Smoke and Flame

Even now the thought of her sends him god-ecstatic,
dawn of sun-fire glint upon his desert mind commingling;
and he comes to her inside a dance of molecules;
a fiery djinn of the morning’s light reddening to desire.

—Ghazal of Istanii Mir

The summer winds were on them as they traveled across the wind-swept dunes; dervish djinn whirled their plumes of dust across the bleak horizon: a shadowblur of the day turned night. They call this wind andhi, ‘darkener of sky’. Even the squat eyed sun sat there in the horizon’s thin veil like the King of the Djinn, his red pupil sinister and without mercy barely piercing it’s thickening curtain with his fierce intelligence. Movement among the dunes was like traveling among the labyrinths of Jazael, each step leading them deeper into the gloom where the demon herds of Istarii roamed like agents of chaos. Even as the sun closed his deadly eye across that vast swath of silence and dust they knew there would be no rest for them this night. Continue reading

R. Scott Bakker: The Darkness That Comes Before

“The thoughts of all men arise from the darkness. If you are the movement of your soul, and the cause of that movement precedes you, then how could you ever call your thoughts your own? How could you be anything other than a slave to the darkness that comes before?”
― R. Scott Bakker, The Darkness That Comes Before

Rereading R. Scott Bakker’s Prince of Nothing series again after so many years, and I must admit it has not lost its power to mesmerize and enchant. A grim and gritty epic unlike those lightbound fantasias of the Tolkien variety where elves and dwarves and hobbits wander among the bewildering array of ancient Middle-Earth. No. This work is closer to the ancient warlike Sagas of the Norsemen, a rugged tale of war, vengeance, and revenge. A tale that brings with it its own unique world and history, a world in the throes of conflict and apocalypse.

In the beginning we are introduced to a young warrior Monk, Anasûrimbor Kellhus a former Dûnyain, and heir to the ancient Kings of ancient Eärwa. Trained as a child up in the arts of sorcery and the “Logos” he has of late been troubled by dreams of his father. His father Anasûrimbor Moënghus is a Cishaurim Priest and former Dûnyain monk who lives in the Shimeh: the Holy City where the prophet of the ancient Inrithi, Inri Sejenus’s Ascension to the Nail of Heaven took place. It is also the home of the Cishaurim sorcerors. I’ll leave much out for those who have yet to read this work. Moënghus has a plan for his son, and uses his sorcerous skills to call him out of the citadel of the Ishuäl, a hidden fortress in the Demua Mountains. Kelhus begins his trek out of the Dûnyain of the North seeking his father… Continue reading

David Roden: Posthumanism: Critical, Speculative, Biomorphic

“Rhetorics of depth or intensity must be sacrificed, not because actual bodies are abstractions, but because unbound posthumanism cannot frame the deracinative effects of the future as the adventure of some given subject (whether human, animal, mundane, or transcendental). If this future can be embodied, it is by remaking and remarking bodies, reiterating the disconnection that lifts the formerly human into the orbit of the posthuman.” (p. 82). …

“Posthumanism explores the possibility space of subjectivity through performance— mutating and experimenting with exemplars and models (biomorphs) rather than by inference or dialectics.” (p. 82). …

“I introduce the idea of limit agency to motivate the claim that our concepts of agency might be too parochial to travel far outside our historical niche. If so, unbinding posthumanism requires us to relinquish them as constraints on the potentialities released by the posthuman predicament. Thus, even the ecological agent of Posthuman Life proves too “speculative” for speculative posthumanism, which thus loses its means of identifying disconnection events. We must withdraw from speculations on technological deep-time bounded by a psychology-free ecological agency to terrain where disconnection becomes “maximally unbound.”” (p. 85).

—David Roden, Posthumanism: Critical, Speculative, Biomorphic

CaptureAs I’m reading David’s essay which deals with the various posthuman thought of the vitalists like Braidotti; or the neorationalists like Brassier; the Non-Philosophy of Lauruelle (this third providing an immanent path not of representation but rather a non-representational performative thought) we get a thought that is neither representational nor non-representational but an experimental interplay of both/and through a release of biomorphic dynamics. As he puts it “unlike Non-Philosophy or critical posthumanism, biomorphic posthumanism has no thought of resistance. While its inhuman “human” exists on an alien planet unmeasured by philosophy, there is nothing remotely emancipatory about this unmeasure. It is not, after all, philosophy that deracinates the (in)human. The Wide Human deracinates itself.” (p. 87). The notion of deracinate goes back to a sense of being plucked out of its environment or milieu, an uprooting that as David would have it disconnects the Wide Human from its connection to the old embedded field of the human as we’ve known it. An immanent and experimental play of forces in continuous biomorphic mutation and transformation. As he states: “The posthuman predicament disconnects the human/inhuman; generating novel modes of existence. The figure of the biomorph… performs or disseminates this effect. The biomorph is, then, a model of the torsions and stresses of the posthuman predicament translated into its proprietary format. (p. 87).”

