Monday, December 26, 2016

Deep Breath

No posting today, but next week will be the launch of next year's multi-part epic series The Sleeping Tyrant.  So stay frosty.

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Howling of the Gods

The wind was a curse, and above the scream of it as it lashed over the mountain peaks, Hel-Toth heard the howling of the gods. They dwelled high on the razor peaks that bounded the southern edge of the world he knew, and that his people called their home. When the wind came, their voices could be heard, uplifted in terrible cries that kept back the dark beings that dwelled over the border of the earth, awaiting their time to come forth and devour all that lived.

It was a black winter day, when the sky hung low over the unbounded forests, and Hel-Toth made his way among the great boles of the trees. They were not like lesser trees, such as a man might cut down to build a sword-hall, or hack into wood for bone-fires. These were trees of the elder forest that stood upon the earth before the ages of the ice, and they were like the pillars of the sky. He carried his bow ever-ready to draw and bring down the great red deer that lived in these woods, but today he saw no sign, no spoor.

A storm was coming, and he tasted it on the air like bitter gall. When night fell the snows would fall, and none should dare to be out in the dark, lest they be carried away in the wind and buried so deeply they would never be found. Hel-Toth was young, but he had seen the terrible power of the storms of deep winter.

Monday, December 12, 2016

The Howling God Collection

Here is the cover for the collected stories, which I will plan to have available by the first of the year.  There will be one more story this year, and the ebook will include a bonus story, so there will be 27 stories in all.  Donors will receive a code for a free download, and everyone else will be able to get it on Smashwords.  I plan for the stories to be presented in the order they posted in, except the series, which will be placed together.  Credit for the cover painting goes to Knud Baade Scene From the Era of Norwegian Sagas (1850).  Design by me.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Brothers of the Serpent

(This is a sequel to Scion of the Black Tower and The Veiled Kings)

Alzarra Dragonhand was brought to the Ukar islands in chains, lashed to the mast of a reaver ship stained with blood under a horned moon that turned red with an oncoming storm. The horizon was dark, shot through with lightning, as all the seas from the Ukar to the Strait of Hazul surged and boiled with one of the great summer storms that scourged the tropical coast.

The ship swept through the dark water and into the protected harbor of the corsair stronghold, oars slashing the waves and the serpent head upon the prow rearing up with bared fangs. Alzarra stood with her feet braced on the deck, feeling it heave beneath her as the seas deepened. Her wrists were clasped by cruel steel manacles, and a heavy rope circled her body and bound her to the mast. She thought perhaps she could break loose, but not yet.

The men on the deck divided their attention between the oncoming shore, the darkening horizon, and the woman they feared more than either. She had slain a dozen men before they took her sword from her and bound her in place, and now they came to land and they knew they had to unbind her to bring her ashore. And they had to keep her alive, because she bore the mark of their ancient kindred – the left hand scaled like the back of a dragon from which she took her name.

They drew up at the ancient stone jetty, and they gripped her chains and hacked through the ropes, and she did not resist as they dragged her from the deck of the ship and onto the shore. She looked up through the mist-haunted sky and saw the savage stone towers of the ancient city reared in another age, now covered in vines and hung with jungle flowers. She walked, a prisoner, up the streets that led between the ruins, filled with men and women of a dozen nations, and she knew this was what she had come to find.

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Sleeping Tyrant

So this first year of stories is winding down to a close, and there will be a few more, and then it will be time to start a new year. Rather than a series of loosely-connected tales like this year (as every story this year has taken place in the same world, just at widely differing places and times) next year I will tell a unified story. The idea is to do four story arcs that take up about three months – six installments – apiece. They will be self-contained stories, but they will all come together to tell one larger, book-length tale:

In a grim, frozen age, when clouds cover the sun and glaciers march down from the poles to conquer the earth, a young warrior will be forced to fight for his people, to rise and become a great chieftain in a dark land. When he dies he will be buried in a forbidden valley among ancient menhirs, and blood-sworn warriors will live to kill any who trespass upon the sacred lands. In ages to come, he will be unearthed, and a cult will rise about his name. Armies will march and nations will die in the wake of The Sleeping Tyrant.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Claws of the Sea

The storm-crowned ships rode the tormented sea, their brazen prows splitting the waves like axe-heads. Lightning lashed and beat against the water, shattering the ice that everywhere churned upon the surface. The storm clouds loomed high overhead, and the wind tore and screamed at the spars as the oarsmen struggled to drag the powerful craft against the heaving waters. There were three great ships, one greater than the rest, the center of it piled high like a tower with flame-lit windows.

Drune, the master of the ships, looked through the ports to the wracked sea and smiled. On such a night would his vengeance at last be accomplished. He had bled and hungered and suffered for this last, terrible day, and he would not be cheated of his fury.

Behind him, his ship-thanes gathered at the table, all of them hard men scaled and armored and with swords and daggers of steel belted at their sides. They were sailors, used to dangerous voyages and terrible seas, but even they looked hesitant to be at sea on a night like this. They gripped sword-hilts and axe-hafts and muttered prayers to the monstrous gods of the deep, pleasing and hoping to be spared.

There was a deep howling from belowdecks, and all of the men tensed and looked from one to the other, and Drune smiled. His power was his lack of fear. Revenge drove him, and so he had no fear of death. He stalked to the long table and leaned on it, the lantern-light reeling as the ship pitched down into a long wave-trough and then heaved upwards. They all felt the shudder as the prow split another wave, and Drune laughed.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Red Sonja

I mentioned the film version of Red Sonja in my article on the character, but in thinking about it, I realized I remembered very little about the film itself. I had not seen it in probably 25 years, and then only once, and I didn’t remember much in the way of details, so in the interest of fairness, I put it in my Netflix que and subjected myself to it, and yes, that is pretty much the right term. Any hoping that this was an underappreciated film was quickly dispelled.

