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.
Five years after Van Helsing brought curdled reviews but box office gold, Kane seemed calculated to fit that film’s mould but also to stretch it, and carve out a bigger space for dark fantasy and horror in a historical setting. However, despite its connection to the British folk horror film tradition, Michael J. Bassett’s film never quite found its audience. Today is the 115th anniversary of Robert E. Howard’s birth, so let us meet again one of his most battle-scarred sons. Perhaps with the passage of time, we can see him a bit more clearly.
Our introduction to Kane (James Purefoy) recalls Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). It feels as if it was made for the trailer instead of the film, and is not very Howardian. Thankfully, there’s a lot more of Howard in what follows. It is the year 1600, a time of casual cruelty, when the only light comes from the flames of battle. Ruthless and greedy, the privateer Solomon Kane meets his match in the Devil’s Reaper, who accuses Kane of having made a Faustian pact, and threatens to collect his soul. Next, we find Kane as a tortured monk, complete with ecclesiastical serial killer wall, tattoos and scarification to protect him from evil. As the wealth he’s donated can only make up for so much screaming, he’s booted out. The monks foresee purpose for him out there: “There are many paths to redemption, not all of them peaceful.”
Not all paths are well defined either, and the film feels scrapbook-like, taking set-pieces and ideas from films from films like Plague of Zombies, Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan’s Claw. Solomon Kane is definitely the spiritual child of the Hammer era, and had it been made back then, you can imagine Peter Cushing portraying Kane with both humility and righteous fury. As it is, James Purefoy gives us a Kane who is convincingly haunted, and the film also successfully borrows its precursors’ sinister atmostphere, as Kane travels misty roads and gnarly woods.
Dead people hang by the roadside and Kane has his own unburied dead to contend with: his early refusal to become a priest, the legacy his father denied him, and accidentally killing his bully-boy brother. Redemption is the film’s big theme, and has to carry the film’s forward movement in lieu of a tight plot. But what is the price of redemption, and who pays it? Kane’s guilt keeps him from violence at first, but evil follows him like flies on shit. Purefoy’s performance evokes pity – he clearly feels as vulnerable as those whose lives he’s destroyed. This film is about a man of privilege who learns he’s no different – and cannot separate himself – from the rest of humanity.
Set upon by robbers, he’s rescued by the Puritan family of William Crowthorn (Pete Postlethwaite). Their daughter Meredith (Rachel Hurd-Wood) sees the good in Kane, and even sews him a Puritan outfit, complicating the film’s theme of wicked paganism versus pious Christianity. Of course this is the writers shoehorning in his Weird Tales costume, but you also sense Meredith’s hope that the clothes maketh the man. Even Kane seems almost to believe he could be one of them. But the contrast with Kane’s broken family history and lonely future is acute: he cannot have a family like this, and when William (God love him) actually shows Kane a locket with pictures of his family, we know that by saving Kane they have doomed themselves.
A band of raiders “recruits” villagers as thralls of the sorcerer Malachi. His lieutenant, the masked Overlord, does this by grasping their faces in his bare hands. It’s half contagion, half demonic possession – fitting in a time of plague (theirs, and ours). Of course, they meet our travellers. This is why Postlethwaite was cast: you can see his own soul escaping as he realises Kane cannot, will not, risk his soul by fighting and saving his son. The Crowthorns can’t look at Kane the same way now, and when he finally unleashes his wrath, it’s too late: Meredith is taken, and William mortally wounded. With the forbearance of one who truly trusts his God, he urges Kane to save his soul by rescuing his daughter. Then he dies in his wife’s arms.
After some sojourns – cue the crazed priest who tends to his flock-turned-zombies in the ruins of his church – Kane hears that Meredith is dead and goes looking for his soul at the bottom of a bottle. By coincidence (the borderlands of Somerset and Devonshire are a small place apparently), he meets some old shipmates who are rebelling against Malachi, and gets crucified alongside them. It’s Conan’s Tree of Woe all over again. Seeing Meredith alive, with his last strength he tears himself off the cross. The “pagan bad, Christian good” formula is disrupted again, as the rebels’ healer and seer tells him, “There’s more power here than your Christian god; you would do well to remember that.”
Juxtaposed against the simple and good Crowthorns are Kane’s own family. Back at the Kane family home we find out that Kane’s brother lives and – this is hardly a spoiler – is Malachi’s masked lieutenant. The sorcerer was brought in by Kane Sr. to save his son, and the magic made Marcus into the masked Overlord. So, this whole contagion of evil, this blight on the countryside, is the result of the power struggle in the local noble family. Toxic masculinity indeed! Kane gets to make up with his father, tossed in the dungeon for his troubles, and release him to whatever awaits beyond death. The final battle in the family’s great room then falters; it’s stuff we’ve seen in swashbucklers from the Douglas Fairbanks era onwards. Unmasking Marcus, of course, does not come without the tedious ableist trope of villains with facial differences.
And far be it from me to suggest that more films kill women to motivate men, but to dangle Meredith’s fate, then reveal that the ritual to summon Kane’s infernal doom will leave her enough blood to get home on, feels anticlimactic! The demon coming for Kane’s soul works better; the human scale of Kane’s previous supernatural foes make this confrontation impressive. Anyway, Meredith safely delivered to her mother, Solomon’s vow is to continue his fight: “But evil is not so easily defeated, and I know I will have to fight again. I am a very different man now… I have found my purpose.”
