Monday, April 26, 2010


To quote Bruce Sterling, “If poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, science fiction writers are its court jesters… we can play with Big Ideas because the garish motley of our pulp origins makes us seem harmless.”

One of science fictions greatest court jesters was William Tenn (the pen name of Philip Klass) who’s work had a finely honed satirical edge, so finely honed that it was, indeed, sometimes not immediately apparent that he was playing with Big Ideas.

Eastward Ho! is one of the cases in point, a witty and clever story of nuclear war and reconstruction that sees a devastated America where the shoe is very firmly on the other foot and the native tribes have taken control of the reins of power, pushing white society aside and undoing the injustices of the past.

In Tenn’s imagined future the United States of America is a struggling, backward and mostly agrarian society, while the Arapaho, Seminole, Cheyenne and, most importantly, the Sioux, dominate much of continental America in the aftermath of a disastrous nuclear war been the USA and USSR.

When Jerry Franklin, eldest son of the Senator from Idaho, is sent on a diplomatic mission to Osceola VII, Ruler of All the Seminoles he discovers that the fierce and highly organized Sioux nations have already displaced the Seminoles and are preparing to annex the USA. As Chief Three Hydrogen Bombs explains “…we have an expanding population. You don't have an expanding population. We need more land. You don't use most of the land you have. Should we sit by and see the land go to waste…” If that isn’t Manifest Destiny in action then I don’t know what is.

Realizing that things are only going to get worse and that the USA has already been overrun by the Sioux, Jerry makes a momentous decision… to travel sail across the Atlantic:
"Due east all the way. To the fabled lands of Europe. To a place where a white man can stand at last on his own two legs. Where he need not fear persecution. Where he need not fear slavery. Sail east, Admiral, until we discover a new and hopeful world—a world of freedom!"

A short and joyous story, Eastward Ho! not only plays with the conventions of SF but also with those of the (then) popular western. There is a gleeful delight in character names – characters such Makes Much Radiation and Three Hydrogen Bombs, weapons such as the Crazy House .45 and the Geronimo .32 – seemingly throw-away jokes that convey a huge amount of information in a very short space of time, and fills in a hell of a lot of back-story in very few words:

"Tell me," Jerry asked, bending down. "Have you heard any other news? Anything about the rest of the world? How has it been with those people—the Russkies, the Sovietskis, whatever they were called—the ones the United States had so much to do with years and years ago?"
"According to several of the Chief's councilors, the Soviet Russians were having a good deal of difficulty with people called Tatars. I think they were called Tatars.”

A writer of great subtlety who, at first glance, appeared to be working in broad strokes, (his short story The Liberation of Earth is another small masterpiece) William Tenn deals with racism, the march of history, politics and the nature of national and personal pride (“After all, he was the son—and the oldest son, at that—of the Senator from Idaho; Sam Rutherford's father was a mere Undersecretary of State and Sam's mother's family was pure post-office clerk all the way back.”) in an incredibly entertaining and economical narrative.

Rarely has a jester capered to such good effect.

Saturday, April 24, 2010


I am currently in the business of updating my website - it ain't much, but it's mine.

Within you can find more or less the same things that you can find on this blog but with some slightly fancier backgrounds and a list of my previously published and upcoming fiction.

It's far from finished but I like it - the virtual version of a pied-à-terre.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


The other hat which I sometimes wear is as the sole lunatic in charge of With Many Shades - a guide to science fiction and fantasy on the net.

In what can only be described as a flurry of activity, I have posted a whole load of new links to such magazines as Strange Horizons, GUD, Mindflights, Lacuna, Jupiter, Ideomancer, Clarkesworld, Chizine, Black Gate and a few more.

