Disability and Heroic Fantasy

When the first season of “The Witcher” launched at the end of 2019, two conversations dominated my Twitter timeline: “Look at the size of Henry Cavill!” and “Why did the witch Yennefer have to lose her disability to be powerful?” These two elements are interlinked, and can be directly traced back to the roots of Heroic Fantasy as we know it, with the Texan pulp writer Robert E. Howard. 

“Know, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of.” – We all know this fragment, ending with the introduction of that ultimate survivor, Conan, “the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.”

Having died at the age of 30, by his own hand, Conan’s creator, Robert Ervin Howard is an enigmatic and complicated figure. Several biographies have been written about him, pouring over his writing, letters and background to make sense of him. The tone was set by science fiction and fantasy writer L. Sprague De Camp, who brought Conan back into print along with “posthumous collaborations.” He summed Howard up as “maladjusted to the point of psychosis.” There’s a surprising lack of sympathy there, and you have to wonder if he found in Howard some sort of distorted mirror, into which he all too easily projected his own dreams, fears and failures. 

Perhaps I am doing the same, as a disabled author, in looking at Robert E. Howard, and the genre he created, through the lens of disability. Yet, given Howard’s disabled mother, and his father, a country doctor in an area where serious accidents were a fact of life, it’s worth looking at how disability filtered into his work, both implicitly and explicitly, and often through rejection of vulnerability. Howard, of course, did not invent the superhuman hero, but he did infuse his protagonists with grit, with insistence. For Howard “this is just how heroes are,” no longer suffices. For him, “this is how they need to be.” 

We find Robert E. Howard staring in that Mirror of Tuzun Thune, and seeing Conan, an idealised essence of himself. Conan endlessly reaches towards life, towards survival, in a world where barbarism will always win out over civilisation. These have become the central tenets of Heroic Fantasy, and its defining features, from Howard onwards to The Witcher, Game of Thrones, and The First Law.  

Angeline’s talk “Disability and the Roots of Heroic Fantasy” will be held on Saturday 2 October at 4pm (Dublin time). OctoCon 2021, the National Irish Science Fiction Convention, is again virtual this year, and you can register for free! We hope to see you there! 

S&S Has a Future

We’re very proud of the get a ringing endorsement for our book from BlackGate.com!

Under the header “SWORD &SORCERY HAS A FUTURE: THE RED MAN AND OTHERS” Black Gate’s John O’Neill writes:

I’m a sucker for modern heroic fantasy, so I was glad to take a look. And what I found was a well-packaged collection that has already garnered some surprising attention. The book came with the usual blurbs (including the Rogues in the House podcast, who called it “New Wave Sword & Sorcery… good stuff”), but I was more interested in reader reviews, and I found plenty. (…)
The book has an impressive 4.5 ranking at Goodreads, based on 16 reviews. There’s a nice mix of enthusiastic commentary there as well.

We’ll take that!

You can find the full article here, and if your curiosity has been piqued, and you haven’t already, you can get your hands on your own copy of The Red Man and Others!

C.L. Moore

I’ve just been rereading the foreword of Lin Carter’s first Flashing Swords! Anthology from 1973. Female writers, and women in Heroic Fantasy, have been on my mind lately, and some paragraphs made me go ‘hm!’.

These stories appeared in the most glorious of all fiction pulps, Weird Tales. Although in direct competition with brilliantly gifted and enormously popular fantasy or horror writers like H.P. Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith, Henry Kuttner or C.L. Moor, Howard’s Conan stories were amongst the most popular ever printed in the pioneer fantasy magazine.

The Conan stories certainly are the most enduring, but at the time they were indeed popular, but not more so than those of Lovecraft or Moore, or writers like Seabury Quinn. In the period described Kuttner hardly got a look in, though; his first story appeared in early 1936, months before Howard’s death. Last named of these four authors is Catherine L. Moore, whose Jirel of Joiry stories were praised in the letter columns. We’ll charitably chalk the misspelling of her name up to a careless typesetter; the same who misspelled Carter’s own hero as ‘Thonger of Lemuria’.