As David suggests in a “maximally unbound posthuman,” there is no agent based ontology by which to judge whether something has become disconnected from the Wide Human. He’ll explore the effects of the Japanese notion of hikikomori’s (young men that withdraw from social life into online worlds) immersion in Ben Yeager’s Amygdalatropolis. David will ask the question about the character 1404er: “Is /1404er/ human, or posthuman? There is, of course, no interesting binary answer to this. What is important is that the novel performs the distance between /1404er/ and our fragile judgments of who or what composes the human.” (p. 87). What we discover is that the biomorphic is “embodied (it is felt, however opaquely) and aesthetic insofar as what constitutes “disconnection” is now mediated through form and reading. Thus, as in the Atrocity Exhibition or Amygdalatropolis, art can be a source of biomorphic models for the deracinating potentials of the posthuman predicament.” (p. 87).

He’ll explore in the works of Hans Bellmer, J.G. Ballard, and Gary J. Shipley the notion of the biomorphic as a subtraction of life. “A biomorphism extends “no-need into no-utility … no-utility into ‘art’” (Massumi 2005: 131; Roden 2014: 189).” (p. 88).

Bellmer’s perverse dolls subtract the subjective sense, a perversion as “counter-ethics”: the “subtractive passion is not for anything and must, like the biomorph, produce the thing it thinks (Tracy McNulty 2013: 33, 2013).” (p. 89). As David will surmise:

“While Bellmer’s doll provides a fundamental anatomical module of extroversion: the preemption of desire by the teaming unlife of the posthuman predicament, it is perhaps still too domesticated, too sexualized to hint at its planetary compass. Ballard’s pornography of violence is similarly anagrammatic but explicitly imbricated within the technological landscapes of modernity (see Roden 2002).” (p. 89).

Speaking of Vaughn in J.G. Ballard’s Crash he states: “This biomorph is utterly subtractive; without unity or sense beyond its multiple symbolic ties to the “unique event” that we know, from the novel’s outset, cannot occur. The future is thus abolished and unbound in the most elegant gesture by this terminal metaphor. Ballard’s cyborgian sexuality doesn’t just puncture our skin-bag in the style of the contemporary “posthumanities.” It unbinds agency as such, extroverting the body into a limitless multiple.” (p. 89).

In his estimation of Gary J. Shipley Roden tells us: “Gary Shipley’s work is often compared to Ballard for its single-minded estrangement of sense. Yet it refuses even more, the satisfactions of setting and psychology. It is sometimes marketed as “concept horror”—which is accurate insofar as it is the concept which does most of the hurting here—remarked, disjointed, its grammatical lifelines sliced, and hamstrung. In a sense, it is one of the purest expressions of a formal disconnection of thought from thought.” (p. 90).

Speaking of Gary’s Warewolff! he suggests that something happens, “even if we do not understand what. Its dispersal is the horror of biomorphism: a condition somewhat akin to life that, like Shipley’s alien, “discloses its arrangements” through our language centers. And this is the condition of unbinding: we are spoken by something; we pass into something without even the assurance that our hunger is our own.” (p. 91).

Ultimately the biomorphic paradigm suggests an imperonalism and cold intelligence that “deracinates” itself out of its human enclave in the evolutionary tree and into a myriad of non-agential biomorphic prodigy. This sense that something is working in and through the human to become posthuman. Something that cannot be named so much as performed.

