Friday, January 28, 2022

TFMS - mid-end Jan 2022 Blog Roundup

Tales from the Magician's Skull Blog Roundup, mid to end-Jan 2022


Skull Champion of the Fifth Order, Bill Ward, continues to marshal his army of articles! Here is the latest headlines (linked) with blurbs:

JAN 26 Adventures in Fiction: Philip Jose Farmer by Jeff Goad
Today we are celebrating the birthday of Philip José Farmer. While he isn’t around to celebrate this day with us, his books are still here inspiring writers and game designers as they have for decades past.
Farmer found early acclaim in the pulps, winning the Hugo in 1953 for Best New SF Author only a year after the publication of his first tale in Startling Stories. He continued writing for Startling Stories where his work would be found beside that of other Appendix N luminaries like Jack Vance and Fletcher Pratt. Other early works can be found in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, a publication that features a letter to the editor from Gary Gygax himself in the August 1963 issue.
Farmer’s first novel, The Green Odyssey, was published by Ballantine Books in 1957 and was the start of a prolific output of novels for Ballantine Books, Ace Paperbacks, and other publishing houses. He released 15 novels in the 1960s then topped that with another 23 in the 1970s!

JAN 25 Classic Covers: The Savage Sword of Conan
How do you skirt a restrictive comics code and make visual Conan stories with the requisite blood-pumping grittiness that is integral to Howard’s adventures? You make a magazine of course! Already popular in his initial comic book incarnation of Conan the Barbarian, Marvel introduced the more adult-oriented The Savage Sword of Conan in 1974, quickly achieving a wide circulation and, thanks to writer and editor Roy Thomas’ legendary first 60 issue run, eventual cult classic status. Savage Sword featured straight Howard adaptations, pastiche, and original stories, and included more than just Conan tales but adventures from other popular Howard characters such as Solomon Kane, Bran Mak Morn, and King Kull.

JAN 23 The Best Of The Conan Pastiche Novels by Howard Andrew Jones
If I didn’t love the writing of Robert E. Howard I would probably never have bothered with any Conan pastiche. As a matter of fact, those Conan novels on store shelves in the ’70s and ’80s made me so skeptical of Conan that I didn’t try Robert E. Howard’s fiction until years later. I wrongly assumed that because the series looked cheap and mass-produced that Howard’s writing would sound that way. (Robert E. Howard, of course, had nothing to do with the mass marketing of his character, having been dead for decades before that marketing was carried out by other hands.)
You can fit the sum total of all the Conan that Howard wrote (including some fragments and rejected stories) into one large hardback. That’s not a lot of fiction about such a great character, and so for decades, people have been trying to create new tales of adventure starring Conan, mostly because they wanted MORE!

JAN 22 Adventures in Fiction: Robert E. Howard
There may not be a more iconic character in fantasy—and particularly sword and sorcery—fiction than Conan the Barbarian. From his first appearance in Weird Tales back in 1932, the character has influenced how we see any iconic sword-wielding hero. And for that, we can thank Robert E. Howard.
Over the years a number of posts on our site have been focused on Mr. Howard and his impact not just on literature, but also on the world of role-playing games. All of those posts can be found under our Adventures in Fiction banner, but we want to give you direct links to a trio of our favorites, as well as the post included here. So, after reading below, be sure to go give a look at Films of High Adventure: Robert E. Howard, Real Life Adventures – The Robert E. Howard House, and Gen Con Videos, Part 1: Gaming in the Spirit of Robert E. Howard.

JAN 21 It Was a Dark and Silly Night – A Look at John Bellairs’ The Face in the Frost
Whimsy and suspense don’t generally mesh all that well together, for they tend to swing toward opposite poles of reader engagement. Whimsy tickles the intellect, relying on novel juxtapositions and a great deal of textual playfulness – it’s cute, it’s precise, and most often it resides in a place of certainty and safety. Suspense – or more accurately in the case of John Bellairs’ 1969 debut novel The Face in the Frost, dread – is instead the assassin slipping past the intellect to knife that deepest part of the hind-brain, or perhaps its better to say its the cold, rhythmic pounding of subtle waves of suggestion that periodically climax in the massive erosive collapse of the shoreline of a reader’s composure. This horror effect absolutely requires a sort of visceral engagement with the material, a thorough Secondary Belief just like with fantasy – the kind of thing that jokey anachronisms, deliberate wordplay, and humorous allusions would seem to undermine at every turn. But Bellairs manages the trick of juggling these disparate elements with the sure confidence of a natural storyteller in a concise, captivating way that rarely places a foot wrong and never comes close to overstaying its welcome.