Red Sonja was put together in 1985 – the year after the underwhelming Conan the Destroyer had gone a long way toward killing the film franchise, and this movie was pretty much the final nail. It was intended as a starring vehicle for Danish model Brigitte Nielsen, who had never acted before. She went on to a moderate film career after this, mostly in the 80s, but she never achieved any kind of real success after this misstep.

Monday, November 7, 2016

The Black Queen's Grave

(This story is the prequel to "The Red Sword's Lover")

In Anshan, the ancient city at the heart of Aru, the palace was lit by a thousand lanterns, and the scent of myrrh laced the air. Nitocris, only daughter of King Uresh, was to wed this night, and the city was dressed in its greatest finery. Kings of far lands, allies and foes, had all sent gifts to bless the marriage. There were fine silks from distant Gandara, gold and rich spices and resins from Maracanda. From Tyra came the famous blue dye, and from the Emperor in the north came a herd of six hundred fine white horses.

In her chamber, the dark-eyed princess was the center of a maelstrom of slaves and maidens. They hung her with silks and draped her with gold, and jewels gleamed in her hair and at her throat. The work of goldsmiths and jewelers crowned and bedecked her, and she looked lovely as a fever dream.

Her father came to see her as the sun lowered in the sky, dressed in his great robe of many colors. His hair was white and his beard rich and curled. He looked upon his daughter and smiled. “You are a vision of beauty,” he said. “The Goddess herself shall be envious, and Artabanus shall be lucky if Bal himself does not descend and carry you off.”

She looked on herself in the long, gold-rimmed mirror. Her dark hair was wrought into serpentine coils; her kohl-darkened eyes looked enormous. She was tall, with golden ornaments on her wrists and ankles. She was a strong girl.

Nitocris smiled at him. “My only regret is that mother did not live to see me wed.” She looked out over the city as it glowed in the sunset, the towers and domes lit golden as the sun lowered, shining on the river. “I would trade any or all of my fine rich gifts if she could be here for just this day.”

Uresh smiled and touched his daughter’s hair, his only child. “I would as well, my beloved. I would trade all.” He folded his hands behind him and looked out the window at his city. “I know this is not easy for you. You are of an independent mind.”

“I have chosen Artabanus,” she said. “He has respect, and grace. He will make a good husband, and a good king.” She looked at herself again, the mirror distorting her features just a little, so that she did not seem to be herself.

Monday, October 31, 2016

The Next Chapter

So the first year of New iron Age is drawing to a close.  I think the stories have been good, and even if the success of my Patreon has not been as good as I hoped, it's not bad.  There will be room for 4 more stories this year, and then I have to decide where to go from there.

I have concerns about burning out, about my stories starting to become formulaic or too much like one another.  24 stories in a year is a lot, and I don't want the quality and variety to drop off.  I have tried really hard to make all the stories different - settings, plots, characters - and not just fall back on the same tropes.  As the year has gone on, I have had some characters I wanted to return to, and see more of, so I have done a few sequels.

But I am thinking about next year.  Should I just keep on in 2017 or should I try something new?  Specifically, I have been thinking about doing a novel-length story next year, spread out over the 12 months.  2 chapters a month at the similar word length as the stories will yield me a novel-sized manuscript by the end of the year.  I have a good idea for it, and I think it could be cool.

So what do you guys think?  My readers?  I know there are people who come here every week to read the articles and the stories.  The articles will continue, but how about a longer-form story?  Tell me what you think.

And if you have not yet joined my Patreon, then this is a great time to show your appreciation.  Every dollar helps, and next year I intend to come up with some stronger perks.  Thanks so much to my donors!

Monday, October 24, 2016

The City of Gold and Fire

The sandstorm blew like a devil for three days, and then on the third the winds died and the sun rose and Mansa emerged from the cave where he had taken shelter. The sky was a hard, cruel blue overhead, the horizon hazed with the last remnant of the storm, and all around him were drifts of sand and the bare rocks of this desolate place. He had the clothes he wore, a half skin of water, and his sword, and that was all.

Hungry and wiping grit from his eyes beneath his turban, he climbed out of the half-buried cave and waded through the sand until he could climb onto a spur of rock to try to see where he was. The storm had come on so suddenly, there had been no time for the caravan to find shelter. The men and horses and camels and the wagons all scattered, hunting for shelter, trying to stay together even as wind and blinding sand forced them apart.

He saw nothing. The ground here was rocky, pillars of it rising up into the clean sky, the stones cut by many ages of wind and sand into strange, suggestive shapes. There was no trail in the sand, and no sign of any other living thing. The many rocks made this like a labyrinth, and he could not see very far in any direction.

The sun told him which way was east, and so he would go that way. He took the time to unwind his turban, shake the sand from the cloth, and then rewind it about his head. He rubbed the small gold amulet he wore and muttered a prayer to the warrior goddess who guarded his people in times of danger, then turned his face to the sun and began to walk.

He passed among the rocks, walking in and out of shadows cast by the monolithic stones, and then he stopped when he saw what lay before him. Two of the pillars of rock, hewn over aeons by wind, had been also worked by a more mortal hand, and he saw in them the shapes of towering warriors, decked in scaled armor and great shields. They held swords close to their sides, and their faces, while blurred by time, were both fierce and grave. They stood many times higher than a man, and they had an aura of waiting.

Beyond them he saw a valley of red stone and piled sands, with nothing to give any sign of habitation. Yet the stone giants had an air of guard, as though they kept an eternal watch over this place. Mansa stared at them, wondering what civilization could have raised such things in the waste. So far as he knew there had never been any city or nation in this place.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Winter is Coming

It’s obvious at this point that the great fantasy phenomenon of our time will be remembered as George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, known more colloquially by the name of the TV series A Game of Thrones. It’s unusual for a fantasy series to make this much of a cultural impact beyond the bounds of the genre, and the last time this really happened was with the popularization of The Lord of The Rings in the 60s and 70s. Martin’s work draws a lot of comparison to Tolkien, and there are often expressions of surprise that an epic fantasy could be so dark, but that is because it’s not really an epic fantasy.

