Monday, October 23, 2023

Old Moon Quarterly and Krieg

Old Moon Quarterly, Volume 5, 2023. 137 pages. Edited and arranged by Julian Barona. Cover by Derek Moore.

This is a collection of heroic fantasy short stories. Most of these tales would fall into the general Sword & Sorcery subgenre, but several of them stretch those boundaries to the breaking point. The Table of Contents consists of:

Introduction, by the editors of Old Moon. An interesting comparison between “Kull” type heroic fantasy and “Conan” type.

Together Under the Wing by Jonathan Olfert. One of the most unique heroic fantasy stories I’ve ever read. The hero is not a human or even human like. I don’t want to say more because I don’t want to give it away. But this was a powerfully memorable story.

Champions Against the Maggot King by K. H. Vaughn. A relatively traditional Sword & Sorcery tale but with tremendous world building behind it. Told in first person and present tense, but I didn’t find that either got in the way of the story. The ending haunts.

The King's Two Bodies by Joe Koch. A long poem. Very fine language.

The Origin of Boghounds by Amelia Gorman. A story of a woman and her boghound. Very nontraditional tale. Beautifully written. 

Well Met at the Gates of Hell by David K. Henrickson. Elements of this are traditional but it’s certainly presented in a unique way. A warrior dies and must face three old enemies at the gates of hell. As the battle progresses, we learn more and more about the warrior. I believe this is my favorite, although if you ask me tomorrow I might decide on another.

A Warning Agaynste Woldes by Zachary Bos. Another poem, and a most challenging one. Not written in standard English. This one bears rereading before you’ll begin to understand it.

The Skulls of Ghosts by Charles Gramlich. This is my story and is probably the most traditional Sword & Sorcery tale in the collection. It involves my series character, Krieg,  but that’s all I’ll say.

The Headsman's Melancholy by Joseph Andre Thomas. This is an out and out horror story set against a heroic fantasy backdrop. Ever since Robert E. Howard invented the Sword & Sorcery genre, there’s always been a strong element of horror in the best stories and this one doubles that quotient. I felt strongly for the main character.

Friday, October 06, 2023

A Book of Blades, Copyright 2022 by Rouges in the House Podcast: 226 pages.

A Book of Blades is subtitled “A Sword & Sorcery Anthology.” It contains 15 stories as well as a very brief introduction by Matthew John, and an Artist’s Portfolio. This is one of the most entertaining collections of S&S stories I’ve read in a long time. The quality is consistently high in every instance and I definitely give it 5 stars. Below is a listing of the stories with my brief comments about each.

“By the Sword,” by John C. Hocking: I only knew of Hocking from his Conan pastiche, Conan and the Emerald Lotus, but I’ve never read it. After reading this tale I’ll have to pick up more of Hocking’s work. A story full of blood and thunder, and with a poignant ending that strongly engaged me.

“Ghost Song,” Chuck Clark: Turkael is a young hunter of his tribe but it is he who must face a sorcerer shapeshifter. Something in this tale reminded me of the character Imaro as created by the late Charles Saunders, and that’s a fine compliment.

“Last of the Swamp Tribe,” by L.D. Whitney: There’s a bit of “Beastmaster” in this. Man and wolf face their enemies together. Greywind is the wolf and made an excellent character.

“Wanna Bet?,” by T.A. Markitan: A mage hires two warriors to help him rob a ruin, but there’s a hidden agenda. And secrets within secrets. The denouement turns on an interesting character reveal.

“The Serpent’s Heart,” by Howard Andrew Jones: A ship is wrecked by a sea monster and its crew set adrift. They are rescued by another ship, which is pursuing the monster. But of course there are secrets. The scenes aboard the “rescuing” ship are beautifully rendered and very creepy. Jones has recently had a couple of S&S books released and after this I’ll certainly pick them up.

“How They Fall,” by Angeline B. Adams and Remco van Straten: This is really a character study rather than a story, but it works because it’s very well written and also quite short. It creates a melancholy mood that grows stronger throughout.

“The Breath of Death,” by Jason M. Waltz: Starting this story was a little jarring stylistically compared to the previous tales, and that’s because it was written in present tense. Present tense can bring immediacy to a story, and it does so here. It can also be risky at longer lengths, but Waltz judged the length just right. I was engaged. 

“Embracing Ember,” by S.E. Lindberg: Lindberg is an excellent prose stylist, and maybe my favorite one working in the fantasy field today. This is a story from his Dyscrasia universe, a fully realized but quite bizarre world. The world building is incredible but Lindberg doesn’t stint on character development either. Fully realized, but most unusual. Very much of a treat.

“The Curse of Wine,” by J.M. Clarke: Kyembe wakes up from a drunk to find that he’s been robbed. Bad idea. A short tale but very engaging.

“The Gift of Gallah,” by Matthew John: I enjoy tales of aging warriors. When they’re well done. And this one is well done. Another poignant ending.

“Crawl,” by Scott Oden: Oden is well known for the bloody action of his stories, but in this one he stretches his wings a little more. There is action, but the tale turns primarily on character and on historical resonance. It’s a kind of retelling of European history against the backdrop of Christianity’s spread. One really feels for the underdogs here.

“The Spine of Virens Imber,” by Nathaniel Webb: Shar the Spearmen is an indomitable warrior, which is not unusual in sword and sorcery. But the character is very well done and the writing strong. A fine piece.

“The City of the Screaming Pillars,” by Cora Buhlert: We have an ensemble cast here, and they’re after treasure in an abandoned city of the desert. A cursed city. Robert E. Howard strengthened his fantasy worlds by bringing in horror elements, and Buhlert mines a similar ground here to very good effect.

“Two Silvers for a Song of Blood,” by Jason Ray Carney: Carney is a fellow academic and I’ve worked with him before on The Dark Man Journal. That’s nonfiction and I haven’t previously read his fiction. Not all academics can write blood and thunder but Carney masters it and gives his “Barbarian-like” character some intriguing extra layers. Best title goes to this one as well.

“The Blood of Old Shard,” by John R. Fultz: I’ll definitely want to read more by Fultz. This was a great story to end the anthology on because it’s certainly one of the strongest tales among a grouping of strong pieces. Gnori is a great hero and, again, we have a most poignant ending that left me wanting more. A good way to end a book.

So, to finish, I truly liked every story in this book, which is not a common experience for me actually. Nothing weak here, and I recommend them all. But, the three that hit me the hardest personally were the pieces by Lindberg, Carney, and Fultz.

Wednesday, October 04, 2023

Sword & Planet Fiction

Since Blogging doesn't seem as popular as it used to be, I've started posting a series of pieces on Sword & Planet fiction over on Facebook, in what is called The Swords & Planet League. S&P fiction is the kind of story that Edgar Rice Burroughs created when he wrote "A Princess of Mars" back in 1912. His stories of Earthman John Carter's adventures on Mars, called "Barsoom" by its inhabitants, have thrilled millions and influenced countless authors, including me. I wrote the five part Taleran saga because of that influence, and quite a few short stories as well.  

If you are on facebook, please check out my S&P page: The Swords & Planet League

Saturday, August 26, 2023

Arthur Machen's White Powder

Despite the title, this is a short story, and actually on the shorter side of short. It was originally published in 1895 along with two other interwoven stories in a work called "The Three Imposters." I have not read the collection but this piece stands on its own as a short tale. The story is simple. An Englishman from the upper class is studying for the law and begins suffering from what might be called "nervous exhaustion." He is prescribed a white powder by his doctor and at first he seems full of renewed energy and vigor. However, the powder begins to take an awful toll and the man becomes more and more reclusive until...well, you'll need to read to find out. The story is told by his concerned brother, and in the course of the tale we find that the medicine prescribed by the doctor is not what the pharmacist supplied. As the basis of the drug, the pharmacist used a container of powder that had been on his shelves for many years and had been chemically altered by that long exposure into another substance called Vinum Sabbati--a witch's brew.

The story is pretty simple but effective. Since it's told by the brother, we don't "see" or experience the man's transformations except second hand. This was a common storytelling technique in those days and is still used today, although not as commonly. However, the writing is very fine and we get a good sense of mounting dread from the story. One can see how this tale was likely a strong influence on H. P. Lovecraft and his nameless horrors. 

I suspect that Machen's influence here came at least partially from the writings of Sigmund Freud on Cocaine, which mostly appeared between the years 1884 and 1887. The drug was well known by the time Machen wrote this story, and quite a few doctors and researchers had extolled its virtues, although it's less desirable effects were also becoming known.  

Monday, August 14, 2023

Coach Charles Tadlock

Very sad to see that Coach Charles Tadlock has died. He was my first football coach, in seventh grade at Charleston, Arkansas Junior High. I remember that he was quite a large man, and as a kid who barely weighed 100 pounds in 7th grade he was intimidating. But over the next few years I came to admire him and…I liked him.  (Picture above borrowed from a facebook page. All rights to the photographer.)

Coach Tadlock could be tough but I always found him fair. The thing I remember most is that he wanted you to do your best, but if you tried your best and it wasn’t good enough, he recognized it and didn’t hold you accountable for not being able to do the miraculous. 

I remember one particular game. I was playing safety on defense and the opposing team had a wide receiver who was something like six feet, nine, a good foot taller than me, with arms to match. This guy caught three touchdown passes right over me that night. I was so upset, so angry. I remember coming off the field nearly in tears and sitting on the bench with my head in my hands. No one would talk to me, not out of meanness but because they were all just as young as I was and didn’t know what to say.

Coach Tadlock approached. He patted me on the shoulder pads and said, “just keep doing your best. That’s all you can do.” There was no anger or recrimination in his voice. I’ve remembered that moment for fifty years. 

I remember, too, a much funnier moment. We were playing a team from Oklahoma. Pacola, I think. They were driving toward a touchdown. I was playing safety. I intercepted a ball just before the endzone and gave us back the ball. This time, my teammates knew just what to do. They all cheered and pounded me on the back. 

After the celebration was over and I was sitting on the bench, Coach Tadlock came over to me. He was smiling and slapped me on the shoulder pads. Then he leaned in, and in a very quiet voice that no one else could hear, he said: “you know you were out of position, don’t you?”

Indeed, I had been. The receiver had beat me and their quarterback underthrew him and hit me right in the chest. It was a colossal piece of luck on my part. But the kindness of coach there, knowing what I’d done wrong and wanting to teach me, but not to correct me in front of all my peers and take away that moment of joy. 

I’m sorry for the loss of this good man, and for his family who will now have to bear his absence. He will be remembered by many. 


Friday, August 04, 2023

A Halloween Duology from K. A. Opperman

I'm a fan of Halloween, but not as big of a fan as K. A. Opperman. I'm not sure there is a bigger fan of All Hallows Eve than Opperman. His introduction to “Past the Glad and Sunlit Season,” his first collection of Halloween themed poems, illustrates it. I enjoyed the brief story of his Halloween journey. It's quite different from mine, and he is far more passionate in his love for the holiday.

Opperman has also produced a second collection of Halloween related poetry in “October Ghosts and Autumn Dreams.” I’ve reviewed them independently on Goodreads but decided to blog them together. The covers on the two books are the first thing you notice. Both are striking, and the interiors are fully illustrated. These are my photos here of the covers. The covers reflect—in my opinion—the contents of the books. The book 2 poems are generally darker, although not horrific. 

As for the poems? The first volume contains 54 of them. Most are short. All are rhyming. They are charming enough to be read to children but have enough ghoulish imagery to tantalize the adult. I read some to my wife, who is also a Celtiphile, and she found them delightful.

The second collection contains 46 poems, but several of them are longer so it’s about the same total length. These are also rhyming poems, although he varies the rhyming scheme a little more here. I personally find writing good rhyming poems difficult, but in these two books Opperman has done a wonderful job in making the rhymes work to his—and the reader’s—advantage. 

A very nice touch in both books was a section at the end about the poems, wherein Opperman discusses the origins and some of the meanings of the pieces. I keep this kind of information for my own stories and poems so it’s nice to see it from someone else. 

The second book also ends with a too brief essay on “Trick-or-Treat As Initiatory Rite and Attendant Symbolism.” Opperman laid out some very interesting concepts in this piece and I’d love to see an expansion of it. He clearly has thought a great deal about Halloween and that time of the year. Perhaps he is indeed the Pumpkin King and his human face only a summer disguise.

Overall, there's a touch here and there that remind me of Ray Bradbury's work, who was also a lover of Halloween. The titles, particularly, put me in mind of Ray. I will mention one specific poem that reminds me of Bradbury’s work, from book 2. It really connected with me. “Where Yet October Dwells.” To quote:

Against the bleak advances of November,

There is a hollow lost in hidden dells,

Where yet a pumpkin keeps October’s ember—

A place of dreams and spells. 

I was born in October, as was my wife. We are one day apart, although not in years. So this poem resonated with me for that reason in addition to others. When I finished reading it, I was expecting it to be the last one in the collection. Turns out there was one more but I think the position of these two might have been reversed to good effect. 

To sum up, these two volumes make a nice addition to my shelves. Perhaps I’ll have to put them up with a Halloween display this year. And I doubt we’ve heard the last about Halloween from the Pumpkin King. Not the “King in Yellow” but the King in Orange. With a carved smile.