January 3, 2023

Review of Masters of the Universe: Revelation

I recently watched Masters of the Universe: Revelation (seasons 1 and 2), a continuation of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. With reboots, remakes, and reimaginings, it's useful to think about one's previous relationship with the material being rebooted, remade, or reimagined (if one has one).

I largely missed out on He-Man and the Masters of the Universe as a kid. I was born in early 1983. By the time I was old enough to enjoy Saturday morning cartoons, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe had finished and was syndicated (and I don't think my local stations re-ran MOTU episodes). My older brother--born 1979--however, had been a big fan of the show. He had accumulated several of the toys and playsets. I vaguely remember being enthralled as I watched him play with his Castle Grayskull, Snake Mountain, and figures, and dream-wondering about when I would get some "big kid" toys too. I vividly remember the vivid art on the cardboard boxes and being just as enamored of that as the toys inside.

I do vaguely remember seeing the live-action film, Masters of the Universe (1987), on home video, probably in the early 90s, and also being annoyed that Orko wasn't included (he was my favorite character) and a little frightened by Skeletor in-the-flesh.

Fast forward to 2017 when the Netflix docuseries, The Toys That Made Us, came out: I watched the He-Man episode and was really intrigued (and a little incensed) by the creative and business background of the character. I am also into sword and sorcery fiction in general, and Masters of the Universe is something of a campy homage to that subgenre of fantasy. So, I'm hooked in these two ways as well.

To summarize: I like MOTU. I am interested in He-Man and related characters. I missed the original show as a kid. I came to the new Netflix show out of curiosity and a little bit of delayed nostalgia.

One the first things that intrigued me about the show was the way it wasn't centrally about He-Man. It was focused on Teela pretty much from the beginning. Another aspect that I thought was interesting was the tone. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe is mostly ridiculous and playful, but Masters of the Universe: Revelation immediately felt more serious, even mature. The characters weren't cardboard cutouts. They were dynamic, complex, and driven by conflicting desires: e.g. familial love, relationship trauma, deep-seated confidence issues, and other serious stuff. The external and psychological stakes stayed high from the beginning. Even Skeletor, who has always been rather comical, was intense and interesting, a genuine Lord of Death, tragically soul sick from his stultified ambition.

As season 1 proceeded, the serious tone continued and accelerated, and it worked for me. There was also a bit of nostalgia and depth, a sense that these hitherto silly characters had deep pasts and previously established relationships rife with unfinished business. The way episode 1 set up the later episodes to be in the aftermath of [excised to avoid a spoiler], was really intriguing. It gave a sense of continuity with the old show, the old conflicts, but it created an important tear in the continuity. With the beginning of episode 2, one realizes that this is going to be a different story than expected.

Later, as the other characters from the past are located and brought in--Evil-Lyn, Man-At-Arms, and Orko--this satisfying "Ghost of Christmas Past" feeling is fully established. He-Man ended in 1985, 36 years passed, and by-and-by this new show was created; accordingly, something like this strange sense of the passage of time--the weirdness of traversing the last 36 years--is captured artfully in that shift between the end of episode 1 and the beginning of episode 2. It was very clever and surprisingly nuanced.

I really enjoyed the reveal at the end of Episode 4. Preternia was a fun element of the story. And the end of episode 5: talk about a dramatic entrance.

I don't want this to go very long. In the spirit of a conversation starter, let me briefly say a few things about season 2. Season 2 was a lot of fun, and I was hooked throughout, but I think it suffered from the perennial fantasy problem of always needing to raise the conflict's stakes, i.e. the need to get more and more epic. I thought the character development of Evil-Lyn was the most intriguing. I am not ashamed to admit I felt some emotions as Teela and Man-at-Arms came to terms with each other. But as the epic conclusion proceeded, I started to feel something akin to Dragonball Z fatigue. Still, the spectacle was awesome.   

I'm so glad I watched this show. I'll probably watch it again. Since watching it I have purchased MOTU toys for my nieces and nephews as presents, and may have kept one for myself. And I'm interested in re-watching some of the old show and reading some of the old comic books.

September 9, 2022

Pulse Check: Summer of 2022

Summer of 2023 was really busy and inspiring. Here's a few things I've been up to:

On June 10th and 11th, I went to Cross Plains, Texas, for Howard Days, a literary festival and fan gathering for celebrating the life and work of Robert E. Howard. I organized the Glenn Lord Symposium, an academic panel (founded by Jeffrey Shanks) that is part of the event. You can watch it on YouTube here (special thanks to Texas Center for publishing it): The Glenn Lord Symposium. The three presentations that constituted this symposium were very thoughtful.

That same weekend of Howard Days, my independent press, Spiral Tower Press, published the fifth issue of Whetstone: Amateur Magazine of Sword and Sorcery. It's a free pdf and you can access it here: Whetstone (Issue 5). Incidentally, during Howard Days, Whetstone was awarded the "Costigan Award" for Literary Achievement.

