August 1, 2020

Shame on You, Robert M. Price: The Gospel According to Bob


On July 29th DMRBooks, a key publisher of new sword and sorcery, made a surprising announcement: Lin Carter's Flashing Swords! #6 Available Now

This was great news.

Flashing Swords was a sword and sorcery anthology series published by Dell from 1973-1981. It spanned five volumes and was an important part of what sword and sorcery historian Brian Murphy has termed the "sword and sorcery renaissance" of the 1960s and 70s. In Murphy's excellent history of sword and sorcery, Flame and Crimson (Pulp Hero Press 2019), he writes, "It was a true renaissance in every sense of the word: a time of experimentation, artists writing thrilling new stories of high adventure, pushing sword-and-sorcery in surprising new directions" (133). And the Flashing Swords anthology series was part of that period, an outgrowth of the informal Swordsmen and Sorcerers Guild of America (S.A.G.A.), a loose and unofficial confederation of some of the great sword and sorcery writers of that renaissance (e.g. Lin Carter, L. Sprague de Camp, Poul Anderson,  John Jakes, Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, and more). 

In the literary history of sword and sorcery, the Flashing Swords anthologies are important for many reasons: not only were they edited by one of the great sword and sorcery writers, Lin Carter, the introduction to the first volume helped codify the genre's conventions, giving writers a blueprint to proceed and an artistic form to play with. Murphy points out how Flashing Swords #1 "contained one of the first definitions of the subgenre, a useful if lightly sketched introduction to the sword-and-sorcery, codifying it as a genre begun by Robert E. Howard and broadly comprised as the amalgamation of adventure story, imaginary world fantasy, and supernatural horror" (138). Put simply: Lin Carter's excellent introduction to Flashing Swords was an influential work of literary criticism that influenced and influences writers who seek to work in this tradition of storytelling.

There had been rumors on various online communities that Pulp Hero Press was resurrecting the Flashing Swords anthology series; information about the progress of Flashing Swords was only available through unofficial corridors: blogs, groups, authors' discussions, etc.. So, for many of us, this news, broadcast by DMRBooks, was the first official confirmation of the anthology's glorious return. It was exciting, another indicator of the new sword and sorcery renaissance that is happening right now.

I liked the colorful cover. I was intrigued by the back matter. And the list of writers included boded well. There were intriguingly-titled tales by celebrated and established sword and sorcery legends such as Charles R. Rutledge, David C. Smith, and Adrian Cole; and, there were tales by new and emerging sword and sorcery writers, like D.M. Ritzlin and Steve Dilks. Only one thing gave me pause: it was edited by Robert M. Price.

As a Lovecraft scholar, Lovecraft fan, writer, and editor of Crypt of Cthulhu, Price's wide-ranging influence and excellence in the field was known to me. I met him briefly during a Silver Key Lodge party at the NecronomiCon in August of 2015, where he was awarded the Robert Bloch Award (an awesome, self-luminous statue shaped to resemble Lovecraft's infamous "Shining Trapezohedron"). I was drinking a beer at the Red Fez Bar in Providence during his infamous keynote address that year, but I later learned about several of his controversial and politically-charged verbal lances: "Superstition, barbarism, and fanaticism will sooner or later devour us," "The bloodlust of jihadists threatens Western Civilization," "Our centers of learning have converted to power politics and an affirmative action epistemology," and don't forget that contemporary society is "the real life horror of Red Hook." 

In 2015, I didn't take his claims very seriously and kind of laughed them off. I shrugged my shoulders: more wingnut political nonsense from an out-of-touch old guy (I hear similar screeds from family during holidays). Pretty typical. At that Silver Key Lodge party in 2015, we even chatted a bit. I told Price about my scholarly book about Weird Tales and expressed how I was a fan of his writings on the historical Jesus. Interpersonally speaking, Price was a kind, scholarly man, with a sharp mind, who clearly knew a lot about ancient history and theology (and well-dressed!). I thought to myself: now that is a modern day gentleman scholar.

When I learned from that DMRBooks' post that Robert M. Price was editing the new Flashing Swords anthology, I didn't think much about it. If anything, I don't think Price's editorship of the anthology was very notable to me. His name is so ubiquitous, so comon in the pulp fiction fandom, convention culture, and scholarly field I work in,  that I took his presence for granted. Price undoubtedly has the credentials and clearly loves the genre. If anything, I may have thought that the anthology seemed to be in good hands, although the hands of a person who seemed to be obsessed sometimes with wingnut politics.

Let's fast forward to today when I learned that the anthology had been cancelled because several of the contributing authors withdrew their work because they didn't want to be associated with Price's introduction. My uninformed, gut reaction was to be angry at the authors. "Is this just another example of folks getting angry over some 'off color' humor? Could the introduction be that bad?" And then I read the introduction. And then I realized: yes, it could be that bad.