However, an intended trilogy never happened. Lest we sound overly negative: it’s not a bad film, not at all. For all of Kane’s searching for his own, the film has a soul. It has engaging characters and where the plot may not be surprising it at least has the familiarity of your genre favourites happily revisited. Instant nostalgia. Also, there is clearly an appetite for 17th century supernatural stories, given the later success of Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015), beautifully shot using available light to tell an even more claustrophobic tale of a Puritan family stalked by a supernatural evil. But The Witch benefited from the folk horror revival then reaching critical mass. Add Game of Thrones to that, stoking an unsuspected mainstream appetite for fantasy in gritty (pseudo-)historical settings, and you wonder whether Howard’s ‘doleful knight’ would’ve fared better in different circumstances. Perhaps, if the Netflix Conan project is successful, the Howard canon will be ransacked and Kane will ride again.
Many years ago I spent a few weeks in Prague, at a friend’s who had a roleplaying and fantasy shop there. Prague, of course, appears in The Red Man and Others as the divided city of Starohrad. My friend introduced me to writer William King, writer of the Gotrek and Felix books, and got me one of the novels to read, which I liked quite a lot. Back home, I did a few drawings of the titular dwarf with the idea that perhaps I ought to do art for White Wolf, though nothing came of that.
While getting further into exploring the world of Kaila, Ymke and Sebastien, the homemade heroes of The Red Man and Others, we constantly have the push and pull of ‘how much sorcery is there with the swords?’ and ‘are there any monsters?’ too. We’ve still not quite figured these out; there is sorcery, but it’ll not be an easy matter of “here’s a spell to fix it all.” Here be no Harry Potters. In a story that’s currently ‘doing the rounds’ we do however have dwarves. Yet, fun as the Warhammer dwarves are, our ‘Wheelworld’ operates at a more human, realistic level.
So, the dwarves that you sometimes see, as wide as they’re high, and so muscled that they’re hardly should be able to move, are out. Also, where do they come from, in the history of our world which, if anything else, we want to give a ‘lived in’ feeling? There’s a few clues that guide our thinking in the right direction. Firstly, there’s the notion that tales of fairies and ‘the others’ are race memories of encounters with tribes which are like us, but not quite us. The fair folk of myth are often painted as shy and retiring, but also dangerous for ‘us normal people’ to encounter.
Basically, they want to be left alone, yet we cannot seem to do other than fear them. This actually is a known phenomenon: the Uncanny Valley is the point in which the relationship between something’s resemblance to a human and our emotional relationship to it takes a sudden plunge at the point at which it very much resembles us, but is not us. When a robot is a metal thing, we’re fine with it, but when it’s made to resemble us, we feel revulsion. This is something that’s hardwired in us, and I wonder whether it’s something to do with our own evolution: was this how we saw as enemies these people in far distant times who were not like ourselves?
Robert E. Howard certainly made use of this in his work. His Picts were not as much the Picts of history, as they were a race of smaller, darker people. In this he was possibly influenced by the theory made popular by the Scottish folklorist David MacRitchie, who in his Fians, Fairies and Picts (1893) argues that the belief in ‘the little people’ was rooted in the folk memory of Picts, who he imagined to be the diminutive indigenous population of stone-age Britain, driven to its remote corners by incoming invaders. He quotes John Francis Campbell, from his 1860-62 Popular Tales of the West Highlands: “I believe there once was a small race of people in these islands, who are remembered as fairies (…) smaller in stature than the Celts; who used stone arrows, lived in conical mounds like the Lapps, knew some mechanical arts, pilfered goods and stole children; and were perhaps contemporary with some species of wild cattle and horses and great auks, which frequented marshy ground, and are now remembered as water-bulls and water-horses, and boobries, and such like impossible creatures.”
MacRitchie notes that the Lapp-Fairy connection was already made earlier by Sir Walter Scott for whom “there seems reason to conclude that these duergar (in English, dwarfs) were originally nothing else than the diminutive natives of the Lappish, Lettish and Finnish nations, who, flying before the conquering weapons of the Asae, sought the most retired regions of the north, and there endeavoured to hide themselves from their eastern invaders.” So commonly accepted was this image of the Picts as diminutive, “swarthy” and hunted people that fellow-Scotsman Robert Louis Stevenson describes the Picts in his Heather Ale poem of 1890: Rudely plucked from their hiding / Never a word they spoke: / A son and his aged father – / Last of the dwarfish folk.
These, then, are the Picts of Robert E Howard, who in Roman times had fallen to a sorry state, with Bran Mak Morn fighting for his doomed people. Jason Ray Carney in his insightful article, Bran Mak Morn: Social Justice Warrior quotes Howard, who himself was an outcast, on the Picts: “My interest in these strange Neolithic people was so keen that I was not content with my Nordic appearance, and had I grown into the sort of man, which in childhood I wished to become, I would have been short, stock, with thick, gnarled limbs, beady black eyes, a low retreating forehead, heavy jaw, and straight, coarse black hair.“
Robert E. Howard describes his childhood image of his grown-up self as a Pict, but it’s closer to the image we have of the old-fashioned ‘caveman’, the Neanderthal man reconstructed in 1911 on basis of the finds at Chapelle-aux-Saints. Now we know that this man was aged and had arthritis, but it formed the popular image of the ape-like, stooped, bent-kneed creature for decades to come. One example of this is in William Golding’s 1955 novel The Inheritors in which a family of early men encounter the newer man, a meeting that inevitably spells their doom. While scientifically outdated, the novel is still a powerful and haunting read.