I did some traveling and writing in July. A lot of July was spent preparing for the first SpiralCon, a quasi-academic convention I organized at Christopher Newport University, my workplace. During SpiralCon, the organizing committee I chaired inaugurated an achievement award sponsored by Spiral Tower Press, The Trigon Awards. You can learn more about the Trigon Awards here: RetroCultCast (Episode 5)

From August 4th to 7th, I attended the GenCon Writers Symposium and participated in a few panels about pulp fiction, sword and sorcery, and horror. Seth Lindberg, an organizer of the symposium, released audio recordings of a lot of those panels on YouTube. I've linked to one that was a lot of fun with Seth Lindberg, Howard Andrew Jones, and Matthew John about sword and sorcery pastiche. The conversation arrived at some interesting places (you can follow the thread to the other Writers Symposium panels through this link): SWORD & SORCERY PASTICHE Panel - GenCon 2022 Writer's Symposium.

A few weeks later, I attended the NecronomiCon (August 18th to 21st) in Providence, Rhode Island. I had some traveling issues (flights were cancelled and re-arranged), and so couldn't make a few of my panels. I really enjoyed one panel, "Pulp Fiction: What Have We Lost?" The panelists were Paul Di Filippo, Mike Hunchback, Darrell Schweitzer, and me. I learned a lot!

On same weekend of the NecronomiCon, after a lot of work, Spiral Tower Press published the second issue of Witch House: Amateur Magazine of Cosmic Horror. Like Whetstone, Witch House is a free pdf. You can access it here: Witch House (Issue 2). The introduction of Witch House (Issue 2) was graciously provided by the celebrated weird fiction and Lovecraft scholar, S.T. Joshi.

Since returning from the NecronomiCon my semester has started at CNU. I'm teaching a Literary Theory and History of Literary Criticism course as well as a few sophomore composition courses focused on Gothic horror. I've been testing out the practice of recording a few of my lectures for students who miss classes. If you're interested in literary theory and criticism, this might be interest: YouTube: Introduction to Literary Theory (Part 1)

I'm trying to maintain a creative writing habit but my word output has diminished. In August I was producing 690 words per day. Alas, I'm down to 0 words per day in September (distractions include course design, lecture preparation, reading for class, grading, and other service duties).

On a completely different note: I've been doing a few "Let's Plays" on YouTube in order to completely zone out from work. It's an interesting practice and it keeps my video game playing time down to about 30-60 minutes a day. 

I have several long-term academic and creative projects percolating in the background: an academic monograph on sword and sorcery, future issues of The Dark Man: Journal of Robert E. Howard and Pulp Studies, a few long book reviews and articles, and a few more things. Things are busy but they are good. 

I hope you're well!

July 18, 2022

New Edge Sword and Sorcery: Some History and Some Quibbles

In February of 2010, a year into my Ph.D. program at Case Western Reserve University, I attended an academic conference, the Southwest Texas Popular Culture Association. My presentation was in the "Horror Studies" section, and it treated Robert E. Howard's "Pigeons from Hell." Titled, "'She was no mulatto woman': Robert E. Howard’s 'Pigeons from Hell' and the Aesthetics of Miscegenation," it argued that Howard drew upon interwar eugenics-inspired racist stereotypes to render racial ambiguity as horror. "Pigeons from Hell" is an excellent horror story. It still is. But shambling corpses and bloody axes aside, what horrified and shocked most in 2010 was that the work seemed to be informed by racist (and evil) pseudo-science. After studying popular literature for several years now, the obviousness of that "argument" is undeniable. It's not really an argument at all, but it felt like an insight then.

Just a year prior to this conference, Dr. David M. Earle, published Re-Covering Modernism: Pulps, Paperbacks, and the Prejudice of Form, a brilliant analysis of the relationship between modernist literature and pulp fiction. In addition to making compelling new arguments about how print culture shapes our interpretation of literature, Earle's book also rehearsed interwar pulp writers' participation in interwar pseudo-scientific ideas about race. And before that, in 2000, Erin Smith, another literary scholar, published Working-Class Readers and Pulp Magazines. Smith's work not only made original arguments about class ideology and hardboiled detective fiction, but also recounted the pulps’ contribution to American racism during the interwar period. Many more works no doubt highlighted this depressing aspect of the interwar pulps.

In 2010 I thought I had made a discovery. I assumed my observation about Howard's story was unique. Alas, it wasn't. Readers have been aware of the interwar pulps' racist tendencies for decades. For example, L. Sprague de Camp, when editing the Lancer Conan tales, thought to exorcize racist language from Howard's original pulp stories. Consider Gary E. Romeo's brief article at The Pavilion Blog, "Was the 'Pure Text' Movement a Mistake?" for a thorough account of this.

Despite its lack of scholarly usefulness, my presentation was personally productive. Dr. Jonas Prida, an English Professor interested in Robert E. Howard, had seen my presentation listed in the conference program and wanted to connect with someone who, like him, was academically studying the pulps. After my presentation, while the attendees cleared out for the next session, Prida told me about a book project he was working on, a scholarly anthology about Conan the Cimmerian. This anthology was later published in 2012 as Conan Meets the Academy: Multidisciplinary Essays on the Enduring Barbarian. It is an excellent collection of articles that treats Conan as both a literary and a popular culture phenomenon. In fact, Prida's argument in the introduction of that anthology has been cited countless times over the last ten years. Meeting Prida at the conference serendipitously connected me to a wider scholarly conversation about the pulps.


