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.
Author Lee Brontide created this great meme for Twitter, which lets you talk about your main character’s goals, wishes and dreams, and we decided to make it the basis for a blog post. We’re answering here mainly for Ymke, one of the protagonists of the stories in TheRed Man and Others, but also for the stories’ other heroes, Kaila and Sebastien, as the mood strikes us.
1. Do they like to have clear goals and plans? Ymke spent her early life just surviving and going with the flow, but since her experience with Alsigt, the Red Man, crystallised her need to escape, she’s always had some quiet personal goal in mind. She’s always learning something new, often illicitly.
2. Do they wish on stars? Ymke wishes on stars when she thinks Kaila’s not looking. Kaila pretends not to have noticed. Sebastien has a hidden sentimental streak, so we actually wouldn’t rule it out.
3. Any hidden talents? Forgery is the very definition of a hidden talent!
4. Their idea of having “made it”: For Ymke, it’s independence. She knows the world can be a cruel place for disabled people, that sometimes your nearest neighbours are also your biggest threat, and that there will be times when her body lets her down. She’s had to make peace with that, and part of how she’s done that is to find ways to earn her keep. Having grown up feeling tethered to a father who was living in exile and in fear, she wants to go places and be with people out of choice rather than because she has no other option economically. Our ambition for Ymke has always been for her life, even in an analogue of medieval Europe, to reflect the conflicts and ambitions and need for justice of real disabled people in the 21st century.
5. Do they believe in destiny? If you’d ask her, Ymke would hesitate. On one hand, she feels strongly that we make our own luck. On the other, some events and circumstances in life seem to have a very strong gravitational pull. The writer in her respects their symmetry. Was the Red Man meant to end up on her farm? Was he meant to leave again? What would their lives have been otherwise? Ymke tries to make her own luck, and Kaila and Sebastien definitely do, but all three of them also get swept up in the whims of destiny. To borrow a phrase (with thanks to Bernard Cornwell), Wyrd bið ful āræd – Fate is inexorable.
6. Are they sentimental? As above, Sebastien is surprisingly so. There is much about his early life that you don’t know yet (some of it we don’t even know yet!), but through all the turmoil, he has kept with him a small artefact of his childhood. There is also in Sebastien an urge to rescue people. Ymke would deny that she is sentimental or nostalgic. She still has her mother’s book, though, and sometimes she looks through it and remembers teaching Alsigt to read; remembers her father teaching her to read years earlier. Life on the road has made her travel light and focus on what’s next, but for all the places she’s lived in, and as suddenly as she’s sometimes had to leave them, she remembers the people of those places, and some of them she thinks on fondly, and wonders about, years later. And speaking of books: in many ways Kaila is a closed book. There’s much that she’d like to forget, and some things she’ll only tell late at night, when she’s had a few cups of wine.
7. Are they ambitious? Yes, sometimes fiercely and not necessarily always wisely, and we’re really looking forward to being able to share with you a story about that. Sebastien absolutely is ambitious. He wants the best that life has to offer, and he’ll get it. Will it be straightforward? Of course not. It’s Sebastien! We didn’t realise what we were doing, but in writing Ymke this year for one particular Red Man sequel, we accidentally caught ambition ourselves: it turned from a short story into a novella. Then another draft we’re working on did exactly the same, inching towards the 40K mark now. Oops.
8. Are they gracious winners? We wish we could tell you why that’s funny, with regard to one of our characters in particular, in one of the novellas we’re working on. We will say that Ymke is capable of being gracious and conciliatory in both victory and defeat. Sometimes, victory and defeat are two sides of the same coin, though.
9. Do they regret much? Ymke regrets blood spilled on her behalf, even though it’s the reason she’s alive. She regrets that it took the events in The Red Man for her to get out of the rut that was her life. She doesn’t regret the business with Father Folkhert, as dangerous as it got in the end. She meant well. She always means well. It’s just that things have a way of getting out of hand. Especially with Kaila and Sebastien around.
10. Do they keep their dreams secret? For a long time, Ymke was not accustomed to letting herself dream, and when she began to, her father was quick to clip her wings. So, she’s learned to nurture dreams quietly. And some dreams require a little skullduggery to make them happen, of course…
11. Are they prone to envy? Yes. This came as a surprise to Ymke. Living largely apart from others until her mid-teens means she didn’t realise just how much she had been missing out on, until she’d been out in the world a while. Sometimes it takes seeing other people – who are leading more ordinary lives – progress through life stages that were very different for you to fully realise what your life might have been. Encountering the sheltered city sons and daughters of her friends in middle age was strangely bitter for Ymke.
12. What skill are they most proud of? For Ymke, it’s cultivating people, in more than one sense of the word. She’s good at encouraging people and bringing out their potential. She’s also adept at making herself part of a place, so that she is valued and receives support that doesn’t feel like charity; like many disabled people, Ymke has a complicated relationship with that. And, when she has to, she can lie convincingly. These are achievements not taken for granted by someone who came from such an isolated upbringing.
13. What milestones do they care about? The irreversible ones, like “I can’t make it up these stairs any more,” which will inevitably come. When something changes in her body, Ymke waits it out through four seasons, in the hope that it is temporary and contextual. If it proves permanent, her way of life has to change – maybe a little, maybe a lot. Progressive disability is fun that way.
14. Do they procrastinate? No. There’s no procrastinating on a farm. The animals need fed and the seasons move on, so things need doing. This is how Ymke was brought up, and this is what she’s carried with her.
