When the first season of “The Witcher” launched at the end of 2019, two conversations dominated my Twitter timeline: “Look at the size of Henry Cavill!” and “Why did the witch Yennefer have to lose her disability to be powerful?” These two elements are interlinked, and can be directly traced back to the roots of Heroic Fantasy as we know it, with the Texan pulp writer Robert E. Howard.
“Know, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of.” – We all know this fragment, ending with the introduction of that ultimate survivor, Conan, “the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.”
Having died at the age of 30, by his own hand, Conan’s creator, Robert Ervin Howard is an enigmatic and complicated figure. Several biographies have been written about him, pouring over his writing, letters and background to make sense of him. The tone was set by science fiction and fantasy writer L. Sprague De Camp, who brought Conan back into print along with “posthumous collaborations.” He summed Howard up as “maladjusted to the point of psychosis.” There’s a surprising lack of sympathy there, and you have to wonder if he found in Howard some sort of distorted mirror, into which he all too easily projected his own dreams, fears and failures.
Perhaps I am doing the same, as a disabled author, in looking at Robert E. Howard, and the genre he created, through the lens of disability. Yet, given Howard’s disabled mother, and his father, a country doctor in an area where serious accidents were a fact of life, it’s worth looking at how disability filtered into his work, both implicitly and explicitly, and often through rejection of vulnerability. Howard, of course, did not invent the superhuman hero, but he did infuse his protagonists with grit, with insistence. For Howard “this is just how heroes are,” no longer suffices. For him, “this is how they need to be.”
We find Robert E. Howard staring in that Mirror of Tuzun Thune, and seeing Conan, an idealised essence of himself. Conan endlessly reaches towards life, towards survival, in a world where barbarism will always win out over civilisation. These have become the central tenets of Heroic Fantasy, and its defining features, from Howard onwards to The Witcher, Game of Thrones, and The First Law.
Between the menhirs flowed a dark tide of shadows, unstable and chaotic. The Ring filled with glittering eyes, which hovered beyond the dim illusive circle of illumination cast by the phosphorescent altar. Somewhere in the darkness a human voice tittered and gibbered idiotically. Bran stiffened, the shadows of a horror clawing at his soul. He strained his eyes, trying to make out the shapes of those who ringed him. But he glimpsed only billowing masses of shadow which heaved and writhed and squirmed with almost fluid consistency. “Let them make good their bargain!” he exclaimed angrily. “Then see, oh king!” cried Atla in a voice of piercing mockery.
There was a stir, a seething in the writhing shadows, and from the darkness crept, like a foor-legged animal, a human shape that fell down and groveled at Bran’s feet and writhed and mowed, and lifting a death’s-head, howled like a dying dog. In the ghastly light, Bran, soul-shaken, saw the blank glass eyes, the bloodless features, the loose, writhing, froth-covered lips of sheer lunacy – gods, was this Titus Sulla, the proud lord of life and death in Eboracum’s proud city?
– Robert E. Howard, Worms of the Earth.
This is from towards the ending of the Bran Mak Morn story Worms of the Earth, in which the wronged Pictish king takes revenge on the Romans that oppress his people, by enlisting the aid of those that once were driven away and underground by the Picts themselves, and there devolved into something presented as less than human. It was accepted by Weird Tales in January or February of 1932, and published in its November issue. Also in February 1932, Tod Browning’s Freaks appeared in the cinemas. This famous scene (the better copy won’t embed), is from its end :
Unless we stretch this timeline beyond the reasonable, it’s unlikely that it has inspired Howard. It had to have played in Howard’s local picture house on release, and not after a long journey to the sticks. He’d had to rush home, bang out his story on the old Underwood no. 5, post it and have it approved within days. Perhaps word of the ending get out from the previews held in January? Or was it something that was just in the water?
