Monday, May 29, 2017

The Hour of the Dragon

A definite milestone in the birth of the Sword & Sorcery genre was the creation of the first definitive S&S novel, and as with so many other aspects, Howard was there first with his only novel-length work The Hour of the Dragon, a Conan tale to end them all. (Almost literally, as it was the last Conan story to be published in his lifetime, though it was not the last one he wrote.)

In the early 30s Howard was trying to break out of just publishing for Weird Tales, and one of his major efforts was to try and break out of the pulps and write books instead. One of the obstacles to this was that he had never written a book before. He had submitted a collection of stories to British publisher Denis Archer, which they rejected, but they suggested a novel of Sword & Sorcery might be something they would want.

Energized, Howard worked hard to conjure a novel. He started writing Almuric – a Sword & Planet adventure in the Burroughs tradition – but ultimately never finished it. Then he started a Conan novel which also went nowhere and eventually became the minor story “Drums of Tombalku”. Finally, sometime around March 17th, 1934, he started on what would become The Hour of the Dragon.

Reading it now, it is obvious that he was a relative novice at novel-writing, as the pacing is much more like what one expects from a short story. Howard always wrote fast-paced, tightly-plotted fiction, and he didn’t slow down when he was writing a longer work. He knew his strengths, and he played to them. The novel is an almost nonstop barrage of action, opening with a huge battle, and leading through a succession of bloody confrontations and daring escapes to its tense climax. It is a Howard story right to the bone.

That said, it is not the most original of his works. Howard was clearly aware of the fact that a British audience would not be familiar with his previous works, and he was in a hurry, so he borrowed rather shamelessly from his own previous Conan stories to assemble the plot. The antagonist – the undead sorcerer Xaltotun – is a dead ringer for Natohk, the villain from “Black Colossus”. The circle of rebellious nobles who gather to conjure the wizard from death are definitely reminiscent of the similar crew who drove the story of “The Phoenix on the Sword”. Conan’s escape through the crypts is drawn right from “The Scarlet Citadel”, as is the overall theme of King Conan losing his throne to a supernatural enemy and then fighting to regain it.

At around 70,000 words, the novel is extremely short, and yet the breathless pace would be exhausting if it were any longer. It is very much a pulp novel, of a piece with novels of the Shadow or the Spider, where the stories were churned out with such relentless intensity that the characters had no time to sleep. Maybe Howard would have learned to ease up and adopt a more novelistic pace if he’d had more time to practice, but as it is, he never lived to write more than a few long-form works.

Yet as derivative of his own stories as it is, Howard manages to conjure some scenes of real intensity and arresting imagery, as he almost always did. The opening battle scene, with the clash of warriors culminating in the epic avalanche, is a hell of a place to start. Xaltotun is actually a much creepier wizard-back-from-the-dead than Natohk or Tsotha-Ilanti ever managed. Previously his immortal wizards were a bit too broad pulp supervillains, while Xaltotun is more menacing and cool. Conan’s journey through the pits in “The Scarlet Citadel” was creepy, but The Hour of the Dragon adds the interlude with the vampire Princess Akivasha, which is so vivid it stays in the mind long after.

Battles, escapes, piracy, wizardry, violence, giant snakes, murderous apes – The Hour of the Dragon is a virtual guided tour through the lands and dangers of the Hyborean Age, and while for a reader of the other Conan tales a lot of it is familiar, Howard infuses all of it with his trademark energy and verve.

Denis Archer accepted the manuscript, but then went bankrupt in 1934 before it could be printed. When the book was returned to him, Howard sent it to Weird Tales, who serialized it from December 1935 to April 1936. When the last part was printed, Howard himself would only have 2 months to live.

The novel was finally printed in book form in 1950 by Gnome Press under the title Conan the Conqueror, and many later editions retained the title. In 1977 Karl Edward Wagner oversaw a new edition which restored the original text and title, and that is the version that has been reprinted in subsequent editions. It has been collected and anthologized many times, translated into a dozen languages, and adapted in the comics over and over. Whatever its flaws, the book remains the very first full-length Sword & Sorcery novel.