Comparisons with Tolkien’s work are amusing but ultimately useless, because Martin is not writing epic or “high” fantasy like Tolkien avowedly was. Tolkien was inspired by myth, framed his stories as myth, and wrote them in a mythic style informed by his time and place. Martin is writing Sword & Sorcery, and the whole work has to be looked at in this light.

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Red Sword's Lover

The rising moon was red upon the desolate horizon, and wind moaned around the tents and fires of the army. All around rose the foothills of the Ushramu mountains, stark and treeless, black against the jeweled sky. The camp spread out along the narrow river that snaked through this ancient valley, every tent staked tight against the night winds. Banners fluttered and snapped like the fires themselves, and the men around them drank their wine and looked up to the ruined tower that thrust black into the sky. The stories told of that tower were passed from fire to fire, and those who heard them for the first time shuddered and made signs to protect against evil.

In a grand black tent at the camp’s heart lamps were lit and voices raised. Inside was a panoply of stolen finery: rugs and tapestries, silks and jewels. Gold spilled carelessly from cedar chests, and lovely young girls lounged naked upon silken cushions, their only adornment baubles and trinkets ripped from the bodies of princesses and kings. Braziers of green copper breathed strange incense into the close air.

At the center of the great pavilion Sisyphus the Elamite, usurper and wizard, reclined upon his divan, resplendent in his black-jeweled robe. His shaved skull reflected the red lamplight, revealing the whorled tattoos that covered his scalp. Only a single scalp-lock of his black hair trailed from his head into a knot of braids. His eyes were dark as burned iron, lit by his terrible ambition and dark powers.

Monday, October 3, 2016

The Second World

Sword & Sorcery is a rather unique subgenre in that it can exist in different kinds of fantasy worlds. Most S&S exists in what are called Secondary or Constructed worlds – completely imaginary worlds designed, as it were, from the ground up – while other stories in the genre are told in a genuine historical context.

This is, again, largely a legacy of Howard, the inventor of the form. Most of the models he had for adventure stories were of one of two types: historical adventure, or what are called “Lost Race” stories set in some unexplored corner of the earth. Talbot Mundy was the king of the historical adventure in his day, and a big influence on Howard. Some of his finest works are tales like “The Grey God Passes” or “Worms of the Earth” which are expressly set in the real world. Howard was drawn especially to the years of Roman Britain, or the dark ages of Celtic or Viking Europe.

But like a lot of writers, he felt constrained by history. It was not always possible to tell the kinds of stories he wanted in a real time and place, even one as poorly documented as the Dark Ages. Plus, history requires research, and the ever-present chance that some new finding will make your story look foolish. Even in Howard’s time, the blank spaces on the map were shrinking. Lost Race tales of hidden valleys and forgotten civilizations were becoming harder to get away with.

So he made his own world. He was not the first. Other writers had done it before, most famously the pseudo-Arthurian world laid out by William Morris in The Well At The World’s End and by Lord Dunsany with Pegana and the stories set there. Neither of these were quuuite like modern Constructed Fantasy worlds. Morris’ world was too reminiscent of our own, and Pegana was more poetically evoked than detailed. Also, Howard wanted a world that resembled our own history but was not bound by it. A gritty, barbaric world for his gritty, barbaric stories.

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Veiled Kings

(This story is a sequel to "Scion of the Black Tower")

Alzarra Dragonhand came over the sea and to the faded city of Knar, riding the prow of a black ship with her dark sword at her side. She was tall; lean and hungry like a sea-wolf. Her skin was dark and her black hair was braided like a knot of serpents. Her left hand was armored with black scales, and thus was given her name, a name feared in a hundred cities and hunted across the endless expanses of the old empires.

The ship rode the gentle wind in between the towering pillars that guarded the harbor. Long ago there had been a great sea-gate in this place, but now the stone was stained green with age and crumbled down into ruins that slumbered like the shapes of ancient glory hidden beneath burial shrouds. Ahead of her she saw the city itself arising from the cold mists, like a shadow in a forgotten dream.

It was familiar to her, though she had never seen it before. Every line and arch and tower looked right to her eye. The city was dark in the overcast day, hollow with shadows and empty places. The waters of the sea gathered at the edge of the docks green with weeds and choked by refuse. The smell of neglect and rot drifted over the slack tide, and the waves were marked by the slumped ruins of proud buildings now long subsumed into the sea, crumpled beneath the march of the waters.

Knar was a dying city. Once the outpost of a great empire, it remained like a single bone of a rotted body thrust up from the earth. Roads and walls and kingdoms died away and yet it remained. Much of it was abandoned, with far too few people still dwelling in the rotted stone towers and the open-roofed ruins. The great edifices were stained with algae and lichens, dripping with moss in the constant wetness of the climate. Knotted trees sprouted between the stones, and vines crawled and hung everywhere she looked.

Alzarra stepped off the boat when it drew up to the ancient jetty. The waterfront markets were sullen and gloomy, the narrow pathways choked by hooded people going silent about their way. She drew her own cloak over her shoulders and her hood up over her head. But she made no effort to conceal her scaled arm, as indeed she never would. It was the mark of her destiny, and she would not hide it.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Dragon in the Dungeon

By the 1970s the Sword & Sorcery boom was in full swing, with books and comics both adapting older works and creating their own. After Conan the Barbarian in 1980 movies got in on the act, and it was inevitable that the genre would extend its reach into other media. One of the most influential on the longevity of the style was the advent of fantasy games.

Fantasy role-playing games grew out of the tabletop warfare simulations that had been a hobby since the 1780s and had grown immensely in popularity through the 19th century. It was after WW2 that the market for wargames exploded, and soon enough people started looking for new things. The popularity of fantasy in the 60s and onward provided an obvious outlet. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy provided many examples of epic battles, and imitators like Sword of Shannara doubled down on the big war sequences in line with the tastes of the time.

