Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Sword-and-sorcery’s endgame: James Silke’s Prisoner of the Horned Helmet

Bring it on, Kitzakk Hordes

He was a massive horned demon of black metal and sinew graced by golden light, drinking air and holding the bridge with booted feet as if all the elements were personal possessions. The helmet had transformed him. He was death, and he had never felt so alive.

--James Silke, Prisoner of the Horned Helmet
Why did sword-and-sorcery die off in the late 80s? I believe you can place the blame on a number of factors: Publishers were turning in increasing numbers to high fantasy, in particular anything that could be marketed as a trilogy. Oversaturation, with quantity outstripping quality. A glut of bad Conan pastiche. “Clonans” including the likes of Kothar, Brak, and Thongor, coupled with the Bantam and Tor tales featuring pale replicas of the Cimmerian himself, turned sword-and-sorcery into the genre of Conan, but not the good stuff written by Robert E. Howard.

The genre had painted itself into a corner, had become too self-aware and too narrowly focused. If sword-and-sorcery is only about muscular barbarians killing giant snakes and shagging women, there is only one direction to go. More muscles, piled on muscles. Snakes big enough to feed on elephants. Women ever more buxom and promiscuous.

All that pretty much describes Prisoner of the Horned Helmet. Pubbed at the end of a decade marked by excess (1988, Tor Books) that’s what it delivers. It is emblematic of the height of the ridiculous barbarian cliché that dominated the covers and later the content of so many books published from the 60s through the 80s, and later a string of mostly unbearable sword-and-sorcery films. It is one of the last examples of a major publisher putting its weight behind a work of pure sword-and-sorcery. I believe it marks the fall of the genre. This is a somewhat arbitrary claim, as sword-and-sorcery never truly died, and some titles including the likes of Echoes of Valor were published into the early 90s. But after Prisoner of the Horned Helmet standalone sword-and-sorcery novels were pretty much a thing of the past.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Remembering Karl Edward Wagner (1945-1994)

Kane navigating his skeleton crew.

Sword-and-sorcery and horror are bedfellows. The former is fantasy infused with the grit of history, but also the chill hand of terrors terrestrial and otherworldly. Few writers bridged this gap so skillfully as Karl Edward Wagner (1945-1994).

Today marks the 25th anniversary of Wagner’s death. His untimely passing at 49 was a massive blow to my favorite subgenre. Wagner was one of sword-and-sorcery’s fiercest and most articulate champions, even if he didn’t like the term (1). Wagner championed Howard at a time when the massively popular Lancer/Ace Conan Saga was still at its zenith, and its heavy-handed editing and Conan pastiche was largely getting a pass. Wagner cut against the grain, arguing that Howard was a writer of literary merit whose works were worth preserving, not a property to exploit. That didn’t sit well with Conan Saga editor L. Sprague de Camp.

Wagner oversaw the publication of pure Howard in a three volume set published in 1977 by Berkley Medallion—The Hour of the Dragon, The People of the Black Circle, and Red Nails. The Berkley Conans restored Howard’s texts using the Weird Tales originals. Wagner had intended to publish all 21 Conan stories, but “contractual difficulties” ended the Berkleys after just three volumes. So we got just eight tales, plus Howard’s “The Hyborian Age” essay.

Wagner’s introductions and afterwords alone make tracking down the Berkleys worth the effort. Their presentation of the Conan stories—art, design, and of course, Wagner’s essays—remains a personal favorite of mine, even though I admit they have been supplanted by the Del Reys. I’m hoping one day to score copies with the Ken Kelly foldout posters intact. Mine were bought used and the posters were gone, probably adorning some young fan’s fake wood-paneled bedroom wall in the late 70s.

As the sun was setting on sword-and-sorcery (and his own life) Wagner edited Echoes of Valor, a three-volume series published by Tor with volumes appearing in 1987, 1989, and 1991. As its name implies Echoes of Valor served up classic pulp era sword-and-sorcery, some of it for the first time. Vol. 1 featured Robert E. Howard’s “The Black Stranger,” original appearance in the March 1953 Fantasy Magazine; Fritz Leiber’s “Adept’s Gambit,” which made its original appearance in the 1947 Arkham House collection Night’s Black Agents; and Henry Kuttner’s “Wet Magic,” first appearance in the February 1943 Unknown Worlds. Vol. 2 contained two versions of Howard’s “The Frost Giant’s Daughter,” as well as stories by C.L. Moore and Manly Wade Wellman, and a collaboration by Leigh Brackett and Ray Bradbury, “Lorelei of the Red Mist.” Vol. 3 included Howard’s “The Shadow of the Vulture” featuring Red Sonya, more stories by Kuttner and Wellman, and tales by Jack Williamson and the enigmatic Nictzin Dyalhis.

