Howie K. Bentley has been an important part of DMR Books since the very beginning. When I came up with the concept getting heavy metal musicians to write sword and sorcery stories, he was one of the first people I contacted. I could tell by reading the lyrics of his band Cauldron Born that his love and knowledge of the fantasy genre was not merely superficial. With the Swords of Steel Omnibus Edition coming out next week, I thought it would be a good time to learn more about the man who wrote such impressive tales as “All Will Be Righted on Samhain” and “Thannhausefeer’s Guest.”
Which came first, your love for heavy metal music or sword and sorcery fiction? Did they become intertwined for you early on?
Ever since I was a little kid and I started learning to read I was into comic books and monster movies. As I got older, I moved to Doc Savage paperbacks. I read Lloyd Alexander’s The Black Cauldron when I was 10 years old. I thought the story was pretty much crap (even at that age), but the concept of the Cauldron Born left an impression on me and I liked the name so much that I would later name my band Cauldron Born. I also read a great book on Norse mythology when I was in grade school. Though, I can’t remember the title. There was a picture of Sigurd slaying Fafnir (the dragon)—I think the painting was done in the 1800s—and Sigurd had long wavy hair. I started thinking about growing my hair out like that. This was a few years before I even knew what heavy metal was. This book left a lasting impression on me, and I am sure it paved the way for my love of sword-and-sorcery.
When I was a teenager, I moved onto The Savage Sword of Conan comic magazines published by Marvel. I was really into those comics, so when John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian movie was released I had to see it. It was the best movie I had ever seen! Still is. This led me to the Lance/Ace Conan paperbacks with the Frank Frazetta covers. The Frazetta covers made me want to buy the books. Shortly after this I discovered my school library had a number of the John Carter/Mars books by Edgar Rice Burroughs. I was really into this masculine sort of fantasy fiction, so when I read Tolkien’s The Hobbit I was thinking “Damn!! This is awful! A little kid’s story? What is all the fuss about this?”
Around this time, I had discovered Ozzy Osbourne’s first two albums and Black Sabbath. It was a matter of convergence for me that would come together combining heavy metal and sword-and-sorcery. Something was just in the air in this decade. I can’t explain it. When my father was growing up in the ‘40s and ‘50s westerns were a big influence in popular culture. But when I was a teenager back in the ‘80s, sword-and-sorcery was the means of escapism through books and the cinema. There were all these great movies like Milius’s Conan the Barbarian, The Sword and the Sorcerer, The Beastmaster and so on. I would say it had a lot to do with the time I grew up, as far as my love for metal music and sword-and-sorcery. To a degree, I am a product of my time. So, yeah, they became intertwined early on. I became a lyricist out of necessity. No one else seemed to be able to write lyrics in my circle when we were forming bands back then. It was just second nature for me to write about the type of subject matter I was reading about in books and seeing in movies. At the time it had never crossed my mind to write a story in prose. My songs were stories.
Some of your stories in Swords of Steel feature the demonic character Thorn, who appears on all Cauldron Born album covers. How much of his concept had you developed before you began writing about him?
Quite a bit. Thorn is the physical manifestation of the third rune in the Armanen rune row. The rune is of a protective and martial nature. My character, Thorn, is the rune incarnate. Every rune has demonic and divine characteristics. I gave him both.
Another of your characters is the werewolf/barbarian/king Argantyr. How did you come up with the idea for him? What S&S heroes would you compare him to?
Argantyr was a seat-of-the-pants secondary character in a Thorn story that became a central character. The problem with Thorn is he is nearly omnipotent and needs to possess or work through another character for the story to work. He is like a god or demon. Argantyr became the perfect vehicle for this is in “The Heart of the Betrayer” (Swords of Steel II). I haven’t thought about which standard sword-and-sorcery characters Argantyr is comparable to, but if I had to try to sell the books to someone by describing Argantyr to an interested reader who wasn’t so familiar with the genre I would probably say, ”Well, imagine Conan the barbarian if he could turn into a werewolf when the going got really bad.” Argantyr has an ensorcelled wolf’s mantle that he wears. When he gets in a bind he recites an incantation that transforms him into a werewolf. I very well may have picked this up from the old Norse tales of Sigurd doing something similar, but not consciously. I only recently reread the Volsung saga.
