Monday, April 25, 2016

The Tower of the Worm

The ram crashed a final time against the gates of Magai, and the iron head split the oaken gates apart with a sound like thunder. The armies of Akor the Tyrant lifted up their spears and red swords and they cheered as the gates broke at last. The great wooden beams, scarred by the blows of swords and studded with broken arrows, fell inward, tearing free of the stone gate-towers as they collapsed. After nine days, the city was broken.

Stone rained down in a cascade, the defenders caught in it hurtling to their deaths, screaming as they were crushed by the fall. All around the ancient city the black legions of the tyrant intensified their assault. Catapults hammered at the stone walls, splashing the battlements with fire. Arrows scythed through the smoke-covered sky and cut down men wherever they showed themselves. Battle drums called forth with their voices, and the war-horns bellowed.

The Brothers of the Red Sword formed before the broken gate. A thousand men in red armor, faceless and deadly. As the gate crumbled into a heap of ruined stone and a tower of dust rose up into the sky, they followed their bloody standard into the city, voicing their terrible war-chant with every step.

Monday, April 18, 2016

The Winter of My Soul

Karl Edward Wagner was one of the most important of the second generation of Sword & Sorcery authors, and he is one of those whose contributions as an editor are just as important as those as a writer. This was a middle but formative period for the genre, when it began to expand and be practiced by those who had not been born when it was created.

Wagner was born in Tennessee in 1945, at the very front edge of the baby boom. Originally trained in the medical profession, he later became profoundly disillusioned and renounced it in favor of writing, and he never had much good to say about medicine thereafter. I have heard that at conventions he would deal smoothly with the most oddball fans and then quietly mutter an aside to a friend about how much Thorazine they should be given. His worldview was anarchic and nihilistic in a distinctly modern sense, rather than the atavistic primitivism of someone like Howard.

His great creation was the immortal swordsman known only as Kane, who appeared in three novels and a number of stories through his career. Kane was almost an amalgam of Howardian barbarism and Moorcock-esque existentialism. Kane is cursed with immortality, and as a man of great age he is cultured and intelligent, able to appreciate and discuss art, music, and philosophy. But he is a born killer, and it is his savage and violent nature which always drives his turbulent life.

Kane is even more morally compromised than Elric, as he is not a good man trapped in an evil world, but a man who is often simply malevolent, stretching the idea of the anti-hero to its limits. All that saves Kane from being outright evil is that he inhabits a world that is more bitter and hostile than perhaps any other depicted in a Sword & Sorcery universe. If Howard’s Hyborean Age exists in shades of gray, then Wagner’s world is in shades of black.

Aside from this, Wagner established himself as an editor dedicated to propagating the S&S genre, and his first outstanding work was a three-volume collection of Howard’s Conan stories restored to their original text. The boom in S&S in the late 60s had the unfortunate side effect of encouraging some people to bowlderize Howard’s work, removing violence and sexual references to make them more palatable. Wagner was the first one to recognize that the original works could be lost if action was not taken, and he succeeded. He also edited the well-regarded Echoes of Valor anthologies in the 80s, printing many of the best S&S tales, as well as collections of pulp luminaries like Manly Wade Wellman and E. Hoffmann Price. He had an archival instinct to preserve, and the field owes him a great deal in this regard.

Dark fiction was produced by a dark mind, and Wagner struggled with alcoholism for many years. He died at the tragic age of 48, in 1994, essentially from the long-term effects of alcohol abuse. His fiction, his views, and his ideals were uncompromising, but he blazed a trail, seeking to preserve the roots of the genre even as he expanded it.

Monday, April 11, 2016

The Red King

The Red King dreamed upon his ebon throne, at the end of the world beneath the fires of a darkling sky. His kingdom was empty and silent, his palace thrall to ghosts and empty echoes, and his throne room a place of darkness save for the glow of the ruby upon his iron crown. He was old, and the ages passed slowly, the world growing colder beneath the dying sun.

