Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Some notes on Swords Against Darkness and the Appendix N Book Club Podcast

Not a volume of Robert E. Howard
stories, despite the large
"Robert E. Howard"

This past Sunday I had the honor of joining hosts Jeff Goad and Ngo Vinh-Hoi for an episode of the Appendix N Book Club podcast. This is one of my very favorite podcasts, and a must-listen if you’re interested in pulp fantasy, sword-and-sorcery, or exploring the literary roots and inspirations of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. Subscribe today.

We reviewed a classic, Swords Against Darkness, the first in a series of five S&S anthologies edited by Andrew Offutt. It had been a few years since I last read SAD and upon re-read I found it even better than I remembered.

What follows are some rough notes I made for the show, not a polished essay. I hope the guys from Appendix N don’t mind the preview. This is just a taste of what we covered.

The episode is supposed to drop on July 27. My computer audio gave out at least 2x during the program which was a source of considerable frustration (and likely some annoying post-production). Jeff and Ngo, thanks again for the opportunity.

General commentary
This is quintessential sword-and-sorcery. Quite the roll-call of S&S heroes—Kardios of Atlantis, Simon of Gitta, Ryre, Vettius, etc.

Editor Andrew Offutt is perhaps best known these days as the subject of My Father, the Pornographer: A Memoir. But he wrote many credible S&S stories for the likes of Thieves’ World, three Conan novels, Cormac Mac Art stories including a couple with Keith Taylor (When Death Birds Fly and Tower of Death, which I have on my bookshelf), and of course served as the editor of Swords Against Darkness.

Swords Against Darkness II has a helpful introductory essay by Offutt, “Call it what you Will,” which was among the many essays I referenced in Flame and Crimson. A relevant quote from that essay, “As to ‘sword & sorcery’—sometimes the tale contains no sword—or no sorcery! Or, more rarely, neither. (Sword and supernatural might come closer, if we’re to discuss, haggle, or bicker”)

This collection is perhaps more accurately heroic fantasy, due to historical nature of some of the stories. But I’m not going to bicker or get pedantic. Much.

Cover is noteworthy for the blurb, “Heroic Fantasy in the tradition of Robert E. Howard”—very common to namedrop Howard on S&S covers, which is indicative of general popularity of REH /Lancers/Conan in general. Zebra for example had a line of REH reprints—Tigers of the Sea, Worms of the Earth, A Gent from Bear Creek, etc. Zebra later adopted “swords and sorcery” on its spine. And it’s got Frazetta cover art of course, though I’m not as fond of this piece as most of his other work.

“Nekht Semerkeht”
Offutt did same thing here that Carter/De Camp get shat upon for, finishing an REH story. For the record I’m OK with this practice, as long as it’s clearly called out.

Page 16—This line “The new world and the old personified in the two men,” describes an interesting clash of the conquistador de Guzman and native American. Double meaning in that North America is the new world, but also alludes to civilized vs. barbarian, at the same time. Paragraph is exquisite.

Page 17—The Indian read “the ultimate doom of his race"—REH was sympathetic of natives and critical of rapacious conquerors (a point of contention in his letters with HPL).

Page 18—Beautiful metaphor of expedition as a ship adrift on the open sea. REH’s love of the west is plain here. He was writing this very late in his life circa 1936 when westerns were his passion. And suicide was weighing heavily on on his mind (“the game is not worth the candle”). This extended dialogue puts to rest the simplistic notion that REH only killed himself due to his mother passing. He was meditating on the futility and sordidness of existence long before his mother’s death, and suffering from depression.

Attackers of the city Tlasceltec are slain by necromancy, a blue cloud of death. This city received tribute from Montezuma? Wow.

A lot of weirdness going here—Feeders from the sky, children of darkness with hairy bodies and hands of a woman (WTF?)

S&S is both historical and a-historic, the intrusion of the weird into the everyday makes it more horrible and alien

P. 42—here is why gunpowder does not mix with S&S—one shot kills a sorcerer. “I am dying, of a weapon that ends prowess and cleverness and will harden man all the more.”

P. 43—“false foolishness of patriotism.” Shot across the bow by Howard at flag-wavers.
Cool that De Guzman “sat and conversed” with Nekht Semerkeht (an deeply ancient sorcerer from ancient Egypt), who returns the favor by attempting to guide him into a pit of rattlesnakes. Not cool.
It’s a dark end for the city, and none fit to rule it—certainly not De Guzman who is portrayed as a brutal conquistador. S&S “heroes” are not always that.

“The Tale of Hauk”
Language of Saga—structure and cadence. “Geirolf came again.” Short, clipped, prose, understated.

Clash of pagans and encroaching Christianity. Oaths, and oathmaking. Geirolf wishes to be freed from a “straw death.”

Historical—King Harald Fair-Hair, first King of Norway, King Alfred, etc.