15. Are they good under pressure? All three of them are. They’ve had to be.
16. Do they daydream? Ymke certainly does. She certainly did on the farm, and she still did when the places she visited and the people she met far surpassed those of her imagination.
17. Do they believe in signs or omens? Ymke’s rational adult side is rather at war with the fearful, superstitious side that was cultivated in her childhood. She’ll very quietly feel a certain way about things that have enough symbolic weight. Sebastien, though he’s wise to the tricks of cold reading and the stacked deck of cards, also has seen enough to keep some room for the “What if?…”
18. Do other people believe in them? They believe in each other, though that is sometimes very considerably tested. In The Return of the Uncomplaining Child a great many people believe in Sebastien, and they worked very hard at that. None believe as much as Father Folkhert did: more than they could have hoped.
19. Would they rather be over- or underestimated? It changes. When our trio are up to chicanery, it serves them to be underestimated. Ymke chafed against her father’s underestimation of her in her early life, yet like many women, there have been times when her survival has depended on people underestimating her. She’s learned to leverage that. In the story we’re working on now she feels extremely frustrated and overlooked, though, and she’s coping with it in an unusual way.
20. How do they celebrate their successes? Depends on the nature of the success. Sometimes a quiet night together in front of a good fire is enough. Sometimes it requires a substantial quantity of drink. If they’ve made themselves rich, however temporarily, they’ll share some of it with someone who needs it more.
21. Are they good at accepting help? Sebastien does, though he may be less happy with the assumption of a debt owed. Ymke, only when she can convince herself she’s giving out at least twice as much support as she’s taking. Kaila may accept, but not ask for help.
22. How do they cope with failure? Ruthless self examination, in Ymke’s case; rants to well-chosen confidantes. And ultimately, by finding something to fix, which may take many forms. Sebastien brushes himself off, and turns the page. Kaila will be sore until she feels she’s restored the balance. This is not always the sensible course.
23. Smallest thing they’re proud of: For Ymke, it’s her stitching. For Sebastien it’s his moral compass. Kaila’s got this tattoo, you see…
24. Do they do New Year’s resolutions? Yes, very much so, in Ymke’s case. Sebastien will have many, Kaila none. At least none she’ll share with others.
25. Do they keep them? Ymke usually does.. She’s determined that way, and she sets realistic goals. Sebastien’s resolutions are broken as easy as hastily made promises. Kaila’s resolutions are not made at the start of a year, and may not be resolved within the year.
If you enjoyed this look into the minds and lives of Ymke, Kaila and Sebastien, we’d like – nay, we implore – you to seek out the collection The Red Man and Others on Amazon UK or US. We’ll meanwhile work on their further adventures!
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.
That’s not Couch to 5 K; it’s the word count of the story of which I’ve just finished the first draft. It’s twice as long as anything we’ve done before, and we’re going outside our usual routine with it too. Normally, we’d discuss a story idea, then I’ll do an outline, after which Angeline does the first draft. I take over and complete the draft, including any bits in all-caps which haven’t been figured out yet. This time, I did the full first draft, while Angeline is concentrating on another story.
She did read the story while I wrote, gave feedback, spotted continuity errors and plot holes, and helped tease out the story’s themes. Her draft will further sharpen the characters’ voices, sharpen the prose and do anything else that make a story ‘work’. Then we’ll hand it to and fro a few more times, and the end result will be that the story isn’t mine; it’s ours. The characters, definitely, are from us both. It’s another story with Sebastien, Ymke and -most of all- Kaila. Both of us have similar ideas of who each of them are, and even where we’d ‘fan cast’ a different celeb in our heads for Ymke, they were remarkably similar in appearance.
At last year’s WorldCon in Dublin, Diane Duane and Peter Morwood described how they were asked to write an opening scene for the Nibelungen film they were working on, “like Conan’s forging or the sword”. What they came up with was two rods of iron, heated, twisted together and hammered until it becomes one bar of strong steel. We like to think our writing is like that; and if the two bars have slightly different properties; well, the visible textures give the resulting sword extra beauty, right?
“Are you a plotter or a pantser?” is the question often asked amongst writers. We’re definitely plotters, yet that still leaves a lot of room for discovery. Going in, you know what happens, but what remains to learn is why it happens and how it affects the characters. This one definitely affects Kaila greatly, though without the story in front of you it’s of course of no use to go into details. The story incorporates three flash fics I wrote last year during October, using Inktober prompts, but sets them in a bigger context, finding more meaning for them. One of the story’s characters, in a ‘this happened before’ arc, is Kaila’s mentor. This at first gave us the notion that the story was about women: there’d be the maiden, the mother and the crone. However, at 19K words, Angeline having had her first thorough read-through of the thing without framing narrative, we mulled it over and figured that the story really is about family. As we’ve described Kaila, Sebastien and Ymke as found family, the family you choose instead of the ties that come with blood, this was just as well, and it was easy to write towards it.
It’s not going to be bogged down in philosophy though. At least, that’s the idea. The working title is The Wolves of Scorr. It’s actually a title from the Dutch Eric de Noorman comicbook cycle (one of my favourite comics – this year I bought the complete, deluxe, set!). It’s mostly set in the mountains, so I got to do research with the excellent Tresspassers on the Roof of the World, about the early Western explorers in Tibet and the race to Llhasa, and the primary sources mentioned in it, like Dr. Susie C. Rijnhart’s With The Tibetans In Tent And Temple. We also made use of the 1956 documentary Seven Years in Tibet(not to be confused with the Brad Pitt vehicle). Kaila’s mentor is from a region vaguely synonymous to Eastern Europe so we borrowed bits of Ukrainian, Scythian and Latvian (Baltic) folklore and myth. Stumbling upon a cache of cradle songs around the Baltic primal mother figure Mara, Google translate helped me putting together some decidedly dark songs for our character to sing.
