There are an awful lot of people out there who claim to be experts in medieval sword-fighting. Seriously, you can’t swing a live chainsaw without hitting one of them on message boards on-line. Let me be clear right up front: I’m not one of the experts. I know almost nothing of this esoteric and long-forgotten Western martial art. But as far as those who claim to be experts go, let’s just say I’m skeptical.
In truth, I think there are damned few real sword-fighting experts out there, not the real stuff, not the life and death stuff. Don’t get me wrong, there are wonderful athletes out there who have spent a lifetime mastering fencing as a sport, but that’s a sport and it’s not the same thing at all. I’m talking about a working knowledge of longsword combat where the winner kept living and the loser didn’t; the type of knowledge that was built up over a lifetime of daily practice and study. Certainly, there are many medieval and renaissance source books out there, and there are numerous and growing clubs of very keen practitioners actively seeking to rediscover the art of longsword fighting (often through meticulous study of the before-mentioned source books). YouTube is engorged with videos of clubs and practitioners. Clearly, Western sword-fighting is enjoying a rebirth, its own renaissance period, with new clubs popping up all over the place as people realize the West really does have its own martial art.
So where’s the realism in fantasy novels?
I’ve been fascinated with swords all my life. Really. I mean like totally spellbound with them. When I was a boy, I used to draw swords all over pieces of paper. Don’t ask me why, I don’t know, other than that I thought swords were cool. I also loved fantasy novels, the more adventurous the better. I loved John Norman’s Tarl Cabot of Gor series--before Norman went all weird on the subservient role of women to men and how what women really wanted were to be sex slaves of men. No, what I loved was the adventure of it all. When Tarl Cabot fought with his short sword, I was totally digging it. It was the whole swashbuckling thing; I ate it up. Movies were even better. The 1938 Adventures of Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn was a perfect example of what I loved. The scene at the end of the movie where Robin Hood battled Gisbourne in a protracted sword fight—throughout the castle, even on the stairs—was sheer brilliance.
But (and you knew there’d be a ‘but’ in there, right?) as you get older, you start to pick up on things that you didn’t really notice when you were a kid. First off, no one could swing a sword in a real fight for as long as Robin and Gisbourne did; they’d be exhausted. And, yes, I understand that knights trained with swords almost every day and were insanely fit and muscular (hence the term, ‘built like a knight’). But still, no one could do that. There are limits to the human body. Second, would the swords even have survived such a constant and prolonged battering? Maybe not. Probably not.
So, Robin and Gisbourne’s movie sword fight wasn’t realistic, but it sure did look good.
Is it the same thing with fantasy literature?
I remember the first fantasy novel I tried to write (probably about twenty years ago now. It was really bad, I mean really bad. First off, I didn’t research anything; instead, I just kind of ran with what I felt was right. The hero was an archer and used a longbow (I knew nothing about longbows either and it showed). He also had a longsword, and—again—knowing nothing of longswords and sword-fighting—my fight scenes were complete crap. In fact, the whole novel was an abysmal failure. I didn’t even finish it. On some level, I think I realized that I couldn’t just fake my way through stuff that I knew nothing about, and I didn’t want to do the research. Research wasn’t fun back then (it is now, but you develop discipline with time and your interests evolve).
I knew I had a proverbial mountain to climb, and when I finally did start researching sword-fighting it was many years later and almost by accident. I was on G.R.R. Martin’s webpage and he had a listing for source books that he had used to learn about sword-fighting. I figured I could do far worse than to emulate the amazing Mr. Martin, so I bought what looked like the best one on Amazon, John Clements’ Medieval Swordsmanship and proceeded to dig into it. Turns out I was right: I knew nothing about sword-fighting and most of what I thought I knew was wrong.
I loved this book. I’ve read it twice now and will read it again. It shattered my beliefs and exposed most of them for myths. Turns out, warriors didn’t like using their swords to parry other swords (doing so blunted or destroyed them); and if they did, they certainly didn’t use the edge. I also learned about the high, middle, and low guard positions (There were guard positions?). Previously, I always imagined you just held the sword loosely in front of you, pointy end toward your opponent. I don’t know why I was surprised, it’s the same thing in Karate, you rarely just stand there; instead, you assume fighting stances, from which you are well balanced and can easily strike out at your opponent. There’s a scene in the movie Kingdom of Heaven when Godfrey de Ibelin (Liam Neeson) corrects his son, Balion (Orlando Bloom), and orders him to use the high guard instead of the middle guard. This movie is one of the rare gems in Hollywood that get it right for a change. The high guard looks silly to our untrained eye, but it isn’t wrong; in fact, it’s very practical, but you’d never know that without researching real sword-fighting.
