Monday, August 28, 2017

The Dark Rising: Part Two

The snow screamed on the wind, obscuring everything, making the night a torrent of razor ice that clawed and froze and cracked apart. The fanatics of the Left Hand looked into the night, to the gate of the dead city. They held hard to their spears and shields, set their feet against the wind, and they listened as the tread of many feet drew closer. Again the blast of a battle horn ripped the darkness, and then the vanguard of a terrible army surged out from the night.

They were not men. They wore the shape of men, but they were not made of flesh; they were stone men, black and gleaming like glass, rimed with frost, and from their masked helms eyes blazed like lanterns. They made no sound, gave no cries. There was only the inexorable pound of their feet upon the earth, and then their spears lowered to make a serried wall of deadly points, and the two armies came together with a roar.

The attacking men were of stone, but their swords and spears were of hardened bronze, and they struck with inhuman strength. The warriors had great weight and size, and they smashed into the ranks of their enemy like a tide. Men were knocked back, impaled and crushed under stone feet. The men of the Left Hand fought like demons, but their blows rang useless upon stone skins and their swords and axes snapped like brittle ice.

The stone men tore through the lines and split the front apart, and then through the ranks of them came another shape. Tall and pale, dressed in blue-scaled armor and with a black sword in her dead left hand, Chona strode through her army of unliving warriors, and she let loose her war cry into the storm. From death she was risen to avenge her kingdom, and nothing would stand in her path.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Problem Solving

Bob Howard’s innovation was to use the high-octane action of the adventure story as a way to end supernatural mysteries. All of Howard’s best stories presented a mystery of some kind, even if they were just “who is the evil wizard this time?” Conan, Cormac, and Solomon were usually called on to figure something out – whether it be finding a secret door, a path through a deadly maze, or a way into a well-guarded tower.

Other Sword & Sorcery writers leaned less hard on the mystery aspect, and thus had to rely on other sorts of story structures. Either they went for Lovecraftian horror, or they fell more into fantasy quest tropes. This started to cause problems with plots, because if you solve all your problems the same way, your stories start to get predictable.

There was something fun about setting up a mystic mystery with some Yellow-Peril-styled wizard, and then having Conan split his head open before he could get a spell off. It was subverting a trope that writers like Sax Rohmer had been using for decades, along with slews of lesser authors of “exotic” adventure fiction. The wizard always has another trick up his sleeve, and the heroes often stand maddeningly and gawp while the sorcerer (or his equivalent) pulls ropes, flips levers, or steps on suspiciously-colored sections of floor just as the lights go out.

Once Conan had been through a few adventures, it was obvious that he was physically far superior to anyone he faced. The reader didn’t really worry about it, and it was harder and harder to pit him against opponents who posed a credible threat. All of Howard’s heroes were like this – they were so badass that making us worry about them got harder and harder.

Hence the mysteries and misdirections. We knew that once he comes face to face with his foes, whatever Howard hero we are following will handily wipe the floor with them. Howard was good at action, and he strove mightily to make the fights seem bloody and dangerous, like every one was a near thing. He was good enough at it that he was able to carry you past the fact that you know the hero is not going to lose.

The writer has to make the way his hero solves a problem seem exciting, not a foregone conclusion. The problem with building your hero up into an unstoppable killing machine is that you start having trouble using violence as a problem solver. This is a common weakness with second-rate S&S. Hack writers see the violence and like it (and well-done violence can be a real pleasure), and they want to imitate that.

But if your protagonist is The Best at violence, then all the violence in the story has less tension, because the reader does not seriously believe the hero can’t win, or won’t win. The violence becomes dull, and in response the bad writer pumps it up more and more, verging into exaggeration and hyperbole that make the suspension of disbelief impossible.

Under these circumstances, you have to make something besides pure violence the solution to the story’s problems. Violence should still be part of it, because this is Sword & Sorcery, but you need something else.

Some writers then resort to magic, which has its own set of problems. Unless your character is a wizard – which most S&S heroes are not – then the magic has to come from somebody or something else. Useful magic has to be difficult and dangerous, it has to have a price. If it does, then you have something you can work with, especially if the character knows the cost ahead of time and still chooses to use it. Sacrifice always makes for a good ending.

But it risks reducing your character, if you do it that way. The power to defeat the enemy should come from within the hero or from a decision they make, not from some magical doodad. You run the risk of falling into High Fantasy tropes of using the Magic Thing to defeat the Bad Thing, and your characters feel superfluous.

So it all presents its own set of problems. This is an action genre, and we want the action to mean something, but the battles can’t feel like a foregone conclusion. There has to be risk and danger, but we don’t want it to become unbelievable, as our hero is supposed to be good at this. There should be magic, but we can’t use the magic to solve all the problems presented by the antagonist. Ideally, any magic used by the hero should serve only to negate a magical advantage from the villain, so that they are once again on an even footing. Fairness in conflict is an excellent source of drama and excitement, and if things are not fair, then they should be stacked against your protagonist, not for them.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Dark Rising: Part One

Through the dark forests, across the deep quick rivers and through the screaming snow, the army of the Left Hand dragged the great tomb of the ancient king. They climbed higher and higher in the mountains, toward the deadly pass men called the Black Gate, where destiny waited for the touch of a spark. The sun hid behind the clouds, and the sky drew down low and hard and cold, as if the earth herself willed them to turn away, but they would not. They were driven by a more than mortal faith, the words of their prophet branded on their flesh, and though men died in the cold and were left to be torn apart by wolves, no man would turn aside.

