Friday, October 21, 2011

Blood & Thunder Writing

After a recent discussion on the Sword & Sorcery League’s Facebook page, I have determined that a new term should be used to describe what many refer to as “old school” Sword & Sorcery. I guess we could just go ahead and call it Old School, but that gets so overused in so many different contexts these days. No, what we need is something that is evocative of the genre itself.

Now, when I say “Old School” I am referring to a specific type of Sword & Sorcery writing that is slightly different than what is commonly seen these days. These stories were high on action and intrigue, with detailed descriptions of spilt entrails and split skulls. Typically, the protagonist is a warrior, often a barbarian or one with barbaric tendencies. Now this image should immediately draw in your mind Robert E. Howard’s Conan. And for good reason. REH is almost solely responsible for pulling this image from myths and legends (such as Beowulf) and planting him firmly in the minds of modern readers.

For decades, Conan was the archetype of this kind of hero, especially in the 60’s and 70’s after his resurgence in popularity thanks to the Lancer/Ace paperbacks. However, since Howard was long gone from this world, and unable to fill the need people suddenly had for more of this type of action-oriented fantasy, others were called upon. What ensued was a plethora of Conan knock-offs (some call them “Clonans”) seeing print. Gardner F. Fox’s Kyrik and Kothar, Lin Carter’s Thongor, and John Jakes’ Brak were some of the more noteworthy endeavors. Like the tales of Conan, these stories were filled with action, perpetrated by barbaric warriors. And they were wildly popular.

However, in recent times, the genre of S&S has undergone some changes. The plots have become more nuanced and detailed. The characters are often less brawny and more brainy. Many feel that the modern incarnation of S&S has more in common with High Fantasy (minus the elves and such). It could be argued that the older stories were able to support such linear plots and action-oriented characters due to their short lengths. The Clonans of the 70’s were often no more than 150 pages long, and usually much less. The novels of today generally range in the 300-350+ range. This gives the author a lot more room to explore various aspects of the characters, introduce subplots, and have more non-action storytelling.

The question becomes then, what do we call these quicker, more brutal stories? One term has been bandied about for some time, in various contexts, but is sometimes associated with S&S fiction. “Blood & Thunder.” According to Phrase Finder, the basic meaning is “An oath, alluding to mayhem and bloodshed.” Sounds pretty apt to me. And that may be why noted Robert E. Howard Scholar, Mark Finn used it as the title of his biography of the man.

There you go. In my mind, Blood & Thunder succinctly describes these stories of barbaric violence and mayhem. So, from now on, I will refer to such tales, including anything similar that I may write, as “Blood & Thunder Fiction.” No idea if it will catch on, but who cares? I know what I mean. And I’m sure that, in the context of any given conversation it comes up in, the listener/reader will probably know what I mean as well.

Now, the other question: Is there still a market for Blood & Thunder?


Paul R. McNamee said...

Nathan Long has "sabre punk", but I think of that as more a s&s styling of epic/trilogy fantasy. A "punk" attitude towards the doorstopper novels.

At least, that is the image I get when I read the term.

J.P. or Joey said...

Silly? Are you kidding, Tom? This is a great article, and I totally agree with you. Old school has become such a darn cliche -- and Will Farrell running naked through the streets as he wife drives up to him is NOT an image I wish to associate with good old, BLOOD AND THUNDER sword and sorcery fiction. So B&T it is!!!!

Charles Gramlich said...

Good post. I've got to give it some thought. I like a lot of the old school stuff. Some of the newer stuff is great and some of it is too high fantasy for me. Food for thought for sure.

Jon Sprunk said...

Great post. Blood and Thunder!

Now the question is, what modern works fit into this category?

Tom Doolan said...

Honestly, I don't really know. But that's more of a reflection on my own reading habits. From what I read ABOUT what's out there, there's a lot of what I described in this post. It's S&S for sure, but with more intricate plots, more character development, etc. B&T is all about capitalizing on the known S&S tropes, that way you really don't need to characterize much.

For instance, when your main character is a hulking warrior, and your main villain is a sorcerer, there's really not much need to delve deep into the character beyond a few basic, snapshot details. I'm not sure if anyone is writing that anymore. Nor am I sure if that kind of thing would sell these days. Maybe with the advent of ePub, it might. Buying a $2.99 B&T Kindle would be more attractive than and $6.99 book that's only 150-2oo pages long. I mean, even Mack Bolan books are only about 200 pages in length. But they have almost no character development, since the character has been around since 1969, and those who read him know everything they need to enjoy the story.

Am I still on topic here?

Jason E. Thummel said...

I have to admit, when I hear the term S&S, I equate it with oldschool, or the B&T you propose, already, so it's the newer stuff that's not fitting the mold. As far as if there's a market for it now, I don't have any data to support it, but my gut says it is a pretty niche and small market. I think it is out there, the trouble might be finding it.

Tom Doolan said...

I think markets friendly to B&T are mainly going to be in e-publishing, anthologies, magazines (a few anyways) and indie/small presses. These seem to cater to smaller audiences, such as those of us who read this sort of stuff.

Certainly the big presses can't be expected to cater to such a niche market. It wouldn't be cost effective for them.

Keith said...

I think you are talking about a niche market, Tom, but it's one with some staying power. Blood and Thunder sounds like a good name for a major subgenre of sword and sorcery. I'm hoping to see more of it, especially with epublishing beginning to take off. It's one I like to read and it's one I write in from time to time.