Monday, February 29, 2016

The Isle of Fire

Amar rode in the prow of the boat, bound with jagged ropes and chained by her neck to the rail. Oars creaked and groaned as the long boat slid across the fog-shrouded waters, still as glass in the fallow light of morning. The clouds above were heavy with rain and the light of the sun only came down as a ghostly radiance, like a memory of spring.

All around them rocks jutted from the waters of the bay, and the rowers turned deftly to evade them, she saw how every man watched the surface sharp and wary, looking for the slightest disturbance. These waters were avoided for a reason, and they were all afraid. There were eight men in the boat, each with their hands set to the rough oars. And then there was Amar, daughter of a King and bound for the shunned isle ahead, and death.

The island emerged from the mist like a shadow, first the low, rocky shore, the hills green and dark and wet. The stones were heavy with moss right down to the waterline, and as she looked, Amar saw the spiral designs etched into the rocks, half-hidden by the thick growth. Once this island had been a place for men, and their worship of ancient gods now long forgotten. Now it was a place for death.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Out of the Aeons

If we are talking about the origins of Sword & Sorcery fiction, then we have to talk about horror, and if we are talking about where that came from in the beginning and how it wove itself into the DNA of the genre, then we have to talk about Howard Phillips Lovecraft.

Lovecraft was an almost unknown writer in his lifetime, like many of the giants of the pulp era, his influence spread and became almost ubiquitous only after his death. In the realms of horror, only Poe casts a longer shadow, and in many ways, in this modern era, Lovecraft’s influence is far more pervasive.

The man himself has become a controversial figure in recent years, and modern readers are less willing to overlook his snobbishness and racism than previous generations. But his work and his ideas about horror remain embedded in modern fiction, impossible to get away from. On his own, Lovecraft broke away from the Victorian, drawing-room notions of horror and focused on larger ideas. Those ideas, and that focus, worked their way into the bones of Sword & Sorcery via the US Postal service, in his long correspondence with Robert Howard.

Because horror is a part of the S&S genre, but horror of a particular kind. It is not the horror of haunted houses or madwomen locked in attics. In particular it was Lovecraft’s ideas about ancient horror and his fascination with antiquity that most informed Howard’s work and thus the entire field.

For despite the fact that Lovecraft took to very modern ideas about supernatural beings who might, in fact, be aliens, his focus was not on the future, as a science-fiction writer’s might have been. Instead he took his fascination with astronomy and wove that to his interest in all things ancient, and in a twisted way prefigured all the “chariots of the gods” nonsense from later decades. For he envisioned a world that had begun as a place inhabited by alien beings, creatures so different from modern conceptions of biology that we could not even comprehend them. The central tenet of his mythos was that once these creatures ruled the earth, and that they would again.

It would seem like this kind of antihuman, rather defeatist idea would not have appealed to Bob Howard, and indeed, he just took from it parts that he could use. In his tales such as “The Shadow Kingdom”, “Children of the Night” and “The Valley of the Worm” Howard drew on the vast antiquity and inhuman creatures of the Lovecraftian universe and then used them to create haunting ruins and formidable antagonists for his relentless characters.

This worked a fundamental change in Lovecraft’s ideology. In his world, the monster-gods of the past would someday come and destroy us all. In Howard’s hands the ancient monsters and nonhuman races could be killed, and so they were. In “The Valley of the Worm” his primordial hero sacrifices his life to slay the slithering being once worshiped as a god. In “The Garden of Fear” another stone-age protagonist does battle with the last remnant of an inhuman winged race, and in “The Tower of the Elephant” such an otherworldly being is treated with sympathy and feeling in a way Lovecraft never dreamed.

For that is the difference between the horror of a true horror story, and the elements of horror that we find in Sword & Sorcery fiction. In S & S, the ruin is there to be explored, the monsters there to be slain, the evil there to be overcome. The heroes of the genre do not lie back and wait for their doom, they go forth with sword in hand to do battle, even if it means their death. Lovecraft’s scholarly heroes dissolve into madness at the sight of the elder beings that lurk in the shadows, while the characters Howard wrote take down their ancestral broadsword and go out swinging.

It is a difference that lies at the very heart of the genre. Sword & Sorcery heroes are active. They do not wait for their end, they do not accept anything as inevitable, they fight. They may know they face a grim death, they may know they cannot win, but they will fight.

Retiring, introverted, racist and class-conscious, Lovecraft never saw the open vistas or the raw frontier lands that really inspired Sword & Sorcery. Telling that a man who lived his life in a long-settled city and believed in limits and rules created a mythology marked by helplessness and inevitability, while in the post oaks of Texas his pen-pal created a mythology of adventure and open horizons. The two men influenced each other greatly, never met, and died less than a year apart. Howard died by his own hand, but it was not Lovecraft’s nature to take control of his life that way. He died of stomach cancer in 1937. He lived, and died, the way he felt a proper gentleman should.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Shrine of the Doom Serpent

Kalai came from the night like a shadow among the towers and ancient domes of the city. Maracanda slumbered around her, but always an uneasy sleep in the hot nights of summer when the wind blew from the sea with a scent of blood and incense. Ships thronged the fabled harbor, unseen eyes looked down from high windows, and in a thousand courts and corners intrigue blossomed like the flowers of death in the tiger-haunted gardens of the Heresiarch, slumbering in his white tower that rose over all.

