Saturday, February 16, 2019

Savage Sword of Conan #1 (2019) Review by SE

Savage Sword Of Conan (2019-) #1 by Gerry Duggan
S.E. rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is part one of three separate reboots for Marvel's Conan. I am also reading the Conan the Barbarian yarns (CtB, now on #3), and will likely try out the Age of Conan series (AoC, due out next month, March 2019).

Like the CtB series, this comic also has a novelette attached; this one also appears unrelated to the story in the comic. This one is penned by Scott Oden. For me, this story is less an add-on and more of the real feature. It is presented as a sequel to Robert E. Howard's 1934 The Devil in Iron, a short story that presents Conan as a leader of a kozak group who annoys a corrupt governor from Turan. I was instantly inspired to re-read it. That is a testimony to Oden's pastiche which deftly continues the tale without explicitly presenting the barbarian.

The comic part had some highs and lows. Here Conan is ostensibly twenty years old, living as a pirate. In a disjointed tale, he is captured in the high seas from wreckage, imprisoned, then must fight for freedom from a Stygian galley. I was most impressed with Conan when he... hmmm.. "procures" some bones to unlock his manacles. That was a savage and witty scene, true to Conan. I was less impressed with a kick-to-the-groin and an anachronistic depiction of a gun on a pirate (noted by several Facebook groups). Monsters and sorcery sneak their way in, but not smoothly. As cool as the cover is, it only tangentially reflects the story.

Beware Marvel's ADHD: I was concerned about the frenetic coverage of location and times within CtB, and that concern is amplified here with SSoC. This introduces two new story yarns in parallel. Let us assume that the AoC has a story too... that would mean that Marvel is giving readers ~6 separate Conan yarns nearly simultaneously; within the comics, Conan seems to be flitting about new geographies every issue.

Review of CtB No.3,
Review of CtB No. 2,
Review of CtB No.1

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Sunday, February 10, 2019

Conan the Barbarian #3 - Review By SE

Conan The Barbarian (2019-) #3 by Jason Aaron
S.E. rating: 4 of 5 stars

Conan The Barbarian (2019-) #3: In this third installment, we have Conan at a third location and adventure. We also have a third installment of John C. Hocking's "Black Starlight" novelette, itself an entirely different story taking place somewhere near Stygia. More on Marvel's ADHD issue below.

No.3 pays homage to Conan being crucified on a giant tree. Previous classic scenes include:
1) The "Tree of Death", in the second chapter in A Witch Shall Be Born (Weird Tales, 1934)… in Khauran (Koth, Zamora, Shem surround this small country)
2) The "Tree of Woe" from the Conan the Barbarian 1982 movie) occurring in … Eastern Lands, sentenced by Thulsa Doom

Here in Conan #3 2019, he is in Nemedia, in then mining town region, hung up to die on the giant, ancient Red Tree (on Red Tree Hill), sentenced for thieving

Most of the story emphasizes Conan's unique abilities (huge size, quick thinking) to work his way out of a terrible fate; a chance, and unnecessary, lightning strike detracted from Conan’s ability to solve his own problems. The primary antagonist introduced in #1 was the Crimson Witch and her minion children; they appear again, this time for 2 pages (in No.2 it was ~1page). I'm hoping No.4 allots them more emphasis.

On the Black Starlight front, John C. Hocking dishes out another chunk of Conan and his mysterious travels to Stygia with the emerald lotus. This story starts to take shape now, so I am interested in seeing what his mission/goal is really about.

Marvel's ADHD: Marvel's Conan the Barbarian is done well, but with the frenetic coverage of location and times in just three installments, plus a disconnected story attached, the apparent lack of focus is a concern.

But wait there is more! Marvel is releasing two more Conan comics, very soon to overlap with this series:
2) The Savage Sword of Conan
3) AND... The Age of Conan
- AND there is another pastiche novelette to be placed in The Savage Sword (penned by Scott Oden).
- Let us assume that The Age of Conan has a story too... that would mean that Marvel is giving readers ~6 separate Conan yarns nearly simultaneously, the first two of which is jumping across geographies and time. I only hope that there is some sort of coherent theme across these.

Review of No. 2,
Review of No.1

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Thursday, February 7, 2019

Twilight Echoes #1 Review by S.E.