How do you get into the writing mindset? Do you listen to metal (or any other music) while writing?
No. I don’t think listening to metal helps me much with writing. Walking around my property with my dog or going for a nice country drive helps me a lot more with plotting and where the story is going.
You've said before that Robert E. Howard was writing heavy metal in the '20s and '30s, only in literature instead of music. Which REH story do you think most exemplifies the heavy metal ethos, and why?
I guess heavy metal means different things to different people. To me, one of these elements is living one’s life as a free and wild entity and casting off the chains of oppression. Just going beyond the threshold, in general. This is one of the reasons people get into black magick and some of the philosophies dealing with the Left-Hand-Path. These things all embrace individual consciousness and going beyond boundaries imposed by collective consciousness. I immediately think of Howard’s Conan tale, “The God in the Bowl”. He has gone to the museum to steal a treasure and gets caught up in a murder investigation in which he is the chief suspect. What I am talking about is exemplified in the way Conan deals with his oppressors. The laws governing the region and the pecking order of society means nothing to him, and he isn’t intimidated in the least by these things.
Another example I would cite is Howard’s “By This Axe I Rule”. The protagonist here is Kull. Kull has raised himself up by his own hand from a barbarian warrior to the king of the mightiest empire in civilization. The majority of the conflict in the story is Kull struggling with the laws holding even a king in thrall. At the end of the story Kull has had enough. He rises up against his imposed boundaries—laws inscribed in stone tablets—smashing the tablets with his mighty battle-axe and proclaiming himself a free man and true ruler by declaring, “I am king, state, and law! By this axe I rule!”
You recently collaborated on a new writing project with Matthew Knight and fellow SOS author Byron A. Roberts. Tell us about it.
The title of the novel is Karnov: Phantom-Clad Rider of the Cosmic Ice. Matthew Knight is the vocalist/guitarist/songwriter for heavy metal band Eternal Winter. He came up with the concept of a warrior named Karnov who returns home after a long battle to find his village destroyed and his wife and child murdered by the vampyre lord, Ghormanteia. Karnov vows vengeance on Ghormanteia and the adventure begins. It is a sword-and-sorcery tale about a warrior who becomes a vampyre hunter.
The story is a round-robin. Matt wrote the first installment, then passed it on to me for the second part. I wrote the second installment, then passed it onto Byron for the final section. We completed a novella, then decided to go for another round-robin to make a novel. The novel is due to be published by DMR Books in December 2019.
Are you currently working on any new stories?
I am currently working on an Argantyr novel and a short story. One of the short stories is a sword-and-planet tale dealing with a character named Thargg Tanuth from my novella, Under a Dim Blue Sun.
It's been a while since the last releases by either of your bands, Cauldron Born and Briton Rites. Will you return to making music again?
Probably not. Playing music entails that I have to interact with a number of people to see my musical vision realized and I have no desire to deal with that.
Name one newer and one older book you have read and enjoyed recently. (“Newer” meaning from the past year or so, and “older” meaning written before 1980.)
As far as newer books, I really enjoyed Byron A. Roberts’ The Chronicles of Caylen-Tor. The prose is thick, and in some ways reminiscent of Clark Ashton Smith, but by no means derivative. This is balanced out by some great action in the detailed battle scenes.
Nowadays, I tend to read more nonfiction than fiction, but one important book to the sword-and-sorcery genre that I reread earlier this year is Clark Ashton Smith’s Tales of Zothique. I think it is a must read for all sword-and-sorcery fans as well as writers aspiring to write in the genre. The Zothique cycle comprises the largest body of unified Smith tales. The tales span a time period from 1932 to 1956. Zothique was the world he returned to the most through the many phases of his writing career. The tales are his darkest and they are utterly fantastic. He generally doesn’t set up a realistic framework and gradually introduce more outre elements like Robert E. Howard did with a lot of his S&S tales. Smith’s fiction is a ticket to another world and he doesn’t mess around when he’s taking you there. Along with Howard, Smith is the most important writer to the foundation on which the sword-and-sorcery genre is built.
Any final words?
Look for Karnov: Phantom-Clad Rider of the Cosmic Ice, due out in December from DMR Books. In the meantime you can pick up my books, The Snake-Man’s Bane and Under a Dim Blue Sun.