About The Red Man and Others In a divided city, two rogues try to get their own back on a religious cult; the small but tough sell-sword Kaila and the teenage con-artist Sebastien don their disguises and play their parts. In the war-torn north of Cruoningha, Ymke and her father live in exile. When her father rescues a giant warrior, Ymke learns that strength is not a matter of muscle alone, and that sometimes the price of hiding is too great. As Sebastien is elevated to sainthood on the rock of Otasfaust, the Kaila and Ymke find each other, and a new purpose for their talents. Three journeys of self-discovery; three stories of loss, love and adventure.
What others said “… a bit like Robert E. Howard’s gritty historical adventures with a dash of Fritz Leiber’s insouciant humor… Issues of queerness, coping with disability, and found family arise organically within the stories, signalling not a deconstruction of sword & sorcery, but a broader inclusivity.” – Ngo Vinh-Hoi, co-host of the Appendix N Book Club podcast “Intimate, literate and touching scenes erupt into visceral violence; I was reminded of Poe’s Hop-Frog.” – Ricardo Pinto, author of The Stone Dance of the Chameleon “Call it New Wave Sword & Sorcery… a reaction to the musclebound masculinity, the unbridled machismo that is found and often-times put at the forefront of Sword & Sorcery. It’s good stuff if you’re open to the idea of new takes on Sword & Sorcery.” – Rogues in the House podcast
About the authors Over the past decade Angeline B. Adams and Remco van Straten have been mainly active in journalism, working for various local and national publications. They wrote about film, theatre and books, and interviewed authors like Neil Jordan, James Ellroy and Anne Rice. The biographical piece on Robert E. Howard they wrote for Fortean Times received a REH Foundation Award nomination. Now they are focusing on telling their own tales, instead writing about those of others. These stories are firmly rooted in the green hills of Northern Ireland where Angeline grew up, and the heavy clay of the Dutch coast from which Remco came. They are steeped in their shared love for history and folklore, not shying away from treasured genres and format, yet are infused with modern sensibilities and a healthy dose of black humour. Recently, their stories appeared in the Sesheta anthology Underneath the Tree, in Air & Nothingness Press’ The Wild Hunt, and in Dutch translation in Wonderwaan. Angeline Adams is involved in disability activism and wrote about disability for various online magazines like The Toast and Disability in Kidlit. On Ymke, the protagonist of The Red Man and The Return of the Uncomplaining Child, she says: “Ymke’s rebellions, like mine, have often been subtle ones: staying alive in a world that oppresses disabled people is also a form of resistance. But sometimes we’re both surprised by what we’re capable of doing when we really have to – and with the right person by our side.” Remco van Straten co-created Waen Sinne, an anthology which had a lasting impact on Dutch SFF publishing, and was a jury member for the Paul Harland Award, Holland’s leading contest for speculative fiction. “I spent a lot of my childhood and teens reading, and discovering Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories was a watershed moment. I have always wanted to emulate him, and indeed the title of this collection is a hat-tip to his collection, The Dark Man and Others.”
Why Turnip Lanterns? Hallowe’en is one of our favourite festivals, and from childhood both of us have been fascinated with ghosts, monsters and other scary and mysterious things. Over the last few years we’ve gone back to the age-old tradition of carving turnips instead of pumpkins. The turnip’s texture is irregular, with lumps and bumps that decide the features for the carved face. Unlike pumpkins, turnips grow underground and hint at things hidden and slowly emerging from the soil. They symbolise the much older, much more forbidding tradition of Hallowe’en.
As over the years we’ve built up quite a drawer full of stories, we needed to have a system to keep track of what went where, when. Our tracker is a living document, updated whenever we’ve got something to update, and sometimes we play a bit with the format. As it’s something we both use, and we’ve got slightly different thinking patterns, above all our submissions tracker had to be simple and intuitive.
Here’s a model of our tracker; I’ve stripped out magazine and story titles, so nobody need feel embarrassed.
On the horizontal axis we’ve got our story titles plus their word count. We pretty much know our stories, so that’s all we need. Vertically, we’ve got the magazine titles with the genre and the word count requirements. Tip: if your spreadsheet program allows, you can link the story title to its submission page on the ‘net. Not shown, on the right hand side, there’s a column with a little bit more detail on the specific quirks they have (“They accept horror but prefer it with speculative element”). Tip: lock your column and row with the magazine and story titles, so when you scroll they stay visible.
Whenever we’ve got a new story, we look at which markets it’s suitable for. Those which aren’t, we give a grey square. Whenever we’ve got a new market, we look at which stories we can potentially submit to them. These choices aren’t only based on word count and genre; sometimes you just know that a market won’t like a story. In practice, you’ll end up throwing things against the wall to see what sticks, and editor feedback (or the lack of it) can make you fine tune it. Tip: Don’t self-reject too quickly. Also: stories can bust genres, like when an editor normally doesn’t take horror but you feel that based on previous feedback they might like your horror story which is actually more a philosophical exploration.