S.E. rating: 5 of 5 stars

With Carnelian Press ‘s Twilight Echoes #1 Steve Dilks brings together three 2013 tales (by Charles Allen Gramlich, Davide Mana, Steve Lines) anchored by a relatively obscure Robert E. Howard adventure. It’s a sixty-seven page pamphlet nicely illustrated; the cover is drawn by veteran Jim Pitts, with interior illustrations by Regis Moulun, Kurt Brugel, Tony Gleeson, and Yanis Rubus Rubulias. Editor Steve Dilks pens the opening foreword. It is an interesting selection of authors who stand in contrast to the style of the father of Sword & Sorcery, Robert E Howard. They cover a variety of milieus: Nordic, Egyptian, Arabian, and African. All vary in writing style but are common in that they lean heavily toward poetic, weird pulp (like a blend of REH and Clark Ashton Smith).

1) “Whisper in Ashes” I interviewed Charles Gramlich on Black in 2018. This follows his warrior Krieg (war); this was published in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly #17 (2013), and I had read Unsheathed which is a disconnected episode for the mysterious warrior (having read that led me to this anthology). This time Krieg is in a Nordic milieu facing a lycanthrope in a remote castle with a jarl called Tovar; it is unique and wonderful, and it evoked a Kane story by KEW in has many parallels: “Reflections for the winter of my Soul.”

2) “Bride of the Swamp God”: Davide Mana published this as an eBook in 2013. Several converging parties find themselves near Alexandria Egypt: firstly, an Egyptian sorceress Amunet and Greek vizier go into the swamp to all upon the Ancient One for support (in part against her own family); secondly, Aculeo, the hero, follows his deserting, Romanesque “moronic soldiers who had wandered off for treasure; and lastly, there are locals who worship the Lovecraftian swamp god. No more spoilers, save what is said in the introduction: Amunet and Aculeo have more tales together.

3) “The Eyes of the Scorpion”: Steve Lines first published this in FUNGI #21 (2013). The beginning of this Arabian inspired tale is overly verbose and heavy on narrative, but the necromancer-saturated tale eventually takes off and is very satisfying. Shamal is a warrior serving protection over the Sultan’s necromancer. The later sends him on a mission to retrieve the titular “eyes.” The protagonist embarks into the den of the Lord of Ghuls and Scorpion God controlled by his master’s mind.

4) “The Vale of lost women” by the Robert E. Howard wrote this drug-inspired, African trip. The very white Livia (and very druggable) is saved by Conan twice; once from black warriors and once from brown women. As Steve Dilks mentions, this is racially charged and was not published in REH’s life (published posthumously in The Magazine of Horror #15, 1967). In fact, the racial aspect is cringe worthy by today’s sensibilities. However, the story is a splendid mix of weird horror and action.

Carnelian Press: To order (as of 2019) you communicate via Private Message on Carnelian Press’s Facebook Page. Here is their pinned post:
How to order through Carnelian Press.
At present we only accept payment via PayPal. If you have an account, please follow these 4 easy steps-
1- Private message us on which chapbook you would like to purchase and we will get back to you with an e-mail address where you can send payment.
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4- Once Carnelian Press receive confirmation of the e-mail transaction we will private ms. you to tell you payment has been received and your book order is ready for shipment.

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Conan #2 - Review by SE

Conan The Barbarian (2019-) #2
by Jason Aaron
S.E. rating: 4 of 5 stars

Conan is back, but is he just wandering?

This is a decent sequel, a frontier story pitting Conan against the civilized soldiers at Fort Velitrium, a tribe of savage Picts, and a horde of monstrous giant serpents. It’s a representative Conan tale with good art; it demonstrates his ability to lead, and to be conflicted (as much as a barbarian is) about what it means to be a barbarian vs. a civilized being.

However, this tale is a deviation from the horror story presented in #1 ; for a series pitched as worthy as being a 6-episode book (available July 2019) I expected that story to continue (or at least have elements that crossed over). Well, an element of story 1 did sneak in at the end, but was simply a way to call out “the authors remember the real story & acknowledge this was just filler.”