C.L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry in ‘Hellsgarde’

So popular did this exciting new blend of the adventure story, the imaginary world fantasy and the tale of supernatural horror become, through Howard’s fiction, that when he died in 1936 a number of talented writers stepped forward to fill the gap in the pages of Weird Tales left empty by his demise. (…)

This, hardly before the sod of Cross Plains, Texas, had covered the burly, two-fisted author who had in his time earned more money than anyone else in town, including the local banker, other writers, like Henry Kuttner, with his Elak of Atlantis stories, and Kuttner’s wife, C.L. Moore, with her delightful Jirel of Joiry tales, began contributing to what became in a very short time a new genre of pulp fiction.

Moore, of course, had started her Jirel of Joiry series in 1934, with Black God’s Kiss, and three further stories had appeared by the time of Howard’s death. To label Moore as ‘Kuttner’s wife’ is doing her a disservice; at that time, Kuttner was still very much ‘Moore’s husband’. That word ‘delightful’ also sounds condescending. I really get the sense that Carter didn’t know what to make of her, so decided to stick with ‘not much’. After all, she wasn’t part of the trinity of REH, HPL and CAS, and her heroine, or prose, wasn’t something that he could emulate (and by extension, understand).

Moore’s first Jirel story, ‘The Black God’s Kiss’; trailblazer.

Howard, however, was impressed by Moore’s work, and Jirel inspired him to try his own hand at a ‘sword-woman’, Dark Agnes. He sent it to Moore, who wrote him: My blessings! I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed “Sword-Woman”. It seemed such a pity to leave her just at the threshold of higher adventures. Your favorite trick of slamming the door on a burst of bugles! And leaving one to wonder what happened next and wanting so badly to know. Aren’t there any more stories about Agnes?’

These are not the words of someone emulating Howard but those of a peer, perhaps even someone who Howard looked up to and whose approval he sought. We don’t have his letter, so we don’t know what he wrote her exactly (one wonders whether Dark Agnes a nerdy and wrong-footed attempt at wooing Moore. If so, she wasn’t biting), and Sword-woman remained unpublished until 1975.

In the mid-70s, when Flashing Swords! appeared, there was no such thing as the Internet, and whatever Heroic Fantasy fans knew about the genre’s history came mainly through the forewords of these paperbacks. Sure, there was Amra and a half-dozen fan- and pro-zines, but you’d have to be a dedicated Robert E. Howard fan to get them; they were not terribly cheap and definitely not easy to find. Even in the mid-90s, it took the coincidence of landing in a class with the son of the secretary of the Dutch science fiction club for me to finally get in touch with wider Dutch fandom – and it was not for lack of trying! ‘Hunger makes raw beans sweet,’ the Dutch say, and the words of Carter will have etched themselves as gospel in the reader’s memory.

Jirel at the start of ‘The Black God’s Kiss’. In the story she wasn’t naked, though.

The difficulty of obtaining info also meant that editors of subsequent books often relied on their predecessors’ work, so that even dodgy info was repeated until it became canon. Sean Richards, in The Barbarian Swordsmen anthology does a better job in giving Moore her rightful place at the roots of Heroic Fantasy, though Jirel is the only female hero in the book and the cover has your standard barbarian, sword in hand, with a woman boobily clinging to him. Even now, near half a century later, these paperbacks of the ’70s and ’80s are ‘must haves’ for fans, and Flashing Swords! has proven enough of a brand that Carter’s ‘literary executor’ brought out a new (though abhorrantly mutated) edition. So, whole generations, at least until quite recently, absorbed the idea of C.L. Moore as ‘Henry Kuttner’s wife’ and Jirel of Joiry as ‘delightful’.

In the last decade or there has been a reclaiming of C.L. Moore as one of the founders of the genre; Cora Buhlert’s recent (and Hugo-eligible) articles, ‘Black God’s Kiss’ by C.L. Moore or How to Suppress Women’s Sword and Sorcery Writing and ‘Black God’s Shadow’ by C.L. Moore or Overcoming Trauma as a Core Theme of Sword and Sorcery are must-reads. The tide is turning, yet it will still take time before the pervasive smell of sexism has fully washed away.