She moved easily through the dark, wrapped in her black silken shroud that billowed around her pale body like smoke. Beneath it she wore the straps of the harness which held her weapons and her tools. Her black hair was caught in coils of braid that trailed behind her like serpents, and those of lesser purpose who looked on her quickly looked away. She had the wide black eyes of the Nagai – the old race – and wise men feared to cross her path or touch her shadow.

Through the busy night markets she slipped like a serpent through the high grass. Past the stalls of dyers and rugmakers, through the rich smells of spice merchants and the traders in exotic woods and resins. She walked undisturbed down the wide street lined by the houses of the wealthy trade lords, walled and guarded and beautiful as the oases of dreams. Her veil covered her face, and none who saw her could have delineated her features.

She vanished, then, from sight, and was not seen or remarked on. None saw her climb the hundred stairs to the gate of the Gods, and she passed within the winding Road of Temples no more substantial than a wisp of smoke. Such was her skill, for Kalai was a killer schooled in ancient and secret arts. She killed for gold, and none escaped her, but tonight she was not intent on death. Tonight she sought to take something more material than a life. She halted in the black shadows of a wide plaza, and she looked across the open stone to the temple of Shahenah, the Serpent God. The oldest god in the city, whose temple was said to have stood before men ever came to the city and gave it name.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Behind the Veil

The three greatest writers of the Weird Tales era in the 1920s and 30s were Howard, Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith. Lovecraft and Howard have gone on to greater fame in death than they ever knew in life, but Smith – often acknowledged by his peers as the best of the three – is today almost forgotten, a footnote in the pulp era, read only by fans. It is ironic in a way his own morbid imagination would appreciate – that he outlived his contemporaries by decades, and yet his literary legacy is so much lesser.

Smith was an odd, reclusive man. Born in 1893, he lived all his life in California. He married late in life, and his health was often poor. He wrote fiction intensively only between the years of 1926 and 1935, largely under the epistolary influence of Lovecraft, with whom he corresponded until the latter’s death in 1937. Smith’s first love was poetry, and he turned out an impressive body of verse in the course of his life, consisting of hundreds of poems marked by their vividness and bizarre, often macabre imagery.

Later in life, he turned his hand mostly to visual arts, carving strange sculptures from soapstone and turning out sketches and paintings. Despite his friends’ urging, he wrote almost no fiction after 1937, and spent the last decades of his life pursuing other forms, though he never ceased creating.

It has been said that he was affected by tragedy, and that seems to be true. It was his friend Lovecraft’s influence that turned him to fiction in the first place, and in the years 1935 - 37 there was a barrage of loss in his life. His mother died in ‛35, and while he was nursing his father through terminal illness, he had word of Bob Howard’s suicide in ‛36 and then Lovecraft himself died in ‛37. Shortly after this, his father passed away, and he must have felt himself very, very alone. I suppose it can be understood why he laid down his pen and never really picked it up again.

The tragedy of that is the fact that his stories were marvelous. Smith brought the same lyricism and ardent imagery to his prose that he wielded so well in poetry, and he was undoubtedly the best writer, line by line, that Weird Tales ever printed. His stories were perhaps the ideal of what was then called “weird fiction” - a brew of fantasy, mystery, and horror that marked the pulp era. Smith imagined fevered, bizarre, rich fantasy worlds filled with darkness and a sense of the macabre. His worlds lived and breathed in a way many fantasy worlds still do not.

He is often said to have written Sword & Sorcery, and indeed many of his works bear the marks of the style, such as the exotic “Empire of the Necromancers” and the horrific “Isle of the Torturers”, or the classic fantasy/terror story “The Double Shadow”. One can see his influence on Howard – the dense lyricism of the Kull stories in particular – and the way he urged Lovecraft away from the refined, drawing-room prose of Poe imitation and into a new, more modern world of horror. I would say he pushed both of them, simply by virtue of his great talent.

He faded into obscurity, after the heady years of the 30s. He was marked by a sense of loss and failure. As a young poet he had been briefly lauded, and had traveled in literary circles among the likes of Bierce and London. He was once hailed as “The Keats of the Pacific”, but it did not last. Then, when he rose again as a story writer, it was again ephemeral. Tragedy and ill health blunted his abilities, and changes in the markets left him behind.

The later years of his life seem to have passed quietly enough, and he died peacefully in his sleep in 1961, a generation past his time. He was buried under a stone near his childhood home, and there was no marker. He left us - as so many writers do - only his words. It is sad that his work often passes unnoticed beside the work of his friends, who would have been the first to laud his over their own. Smith is the hidden jewel of the Weird Tales era, and I believe he is the very root of the lyrical imagery that often marks Sword & Sorcery, the unseen hand, the wizard behind the veil.

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Reaping Wall

They marched for three days out from the oasis, two hundred men sweating in their armor under the hot desert blaze. Their legionary banners hung slack in the still air and the dust of their passing rose around them and caked on their armor and faces. At their head Karkaon marched beside his horse, refusing to ride while his soldiers walked. He might be in disgrace, but he would not punish his men more than he must. He looked back down the line of men toiling through the rocky defile between sheer cliffs of red stone, and then he looked ahead through the heat shimmer to the shadow of the Reaping Wall.

It was not so big as he had imagined. The ancient stone was cracked and the sharpness of the stonework blurred by time. It had stood for more than eight hundred years in this place, burned by the sun, seared by the wind. The gate at the center was a hollow arch, the gate long since rotted away to dust. Now it looked out on the endless drifts of sand in the barren waste, stretching away to the south unbroken.