Fled & Done: Sword & Sorcery

With The Red Man and Others, we aimed to present our own take on the Sword & Sorcery genre. However, a recent conversation with a friend, a Fantasy author himself, highlighted an inherent problem:

“I would not have put Red Man in the same bracket as Conan—they just feel *utterly* different to me. My love for Conan, was whittled away by some friends who were obsessed with it —that was a culture of the cis-het white super-dude.”

Can readers like him really be blamed for not recognising a broader chorus of voices as having an S&S accent? Modern Sword & Sorcery writers face an uphill battle, if they want to emerge from the shadow of Conan (including, and in particular, his Marvel comics and Schwarzenegger film incarnations). And that indeed sums up our dilemma: is it worth trying to expand the genre, when the general audience’s idea of S&S has calcified in cliché? Especially when a large section of S&S fans (and authors) have very firm ideas of what S&S was, is and always will be?

The Red Man and Others: Swords? Sorcery?

There is an ongoing discussion about decolonising the curriculum, and it’s worth considering whether it’s time to ‘de-Conan-ise’ Sword & Sorcery. Robert E. Howard’s Conan has undeniably become the alpha and the omega of the genre; think of Sword & Sorcery, and that Cimmerian immediately springs to mind: black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand – a thief, a reaver, a slayer. Yet, paradoxically, while he trod the jewelled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet, the idea of him has been watered down through a thousand-and-one clones, hundreds of comics, Frazetta’s book covers and muscle-bound movies into something much less compelling.

That Conan himself has a ready audience is not in question, and they are willing participants in his adventures, via RPG supplements, video games and a board game. Related areas also have blossomed: witness the Dungeons and Dragons resurgence, for instance, with more non-white/cis/male players than ever, or the vast mainstream audience by TV success of Game of Thrones and The Witcher. Why don’t they translate to a renaissance of Sword & Sorcery, then, when it’s so clearly visible in their blood and sinews?

Iconic: Frank Frazetta’s interpretation of Conan for Conan the Adventurer (1965).

Perhaps it’s because of those iconic images of Conan that have stuck in the popular imagination – Frazetta’s gurning caveman, Marvel’s fur-diapered giant, Schwarzenegger crushing his enemies – are now forty, fifty years old. They define the genre in a diluted form that does not reflect the atmosphere, the poetry and potential of Robert E. Howard’s earliest stories. When people’s first association with a genre are images that have not,changed in all those decades, and with a fan culture that at its core has not grown, nor wanted to, there is a sense that we must disown Sword & Sorcery, in order not to have to damn it.

But the films and TV series we are huge fans of; why can’t they be counted as Sword & Sorcery? Take the 1980s Robin of Sherwood and John Boorman’s Excalibur. Both have swords, sorcery, and are not pretending to be real history. How about Primal? And the upcoming The Green Knight? Its Arthurian lore, of course, but updated with a modern aesthetic borrowing from Fantasy. Imagine the huge popularity of Vikings, which blends action with eerie mysticism, in a way that we know and love in classic Sword & Sorcery, and then realise there’s no crossover with S&S spaces. What all these have in common, with the early works in which Robert E. Howard distilled Sword & Sorcery into a recognisable genre, is atmosphere and meaning.

Robin of Sherwood, 1980s television steeped in swordplay, mysticism and a sense of wonder.

We get a feeling that older stories that very much fit the S&S definition of “sword-swinging action focused on personal battles rather than world-shaking events, with an element of magic or the supernatural and sometimes one of romance”, like Talbot Mundy’s 1925 Tros of Samothrace, are excluded from the canon because they are written before Howard became the “Father of Sword & Sorcery”. Then look at some of those early Conan and also Kull stories, and ask yourself, is Heroic Fantasy really different from Sword & Sorcery? Is Grimdark? Are these evolutions, or are they attempts to distance ourselves from an image we’re embarrassed by? Are we afraid to reckon with its most tired, predictable and misogynist extremes?

