Friday, November 27, 2009


Following the news that Flashing Swords is no more, where can discerning readers go for quality Sword and Sorcery fiction?

Well, one answer might be GW Thomas' excellent ezine Kings of the Night, which is one of the few publications (either online or in print) dedicated to the S&S genre.

The current issue contains:

THWACK! The Last Arrow's Tale
by Peter J Welmerink

Brock Strangebeard and the Towers of Matterkill
by Robert E. Keller

The Crypt of the Cobra
by C.L Werner

The Fount
by G.W Thomas

The Huntsman's Pack
by David A. Hardy

The Mark of Gennesh
by Jack Mackenzie

The Obsidian City
by James Lecky

There's also some rather spiffy links to the online back issues of the late lamented Flashing Swords as well as excellent articles on the history of Sword and Sorcery and (and, for me, this is particular treasure trove) links to the wonderful Tumithak stories of Charles R. Tanner - if you've never read them, now is the time).

If you care at all about the future of sword and sorcery, this is the place to be.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


It's always sad when a fiction market bites the dust, particularly when the said market is one of the very few left publishing Sword and Sorcery.

It was announced today that Flashing Swords is going on indefinite suspension or, in other words, is closing down, probably forever.

In many ways, it was the magazine that lead the revival of sword and sorcery and a lot of fine writers including TW Williams, Steve Goble, SC Bryce, Natan Meyer and many others saw publication there.

The magazine had been undergoing difficulties for quite some time, so I suppose it was only a matter of time before its closure was announced.

Pity though.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


I am, and always have been, something of a hoarder, particularly when it comes to stories. I have notebooks and folders and flash drives filled with vague scribblings and half-finished tales: some of the stories even less finished than that, comprising of little more than a couple of pages of frantic typing and less-than-sparkling prose.

Now and again, particularly when I find myself and the muse at loggerheads, I’ll go back to these unfinished tales and try to pick up the threads in an attempt to kick start my own imagination. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t (which leads me to believe that some of these stories simply don’t deserve to see the light of day).

The strangest thing though, is that they are, in some way, a chronicle of my current writing. The earliest of these scraps dates from about three years ago when I started, rather tentatively, to write again and it’s a sometimes fascinating – more often excruciating – thing to look through old stories and try to chart the path that lead from there to here (where ever here is, exactly).

Jane Yolen once spoke of the ‘writing muscle’ and how it needs to be exercised every day in order to stave off atrophy. Not every race needs to be a marathon, however, or every athletic pursuit lead to a gold medal – sometimes even the smallest piece of writing can help to stimulate the creative impulse and, of course, just because a character, concept, description or line of dialogue doesn’t work in one story does not mean that it cannot work in another. Robert E. Howard famously rewrote one of his unpublished King Kull tales (By This Axe I Rule) into the story that became The Phoenix On The Sword, the first Conan tale, for instance.

I suppose the whole point of this is that nothing is ever wasted or wasteful when it comes to the process of writing and that regular exercise of that mythical writing muscle can only make it stronger. Writing is a solitary pursuit, but one of the advantages of this is that no line, story or novel need necessarily see the light of day before its time.

Ah, so all those wasted hours weren't wasted after all.

Monday, November 16, 2009


The UK's Telegraph newpaper today reported the death of British actor Edward Woodward, aged 79.

Probably best known to horror/genre fans for the 1973 film The Wicker Man - widely regarded as one of the finest British horror movies ever made - also starring Christopher Lee and Britt Ekland.

His other well-known credits included the anti-Bond spy series Callan, the silly-but-fun 80's show The Equalizer and in the title role in Bruce Beresford's magnificent film Breaker Morant.

A full obiturary can be found here:

Sunday, November 15, 2009


Rules, as we all know, are meant to be broken. This statement leads, naturally, to the old maxim that you have to know the rules before you can actually begin to disregard them.

With that in mind, I recently re-read Darrell Schweitzer’s excellent essay ‘Sword and Sorcery, Dragon and Princess’, first published in ‘How To Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy and Science Fiction’, edited by J.N Williamson (a fairly so-so book, to be honest but with the odd nugget of pure gold here and there, such as the Schweitzer essay).