The Echoes of Valor versions of “The Black Stranger and “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” are noteworthy. The latter marked the first mass-market appearance of the story as Howard himself wrote it, unlike the heavy-handed de Camp edited version in the Lancer Conan Saga, while “The Black Stranger” was reproduced from a photocopy of the original manuscript, prior to Howard’s attempt to rewrite the rejected story as “Swords of the Red Brotherhood.” As with the Berkley Conans, Wagner’s introductions in Echoes of Valor are well-worth reading, and his enthusiasm and erudition for pulp fantasy shines through.

Wagner not only championed sword-and-sorcery but added a powerful verse with his stories of Kane. I consider Bloodstone (1975) a Rosetta Stone (no pun intended) for the sword-and-sorcery genre. If you want to understand what sword-and-sorcery is all about you could certainly start with “Ill Met in Lankhmar” or “Beyond the Black River” (both great options), or you could find a second-hand copy of this gonzo story of a lost city deep in the swamps, guarded by an army of frog-men, and the corruptive power of technology wrapped up a green and red stone possessed of alien intelligence. Sword-and-sorcery introduced the figure of the Outsider to fantasy, and Kane is very much a self-serving antagonist in Bloodstone, albeit compelling and relatable. I recommend any of the Kane stories, but in particular “Undertow,” “Lynortis Reprise,” “Sing a Last Song of Valdese,” “Reflections for the Winter of my Soul,” and Darkness Weaves.

Aside: It’s borderline criminal that the Kane stories have fallen out of print. Wagner’s books are increasingly harder to find and growing more expensive by the day on the second-hand market. Those sold out Centipede Press editions? If you can find one used, which is rare, the complete set will run you upwards of a thousand bucks. Midnight Sun alone (Nightshade Books) is fetching $135 and up, used, on Amazon. The Donald M. Grant Book of Kane will run you from $100 up to $300 on Abe Books. Apparently the Kane books are now available on Kindle, but since I have no interest in e-readers I don’t consider that a viable option. Fortunately I have my complete line of battered Warners. But this scarcity situation needs to be rectified by Wagner’s estate, pronto.

I wish I had the opportunity to meet Wagner at a bar at a convention, knock back a whiskey or five, and talk horror and dark fantasy long into the night. He knew these fields and he wasn’t afraid to express his opinion, articulately. He was a titan of horror, serving as editor of the yellow-spined DAW Year’s Best Horror anthology from 1979 until his death in 1994. For 15 years he was one of its most recognized and respected critics, and his work as an anthologizer ranks in my opinion right alongside the likes of Charles L. Grant and Stephen Jones. Wagner also wrote some incredible, enduring works of horror fiction, including “Sticks,” which won an August Derleth Award from The British Fantasy Society as the best short fiction of 1974. I think it’s top to bottom his most effective piece of fiction. I also highly recommend his incredibly atmospheric and creepy “Where The Summer Ends” from the Kirby McCauley edited Dark Forces.

With his pedigree in and deep passion for horror it’s no wonder that the Kane stories are eerily fantastic, infused with a Gothic sensibility, and at times skin crawling. For example, this passage from “Cold Light”:

An ingenious trap had cut down most of Kane’s forces, and he had fled westward into the ghost land of Demornte. Here his enemies would not follow, for the plague which had annihilated this nation was still held in utmost dread, and although it had struck this desert locked land nearly two decades before, still no one entered and no one left silent Demornte.

Dead Demornte. Demornte whose towns lie empty, whose farms are slowly returning to forest. Demornte where death has lain and life will no more linger. Land of death where only shadows move in empty cities, where the living are but a handful to the countless dead. Demornte where ghosts stalk silent streets in step with the living, where the living walk side by side with their ghosts. And a man must look closely to tell one from the other.

With a full three score years and ten I believe Wagner would have written more Kane stories. I believe he would have given us another S&S anthology, even though Echoes of Valor petered out and the appetite for such fiction was at its lowest ebb in the early 90s. He might have been involved with the Del Reys, penning some of the intros or afterwards for the series which has finally given us the full unadulterated measure of the likes of Kull, Conan, Solomon Kane, and Bran Mak Morn.

But it was not to be.

So, 25 years gone, and the world is poorer for his death. But those who know and love horror and sword-and-sorcery remember Karl Edward Wagner.

1. Wagner much preferred “epic fantasy” or “dark fantasy” to “sword-and-sorcery,” which he despised. He loved Howard, but hated his imitators. Here is Wagner from an interview appearing on East of Eden: “’Sword and sorcery’ conjures an image of yarns about girls in brass bras who are in constant danger of losing them, and mighty warriors with eighteen-foot-long swords killing wizards and monsters faster than thought. A sword fight every other page, kill a monster every other chapter, and rescue a girl at the end—there’s your sword and sorcery yarn.”

