January 4, 2020

For the Love of Crom, Don't Be (too much of) a Snob!


Introduction

I cherish the literary art of Robert E. Howard (1906-1936). I judge Howard as one of the greatest writers of all time. His sword and sorcery stories of Solomon Kane, Kull, and Conan the Cimmerian are a major influence on many of the forms of art and entertainment that have enriched my life, such as fantasy roleplaying, video games, film, and other examples of other popular culture.

I am not quite long in the tooth as a member of Robert E. Howard fandom. My official engagement with REH fandom began in 2006, when I presented an academic paper on Howard at the Southwest PCA/ACA conference. But my thirteen years are not impressive compared to others, who have been at it for much longer. So, keep the nearsightedness of my perspective in mind as you continue reading.

In this post, I explore a lesson learned while participating in both Robert E. Howard fandom and the burgeoning academic community that studies pulp fiction. It's a lesson I find myself rehearsing to  friends and students who express interest in Robert E. Howard. Writing this lesson down will provide a useful reference. You might be reading this because I recommended it to you. Let me frontload my point: if you're interested in Robert E. Howard, read his original works first, and share those originals with others first, but, for Crom's sake, don't become (too much of) a snob.

The Myth of the "Pure" Text

The REH fan community contributes to (and even intellectually subsidizes) the small scholarly community orbiting REH and pulp studies. The fan community has done and continues to do a lot of foundational work that is a necessary condition for scholarly work. For example, literary scholars can't make discursively valid claims about literary art unless they are sure they are working with something like a "definitive" text. This is not say literary scholars don't work with "flawed" texts. Some do. For example, there are two versions of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the 1818 and the 1831 editions, and there are several variations in each version. There is not an "agreed upon" text that scholars study and teach with; however, every scholar working on this work acknowledges which text they are working with and spends a little time discussing why they are using that specific text. In general, the idea isn't that one should be using a "definitive, pure text" (aside from an original manuscript, such a thing probably is a myth); instead, the idea is that one should be fully aware of the textual history of the works and editions one is studying.

Put another way, there is no such thing as a "pure" text; however, there needs to be something like a consensus about what texts we are going to be talking about to proceed. It has an ambivalent backstory, but, by happenstance, this work has been done in Robert E. Howard fandom. Here's the story in a nutshell.

The De Camp Controversy (Abridged Version)

Before the 2000s, there was a big problem: an interested yet uninitiated reader would have had difficulty finding an unedited version of Howard's original stories outside of the old, collectible pulp magazines (and even these might have editorial interventions--title changes, censoring scenes considered too risqué, etc.). The only other editions available were, arguably, flawed, difficult to locate, or incomplete. But there were Howard stories available.

The sword and sorcery writer, L. Sprague de Camp, edited all of Howard's Conan stories together in the so-called "Lancer Editions" (1966-1977), but he used a heavy hand (to put it mildly) in compiling them. He tried to put them in "chronological order," and he "filled in the gaps" where he thought Howard failed at world building and narrative cohesion. 

It doesn't take a literary scholar to realize that such heavy-handed editing is problematic. The jury is still out regarding de Camp's legacy. There are compelling arguments about how de Camp did a lot for Howard's legacy by popularizing him (or at least the character "Conan"). Others will argue that de Camp didn't popularize Howard so much as provide a distorted and distracting caricature version of Howard who suited the sensationalistic needs of marketability, and this caricature representation endures and ramifies in negative ways. This is a long, protracted debate filled with potholes and landmines, so I won't get into it here. 

Suffice it to say, the idea that there are "correct," "unadulterated" versions of Howard's stories, more in sync with the author's original vision, has, to a large extent, disseminated through the REH community, and this was because of the hard work of fans and independent experts and not, to my mind, academic, tenure-minded scholars.

But let's back up.

Robert E. Howard and Popular Culture Exuda

A few decades after the writer's suicide in 1936, Robert E. Howard, the writer, as well as his works (in a variety of genres), were overshadowed by its associated popular culture exuda. By the late-1960s and early-1970s, my impression is that a fair amount of people knew about Conan the Barbarian (although I wasn't around then), but they associated the figure with the Frazetta illustrations of the Lancer editions, the Marvel Comic's character, or, into the 80s, the Arnold Schwarzenegger depiction. In other subcultures, Howard's influence endured. Fantasy RPG gamers glorified Conan in an Advanced Dungeons and Dragons context, but the extent to which the grim, paranoid atmospherics of the game were linked to Howard's unique sword and sorcery vision was ignored or under acknowledged. 

