Wednesday, July 17, 2013

My road with Sword and Sorcery and the speculative

I first discovered Sword and Sorcery literature when I was about 10 years old. Unlike many readers and writers, my introduction to this sub-genre of fantasy was not through the likes of Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, nor through other well-known names linked with S&S. No, my very first S&S readings were with the first Thieves' World anthology.

The Thieves' World books were each a collection of fantasy short stories. Each story had a different author, but the characters existed within a shared world, mainly the city of Sanctuary. The first book began with a story titled "Sentences of Death," by John Brunner, which featured a shape-shifting wizard by the name of Enas Yorl. The most interesting aspect, for me, pertaining to Yorl was that he (or she or it or whatever) was under a powerful curse. Yorl changed form on a fairly constant basis, and not all of those shapes were remotely human.

So, I suppose Brunner's story was my first real introduction to S&S.

At the time, I did not realize this, and I had never even heard of S&S literature nor Robert E. Howard. In my limited experience as a 10-year-old, fantasy was fantasy. I had read Tolkien and some Terry Brooks, but in 1979 that was about all that was available in my neck of the woods growing up in central Kentucky. I was vaguely familiar with Conan the Barbarian because of the Marvel comics and the occasional slim paperback I would spy in a store, but I did not differentiate such tales from those of general fantasy.

By the time the Conan the Barbarian movie came out in 1982, I was 13 and somewhat more familiar with Sword and Sorcery and its place within broader fantasy. The movie did help to make me more aware of the character and the author. The Thieves' World books were coming out about one a year at that time, and it was about the same period I began to play Dungeons & Dragons.

Whether one loves or loathes the game and its influence, I cannot overemphasis the importance of Dungeons & Dragons upon my early fantasy readings. It wasn't just the game itself, which did help to link me with other fantasy fans, but the game's rule books held a ton of information about the fantasy genres. The tome that was the Dungeon Master's Guide even included lists upon lists of fantasy authors and books worth reading. Those lists were often the first time I came to see particular authors' names and books and story titles.

Maybe growing up in central Kentucky in the 1970s and early 1980s was like living on a frontier, at least when speaking of the access to speculative literature. As I pointed out, Tolkien and Brooks were about the only fantasy reading I had readily available in my few local book stores. Even the libraries were short on fantasy, though they did have some science fiction from the likes of guys name Asimov, Heinlein, etc., and I ate that stuff up as often as possible; at the time, the differentiation between sci-fi and fantasy was still in the early stages, at least for the young me, so any kind of speculative reading was great. These days I don't care much for most science fiction, at least not the modern stuff, but I don't hate the genre and will occasionally dip into it.

It was also during the early 1980s when I discovered the Science Fiction Book Club through advertisements in books and magazines. At the time, you joined the club by buying something like four books, and you only had to pay a penny plus the shipping; the deal was you had to buy three or four more books at regular price sometime during the next year. That sounded like a great deal to me, so I signed up. With my limited access to fantasy literature, the SFBC was like a slice of nirvana. It was through the club that I discovered Michael Moorcock, Anne McCaffrey, and even Stephen King.

In 1986, a new book store opened up in my home town. It was Joseph-Beth Booksellers. This book store changed my life. It made available to me all kinds of literature which I'd only heard about, and quite a bit I had never heard about. Lovecraft became known to me, as did Fred Saberhagen, early Dean Koontz, and a number of others.

At this point the fantasy world was changing, at least for me. How? By becoming more available. Slowly but surely, fantasy was reaching out into the mainstream world, or at least finding its place within the mainstream world. No longer did one have to hunt and hunt and hunt simply to find a fantasy book to read. Things have only become even more so in the last couple of decades, to the point I find the speculative genres have inundated the mainstream world and I find it kind of silly when fantasy fans and similar groups talk about not being accepted by the broader world. How much more acceptance do we need? Speculative fiction is in our movies, our TV shows, our books, our games, all over the Internet. There are sub-cultures and groups and conventions and game rides and everything under the sun pertaining to fantasy, science fiction and even horror. To someone who remembers the original Star Trek as being the only sci-fi available on TV, Tolkien being the only fantasy author in stores, and (before Star Wars) practically no speculative films in he movie theaters, today's world is inundated with the speculative, maybe even too much at times.

But I digress.

By 1990 or so, I had read all the so-called masters of Sword and Sorcery, with the exception of Karl Edward Wagner. I was familiar with Wagner's name, but I did not have the pleasure of reading him until 2005 or thereabouts. But then, I missed out on a lot of fantasy reading for a little more than a decade.


Well, there are lots of reasons. For years I was busy with college and then starting my career as a journalist; I still read fairly often, but not nearly as much as I did in my early days and not as much as I do today. Also, while I always knew I wanted to write fiction, from the late 1980s until about the year 2000 I was mostly focused upon horror writing, or the idea of being a horror writer. I still generally feel more comfortable writing horror than fantasy, but I tend to find more enjoyment in the finished product when it's fantasy. Weird, I admit. Because of my shift to horror, I was obviously reading more horror literature and related non-fiction during that period. What little fantasy I wrote during those years was usually stuff to show off to my role playing buddies.

Then, about a decade ago when I began to get serious about writing fiction, I switched from horror and focused upon fantasy. To be honest, I'm not exactly sure why that happened. It might have had something to do with the fact I had this imaginary world and its characters in my head and they wanted to get out. I also had plenty of horror ideas at the time, but fantasy felt right for some reason.

So, I still focus on fantasy but with the occasional foray into horror and other genres.

As for my reading, the last couple of years I've shied away once more from fantasy reading, specifically epic fantasy and Sword and Sorcery. The reason for this is because a couple of years ago I had penned two epic fantasy novels one right after the other, and I was reading the ten-part epic fantasy Malazan series by Steven Erikson.

Frankly, I was a little burned out. I wanted to try different things for a while. I knew I would come back to fantasy, but I needed a break.

That break is about over.

Currently I am getting some other readings out of the way, non-fantasy books and e-books I've been meaning to get to for some time, but I have a big pile of epic fantasy novels waiting for me and a long list of epic fantasy e-books on my Kindle.

I'm looking forward to it. I kind of miss swinging a sword.

1 comment:

Charles Gramlich said...

I love to read this kind of thing from authors. I'm actually gonna talk about something that, strangely, wasn't an influence on my blog today.

Our paths to fantasy writing have been quite different. No Dungeons and Dragons for me at all. Never even heard of it until I was an adult. I did read the Theive's world Books and enjoyed them a lot though. By that time I'd already read Howard and ERB, though.