Let's look at just one page: commenting on the MeToo movement, Price states, "The continuous false rape accusations [are] seeking to make masculinity, even natural male interest in women, into a 'rape culture.'" He moves on to a penseé about pornography: "I have long puzzled at the feminist hatred of pornography. 'It reduces women to sex objects!' Absurd! It is simply highlighting an aspect of beautiful women." And he then moves on to the politics of gendered language: "Many 'progressives' want to replace 'he,' 'she,' 'his,' 'her,' 'him' with 'gender neutral' language so as to promote the illusion that gender is a matter of 'social construction.'" And this is only one page. At this point I was wondering: (excuse the harsh language): What the fuck does this have to with sword and sorcery?!

Some of my more reasonable conservative, apologist friends say, "He was just venting. He's an older guy from another time. Give him a break." No. This isn't "just someone venting." Price executed this tirade in a published anthology where the reputations of several authors were on the line. It wasn't the sword and sorcery readers who were offended; instead, it was several of the writers being published in the anthology. 

It gets worse: despite the fact that he loaded his introduction with hyper-political bullshit in the age of so-called "cancel culture," he didn't share his intentionally provocative introduction with his contributors.

Price self-indulgently chose to turn his introduction into a navel-gazing wingnut political rant. There were so many better options. Compare his nonsense with Lin Carter's introduction to Flashing Swords #1. It concludes as a paean to the works published therein: "You will [...] find all sorts of stories. Stories with verve and sparkle, wit and polish; stories frankly humorous and stories of sheer, headlong adventure and excitement; stories of action and stories of subtler mood. But all share one thing in common. They are all tales of swordsmen and sorcerers, in worlds or lands where magic works..." 

Some will say Lin Carter was writing in a different time; our hyper-political moment is different and demands a different approach. To them I ask: do you know what our country was like in the early 1970s, when Flashing Swords #1 was published? Vietnam War, Nixon, Second Wave Feminism, Kent State, Black Panthers, gas shortages, the Weather Underground, and more. Our country was a boiling cauldron of political unrest and Lin Carter didn't use his introduction to indulge in a political rant "against the hippies." Or, if you will, to "celebrate free love." Why? Because I believe Carter understood that the introduction to Flashing Swords wasn't the place to go on a political rant. He restrained. It's called the art of civility.

Instead of analyzing pornography, sharing thoughts about rape culture, and meditating on gender-neutral language, why didn't Price do a deep survey of the rich history of the anthology series? He's an academic so I know he has the intellectual capacity to write real scholarship.  

Instead of writing a good introduction that celebrated the works published, the authors, the enduring genre of sword and sorcery, Price did what he did at NecronomiCON 2015: he dishonestly used the occasion of a gathering of fans to force them to play auditor to his political obsessions, his rant. Here's an allegory: Price invited hungry people over to his house for dinner, sat them down at the table and let them enthrall to the smell of great food, and before even serving melon balls, said, "Thank you for coming, friends. I know you are hungry. But, first, do you mind if I share with you the Good News?" Except Price's "gospel" was a lecture about wingnut politics.

It's everyones' right to spew whatever intellectual sewage we want--in private, in print, online, etc.: BUT! why do it in the introduction to Flashing Swords #6

This could have been awesome. 

Pulp Hero Press cancelled Lin Carter's Flashing Swords #6. Why? Because Robert M. Price alienated his authors by irresponsibly writing his anthology introduction as a wingnut political screed (causing many writers to withdraw their work); worse, it seems Price did so clandestinely, without informing some or all of his authors about the controversial contents of his screed. 

Shame on you, Robert M. Price: if you are going to publish authors, and annoyingly use your editorial platform to navel-gaze, whine, and spittle-spray wingnut politics, at least be transparent. By contributing to your anthology project, authors have put their trust in you, tied their reputation to yours. This delicate relationship requires respect (for the artist, for the specific artwork, and for the tradition of art). What Price did disrespected the authors, their stories, and the great tradition of sword and sorcery. Price's inability to bite his tongue ruined what could have been an important episode in the history of sword and sorcery.

Keep your gospel to yourself. I'll take my sword and sorcery without it.  

February 20, 2020

Review of Brian Murphy's, Flame and Crimson: A History of Sword-and-Sorcery (Pulp Hero Press, 2020)

On the way to inventing the fantasy subgenre of "sword and sorcery" (S&S), Robert E. Howard crafted the quasi-S&S hero, Solomon Kane, a brooding, puritanical demon hunter, bane of zombies, vampires, and other supernatural horrors. With the first Solomon Kane story, Howard mixed genres like a manic alchemist raiding his reagent cabinet: he combined historical fiction, swashbuckling adventure, and supernatural horror. Indeed, this modernistic hybridization of genre tabooed the first Solomon Kane story for many pulp editors. Consider the famous Solomon Kane rejection letter Howard received from the editor of Argosy: "In some ways this story is very good, and in others it is rotten [...]. It starts out as a period story, & finally changes into a combination of modern & medieval African jungle story. You can't mix periods & atmospheres like that. Stick to one or the other" (qtd. in The Robert E. Howard Guide [Skelos P, 2019] 68). This rejection didn't discourage Howard too much. Many speculate the rejection motivated Howard to submit the story to Weird Tales, the pulp where he would pioneer the S&S genre. Patrice Louinet, commenting on the Argosy rejection and subsequent acceptance by Weird Tales, speculates, "Howard had understood or at least felt that the strength of his character resides precisely in this total scorn of established conventions" (69).

