Friday, 1 March 2013

Writing What You Know

Back in University, I made this cover for one of the most important books in my early life. Sadly the ACD Estate never got in touch with me, but them's the breaks.

Been very quiet here on The Blog That Time Forgot. A little too quiet. But, as ever, don't mistake lack of information as dearth of activity, for I've been very busy on what amounts to a perilous journey of self-discovery, where I'm looking at myself, my place in the world, and how I can help others in my situation.

Truth is, despite wearing my heart on my sleeve and being very open about my emotional reactions to artistic stimuli, there are some things I don't want to share with the world at large. Things that are a part of me,  which are most certainly not harmful or wicked by any standard, but which are still deeply misunderstood and prone to misinterpretation. It seems preposterous to not want to "come out" about something that you shouldn't have to "come out" about, but recent events - tragedies, scandals, whatnot - have led me to be reticent about it. At the same time, I look at the people I know who share this thing: younger than me, maybe more naive, growing up in a very different environment that's better in some ways, worse than others.

I'm not ready to be fully open about just what that thing is. Truth be told, I'm sure if I told some of you, you'd say "what, that's it?" and it wouldn't change your opinion of me whatsoever. If that were your reaction, then trust me, I had no doubts. But until then, this is going to be a part of myself I only reveal to few.

What I have no difficulty sharing is my feelings on art, and specifically, where I want to go with it. Being a fan of Conan Doyle, Burroughs, Howard, Merritt, Haggard, and all manner of adventure authors, it should be no surprise that my artistic aspirations are very much in their field: tales of brave and bombastic souls seeking out new worlds and people and life, challenging the universe to unveil its secrets, trekking and voyaging and journeying through hostile terrain and uncharted territory. Certainly I've watched a lot of fellow fans of the genre go on to produce their own works. I'll have a look at some of them here.

The Desert of Souls

I absolutely adore Charles Keegan's cover: quite why they didn't use it for the paperback is completely beyond me.

Howard Andrew Jones' The Desert of Souls is staunchly in the tradition of Arabian Nights fantasy, following the footsteps of Scheherazade, Ali Baba, Aladdin, and Sinbad: it is the story of the brusque guardsman Asim and his scholarly companion Dabir, and their adventures in a fantastical fertile crescent where deals with djinn are made under the stars, foulest sorcery sways the fate of kingdoms, that which is not dead refuses to lie, and the very foundations of reality are proven far more tenuous than arrogant Man supposes. You can obviously see the inspirations even from reading the blurb: One Thousand and One Nights being the ultimate fictional source, along with other Orient Entrepreneurs such as Harold Lamb and the two-fisted adventure of pulpsters such as Robert E. Howard. Since he was editor for Black Gate and two Lamb collections, it's little surprise that the escapades of Asim and Dabir were so clearly evocative of Lamb's playful yet grounded action, infused with the pace and mystery of Howard's historical fantasies.

I think what I loved most about Souls was the subversion of expectations: the big, muscular captain Asim is our point-of-view character, rather than the more eloquent and erudite Dabir. Generally it's the more creative types who tell stories. However, Jones does a brilliant job following Asim coming out of his shell: the early chapters are straightforward, largely devoid of colorful description, a model of efficiency. But as the story unfolds, Asim starts to acclimatise to his role as storyteller, introducing a metaphor or poetic adjective every so often, before he opens up as a veritable raconteur by the story's end. He isn't quite a distaff Scheherazade, but neither is he quite the prosaic chronicler at the story's beginning. It's an incredibly subtle and beautifully nuanced evolution not just of the character, but the very structure of the prose. Throw that in with some of the eeriest simian and avian agents of evil I've come across, a delightfully louch djinn, and a wondrously unsettling parallel world, and The Desert of Souls is one of my favourite modern reads.

Its sequel, The Bones of the Old Ones, is out now, and I'm looking forward to it!

The Lion of Cairo

I'm with Scott when it comes to character-centric covers (as well as disappointment regarding the knife), though this seems to be the trend in historical fiction these days. Still, it's a nice character-centric cover.

