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 That it is inherently outdated – a relic of another era, incapable of change or growth, best forgotten.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.

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