Sword an sorcery is a genre that's devilishly hard to define. Ask ten people to lay out their personal guidelines for what is and isn't S&S, and you're likely to get twelve different answers.
Examples are easier to come up with, if somewhat less helpful. And like definitions, you're rarely going to get many people that agree. Sure, some examples are more-or less a given. Robert E. Howard's Conan. Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Gray Mouser. Michael Moorcock's Elric. But disagreement tends to crop up when people throw up examples outside that established core.
In an old SF Signal Mind Meld, several writers were asked to define what "sword and sorcery" meant to them. Answers were, predictably, all over the board, most of them boiling down to lists of common tropes. But the first answer came from Michael Moorcock himself, and it touched on something elemental:
Basically I see it as a good old-fashioned sword and sandal or cloak and dagger drama with strong supernatural elements. Captain Blood meets Cthulhu.
Folks, that quote may be the closest thing this genre has to a Rosetta Stone. It explains why so many of the "borderline" examples people disagree about feel wrong to those well-read in the genre, even if they seem to contain most of the tropes.
First, re-read Moorcock's statement. Notice the order he puts the two components in. It's no accident that "old fashioned sword and sandal or cloak and dagger drama" gets precedent. The story has to function purely (or almost purely) in those terms, absent any fantastical element.
Conan sneaking into the Tower of the Elephant. Elric of Melniboné leading a pirate fleet against the impregnable port of Imrryr. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser running headlong through the labyrinthine halls of the Thieves' House, one step ahead of their murderous pursuers.
Any of those moments could be dropped into a historical adventure story, while retaining 100% of its excitement and impact. They speak to something primal in the reader, something that exists independent of the story's magical elements: Courage in the face of certain death. Wit and steel against overwhelming odds. The chase. The hunt.
Next, notice Moorcock's carefully chosen word, supernatural. There's a reason he didn't say "cloak and dagger fiction with magic." Or "sword and sandal drama with elves and dwarves."
Supernatural implies the weird, the unknown, and the dangerous. Supernatural is the fantastic. But it is the unfamiliar fantastic.
In sword and sorcery, magic is rare and terrifying. Monsters are a violation of the natural order. Dwarves and elves, if present, aren't simply another culture in a fantasy melting-pot world. They're a freak survival of some ancient and forgotten age, like Howard's stooped, serpent-like "Worms of the Earth." Or Moorcock's vaguely etherial, Chaos-bound Melnibonéans.
What I like about Moorcock's definition is that it's not just descriptive. At the risk of paraphrasing Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean, Moorcock's definition doesn't just describe what a sword and sorcery story is. If it did, it wouldn't be much more than a genre dowsing rod.
Rather, Moorcock's definition describes what a sword and sorcery story needs. It can be a map for building one from the ground up.
Sword and sorcery 101. Start with historical adventure. Add the supernatural. It's as simple (and as complex) as that.
"I don't know what 19-year-old me would think if he could see me today. But he'd probably be happy that I still read David Gemmell and listen to Angel Witch." - Me, circa 2015
All in all, that offhanded Facebook comment from a couple of years ago sums up how I feel about the turning of the New Year. While a lot of my fellow writers are posting long lists of their accomplishments, publications, and kudos earned in 2018, I'm not going to do that.
The fact is, I'm not happy with what I accomplished this year. I had a long list of things I set out to achieve, both professionally and personally, and I failed at pretty much all of it.
Not looking for pity here. Just stating it plainly. My list of goals didn't get a lot of check-marks this year, and pretending otherwise would be dishonest.
But I am happy that I'm still me.
And after a year filled with self-doubts, mental health issues, and maddening, Kafka-esque administrative fuck-ups at the Department of Veteran's Affairs adding fuel to both...
Well, shit. That's actually something, guys.
The fact is, sometimes the best effort we can muster is to hold on for all we're worth. And I managed to do that in 2018, if nothing else. I did it no thanks to the worthless fuck-wits in the VA, and all the thanks to my wife, my fellow vets, and some good friends.