It's an old story worth rehearsing briefly: Howard would go on write several Solomon Kane stories. Later, elements of the Kane stories, specifically the mixture of swashbuckling adventure with supernaturalism, would be incorporated in the Kull of Atlantis stories. By and by, Kull of Atlantis, through revision, would morph into Howard's most enduring creation, Conan the Cimmerian, the character whose world and adventures would become the "Ur-source" of the genre of S&S. 

From a certain perspective, S&S began with rejection. 

Let's hope it doesn't end that way.

"Sword and sorcery." Readers react to the term in a variety of ways. The genre is often the locus of critical paradox: (1) proto-feminist and sexist, (2) a form of modernist experimentation and formulaic pulp entertainment, (4) distinctively literary and ephemeral popular culture, an unpretentious multimedia phenomenon incorporating RPGs, music, and video games. 

The story of S&S is, to put it mildly, complicated. 

Here's a key theme: some criticize S&S for its conventionalism, its reliance upon a hackneyed formula. Shorn of all story incidentals, the spine of a typical S&S tale looks like this: a male barbarian faces off against a sorcerer in order to win a woman-as-prize. Seen in this light, it's hard to take S&S too seriously. Consider, for example, Brian Hval's lamentation along these grounds, published in the April 1970 issue of the S&S fanzine, Amra: "I have finally been exhausted by the same repetitious plots of half-naked barbarians chasing equally naked women through numberless perils, the entire series of episodes menaced by some slimy Elder Evil. [...] All brainless boozing barbarians!" (qtd. in Murphy 171). With this view of the genre in mind, it is sobering to recall that it began as genre defined by its generic formlessness. 

BUT! If one returns to the origins of S&S, you find this phrase: "Total scorn of established conventions." Alas, look at the end of the end of the story, you find this phrase: "The same repetitious plots." 

What the #$%& happened?

Brian Murphy's Flame and Crimson: A History of Sword-and-Sorcery (Pulp Hero Press, 2020), begins to wrestle with this story. Flame and Crimson is a much-needed survey of this venerable yet vivacious subgenre of fantasy literature. The book does more, however, than chronologically laying out the rise, development, decline, and (ongoing) rebirth of S&S. It lodges a compelling defense of S&S's enduring cultural significance in modernity; it provides an insightful description of its conventions and distinguishing features, and begins to connect the subgenre to its (often lamented) multimedia uptake in music, film, and gaming. 

Who is it written for? This book will be valuable to experts, casual fans, and newcomers alike. Experts might find a few chapters superficial and thin; casual fans might find some chapters technical and over-detailed; newcomers might wonder what all the fuss is about. But if you're interested in S&S--despite where you are coming from--this book is required reading. 

Below are a few of the reasons why.

Murphy's prose style is excellent, lively, unaffected, and precise, a delicate balance to strike.

Although it is written for a deep reader of fantasy, it does not assume that the reader knows everything there is to know about S&S already. It evinces a journalistic style: it is accessible, hospitable, and avoids the insular language of the academic. This is because it is truly an introductory survey. 

The opening chapters distinguishes S&S from other traditions of fantasy in a valid and thoughtful way. It goes on to treats all the major authors of S&S. I'm anticipating later reviews of the book that decry that certain writers didn't get treatment (or deeper treatment).

If there is anything controversial here, then it is in its treatment of L. Sprague de Camp, the editor and ambassador of Howard's Conan the Cimmerian character and critical standard bearer for S&S. Murphy treads lightly. He doesn't strictly condemn de Camp for his 1970s characterization of S&S as escapist, unpretentious, and anti-intellectual entertainment. He neutrally recounts how and why de Camp held this view: for de Camp, hewing to convention was part of S&S's appeal. Although one gets the sense that Murphy disagrees with de Camp in part, he doesn't use his book as a basis for editorially decrying de Camp. Instead, he simply lays out the de Camp story and gets the reader to consider his ambiguous role in the history of the subgenre: de Camp was a popularizer whose influence had good and bad consequences. Although many have formed negative opinions of de Camp due to his biographical distortions of Howard's life in Dark Valley Destiny, the infamous Howard bio, Murphy's steady approach is nevertheless admirable.

Murphy also discusses the S&S renaissance that is ongoing. Murphy hits on all the major players: DMR Books, Rogues Blades Entertainment, From the Magician's Skull, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly. He also briefly talks about Grimdark and its tangential relationship to S&S. I'm sure writers currently participating in the S&S renaissance would have preferred a longer treatment of their movement or favorite writers; however, Murphy's book is part of that same phenomenon. It will probably emerge as the "go-to" critical companion to the S&S revival.

There are some elements of the book worth quibbling with: the chapter on Robert E. Howard seemed unambitious from a literary criticism perspective. That chapter seemed to assume Howard's uncontested centrality in the genre and rehearsed previous arguments deployed elsewhere. One can't blame Murphy's treatment of Howard here. He clearly knows his Howard and perhaps didn't want to go over old territory. Indeed, he writes about Howard with precision. It would have been interesting to hear novel speculations about Howard's critical significance. But this chapter is less a new theory of Howard and more a restatement of previous arguments about Howard's centrality to the subgenre. 