So, what we have is 25.000 words of framing narrative, a few flashbacks, flashbacks within flashbacks, an attempt to make the narratives distinct, and still quite a bit of work to do. As in the other stories set in what we lazily call Wheelworld, there are swords, and there is sorcery. We’re again not quite sure though whether Sword & Sorcery is the right label for this thing. While our adventurous trio is avoiding capture and being tied down, perhaps it’s for the best not to strive for the label too eagerly.
At the start of October we set up the challenge: get your review of The Red Man and Othersup on Goodreads and/or Amazon, and you’ll make a chance of winning an original piece of art with either Kaila or Kaila and Ymke!
We’re a day late (blame turnip carving fatigue. The struggle is real!) but all names went in the the hat, and…
Congratulations, Adam! Let us know which piece you want, and we’ll make sure it is delivered to your home!
Adam’s review: Incredibly Enjoyable
I must admit I’m not a literary critic by any means. I must further admit that I bought this book without knowing much about it, having quite literally judged it by its great cover art!
So when I read the first few pages I felt a bit of apprehension when it became clear I was reading fantasy. It’s not a genre I read a lot of or have had great experiences with, but this book certainly changed that streak.
These are three interconnected stories, and if you’re looking for fantasy, action, love, loss, humor, or even studies of the extremes in religion, you’ll find something to enjoy in these stories.
The Red Man was my personal favorite. The authors did such an excellent job painting the picture of bleakness and sadness of the characters and the lands in which they live, you’ll find it impossible not to be moved by the story and the plight of any of the characters.
But really, all three stories were highly enjoyable and you’ll certainly find something you’ll like here. (and be sure to stick around for the fascinating extras disc!).
A great effort by these authors-I can’t wait for more from them!
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.
Ice winds strike a flint-edged sea And splinter flakes that scatter like birds Trees turn to gold and die As does all born of the sun – Origin unknown
This is the opening epigram of “The Masters”, the first book in Ricardo Pinto‘s “Stone Dance of the Chameleon” series. I picked it because it works beautifully as a short poem, but also because of the feeling of foreboding it creates and how fitting that makes it as the opening of a story about a decadent society teetering on the edge of collapse. As a writer I think a lot about first and last lines, and how to make them work. As a reader, there’s a very good chance that the right first or last line will live in my memory for decades. ABA
“Hear, people of Valusia,” he exclaimed, upheld by the wild beast vitality which was his, fired from within by a strength which was more than physical. “I stand here – the king. I am wounded almost unto death, but I have survived mass wounds.
“Hear you! I am weary of this business! I am no king but a slave! I am hemmed in by laws, laws, laws! I cannot punish malefactor nor reward my friends because of laws – custom – tradition! By Valka, I will be king in fact as well as in name!
“Here stand the two who have saved my life! Henceforward they are free to marry, to do as they like!”
Seno and Ala rushed into each others’ arms with a glad cry.
“But the law!” screamed Tu.
“I am the law!” roared Kull, swinging his axe; it flashed downard and the stone tablet flew into a hundred pieces. The people clenched their hands in horror, waiting dumbly for the sky to fall.
Kull reeled back, eyes blazing. The room whirled to his dizzy gaze.
“I am king, state and law!” he roared, and seizing the wand-like sceptre which lay near, he broke it in two and flung it from him. “This shall be my sceptre!” The red axe was brandished aloft, splashing the pallid nobles with drops of blood. Kull gripped the slender crown with his left hand and placed his back against the wall. Only that support kept him from falling but in his arms was still the strength of lions.
“I am either king or corpse!” he roared, his corded muscles bulging, his terrible eyes blazing. “If you like not my kingship – come and take this crown!”
The corded left arm held out the crown, the right gripping the menacing axe above it.
“By this axe I rule! This is my sceptre! I have struggled and sweated to be the puppet king you wished me to be – to king it your way. Now I use mine own way! If you will not fight, you shall obey! Laws that are just shall stand; laws that have outlived their times I shall shatter as I shattered that one! I am king!”
Slowly the pale faced noblemen and frightened women knelt, bowing in fear and reverence to the blood stained giant who towered above them with his eyes ablaze.
“I am king!”
This is the closing paragraph from Robert E. Howard‘s King Kull story, “By This Axe I Rule!”. It’s not from the best book or best story I’ve ever read – which that is depends on when you ask me. Neither is this from the best story Howard ever wrote. Yet, this is the fragment I’d like to share for World Book Day. I was in my early twenties when I got hold of the paperback with this story. It was a period in my life in which I went through a lot of personal growth; I had to decide for myself whether I was going to be king or corpse, and so I smashed some old tablets and adopted a double-bladed axe to rule by. RvS
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(This article appeared previously in Fortean Times, in January 2013, and was nominated for a Robert E Howard Foundation Award).
“Hither came 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 jewelled thrones of the Earth under his sandaled feet.”
With these words, Texan writer Robert E Howard introduced his most famous hero to the readers of the now legendary pulp magazine Weird Tales, 80 years ago now. It would be difficult to find someone who has not heard of Conan, be it through the comics, films or abundant paperbacks. They’ll know he’s a barbarian, battles wizards and monsters, and that he has mighty thews, though not necessarily what thews are.
