Rediscovered: In the Annals of Sword-and-Sorcery

Brian Leno, trapped in his Last Redoubt in Bismarck, North Dakota, nonetheless managed to pop a review to me in my Last Redoubt — the good old sanctum sanctorum — which I’ll toss out to people stuck in their Last Redoubts everywhere.

If you don’t understand casual refs such as “Carter and de Camp,” I’d hope the book under review covers such things.

Here’s Brian:

When I was young I read everything I could find on ancient civilizations. Edith Hamilton, with her books on the great mythological hero-warriors, only furthered my desire to read of fabled, half-forgotten kingdoms that never were, but should have been.

So, around 1966, when I discovered Robert E. Howard and Conan through the Lancer paperbacks, it was apparent to my youthful mind that truly I had been born at the right time.

This Sword-and-Sorcery was really something. A literary world ablaze with eons-old crumbling cities where necromancers dwelt in sorcery-filled lairs, spinning ancient spells. Deadly trouble for the barbarian who would invade their territory, undoubtedly on a quest to pilfer some fabulous jewel or rescue some half-naked maiden who would sooner or later show a great deal of appreciation.

Of course it wasn’t long before I discovered that some Sword-and-Sorcery was stale beer compared to Howard’s dark ale.

I bought a lot of paperbacks in those years, but it would have cost a fortune to purchase everything. I’ve always wanted to see a decently written history of Sword-and-Sorcery that might lead me to books I should have read but missed.

Enter Brian Murphy and his recently published Flame and Crimson: A History of Sword-and-Sorcery. A fellow alumni of that most literate of journals devoted to Howard, The Cimmerian, I was pretty sure his book would be a worthwhile catch.

Unfortunately Flame and Crimson started slow for me. Murphy understandably focused on the life of Howard and while it was completely necessary for the purpose of his book, I’m sure any hardcore Howard fan has seen it all before. Still, if you need a refresher course on REH, Murphy does a good job on the summing up.

Murphy also devoted a rather long section to the debating of the merits of the Civilization versus Barbarism correspondence between H. P. Lovecraft and Howard which, again, was too familiar territory.

For me, Murphy really started to hit his stride when he began concentrating on writers such as Michael Moorcock and Fritz Leiber and Karl Edward Wagner. Everyone should be well aware of the importance of these authors to the history of Sword-and-Sorcery — and here Murphy shined, presenting some new and interesting details that I hadn’t seen covered before.

While I had certainly read my share of S&S, by the beginning of the eighties I’d had my fill of the same old, same old. Instead of Steak and Potatoes, writers were starting to deliver Spam and Mustard. And so I was done with what was once my favorite reading material.

Just at the time I was giving up, Murphy, almost twenty years younger than me, came on the scene through the Marvel Conan comic books, and this time period appears to be where his knowledge is deepest, and his presentation on the years of “rebirth” was especially interesting to me.

Interesting enough that I’m going to give up my self-imposed exile from S&S and do some fantasy exploration starting with David Gemmell and Glen Cook, two authors who,  I’m ashamed to say, I’ve never read. And so Murphy’s history does exactly what every book should do — it makes you want to read more. He went fishing. This reviewer swallowed the bait.

I’ve continued to read and reread some Howard every year since I found him in 1966. His decadent cities and scheming sorcerers have never grown old for me. Hopefully I’ll find some new and deadly ancient ruins populated by necromancers with almost unpronounceable names in my upcoming literary journeys. 

It should be noted that I purchased the Kindle edition of the book and found that the editing, and proofreading, could have been better. Clifford Ball, author of “Duar the Accursed,” is listed as “Henry Ball” and, at one point, Murphy writes of Frazetta’s cover for the Lancer edition of Conan the Barbarian. He, of course, meant Conan the Adventurer. Obviously he knows better, so I’m guessing hasty proofreading.

One further point. Absent from this book is any mention of David Mason, one of my favorites in those early days. His Kavin’s World is a classic and seems to be now somewhat overlooked, which is a pity.

Perhaps, if Murphy writes a second book on Sword-and-Sorcery,  he could include Mason, who makes Carter and de Camp look like second raters — which of course is exactly what they were.

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