Monday, March 26, 2018

Nature of the Beast: Reactionary

There was a bit of a buzz recently about Robert E. Howard, trying to argue that he was or was not a Nazi, or would have/did sympathize with Nazi beliefs. The argument is somewhat hamstrung because while Howard was alive when Nazis existed in Europe, and he did go on record as condemning their beliefs and activities, the man himself espoused views and political stances that would be questionable at best in the modern world. He was a primitivist, who held a great suspicion for civilized life and yearned for an imaginary barbarian past, and he was also a racist, born and raised in the heart of old Texas slave country.

But the larger question here is less about Bob Howard, and more about the genre he created and where it stands on that spectrum. There has been a disturbing tendency in a lot of Sword & Sorcery fiction to fall rather lazily into racist, fascist tropes. S&S often posits a world of either imaginary or historically inaccurate racism and sexism, worlds where everything is like Norway in the year 500 or in an imaginary version of Rome that is somehow solely populated by white people.

Some of this is the fault of the poor state of historical education in this country, and how thoroughly it has been compromised by racist fantasies. The late 19th and early 20th centuries were, after all, the height of the scientific racist movement, when the superiority of Europeans was more or less taken as a given by their descendents, and many people who should have known better looked back toward a “pure” state when their home countries were entirely inhabited by pink humans.

So this idea, and others, worked their way into the genre through cultural osmosis, and as S&S is often a kind of time capsule, clinging to tropes and ideas from almost a century ago, they have remained. The core of the S&S fandom often seems to be politically reactionary: sexist, racist, wishing for a time and place where men were men, women were slaves, and brown people mostly existed to worship the wrong gods and build empires for white barbarians to adventure in or take over.

Does it have to be this way? After all, the rough and ready heroes of Sword & Sorcery are not here to be sensitive, or to watch what they say. They are here to ride, shoot straight, and speak the truth. They solve problems with their axes and don’t care about your feelings. But there is a world of difference between a character’s attitudes, and the attitudes of the story itself. A barbarian can be insensitive and reactionary, an author had bloody well not be.

I am not going to stand up and argue that an S&S story should go ridiculously out of its way to be inclusive, or that a sword-wielding adventurer must stop the narrative to lecture on gay rights or feminism – that is not what an S&S story is about, not where the focus is. That would be a different kind of story altogether. But too many authors have used the genre as a place where they can feel free to be misogynistic or brutally racist and hide it behind the shield of “that’s the way the world was back then” which is an argument that falls apart under any sort of scrutiny at all. Historically that is not supported, and in a fictional world, any element is there because the author wants it there, not because it is “accurate”.

I feel like this is an element of S&S that not only can change, but has to. The genre is too often seen as a bastion of overgrown adolescents who just want gore and tits, with no other redeeming qualities at all. This backwards-compatibility with an earlier age of bigotry does it no favors. If anything, an S&S world should be an utterly egalitarian place, where what you are does not matter nearly as much as what you do. In a world of violence and darkness, what matters most about a person is how much ass they can kick, not what color their own ass is, or how it looks in a thong. Howard himself was grappling with this, and he often ascribed admirable traits to women and dark-skinned people, even if he was unable to stop thinking of them as fundamentally different. The fact that a Sword & Sorcery story is in a genre that was invented 90 years ago does not give an author a right to be a fossilized bastard.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Ships on a Blood Red Sea

Valura woke to the screams of the ravens, and she knew her fever was broken. She felt hollow and flayed, as though her skin had been stripped and burned in a fire. She stirred in the darkness belowdecks, and the sound of waves and the birds haunted her. She did not know how long she had been abed.

She shoved the furs off and sat up, fighting past a wave of weakness. Hunger chewed at her belly and she scooped up a bowl of cold stew from beside her bunk and swilled it down. The lack of motion beneath her feet told her the ship was ashore, so the army had arrived, and she had likely been left behind with the coal-chewers and the camp women. It made her want to spit. At last a war fit for her axe and she was left behind with a gods-cursed fever.

The axe she dreamed of lay close at hand, leaning against the inner wall of the hull, and she caught it up and stumbled forward, reeling from beam to beam until she could push through the leather curtain and climb up into the daylight. The smell of salt and smoke was as familiar to her as the feel of armor and shield, but the ravens circling overhead were disquieting.

Wind whipped her pale hair back from her brow, and she felt the cold bite her skin through the sweat-stained shift she wore. She felt weakness and drove it back with hatred. It was cold today, and the wind was coming down from the hills and sweeping across the stony shore. The sky was low and gray, seeming like a stone roof close enough to touch.