So, for the past twenty some years, Robert E. Howard enthusiasts have been keen to unravel Howard's literary legacy from his popular culture manifestations. 

When I decided to get serious, I spent a large portion of 2006 to 2009 mentally unravelling all this for myself; and I benefited from the work of several before me. It took attending several panels at pulp and science fiction conventions, reading several biographies and articles, and having many conversations, to do it, and my view of Howard is still probably contaminated by sensationalistic framings. By and by, I got it through my head that there is an "Ur-source" of Howard, the actual literary art produced by the writer himself, and, in emanating, ever-widening concentric rings outward, a whole universe of REH-inspired fare: comics, films, pulp sword and sorcery novels, television shows, roleplaying games, video games.

A lot of people have been trying to return to Howard's original texts, to undo the distorting editorializing and obfuscation that comes with popular culture visibility and unscrupulous editors.

More and more, however, I have been giving thought to this intellectual habit of mind. Let me explain.

Art Begets More Art (Sometimes)

I began participating in Howard fandom after this move to discover a more pure, literary Howard.  But, truth be told, what brought me into Howard fandom was one of those popular culture texts so often ridiculed and critiqued by true Howard fans, e.g.. John Milius' cult classic, Conan the Barbarian (1982). I enjoy this movie and I still do, although it provides the irony-tinged joy of "camp." I read and re-read the decently-written novelization L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter. I blare Basil Poledouris' film soundtrack while working out. In 2010 my wife gifted me a prop replica of the Atlantean sword. It now hangs proudly in the dining room. I even watch (and vaguely enjoy) the sequel to Milius' film, Conan the Destroyer (1984). This is a hard one to admit: I get a kick out of the cartoon series, Conan the Adventurer (1992-1993). But, through a lot of reading, I was able to demarcate the Milius' film, comics, and cartoons from the actual literary art produced by Howard. 

By analogy, to compare the actual literary artistic works to their popular culture exuda is like comparing Dante Alighieri's The Inferno to, for example, the famous illustrations of the poem by Gustave Doré', the Dantean hell rendered in "Red Hot Homma" (1934) starring Betty Boop, and other popular culture depictions of hell (which were first encoded by Dante). The point is, powerful art begets more art (and quasi-art); some of that begotten art is better than others. Some is ephemera. Some rises to the level of art. This is not to say I think that Conan the Barbarian (1982) is art. Most of the popular culture reacting to Howard's work has been ephemera, and some of is delightful; however, who would argue with the idea that Franz Frazetta's illustrations will withstand the test of time, have already achieved a level of artistic autonomy?

My Descent into and Ascent from Snobbery

Through an incremental process too long to rehearse, I learned how to make distinctions like this, i.e. who Robert E. Howard was, what he did, and what he did not do. There was a great bookstore in Muncie, Indiana where, in early 2005, an old bearded guy with a pipe instructed me on who Howard was and what editions to read. By and by, I  discovered Howard's original works, and came to understood how distinct they are from the works they influenced. 

But then my foot slipped and I became something of a snob. I came to avoid Robert E. Howard popular culture texts like the plague. From my newly "enlightened" perspective, they were offensive corruptions of Howard's authorial vision, distortions of his world, pale shadows of the original, true literary art. At the height of this snobbery, I sold my complete files of Savage Sword of Conan  and Conan the Barbarian in a parking lot in Cleveland, Ohio because I had a short-term financial need. I really regret that now.

I've changed somewhat. In addition to other influences, it took a video game, an MMORPG, to do that. In 2006, Age of Conan, was released, and the rumors were that the creators were making every effort to  be faithful to Howard's vision. The jury is still out regarding their success. Like a lot of Howard fans, I was hypnotized by the idea of the game, and I built a gaming computer specifically to play AoC. I cancelled my World of Warcraft account and played AoC for a full year and half.  I maxed out my character, a Cimmerian barbarian named Malabolj. But then I got busy with graduate school and adjuncting work, and I so quit playing. But AoC was an experience, I dare say an artistic experience.