Whenever we submit a story, we make the square for the story title dark blue, as well as the corresponding square in the row for the magazine we submitted it to, where we also type the submission date. That story’s now off the market until we hear an outcome. A market may not be open yet, or a story has been submitted, but we already know where we want it next: in this case we make the story/market square light-blue. You’ll see one story in orange there – we got extensive feedback on it from an editor, and we’ve decided that we want to rewrite it. Tip: Keep a record of your feedback in a separate tab.
And finally, there’s the red squares for “alas!” We don’t let them demotivate us: looking at them may help us decide what a magazine editor likes, and revise our greys and whites. Whenever we colour a square red, we do tend to look at “where do we send this story next?” and “anything else we can send them?”
So, this is our tracker. It works for us (though, this example shows that we can be a bit more ‘on top’ of it). If you’re serious about submitting, we strongly advise you to use a submission tracker. Of course, make it your own. Make it work for you!
Less than a year after new laws came into force to give people in Northern Ireland access to abortion services, the Democratic Unionist Party (via a private member’s bill brought by Paul Givan) has proposed a new law to prevent abortions being carried out in cases of non-fatal disabilities.
It’s often assumed that disabled people all feel the same way about abortion: that we see it as an existential threat and proof of society’s prejudice against us. What’s often forgotten is that disabled people also have abortions – or need them, and aren’t able to access them. I have great respect for my comrades in disability activism who argue on both sides of this issue. Unlike many politicians, as disabled people, what we have in common is that we don’t only focus on disability when it’s politically convenient.
As a disabled woman, I will always be pro-choice. It’s a line in the sand for me precisely because I have had so many experiences in which my bodily autonomy has been eroded. And I think the appropriate response to people feeling they need to have an abortion because their child will be disabled is to actually create a society in which disabled people and our families are adequately supported. That’s a whole lot more useful than creating a climate of judgment around difficult choices which are not made in a social or political vacuum.
And at the end of it all, when we create that society where support is guaranteed? Where disabled people are valued as much as anyone else? Whether to have a baby, any baby, still needs to be the choice of the pregnant person, every time. Not Paul Givan’s choice, not the DUP’s choice, but the choice of the individual. I’m not suggesting we need to prioritise disabled people’s needs as a way of reducing the number of abortions, I’m saying we need to do it because it’s the right thing to do. And so is making abortion available on the same terms as in the rest of the UK.
The DUP’s pro-life attitude also appears to stop at the point of birth. It stops with supporting a Conservative government whose policies cause children to grow up in poverty – that’s more than one in four children in the UK today. And here’s another glaring statistic: nearly half the people living in poverty in the UK today are either disabled, or live with a disabled person.
Disabled people should be at the centre of conversations that affect us, and not only when we offer a politically convenient prop to ideologically motivated attacks on everyone’s rights. It has been very, very noticeable when individual politicians and political parties in Northern Ireland actually support disabled people’s rights, and engage substantively with disabled people’s organisations across a range of issues, and not just abortion.
Where ableist government policy leads, the general public follow, and none of this does a thing to challenge the ableism endemic in medical settings. It is a scandal that a staggering 59% of the people who have died from Covid-19 in England have been disabled adults. And despite the outcry and investigation that followed the revelation that autistic and learning disabled adults were being targeted by GPs and hospitals for DNRs since the pandemic began, it is still happening. Where is the pro-life brigade now? Mr. Givan?
At a fundamental, institutional level in this country, the disabled people who are already here are regarded as disposable. We are seen as acceptable collateral damage. We are presumably the same disabled people who are of enormous value to the DUP as political footballs before we are born. And that is what Paul Givan and the DUP leadership do not want to acknowledge. Their complicity in supporting a Conservative government, that has disastrously handled everything it has touched that affects disabled people, is what the DUP hope to distract you from with a debate about abortion.
Anyone who has spent just a bit of time in our house will notice that Frankenstein’s monster has a bit of a presence. My ur-text is King Kong, which I saw when I was about six, but it was Frankenstein which really took root in my imagination a few years later. It’d be tempting to tell you how I identified with the sad, lonesome creature, trying to make sense of the world, but – I won’t. At that age I firmly saw the monsters as them while my heroes were more like Superman and Tarzan.
To be honest, aside from ‘general cultural osmosis’ I don’t quite know where I had picked up the basic story of “scientist creates monster, and monster goes on a rampage,” but I do know that in my imagination the creature was firmly that: a monster, an it even. I was ten when I saw my first Frankenstein film, Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, and I managed to ignore the comedy and be scared by the tropes it sought to parody: thin gruel does satisfy the hungry. My mind extracted from it a story of a man-made monster, a castle in thunderstorm and a sinister assistant mournfully blowing his horn. All that, hung on the skeleton of a single picture found in library book when I was seven.
