Monday, May 28, 2018

Following the Voice of Blood

The ships came with the break of winter’s grasp, and they covered the sea with darkness. The black sails of the fleet of King Hror loomed through fog and sea-spray, and all who saw it fled from the promise of death. The watchers who guarded the sea paths scattered from his coming. They lit their warning fires and then they fled into the hills or rowed hard for home in their slender ships. War had come upon the southlands, and it came with summer’s burning.

The days grew longer and they reached the place where ships lay dead in the shallows, and their burnt prows rose up to the gray sky. There was a fire on the headland, and there was planted the banner of Ranne, the thane who first declared for the usurper. He had set forth to raid in later winter, and none had heard of what became of him. Boats went ashore to gather whatever remained.

Ranne and a hundred of his men were brought across the water, and the red-bearded thane was gray-faced and thin. His face was dark with smoke from winter fires when they brought him before Hror, son of Herun, who men already named the Red King.

Hror stood and came to the thane, gripped his shoulders in greeting and looked at him. Already the once outlaw bore himself more like a king. He wore a red cloak and a wolfskin mantle, and the patch over his empty left eye socket glittered with a ruby grasped in golden hooks. “We heard nothing,” he said. “Come, tell me what has happened.”

Ranne nodded and followed, took a horn with grateful hands and drank deep from it. “We came south to attack the king’s hall, but they were warned of our coming,” he said. “We reaved along the shore and burned houses and ships, but they were gathered to oppose us, and we could not strike as deeply as we wished.” His hands shook as he drank from the cup of honey wine.

“We turned north, to find shelter before the ice closed off the sea. We did not escape, and were locked in the ice. We settled into camp for the winter, and then . . . and then . . .”

Monday, May 21, 2018

Nature of the Beast: The Dark Backward

There are a lot of people who look at the Sword & Sorcery genre (or subgenre) as one that has passed its prime and is no longer relevant. That it is inherently outdated – a relic of another era, incapable of change or growth, best forgotten. They see it as sexist and racist, a pulp genre filled with tasteless gore and tawdry sex, taking place in poorly-drawn worlds filled with intentional brutality. A curiosity of interest only to teenaged boys and basement-dwelling grognards.

I don’t believe that, obviously. I just think the trappings of the genre have obscured the real strengths it was built on. I think the concept of the genre is clean, clear, and almost infinitely adaptable, and that there’s a good reason why the classics that have been written in the form continue to be read almost a hundred years after Howard first set down “The Shadow Kingdom”. Since then, a lot of different writers have taken their own swings at the genre, and proved that it can work in a lot of different ways.

So what happened? I think mostly it was three things that condemned S&S to struggle as a kind of fringe genre in fiction: Imitation, Bad Writing, and Popularization.

Imitation has been the bane of the form since the beginning. Howard did his early S&S stories so well, that often writers have simply been dragged into a pale imitation of him, rather than expanding the genre and finding their own way. To this day publishers pay for pastiches of his work, rather than invest in new writers. Lesser authors fell into aping their forebears, rather than seeing under the hood to what made Sword & Sorcery really work.

And that led to the second plague: Just bad fucking books. Because S&S is violent and lurid, it was seen as easy, just as a lot of writers have assumed that pulp was easy to do just because it looked easy. They didn’t grasp the need for tight plotting and the necessity of handling sex and violence with care and taste. The same way that horror fiction is often allowed to devolve into a welter of gore and jump scares by writers who only see the surface, too often S&S was considered brainless crap even by the people making it, and thus they didn’t even try to do it well. A slurry of terrible, terrible books flooded the market and set the standard, without anything of genuine quality to counteract it.

Thus the popularization of Sword & Sorcery was largely left to movie and comic book images, or lurid covers of the aforementioned terrible books led to the absorption of the standard pulp images almost by osmosis: naked women, bloody swords, monsters, oiled-up musclemen. A generation grew up with that as all they knew about the genre, that and it was trash literature, only suitable for dummies.

Does it have to be this way? Obviously not. I don’t think any genre is doomed by what has gone before. I think we just have to be willing to dig down past the surface, engage with what really makes it compelling, and not just slap the standard trappings on the outside and call it done.

Sword & Sorcery needs to be dark and set in a morally ambiguous world with conflicted characters. It needs violence and the promise of violence. It needs a world in conflict, without clear boundaries and without some glorious past. The world should be filled with harsh landscapes, dangerous cities, and with a strong vein of eldritch horror woven through it.

Beyond that, the whole thing is open. You don’t have to write about naked barbarians with rippling muscles. The story doesn’t need to have slave girls in brass pasties and racist stereotypes standing in for wizards. You don’t need to have a world that looks like northern Europe, or any white people at all. You don’t need virgin sacrifices or temples full of evil brown people. I mean, you can have those things if you want, but not having them does not make the story something other than Sword & Sorcery if the core is there.