Not to mention a pair of spoiled-rotten dogs. It's amazing how even in the middle of the shittiest of shitty days, a dog curled in your lap can suddenly be the brightest spot in the whole universe.
Which leads me to 2019.
For the year ahead, I do have a handful of irons in the proverbial fire.
Watch this space for more. I'll have some updates on all of the above coming soon.
As for me, I have some work to do. Right after I listen to some Angel Witch.
I have a long history with The Thing.
One of my earliest memories is watching the 1951 Howard Hawks version with my mom and dad. I was about three or four years old, curled up on the couch in between them, with the blankets pulled up to my chin. I can still vividly remember my horror as I watched the shadow of Will Arness' Thing out in the blizzard, casually slaughtering the team's sled dogs. To this day, that scene of the arctic scientists trying to determine the shape of the magnetic anomaly in the ice—cheesy music sting and all—holds an eerie power for me.
Catching the 1982 John Carpenter version on cable was one of my formative pre-teen experiences. I was already a horror film junkie by that point, well versed in everything from Hellraiser, to Evil Dead, to Alien. I considered myself quite the jaded little gore connoisseur. And if you had told me I was about to watch a movie that would blow me out of the water, one that would genuinely scare me, I would have laughed right in your face.
The Thing, though, was some straight up next-level shit. Everything about it, from the Ennio Morricone score, to the perfect cinematography, to the still-unequaled practical creature effects, was a bar-raising landmark. Combine that with the tight pacing, the claustrophobic sets, the paranoid direction, and the virtuoso acting performances, and you have one of the most perfect horror films ever made.
Naturally, when I got around to reading the original novella that inspired both films—1938's Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell—I was already predisposed to liking it. And I did. No, it's not quite the timeless masterpiece of horror storytelling that Carpenter's film is. The ending isn't nearly as exciting. The sense of menace doesn't quite build the same way that it does in Lovecraft's better-written tales. Aside from McReady, the characterizations are thin to non-existent.
But as a pulp SF tale of the "men-with screwdrivers" school, it more than delivers. Campbell sets the claustrophobic tone in the story's first lines, describing the queer, mingled smells that choke the Antarctic camp's tunnels. When McReady comes on the scene—here as a meteorologist rather than a pilot—he is described in appropriately pulpy terms, a red-haired giant, a bronze demigod come to life. When the creature is at last revealed in the block of ice, Campbell gives us the almost superstitious reactions of the otherwise coldly rational scientists. The discord produces a fantastic effect.
All in all, the opening scene is a master class in establishing mood, setting, and tone while simultaneously kicking off the story with a bang. I'd even go as far as to say this opening is the one thing that Who Goes There? legitimately does better than either of the film versions, both of which take a little time to orient the viewer before introducing the horror.
Which is why despite my excitement, I have a few reservations about the upcoming release of Frozen Hell, from Wildside Press.
In case you haven't heard yet, writer Alec Nevala-Lee recently rediscovered the lost manuscript for the original, novel-length version of Who Goes There?. A Kickstarter campaign to cover publishing costs met its goal in less than twelve hours, meaning we'll all get to read it early next year.
Admittedly, my first reaction to this news was sheer, unbridled joy. And for part of me it still is. So why the reservations?
According to the project's Kickstarter page, Frozen Hell is apparently 45 pages longer than Who Goes There?, with most of the new material taking place before the novella's opening. In other words, that fantastic, moody first chapter will take place somewhere around page 30-35 or so.
Which brings me to an interesting thought about the novella, and half the reason for today's post.
One of the most common bits of advice trotted out to new writers is not to open a story with the dreaded "info-dump." You should hook your reader into the story first, giving them relatable characters and conflict, before giving them blocks of expository text or dialogue. Otherwise, the reader won't care.
There's plenty of truth to that advice, enough where it's a pretty reliable rule of thumb. But what always struck me about Who Goes There? is how much of that opening scene really is just info-dump. For several pages, we have McReady and the other scientists just standing around in a room, talking about this frozen creature.