Years ago we were lucky enough to see Beowulf & Grendel in the cinema, courtesy the Belfast Film Festival. It’s a gorgeous film, and not to mistaken with the Neil Gaiman-scripted CGI thing where you see the Uncanny Valley in action! It starts with the the child Grendel and his father who are hunted by a mob of angry Norsemen. They kill the father but leave the child, figuring it’ll not survive on its own. Grendel, however, does. The adult Grendel is played by the Icelandic actor Ingvar Sigurdsson, with body prosthesis to bulk him up and make him hairy, but with just enough make-up on his face to keep him human. Almost. When Grendel starts to exact his revenge on the Norse settlement, the truth comes out: the troll was killed for having stolen a fish. The instinctive hatred for the other at work.
In Beowulf & Grendel the Norsemen call Grendel a troll. However, what we see is a species of Man. Neanderthal? Perhaps? Not to want to spoil the film (go! See it!), he does have a child with a human woman. We know that there has been interbreeding between modern humans and Neanderthals. On average a few percent of our DNA is made up of Neanderthal DNA. And here’s an uncomfortable one for the ‘race purists’ – if you want to look for the purest Homo Sapiens, you need to go to sub-Saharan Africa! Then you read stories about how the wooly mammoth survived, in isolated pockets, until 4000 years ago, when the Great Pyramid was already standing, and you think: ‘Could it be?’
Our dwarves are the last remnants of Neanderthal people, who have retreated to some of the most inhospitable places of Europe, like the Alp mountains. One dwarf in our story uses some Swiss-derived phrases, which also is a nice nod to our friends in Zürich. They are strong, yet cultured, as our understanding of Neanderthal people is now far removed from the brutish cave dweller: they created art, made twine and glue. That said, our own dwarves may have retreated to the caves, as it is the mountains, after all. They are the miners of fairytale, and they make beautiful things of the ores and crystals that they mine.
They are a race under a huge amount of pressure, and on the brink of extinction. They know this, and they mourn this. They’ve been pushed back, bit by bit, by the ‘big men’, either by expansion or aggression. They already were smaller than them, and adapting to their harsh existence and scarce food sources, they’ve become somewhat smaller even in size. Few of them have left the mountains, but wherever they go they’re met with distrust and rejection. If you meet a dwarf, most likely a man, you’ll find him sombre and brooding, his attitude an armour against the harsh treatment he expects.
Funny though, we’ve worked our way straight back to Grimm’s dwarves from Snow White!
A confession: we’re not much into world building in what, in our own shorthand, we call our Wheelworld stories, the stories around the sell-sword Kaila, scribe Ymke and teenage rogue Sebastien.
From a thread on Twitter about King Arthur, which is worth reading: ...the popularity of arthur stories is largely a manufacture of british protestants to invent a pre-catholic, post-roman, christian romantic past that could be deployed in the service of social conservatism as articulated through storytelling, architecture, and interior design.
We find this thought very freeing as authors who have lost too much time to find out “which foods are old world and which new world produce” and are reluctant to make their late medieval-ish fantasy conform precisely to the limits of what tech existed in what analog country in our world. It’s detail-focused, rather than processing from generalities upward. It’s never been our ambition for Wheelworld (the clue is in the fact we’ve begun ironically referring to it like that) to be one of those ultra-precise fantasy worlds where we know every linguistic, historical, topographical, flora/fauna detail.
We love created worlds like that. There’s an incredible complexity and subtlety that becomes possible when you truly know every inch of your fantasy world. Our friend Ricardo Pinto, with his Stone Dance of the Chameleon series, surpasses Tolkien in the depth and originality of his conlangs, genealogies and history. His website offers a taste of the background material he created for his magnum opus (and we really recommend the revised, seven-part edition). Our imagination however works the other way round, and we lean into that: broadly, we look at what the story needs, and make the world to fit those needs.
In this approach, we follow in the footsteps of Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan, whose Hyborian world is overlaid on the map of Europe as we know it, and whose place and personal names purposely echo cultures we know. His Aquilonian kingdom reminds us of the medieval French Aquitaine; when he mentions the people of Shem, we know roughly where they come from. It’s a shorthand for him, using the general knowledge of the readers, so that he can get on with the story he wants to tell. Likewise, for The Red Man we’ve used a version of the northern Netherlands, Road to Starohrad is set in Prague (sort of) and for The Return of the Uncomplaining Childwe looked (literally) at Fritz Lang’s Nibelungen. We allow our readers’ associations to construct our world in their minds.
If we had made a map of Wheelworld, it would be a bit like that of Europe, though stretched out in certain parts, shrunk to insignificance in others. Our “northern Netherlands” definitely seem to be larger. Our approach has been to unfurl the world under our characters’ feet as we’ve needed new parts of it. None of them had the kind of education, or the kind of things expected of them in life, to give them a king’s or a scholar’s understanding of their world. So that world has… unrendered bits. Their world is like a medieval map, with vague “somewhere over there”s and “here be monsters”.
And things work a bit differently in that world generally. How different depends on what we’d like to do, or sometimes where our trio leads us. We haven’t talked about this before because it always seems like such a cop-out when meticulous world-building is a thing many people adore in fantasy.
Our curiosity lies more in the daily human relations of the world than its full historical record. Oh, bits of its history have emerged and continue to emerge. It’s getting more solid, and parts of it will get very solid as we take you through the rest of our heroes’ adventures. But its life and vigour rely on there being hinterlands; unmapped, unregarded bits. And one theme that keeps coming up is the precarity of civilisation: not even the lofty bits, but the everyday standards, like not murdering your neighbour. In that sense too it’s Howardian.