The Hocking Story is similarly decent but disjointed. Certainly, it is cool to have a short story as part of the comic, but it is not associated with the illustrations; "Black Starlight" continues with three more pages of prose with Conan and his crew checking out the ghost town they stumbled on previously. On the one hand, it was neat to see a call-out to the emerald lotus (Hocking's pastiche), but... motivations of the band were murky before and this episode did not clarify much, nor did require anything mentioned in the first episode.

Enjoyable but less promising. I bought #3 since I have hope for this and the art is well done. I hope it stays on track and builds on these.

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Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Conan is back in 2019 - Comic Review by SE

Conan The Barbarian (2019-) #1 by Jason Aaron
S.E. rating: 5 of 5 stars

I usually stick to paperback Sword & Sorcery but was lured in by the Marvel reboot and the art.

Read this on my iPhone, horizontally displayed. Worked pretty well.

The story has all the elements one would expect, and they went for an epic overview with this first of six episodes. It covers Conan's birth on a battlefield to his apparent death (that's not a spoiler, that was a marketing strategy/blurb as well). A good dose of horror is presented in the new villain who haunts Conan throughout his life: The Crimson Witch (who serves an entity called Razazel and the "Great Red Doom").

I'm hooked. Trying to decide if I should get the second (Conan The Barbarian (2019-) #2 now... or just wait until July 2019 for the first 6 promised in paperback. Who am I kidding, I can't wait that long. I'll get the next one.

The first of 12 installments of "Black Starlight" is included (dedicated to Conan comic veteran Roy Thomas .... written by John C. Hocking (author of the pastiche: Conan and the Emerald Lotus). It is a decent teaser, introducing the sorceress Zelandra touring with Conan via Stygia; their destination and goals are still unfolding, but this entry was only a few pages.

In short, this issue has me excited about Conan again. Hoping the subsequent installments continue that.

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Monday, January 21, 2019

The Beautiful and the Repellent: An Interview with Charles A. Gramlich

Art & Beauty in Weird Fantasy

It is not intuitive to seek beauty in art deemed grotesque, but most authors who produce horror/fantasy actually are usually (a) serious about their craft, and (b) driven my strange muses. Weird fiction masters (RE Howard, Poe, Clark Ashton Smith, H.P. Lovecraft, ...) held series beliefs that their “horror” was actually beautiful. This interview series engages contemporary authors & artists on the theme of "Art & Beauty in Weird/Fantasy Fiction.” Previously we cornered weird fantasy authors like John Fultz, Janeen Webb, Aliya Whiteley, Richard Lee Byers, Sebastian Jones, and Darrell Schweitzer.

Charles Gramlich grew up on a farm in Arkansas but moved to the New Orleans area in 1986 to teach psychology at Xavier University. His degree is in Experimental Psychology with a specialization in Physiological Psychology; Charles served as chair of the department several times between 1988 and 2002. He was instrumental in developing the Psychology Pre-medical program for the department. He's since published eight novels, three nonfiction books, five collections of short stories, and a chapbook of vampire haiku. Charles likes to write in many different genres but all of his fiction work is known for its intense action and strong visuals. Check out his Razored Zen blog and Amazon page.

Previous interviews are revealing: in 2007, Shauna Roberts’ interviewed Gramlich about his Talera Cycle (also included in Write with Fire) and in 2014 Prashant C. Trikannad’s interview focused his western Killing Trail). This round we focus on his poetic take on pulp adventure. In addition to publishing many short stories that fit the bill, he published an essay iWeird Fiction Review #7 called “The Beautiful and the Repellent: The Erotic Allure of Death and the Other in the Writers of Weird Tales” (Fall 2016 edition).

In Gramlich's WF#7 essay, he notes how Howard Phillips Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe (and many more speculative fiction writers) juxtaposed content that were both repulsive & beautiful. In his words: “Repulsive elements and events are intertwined with the grotesque and beautiful ones—often through the use of poetical prose—thus transmuting the ugly into something that, if not exactly lovely, still compels attention.” He posits two types of repellent beauty in weird fiction (and associated adventure, like Sword & Sorcery/Planet). Here’s a brief overview:

Erotic Allure of Death (EAD) in which sexual taboos and an attraction with death itself is a focus, and...

