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.
Here's a short list of apocalyptic miscellanea that popped onto my radar lately:
Twitter — This short thread made some excellent points about the allure of post apocalyptic fiction.
Facebook — Wasteland Wanderers (Post-Apocalyptic Fiction Fans) is an active group dealing with all things apocalyptic, from books, to movies, to occasional survival tips. They've been around for a while, and they host regular spoiler-safe discussion threads for shows like The Walking Dead and The 100. Laid-back moderators and lively discussions.
Italian Post Apocalyptic Movies of the 1980's is a newer group, and it's a haven for b-movie connoisseurs. The main focus may be on Italy's numerous Mad Max imitators, but they're open for discussing the genre and genre-adjacent films from all over.
Kickstarter — As author Adam Lane Smith describes his upcoming series of post apocalyptic pulp adventures: "Holy knights in power armor slaughtering legions with each swing. Assassin nuns slitting the throats of evil rulers. Pulp fiction so brutal it requires its own heavy metal soundtrack."
If that doesn't get your blood pumping, folks, I don't even know what you're doing here.
The Kickstarter blew past its initial $1500.00 goal, and with 13 days to go, is sitting about $200.00 short of funding Book 3 as a stretch goal. Kick in and get some post apocalyptic action from the creator of Maxwell Cain: Burrito Avenger.
Tabletop RPG -- Ruinations: Post-Apocalyptic Roleplaying by Brent Ault began life as a post-apocalyptic re-skin of Lamentations of the Flame Princess. I've mentioned my fondness for that system before, and Ruinations is to Mutant Future what what LotFP is to Labyrinth Lord, a streamlined, elegant take on the B/X rules with some innovative house rules. You don't have to take my word for it. Ault has made it available for free via Google Drive.
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 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.
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.