Monday, May 22, 2017

City of Dooms

Dawn bled across the sky like fire, and the night ebbed away, and the city stood, laid bare in the light of morning. It was a dreamlike skyline of domes and towers girdled round with walls as high as six men, and behind it the sea dreamed in the half-light. A cold wind blew out of the deserts to the west, and the army on the plain around the ancient metropolis began to stir, like a beast awakening from slumber.

A thousand fires scattered in the dark were kicked out and smothered, pennants blew in the morning breeze over ten thousand tents. Men began to assemble in their ranks and formations, spears like jagged teeth or scales on the back of a dark, nameless serpent as they moved toward the walls. Fires blazed on the ramparts, and the defenders gathered as well, helms and swords alight in the dawn.

The army at the gates was made of forty thousand barbarians drawn from the bitter lands that bordered the seaside kingdom. A thousand years of rivalry and envy were made manifest in armored warriors hungry for plunder and revenge upon those who had lorded over them for too long. The civilized men of the city of Samzarah had misjudged their poorer kin, and now would pay the price of blood for it. Even now they hid within their alabaster towers and hoarded their riches and prayed for deliverance from the horde that hungered for their deaths.

Lines of spearmen hurled themselves against the walls, casting up ladders and iron hooks to try and reach the top. The gates faced a phalanx of armored men wielding a ram, and burning arrows fell as they battered against the gate. Archers sent their steel-headed shafts sheeting through the air, and the cries and screams of men rose into the day, and that was the sixth day of the siege.

Asherah was among the men at the gate, huddled behind a heavy wooden mantlet for protection from the rain of arrows and stones. In this army of hardland barbarians she did not seem strange. There were other women among them, especially archers, and they were glad of any hand raised against their enemies. She did not care for the city, or for their cause, only that the heavy-wheeled trail she followed led through the very gates she now assaulted, and if she had to fight a war to follow it, she would.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Dreaming City

Micheal Moorcock was a young man of 22, with his career just starting to take off, when he published the very first story about Elric of Melnibone in Science Fantasy in June of 1961. He had been selling fiction for almost 4 years at that point, and was beginning to make a name for himself. Elric would really put him on the map, and become his best-known and most enduring creation.

Elric was conceived of as a kind of anti-Conan, and the world he inhabited was originally thought of as a kind of anti-Middle-Earth. Where Conan was strong, Elric was unable to so much as walk without special drugs. Conan was a barbarian of no history or lineage, while Elric was the 428th emperor of the fading empire of Melnibone. Conan’s culture was barbaric, Elric’s was decadent and cruel. Conan was a thief, Elric was born rich. Conan feared magic, Elric was a sorcerer who summoned elementals and demons.

And the world he inhabited was intended as a kind of backlash against Middle-Earth, and thus came out rather Lovecraftian. In the world of Tolkien, the world had declined from a golden era, and magic and wonder faded more and more as the years passed. In Elric’s world, magic had been fading for millennia, but that was a good thing, as magic was depicted as a terrible, inhuman power that either killed men, drove them mad, or enslaved them. Elric never wanted to resort to sorcery, and used it only when he had to, and there was always a price to pay.

“The Dreaming City” was a novella or novelette, longer than a short story, and structured like a novel even if it was short. It is unusual in that it depicted what was later seen as the climactic battle between Elric and his cousin/nemesis Yrkoon, and Elric’s complicity in the invasion and destruction of his home. Elric has been away from the city of Imrryr for many years, but now he has heard that his cousin has usurped his throne and imprisoned his lover, Cymoril.

Without an army of his own, Elric cannot hope to defeat Yrkoon and rescue Cymoril, so he makes a bargain with the sea-raider captains of the Young Kingdoms: he will lead them through the sea-maze that guards the city if they will help him. Thus, in order to serve his own purposes, Elric is willing to oversee the destruction of his race.

Because that’s another difference between Elric and Conan – Conan is human, while Elric is not. The Melniboneans are human-like, but they are creatures of Chaos. An older race of magic and cruelty. Once they ruled the world, but now they are reduced to decadent, apathetic remnants, hiding on their fortress island. The parallels with the British Empire, coming from a British author, are impossible to ignore.