  1. Mads Rosendahl Thomsen and Jacob Wamberg (Author), Mads Rosendahl Thomsen (Editor), Jacob Wamberg (Editor). The Bloomsbury Handbook of Posthumanism. Bloomsbury Academic; 1 edition (July 23, 2020)

Adventures in Vitalist Madness

“Marry, then, sweet wag, when thou art king, let not us that are squires of the night’s body be called thieves of the day’s beauty. Let us be Diana’s foresters, gentlemen of the shade, minions of the moon, and let men say we be men of good government, being governed, as the sea is, by our noble and chaste mistress the moon, under whose countenance we steal.”
― William Shakespeare, King Henry IV, Part 1

If I just had time and youth…

But it’s alright, I did my share of traveling both in reality and in books in my life. It’s not so much nostalgia as it is there is so much more to know, to learn, to live, to love, to be and become… that’s why I’m both a pessimist and not; I’m a complex creature who doesn’t fit into any categories, never have. Dam it! Being multiple – or, a multitude is like living in a living zoo, I’m never sure just where one of these creatures I am is going to go next. Maybe that’s the point, to be free is to just allow this thing we are to live. Yet, without the discipline of thinking and doing this menagerie would obviously have landed me in an asylum long ago. Poetry, philosophy, the handmaids of history and all the various aspects of culture have allowed me to run the gambit of existence; and, yet, I want more, always more. Bloom said of such creatures as Falstaff (Shakespeare) and Vautrin (Balzac) that they were the bookends of the great Vitalists: those who had more energy than they knew what to do with… and that the unlived life was the great enemy of both. Both were extremists and criminals, vitalist’s who could not be held to the strict rules governing the normalcy of their cultures. Maybe all outlaws in the end are those who cannot be bound by the codes that would trap them in false worlds… or, at least the literary Outlaws. Real one’s are just failed mongrels of existence…

As I work on my fantasy trilogy I’ve been rereading various frame-tale literature from the Arabian Night’s Tales, the Hoshruba (Urdo Epic), Somadeva’s Tales from the Kathasaritsagara and so much more.

The Hoshruba: The Land and the Tilism is the world’s first and longest magical fantasy HOSHRUBA ( was compiled in the Urdu language by two of its greatest prose writers. Spread over eight thousand pages, it reached the summits of popularity and acclaim never attained by any other epic in the history of Urdu literature. But the richness of its language and its length deterred translations for more than 125 years. In this first translation of this iconic fantasy by Musharraf Ali Farooqi, whose translation of THE ADVENTURES OF AMIR HAMZA was hailed by the international press as a gift to world literature, we enter the magical world of Hoshruba, conjured in the untold past by sorcerers defying the laws of God and the physical world. Filled with dazzling illusions and occult realms inhabited by powerful sorceresses and diabolic monsters, Hoshruba had a fixed life, and a designated conqueror who would use its magical key to unravel it one day. The first book of the HOSHRUBA series begins with the giant Laqa entering Hoshruba’s protection, and its sorcerer emperor finding himself at war with Laqa’s arch fiend, Amir Hamza the Lord of the Auspicious Planetary Conjunction, who pursues the giant with his numerous tricksters and a young prince – the yet to be known conqueror-designate of Hoshruba. When the prince is kidnapped by the devious trickster girls sent by the sorcerer emperor, it falls to an extraordinary trickster and a rebel sorceress to continue his mission.

Somadeva’s Kathasaritsagara, a classic work of Sanskrit literature that features many memorable characters. Within the pages of this book, you will encounter demons and demi-gods, faithful guards and foolish villagers, golden swans, magic pots and even automatons made of wood! Adapted and wonderfully retold by Rohini Chowdhury, this is a timeless classic that will both entertain and enchant.

And, if you’ve not read it The Arabian Nights: Tales of a 1,001 Nights. From Ali Baba and the forty thieves to the voyages of Sinbad, the stories of The Arabian Nights are timeless and unforgettable. Published here in three volumes, this magnificent new edition brings these tales to life for modern readers in the first complete English translation since Richard Burton’s of the 1880s.

As I do research on this trilogy I’m working through works on the Silk Road, Central Asia, the worlds of Mughals, Islam, Persia, China, Mongols; along with the dark and mystical literatures of these ancient lands. One of the main features in my own work will be incorporating the magickal traditions of the Jinn. Works like Islam, Arabs, and Intelligent World of the Jinn by Amira El-Zein and others provide me a focused and scholarly study of these creatures who much like the more demonized literature of Western Christendom on demons is both unlike and like. In the sense of Sufi literature the Jinn are creatures who inhabited the earth before humankind much like our notions of fairy of Celtic and other pre-indigenous cultures of Old Europe. And, yet, the Jinn are different in that they are still a living part of Islamic culture and live in an intermediate realm with their own hierarchy and society, existing between us and the Angelic realms (at least in Islamic thought!). Either way there has always been a fascination with these creatures of smoke and fire, the embellishment of ancient sorceries, magick, and epic tales and narratives.