Drop by, why not.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Sorcerers Guild/ Harper's Pen Award

The Sorcerer's Guild

The Sorcerer's Guild, a blog dedicated to the appreciation and promotion of sword and sorcery and heroic fantasy fiction, especially short fiction. The Sorcerer's Guild draws its inspiration from the original Sorcerer's Guild. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

The Swordsmen and Sorcerers' Guild of America (SAGA) is the name of a literary group of American fantasy authors active from the 1960s through the 1980s, noted for their contributions to the fantasy subgenre of heroic fantasy or "Sword and Sorcery." The group served as a vehicle for popularizing and promoting the respectability of the subgenre.The original members of SAGA were Poul Anderson, Lin Carter, L. Sprague de Camp, John Jakes, Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, Andre Norton, and Jack Vance. Later, other members joined, and from 1973 - 1981, the group produced five anthologies of stories written by the members (published under the Flashing Swords title) and handed out the Gandalf Award for lifetime achievement.

The new Sorcerer's Guild is open to fans and authors. We will not produce an anthology, but we will award a prize for the best Sword and Sorcery or Heroic Fantasy short fiction for a given year - The Harper's Pen Award. Soon, we'll begin posting review, interviews, and news about Sword and Sorcery in all its forms.

If you have any news to share, please feel free to contact me with press releases, promotion material, and review copies. Feel free to join in, become a friend, and follow the Guild on Twitter.

The Harper's Pen Award

In days of yore, a Harper was a bard who sang of the deeds of heroes and gods, demons and monsters, but these days we bards use the Pen (or the laptop) to tell our tales of the heroic exploits of mighty warriors and cunning wizards.

Thus, the Harper's Pen.The Harper's Pen Award (formerly the Ham-Sized Fist Award) is given in honor of the best Heroic Fantasy or Sword and Sorcery short fiction published during a given year. The award is sponsored by The Sorcerer's Guild.

Each year, nominations for The Harper's Pen Award are collected and finalists chosen for recognition by The Sorcerer's Guild. From the finalists a winner is then selected and the award is given to both the author and the publisher of the story. By establishing this award, we hope to encourage authors to continue to explore heroic fantasy and sword and sorcery fiction, as well as to reward those who continue to publish it.

The rules are simple. Any heroic fantasy or sword and sorcery short fiction story published through an established editorial process - that is, not self-published - is eligible. Any subgenre of heroic fantasy or sword and sorcery is eligible, including but not limited to: historical, modern, sword-and-planet, etc. The nominated story must have been published between January 1 and December 31 of the contest year. Final determinination of story eligibility is at the sole discretion of the judge or judges.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

What Archetypes Can Do For You

I am, as I have stated before, a rather shameless and unabashed writer of science fiction and fantasy. The reasons for this are many and multifold but can basically be traced back to the stories that I read when I was young. In particular things like Richard Adams’ Watership Down and the Narnia books of C.S Lewis. As a teenager I moved on to books like The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus, the novels of Philip K. Dick, the early Elric stories of Michael Moorcock and J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

All this was, I hasten to add, part of a varied literary diet: I have long adored the work of Len Deighton, Eric Ambler, Walter Wager, Ian Flemming, Trevanian and a host of other thriller writers. I also devoured westerns by writers such as by Jack Shaffaer, Will Henry, Louis L’amour and the pulp westerns of George G. Gilman, Joe Millard and Charles R. Pike. When it came to horror I loved James Herbert, Stephen King, Guy N. Smith, Robert McCammon and, always, the Pan Book of Horror Stories.

Don’t get me wrong, I was also reading people like Joseph Conrad, John Braine, Grahame Greene, Anthony Burgess and John Fowles but only ever really appreciated their literary worth much later on since, to my 14 year old self, the psychological horror of something like The Collector could never compete with the visceral violence of The Fog.

However, if given the choice, I would always choose a good SF or horror novel over the delights of a western or thriller: something which has stayed with me until this very day.

Although genre writing can be something of a trap for writers (Philip K. Dick, for instance, wrote brilliant realist novels but was forever seen by both his publishers and readership as a science fiction writer) it does offer a certain comfort for readers, and the old axiom of ‘never judge a book by its cover’ doesn’t always apply when it comes to genre writing.

However, if genre is a trap then it is certainly the most elastic trap of all. Even within a simple boundary definition such as ‘fantasy’ there is huge scope for writers: everything from the comic novels of Terry Pratchett to the gritty neo-sword and sorcery of Joe Abercrombie or the dark childhood nightmares of Neil Gaiman.

