Red Sonja is the best-known Howard creation that Howard didn’t actually create. The character “Red” Sonya of Rogatino appears in the historical adventure story “Shadow of the Vulture”, but she is a far cry from the chainmail-bikini-clad pop culture figure who stole her name. Sonya’s not the only example of a warrior woman from Howard’s work, though. We also have the pirate woman Valeria from “Red Nails”, and the better-known Belit from “Queen of the Black Coast”. Both of these women served as romantic interests for Conan himself. But there’s another red-headed hell-raiser in the Howard canon who doesn’t get as much play as she should: Dark Agnes of Chastillon.
Created during a period when Howard was working hard to break out of just writing for Weird Tales and into the so-called Adventure Pulps, which meant a wider market and better pay, Agnes is unusual among his heroes. For one, he wrote her in first person, which he did not do that often, and for another, she is probably the most fully-realized female character he ever created. Inhabiting her POV forced him to consider her much more completely than he usually did for his work, and it shows what he could have become if he’d had more time.
The two completed Dark Agnes tales are a ride. Definitely meant to be in the tradition of The Three Musketeers and other, similar works of swashbuckling high adventure, Howard managed instead a kind of hybrid style. He was not able to keep his trademark bloody violence damped down to Dumas levels, and so rather than classic French Romantic swordplay with clashing blades and bon mots, he produced savage, head-cleaving, limb-lopping action that is probably a much more realistic depiction of the violence of the day.
The historiocity is a bit of a mess. This is meant to be set in the 16th century sometime, but Agnes is depicted as wearing mail armor – a style that had then been out of use for centuries – and her swordplay seems much more medieval in style, with no mention of schools of dueling, parrying daggers, or other things common in the era. Also, pistols are used quite often, but with no mention of the fussy, match-burning mechanics of the contemporary weapons. It’s best to just look on these as a kind of historical fantasy.
But he got the feel just right. Not of the period, but of the stories set in the period. There is enough intrigue, treachery, backstabbing, mistaken identity, overheard conversations, ambushes, and chases to fuel an entire novel in just these two tales. Howard was an addict of fast, tightly-plotted action, and nobody else has ever done it quite as well.
Tellingly, Agnes is not a princess or a nobleman’s daughter or a lost heiress, but the peasant daughter of a drunk, abusive ex-soldier. Her tale begins with her father announcing she is to be married off, and when she objects he knocks her out and when she wakes up she’s all dressed and about to be hitched to some standard fat, ugly dude. Her older sister gives her a dagger and tells her to kill herself rather than be forced into marriage, but Agnes isn’t having any of that shit. When they drag her to the altar she pulls out the blade, shanks the groom in the heart, and then simply runs off into the forest. There she meets affable rogue/possible love interest Etienne Villiers and her adventures get rolling.
Sadly, they never had as much of a chance as they could have. Howard only completed two Agnes stories, leaving a third, “Mistress of Death” unfinished. The third tale began to include some fantasy elements, so it is possible that he was writing it more for the Weird Tales market. Neither of the completed stories saw print until 1975, almost 40 years after Howard’s death. Originally published in The Nemedian Chronicles fanzine, they were all collected in the Sword Woman anthology by Zebra in 1977, later reprinted by Berkley and Ace. The book has been out of print for a long time, but used copies can be found.
Like so much of Howard’s work, the Dark Agnes stories are frustrating because they are so good, and they moan with the lost potential of what he left unfinished. Here he showed that yes, he could write a well-rounded female character, and do it better than his imitators so many decades later. The stories have the sense of a much larger tale left unfinished, and maybe this is part of the reason why Howard’s work has been so ripe for pastiche and posthumous collaboration – seeing the shadow of the story that never existed, you want to help tell it, you want to finish it, because he never got the chance.