The book is Hilary Henson’s Robots (in Dutch, pedantically, Robots en Computer) and the miracles of the Internet brought it to my doorstep today. And there it was, on page 19: it’s just a small image, a cut-out of Boris Karloff in his monster makeup. Out of all the other things that could grip me, and may have at another time (like the robot from Metropolis) it was that one image that fascinated me; I must indeed have been in a monsters! frame of mind. At the time, I made a drawing of it in my sketchbook. I can’t account, really, for the shirt. Perhaps it’s a transplant from the Universal Werewolf movies, but I think it’s more that these were typical shirts of the early ’80s.
It would be years before I got to see James Whale’s Frankenstein films properly. That is; I’d saved up for my own small TV set for in my room, and with the advent of cable, the BBC had been added to the few Dutch and German channels we’d received until then. The Beeb had an all-night Frankenstein night, and I remember watching Whale’s Frankenstein and Bride with the skylight above the bedroom door taped shut with black cardboard; mom and dad wouldn’t approve staying up until an ungodly hour. I also had the sound turned completely off. Just as well; I doubt I’d have appreciated the campiness of Bride of Frankenstein!
We’ve gathered together some love songs for Sebastien, Ymke and Kaila, the heroes of our story collection, The Red Man and Others, and stories to come. We hope you enjoy these songs as much as we do!
Black Tape For A Blue Girl – Remnants of a Deeper Purity
Those eyes quietly tell me of a passion we could share The dance reminds me of a life that we once knew Snares for my hopes snares for my thoughts Snares for my dreams drifting onto oblivion Can you tell me about the intuition I feel Can you tell me about everything I long to understand?
This one is for Sebastien. He doesn’t love easily, or let himself be loved. If his love life can be described in one word, it’s ‘regret’. Sebastien may come across as a happy-go-lucky rogue, but he keeps his true self well hidden. There are but few who can peel away his protective layers to see that deeper purity. Once, he met a woman he instantly fell for, who reached out and touched the good inside of him. She set him on the path that ultimately led to Kaila and then Ymke. Our story, Another Soul For The Bone Fire, is currently ‘doing the rounds,’ and we hope you’ll soon get the chance to read it!
Jocelyn Pook (with Parvin Cox) – Upon This Rock
ای شاه، درویشت منم، درویش دل ریشت منم بیگانه و خویشت منم، دارم هوای عاشقی
Oh King, I am your dervish, your fragile Dervish
I am both a stranger and I am myself. I am in love.
These are the words of the 10th century Persian sufi Abu Saeed Abu al-Khair, and I imagine that the music could be like the music of Kaila’s childhood. She is a woman of strong passions, yet as they say: the candle that burns twice as bright burns twice as fast. Since she left her home beyond the mountains she’s lived by sword and by fortune, never really settling and going from one adventure, one war, one heist, to another. She’s known pleasure, joy, and laughter aplenty, yet only since meeting Ymke does she allow herself to experience a deeper and lasting happiness. We imagine her confessing to Ymke, in the depth of night, when souls lay bare: “I am your dervish, your fragile devish. I am both a stranger and I am myself. I am in love.”
The Dreamside – Paroles Dans La Nuit
Ta voix me cherche dans l’ombre, Le lit est dans la chambre, dans la nuit. – Où? Écoute le craquement des bambous. La neige tombe sur les branches – dans la nuit; Demain la terre sera blanche et froide.
Your voice seeks me in the shadows, The bed is in the bedroom, in the night – Or? Hear the creaking of the bamboo canes. The snow falls on the branches, in the night; Tomorrow, the earth will be white and cold.
This is from a poem by the northern Dutch writer J.J. Slauerhoff (1898-1936). He was a restless and somewhat difficult man, whose travels brought him to China and whose poems and books have expressionistic and romantic influences. Whereas Kaila’s love is one of a full conviction and certainty, Kayla is well aware of the fragility of love. She fears that one morning she’ll wake up and beside her the bed is cold.
Marlene Bakker – Waarkhanden
Waarkhanden dij t laand plougen, En mie goud grootbrocht hebben. Ik rie deur dreug plattelaand, Terwiel de wind der deurhìn roast, En ik aan die denk, hou of wie hier ooit woond hebben.
Dwirrels vegen t stof op in wolken, Terwiel de wind aal meer hoelt om die. Mien laiverd, kinst nait zain dat ik terugkommen bin? Terug noar die.