The prologue of Conan the Barbarian immediately makes clear what sort of hero we must make do with. According to the voice-over it’s ‘between the years that the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the Sons of Aryas’. On a battlefield we find a woman clutching her belly with one hand and a sword with the other. She’s in labour, but only by being cut from her womb will the baby deign to emerge, as her dying lips whisper his name-to-be.
A teenage Conan pays no heed when his father, the tribe’s blacksmith (Ron Perlman), tries to teach him the riddle of steel whilst forging him his first sword. In Celtic tradition a smith was half village elder, half shaman, but what should be a key scene of the film is understated, the mythological quality lost. This is typical of a film that turns out to be about an obnoxious murderer instead of a hero.
The torturously unpleasant violence from the movie’s opening continues when the village is invaded. Every bone-crunch of teenage Conan’s counter-attack is amplified, while the powerful character moments between son and soon-to-die father are lost, the filmmakers assuming we’re only interested in seeing Perlman get molten metal full in the face.
This tone persists. The adult Conan does unspeakably nasty things to captive baddies, and frees female sex slaves only to leer at them himself, then get them re-employed as tavern sluts. It’s a far cry from John Milius’ 1982 Conan the Barbarian, of which the current film is ostentatiously not a remake, despite the many recurring tropes.
Both films are about a man who seeks out and ultimately destroys the wizard-king who wiped out his tribe. But where the old Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger) had innocence to balance his inherently thuggish life, the sum of his years spent at the Wheel of Pain and in the arena, new Conan is no better than the villains he dispatches in endless sword fights.
Lead actor Jason Momoa definitely shows a certain charisma and would be perfect in the role, particularly after playing the similar, but more nuanced, Drogo in Game of Thrones, were he not let down by the unimaginative direction and the shoddy script. It’s all stuff an adolescent’s dreams are made of: flashy gore and nastiness, grotesque villains and buxom damsels, but the film is light on the truly mythic, interesting character dilemmas and narrative logic.
The action sequences are cut too fast, disorientating rather than immersive, and quickly become repetitive and dull. The script, meanwhile, seems to have been cut to less than the bare minimum to get from one fight to the next. Character motivation is as scarce.
Indeed, about the women: Tamara (Rachel Nichols), goes from being an implausibly good fighter to a helpless puppet when the script requires it. When Conan claims her as his slave and gags her, it’s played as funny, not as a violation.
‘I live, I love, I slay… I am content,’ Conan mumbles halfway through the movie. As a motto it really holds no candle to his former incarnation’s answer to what’s best in life: ‘to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of their women’.
The producers have already blamed the failing box office figures on insufficient brand recognition, even though Robert E Howard’s pulp hero is doing well in every other medium, from comic book to video game. More likely, audiences aren’t fooled by ‘product’ slapped together for the lowest common denominator.
As time moves on, fans who once were very prominent may fade into the background, without actually disapearing fully. I do wonder what happened with Trudy Hemken, prolific Weird Tales letter writer of the ’30s, who we wrote about. David Ritter from the First Fandom Experience blog, chronicling the early days of fandom, got in touch with the letter her letter in early ’40 issue of the satyrical ‘zine Sweetness and Light.
Fandom then, as much as now, will have been a collection of cliques and incrowds, while pretending to be one happy family, and with its caricatures of well-known fandom ‘types’ Sweetness and Light would indeed have been “a bombshell in a place of peace.” You’ll no doubt recognise some or several of these types. In her letter, Trudy mentions Esperanto; it’s is a dig at Forest Ackerman. In 1940, Trudy still sticks to Weird Tales, though she no longer feels the need to write.
That year, Weird Tales would see a change of guard, when editor Farnsworth Wright was fired (he died later that year). Dorothy McIlwraith took over as editor and, despite scepticism from Wright-loyalists, steered the financially ailing magazine into profits again. She remained editor in an increasingly tough market for pulp magazines, until 1954 when Weird Tales folded. She was credited as D. McIlraith and readers were none the wiser that their favourite magazine was edited by a woman.
As Bob Barnett writes (WT 03/51): “Please, Mr. Editor, if you have the say-so, never let the publishers change the make-up of Weird Tales to this modern semi-slick, impersonal, cold and lifeless ideal that others are going in for.” And McIlwraith gamely replies: “The Editor would like to assure Mr. Barnett that he has all the say-so as to what goes in the pages of Weird Tales. Especially this is noticeable when brickbats are flying.”
To adapt or not to adapt? Other pulps went digest or changed their formula. There was a lusty debate going whether Weird Tales should publish only “fantasy” (also including horror) or also science fiction (other than Lovecraftian, I assume). A few months before (WT 09/50), a Morton D. Paley implored: “don’t let those only fantasy fans sway your opinion – plenty of us s-f enthusiasts read Weird too. Keep the science-fiction coming!” Reply: “The Editor is going to be on a spot in nothing flat on this fantasy; s-f discussion. But we hope to concentrate on good stories.”