Erotic Desire for the Other (EDO) which regards “the desire for that which is exotic, which is foreign or alien to one’s own identity and experiences…it disorients readers; it dissociates them from every other sense of order and brings them back to the level of flesh, the messy flesh” – CAG.
Summary quotation: “Many of the most memorable writers in Weird Tales—Lovecraft, Howard, Smith, Dyalhis, Moore—were master at the art of combining attractive and repulsive elements together in the same scene. They blended beauty with horror, turning the deadly and the alien into erotic.” - CAG

(1)   SEL: WF#7 issue is sold out via Centipede press, so I’d like to echo some of your perspective here. Can you paraphrase how some of the masters applied EAD and EOD? Black God’s Kiss and the use of blood were great examples.

CAG: One thing I’ve noticed about reading such writers as Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Nictzin Dyalhis, and C. L. Moore is that the emotional power of their prose often comes from interweaving images of beauty with the grotesque. When the grotesque images take the form of death and decay, and yet the protagonist of a story is still attracted to it, I called it EAD (The Erotic Allure of Death). As an example, I mentioned Smith’s “The Seed from the Sepulcher,” where the main character is seduced by a beautiful, parasitic monster that he’s just watched devour his companion. He knows the thing will kill him but cannot fight his attraction to it.

These same writers also often introduced what I call EOD (The Erotic Allure of the Other) into their stories. In Howard’s story, “Worms of the Earth,” Bran Mak Morn must make a bargain with a half-human witch woman of the moors to achieve his revenge on the Romans. The woman is described as both lovely and repellent. Bran is simultaneously disgusted by her and undeniably attracted to her. C. L. Moore did something similar in her story, “Black God’s Kiss,” where Jirel of Joiry comes upon a statue of an abhorrent alien god with its lips pursed for a kiss. Jirel shudders at sight of it, and yet finds herself so drawn to it that she must kiss the awful lips. Neither Bran nor Jirel are expecting or wanting to die, but both find themselves simultaneously attracted and repelled by the inhuman aspects of another being.

(2)  SEL; Approach Avoidance is a psychology term mentioned in your essay. Can you explain that convey how writers could use such tension for their own character’s dilemmas?

CAG: Typically, tension in a story is produced by the protagonist wanting something and the antagonist opposing them. For example, a police officer wants to solve a crime and save a victim from impending death while the antagonist/criminal fights the officer every step of the way. The Approach-Avoidance concept adds a deeper layer to this tension. It puts the protagonist into a position where he, or she, is simultaneously attracted to and repelled by the same goal. For example, imagine that the police officer wants to save a kidnap victim, but, at the same time, knows that saving the victim will destroy the officer’s career because of some secret the victim knows. Now, the protagonist faces two obstacles, an outer and an inner one.

(3)  SEL: On writing poetic weirdness: You also note that the memorable writers “… expressed it all in poetic prose without becoming either maudlin or prurient.” Writing accessible, poetic fiction is what drew me to you in the first place (see review snippets below). Writing poetically often implies writing abstractly; combined with weird content, this approach risks alienating the reader. Any tips on how to balance poeticism with accessibility?

“Across a snowfield that lies red with dawn, the Orc charge comes. And is met. Axes shriek on shields. Swords work against armor into flesh. The tips of spears are wetted. Gore dapples the snow...”  - CAG, Harvest of War
“In the bitter twilight of frost-rimmed peaks, Thal dreamed, the visions crimson with gore. War-horses frothed at their bits, eyes rolling like bloody pearls. Men in bruised armor and torn silks of umber and white hacked each other into ragged scarecrows. Arrows sleeted the sky like sharpened flakes of ice. When it was over the ravens gathered, scarcely moving as Thal rode among them searching. He found [spoiler]’s head on a stake.” -CAG, Bitter Steel,Sword and Sorcery

CAG: That question illustrates why this writing thing is still an art rather than a science. You’re absolutely right. Poetic writing can distance the reader from the story, and—I think—is guaranteed to distance some readers from it. Some folks just don’t like language that is highly metaphorical and overtly lyrical. For one thing, it requires more effort to read that kind of writing. And, unless the writer and the reader share certain visual affinities, the images just won’t translate. For example, I recently used the phrase “blackshine” in a poem and several members of my writing group said they just couldn’t picture it. To me, “blackshine” creates a completely concrete visualization. Imagine the shine of black satin under a silvery light. On the plus side, though, if poetic writing does connect to a reader, then the communication between the reader and writer is intensified, and isn’t that what all writers want—to communicate what’s in our heads to someone else?