While discussing his book project, Prida told me about the national conference of the Popular Culture Association, which had an entire "pulp studies" section. Coursework, qualifying exams, dissertation proposals, and lack of funds kept me away from conferences for a few years. Still, I managed to correspond with a lot of scholars connected to that section. It wasn't until March of 2013, however, just a year before finishing my Ph.D., that I finally attended the National Conference of the Popular Culture Association in Washington D.C. At that conference I presented a paper that was the seed that would sprout into my first academic book. It was entitled, "The Shadow Politics of Weird Tales: Epistemological Crises, the Modern Subject, and the Other."

I'd read a fair amount about the pulps by 2013, but I was as yet no expert; still, this paper was far more original than my 2010 effort on "Pigeons from Hell." Like a responsible researcher, I had done my homework and was now responding to other scholars' work.

One of the key issues in pulp studies at the time was a tension brought up by Earle, specifically the important distinction between "pulp fiction as form" versus "the pulp fiction canon" of preserved writers like H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and countless science fiction authors. Earle's is a nuanced distinction, but it is insightful. For Earle, pulp literature shouldn't be studied the way other canonical literature is studied. But why? One of the key tools for academic literary analysis is "the canon," which is an established list of works that are deemed to merit study. If a work is canonical, the theory goes, it deserves individual and deep analysis, i.e., an investment of close attention. But for Earle, "canonicity" is an idea arriving out of aristocratic forms of literary criticism linked to small (and often elitist) print cultures. Therefore, canonicity is not an appropriate lens to analyze pulp works because they did not participate in those elitist print cultures that ultimately spawned the literary canon in the early 20th-century. The pulps, as we know, were not elitist print culture. They were a democratic and populist form of print media, collaborative artistic enterprises incorporating editors, writers, and readers, more akin to ephemeral folk ballads and heroic poetry rather than modernist lyric poetry. So, the elitism inherent in the analytical tool of "canonicity" risks obscuring and de-valuing the unique way pulps signify, i.e., the way they react to social, economic, political, and culture cultural trends.

Earle's is a complicated and intellectually vital argument. I'm using broad strokes to describe it here, but his argument is, in essence, straightforward: we should read the pulps in a pulp way, on their own populist terms, and not evaluate them using the aristocratic intellectual tools developed for elitist print cultures.

As a first-generation college student from rural Ohio, this argument deeply resonated with me. It struck me as the literary studies equivalent of a certain working-class activism I had studied in my M.A. program. At Ohio University I wrote my thesis on the intentionally activist (quasi-journalistic) works of John Steinbeck and George Orwell. With John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath (1939) and George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), the working classes are not dismissed, but are rendered compassionately and with dignity. In those works, and many others, instead of dismissing working class people as racist, reactionary, fundamentalist philistines (i.e., enemies), Steinbeck and Orwell met the working classes where they were by hospitably attempting to understand their worldviews. The resulting dialogue was honest, candid, and artful.

Earle's argument seemed to me a literary critical parallel to Steinbeck's and Orwell's literary artistic practice. Instead of dismissing the pulps as archives of racist, xenophobic, sexist, and jingoistic paranoia, Earle, a progressive literary scholar, seemed to be trying to meet the pulps where they were by hospitably attempting to understand the worldview that informed them. Here was a scholar interpreting the pulps with compassion and what I call "chronopolitanism," cosmopolitanism but an attitude of nonjudgmental openness to people of other times.  

Inspired by Earle's example, from that point forward, I tried to stop reading the pulps from a place of critique, i.e., what philosopher of interpretation Paul Riceour calls the "hermeneutics of suspicion," which is the dominant mode of literary analysis deployed by most deep readers today (c.f. the critical stance of a scholar towards a novel versus the hospitable stance of a beach reader of that same novel). I now viewed the hermeneutics of suspicion as an unfit approach to the pulps. So, I tried to read them with intellectual hospitality, on their own terms, and accept them for what they were. Accepting people, places, and things for what they are, flaws and all, is, in my view, the formal equivalent of love.

My argument at the PCA 2013 (incidentally I presented on the same panel with Earle) was that the pulp works of H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and Robert E. Howard could be read as symptoms of intellectual paranoia related to social, technological, and political change wrought by the accelerative tendencies of modernization. It argued that racism was tragically consistent (though not forgivable by any means) with the inexperience of difference and paranoia of Howard, Lovecraft, and Smith; moreover, the vivid and often horrible supernatural rendered in their work was a political symbol for dehumanizing accelerating change, the principle of ephemerality that haunted their swiftly ending lives. Who better to symbolize the modern subject disoriented by technological change, cultural fluidity, the opening of the globe, and the arrival of a culturally heterogenous Other, than H.P. Lovecraft writing in the colonial environs of Providence, Rhode Island in the 1920s and 30s? I later explored these ideas in my 2014 dissertation, "The Shadow Modernism of Weird Tales: Experimental Pulp Fiction in the Age of Modernist Reflection," which was subsequently developed into a longer (and more polished) effort, Weird Tales of Modernity: The Ephemerality of the Ordinary in the Stories of Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and H.P. Lovecraft (McFarland 2019). I wrote this in the conclusion of that book:

