I've been listening to a lot of latter-day Johnny Cash lately. And while the sentiment might get me strung up in some purist circles, I believe the American Recordings sessions represent the absolute apex of Cash's considerable career.
That's not meant as a slight against anything Cash recorded in his earlier days. Especially not At Folsom Prison.
Cash was just an artist who kept aging into his voice well into his late sixties, a man who sounded better the more his voice took on that gravelly timbre. His musical style also benefitted from the raw, stripped-down style of the American Recordings. Some of the best tracks on the American releases were just Cash and his acoustic guitar.
Personally, I'm glad they were the final releases of his career. They're the most fitting swan song I can think of for the Man in Black.
And while Cash's cover of "Hurt" gets most of the attention, with songwriter Trent Reznor famously quoted as saying "that song isn't mine anymore," the fact is Cash made a habit of doing flat-out amazing covers during this stage in his career. And for my money, most of them blow the originals out of the water. His versions of U2's "One," Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus," and Soundgarden's "Rusty Cage" are just a handful of examples.
But my favorite of all the American Recordings—original or cover—is Cash's rendition of Marty Robbins' classic country ballad, "Big Iron." If you've never had the pleasure, I strongly urge you to take a few minutes to give a listen.
Anyway, this recent Johnny Cash kick probably had something to do with me grabbing John Benteen's Alaska Steel off the TBR pile on my way to the VA clinic a couple of weeks ago. I had a long day ahead, with several hours to kill between appointments, so I wanted some good, old-fashioned escapism.
It was a good choice.
In case you've never heard of Benteen, a brief primer: Benteen was an early pseudonym for novelist Ben Haas. And while he'd later go on to great literary acclaim with books like The Chandler Heritage, The House of Christina, and Daisy Canfield, much of his early work was in the pulp western genre.
The Benteen name was the one Haas used when writing the Fargo series, about professional soldier of fortune Neal Fargo. Taking place in the early 1900s, the Fargo series sees its hero traveling around the world, taking dangerous jobs for money. A rough wanderer with a talent for fighting, Fargo has been described by fans of the series as "Conan with a shotgun." And that's pretty damn accurate.
Alaska Steel is #3 in the series, but like all good pulp or adventure fiction, you can read them in any order. Here's the tagline:
"Fargo went north to find a beautiful woman's husband—and to make sure he was dead!"
Folks, that is how you grab a potential reader's attention!
The book opens in 1914, with Fargo between jobs. He's got a temp gig as an actor in Hollywood, mean-mugging the camera and falling over after fake gun battles. But as good as the money is, it's got him feeling hollow. He's itching to get on the move and into the wider world again. He craves the action of a real life-or-death fight. He's contemplating heading south, where the Mexican Revolution is heating up, when a job lands in his lap courtesy of movie star Jane Deering.
Deering tells Fargo that she recently heard from a lawyer representing her estranged in-laws. Apparently, her husband's dirt-poor parents struck oil on their land, shortly before dying in a car accident, and her husband now stands to inherit a fortune. The problem, Deering says, is that she hasn't seen her husband in more than five years, not since he ran out on her to seek his own fortune in the Yukon.
Her proposition is simple: she wants Fargo go to Circle, Alaska, where he was last heard from. It's worth a lot of money if Fargo can find proof that he's still alive. But Deering promises him an even bigger cut if he can prove her husband is dead.
The rest of the book follows Fargo and Deering as they trek up to Circle, seeking answers to the whereabouts of her husband. The man's name triggers a murderous rage in some quarters, and Fargo has to fight for his life more than once. Whatever happened in Circle, no one is willing to talk about it. It soon becomes clear there was more to Deering's missing husband than Fargo suspected.
The climax is the kind of explosive action Haas excels at writing. No high noon shootouts here. We get an all-out war in the streets of Circle, an over-the-top, balls-to-the-wall finale of gunfire and grade-A violence. There is a final, mano-a-mano moment between Fargo and the villain. But saying much more would spoil the ending.
And I highly encourage any fans of action, adventure, and good old fashioned shoot-em-ups to track it down and experience it for themselves.
Getting to the end of Alaska Steel, I realized how refreshing it was to read an unashamedly masculine story that didn't wink and nod at the audience for a change. Fargo is a man's man. He's only interested in fighting, drinking, and women, and he gets down to business with all three. He's as tough, as cool, and as professional as they come.