There is an enthralling chapter on the cultural impact of S&S, wherein Murphy discusses S&S's uptake in other genres and medias. This chapter was extremely interesting but it seemed only a cursory treatment of an otherwise massive archive of pop culture that fans of S&S haven't even begun to come to terms with. For example, there is mention of R.A. Salvatore and his Drizzt Do'Urden novels, for example. But what about the stacks and stacks of mass market paperback game tie-in novels? (The Warhammer Fantasy characters, Gotrek and Felix, for example, are an homage to Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser and Conan). A longer treatment of S&S as a multimedia phenomenon is needed. Central to this is the way S&S's narrative conventions have become central to Dungeons and Dragons, which, despite your stance towards the game, is the main way most experience the genre, its conventions, its atmospherics, and thematic concerns. D&D should be viewed as a literary wellspring because it has become the major engine (for good or ill) of new adventure fantasy fiction.  Murphy has struck new territory with this chapter. 

To summarize: this book is excellent. It is the beginning of a long overdue, serious, and honest appraisal of the S&S subgenre. S&S is sometimes simplistically decried as a genre of anti-intellectualism, misogyny, and ideological insularity, but it doesn't come through as that caricature here. Murphy renders a vital genre where many of the concerns about a distinctively modern human experience are explored . One begins this book expecting it to be a history, a recounting of bygone days, a record of what has happened. It ends, however, with an emphasis on the S&S revival, on the future. It's an exciting turn.

Let me conclude by citing the opening of Robert E. Howard's first professional sale, "Spear and Fang" (Weird Tales, July 1925). The narrator is describing a premodern human, an "Ur-artist," trying his hand at artistic expression: "With a piece of flint he scratched the outline and then with a twig dipped in ocher paint completed the figure. The result was crude, but gave evidence of real artistic genius, struggling for expression." This image reminds me of S&S. S&S, too, is sometimes crude, but in Flame and Crimson, Brian Murphy reminds us that, more than you would expect, it gives evidence of real artistic genius struggling for a voice.

January 4, 2020

For the Love of Crom, Don't Be (too much of) a Snob!


Introduction

I cherish the literary art of Robert E. Howard (1906-1936). I judge Howard as one of the greatest writers of all time. His sword and sorcery stories of Solomon Kane, Kull, and Conan the Cimmerian are a major influence on many of the forms of art and entertainment that have enriched my life, such as fantasy roleplaying, video games, film, and other examples of other popular culture.

I am not quite long in the tooth as a member of Robert E. Howard fandom. My official engagement with REH fandom began in 2006, when I presented an academic paper on Howard at the Southwest PCA/ACA conference. But my thirteen years are not impressive compared to others, who have been at it for much longer. So, keep the nearsightedness of my perspective in mind as you continue reading.

In this post, I explore a lesson learned while participating in both Robert E. Howard fandom and the burgeoning academic community that studies pulp fiction. It's a lesson I find myself rehearsing to  friends and students who express interest in Robert E. Howard. Writing this lesson down will provide a useful reference. You might be reading this because I recommended it to you. Let me frontload my point: if you're interested in Robert E. Howard, read his original works first, and share those originals with others first, but, for Crom's sake, don't become (too much of) a snob.

The Myth of the "Pure" Text

The REH fan community contributes to (and even intellectually subsidizes) the small scholarly community orbiting REH and pulp studies. The fan community has done and continues to do a lot of foundational work that is a necessary condition for scholarly work. For example, literary scholars can't make discursively valid claims about literary art unless they are sure they are working with something like a "definitive" text. This is not say literary scholars don't work with "flawed" texts. Some do. For example, there are two versions of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the 1818 and the 1831 editions, and there are several variations in each version. There is not an "agreed upon" text that scholars study and teach with; however, every scholar working on this work acknowledges which text they are working with and spends a little time discussing why they are using that specific text. In general, the idea isn't that one should be using a "definitive, pure text" (aside from an original manuscript, such a thing probably is a myth); instead, the idea is that one should be fully aware of the textual history of the works and editions one is studying.

Put another way, there is no such thing as a "pure" text; however, there needs to be something like a consensus about what texts we are going to be talking about to proceed. It has an ambivalent backstory, but, by happenstance, this work has been done in Robert E. Howard fandom. Here's the story in a nutshell.

The De Camp Controversy (Abridged Version)

Before the 2000s, there was a big problem: an interested yet uninitiated reader would have had difficulty finding an unedited version of Howard's original stories outside of the old, collectible pulp magazines (and even these might have editorial interventions--title changes, censoring scenes considered too risqué, etc.). The only other editions available were, arguably, flawed, difficult to locate, or incomplete. But there were Howard stories available.

The sword and sorcery writer, L. Sprague de Camp, edited all of Howard's Conan stories together in the so-called "Lancer Editions" (1966-1977), but he used a heavy hand (to put it mildly) in compiling them. He tried to put them in "chronological order," and he "filled in the gaps" where he thought Howard failed at world building and narrative cohesion. 