Because Tolkien, for all his heroic trappings, was not a fan of war as entertainment. He had served in the trenches of the Great War and lost friends. He did not glorify violence in his work. Other fantasy authors were, however, glad to make up for that. The strain of violent, darker “heroic fantasy”, descended from Howard and the pulp writers, was there to step into the breach.

Dungeons and Dragons was the first real fantasy role-playing game. After first attempting to make rules for fantasy armies, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson created rules for playing an individual fantasy character, and the tabletop RPG was born.

Despite the amount of Tolkien influence on the worldbuilding of D&D – halflings, elves, rangers, etc – the gameplay owes much more of a debt to Sword & Sorcery tropes and styles. After all, while many players aspired to fight evil and do battle against powerful foes in a fully-realized High Fantasy realm, the truth of play was much different as the game was first written. Players dreamed of high fantasy, but that’s not what the game really simulated.

Because the world and play of D&D was pretty much the model for every kill-and-loot game since then, whether on paper or in video games like Gauntlet or Diablo. The whole point was to make your way through an underground maze, kill monsters, and take the treasure they left behind. There was some hand-waving towards good vs evil, but really, the moral waters of the original game were pretty muddy. It was a world with gods and heroes and devils and sorcerers, but rather than strictly good vs evil, it was much more players versus everyone else.

That is much more an S&S kind of setup, and even the image on the famous cover of the original Players Handbook depicted a scene right out of a Howard story: the heroes raiding a temple of lizard men, looting the treasure as they planned for the next attack. That is a scene that could have taken place in any S&S tale from the pulp days, and there are any number of tales by Howard or Leiber about the brave heroes venturing into some ancient ruin or haunted wilderness in search of gold and jewels.

In its earliest days, D&D required a very S&S kind of play – characters wandering from ruin to ruin, plumbing down into caverns and lost temples, killing anything in their path and then looting anything that was not nailed down. That is not a High Fantasy approach, it is explicitly rooted in the moral ambiguity and noir sensibilities of Sword & Sorcery.

When D&D blew up in popularity in the 80s, it got a whole generation accustomed to the tropes and feel of the pulps, and sent a lot of them hunting through libraries for classic works listed in the D&D bibliography for inspiration. I think more than shape the course of the genre as a whole, D&D had a big part in making sure there was an audience for it. A generation grew up dreaming about dungeons and ruins and swords and magic and monsters, and that made sure that the appetite for Sword & Sorcery adventure stayed fresh.

Monday, September 12, 2016

To the Skull Tower

Jaga made her way through the tenebrous jungle night under a full moon. A mist hung in the air, between the giant boles of the primordial trees, and all around were the sounds of the creatures of darkness. Insects cried and monkeys jabbered, and now and again came the tortured scream of a leopard. She moved with absolute silence, walking on bare feet as she slipped through the shadows and silver light to the place where she could look up to the dark tower.

She had never seen it, yet a thousand tales spoke of the skull-covered ruin high in the upland forests. The black stone was volcanic, hewn from the soil of the mountain, and the bones of those slain in that long-ago eruption jutted from the black glassine blocks, carefully cut so that each one showed the face of the dead to the solitary night. The tower was ancient and covered in red vines studded with thorns that dripped a killing venom; it had been built and abandoned in a forgotten age, and tonight a light gleamed in the topmost window.

Jaga reached the base of the tower and crouched in the darkness at the edge of the trees. Wary, her ears straining to hear the slightest sound, she tested her bowstring and loosened her sword in its sheath. Around her right wrist was a charm to ward off evil magic, and mail shimmered on her shoulders and arms. Inside, she would find the fugitive sorcerer Shevan, and this time, no spell would deflect her fatal arrow.

Monday, September 5, 2016

An Age Undreamed Of

One of the interesting things about studying the history of any genre is how sometimes obscure and unheralded people can make a big impact on the look and feel of one. Like how Ralph McQuarrie had a huge impact on how starships are designed and on the look of modern Sci-Fi in general, when for decades he was almost unknown outside of film buff circles. Similarly, the overall look of Sword & Sorcery in modern art and film owes a huge debt to artist Ron Cobb.

Cobb has had a kind of spotty, under-the-radar career. He has worked mostly as a conceptual artist, and has an impressive array of film work, mostly in the 70s and 80s. His work credits include classics like Star Wars, Alien, Total Recall, The Last Starfighter, and True Lies. A friend of Spielberg, he was originally to direct the proposed sequel to Close Encounters – a film to be called Dark Skies, but which eventually evolved into E.T.

The reason he was not around to direct said movie was because he had taken one of his few jobs as a full-on production designer for Conan the Barbarian. Cobb only ever took full production design duties on 4 films – including the cult classics Leviathan and The Last Starfighter, but it was his work on Conan that set the tone for an entire film genre.

Milius said he was much more influenced by Frazetta’s work than by Howard’s, and that may be true, because film is a visual medium, and the genius of Frazetta’s vision can’t be argued with. But it was Cobb who was tasked with coming up with the look of the Hyborean Age on camera. He couldn’t just copy Frazetta’s work, he wanted and needed the film to have its own aesthetic and feel, and so he set to work.

Obviously influenced by the jagged barbarism of Frazetta, Cobb needed cleaner, sharper designs that would work on film, as well as be physically sturdy and practical. They were filming in Spain, out in the boonies, and props and sets had to stand up to a good deal of punishment.

Cobb’s design work was up to the task, as he had a lot of experience working on film, and a study of his work reveals a style rooted in comic book flamboyance, but also with a meticulous attention to details. His designs are eye-catching, but conceived of with a great understanding for the needs of space and architectural practicalities. He made the temples of Thulsa Doom fantastical, but also with a grounding in real structures and a sense of almost Nouveau grandeur.