What's more, in this same scene Campbell violates another piece of writing advice that's become akin to gospel over the years: having characters talk about things most of them already know, purely as an excuse to fill in the reader. Or "As you know, Bob," dialogue.
Campbell partially sidesteps it here, by having Commander Garry address the assembled men first:
You know the outline of the story back of that find of the Secondary Pole Expedition. I have been conferring with second-in-Command McReady, and Norris, as well as Blair and Dr. Copper. There is a difference of opinion, and because it involves the entire group, it is only just that the entire Expedition personnel act on it.
The rest of the opening consists largely of McReady and Blair explaining the events leading until now, events many of the assembled men were already present for. But because it's presented as a briefing intended to get the station's personnel all on the same page, it works.
Even so, it was a genuinely audacious storytelling choice, particularly in a format as dependent on fast-paced thrills as the pulps. The whole thing is carried by Campbell's moody description and the gradual reveal of the situation through dialogue, both of which give the scene its necessary suspense. More proof that you can break any writing convention, provided you do it with style.
Of course, the discovery of the Frozen Hell manuscript reveals that scene's original placement, which was roughly a quarter of the way into the story. That's much more in line with the standard "hook your reader, explain things later" advice. While I'm genuinely curious to see what hook Campbell uses, something tells me it won't be quite as innovative or memorable as an in-media-res, "as you know, Bob," info dump.
There's no question that I'm going to buy Frozen Hell the second it's available for general release. Maybe it's better than the novella. Maybe the scenes leading up to that tense, wonderful cold open will somehow make it more powerful. Maybe not.
In some ways, I feel like a kid who snuck a peek behind the curtain at a magic show. Now that I've seen all the mirrors and the hidden trap doors, I'm just sitting in the audience, hoping the Astounding Campbell can still wow me.
Here's hoping. Either way, I'll be the first in line.
For a limited time, I'm making my Roman-era steampunk short "Pax Mechanica" available as a free online read.
Want to know what happens when one of Ceasar's War Walkers encounters the Celtic Britons? Click here to find out.
Pop quiz, hot shot.
Let's say you're a complete newcomer to roleplaying games. You and your friends want to jump into D&D. And you, you lucky bastard, have been elected Dungeon Master. Well, guess what? You're literally the only player who needs to have the rules on hand. Serves you right for being so handsome and personable.
What do you do? What do you do?
90's action-movie references aside, your options are as follows:
Amazon can take the sting out of the cost of the core rulebooks, dropping the cost to around $60 for just the Player's Handbook and Monster Manual. The Starter Set generally runs close to retail, but you can sometimes find a third party seller packaging it with extra dice.
My personal recommendation? Don't start with "official" D&D. Start with the Basic Fantasy Roleplaying Game.
Like most independently-published retro-clone games, the core rules are available as a free PDF. Unlike most of them, that free PDF includes all art and illustrations. The game's publisher has also made the print version available at cost, meaning a physical copy of the rulebook will only set you back $5.
And that rulebook is an all-in-one, containing the complete Players' Guide, Game Master information, and Monsters. Getting the same "complete" rules for 5e will run you around $150.00, by comparison.
Below is my copy of the core rulebook, along with six sets of dice (and bags) I scored for $10.99. Total cost? Less than sixteen bucks before tax.
For my money, this is the best "D&D Starter Set" you can build. It's cheaper than the official one, provides complete rules, and each player gets their own set of dice. Hell, if you wanted to be extra generous, you could buy each player a copy of the rulebook. You'd still come out of it cheaper than the 5e Players' Handbook.
Sure, BFRPG lacks some of the bells and whistles of 5e, like Backgrounds and Feats. But it's close enough to give you (and your players) a real taste of the game. You can always upgrade to 5e later, after you're all hopelessly addict— er, umm... comfortable with the game. Even if you don't, BFRPG has enough free supplements available to keep your group going for years.
No matter what version of the game you start out with, just remember: the smart DM lets his players buy the pizza. The wise DM gives them an XP bonus to make sure they do it again.
I'm an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer based out of North Carolina. This is where I scream into the digital void. I like cookies.