It doesn't take a literary scholar to realize that such heavy-handed editing is problematic. The jury is still out regarding de Camp's legacy. There are compelling arguments about how de Camp did a lot for Howard's legacy by popularizing him (or at least the character "Conan"). Others will argue that de Camp didn't popularize Howard so much as provide a distorted and distracting caricature version of Howard who suited the sensationalistic needs of marketability, and this caricature representation endures and ramifies in negative ways. This is a long, protracted debate filled with potholes and landmines, so I won't get into it here. 

Suffice it to say, the idea that there are "correct," "unadulterated" versions of Howard's stories, more in sync with the author's original vision, has, to a large extent, disseminated through the REH community, and this was because of the hard work of fans and independent experts and not, to my mind, academic, tenure-minded scholars.

But let's back up.

Robert E. Howard and Popular Culture Exuda

A few decades after the writer's suicide in 1936, Robert E. Howard, the writer, as well as his works (in a variety of genres), were overshadowed by its associated popular culture exuda. By the late-1960s and early-1970s, my impression is that a fair amount of people knew about Conan the Barbarian (although I wasn't around then), but they associated the figure with the Frazetta illustrations of the Lancer editions, the Marvel Comic's character, or, into the 80s, the Arnold Schwarzenegger depiction. In other subcultures, Howard's influence endured. Fantasy RPG gamers glorified Conan in an Advanced Dungeons and Dragons context, but the extent to which the grim, paranoid atmospherics of the game were linked to Howard's unique sword and sorcery vision was ignored or under acknowledged. 

So, for the past twenty some years, Robert E. Howard enthusiasts have been keen to unravel Howard's literary legacy from his popular culture manifestations. 

When I decided to get serious, I spent a large portion of 2006 to 2009 mentally unravelling all this for myself; and I benefited from the work of several before me. It took attending several panels at pulp and science fiction conventions, reading several biographies and articles, and having many conversations, to do it, and my view of Howard is still probably contaminated by sensationalistic framings. By and by, I got it through my head that there is an "Ur-source" of Howard, the actual literary art produced by the writer himself, and, in emanating, ever-widening concentric rings outward, a whole universe of REH-inspired fare: comics, films, pulp sword and sorcery novels, television shows, roleplaying games, video games.

A lot of people have been trying to return to Howard's original texts, to undo the distorting editorializing and obfuscation that comes with popular culture visibility and unscrupulous editors.

More and more, however, I have been giving thought to this intellectual habit of mind. Let me explain.

Art Begets More Art (Sometimes)

I began participating in Howard fandom after this move to discover a more pure, literary Howard.  But, truth be told, what brought me into Howard fandom was one of those popular culture texts so often ridiculed and critiqued by true Howard fans, e.g.. John Milius' cult classic, Conan the Barbarian (1982). I enjoy this movie and I still do, although it provides the irony-tinged joy of "camp." I read and re-read the decently-written novelization L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter. I blare Basil Poledouris' film soundtrack while working out. In 2010 my wife gifted me a prop replica of the Atlantean sword. It now hangs proudly in the dining room. I even watch (and vaguely enjoy) the sequel to Milius' film, Conan the Destroyer (1984). This is a hard one to admit: I get a kick out of the cartoon series, Conan the Adventurer (1992-1993). But, through a lot of reading, I was able to demarcate the Milius' film, comics, and cartoons from the actual literary art produced by Howard. 

By analogy, to compare the actual literary artistic works to their popular culture exuda is like comparing Dante Alighieri's The Inferno to, for example, the famous illustrations of the poem by Gustave Doré', the Dantean hell rendered in "Red Hot Homma" (1934) starring Betty Boop, and other popular culture depictions of hell (which were first encoded by Dante). The point is, powerful art begets more art (and quasi-art); some of that begotten art is better than others. Some is ephemera. Some rises to the level of art. This is not to say I think that Conan the Barbarian (1982) is art. Most of the popular culture reacting to Howard's work has been ephemera, and some of is delightful; however, who would argue with the idea that Franz Frazetta's illustrations will withstand the test of time, have already achieved a level of artistic autonomy?

My Descent into and Ascent from Snobbery

Through an incremental process too long to rehearse, I learned how to make distinctions like this, i.e. who Robert E. Howard was, what he did, and what he did not do. There was a great bookstore in Muncie, Indiana where, in early 2005, an old bearded guy with a pipe instructed me on who Howard was and what editions to read. By and by, I  discovered Howard's original works, and came to understood how distinct they are from the works they influenced. 

But then my foot slipped and I became something of a snob. I came to avoid Robert E. Howard popular culture texts like the plague. From my newly "enlightened" perspective, they were offensive corruptions of Howard's authorial vision, distortions of his world, pale shadows of the original, true literary art. At the height of this snobbery, I sold my complete files of Savage Sword of Conan  and Conan the Barbarian in a parking lot in Cleveland, Ohio because I had a short-term financial need. I really regret that now.

I've changed somewhat. In addition to other influences, it took a video game, an MMORPG, to do that. In 2006, Age of Conan, was released, and the rumors were that the creators were making every effort to  be faithful to Howard's vision. The jury is still out regarding their success. Like a lot of Howard fans, I was hypnotized by the idea of the game, and I built a gaming computer specifically to play AoC. I cancelled my World of Warcraft account and played AoC for a full year and half.  I maxed out my character, a Cimmerian barbarian named Malabolj. But then I got busy with graduate school and adjuncting work, and I so quit playing. But AoC was an experience, I dare say an artistic experience.