Meanwhile, there’s a defensive insistence among many writers and fans that Sword & Sorcery should remain within a very specific mould, with one writer drawing up the rules: “…an adventure story with fast-paced action that focuses on ONE or TWO protagonists; the level of violence is often high, and that violence is depicted in a gritty and granular style. The sorcery in S&S is most often nefarious, tainted by the horrific, and used against the protagonist(s).” (etc.) You want to get a bit more contemplative, you’ve got THREE protagonists, and sympathetic magic? Alas, poor Almuric, you’re out!

The debates over what is and isn’t S&S must seem the narcissism of small differences. As it stands, whereas SFF fandom is increasingly, though not always willingly, transformative with the influx of more diverse, younger fans, Sword & Sorcery by and large is male, middle-aged, and backwards looking: curatorial. There are admirable corners in S&S fandom, in which the genre’s underlying significance and its problems are openly examined, and its porousness with other genres appreciated, but they find that S&S is not a viable market for them: ignored by outsiders, and regarded with suspicion from the inside.

C.L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry in Black God’s Kiss: destroying her enemy not with the sword but with a kiss.

Yet, examine Howard’s own work by that rigid standard, and many of his early yarns do not make the grade. With Kull he was still experimenting, still figuring out both what worked narratively and what sold on the pulp market, and the result is a surprising number of byways en route to the codified Sword & Sorcery that we are told today is its one true form. And it’s not just Howard. In the first of C.L. Moore’s tales of Jirel of Joiry, while she faces a supernatural threat, Jirel also schleps through a Dantean landscape like some latter-day Virgil, more witness than participant. Tonally they are strange stories and they mitigate against a strict definition of S&S. So, are we to discard these classics in our pursuit of genre purity?

And even if we ignore Howard’s Kull stories and say S&S starts with Conan, we ignore that few of his stories are as pedestrian as those hewn from his template, and those that are were written to make a sure sale. In all this legalistic wall building, there is a deep reluctance to explore the genre’s underlying meaning.

Boris Vallejo’s 1980s Conan: muscle-bound and stiff in posing pouch, staring vacantly.

The success of High Fantasy over the past twenty-plus years makes sense in an era when many people and groups, for various reasons, feel that their world is under threat. Writers and fans of that genre are pragmatic enough to explore and embrace many different reflections of that premise. In theory, Sword & Sorcery ought to have enjoyed a similar renaissance, its personal stakes deeply resonant with the atomised society and lonely individual struggles of our time.

Moreover, Howard’s civilisation – the transient oil boom towns of the American west – like our own, was crumbling, and this crisis is presented as an inevitability. As a result, his stories are full of outsiders who are bold and pragmatic enough to accept that fact and work outside civilisation’s constraints, from Conan to Dark Agnes de Chastillon, who are suspicious of both the seductions and the chains of hearth and home, of a settled life. The appeal of Sword & Sorcery lies in the idea that you can live by your wits and your blade, but the threat of it is that you’ll have to. There is so much that can be done with these themes, and a rich appeal for people who themselves remain on the margins of our modern society, but what progress is being made is tainted by association with tired retreads of the same old tropes, and with regressive attitudes.

Robert E. Howard, called the Father of Sword & Sorcery.

This prescriptiveness prevents the genre achieving cultural escape velocity or wider respect. When the S&S formula is imaginatively expanded, in works that resonate with large audiences, often those audiences do not recognise those works as Sword & Sorcery. Meanwhile, a large part of S&S fandom tends to ignore or rejects the works in question, out of stubborn genre purity or fear of progress. These S&S fans have barricaded themselves within a genre ghetto, while outside those high walls the wider fandom quite happily pretend it doesn’t exist at all.