He's the kind of hero facing the kind of problems that are played for laughs in most quarters these days. Honestly, the tagline for Alaska Steel sounds almost like something that the Man Plots Twitter bot could have come up with.
With its shirtless Ernest Hemingway avatar and its cheeky offer of availability for script rewrites, Man Plots randomly drops pulp fiction buzzwords into an "elevator pitch" sentence, generating 3—4 action story ideas per day.
Folks, this Twitter account is a gold mine.
And while the whole thing is meant to as a joke, the sad fact is that at least half the ideas it spits out sound better than the neutered, anemic shit Hollywood is passing off as action these days. I'd take any of those plots—and their stoic, hard-bitten heroes—over the mainstream's idea of a "masculine" protagonist any day of the week.
There's an interesting exchange in the first chapter of Alaska Steel. One of Haas' side characters, movie star Roy Hughes, is talking to the movie's director. The director has just expressed incredulous rage over Fargo turning down the promise of a big studio contract to go join the Mexican Revolution:
"Don't you see?" Hughes tipped back the big sombrero. "He's not like the rest of us. We're phonies. And phony things don't satisfy him." There was envy in his expressive eyes. "If I was man enough, I'd trade places with him in a minute."
Neal Fargo inhabits a changing world. The wild places are becoming civilized, and the real struggles for survival are being replaced with phony copies, meant to entertain softer men than him. But Fargo himself is still a man of action. And he actively seeks out the places where his action will have meaning.
To a modern reader in an increasingly sedentary and regulated world, there's something powerful about that idea.
Understanding that idea isn't—and never has been—a joke is what separated the great pulp and men's adventure writers from the winking and sneering postmodern takes we get now. It's what gives their work the same timeless quality as Johnny Cash's soulful rendition of "Big Iron."
In a letter to his son Joel, Ben Haas said the following about writing a pulp western: "All Westerns are fairy stories and outlets for impotent people. The villain must be larger than life; the hero larger than the villain. These are dream-fulfillment books."
Haas knew the reader was reaching for a temporary escape. He created characters like Fargo to give it to them without any hint of holier-than-thou irony, smirking, or subversion.
Haas believed in the Man Plot, back when the Man Plot wasn't a punchline.
Some of us—myself included—still do.
Welcome back, Wastelanders!
This week, we're taking our first dive into the venerable (and batshit-bonkers) pastapocalypse genre.
In case you've never heard the term, pastapocalypse films were low-budget Italian b-movies, specifically aimed to cash in on the runaway international success of Mad Max. Studios churned them out by the dozen, often mixing in elements of other popular genre films. Sometimes the results were surprisingly good, as with Enzo G. Castellari's Escape From the Bronx or the half-genuinely-awesome Raiders of Atlantis.
Today's entry is not one of those films.
Wastelanders, I owe you all a preliminary apology for this one.
Welcome to Bruno Mattei's 1984 scholck-stravaganza, Rats: Night of Terror. Spoilers ahead.
The movie opens with a text crawl and voice over, along with grainy stock footage of a desert. And right away we're off to a bang-up start, as the movie manages to turn less than a minute of exposition into a painful slog. I'm quoting it here in its entirety, gratuitous ellipses and all:
"In the Christian Year, 2015, the insensitivity of man finally triumphs and hundreds of atomic bombs devastate all five continents...
Terrified by the slaughter and destruction the few survivors of the disaster seek refuge under the ground...
From that moment begins an era that will come to be called "After the bomb," the period of the second human race...
A century later several men, dissatisfied with the system imposed on them by the new humanity, choose to revolt and live on the surface of the Earth as their ancestors did...
So, yet another race begins, that of the new primitives...
The two communities have no contact for a long period. The people still living below ground are sophisticated and despise the primitives, regarding them as savages...
This story begins on the surface of the Earth in the Year 225 A.B. (After the bomb)..."
Leaving aside the fact that two whole continents appear to have been obliterated before the 2015 atomic war, the stage is now set. We can jump right into a rip-roaring, nail-biting, edge of the seat--
Umm, credit sequence?
An upbeat synth-rock score kicks in as our heroes, a gang of truck and motorcycle-mounted "new primitives," casually joyride across the wasteland. Scary, jagged-edged letters flash across the screen, offering the only reassurance this isn't a movie about a team of plucky, down-on-their-luck dune racers.
The music winds down just as our heroes come to an abandoned village. They cut the engines, dismount, and select a random building to explore.