The similarities between the endings of Worms of the Earth and Freaks are there, and it does make you wonder: how did (and do) we regard those with bodies different than ours, and where lies the line between compassion and discomfort? As the some of a country practitioner and a disabled mother, Robert E. Howard was all too aware of bodies broken by disaster and disease. This can certainly be found in his work, be it explicit, more implicit or present in the negative space around his super humans.
Angeline will do a talk on Disability and the Roots of Heroic Fantasy at OctoCon, the national Irish science fiction convention. This will be held virtually, on Saturday 2 October, 4pm (“Dublin Time”; 3pm GMT). Registering is free – we hope to see you there!
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
We talk about Sword & Sorcery a lot, but we know that not everyone who reads our work, or reads Fantasy in general, would think of themselves as S&S fans, or actually be sure where the line is drawn that separates it from other sub-genres. So, for starters, here’s some context on what it is, and was, and how you can draw a straight line from S&S to Game of Thrones.
If we had more marketing savvy, perhaps we’d have called what we write Grimdark and made the storytelling choices that go with it. That thought however is extremely depressing! There’s a reason Ymke doesn’t become the victim of the marauding bands of mercenaries in The Red Man: we’re straining towards a more hopeful (if imperfect) Fantasy world. We don’t resent Grimdark for existing (indeed, we’re avid, though not uncritical, fans of A Song of Ice and Fire and its TV incarnation in this house), but we can see how Grimdark has made modern S&S hard for the fantasy market to parse.
The assumption is that if you want that scratch that particular itch these days, you’ll either soak yourself into the nostalgia of the genre as it existed in the 1930s, or seek its distilled extreme in today’s Grimdark novels. However, neither of these perspectives really helps us deal with the ongoing presence and popularity of those pulp classics, Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories up front, and the editorial choices needed to ensure their survival in the genre’s future. To frame it in terms of a recurring S&S debate: do you prefer an edited edition or the pure text? Gary Romeo sums up the editing history of Robert E. Howard’s tales, and the crux of the issue, for The Dark Man Journal.
Part of the problem with the Conan stories is that fans often conflate L. Sprague de Camp’s unnecessary meddling and ‘posthumous collaborations’ in the 1960s with edits to remove racist references, and for a long time allowed a moral issue to be tangled with an aesthetic one – as Romeo’s post demonstrates, these were distinct decisions which De Camp himself explained: “I have, therefore made a few small adjustments to take the edge off Howard’s most cutting ethnic remarks. These changes have been very slight, since it would be ridiculous to try to turn Howard posthumously into a civil-rights activist.”
It’s progress that we can have a conversation about the racism in the work of Howard and his pulp era contemporaries without it being assumed that identifying racism means we want to junk an author’s entire canon – or indeed an entire decade, or genre, of fiction. This was also the age of Edgar Rice Burroughs and H.P. Lovecraft – indeed, Robert E. Howard and Lovecraft were friends, and Howard did call the latter out on his racism. However imperfectly, we can explore these issues and recognise that there is a choice to be made about whose work we focus on, how we understand its influence, and the implications of republishing it either intact or in edited form.
This is a complex and multifaceted issue, however. Removing specific slurs, as in the example from The Hour of the Dragon shared by Romeo, does not leave us with a totally racism-free depiction. Racism lies not merely in a single word that can be substituted for another, but in how stories portray an overall point of view. Nor is it a simple matter of hiding the racism of yesteryear from sight, and pretending it didn’t exist, or exert an influence on modern Fantasy. This however means it’s not simple, or even possible, to make classic Sword & Sorcery an entirely welcoming world for modern fans of colour (or female fans, for that matter).
While in Howard fandom many, including ourselves (above), will highlight the relative racism-awareness of Howard, as compared to Lovecraft, from a distance it looks reflexive, apologist. Yet it’s important to mention it, because it shows that racism was being debated in the crucible in which the genre was born, by the authors who gave us pulp in the first place. Racism is not the inevitable product of any one era, or something from which the progression of a society, or popular culture, is strictly linear. Yet so often, the people having the debate are white fans (again, including us) in an ageing corner of fandom. We know that’s not the whole story of either Sword & Sorcery or the wider fantasy genre, but that it even feels that way is itself part of the problem.