And the research was truly an eye-opening experience. You parry with the flat of the blade, not the edge; you rely on low strikes and rising cuts to your opponent’s arms and legs far more often than you try to lop off his head; and, straight and angled thrusts while parrying are critical if you want to survive. Again, we do the same thing in karate: when you’re advanced enough, you punch through your blocks. Medieval combat was fast and lethal. If it didn’t work, you didn’t learn it or use it. As it turns out, medieval sword-fighting was far more sophisticated than I imagined. I don’t know why I was so surprised. After all, knights drilled constantly.
Here’s another tidbit of knowledge from Mr. Clements: I always remember reading or hearing about the infamous ‘blood groove,’ the indentation that runs down the center of the blade that stops the suction effect that traps swords inside an opponent’s body after he or she has been stabbed. Turns out the blood groove is complete nonsense; an urban myth. The groove along the blade is actually called a fuller, and it’s there to improve the blade’s balance and flexibility, as well as to lighten the sword’s weight--not for stopping the blade from getting stuck in someone’s body. But doesn’t blood groove sound so much cooler?
And the coolness factor is critical, one I’ll come back to in a bit.
So, there are a number of problems for the serious author of medieval fantasy, or any other fiction where people fight with swords. First, most of what we have come to accept as truth is wrong. Swords were built for thrusting or slicing, rarely both; and what they were built for depended upon the type of armor your opponent wore and the period of history in which he wore it. It really was a symbiotic relationship, armor and swords. When your opponent wore plate or chainmail armor, you needed a sword with a point for thrusting between the plates or links. When your opponent wore leather or no armor, you needed something that could slash and cut. Many Viking-age swords, 800-1100 A.D., didn’t even have a pointed end, but a rounded one; after all, they were intended to slash and cut, not stab. Second, in fiction, as well as most films, sword-fighters are constantly beating at each other’s blades, often deflecting with the edge. But fighting like that broke swords, and swords were valuable, often really valuable—and surprisingly fragile. In fact, they snapped way more often than you’d think. Hell, you could even chip your blade on your opponent’s bones, which is something to bear in mind the next time you read about someone beheading their opponent. Third, the type of wounds in fiction often does not accurately reflect the severity of the tissue damage real swords made. Yes, swords could hack, but they were built to cut not hack. When you made contact with your opponent’s body, you’d have to draw the weapon back or shove it forward in order to cut your opponent. Think of how you cut steak. No one slams their steak knife against the meat; it doesn’t work that way; same thing with swords. And when you cut your opponent properly, you’d end up with massive trauma; I mean really horrific wounds and not the type of scrape or cut people could generally survive with a few stitches or a poultice. Check out the Bayeux Tapestries for some grisly examples of what longswords did to human bodies; think severed limbs. But the biggest problem I’ve found in a lot of fantasy literature is this: realistic sword-fighting just isn’t flashy; it’s lethal and it’s effective, but without a lot of hard work on the author’s part, it can come across as boring. The coolness factor often just isn’t there.
Let’s use the Hollywood example again. Turns out that there’s a very good reason why (most of the time) Hollywood’s sword fights are all flash and no substance: The flashy stuff looks good on film. It’s the exact same thing with martial arts. Most trained martial artists will tell you that kicks above the waist rarely work, yet the martial arts hero in the movies will always try to kick his or her opponent in the head—it looks good and it always works. In real life, however, he or she would probably miss and fall on their ass, then get said ass kicked by the opponent. The truth is, it’s really hard to kick with any power after your foot has travelled above your own waist, but few people know this. You’re actually much better off punching your opponent in the head than you are kicking him in the head. But (like the high guard with a longsword) that isn’t instinctive to the untrained eye; it just doesn’t seem right.
So, is realistic sword-fighting in fiction overrated? Does realism only matter to the die-hard medieval weapons fan? Do most authors write what they believe sword-fighting was like because they don’t know any better, or because the real stuff would bore the snot out of readers and be over all too quickly?
Well, like with most complex issues, it depends.
In my most recent novel, the hero, a Viking, fights with a Viking sword, one of the legendary Ulfberht blades that rivalled the Japanese katana for construction (check out the Nova documentary on YouTube; it’s fascinating). I took some liberties with the sword from a historical standpoint—for example, mine has a pointed end in an age that usually boasted round ends), but mostly I think I got it right. I also think I finally got the combat right. I actually researched sword-fighting this time, unlike that first, unfinished, fantasy novel twenty years ago. I even read descriptions of combat from ancient Norse sagas. I’m really happy with how the fighting came out on the page. For me, then, research and realism are necessary, and I believe they improved the flow of my sword-fights. Others would likely disagree.
So, is realism overrated? Maybe, but I think there’s a happy medium out there, one where realistic sword-fighting can still come across as exciting. We authors just need to work a bit harder and dig a bit deeper.
So I’m going to keep researching and writing realistic sword-fighting in my fiction. If it doesn’t read as fun, it’ll be because I haven’t done enough as a writer to make it fun.
And, if nothing else, maybe I’ll learn something new. And that’s never a waste of time.
A former soldier, William Stacey served his country for more than thirty years, including multiple combat tours in Bosnia and Afghanistan. William loves exercise and all things martial and is a black belt in karate.
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Beware the foe behind the strange threshold.
In 799 A.D. Viking warband leader Asgrim Wood-Nose sails his prized longship Sea Eel south along the coast of Frankia to raid the island of Noirmoutier—the Black Monastery.
Banned from his homeland following a night of rage-filled murder, Asgrim has been declared outlaw. Unless he can raise a princely blood debt, he will never see Denmark again. When a Saracen merchant brags of a great treasure hidden deep within the monastery, Asgrim realizes fate is offering him a chance to go home again. But Asgrim has led his men into a trap: somehow, the monks of the Black Monastery have released a dark supernatural force, an eastern demon that wears the skins of its victims. Hunted by this monstrous evil and tormented by the ghosts of those he has slain, Asgrim’s only ally becomes another lonely soul, a Frankish woman abandoned by her people under suspicion of witchcraft.
The Viking north clashes with the supernatural east in an epic historical fantasy tale of heroism and redemption in the face of unimaginable horror.
Voted 'Outstanding in Genre' by Red Adept Select.
Purchase Black Monastery by clicking the links below
Monica J. O’Rourke has published more than one hundred short stories in magazines such as Postscripts, Nasty Piece of Work, Fangoria, Nemonymous, and Brutarian and anthologies including The Mammoth Book of the Kama Sutra and These Guns for Hire. She is the author of Poisoning Eros I and II with Wrath James White, Suffer the Flesh, and the collection Experiments in Human Nature. She works as a freelance editor, proofreader, and book coach. Her website is an ongoing and seemingly endless work in progress, so find her on Facebook in the meantime.
We asked Monica O'Rouke to give us some back story on her tale, Loneliness Makes The Loudest Noise, in Eulogies II, and this is how she responded:
Quite a few years ago I worked for an outpatient psychiatric clinic at Beth Israel in Manhattan. We dealt with drug reps all the time. Usually they brought us drug samples (nothing great) and fresh coffee and bagels (often great), pens, mugs, other worthless junk.
But one day a rep showed up carrying a type of virtual-reality goggles, only these had been created as a learning tool for psychiatric medical students. We support (non-medical) staff were fortunate enough to get a turn using the goggles. What I saw that day was amazing: the world through the eyes of a schizophrenic.
I had always thought schizophrenics “just” heard voices or imagined things. What I saw, as seen through their eyes, was a skewed world, one almost literally on its side. As I walked through a virtual doctor’s office, I saw everyday objects transform, turn into puddles of goo, drip off the furniture. They weaved in and out of shape, out of dimensions. The doctor, who started off as a helpful, Freud-looking kind of guy transformed into a demon, horns jutting from his head, saliva dripping from his fangs (I used this when writing a scene between Jesse and her mother). It was terrifying. Everywhere I looked, more insanity.
I’ve never been able to get those visions out of my head, and I’d only been exposed to it for a few minutes. I tried to imagine what it would be like living with that every minute of every day … and then I wondered how someone, a mad-scientist of sorts, would try to help a patient this way. Would it be possible? Would he care about the long-term repercussions? Was he truly trying to help his patient, or was he watching her like a Petri-dish specimen?
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Gary McMahon : Kitty
Gary McMahon was born in Sunderland in 1969 and has a lifelong love of genre fiction. His critically acclaimed short fiction has appeared in many magazines and anthologies. His first mass market novel was "Hungry Hearts", which was then followed by the Thomas Usher books ("Pretty Little Dead Things" and "Dead Bad Things") and the "Concrete Grove" series of horror/urban fantasy novels.
His work has been nominated for the British Fantasy Award on seven seperate occassions. When reminded that he is still to win one of these, he gives a wry smile.
We asked Gary McMahon, the author of Kitty in Eulogies II to give us a bit of back story on his tale and this is how he responded:
The idea for Kitty came to me when I was watching the excellent TV show American Horror Story: Asylum. It was the episode titled “Piggy Piggy”, which features a character who is terrified of urban legends – specifically one known as Piggy Man, who can be conjured by saying the words “Here piggy, pig, pig” into a mirror. This urban legend was clearly invented for the show; I don’t think it’s one that’s been passed around in the usual manner. The writers came up with the story of Piggy Man, and for me that gives it an additional edge and makes it more interesting – it appeals to my love of stories within stories.
This idea fascinated me. I loved the notion of a fictional urban legend, and I’d been toying with writing something about suburban ennui and marital infidelity occurring within a tight group of friends. The two ideas merged, meshed, and Kitty was born.
The voice of the story came easily. The tone and rhythm were there from the start. I didn’t need to tinker with the story much after getting a first draft down on the page in a single intense sitting. I think it’s a strange, eerie, and oddly sexy little tale. I’m particularly proud of the final line, which never fails to give me the creeps. I have a feeling that the urban legend of Kitty might appear again, perhaps in a novel. I think there’s more to discover about the story. Kitty is still out there somewhere, roaming the night, sharpening her claws.
TT Zuma : Chiyoung and Dongsun’s Song
We asked T. T. Zuma about the backstory to his tale, Chiyoung and Dongsun’s Song and this is how he responded:
I’d love to say that there was some sort of philosophical or transcendental meaning to the plot, or even the ending in Chiyoung and Dongsun’s Song.
It would have been cool to say that there is deeper meaning to the story, and then be able to espouse intellectually on its moralistic premise.
But you know what? It’s just a story I made up. It has no lessons to impart or any redeeming value- unless you count entertaining the reader as a redeeming value.
Chiyoung and Dongsun’s Song started out as a writing exercise. Horror World occasionally conducts writing exercises for its membership (submissions are anonymous) using a published author as a moderator and allowing that moderator to choose the topic. In this case it was Robert Dunbar who accepted the position and his topic was Children’s Folk Lore.
I wrote Chiyoung and Dongsun’s Song in about a two week period and then I submitted it to Rob. After I submitted it, I forwarded it to my writers group to see what they thought of it, and damn, the look on their faces when I attended the next meeting sacred the hell out of me. I quickly emailed Rob and withdrew the story, replacing it with one I hastily wrote to fill the spot. In the meantime, I also shared Chiyoung and Dongsun’s Song with Chris Jones to get his feedback on it. He responded with a one word sentence, “Wow”, and I had no idea if that meant he liked it or not and I didn’t dare follow up.
Cut to the end of 2012 when Chris and Nanci were accepting submissions for Eulogies II. I submitted the only new story I had to Chris, one that I thought was good but was almost twice the length called for in the guidelines. He said it was okay, but did I happen to have that weird sex story about the young Korean kids still kicking around. To make a long story short, it turns out that “Wow” meant he had loved the story, and after many emails back and forth with Chris, I made it available to him.
Of all the stories I’ve written or have had published, I get the most comments about Chiyoung and Dongsun’s Song. Men almost always laugh when discussing the story with me and women usually have only a one word comment - and it isn’t “Wow”.
And, in case you are wondering, the answer is no, my wife hasn’t read Chiyoung and Dongsun’s song.
Stay tuned for the final guest post from Monica O'Rouke
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Keith Minnion : On The Hooks
Keith Minnion is something of a renaissance man. He is probably best known as an illustrator and as such he is one of the busiest in the horror fiction world. Since 1979, Keith has remained in constant demand and is extremely popular with the fans and collectors.
Keith Minnion has also been a publisher. His White Noise Press produced some of the most lavish and beautiful chapbooks that the genre has ever seen. Publishing such critically acclaimed authors as Brian Keene, Kealan Patrick Burke, Elizabeth Massie and Gary Braunbeck, White Noise kept the prices affordable for all, when many of its competitors were charging much more for inferiorly made chapbooks.
And Keith Minnion has been quietly publishing thoughtful, beautifully-written short stories since 1979 as well. His fiction has graced Asimov's SF Magazine, Cemetery Dance and other quality markets.
We asked Keith Minnion, the author of On The Hooks, in Eulogies II for a bit of back story on his tale and this is how he responded:
On The Hooks
Influences: “Karl”, a portrait painting by Andrew Wyeth; and “The Hunger Games” trilogy, which I was reading while I wrote it.
I saw a photograph posted on HorrorWorld’s messageboard one evening. The photo was of an old, abandoned ferris wheel half-covered in kudzu. The poster – Hellolost – suggested a contest to write a story about the ferris. Nanci Kalanta agreed: the winner would get their story published on (in?) HorrorWorld. Cool. So I wrote “On The Hooks.”
When I was done, however, I realized the story wasn’t really about the old ferris wheel; that had become a minor player, just interesting scenery, really. The story had instead become about the father/daughter relationship between Mal and little Dorothy. It had also morphed from a dirty dark horror piece into “if this goes on” SF. I hadn’t written SF in years, so that was another pleasant surprise (you mean you don’t outline? You don’t know how your stories end when you start? Umm, sometimes … nope!). Most important, though, the story was about those meat hooks, and what they represented to the citizens of the Nest; they were a neat and appropriate little metaphor for life and death, I thought. We all end up on the hooks eventually, right? Some of us are already hanging on ours, being nibbled away at, very slowly…
Anyway, I ended up pulling the story from the contest, and submitting it to “Eulogies-II” instead. And three crazy people decided to buy it.
We asked Rose Blackthorn, the author of, The Lilac Hedge, in Eulogies II for a bit of back story on her tale and this is how she responded:
I have been writing almost all of my life. I’ve had approximately 40 short stories published to date, as well as several poems. I’ve always been drawn to dark fiction – horror, dark fantasy, even fairy tales (the originals, not the Disney-fied versions). Those are the kinds of stories that I love to write, where beauty and love and happiness are side by side with the darkness we try to hide – or ignore.
The Lilac Hedge, the final story in Eulogies II is one of my favorite stories, because I was able to really delve into both, the light and the darkness. There is something bittersweet about the loss of innocence, growing up and letting go of childish illusions. Or finding out that the illusions were real.
The Lilac Hedge is partly based on my childhood. I grew up at my grandparents’ place, and they lived in an area that was mostly rural, with acres of fields surrounding the yard, and an annual vegetable garden. It is said that smell is one of the strongest triggers for memories and all these years later, I can still remember the smell of the lilacs on a warm spring evening, woven through with the scent of roses and fresh cut grass. My childhood was as prosaic and real world as anyone’s, but there is magic in memories. That’s what I wanted to try to capture in this story. There is beauty to be found in the everyday, but sometimes something darker lurks alongside of it.
The Lilac Hedge is the story of Yarrow. She is an innocent who deals with some of life’s painful realities – the recurring loss of her mother who abandons her over and over, and learning that she cannot always depend on those she loves. She meets someone, who is not part of the everyday world, a being completely outside her experience or expectations of life. Are his intentions good or evil? Are his motives pure or selfish? What sacrifices will Yarrow have to make to find the answers to these questions? Yarrow alone must make the choices that will define her life, for good or bad.
There are times when the heart wants what the heart wants, and there is no way to deny it. This story is about the choices she makes, and the affect they have on her life. Sometimes, love wins out in the end, but at what cost
Stay Tuned for posts from Gary McMahon and T. T. Zuma
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Keith Rommel is a native of Long Island, New York and currently lives with his family in Port Saint Lucie, Florida. Keith is a retail manager and has enjoyed collecting comic books since he was a child (a hobby inspired by a teacher in grade school to help overcome a reading comprehension disability).
Keith Rommel is the author of the critically acclaimed dark suspense Thanatology Series entitled The Cursed Man and The Lurking Man. His newest novel: You Killed My Brother is a fast-paced suspense thriller with crime and some rather unorthodox police work. Keith is the co screenplay writer for The Cursed Man movie and is currently hard at work on the third novel in the Thanatology Series due out winter 2013.
The Cursed Man is being filmed in Los Angeles, California as a major motion picture under the same title.
Read on for Keith's guest post and an excerpt from Keith's latest book.
Gerard Houarner is a native New Yorker, born to Breton immigrants, a product of the New York City school system, the City College of New York, and Columbia University. As a mental health professional, he's worked for over thirty years in psychiatric and substance abuse clinics and facilities throughout the city.
As a writer, he's had over 280 short stories, as well as novels and collections published in the past 40 years, and edited or co-edited anthologies and served as Fiction Editor for Space and Time magazine.
He continues to write, at night, mostly about the dark.