JAN 20 Adventures in Fiction: Abraham Merritt by James Maliszewski
Of all the literary influences on D&D and DCC RPG, Abraham Merritt is perhaps the “most-influential of the least-known.” His work is rarely read in this modern time, yet he is named by Gary Gygax as one of “the most immediate influences on AD&D. Today, on January 20, 2020, the 136th anniversary of his birth, we provide a little more insight into this little-read but well-deserving author. You can also learn about all the Appendix N authors by listening to the Appendix N Book Club. For Merritt in particular, his most famous work, The Moon Pool, was recently covered in a special session on the Appendix N Podcast in which Joseph Goodman participated.

JAN 19 Appendix N Archaeology: Edgar Allan Poe by Bradley K McDevitt
Ok, class, before we start… let’s have a show of hands. Who here thinks about reading Edgar Allan Poe and gets traumatic flashbacks to seventh-grade English?
I thought so. Having the father of the modern horror story force-fed us tends to have that effect, as opposed to other lesser writers like Lovecraft, Howard, or Tolkien, all of whom we had to discover on our own.
Poe was the first successful writer to pen stories intended with no purpose but to ensure the reader would not have pleasant dreams that night. I dare anyone suffering from claustrophobia to go back and read A Cask of Amontillado or The Black Cat and then sleep with the lights off. Go ahead, I double-dog dare you.

JAN 18 Adventures in Fiction: John Bellairs by Ngo Vinh-Hoi
John Anthony Bellairs was born on January 17th, 1938 in Marshall, Michigan, which he described as “full of strange and enormous old houses, and the place must have worked on [his] imagination.” A shy and overweight child, he “would walk back and forth between [his] home and Catholic school and have medieval fantasies featuring [himself] as the hero.” He found refuge in books, excelling in college as an English major and even appearing on an episode of the TV quiz show G.E. College Bowl in 1959, where he recited the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales in fluent Middle English. After getting his Master’s degree Bellairs taught English at several colleges across the midwest before taking time off in 1967 when he moved to Bristol, England, for a year to concentrate on his fiction writing. Many years later a fan asked Bellairs about his time in England only to have him reply “I lived for a year in Bristol [England], and it was the most miserable year of my life.” Bellairs’s misery was everyone else’s good fortune though, as this is when he wrote The Face in the Frost.

JAN 14 Where to Start With Robert E. Howard
Robert E. Howard (1906-1936) was a giant and a father to giants, his literary creations so potent that they have informed popular culture and permeated mass consciousness down to the present day. But their very ubiquity can obscure and deceive – if two people strike up a conversation about Conan, are they actually talking about the same Conan? What’s going on with all of these other writers penning stories of Howard’s heroes, and do they need to be read in order? Out of the dozens of reprints and collections over the years, just where do you actually start?

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

TFMS bi-weekly Blog Roundup


Tales from the Magician's Skull Blog Roundup, end-Dec-2021 to min-Jan 2022
Skull Champion of the Fifth Order, Bill Ward, continues to marshal his army of articles! Here are the latest headlines (linked) with blurbs:

Dec 27: Appendix N Archaeology: Clark Ashton Smith by Michael Curtis

Gamers often point to Appendix N and decry the absence of a particular author (or three, or seven, or…), declaring Gygax’s omission of them to be a literary crime of some sort. Putting aside the unbelievable idea that gamers may complain about things for the moment, we must realize that Appendix N is not a list one can argue with. It is a catalog of all the literary influences Gygax chose to recognize as wellsprings from which Dungeons & Dragons flowed. Since it is representative of one man’s work, we can’t claim he made the error of excluding a particular author, even if we believe we can see their influence in the final product. Game design, like art, is a subjective process and one tends to see what one is inclined to see.