Worn hands which plough the land, And brought me up well. I ride through the dry, flat land, While the wind rushes over it, And I think of you, how we once lived here.
Gusts sweep the dust up in clouds, While the wind cries out for you. My darling, can’t you see I’ve come back? Back to you.
Ymke always dreamt of a life beyond the clay and the cold northern winds of where she grew up. Though she definitely got what she wanted, she never forgot the farm, and her father who lived there in exile. Will she ever go back?
If you loved this music, and what it tells about our characters, we’d love you to get further acquainted with Sebastien, Kaila and Ymke in The Red Man and Others. You can find it for Kindle on Amazon UK and Amazon US. If you think it’d make a nice Valentine’s Day present for someone, you can find instructions on this page.
No essay on pop culture or folklore for you today, but some really good news instead: I got the Covid-19 vaccine today!
For those who don’t know, I have Crohn’s disease, Short Bowel Syndrome, and Intestinal Failure. What that basically means is that I have an auto-immune disorder which I manage with immunosuppressants, and due to complications from it I need tube-feeding. Collectively these and other factors put me at much higher risk than the average person regarding Covid-19.
I hugged my mum for the last time on 12th March last year. I haven’t been on a bus, or been able to attend a medical clinic without considerable precautions, since the middle of that month, and Remco hasn’t been to his workplace in person. I haven’t been into a shop since 29th March 2020, nor can I visit a bank, library or post office, or anyone else’s house. The only people in our house since we began shielding that day have been medical staff, and we’ve relied on the kindness of neighbours, as well as the support of my medical team, in order to cope.
In short, despite enjoying considerable privilege compared with people who’ve had no choice but to attend work in person throughout the pandemic, we’ve had a terribly hard, lonely year. It was particularly tough when we learned that I wasn’t allowed the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, due to my history of anaphylaxis (severe allergic reaction), and when I got a call from the hospital a couple of weeks ago to invite me for vaccination, unfortunately it was the only vaccine they had, so we were looking at another wait for either them or our GP to get supplies of the AstraZeneca vaccine. On my GP’s website I saw that they were hoping to vaccine CEV (Clinically Extremely Vulnerable) people next week.
This afternoon, just after 5, I got an unexpected call from my GP. They had one dose of the vaccine left, and as I literally live round the corner from the surgery and they didn’t want that dose to go to waste, they called me first. They asked when I last had my immunosuppressant, and as I’m right at the midpoint between doses, they felt secure that this would not conflict with the vaccine. They said it’s not often they get to call people with something that makes them happy! I masked up and was there within five minutes.
They went through the questionnaire with me, and had me check the list of vaccine components to confirm none of my allergens was on there. I would say that anyone concerned about their specific health situation and the vaccine can be reassured by how very thorough they’re being. Then I got the vaccination.
So, I’m not going to go wild just yet – we know that the vaccine doesn’t achieve maximum efficacy until you’ve had both doses, and it’ll be another ten weeks until I get my second dose. I’m aware there are more transmissible variants of the virus out there, and my trips beyond my own front gate for exercise are cautious and seldom. We’re still waiting to learn to what extent the various vaccines prevent transmission, so there’s every reason for everyone to remain careful, whether they’re at additional risk or not.
Hopefully though, some of the fear a lot of us have been feeling about our health can lift, and the NHS can begin to recover from the enormous strain this has put on the system, the people who work in it, and everyone who relies on it to stay alive. For now, stay safe, avoid crowds as much as you can, and mask up when you can’t!
Content warning throughout, for discussion of sexual violence and racism, including examples of racist language.
A few weeks ago we literally had to extend our Billy bookcases, as this year’s Christmas haul had joined last year’s unshelved presents. So, the question came up: why would we give shelf space to writers we really don’t want there? Whose works are you willing to be in dialogue with, even when they and their authors are not perfect? Whose works do reflect who you are? And which works and authors cause embarrassing silences at the table?
Death of the Author, in short, is the theory that argues that creation and creator are unrelated. There are many facets to this, and your personal mileage may vary: what one puts up with, another will not. Emotions may come into play here, but principles too. For me, death of the author doesn’t wash, as what an author says and does is of influence on how I perceive their work. This extends to writers, filmmakers, musicians and visual artists. Critics may say that this is Cancel Culture, yet as a consumer I have the right to choose what I consume, just as publishers have the right to choose what they publish, and can choose whether or not to listen to calls from the public to publish – or not – a writer/artist. And if they are published, we can choose whether or not to financially support that work.
These choices are not always based on what’s legal. Material proof of Marilyn Manson’s abuse of Evan Rachel Wood has yet to be produced. Yet, her testimony is powerful and convincing, as are the reports of others who have experienced similar abuse. I believe her. But what to make of the hordes of men (mainly men) in the comments sections of entertainment websites, with their cries of “pics or it didn’t happen”? What climate does this create for any woman who suffers sexual or other abuse, when the default setting at coming forward is not being believed?
