Monday, April 24, 2017

The Forest God

The world was so much vaster than Asherah would have ever believed. She and her companion Tekru passed through the fallow lands below the frost, where the earth had been torn by ancient glaciers in their passing and left raw and dark beneath an iron sky. From there they entered rocky lands, with wide barren plains shadowed by jagged mountains. Under a crescent moon they left behind the northlands she had known, and rode into a land where the sun rose each day into a blazing sky.

She was glad when mists hid the sun, for the light was harsh to her, and she covered her face with her cowl when they traveled by day. But as the land grew rougher, and the cliffs rose on each side, there was more shade from the sun, and at last they descended into a long, steep valley between towering razor mountains, and reached a land of forest so deep it seemed to stretch forever in every direction, and she wondered how they would find their way.

The trees were huge and towered high over the path, the branches heavy and thick with mist. The carpet of fallen needles beneath the hooves of their horses was so thick they made no sound when they trod upon it. The land was silent and ageless, and she wondered if any human eyes had ever seen these deeps.

On the eighth day they climbed a long ridge beside the sighing of a great waterfall, tasting the mist in the air, and then they came to a place where the earth was churned and marked by the print of a great hoof. Asherah was amazed, for she had never seen a track so immense. It was the split hoof of a deer, but as far across as a shield, and the beast it suggested must stand as high as a great tree. Tekru saw it and shook his head, made a sign to ward off evil.

“We can dare no more. Here the path turns east, to take us out of this accursed land.” He pointed to where the mountains were cleft, and a pass was visible in the fog. “That way.”

“You said the red sands we seek are to the south,” she said. “Is there no way through?”

“The way south is swifter,” he said. “But only a madman would take it. From here the forest becomes something not meant as the domain of men. If you go south into those woods, you will not come out again.”

“I am already too far behind my quarry,” she said. In her mind she saw the face of Gathas the sorcerer, the one who stole the body of the emperor from its tomb and set her on this path. “I cannot delay.”

“Perhaps one such as you might pass through the forest, but do not risk it.” He gestured. “This way will take us back to the lands of men, and from there we may take a road to the south.”

“But it is the long way,” she said.

“As the path is marked, yes. But Vengru walks here, the ruler of the forest, the one who may be a god.” Tekru looked on the great hoofprint and shuddered. “He does not permit any to cross his land unmarked.”

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Shadow Kingdom

So I want to go through and discuss some of the significant stories in Sword & Sorcery – what made them S&S, why they work and what they added to the genre. There’s no way I can be totally comprehensive, but I will do my best. And what better place to start than the story that began it all: Robert E. Howard’s seminal “The Shadow Kingdom”.

“The Shadow Kingdom” is a Kull story, and though it is not the first in Kull’s chronology, it is the first one written, and the first one published. It appeared in Weird Tales in August 1929, though from his own writings, it appears that he began working on it in the summer of 1926. Howard was 20 that year, and had been selling fiction off and on for about two years, ever since the publication of his story “Spear and Fang”, when he was just 18. He had largely been selling stories that were either pastiches of the adventure fiction of the day, westerns, or the kind of “past life” experience stories common at the time to allow for historical narratives.

But he wanted something new, something to make him stand out from the crowd. He wanted a recurring character, a world for adventure and violence, and horror and fantasy all mixed in together. Thus, over two years and several rewrites, was born Kull of Atlantis in his inaugural adventure.

It is a long, tightly-plotted, and complex story. At over 11,000 words, it is lengthy, and not structured like the typical fantasy tale of the time. The voice is grandiose and almost purple, showing off Howard’s penchant for elevated prose, as well as his ear for the rhythm of long sentences. Its setting, in an imagined age of monsters and heroes, immediately made it stand out, and it made a lasting impression.

Because the whole idea of the “weird tale” was always rather nebulous. It was very much rooted in classic horror literature, drawing on Poe, Chambers, and even Dunsany at times. The stories most often told in the magazine were set in the then-modern day, telling stories of drawing-room ghosts, past life secrets, hauntings, and other such Victorian cliches. Lovecraft had been pushing the bounds of the style for some time, but his own individual vision of cosmic horror had only just begun to flower. Many of the Weird Tales writers remained bound in old ways of doing things.

The major innovation of the story is in finding ways to fit so many elements from different genres together and making them flow so well they made a new thing. The story opens with an almost dreamlike quality, depicting the great kingdom Kull rules over and the age he dwells in, and then it moves into backstory, giving us the history and legend of the Serpent People, defining the threat and the stakes. The idea of evil reptilian humanoids is not new, and depicting them as some kind of secret society who use hypnosis and magic to hide themselves is a very pulp concept.

What lifts this up from a kind of drawing-room mystery set in another world is the way Howard ends it. Rather than an ending where the hero goes mad, as Lovecraft might write, or one where the enemy is handily vanquished by some deus ex machina, Howard cranks it up and closes the story in a blast of violence the likes of which few readers of Weird Tales had ever seen before. Faced with a room full of Serpent Men set on his destruction, Kull draws his sword and cuts them all down in an orgy of bloodshed that almost stains the pages.

Because this was what Howard took from adventure fiction, which he had been selling for several years at this point. In an adventure story, such final crescendos of violence at the end of the story were expected, but in a “weird tale” it was revolutionary. Readers were used to stories ending with madness, or a last scare, or the kind of “twist” ending that suggested things were not what they seemed, or that the solution to the conflict was illusory. They were not accustomed to the story’s problems being solved with violence, especially the operatic, bloody violence Howard traded in.