I think there are some strategies that can help poetic writers communicate better with readers. One thing that you mentioned was “economy.” An economy of words and images is important. Throwing layer after layer of metaphor at the reader will probably lose them all. You select one metaphor, one poetic image, and see it through before adding another. And, whenever possible you temper the metaphorical and abstract qualities of the writing with simple, concrete language.

I like to think the following paragraph from my book Cold in the Light illustrates the process. There’s some metaphorical language (dawn creeping like a fog), and a hint of the mythical (god or demon), but the core of the piece employs simple, everyday terms like  death, life, sex, and hunger.
“By the time gray dawn came creeping like a fog he had mastered himself. He lived in the place that all warriors sought, where death and life and sex and hunger were one. Where you created your own reality and no one else's could intrude. Where you became a god, or a demon. And you didn't care which.”

(4)  SEL: Have you ever employed any EAD or EDO in your own writing?

CAG: Absolutely. As I mentioned in the article, The Erotic Allure of Death, or EAD, is basic to many horror stories, and I’ve written a lot of them. My collection, Midnight in Rosary, is mostly about vampires, and vampires are the most popular manifestation of EAD in our culture. There are very few vampire tales that don’t combine the monstrous lethality of the creature with the erotic allure. Certainly Carmilla, by Sheridan Le Fanu, and Dracula, by Bram Stoker illustrate this. In Midnight in Rosary, there is a story called “The Poetry of Blood.” In it, a man gives himself willing to a vampire because he knows that she will create a work of erotic art from his death.

To some extent, vampires also represent Erotic Desire for the Other (EDO). Vampires can be shown as “mostly” human or as far more grotesque monsters. The more inhuman the vampire, the more it can represent EDO. An example that particularly stands out for me is the scene in the movie Bram Stoker’s Dracula where Lucy is shown having sex with Dracula in his beast form. The scene is set up to be highly erotic and yet Dracula is clearly not human at that moment. I’m working on a story now that has elements of this. It’s a Krieg story; you know that character. In it, Krieg has sex with a sidhe, one of the fairy folk of Irish and Scottish mythology. At one point, Krieg realizes that he could close his eyes and imagine her as human. He chooses not to do that. He wants to experience the element of the other that she represents.

(5)  SEL: Is there something you find repellent and beautiful that others may not appreciate?

CAG: I think it’s probably clear from much of my horror writing that I find the juxtaposition of gore and beauty to be interesting. I’m certainly not alone in that. An image that I’ve used in poems and stories several times is that of the “rotted angel.” An angel is, arguably, the most beautiful being that humans can imagine. Now imagine that being with skeletal wings and rotted flesh peeling away from the bone. For me, adding a layer of gore to the angel’s beauty intensifies the image and evokes both fascination and disgust.

Another example of this kind of thing is from a story I wrote called “She Fled, Laughing,” which is a retelling of a dream I had. In the dream, I was a police officer investigating a murder scene. I found a young girl who had apparently survived. She wouldn’t let me get close to her and I finally decided I’d have to run her down to catch her. When I caught her, and spun her around, her face was just a black hole that suddenly vomited maggots and roses. So, I literally dream in images that combine the beautiful and the repellent, and I have since I was a teenager.

(6)  SEL: Any tips on how to create art that is “dark” yet “attractive”?

CAG: Probably the best answer for just about any writing question is “to read.” For dark fiction, read Poe, read Stoker, Lovecraft, Bradbury, King, Koontz, read Cormac McCarthy and Clive Barker, read the classic writers and the new ones. Immerse yourself in the wild poetry of Dylan Thomas and Bruce Boston. Beyond that, spend some time alone, watch yourself bleed, sleep in strange beds, take night walks in the woods, visit ruins and stalk dirt roads on foggy mornings.