But if they’ve heard of Robert E Howard at all, chances are they’ll have the notion that he was a paranoid, gun-toting, redneck savant who locked himself up at night and typed up the stories dictated by his ghostly barbarian muse. They also know that he had an unsound relationship with his mother, and killed himself when she died. Until quite recently there wasn’t much decent biographical information available, and since nature abhors a vacuum this lead to much speculation and a distorted picture of the man who seemingly out of nowhere created the genre of Sword and Sorcery.
Few would consider that Howard’s main theme, barbarism versus civilisation, goes much deeper than the snarling brute of popular imagination, and that it is actually a reversal of that image. Few would readily accept that the Conan stories form but a small part of Howard’s output in many other genres. In fact, he was effectively done with the Fantasy genre, and might not have revisited it, even had he lived past the ripe young age of 30.
The truth, as always, is less prosaic than the myth, but also far more interesting. To really understand Robert E Howard, however, you have to know where he came from; and then the rural Texas of the early 20th Century seems less unlikely a place for the father of Sword and Sorcery.
Before the Howards settled down in Cross Plains in 1919, they’d wandered all over Texas. Isaac Howard was a doctor who chased the various oil, cattle, land and railroad booms. He practiced what was called frontier medicine, a heady mix of practicality and experiment, always trying to stay at the forefront of medical developments. He may have bought into quack schemes, but also used revolutionary techniques such as hypnosis, and read books on yoga and Eastern mysticism. Later, when his son looked for inspiration for one of his occult stories, he didn’t have to look further than his dad’s study. FT readers may be happy to know that Robert himself had Fort’s Lo! in his collection.
Easy to get along with, a bit rough around the edges but capable, Isaac Howard was the sort of man that thrived in the West. The Texans of that time saw their society in transition; old-timers still remembered the battles with the Native Americans, and the Mexican civil war was just a decade behind them. Predominantly agricultural communities found themselves overrun by industry and, whenever oil was found, an influx of transient workers. Not getting any younger, with a wife in bad health and a teenage son, Isaac hoped to get settled in Cross Plains before it hit a boom, before all the other speculators, and his gamble paid off.
Much is unclear about Isaac’s wife Hester prior to their marriage.Hester Ervin was from Irish stock, one of 16 children from her father’s two marriages. She had a hard life taking care of siblings with TB, contracting this dreaded disease herself in the process. In his correspondence, Robert described how the Ervins, a ‘race of wanderers’, conquered the West in the mid 19th century, but while the basic facts of this personal myth check out, Hester must have told him many a white lie: she was a proud woman, and a degrading existence of starvation and hardship did not offer heroic tales to pass on to her son.
She seemed destined to be an ‘old maid’, until she met Isaac Howard in 1904, when she was 34 and he 32. They married, as much for practicality as for love: it offered her an escape and him a travelling companion and valuable help. They really didn’t expect any children, and that suited them well; Isaac was busy with his practice, she in the early stages of TB, and they were constantly on the road. Then, she conceived and miraculously – pregnancy was dangerous at the best of times – she and her son both survived. Somehow, the birth certificate lists Robert’s birthday as 24 (instead of 22) January 1906, and reduces her age by five years. It was the first time, but definitely not the last, that the facts surrounding Robert E Howard would be twisted.
Wherever they went, Isaac found plenty of work and respect. With him often away from home and with no proper roots wherever they lived, Hester and her only child were dependant on each other’s company, and a strong bond formed between them. Robert was a precocious child and, having learned to read at the age of two, devoured the classics of Stevenson, Haggard and Jack London. Increasingly housebound, Hester recited poetry to her son and presented her tuberculosis as the disease of poets and thinkers. She taught him the history, lore and legends of Mother Ireland, which gave him the idea that they themselves were descended from Irish royalty.
Most of Howard’s heroes are of what he defined as the Gaelic type, and he could give them depth of character because he identified with them. He may not have believed in reincarnation, but frequently used it in his stories, and as Conan of Cimmeria is a far descendant of Kull of Valusia, Cormac of Connacht in turn is one of the Celts the Cimmerians evolved into.
All of them are loners and fighters, all of them in exile of sorts. The outlaw Turlogh O’Brien, the pirate Cormac MacArt and the crusader Cormac Fitzgeoffrey, Brian Boru’s warlord Red Cumal, Cormac of Connacht – these men come not to build or create, but rather to kill and destroy; at best maintain. Conan and Kull end up as kings, but sit uneasy on their stolen thrones. These are all men that Howard could identify with, and it can’t be coincidence that most of them are tall and dark-haired. Some had grey eyes, some blue, but all of them, including Howard, could have been siblings.
Then there was Isaac’s mother: “My grandmother was but one generation removed from south Ireland and she knew by heart all the tales and superstitions of the folks,” remembered Robert in a letter to H P Lovecraft, “All the gloominess and dark mysticism of the Gaelic nature was hers, and there was no light and mirth in her.” She, and the stories she told, made young Robert’s hair rise, and while he tried his hand at the cosmic horror of Lovecraft, it’s in stories like “Pigeons from Hell” that he’s at his best. Their horrors are on a more human scale, an air of authenticity created with off-hand details and bang-on characterisation, and it’s easy to imagine that he wrote them with his grandmother’s voice in mind.
The legends of the Celts weren’t the only ones he heard, though, and in the same letter to Lovecraft he recalled the stories told by the Howards’ cook in his early childhood, an ex-slave he called Aunt Mary Bohannon. The returning dead of her tales may have been imaginary, but the cruel slave-master and his whippings certainly were not. These stories were the first that really moved him, and though the world he lived in was inherently racist, segregation was never clear-cut to him.
