I keep revisiting the earliest days of writing about contemporary swords & sorcery lately. Last month I read and reviewed Rogue Blade’s fantastic new anthology, Neither Beg Nor Yield. Now, I’ve just finished John R. Fultz’s return to bash and thrash of the genre with Immaculate Scoundrels (2024).
Fultz was one of the first authors I encountered back in 2011/2012 when I started blogging about S&S. He was one of the writers I discovered through the electronic pages of Black Gate, along with James Enge, Howard Andrew Jones, and Ted Rypel in particular.
Between his collection The Revelations of Zang (2013 – I read it after winning a free copy in a giveaway here at Blackgate!) and The Books of the Shaper series, Fultz staked out a claim to being one of the best new voices in S&S. These works were heavily inspired by Clark Ashton Smith’ and Lord Dunsany’s strange and often psychedelic fiction ladled over with more blood and thunder. If you think I’m maligning him, rest assured I am not. Anybody daring enough to take Smith as an inspiration and make it more violent, well, that’s not a bad thing.
Instead of more S&S, Fultz followed up with a Native American-themed sword & planet duology. I reviewed both The Testament of Tall Eagle (2015) and Son of Tall Eagle (2017) here. I might have been a little disappointed he hadn’t written more stories like his previous ones, but these are good books and Fultz isn’t one to sit around spinning the same tales again and again.
In the intervening years, he’s written enough short fiction to fill two collections. The first, World Beyond Worlds (2021) brings together his fantasy stories from the period. The second, Darker Than Weird (2023) contains fourteen straight-up horror stories. Now, with Immaculate Scoundrels, it’s back to swords & sorcery, but not like in any of his previous books.
Sword & Sorcery is a clenched fist thrust into the sky, a raised middle finger in the face of the Unknown, an epithet spat into the dirt through a rictus of bared teeth. S&S demands an attitude of not merely surviving but of dominating living, all else—everything else—be damned. The heroes of S&S continue living deeply until there are no more breaths to take. The only -ism S&S promotes is LIVE!-ism. Absolutely a rebellion against meaninglessness, it also fully embraces an I-don’t-give-a-damn-if-it-is-all-meaningless creed. “I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.” Robert E. Howard, through Conan, again saying it best in “Queen of the Black Coast.”
Jason M. Waltz from “It’s Not Gentle,” the foreword to Neither Beg Nor Yield
I reviewedReturn of the Sword: An Anthology of Heroic Adventure over at Stuff I Like: A Blog (called Swords & Sorcery: A Blog back then) twelve years ago. I had discovered the book by way of a mention here at Black Gate, which I had discovered while on the hunt for contemporary sword & sorcery. This book, more than anything else, convinced me there was a wealth of new and, more importantly, good S&S writing being done.
I had created my site to focus on ensuring the classics of S&S weren’t forgotten in the face of the seemingly irresistible tide of grimdark fiction that was new back then. Waltz’s book forced me to direct an increasing portion of my efforts toward the new stories. Howard Andrew Jones, James Enge, and John Fultz were all authors I first encountered in that period. There are also dozens of writers I found reviewing hundreds of new stories right here on the pages of Black Gate.
If I could work my will,” said Scrooge indignantly, “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!”
A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas, published first in 1843, is nearly two hundred years old, and nothing remains to be said about it, it would seem. Charles Dickens’s fairy tale has become one of the great secular staples of the Christmas season. It’s been filmed many times; both wonderfully as in the Alastair Sim 1951 and George C. Scott 1984 versions and less wonderfully in the Reginald Owen 1938 film and the 2010 Jim Carrey motion capture monstrosity. Furthermore, there have been animated adaptations, musicals, and comics. It’s an isolated person, I suspect, who doesn’t know at least the basic setup: the uplifting story of a cold-hearted miser who turns to the good after the visitation of a trio of ghosts representing the spirit of the season. All I can do is comment on the bits that stood out for me while liberally quoting from this mordantly funny novel and Gothic fantasy of redemption.
The story is told by an omniscient narrator who intrudes on the story constantly, digresses from the narrative, and questions the reader at every turn. The opening words of A Christmas Carol, or at least a fair gloss on them, are well-known, particularly the seventh sentence: “Old Marley was a dead as a door-nail.” It’s a blunt matter-of-fact statement that lets the reader know where things stand. The narrator, though, immediately continues with something else.
He began to climb the inside of the castle, the folly, the empty stone.
“Don’t be so bloody dramatic!”
At the top he stood upright, jerkily, balancing against the air above the wall and the cliff.
“You’ll not frighten me!”
He spread his arms and lifted his head to the sky.
“Through the sharp hawthorn blow the winds,” he shouted. “Who gives anything to poor Tom? Tom’s a-cold! Bless thee from whirlwinds, starblasting, and taking!”
“Stop it! You’re all quote! Every bit! Any you call me second hand!”
“Pillicock sat on Pillicock-hill. Halloo, halloo, loo, loo!”
“You can’t put two words of your own together! Always someone else’s feeling! Other people have to hell to find words for you! You’re fire-proof!”
Red Shift (1973) by Alan Garner, is a complex book that weaves together three distinct but related stories. The main story, set in 1970s England, is about Tom and Jan, teenagers struggling to maintain their love in the face of Tom’s disapproving parents, looming separation as Jan prepares to enter nursing school in London, and Tom’s unsettled mental state. Jan is constantly expressing her love for Tom, but he seems incapable of really accepting that.
The second story is about Macey is part of a band of deserters from the Roman IX Legion named Macey and a tribal priestess raped and held prisoner by his comrades following the slaughter of her entire village. He is given to berserker rages where he fights like ten men and experiences visions of the other two stories.
I have received your stories, but I have had time to read only one or two of them. I don’t want to comment on them in extended fashion until I’ve read all, but I do think them competent. However, there is one alteration I think you should definitely make; Mr. Wandrei would insist on it, and that is to remove your stories from the Lovecraft milieu. I mean, keep the Gods, the Books, etc., but establish your own place. This would give the stories vastly more authenticity as an addition to the Mythos rather than pastiche pieces, and it might then be possible for us to consider their book publication in a limited edition over here.
What I suggest you do is establish a setting in a coastal area of England and create your own British milieu. This would not appreciably change your stories, but it would give them a much needed new setting and would not, in the reader’s mind, invite a direct comparison with Lovecraft, for in such a comparison they would not show up as well as if you had your own setting and place-names for the tales.
August Derleth to Ramsey Campbell, 6 October, 1961
Inspired by HP Lovecraft’s stories to write his own tales of cosmic horror, at the age of fifteen, Ramsey Campbell was encouraged by friends to submit them to August Derleth and Arkham House. He did, and the rest was horror fiction history. Taking Derleth’s advice to heart, he created his own version of Lovecraft Country; a drear and haunted region of the Severn Valley wedged between the cities of Bristol and Gloucester and the western edge of the Cotswolds.
The Arkham House collection, originally titled The Inhabitant of the Lake and Less Welcome Tenants was released in 1964 when Campbell was eighteen. They may not be the best Lovecraft-inspired stories, and they’re definitely not Campbell’s best stories, but they are good fun and well worth a read.
Viy is the colossal creation of the common folk’s imagination. The Little Russians (Ukrainians) use this name for the chief of the gnomes, whose eyelids on his eyes reach all the way to the ground. This whole story is a folk legend. I did not want to change anything about it, so I am narrating it in almost the same simple form which I heard it.
Nikolai Gogol, footnote to “Viy“
None of that is true. There are no Slavic folkloric sources, Ukrainian or otherwise, describing a gnome king, let alone one with great, drooping eyelashes (The name Viy appears derived from the Ukrainian word for eyelash). Some have claimed a Serbian connection, but that appears to be false, as well. Nonetheless, Gogol’s story of a monk, a witch, and Viy has become so deeply embedded in Russian and Ukrainian culture that many people believe the terrible creature is a real part of those countries’ folklore.
Nikolai Gogol was one of the greatest Russian writers and simultaneously the greatest Ukrainian writer (though, he didn’t write in Ukrainian and both nations have fought over his legacy). Born in Sorochyntsi in 1809, a Cossack town between Kyiv and Kharkiv and over a hundred miles from each. He died in 1852 by starving himself to death during a period of extreme religious asceticism. Before he became famous for absurdist stories like “The Nose” or sharp-eyed satires like his play The Inspector General, he wrote a series of stories that drew on his youth in the Ukraine and its customs and legends. From St. Petersburg where he had moved and gained the friendship of such luminaries as Alexander Pushkin, he would write to his mother asking for descriptions and details about all manner of information on the Ukraine. “Viy” is one of those early stories, first appearing in his 1835 collection, Migorod, alongside the Cossack epic, “Taras Bulba.”
“Thomas, my idea of those knights was a sort of candle, like these ones here. I have carried it for many years with a hand to shield it from the wind. It has flickered often. I am giving you the candle now — you won’t let it out?”
“It will burn.”
King Arthur to Tom of Warwick, p. 647 The Once and Future King
The first two volumes, The Sword in the Stone (1938) and The Queen of Air and Darkness (1939), of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King focus on the rise of Arthur Pendragon and the foundation of his kingdom, where right, not might, is the rule. The following two volumes, The Ill-Made Knight (1940) and The Candle in the Wind (1958), tell the story of Lancelot and Guenever’s affair and subsequent rot and collapse of the Round Table and Arthur’s kingdom. At the end of The Queen of Air and Darkness, White reminds the reader that in the tales of King Arthur, sin comes home to roost and that sometimes, even innocence isn’t enough to prevent ruination. In these two books, however, no one is innocent.
Lancelot made his first appearance in The Queen of Air and Darkness when his father lent his aid to Arthur for the Battle of Bedegraine. It was then as a young boy that he had decided he would dedicate himself to Arthur’s vision of a better world.