If we squint, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, H.P. Lovecraft, and Robert E. Howard begin to look similar; all become manifestations of a ubiquitous interwar cultural theme: artistically perceptive white males overwhelmed by the disintegration and defeat of European cultural hegemony and who use art to express sincere fear of change, fear of a new order of difference, the perceptible ascendency of the hitherto oppressed, subordinated, exploited, and violated: women, people of color, sexual minorities, religious minorities, indigenous people, the subaltern. But underpinning their tribalistic fear of difference, their horror at the defeat of European cultural hegemony, is a primal fear, an existential one, one that has been the engine of much art for thousands of years and certainly central to the pulp […] works of the Weird Tales Three: expressed beautifully by, according to Biblical tradition, an aging King Solomon, this is the fear of time: 'I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all' (Ecclesiastes 9.11 KJV). 'Time and chance happeneth to them all.' Irrespective of tribe, race, clique, or coterie, we are all ephemeral forms trembling in strange stasis destined for formlessness.

I learned a lot from that conference in March of 2013. Looking back, it was a turning point in my career as a scholar and a writer. I met many well-read and intelligent people, and finally found an intellectually rich and nuanced conversation to join. There was Jeff Shanks, an archaeologist and pulp scholar, who has penned several excellent essays about Robert E. Howard, anthropology, sword and sorcery, pulp fiction, and first fandom. Mark Finn was also there, the author of Blood and Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard, the definitive biography of Robert E. Howard. And Rusty Burke was there, the president of the Robert E. Howard Foundation and founder of The Dark Man: Journal of Robert E. Howard and Pulp Studies (hereafter, TDM).

At Case Western Reserve University, working in a department dominated by scholars committed to the notion of canonicity, it felt like I was alone in my interest in the pulps, my belief in the cultural significance of this neglected literary archive. At the PCA, I didn't feel alone. Finding there were intelligent and thoughtful scholars interested in some of the same things I was interested in gave me the confidence to professionally focus on the pulps as literary art.

Nine years and a few months later, the energy of that conference is still animating my own and many of my friend's scholarly, artistic, and fandom endeavors. There have been successes and failures, but more of the former. In 2013, Gary Hoppenstand, then editor of The Journal of Popular Culture, published Critical Insights: Pulp Fiction of the '20s and '30s, which included new essays on sword and sorcery. In 2015, Jeff Shanks and a colleague managed to corral a group of scholars into publishing an anthology of new essays on Weird Tales, The Unique Legacy of Weird Tales: The Evolution of Modern Fantasy and Horror. In this anthology were published such essays as "C.L. Moore, M. Brundage, and Jirel of Joiry: Women and Gender in the October 1934 Weird Tales," and many more. Later, in 2016, Jeff Shanks, Mark Finn, and Chris Gruber founded a neo-pulp magazine, Skelos: Journal of Weird Fiction and Dark Fantasy, but due to Old Testament-level personal tragedies, the magazine sadly folded after just four issues. That was not before publishing a wealth of great new fiction and scholarship, not least being the seminal essay by Dr. Nicole Emmelhainz-Carney (my best friend and wife), entitled "A Sword-Edge Beauty as Keen as Blades: C. L. Moore and the Gender Dynamics of Sword and Sorcery" (2016). In 2017 Jeff Shanks founded The Glenn Lord Symposium, an academic colloquium to gather scholars interested in Robert E. Howard and his literary legacy, and many essays presented in this colloquium were published in TDM. For example, Karen Joan Kohoutek presented "No Refuge in Idealism: Illusion Meets Reality in 'Xuthal of the Dark,'" a feminist reading of Howard's famous sword and sorcery tale. This presentation was later revised and published in 2019 in TDM 10.1. That same year my academic book was published, and it was well-received by fantasy literature scholars. The Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts said of my book, "Carney’s book is a valuable addition to the literature on its topic. It deserves a wide readership, and a prominent place in the scholarship of American fantastic literature in the early twentieth century. In addition to its insightful readings of Smith, Howard, and Lovecraft, it offers a much-needed counter-narrative to the dominance of modernism in twentieth century American literature."

Throughout the academic ferment of 2013-2019, I was writing scholarship about pulp fiction and sword and sorcery, publishing sword and sorcery fiction, and engaging in amateur publication in the Robert E. Howard United Press Association. Central to my approach was radical non-judgement of the pulps, the idea that to dismiss the pulps was the equivalent of treating certain states as "flyover" states, worthy of contempt and dismissal.

Scholarship has always been my main outlet, but I often wrote fiction and had, by the mid-2000s and early 2010s, published several works of activist and literary short fiction about serious, real life topics ranging from suicide, to reproductive activism, to alcoholism. However, in 2015, I changed my approach: I started writing sword and sorcery. Who can read Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and Fritz Leiber, and not want to try their hand at telling a such a story? From 2015 to 2020 I published several sword and sorcery stories, and in doing so met a variety of cool writers whose points of view were refreshing. Writers approach literature much differently than scholars do, to say the least.

