Monday, March 27, 2017

Behind the North Wind

Asherah rode her black pony through the valley as the snowfall grew heavier. The clouds hung low, blotting out almost all the dim light of what was called day here in the very north of the world. She knew there were other lands, warmer lands where there was bright sun and no snow lay upon the earth. It had never been given to her to see those places, and it never would be. Asherah was one of the Karkahd, the people who dwelled here in the dark. They were charged to always guard the sacred land where their kings lay buried.

She kept her fur drawn up over her mouth and squinted into the snow. This was the last part of her regular route, and she would not give it up because of a little storm. Her horse knew the way, and she was warm enough. In her left hand she bore one of the torches of eternal fire – a cast iron and brass handle that was set with a shard of the burning star that burned and never faded. It lit her way and gave heat even in this cold place.

Hers was the most remote path, the road that led north out of the lands inhabited by men and into the forbidden lands. Her way took her to the very gates of the burial grounds, over the pass and to where, on a clear day, she could look upon the stone pillars that marked the border than no man might step across.

She thought of her way home. Soon she would return to the keep and find warmth and food and her companions. Her mind was occupied with her thoughts, and then she found the trail. There, through the drifted snow, lay a wide path, a trail left by many horses along the pass, and then it turned north to where no one was permitted to go.

Her heart began to beat faster, and she drew rein, looked around her and saw no other sign, no light and no motion. She drew her saber and swung down from her horse, pushed through the snow to get a closer look at the trail. She thrust the pointed tip of her torch into the ground and bent to examine the tracks. The snow was marked by the tread of shod horses, and she saw the marks of sled runners. They were in narrow file, so it was difficult to say how many, but she guessed at least a dozen horses, perhaps more.

Monday, March 20, 2017


Monsters occupy a hallowed place in Sword & Sorcery for a lot of reasons. One, they make for cool artwork. Many an S&S novel has gone to press with a giant spider, or a monster squid, or a dragon on the cover. Second, they add a supernatural element when there is no actual wizard in the story. If the tale is just pirates killing each other, then that might be a Sword & Sorcery tale, but add a lost city with a demonic guardian, and you’re home. Third, they create dramatic, powerful enemies for the protagonist to do battle with, solving one of the common problems of writing S&S.

Because S&S heroes and heroines are often depicted as tremendously bad ass. They are barbarians who come from a harsh background, they have been through battles and wars, they have faced down armies and bandits and kings and evil wizards, so after a while it starts to be hard to come up with anyone for them to fight who could present a challenge. After all, barbarian warriors are not Batman – they don’t take their enemies prisoner. They kill them. That means recurring villains are hard to do, and you are left trying to establish a whole new threat every time.

And here is where monsters come in to save the day. Monsters, after all, are not bound by the rules of mortal flesh. They can be huge, armored death machines, dripping with scales and claws and slime. They can be immune, or mostly immune, to the weapons the characters wield. They can regenerate or come back to life unless they are killed properly. There can be a lot of them, or just one of them. They can provide as much threat as you need.

At the same time as they add tension and danger, they can add atmosphere and scope to a story. Many of the creatures used in the classic S&S tales are, essentially, prehistoric. Giant snakes and lizards are common, as well as huge insects or overgrown spiders. These fit with the themes of Lovecraftian horror, evoking a world in which man is but prey, and setting current action against a backdrop of deep time that lends itself to an atmosphere of doom and human insignificance. Prehistoric animals like dinosaurs also add a layer of plausibility to a story, as these were creatures that really existed, even if they never walked the earth with human beings.

Some of them, however, really did, and stories often include Pleistocene megafauna like mammoths or saber-toothed tigers. This adds a certain aura of stone-aged savagery to a world, and suggests a place that is more primitive and primordial than our own planet. Even simply juxtaposing things like mastodons with a more civilized fantasy world creates a more exotic, interesting mood.

Scope is another consideration, and adds to the reasons why monsters are awesome in a story. Monsters are, after all, larger than life. A battle against a band of raiders may be gritty and brutal, but it will never have the grandiose quality of a heroic stand against a giant or a demon. Battle against a more than human foe elevates a character beyond heroic and into the realms of legend. Some of our oldest myths are about heroes who did mortal battle with terrible monsters: the chimera, the minotaur, jotuns and dragons and sea monsters.

Because monsters symbolize things, fighting and killing a monster elevates the whole story to another level. Killing other humans may speak of man’s inhumanity, or whatever is going on, but killing a monster is striking at the deepest evils in our imaginations, killing off the terrible outside apparitions that stand in for our terrors of things too big for us to face, things that we can’t actually kill. You can’t kill fear, but you can kill the monster that causes fear. You can’t fight winter, but you can kill the frost giants that stand for it. Monsters have always stood in for the forces too large and too powerful to be embodied in human form.

Plus, they look kick ass on a book cover.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Forbidden Grave

Druan sat on his black throne, old before his time. Years since the last battle and his wounds still tormented him. He walked slowly, with a limp from his broken leg. He was blind in one eye, and now nearly blind in the other. His hands were curled into claws by the old burns, and he could do little with them save grip his staff. He went masked among his people, hiding the face made into a mask of its own by the black blood of the night, the blood of winter itself. It had burned into him, and now he could never feel warm, not completely.

