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.

Prisoner of the Horned Helmet is a testimonial to the artistic lodestar that was Frank Frazetta. Frazetta added his meteoric talents to the works of Robert E. Howard in the 1960s and became an international phenomenon. The pairing was such a success that 20 years later it had turned full circle, with an author writing a series of sword-and-sorcery novels to pair with Frazetta’s art. Namely, his 1973 painting Death Dealer, which featured a badass barbarian with axe and shield, mounted on a powerful warhorse, face obscured in dark shadow cast by a wicked horned helmet. The result is the James Silke authored Prisoner of the Horned Helmet. Frazetta shares equal billing (1) on the cover of a book he did not write, though the character of the “death dealer” aka, Gath of Baal, is his. The back cover image of the paperback I own is the Death Dealer, while the cover includes Gath dealing death, hacking down a horde of ghoulish adversaries with an upraised axe.

Gath is a murderous slab of beefcake and an overgrown teenager who just wants to be left alone. He lives in seclusion in a den-like lair carved out of the roots of a giant tree with only a wolf for company. We never find out who he is, although Silke at a couple points alludes to some troubled event from his childhood when he was “nine or ten summers” that causes him to lose faith in humanity and choose a life of isolation. So we are left with a corny barbaric man of mystery:

Her lids fluttered, then her head tilted back, and she looked into his shadowed face. Dark stubble of beard. Bright hard white teeth. Eyes that hid under a shaggy brow. Grey animal eyes of the predator ruled by the laws of claw and fang, yet black wounds opening on to a haunted past, to the child long buried within. Eyes proud of their mysteries. Eyes that had hidden his feelings too well and long, but which could not hide from her.

Days of our Lives, with swords.

Women fall over Gath’s alpha maleness and can’t resist his strength and sexual vitality and savagery, even though he offers them no comfort, no emotion, and nothing of himself. Early on he forcefully beds a snake-goddess, and she never forgets her lover, even as she spends the latter half of the book trying to have him captured and executed.

I get the feeling Silke had a lot of fun writing this book, and that he may have been tweaking sword-and-sorcery’s conventions just a wee bit. Here’s a few examples of what you’ll find in Prisoner of the Horned Helmet:

The most beefcake barbarian perhaps committed to paper. Here is the first description we get of Gath: When it drifted off, the sun revealed a thick body layered with slabs of muscle which rippled under burnished flesh, glistening as if only he had the right to wear the sunshine. A massive Barbarian as confident as a continent, but seemingly without reason to be. His armor consisted of stained black hides. Dark bits of fur were strapped to his feet and waist with wide thongs. His axe was the kind called elephant killer, too heavy headed and long handled for close combat, despite its size. His masked helmet, like his small circular shield, was of wood belted by metal bars.

The largest snake perhaps ever committed to paper. This thing is HUGE, with fangs nearly the height of a woman, and a 300 pound tongue! The horned helmet faced huge spreading jaws. Saliva as thick and green as wet grass dripped from teeth as long as table legs. They protected a raw purple throat which vomited a forked tongue, about three hundred pounds of red meat. The jaws belonged to a snake as thick as a full grown pine tree… its head rose up out of the entrance stairway completely blocking it. Its lower jaw rested on the floor of the chamber.

A sorceress named (no joke) Cobra, Queen of Serpents. In addition to being suitably snaky, wow is she hot: She parted her robe to reveal a lush body ripe with curves. Wide hips. Narrow waist. Full breasts swelling above the restraining gold cloth of her garment like soft prisoners. She spoke in a tone that was playful, in the manner of fingers stroking a naked thigh.

Over the top gore, with corpses mounded on corpses… on corpses. Like this: Gath of Baal stood on a pile of dead bodies working his axe. The surviving nomads surrounded him. Splattered with blood, they mindlessly charged up the bodies of the fallen into the Barbarian’s slashing axe. Bodies and pieces of bodies tumbled in the air, tossed on fountains of blood, and still they charged. Gath was knee-deep in carnage, slipping on bloody chests and heads. Dying men clung to his legs, bit them, struggled with the last of their strength to pull him down into their mire of gore.

But despite these metal elements we all love, Prisoner of the Horned Helmet is deeply flawed. The world building is fantasy cliché and paper-thin: We’re introduced to such memorable locales as “Summer Trail” and “Border Road” and the “Empire of Ice,” and a wall of cliffs called the “Heights” (clever). There is a village called Weaver, where the virgin maidens of Weaver …  weave. All day, day after day. Because that is their Craft (Silke loves to Capitalize Things). Until their idyllic existence is threatened by the Kitzakk horde. Gath is coerced out of his seclusion to help defeat the nasty Kitzakk raiders. Along the way he swipes a demonic horned helmet that grants him additional power and vitality but also threatens to possess his brain and body.

Despite Gath’s immense masculine vitality there is a definite homoerotic vibe going on beneath the surface. Two warriors dispatched to kill Gath strip down in front of the male high priest Dang-Ling and “eagerly apply (green ointment) to their genitals,” made with the pubic hair and fingernails of Gath, in order to lure him to his death. There is an extended and unbelievably absurd penis joke, stretched out at length (pun fully intended), as Gath’s love interest Robin has the screws put to her by Cobra with a titillating magic-detection test:

A short time later Dazi and Hatta stood on ladders above the mouth of the giant flask holding a large glass tube steady as it spewed white fluid down the throat of the vessel over Robin’s body. Baak stood on the floor nearby pumping it out of an underground cistern into the glass tubes.

Cobra and Dang-Ling stood on the circular staircase watching Robin struggle against the torrent of milk. She tossed and flailed as her legs were repeatedly swept out from under her. Defiance animated her small face.

… Robin was thrashing wildly against the slosh and spill of the weighty fluid, but her movements had an erotic eloquence to them. It was as if her breasts, throat, arms and legs danced with a moving whiteness.

I think I need a moment. Also, that would have made for an interesting interior illustration.

Despite my not insubstantial criticisms of the book, here’s the truth: I like this stuff, and at some level I enjoyed Prisoner of the Horned Helmet. If I didn’t, I’d be reading and blogging about Harry Potter. But it’s complicated. I can see the flaws, the clunky exposition, the teenage wish fulfillment vacuous-ness. I’m trying my darndest not to be the kind of hipster I despise, the one who drinks Pabst Blue Ribbon for its blue collar heritage, with a smirk. I shaved my beard long ago. I don’t read sword-and-sorcery ironically. I really do care about this stuff. But I believe you have to read with some level of discernment, and recognize books like Prisoner of the Horned Helmet for what they are: Beefcake fantasy.

Perhaps the later volumes in the series will reveal Gath’s mysterious past. Prisoner of the Horned Helmet was followed by Lord of Destruction, Tooth and Claw, and Plague of Knives. I’m not sure if I’m ready to commit to three more books, but one day I may.

1. In some editions Frazetta’s name takes top billing over Silke—and the title—on the cover.


What a Fine Hand said...

And this is why I generally avoided Sword and Sorcery until getting into this year.

Paul R. McNamee said...

I read it in a blur long ago, so I don't remember all the goofy stuff.

I have all four but yeah, it's hard to get motivated to give the rest of the a go when there are so many other books to read.

Scott Oden said...

The only thing I really recall about this book is a line about the villains that goes something like: "they looked like tarantulas with their hair combed".

I kept it for years as an object lesson in how not to write S&S . . .

Brian Murphy said...

The S&S equivalent of a big mac... sometimes you need a greasy roadside stop, and it tastes somewhat good. But accompanied with guilt and an upset stomach.