That building turns out to be a bar, one containing a nest of rats and a large store of food. As the bikers are celebrating their discovery, one of the women wanders to a nearby bed. The large, human-shaped lump underneath cover—which no one else apparently noticed at all—is moving.
She pulls back the covers to reveal a swarm of rats chewing on a bloody corpse. She then proceeds to respond exactly the way a tough, hardened survivor of the post atomic wasteland would respond.
Her scream brings the others over. The women naturally join in on the screaming, and the men stand there looking like the director forgot to give them any guidance whatsoever.
After a good twenty seconds of uninterrupted screaming—I'm not exaggerating, I went back and fucking timed it—their leader, Kurt, yells at everyone to stop it. Assessing the corpse, he comes to the conclusion that someone came here before the bikers, fought for control of the supplies, and was murdered. A genius observation undercut only by the massive pile of untouched supplies less than ten feet away.
The bikers then decide to explore the rest of the building, finding more rats, a few more corpses, and a basement grow house with a functioning water purifier. They also find what appears to be a master control panel and computer, although they don't know what it is or what it's for. The gang's resident "genius," Video, manages to turn it on mostly by accident. Causing the words TOTAL ELIMINATION GROUP to flash on screen.
Rather than taking this an an ominous warning, the bikers decide it's just referring to the dead bodies they already found. After all, what further danger could there possibly be in a corpse-strewn hideout loaded with suspiciously untouched supplies?
Hauling the bodes outside, Kurt torches them with a flamethrower. The bikers then settle in for a night in the communal sleeping area. Everyone has a bed except Lucifer and Lilith, who are loudly and passionately sharing a sleeping bag. Kurt eventually gets annoyed enough to send them out to the building's disused kitchen.
Once there, Lucifer and Lilith finish their tryst, but Lucifer storms off angrily when Lilith refuses him a second go-round. While Lucifer drinks in the bar, Lilith zips herself back up in the sleeping bag.
At the same time, another of the bikers, Noah, is studying the grow room in the basement. He realizes the rats are getting into the water purifier. He tries to get them out before they can infect the clean water. Just then, a literal rain of rats drops onto him from above. He screams his head off, but either nobody hears him or nobody cares.
Meanwhile, Lucifer ends up drunk and stumbling around in the street. He falls part-way through an open manhole cover while chasing his dropped liquor bottle, but manages to catch himself against the ladder.
But before he can climb out, a literal rain of rats hits Lucifer in the stomach, pouring off of what I presume must be the second floor of the nearest building. No indication is given for how they leaped all the way to the middle of the street, mind you, but fuck it. Rain of rats it is. Lucifer falls the rest of the way down into the manhole, and gets eaten.
Back inside, a sole, solitary rat chews its way into the sleeping bag alongside Lilith. She feels the teeth chewing on her, and frantically tries to escape the confines of the bag. But the zipper is stuck.
Yes, Wastelanders. You read that right. "Trapped in an already ripped sleeping bag" is actually a plot point in this movie.
Springing from their beds at the sound of Lilith's screams—because fuck Noah, apparently—the bikers grab their weapons and dash to the next room. But by the time they get there, it's too late. Lilith is dead, and that single rat from her sleeping bag is now crawling out of her open mouth.
Sadly, the shock barely has time to register over the sounds of the women-bikers' screams. Noah stumbles out of the darkness, covered in rats and bleeding profusely. Kurt responds by blasting him with the flamethrower.
Why? Because sometimes, leadership means torching an injured and terrified friend in front of all his buddies, damn it!
In short order, the surviving gang members realize the tires on their motorcycles have been chewed through, trapping them in the village. Kurt then decides the best thing is to go back into the building where two of their number have already been killed.
At this point Duke, another of the bikers, challenges Kurt's leadership. No one agrees to follow him, which is a shame, since he's the only one with the sense to realize that barricading themselves inside the rat infested building is a stupid idea.
Turns out it doesn't matter, though, since the bikers actually forget to barricade a fucking window. And as you might guess, a literal rain of rats spills through it to swarm over one of the women. The rest of the bikers manage to get them off her and escape into the sleeping room, but she's covered in bites. They realize they'll need to clean them or she'll get infected.
Kurt decides they need to get to the water reservoir in the basement. He also decides to leave Duke—the only member of the gang who's openly challenged his authority—to guard the women while the rest try to retrieve the water.