Dec 28: The Self-Made Mind: The Art of Clark Ashton Smith

Clark Ashton Smith, an untutored genius self-educated in both poetry and pulp, also turned his restless mind to art. In everything from his simple line sketches and watercolor landscapes, to his carving and sculpture, Smith demonstrates the same characteristics of baroque intricacy, imaginative grotesquery, and dark humor that are a hallmark of his writing.

Dec 29: New In The Online Store: Tales From The Magician’s Skull #0

This may be #0, but it’s certainly far more than zero.

Back by popular demand, resurrected from the dim corridors of lost time, it’s TFTMS #0! This special issue of Tales From the Magician’s Skull was only available to Kickstarter backers — but now it’s back and available as a PDF! It’s filled with stories and articles about sword-and-sorcery fiction, and features a spectacular cover by legendary artist Ian Miller! Let’s take a look!

Jan 3: Classic Covers: J.R.R. Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was the book that launched a thousand trilogies, and made Tolkien’s name synonymous not just with modern fantasy fiction, but publishing mega-success. With more copies, in more languages, in more editions, than anything else in its category, and with an entire sub-industry spun out of publishing various notes, unpublished drafts, and side-excursions of its author, The Lord of the Rings remains the gold standard by which all other secondary worlds, and all other fantasy blockbusters, are judged. With covers ranging from the iconic to the iconographic, the literal to the surreal, many even featuring the art of the good Professor himself, and with editions spanning leather-bound limited-run collectibles to utterly ubiquitous mass-market paperbacks, copies of Tolkien are as ever-present and universal in the physical world of books and book collections as the tales they tell are ingrained in the imaginations of modern readers.

Jan 7: A Kind of Elvish Craft: Quotations from The Lord of the Rings

“To make a Secondary World . . . commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labor and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode.” — J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories”

J.R.R. Tolkien’s seminal lecture/essay “On Fairy-Stories” is nothing short of a manifesto of his art, and a spiritedly reasoned elaboration of his Theory of Story — specifically Fairy-Stories, or tales of the Land of Faërie.

Jan 11: Reading About Robert E. Howard

It’s safe to say Robert E. Howard has passionate fans. And this passion goes beyond buying stacks of books and old comics and limited edition resin sculptures, beyond pilgrimages to Cross Plains or Valeria cosplay, beyond, even, mimeographing ‘zines in their basement or writing fiction inspired by Howard’s example. For you see, Howard’s fans have dared to set their sandalled feet upon the tumbled jeweled thrones of literary criticism, and they’ve been trampling such thrones for decades. Here’s a look at just some of what they’ve been saying.


Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Rogues in the House Podcast

As posted on Black Gate:


Rogues in the House

In 1934, Weird Tales magazine published Robert E. Howard's Conan story "Rogues in the House." Bob Byrne covered the story on Black Gate as part of his "Hither Came Conan" series.

Just a few years ago, in late 2018, Sword & Sorcery enthusiasts and content creators forged Rogues in the House - the Ultimate S&S Podcast (the link is a portal page to multiple listening Apps). This post spotlights it because it is more than just a source of perspectives. The crew genuinely wants to support a growing community. Their roundtable discussions always start with the "Bazaar of the Bizarre" round table, in which the cast shares recent events or learning opportunities (the session a call out to Fritz Leiber's 1963 Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser story of the same name.

Beyond luring in S&S authors like Howard Andrew Jones, Scott OdenJohn R. Fultz, and  Jason Ray Carney, they've got guests covering Movies, Video/Board Games, and Art. We embed three selections here:

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Blood on the Blade - Review by SE

Blood on the Blade by Cliff Biggers

S.E. rating: 4 of 5 stars

Overview: Blood on the Blade (Edited by Jim Beard, John C. Bruening) offers 10 varied S&S tales, several that stick to the tropes (super-charged male heroes takes on evil sorcerers), and several that showcase non-standard milieus (such as Polynesian and Meso-American settings). The subgenre/tones range too, from violent-Grimdark, to light-adventure, YA-fantasy, to humor. I star the ones that I most enjoyed.

The “Scroll of Scribes & Artisans” Afterword offers nice biographies of all the contributors. It’s a great way to amplify a key purpose of anthologies: explore a variety of authors, discover a new one; let it guide you to more of their work.

