Tag Archives: fantasy fiction

Blood & Thunder: A Review

I’ve just finished Blood and Thunder, Mark Finn’s literary biography of Robert E. Howard. It’s one of those books I hated to see end. Blood & Thunder is an entertaining and inspired introduction to one of the greatest fantasy writers who ever lived.

Finn stresses throughout this biography that Texas was a life-long influence on Howard. Finn, also a native Texan, knows what he’s talking about.

Howard’s unique voice has been described as robust, vivid, and dark. The sizable Anglo-Celtic population throughout the South, including Texas, accounts for much of this. As Howard wrote in a letter to H. P. Lovecraft:

“But no Negro ghost-story ever gave me the horror as did the tales told by my grandmother. All the gloominess and dark mysticism of the Gaelic nature was hers, and there was no light and mirth in her. Her tales showed what a strange legion of folk-lore grew up in the Scotch-Irish settlements of the Southwest, where transplanted Celtic myths and fairy-tales met and mingled with a substratum of slave legends.”

Another major but often overlooked influence on the future writer was the Western tall tale. The young man listened intently to his father, a small town doctor, who spun entertaining yarns for patients, family members, and friends. The chapter dedicated to the fine Texan tradition of the tall tale is titled “Authentic Liars,” a perceptive acknowledgement of the writer’s most crucial talent, the ability to tell a believable lie the audience will happily swallow.

The Texas young Robert E. Howard grew up in was barely a generation removed from the Wild West, and the boy was spellbound by first-hand accounts of Comanche raids and attacks by the Mexican rebel Pancho Villa, undoubtedly the inspiration for the bandits, kozaki, and Picts who brawled and stormed throughout the Hyborian kingdoms. Even Texas-sized rattlesnakes found their way into Howard’s stories (“The Scarlet Citadel,” for example.) As Finn puts it, “Conan, then, is much closer to the American frontier tradition than epic fantasy.”

The Texas oil boom not only overturned the state’s once-agrarian economy, but jolted the culture, and not in a good way. In a letter to H. P. Lovecraft, Howard wrote:

“I’ve seen old farmers, bent with toil, and ignorant of the feel of ten dollars at a time, become millionaires in a week, by the way of oil gushers. And I’ve seen them blow in every cent of it and die paupers. I’ve seen whole towns debauched by an oil boom and boys and girls go to the devil whole-sale. I’ve seen promising youths turn from respectable citizens to dope-fiends, drunkards, gamblers, and gangsters in a matter of months.”

Howard’s recurring theme of civilizational rot and downfall were not abstract notions; he experienced these things first hand. Like his friend and fellow writer H. P. Lovecraft, Howard viewed industrialization as a destructive, de-humanizing force.

It’s impossible to discuss Robert E. Howard without considering H. P. Lovecraft. The two masters corresponded extensively, and clearly influenced each other’s work. Howard set Conan in a Lovecraftian universe, complete with a number of Cthulhu mythos deities. But it was a reciprocal – and beneficial – relationship. Finn points out how Howard’s action-oriented style inspired Lovecraft, whose fiction tended toward the psychological, to include the well-done nighttime chase scene in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” one of Lovecraft’s greatest tales.

I cannot agree with all of Finn’s conclusions. For example, I winced at his assertion that Yasmina from Howard’s novella “The People of the Black Circle” is a “more fully realized” character than Belit from “Queen of the Black Coast.” C’mon! I applaud Finn’s rejection of L. Sprague de Camp’s unfair and uninformed opinion that Howard was a suicidal paranoid with Oedipal tendencies. However, to rebut de Camp by asserting Howard had no choice but to commit suicide is simply ridiculous.

All in all, though, this is a well-researched, intelligent, and sympathetic evaluation of Robert E. Howard’s life and legacy, one I highly recommend for both newcomers and seasoned fans.

The Shiny Side

The Shiny Side

British author Charlie Fish is featuring my story “The Shiny Side” on his e-zine Fiction on the Web, the oldest short story site on the Internet.

As the Texas sun sets on a remote truck stop, Wanda June Vincent, an experienced trucker, helps her friend Travis off-load some of the contents of Travis’s overweight trailer. After they load the items into Wanda June’s trailer, they steer their rigs down I-40 East.

But the trip ends when Travis’s rig inexplicably crashes. While sifting through the evidence to discover what nearly killed her friend, Wanda June has to confront a secret lurking in one of the innocent-looking crates she and Travis were hauling.

I had a blast researching and writing this story, and want to thank my beta readers in the Charlotte Writer’s Club for their invaluable input, as well as my trucker friends (who prefer to remain anonymous) for sharing their insider information about the trucking life.