What is remarkable about the story is just how bitter and bleak it is. It begins with an exiled emperor leading a coup against his own people with the help of foreign mercenaries paid with the promise of plunder, but then everything goes utterly and completely wrong. The city is taken, and Elric confronts his cousin. But while Yrkoon is slain, Elric’s cursed nature takes a terrible toll for his victory. His soul-eating runesword, Stormbringer, devours the soul of his lover Cymoril, leaving Elric in despair. Then, as the fleet escapes from the island, the Melnibonean dragons swoop down on them. Elric’s friends and allies are consumed by fire even as he himself uses magic to propel his ship to safety.

So by the end, Elric has accomplished almost nothing that he set out to do. He defeats his enemy, but his people are slain or scattered, his home destroyed, his lover is worse than dead, and his allies are left behind, cursing his name as they are slaughtered. The whole thing is subsumed in this operatic outpouring of tragedy that was quite unlike the Sword & Sorcery of the day. Moorcock took the vibrant, dreamlike prose and violence of the genre and did something very different with it.

Because he was 20 when he invented Elric, the character bears an unmistakable stamp of late adolescence. Elric is a loner, separated from those around him by his melancholy and his brooding. No one among his own people understands him, and he roams the world alone and apart. He repudiates the ways and practices of his own people, and resents when he is forced to use them to achieve his ends. He is fated to be a hero, even though he resents this as well, and fights against it, just wanting to be left alone. He is every rootless, post high-school boy who feels like he is “different” and wants to go his own way, whatever that means. The sexual symbolism of Stormbringer – the sword he depends on and cannot get rid of, though he hates how it keeps sticking into other people as if it had a mind of its own – is a little too on the nose to examine closely.

“The Dreaming City” was the beginning of a long career of adding to the Elric Mythos, as well as the connected “Eternal Champion” books. None of this went very far at improving the essential character. Moorcock later filled out his original run of stories and novellas into a series of books that covered Elric’s life from youth to death, and the whole became rather bloated and self-important. Moorcock’s sometimes brilliant prose and relentless imagination allowed him to get away with a lot, but the character of Elric did not really hold up well as the center of a long-form story. As the anti-hero of a novella he worked, as a world-bestriding hero he became tiresome.

Yet the mark made on the Sword & Sorcery genre remains indelible. Moorcock’s dramatic, vivid world had a huge impact on the later fantasy genre in the 70s and 80s, with his plethora of monsters, demons, and gods inspiring so much of what we think of as fantasy in books, games, and movies. The albino, outcast, brooding prince with his evil sword is such a strong archetype it seems impossible that there was ever a time without him. Whatever came after, “The Dreaming City” remains a landmark in the world of fantasy fiction.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Curses of the Sun

Asherah crossed the mountains, made her way through cities breathing with a hundred smells and a hundred languages. She passed over mountains under a depthless sky, and then she came at last to the land she had been seeking, the land she had begun to half believe was a legend, for no such land could be real. It stretched before her, vast and empty and pale under the moon. Ushar, the desert, where her path led over colossal dunes in the ageless silence to the place where red stone pillars stood over crimson sands.

She rode a black horse with a long head and thin legs. It was taller and more agile than her lost pony, and very much swifter, but it did not have the same endless endurance. Asherah wore her sword at her side and new, black-fletched arrows bristled from her quiver. She bore new mail armor and a new scar underneath it. Her pale skin was wrapped in black cloth to keep the sun from it, and her eyes were painted dark to cut the glare. She had begun to learn the ways of the lands of daylight.

At first sight the desert looked like a land without form, the dunes in high waves like ice frozen on a pond. She remembered cascades of ice, and how the water would freeze solid at the grasp of winter and be fixed in shapes all through the cold seasons. This was like that, only the sand shifted beneath the hooves of her steed, and the sighing wind caught up the dust and whirled it into the sky. She was glad to have her face covered, to keep her from breathing it in like ground glass.

She had been warned to keep to the caravan routes that led south across the wasteland to Ahrimaz, and she saw the tracks of many beasts and men in the sand, and so she followed them. In places great posts stood up from the dunes, pennons bright at the tops of them, and they helped to mark the path. Asherah rode with her bow in hand and an arrows set to the string, ready in case some raiders or thieves thought to test her. This way was usually followed by caravans of pack animals, guarded by mercenaries. She rode alone, and so she knew she would seem a ripe target.