Page 66—so deliciously creepy—“the skipper’s come again.” Geirolf “riding the ridge pole” on the roof—what imagery.

“Drow and Lich” used interchangeably to describe Geirolf—of course very different than D&D.

Hauk has 18/00 strength, no doubt.

“The Smile of Oisia”
Suffers from early infodump

Ship owner Fafnir finds the corpse of master clerk Brumus, who has been tortured to death.

Sorceress wants the mask of Karmik—top 89 she is described as a 9th level witch, but pooh-poohed as weak? She is marked for death as a sacrifice to Oisia, goddess of chance. Chance in S&S—not epic destinies.

94—This is pure S&S—adventure for women and gold

Tower raid is like the Tower of the Elephant, Kessak and Nalcon echo Fafhrd and the Gray mouser … Story feels derivative of S&S template, too self aware perhaps. But good.

“The Pride of the Fleet”
Weird selection as its sword and planet (actually references ERB/Dejah Thoris). But S&P is S&S cloaked in the guise of SF. John Carter stories huge influence on S&S, etc.

Female protagonist meets a rather vicious end.

Author Bruce Jones did work and art for Red Sonja, and pokes fun at chainmail bikini stereotype—perhaps he was fed up with having to write these stories? Like prior story, shows self-awareness of S&S.

“Stranger from Atlantis”
Manly Wade Wellman—a legend whose Kardios stories recently reprinted by DMR. Pulp author with huge bibliography of adventure, horror. Total of I believe 5-6 Kardios stories across various anthologies.

Atlantis has sunk—after Kardios kissed the queen, as prophecy foretold. Odd.

Nephol are race of giants, clumsy, Kardios quick and dangerous in comparison. Serve him feet of an elephant to eat?

Has a sword and harp—D&D bard, and obviously he has some high stats

Monster is Fith, a blob from the sky that consumes. Needs a magic sword to kill it—feels like plot contrivance—giants try to give him a mace, oh yeah, we also found this weird blade of unknown metal that fell with it.

Lowered into a well, upside down, with torch and sword—badass. Plus the torch is cool, flames inside a piece of cane.

Danger of “bowing to someone” and Kardios’ rejection of authority, his sword his preferred companion, are both very S&S.

“Ring of Set”
Richard Tierney—one half of the Red Sonja series author along with David Smith. Smith wrote first draft and outline, Tierney completed them.

Historical, feels like REH with the timeline advanced. And it is. Ring of Set is from “The Phoenix on the Sword”

Again very historical, elite Roman guards Praetorian Guard, etc.

Simon of Gitta is another classic S&S hero. More than 15 appearances, I believe this was his first. As recent as 2018 in Robert M. Price anthology The Mighty Warriors.

Has some magic—again would be a D&D multi-class, with a few levels of illusionist.

Magic is very S&S, turns on its wielder. You don’t use the Ring of Set lightly.

“Largarut’s Bane”
Odd, quiet little story about a fishing village leader whose “bane” is his pride—he has angered a god and it places a curse on his kin (daughter Eriel), whom he has been babying/ignoring/not letting grow. A slow grower but it works

A witch aids Laragarut by drawing him away and having his daughter confront her (and his) literal demons; Eriel passes the test. Strong female empowerment here—not what one would consider typical S&S, and yet it is—it’s about strength, and might prevailing over sorcery/horror.

“Dragon’s Teeth”
First appeared in Midnight Sun (need a copy)

Vettius, Roman Legionaire officer, 6-7 stories set in late Roman Empire. Again historical.

Drake wrote one of my all-time favorite S&S stories, the heavily reprinted “The Barrow Troll”

Civilization is still portrayed as disgusting, even though it’s told from a Roman perspective. Sarmartians are the barbarians, but Romans aren’t much better. Very S&S

Hydaspes, a hedge wizard with a monkey on his shoulder like a living ventriloquists’ dummy. What a cool character.

“The Sustenance of Hoak”
Lovecraftian tale, horror but with more characterization and humanity than is typical in HPL

Ryre stories appeared in Whispers, Savage Heroes, but largely in Swords Against Darkness

I recommend Far Away and Never (Necronomicon Press, 1996) which also includes an original Ryre story by Campbell.

Prefigures Glen Cook’s the Black Company and Grimdark in general. Death of Glode is straight out of Abercrombie. Dirt and blood and mire.


Paul R. McNamee said...

Cool notes! Might need to re-read this anthology soon.

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks Paul... not sure if I was under or over-prepared for the podcast, but being on the air certainly forced me to do a close read of Swords Against Darkness. It is deserving of its status as a classic anthology of S&S.

The Wasp said...

Can't wait to listen. They're great guys and have such a cool show.

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks Wasp! They have a great show and I was honored to get the opportunity to come on and chat.