When will the Didn’t happen crowd be satisfied? Amber Heard did come with the pictures, yet it was easily spun as “self inflicted” and “she abused Johnny Depp first”. What proof will men be satisfied with, when in the UK less than 5% of rape cases reported to the police are referred to the Crown Prosecution Service, and of these, only three quarters make it to court? And what chance do women stand in court, when the defence attacks their morality and underwear, whereas the promising future of young men must not be compromised? And as for Marilyn Manson, if his own words are explained away as “That’s just his media persona talking,” can I understand why women feel embattled and a #metoo movement sprung up? Yes, I can. Does it affect how I listen to Manson’s music? Oh, yes!
Likewise, could I re-read the “feminist masterpiece” Mists of Avalon knowing how she sexually abused her daughter from the age 3-12 (should I add “allegedly” here?) and how she remained silent about the child molestation by her husband, for which he received multiple convictions? No, when finding that out, Avalon and other stray MZBs left our house. I wouldn’t be able to read them without adding a mental “yes, but you abused your daughter,” after each “strong female protagonist” bit of writing. This, also because she’s so very present in her books: the author may be dead to me, but it’s not a case of Death of the Author. Less clear-cut, of course, are films, the products of many hands and many talents: auteur films from the likes of Roman Polanski or Woody Allen may have lost their gloss, but films produced by Harvey Weinstein, not so much.
Then there are films that I can enjoy, though I won’t support the author. Don’t @ me; the first Twilight film isn’t bad. However, as I will not support the Mormon church and their wacky and homophobic beliefs, and knowing that Stephenie Meyer is a member of the church and will pay 10% tithe of all money she earns, I’ll not see a single penny of mine go towards her. Likewise for noted transphobe J.K. Rowling. And sometimes I’m just petty: a noted horror writer was rude to me in a Facebook group, so his books went from my shelf to the charity box.
And then you’ve got authors whose attitudes where, perhaps, “of their time”. How do you deal with sexism and racism in works from an era where these were the standard? Firstly, there is the work itself: is it unreadable? H. Rider Haggard is at times patronising about Black people and too often falls into the Mighty Whitey or White Man’s Burden tropes, but you can read he’s sympathetic towards his major Black characters. You feel he’s trying at least, as opposed to for example Edgar Wallace in his Sanders of the Riverstories. Rider Haggard I’ll happily read – She, for all its faults, is a powerful work, in which the Mighty Whitey’s rule is not at portrayed as entirely benevolent. Wallace’s “gunboat diplomacy”, however, I can do without. Then over to the people “behind the page”; what of H.P. Lovecraft, for instance? It’s pretty well known that the Weird Tales stalwart and Call of Cthulhu writer was racist. But, which white man in the 1920s and ’30s wasn’t? To answer this, I’m aided by the question: “How would they vote, now?”
I believe that HPL would’ve voted Trump, would’ve been very much in favour of The Wall, and I’d dare go as far as to say that he’d be liable to adhere to some QAnon trappings. He was a learned man, had ample opportunity to create a broader worldview, but stubbornly and unapologetically refused to do so. That racism is part and parcel of stories like Shadow Over Innsmouth is extensively documented.Now, Lovecraft scholar Bobby Derie, in his Deep Cuts, has chronicled some of HPL’s real life encounters with Black people. It’s worse than I imagined. In 1933 he wrote of Hitler: I’d like to see Hitler wipe Greater New York clean with poison gas—giving masks to the few remaining people of Aryan culture (even if of Semitic ancestry). The place needs fumigation & a fresh start. (If Harlem didn’t get any masks, I’d shed no tears ….. & the same goes for the dago slums!)
Compare this with what Robert E. Howard wrote on Nazi Germany, in a 1933 letter to Lovecraft: I might also point out that no one has ever been hanged in Texas for a witch, and that we have never persecuted any class or race because of its religious beliefs or chance of birth; nor have we ever banned or burned any books, as the “civilized” Nazis are now doing in “civilized” Germany.
Both letters are from 1933; before the concentration camps, before the worst excesses of the Reich, yet the writing was already on the wall, and with his “poison gas” comment, Lovecraft of course hearkens back to World War I gas attacks, so we’re not talking abstracts here. What (finally) did it for me was Derie’s quoting of a letter Lovecraft wrote in 1922. To colleagues and others further removed he could be polite, even to a Black editor, but writing to close family we get the unfiltered HPL, not only drawing a link between apes and Black people, but also using a slur frequently used by slave holders for Black men: Before the chimpanzee cage; gazing with rapt interest, & unconscious of the time, we noted two huge, jet-black buck niggers; one of them—curiously enough—in army uniform with a very businesslike trench helmet.