The trail led through the dunes and then into a barren, rocky land where ancient river channels cut through the stone and left wandering canyons it would be easy to become lost in. She camped by day in deep shadows, hiding from the fierce sun and the terrible heat. It was like the furnaces of a nightmare, under that blazing light. She traveled by night when there was cool air and starlight to guide her. The day was too bright, and too savage.

She rode for ten nights and sheltered for ten days, and then she followed the rising ground to a stony hill that let her see all around. The caravan path led southwest from here, into kinder lands, and she saw the beginnings of the grasslands she had been told of.

Her path led due east. She rode down the rocky hillside to a narrow defile where there was an oasis, with a small pool welling up from the stone. She let her horse drink while she filled her waterskins, and then she mounted again and rode away from the trail, and into the deep desert, where lay the accursed lands she sought.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Ill-Met in Lankhmar

“Two Sought Adventure” was the first published story by Fritz Leiber, printed in Unknown magazine in 1939. It was the introduction to the inimitable team of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser – the heroes who would go on to star in a multitude of stories and dominate Leiber’s literary legacy. He produced over 30 stories about the pair through his life, writing them through the 60s, 70s, and 80s until just a few years before his death in 1992, which makes them among the most long-lived Sword & Sorcery heroes in the canon.

Originally, the characters were invented by his friend Harry Fischer, and indeed they were based upon the pair – Leiber the tall one, Fischer the short – but while Fischer contributed to several stories, it was Leiber who made them immortal, most especially with his Hugo and Nebula-winning novella “Ill-Met in Lankhmar”. It was an origin tale, depicting the first time the two heroes met, and told, almost by accident, one of the most central and emotional stories about them.

Through the 60s and 70s Leiber was going through the Lankhmar stories and putting them in some sort of order, trying to tie the previously only loosely-connected tales into a kind of cohesive whole. That, in turn, put him in mind to fill in some gaps. The story of how the two met had not been told before, and it seemed an obvious choice. The story was published in 1970 in Fantasy and Science Fiction, then anthologized the same year in the inaugural Fafhrd and Gray Mouser collection Swords and Deviltry. It caused a sensation then, and remains among his best-remembered and -regarded works even today.

Leiber was not a young man when he wrote it. Howard was maybe twenty when he started carving out “The Shadow Kingdom”. Leiber was about sixty when he wrote “Ill-Met”, and half a century had passed since the pulp days of the 1920s. He wrote a story that is indelibly Sword & Sorcery, told with a poetic voice and yet with the grungy, underworld aesthetic he always evoked with the pair. He could have made it a romp or a caper, but instead he told a tale of tragedy. He told a story of his two heroes doing what they do best – stealing – and while they succeed at it, they pay a terrible price, all the more tragic because they are not the ones who pay, but those they love, who they unwittingly set in harm’s way.

It is a dark story, full of thieves, cutthroats, beggars, and sorcerers. It gives full play to the setting of Lankhmar as a place of both wealth and squalor. He shows us two heroes who are not heroes yet, who are fighting and scraping to survive, clinging to the dreams of adolescence, trying to be men when they are not quite there yet. Details like the Mouser’s sad and desperate home he has made for his beloved Ivrian, trying to care for her as a lady, strike a chord that it far too keen and knowing to have been written by a young man.

Yet Leiber does not skimp on the action, and the story is a thrill ride, with chases, swordfights, and humor to spare, and then he wallops you with the unexpected twist, and shows that his heroes have been joined all their lives not simply by friendship, but by a shared grief and guilt that they can never wipe away. They have their revenge, but the ending is still so raw that he had to write “The Price of Pain-Ease” the same year to give his heroes some closure.

1970 was an in-between year for Sword & Sorcery. The 60s boom in Howard reprints and pastiches was receding, though not yet gone, and the popular vision of S&S had not hit its lurid stride in the comics yet. Leiber was a respected master of Fantasy and SF, and could have simply rested on his laurels, but he chose not to. He showed that S&S still could tell vital, emotional stories. That it was not limited to young men fetishising gore and nudity, that it was not just naked slave girls and bulging biceps. He showed what Sword & Sorcery literature could be when it is taken seriously and written with care and respect and love for the form. None of those things should be forgotten.