Sword-and-sorcery fiction is heavily related with epic heavy metal. Robert E. Howard and Michael Moorcock are two of the first names a heavy metal fan might have in mind mainly because of characters like Conan the Barbarian and Elric of Melniboné, and their saga as told in songs of bands like Domine (“The Chronicles of the Black Sword”, “The Aquilonia Suite”), DoomSword (“Return to Imrryr”), Apollo Ra (“Bane of the Black Sword”), Ironsword (“Cimmeria”) and many more. But sword-and-sorcery fiction is much more and what’s more interesting is when heavy metal musicians create their own stories.
Jason Tarpey of Eternal Champion recently released his first book The Godblade through DMR Books, at the same time the new Eternal Champion album Ravening Iron was also released! DMR Books publishes fantasy, horror, and adventure fiction in the traditions of Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, H.P. Lovecraft, and other classic writers of the pulp era. When DMR Books started, they had this crazy idea of releasing an anthology of fantasy fiction including stories written by heavy metal musicians. Soon enough, more books followed and now we have the chance to talk with Dave Ritzlin of DMR Books about this story.
When did you start DMR Books and what was the main idea and goal behind it?
I started DMR Books in 2014. The idea was to bring back the type of sword-and-sorcery fiction that Robert E. Howard started in the late 1920s and was popular in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Very little in this genre was published during the last 20 or 30 years, and what did see print usually was lacking in some way. Even stuff that was touted as being “in the spirit of the pulps” usually missed the mark. It made me wonder if anyone alive today was even capable of writing in the old style. I figured if anyone was, it would be a heavy metal musician. Metalheads have a deep appreciation and respect for older styles of music, and I thought that would apply to another art form as well.
In 2015 I published my first book, Swords of Steel. It contained eight fantasy and horror stories by members of various metal bands, including Manilla Road, Bal-Sagoth, Cauldron Born, and Eternal Champion. Two more volumes followed. Then, the Omnibus Edition was published, which included every story from the three volumes, plus a few new ones. The Omnibus is available in both trade paperback and digital versions.
There are many metal musicians contributing stories in the Swords of Steel series, did you know about their writing abilities, and then contacted them? Did you ask someone to write an original story for your books? And how did most of them reply?
The first two musicians I contacted were E.C. Hellwell from Manilla Road and Byron Roberts from Bal-Sagoth. I knew from reading interviews that both of them had written stories that were never published. I figured lots of fans, myself included, would be interested in reading those stories. Other people I asked, like Howie Bentley of Cauldron Born, had already started writing fiction, but I wasn’t aware of it when I asked them. Most people I contacted were very enthusiastic about the idea.
It won’t be fair to separate them, but do you have any favorite stories from metal musicians? And did you get any story that you had to reject?
I like all of the stories in Swords of Steel, of course, but I’ll name two of my many favorites. Byron Roberts’ three-part series, “The Voyages of Caleb Blackthorne,” is fantastic. Anyone who’s read Bal-Sagoth lyrics knows Byron has an immense vocabulary, and he puts it to good use here. I also love Howie Bentley’s “Thannhausefeer’s Guest.” Even sword and sorcery fans who aren’t into metal acknowledged that story as an instant classic.
There were a few stories I rejected because the writing wasn’t strong enough. I wanted to maintain a high level of quality, and printing a subpar story doesn’t do the reader any favors. All of the stories I had to turn down were unsolicited. Everyone I invited sent me a good one.
Have you listened to any heavy metal album/song and thought “that could be evolved to a great story”?
Yes, one specific song gave me the idea for Swords of Steel: “Dark Avenger” by Manowar. The lyrics reminded me of the stories in the Swords against Darkness anthology series from the late ‘70s.
At what point did you start reprinting old classic stories, which are the most notable you published, and which ones would you love to reprint?
Shortly after Swords of Steel III I did my first reprint: Henry Kuttner’s science-fantasy novella “Lands of the Earthquake.” I’ve always thought that was one of his best, and it had only been printed in magazines before, never in book format. One of my most successful reprint releases is Heroes of Atlantis & Lemuria, which collects five of Manly Wade Wellman’s stories of Kardios, the last survivor of Atlantis, plus stories by Leigh Brackett and Frederick Arnold Kummer, Jr. that take place in the lost lands of Lemuria and Mu. Recently I put out an anthology entitled Renegade Swords, which has stories by some of the biggest names in the fantasy genre, such as Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, A. Merritt, Lin Carter, and more.