Slowly but surely, I began to identify as both a scholar and creative writer, and as I bridged the gap between "interpretation" of literature and "production" of literature, I noticed many of my scholarly colleagues were impressed. They, too, mused about writing fiction "one day," but refrained to do so for a variety of reasons: not enough time, no viable options for publication, and more. So, in 2020, I founded Whetstone: Amateur Magazine of Sword and Sorcery, a bi-annual, free publication, specifically aimed at the would-be writers who needed a nudge. After inadvertently getting involved with the Flashing Swords #6 controversy in 2020 (due to a blog post I wrote), I was asked to edit Savage Scrolls: Thrilling Tales of Sword-and-Sorcery for Pulp Hero Press. While doing this work, Pulp Hero Press published an own anthology of my previously published sword and sorcery tales, Rakefire and Other Stories. To my surprise, it received good reviews, one specifically erudite remark penned by David C. Smith, being" A jewel of a debut from a writer whose voice is quite unlike that of anyone else I know of: literary (you may be reminded of Clark Ashton Smith) but not pretentious (the vocabulary and structure of the stories grounds the narrative in every case, as with Smith) and fundamentally genuine, honest, without the archness of CAS but retaining the intelligence."

In the course of these efforts, I participated in panels ranging from larger events like San Diego Comic Con and NecronomiCon, to local Virginia conventions like RavenCon and MarsCon. I have taught creative writing classes on fantasy fiction, horror, and science fiction, and continue elsewhere. The high mark of my activity was when I was able to publish an essay about sword and sorcery for The L.A. Review of Books: "Reading Sword-and-Sorcery to Make the Present Less Real."

But why all of this history?

Recently a new concept has emerged, "The New Edge Sword and Sorcery." The term is not necessarily new but was originally coined by Howard Andrew Jones. Jones is the former editor of Black Gate, the current editor of Goodman Games' Tales from the Magician's Skull, and the author of several excellent novels and stories: ranging from the Dabir and Asim Arabic-themed sword and sorcery novels to the Ring-Sworn Trilogy to the character Hanuvar stories. More recently, the term has been a rallying point for some participants of the Whetstone S&S Tavern, an online forum hosted using Discord.

From my point of view, newcomers to a years-long discussion in fandom discovered that something was going on, and wanted to name the "new" movement.

The issue I want to set straight is the "New Edge" sword and sorcery, if it is happening today, has a significant (recent) history, and the history I surveyed above is a part of it. I am reminded of myself and my 2010 presentation on Robert E. Howard's "Pigeons from Hell": I had thought I had discovered something new but from 2010 to 2020, I slowly but surely realized it wasn't new at all. It wasn't new. I was new.

The story I've told above skews toward scholarly and academic discourses, but there is so much more that has not been surveyed that pre-dates and probably lays the groundwork for the "New Edge Sword and Sorcery." For example, consider podcasts: The Cromcast dates to 2013, The Appendix N Bookclub to 2017, and Rogues in the House to 2018. These shows have been discussing sword and sorcery (warts and all) for many years, and in deep detail. Independent presses like DMR Books, Rogues Blades Foundation, and Parallel Universe and magazines like Tales from the Magician's Skull, Cirsova, and Savage Realms have published reams of new S&S over the past decade. Black Speculative writers/publishers like Milton J. Davis's and MVMedia have developed "sword and soul," new sword and sorcery that draws upon African mythology themes and culture. Writers like Scott Oden, author of the amazing Norse-mythology inspired Grimnir Series, have been writing new sword and sorcery and writing about it for years.  From the perspective of someone who has been part of this for a while, the branding of the "New Edge Sword and Sorcery" was (and continues to be) simply surprising.

I hope this very personal history doesn't come off as a case of "I was collecting vinyl records before it was cool." It's not. I want to draw attention to the group of people who had the intellectual hospitality and maturity to look at an often-dismissed archive of folk art nonjudgmentally. Non-judgment, hospitality, openness, chronopolitanism: these values are the reagents of this ferment.

Sometimes I question if those participating in the "New Edge S&S" subscribe to this view. I hope I am wrong.

Consider, for example, a long passage from a recent newsletter of two "New Edge S&S" writers who I personally respect and consider friends, but who I disagree with on the level of literary criticism: Remco van Straten and Angeline B. Adams, authors of The Red Man and Others.

Speaking of older sword and sorcery, they write, "It is important to know where you come from, but […] it won’t do to be weighed down by the clutter of those who came before us."

Remco and Angeline saying are saying we shouldn't reproduce the racism inherent in old pulp works. I agree. But I find myself disagreeing as they continue, "The Sword & Sorcery genre is currently going through […] a review […] discovering what the genre needs to be to survive, and what needs to be discarded." With respect, "the sword & sorcery genre is currently going through a review" seems an overstatement. And the genre isn't surviving. It is experiencing convalescence after being on life support. There are indeed a vocal group in the Whetstone Discord who are executing an important (and sincere) philosophical audit of the genre. But for many sword and sorcery writers, readers, and publishers--as my brief personal history has hopefully made clear--this philosophical audit already happened and happened years ago.