But how about Robert E. Howard then? Yes, he was racist too. However, his is a more tangled web where very bad portrayals of Black people go hand in hand with sympathetic descriptions of non-white characters. In his article Bran Mak Morn: Social Justice Warrior Jason Ray Carney writes about the story Worms of the Earth as a story about oppression, yet recognises that it is also written against a theoretical background of inter-war racist pseudoscience. While Lovecraft travelled and lived in New York for a spell, Howard pretty much stayed in Texas, and his literary influences go back decades, so there seems to be an element of ignorance too, less wilful than Lovecraft’s.
Howard’s ambivalence and confusion regarding race is can be illustrated with a 1932 letter to Lovecraft: I am not yet able to understand my own preference for these so-called Picts. Bran Mak Morn has not changed in the years; he is exactly as he leaped full-grown into my mind – a pantherish man of medium height with inscrutable black eyes, black hair and dark skin. This was not my own type; I was blond and rather above medium size than below. Most of my friends were of the same mold. Pronounced brunet types such as this were mainly represented by Mexicans and Indians, whom I disliked.
Howard’s more blatant racism (and sexism) seem to mainly occur in the more cliché Conan stories, which makes me wonder whether he wrote them pandering to a market which he knew was receptive to such tropes, much like he got the coveted cover spot by including lesbian flogging. This doesn’t excuse racism but implies a similar cultural landscape to today, in which it was a choice to act, or not, on principles of equality; in Howard’s case, earning his daily bread seems to have won out in the end. What for me is important is that Howard shows the capacity to grow and learn. Had he lived, I think he’d have enlisted to punch Nazis in WWII, shoulder to shoulder with Black soldiers. Lovecraft, I think, would merely bemoan the loss of American, Aryan, life and prudently keep his deeper thoughts from polite society.
With Derie’s work, and in particular discussions around the television series Lovecraft Country, a taking stock of sorts is underway. The Mythos, stories based on Lovecraft’s Cthulhu and other cosmic horrors, is not to be scrapped completely, but conversations like this make it easier to discern which implicit and explicit elements to get rid of, and which to keep and foster. I am not convinced that a similar consensus has been reached around Howard’s work. Due to its more ambiguous nature, fans roughly fall into the camps of, “I like it, though it’s flawed, and we need to talk about it,” and “I like it just as it is. No SJW in my books!” Howard’s Conan stories, and the Sword & Sorcery genre in general, were discovered by many in their teens, and it’s hard for some to reconcile their undeveloped teenage views and nostalgia with a more adult, critical view. One publisher of a recent S&S anthology states, amongst other dog whistles: No political correctness and No social justice warriors.
Even so, with a recent flux of podcasts like The Cromcast (their episode on The Moon of Skulls, on racism in the Solomon Kane stories, is a must), Rogues in the House and Appendix N, all looking at the genre from a critical perspective, as well as a host of magazines who aim to make the genre about more than Manly White Men, the genre is slowly emerging from its unreconstructed ghetto. Robert E. Howard himself can yet be redeemed too; I just finished rereading the Kull stories, and found little racism or sexism in them: women are written with agency and personality, and I got the feeling that Kull’s Pictish, and non-white, brother in arms Brule is far wiser and hardly less skilled a fighter than Kull is. Then, as was pointed out by commenter Cora Buhlert: Yes, he was prejudiced and yes, there are racist bits in his fiction, but he also had Kull smash Valusia’s miscegenation laws with his battle axe.
Adaptations too need not be uncritical, and can be transformative. The Dark Horse Conan comics were generally well received, though Becky Cloonan’s portrayal of Conan was derided as “too thin.” Aside from this being a younger Conan and previous Conans perhaps having been drawn “too muscular,” I also wonder how much misogyny against a female artist has played a part in its reception. Cloonan drew the adaptation of Howard’s Queen of the Black Coast, as scripted by Brian Wood. Wood has a history of harassing women, and is a good example of Death of the Author. The adaptation, despite Wood’s interpolations, is still predominantly Howard’s story, and Cloonan’s art is worth sticking around for, so I don’t feel that urge to throw it out; Wood did lose his gig at Dark Horse when word got out, which I feel is just.
What strikes me on reading, and in particularly viewing, the comic is how it deals with its crew of Black pirates. When Conan first encounters them, they are (in Howard’s prose) “painted and plumed, and mostly naked, brandishing spears and spotted shields” with their white queen Bêlit forming “a dazzling contrast to the glossy ebon hides about it.” Cloonan depicts them as anonymous, almost black shapes with empty eyes and a suggestion of sharpened teeth; the idea of the savage as a 1930s reader, and a young Conan, would have it.