Although Age of Conan is a small and community now, in my estimation, the game is a loving homage to Robert E. Howard's vision. Although the game is a tendentious interpretation of Howard, it truly does capture facets and flashes of Howard's aesthetic and philosophical concerns. And the soundtrack, by composer Knut Avenstroup Haugen, is a true work of art, one of the best video game soundtracks I've ever listened to. It's on YouTube. Give the first track, "The Dreaming," a listen, and be amazed.

A Conclusion, and a Question

Over time, even as my Del Rey editions of Howard are falling apart at the seams due to the amount of re-reading, I have craved more and more Howard-related fare. A desire to read more of an author despite the paucity is an indication of that author's power. We come to love living in, virtually occupying, a writer's world so much we want to hang out there longer and longer. More importantly, this feeling, this craving, often becomes a powerful compulsion to create new art.

This is a long way of saying that, in 2020, I am allowing myself to read "pastiches" of Conan, but I will do so with a kind of hospitable but critical mindset. 

The tension and question, which I still haven't resolved, is how to do you pay respect to a fantasy author's vision while also joyfully expanding, dwelling in, and exploring their world that unfolds dynamically due to fan engagement? 

A question for another time.

September 23, 2019

NecronomiCon Report 2019

NecronomiCon (Day 1): Thursday, August 22nd

My flight left Newport news at 6:00a.m.. On the flight I read material to prepare for my panel on "Pulp History." For a nonacademic overview, I read (probably for the fifth time) Ed Hulse's wonderful Blood 'n' Thunder Guide to Pulp Fiction. For a more academic refresher, I re-read David M. Earle's essay, "Pulp Magazines and the Popular Press." One of my favorite quotes from this essay is Earle's characterization of Literary Modernism, the literary art considered the most important (during the pulp era):
"Modernism was codified as a cohesive and elite movement by authors and academics in order to substantiate their distinct yet reciprocal causes, namely a sophisticated type of literary production and a scientific study of that production" (198).
In the myopic cultural milieu of James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and Virginia Woolf, the pulpwoods appeared as degraded literary commodities. This perspective on pulp fiction persists in literary studies, but  a thaw approaches. The line separating fans and academics is beginning to blur.

After a layover in Philadelphia, I took a taxi to the Omni Hotel. I struck up a conversation with the driver after he asked what brought me to town. I told him the NecronomiCon. Sadly, he wasn't familiar with H.P. Lovecraft. When I told him Lovecraft was a horror writer, he shared anecdotes about how Edgar Allan Poe had visited Providence.

I wonder if he was just uniquely uninformed or if I have a distorted sense of Lovecraft's national and public celebrity.

I arrived at the hotel at 11:00a.. I immediately got in touch with Scott Valeri, Bobby Derie, and Jeff Shanks. After briefly catching up during a quick trip to the local pharmacy, Scott left for a Lovecraft-themed bus tour of Providence. Jeff, Bobby, and I went to get some sandwiches.

At lunch Bobby, Jeff and I immediately started talking about fandom and pulp-related topics. Jeff and Bobby discussed the history of Fate magazine and the way the current "ancient aliens" mythology is (or is not) related to Lovecraft's fiction. While we were eating, a tourist chatted with us; he asked us what brought us to town. We told him the NecronomiCon. Like my taxi driver, he didn't know anything about Lovecraft. Again, I was surprised by how it seemed that few in Providence knew about Lovecraft.

After lunch, Jeff left to meet Rusty Burke. So Bobby and I met back up with Scott to attend the NecronomiCon opening ceremony, which was pretty neat. The Howard scholar (and Machen scholar) Karen Kahoutek met us there and it was great to catch up with her and meet her husband. There were several quasi-spectacles: people costumed as Lovecraftian horrors shambled into the First Baptist Church accompanied by grim organ music. The hosting speaker did a great job setting the mood with affected diction and a grave, almost sermon-like delivery. The organ music played intermittently and was very atmospheric.  There was a touching speech about the recently deceased Sam Gafford given by Jason Eckhart. Overall, the opening ceremony was pretty cool. I couldn't help but reflect on the strangeness that we were gathered in a Baptist church to celebrate one of the 20th century's key atheists.

After the opening ceremony we went to the Ars Necronomica, a Lovecraftian art exhibit held at the very same Providence Art Club featured in "Pickman's Model" and "The Call of Cthulhu." The art exhibited was really fascinating but the Ars Necronomica was just too crowded for the space. I didn't stay long.

