1938 and 1940.  They are an abridged version of REH’s Conan stories, and follow the exploits of Elak as he passes from sword-for-hire to king. But Elak is not a “Clonan”: he’s a civilized man, a noble cast-off, who wields a rapier. Whereas Conan is destined to seize a crown, Elak is trying to avoid his destiny.  Unlike Conan, he is not a loner with “guest star” companions, and is accompanied by the perpetually drunk thief Lycon, and the druid Dalan, who is trying to get Elak to accept his destiny to rule the kingdom of Cyrena.

We first meet Elak returning from an encounter with the wife of Atlantean nobility and that strikes a note in the tales: there is a light-heartedness to them, although the world is a dark one.  If you can imagine an Errol Flynn swashbuckler with wizards and Deep Ones, you have the vibe.

Of course, that doesn’t tell us why, 80 years after Kuttner abandoned the doomed island, Cole is bringing it back up from its watery depths.

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Neverwhens, Where History and Fantasy Collide: Of Lambs and Lizardmen

Wednesday, July 8th, 2020 | Posted by Greg Mele

For the Killing of Kings-small Upon the Flight of the Queen-small When the Goddess Wakes-small

The Ring-Sworn Trilogy by Howard Andrew Jones: For the Killing of Kings (Feb 2019), Upon the Flight of the Queen
(November 2019) and the forthcoming When the Goddess Wakes (April 2021)

A bit of prologue and some full disclosure to the Gentle Reader

The purpose of this column has been looking at the challenges of historicity vs. fantasy in the process of world-building; well at least when the fantasy in question is trying to be either realistic or set in our world or a near-neighbor. From contrasting the visual departure of Jackson’s LotR films as a more effective means of showing the vast sweep of Middle Earth’s history, to critiquing the swordplay of the Witcher TV show, to interviewing authors who play in both the worlds of Historical Fiction and Fantasy,  I’ve come to realize we have a pretty clear continuum:

  1. Historical Fiction – just what it says. Whether it’s set in the Paleolithic or WWII, it’s a story set in our own past, with the ostensible goal of painting a portrait of that time and place.
  2. Historical Fiction with Elements of “Magical Realism” – really more of a technique of “literature” but the story is more or less as above but there may be hints or some unexplained and unexplainable element.
  3. Historical Fantasy – this is a specialty for folks like last month’s interviewee Scott Oden. Our historical past, only elements of magic, monsters, etc., exist, something like a “secret history.” A lot of traditional sword & sorcery exists here, but so does the fantastical work of writers like Judith Tarr or G. Willow Wilson.
  4. Low Fantasy in a Secondary World – the world I NOT ours, and may not even be based on any clear cognate of our civilizations, but it’s “realistic” in the sense that it’s technology and structure follows our historical models. Magic and monsters exist, but farming gets done with an iron plow and three-field rotation, people ride horses and camels (or something like them), etc. A lot, if not most, of fantasy fits this model and fantasy.
  5. High Fantasy – Magic is powerful and sweeping, there are non-human races who can do magical things, the gods may be capable of manifesting themselves or their will, etc. A lot of epic fantasy fits into this mode.

We can quibble on where those lines are (Tolkien is High Fantasy, but is Martin?), and maybe there are further subdivisions (for example, Urban Fantasy overlays the last two), but the definitions work for this column because the further you go from #1 on the continuum, the less important “historicity” becomes. 

Which brings me to my guest….

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Return to Dragon Pass with The Red Cow Campaign by Ian Cooper, Jeff Richard, and Greg Stafford

Saturday, July 4th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

The Coming Storm Chaosium-small The Eleven Lights-small

The Coming Storm (March 2016) and The Eleven Lights (April 2018), published by Chaosium

We live in a Golden Age of board gaming, and if you’re in the market for a fantasy game, you literally have thousands to choose from. Mind you, that wasn’t the case 40 years ago. In fact, if you were looking for a serious fantasy-based pastime in those days, there were literally only a few games in town: SPI’s War of the Ring (1977), TSR’s Divine Right(1979), and Chaosium’s Dragon Pass (1981).