Dorothy McIlwraith was not the only woman in Weird Tales’ pages. Of course, there have been several female writers contributing to the magazine, even aside from C.L. Moore. The Tellers of Weird Tales blog identifies 127 female contributors. And then there are, of course, the female fans, who write in to the magazine. In the the March ’51 issue we find, for example, a letter from (Mrs.) Dee M. Groff, “one fantasy fan of 20 years’ standing.” In the May issue of that year we find more letters from women:
Naiia Andreyeff from New York complains about readers who expect their writers to write to order: “Perhaps I’m in a beefing mood this morning (having spent half the night enjoying WT) because being a bit of a writer myself, I’m finding it hard to locate the proper angle for my particular piece of the month. At any rate, I’ve read WT for the past twenty years and am still an adict. In my estimation, the majority of stories in each issue are good. I am a handwriting analyst and have some of Lovecraft’s and Clark Asthton Smith’s handwriting… most interesting.” (She leaves us dangling there.)
Jacquelyne Miller says Weird Tales is “the Finest Horror Magazine I have ever seen. It is and has been my favourite ever since I first saw it on the newsstand.” However, about the March 51 issue: “The illustrations of ‘Mississippi Saucer’ and ‘A Black Solitude’ were good but I miss Lee Brown Coye. I didn’t care for the cover; it wasn’t ghoulish enough.”
Mrs Alice Law from Dublin has been, since a quarter century, a keen student of occultism, and: “I have been a reader of Weird Tales since 1920, in U.S.A., when I could obtain copies of your magazine. Unfortunately, now, I usually have to wait until I travel to Northern Ireland (Belfast) to procure them, as, no doubt you are aware that many American magazines and other journals are banned in Eire by the censor.”
Mary K. Tieman writes: “I have been reading Weird Tales for I don’t know how many years. Sometimes I can find Weird Tales and sometimes I can’t. But since I made a deal with the lady at the newsstand she keeps my copy especially for me. And I consider myself lucky. I’ve never written a fan letter before but I shall speak as though to a friend.”
In the previous blog there was already mention of a Weird Tales club; something like this indeed happened. I’ve looked through the hand full of Weird Tales issues I have from ’50 and ’51, and several contain a list of new members. There are a fair amount of names in there, which can be identified as women. In Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction (1926-1965), Eric Leaf Dean took a sampling: “Of the 448 club members I could gender-identify from these six lists, 118 were female, almost exactly the same gender breakdown as revealed by an analysis of all the letter writers to the magazine.”
Here’s an overview of letters and new members as fractions of totals in the issues I have:
Letters in Eyrie
Weird Tales club
10/33 = 30% (partial list)
UK No 6
1/7 = 14%
17/98 = 17%
UK No 7
1/5 = 20%
UK No 10
2/6 = 33%
UK No 11
4/6 = 67%
23/89 = 26%
UK No 12
0/8 = 0%
12/80 = 15%
There is a curious spike in both letters and new members to the Weird Tales club, and I wonder what caused this. Had women been encouraged to contribute in one of the previous issues? Was McIlwraith making a point by publishing a majority of letters from women in the May ’51 issue? And was she then told by the publishers to stop it? There are no letters written by women in the next issue. It mattered not, as the point was made:women were always part of Weird Tales!
The oldest of the handful of Weird Tales issues we have is dated May 1936. It would have arrived on newsstands and with subscribers in the previous month, and I figure it’s the last one Conan writer Robert E. Howard would have received before his death. I doubt he sat down to read much of it, concerned as he was with the round-the-clock care of his ailing mother.
The Margaret Brundage cover is not one of her more lurid, though it still has a man in a red devil’s costume menacing a pretty girl. Maybe he had a quick glance through; no, nothing of his was printed. Perhaps he read Clark Ashton Smith’s poem Ennui. “Dull ashes emptied from the urns of all the dead, have stilled the fountain and have sealed the fountain-head” No – definitely not in the mood for that; his own well had run dry as it was! Perhaps his eye fell on his own name, in a letter in The Eyrie: Eleanor Layton, of Washington, D. C., writes, in part: “Howard gets better and better; Conan is superb, magnifique and more! Moore’s characters, Smith and Jirel, are wonderful companions in perilous adventure. Smith and Lovecraft are delightfully productive of chills, as always. Keep Weird Tales up to the mark; detective stories and stories with a natural explanation are not weird.
Well-known fan of the time, Gertrude Hemken also writes in. Her letters would appear 32 times in the letter column between 1931 and ’38, sandwiched between a few letters to Astounding and a letter to Golden Fleece. Her career as weird letter writer encountered a full stop via a potato chowder recipe in The Milwaukee Sentinel. About the 5-part Conan serial The Hour of the Dragon she writes: Conan grows more and more tense in each issue. I almost hate to see it end. But then there is always the promise of more Conan stories in the future…
There’d be no further Conan stories written by Howard though, and only in death did editor Farnsworth Wright give the writer the respect his due, though still not in payment. That, though, could not be known yet by any of the correspondents whose letters we find in The Eyrie.
Irene Pierce, of National City, California, signed herself “an old reader returned.” “Noticed a new illustrator in a recent issue of Weird Tales. He’s very good: as good, in his particular style, as Hugh Rankin. Remember, the poetry, illustrations, and short stories are what kept WT what it has never ceased being – that is, weird.”
Lilian Kaltz from Philadelphia dives headlong into fandom:
“I have just this moment finished reading Mr. Julius Hopkins’ idea of a WT Club and it is a gem of an idea. I had the pleasure of meeting him in Washington, D. C. and he is most capable for being president of the Washington club. I would like to volunteer my services for starting a Philadelphia club of WT readers. I have been reading WT since a little girl, although I have never subscribed, preferring to patronize the neighborhood store.”