H P Lovecraft may have been one of those middle class townies for whom it was easy to expound on the virtues of the white race, the Howards dealt more closely with their black neighbours and Hester especially knew how despised the Irish themselves had been. While she taught her son to be proud of his heritage, Robert usually wrote with sympathy about those who history gave the short end of the stick – the Native Americans, the black antagonists of his boxing stories and especially the wild, elusive Picts and their god-king Bran Mak Morn.
That Robert’s later stories are so eminently readable, and that each has its own strong narrative voice, can be traced to those stories told to him from his earliest days. From Aunt Mary, his mother and his grandmother he learned to tell a tale as if he himself believed it, no matter how tall or fanciful it was. His stories are on a human scale, “Poets are dangerous things,” he reveals in one King Kull tale, “because they believe what they sing, at the time“. But it wasn’t just the stories he heard that formed him and informed his own writing: with the blood and violence that we find there in such abundance he was all too familiar.
As son of a country doctor, Robert became familiar not just with the farming accidents you’d expect, but also with the legacy of the population explosion caused by the oil boom: knife and fist fights were common amongst the roughnecks, and as victims of violence and industrial accidents were dropped on the Howard’s porch to be patched up by his father, innocence was soon lost for the young observer. As he later confided in a letter to H P Lovecraft: “The average child of ten or twelve who’s lived through a boom or so, knows more vileness and bestial sinfulness than a man of thirty should know.” [Letter to HPL, December 1930]
But Robert also learned other lessons on the rounds with Isaac. Often, Robert would wait on the porch and listen to the old-timers as they exchanged stories. Tall tales had been a vital and daily part of life in the frontiering of the old West, and had both a social and psychological function. They invariably dealt with the life of hardship the pioneers led, but also celebrated their individualism, courage and resilience. In Robert’s lifetime these tales reflected nostalgia for an era before progress, keeping the frontier spirit that was so typical for the American character alive.
Often, such tales would have a core of truth, either in their main character or historical event, and they were told with humor or exaggeration. Bragging was a celebrated skill, with the audience complicit in the lie – as often as not, the narrator was the butt of the joke. In earlier times these settlers, cowboys and roughnecks would have created a Beowulf; in this more realistic age, the tales took a more comic, parodic, or ironic turn. Humour makes a hard life softer.
As a teenager, Robert had gone out with his friends to gather tales from the old people, not unlike what the Brothers Grimm had done a century earlier, and he’d become something of an expert, lecturing out-of-state correspondents on local history and lore. However, while he saw folklore and myth as the collective folk memory and part of the history and identity of a people, he couldn’t resist tweaking the stories to improve them, as he also ‘improved’ his own family’s history. In his work, too, he would rewrite history in the guise of fiction.
Especially the stories Robert wrote at the dawn of his career for local newspapers and magazines adhere closely to the form of traditional tall tale, with colourful language, local settings and a nostalgia for the old ways of the wild, wild West that were disappearing rapidly. This influence remained particularly strong in his boxing adventures and comedy westerns, with protagonists like the oafish Breckenridge Elkins recognised as parodies of Robert himself. To his later Westerns he brought realism: far less straightforward than the White Hat heroics of John Wayne, they foreshadow the violence and grit of Sergio Leone. At a time when the detectives of Hammett and Chandler exploded in the pulps, Howard wrote what could best be described as ‘Desert Noir’.
Though classified as a Fantasy tale, “Beyond the Black River” is as realistic as any of Howard’s stories. It’s one of the later Conan-stories, and with his hero at the height of his popularity, Howard found the freedom to infuse it with the concerns that kept him awake at night, firmly grounding it in his own native soil. Sure, it contains some magic, but not much of it, and what it is really about is life on the frontier. Written in 1935 it reaches back to when he first thought of Conan while visiting the town of Mission, near the border between Texas and Mexico.
Mission lies a mere 15 miles from the Alamo mission, where James Bowie, with the frontiersman-turned-congressman Davey Crocket, fought a losing battle in 1836 against invading Mexican troops. The Alamo passed into legend, ultimately culminating in the image of John Wayne wearing a raccoon on his head. In Howard’s story, the outpost is on the Pictish border, where Conan joins the young woodsman Baltus and tries to save the fort from a Pictish uprising, ignored as it is by an uncaring government.
The hero of tall tales is larger than life, distinguished by an extraordinary birth or childhood, and usually associated with an animal. It took five storks to deliver Paul Bunyan, and he adventured through the whole of America with his blue ox Babe. Calamity Jane apparently was on horseback before she could talk, Davey Crockett had “the ugliest dog in the district” and Pecos Bill was raised by coyotes. These animals are totems, like Odin’s ravens and the dog that gave Cuchulainn his name. Battlefield-born Conan is known as Amra, the Lion, while Baltus teams up with a vengeful half-wild dog.
In this Hyborean Alamo, Conan and Baltus stand in for the larger than life folk heroes Bowie and Crockett, and the story is built from the stuff that tall tales are made of, in which their heroes often find themselves fighting against ‘progress’, trying to preserve their way of life. Conan here is that hero, warning against the proverbial barbarians at the gate, but also using his own barbarian ways to preserve the status quo. And as so often in these tales, the fight is ultimately futile, and Baltus -as did Crockett- dies a heroic death. Conan survives by the skin of his teeth, and as the story concludes we find him in a pub, nursing his grudge against civilisation. The words spoken to him by a fellow survivor could have been those of Howard himself:
“‘Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,’ the borderer said, still staring somberly at the Cimmerian. ‘Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.'”