We’ll see where it leads…

Mithridatic Accelerationism

“Not to withdraw from the process, but to go further, to ‘accelerate the process’, as Nietzsche put it: in this matter, the truth is that we haven’t seen anything yet.”
—Deleuze-Guattari, Anti-Oedipus

Radical foreignness holds no debt to our story. Instead, such aesthetic reproductions of the still-unseen devastation-at-hand, glanced only through partial intuition, speculation, or prolepsis, serve another ingenious function altogether: neither counseling nor fortune-telling, neither a manual nor an alarm, and without a trace of exemption for any player involved, it is more an invitation and unleashing of the malevolence itself (to seduce obliteration), accelerating its thirst and clearing its path, since it comes anyway (wrath demands it). It does not matter, and there is nothing to be done, though one escapes an otherwise total passivity through the one prism of velocity. Mithridatism of such a caliber, then, allows the author-thinker this lone recourse: to inject increased speed into the invasion of extremity, to rush the threat, and thus ripen the target of epochal cruelty.

—Jason Bahbak Mohaghegh, Insurgent, Poet, Mystic, Sectarian: The Four Masks of an Eastern Postmodernism

The Principle of Accelerationism = extreme de-territorialization:

Capitalism is in fact born of the encounter of two sorts of flows: the decoded flow of production in the form of money-capital, and the decoded flow of labor in the form of the ‘free worker’. Hence, unlike previous social machines, the capitalist machine is incapable of providing a code that will apply to the whole of the social field. By substituting money for the very notion of a code, it has created an axiomatic of abstract quantities that keeps moving further and further in the direction of the deterritorialization of the socius.
(Deleuze and Guattari Anti-Oedipus: 33)

Unlike the social morphologies of antiquity and feudalism, capitalism strives to absorb, overcode and subsume every population and loyalty on earth. Now ‘we can depict an enormous, so-called stateless, monetary mass that circulates through foreign exchange and across borders, eluding control by the States, forming a multinational ecumenical organization, constituting a de facto supranational power untouched by governmental decisions’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 453).

Poetic extremism follows an inclination toward forgetting and return, especially when it has lost: the deliberate amnesic gulf that leads to recurrence, though never recognizing the visitation as sameness, each inscription just another reminder to mislay the experience. Here one pulls the levers of the most subduing traits: of the tangential, the minute, the rebounding (taking custody over the pit of mind). Pathological relinquishment of the elapsed. (Mohaghegh, 9)

Incursion of time velocity, the spectral movement of two shadows converging on an encounter of malevolent disposition: the crossing of the Rubicon before which nothing will remain as it was; and, yet, everything will remain. Memory and vanishments, the artificial implants of trauma, guilt, and revenge; the obsessive mandate in a post-human populace: engineering new vectors of cruelty and impersonalism. “They did not simply build the insane asylum: rather, the madman made them build it for him—just as a concentration on the prison’s production of the discourse of criminality diverts acknowledgment from the original visceral impulse that necessitated such cages (archetypes of victimhood only deny inventive credit). In such instances, the formless precedes the form. (Mohaghegh, 9).”

There is an acquired taste for eternal deceit, for the killing of Chronos, admiring testimonies of false eclipse. (Mohaghegh, 9)

Thrust into the immersive field of an accelerating lie the theatre of the world opens itself to the horror and nightmare of collusion; bound to its own derisive tension, exploiting its own inconsistencies it flies before the transgressive pressure of its own false testimony. Immunizing itself in disgust and terror it begins to thread the seamless vectors that will separate it from its former apathy and impossible ennui. 

An insurgency of metamorphosis and mutation that “understands mithridatism not as a negation of the negative (vileness, depravity, torture), but as the cultivation of a distorted sensitivity toward and purchasing of such anguish: at first, the enrichment of a true coldness, hardened before the corrosive, and then the hyper-conversion of this coldness into rapture, passion, ecstasy, pandemonium (palimpsestic alteration). (Mohaghegh, 10)”

Accelerating the pressure of such corruption and malevolence, cruelty and torture, we begin like mithridates of an impossible transformation, immunizing ourselves in its toxic destruction and catastrophic consequences even as we step forward at an ever faster rate of mutant change. “Manufacturing/consuming the pollution of our time in an effort to weather and surpass the worst that we have fathomed. (Mohaghegh, 10)”

Directions and Revisions: Where I’m heading in my project…

The beauty of flames lies in their strange play, beyond all proportion and harmony. Their diaphanous flare symbolizes at once grace and tragedy, innocence and despair, sadness and voluptuousness.

