Thursday, January 5, 2012

HOW I MET YOUR FANTASY HEROES






HOW I MET YOUR FANTASY HEROES
    It was the summer of 1969. Very much like the one described in the song by Bryan Adams, except that it was Haight-Ashbury, Mod London, Woodstock, and Chicago's own hippyland --- Old Town. The Who's Tommy and The Kinks' Arthur started the rock opera phase, Led Zeppelin too flight, and Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison were still alive and well creating some damned fine music.    
    I quit the rock and roll band I’d been playing with since high school, went to work with my Dad, and had just finished reading The Lord of the Rings; a year earlier, while still in high school, I’d read The Hobbit. Now, after completing my magical journey through Middle-earth, I was totally hooked. I had found a liking—no, a craving for Heroic and Epic Fantasy. Not long after that, I discovered the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series, edited by Lin Carter. Novels by Mervyn Peake, Lord Dunsany, E.R. Eddison, David Lindsay, William Morris, James Branch Cabell, Poul Anderson, and others fanned the flames of my passion. To say I was addicted would be a gross understatement. No, I had found novels that had changed my life and would continue to do so for the next 40-plus years!

     Then one day, while browsing through a used book store on State Street and Congress in downtown Chicago, I came across two more novels that would further alter my life. The Tritonian Ring, by L. Sprague de Camp, and The Swords of Lankhmar, by Fritz Leiber. What was this new and exciting genre of fantasy fiction I had discovered? Sword and sorcery, of course! I finished reading Leiber’s and de Camp’s novels in less than a week, and then I set out on my quest to find anything and everything published as sword and sorcery. From Ballantine Books, Berkley Books and Avon Books, to Signet, Paperback Library, Ace Books, Bantam Books, Zebra Books, and of course -- those glorious, purple-edge pages of Lancer Books. And, oh -- those wondrous covers by Frazetta, Krenkle, Jones, and so many others.
     Later, after I subscribed to George Scithers’ immortal fanzine, Amra, I learned more about sword and sorcery fiction, and writers like Robert E. Howard, Michael Moorcock, John Jakes, C.L. Moore, and Gardner Fox, to name a few. Then I found an ad for a place in New York called “Stephen’s Book Service.” So I wrote to him and received a mimeographed catalog where, to my delight, I was able to purchase books I couldn’t find anywhere else, (though some I had already ordered and received directly from the publishers.) And thus I ran to the currency exchange, bought a money order, and mailed it off faster than you can say Gollum!  Within a matter of two weeks or so I received the paperbacks I had ordered, plus an updated catalog. I spent the remainder of 1969 and almost all of 1970 locked away, reading and rereading those wonderful books.

    Lin Carter’s informative introductions to so many editions of Ballantine’s Adult Fantasy Series, as well as his excellent anthologies such as The Young Magicians and the Flashing Swords series led me to even more writers. Some wrote sword and sorcery, some wrote heroic fantasy. But it was all the same to this lad of late teenage years. I devoured books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Joy Chant, Evangeline Walton, C.J. Cuttliffe Hyne, Fletcher Pratt, H. Rider Haggard, Talbot Mundy, Harold Lamb, and Clark Ashton Smith. Later, I discovered Dave Mason, Stephen R. Donaldson, David Eddings, Tanith Lee, Carol Kendall, and others whose names I’m sad and embarrassed to say I’ve long forgotten. Numerous novels, countless anthologies, and who knows how many short stories later, I discovered fanzines such as Dragonbane, Beyond the Fields We Know, Dragonfields, Space and Time, and Whispers. I soon discovered writers and editors named Charles Saunders, Charles deLint, Andy Offutt, Karl Edward Wagner, H. Warner Munn, Galad Elflandsson, Thomas Burnett Swann, Gordon Linzner, and Stuart Schiff. Then along came an onslaught of anthologies like The Year’s Best Fantasy, edited by Lin Carter, Heroic Fantasy, edited by Gerald W. Page and Hank Reinhardt, and the incredible Swords Against Darkness series, edited by andy offutt. That’s where I discovered David Drake, Manly Wade Wellman, David Madison, and so many others. And then there was the excellent Thieves World, one of the first, if not the first shared-universe series, edited by Robert Lynn Asprin. In those books I discovered writers like Lynn Abbey, Joe Haldeman, Diana L. Paxson, Robert Asprin, and Janet Morris and her wonderful creations, Tempus, Niko, and the Sacred Band of Stepsons.
     It was Charles Saunders who first believed in me and encouraged me, who bought my first short stories. Charles is a gentle giant of a man, and a true pioneer in the sword and sorcery genre. He created Imaro, the first black hero to grace and stalk and hack his way through the pages of S&S history, a complex hero with real emotional baggage. He is the Father of Sword and Soul fantasy: sword and sorcery with black heroes and an African heritage. And then there's Ted (T.C.) Rypel, creator of Gonji the Samurai, who gave us one of the first non-European, non-WASP characters in heroic fantasy. Gonji is another complex, thoughtful, and even cultured warrior born and bred in the samurai tradition, a warrior trying to live by the Bushido Code, against all odds. Five excellent novels of Gonji were published, again pushing the envelope, breaking through boundaries and expanding the genre of sword and sorcery. I also discovered Guy Gavriel Kay, whose Tigana, The Fionavar Tapestry, Sailing to Sarantium, The Lions of Al-Rassan, and A Song for Arbonne are classic examples of great storytelling and human drama, set in an alternate world: alternate-world history, I call it. Literary heroic fantasy, which is still being written by such giants as Janet and Chris Morris: The Beyond Sanctuary Trilogy and The Sacred Band, to single out 4 of their excellent novels.
    As the late John Lennon once said, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” So the distractions of Life took center stage in my own life, and for many years I just didn’t have the energy or the time to do any further writing.  (I had also become involved with rock and roll again, for one last hurrah.) One casualty of all this was that I lost touch with Charles Saunders, sometime back in the 1990s, after I had hung up my "six-string razor" and returned to labor over a 900-plus page magnum opus, a sword and sorcery epic called The Djinn Quest. After a while, as boredom and frustration set in, I put that aside, and between 1996 and 2001 I attempted to storm the tarnished gates of Hollywood.  I wrote 5 screenplays during those years: Children of the Grave, Sinbad's Summer Vacation, Magicians (with Dave Smith), A Distant Shore, and Star Trooper Doon, which became the basis of my space opera novel, Three Against the Stars (published by Airship27 Productions in 2012.)
    Ah, but then Life threw me some curveballs, handed out some tragedies and changes, and I stopped writing altogether for the next seven years. Time passed, and then, in 2008, the Universe took pity upon me and steered me back on the ink-stained road. I started to write heroic fantasy again, only now I was determined to create something totally my own, something that might even be considered unique. So I resurrected a very old character I had first wrote about in 1976 --  Dorgo the Dowser, and merged his world of Tanyime with that of Greek mythology, the Roman Empire, Victor Hugo, and Charles Dickens. By this phase of my life, I had totally immersed myself in mysteries and World War II thrillers, and in the glorious works of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, James M. Cain, and the amazing Chester Himes, in particular. Now, I’ve always loved the Warner Brothers gangster films of the 1930s, and the film noir of the 1940s-50s, and one night, after watching a marathon of Cagney, Bogart, Robinson, and Raft pictures, I got this sudden flash of inspiration. What happened was this, see? It occurred to me, for no really apparent reason, see—that it might be kind of cool to put a special form of dowsing rod in Dorgo’s hand, and—voila! Mad Shadows—The Weird Tales of Dorgo the Dowser was born.  
     In 2010, a friend reconnected me with Charles Saunders, via email. (Why it took so long, I’ll never know.)  In 2011, at the Windy City Pulp and Paper Con, here in Chicago, I met John O'Neil and Howard Jones of Black Gate Magazine, Jason Waltz of Rogue Blades Entertainment, and Ron Fortier and Rob Davis of Airship 27 Productions.  (Small world: back in the early-mid 1970s, Ron and I were both members of the same writers group—SPWAO: Small Press Writers and Artists Organization, though we’d never met before. We still have our membership cards, too!  Charles Saunders had also been a member of the long-forgotten band of brothers!)