In terms of gaming history, there’s little question that by far the most important of those was Dragon Pass. It was originally developed in 1975 by Greg Stafford, and published under the name White Bear and Red Moon. Stafford decided to form a company to produce and market it; inspired by the nearby Oakland Coliseum, he called his new enterprise ‘Chaosium.’ Stafford sold White Bear and Red Moon, and its sequel Nomad Gads, in ziplock bags out of his house in Oakland. Chaosium grew rapidly, and in less than ten years was one of the most important publishers in the industry. If it weren’t for the early success of White Bear and Red Moon and its sequels, we wouldn’t have  RuneQuest, Thieves World, and Call of Cthulhu, just to name a few.

The setting for White Bear and Red Moon, a Bronze Age world rich with human and nonhuman gods, cults, clans and mythology, was Glorantha. Today Glorantha is one of the most important settings in modern fantasy, home of numerous role playing campaigns, board games, novels and stories, and even a popular computer game, King of Dragon Pass. There are many reasons for its popularity and longevity, of course, but personally I believe Dragon Pass — the game that introduced Glorantha to the world — deserves much of the credit. If you’ve spent hours staring at the colorful map of Glorantha, moving your outnumbered clans across the rugged terrain of Sartar, through the Skull Ruins and towards a desperate battle in Snakepipe Hollow, the chance to visit those iconic settings in a role playing environment is just too irresistible.

A few years ago Chaosium released an epic two-part campaign set in Glorantha that explores much of the history and rising tensions that eventually exploded into the Hero Wars: The Coming Storm and The Eleven Lights, which together comprise the Red Cow Campaign. I recently purchased both books, and have really been enjoying this chance to revisit the colorful and dynamic setting where I spent so much time in my youth.

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The Ordinary is Ephemeral: Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, H.P. Lovecraft, and the Battle Against Modernism

Wednesday, June 17th, 2020 | Posted by David C. Smith

Weird Tales of Modernity-smallWeird Tales of Modernity: The Ephemerality of the Ordinary in the Stories of Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and H.P. Lovecraft
Jason Ray Carney
McFarland & Company (205 pages, $39.95 in paperback/$23.99 digital, July 26, 2019)

Jason Carney’s thesis in Weird Tales of Modernity is that, in their reaction to modernism, the artistic and literary movement that upended culture as it had been accepted in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, the Weird Tales Three — Howard, Smith, and Lovecraft — turned modernism on its head with innovations they introduced in their fiction. Make no mistake: the word thesis here is apt. Weird Tales of Modernity is a formal dissertation. Making use as it does of academic jargon, the book will not be for every reader.

Straightaway, for example, Carney introduces us to the term ekphrastic to make clear what the Weird Tales Three were expressing. Ekphrasis is the representation in language of a work of art. Any of us can do this; go ahead and write your own personal, detailed description of Cthulhu or explore how you react to Frank Frazetta’s artwork. Ekphrasis “acts as an organizing principle in poetry and fiction, making explicit the connection between art, storytelling, and life.” This definition is from Patrick Smith’s guest blog on the website Interesting Literature. Smith quotes Michael Trussler in defining ekphrasis as “a kind of ontological mixture that signals a world beyond the confines of the text.”

There we have it: ekphrasis “signals a world beyond the confines of the text.” We are now in Lovecraft’s frightening, paranoid, awakened world of the Cthulhu mythology — alive beyond the confines of the text — and Clark Ashton Smith’s Averoigne and Poseidonis, and Robert E. Howard’s brutal Valusia and Hyborian Age. As Carney says early in Weird Tales of Modernity, “When a literary artist, like [Clark Ashton] Smith, artistically describes or fictionalizes a work of art by transforming it into an unreal echo or shadow of the actual, that is ekphrasis.”