This combination of comic-book style and rich detail made his work a perfect distillation of everything the Hyborean Age needed to be. Milius’ movie was exotic and fantastical, but grounded in a gritty, real world. It was not a fantasy world with magic and monsters around every corner – much of it was just as real as our own history. Cobb’s designs were simultaneously iconic and believable.

It shows in how thoroughly his work was imitated by the slew of knockoff S&S movies that flooded out in the early 80s. From poor adaptations like Gor to straight-up pastiches like Barbarian Queen or The Sword and the Sorcerer, the look owed much more to Cobb’s design work than to any other artistic model. Everything from structures to costumes to the weapons was designed with an eye to his groundbreaking work on Conan.

Cobb has not worked on much of anything film-related since the 90s, and at the age of 80 I imagine he is probably mostly retired. His is another one of the mostly-unseen hands that shaped the image and popular conception of Sword & Sorcery, and like most his imitators have almost obscured his genuine contributions, but his work remains.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Thralls of the Wolf Queen

It was a black day under a sky full of fire when the Wolf Queen came to the city of Avara. Her armies marched unstoppable through the fields and the dales, bringing fire and rapine and slaughter with them, and smoke boiled up on all sides of the walled city like a hundred funeral pyres. The defenders could smell the burning flesh of men and beasts, and they saw the masses of prisoners driven with whips ahead of the armies to be put to raising their siegeworks.

Actaon was no knight on that day, and he stood on the walls with many men who had fled to the city with family and all they could bear to take refuge behind ancient stone fortifications. When he and his mother and children passed through the gate, the walls looked so thick and heavy he did not fear that anything would breach them, but he had not yet seen the might of the Wolf Queen’s army. Now he looked on her battalions of steel covering the earth and saw the siege towers moving like giants along the roads, dragged by ragged bands of slaves, and he knew that the fist of the queen could indeed sunder the city.

And so when they called forth for every able man to take up arms in defense of the city, Actaon left his children with his mother huddled in a crowded house with a hundred other fearful refugees, and went to to the walls. He was older than the fearful young men, and it had been many years since he lifted a sword. Yet there were no swords to be had, only stacks of hastily-made spears with the heads still black from the forging.

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Riddle of Steel

Beginning with the Lancer editions of Howard’s stories in 1966, there was a steady increase in the interest in the Sword & Sorcery genre, and in Conan in particular. The books kicked off the wave of S&S that went through the 70s and into the 80s, while the character and genre spread out into comic books and video and tabletop games. It was probably inevitable that eventually Conan – the poster boy for Sword & Sorcery – would find his way onto the big screen.

There was interest in a Conan movie as far back as 1970, as Hollywood knows a hot property when it sees one, and the 70s were a far more adventurous time for filmmakers than today. Budgets were cheaper, and censorship had been lifted, paving the way for the exploitation/grindhouse films of the era. Producer Howard Pressman really got things going in ‛75, and soon enough they had nabbed up-and-coming screenwriter Oliver Stone to produce a script, and they made what would prove to be the most important casting decision in the character’s history – they attached Austrian bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger to star as the lead.

It’s hard to remember now, but at the time Schwarzenegger was a mostly unknown actor, having played in only a few small films with little in the way of dialogue. He had made an impression with the bodybuilding film Pumping Iron, but he was by no means a known quantity. He was a 34-year-old actor with a jawbreaking name, a thick accent, and a meager resume.

For better or worse, Conan was his breakthrough role, and the icon of the bodybuilder with the thick accent and few words became cemented in the popular consciousness as the archetype of the Sword & Sorcery hero. Even now, almost 35 years later, the image and iconography of the film has proved ineradicable.


It endures because – no matter the liberties taken with the source material – the movie is actually really good. The original script by Stone was highly fantastical, featuring Conan descending into hell and fighting legions of demons. Director John Milius pared this down to a much more real-world adventure, with only some fantastical elements. The result is a bloody, savage, highly entertaining adventure that is cleanly and clearly in the spirit of Howard’s work. Even if he might have cringed at the alterations to his characters and settings, the results are a film Howard would have no doubt enjoyed.

Part of this is the script, with the classic quotable speeches: “Conan, what is best in life?”, or “What is the riddle of steel?” It was written with a grim, fatalistic tone that did not skimp on either the violence nor the deeper philosophies that lurked behind the world and its characters. It treated the Hyborean Age as a real place, and took it and the characters seriously. Unlike other fantasy films of the day, there was little to no humor, no camp, no fuzzy cute sidekick to make toys out of. The studio had some trepidation about releasing it as an R-rated film, but Milius refused to compromise.

Another element, undoubtedly, was the score by the late Basil Poledouris. The studio had originally been planning to record a rock-based soundtrack, but Milius wanted a deep, classical, operatic score, and Poledouris delivered with what is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest works of film music ever written – one that still makes waves and inspires imitators more than three decades after the release.

Not a lot of movies maintain cultural relevance so long after their day. Conan remains so because whatever else it did, it tapped into the grim, violent energy of the original character. No, Arnold did not and does not look like the way the character was described. But he embodied the brooding savagery of Conan in a way that connected with audiences. Milius paid more attention to Frazetta’s artwork than to Howard’s stories, but he created a world that looked and felt real. That was gritty and bloody and dark, inhabited by characters that were neither good nor evil, but only trying to survive.

The film was a hit, bringing in over $100 million dollars against a budget of around $16 million (a figure that seems incredible now). Two years after the film was followed by the much-less-good sequel Conan the Destroyer, and Conan would not appear in a film for another 27 years. The initial success kicked off a surge of schlocky S&S movies that ran through the 1980s, forever associating the genre in many minds with cheap effects, bad dialogue, and oiled-up musclemen. Sadly, this wave of poor imitators inflicted damage on the genre that has yet to be undone.