     About a week or so before the Windy City Con, through Ted Rypel, I became Facebook Friends with Matt Staggs, who organized The Swords and Sorcery League on Facebook. And once again it was Charles Saunders, via Facebook, who introduced me to a whole new generation of writers—Milton J. Davis, Valjeanne Jeffers, Balogun Ojetade, and many others who are what I call the Brotherhood of Sword and Soul. Soon, through the pages of Black Gate, the publications of Rogue Blades Entertainment and Airship 27Productions, I discovered even more writers and new talents, and made more friends along this road of eagles. The wonderful thing about all this is that I don’t see it stopping. Ever. It’s a movement, an army. Heroic fantasy, sword and sorcery (and pulp fiction, too!) is growing. It’s marching and it’s a force to be reckoned with. And then I discovered that Janet Morris' Heroes in Hell was still going strong -- what I consider the damnedest and most brilliant shared-universe series of them all! It's genre-bending fantasy where almost anything goes, from horror and sci-fi, to secret agent thrillers and heroic fantasy, to grand myths and operatic dramas. Not only did I rediscover an old favorite, but I encountered and became friends with so many new and excellent writers: Nancy Asire, Michael Hanson, Michael Armstrong, Larry Atchley, Bruce Durham, Sarah Hulcy, Wayne Joseph Borean, John Manning, Chris Morris, and of course, Janet Morris herself, to name a few. If you're looking for something completely different, something literary and entertaining, and even educational, then look no further than Hell --- I mean, the Heroes in Hell series, giving us Hell since 1986. And as of June 2013, volume 15, Dreamers in Hell, from Perseid Press, is now available. And it is the best of the series. Coming in 2014 -- Poets in Hell, and from what I hear, it is going to be even more outstanding than Dreamers!
      So here it is, July 2013, and I now have five books published: Mad Shadows: The Weird Tales of Dorgo the Dowser, Three Against The Stars, and Waters of Darkness (written with Dave Smith.) All can be found on Amazon.com, and other online book stores. And there are two more tales of Dorgo the Dowser coming soon: "The Book of Echoes," in the Kindle anthology Azieran: Artifacts and Relics; "The Order of the Serpent," in a forthcoming Weird Tales; "Sinbad and the Golden Fleece," in a future volume of Sinbad: The new Voyages; and my first sword and soul tale, "The Blood of the Lion," to be featured in the anthology, GRIOTS 2: Sisters of the Spear.
    
      Life, as they say, is great!
     The only sad thing about it all is this: I used to be able to buy four or five books a month, and have the time to read and keep up with almost everything that was happening in sword and sorcery, and fantasy in general. Nowadays . . . forget about it!  There’s too much out there and just not enough time . . .  a whole new world waiting to be explored.
     And I couldn’t be happier!