Friday, October 4, 2019

Sword-and-sorcery and the problem of Robert E. Howard

Equating sword-and-sorcery with Robert E. Howard, and Howard alone, is an easy path to start down, and a tempting one to follow to the end. One I had to be mindful of, and consciously revise my line of thinking many times, while writing Flame and Crimson.

How do you define a genre that nearly everyone agrees Howard created, and not just default to Howard = S&S?

If S&S is only Howard, and defined only by what he wrote, then it’s not a genre. It’s the works of a single man. Howard created sword-and-sorcery in the 1920s, but he did not consciously set out to do so. He was trying to tell entertaining stories of blood and thunder, and make a living. When he died in 1936 there were very few indications sword-and-sorcery would survive, let alone flourish. It had a lot more growing to do.

That got underway in earnest in 1939 when Fritz Leiber’s “Two Sought Adventure” appeared in Unknown. Leiber proved that sword-and-sorcery could be witty, and ironic, have different thematic concerns, and not take itself so seriously.

Heck, sword-and-sorcery was evolving during Howard’s lifetime. Leiber had conceived of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser as far back as 1934 with significant input from his friend Harry Fischer. That same year C.L. Moore’s Black God’s Kiss appeared in Weird Tales, and proved that sword-and-sorcery could have the development of atmosphere as its principal objective, over action and plot.
If you’ll allow Clark Ashton Smith into the sword-and-sorcery pantheon (I do), Smith showed with stories like “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros” (November 1931 Weird Tales) that sword-and-sorcery need not even be heroic, or require that its protagonists survive the adventure (“The Seven Geases”).

Defining sword-and-sorcery by Howard alone is like defining heavy metal by only Black Sabbath. Yes, Sabbath invented the genre, and many still consider them the best metal band of all time. But to leave out the innovations brought in by Judas Priest (twin guitars, leather), and Iron Maiden (operatic theatrics, and Eddie), or the heavy thrash and aggression of Metallica and Slayer, and today the likes of Amon Amarth or Blind Guardian, paints a very limited, incomplete picture of my favorite genre of music.

The term sword-and-sorcery wasn’t coined until 1961, some 25 years after Howard’s death. The early 60s were the beginning of a sword-and-sorcery renaissance. Leiber was finding his second wind and the outspoken, talented Michael Moorcock tossed a hand grenade into traditional conceptions of the genre. The fanzine Amra was just getting underway and various definitions and terminologies bandied about in its pages.

This was a major, interesting challenge with which I was faced when writing Flame and Crimson: How do I acknowledge Howard’s massive influence, but also recognize the contributions of subsequent authors and the divergent paths they blazed?

Sword-and-sorcery is today bigger and more expansive than “The Shadow Kingdom” and “The Phoenix on the Sword,” and that’s a good thing. Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword. Jack Vance’s Dying Earth. Karl Edward Wagner’s Bloodstone. L. Sprague de Camp’s The Tritonian Ring. Charles Saunders’ Imaro. All at some level influenced or inspired by the Howardian template, but also different. These authors had their own unique influences that inform their writing, and by extension broaden sword-and-sorcery and innovate on the Howardian template. I believe that the best post-Howard sword-and-sorcery authors acknowledge Howard’s formidable presence and influence, but also strove to be something different. The authors I chose to highlight in Flame and Crimson--Howard, Moore, Smith, Anderson, Leiber, Moorcock, Vance, a few others—had a blend of idiosyncratic influences, and as a result created works of lasting value. As sword-and-sorcery scholar Deuce Richardson once mentioned to me, too many authors in Howard’s wake put on Kabuki makeup, wearing the outer trappings of something they were not. You can’t say that about the likes of Smith, Leiber, Moorcock, Vance, Anderson, or Wagner. They helped create sword-and-sorcery as we know it today.

To be clear, I believe Howard is the greatest writer of the genre. He is definitely its beginning. But he is not the end. I don’t consider him sui generis.

On the other hand, if sword-and-sorcery becomes too expansive—whatever you want it to be—then it ceases to have meaning. If any book with a sword and/or a sorcerer is sword-and-sorcery, then we allow in The Mists of Avalon and Dragons of Autumn Twilight. For many readers that’s probably fine. But if you’re one of those people, Flame and Crimson isn’t for you. In it, I lay out what I believe the broad outlines and more rigid parameters of the genre are. I exclude certain works, while trying not to be overly rigid and exclusionary.

I tried to strike that fine balance. Genres can be maddeningly subjective and hard to pin down. Their lines will never be perfectly drawn. There will always be outliers, exceptions that defy the rule.

And that’s OK. This is art we’re talking about, not engineering.