This goes about as well as you can imagine. Long story short, the water is polluted and useless, the rats swarm the bikers and take one of them down, and the survivors are forced to run for their lives. Naturally, Duke betrays them, refusing to open the locked door, and they're only saved by the quick thinking of Chocolate, one of the women that stayed behind with Duke. She actually manages to weaponize another female biker's reflexive, hysterical screaming by yelling "Look out, Myrna! A rat!"
I swear, folks. I've seen snuff films that hate women less than this movie does.
Anyway, Myrna's hysterical flailing and panicked screams manage to knock Duke out of the way, and Chocolate unlocks the door to save everyone. Myrna pleads with Kurt to spare Duke's life, which he does, despite the fact that Duke just attempted to murder half of the gang.
A short while after this bad decision, they hear a man's scream. They think it's Taurus, the man who didn't make it back from the failed water expedition. Kurt and the others go out in search of him, but find the adjacent room filled wall to wall with rats. They also see no sign of Taurus. Kurt begins to wonder if the rats are smart enough to try and trick them out into the open.
They decide to walk into the trap anyway, leaving Diana—the injured, feverish biker woman— behind. Kurt says she'll be safer alone, a statement in no way backed up by their experiences so far.
The rats let them get out to the main bar area, where the bikers find Taurus standing with his back facing them. Kurt spins him around, exposing Taurus' dead, bloody face. The women (of course) scream. Taurus falls over, and his body begins to bulge and swell. Then rats literally explode out of him, flying at the bikers through the air.
At this point, Myrna and Duke make a break for it, running for one of the trucks, which everyone suddenly remembers they have. At the sound of the engine cranking, the rest of the bikers give chase. A brief shootout erupts, and then a standoff, in which Duke holds Myrna and the truck hostage with a live grenade. It ends when the rats show up, causing Duke to drop the grenade, destroying the truck and blowing them both to pieces.
The survivors make their way back to the control room from earlier in the movie. On the way, they discover Diana, the girl who'd been rendered delirious by the rat bites. She'd regained enough of her lucidity to slit her own wrists. They don't have time to mourn her, though, because a literal rain of rats pours down the chimney.
Inside the control room, the bikers find Lilith's body, still wrapped up in her sleeping bag. The rats apparently dragged her in there, in a bid at psychological warfare. Note that this also suggests the room is neither secure nor safe, but that fact doesn't seem to occur to any of the surviving bikers.
As they drag Lilith's corpse out of the room and lock the door, Chocolate finds a recording device they didn't see last time. They get it to play, and listen to the last recording of a scientist engaged in something called "Operation Return to Light.
According to the scientist, the entire expedition is dead, wiped out by the rats. He says the rats were once underground dwellers, pushed to the surface as men migrated underground to escape the nuclear war. The rats survived on the Earth's surface, mutating, growing stronger and more intelligent, eventually taking mankind's place.
The scientist warns anyone who finds the recording that their only hope is to stay in the control room, and wait for the rescue team from someplace called Delta 2. The bikers realize there are still other people like them under the Earth, and that there just might be some hope left.
Just then, the rats begin to break through. Kurt tells Chocolate and Video to barricade themselves behind the computer console. He and Deus, the other surviving biker, will try and hold the door.
At the same time, a group of silent, mysterious men in yellow contamination suits emerge from the sewer tunnels. They begin methodically sweeping the streets and spraying poison gas.
Back at the control room, the door finally gives way. A literal rain of rats falls on Deus and Kurt, and as Chocolate and Video watch, both men are devoured. Chocolate begs Video to kill her. Before he can do it, the rats begin to leave. Video realizes there is gas coming in through the door. He quickly puts two and two together, realizing the men from Delta 2 must have arrived to rescue the dead scientists.
They make their way to the street, passing out from the fumes, but rapidly coming to with the men in the contamination suits surrounding them. As Video and Chocolate are thanking them, the one in the lead removes his mask, revealing the face of a giant, mutated rat.
It's an Italian horror film. Even money says they spent more of the budget on gore effects than they did on things like "safety rigging" and "standby medical personnel" for the stunt sequences.
Plenty of rat-chewed corpses get graphic close-ups, and there are two sequences involving rats ripping their way out of dead bodies—once with explosive results.
On that note, a special call-out has to be made here. While nothing as graphic as Cannibal Holocaust's infamous "tortoise scene" occurs here, some of the shots will leave animal lovers unsettled. Mattei wasn't shy about throwing live rats at his screaming, thrashing actors, or keeping them near his flaming stuntmen.
I didn't pick out any obvious injuries or deaths among the film's furry costars. But consider yourselves forewarned.