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Breaking of Kings

Boru made his way uphill, using his spear to help him climb the steep slope through the thick grass. The sky was overcast and low, and when he looked around to the hills he saw the rocky peaks cutting through the clouds like stone knives. Ahead of him his guide climbed the last short way over the narrow pass, and behind him his ten thegns toiled to keep up, spears in hand and shields on their backs. They bore wounds without complaint, for each of them was as sworn to this path as he.

He crested the pass, and stood on the rocky earth and looked on the cursed valley. Just as the story spoke, there was the ancient tower, and the still black tarn beside it. The forest on the far side of the vale hemmed it all in and brooded dark and ancient. Only ravens called in this place, and soon there would be food for them in plenty.

His guide was a short man of the hills, with blonde hair and a dark face. He was younger than he looked, for the life of the hillmen made them old before their days. He gestured beyond. “There, the bloody tower, and the black tarn.” He smiled. “As I said. No one else but my clan knows the way, and no one will dare come here, save I and my brothers.”

“And you think I do not know you sent your brothers to find King Goros and guide him here?” Boru said. Before the man could move Boru lunged in with his iron spear and struck a terrible blow, cracking his breastbone apart and impaling him in blood.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Vengeance in Her Lair

There have been a lot of Sword & Sorcery painters, and I will get to many of them, but one of the finest and most enigmatic was Catherine Jones, born Jeffrey Durwood Jones in Atlanta Georgia. Called by no less a person than Frazetta “the greatest living painter”, Jones had a successful career and a sometimes difficult life, and overall has remained somewhat of an artist’s artist – appreciated by peers more than fans.

Jones first came to light in the 70s along with the cresting wave of S&S popularity, and she provided many illustrations of heroes like Solomon Kane, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, and Conan himself. She did comic line-art, marked by heavy use of blacks and complicated, organic linework, but her real strength and demand was covers. Jones was an amazing painter, with an understated style that often garnered less attention than artists with flashier, shallower work. Her look was layered, erudite, and complex, with as much influence from Klimt as from anyone contemporary.

Her work was moody and dark, with sharp details that shot through like lightning. She illustrated over 150 book covers, and rendered many Sword & Sorcery heroes, both well-known and obscure. Further, one can see her influence on other artists, from Frazetta himself to Sanjulian and Kelly.

Jones’ life was troubled. Married to Mary Louise Alexander for many years (who would later be widely known as comics writer Louise Simonson), Jones began to question her gender identity. After her divorce she moved into studio space in Manhattan with Bernie Wrightson, Barry Windsor-Smith, and Micheal Kaluta to form a collective called The Studio. Virtually a template for artist collectives formed since, it captured all four of them at pretty much the peak of their powers.

After the Studio broke up in 1979, Jones became more interested in expressionism and fine art, and worked less. By 1998 she was ready to address her identity issues, and began hormone therapy and changed her name from Jeff to Catherine, and as Catherine she was known and will be remembered.

By 2001 she suffered a serious nervous breakdown, which cost her both her studio and home, and which took years to recover from. By 2004 she was working again, but her health deteriorated. She died in 2011 after suffering long ailments including emphysema and heart disease, and passed into legend.

Jones’ work eschewed the lurid details of the common Sword & Sorcery artwork and focused on complex color, texture, and a virtually unmatched control of light and shadow. Her work was murky, iconic, brooding, and menacing. Many more people have seen her work than know her name, and many artists walk in her shadow without even knowing it.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Sons of the Blood Star

The land stretched out before them endlessly, turning from the sere yellow of the plains to the deep red of the desert. Around them the last few trees stood stunted and bent by the wind, and the last channel of the river lay like a rope of red mud, with scarcely a trickle of water down the center like blood. There were fourteen men in this company of mercenaries: twelve soldiers, one officer, and their prisoner.

The officer was a centenary named Malthus, and he did not like what he saw. On the maps this arm of the desert was narrow, and it would only take a few days to cross it. Even here he could make out the shadows of the stark hills in the north that marked the far southern edge of the Jeweled Kingdoms. They were close, and they needed every moment.

He looked at his men and saw they were weary but still steady. They sweated in their leather armor and bronze-crowned helms, but their grip on their spears was firm, and they eyes told no fear. The pack animals bore food in plenty, and there was enough water in their skins for the crossing, if they were cautious. His men were hard, lean border men. They did not shrink from a long march.

Malthus looked backward, over the hills and the golden-grass plains behind them, and he saw there still the plume of dust. The Jhagars were perhaps a day behind them, and they would gain quickly on their horses. He and his men were afoot, and they were at a terrible disadvantage in this country. If they tried to push west toward the coast, around the spit of barren wasteland, they would be overtaken. There was no way to know how many men were in pursuit, and he could not risk losing his captive.

Now he looked at the man who caused all this trouble. He was taller than Malthus or most of his men. His skin was a dark, reddish shade, like his fellow nomads, and his hair was black. The sides of his head were shaved and tattooed, only the center growing long and braided. A heavy beam lay across his shoulders, his arms hooked over it and bound in place with heavy leather thongs. He was naked save for a loincloth, and his body bore bruises and the marks of the whip.

When Malthus looked at him, the prisoner lifted his head, and then Malthus had to force himself not to shudder at the sight of those black, blank eyes. This was Vha Shar, the war-shaman of the Jhagar horsemen, and he made Malthus flesh creep.

“You will not wish to go into the desert,” Vha Shar said, his voice unnaturally deep and jagged, like broken obsidian. “Not in this place.”

Monday, July 25, 2016

She-Devil With A Sword

One of the indelible images of the Sword & Sorcery genre is the lady barbarian warrior in the armored bikini. Regardless of changing times and attitudes, there never seems to be a lack of interest in the hot chick in the skimpy clothes, waving a sword or an axe as of that were able to offset the essential sexism and fanservice of the trope. The most popular, well-known, and enduring of these characters, is the red-haired swordswoman known as Red Sonja.