This belief was intimately rooted in Howard’s early experience of the world. The oil boom came to Cross Plains when he was a teenager, bringing with it a tide of speculators, roughnecks, criminality and disease. Robert grew up an impassioned critic of how oil booms destroyed the social, economic and moral structures of previously stable communities. As he wrote in the Argosy All-Story Weekly in the spring of 1929:
“I’ve seen towns leap into being overnight and become deserted almost as quick. I’ve seen old farmers, bent with toil, and ignorant of the feel of ten dollars at a time, become millionaires in a week, by the way of oil gushers. And I’ve seen them blow in every cent of it and die paupers. I’ve seen whole towns debauched by an oil boom and boys and girls go to the devil wholesale. I’ve seen promising youths turn from respectable citizens to dope-fiends, drunkards, gamblers and gangsters in a matter of months.”
In the intensely practical culture of Cross Plains in the ’20s, few people would regard Howard’s career as writer as a legitimate job or part of his family’s financial support. He had tried to fit in and taken various manual jobs, but he hated being told what to do by people he considered his intellectual inferiors. He slogged off his frustration in boxing matches and ironically gained respect as regional champion amongst the roughnecks he otherwise despised. When his father allowed him to focus on his writing, Robert increasingly withdrew from the community, and soon he felt he was seen as “Doc Howard’s crazy son Bob“.
Howard would spend the rest of his life shuttling between brain and brawn, and Novalyne Price, the on/off girlfriend of his late twenties, didn’t know which she’d be dating on any given day. He was quick to anger at perceived slights, and found plenty to criticise as the town experienced a second oil boom. Howard probably felt that his disdain was justified, and the bleak tone in which he described his world at the time to his correspondents bore all the signs of a bitter social detachment.
The photograph of him that is most often reproduced is also the least representative. “That damn fool hat bothers me,” he complained to Novalyne when she made him wear it for the photograph. For him it represented the hated sweep of modernity in rural Texas, and though he’d wear it for her, he would – or could – conform no further and eventually they broke up. Half a century later Price wrote about their time together in “One Who Walked Alone”. The book is required reading for any Howard scholar, and the film based on it, “The Whole Wide World”, should appeal to fan and layman alike.
While ill at ease with the people of Cross Plains, Howard found an ersatz family in the authors of Weird Tales. This brotherhood of authors like H P Lovecraft, August Derleth, Clark Ashton Smith and E Hoffman Price passionately argued their work and influences, and indulged in sneaking references to Lovecraft’s Old Ones in their stories. There was an enormous respect for each other, but also insurmountable differences. Lovecraft’s racism irked Howard, and when Hoffman Price visited Cross Plains he raised an eyebrow over Howard’s armed vigilance against highway robbers, not realising that he’d fallen victim to authentic, Texan showmanship; myth-making in progress.
Editor Farnsworth Wright, as Pater Famillias of Weird Tales, was a capricious figure who approved or rejected stories according to his own taste and instinct. He as much as Howard shaped what Conan would become. Left to himself, Howard would include few love interests and what women did appear could easily take care of themselves. Under Wright’s aegis, there was sex appeal, and floggings were abundant, with a chivalrous Conan rushing to the rescue.
In the latter cycle of Conan stories Howard had the opportunity to investigate the various themes that interested him, but it wasn’t always like this. While Wright liked much of the first of two Conan stories Howard submitted to him in 1932, “The Phoenix on the Sword”, his verdict on the other was brief: “I am returning ‘The Frost Giant’s Daughter’ in a separate envelope, as I do not much care for it“. [Letter, 10 March1932].
Howard often described how Conan sprung up in his mind fully formed while on holiday, the combination of “various prize-fighters gunmen, bootleggers, oilfield bullies, gamblers and honest workmen,” but he confided in Novalyne Price that this was a stock answer and any character’s origins were a mystery to him. And while he might have had the initial idea for Conan at the Rio Grande, it took him quite a while to get a handle on the character and his world.
To help him get started he based “The Phoenix on the Sword” on an unsold Kull adventure, “By this Axe I rule”, with the romantic subplot removed and some magic inserted. Farnsworth Wright requested a rewrite, and Howard duly replaced a lengthy introduction with that now famous quote from the Nemedian Chronicles, starting “Know, O Prince,” then mentioning Atlantis and “an age undreamt of“. Hither came Conan, and Howard felt that he had a winner on his hands.
Though he disparaged himself as a hack and told others that the stories wrote themselves, Howard actually worked hard at both the craft of writing and the marketing of his stories. He outlined them in detail, then wrote multiple drafts and made careful revisions. Howard was not the idiot savant that fantasy fandom myths sometimes make him out to be. He drew a map of Conan’s world and gave it a pseudo-historical framework with his essay The Hyborean Age.
The second batch of Conan yarns Howard wrote yielded far from the best stories. Howard knew that he could get away with writing to a formula and sell just about every Conan story he did.”I had a splitting sick headache, too, when I wrote the first half,” he told Clark Ashton Smith about “Rogues in the House”, and stories like “Iron Shadows in the Moon” and “Black Colossus” are not any better. With their obligatory monsters and damsels in distress, though, they are among the most imitated precisely because their formula is easy to follow.
Howard wrote these stories at a gallop: the Depression has killed off some of the other magazines he sold to, and as his mother’s health was spiralling downwards he needed the money to cover her medical expenses. The Howards relied on the cheques that they received each month from Weird Tales, but then those cheques stopped too coming, with the not inconsiderable sum of $800 owed. Farnsworth Wright’s idiosyncratic approach to publishing also extended to the payroll administration.
“I always hate to write a letter like this, but dire necessity forces me to. It is, in short, an urgent plea for money. It is nothing new for me to need money, but the present circumstances are different from those in which I generally found myself in the past,” begins a letter Howard wrote to Wright in May 1935, followed by the eerily prophetic “If you cut off my monthly checks now, I don’t know what in God’s name we’ll do.“
The whole letter is worth reading and would wring tears from a stone, but Robert received reply nor money from Wright. While he finished some more Conan stories, they were works in transition. Increasingly he realised that his heart lay in the wild West, and “Black River” is already halfway there. The last was “Red Nails”, its crumbling of a decadent civilisation not merely the backdrop for the stor, but its meat and bones. With this, Howard was done with Conan and with Weird Tales.
As 1935 ended and 1936 began, a crisis seemed unavoidable. Isaac was seldom home, relentlessly doing the rounds amongst his poverty-stricken patients. Through his agent Robert found some success selling his Westerns to magazines that did pay, but he missed the stability that Weird Tales had offered. Hester’s health deteriorated further and as he now was her sole carer, Robert hardly found time to work. “Woman after woman we hired, and they quit, either worn out by the work or unwilling to do it,” he wrote in his last letter to Lovecraft, in May 1936, “I’ve gone for nearly a week at a time without even taking off my shoes, just snatching a nap as I could between times.“
Though Esther’s condition had stabilised when Robert wrote this, he knew it was temporary. Emotionally drained, he saw no prospect of earning a steady living from his writing, had no-one to love (and love him) and feared growing old or ill himself, and for him “the game was not worth the candle“. Isaac saw it coming, had hidden the household’s firearms, but had reckoned without the borrowed small gun that Robert kept in the glove compartment of his car. On the 11th of June 1936 Hester sank into a coma from which Robert was assured she would not awake. He walked out of the door, got into the car, and shot himself.
“Can you authenticate the story?” wrote Hoffman Price, “It seems so damn outrageous I can’t believe it.” Lovecraft had written him the bad news, taking it upon himself to write an obituary for Weird Tales in memory of Howard’s work. “To hell with the blow to literature,” bristled Hoffman Price, “the loss of the man is so damned incomparably greater than the loss of anything as stupid as literature.” He himself tried to sum up his friend, but found it impossible. “An overgrown boy–a brooding anachronism” he tried, “A man of strange, whimsical, bitter and utterly illogical resentments and hatreds and enmities and grudges.” Eventually gave up, concluding only that, “If you met Howard, I can not add; if you did not, I can not start.” – an undoubted truth that has tripped up Howard scholars and biographers ever since.
A heartbroken Isaac Howard buried his wife and son and began the consuming work of putting Robert’s affairs in order, amongst them the now legendary ‘trunk’ containing thousands of pages of unsorted typescripts, notes, drafts and letters. He tried to get the Weird Tales payments, by then over $1500, out of Farnsworth Wright but it only got him letters about the editor’s own ill health. Aged by both time and his circumstances, Isaac died in 1944. Lovecraft had already passed on in 1937 and Weird Tales went under in 1954 in the general collapse of the pulps.
In the 1950s, the Conan stories resurfaced in hardbacks after Weird Tales writer August Derleth successfully brought Lovecraft’s work to a small but dedicated audience. Where Lovecraft had a torch bearer in Derleth, Howard got science fiction writer L. Sprague deCamp who saw his own career on the wane and seized with both hands the opportunity to edit Howard’s work. He then dipped into ‘the trunk’, completing unfinished drafts and converting Howard’s other work into tales of Conan. “This did not prove difficult,” he wrote proudly, “I had merely to delete anachronisms and introduce a supernatural element.”
In the mid-60s Frank Frazetta fixed the definitive look of Conan with his cover paintings for mass market Lancer paperbacks, while deCamp as self-appointed biographer sketched the popular image of Robert E Howard as “maladjusted to the point of psychosis“. Many rewrites and ‘posthumous collaborations’ and pastiches by deCamp, Lin Carter and others followed; then the Marvel comics and finally John Milius’s 1982 film “Conan the Barbarian”. By now, Conan had become an oiled-up Muscle Beach hero, and Howard himself the subject of broad speculation. “He was convinced that the town wanted to exterminate him… and he would go home and board up his windows, load rifles…A complete nut!” director John Milius says in a documentary accompanying his film. He continues: “he’s alone one night, and he feels a shadow overtake him from behind, and he knows that Conan stand behind him with a large axe! And Conan tells him: ‘Stay there and write!’.”
Howard himself had now become a myth, a tall tale.
Ever since the early 50s, Robert E Howard has had a dedicated fan following, quickly centering around Glenn Lord, the literary agent for the Howard Estate. It was he who had tracked down ‘the trunk’, and published those letters, drafts and poems not picked up by other publishers in his fan magazine, The Howard Collector. If the adulterated Conan had always been a thorn in the side of these fans, the 21st century saw some light on the horizon, first with Dark Horse comics based solely on Howard’s writing, then with rumours of a new Conan movie, and finally with gorgeously illustrated reprints of pure Howard and several well-researched biographies.
But even now the urge to mythologise is difficult to overcome. Unable to come to terms with Howard’s suicide, the story of the fans’ literary hero, his depression and untimely death demands a clearly identifiable external cause, and the finger is often pointed at Hester and Isaac Howard: she portrayed as demanding and shackling her son with her apron strings; Isaac as absent and greedy. In the larger story of Howard scholarship meanwhile, deCamp is still seen as an usurper whose meddling did Conan more harm than good. There still is a lot to unpick and perhaps ignored: Howard was a complex man whose life does not obey the rules of drama.