The idea there that there is currently an upswell of general S&S "review" doesn't seem true. For example--excuse my strange form of evidence--the collage banner of the "New Edge Sword and Sorcery" group on Facebook includes Whetstone S&S, Savage Realms, Renegade Swords III (published by DMR Books) and more contemporary S&S works that. Although they are all "New Edge" (I would argue) they do not seem to be participating in the philosophical audit that Remco and Angeline are describing.

I have no doubt Remco and Angeline are thinking deeply about S&S, and I acknowledge the sincerity of their introspection; but their newsletters gives the impression that this type of critique is a community-wide enterprise. I don't think it is. Moreover, very few "New Edge S&S" writers and publishers seem to be interested in discarding anything at all but are instead actively seeking to preserve and curate a canon of older S&S works by discussing them, republishing them, and making them available to new readers.

My question is: who is deciding which works to "discard"? And what does that discarding process look like? Many of these older pulp works are out of print and only available at used bookstores, eBay, and ABEBooks. Does discarding these works mean not buying used copies? Concretely speaking: what does this discarding look like? Do we admonish people if we find them reading them?

Remco and Angeline continue, acknowledging that discarding old works might be difficult: "This can be a painful process, and there are writers who say 'no, thank you' to this dissecting and introspection." Another quibble here. I consider myself one of those writers who would say "no, thank you" to discarding older works. I am a literary historian, after all, and preservation is part of that enterprise. Here's my quibble: I do not consider saying "no, thank you" to discarding older works as indicating that I am also saying "no, thank you" to "dissecting" the genre and personal introspection. "Dissecting" and "introspection" are what we do as literary scholars, historians, and critics, and writers. Moreover, I do not think we should (or even are able to) discard old works for several reasons. One: as stated above, I'm not sure what this "discarding" would even look like concretely. What does a "discarded" work look like? If we chose to "discard" REH's Conan stories, for example, where would they go? What does the dust bin for discards look like? Two: studying and appreciating literary history requires one cultivate a sense of chronopolitanism, a sense of intellectual hospitality and openness to the past. If you close your mind and heart to the past, what will happen to Dante, Milton, Shakespeare, Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, George Eliot? None of these writers would pass modern tests of moral and ethical precision. To summarize, saying "no, thank you" in the above context is not to refuse dissection and introspection. It is precisely the opposite: in my case it is a result of that introspection and dismissal.

Remco and Angeline continue with something of a cautionary note to writers who refuse to participate in what seems to be a curating process of deciding what should be kept versus what should be discarded:

They [the writers who don't want to discard, e.g., Robert E. Howard] then run the risk of carrying with them the baggage of outdated, at times offensive, tropes and unwittingly using them in their own prose." Again, I disagree with this. I love Robert E. Howard's sword and sorcery and will tenaciously promote and champion it as an important archive of American literary art and popular literature. But because of this, I do not believe I am more (or less) at risk for deploying racist, sexist, and/or transphobic tropes in my fiction. IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: I am not saying I am not at risk. I am a human being who has flaws and I make no claim to being a saint or expert in ethical comportment. But I try to write my characters with compassion, humanity, and joy. My S&S anthology, Rakefire and Other Stories includes, I dare say, compassionate portrayals of women and girls, people of color, non-gender-conforming and non-binary warriors, the elderly, disabled people, and the neuroatypical. I have written extensively about Howard's indefensible use of racist stereotypes. I have taught several university seminars on pulp fiction and their participation in interwar eugenics-based racism. I would argue I have enriched many students' appreciation and understanding of the interwar culture. I simply do not believe that willingness to "discard" old works inoculates someone from deploying harmful stereotypes.

Speaking to new S&S writers Remco and Angeline write, "The rest of us, we beat the bounds of the genre, in order to more clearly define it – even if that definition still contains large swathes of 'here be monsters.'" Again, a quibble. I interpret this as arguing that there is a certain type of contemporary sword and sorcery writer who "beats the bounds of the genre," and that type of writer is exclusively the person willing to discard older works. I don't think that one's willingness to discard older work means, necessarily, that a writer will innovate in a genre. In fact, something like the opposite might be true. In order to innovate in a genre, you must first learn what has come before. Artistic experimentation can only happen when there is an established principle of convention to deviate from.

They continue with a several rhetorical questions:

"Do we still need cheesecake shots?" That's a matter of individual opinion. Some people love cheesecake shots.

"Is the hero's solitary path inherent to the genre?" That's another matter of opinion; for some people, the solo warrior is their favorite element of the genre.

"In welcoming new readers, do we alienate old readers?" Why is welcoming new readers equated with alienating old readers? If I decide to read Robert E. Howard and a young person decides to read Remco and Angeline, in what way could we alienate each other? Now, if that young person declared that those who enjoy REH are racists, that might alienate me. Vice versa: if I declared that those who enjoy Remco and Angeline are degenerates, that might alienate that young person. But in both instances, the alienation is less about the works in question and more about people's attitudes toward each other.