Often claimed to be a creation of Robert E. Howard, the claim is only half true. Howard created a character named Red Sonya of Rogatino in the story “The Shadow of the Vulture” in 1934. She was at the historical Siege of Vienna in 1529, and was depicted as a fully-clothed warrior woman of the period. The comics apparently took her name and her hair, as those were too good to pass up, and they mixed in the persona of another Howard warrior woman named Dark Agnes de Chastillion to create a whole new character.

The original story was written by Roy Thomas and drawn by Howard Chaykin in 1973. The story set the new Red Sonja in the Hyborean Age, and made her part of the Conan mythos in the comics. She appeared in the main Conan the Barbarian comics, then in Savage Sword of Conan, and her popularity led to her getting her own series in Marvel Feature: She-Devil With A Sword in 1975. It did not run that long, but by the time it was done, her image was set. Originally a more practically-garbed heroine, art by Esteban Maroto established the “bikini armor” look, and it was carried on with gusto by the eccentric genius of Frank Thorne.

Thorne, born in 1930, is an unsung artist in the mainstream, mostly because his tastes ran to steamier, more controversial subjects than comics were comfortable with at the time. He set the tone for Red Sonja, but from the beginning he rankled at the limits put on her.

Because Sonja’s origin, as penned originally, is deeply problematic. When her family is killed by bandits, Sonja is raped viciously, and then calls on the goddess Scathach to save her. The goddess grants her great skill in battle so long as she never has sex with anyone save someone who can defeat her in combat.

So while she is depicted as a walking advertisement for sex, Sonja is canonically unable to have any control over her own sexuality. Her only sexual experience has been forcible, and to keep her powers and skills she can have no other kind. It demeans her by making her prowess a gift rather than something she earned, and allows her no say in her own sex life.

Thorne reportedly hated this, and it may have led to his early departure from her story. Then something marvelous happened, and Thorne went to Fantagraphics – an alternative comics publisher – and began producing the wonderful Ghita of Alizarr.

Ghita is a very deliberate deconstruction of the Red Sonja tropes. Ghita is a dancer and sometime prostitute in a very Howard-esque fantasy world. She travels with her companions pulling off cons and robberies, until one day she is gifted with superhuman warrior skills and strength and becomes a kind of wandering superhero. The difference is that while Sonja was unable to have any sex, Ghita fucks everything that moves, and is always in control of what she is doing. She feels no holy urge to be a hero, and often has to be backed into helping people when she would rather be drinking and dancing.

Fueled by Thorne’s fantastically detailed artwork, lusty sensibilities, and sly humor, Ghita is the overheated, bloody, exciting epic that he was never allowed to turn Red Sonja into. It’s been collected numerous times, and I highly recommend it.

Meanwhile Red Sonja herself has limped through a number of reboots and incarnations. There have been several series of comics, all of them focusing on her pinup status rather than anything gritty or exciting. There was the underwhelming 80s movie with Bridgette Nielsen, and there have been rumors of another movie for some years now. Bryan Singer is said to be developing a TV series, but who knows if anything will come of that, or be worth watching if it does.

So a character was created by Howard more than 80 years ago, adapted by the comics, mutated into a sex prop, and keeps on going even though there has never been a definitive or really first-rate story about her. Yet the image of the chainmail bikini remains to plague Sword & Sorcery as a tiresome and juvenile stereotype, and I doubt it will ever entirely fade away.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Scion of the Black Tower

Alzarra went into the drowned lands on a dying horse with a broken sword, under sentence of death and a blood moon. She rode through the wastes that burned in the high summer sun and down to where the river rove deep valleys that led to the sea. Once, long ago, a great empire dreamed on those obsidian cliffs, washed away when the seas rose and devoured them, and now it was a devil's land of swamp and jungle and sinking ruins older than the memory of man.

She stood at the edge of the wastelands and looked down, seeing the land descend into a verdant green nightmare kingdom, while behind her the desert shimmered in the heat of day. Her horse was on his last breaths, head bowed and sighing, eyes glazed with pain and the extremity of weariness. She looked north, into the emptiness, and there she saw the shadow of her pursuers, closer now as they sought to ride her down. The men called the Lions of Gazan would not be easily kept from her trail, and they would not turn aside until they slew her. She had fought and wandered through many lands, but never encountered enemies so implacable.

She took the hilt-shard of her broken blade and cut her horse's throat, bore it down to the earth and drank the blood for what strength it could give her. When she stood she felt awake as she had not in days. Now life coursed in every muscle of her tall, powerful frame, even beneath the many small wounds and the skin burned dark by days of unrelenting sun. She wiped blood from her mouth and held up her left hand. Scaled to the elbow like the skin of a serpent, it was the mark that gave her another name – Dragonhand.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Savage Sword

By the 1970s the Sword & Sorcery boom in literature was in full swing, and bookstore shelves were heavy with tales of fleshy barbarians and barely-covered damsels. The whole genre had become a kind of cartoon of itself, filled with pastiche, imitation, homage, and outright theft. The original works and artists of the genre were becoming obscured by their progeny.

Comic books were hugely popular, and for most of their existence have been far more imitative than innovative, content to follow trends. Still, S&S was a tough sell in the heavily censored medium of the American comic book. One person who was not afraid to push the envelope was comics writer Roy Thomas.

Then a staff writer/editor at Marvel Comics, Thomas was a fan of Howard and especially of Conan, and he may be more responsible for the popular image and longevity of the character than anyone else. In 1970 he recruited artist Barry Windsor-Smith and launched Marvel’s well-received Conan the Barbarian comic series, which at the time was seen as a bit of a risk. Conan was, after all, a kind of antihero without superpowers or a flashy costume. His world did not officially bear any relation to the Marvel universe, and his stories were often violent.

Still, the book did well. Even softened versions of Howard stories retained their energy and power, and the comic kicked off a minor wave of S&S stories in the comics that ran through the 1970s. The title eventually ran for twenty-three years, comprising 275 issues, only fading as the comics landscape changed in the infamous 90s.

But Thomas’ greatest creation was undoubtedly the other Conan series he began in 1974. Capitalizing on the success of the mainline comic, Marvel began to issue Savage Sword of Conan. Published in a full-sized magazine format, the book was technically exempt from the Comics Code then unavoidable in the industry, and allowed for bloodier, grittier stories. Further, the larger size of the artwork was attractive to artists.

A veritable who’s-who of 70s comics luminaries crowded the pages of the magazine: Neal Adams, John Buscema, Alfredo Alcala, Jim Starlin, Al Milgrom, and Walter Simonson. The fully-painted covers were colorful, lurid, and eye-catching, produced by such lights as Earl Norem, Joe Jusko, and Boris Vallejo.

The magazine was a huge hit, and rode a wave of popularity as well as some critical respect for twenty-one years. The title featured adaptations of almost every Sword & Sorcery tale Howard ever wrote, and was the first encounter many young fans of that generation had with his work. Unfettered by censorship, the magazine had a more adult feel, and it contained some of the greatest, most lavish artwork of any comic of that era.

Building quite openly on the template laid down by Frazetta, the artists of Savage Sword set the tone and style for Sword & Sorcery art and that tone carries through to the present day. If many of the cliches of the genre seem old and tired – naked barbarians, nakeder heroines, bad haircuts, bulging muscles and bloodied swords – the genre lives on in large part due to the enthusiasm and creativity of Roy Thomas, and all those great comic artists who worked hard to bring it to life on the page.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Wolf Winter

The blizzard howled down from the mountains like the curse of dead gods. Winds moaned like the dead and clawed at the trees and the rocks. Vraid followed the frozen creek through the forest, unable to see anything more than an arm’s reach ahead of him. The sky was black at noon, and the winds bellowed and tried to drag him down. Time and again his boot went through the ice at the edge of the creek, and by that he knew where he was. Ice formed on his face and in his beard, tried to freeze his eyes shut.

He pushed onward because he was an enormous man, and his sheer power forced a path through the piling drifts and the ice-rimed undergrowth. The wind could not stop him, though it tried. In his left hand he used his unstrung bow as a staff, feeling his way through the storm.

When he first saw the light, he thought his eyes were failing him, and he scrubbed at them with one cold fist wrapped in freezing rawhide. He ground the ice from his eyes and blinked into the wind and he saw a light again, so he knew it was not an illusion. He changed his course, knowing he risked becoming lost in the trees, and struggled toward that momentary glint of yellow.

The wind reached a screaming crescendo, and it shoved and clawed at him, forced him down in a drift as tall as his shoulder, pushed him back when he fought out of it. When he stood again he could not see anything, and he had lost his orientation. He did not know which way he was going, and so he simply guessed and battered his way through the snow and the wind. Even if he chose wrong, there was a chance he might strike the creek again and find his way back.

Instead he collided with a wall, well-dressed logs fitted tightly. He felt his way along it, wading through the snow, until he found a window. The storm had blown back the shutter, and through the oiled rawhide he saw the yellow gleam of a fire. He shoved the shutter back in place and forced the hook down to hold it, then he stumbled along the wall, feeling his way until he found the door.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Dad the Pornographer

One of the more entertaining authors caught up in the Sword & Sorcery movement was a prolific writer named Andrew Jefferson Offutt – though he wrote under no fewer than twenty pseudonyms in his life, and maybe as many as thirty – no one really knows. Born in 1934, his career spanned fifty years and a multitude of genres through the so-called Golden Age of Science Fiction, but he only really came into his own in the sex-obsessed 70s.

Because while nominally a science fiction writer, this man, born in a literal log cabin in rural Kentucky, was maybe the most prolific pornographer of the twentieth century. He wrote at least 420 books of erotica and pornography under about twenty pseudonyms and house names – again, no one is really sure.

In the late 60s there was a burgeoning market for “Sleaze Books” which were packaged as “sexy” versions of respectable narratives like Noir Detective stories or Action/Adventure. The courts still held a broad view of what constituted obscenity, and so everyone had to keep in line. By 1970 this was no longer the case, and the market flowered with out-and-out porn, and the line between what was called “erotica” and “porn” all but vanished. Offutt thrived in this environment, producing such works as Bondage Babes and Sex Toy.

However, he was also a highly prolific writer in the field of Science Fiction, even serving as the president of SFWA in the late 70s for several years. He also wrote fantasy. Some of it was “sexy” fantasy like The Passionate Princess, but he wrote serious works as well. He edited the highly-regarded Swords Against Darkness anthologies, which ran to five volumes and included many of the old pulp writers like Manly Wade Wellman as well as new voices like David Drake.

Offutt also wrote Howard pastiches, and he generally did well by them. He wrote a trilogy of Conan novels: Conan and the Sorcerer, Conan the Mercenary, and The Sword of Skelos, all of which have been adapted into comics, and are some of the better-regarded pastiche works. In a way he helped really set the mold for all the works that followed, keeping to Conan’s established timeline and “filling in” the blank spaces in his biography.

He also wrote a much longer series of books about the minor Howard character Cormac Mac Art. Cormac was a wandering Irish warrior of the Dark Ages, loosely based on the historical Cormac Mac Airt, though the fictional Cormac dwelled in the eleventh century, not the third. Howard never wrote more than a few stories about him, though the ones he did include such awesome works as “Tigers of the Sea”.

Offutt ran with this, and ended up producing six Cormac books, filling in far more of the Irishman’s history than Howard ever did. Offutt was not the prose stylist that Howard was, and he tended to be more comfortable describing sex than violence. Yet his stories maintain a kind of breezy energy and a light touch that makes them eminently readable. Offutt did not have the signature Sturm and Drang of a real Howard story – it just was not in him – but he had respect for the source material and a sense of adventure that kept him going.

He had a full and varied career, was married for fifty years, had four children and five grandchildren, and died at 78 in 2013. He was such an elusive presence that it is not easy to find pictures of him. A writer of many names, he let his work do the talking.