(RvS)

The Red Man and Others

ABOUT THE RED MAN AND OTHERS
In a divided city, two rogues try to get their own back on a religious cult; the small but tough sell-sword Kaila and the teenage con-artist Sebastien don their disguises and play their parts.
In the war-torn north of Cruoningha, Ymke and her father live in exile. When her father rescues a giant warrior, Ymke learns that strength is not a matter of muscle alone, and that sometimes the price of hiding is too great.
As Sebastien is elevated to sainthood on the rock of Otasfaust, the Kaila and Ymke find each other, and a new purpose for their talents.
Three journeys of self-discovery; three stories of loss, love and adventure.

WHAT OTHERS SAID
Ngo Vinh-Hoi, co-host of the Appendix N Book Club podcast: “… a bit like Robert E. Howard’s gritty historical adventures with a dash of Fritz Leiber’s insouciant humor, filtered through Adams’ and Van Straten’s own rueful yet hopeful sensibility… Issues of queerness, coping with disability, and found family arise organically within the stories, signalling not a deconstruction of sword & sorcery, but a broader inclusivity.”
Ricardo Pinto, author of The Stone Dance of the Chameleon: “Intimate, literate and touching scenes erupt into visceral violence; I was reminded of Poe’s Hop-Frog.”
Rogues in the House podcast: “Call it New Wave Sword & Sorcery… a reaction to the musclebound masculinity, the unbridled machismo that is found and often-times put at the forefront of Sword & Sorcery. It’s good stuff if you’re open to the idea of new takes on Sword & Sorcery.”
Black Gate: “I’m a sucker for modern heroic fantasy, so I was glad to take a look. And what I found was a well-packaged collection.”
Sword and Sorcery Magazine: “I felt hope the sword & sorcery genre has a future beyond rehashes of the genre’s past, and that it can expand and grow… there is a sense of roguish humor mixed with the odd, effective drop of tragedy that drives these stories… always from the classic sword & sorcery, bottom-up perspective of the outsider protagonists.”

ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Over the past decade Angeline B. Adams and Remco van Straten have been mainly active in journalism, working for various local and national publications. They wrote about film, theatre and books, and interviewed authors like Neil Jordan, James Ellroy and Anne Rice. The biographical piece on Robert E. Howard they wrote for Fortean Times received a REH Foundation Award nomination.
Now they are focusing on telling their own tales, instead writing about those of others. These stories are firmly rooted in the green hills of Northern Ireland where Angeline grew up, and the heavy clay of the Dutch coast from which Remco came. They are steeped in their shared love for history and folklore, not shying away from treasured genres and format, yet are infused with modern sensibilities and a healthy dose of black humour. Their stories appeared in the Sesheta anthology Underneath the Tree, in Air & Nothingness Press’ The Wild Hunt, and in Dutch translation in Wonderwaan.

Angeline Adams is involved in disability activism and wrote about disability for various online magazines like The Toast and Disability in Kidlit.
On Ymke, the protagonist of The Red Man and The Return of the Uncomplaining Child, she says: “Ymke’s rebellions, like mine, have often been subtle ones: staying alive in a world that oppresses disabled people is also a form of resistance. But sometimes we’re both surprised by what we’re capable of doing when we really have to – and with the right person by our side.”

Remco van Straten co-created Waen Sinne, an anthology which had a lasting impact on Dutch SFF publishing, and was a jury member for the Paul Harland Award, Holland’s leading contest for speculative fiction. “I spent a lot of my childhood and teens reading, and discovering Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories was a watershed moment. I have always wanted to emulate him, and indeed the title of this collection is a hat-tip to his collection, The Dark Man and Others.”

WHY TURNIP LANTERNS?
Hallowe’en is one of our favourite festivals, and from childhood both of us have been fascinated with ghosts, monsters and other scary and mysterious things. Over the last few years we’ve gone back to the age-old tradition of carving turnips instead of pumpkins. The turnip’s texture is irregular, with lumps and bumps that decide the features for the carved face. Unlike pumpkins, turnips grow underground and hint at things hidden and slowly emerging from the soil. They symbolise the much older, much more forbidding tradition of Hallowe’en.