The Weird Tales Club would indeed come into being, and women would be part of it (but we’ll get back to that). Assuming that no women have signed their letter with initials, out of 21 letters in The Eyrie, 4 are by women. They are as knowledgeable as the guys, as enthusiastic and as eager to be involved. And, despite what men from the Manosphere may tell you, they love Conan, and not just to cling to his leg! If we look at Getrude, Trudy Hemken, we see her trying Astounding on for size, but apparently the Church of Campbell is not quite her jam. In Weird Tales she finds a home; over 30 printed letters in 7 years speaks of belonging. She was about 18 when she started writing, and perhaps at 25 life took over. Then again, a letter apparently appeared in issue #4 of the mimeographed satirical fanzine Sweetness and Light in 1940; perhaps to comment on the caricature that had appeared earlier, of “The Fan who has written more letters to the magazines than any other fan”…
In her blogpost on the Flashing Swords! debacle, Angeline already wrote: “Women have always been here.” They have, and they’ve always been active, either visible or behind the screens. Because the blood of a fan creeps wherever it wants to go.
We’re on the cusp of the 50th anniversary of Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian comic, first written by Roy Thomas and drawn by Barry Smith. “How it came to pass” has been written about often, and while I’m definitely a fan, and have my fond memories (though not stretching back half a century), I also think that its legacy could have been handled with a lot more care.
I found my first Conan the Barbarian comics when I was 15, not long after I’d discovered him in prose, and I was sold. These were the Dutch editions of the Barry Smith stories, packaged as two US issues for each Dutch issue. These pages held an age undreamt of, with shining kingdoms and jewelled thrones, and as life was disappointing at the time, I was happy to escape into them. Eventually, I replaced my Dutch copies with the ’90s US reprints and then, years later, I started buying the Dark Horse collections. However, I didn’t quite enjoy them the way I once had. Something felt off, and it didn’t take long to notice that the colouring had been redone.
When Dark Horse republished the complete Marvel Conan the Barbarian series, they didn’t give original comics (or the ’90s reprints) as reference to the colourists who, according to colourist Jim Zub “had to fly blind on choosing color palettes.” Tom Scioli in his article for Comics Alliance: “Color creates a reading rhythm. If applied incorrectly, the story you tell will be bad. For that Marvel Comics second generation (Barry Windsor Smith and Steranko) color was very important. There’s a reason those auteurs took an active hand in it as early as they could. If color creates a reading rhythm, color becomes a writing tool. Different color tells a different story.”
It’s worth quoting Tom Scioli fuller: The coloring on the right is going for the verisimilitude of a night scene. The colors are muted and secondary. This is the color you get when you lay a night time color layer over everything. It’s the comics equivalent of “day-for’night” filming. It flattens the whole scene. It creates a convincing illusion of night, of rods and cones kicking in, but it is not inviting. It makes you view this as a photo rather than a tableaux you can wander around in. The reader is less likely to linger, more likely to quickly scan over.
The placement of reds and yellows throughout the page add a rhythm in the original. Grays and dull browns dominate the page on the right. The dominant color, blue is huddled in the center, keeping the eye from spending time on the panels around the edges. When Conan enters the treasure room in panel 9, there is a sudden warmth from the variety of colors, the greens, reds and yellow. In the reprint, the cold night dominates that panel as well, keeping it from feeling like a new moment. No color is allowed to shine through without it’s complement mixed in, too. Blues become teals. The old color is far from perfect, often full of technical mistakes, but it reads beautifully.
We see the same in the first page of another story. Nothing is allowed to stand out, everything is of the same colour value. Originally, FEAR was made highly charged by colouring it red; I don’t see any reason to colour it grey in the new version except for a fear of standing out. Careful now! In the first panel, Conan and his horse, and the rock on which they ride, are perfectly visible against the black night. Repainted, horse and rider become mud against the sky, and the rocks have been given more texture, and prominence, than Conan himself.
The second panel isn’t too bad, though it shows perfectly the airbrush colours and shading that are too prevalent in bad colouring. Good colouring is about making choices, about knowing where to put your accents, where to direct the eye. It’s not about rendering everything photorealistically; especially not when you’re working on top of an artefact of the ’70s. Fully understandable that the colourist wasn’t provided with the original copies to work from, but he could have done an approximation of what colours of the ’70s would look like, or better: feel like. It lacks authenticity.
This is also the case with the last panel, which lacks excitement. All elements have the same heavy and murky colour values, and ironically, by shading elements and adding colour effects, the resulting image is strangely flat. In the original version those marauders towering over Conan stand clear against the sky, instead of being flattened by it. They’re verticals on the horizontals of the rocks.
Conan and his girlfriend and horse are diagonals; they’re moving in the world of these men, but are not of it. Their diagonal lines, upper right to lower left, are dynamic, giving speed and action. The hurled spears are fast too, coming from upper left, their lines antagonistic to those of Conan’s party. The colourist understands this lay-out; of course he would – it was Barry Smith himself – and uses colours (or the lack thereof) to separate the elements. He’s using a very limited palette, even more limited than was available at the time, but he uses it meaningfully; his sparse use of red makes the spears and the young woman pop right off the page.
From the later Conan the Barbarian and Conan the King comics either example copies or the actual colour separations were available, so that the colours of the trade paperbacks could be faithfully reconstructed. I had a couple of stray issues of Conan the King I’d once bought on holiday. I liked the storyline, or what I could follow of it, which was less “monster of the month” than I was used to. I loved the artwork too, showing an older Conan in a moodier, somewhat more realistic world.