—E. M. Cioran, On the Heights of Despair

Steven Pressfield in The Warrior Ethos posits a world in which combatants, serving for hire, have been cut loose from the traditional rules of war and are no longer bound by the standards of honor that have governed Western armies since Troy and before.

Does a fighting man require a flag or a cause to claim a code of honor? Or does a warrior ethos arise spontaneously, called forth by necessity and the needs of the human heart? Is honor coded into our genes? What does honor consist of— in an age when the concept seems almost abandoned by society at large, at least in the West?

Do we fight by a code? If so, what is it? What is the Warrior Ethos? How do we (and how can we) use it and be true to it in our internal and external lives?

As I begin to structure my own thematic one of the central questions will be just that: If notions of a Code of Honor no longer hold then are we bound by anything? Will the warriors of the future in which a mix of machinic intelligence and post-humanity co-exist side by side what are the rules that will guide conflict, battle, and war? As I’ve looked over much of the Sword and Sorcery, the Epic War Fantasy novels, and the darker plunge of late into Grimdark Fiction (I want even mention the supposed goody two shoe Noblelight opposition…), I think of a planetary world that the ancient magians, astrologers, and Gnostics called Anereta (The Destroyer). Of course they were thinking of the influence of Saturn and its melancholy death hold over fate and destiny, etc. But what I’m posing is the notion of a planet where war is the only constant, a planet specifically isolated for the purpose of War Games among the Galactic Landsraad (or Great Houses). A planet that becomes central to the galaxy’s economics of gaming, chance, and gambling. A place where human, post-human, and machinic intelligence vye within the boundaries of mistrust, paranoia, and dishonor. In other words to put it simply to put what is happening on our planet at the moment into a test case scenario. Because if one looks around all that our world runs on is just that: dishonor, paranoia, and mistrust. Sadly.

And, yet, to make such a scenario work one will also need to pit the age old war between optimist/pessimist: those who hope for change and a better world (the Good Just Society of Socrates in the Republic in which he argues with Glaucon against tyranny and violence); and, the hopeless, despairing thought of the most darkening form of pessimism, cynicism, and nihilism. Obviously this will need to be handled not in some allegorical or morality play style, but rather in a space opera mode of hard science fiction, etc., that incorporates the latest cultural and scientific thought along with the contemporary issues of our planet concerning the End Game of our Species. Among other things how to raise issues of race, gender, and other pertinent issues without seeming merely pathetic pre-critical, and yet show through actions and words this conflict among various contemporary ideas and battles surrounding these delicate subjects. One can never please everyone on such things, all one can do is deal with these issues through both a personal and impersonal mattering. So much goes into such an undertaking the mind boggles. Being as old as I am I may never conclude such a project, and yet it’s what interests me and will keep me going… for that reason alone it’s worth attempting.

In many ways like others of my generation both Frank Herbert’s Dune, Jose Farmer’s Riverworld, Tolkien’s Ring cycle, and other works that attempted both philosophical and epic frameworks to play out their game of thought and feeling deserve a hell of a lot of credit. I couldn’t even begin to register all the great and lesser lights that have influenced my mind and heart. Let’s say I’ve been a fanatic reader in my life and leave it at that…

Revisiting R. Scott Bakker’s Epic Fantasy Series

“No one’s soul moves alone, Leweth. When one love dies, one must learn to love another.”

—R. Scott Bakker, The Darkness that Comes Before

Among other re-readings decided it was high time to revisit R. Scott Bakker’s epic work from the beginning… if you’ve never read it, it’s an intelligent person’s epic fantasy – making you think through many issues in ways that force you to look at yourself and the world in new ways:

“No soul moves alone through the world, Leweth. Our every thought stems from the thoughts of others. Our every word is but a repetition of words spoken before. Every time we listen, we allow the movements of another soul to carry our own.”