Khamag rode at the head of his army, and though the wind was a blade of winter, the sword in his metal hand warmed him and guided him on. The sword of flame was a shard of red in the gray landscape, and when the snow grew thicker he held it up like a beacon. It heated his iron hand, until he felt the sting on his flesh, but he would not turn it loose. He had struggled and planned and waited for three hundred years for this moment. He would not be denied.

The Black Gate loomed ahead of him, the two great pinnacles of basalt, black as moonlight blood, scarred by wind and time, jagged against the sky. The wind howling through them was like voices raised in anguish, screaming words no ear could understand. The voices of the dead, gathered in this place as the stars wheeled unseen above.

He reached the pass and stopped, turned his horse to look on the long line of his army, his fanatics struggling upward through the wind and snow, heads bent, forcing their horses up the slope. In the midst of them rose the great tomb, gleaming with jewels and blackened silver, covered in ice. A hundred of the chosen bent their backs to drag it onward, the heavy wheels gouging the earth and the stone. They were close to the end. These men had dragged it across the breadth of the old empire. Five hundred had died on the journey, their limbs and hearts burst from the unrelenting toil. Khamag would have sacrificed a hundred times as many.

He felt the red dagger driven through his dead heart pulse with fire, and the sword of flame steamed in the flailing snow. Now, at last, he would consummate the quest he had undertaken centuries before, the goal for which he had forsworn his own people, and the oath into which he had been born. Khamag had forsaken that oath, and taken another one. He had bled across the world, died and risen again into a new life, and now he would achieve his goal. Gathas was gone, the short-sighted wizard who had seen only power for himself. Asherah was gone, his blood-kin who had been his relentless enemy. No one remained to stop him.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Lost Race

One of the staples of the adventure genre is the “Lost Race” story, which grew out of the “Lost World” story and sometimes overlaps quite a bit. Since Sword & Sorcery evolved from adventure fiction, some of that DNA ended up mixed in, but in a kind of interesting way.

Adventure fiction grew out of the 19th century, when a lot of the world map was still pretty blank. Explorers were busy all through the century trying to find all the hidden corners, but for fiction writers there were still plenty of spots to put whatever you wanted, because nobody could say you were wrong. You didn’t even have to give some bullshit explanation as to why your lost civilization didn’t show up on satellite pictures. It was a magical time.

Because all the hidden valleys and lost oases in the world were not as interesting as they would be if there were people in them, pulp writers inevitably populated their forgotten corners of the earth with some advanced civilization, often a remnant of some culture that had existed in the past. These lost worlds were found to contain Romans, Vikings, Cavemen, Israelites, or even Atlanteans. People cut off from the world around them, and somehow still existing on the same cultural and technological plane they had inhabited centuries or millennia before.

This was a very popular subgenre, and a slew of authors cranked out story after story and book after book. Haggard, Kipling, Doyle, Burroughs, and Merritt all wrote books in the genre, and they are just the tip of the iceberg. A lot of these books influenced Howard, and so the idea of the “Lost Race” went into the stew that created Sword & Sorcery, but the nature of fantasy worked a fundamental change.

Because unlike the regular run of Lost Race tales, S&S is not set in the modern world, but in one that is either earlier in history, or in a completely fantastical world with no relation to our own. Thus, the usual candidates for lost races were not available. This means that a writer of Sword & Sorcery who wants to do a lost race story has to invent their own lost race.

In practice this went one of two ways; either the author used some shadowy people out of semi-legendry, or they just invented from whole cloth. Howard himself was quite obsessed with the Picts – who were an actual race who existed in northern Scotland – and used them in several of his Dark Age stories like “Kings of the Night” and “The Dark Man”. To him, the Picts were a pre-Celtic race who had been driven out by later invaders, and who retreated underground to survive, slowly reverting to an almost bestial savagery.

But in a fantasy world, the author has to invent lost races out of nothing. And in Sword & Sorcery fiction this impulse tangles with the Lovecraftian influence to create lost races that are not just alien, but actually inhuman. In a Lovecraftian cosmos, the races that came before man were avowedly subhuman, from the nebulous subterranean beings of Irem, the Deep Ones of Innsmouth, to the Worms of the Earth, the Serpent Men of Valusia, or even the Melniboneans.

Lost Races in Sword & Sorcery fiction are not just remnants of earlier eras, they are enemies of mankind. Inhuman and inimical, serving bestial gods and bent on the destruction of humanity. Inevitably, this makes evil and corruption a racial issue, as dark magic and evil machinations are the heritage of those peoples who descend through aeons of time from some pre-human race of monsters. In a Howard story, if you trace the bloodline of a sorcerer back far enough, you will find a lizard.

This means lost race tales are fundamentally different in S&S. You are never going to have a tale about an explorer who happens upon a lost city of Romans, helps them build a cannon, runs afoul of the high priest, and then escapes hand-in-hand with the princess as the volcano erupts. The only thing remotely like this in the canon is “Red Nails”, and there Howard subverts the tropes by having the hidden race be as bloody-minded and primitive as anyone else in the Hyborian Age. In adventure fiction, a lost race tale makes the modern era look so much more advanced than all those silly primitives. In Sword & Sorcery it rends the veil and reveals civilization as a thin veneer over ages of howling madness.