Although Age of Conan is a small and community now, in my estimation, the game is a loving homage to Robert E. Howard's vision. Although the game is a tendentious interpretation of Howard, it truly does capture facets and flashes of Howard's aesthetic and philosophical concerns. And the soundtrack, by composer Knut Avenstroup Haugen, is a true work of art, one of the best video game soundtracks I've ever listened to. It's on YouTube. Give the first track, "The Dreaming," a listen, and be amazed.

A Conclusion, and a Question

Over time, even as my Del Rey editions of Howard are falling apart at the seams due to the amount of re-reading, I have craved more and more Howard-related fare. A desire to read more of an author despite the paucity is an indication of that author's power. We come to love living in, virtually occupying, a writer's world so much we want to hang out there longer and longer. More importantly, this feeling, this craving, often becomes a powerful compulsion to create new art.

This is a long way of saying that, in 2020, I am allowing myself to read "pastiches" of Conan, but I will do so with a kind of hospitable but critical mindset. 

The tension and question, which I still haven't resolved, is how to do you pay respect to a fantasy author's vision while also joyfully expanding, dwelling in, and exploring their world that unfolds dynamically due to fan engagement? 

A question for another time.

September 23, 2019

NecronomiCon Report 2019

NecronomiCon (Day 1): Thursday, August 22nd

My flight left Newport news at 6:00a.m.. On the flight I read material to prepare for my panel on "Pulp History." For a nonacademic overview, I read (probably for the fifth time) Ed Hulse's wonderful Blood 'n' Thunder Guide to Pulp Fiction. For a more academic refresher, I re-read David M. Earle's essay, "Pulp Magazines and the Popular Press." One of my favorite quotes from this essay is Earle's characterization of Literary Modernism, the literary art considered the most important (during the pulp era):
"Modernism was codified as a cohesive and elite movement by authors and academics in order to substantiate their distinct yet reciprocal causes, namely a sophisticated type of literary production and a scientific study of that production" (198).
In the myopic cultural milieu of James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and Virginia Woolf, the pulpwoods appeared as degraded literary commodities. This perspective on pulp fiction persists in literary studies, but  a thaw approaches. The line separating fans and academics is beginning to blur.

After a layover in Philadelphia, I took a taxi to the Omni Hotel. I struck up a conversation with the driver after he asked what brought me to town. I told him the NecronomiCon. Sadly, he wasn't familiar with H.P. Lovecraft. When I told him Lovecraft was a horror writer, he shared anecdotes about how Edgar Allan Poe had visited Providence.

I wonder if he was just uniquely uninformed or if I have a distorted sense of Lovecraft's national and public celebrity.

I arrived at the hotel at 11:00a.. I immediately got in touch with Scott Valeri, Bobby Derie, and Jeff Shanks. After briefly catching up during a quick trip to the local pharmacy, Scott left for a Lovecraft-themed bus tour of Providence. Jeff, Bobby, and I went to get some sandwiches.

At lunch Bobby, Jeff and I immediately started talking about fandom and pulp-related topics. Jeff and Bobby discussed the history of Fate magazine and the way the current "ancient aliens" mythology is (or is not) related to Lovecraft's fiction. While we were eating, a tourist chatted with us; he asked us what brought us to town. We told him the NecronomiCon. Like my taxi driver, he didn't know anything about Lovecraft. Again, I was surprised by how it seemed that few in Providence knew about Lovecraft.

After lunch, Jeff left to meet Rusty Burke. So Bobby and I met back up with Scott to attend the NecronomiCon opening ceremony, which was pretty neat. The Howard scholar (and Machen scholar) Karen Kahoutek met us there and it was great to catch up with her and meet her husband. There were several quasi-spectacles: people costumed as Lovecraftian horrors shambled into the First Baptist Church accompanied by grim organ music. The hosting speaker did a great job setting the mood with affected diction and a grave, almost sermon-like delivery. The organ music played intermittently and was very atmospheric.  There was a touching speech about the recently deceased Sam Gafford given by Jason Eckhart. Overall, the opening ceremony was pretty cool. I couldn't help but reflect on the strangeness that we were gathered in a Baptist church to celebrate one of the 20th century's key atheists.

After the opening ceremony we went to the Ars Necronomica, a Lovecraftian art exhibit held at the very same Providence Art Club featured in "Pickman's Model" and "The Call of Cthulhu." The art exhibited was really fascinating but the Ars Necronomica was just too crowded for the space. I didn't stay long.

After that, we went to the local pub and drank a few beers. Jeff and Rusty showed up. We then discussed several of fandom-related issues. At around midnight we adjourned. I needed to get back because I had a panel at 9:00a.m. on "pulp history."

NecronomiCon (Day 2): Friday, August 23rd

The morning began with the Pulp History panel that included Jason Thompson (illustrator and writer), Steve Mariconda (scholar), William Patrick Murray (pulp expert), Darrell Schweitzer, and myself. The panel was informative but went in a direction that I thought was too narrow in scope; in my opinion, it became too focused too quickly on Weird Tales. We gave general pulp history too little attention.