The proceed by describing future "New Edge S&S" activity:

"There is a form of creation through subtraction too, and one where it is very important to be intentional and look at who we might be excluding, and who we should be excluding – you cannot open the door to new, diverse, readers while putting people on a pedestal whose work is a turn-off to them." Who is this "we" making decisions about what to include and exclude? And what does this inclusion and exclusion look like? And how are such inclusions/exclusions even enforceable? Where is this pedestal? And if there is a pedestal, who has the authority to curate its limited space? Who doesn't want new and diverse readers to share our love of sword and sorcery? But there seems to be a principle of realpolitik mapped onto this obvious desire that confuses me.

As my analysis of Remco and Angeline's letter shows, I have several unanswered questions about "New Edge S&S," perhaps too many to pose in an article that is already too long. Still, rehearsing my 2010-2022 story and analyzing this most recent "New Edge S&S" editorial in Remco and Angeline's newsletter has brought one question to the front: Is "New Edge S&S" a movement based on "creation through subtraction"? Or, it is a movement informed by the values that shaped its more recent history: radical acceptance of difference in all its forms. Non-judgment. Hospitality. Chronopolitanism. Love of pulp fiction. Refusal of the elitism inherent in the authoritarian practice of curating a canon of worthy and unworthy works.

June 19, 2022

Review of Bobby Derie, Cross Plains Pilgrimage (2022)

Bobby Derie's Cross Plains Pilgrimage is a free book that Derie gifted to modern pilgrims to Cross Plains, i.e. guests of Robert E. Howard Days 2022. It is a fascinating book and demonstrates Derie's scholarly shrewdness while also vividly illuminating an interesting episode in Howard's life, his visit by E. Hoffman Price, a fellow Weird Tales writer. Here is a brief summary of the books' contents.

The introduction gives an overview of the Price visit. This is followed by two chapters dedicated to E. Hoffman Price and Robert E. Howard accordingly. The E. Hoffman Price profile is interesting and highlights Hoffman's military career, his traveling experiences, and gives a sense of where Hoffman was in life when he initially visited Cross Plains. The Robert E. Howard profile is compressed and emphasizes Howard's relationship and correspondence with Price. Both profiles include linoleum cut art of Howard and Price that were made by Duane W. Rimel for The Fantasy Fan and later restored by Allan Harvey. As a general note, the attention to design and layout in this not-for-profit book--interior art, maps, diagrams--is truly appreciated.

The next chapter, "8-11 April 1934: On the Road Again," details the initial visit by Price to Howard. It is highly researched and collates a variety of epistolary and later recorded memories to recreate the visit in detail. We get a veritable "hour-by-hour" account that details fine grain topics such as meals and conversations. There is little speculation. Where speculation is attempted, it is informed, subtle, and restrained.

The subsequent chapters, "Between Journeys" and "18-20 October 1935: Paying a Call," are less detailed than the previous chapters but cover much more territory, i.e. the months following Price's first visit and his return "call" the following year.  Next, there is a brief note, "The Unfinished Pilgrimage," detailing another visit that Price was planning. This is followed by a retrospective essay titled, "E. Hoffman Price on Robert E. Howard." Here Derie explores Price's life after the visit and how it related to his memories and the feelings Price had about his role in later pulp (and popular) literature fandom. We get a sense that Price's memories are a valuable source of information, that they are mostly consistent and related in good faith, and that the visit made an impact on Price.

After this the book shifts gears from focusing on the pilgrimage to provide context. For example, Price's story, "The Girl from Samarcand" is included. There is a humorous comic adaptation of Howard's poem, "Cimmeria" included, adapted by R. Sikoryak, and a fascinating essay about the livestock--cows and goats--kept by the Howard family which emphasizes the cow, named "Delhi," that was present when Price visited.

The cover art, created by Meredith McClaren, combines a cartoon rendering of Howard and Price in front of a photo of the Howard House and is quite unique and appealing. The interesting interior maps of the pilgrimage and layouts of the Howard House are by Jason C. Eckhardt, an artist widely known by H.P. Lovecraft fans.

Overall, material like this is what makes Howard Days so special. Derie's Cross Plains Pilgrimage is a lovingly prepared literary artifact and gives a sense that Howard Days, our annual pilgrimage to Howard's home, has a long history. Reading this book after spending a hot weekend in Cross Plains, I feel somewhat close to Price. Hopefully you were lucky enough to snag a copy.

August 12, 2021

Pulse Check: A Miscellany of Some of My S&S Stuff

I have not updated my blog for some time (8 months). I thought I should so that visitors here know I am active. Below I have compiled some online content (less than a year old) that has featured me and/or my work.

YouTube: Fórum Conan o Bárbaro (Portuguese): Bate-Papo com Jason Ray Carney. "Jason Ray Carney, Ph.D. is a lecturer in popular literature and creative writing at Christopher Newport University; he is the author of the academic book, Weird Tales of Modernity: The Ephemerality of the Ordinary in the Stories of Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and H.P. Lovecraft (McFarland 2019) and the sword and sorcery anthology, Rakefire and Other Stories (Pulp Hero Press 2020). He co-edits the academic journal, The Dark Man: The Journal of Robert E. Howard and Pulp Studies and is the editor-in-chief of Whetstone: Amateur Magazine of Pulp Sword and Sorcery. He is the area chair of the "Pulp Studies" section of the Popular Culture Association. He blogs at "spiraltower.blogspot.com".

