Monday, May 30, 2016

Side by Side

It is not normally my habit to discuss writers collectively, rather than separately, however the two I am writing about today worked so closely together, and had such similar impact on the genre, that I am going to go ahead to put them together. It is time, as a lover of Sword & Sorcery fiction, to discuss the twin elephants in the room: Lin Carter, and L. Sprague de Camp.

Lyon Sprague de Camp was the elder of the two, and indeed served as a kind of mentor to Linwood Vernon Carter, who wisely chose to write as simply “Lin”. A generation apart in age, the two worked closely together for many years, and though they apparently fell out late in life, this did not become widely known in their lifetimes.

De Camp had the more distinguished career, as he began working in SF and Fantasy in the heyday of the 30s and 40s alongside his friends Asimov and Robert Heinlein, though he never achieved their kind of mainstream acclaim. He wrote numerous books and enjoyed considerable success, and his nonfiction books debunking pseudoscience and historical fabrications remain highly readable to this day.

Carter was more of a fanboy type. A fan of genre fiction from his teens, he struggled mightily to become a published writer, eventually succeeding, and producing a considerable body of work. Carter made up for the essentially derivative nature of his imagination with volume, and he wrote dozens of novels, stories, articles, and nonfiction books.

The legacy of these two remains a complex one, because even as de Camp was a rather dry writer, and Carter often just terrible, together they probably did more to popularize Sword & Sorcery and the work of Howard than anyone else ever has. Carter, in particular was tireless as an editor, historian, and critic of heroic fantasy, putting out countless anthologies. His memory is only somewhat tarnished by the fact that he was almost equally tireless as a self-promoter, and his over-eager way of butting into things did not always cast him in the best light.

Both of them had their most obvious impact on the S&S genre as posthumous “collaborators” with Robert Howard. The publishers who put out Howard’s work in collections had great sales but one glaring problem – Howard was dead. Once everything they could find was in print, there was no more. You can only repackage the same stories so many times.

Into the breach stepped Carter, and his mentor de Camp to a lesser degree. Together they dug up unfinished manuscripts and even outlines by Howard and turned them into finished works, along the way often re-editing them to make them less violent and to remove other objectionable elements. Later they moved into straight-up pastiches, writing novels that bore the Conan name but contained not one word or idea produced by Howard.

Thus they inaugurated a practice that continues to this very day. Writers such as Robert Jordan and John Maddox Roberts have gotten their start and paid their bills writing these overheated Conan novelizations, which have nothing whatever to do with Howard or what he wrote. Because of the success of this I think many readers first encountered Conan in one of these pastiched novels and wondered whatever the fuss was about.

Carter in particular branched out, writing a lot of half-baked pulp adventure novels, fantasy novels, and Planetary Romances. He even produced a truly awful Sword & Sorcery porn novel entitled Tara of the Twilight.

Thus Carter, and to a lesser degree de Camp, did both great service and great harm to the genre. On one hand their work helped popularize Sword & Sorcery and make it a cultural touchstone that refuses to be eradicated. On the other, they cluttered up the landscape with a lot of second-rate imitations - some of them well and truly awful – and this helped cement in the popular mind that S&S was junk. When the bottom fell out of the Sword & Sorcery market in the 70s – never to really recover – it was largely due to shit like Conan the Buccaneer.

De Camp lived a long life, passing away at the age of 92 in 2000. Carter, his younger protege, did not outlive him. Plagued by cancer and alcoholism, he died in 1988, only 57 years old. It would be best, I think, that their works in the genre be set aside, and we instead remember their enthusiasm and genuine love for Sword & Sorcery. Without them, it might have been forgotten.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Sacrifices to the Moon

Sheol left the northlands in the season of fire, riding south to where the grasslands faded into stone and dust, and ancient cities slumbered through ages. She crossed the wastes under the red star, until she found a road through the desolation and followed it to where it might go. The lands were without water or leaf, and she lived on the milk and blood of her horse until she left it behind her, dead in the cold of night. On foot she continued, past sand-robed ruins and wind-bitten pillars, over dusty beds where water once flowed, and past black-shaded chasms where no sun shone.

After many days, the dead road led her through a low, blasted valley and into rocky hills. By night, she came to a wide, still lake, too vast to see across. The moon shone down upon the leaden water, and mist covered the surface like the breath of ghosts.

Sheol lay down her saddlebags, drank deep of the cold water, filled her waterskin until it burgeoned. She washed the dust of long travel from her face, and then she rose and followed the shore star-ward, seeking a sign of man in this desolate place.

The moon was high, and the mist shrouded the lake and the land all around her, when she came upon a row of ancient pillars, broken with age. They marched across her path and into the water, where their stone grew mired and slick with water plants and the slime of gray mud. She passed the pillars and soon saw other marks of faded and broken civilization. And at midnight, when the moon was bright and small above, she found the stair.

It was ancient, of the same white stone, cracked with ages and smooth with wear. It rose from the gray water and ascended into the mist to her right, and to what it led she could not see. It bemused her, this old broad stair leading down and under the water; yet it was disquieting. The lower steps, lapped by the waters, were covered with slime and festooned with foul growths. She thought she could see there the marks of passage, as though some water monster had indeed climbed up from cold deeps into the world of men. Sheol looked up, and saw lights there at what must be the top, the flickering of torchlight.

Now the stillness of the night was menacing, and the low mist a threat. Sheol gripped her spear more tightly and set her feet upon the smooth stone. Every sense keened, she climbed through layers of mist up into the dark, and the moon glimmered bright upon the stone. Sound came to her from far off – a deep, low drumming, like the pounding of a heart. The mist parted before her in tatters and whirls, and she came to the top. Here was a terrace so old that its palace had long since collapsed into ruin. An iron brazier stood to either side, and the fire glowed gold upon the fog and chased it back. Broken pillars set in rows held up a roof no longer there, and between two of them a man was chained, his arms bound to the pillars so that he hung between them, head down. The drums sounded again, a long, distant note.