FURTHER RESOURCES FOR THE RED MAN AND OTHERS
Goodreads
Amazon UK and Amazon US
Book trailer
Short story reading
And find Angeline and Remco on Twitter

Goals, Wishes and Dreams

Author Lee Brontide created this great meme for Twitter, which lets you talk about your main character’s goals, wishes and dreams, and we decided to make it the basis for a blog post. We’re answering here mainly for Ymke, one of the protagonists of the stories in The Red Man and Others, but also for the stories’ other heroes, Kaila and Sebastien, as the mood strikes us.

1. Do they like to have clear goals and plans? Ymke spent her early life just surviving and going with the flow, but since her experience with Alsigt, the Red Man, crystallised her need to escape, she’s always had some quiet personal goal in mind. She’s always learning something new, often illicitly.

2. Do they wish on stars? Ymke wishes on stars when she thinks Kaila’s not looking. Kaila pretends not to have noticed. Sebastien has a hidden sentimental streak, so we actually wouldn’t rule it out.

3. Any hidden talents? Forgery is the very definition of a hidden talent!

4. Their idea of having “made it”: For Ymke, it’s independence. She knows the world can be a cruel place for disabled people, that sometimes your nearest neighbours are also your biggest threat, and that there will be times when her body lets her down. She’s had to make peace with that, and part of how she’s done that is to find ways to earn her keep. Having grown up feeling tethered to a father who was living in exile and in fear, she wants to go places and be with people out of choice rather than because she has no other option economically. Our ambition for Ymke has always been for her life, even in an analogue of medieval Europe, to reflect the conflicts and ambitions and need for justice of real disabled people in the 21st century.

5. Do they believe in destiny? If you’d ask her, Ymke would hesitate. On one hand, she feels strongly that we make our own luck. On the other, some events and circumstances in life seem to have a very strong gravitational pull. The writer in her respects their symmetry. Was the Red Man meant to end up on her farm? Was he meant to leave again? What would their lives have been otherwise? Ymke tries to make her own luck, and Kaila and Sebastien definitely do, but all three of them also get swept up in the whims of destiny. To borrow a phrase (with thanks to Bernard Cornwell), Wyrd bið ful āræd – Fate is inexorable.

6. Are they sentimental? As above, Sebastien is surprisingly so. There is much about his early life that you don’t know yet (some of it we don’t even know yet!), but through all the turmoil, he has kept with him a small artefact of his childhood. There is also in Sebastien an urge to rescue people. Ymke would deny that she is sentimental or nostalgic. She still has her mother’s book, though, and sometimes she looks through it and remembers teaching Alsigt to read; remembers her father teaching her to read years earlier. Life on the road has made her travel light and focus on what’s next, but for all the places she’s lived in, and as suddenly as she’s sometimes had to leave them, she remembers the people of those places, and some of them she thinks on fondly, and wonders about, years later. And speaking of books: in many ways Kaila is a closed book. There’s much that she’d like to forget, and some things she’ll only tell late at night, when she’s had a few cups of wine.

7. Are they ambitious? Yes, sometimes fiercely and not necessarily always wisely, and we’re really looking forward to being able to share with you a story about that. Sebastien absolutely is ambitious. He wants the best that life has to offer, and he’ll get it. Will it be straightforward? Of course not. It’s Sebastien! We didn’t realise what we were doing, but in writing Ymke this year for one particular Red Man sequel, we accidentally caught ambition ourselves: it turned from a short story into a novella. Then another draft we’re working on did exactly the same, inching towards the 40K mark now. Oops.

8. Are they gracious winners? We wish we could tell you why that’s funny, with regard to one of our characters in particular, in one of the novellas we’re working on. We will say that Ymke is capable of being gracious and conciliatory in both victory and defeat. Sometimes, victory and defeat are two sides of the same coin, though.