Man's Civilization Cast in Ruins -
For a micro-budget pastapocalypse movie, Rats: Night of Terror actually makes a respectable showing here. Yeah, the abandoned village is in suspiciously good shape. But it's suitably moody and atmospheric. Mattei manages to make it feel abandoned.
Credit where it's due. In a movie that does so much wrong, the set design stands out as something it manages to get right.
Dystopian Survivor Society -
None in evidence. In fact, the recording from the dead Delta 2 scientist is the only evidence of any kind of society, dystopian or otherwise.
Of the film's many weaknesses, this might be the biggest. Without any rival groups of humans to fight, there's frustratingly little for our mostly interchangeable bikers to struggle against. The movie is trapped into trying to paint the rats as a formidable and fearsome threat.
Unfortunately, this has the side-effect of making the bikers look like complete idiots.
I suppose some drama could have been milked from showcasing their struggle to find supplies, but that ship sails in the second or third sequence, when they find a giant stash of food, a functioning greenhouse, and a nearly-endless supply of purified water.
Futuristic Bloodsports -
None, but I can't really say the film suffers for it. It's a simple survival tale, with a tight focus on a single gang of rovers. Sports, bloody or otherwise, would have made the story meander worse than it already does.
On the other hand, maybe a little athletic activity would have helped these guys, considering one of them died of "not being able to open a sleeping bag."
Barbarian Hordes -
The main characters, at least according to the lore the film shovels onto us in the opening crawl.
If so, then good news! The apocalypse of Rats: Night of Terror must not be so bad. Any atomic wasteland these guys could survive has to be pretty much devoid of any real dangers.
Kurt's biker gang is the sorriest bunch of barbarians to ever pillage a wasteland. Their juvenile banter and vapid characterization makes them come across more like a roving band of detention hall middle schoolers than a group of hardened survivors. They display all the survival instincts of a Hell-bound snowball, splitting up and wandering off alone at regular intervals, leaving their transportation and weapons out in the street, and not bothering to post any sentries while the rest of them sleep.
Also, they manage to get outwitted and overpowered by a pack of semi-intelligent rats.
Badass Warrior Women -
You'd think a movie featuring four punked-out post apocalyptic nomad women would have at least one tough enough to earn a nod here.
Wastelanders, you'd be wrong.
All of the women in this movie spend their time screaming at the sight of the rats, freezing in panic, and waiting for the barely-competent men to save them. It might not be so jarring if I didn't just watch The Blood of Heroes. But man... Kidda and Big Cimber would break these girls in half.
Watch Thou For the Mutant -
The "regular" rats are the example with the most screen time, being the product of nuclear radiation. But the prize here goes the ridiculous, giant human/rat-things from the ending scene. I don't normally like to repeat myself with screencaps, but seriously...
Just look at this fuckin' thing:
What can I even say about this movie? It almost feels like a cheat to say Rats: Night of Terror defies analysis, but damn if I'm not tempted.
George A. Romero is as obvious an influence here as George Miller. Rats could almost be seen as Mad Max meets Night of the Living Dead, featuring the least intimidating bikers culled from Dawn of the Dead's b-roll footage.
As far as antagonists go, the rats just aren't intimidating. This is doubly true of the Mutant Rat Man at the end. Rather than a snarling, terrifying monster, it looks like the lovable host of a PBS children's show. When your big monster reveal would be more at home on Reading Time With Randy Rat than in an atomic wasteland, you messed up big.
On that note, the "twist" ending makes no sense.
Moments before the big reveal, Video asks the Mutant Rat Men if they're from Delta 2. The lead Mutant Rat Man nods his head. The implication is that the scientist on the recording was also a Mutant Rat Man.
That more or less squares up with the opening crawl, which indicates there are two races of man, now. And the Mutant Rat Man scientists being attacked and devoured by the "regular" rats also makes sense, given the movie goes through great pains to remind us over and over again how territorial rats are. Repeated hints are dropped that rats can smell when an "outsider" rat enters their territory, and the scientist on the recording mentions the rats only started attacking them when they removed their environmental protection suits.
But if that's the case, who the hell came in and poisoned the Mutant Rat Man scientists? The last lines on the recording are clearly "They're here! Their poison! Ah..."
So were the scientists on the recording supposed to be humans, then? Was the Mutant Rat Man just being an asshole when he indicated they came from Delta 2?
Whatever the intention, I'm pretty sure I'm giving this more thought than the writer or director did.