The original colourist for Conan the King (George Roussos) was a comic book veteran who knew how to expertly use the limited palette. He understood colour and depth, and most importantly, what the colours would look like on the page. In the above example, you see Conan and his associates surrounded by soldiers. The anonymous soldiers are uniformly grey, roughly the same colour of the background, while the men closer to him have brighter colours. Conan himself, of course, stands out, in blue metal cuirass, red cape and yellow lion emblem and helmet.
And yet, despite Dark Horse having used the same colour separations, the result is not at all pleasing to me. This is because the original comics were printed cheaply on woodpulp paper, while the reprints are of better physical quality, with a higher ink density and glossy paper. The results however are clashing colours, garishness and colour mixes which worked for the Marvel press but not for Dark Horse’s. You can see it best in the horses: a glossy black horse, rendered as grey-blue, becomes green, a tan horse becomes orange. The brown horse brcomes a fiery brown-red.
I’ve got reprints of other archival comics, where the comicbook pages were scanned and printed, flaws and all. You see it often with archival comics where the publisher really wants to give you a feeling of what the original experience would’ve been like. That, or not invest in cleaning the pages up; Allan Harvey is doing wonderful things with colour restoration. Yet, even with a couple of simple tweaks the colours of the Conan comics could have been recalibrated.
Here I’ve taken the above image, but dialled the colours back. Cyan (“blue”) to 80%, magenta (“red”) to 90% and yellow to 60%. This gives me a result pretty close to the original comic. Of course, you can argue over the values; should cyan be 90% and magenta 80%? Should there be a smidge more yellow? Nonetheless, while the end result would undoubtedly give a much softer impression, it would also look, on glossy paper and with clearer linework in better printing quality, more like the grown-up comic that it is: the limitations that the previous generations of artists worked with do not always, and often didn’t, lead to a lesser artistry.
The past couple of days have seen controversy over Flashing Swords! #6, the revival of Lin Carter’s Sword and Sorcery anthology series by his literary executor, Robert M. Price. When pop culture site Bleeding Cool revealed that Price’s foreword was a screed excoriating feminists and trans people, slipping in a racist dogwhistle while he was at it, authors lined up to withdraw their work. In a statement regarding the decision to withdraw his story “Godkiller” from the collection, Cliff Biggers summed up his views:
“This introduction does not reflect my beliefs, my feelings, or my philosophy of tolerance, understanding, and acceptance. I still believe that sword and sorcery is a fine genre that has room for people of all races, genders, lifestyles, and beliefs, as it has from the early days when women like C.L. Moore and Margaret Brundage played a vital role in developing and popularizing the genre.”
Frank Schildiner, Paul MacNamee and Charles R. Rutledge likewise withdrew their work, making it clear that they had been unaware of the political context in which it would be published, with MacNamee stating that, “A request to remove the introduction [had been] refused.”
In light of all this, it’s interesting to revisit Lin Carter’s foreword to Flashing Swords! #1, which – as the title’s original exclamation mark implies – is exuberant, enthused and most of all, dedicated to the idea of a genre as a community. Carter tells of the formation of SAGA, the Swordsmen and Sorcerers’ Guide of America, Limited, which would give birth to the first anthology: “Think of it: an author’s guild with no crusades, blacklists, burning causes, or prestigious annual awards! A far-flung legion of kindred craftsmen, with no fees, dues, tithes, or weregilds”
The tone evokes the fellowship you find at conventions when everything’s going right; in short, when you find your people. It couldn’t be further from Price’s attitude.
As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m grateful to be part of a community where authors step up and defend what’s right, even when it means the loss of an outlet for their work. But they shouldn’t had to. They should never have been put in the position of finding their work in a collection whose foreword seeks to exclude so many of their colleagues and readers, because in 2020 we should be well beyond prejudice and gatekeeping. Of course, we’re not. And contrary to popular belief, the problem is not confined to the actions of some old guard, jealous that they’re no longer the vital centre of things.
As I write this, social media is awash with discussion of the Hugo Awards, where it seems that inclusion has been an afterthought instead of the foundation it should be. Instead, what was centred was nostalgia for a mythical time when men were men and writers were whiter. Campbell and Lovecraft came up. But diversity in Sword and Sorcery, as in SFF in general, is not a new thing, regardless of whose names have been most prominent in the past. Women have always been here. And indeed, Margaret Brundage and C.L. Moore are as much at the foundations of the genre as Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber. And to use a Sword and Sorcery anthology to add to the extensive media pilloring of trans people is not only cruel, it is absurd when our imaginations live in the worlds that Jeffrey Catherine Jones painted.
When they reviewed The Red Man and Others, the Rogues in the House podcast dubbed our stories New Wave Sword and Sorcery, and Remco and I found that hugely encouraging. But the representation of lesbian, bi and disabled women in the world of Ymke and Kaila isn’t revolutionary, as these themes have been with us in fantastic fiction from the ’70s. And while we aim to be inclusive in our stories, it’s not a box to tick to score woke points: we wrote along the demographics of our own social world, and these are our friends and our colleagues we represent, and also ourselves.
At the same time we’re limited, as people often are at our age, by nostalgia. We know we’re not the crest of the genre wave, and that somewhere, some twenty-year-old is writing stories that will wash Sword and Sorcery up on a new and exciting shore. That should fill us all with anticipation, not defensiveness.