Carney devotes an early chapter to the history of Weird Tales and then two chapters each to the three authors of his study, introducing them and then exploring their artistic innovations. He begins his study with an examination of what he terms pulp ekphrasis. “In several of their enduring works,” he says,

Lovecraft, Howard, and Smith engage in a form of artistically inflected criticism termed ekphrasis. They do so by fictionalizing modernism, transforming the real artistic movement into an unreal shadow modernism, a strategic distortion of actual modernism. After many creative iterations honed over several stories — e.g., Pickman’s demented art, Malygris’s sorcery, the fell mirrors of Tuzun Thune — this shadow modernism becomes an inhuman technology that, functioning like a cognitive prosthesis in the virtual world of fiction, thereby reveals the secret truth of history: history is a cruelly accelerating process of deformation. The ordinary is ephemeral. History is an interplay of form and formlessness with formlessness terminally ascendant.

The ordinary is ephemeral. Lovecraft, Smith, and Howard were keenly aware of this truth and reacted to it in their fiction while other Weird Tales writers were moving right along in the modern world, writing their stories of scientifiction, offering narratives of ominous cults and mad scientists (with at least one nude woman per story),  or revisiting the tropes of Victorian horrors.

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Neverwhens, Where History and Fantasy Collide: Of Orks and Orkney

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2020 | Posted by Greg Mele

Scott Oden Scott Odin

One of these men is an author, the other is Odin…there’s more commonality than you might think.

Scott Oden  is an American writer best known for his historical novels set in Ancient Egypt and Ancient Greece, and historical fantasy. Oden’s breakthrough novel was 2005’s Men of Bronze, set in late Pharonic Egypt; it was followed in 2006 by Memnon and in 2010 with The Lion of Cairo, which mixed pulp-style action and sorcery with Crusader politics in Fatimid Egypt. His most recent novels are the opening volumes of the saga of Grimnir, the last orc, following a quest for revenge across the centuries, from Brian Boru’s Ireland in the 11th century to 14th century Messina in the forthcoming third and final volume. Considering how much his areas of interest and writing overlap with Christian Cameron, whom I interviewed last month, it was fascinating to see how much the two authors methods of world building do, and don’t, overlap.

GM: So you’ve written both historical fiction and fantasy. Which genre was your first love?

SO: Definitely fantasy. The Hobbit was my gateway text, back when I was 8 or 9 years old, and I quickly followed that with The Lord of the Rings, Robert E. Howard’s Conan (the Ace editions), and eventually Moorcock’s Elric and Karl Wagner’s Kane. I liked some historical fiction as a kid, mainly the fictionalized biographies of Harold Lamb — especially Alexander of Macedon… what kid wouldn’t marvel to the feats of Alexander, as described by Lamb? I was — and remain — a huge aficionado of Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and Norse myth. I had this little pocket-sized encyclopedia from Scholastic called Gods, Demigods, and Demons by Bernard Evslin. I still have that battered old copy . . . [GM: So do I!!!]

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Sword & Sorcery from a Bygone Era: Tales of Attluma by David C. Smith

Sunday, May 17th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

Tales of Attluma-small Tales of Attluma-back-small

Cover art by Tom Barber

David C. Smith has written a number of articles for Black Gate, most recently a fine review of Brian Murphy’s history of Sword-and-Sorcery, Flame and Crimson. He’s also the author of twenty-six novels and collections, including Oron, The Fall of the First World trilogy, and Robert E. Howard: A Literary Biography. His newest is Tales of Attluma, a collection of classic S&S tales from Bob McLain’s Pulp Hero Press, most of which appeared in hard-to-find small press magazines like Gordon Linzner’s excellent Space & Time.

I asked Dave to tell us a little about his new book, and he obliged in fine style. Here’s what he said.