Now the city once called Ember was a place of stone and iron, filled with fires that never died and warriors who never ceased. They rode forth in black columns jagged with spearpoints, and they rode forth to conquer and enslave. They went west, and they went east, and all the peoples of the cold, dark lands they found they subjugated and then brought them under the sway of their emperor. Once they bowed to him as their master, they were given swords and spears and undying fire and sent forth as warriors in their own right.

So the lands of the north swelled with war, and when it was time, that war was loosed on the lands to the south. The mountains there loomed mysterious and forbidding. The stories were told, of how the sun shone every day in those warm lands beyond. Men said the sun rose above the horizon into the sky, and did not simply haunt the edges of the world. They said there were places where no snow ever fell, and ice never covered the waters.

Into those lands the armies of the north poured like a black tide. With cold iron and deathless flame they coursed from the mountain passes, and they crushed all that came before them. No army of soft men from warm lands could stand against their fury. With the hunger of winter they crushed armies and shattered walls, and they plundered whatever there was to take.

Monday, March 6, 2017


There is a lot of talk about swords in Sword & Sorcery fiction, but not as much about the other word. Sorcery is, after all, the other half of the equation, only it does not get nearly as much play. Magic is a constant presence in S&S, but not an ubiquitous one, and the purpose and ethos of magic is something that varies all over the map.

Firstly, and most obvious, magic is not a real thing. Swordfights and battles and the clash of steel are things that really happen, or did, and so a writer has a tremendous amount of information to draw on when writing about them. You have a lot of precedent, and also a lot of data. You can look up cutting tests on Youtube and get an idea of the performance and characteristics of almost any kind of weapon. You can see videos of various fighting styles and schools, and get a hundred details you can throw in for verisimilitude.

But magic is not a real thing, and while one can draw on the various traditions of occultism for inspiration, you are more or less free to make shit up. This is a two-edged sword, because on one hand that is a lot of freedom to have magic do whatever you want it to, but on the other, that can be a lot of worldbuilding for a short story. Usually, an author will come up with one style of magic and either have a shared universe for their works, or just use the similar kind of sorcery for all their stories regardless.

By and large, this has led to magic being the domain of villains, because that way you don’t have to define your magic as thoroughly. Brandon Sanderson came up with a principle for magic in fiction, holding that the amount of detail you had to put into your magic system was more or less proportional to how many problems you let the protagonists solve with it. In other words, you can pull things out of your ass to make life harder for your characters, but doing it to get them out of trouble is cheating, and will feel like cheating.

And thus was born the archetype of the Evil Wizard in Sword & Sorcery fiction. You could say it started with Howard villains like Thoth-Amon, Thugra Khotan, and most famously Xaltotun. All of these characters share certain characteristics: they are old, undying, or resurrected from death, they draw their power from forbidden knowledge that predates the age of humanity, and they are all coded as non-white.

This was part of what Howard borrowed from Lovecraft, and it was very much part of his idea of magic – that magic power derives from knowledge that will drive men insane, and so any man who wields such power will be crazy and evil. The Evil Wizard does not fight his enemies with sword and dagger, but plots and schemes from the shadows, dispatching assassins, curses, and deadly animals or demons to do their work. In the face of the raw physical power of Howard’s muscular heroes, they are often helpless, once their minions and tricks have been brushed aside.

But for the origins of the archetype, we really have to dig back further, and out of the realm of fantasy fiction and into the adventure fiction of British author Sax Rohmer, and his indelible creation Dr Fu Manchu. This is really where the basic stock images of the Evil Wizard originate. Steeped in ancient evil, descended from a lineage separate from ordinary men, Fu Manchu lurks on the shadows, master of an array of exotic poisons, drugs, torture techniques, and a legion of fanatical minions. He is a sorcerer in all but name, and in fact Howard himself pastiched the Doctor in his novella Skull Face, explicitly making his off-brand Doctor, Kathulos, a surviving Atlantean.

Rohmer said he based Fu Manchu on Asian crime bosses he met while he was a reporter in Limehouse, and the casual and cartoonish racism of the tales is hard to do anything but laugh at now. But the archetype sank into the popular culture, and surfaced as the Evil Wizard image. We picture our sorcerers encamped in dank laboratories, surrounded by grotesque experiments, reading forbidden books. They wear strange facial hair and probably a skullcap, they turn the pages with long, pointed nails and breathe in drugged smoke to have visions that unlock their secret knowledge.

It is significant that when Moorcock made Elric his hero, he made him a wizard, and thus he had to define much more clearly what that power could and could not accomplish. Yet one thing that did not change was that magic was dangerous and unclean. The powers wielded by magic in S&S are not the Vancian style of “wave wave boom” made popular by role-playing games. Magic in Sword & Sorcery has a cost, whether in blood, or more often in sanity. Lovecraft left his mark on the genre with a tradition of magic that is essentially inhuman and dangerous, no matter who is using it. There may be those who would use sorcery for good ends, but the means will always remain twisted and evil.