(7)  SEL: Fine Arts: CAS was a poet, illustrator, and sculptor; many others interviewed by S.E. have other artistic talents beyond writing.  Do you practice other arts (Voodoo counts)? If so can we share them (i.e., images of fine or graphic art) or mp3s (of music). If not, which artists/pieces inspire you to write?

CAG: Writing is about it for me, but my writing interests are very broad and include poetry, essays, memoir, and scientific writing. I don’t really have any drawing or musical skills and am jealous of those who do. I was in a rock band in high school, but I was the singer because I wasn’t very good on guitar. I’m most inspired by other writers and have an “inspiration” shelf of books that I keep handy. When I’m having trouble with language, I pick up some of those books. The shelf includes the poetry of Dylan Thomas, Walden by Thoreau, The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen, and Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, as well as The Sowers of the Thunder by Robert E. Howard.

I am certainly influenced by music and art. In music, a song that stimulates me lyrically is  U2’s “Bullet the Blue Sky.” This is their hardest rock song and the music is great, but I really find the lyrics to be intensely poetical. Then there’s “Deaf Forever,” by Motorhead, the best heroic fantasy song ever written. It also has a good bit of poetry in it. I’ve often listened to this while rough drafting battle scenes. It rather makes you want to go out and kill something!

In art, well, there’s the great Frank Frazetta, of course. He created such drama in his paintings. My favorites by him are his Death Dealer and his Kane images. I also really like some older illustrators such as Roy Krenkel, who illustrated The Sowers of the Thunder, and J. Allen St. John, who illustrated a lot of Edgar Rice Burroughs stories for the pulps.

(8)  SEL: Your wife is a fine landscape photographer, I wonder if you ever wrote about any of her photograph’s subjects/locations? Can we share a photo if so?

CAG: Lana’s photography work certainly inspires me and I’ve used her images on several self-published works, including “Harmland” and “Adventures of an Arkansawyer.” Her photography has the same kind of juxtaposition of emotions that we’ve been talking about here. Her scenes often contain serenity and incredible drama at the same time. I don’t know how she manages it, but the attached photo perfectly illustrates it.

Lana Gramlich Photography

(9)  SEL: You have a personal goal to publish in a variety of genre markets, and have already tackled many (westerns like Killing Trail, Sword & Planet with Talera, Sword & Sorcery and Weird Fiction in Skelos magazine). What is next in queue? And what motivation drives this?

CAG: I’ve been moving more toward crime, mystery, and thriller lately and have been reading a lot of that type of story. “The Scarred One,” my latest book, is a western primarily, but it’s also a pretty complex mystery as well. I’ve done a couple of short crime stories but I plan to do more. And I’d kind of like to write a non-supernatural thriller, something in the vein of Harlan Coben.

I think my motivation for this goal comes from several sources. One, I enjoy all kinds of writing and when I read something I like it sets my imagination loose. If I’m enjoying a western, then the ideas I get tend to be in that genre also. It’s the same for other genres. Second, it’s a challenge. I like the combination of fear and exhilaration that comes with trying something new, something I haven’t done before. Third, I like to think of myself as a writer, not just as a poet, or essayist, or fantasy author. I’ve chosen writing as a craft and I work hard to be as good at it as I can, on all levels.

(10)    SEL: If you were more juvenile and dressed up on Halloween, which one of your characters would you be? (Thal Kyrin , Bryle, Ruenn Maclang, Krieg?)

CAG: If I had my druthers, I’d look like Krieg. It would be nice to be that bad-ass. But if I had to try to carry off being one of my characters for Halloween, I’d have to go as an older, chubbier, and less robust Ruenn Maclang. I’ve got the hair, and a long coat and sword I could use. I’d just need green contacts.

(11)  SEL: Any new works you can discuss?

CAG: Well, I mentioned my latest, a western called The Scarred One. It’s under the name Tyler Boone. In keeping with my rather odd writing goals, I’ve got a children’s book that I’m about to start submitting to publishers. It’s called Farhaven and is about three orphaned fox kits trying to make their way to a wildlife sanctuary. I’m also working on another Krieg short story and something that might possibly turn into a novel about Krieg. The working title of that is Lords of War. As with most writers, I’ve always got far more ideas than I can possibly complete in a lifetime.

Links to SE Reviews/Posts about Charles A. Gramlich: