While I’d been introduced to fantasy fiction when my mom read me The Hobbit, it was Dungeons & Dragons that sent me exploring for more of it. Appendix N lay at the very back of The Dungeon Master’s Guide, and there were treasures within. The problem was that the library didn’t HAVE most of those treasures. I’ve sometimes wondered how my writing and reading life would have differed if the library had actually held any Robert E. Howard books, not to mention a whole bunch of other things Appendix N said were must reads. The library DID have the Amber series, but the first few books were checked out for months.
Fortunately there were used bookstores in town. And even more fortunately I found a great copy of Swords Against Death by some guy that Appendix N recommended highly, Fritz Leiber. The first story wasn’t much of a thing, kind of an intro. But from there… wow. I knew I’d found something really good. It remains one of the finest sword-and-sorcery collections I’ve ever read, and my favorite of all the Lankhmar books. Sure, there are other great Lankhmar stories, but I don’t think any other Lankhmar book is as consistently excellent.
Having noticed that I almost NEVER talk about any modern fantasy these days, and further noticing that I have been reading nothing but books that are at least 30 years old and outside the genre I actually write it for most of the last year, I’m opening up the floor.
Regular visitors, you probably have a sense of what I like. Fast paced, imaginative prose. No padding (knowing today’s market I guess I can suffer through some minimal padding, but not much). Strong characters. Actual heroism and not constant nihilism.
What can you suggest? Tell me about it.
The other week I had a chat with Robert Zoltan and Edgar the Raven, and we discussed Robert E. Howard, sword-and-sorcery, my own writing, and all sorts of other stuff as well. You can journey to the Dream Tower yourself and listen in through this link.
If you haven’t dropped by the Dream Tower yet, I encourage you to do so. The interviews so far have covered Edgar Rice Burroughs and J.R.R. Tolkien and have been with a couple of my favorite people.
I’ve been in the midst of a whole lot of spring cleaning over the last weeks and it’s time to get back to writing, although part of each day will still be devoted to some not-quite-finished projects.
At the end of each busy day I’ve been reading the Breckinridge Elkins stories of Robert E. Howard, something long overdue for me. The Robert E. Howard Foundation recently printed the second and final volume that collected all of the Breckinridge Elkins tales, along with adventures starring other similar characters.
Monday I briefly touched upon some secret projects and sparked some speculation. Rather than answering thedarkman’s question on that older post, I thought I’d open by touching upon it today. Yes, one of those secret projects is rich with old school sword-and-sorcery. So much so that your socks are going to be blown off when you get it in your hands. I am grinning with delight every time I think about the quality of the work involved, and the art I’ve seen, and other components, and when the time comes I’ll shout about project x from the rooftops and hope that you’ll help me spread the word about it so it can reach as wide an audience as possible. With a little luck and hard work more and similar things will come to fruition.
What is best about Robert E. Howard’s writing? The driving headlong pace, the seemingly inexhaustible imagination, the splendid cinematic prose poetry, the never-say-die protagonists? It is hard to pick one thing, so it may be simpler to state that Robert E. Howard possessed profound and often astonishing storytelling gifts. Without drowning his readers in adjectives (he had the knack of using just enough adjectives or adverbs, and knew to let the verbs do the heavy lifting) or slowing pace, he brought his scenes to life. Vividly.
Writer Eric Knight may have most succinctly described this particular aspect of Howard’s power in an article on Solomon Kane:
“’Wings of the Night’ features a marathon running fight through ruin, countryside, and even air that only a team of computer animators with a sixty-million dollar budget and the latest rendering technology (or a single Texan from Cross Plains hammering the story out with worn typewriter ribbon) could bring properly to life.”
I don’t spend a lot of time talking about the Ballantine Fantasy series anymore, but it was a great introduction to the history of fantasy fiction, and I always enjoyed Lin Carter’s introductions. Thanks to these books I became much more familiar with the grandsires of most of what we’re reading today. Some were interesting in a historical way (as in — huh, so that’s where THAT idea came from), some were curiously different from what we’re reading today, and then a handful of authors crept onto my favorites list mostly due to this series, among them Lord Dunsany.
But this particular Ballantine anthology is a favorite of mine simply because it contains, so far as I know, the only printing of Lin Carter’s very best short story, “Zingazar.” He’s in full Dunsanyian mode, imitating, as he always seemed to do, someone else’s style. But THIS time he knocks it out of the park, riffing on Dunsany’s “The Sword of Welleran” to deliver what I happen to believe is a stronger tale than the master himself, a minor sword-and-sorcery masterpiece.
Morgan Holmes and I have imagined, for years, a “best of” Lin Carter collection that would get 1-2 of his good short novels and a grab bag of his best short stories. This would definitely be right in there. Heck, I like this one so much I contributed an essay about it into a Lin Carter critical studies book. Anyway, if you’ve got this book, read the tale.
I’m a late comer to The Savage Sword of Conan. You’d probably have figured that, much as I like sword-and-sorcery, I’d have a huge stack of old sword-and-sorcery comics, but I don’t. I missed out on Savage Sword when it was a mag, and I almost missed out on the Dark Horse reprints. There are 22 of the things, which is a heck of an investment. If, like me, you came upon them with little clue but were curious, you’d probably wonder where to start.
I think anyone who’s heard of these has likewise heard that only the first few compilations are good, because those were the ones with Roy Thomas and John Buscema, and only in the first three or four are they adapting actual Robert E. Howard stories. Their work actually continues on into Volume 6, although by that point they’re mostly adapting pastiche tales, and lesser writers are contributing to some comics in the collection. I have to say that sometimes there’s nothing Thomas could do to make the pastiche better, but sometimes he and Buscema really make it more Howardian than the pastichers ever managed, and occasionally they do even better than that.
With my insomnia fading I’m having dreams again, and I experienced a really enjoyable one just this last night. I fell in with a group of people making a low-budget sword-and-sorcery movie and got to write the script for the thing. It was all just a lark, done in spare time rather than through a movie studio, but done with professionalism as well. I suppose it was inspired in part by the loving attention and can-do attitude with which the Star Trek Continues people craft their episodes, because me and the dream people were even talking about STC while I dreamt.
Of course, once I woke up, I realized the things in the dream were impossible to do on a small budget in spare time — the sets for the long ship alone, not to mention the filming up of it, would have been astronomical. But man, was it fun coming up with a slightly cheesy but really fun script. In the light of day I don’t even remember what the details were. Probably it didn’t make that much sense.
It was a good time, though, and it was interesting to dream about creating something. Decades ago I had a recurring dream that I’d written a science fiction series. I can still remember what some of the covers looked like…
So here’s a cool thing: a kickstarter for a brand new sword-and-sorcery e-zine from some real sword-and-sorcery experts. The mag’s going to be called Skelos, and it’s masterminded by none other than Mark Finn, Chris Gruber, and Jeffrey Shanks, Robert E. Howard scholars all. Hearing that these three are behind it fills me with glee — I look forward to reading whatever treasures they unearth, and, heck, I look forward to submitting some day as well.
I hope you’ll join me in backing this one.
In other news, I’m closing on the conclusion of the second major arc of my new book. It seems hard for me to believe, but I might actually be finished with the rough draft for the whole thing by the end of the month. This arc should conclude no later than early next week, and then I’ve got a couple of chapters from minor arcs to draft. This is pretty rough still, and some of it is mostly framework with dialogue, but it feels solid. I suppose I’ll know how solid after I let it sit unread for a few weeks and return to it. A writer’s fear is always that it’s much, much worse than you think it is…