The Rad Rating:
Rats: Night of Terror just barely avoids the lowest possible rating. Some creepy atmosphere and set design are the film's only major saving graces. The action always moves, which is probably another point in its corner, all things considered. But the action is nonsensical at best, and highlights just how incompetent and useless the "heroes" are.
As such, stakes and tension are nonexistent. The only real tension you can milk out of this one is wondering if any of the rats were injured or killed in real life. And that's frankly the kind of "thrill" most viewers can do without. Myself included.
Bottom line, if you're in the mood for Italian b-movie awesomeness, there are plenty of other pastapocalypse films out there. Nearly all of them are more deserving of your time and attention than Rats: Night of Terror.
Give this one a miss, Wastelanders.
Until next time.
Unsurprisingly, the debate concerning gender roles in Sword and Sorcery rages on...
Morgan Holmes' latest article on the subject offers a compelling look at the raw numbers, in addition to some more anecdotes and observations about the shifts that occurred in the publishing industry. If you've been following the argument with any interest, I highly recommend it.
Anyway, in a comment below the article on social media, Jason Ray Carney made the following statement:
"It seems you’re making incompatible claims in order to strategically adapt to changing rhetorical needs (the hallmark of tendentiousness). In the past you claimed that epic poetry endures and appeals widely because it manifests something like universal, anthroprological insights and lessons about being a human male; now, when that same appeal to universality is deployed against you, the spirit moves you and you become cultural relativists. Where was this enlightened, relativistic view of culture when you were discussing masculinity and epic poetry? Can’t you see what you’re doing?"
To clarify, Carney is referring to a comment I made some weeks back under a separate thread, where I drew comparisons between the Men's Adventure genre, Sword and Sorcery, and the heroic tradition exemplified by epic poems like Beowulf and The Iliad.
I responded (briefly) in the thread, but I wanted to organize and expand my thoughts on that comparison here. What follows is likely my last word on the subject for now, a sort of "closing argument" from Brain Leakage.
The fact is, I've only encountered other people reading The Iliad in two places.
The first one was in the classroom, where it was assigned reading. The guided discussion there hewed fairly close to what Jason Ray Carney talks about when he mentions our "gender-neutral, all-too-human struggle against (and inevitable defeat by) time." A major topic of the discussion was mortality, and the finite nature of life.
The second place was in the Marine Corps, where several of my buddies passed a copy around the barracks. We ended up discussing it late nights over beers, while cleaning weapons at the armory, and while hanging out around the smoke pit.
The subject of those talks?
The courage of Hector, standing alone before the walls of Troy. How that courage momentarily broke when he was faced with the wrath of Achilles. How he found it again, to stand and face his own death. Achilles' desecration of Hector. His eventual remorse and mercy towards the grieving Priam.
In short, we were discussing what warrior virtues were and weren't modeled by the characters. Granted, we used more f-bombs and euphemisms for female anatomy than most scholarly works on the subject do.
But those raw, profane, and—above all--sincere discussions by a bunch of young men in the barracks had something those classroom sessions lacked.
We were engaging with the story in its natural habitat.
You see, tales like The Iliad and Beowulf weren't born in the classroom or the lecture hall. They weren't even born in the grand auditoriums of the classical world.
They were born by the fireside.
Long before these stories were ever written down, they were oral tales told to young warriors and would-be warriors, modeling idealized warrior behavior. Songs of great men to inspire and instruct the neophytes, as they sharpened their spears for the coming battle.
Glory and immortality went to those who displayed strength and bravery. Dying a glorious death was better than running away. Honor meant loyalty to your king, loyalty to your home, and loyalty to your brothers.
Simple lessons, but timeless ones. And still applicable to modern warriors.
Which, of course, raises the question: what about warrior behavior is distinctly masculine? Aren't idealized warrior traits as "gender neutral" as Jason Ray Carney's "all-too-human struggle against (...) time?"
No, they're not.
Historically, men have been expected to serve and perform as warriors in a way (and on a scale) that women simply haven't. Yes, there have been examples of women warriors throughout history. Nancy Wake and Leigh Ann Hester spring immediately to mind.
But no matter how many Nancy Wakes or Leigh Ann Hesters a society produces, its women as a whole will never be judged by their ability or failure to perform as warriors.
But its men will be.
Strength, fighting prowess, and physical courage aren't considered masculine traits because only men can display them. They're considered masculine traits because only men are ever judged deficient for lacking them.