Ill-Made Knight is the name Lancelot takes for himself. He is no Franco Nero or even a Robert Taylor (both played Lancelot in the movies), but instead a misshapen, ugly man.
IN A DISTANT AND SECONDHAND SET OF DIMENSIONS, in an astral plane that was never meant to fly, the curling star-mists waver and part…
Great A’Tuin the turtle comes, swimming slowly through the interstellar gulf, hydrogen frost on his ponderous limbs, his huge and ancient shell pocked with meteor craters. Through sea-sized eyes that are crusted with rheum and asteroid dust He stares fixedly at the Destination.
In a brain bigger than a city, with geological slowness, He thinks only of the Weight.
Most of the weight is of course accounted for by Berilia, Tubul, Great T’Phon and Jerakeen, the four giant elephants upon whose broad and star-tanned shoulders the Disc of the World rests, garlanded by the long waterfall at its vast circumference and domed by the baby-blue vault of Heaven.
Astropsychology has been, as yet, unable to establish what they think about.
So begins The Colour of Magic (1983), the first volume of the eventually forty-one-book-long Discworld series by Terry Pratchett. I was lent this book (along with another Pratchett book, Strata (1981), which I’ve still never read — or returned, possibly) back in 1985 when it first hit US shores. He said it was funny and it was.
I hadn’t laughed much during earlier run-ins with fantasy and sci-fi comedies, save for Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Too often, puns were what passed for wit and the satire was shallow. Returning to Colour for the first time in many years, I’m impressed with how sharp Pratchett’s eye was when it came to picking his genre targets and just how good his prose was. His writing would become more complex, deeper, and much darker over the decades, but already, it’s witty and effervescent. In an age of such po-faced seriousness, we could use more of it.
“I have been thinking,” said Arthur, “about Might and Right. I don’t think things ought to be done because you are able to do them. I think they should be done because you ought to do them.”
King Arthur, p. 239 The Once and Future King
I first read English author T.H. White’s The Once and Future King when I was seventeen, fresh from seeing the movie Camelot (1967) for the first time (the musical Camelot, by Lerner and Lowe was based on parts of White’s novel). The tale of Arthur Pendragon, by turns both comic and tragic, told in a thoroughly anachronistic and post-modern way, reached me as few other books had. The story of Arthur’s education and effort to create a better world and his ultimate failure and downfall broke my heart. I absolutely loved the book and used it as the basis for my AP English exam essay instead of any of the books I’d read in class (I aced the test). More than any other Arthurian book or movie, White’s book forms my image of Arthur’s doomed noble reign.
I know I reread the book once during college or grad school, but that was over thirty years ago and my memories are dim. To say I approached The Once and Future King last month with some trepidation is an understatement. There’s been more than one greatly admired book I’ve revisited only to find out that whatever affection I held for it had flown. I did not want that to happen here. Nonetheless, spurred again by watching Camelot recently, I was determined to read the book. Having finished the first two parts of the novel, I am happy to find that not only do I still love the book, I’m impressed more than ever by its power and White’s artistry. Note: To convey the latter point, I’ll be quoting the book generously.
The Once and Future King is really four books; The Sword in the Stone (1938), The Witch in the Wood, later retitled The Queen of Air and Darkness (1939), The Ill-Made Knight (1940), and The Candle in the Wind (1958). The first three were all published as standalone novels, the fourth only as part of the unified four-book collection. A fifth part, The Book of Merlyn (1977), was written in 1941 but wasn’t published until long after White’s death in 1964. For today, I’m going to write on the first two parts. …
The kinds of stories I wanted to do I had in mind before I created Hellboy. It’s not like I created Hellboy and said, ‘Hey, now what does this guy do?’ I knew the kinds of stories I wanted to do, but just needed a main guy.
Mike Mignola, “The Genesis of Hellboy”. Back Issue! (21)
A half-demon paranormal investigator fighting Nazis is how my friend Evan Dorkin described Mike Mignola’s Hellboy to me nearly twenty years ago. He had been reading the books in preparation to write a story for the Hellboy Weird Tales book. He thought I’d really like Mignola’s work, and gave me the first couple of issues. At that point, for all sorts of reasons, I was pretty much through with comics. Hellboy turned out to be like nothing else I’d read. Now, having just finished reading all four new omnibuses, Seed of Destruction, Strange Places, The Wild Hunt, and Hellboy in Hell, along with two additional short story collections (that’s almost 2,400 pages of supernatural awesomeness), I can safely state that this is my favorite comic and, more importantly, a significant and serious work of weird fiction.
In 1991, Mike Mignola sketched a monster to which he added the name Hellboy because he said it made him laugh. A few years later, he used Hellboy as the jumping-off point for a creator-owned comic to be published by Dark Horse. Initially, he toyed with the idea of something like the old Challengers of the Unknown, a team of paranormal investigators created by Jack Kirby (and maybe Joe Simon or maybe Dave Wood). Eventually, he rejected that in favor of focusing just on Hellboy. After a few preview appearances, Hellboy debuted in his own comic mini-series, Seed of Destruction, in 1994.