This all feeds into a perfect chicken-and-egg storm: for the casual browser, S&S will call images to mind of a mono-syllabic Arnold Schwarzenegger running around in his underwear, and its derivatives (speaking of which – Thongor?), and while a dedicated core of fans is desperately trying to drag the genre into the 21st century, there also is a very vocal group that likes it just fine without ‘wokery’, ‘snowflakes’ and ‘cultural marxism’. Exciting things are happening on TV (She-ra, Kevin Smith’s He-Man, Primal, The Troll and the Barbarian) which should drive a whole army of kids to Sword & Sorcery, I am sceptical. Let’s face it – S&S has a branding problem!
The fact that fans recently had to crowdfund a headstone for Charles R. Saunders, trailblazing Black creator of Imaro, and the founder of Sword & Soul, seems horribly symbolic of a fandom, publishing landscape and literary market that holds most tightly to its heroes after they’re dead, and struggles to even conceptualise Sword & Sorcery as a still-living genre. As Brian Murphy highlighted in an article for Black Gate last year, genres are malleable and often defined in hindsight. But, is it right that so much about defining Sword & Sorcery seems to rest on “Do we edit out the racism or not?” rather than on “How do we welcome in the fans for whom it’s a sticking point?”
It seems to us that there’s room for both the edited and unedited versions of the classics to exist, both to give readers the option of avoiding the most egregious language, and to acknowledge the fact that language existed at all. The Del Rey collector’s editions, being for a large part ‘back matter’, wouldn’t be the first choice of the casual reader, but there is indeed room for an “edited but not tampered with edition” that preserves Howard’s style without thrusting racist language upon the modern reader. Our concern is that the Weird Tales texts are in the public domain, and that this is what’s being casually reprinted, without context. We’re not convinced that publishers of a ‘popular edition’ necessary have a ‘thoughtful editing process’ at the forefront of their mind.
As we get older, we hopefully develop a more expansive frame of mind and become less likely to cry “outrage” or “cancel culture” at the prospect of editing. We don’t have children, but we’d not gift some of the books of our childhoods to friends’ kids. If entertainment, whether for young or old, is the primary goal of a particular edition of a book, then why insist on including content that hasn’t aged well, and compares a huge section of its potential audience, as in the original text of the Conan tale The Hour of the Dragon, to animals?
And without negating the value of original texts to readers who want to fully understand and study what was written and published during the pulp era, a ‘pure’ reading experience cannot possibly exist. The stories are not printed on pulp paper, between other bits of horror and under a Margaret Brundage cover, you didn’t buy your pulp magazine from the spinner rack at the drug store (or by subscription!), and you are not living in the 1930s. You bring your 21st century experiences, and – for most of us reading this – your post-WWII origins. You come from a world that Sword & Sorcery, in those few extraordinary years when Howard was writing, had yet to anticipate.
And if stories are racist (or sexist) in a way that can’t be saved by swapping out some words, then we can live with them fading away, and not being picked up by the popular press. This is not ‘Nazi book burning’ (despite what some Dr. Seuss etc. fans claim) – this is part of an inevitable process not limited to the pulps. Pick up a book catalogue from the 1930s and see how many titles remain in print now: very few. Things don’t fall out of print only because they’re bigoted or controversial, but because they become old-fashioned or irrelevant. For that matter, pick up a catalogue from 1990 and see what’s still in print. Should we complain about the 90% of books that aren’t, and scream that they’ve been ‘cancelled’ (and for far less reason than racism at that)?