One of the things that genre offers a writer is the notion of archetypes: warriors, scientists, bold explorers, detectives, secret agents, wizards, starship pilots et al, archetypes who can be shaped into something more distinctive.

In terms of heroic/epic/ s & s fantasy, the most enduring archetypes of them all is Robert E. Howard’s Conan, who’s seed can be seen fairly directly in characters such as John Jakes’ Brak the barbarian or Henry Kuttner’s Elak of Atlantis, reflected in characters as diverse as Moorcock’s Elric, C.L Moore’s Jirel of Joiry or Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane and who’s more recent descendants are surely David Gemmell’s Druss or Joe Abercrombie’s Logen Ninefingers.

Similarly, the greatest detective of them all – Sherlock Holmes – spawned a host of imitators but equally was the progenitor for characters as diverse as Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Hammet’s Continental Op, Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse and many, many more. Now none of these characters could be mistaken for Holmes but, somewhere deep inside, they have the same DNA (and there is an argument to be made that Holmes himself was an avatar of Poe’s Auguste Dupin.)

The point of all this slightly disjointed rambling is to celebrate the archetypes of imaginative fiction and to see them as useful springboards or templates to use in your own fiction – not copies, mind you, but rather as a literary ‘chip off the old block’.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

My Favourite Short Stories # 5: The Haunter of the Dark by HP Lovecraft

“Cautious investigators will hesitate to challenge the common belief that Robert Blake was killed by lightning, or by some profound nervous shock derived from an electrical discharge. It is true that the window he faced was unbroken, but nature has shown herself capable of many freakish performances. The expression on his face may easily have arisen from some obscure muscular source unrelated to anything he saw, while the entries in his diary are clearly the result of a fantastic imagination aroused by certain local superstitions and by certain old matters he had uncovered.”

Having waxed lyrical about the joys of Clark Ashton Smith, it only seems fair that I now mention the great H.P Lovecraft. As with CAS, it’s downright difficult to pick just one Lovecraft tale but, for me, The Haunter of the Dark has just the right mix of otherworldly horror and gothic SF sensibilities that HPL did so very, very well.

First published in Weird Tales (where else) in 1936, The Haunter of the Dark is something of a Lovecraftian in-joke, being a sequel and/or reply to Robert Bloch’s mythos tale "The Shambler from the Stars", while its protagonist – Robert Blake – is almost certainly a literary avatar of Bloch himself (with a little bit of Lovecraft and a generous dollop of Clark Ashton Smith thrown in for good measure) and the structure of the story mirrors H.H Ewers’ horror tale The Spider.

Add in Lovecraft’s consumate ability to create an ethereal, alien atmosphere in even the most seemingly ordinary of settings (in this case Providence, Rhode Island, a familiar enough stamping ground for HPL and his tales) and cosmic horror is almost inevitable.

When author and painter Robert Blake moves Providence he becomes obsessed with a deserted church on Federal Hill – “a certain huge, dark church most fascinated Blake. It stood out with especial distinctness at certain hours of the day, and at sunset the great tower and tapering steeple loomed blackly against the flaming sky.” – obsession leads to investigation and he discovers that “There had been a bad sect there in the old days- an outlaw sect that called up awful things from some unknown gulf of night.”

And when Blake decides to enter the church he discovers a notebook, “a metal box of peculiarly asymmetrical form”, a ‘Shining Trapezohedron’ and the “vaguely charred” corpse of the last person to enter the eldritch sanctum of the church.

Upon deciphering the notebook he discovers “references to a Haunter of the Dark awaked by gazing into the Shining Trapezohedron, and insane conjectures about the black gulfs of chaos from which it was called.“

Finally, on a stormy and lightning flashed night, something comes for the unfortunate Blake, his terror and inevitable doom recorded in his “final frenzied jottings”:

“... The thing is taking hold of my mind... I see things I never knew before. Other worlds and other galaxies... Dark... The lightning seems dark and the darkness seems light... What am I afraid of? Is it not an avatar of Nyarlathotep, who in antique and shadowy Khem even took the form of man? I remember Yuggoth, and more distant Shaggai, and the ultimate void of the black planets... Azathoth have mercy!- the lightning no longer flashes- horrible- I can see everything with a monstrous sense that is not sight- light is dark and dark is light... those people on the hill... guard... candles and charms... their priests... I am it and it is I - I want to get out... must get out and unify the forces... it knows where I am... I see it - coming here - hell-wind - titan blue - black wing - Yog Sothoth save me - the three-lobed burning eye...”