In it, Schweitzer lays out, briefly but succinctly a few pointers for sword and sorcery fiction:

1) An imaginary, pre-gunpowder setting, usually based on medieval or ancient societies.
2) Magic
3) A vigorous, heroic warrior as the central character.

It is the last of these that define S&S since such characters (from Conan to Elric to Druss to Thongor) are the central pleasure of sword and sorcery fiction.

In terms of writing, he then goes on give a few useful tips:

Use plain language
a. Make sure you know what a barbarian is
b. Learn the rudiments of swordly combat
c. Make sure the magic is an integral part of the story
d. Keep the magic both limited and consistent
e. You need an action plot.

Within these half dozen pieces of advice, Darrell Schweitzer manages to bring in issues of world and society building. ‘Make sure you know what a barbarian is’ leads on to notions of society – if there are barbarians who, if anyone, represents the civilized portion of your newly created world. If the only people in this world are swordsmen and sorcerers, then who does the actual work – who harvests the crops, builds the glittering towers and, perhaps most apropos, who makes the swords? ‘Learn the rudiments of swordly combat’ more or less means ‘get your research right’ and the short but learned sections on magic point out such important matters as ‘if anything can happen in a story, no one cares what does’. At its most basic this boils down to the hero being able to free him or herself from any tricky situation with ‘one mighty bound’ or the villain being able to summon up endless armies of the dead (which our hero is able to dispatch with ease).

Of course, any set of rules and regulations – particularly when it comes to imaginative fiction – should only act as a starting point. As Schweitzer says, ‘tough-guy detective stories don’t all have the plot of The Maltese Falcon’ (and to that I might add, not all westerns have the plot of Shane) but in terms of crafting genre fiction, it’s important, I think, to understand underlying structure – what the reader can justifiably expect when he or she sits down to read a story, even if those expectations are subverted or totally turned on their head.

In this brief but extremely knowledgeable essay (it runs a mere five pages) Darrell Schweitzer manages to sketch out the foundations of the sword-and-sorcery genre in an intelligent, literate way.

And now that you know the rules, there’s nothing to stop you from breaking them (or indeed following them).

*** Poul Anderson's On Thud and Blunder, an equally wonderful essay on writing Heroic Fantasy can be found here:, ***

Friday, November 13, 2009


Perhaps rather foolishly given my recent heavy workload, I have decided to start a new blog - With Many Shades - dedicated to the various webzines and magazines out there.

It's pretty much just a list of magazines with links that might (hopefully) help to publicise the good work that many publishers are doing. There's no reviews or anything of that nature (because that would be far too time consuming) and it's all fairly basic at the moment.

The ethos behind it is quite simple: to do my own small part to support the various zines currently publishing sf & f.

Please feel free to drop by, become a follower and help spread the word.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


Night of the Eagle (1962). Directed by Sidney Hayers. Starring Peter Wyngarde, Janet Blair, Margaret Johnston

Adapted from Fritz Leiber’s novel Conjure Wife, Night of the Eagle aka Burn Witch Burn is an effective little chiller that bears comparison with Jacques Tournier’s magnificent Night of the Demon (so much so that its UK title can hardly be an accident).

Like Night of the Demon, Night of the Eagle is a story of supernatural doings and black magic set against a genteel English background and like Tournier’s film is high on atmosphere, low on action (although pacey and never dull) and with a literate intelligent script that steadfastly refuses to do anything other than take its subject matter seriously.

That the script is intelligent is hardly surprising given Leiber’s source material and the involvement of Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont (who share scripting duties with George Baxt) two writers who knew how to deliver clever, slightly off-kilter horror.

Professor Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde) is a rational – perhaps too rational – man who lectures his students in the study of reason and rationality while continually scoffing at the supernatural. However, his life turns upside down when he discovers that his beloved wife Tansy (Janet Blair) has been dabbling with witchcraft and, worse, that she is convinced that his continued good fortune is due to her various charms and spells.

After forcing Tansy to burn the charms and gewgaws she has dotted around their house, Professor Taylor finds that things take a rapid turn for the worse – mummified spiders come back to life, he is accused of rape by one of his students and a tape recording of one of his lectures appears to act as a beacon for, well, something mysterious and deadly one stormy night.