Projects which are perilously close to Sword & Sorcery are billed as anything but. Our eye fell on an article about an animation for Disney+’s Short Circuit program. Directed by Kim Hazel, it’s called Dinosaur Barbarian, and its promo image features a barbarian, axe held high, astride a dinosaur, surrounded by lightning – indeed, strong hints of Frazetta’s Against the Gods. The article cites ’80s cartoons as influence. The official synopsis for Dinosaur Barbarian reads: “Battling evil is all in a day’s work for Dinosaur Barbarian, but what about taking out the trash? Sometimes even a superhero needs to clean up his act.” That’s right, Dinosaur Barbarian is a superhero.

Dinosaur Barbarian: superhero.

To take another recent Sword & Planet example (now, there’s a term we don’t use often enough!): fans of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power on Netflix are unlikely to trace the line of descent back to C.L. Moore’s classics. The first thing a 14-year old She-Ra fan encounters when she sticks her curious head over the parapet is angry men on the bottom half of the Internet, proclaiming that this She-Ra is woke garbage: “She’s not even a proper girl! She wears pants, ffs!” Our young fan will have none of it, and moves sideways, into Steven Universe, and from there she graduates to character-driven, inclusive SciFi like that of Corinne Duyvis, Becky Chambers, and the people who have been winning Hugo Awards for the past years. Maybe they’ll transmute those early influences into writing the great S&S series of the 2040s, but it’s unlikely that they, or their readers, will recognise and name it as such.

She-Ra and the Princesses of Power: pants!

What is the alternative, then? Do we accept that Sword & Sorcery is a damaged brand among audiences who would rather not be associated with the worst the genre has to offer: the retrogressive attitudes to women, predictably white casts of characters, stock plotting, clichés and laughable prose? Do we give up and call what we read and write Heroic Fantasy or Grimdark, or are these genres heirs to all the same problems?

Sword & Sorcery can, and should be, so much: it offers such a big canvas for conflict, magic and trickery, and vast expanses of adventure. So do we rebel, Conan-like, against limitations, and venture to change the narrative, the brand itself? Can we rescue the best of Sword & Sorcery’s past, the malleability and potential that characterised those early days, and build a tent worth inviting people into? Can we plant the flag for Big Tent Sword & Sorcery and invite in those riders from the margins of the genre?

Or, and this requires real consideration, is it futile trying to save a brand when half its adherents don’t want it to be saved from itself? Is it even possible for it to evolve? In the end, are we more in love with the idea of S&S than the reality of a genre dying on its feet because it can’t accept the world moving on?

Is the feast over, and are the lamps expiring?

Where Have All the Pictures Gone

When we first considered bringing out a book of our short stories, which was to become The Red Man and Others, it went without saying that it’d be illustrated. I’ve got a background in illustration, so we’ve got the ‘in house’ talent, but we also like the look and feel of illustrated books: the art adds a sense of occasion.

Illustrated books, and not only children’s books, used to be common. When I take one of our old Rider Haggard books from the shelf, or Dickens, or our antique Hunchback of Notre Dame, I’ll find illustrations in there; at least a frontispiece. Yet, somewhere during the last century, illustrations disappeared from ‘adult’ books. There are different factors behind this, I think, some cultural, others technical. Many books of yore first appeared in magazines, which as a rule were heavily illustrated. Others, like the works of Dickens, appeared as cheap partworks, the predecessors of the pulps. Illustrations, in woodcut or engraving, offered a one-glance appeal to potential buyers.

Mostly, illustrations would be made ready for print by an engraver. They were highly skilled craftsmen. You can see this most clearly when looking at the work by Gustav Doré; some prints are neatly engraved with parallel hatching, others have a more organic, ‘woolly’ treatment. Maurice Greiffenhagen, who did many awesome paintings for H. Rider Haggard’s stories, painted his illustrations in gouache, after which they were rendered by an engraver.

Maurice Greiffenhagen, illustrating H. Rider Haggard’s “The World’s Desire”

Then, at the end of the 19th century, photographic reproduction became available to printers. It was cheaper but also more versatile. For magazines and newspapers in particular this was a revolution: They were no longer dependant on an artist’s impression of newsworthy items, or an engraver’s rendition of photographs; they could print photographs as they were. I wonder whether this had an impact on how illustrations were seen – as old-fashioned, perhaps, or ‘the next best thing after photographs’. Compare how radio plays took a backseat to films, even though radio drama is a valid art form in itself.