I’d wanted to pull these stories together into one collection for many years. Periodically, I went through them, off and on, during the past twenty-five years, tweaking them or reworking them. As I improved as a writer, I found ways to open up many of the stories or take them into new directions, so that’s what I did. A few of the later ones didn’t need much done to them, such as “Patience Serves,” or even a very early one, “Ithtidzik.” But most of those written when I was in my twenties, I was no longer happy with… So I’m glad I waited so long to pull them together. And that was only possible because of Bob McLain. I didn’t think there was a chance in hell of an oversized commercial publisher picking up Tales of Attluma, but Pulp Hero Press is ideal. They work closely with their authors, so what I had in mind and what Bob was going for dovetailed nicely. And it’s interesting to see how I matured as a writer. The early stories revolve around plots; as I got older, the stories became character-driven or dealt with ideas. And I feel the quality of my writing has improved, too. I like that.

Unfortunately Pulp Hero Press doesn’t have a website — but Dave Ritzlin of DMR Books comes through by providing a virtual website for the book, with all the essential details. Thanks, Dave.

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Rogue Blades Author: How Robert E. Howard (and Glenn Lord) Changed My Life

Friday, May 15th, 2020 | Posted by Ty Johnston

The following is an an excerpt from Roy Thomas’ essay for the upcoming book from the Rogue Blades Foundation, Robert E. Howard Changed My Life.

I’ve told this story so many time by now that I figure everybody who would want to know it is tired of it already, but I can’t make up new facts just because I have to write a new article, can I? Well, maybe there’ll be a few twists in my tale this time, because I want to tell it a little bit more from the angle of Robert E. Howard (1906-1936) and Glenn Lord (1931-2011).

Robert E. Howard came first, but just barely.

I had, to the best of my memory, never heard of Robert E. Howard — or of Conan or any of the other Howard characters — when the Lancer Books paperback Conan the Adventurer appeared on the racks in 1966, some months after I started working for Stan Lee at Marvel Comics. Well, truth to tell, he was mentioned in a couple of paragraphs in my fan/friend Richard A. Lupoff’s 1965 book Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master of Adventures as one of the literary heroes inspired, at least in part, by Tarzan of the Apes… but that part of Dick’s study slipped right past me, leaving no imprint on my mind. When I saw the first Conan paperback, my eyes were drawn — as they were meant to be — by Frank Frazetta’s stunningly savage cover. I bought that book as I’d been buying others of an ERB ilk, pastiches of Burroughs by Otis Adelbert Kline, Gardner Fox, Lin Carter, whomever. I didn’t always actually read those pastiches, but I kept a little collection of them on a shelf in my apartment. One day I might get around to them.

castle of blood brunner the bounty hunter Rage of the Behemoth

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When We Catch It, Let’s Chase It Again: An Interview with Tales of the Mongoose and Meerkat Author Jim Breyfogle

Saturday, March 28th, 2020 | Posted by P. Alexander

Tales of the Mongoose and Meerkat-small

Cover Art by Anton Oxenuk

Cirsova Publishing has been putting out its flagship magazine focusing on action, adventure, and romance in science fiction and fantasy since 2016. Last year Cirsova began branching out, with the two-author anthology, Duel Visions by Misha Burnett and Louise Sorensen, their fully illustrated 70th Anniversary Edition of Leigh Brackett’s Eric John Stark Planet Stories [which we covered at Black Gate last year], and the 35th Anniversary Edition of Michael Tierney’s Wild Stars.

Cirsova’s newest upcoming release is an anthology of Jim Breyfogle’s Mongoose & Meerkat adventures, lavishly illustrated by up-and-coming artist DarkFilly. Tales of the Mongoose and Meerkat Volume 1: Pursuit Without Asking collects all of the stories published in the pages of Cirsova Magazine through 2019.

Mangos is a bit of a bravo, ready to knock a few heads for some coin. Kat is a mysterious wanderer with more than her share of street-smarts and a head for ancient history. Together, the Mongoose and the Meerkat are a pair of rogues looking to keep their bellies and wine skins filled. Fitting in a comfy mid-point somewhere between Slayers and Fafhrd & The Gray Mouser, this duo is sure to appeal to fans of classic Sword & Sorcery.

We had a chance to talk with Mongoose & Meerkat author Jim Breyfogle about this thrilling new project.

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