Besides, rather than focus on his death, it may be more fruitful to focus on Howard’s writing. Underneath all the fantastic trappings, Howard wrote about a world he knew. The bulk of his work is written with skill and honesty, and is as fresh as when it first appeared a lifetime ago. “But the real secret“, wrote HP Lovecraft of Robert E Howard’s stories, “is that he himself is in each and every one of them“.
A cold wind blows over the wet, muddy landscape. A lone figure seen from the back, in dirt encrusted long leathers, makes his way over the plane. Boots plodding through the mud, a saddle slung over one shoulder, a coffin dragged along. The camera pans out as the shape makes its way into the hills. Bracken grows over the remnants of a giant statue, the roots of ages splitting the stonework. The shape appears on a ridge, and holds still; watches as…
Below, a small band of rovers ties a young woman to a frame made of beams and rope. One of them tears the dress off her back and starts whipping her. One of the men laughs; others flinch, but dare not look away. Then: the thunder of hooves, and five men on horseback ride down on them. Where the rovers were a ragged bunch, these men wear sashes of scarlet. Their swords glitter, and quickly they dispatch the others. They untie the girl and start interrogating her. The figure starts walking down from his ridge. The men look. They see the coffin being dragged towards them.
The camera pans up from the well-worn boots, the coat – colour of mud, the gloved hands gripping the rope. Steel-blue eyes. Grim mouth. A strand of red hair is caught in the wind.
Red Sonja looks back at them.
This is actually the opening sequence of the Spaghetti Western Django (Sergio Corbucci, 1966), only slightly adjusted. We were watching it this afternoon, and it struck us how easy it would be to retrofit the Western tropes to suit a Robert E Howard film – or in this case a derivative (as Red Sonja was pretty much thought up by Roy Thomas for the Conan the Barbarian comics). No wonder, as Robert E Howard (1906-1936) lived in a Texas that had barely outgrown its Wild West years, and Western stories were where his heart really lay.
A new Red Sonja film has been in Development Hell for over a decade. Around 2008, Robert Rodriguez was going to film with his then-partner Rose McGowan, and Sin City-style posters were produced with McGowan in trademark chainmail bikini. One of them had her suggestively licking the blood off a sword, which makes me wonder what sort of Red Sonja McGowan would want to play post-Harvey.
More recently Bryan Singer was attached to the film, until he got embroiled in his own abuse scandal and was deemed no longer fit for purpose. Since last summer, Transparent creator Jill Soloway has been named as director of a Red Sonja movie, but that’s the last I’ve heard of it. The main problem with doing a film like this is what I like to call “high stakes syndrome”. Characters like Red Sonja and Conan are big media properties, and therefore the temptation is to make the movies Big, and All Things to All People. That, at least, seems to have been the idea with 2011’s Conan the Barbarian, and while Jason Momoa was great, the movie was effects-heavy, unfocused and bloated: it lacked a heart. It didn’t do great, and that seems to have scorched the earth for movies of this sort.
Meanwhile, grim & gritty fantasy has done well on television with Game of Thrones and The Witcher, and the Marvel universe has proven that superheroic exploits can be successful and profitable. The secret of the better Marvel movies is that, at their core, they are character dramas: there’s the fight of good against evil, but the protagonist’s struggles and moral dilemmas are what engage the viewer. The same goes for the best known classic Detective films, and of course Westerns.
In the 1960s they made them by the dozen in Italy: Spaghetti Westerns. Even the worst were appealing, and the best were quickly copied. They had a cast of Characters (capital ‘C’), tightly written scripts, and gimmicks (like Django’s coffin). Their heroes were morally stained loners, who either came riding in through magnificent panoramas (inexpensive locations!) or were dragged into a town to upset the status quo. There was the mud, the flies, the sweat.
Cheap and easy to produce, until the market collapsed in the late ’60s (to be replaced with James Bond knock-offs, as the Westerns had replaced Peplums), there was a ready audience for them world-wide. Standing sets, props and extras went from film to film. Their narrow narrative scope, crowds of dozens rather than thousands, and mostly outdoor settings (the standard sheriff’s office, jail and saloon with jaded prostitutes excepted) kept costs down. It was easy to turn a profit on even a minor attempt, and if a film was a flop, then it was never a loss of millions.
So, why not forget about fantasy adventures encompassing whole realms, and focus on one swordswoman’s adventure? Make the stakes personal – the fight for a single town, and not a kingdom. Keep it small but exciting, and invest in the writing instead of in the CGI rendering computers. Heck, there seems to be a renaissance of practical effects lately, and Todd Phillips’ The Joker went as ‘small & indie’ as a studio film can get. So, for my money, the Spaghetti Westerns of old would form the perfect template for a Red Sonja film. It’d be low budget enough that risks can be taken, that it doesn’t have to appeal to everyone and their grandma, and that it even can get an R-rating.
I know who I’d like to see as Red Sonja. Kirsten Stewart is one of a new generation of actresses who are not afraid to lead their life and have their career the way they want it. Versatile enough to carry big tent-pole franchises and shine in smaller indie dramas, she’d be perfectly placed to portray the archetypical Strong Female Protagonist! She can ride a horse too. But swap the chainmail bikini for something more practical for a down-on-her-luck mercenary. And yes, at the end of this movie, Red Sonja can ride off into the sunset with the girl.