Illustrations kept going strong in the magazines and, when we talk about the science fiction and horror field, the pulps in particular. Really interesting things went on there too; Virgil Finlay is of course a fan favourite, though personally I find the illustrations by Lee Brown Coye and Hannes Bok much more imaginative. Hugh Rankin’s work may look rough and unfinished, yet on closer inspection has a delicious art deco sensibility and leaves room for the imagination. In fact, it’s Finlay’s work which I find less and less satisfying, reliant as it is on photo references. He did put a lot of work in stippling all those shades of grey, though.

Hugh Rankin’s illustration for Robert E. Howard’s first King Kull story, for Weird Tales

If you look at pulps from the time of their decline in the 1950s and ’60s, when they moved over to a digest format, you’ll see the illustrations change: they become more simplified and stylized. Science fiction then moved away from bug eyed monsters and big-bosomed girls in peril, and an atomic age sensibility took over. It’s noticeable that magazines like New Worlds opted for more abstracted and dynamic cover design, with no internal illustrations. The message to readers seems to have been that this was not like the old stuff: this was serious Science Fiction, not frivolous junk.

As paperbacks took over the spinner racks previously dominated by the pulps, and Weird Tales was no more than a fond memory (despite attempts to reanimate its corpse), illustrations could still be found there, but only with the frivolous junk Sword and Sorcery anthologies. Old Weird Tales illustrations were repurposed, Roy G. Krenkel illustrated Robert E. Howard’s stories for Donald M. Grant’s hardbacks (then badly reproduced in paperback), and Stephen Fabian diligently stippled his way through several paperbacks and fanzines. You get a sense that illustrations were used despite the trend; that they happened because of an editor or publisher’s love for the old pulp format. It just didn’t feel right to do without – even lesser publications had artists bravely stippling away. More recently, Wandering Star published Robert E. Howard’s work in luxurious hardbacks, illustrated by top talent like Gary Gianni and Mark Schultz. These editions were (affordably) republished in paperback by Del Rey.

Roy G. Krenkel, illustrating REH. My paperback of “The Sowers of Thunder” is falling apart.

Outside Weird Tales-derived anthologies (and even within – I’m not aware of a culture of illustrating Lovecraft), there wasn’t much illustration being done. Money had something to do with it too: illustrators need to be paid, and cost-conscious publisher were cramming as much (ever increasing) wordage within paperback covers as they could. I guess this then became a self-fulfilling prophecy, with a certain snobbery attached. I at least was smugly proud of myself when I read Lord of the Rings in the tiniest print imaginable. Of course, another kid in the bus yanked it from my hands and declared to all fellow travellers that I was reading fairytales with gnomes and such. ‘But… they’re not gnomes! They’re Hobbits! And it’s a recognised work of literature!’ I tried to stem the laughter, in vain. Illustrations might not have helped make my point.

Outside the safe space of fandom you could find illustrated books for two completely opposite market segments. You had the Folio Society books on one hand: expensive, illustrated hardbacks of classics. Then you had the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books: cheaper, illustrated hardbacks of contemporary bestsellers which were obtained by subscription: everyone could have their home library (and everyone’s heir their white elephant – as Wikipedia has it: ‘Despite this popularity, old copies are notoriously difficult to sell.’). What both series have in common is that they’ve got top talent illustrating, giving each book a certain allure. I certainly wouldn’t mind having the condensed Notre Dame for Ronald Searle’s illustrations alone!

Ronald Searle illustrating “Notre Dame de Paris” for Readers Digest.

