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.