The ninety ships of the invasion force lay around her. Some, like her own ship, were drawn up on the shore, hulls propped with beams to keep them level on their keels. Many more ships lay at anchor behind, rolling in the swells. There was not room for all of them on this lonely strand. Ashore, the ground was covered with tents and cookfires and heaps of supply. This had been built as a camp for the army to use before venturing out into the hard lands in search of Hror the killer, and as a redoubt to fall back on if need be.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Nature of the Beast: Horror

A pervasive element in the brew of Sword & Sorcery literature is horror, but not the entirety of the horror genre, only certain elements. After all, horror and S&S are doing different things, so even with the same trappings they will end up with different effects. But is the horror element a necessary one?

I would say it is. After all, when we address the horror in S&S, we are talking about a particular kind. Howard was a pen pal with Lovecraft, and so it was that peculiarly Lovecraftian vision that was worked into the alloy that made up the earliest Sword & Sorcery fiction. S&S was a pulp form, and Lovecraft was highly influential on pulps in general, but especially writers like Moore and Leiber, who took up the S&S torch.

So the feel and tropes of Lovecraftian horror were there from the beginning, and they have stayed because they actually fit really well into what the genre is trying to do. There’s not going to be psychological horror – S&S is not by nature an introspective genre, and that kind of inner landscape would not suit it so well. You will also find a lot less of the old-fashioned ghost story, because S&S is an action-oriented genre, and so does not lend itself well to the slow build and intricate backstory you need for a ghost tale.

But Lovecraftian horror posits a universe of hidden races, monstrous gods, and exotic antiquity. It plays on the unseen gulfs of time that existed before history and our fears of what we might not know about the world we see. It also, most importantly, depicts a completely amoral universe. Lovecraft’s innovation was to invent the idea of ancient evils that are mostly evil by being completely alien. His monstrous gods don’t hate us, they just don’t care either way. Interfacing even partially with these deathless entities will drive a human being insane, simply because they are so different from us.

All of this fits in very well with the ideas and ethos of the Sword & Sorcery tale. The gods of an S&S world must by necessity be either imaginary or evil, and a kind of evil that has little to do with the traditional philosophical/religious ideas. A lot of fiction at the beginning of the century was trying to explore evil in this new context divorced from rigid religious values, and S&S was no different. Lovecraft made up an idea of gods that were not evil because of the Devil or some such bullshit, but because they predated such paltry ideas and concepts.

The difference in the use of these tropes in S&S is that you can’t use the same kinds of protagonists for them. Lovecraft’s narrators were often pallid, bookish types who would faint at the sight of blood, and were quite impossible to envision as the hero of a violent action story. Also, while an aura of doom pervades a lot of S&S, it is distinctly different from the nihilistic hopelessness found in a pure horror tale. A Sword & Sorcery hero may lose the battle, but he has to get a few good hits in first. More often, even if they die, the S&S hero will win a kind of victory, or at least a reprieve. And it is worth noting that no swaggering barbarian hero will ever go mad just from the sight of the monster he has come to face.

Because that is the difference with the horror elements in Sword & Sorcery – the evil is there to be fought. The backdrop of antiquity and prehuman horror creates an aura of danger and adds to the feel of a grim, violent world unlike our own. It stacks odds against the protagonist in the same way the ancient, deathless monster does, but they are all there to provide a backdrop for heroism. A Lovecraftian protagonist is never a hero, always a victim, always mad and helpless and screaming. A S&S protagonist is there to fight, to kill, to stand against the unkillable evil and swear to kill it, or die trying.

Monday, March 5, 2018

The Cry From the Barrow

It was a cold day on the high heaths when armies clashed and the gods turned their faces away. The green land lay in waves, like a frozen sea studded with iron-gray stones beneath a low sky. Clouds covered the sun, and the wind smelled of the rotted weeds cast up from the sea. Hunwal smelled blood and death close to hand, and when the mist parted he saw the slain scattered upon the hillside.

He bore no shield, for he was no hearth man. He carried a stolen spear and a leather sack for the loot he had come for. Like a scavenger bird he followed in the wake of battle, but for him the lure was gold, ripe and soft as rotted flesh. Distant, he heard the sound of the battle. The clatter of spears and the sounds of swords shattering shields moved north of him, unseen in the fog. Hror the Usurper and Crune the Sly clashed there in the storm of steel, and he wanted no part of it.

The scattered dead were fresh, and blood still flowed, the wounded still moaned. He could see the fighting had been fierce, with men heaped almost atop one another, and they had not been looted, save for an arm-ring or a gold-hilted sword snatched up as the armies moved on. The ravens were just beginning to gather and roost on the fallen, crying out their chants for the dead, calling up the worms from beneath.

Hunwal began to search the dead, turning them with boot and spear, taking rings and amulets, cutting bright cloak-pins from blood-soaked cloth. Some of them moaned when he moved them, not yet done, and twice he had to stab them with his spear to be certain they were still before he took what there was to take. He tossed the gold in his bag, shaking it and glad of the heavy sound of the treasure as it rang together. The ravens screamed curses at him when he chased them away, but he paid them no attention. He had long been cursed by man and beast, and none had yet managed to harm him.