Conan joins the pirate queen on the Tigress and becomes the Mighty Whitey himself next to her. But as the story goes on, we get to know some of the crew better, like old N’Yaga and sub-Chief N’Gora. The language gets toned down a bit to blacks, black warriors, with huge muscles coiling and straining under their ebon skin when they try to shift a stone altar; terms which, aside from the words black and ebon were used to describe Conan. Later still, it’s N’Gora and his comrades. Cloonan’s pirates too morph into recognisable individuals, away from stereotypical depictions.
So, this is what we can do with what we don’t like; certain writers and artists we can take off our shelves, and not spend our coin on. Genres with a history of racism and sexism we can investigate and then transform and subvert. Inclusivity, in 2021, is a must, yet it involves excluding or changing that which is toxic. Because – who needs the presence of a writer who (“but think of the children!”) would want women barred from female toilets? Who’d want a Mythos that espouses fear of strangers, when those “strangers” are our neighbours and colleagues? What is a Heroic Fantasy fandom which cannot imagine heroes who are different but equal to the white, heterosexual male?
In our bookcase we’ve got a binder with notes I’ve made for stories, stretching back more than two decades. Every now and then I dig through them to see whether something is worth using. One note was for a class of warriors, called The Red Butchers. It goes:
These are giant, muscled men, who in a battle stand in the front lines for encouragement and inspiration for the soldiers. Compare them, if you will, with mascots. Only, they do fight along; they’ve had the sort of training of gladiators, and usually live segregated, but luxuriously. Spartans. Maybe they are under influence from drugs, so that they are in a state of battle frenzy.
Their appearance is remarkable, aside from their size, for which they are selected/bred, by the Tribal tattoos covering their whole bodies. These, mainly red, tattoos serve as recognition marks (living flag) but also to frighten the enemy. They also serve to hide scars and sustained wounds. Feared warriors, used in moderation, for a maximum effect. Compare with the way the Celts presented themselves in the wars against the Romans.
This is pretty much how we find The Red Man in the titular story from The Red Man and Others. However, in that story we wanted to subvert the trope of “big guy, fighting” by exploring what happens when a warrior like this is taken out of action.
The typed note says (For Christallum). Christallum was a shared universe project I was asked to contribute artwork for. When I received their 15-page (!) contract, however, I had questions. I raised an eyebrow on reading that commissioned art would only benefit from profit-share after it was published. The other eyebrow disappeared underneath my hairline with the clause that as long as Christallum held any artwork, I would share the financial risk of the project. This to me meant that Christallum could take a piece of art I’d produce, put it in the drawer to never publish (and never paid), and meanwhile send any creditors my way in case of losses. As a friend working for a major Dutch publisher advised me: “Don’t go to sea with these pirates!” So, I didn’t, and the note remained in my own file until Angeline and I wrote The Red Man.
This is the very first sketch of Kaila, which this week I found again, used as a bookmark in my copy of Robert E. Howard’s King Kull stories. We’d been talking about the “Badass and Child” trope (usually big guy, young girl), which we’d already subverted in The Red Man. Examples of the trope are Wolverine + Kitty Pride, or Jubilee, or his daughter X-23; The Professional, The Terminator, Sin City’s Marv and Nancy, GoT‘s Sandor and Arya. This first sketch has Kaila as a dwarf, “30ish”, with “guy 13, 14ish” barely sketched in. The notes to the side place it around the time we were first drafting The Red Man, some five years back. It looks like I was also wanting to see the Clark Gable vehicle Mogambo.
Kaila changed quite a bit during the drafting of the first Kaila and Sebastien story. We made her a little bit younger, and we decided not to make her of the dwarf race, but just very short. We’d been struggling to visualise her, until I got a new colleague at work, from the Middle East. She talked me into dressing up as Gandalf, while she went as Frodo, and her husband as Legolas. Kaila typically doesn’t fight with the double-bladed axe, though one will pop up in the novella we’re drafting right now. It’s a call-back to the King Kull story I must’ve been reading at the time, By This Axe I Rule, one of the stories that’s found permanent resonance with me, ever since I read it first in my early twenties.
In a recent Guardian article, actress Carey Mulligan is reported to take issue with a Variety review of the black comedy Promising Young Woman, which read: “Mulligan, a fine actress, seems a bit of an odd choice as this admittedly many-layered apparent femme fatale – Margot Robbie is a producer here, and one can (perhaps too easily) imagine the role might once have been intended for her.” Mulligan says about this: “We start to edit the way that women appear on-screen, and we want them to look a certain way. We want to airbrush them, and we want to make them look perfect. Or we want to edit the way that they work, the way they move and the way that they think and behave. And I think we need to see real women portrayed on-screen in all of their complexity.”