So let us make a suggestion: every time the debate about whether eighty-year-old stories should be edited for racism arises, buy something by a modern sword and sorcery author. And specifically, lest this seem a sales pitch for our own work: let it be an author of colour. Check out Milton J. Davis, who wrote Meiji Books 1 and 2, three volumes of Changa’s Safari, and edited Griots: A Sword and Soul Anthology, which further showcases the diverse talent that’s part of the future of the genre. Read Balogun Ojetade’s Once Upon A Time in Afrika. Heck, have a look what the awesome people of FIYAH magazine have been up to!
Nostalgia has a lot to recommend it, but we also sometimes need to be able to lay nostalgia aside, so that it doesn’t obscure for us what there is to appreciate in the here and now.
The sketch made by H.P. Lovecraft, of a statue of the Great Cthulhu, and sent to his correspondent R.H. Barlow in May 1934, always amuses me. Far from the fearsome Old One (first written about in The Call of Cthulhu, 1928), it seems to me a middle-aged man, sitting on the toilet, upon whom it suddenly dawns that there’s no more loo paper. Existential dread indeed, but it’s hardly the sort of creature to inspire madness and a quick demise, as so often happens to Lovecraft’s protagonists.
Robert E. Howard’s heroes are made of sterner stuff than Lovecraft’s. When confronted with the supernatural, they may be afraid or disgusted, but it seldom heralds the end of the story. More often, it’s an opportunity to kick the tale into a higher gear. In The Tower of the Elephant (Weird Tales, March 1933), in which Conan gets confronted with a cosmic being:
Smoke and exotic scent of incense floated up from a brazier on a golden tripod, and behind it sat an idol on a sort of marble couch. Conan stared aghast; the image had the body of a man, naked, and green in color; but the head was one of nightmare and madness. Too large for the human body, it had no attributes of humanity. Conan stared at the wide flaring ears, the curling proboscis, on either side of which stood white tusks tipped with round golden balls. The eyes were closed, as if in sleep.
This then, was the reason for the name, the Tower of the Elephant, for the head of the thing was much like that of the beasts described by the Shemitish wanderer. This was Yara’s god; where then should the gem be, but concealed in the idol, since the stone was called the Elephant’s Heart? (…)
Tears rolled from the sightless eyes, and Conan’s gaze strayed to the limbs stretched on the marble couch. And he knew the monster would not rise to attack him. He knew the marks of the rack, and the searing brand of the flame, and tough-souled as he was, he stood aghast at the ruined deformities which his reason told him had once been limbs as comely as his own.
Not only is an encounter with a Great Old One an opportunity for more action for Robert E. Howard, he goes one better, completely reversing the reader’s expectations. Yag-kosha is a victim, not the threat, in this story, and it’s the sorcerer Yara who is the real monster. Howard takes Lovecraft’s theme of cosmic horror and subverts it. But I wonder: did Lovecraft send him a similar drawing to the one he sent Barlow, before The Tower of the Elephant was written? Was it Sad Cthulhu, hunched on his perch, which inspired the image of the tortured Yag-kosha?
It’s all there – the humanoid body, the wings, the head’s not dissimilar when you think of it. Perhaps Howard simply ‘filed off the serial numbers’ by replacing the octopus-like head with an elephant’s. Or, perhaps, the evil sorcerer’s mutilation of the Great Old One went further than his body and eyes alone? Could Yag-kosha have had a multitude of tentacles around his mouth, of which only one survived Yara’s torture? Were the debased Yag-kosha and Great Cthulhu kinfolk?…
I’ve just been rereading the foreword of Lin Carter’s first Flashing Swords! Anthology from 1973. Female writers, and women in Heroic Fantasy, have been on my mind lately, and some paragraphs made me go ‘hm!’.
These stories appeared in the most glorious of all fiction pulps, Weird Tales. Although in direct competition with brilliantly gifted and enormously popular fantasy or horror writers like H.P. Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith, Henry Kuttner or C.L. Moor, Howard’s Conan stories were amongst the most popular ever printed in the pioneer fantasy magazine.