What’s interesting is in this early dialogue between Kelhus and Leweth we already begin seeing Scott’s early fascination with what he’d later term the Blind Brain Theory on his blog Three-Pound Brain. Leweth has left behind civilization and become a recluse supposedly to forget his wife’s death and the misery of war and civilization and other men… but as Kelhus will put it, Leweth is lying to himself:

“No, Leweth. You fled to remember. You fled to conserve all the ways your wife had moved you, to shield the ache of her loss from the momentum of others. You fled to make a bulwark of your misery.”

The point here as in his Blind brain theory is that humans hide from themselves the truth about their own deterministic actions. We think of ourselves a free-willed creatures who can choose and say what we like, while the truth is we are determined by those pre-conscious processes of the brain that have already determined and shaped our lives. In the old school of ancient notions, we are in the hands of the Fates, the Norns, the Wyrd Sisters who control the strings of who and what we are long before we consciously enter into the picture. That is, our brain empowers us to fall for our own delusions as part of its own mechanisms of survival and propagation. Intelligence is cold and reptilian in that it hides from us the truth, and gives us the illusions we need to continue its existence. We are puppets on the string of hidden processes we will never even know exist. At least up till recent sciences have begun documenting just how the brain is doing this….

Just started rereading the series for the second time. It’s a whopper with several thousand pages over two full trilogies… if you haven’t read it you should. It’s the Grimdark anti-Tolkien epic of our times! It’s a work that forces you to think, to delve into the darkness of our world, the cynical, pessimistic, and nihilistic corners and shadows of human existence that for the most part we pretend do not exist; and yet, we always discover too late, do exist. It’s also an entertaining and diversionary work of brilliance that will change your ways of doing and being, thinking and living…

It’s a world scarred by an apocalyptic past, evoking a time both two thousand years past and two thousand years into the future, as untold thousands gather for a crusade. Among them, two men and two women are ensnared by a mysterious traveler, Anasûrimbor Kellhus—part warrior, part philosopher, part sorcerous, charismatic presence—from lands long thought dead. The Darkness That Comes Before is a history of this great holy war, and like all histories, the survivors write its conclusion.

Bakker, R. Scott. The Darkness that Comes Before (Prince of Nothing) Overlook.

Buy it and the others here on Amazon: First Series and Second Series.

The Light of Nihil

The cold embrasure of the sea,
The taste of brine laced flesh;
Death’s embattled forfeiture,
Giving way to Love’s dark histories;
Where tomb fed birthings rise,
And night gaunts cross black stars.
Sweet the fanged necessities
That hold us dearly to the departed,
Whose memories like honeyed languishments
Distill in us the bitter pangs of gravitas.
Slow the day that suckles us in its darkness,
The slippage seeping of the grave’s hollow soundings;
For here amid the sleepers walk the knowing ones,
Who from their heights fall to raise such light as this.

– Steven Craig Hickman ©2019

Brian Murphy on The Black Company by Glen Cook

The_Black_CompanyThe Black Company greatly amplified the latent cynicism and pessimism in the works of Howard and Wagner. Surveying an ocean after leaving a city swamped by corruption and violence, Croaker observes its serenity, but with a jaundiced eye. “We looked at a world never defiled by Man. Sometimes I suspect it would be better for our absence” (Cook 40).

The Black Company is an important transitional work in the development of fantasy fiction. A handful of authors borrowed its bleakness, gray morality, and grit, and blended it with elements of sword-and-sorcery and high fantasy to create a new subgenre. Popularly known today as grimdark, this subgenre often takes the form of lengthy novels or multi-book series featuring large casts of characters in high-stakes adventures, but grounds these high fantasy hallmarks in harsh, gritty environments, peopled with morally compromised protagonists. In many ways, grimdark is sword-and-sorcery wildly amplified—mercenary heroes become disillusioned, amoral beings, and the frequent but often stylized combat of sword-and-sorcery transformed into shocking scenes of graphically depicted carnage and suffering. Grimdark amplifies the pessimism that underlie Howard’s cataclysmic Hyborian Age tales and often presents a nihilistic view of the world, in which heroes rarely make a difference and often don’t live to fight another day.