In our story, The Return of the Uncomplaining Child, we have Ymke, similarly to Mulligan’s character in Promising Young Woman, set a honey trap for an abusive husband. While Ymke is fairly average looking and disabled, we’ve got no doubt she could pull it off. Of course, she already turned Kaila’s head, and vice versa. And talking of Kaila, she is of course very short but also very muscled. And yes, she’s attractive. Attraction is not the same as beauty, whatever the contemporary idea of beauty may be.
We’d love to see more ‘non-normative’ body types in our media, and in film and tv in particular. What the reader sees on the page is partially filled in by their own imagination. What we see on the big or the small screen leaves little room to fill in your own blanks. Genre films, superhero films in particular, have not been very diverse. Where you look at the Marvel films, you see some fairly ‘average’ looking guys like Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner/Hulk) and Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye), the women can all be classed as beautiful – even when they’re shaven-headed, black-eyed and blue, like Nebula (Karen Gillan, Guardians of the Galaxy). Hopping over to ‘the distinguished competitor’, why is Superman super-muscled and Wonder Woman isn’t?
It’s not like Superman needs to go to the gym every day after work to stay super. It all comes down to classic role patterns, right at the dawn of the pulp- and superhero: Superman’s template is the dynamic tension built Charles Atlas. Superman doesn’t get sand kicked in his face! The notes on the first sketch for Wonder Woman (1941) are revealing. Artist H.G. Peters notes that: “The shoes are like a stenographer’s.” Writer William Moulton Marston writes back: “Dear Pete – I think the gal with the hand up is very cute. I like her skirt, legs, hair.”
Some artists draw Wonder Woman as fairly buff, but it never seems to stick. Likewise, much was made of Jessica Biel’s fitness regime for Blade: Trinity (2004), yet I also remember the ‘fanboy’ comments of her being “ugly”. I guess they’d rather stick with the female leads of the X-men movies, Famke Janssen (Jean Grey), Rebecca Romijn-Stamos (Mystique) and Halle Berry (Storm), who all started their careers as models! You’ve got to wonder how they’ll handle the upcoming She-Hulk series. Will Tatiana Maslany be set on a body building regime to bulk up like Cavill, Affleck, Bale, Helmsworth and Evans (the harmful amount of muscles expected of nowadays Hollywood leading men is another story)? I doubt it.
There have been some tentative approaches to the diverse bodies in Fantasy franchises, but these have come with an amount of ‘but’. In Game of Thrones Gwendoline Christie was imposing as the female knight Brienne of Tarth, but it was made very clear that she was not attractive. The Witcher‘s Yennefer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra) was disabled but she could only be attractive once that was ‘fixed’. Only Frøya from Norsemen (Silje Torp) comes to mind as being awesome while tall (1.78), past forty and with the muscle mass befitting a warrior woman.
I’m also thinking of’s Nemesis 2: Nebula (1995), a straight-to-video Terminator-inspired actioner. Its lead is a young woman (Sue Price) who fights against a cyborg bounty hunter from the future. Think of the film what you will, but writer/director Albert Pyun at least had the thought: “Hey, if it’s good enough for Sly and Arnold, it’s good enough for my ass-kicking heroine to be absolutely ripped!”
Diversity, also in race, age and ability, is still very much a matter of ‘two hesitant steps forward, a frightened leap back’. It’s about time for the audience, us, to enjoy the rich variety of humanity, and not expect conventional standards of ‘beauty’. While typing this, we’re watching Doom Patrol which has a team of anti-heroes who are each, in one way or another, disabled. Vic (Jovian Wade), whose body is partially replaced by mechanical components, just made love with a woman, Roni (Karen Obilom) whose body is heavily scarred. “You’re beautiful,” he tells her, and means it. They accept each other’s disabilities, and invite the viewer to do the same. The next morning, he’s all aglow, while she withdraws, saying they’re just “two fucked-up people, who are trying to forget their shit.” This is the conversation between a woman who doesn’t want a relationship and a young man who is looking for romance. Roni asserts herself, and will take intimacy on her terms. She doesn’t need to be grateful.
Today the mailman brought a box with our copies of The Wild Hunt: Stories of the Chase, the Air And Nothingness Press anthology in which we have a story, With One Eye, Bright As A Star. It’s a story we’re proud of, and we’re enormously happy that it found a home in such a nice collection! It’s difficult to convey in photographs what a nice feel the cover has, how neatly it lies in the hand, the bookish smell of it (even after a lengthy transatlantic journey…). This is not just a collection of words and stories, it’s a book as an object in itself!
You can get a little taste of our story, set in the grim and cold northern Netherlands, with our story trailer…
Air and Nothingness Press publishes poetry and translations in letterpress, and limited editions. Head over to their catalog to order your own copy of The Wild Hunt, or any of their other publications!