Even when we use our stories to subvert conventions, literary or societal, we still find ourselves reacting against tropes that aren’t confined to the past. Kaila follows a trail blazed by Dark Agnes and Jirel of Joiry, but still she encounter people (including her future girlfriend) who are surprised to meet a short, female swordmaster. And maybe that’s because progress, social or literary, has not been linear. If we’re a New Wave, it’s one that echoes that of the 60s and 70s, when Michael Moorcock and Tanith Lee, whose works still influence us, transformed Fantasy. Successive waves never entirely wash away what came before, and that includes the bad as well as the good.
It would be easy, and tempting, to lay the blame for the Flashing Swords #6 controversy entirely at Price’s door. Discussion among fans and pros on social media yesterday made clear that his remarks don’t represent where Sword and Sorcery is going, or at least not the part of it that has a future. We could bury the whole thing as yet another case of King Canute railing hopelessly at the incoming egalitarian tide. However, as I said earlier, such ugliness is not unknown to us, and such rants are written with the assumption of receptive readers. Publisher Bob McClain of Pulp Hero Press delisted the collection and released a rather odd, limp statement:
“When Bob Price sent me the manuscript, I assumed that he had shared his introduction with the authors, given the controversial content. I don’t agree with much of anything in that introduction, but I also don’t like to censor other viewpoints – so, on the assumption that all the authors were on board, I published the book. The problem, of course, is that the authors didn’t know what Bob had written in the introduction. Surprise! And of course they don’t want to be seen as implicitly accepting or endorsing Bob’s opinions by having their work appear in his book.”
McClain behaves as if he were a shocked bystander at a road accident, when in fact he had chosen to publish the foreword in the first place, and it’s interesting that he evades the implications of his own complicity: by publishing Price’s words, he apparently was satisfied to be seen as accepting or endorsing those words. Had that foreword not become common knowledge pre-publication, we must assume he would have gone ahead and published it, adding to the hostility experiences by women and minorities while standing on his principles.
As a woman working in the genre, I’m grateful for the solidarity of authors who said in no uncertain terms that Sword and Sorcery is for everyone, and I equally understand perspective of those who just want to tell stories, and had not expected or wanted those stories to be plunged into a political context of any kind. It is telling though that three major S&S-themed podcasts, The Cromcast, Rogues in the House and Appendix N Book Club, have a great love for the genre and its old staples, but are also progressive and richly analytical of the genre’s shortcomings.
This genre went through a major schism not so many years ago. People made statements, chose sides, left discussion groups, and in some cases ended friendships. You’ll get no finger-wagging about echo chambers from me; I support people’s right to avoid people and places where they are made to feel unwelcome in the world of escapist fantasy. The real world being what it is, many of us have had an awful lot to escape. Speaking personally, having spent most of my life fighting a disease that’s proved impervious to both blades and magic, I’m in Sword and Sorcery for enemies I can run through with a sword, for courage and wit to save the day, and for bands of allies of all kinds who make it worth splitting up the rewards.
We’re working on a story that’s set in the mountains. For research I’m rereading Trespassers on the Roof of the World, which deals with the earlier European attempts to reach Lhasa. These early travellers were sometimes foolhardy and unwise, sometimes overly optimistic and underprepared, but one thing that comes across in the narratives is a sense of Adventure, this kismet-like drive to reach that remote city that stood symbol for everything forbidden and mysterious.
It also brought the story “Dig Me No Grave” by Robert E. Howard to mind, which appeared in Weird Tales of October 1936, less than half a year after the author’s death. It’s contains more than a share of pulpy ‘Eastern mysticism’.
This illustration by Virgil Finlay, one of the mainstays of pulp illustrators, shows why he was so well liked; he had a knack of getting to the heart of the matter, and distilling a representative image from a story that would be alluring and intriguing. Sometimes the allure lay in a carefully rendered buxom woman, sometimes in a dynamic layout. This image has no spaceway pinup, nor a dynamic layout. In fact, it’s the way in which Finlay so very carefully controls the elements that makes the image work.
We see two men, standing around the (death)bed of a third, surrounded by black candles, symbols of sinister rituals. That we’re dealing with “Oriental Mysticism” will be clear from the man behind the altar, who is Asian, wearing something like a Tibetan monk’s habit, a circle painted on his forehead. All Orientalist tropes of the time, conveying the clichéd inscrutability. This contrasts with the man on the left, who we can take for a Westerner; and an educated one at that – noble forehead, aquiline nose, you get the idea, and clothing just short of elbow patches. He seems to have dressed hastily, as his tie is at an angle.
So, there’s an atmosphere of terror on one side, but also of the calm before a storm. This is done by using the trappings of black magic, but keeping the composition very quiet and organised. The illustration is built up from evenly spaced verticals, formed by the men and the candles, and a few horizontals, being the altar and the corpse. There are a few sets of diagonals. First, that of the shrouded body, which is parallel to the top of the illustration, binding the corpse to the space, and the Westerner’s tie is parallel to the papers he’s holding; we can assume that whatever he has read is the cause of his haste and unrest.
That these papers contain a formula to awaken the man’s dead friend would be a fair guess, and that the other man is to preside over the ceremony is also clear. I can’t really remember how the story exactly goes; it’s been decades since I read it. The illustration is enticing, though, and gives a lot of direction of what the reader can expect. It certainly makes me want to pick up the story and read it again. Luckily, I can just reach out to my bookcase for the excellent collection of horror stories by Robert E. Howard.