Monday, November 19, 2018

The Tower of Death

Cormac Mac Art was one of Howard’s less-known series characters. A figure of historical fiction, Cormac dwelled in Dark Ages Europe, probably sometime in the 5th - 6th Century, though the exact time is kept vague. There are mentions of him being a contemporary of King Arthur, but none of the “name” characters from that mythos ever make an appearance. Cormac is an Irish Celt, of a type that Howard himself identified with strongly, and he roved the seas in company with his trusty Danish Viking sidekick Wulfhere the Skull-Splitter.

No Cormac stories were published during Howard’s lifetime. He completed “Swords of the Northern Sea” and “The Night of the Wolf”, probably in an attempt to break into the adventure pulps, which paid better than Weird Tales did. These stories are notable for not having any supernatural elements, and are works of historical adventure. Several more stories, such as the oft-reprinted “Tigers of the Sea” and “The Temple of Abomination” were completed from partial drafts after Howard’s death by author Richard L. Tierney, and rank as partial pastiches.

In the late 70s, when the S&S boom was in full swing, Andrew J. Offutt was given permission (or asked – I can’t find out) to take Cormac and run with him, which resulted in a series of novels entirely about the Irish brigand, meaning Offutt wrote more about him than Howard ever did. There were six of these books, two of them with co-author credit to Aussie writer Keith Taylor.

Despite his stature among Howard pastiche writers, tightly-plotted adventure was never Offutt’s forte, and he apparently knew this, as it was his habit to solicit other writers to put together plot outlines for him to fill out. Taylor – a great aficionado of the Dark Ages and the Arthurian period, was an ideal resource for this. One of the plots he commissioned from David Drake took so long and grew so big that he ended up not using it, and Drake changed the names and wrote it as The Dragon Lord.

The Tower of Death is the 5th Cormac novel, and despite his announced plans for many more, there was only one more after this, and then the saga fell silent. I have to say, it might have been for the best, as this is not a terribly good book. Even with help, Offutt’s plotting is baggy and his action is weak. The most tense sequence is toward the beginning, when Cormac and his crew are nearly caught in a trap by warships and have to slip away by sailing out of sight of land across the Bay of Biscay – something that was not actually much done in those days when ships tended to follow the coast.

They arrive in Spain, or what would become Spain, and encounter a tower that seems to breed a mysterious doom next door to a tiny kingdom which promises intrigue but really has almost none to offer. The mystery of the tower is found to be the result of a killer seaweed monster that manages a bit of excitement, and the final showdown between sea-raiders and Lovecraftian fish-people is pretty fucking badass.

But everything in between just seems vague and unexciting. There are whispers of a romance with the local princess which go nowhere, some plotting by the queen who turns out to be evil, but it’s not very good plotting. Things happen that you expect would come to some sort of point, but they don’t, and when the climax arrives it doesn’t feel like you’ve been building up to it and it’s paying off any kind of tension, it’s just a thing that happens.

It’s frustrating, because all the pieces are here, with some cool ideas and good setup, and the action scenes are in place and could have been really good, but a lot of Offutt’s action is just kind of inert, and you get bored waiting for something to really happen – a dramatic moment, a reveal, some emotion to elevate the simple “and then, and then, and then” plot structure. With over 70,000 words there is room for a lot more than this, and a lot of this book just seems to be wasting time. I think of the kind of action that Howard crammed into The Hour of the Dragon – which is about the same length – and I feel sad for how much better this could have been.

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