Generally speaking, there is so much more to pulp fiction than Weird Tales and in order to understand how unique the magazine was, one needs to contextualize it adequately.

After that panel I met up with a bunch of friends and we perused the dealer room. I chatted with several interesting people there: Robert Knox, Derrick Hussey, Jim Lowder, and more. I got Robert Knox to sign my Issue 2 of The Dark Man; he illustrated the cover, a great rendering of Howard's "Tower of the Elephant."

Socializing zaps me so after the dealer room I took some time to decompress. I worked out in the hotel gym and had a quiet lunch. Refreshed, I then went to a panel on "Sacred Objects, Sacred Places in H.P. Lovecraft." After that I attended Rusty and Jeff's panel on "weird archaeology," which was excellent. This was followed by the guest reception, which was great but quite crowded. We left this reception and went to a pub for more beers.

When we came to the pub it was very crowded and loud and it was difficult hearing each other. A great moment was when Rusty was recognized as a celebrity and was asked by someone to pose for a picture. Eventually Rusty left because it was too damn loud and he planned on an early walking tour of Providence. Then, Frank Coffman, Jeff, Scott, and I started shouting at each other over the din. We had a great conversation in this way.

NecronomiCon (Day 3): Saturday, August 24th

Saturday morning I was exhausted and so spent a lot of time in the morning in my room relaxing. I read, drank coffee, wrote, and went to the gym. After that, I went on a walking tour of Providence with Scott and Rusty, which was really compelling.  I am ashamed to admit after that I didn't actually involve myself in NecronomoiCon programming until a 3:00p Armitage Symposium session.

The Armitage Symposium is the academic conference embedded in the NecronomiCon. Is it distinct in that most of the presenters are academic disciplinary specialists who are either graduate students or university faculty. There also seems to be a fair amount of independent scholars who present there. As a touchstone for Howard fans, it is the Lovecraft version of the "Glenn Lord Symposium," only it is over several days and several panels. Overall, I was impressed by the congenial back and forth between scholars and fans. Scholars admitted their blind spots as fans politely corrected them and fans seemed to appreciate the scholars' unique perspectives. If there was hostility, it was behind the scenes.

The 3:00 session I attended was very interesting. There was Shawn Gaffney's “Hideous Writing Systems in Lovecraft Country,” which analyzed from art studies perspective the fictional writing rendered in Lovecraft-inspired art. There was Cole Donovan's, “Grimma Gæst: The Anglo-Saxon Ancestry of Lovecraft’s Grimoires” and Lars Backstrom, “In Search of the Lost Al Azif,” which were quite interesting and erudite.

One presentation I would like to focus on is Lucas Townsend's, “Who is Lovecraft’s True Protagonist?: The Oriental Semiotician and his Necronomicon.” Townsend argued that Lovecraft's true protagonist is Abdul Alhazred. As far as I can gather, he proposed that Alhazred is a positive character and, to the extent that Alhazred is a person of color, he is a progressive character. I highly disagree with this characterization. I celebrate the intellectual audacity of Townsend's claim but I think he needs to rethink his thesis.

After the Armitage Symposium session I attended "Can't Live With Him: The Life and Works of Sonia H. Greene." Bobby Derie was a panelist on this session and I was eager to support Bobby but also to learn more about Sonia. This was an amazing panel. Bobby's impressive (and intimidating) erudition was on full display as he rehearsed the entire history of Lovecraft's and Sonia's relationship to the finest detail. What really struck me was Sonia's life after Lovecraft's death. From history's perspective, her relationship to Lovecraft was such a small period of time; but, from her perspective,  it seemed to stick with her.

After this excellent panel we went to a brewery where, later that night, there was going to be a Lovecraftian trivia event. We had dinner and chatted over beers for a while. Alas, we missed the beginning of the trivia event. When we finally found out where the trivia event was (in the basement of the bewery) they were several rounds in. I stood around, tried to answer some questions, but eventually left and went back to my room for an early Saturday night. I had a 6:00a.m. flight home.

The NecronomiCon was excellent. It was really great to get to meet so many people in this Lovecraft, mythos, and weird fiction fandom.

August 16, 2019

Michael Meyerhofer's "Then, Stars": Sword and Sorcery and Life Lived Intensely Unto Death

At Robert E. Howard Days this June, on the 4th Annual Glenn Lord Symposium, I presented a paper titled, "Conan the Compassionate:  'Red Nails' and the Dehumanizing Stalemate War." Videographer and REHUPAn Ben Friberg uploaded a video of it. You can watch it here, if you're interested.

In the paper, I argue that Conan, and his female compeer in this tale, Valeria, are distinguished from the dehumanized denizens of the decaying, war-torn city of Xuchotl because of a surprising capacity to show compassion to each other. In contrast, the two factions who engage in bloody warfare--the Tecuhltli and the Xotalanc--are distinguished by their inhumanity, by their absolute lack of compassion.

Rehearsing every detail of this argument isn't necessary to reiterate the paper's central claim: sword and sorcery is a literature through which runs a strong vein of elemental, human compassion.