Eventually, even Mrs. Tansy Taylor succumbs to the various dark forces all around them, leading Professor Norman even deeper into a dark, mysterious and deadly world and a confrontation with supernatural forces that makes him realise that, after all, there may be something to this witchcraft business.

An out and out fantasy on many levels – this is a world where even a humble university Professor drives a rather spiffy sports car, lives in a surprisingly spacious and tastefully decorated mock Tudor home and can afford a coastal pied-a-terre where his wife can commune with dark forces – Night of the Eagle has a claustrophobic, noirish quality, best typified by Wyngarde’s performance, who at times seems to be channelling the spirit of Ralph Meeker’s Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly, all tightly wound rage and sharp suits, as well as in Sidney Hayer’s moody direction.

With some genuinely unsettling use of sound, an exciting supernatural climax that sees Wyngarde chased through his university by a stone eagle brought to murderous life (again recalling the climax of Night of the Demon) and a surprising denouement that wraps the whole thing up rather neatly, Night of the Eagle is an engrossing eighty or so minutes of taut, yet subtle horror that, in some ways - particularly with its collision of the mundane and the supernatural – prefigures such later movies as Rosemary’s Baby or The Omen.

The performances are top-notch, particularly Margaret Johnston’s creepy turn as Flora Carr, and Peter Wyngarde himself who’s journey from annoyed sceptic to terrified believer is beautifully handled by both star and director.

Although a fairly minor entry in the British horror canon, Night of the Eagle deserves to be right up there with other low-key shockers like Horror Hotel or The Damned.

Intelligent, absorbing and well made.

What more could you ask?

Monday, November 9, 2009


As I have written elsewhere, on bylines and indeed on this very page, I am an unashamed and unabashed writer of science fiction and fantasy. (Fair enough, more fantasy than science fiction these days but the point is still valid).

Better and more accomplished writers than I have, in the past, penned extremely well reasoned arguments about the validity of SF & F as literature rather than simple escapism. Certainly since the 1960’s with the birth of the New Wave, speculative fiction has consciously adopted many of those literary devices either popularized or developed by the modernists and postmodernists.

The validity of the speculative form can be seen time and time and again in the work of writers such as Jeanette Winterson, Margaret Atwood, Michael Chabon, Martin Amis, Iain Banks and Will Self (although both Winterson and Atwood – or their publishers - have repudiated the SF tag, perhaps fearing alienation from mass audience and critics alike).

At its heart, modern speculative fiction has the capacity to study the both the human and inhuman condition in a way which more mainstream literature remains unable to do. For instance – and to use some old and much worn tropes – climate change, overpopulation, the rise of the virtual rather than actual society all belong to SF, although they are increasingly finding their way into not only mainstream literature, but also the actual world.

The tropes of fantasy (particularly of the heroic kind) are increasingly finding their way into the mainstream as well – particularly with writers such as Steven Pressfield, Conn Iggulden, Robyn Young and Simon Scarrow – where the swashbuckling aspects of the genre are written against historical backgrounds (backgrounds that writers of unashamed fantasy have been plundering for years to add verisimilitude to their more fantastic works).

Could it be that the much hoped and longed for breaking down of the literary barriers is actually beginning to happen?

Sadly, the answer is probably not. The publishing ghettoes are as firmly entrenched as ever they were, the readers of Historical Adventures (for lack of a better expression) are frequently indifferent to their more fantastical cousins and the success ‘non-sf’ speculative novels owes little to their SF veneer.

At its best speculative fiction can hold a mirror up to the world: sometimes that reflection is dark and distorted, sometimes it is bright and shining. At its best it can be the equal of any ‘serious’ literature and encapsulate aspects of humanity that, again, literary fiction can sometimes struggle to capture.

Equally it can be bloody good fun both to read and to write (issues of the blank page to one side). For these reasons and more I am and remain an unashamed and unabashed writer of science fiction and fantasy.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


My short story Whisperthief is currently available online at the very excellent ezine Sorcerous Signals and features some really rather splendid artwork by Holly Eddy.

It's a return to the Latter Days and the Shining City of PameGlorias.

You can find the story here, should you care to do so: