Monday, January 25, 2016

Farewell My King

Friday saw what would have been the 110th birthday of Robert Ervin Howard, who was born in 1906 and died in 1936. The man lived his entire life in the backwaters of central Texas, at a time when it was even more a backwater than it is now. His life was short, and would pass unremarked except for the body of work he left behind. Howard was a prolific and brutally talented writer, self-taught and with a limited education. He read voraciously, seeking - one imagines - escape from the harsh world he grew up in.

His life was not a happy one. He was a loner, a misfit, and a man who struggled with a pull toward an intellectual and artistic life in a place and time that did not value it. He had few close friends, and only one real romantic relationship that ultimately ended unhappily. He was close with his mother, who was sickly and protective of him. He fought with depression seemingly his entire life, passing in and out of down cycles like clouds passing over the sun.

Suicide was something he talked about a lot, and by modern standards the lead-up to his death was pretty easy to see, even from 70 years in the future. He seems to have stayed only for the sake of his mother. He felt she needed him, and did not want to cause her pain by ending his life. Thus, when he was told she was dying and would not regain consciousness, he could not get out of this world fast enough.

I have been to the house he lived in at the end of his terribly short life. I sat in the room where his mother died. I got up and walked out, down the hall and out the back door. I got in my car, as he did. I looked at the back of the house, plain and small and white, the endless Texas sky behind it. There would have been less there, then, and I tried to picture it. What was the last thing he looked at?

His legend has grown over the years since he took his own life that June day. When he died, I would not be born for another 36 years. And yet he speaks to me, and to so many others. He was an active, working author for just a dozen years, but in that time he created a legacy that very few 20th century writers have surpassed. Of his contemporaries, only Lovecraft casts a longer shadow, most of the rest of them forgotten save by aficionados. Most popular novelists of his day have declined into utter obscurity.

But Howard endures. His later fiction was often blisteringly funny, but that is not what we remember. The works he created that have endured are all of a kind: grim, bloody, filled with larger-than-life characters and detailed, exotic settings. He fused the spirit of adventure fiction with fantasy and horror and created something that refuses to die. It is hard to believe, if you have seen the little room he slept and worked in. The Hyborean Age was born in such a small place.

And I think that is part of why he endures. Howard has inspired authors for generations now, because you read his sharp, vivid worlds and you want to go explore them. He always creates the sense of a much larger world beyond the boundaries of the story, a world more colorful and exciting and rewarding than this one. I can think of few better motivators for such a wide-ranging imagination than that mean, narrow room where he spent his days. He would not be confined by walls or rules or conventions, he would not be held to work a job like a serf on a manor. In that place he worked his wonders, and even now they sparkle.

He did not want to stay. Suicide is often derided as an easy way out, but for some, the work of remaining in this weary life is too much. We can’t judge that choice, because we do not bear the burdens of those who make it. He wanted to go, and so he went. It was not Bob Howard’s way to dither about it.

It is likely he thought the world would never miss him, and yet it does. He has shaped our imaginings and art for most of a century, and I see no sign of that ending. He is one of the giants of fantasy fiction, and yet he is the shadow side. His domain is not the bright, clean allegories of High Fantasy, but the dark places behind it. If Tolkien is the kindly old grandfather of fantasy, then Howard is the brooding uncle who lurks in the background, but he has the best stories, if you ask him to tell them.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Tyrants of the Monolith

They came down out of the hills, through the forest-shrouded dark, and they brought fire and death upon the valleys below. Black steel to rend flesh and spill blood upon the earth, fire to set house and village ablaze. They rode out of the forests in the dark, under the moon when the mists rose from the black soil and the nightbirds sang. And they vanished by dawn, back into the mysterious wilderness, leaving none behind but the dead.

We came after, from the hollow, following the river northward to the place where the smoke rose up. There were nine of us, all that would come from the villages and farms close by. Some of us had kin we feared for, while others answered the call of danger from some deep instinct. I was one. I was nineteen that year and yet unmarried. I was too big, they said, too tall and too wild to attract any man. I was restless in those days, and so when old Joran called for men to follow him to the place of killing I came. He did not refuse me, because there were so few others who answered, and because he knew I was the strongest.

We were not warriors, most of us. Joran was, though he was not young any more. It was he we followed and trusted. He led us through the forest paths along the river, unafraid. He had his old armor and his sword and shield, and he had a new spear as did I, made in haste from an old point and a new haft that was not quite straight. I wanted to walk beside him, but I did not quite dare.

Monday, January 11, 2016

What is Sword & Sorcery?

Of course, a completely valid question when constructing a blog dedicated to Sword & Sorcery fiction is: what is it, exactly, that makes a story part of the genre? Aside from obvious, tired cliches that I have already stated I am not going to rely on, what are the features of the genre, what are the necessary elements, and what are the notable requirements for a story to be considered part of it? In essence, what is this Sword & Sorcery thing all about?

Well, one thing we should dispose of is the shallow idea that trappings make for the underpinnings. You might argue that if there are swords, sorcery, and some degree of violence in a story, then it fits the criteria. This is the same as assuming a story is Science Fiction because it has spaceships in it, or that a story is a crime story because it has a criminal in it.

External trappings do not make for a genre. A real question to ask is not what a genre appears to be, but what it is trying to do. Genre cannot be reduced to a series of tropes or images, and that is a superficial idea of genre which I will dispense with right now. Yes, genres have certain elements that are a recurring part of them and their history, but that does not make them things that cause genre, they are, instead, a feature that keeps cropping up because they are an indelible part of what a genre is trying to accomplish. Genre is, after all, in part a tool a writer uses to better tell the kind of story they want to tell.

So, what is Sword & Sorcery, really? Well, it is a kind of adventure story, much more than a fantasy. Fantasy is about magic, and while magic definitely features in S&S (hence the ‛Sorcery’ part), it is not often the defining element. The skeleton of an S&S tale is adventure, and everything else is added on to it. Adventure is the bones of the genre.

Adventure Fiction means the stories will be fast-paced, action-oriented, and feature the heroes placed in physical danger. Most adventure stories are rather tightly plotted, and focus on a single protagonist or a small group of them. They are often isolated and placed in conflict from multiple angles. They will be pitted against more than one antagonist, and it is not uncommon for adventure stories to use nature as a go-to adversary. Many adventure stories are survival tales, with a protagonist and perhaps a few friends trying to survive a hostile environment. If you add in human enemies, or perhaps an angry tiger, then you have the makings of a great adventure story.

Sword & Sorcery takes this idea and places it in a ‛second-world’ fantasy setting of imagined lands and peoples, and this only gives the writer more freedom in building the story. No longer is the tale required to be set in the ‛real world’, but it can be anywhere. This gives as much scope and detail in the setting as the writer chooses to create, and it allows the easy insertion of one strongly defining element of the genre.

Magic.  Magic is almost always an element in a proper S&S story, but it is not the same kind of magic that appears in the more prevalent, Tolkien-inspired High Fantasy. In High Fantasy, the world exists in a state of decline from a more perfect and powerful Golden Age in the past – a highly Biblical concept. Magic in High Fantasy exists in both good and evil varieties, and the good must be called upon the counter the bad.

In a Sword & Sorcery universe, there is no anchoring, intrinsic metaphysic – no absolute good, nor evil. The characters are always drawn as human, often larger than life, but very human and very flawed. Their experience of magic is very different, because in S&S magic is a dangerous, primal force that can sometimes be harnessed for the protagonist and their goals, but always remains an alien, outside power that is better left alone. In a Sword & Sorcery world, magic is always dangerous, and always has a price. As in any noir universe, there is no good, no evil, there is only humanity pitted against the great primal forces of the world.

And therein lies another feature of true Sword & Sorcery, which is scale. In Heroic or High Fantasy, the scales and stakes are vast – kingdoms at the very least are at risk, and often the fate of the world itself hangs in the balance. The stakes in S&S are often much smaller. The genre often focuses on a single event in a character’s life – a battle, an escape, a heist, a duel – and leaves the wider world to its own devices. The stakes are personal, and while yes, there may be wider consequences from the acts of the story, they are left out of the main story, allowed to occur off-screen or to be left to our imaginations. The S&S tale focuses on that single moment of a character’s greatest trial, and brings it to life vividly.

Because the genre is so dark, we see actions depicted with great violence – like in crime fiction – and the violence is never meant to be glorified of romanticised. Violence in Sword & Sorcery is not the clean clash of arms from a story of King Arthur, or Greek Heroes. It is medieval violence shown fast and bloody as a WW 2 movie, with all the butchery, savagery, and horror that implies.

And horror is another significant part of the genre. Howard was very much influenced by his fellow Weird Tales writers like Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith when he created Sword & Sorcery, and that skein of horror has remained embedded in the DNA of the genre ever since. The fantasy traded in has always been a particularly dark variety, featuring inhuman gods, dark powers, and races older than mankind.

So at its root Sword & Sorcery is a kind of dark adventure, survival stories set in a world even grimmer and less forgiving than our own. Heroes of the genre cut their way through a world of darkness and bloody violence, and the only morality exists on the edge of sword or axe. S&S protagonists don’t do what is right, they do what they have to, and it is this bleak, unforgiving aspect that gives the genre its power.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

The Howling God

We rode north into grim forbidden lands under an iron sky, behind us the smoke of conquest, before us the wilderness of our enemies’ last bastion. It was the great and bitter day after the breaking of the Black Gate, when the Hrunar – the bitterest scourge of man – were at last broken and defeated. It was the end of an age, and I rode with a dozen companions to put a final end to it. I was Umor, war-chief of my clan, and the blood of the Argath ran in my veins - the sons of the war-frenzy. On that day I might have been king of my people, but I chose revenge over a throne.

Behind us rose the smoke of the burning fortress, that old and terrible stronghold of the giants torn down at last. The sky was heavy with clouds in the deep winter, and a thousand ravens flew overhead awaiting the feast as thousands of the slain lay upon the glutted snows. At the end, when we broke the gate itself and flooded into the fortress, each giant found himself beset by a dozen armored slayers with red swords and a hunger for slaughter. Then our king Bal faced the Hrunar champion Hel-Toth in single combat, and all stood and stared as they clashed upon the bloodied stone.

At the end, my king fell crushed and slain, and the Hrunar bore their champion from the field, wounded nigh to death. I knew if he lived, they would come again, and the victory this day would mean nothing, so, battle-weary and blooded, I gathered my best companions and rode north, away from the battle, following the trail of the escaping giant thanes and their fallen war-lord. On battered horses, in our rent and dented armor, with swords already notched from killing, we rode into the eternal forests, where the Hrunar dwelled in secret places, and the wilderness belonged to Karaunos, The Howling God.

Welcome to the New Iron Age

Greetings!  Prepare to step into a world of blood, fire, and steel!  Here at New Iron Age I will be posting every week, and twice per month I will unveil a new story to transport readers to worlds of mystery, action, and adventure!

I rely on pledges to keep going, so please to go and check out my Patreon and consider becoming a donor!