Several protagonists of sword and sorcery, Conan the Cimmerian not least of all, are characterized by virtue of their valuing of individual human dignity. Though many S&S protagonists are death-dealers who glory in battle and blood and eschew compassion strategically, many are nevertheless acutely aware of the vulnerability and finitude of the ephemeral human form. Not necessarily heroes who seek to sacrifice themselves for others, S&S heroes are often stirred to action by human suffering.

Here's an example. Many argue that Solomon Kane is an Ur-source of the sword and sorcery protagonist: consider his famous reaction in "Red Shadows" to the horrible spectacle of human suffering, a raped and bleeding young woman:
     Suddenly the slim form went limp. The man eased her to the earth, and touched her brow lightly.
     "Dead!" he muttered.
     Slowly he rose, mechanically wiping his hands upon his cloak. A dark scowl had settled on his somber brow. Yet he made no wild, reckless vow, swore no oath by saints or devils.
     "Men shall die for this," he said coldly.
***

I recently read a story by Michael Meyerhofer, "Then, Stars," published in the most recent issue of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly that powerfully demonstrates this surprising element of S&S, its occasional thematic preoccupation with compassion. Meyerhofer's story is an emotionally powerful chronicle of an anonymous soldier's last words. The aesthetic strategy of the story is to coax the reader into focusing on the death of an anonymous soldier, to "exorcise" this soldier's anonymity. The story itself represents a rhetorical act of compassion, the translation of what is traditionally a minor, supporting character (the squire) into a main character.

Let me summarize it before proceeding (spoilers galore):

The story relates the dying words of a squire who has been dragged bleeding from a battlefield where he had been left for dead. In a first person narrative p.o.v., the squire recounts how he became a squire to Sir Bryson of Akonbree, how he followed Sir Bryson into a battle with the Shii-duán, and how he was mortally wounded by a Shii-duán who caught him unawares during the battle. After the battle, as he is lying wounded, night falls, and the Shii-duán come into the field. At first the dying squire thinks they are looters. Instead, he discovers that they are gathering the wounded and giving quick death to those who are suffering. Eventually he is discovered by a Shii-duán, one Eli Ben-Sodr, who can communicate with him. The squire learns of an important Shii-duán custom: if they can be given, a dying person's last words are sacred. By and by the squire is taken to Eli Ben-Sodr's house where he is attended and his pain alleviated (as much as is possible). The squire is then asked to tell his story. The reader realizes that what they have been been reading is in fact a transcription of the squire's final words.

This is a powerful, artfully told story that inverts a lot of conventional S&S tropes. The protagonist isn't powerful at all but a wounded soldier who is dying. The enemies, the Shii-duán, aren't dehumanized foes who the powerful protagonist kills en masse; instead, they are noble in their own way and live by a code. There are also representations of "domestic" (ordinary) spaces in the story, a straw-lined deathroom in Eli Ben-Sodr's house populated by servants, Ben-Sodr's wife, and his young daughter (conventionally S&S is set in extraordinary spaces). One might argue because "Then, Stars," inverts so many tropes of S&S--the powerful protagonist, the hordes of dehumanized enemies, the emphasis on extraordinary (not domestic) spaces--that the tale ceases to be S&S and something else. Perhaps. But I don't think so.

This story maintains its status as sword and sorcery because of the outlook of the protagonist. Despite the squire's impending death, he maintains a grim determination to live and, most importantly, to justify his existence even as he dies anonymously in darkness. By virtue of their intense (though ephemeral) experiences, their powerful (though finite) sensoriums, sword and sorcery heroes become their own monuments by living. 

To clarify, consider this passage, where the squire is recounting being carried from the battlefield with a spear still stuck in his abdomen:
I'm no poet so I don't have the words for how much it hurt when they moved me. I don't remember screaming but they say I carried on so loud and pitiful, one of Eli's sons wanted to slit my throat--maybe mercy, maybe nerves. Only Eli stopped him and I passed out instead. They took me to their home. I slept most of the way, but when I woke, the hurt wasn't as bad. I looked up and saw the first tendrils of moonlight peeking behind a dark sky, like bare parchment peeking through spilled wine. Then, stars.
"Like bare parchment peeking through spilled wine. Then, stars." What a powerful, singular, yet archetypical image, a hauntingly beautiful allegory for the transition from life to death that this story dramatizes.

Meyerhofer's story blew me away. It reminds me of the great thematic range of sword and sorcery, its contemporary fecundity as a living literary tradition. Moreover, it shows how S&S can incorporate powerful protagonists and enervated protagonists; how S&S, surprisingly, is concerned with compassion, our capacity to withdraw it and our equally surprising (perhaps more surprising) capacity to give it in the midst of violent conflict.

Finally, Meyerhofer's story reaffirms why S&S, as campy as it sometimes can be, nevertheless contains the germ, the potential to render high literary art: it is concerned with nothing more nor less than life lived intensely unto death

In the world of sword and sorcery, the ephemeral human form is destined for formlessness. The sword and sorcery protagonist lives intensely. Why? From their point of view, death is ever present, looming above, like the infinite stars.