And sure, you can say that's an outdated definition of masculinity. You can call it backwards, sexist, regressive, or whatever other word you want to throw at it. You can even call it "toxic," if you want to use the fashionable term.
Hell, you might even be right.
But those young men huddled around that Bronze Age fire? The ones listening to tales of Achilles to bolster their courage? I don't think they'd agree. Neither would those foul-mouthed young Marines, discussing the same stories almost 3000 years later.
I'm going to close with a quote from an article I wrote for DMR Books back in January:
"Critic Damon Knight once made the half-assed assertion that 'the human race has never produced and never could produce such a man' as Howard's Conan. I say anybody who believes that has obviously never heard of Arminius, Miyamoto Musashi, or Audie Murphy.
The fact is, there's a damn good reason so much of storytelling throughout human history has focused on men like Achilles, Hector, and Brian Boru. A society with a heroic tradition is a society that produces men capable of heroic acts. There's a primal, almost intrinsic need for these stories.
It's a need that few writers understood as well as Robert E. Howard."
So my most recent post created a little bit of a stir.
In case you missed it, I joined in on a debate between masculine culture writer Jared Trueheart, pulp sword and sorcery expert Morgan Holmes, and scholar Jason Ray Carney. I agreed with Jared and Morgan that sword and sorcery is a subset of the venerable Men's Adventure genre, and that it serves much the same purpose: delivering thills and chills to its primarily male audience.
To reiterate and clarify my position a little, I think that--like the post apocalyptic genre—S&S can do more, and can speak to universal human truths. But it absolutely must function as an exciting, thrilling S&S story first. Otherwise, its just an essay masquerading as a S&S tale.
Carney disagrees. He feels the primary purpose of the genre is to do more, and speak to those universal human truths.
One person who agrees with him was respected S&S writer David C. Smith.
On the incredibly off chance you're following this debate but are unfamiliar with him, Smith authored and co-authored several Robert E. Howard pastiches, including the six-volume Red Sonja series. He also created the well-regarded Oron series.
In a lengthy comment on my post, Smith offered insight into the publishing industry of the 1980's, shifting markets, and the work of writers intentionally pushing the genre's boundaries.
Despite Smith coming down against my position, I don't see that many of his observations actually refute it. In fact, Smith's point about "masculine-oriented S&S" gradually giving way to epic fantasy and YA fiction just reinforces the idea of the genre being primarily written for and marketed to men.
But his main argument—one contradicting the point referenced above—is that nobody is trying to get rid of the old-school masculine fiction. In his own words:
"And why be so threatened by an intellectual such as Jason Carney who wishes to discuss the gender boundaries of a genre when such new fiction is included with, but does not replace, the old-school masculine fiction?"
"No one wants to take away the 'visceral' fiction, as Daniel Davis calls it."
"Why are you so hung up on this one specific image of masculinity? Would you prefer to keep all of the bookstore racks as they were in 1981? Can't you just relax and enjoy the wealth of masculine fiction that continues to be available? It's a fair question."
Leaving aside his attempt to frame me as somehow "threatened" by an opinion I simply voiced a disagreement with, Smith's right.
It is a fair question.
I just wonder if before he asked it, he'd heard the news that scriptwriter Phoebe Waller-Bridge is shaking up the iconic—and inarguably masculine—James Bond franchise by replacing 007 with a new female agent.
Quoting the article:
"Bond, of course, is sexually attracted to the new female 007 and tries his usual seduction tricks, but is baffled when they don't work on a brilliant, young black woman who basically rolls her eyes at him and has no interest in jumping into his bed. Well, certainly not at the beginning."
"This is a Bond for the modern era who will appeal to a younger generation while sticking true to what we all expect in a Bond film,' the source added. 'There are spectacular chase sequences and fights, and Bond is still Bond but he's having to learn to deal with the world of #MeToo."
"Waller-Bridge, who wrote the BBC comedy Fleabag and the female-led thriller Killing Eve, was recruited to ensure the 57-year-old franchise moved with the times. She said: 'There's been a lot of talk about whether or not Bond is relevant now because of who he is and the way he treats women. I think that's b******s. I think he's absolutely relevant now. [The franchise] has just got to grow. It has just got to evolve, and the important thing is that the film treats the women properly. He doesn't have to. He needs to be true to his character.'"
Reducing the cool, suave, and hyper-competent Bond to a man "baffled" by rejection? Replacing him with a brilliant young woman who simply rolls her eyes at him and displays no interest in jumping into his bed? Forcing him to confront his history of sexual harassment?