Scott Oden took a similar route to Jones for The Lion of Cairo. I haven't gotten around to his previous Hellenistic-oriented work, but if they're anything like Cairo then I'm sure I'm in for a treat. Like Jones, Oden presents a sort of fantasy Caliphate: informed, but not constrained, by meticulous historical research, filled with awe at the rich mythology and history of the setting without falling prey to overt exoticising. That said, Oden's prose and story is more Howard than Lamb, and the balance of history to myth is more to the former: sorcery and the supernatural are instead subtle and not the forefront of the narrative, though no less menacing and dangerous through its lower profile. Cairo is also more of an ensemble piece than Souls' duo, with a significant cast of characters, and courtly intrigue threading through the city streets and palaces. If they were made into films, I'd say Souls would make a brilliant Harryhausen Sinbad yarn, while Cairo would merit a treatment akin to The 13th Warrior.

Cairo was a thrilling read: I'm normally a very slow reader (I can't help but read the words as if I'm reading them aloud in my head, which means I can spend five minutes on one page if I really like the way the words sound), but I swept through it in only a week. I'm normally sceptical of longer books, since they frequently rely on either outrageous padding with historical background - as Melville and Hugo attest, when you're paid by the page, you'll wring as much as you can or keel over the typewriter in the attempt - but Oden manages to imbue the necessary exposition and background information without you once itching to get back to the action. This is particularly amazing since the book's story takes place in a matter of days, but it's no less breakneck than a season of 24. He also deftly avoids the other trap of repeating himself every few chapters in case the reader's memory reboots every few minutes, with the reminders of past events being included in a natural and simple manner. Put simply, Cairo was a book that was fiendishly difficult to put down.

Scott's currently working on his next novel, and I think quite an ambitious one: A Gathering of Ravens will smash Dark Age Europe with the grim truth behind that most popular bogeyman of fantasy fiction, the Orc!

The Marsh God

Jones and Oden both have Robert E. Howard as a common influence, taking inspiration from his ripping yarns set in Outremer and beyond: but where Howard mostly used Franks as his protagonists (outside of notable exceptions like the Sikh gentleman Lal Singh and the Pashtun adventurer Yar Ali), Jones and Oden almost exclusively write from the Saracen perspective in Souls and Cairo. Another Howard fan, Bruce Durham, looks to Howard's barbarian heroes for inspiration in "The Marsh God," a short story which he later adapted into a comic illustrated by Miko Mikolajczyk. Like Jones and Oden, Durham's adventure is irrefutably inspired by Howard, with the same Man vs Unnatural elements as "The Valley of the Worm" and several Conan stories, imbued with the same sense of collapsed antiquity as the Hyborian Age. Unlike your usual cod-fantasy world which is obsessed with the details, Meizak is informed by grounded historical precedence of migration and cultural shift, rather than a hodgepodge of seemingly unrelated fantasy kingdoms thrown onto a map like toppings on a pizza, which adds crucial verisimilitude to the setting.

I haven't read the original short story yet, but the comic adaptation was a very good read. Mikolajczyk's art is at once familiar to anyone who's picked up a Savage Sword of Conan, but rather than just ape the lines of John Buscema or Barry Smith, he has a distinct style and look of his own that calls to mind Celtic illuminations and Gothic etchings, with a mixture of stark black-and-white tones and intricate detailing (the hair, man!) which is very appealing. The titular god itself is great: too often the monster in Savage Sword would be a dire disappointment, but this is an Old God that's not just a rote cod-Cthulhu or generic overgrown beastie. Rather, it has a primal mystery I'd liken more to one of the horrors from Alan Moore's Swamp Thing: it has a place in Meizak, albeit a dark and grim one.

Overall, given that Sword-and-Sorcery has always had a bit of a haphazard account of itself in the realm of comics, "The Marsh God" surely stands as an exemplary example in the modern era.


In addition to these full novels, there are also several short story collections which have inspired me tremendously. Each story is deserving of a full review of its own, but in the interests of actually finishing and publishing this post, I'll just give a brief rundown and links to other reviews.

Return of the Sword 

 Heavy Metal, naturally.