9. Do they regret much? Ymke regrets blood spilled on her behalf, even though it’s the reason she’s alive. She regrets that it took the events in The Red Man for her to get out of the rut that was her life. She doesn’t regret the business with Father Folkhert, as dangerous as it got in the end. She meant well. She always means well. It’s just that things have a way of getting out of hand. Especially with Kaila and Sebastien around.

10. Do they keep their dreams secret? For a long time, Ymke was not accustomed to letting herself dream, and when she began to, her father was quick to clip her wings. So, she’s learned to nurture dreams quietly. And some dreams require a little skullduggery to make them happen, of course…

11. Are they prone to envy? Yes. This came as a surprise to Ymke. Living largely apart from others until her mid-teens means she didn’t realise just how much she had been missing out on, until she’d been out in the world a while. Sometimes it takes seeing other people – who are leading more ordinary lives – progress through life stages that were very different for you to fully realise what your life might have been. Encountering the sheltered city sons and daughters of her friends in middle age was strangely bitter for Ymke.

12. What skill are they most proud of? For Ymke, it’s cultivating people, in more than one sense of the word. She’s good at encouraging people and bringing out their potential. She’s also adept at making herself part of a place, so that she is valued and receives support that doesn’t feel like charity; like many disabled people, Ymke has a complicated relationship with that. And, when she has to, she can lie convincingly. These are achievements not taken for granted by someone who came from such an isolated upbringing.

13. What milestones do they care about? The irreversible ones, like “I can’t make it up these stairs any more,” which will inevitably come. When something changes in her body, Ymke waits it out through four seasons, in the hope that it is temporary and contextual. If it proves permanent, her way of life has to change – maybe a little, maybe a lot. Progressive disability is fun that way.

14. Do they procrastinate? No. There’s no procrastinating on a farm. The animals need fed and the seasons move on, so things need doing. This is how Ymke was brought up, and this is what she’s carried with her.

15. Are they good under pressure? All three of them are. They’ve had to be.

16. Do they daydream? Ymke certainly does. She certainly did on the farm, and she still did when the places she visited and the people she met far surpassed those of her imagination.

17. Do they believe in signs or omens? Ymke’s rational adult side is rather at war with the fearful, superstitious side that was cultivated in her childhood. She’ll very quietly feel a certain way about things that have enough symbolic weight. Sebastien, though he’s wise to the tricks of cold reading and the stacked deck of cards, also has seen enough to keep some room for the “What if?…”

18. Do other people believe in them? They believe in each other, though that is sometimes very considerably tested. In The Return of the Uncomplaining Child a great many people believe in Sebastien, and they worked very hard at that. None believe as much as Father Folkhert did: more than they could have hoped.

19. Would they rather be over- or underestimated? It changes. When our trio are up to chicanery, it serves them to be underestimated. Ymke chafed against her father’s underestimation of her in her early life, yet like many women, there have been times when her survival has depended on people underestimating her. She’s learned to leverage that. In the story we’re working on now she feels extremely frustrated and overlooked, though, and she’s coping with it in an unusual way.

20. How do they celebrate their successes? Depends on the nature of the success. Sometimes a quiet night together in front of a good fire is enough. Sometimes it requires a substantial quantity of drink. If they’ve made themselves rich, however temporarily, they’ll share some of it with someone who needs it more.

21. Are they good at accepting help? Sebastien does, though he may be less happy with the assumption of a debt owed. Ymke, only when she can convince herself she’s giving out at least twice as much support as she’s taking. Kaila may accept, but not ask for help.

22. How do they cope with failure? Ruthless self examination, in Ymke’s case; rants to well-chosen confidantes. And ultimately, by finding something to fix, which may take many forms. Sebastien brushes himself off, and turns the page. Kaila will be sore until she feels she’s restored the balance. This is not always the sensible course.

23. Smallest thing they’re proud of: For Ymke, it’s her stitching. For Sebastien it’s his moral compass. Kaila’s got this tattoo, you see…

24. Do they do New Year’s resolutions? Yes, very much so, in Ymke’s case. Sebastien will have many, Kaila none. At least none she’ll share with others.