So it was a stroke of lightning, which created a lot of excitement and turned into the dawn of a whole new fantasy genre. The poetic writing style and supernatural mystery of a classic weird tale, the richly-imagined setting and atmosphere of a fantasy story, and the hard-edged brutal violence of the adventure tale, all of it amped up to ten by the intensity only Howard could create. Together these elements fused and became a whole new combination, a creative shockwave that thundered through the fantasy genre and still makes waves today, more than 90 years after Howard sat down in his little room to invent it.

Monday, April 10, 2017

City of the Dark

Branded and exiled, Asherah rode south into unknown lands. She carried only her weapons and a burning desire for vengeance. Every morning the sun rose higher, until it lifted above the horizon, and she had to shield her eyes from the light of it for the first time in her life. She looked down from the high pass to the lowlands beyond that she had heard of but never seen. She knew the empire carved out with fire and steel by her ancestors stretched for many weeks in every direction, and yet none of the Karkahd had passed beyond the mountains for hundreds of years, save those who did not return.

Hers was the highest of crimes, for she had failed to protect the graves of the greatest of the kings, and had somehow also failed to give her life in the attempt. Wounded, she had ridden to the place called Ember, and she had warned her kin that the body of Druan had been stolen. They went forth to try and intercept the grave robbers, but they had lost the trail in the foothills, and no Karkahd could pass the mountains and return.

Asherah had failed, and so she was stripped of her armor and her torch, and her back was branded to show her crimes and that she was no long a part of any people. They gave her back her bow and spear and her sword, and then they gave her the choice of death in battle or exile for life, and she chose exile. They might think it was the coward’s choice, but she still harbored within her the desire to track down those who had defiled the valley of death, and make them pay with their lives, as she should have.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Dark Age

One of the great unmentioned issues with the classic Sword & Sorcery fiction is the extremely iffy treatment of race. Now, race as a whole has been and remains a problem in fantasy fiction overall, with far too many authors content to imagine worlds where the only dark-skinned people are either servants or nonexistent. Far too often, fantasy worlds are just “Medieval England, only everywhere,” positing a world where other races and cultures exist only as distant theoreticals.

But Sword & Sorcery started off a little different. When Howard invented the Hyborian Age, he based it on a fictionalized version of a historical Earth, and so he included a lot of kingdoms and people who were not white people. This was, it has to be said, somewhat revolutionary for fantasy at the time, though not so much when one considers the adventure fiction Howard was strongly inspired by.

“Adventure Fiction” as it was understood in the late Victorian period and into the 20th century, could be more accurately called “White Explorer Fiction”. After all, the genre itself grew out of the colonial experience of mostly British writers who had served in the overseas possessions of the crown: Africa, India, and the Middle East. Their experiences with criminal elements, fractious politics, and unfamiliar cultures led them to write down their stories, and led to a public appetite for such stories of adventure in “exotic” lands. Writers who had never been out of their home country were more than happy to supply the demand, filling in with imagination what they lacked in knowledge.

Howard was inspired by this tradition, though the colonial age had largely passed by the time of his writings. The tropes and archetypes of those kinds of stories remained, and the market for them remained as well. Howard himself wrote and sold numerous tales set in the Middle East or Africa, spinning action-packed stories about the brave white adventurer against Tuaregs, Yezidis, and Thugee cultists.

So when he made his fantasy world, he made room for those kinds of settings and the people who lived there. His world features nomadic Hyrkanians, mysterious and ancient Shemites, and Kushites standing in for (respectively) Mongols, Egyptians, and Africans.

Howard grew up in the post-oak belt in Texas, a country that had been part of the deep south, and in the 1920s was only a few generations removed from slavery. It was not a progressive, inclusive environment to grow up in, and furthermore, this was the era when “scientific racism” was quite well thought of, and there was thought to be real science behind the idea that white Europeans were superior to everyone else.

So considering his background, Howard was pretty liberal. He no doubt discovered that if you are going to have other civilizations, then you have to accord the people who built them a degree of intelligence and humanity you can otherwise not bother with. Ironically, as his hero was a barbarian, he was able to see all civilizations as equally strange and foolish, and this worked against the overt racism.

Because Howard was a racist, it is just not possible for a white man of his time and place to not be. However, it is interesting to note that Lovecraft – who lived in New England and had little contact with non-whites most of his life – was virulently racist. While Howard, who no doubt had much more familiarity with African Americans, was not nearly so bad about it. He openly considered different races to be different, because that was the prevailing idea of his time. But even though he never wrote a non-white protagonist, he accorded the nonwhite characters he did have a degree of respect and admiration for their good qualities you do not often find in fantasy fiction, even if the openly racial way he expresses this is deeply uncomfortable to a modern reader. Howard may not have considered nonwhites to be as good as whites – though he never really said one way or another – but he certainly considered them to be human.

Sadly, this is a position a lot of other S&S authors have avoided or simply muffed. Too many fantasy worlds are simply too white, and nonwhite cultures rarely appear in them, or only as some place referred to, far away over the sea. Even Moorcock bungled it when he was making Elric into his anti-Conan, because really, despite how tanned he is depicted in art, Conan is as white as it gets, and to really be his opposite Elric should have been black. It remains a fact that authors who want a barbarian hero will bend over backwards to create white barbarians and then laud them for their vigor and strength, while never considering any other color.  It is sad that after almost a hundred years, things have not changed very much.