He waited now for the passing of his age, for he had ruled long, since the world was young. He had come to this world a king when it was green and new, the earth still scarred by the passing of the glaciers like glass mountains, the land roved by monstrous beasts and primitive men. Here he made himself their lord, with the power of his great sword and the sorcery in his red stone. Nations rose and bowed to him, empires paid him homage. He was the overlord of the whole earth.

Now his time was ending, as he had always known it must. Now the sun grew colder in the sky, and day was like night. The sky was always black and filled with a billion fiery stars. The silver moon was broken into pieces and they tumbled through the dark overhead in a great arc, slow and cold like a corpse in the sky. Now and again bright lances of fire came down as pieces of the moon fell to earth in fire. He heard them sometimes when he tried to sleep. Thunder in the dark.

He watched, always, for the sign of his deliverance. The peak of his darkened throne hall was broken, laid open to the sky, and there he looked for the sign of the red star from whence he came. It would return for him, following its long trail around the dying sun, and he would go back, and sleep, and then fall upon some other young world. His cycle would begin again, as it always did.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Like Kissing a Sword Blade

The field of Sword & Sorcery – like SF and Fantasy in general – was pretty much a sausage-fest in the early days. A listing of the luminaries of the genre seems like an unending parade of men, and while S&S is often seen as an even more ‛manly’ genre than Fantasy in general, it would be a crime for me to overlook the few women who did manage to make an impression. One of the earliest and most well-established names was Catherine Lucille Moore who wrote under the name of C. L. Moore.

It was common, up until quite recently, for women writers to cloak their gender beneath a shroud of initials, or a neutral name like “Andre” or “Harper”. There is a sad prevalence to the idea that women write things that are of exclusive interest to women, while the appeal of men’s work is supposed to be universal. Only now are people really beginning to try and punch serious holes in this asinine notion, and one of the very first hole-knockers was Catherine Moore and her fantastical imagination.

The initials may have fooled some people in the early days of her pulp work, but later her gender was not really a secret, and she frequently worked in tandem with her husband, fellow pulp luminary Henry Kuttner. But even on her own, Moore became a respected name in Fantasy and SF in an era when most women stayed out of the largely male field of fandom.

Moore likely became the creator she was due to her childhood. She always had terrible health, and spent a great deal of time alone and bedridden, which allowed her plenty of time for daydreaming, creating, and writing. Her first stories appeared in Weird Tales in the mid 30s, and it is here her seminal influence on S&S comes through.

The ‛Warrior Woman’ archetype has become a sort of bugaboo for the S&S genre. The image of a woman in the ubiquitous chainmail bikini, posed like a pinup, is an indelible and embarrassing relic of a comic-book era that has still not entirely passed. The prototype would supposedly be Red Sonja – a creation supposedly of Robert E. Howard, but actually an invention of the mid-70s comics. The Red Sonya Howard wrote about in one story was a late-Renaissance warrior who dressed far more practically at the Siege of Vienna. He also wrote about another red-haired warrior lady called Dark Agnes de Chastillon, though he only produced two full stories, and they were not printed until almost 40 years after his death.

Moore, however, saw them in manuscript during her correspondence with Howard, and they seem to have made a great impression. We don’t know for sure if her invention of her own warrior woman was influenced by Agnes, or the other way around. What we do know is with her tales of Jirel of Joiry, Moore created a character who still stands as a landmark in the field.

Jirel is a warrior woman, but she is never depicted as a pinup or sex object. Jirel is, in fact, probably the most well-drawn and well-rounded character of any kind to be depicted in the pages of Weird Tales. She is angry, violent, mercurial, and resolute. She is the definition of a flawed heroine, often allowing her pride and anger to drive her to decisions she later regrets. Her adventures in a fictionalized Medieval France are Sword & Sorcery tales with an unusual focus on character, emotion, and consequence.

Moore spent the second half of the 1930s producing a slew of Jirel stories. And though she never returned to her later, the woman had left her mark, both by being the first female writer and creating the first female S&S protagonist, and by delivering a degree of emotional depth and character that was unusual then and is still unusual now. Sadly, too many of the warrior women dreamed up in later decades have lacked Jirel’s personality and dignity, and she remains a standard to live up to, or fall short of.