25. Do they keep them? Ymke usually does.. She’s determined that way, and she sets realistic goals. Sebastien’s resolutions are broken as easy as hastily made promises. Kaila’s resolutions are not made at the start of a year, and may not be resolved within the year.

If you enjoyed this look into the minds and lives of Ymke, Kaila and Sebastien, we’d like – nay, we implore – you to seek out the collection The Red Man and Others on Amazon UK or US. We’ll meanwhile work on their further adventures!

And The Winner is…

At the start of October we set up the challenge: get your review of The Red Man and Others up on Goodreads and/or Amazon, and you’ll make a chance of winning an original piece of art with either Kaila or Kaila and Ymke!

We’re a day late (blame turnip carving fatigue. The struggle is real!) but all names went in the the hat, and…

Congratulations, Adam! Let us know which piece you want, and we’ll make sure it is delivered to your home!

Adam’s review: Incredibly Enjoyable

I must admit I’m not a literary critic by any means. I must further admit that I bought this book without knowing much about it, having quite literally judged it by its great cover art!

So when I read the first few pages I felt a bit of apprehension when it became clear I was reading fantasy. It’s not a genre I read a lot of or have had great experiences with, but this book certainly changed that streak.

These are three interconnected stories, and if you’re looking for fantasy, action, love, loss, humor, or even studies of the extremes in religion, you’ll find something to enjoy in these stories.

The Red Man was my personal favorite. The authors did such an excellent job painting the picture of bleakness and sadness of the characters and the lands in which they live, you’ll find it impossible not to be moved by the story and the plight of any of the characters.

But really, all three stories were highly enjoyable and you’ll certainly find something you’ll like here. (and be sure to stick around for the fascinating extras disc!).

A great effort by these authors-I can’t wait for more from them!

Rueful Yet Hopeful

The Appendix N Book Club podcast has quickly become one of our go-to podcasts: the hosts and their guests discuss the Fantasy books that inspired the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game with affection but also a modern sensibility! Ngo Vinh-Hoi, the podcast’s co-host, wrote a really nice review of our story collection:

I recently read the fantasy short story collection The Red Man and Others as a palate cleanser from a longer SF&F reading project and I’m very glad that I took the time to do so!

The setting echoes early modern Northern Europe, a world coming unmoored in socio-religious upheaval and simmering violence but thus rife with opportunities for adventure. Our protagonists Kaila, Ymke, and Sebastien are the overlooked and never-weres, struggling to get by and stay true to themselves through cleverness, skill at arms, and not a little luck. Issues of queerness, coping with disability, and found family arise organically within the stories, signalling not a deconstruction of sword & sorcery, but a broader inclusivity.

Overall this collection reads a bit like Robert E. Howard’s gritty historical adventures with a dash of Fritz Leiber’s insouciant humor, filtered through Adams’ and van Straten’s own rueful yet hopeful sensibility. The absence of overt magic might technically disqualify these stories as sword & sorcery, but the themes of anti-authoritarianism and survival in an indifferent world make these tales at least S&S adjacent. We’ll just have to wait for more tales of Kaila, Ymke, and Sebastien to be sure:-)

As a bonus, co-author Remco van Straten provides some lovely pen & ink story heading illustrations (more please!) and there are two “Extras disc” essays where the authors outline their influences and writing process.

I’d definitely recommend the The Red Man and Others to fans of sword & sorcery who have worked their way through the classics and are ready for stories that honor the past yet look to the future.

Ngo Vinh-Hoi, co-host of the Appendix N Book Club podcast

When writing anything that hints at social commentary, or drives a point home with a sledgehammer, there is a constant tension between our best and worst instincts about what the world is, about what people are. The compromise we arrive at is perfectly stated in this review: “rueful, yet hopeful.” Amongst other things, the stories in The Red Man and Others are about wiggle room: the possibility, if not the inevitability, of change. In future stories you’ll see that the events of Otasring have changed our trio of “never-weres”. Whether it’s for better or for worse – well, it’s complicated.

You can find The Red Man and Others on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com. If you like it as much too, we would love to hear from you: positive reviews and ratings on Goodreads and Amazon are like gold nuggets for indie writers!