The Conan stories certainly are the most enduring, but at the time they were indeed popular, but not more so than those of Lovecraft or Moore, or writers like Seabury Quinn. In the period described Kuttner hardly got a look in, though; his first story appeared in early 1936, months before Howard’s death. Last named of these four authors is Catherine L. Moore, whose Jirel of Joiry stories were praised in the letter columns. We’ll charitably chalk the misspelling of her name up to a careless typesetter; the same who misspelled Carter’s own hero as ‘Thonger of Lemuria’.
So popular did this exciting new blend of the adventure story, the imaginary world fantasy and the tale of supernatural horror become, through Howard’s fiction, that when he died in 1936 a number of talented writers stepped forward to fill the gap in the pages of Weird Tales left empty by his demise. (…)
This, hardly before the sod of Cross Plains, Texas, had covered the burly, two-fisted author who had in his time earned more money than anyone else in town, including the local banker, other writers, like Henry Kuttner, with his Elak of Atlantis stories, and Kuttner’s wife, C.L. Moore, with her delightful Jirel of Joiry tales, began contributing to what became in a very short time a new genre of pulp fiction.
Moore, of course, had started her Jirel of Joiry series in 1934, with Black God’s Kiss, and three further stories had appeared by the time of Howard’s death. To label Moore as ‘Kuttner’s wife’ is doing her a disservice; at that time, Kuttner was still very much ‘Moore’s husband’. That word ‘delightful’ also sounds condescending. I really get the sense that Carter didn’t know what to make of her, so decided to stick with ‘not much’. After all, she wasn’t part of the trinity of REH, HPL and CAS, and her heroine, or prose, wasn’t something that he could emulate (and by extension, understand).
Howard, however, was impressed by Moore’s work, and Jirel inspired him to try his own hand at a ‘sword-woman’, Dark Agnes. He sent it to Moore, who wrote him: ‘My blessings! I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed “Sword-Woman”. It seemed such a pity to leave her just at the threshold of higher adventures. Your favorite trick of slamming the door on a burst of bugles! And leaving one to wonder what happened next and wanting so badly to know. Aren’t there any more stories about Agnes?’
These are not the words of someone emulating Howard but those of a peer, perhaps even someone who Howard looked up to and whose approval he sought. We don’t have his letter, so we don’t know what he wrote her exactly (one wonders whether Dark Agnes a nerdy and wrong-footed attempt at wooing Moore. If so, she wasn’t biting), and Sword-woman remained unpublished until 1975.
In the mid-70s, when Flashing Swords! appeared, there was no such thing as the Internet, and whatever Heroic Fantasy fans knew about the genre’s history came mainly through the forewords of these paperbacks. Sure, there was Amra and a half-dozen fan- and pro-zines, but you’d have to be a dedicated Robert E. Howard fan to get them; they were not terribly cheap and definitely not easy to find. Even in the mid-90s, it took the coincidence of landing in a class with the son of the secretary of the Dutch science fiction club for me to finally get in touch with wider Dutch fandom – and it was not for lack of trying! ‘Hunger makes raw beans sweet,’ the Dutch say, and the words of Carter will have etched themselves as gospel in the reader’s memory.
The difficulty of obtaining info also meant that editors of subsequent books often relied on their predecessors’ work, so that even dodgy info was repeated until it became canon. Sean Richards, in The Barbarian Swordsmen anthology does a better job in giving Moore her rightful place at the roots of Heroic Fantasy, though Jirel is the only female hero in the book and the cover has your standard barbarian, sword in hand, with a woman boobily clinging to him. Even now, near half a century later, these paperbacks of the ’70s and ’80s are ‘must haves’ for fans, and Flashing Swords! has proven enough of a brand that Carter’s ‘literary executor’ brought out a new (though abhorrantly mutated) edition. So, whole generations, at least until quite recently, absorbed the idea of C.L. Moore as ‘Henry Kuttner’s wife’ and Jirel of Joiry as ‘delightful’.
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?