Old Moon Quarterly has returned with its third installment of the year. Like previous issues, OMQ serves up an intriguing mix of grimdark and weird sword & sorcery fiction. Vol. 5 cover artist Derek Moore delivers the magazine’s most striking cover artwork to date: a skeleton in full plate harness equipped with a bec de corbin polearm. There are no interior illustrations or advertisements in this 89-page issue, and the text is presented in a single column layout.
After a brief Introduction expressing a desire to see more cerebral sword & sorcery tales in the vein of Robert E. Howard’s King Kull of Atlantis (as opposed to the more direct action yarns featuring Conan and his ilk), the issue opens with “Together Under the Wing,” by Jonathan Olfert. A Stone Age revenge tale with a twist, this story involves a young warrior driven to avenge the murder of his mother, the matriarch of their people. The wrinkle is that the protagonist, Walks-like-a-Rockslide, is a sentient mammoth with bladed tusks and his foe is the king of the giants. Appropriately, given the stature of these clashing titans, the struggle that follows is imbued with a palpable sense of momentum and inevitability. Mammoth and Giant King circle, close, and deal grievous wounds to each other. While the events of the narrative are straightforward, the unusual hero and heavy atmosphere of finality make this story stand out.
K.H. Vaughan’s “Champions Against the Maggot King” is another story that focuses on conjuring a very specific mood. The narrator, Grath, is a grunt in an imperial army locked in a desperate war against the monstrous hordes of the titular Maggot King. The story is presented as a series of vignettes showcasing both the formidable odds the soldiers are facing and the handful of elite heroes who may just be able to turn the tide. Sorrow Mai is a warrior woman with a massive axe and a “leather cuirass boiled in blood.” Ilhar, also called “The Raven,” is an untouchable elven duelist with a darkly poetic heart. Ko-Mon the Heartless is a scarred dwarf who wields an enchanted war chain that is powered by his pain. All these characters are anime levels of over-the-top and portrayed in a worshipful tone by Grath. Their enemies are likewise epic, especially the decomposing dragon that drips clumps of rotting flesh as it strafes the beleaguered troops below. There’s much in this story that’s excessive and even perhaps silly, but Vaughan absolutely sells it with a straight face. “Champions Against the Maggot King” is a grimdark treat that should appeal to fans of the Berserk and Bastard!! -Heavy Metal, Dark Fantasy- anime series as well as enthusiasts of The Black Company and The Malazan Book of the Fallen.
In a first for Old Moon Quarterly, issue 5 includes two poems: “The King’s Two Bodies” by Joe Koch, and Zachary Bos’ “A Warning Agaynste Woldes.” “The King’s Two Bodies” is vividly lyrical, if perhaps a bit opaque. “A Warning Agaynste Woldes,” however, was peppered with Old English and tedious to decipher. The poetry didn’t add much to this issue, in this reviewer’s opinion, but I would not be opposed to seeing more verse in the future.
“The Origin of Boghounds,” by Amelia Gorman, is another grimdark entry. Boghounds are dog-like creatures of unknown pedigree. When a bounty hunter named Samphire discovers Hum, the boghound companion of her mountebank target, she decides to use the boghound to track down its master. The pair face stiff opposition in the form of two competing bounty hunters, however, and the situation becomes even more lethal when together they all discover the monstrous and delightfully gross progenitor of the boghounds. This story is packed to the brim with entertaining weirdness. The characters are all quirky and strange, like NPCs from the Dark Souls video games, and the world is evocatively rendered despite the story’s brevity.
David K. Henrickson’s “Well Met at the Gates of Hell” is one of the more sword & sorcery-oriented tales in this issue. A nameless man awakens on a barren plain, under a starless sky. Three figures await him: a massive paladin with a glowing sword, a small dagger-wielding man with a hateful smile, and a 12-foot-tall praying mantis. The trio wish to kill the new arrival for his past offenses and have agreed among themselves to engage him in single combat, one at a time. The story that follows is a triptych of duels shot through with witty repartee reminiscent of The Princess Bride. The protagonist—I hesitate to call him the hero, his enemies seem justified in their hatred of him—and his opponents are all vague sketches, but Henrickson makes the minimalism work. The result is a completely fat-free story that gives the reader just enough to satiate them and not an ounce further. This was the highlight of the issue for me.
“The Skulls of Ghosts,” by Charles Gramlich, is another sword & sorcery adventure. The muscular warrior Krieg journeys into a plague-ridden kingdom trying to locate the malady’s sorcerous origin. While there is a lot to like about this story, it suffered by following “Well Met at the Gates of Hell.” There’s some nicely hallucinatory prose here—the story shares many characteristics with the King Kull tales celebrated in this issue’s Introduction—but “The Skulls of Ghosts” felt long and overstuffed compared to the other stories in issue #5. There were more named characters and backstory than seemed truly necessary, and the evil sorcerer’s habit of assuming other characters’ identities was confusing. The components of a good story are present, but it would have benefited from some trimming and tightening.
“Today, I met a man I had killed before,” opens “The Headsman’s Melancholy” by Joseph Andre Thomas. Set in 14th century England, the final story of the issue is related by Jack Marvell, an executioner in the employ of King Henry IV. While he professes job satisfaction, Marvell keeps a diary to help cope with his depression, and this story consists of a series of journal entries describing his encounters with a strange knave he has beheaded on multiple occasions. Bizarre and gleefully gory, with a cryptic ending, “The Headsman’s Melancholy” is oddly compelling. A fitting conclusion to a strong issue of Old Moon Quarterly.
Unlike some more generalist fantasy fiction magazines, Old Moon Quarterly gives the sense of a very specific editorial vision. A desired vibe. Their submission guidelines call for “dark and weird sword & sorcery,” and while that’s not inaccurate, it feels like it insufficiently articulates what makes a given story Old Moon Quarterly material. With the launch of their first Kickstarter campaign, however, it seems like the editors have zeroed in on a pithy way to describe the type of fiction they showcase: “Soulsborne-inspired.” In short, if you enjoy the brutal, gothic, grimdark aesthetic of From Software’s Dark Souls and Bloodborne video games, Old Moon Quarterly curates fiction with a similar feel. Old Moon Quarterly is recommended for dark fantasy fans of all stripes, but for those yearning for that elusive Soulsborne atmosphere in particular, this is the place.