The first collection from Rogue Blades Entertainment I have, Return of the Sword is pretty much what you'd expect when an editor says "Okay, Sword-and-Sorcery and High Adventure, have fun - go!" It's all very much in the vein of classic S&S, the sort that wouldn't be out of place in '70s Ballantine paperbacks, featuring the works of Angeline Hawke, Christopher Heath, and several other movers-and-shakers in S&S-dom. My favourites are Ward's "The Wyrd of War" and Durham's "Valley of Bones," for reasons that will become obvious when you buy it - and you will buy it, because it's great - but I also greatly enjoyed "Mountain Scarab," "The Hand That Holds the Crown," and "Uneasy Truce at Ulam-Bator." Plus at 21 stories, it's simply great value for money.  For more detailed reviews, I recommend those from Deuce Richardson, Ryan Harvey, Jeff Draper and Dan Nelson.

Rage of the Behemoth

Griffins! Dragons! Sea Monsters!

Ah, but this... This is my kind of anthology. If Return of the Sword was all about the heroes, then this is all about the monsters. You know that brilliant paragraph in Howard's "The Valley of the Worm" where the story of Man Against Monster is echoed throughout myth and folklore?

I would take you back with me into an age beside which that of Brennus and Rome is as yesterday. I would take you back through, not merely centuries and millenniums, but epochs and dim ages unguessed by the wildest philosopher. Oh far, far and far will you fare into the nighted past before you win beyond the boundaries of my race, blue-eyed, yellow-haired, wanderers, slayers, lovers, mighty in rapine and wayfaring.
It is the adventure of Niord Worm's-bane of which I would speak—the rootstem of a whole cycle of hero tales which has not yet reached its end, the grisly underlying reality that lurks behind time-distorted myths of dragons, fiends and monsters.
Rage of the Behemoth is a collection full of branches on that rootstem. Although nearly every story in the anthology is a great read, I'd like to call particular attention to "Black Water" (which I'll be discussing in an upcoming post), "Serpents Beneath The Ice," and the astounding "The Wolf of Winter" as highlights, while "The Beast in the Water" plucked at my Highland heartstrings, "Yaggoth-Voor" is a worthy sequel to "Valley of Bones," and "As From His Lair, The Wild Beast" is just a delight to read. For reviews, go to Deuce Richardson, John Ottinger III, David J. West, Dark Wolf and Joe Crowe, though there are others you might enjoy out there.

Dreams in the Fire

"Oh yeah, well I'd like to see YOU do better" is one of those refrains numbskulls use to silence criticism of mediocrity, probably based on a misunderstanding of Harlan Ellison's "Informed Opinion" maxim. Certainly, plenty of Howard fans and scholars have looked on the rote Thud & Blunder which has followed in Howard's wake, wondering how anyone could confuse these dunderheids with the Texan master. But of course, they're just fans and scholars, they can't really have anything to say of worth like real writers, right?

Well, here's the collection that puts paid to that notion. Rather than being a collection of Conan pastiches or whatnot, Dreams in the Fire is a collection of fiction & poetry from past and present REHupans using Howard as inspiration. Mark Finn's "Sailor Tom Sharkey and the Phantom of the Gentleman Farmer's Commune" is a rip-roaring farce in the style of Howard's Costigan yarns, because of course Mark Finn's story is a rip-roaring farce in the style of Howard's Costigan yarns. Dave Hardy's "I Was A Martian Galley Slave!" has by far the best title in the book. Morgan Holmes' short but sweet "A Meeting in the Bush" is a lovely little mashup. In addition to stories, there are some excellent verse contributions from Frank Coffman, Barbara Barrett and Don Herron, whose "Blades of Hell" is just... you have to read it. Some very good reviews can be found courtesy of Keith West and Charles Gramlich.


So seeing all these fans actually getting out there and publishing their work, to become creators as well as critics, it's easy to see why I'm thinking "me too!" And yet, I've noticed that my own ideas and work isn't quite going in the direction I expected - not a bad thing, but interesting all the same. I'll discuss it more in a second post, "The Problem with Humans," which looks at other things which may or may not influence my future.


  1. Hey, Al, I'm happy you singled out Bruce Durham. He is a great writer and a helluva good guy! I was fortunate enough to illustrate his original story when it appeared at the now defunct Flashing Swords website. I`m afraid my efforts were not as excellent as Miko Mikolajczyk`s work, but it was a great story. (You may also have noticed my illustration for The Last Scream of Carnage in the Return of the Sword Collection)

    As for the "other thing" you are into: There's no need to be embarrassed. A lot of us knit in our spare time. Knit one, pearl two.

    1. I'd been procrastinating horribly on "The Marsh God" since I was always saying to various people I was going to review it, but I could never think of anything to say that felt worthwhile other than "it's a really good fun story you guys should read it." But it turned out I was overthinking it, and I should've just said why I liked it. Sometimes it's simply like that.

      Bruce is definitely a standout writer, which is why I singled him out. And yes, I did notice your fine illustration! Us knitters gotta stick together.

    2. Thanks for the kind words M.D. Your art for 'The Marsh God' and 'Homecoming' was outstanding. I use the MG art as wallpaper on my laptop. It gets a lot of compliments. I'd love to put it on a t-shirt one day.

      I appreciate the great review, Al. I'm glad MG didn't disappoint.

  2. Al, glad to see you've posted something new, and thanks for the shout-out. I'm not familiar with The Marsh God, and while it's been on the shelf awhile, I've not read The Lion of Cairo yet. I intend to get to it soon. Everything else I've read. This is excellent list of works inspired by Howard which belong in the serious Howard fan's library.

    1. No problem, Keith! I will just reiterate that Cairo is a really good read and easily hangs with the others, and I enjoyed Marsh God a lot more than I have a few comics I've read recently. This is the sort of thing I like in modern S&S: it acknowledges its roots but is neither constrained by them, nor does it rebel for the sake of it.

  3. There is a lot of variety in the anthology and many good to great stories.

    The Equation book

    1. Intriguing link, Henry, very interesting.

  4. Thanks for the review, Al! Glad to hear you enjoyed Lion! :)

    1. Thanks for writing it, Scott! I'm hunting for Men of Bronze and Memnon now!

  5. Whether you want to come out or not is wholly your decision... There's a lot to a person that's none of someone else's beeswax.

    However, if it limits you in your daily life where it shouldn't, then it's indeed time to soul-search and find out how you can break barriers. Let's for instance assume that you're gay. what you're up to in the (literal or figurative) bedroom is only your concern, but if you'd want to walk over street hand in hand like all other couples - well, damnit, that should not cause any issues!

    Also, I've experienced Fandom (at large) as welcoming, but also as very intolerant of whomever falls outside of a quite homogenous profile. Fantasy-lovers, ironically, can be very conservative. Or perhaps 'immature' is a better word: witness repeated reports about nastiness against women, different races, and gay people.

    So, without wanting to speculate what you're mulling over, I wish you good luck - ultimately, it's your happiness that counts.


    1. I appreciate the kind thoughts, Remco. In the words of Troy McClure, though: "Gay? I wish!" (Though I hasten to add it isn't a "romantic abnormality" to do with fish...)

  6. Dammit, *make* my reading list longer, why don't you?

    Also, I seriously doubt anything you could say would change my opinion of you. *hugs*

    1. Consider it a receipt for all the games you've inadvertently introduced me to that I must play! And thanks, of course.

  7. I really liked Desert of Souls and Lion of Cairo. Oden in particular does as good a job as anyone I've encountered of recreating Howard's style. Not in a cloning sense, but the feeling of an apprentice who's really studied his master's work well. I haven't got around to Memnon yet, but Men of Bronze was fantastic as well.

    btw, I just watched this Youtube video and it reminded me of a post you made a while back. Maybe you'll find it amusing if you haven't seen it yet:

    1. "An apprentice who's really studied his master's work well" is exactly how I'd describe it! I'd say they are to Howard what Howard was to Lamb: cut from the same cloth, but distinct corners and cuts.

      That's a brilliant link, too, very thoughtful. I've checked out his other videos, and I am now a fan. Great stuff.

    2. Andy, that is quite possibly the nicest thing anyone's ever said in regards to my work. I thank you for that!

  8. I'll be looking forward to whatever you decided to do, Al. And definitely write what you love. Makes the slog through a manuscript so much easier and fun to boot.

  9. Whatever you have planned, Al, stride boldly forth and do it. Life is too short.

  10. Thank you for the extremely kind words, Al. I'm delighted you enjoyed the novel.

    When BONES comes out in the UK in August, it is going to have a Keegan cover. I just got to see the prelim sketches, and I think you will be pleased with the end result!