Speaking of Merritt, I’d love to reprint his novel Dwellers in the Mirage, which was most likely an influence on the creation of Conan. Dwellers has been reprinted many times, but without the original ending Merritt preferred. A book publication with the original ending is long overdue.
Fantasy, sword & sorcery, horror, adventure fiction… Do you believe that these types of stories are underrated in the world of literature?
Yeah, most readers of so-called “literary fiction” look down on fantasy and horror as immature or whatever. They’re the equivalent of music fans who would rather listen to Deafheaven than Helloween, so their opinions can be disregarded.
Are there any active modern writers that can match the quality of classic ones, like Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, H.P. Lovecraft?
Answering this question is going to be tough! Imagine if I said “Eternal Champion is as good as Iron Maiden” or “Demon Bitch is as good as Mercyful Fate.” The originators have built up a legacy so strong that it’s impossible for newcomers to be seen as equal, no matter how good they are. But I believe if you put Howie Bentley, Byron Roberts, and Schuyler Hernstrom up against the old masters, they won’t come up short.
If you could find an unreleased story from one writer, who would you want him to be and why?
My favorite writer is Clark Ashton Smith, so I’d love to find one more story from him. He made notes for lots of stories that were never written. It would be great if a finished manuscript of “The Doom of Azederac” or “The Oracle of Sadoqua” actually turned up!
Among the latest DMR books is J. Christopher Tarpey’s The Godblade. Known as Jason Tarpey, singer and lyricist of epic metallers Eternal Champion, the book explores the wider story behind the lyrics of Eternal Champion’s songs like “I am the Hammer” from their debut album but also songs from the new album, such as “Ravening Iron” and “Banners of Arhai”. All these tracks are part of one story, a story of “cold steel against dark gods”. How long have you been talking with Jason about this book and did he present you the wider idea while he was writing it over the years, thinking that there were already parts in songs since 2016?
The Godblade is a sequel to Jason’s story in the first Swords of Steel, “Vengeance of the Insane God,” so I was already familiar with the characters and world he had created. Other than that, he didn’t give me a whole lot of details about it while he was writing it. I just trusted that he would write a compelling tale that his fans would enjoy. Jason actually mentioned it in the liner notes of the first Eternal Champion album, so he’s been working on it for quite a while. Once Ravening Iron was completed, he had the time to finish it up.
An interesting info is that Brian LeBlanc who did the beautiful cover of The Godblade was also one of the artists considered for the new Eternal Champion album Ravening Iron. In the end, Ken Kelly ended working on the cover and we’ve all seen it. How important is the visual art in sword and sorcery literature?
It’s very important. The artwork sets the tone and lets the reader know what to expect. Plus, a well-done piece of art always attracts attention. I’m sure we’ve all picked up a book or album while browsing at the store because the cover jumped out at us.
A story can influence or guide an artist to create a painting but do you believe that a painting can influence a writer to come up with a full story?
Yes, an evocative painting can definitely fire up the imagination. Lord Dunsany wrote several stories based on work by the artist Sidney Sime, and I believe the US band Legend would come up with ideas for lyrics by viewing Frank Frazetta’s artwork. So there’s definitely a precedence for that.
You also published your own book, Necromancy in Nilztiria. Can you share a few words about it?
Necromancy in Nilztiria is a collection of thirteen stories I wrote over the past few years. When I started DMR Books, I hadn’t planned on becoming an author myself, but after editing and analyzing so many stories, I gained a better understanding of plotting, pacing, story structure, and things like that. My stories more or less fall under the category of sword-and-sorcery, but with the emphasis on the sorcery part of the equation. I have a dark sense of humor, so that’s injected into the tales as well. People have complimented me on being able to add humorous parts to a serious tale without turning it into a farce.
You can find and purchase books from DMR at their website, https://dmrbooks.com/