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Long Goodbye

Properly speaking, the genre of Sword & Sorcery is a part of the history of the pulps, because it grew out of the pulps and in many ways still embodies them. “Pulp” is a broad and rather nebulous label, originally applied just because of cheap paper, it later came to exemplify a certain style: tough, lurid, action-oriented, and sensual. Pulp stories did not join in with the restraint and subtlety of mainstream or literary fiction, pulp stories gave you exactly what you wanted to see. In the pulps all the heroes were tough, all the heroines were beautiful, all the violence was bloody and all the mysteries were real.

The label covered and intersected with a multitude of other genres: crime, adventure, Science Fiction and Fantasy. As S&S was a distillation of elements from all of these, it should be no surprise it was perhaps the pulpiest of them all.

One of the great subgenres of the day – now sadly all but vanished – was Planetary Romance, or Sword & Planet. As the name implies, it shares more than a few characteristics with Sword & Sorcery, especially when written by the woman who was in her lifetime the queen of the genre: Leigh Brackett.

Leigh Douglass Brackett was born in Los Angeles in 1915, sold her first story at 25, and had an indelible effect upon the genre of adventure stories. Today she is most often mentioned for her contributions to the script for The Empire Strikes Back, but by then she was already a master of the Space Opera, though her other works are little read these days. If you have not read her “Planet Stories”, then you should, because there you will find stories that are S&S in all but name.

Brackett wrote about lost and dying civilizations on Mars or Venus and the interactions Earthmen had with them. But like Ray Bradbury, she was not really concerned with anything resembling facts. In fact, aside from the use of the names of real planets, her stories were Lost Race tales set in fantastical landscapes populated by ancient ruins, lost secrets of dead races, and super-science that is functionally identical to magic.

It could be argued that this makes her not a Sword & Sorcery author, rather a pulp writer more in line with Edgar Rice Burroughs. But Brackett was not really working in the essentially Victorian tradition of Burroughs or Merritt. She wrote about a morally ambiguous world with heroes who were not often really heroes, but who existed in shades of ethical gray. Her other great love was crime fiction and noir, after all, and her screenwriting credits include The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye.

So unlike a lot of the optimistic hacks of the adventure fiction realm, her world had no underlying absolute right or wrong, and her heroes were frequently conflicted and questionable. Stories like "Black Amazon of Mars" are genuine S&S classics despite their supposed SF pedigree, and Brackett’s fascination with fallen empires and the colorful lyricism of her prose fit her squarely in the tradition.

Like all the best Sword & Sorcery writers, her work traded in exotic settings, inner conflicts, spectacular action, and a brooding sense of antiquity and doom. She lived a quiet life, was respected and rather successful, and left behind her a dazzling body of work that is largely forgotten now. She remains one of the most polished and versatile writers of the pulp era, no matter that she long outlived it.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Wars in the Storm Age

The wind driven ahead of the storm was heavy and smelled of war, and in among the ruins it gathered up dust and whirled it into the shapes of devils out of the past. All around reared statues and reliefs cut by the hands of men who were almost gods, and now carved again by the wind and the sand of the desert. Al’kirr stood in the shadow of giants and the dying sun glinted on the spears of her warriors. She stood ahead of them, on a point of sand-blasted stone, and looked north to where the dark shadow of her enemy came over the earth.

Riding ahead of the storm, below a darkening sky that flickered as though the lighting itself lashed them on, came the riders of Masur the Dragoncrowned. His men rode behind him in a sweep of black-robed riders, cloaks billowing in the hot wind. She saw the gleam of storm-fire on spears and swords, heard the thunder of hooves beneath the growl of the storm. Two hundred men at the least, each of them a hardened desert hunter and killer, each with blood on their hands and on their swords.

Al’kirr awaited them with her bow in her hands, sword sheathed at her side. Her men wore red, in honor of their ancestors who once ruled this place. She wore red and gold, for she was their Queen, the Heir of the Stormriders. Above her veil, her eyes were wide and glinted like gold, rimmed with kohl and indigo. She crouched down and put her hand on the rock, felt the vibrations of the horses. She had less than a hundred men, all of them weary and thirsty. A moon of battles, a moon of blood, and now this remnant of her army waited here to die, in this place where once her bloodline were as gods.

She gathered up a handful of sand and felt it sift through her fingers, then she stood and let it fall, judging the wind. It was chaotic, swirling and eddying on the forward edge of the storm. Al’kirr had hoped to lose him here, to shelter in the ruins while the storm came in and drove him away, but he would not stop, and now it seemed they would spill their blood upon this ancient sand while the skies thundered and cast down fire.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Death Dealer

We cannot really talk about the resurgence of Sword & Sorcery or its longevity without discussing the role of art, and the Grand Master of Sword & Sorcery artwork was Frank Frazetta. Without him, it is entirely possible that the revival of Howard’s work, and of the genre in general, would never have happened. His influence on fantasy art, and on the image of S&S in the popular mind, are both probably impossible to calculate.

Frazetta was a New Yorker, born and raised in Brooklyn, and his artistic career spanned seven decades and saw him work in everything from comic books to book covers to movie posters. He was a flexible and skilled artist who mastered several mediums and could do bold, action-oriented work right beside detailed, iconic paintings – all within his highly recognizable style. He was, and remains, one of the most influential and indelible masters of modern fantasy art.