The Magic of Swamps

My wife and I just got back from Carolina Beach. We spent Tuesday hiking through Carolina Beach State Park, a 761-acre wildlife sanctuary in southeastern North Carolina bordered by the Intracoastal Waterway and the mighty Cape Fear River.
We need more places like this. After driving nearly 200 miles from Charlotte down I-74, much of which is garrisoned by countless installations of Burger This and Taco That, we were ready for something that wasn’t standardized and sterile.

The Swamp Trail was alive with surprises. Here’s the Lily Pond, which was overflowing with dark green lily pads and dotted with white blossoms, all floating in unpolluted water. The air around the Lily Pond smelled deliciously earthy and rich.

Not far away, large swaths of the pine forest still showed signs of this summer’s controlled burn. This process helps clear away old and diseased vegetation, thereby freeing up nutrients for the soil and new life, such as this little guy:

If this newborn pine reminds you of the young Groot, you’re not the only one.

Swamps reaffirm the astonishing resilience and adaptability of life. The Wilmington, North Carolina area is the only place in the world where you can find Venus Flytraps. Both Pitcher Plants and Venus Flytraps evolved in an environment lacking the proteins and nitrogen needed to sustain them, so these plants started feeding on meat. We didn’t come across any Venus Flytraps on our hike, but here are some Pitcher Plants we saw waiting for their usual customers, including flies, small frogs, and even birds:

Carnivorous plants. Pretty wild, huh?

Guess you could say swamps are to our everyday environment what science fiction and fantasy are to our routine reading. In the swamp, you’re face-to-face with nature’s more fantastical creatures, creatures whose vitality and outlandish attributes force you to pay attention to them. Swamps are the incubators of wild imaginings and unexpected beauty. My story “Hunting Ground,” which was included in the Unbound II: Changed Worlds anthology, was not only set in a swamp but inspired by my boyhood ramblings in local marshes. Did carnivorous plants get a starring role? Well, their (could be) cousins did …

Getting outdoors, and hiking in particular, help you sharpen your senses. And don’t forget how experiencing nature lets you encounter beauty and rediscover peace of mind, which can lead you to becoming a more balanced person and a better writer.

The Internet Speculative Fiction Database

I’ve recently been included in The Internet Speculative Fiction Database.

The ISFDB is a publication of the World Heritage Encyclopedia. It provides bibliographic information on past and present authors of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Listings include author pseudonyms, series, awards, and cover art. The publication’s goal is to improve the coverage of speculative fiction to 100%, and they have earned a reputation for being fastidious about nailing down the facts. ISFDB won the 2005 Wooden Rocket Award for the Best Directory Site.

Cory Doctorow wrote in Science Fiction Age: “The best all-round guide to things science-fictional remains the Internet Speculative Fiction Database.”

I’m honored. My thanks to the ISFDB volunteers who included my works.

KZine Now In Paperback!

KZine is a British publication specializing in science fiction, horror, fantasy, and crime stories for Kindle. It’s now also offering paperback editions on Amazon, including issue eight, which features one of my stories.

The reviewer at Wizzley Magazine wrote that he “was impressed by the high quality of all eight stories” in that issue, and had this to say about my contribution, “Spell Check”:

“Jordan has accidentally created a creature that has invaded her house. She turns to an old customer, Floyd, for help. This is a quaint magical story, a little bit sad and a little bit scary.”

And here’s a 5-star Amazon reader review:

“Mike’s story is great; very clever, well-described, and quite creative, about an unwitting conjurer. Then I read the whole issue. Really impressed with the quality of the stories here. I liked them all, but also especially remember “Pickman’s Motel.” I’m an HP Lovecraft fan, and this story did a great job building on Lovecraft’s ‘Pickman’s Model.’ “

Sakura: Intellectual Property

SakuraZachary Hill had just finished the rough draft of Sakura when he suddenly died. Zach’s friends and family were naturally devastated. But two of his friends, both authors, did what only writers could do for Zach and his widow, and that was to polish the manuscript and get it published. Another friend and author, Larry Correia, is getting the word out to sci-fi/fantasy fans:

Zach was a very good friend of mine and one of the all around coolest people I’ve ever met. He finished the rough draft of this novel three days before he died suddenly from a pulmonary embolism.

Paul Genesse and Patrick Tracy are talented authors, who were also friends of Zach’s, and they vowed to finish his last book and get it out there because Zach thought it was the best thing he’d ever written.

No matter how good you are, rough drafts still need lots of work, and working with Zach’s brother Josh, and a great team of artists (it is beautifully illustrated) and editors, they did a fantastic job. They’ve received no compensation for this. It was done as a labor of love, and all the royalties go to Zach’s widow, Makenzie.

What a beautiful thing to do. Please pass the word about Sakura: Intellectual Property to other writers and readers.