David C. Smith presents the first non-fiction piece in Swords and Sorcery II, and it’s a beauty. There exists a massive amount of scholarship on Robert E. Howard, his life, his history, and his work, and with very few exceptions (see: Damon Knight’s spiteful and amateur analysis), the analysts agree that Howard’s work conveys a depth and significance all out of proportion to the humble pulp magazines that served as his canvas. Naturally, the literary criticism of Robert E. Howard presented in a swords and sorcery collection would be as positive as the majority, but the specific thrust of this book – written by heavy metal fans for heavy metal fans – allows David C. Smith to take a fresh and original approach.
That approach, analyzing the influence of Howard’s work on the heavy metal genre, doesn’t just allow for a fresh perspective on the great man himself, it also provides a glimpse into heavy metal for those of us who have only the most shallow knowledge of the style of music.
As a heavy metal neophyte, At the Crossroads: Swords, Sorcery, and Heavy Metal, documents not just examples of music groups that have tapped into the rich vein of sword and sorcery in general, and Robert E Howard in particular, but also delves into the specifics of why the two go hand in hand:
Not content with this this, Smith also goes into some detail as to how the heavy metal genre has branched out in new directions, rather than simply borrowing from Howard and his successors. Smith also sheds new light on how the influence has not been limited to one direction. He walks the reader through a few instances where the development of sword and sorcery tales as they have come down to us through the decades were influenced by heavy metal.
This isn’t a particularly long piece, and from what I can gather from the book’s introduction and the groups referenced in At the Crossroads, most of the examples presented are taken from bands whose members contributed to the book itself. Even so, the analysis of Howard et al’s work is outstanding. Smith’s experience in translating raw emotion into musical form pays off huge dividends when he turns that talent toward expressing his admiration and understanding of Howard’s work. In his fearless analysis and deep insights into the primal nature of man he clearly shares Howard’s own attitudes towards the written word.
While my first impression of Swords of Steel II was mixed, it left me with high hopes, and I’m pleased to report that with each new story I’ve read in the book, the quality has only improved. My initial misgivings have been completely swept away, and even though it isn’t perfect, I now feel confident in placing Swords of Steel II firmly in the “buy” category for all fans of sword and sorcery that honors the legacy of the masters who built the genre.