YouTube: Goodman Games: The Best of Sword-and-Sorcery from The Bride of Cyclops Con Panel Discussion. "Now, as with any freewheeling conversation condensing the entire history of a literary sub-genre into two and a half hours, things may have gotten slightly tricky to follow for those of you playing along at home. Which is why the infinitely-just-and-keenly-perspicacious Skull has commanded that a reading list of all the books and stories mentioned in this discussion be compiled and offered for your edification. Furthermore, on pain of even-more-pain, our panelists have been induced to give their top three reading recommendations, based on whatever criteria they choose, out of the many tales brought up over the course of the evening."

Zoom Recording: Texas A&M: Commerce: Robert E. Howard Roundtable. An academic roundtable with 3-5 scholars responding to a pre-provided series of questions, then an open period of questions from "the floor." 

SoundCloud: Appendix N Book Club: Episode 88: Fritz Leiber's "The Big Time" with special guest Jason Ray Carney. "Jason Ray Carney joins us to discuss Fritz Leiber's 'The Big Time,' urban modernism, Lovecraft's fear of the other, period slang, the time travel genre, deeply traumatized protagonists, Leiber's understanding of language, being the Black Svengali to one's Trilby, unity of time and space, Conan vs Fafhrd, chronomancy, and much more."

Apple Podcasts: Rogues in the House: S&S at the Gaming Table. "A new Rogue, Whetstone Editor Jason Ray Carney, joins Matt and Deane in the Gallery while Logan is on vacation. This time, they sit down to discuss what's hot in Sword and Sorcery at the Gaming Table!"

Article: Tales from the Magician's Skull: The Gothic Tradition in Sword and Sorcery. "Sometime around 1790, something intangible happened. Trying to settle on any single definitive event is like trying to determine exactly when a pot of water began boiling. It can’t be done. The most we can do is point to a few bubbles: Immanuel Kant boldly defended the scientific method with his Critique of Pure Reason, published in 1781; Edward Cartwright invented the steam-powered loom in 1785; starving peasants marched on the Bastille in 1789, and four years later the revolution executed King Louis XVI and his Queen, Marie Antoinette; and don’t forget Edward Jenner discovered vaccination in 1796. To put it mildly, the 1780s and 90s was a wild time: superstition began to give way to science, agrarian mercantilism to industrialization, monarchism to constitutionalism, and quackery to medicine. In the words of the sociologist Max Weber, the world had become “disenchanted;” the middle-earth of angels and demons overseen by a God judging creation had become an absurd ball of clay peopled by not-quite-animals who groped awkwardly for survival." 

Article: DMRBooks: 1932, The Year of Conan: Sword and Sorcery and Historical Pessimism. "Sword and sorcery is an allegorical architecture built on a haunted foundation: a very pessimistic vision of history that emerged in the interwar period, and specifically the years of anxious anticipation preceding World War II; in sword and sorcery, history is a violent, unceasing crucible accelerated by dark intelligences who have discarded their very humanity; from ziggurat to skyscraper, from cathedral to corporate campus, the tranquil peace of the common folk is always contingent, always finite, always subject to the divisive machinations of the terrible intelligences who fearfully and obsessively struggle to insulate themselves from the deforming processes of time, of becoming irrelevant, of aging, of being human."

Article: Black Gate: Bran Mak Morn: Social Justice Warrior. "Many consider “Worms of the Earth” one of Howard’s masterpieces, truly haunting and enigmatic, its impact lingering long after a reading, like a stagnant tobacco smell or a leathery flapping of shadowy wings. The story is also notable for its inclusion of allusions to H.P. Lovecraft’s mythos, specifically the ancient Mesopotamian god “Dagon” and the sunken city of “R’lyeh,” home to dreaming Cthulhu. Undoubtedly, the story’s themes of racial degeneracy and the violent power of geologic time are steeped in Howard’s legendary 1930s correspondence with Lovecraft."

Article: Black Gate: How Sword and Sorcery Brings Us to Life. "Perhaps even more pressing is the question: why go to paradise, to Hyboria, to Newhon, when there is so much to fix here? And to writers: why write sword and sorcery? Why be Robert E. Howard when you could be George Orwell? “When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art,’” writes Orwell in his famous essay defending political literature, “Why I Write.” Orwell continues, “I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention.” Alas, from a certain literal perspective, fantasy literature is a nest of lies. Why prefer the imaginative literature of the unreal to socially-engaged literature?"

Article: Pavilion Blog: Robert E. Howard, the German Presidential Election of 1932, and the "Level-headed Statesman. "In Howard’s understanding, "level-headed statesmen" were opposed by brutish and diabolical forces. Tired Victorians like Paul von Hindenberg, Woodrow Wilson, and Neville Chamberlain sought to stabilize the West against demons who grasped at the globe with their brutish fists."

Book Review: Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts: Review of Weird Tales of Modernity, by Timothy H. Evans. "Carney’s book is a valuable addition to the literature on its topic. It deserves a wide readership, and a prominent place in the scholarship of American fantastic literature in the early twentieth century."

Please get in touch if you would like to chat about anything! Jason