Because if S&S wants to recover and become a vital, living genre again – rather than a pure nostalgia trip – then it has to move forward. It has to find ways to reinterpret the classic ideas of the form in new ways, it has to stop consciously aping the tropes and style of fiction from 80 years ago. I believe that can be done without turning it into something else. I believe Sword & Sorcery can move forward.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Serpents of the Grave

The shield-hall of King Arnan lay wrapped in winter’s cloak, and silence filled the long nights as the snow gathered. The hearthmen remained inside, drinking and keening their weapons as they waited for spring, but there was a hollow sound to their laughter, and men watched the shadows, for there was a curse on the Kingdom of Hadrad, and evil stalked the great hall, where a blinded king lay helpless before his dying fire.

Arnan had never recovered his sight after he had been accursed, and now even though men still called him king, in truth he ruled nothing. Old women tended him, and his only guard was an old man almost too weak to bear his shield. Men whispered that the doom of the Undergods followed him, and no power could aid him.

Thane Crune was the man who truly ruled here, yet his power was faded now. He had led the great fleet north to Vathran to mete justice upon Hror, but the battle had been a terrible defeat, and many upon many warriors had not returned from across the sea. Crune himself had been sorely wounded, and it was whispered that he had fled the field, abandoning those who followed him. Even now he lay abed, unable to rise or fight. Some believed he would die, and that perhaps he was cursed as well.

And now, in the fallow deeps of winter, a new darkness stalked the hall. Here in the shadowed great hall, death moved unseen. By night men lay with their mail on, swords close to hand, and yet too many times bodies were found when the day came. Men and women both were found ripped apart and left in pools of blood. The bodies sometimes bore rent armor and broken swords, and so all men believed that some spawn of the underworld stalked the nights.

Monday, May 7, 2018


There is quite a bit of disconnect between how the Sword & Sorcery genre is portrayed as regards to sex. In the wider popular mind it is a genre overflowing with naked flesh, bulging muscles, bare breasts and scantily-dressed women. It just would not fit the popular conception of the genre if it did not contain musclemen in loincloths and women in various bikinis made from things bikinis are not normally made from.

This is largely a concoction of the era when S&S moved out of literature and into the realm of comics and movies. The written form of S&S was not really a tremendously sexy genre, and in fact usually contained no sex at all, save for vague references and mentions of unclothed harem girls.

Howard himself was no fan of including a sex appeal element, and often he only included women at all because the publishers got on him about it if he didn’t. If he wanted to be the cover story, he had to put a sexy girl in the story for the artist to put on said cover and thus help sell magazines. He often complained about this in his letters, but he went along with it – resulting in Conan rescuing a succession of half-dressed damsels who he would ditch before the text tale.

Subsequent practitioners of the form did not really go farther with this. Leiber and Moorcock were both quite reticent at including sex in their stories, and this may have just been a function of the time period. The pulp era liked to flirt with sexy themes, but was constrained by censorship laws to keep it in the margins.

This all changed in the late 60s when the S&S resurgence took place. People were accustomed to much more explicit sexuality in their stories, and as the 70s progressed more and more barriers came down. There were fewer and fewer restrictions placed on authors as to what they could write, and the whole culture became much more accepting of sexual themes.

The art used to sell Sword & Sorcery also had a big impact. Frazetta famously included the now-obligatory scantily-clad slave maidens on his covers, and set a precedent no one was in a hurry to get away from. Book covers came to include oiled-up barbarians and naked girls almost by default, and the comics were not any better about this, skirting right along the edges of what they could get away with.

These sorts of images may have been in the original tales, but a visual depiction of a harem of naked women is a lot more visceral and explicit than just mentioning one on the page. The selling of S&S became bound up with lurid images of sex – mostly provided by naked or mostly-naked women. Even when female characters were given more agency or even placed in the lead role, they still had to adhere to the fanservicey tropes of chainmail bikinis and loincloths.

It introduced a degree of carnality to the genre that it has never quite gotten away from, and in fact some modern authors gleefully include scenes of rape or torture as a way to seem “edgy” without really considering what they are doing. The violence and sex sometimes rise to almost pornographic levels and rarely seem to add anything to the narrative. None of this is helped by the grimdark aesthetic of things like Game of Thrones, with the ubiquitous female nudity and casual rapeyness.

So should this element of gratuitous sex be considered a necessary part of the genre? I would say not. I feel like the sexual themes detract from the kind of lean and mean stories that make for the best Sword & Sorcery. I’m not being a prude here, as I have written something like 20 pornographic novels, and I know as much about that kind of story as anyone. I feel like the elements of barbarism the sexual elements are meant to evoke are fine, and can add to the feel of brutality that makes for a menacing world. But I don’t think sex is a good story element for what is essentially an action genre, and those who have delved heavily into it have done the genre – and themselves – a disservice.