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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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.