With apologies to Mr. Smith, that sounds an awful lot like "replacing the old-school masculine fiction" to me.
Ms. Waller-Bridge's comment is the one I find the most illuminating. In other words, she's saying Bond can be "true to his character," provided the movie takes pains to portray him as backwards and wrong.
Which brings me back to a point I made near the beginning of last week's post. Genre fiction doesn't have to apologize for what it is, or what audience it's trying to court. That's true whether we're talking about a suave secret agent, a savage barbarian, or a certain red haired she devil in a chainmail bikini.
Turning Bond into an apologetic, baffled parody of himself in hopes of pulling in a broader audience isn't going to work.
For starters, we've seen it already. And with respect to Ms. Waller-Bridge, it was funnier when Mike Meyers did it.
Here's a quick question for all you younger readers out there. And by "younger," I mean anyone under 40.
Do you remember the Men's Adventure genre?
You know. Stories about tough guys doing tough guy things. Mack Bolan. The Executioner. Phoenix Force. William W. Johnstone's post apocalyptic Ashes series. Or his amazing standalone adventure, The Last of the Dog Team.
They always featured their alpha male heroes in exotic locations, getting into fist fights, knife fights, and gun fights. The women were always fast and dangerous. The bad guys were always powerful and ruthless. The covers usually depicted some hard case with a gun, striking a tough guy pose with a scantily clad woman nearby. Maybe she had a gun of her own, watching his six. Maybe she was just clutched onto the hero, begging his protection.
Politically incorrect? Maybe. But so what?
As anyone who's been following my recent post apocalyptic reviews can attest, I'm a believer that escapist entertainment doesn't have to make any apologies for what it is, or for what audience its trying to court.
One critic who shares that opinion is pulp sword and sorcery expert Morgan Holmes. In this interview with Legends of Men, he rightly points out that the sword and sorcery genre is a subset of Men's Adventure fiction, and that it's aimed primarily at an audience of young men.
Unsurprisingly, Morgan's opinion ruffled some feathers.
This lengthy response to Morgan's interview by scholar Jason Ray Carney makes the case that sword and sorcery is primarily a gender neutral genre, less concerned with action, adventure, and alpha-male archetypes than with depicting human frailty in the face of natural forces. It also contains this doozy of a quote:
"Gender aside, sword and sorcery dramatizes our gender-neutral, all-too-human fight against (and inevitable defeat by) time."
With all due respect to Mr. Carney, I couldn't come up with a less-exciting description for the sword and sorcery genre if you held a fucking gun to my head.
To give him some credit, Carney isn't entirely wrong. Sword and sorcery has always had a strong element of cosmic horror to it, and man's futile struggle against the universe—and time—is a big part of that.
But let's be real, folks.
Nobody is reading a story like Robert E. Howard's "The Queen of the Black Coast" because it "dramatizes our gender neutral, all-too-human fight against... time." We're reading it to see Conan get hot and heavy with Belit, raid and plunder the Black Coast as her pirate king, and finally take bloody vengeance on the unholy creatures that killed her.
We're reading it for the fantastic settings and the visceral action. We're reading it to vicariously experience thrills we can't in our day-to-day lives.
What's more, the people writing and marketing these stories understood that. Howard deliberately wrote scenes of scantily clad women in peril, knowing it would ensure a lurid cover illustrated by Weird Tales great, Margaret Brundage.
Sex and action are big sells, folks. They always have been. They always will be. And their expression is almost never "gender neutral."
Don't believe me? Check your grandmother's garage. You'll probably find a giant box of paperbacks in there, several of them featuring a shirtless Fabio on the cover as he passionately embraces the heroine.
I suppose if I tried, I could write an essay arguing that those books really aren't aimed at women at all, and in fact dramatize our gender-neutral, all-too-human struggle against loneliness. But nobody would buy that argument. Least of all not a bunch of lifelong romance novel fans.
I don't read sword and sorcery for what it has to say about my own crushing and inevitable defeat by the marches of time. I read it to experience the hot-blooded action of Howard's "Queen of the Black Coast," the weird and tantalizing thrills of Fritz Leiber's "While the Sea King's Away," or the lust-and-honor driven vengeance of Michael Moorcock's "The Dreaming City."
In other words, I read it to get the same thrills I get from the Men's Adventure genre, with the added layer of supernatural or cosmic horror on top. And I'd bet good money I'm not alone.
But then, according to Carney, I'm probably missing the point.
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.