And with digital making inroads in our reading habits, perhaps that’s where it’s heading: paper books as ‘have-things’. One book on kindle for in the bus, one for on the shelf. It’s certainly what I see in the bookshops, where classics in particular are sold in several formats, with different, stylish covers. Buying a book for yourself, or as a gift for someone else, has become an occasion again. It’s certainly what we’ve aimed for with The Red Man and Others: with the cover illustration, font choice and lay-out, with the title designs and especially the illustrations we wanted to make it into an attractive book, which people would want to put on their shelf, to occasionally pick up and dip into.

(RvS)

Control Your Shelves

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!

Mists of Avalon: feminism and female empowerment?

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 River stories. 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?”

Colonial justice: Sanders of the River. Illustration: William Marshall, 1976

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.

Shadow Over Innsmouth: “queer narrow heads with flat noses and bulgy, stary eyes that never seem to shut, and their skin ain’t quite right. (Art: Hannes Bok, 1942)

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.

Bran Mak Morn: inscrutable black eyes, black hair and dark skin. (Art: Gary Gianni)

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.

Lovecraft Country: reclaiming Mythos territory.

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?

(RvS)

Red Man Genesis

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.

(RvS)

A Beginning, And An End

Ice winds strike a flint-edged sea
And splinter flakes that scatter like birds
Trees turn to gold and die
As does all born of the sun
– Origin unknown

This is the opening epigram of “The Masters”, the first book in Ricardo Pinto‘s “Stone Dance of the Chameleon” series. I picked it because it works beautifully as a short poem, but also because of the feeling of foreboding it creates and how fitting that makes it as the opening of a story about a decadent society teetering on the edge of collapse. As a writer I think a lot about first and last lines, and how to make them work. As a reader, there’s a very good chance that the right first or last line will live in my memory for decades.
ABA

“Hear, people of Valusia,” he exclaimed, upheld by the wild beast vitality which was his, fired from within by a strength which was more than physical. “I stand here – the king. I am wounded almost unto death, but I have survived mass wounds.
“Hear you! I am weary of this business! I am no king but a slave! I am hemmed in by laws, laws, laws! I cannot punish malefactor nor reward my friends because of laws – custom – tradition! By Valka, I will be king in fact as well as in name!
“Here stand the two who have saved my life! Henceforward they are free to marry, to do as they like!”
Seno and Ala rushed into each others’ arms with a glad cry.
“But the law!” screamed Tu.
“I am the law!” roared Kull, swinging his axe; it flashed downard and the stone tablet flew into a hundred pieces. The people clenched their hands in horror, waiting dumbly for the sky to fall.
Kull reeled back, eyes blazing. The room whirled to his dizzy gaze.
“I am king, state and law!” he roared, and seizing the wand-like sceptre which lay near, he broke it in two and flung it from him. “This shall be my sceptre!” The red axe was brandished aloft, splashing the pallid nobles with drops of blood. Kull gripped the slender crown with his left hand and placed his back against the wall. Only that support kept him from falling but in his arms was still the strength of lions.
“I am either king or corpse!” he roared, his corded muscles bulging, his terrible eyes blazing. “If you like not my kingship – come and take this crown!”
The corded left arm held out the crown, the right gripping the menacing axe above it.
“By this axe I rule! This is my sceptre! I have struggled and sweated to be the puppet king you wished me to be – to king it your way. Now I use mine own way! If you will not fight, you shall obey! Laws that are just shall stand; laws that have outlived their times I shall shatter as I shattered that one! I am king!
Slowly the pale faced noblemen and frightened women knelt, bowing in fear and reverence to the blood stained giant who towered above them with his eyes ablaze.
“I am king!”

This is the closing paragraph from Robert E. Howard‘s King Kull story, “By This Axe I Rule!”. It’s not from the best book or best story I’ve ever read – which that is depends on when you ask me. Neither is this from the best story Howard ever wrote. Yet, this is the fragment I’d like to share for World Book Day.
I was in my early twenties when I got hold of the paperback with this story. It was a period in my life in which I went through a lot of personal growth; I had to decide for myself whether I was going to be king or corpse, and so I smashed some old tablets and adopted a double-bladed axe to rule by.
RvS