I learned of this book by following DMR’s blog and publications (; he has a nice contribution here. Also, the cover art by Mark Wheatley resonates with the title (and I believe the “GodKiller” opening story).

Some spoilers are below, but I attempt to obscure them

“Godkiller” by Cliff Biggers
Hero vs. sorcerer mayhem. Fast-paced to the point I would have enjoyed the story being longer (i.e., when certain enslaved warriors re-awaken). It’s solid S&S fare with a few memorable writing moments: (1) the hero butchering a priest and (2) learning that the body can be fashioned into weapons.

“The Unlidded Eye” by James R. Tuck
Reads like a Conan pastiche with all its Hyborian Age references. Threok the barbarian is our hero, and the slow-start has a drawn-out, weird-romance with a Prince. Suddenly, the story ramps up so fast it almost stumbles. Uneven pacing, but a satisfying conflict with the god Set. Apparently, Tuck has a book out on this dude: Theok the Indomitable: A Spill of Sorcerer's Blood.

* “The Island of Shadows” by Paul R. McNamee
Starts in media res with two protagonists on a boat (an outrigger actually) so the conflict is not clear. A magical storm get forces them onto a haunted island, so the conflict is not clear at first. The Polynesian milieu was great to be immersed in (ka magic and patu clubs, tiki statues, and puipui skirts). Fun stuff.

* "More Blood" by D.M. Ritzlin
An extended gladiator battle with an overpowered hero (without memory of who is) almost feels like a juvenile attempt at writing fiction, but then the setting clarifies, and the denouement rocked. A fun read brought to you by the champion of DMR books.

"Hounds of Morhullem" by James A. Moore
I’ve had James A Moore’s Seven Forges/Godless books in my TBR for too long. Here we have another duo of protagnists. Valen and the mercenary Berek make a fine pair as they experience an extended battle with undead hounds. It’s fun, but the setup appeared for a goal outside the story; the initial goal is discarded for a battle. Fun, but a sucker-punch for expectations. This must serve as a chapter for a larger series (or the Worthy of King book mentioned in the Afterward).

"The Sorceress Maiz" by Anne Marie Lutz
Vinton and his mother are spellcasters (with royal ties) out to save brother prince from the evil dad-king-sorcerer. There is a ton of sorcery here (paralysis, invisibility, body-switching). The pacing and delivery felt YA-fantasy-ish; the variety complements the other stories. Wish more female writers were out there!

"The Bloody Crooked One" by Charles R. Rutledge
The next overpowered hero is Kharrn. He’s got a big ax and is nigh-indestructible. He teams up with some stray Roman getting slaughtered by a dark-druid, a druid he had dealings with. The plot was supported by ample exposition.

* “Knock the Hell Out of You” by Steven L. Shrewsbury
I tend to roll my eyes anytime heroes enter a tavern, and I tend to like my heroes challenged a lot. In this case, despite the tavern scene and lack of a challenge, it felt fun because it was an over-the-top gorefest. The body-hopping demon fights our protagonists Gorias La Gaul and his daughter, Roan. They make for an interesting pair (there are a bunch of Gorias La Gaul stories elsewhere according to the Afterward). I'm leaning toward tracking these down.

"Dishonor Among Thieves" by Adrian Cole
I’ve enjoyed Adrian Coles's works (i.e. the Dream Lords, and his Elak of Atlantis pastiche), but this was my first exposure to Elfloq, the batrachian familiar. He’s seeking to connect with a bad-arse Voidal sorcerer. Cole already has two short stories about Elfloq in Parallel Universe Publication’s S&S anthologies). This was not classic S&S; it featured our fairy-like familiar Elfloq messing with idiotic mages and barbarians. The humor and tone were a pleasant variation from the others.

"Blood Games in the Temple of the Toad" by Frank Schildiner
The setting shines here, being a Meso-American backdrop. Obsidian Jaguar, a way-overpowered hero, kicks tons of arse. His primary enemies are Caiman (reptile) tribal folk who also have lots of societal issues, including an authoritarian theocracy with a penchant for gladiator fights. I enjoyed the potential here, especially with Clawed Butterfly, a sorceress frenemy. Overall, this felt longer than it had to be, and the plot felt a bit forced.

View all my reviews