—Brian Murphy,  Flame and Crimson: A History of Sword-and-Sorcery

Reading Flame and Crimson: A History of Sword and Sorcery

CaptureIf as I did when growing up you read works by Robert E. Howard (Conan the Barbarian), Michael Moorcock (Elric of Melniboné), Fritz Lieber (Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser), C.L. Moore (Black God’s Kiss) and a myriad of other great sword and sorcery series then Brian Murphey’s Flame and Crimson: A History of Sword and Sorcery is a must. It provides much-needed definitions and critical rigor to this misunderstood fantasy subgenre. It traces its origins in the likes of historical fiction, to its birth in the pages of Weird Tales, to its flowering in the Frank Frazetta-illustrated Lancer Conan Saga series in the 1960s. It covers its “barbarian bust” beneath a heap of second-rate pastiche, a pack of colorful and wildly entertaining and awful sword-and-sorcery films, and popular culture second life in the likes of Dungeons & Dragons and the harsh gritty rhythms of heavy metal music.

It covers Robert E. Howard’s life and work, his relations with horror master H.P. Lovecraft, and his social, political, and historical views of modern and ancient worlds. I’ve been reading it for a couple days (about half-way through it!), and find it to be personal and non-academic in a good way (i.e., it’s free of all the literary bric-a-bac terminology and current focus of gender and race – which is not a good or bad thing! – which is off-putting if you’re just a basic fan wanting a avid and thorough grasp of the territory and it’s major players.

Get it on amazon: here.

The Shadow Warrior

“He who conquers himself is the mightiest warrior.”
—Sayings of Zamirii – Book of the Seven Swords

Skulgrim lay among the corpses like a shadow. Thousands of dead and dying surrounded him in this black land. “The insanity of war,” he thought dimly. “A man might as well be a stone in the river, letting the currents of time pass over him day and night without thought or reason.”

Laying there in the mud and blood he looked more like a corpse himself, his thick black hair muddied and plastered with the dung and offal of his comrades. He tried to raise his head up, but could barely open his eyes much less navigate the sea of bodies above him. He couldn’t remember a time when he’d felt so weak, his body numb and almost as lifeless as the dead laying across his massive chest. “How many hours have I been unconscious?” he wondered. 

The squawks of corpse-birds and buzzing flies stirred above his half-buried body. He tried to lift his arm and hand to brush them away, but felt the energy drain from him into the dark loam of the blood-soaked earth. He knew he’d been there for a while trying to wriggle his fingers caked in human gore. Little did he know he’d sustained deep wounds in his upper thigh. Continue reading

Robert E. Howard: King of Sword and Sorcery

“Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.”
― Robert E. Howard

Robert E. Howard branched out from his cousins in horror to widen the fantastic realism of the human condition in war, violence, and suffering of humans at the hands of its own power mongering kind. He opened the door on an aspect of our history that even now as we look around has yet to subside. As Heraclitus remarked a couple thousand years ago:

‘War is father of all, and king of all. He renders some gods, others men; he makes some slaves, others free.’

Sadly like other aspects of the darker and more pessimistic conclusions to existence and the human predicament both horror and “sword and sorcery” were pushed by mainstream liberal optimists into the gutter world of pulps. And, yet, unlike many of those same optimists novelists and short story writers of the mainstream, these old pulp artists are still with us being printed over and over generation by generation. They have staying power. Why? Because they speak a harsh truth that both young and old alike know instinctively is true, that they render a vision of life that speaks to us about the world as it is in it’s essential nature of horror and violence, despair and decay. And, yet, provide a way of dealing with it that is both empowering and adequate to the common fate of us all. As Howard would ask a friend in a letter:

“Ask yourself the question and answer it honestly: how much of your life stands clear and distinct, unclouded by the haze of illusion and uncertainty? Can you truly say of yourself, “This is thus, and this is thus; this much is truth and this is false; here lies concrete fact and here the fabric of illusion; this is hazy and this is clear.”?”

—Robert E. Howard to Tevis Clyde Smith, August 1925

– David C. Smith, Robert E. Howard: A Literary Biography

The Cursed One

“My first thought was, he lied in every word,
That hoary cripple, with malicious eye…”
– Robert Browning

We’d been riding all day, lost among these ancient trees; this forest where sun and moon no longer cast their light, and a gloom-born mist settled on the company like an unbidden curse.
We came to a fork in the leaf-strewn path where a choice had to be made.

Orrin Ironfist spoke first: “A wretched thing this is…”

“Aye,” Grimner Longknife moaned.

I’d been eyeing some movement in that thick fog just ahead of us, a figure seemed to be standing there like the knotted gnarl of a tree; else it was an illusion, a momentary madness of my mind. It moved again, and I saw a cloaked figure emerge from that blanketed cloudy haze. He held a walking staff of ash, and moved cautiously toward us. Continue reading