It is in these last few passages in particular where Lovecraft’s gift for horror really shines: the notion of great, unknowable, Things in the void and the sheer insignificance of human kind by comparison to them. When he was on form, no one could write quite like Lovecraft or conjure quite the same sense of creeping dread and approaching doom.

Azathoth have mercy, indeed.

Friday, April 9, 2010


It isn’t easy to pick a single Clark Ashton Smith story, but after some deliberation I finally went for The Empire of the Necromancers, from his Zothique cycle of stories.

The last continent of a dying earth, Zothique is a place where the ancient gods have returned, where dark magic has been reborn and where decadence and debauchery are the order of the day.

First published in Weird Tales in 1932, The Empire of the Necromancers concerns Mmatmuor and Sodosma, two practitioners of the dark arts from the infamous isle of Naat. Having found themselves and their particular ways unwelcome in most of Zothique, Mmatmuor and Sodosma journey to the long vanished kingdom of Cincor where they resurrect the dead in order to make them their slaves, warriors and concubines.

However, the dead – and in particular the resurrected Emperor Illeiro - eventually revolt against them, condemning the necromancers to a fate far worse than death and committing themselves to a second, and much more permanent, demise.

To be honest, a simple synopsis of The Empire of the Necromancers does neither it or Clark Ashton Smith himself any real justice. Where the real magic lies is in Smith’s dense, lush prose and in the downright horrific imagery he conjures with:

“Tribute was borne to them by fleshless porters from outlying realms; and plague-eaten corpses, and tall mummies scented with mortuary balsams… Dead labourers made their palace-gardens to bloom with long-perished flowers; liches and skeletons toiled for them in the mines, or reared superb, fantastic towers to the dying sun. Chamberlains and princes of old time were their cupbearers, and stringed instruments were plucked for their delight by the slim hands of empresses with golden hair that had come forth untarnished from the night of the tomb. Those that were fairest, whom the plague and the worm had not ravaged overmuch, they took for their lemans and made to serve their necrophilic lust.”.

Together with Robert E. Howard and H.P Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith was one of the Big Three writers who helped to put the weird into Weird Tales. Although his work has subsequently been overshadowed by Howard and HPL, he was easily their equal and (in my opinion) often their superior when it came to crafting strange and enchanting fiction. The Zothique stories in particular have an unearthly quality about them – the language is strange and often obscure, the characters generally doom-laden or downright unpleasant (sometimes both) and their influence far reaching. Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories, for instance, were directly influenced by CAS and the subsequent influence of Vance himself led into the work of such writers as M. John Harrison and Gene Wolfe.

Arguably the literary genius of the fantastic pulps, the work of Clark Ashton Smith is crying out for rediscovery, The Empire of the Necromancers is as good a place as any to start.

And you can find it here, together with much of his other fiction, poetry and art, at The Eldritch Dark, a superb website dedicated to Clark Ashton Smith:

Thursday, April 1, 2010


The new issue of HFQ is up!
Issue 4 features:

Fiction Contents
LIVING TOTEM, by Vaughn Heppner
A tale of adventure both in the physical and spirit worlds — a tale so old-school it’s Neolithic! What’s not to like about a story featuring a red stone axe named Blood of the Earth?
Jafar and Ketei brave a pitiless desert and its merciless tribesmen to confront sorcery and secrets in an ancient temple.

Poetry Contents
THE FOOTMAN, by W.E. Couvillier
Would that we all put on so brave a face at the end.
HERO OF OLD, by John Keller
This time, a horseman. And just when you thought things were all grim . . .

Do yourself a favour and check it out.