A Lament for Sword-and-Sorcery Champion Steve Tompkins (1960-2009)

Where now are the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
Where is the harp on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?
Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing?
They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.
Who shall gather the smoke of the deadwood burning,
Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?
— “Lament for the Rohirrim,” J.R.R. Tolkien

Today marks the 10 year anniversary of the death of Steve Tompkins (1960-2009). If you’re a fan of the type of content featured here on DMR Blog--whether or not you’ve ever heard of his name prior—today you should pour a libation for Steve, and honor a man whose passion for fantasy fiction in general and sword-and-sorcery literature in particular was second to none.

His death was and remains a cause for mourning. 48 is far, far too young to leave the circles of this world, and he left much unfinished. Had he lived, I believe we might have had an exhaustive history of sword-and-sorcery fiction on our bookshelves.

Once in a while when I’m reading a book or watching a film I’ll wonder, what would Steve have thought? What incisive analysis might he written on Howard Andrew Jones’ The Desert of Souls, or Joe Abercrombie’s Sharp Ends? Would he have loved HBO’s Game of Thrones, or bemoaned the recent Conan the Barbarian (2011)? And then I experience a pang of guilt when I realize that I am experiencing these things, and Steve cannot.

But his life and life work are nevertheless a cause for celebration. Steve wrote extensively and much of his writings are fortunately available online. You can find many of his essays transcribed here on the Swords of REH forum. He wrote for numerous Robert E. Howard journals and fanzines and The Robert E. Howard Electronic Amateur Press Association, and delved deep into the work of authors as diverse as J.R.R. Tolkien, Clark Ashton Smith, Karl Edward Wagner, and Charles Saunders of Imaro fame. Saunders in fact credited Steve for teaching him things about his own writing that he had never considered, for example Steve’s brilliant comparison of Imaro with Philoctetes, a Greek hero from the Trojan War. Saunders later said in a posthumous tribute to Tompkins published in REH: Two-Gun Raconteur that Tompkins’ essay was “a vindication of what I had attempted to do with Imaro and my other early fiction.” That’s about the highest complement to which a critic can aspire.

It was his work on The Cimmerian that first grabbed my attention and introduced me to his name. Later Steve, then site editor, asked me to contribute to the website. I’m proud of the work I did writing for The Cimmerian circa 2009-2010, and I greatly enjoyed an all-too brief email correspondence with Steve during that time. I credit Steve and Cimmerian journal editor Leo Grin for encouraging me to get my writings out to a broader audience.


Steve’s writings are very dense, thick with allusions, puns, and metaphor. As you would with a glass of expensive whiskey, you need to sip slowly and enjoy for their complexity, not down them at speed. They’re not for everybody, but for those willing to put in a little work, the rewards are great.

Steve was gaining wider notoriety in the years preceding his death. He was invited to write the introductions to some of the outstanding, pure Robert E. Howard collections published by Del Rey in the ‘oughts, including Kull: Exile of Atlantis (2006) and El Borak and Other Desert Adventures (2009) (thank you, Rusty Burke!). He also wrote a lengthy, brilliant essay that appears in The Best of Robert E. Howard, Volume 2, Grim Lands (2007). He championed Howard as a writer of depth and lasting relevance.

I’m a big fan of his introduction to Exile of Atlantis. Following is an excerpt from that, and is typical of Steve. Notice the vigorous defense of sword-and-sorcery, the paraphrase of Marlowe, the reference to anthropology with the allusion to the cunning serpent-men and our own reptilian brains. And most of all, observe the obvious joy he found in reading, and expressing that joy with over-the-top, exuberant writing. You cannot write like this without a true passion for the source material:  

The hope here has been that newcomers to Kull or Howard will entertain the possibility that, like one of Tuzun Thune’s mirrors, heroic fantasy can contain much more than just “hard shallowness”–at times, “gigantic depths loom up,” as with the serpent-men, who have never been bettered, despite all the alien and android fifth columns that followed, as a worst fear made cold flesh. (Like our own reptilian underbrains, they have been here all along.) But readers can entertain this, that, or the other thing at a later date. Now it is high time that they themselves were entertained, enthralled, even enchanted, and this book, in which the young Robert E. Howard finds his way to, and through, an old, old world, is equal to the task. Despite conspiracies serpentine or byzantine, despite all the ghosts and shadows of Kulls past and Cataclysms to come, the pages that follow prove that it remains passing brave, and surpassingly splendid, to be a king, and ride in triumph through the City of Wonders.

Today, consider reading something by Steve Tompkins. Be prepared to learn, to grin, and to shake your head in bafflement that someone could know this much, could have read this much, and could have loved heroic fiction this much.

Miss you brother.