After that, we went to the local pub and drank a few beers. Jeff and Rusty showed up. We then discussed several of fandom-related issues. At around midnight we adjourned. I needed to get back because I had a panel at 9:00a.m. on "pulp history."

NecronomiCon (Day 2): Friday, August 23rd

The morning began with the Pulp History panel that included Jason Thompson (illustrator and writer), Steve Mariconda (scholar), William Patrick Murray (pulp expert), Darrell Schweitzer, and myself. The panel was informative but went in a direction that I thought was too narrow in scope; in my opinion, it became too focused too quickly on Weird Tales. We gave general pulp history too little attention.

Generally speaking, there is so much more to pulp fiction than Weird Tales and in order to understand how unique the magazine was, one needs to contextualize it adequately.

After that panel I met up with a bunch of friends and we perused the dealer room. I chatted with several interesting people there: Robert Knox, Derrick Hussey, Jim Lowder, and more. I got Robert Knox to sign my Issue 2 of The Dark Man; he illustrated the cover, a great rendering of Howard's "Tower of the Elephant."

Socializing zaps me so after the dealer room I took some time to decompress. I worked out in the hotel gym and had a quiet lunch. Refreshed, I then went to a panel on "Sacred Objects, Sacred Places in H.P. Lovecraft." After that I attended Rusty and Jeff's panel on "weird archaeology," which was excellent. This was followed by the guest reception, which was great but quite crowded. We left this reception and went to a pub for more beers.

When we came to the pub it was very crowded and loud and it was difficult hearing each other. A great moment was when Rusty was recognized as a celebrity and was asked by someone to pose for a picture. Eventually Rusty left because it was too damn loud and he planned on an early walking tour of Providence. Then, Frank Coffman, Jeff, Scott, and I started shouting at each other over the din. We had a great conversation in this way.

NecronomiCon (Day 3): Saturday, August 24th

Saturday morning I was exhausted and so spent a lot of time in the morning in my room relaxing. I read, drank coffee, wrote, and went to the gym. After that, I went on a walking tour of Providence with Scott and Rusty, which was really compelling.  I am ashamed to admit after that I didn't actually involve myself in NecronomoiCon programming until a 3:00p Armitage Symposium session.

The Armitage Symposium is the academic conference embedded in the NecronomiCon. Is it distinct in that most of the presenters are academic disciplinary specialists who are either graduate students or university faculty. There also seems to be a fair amount of independent scholars who present there. As a touchstone for Howard fans, it is the Lovecraft version of the "Glenn Lord Symposium," only it is over several days and several panels. Overall, I was impressed by the congenial back and forth between scholars and fans. Scholars admitted their blind spots as fans politely corrected them and fans seemed to appreciate the scholars' unique perspectives. If there was hostility, it was behind the scenes.

The 3:00 session I attended was very interesting. There was Shawn Gaffney's “Hideous Writing Systems in Lovecraft Country,” which analyzed from art studies perspective the fictional writing rendered in Lovecraft-inspired art. There was Cole Donovan's, “Grimma Gæst: The Anglo-Saxon Ancestry of Lovecraft’s Grimoires” and Lars Backstrom, “In Search of the Lost Al Azif,” which were quite interesting and erudite.

One presentation I would like to focus on is Lucas Townsend's, “Who is Lovecraft’s True Protagonist?: The Oriental Semiotician and his Necronomicon.” Townsend argued that Lovecraft's true protagonist is Abdul Alhazred. As far as I can gather, he proposed that Alhazred is a positive character and, to the extent that Alhazred is a person of color, he is a progressive character. I highly disagree with this characterization. I celebrate the intellectual audacity of Townsend's claim but I think he needs to rethink his thesis.

After the Armitage Symposium session I attended "Can't Live With Him: The Life and Works of Sonia H. Greene." Bobby Derie was a panelist on this session and I was eager to support Bobby but also to learn more about Sonia. This was an amazing panel. Bobby's impressive (and intimidating) erudition was on full display as he rehearsed the entire history of Lovecraft's and Sonia's relationship to the finest detail. What really struck me was Sonia's life after Lovecraft's death. From history's perspective, her relationship to Lovecraft was such a small period of time; but, from her perspective,  it seemed to stick with her.

After this excellent panel we went to a brewery where, later that night, there was going to be a Lovecraftian trivia event. We had dinner and chatted over beers for a while. Alas, we missed the beginning of the trivia event. When we finally found out where the trivia event was (in the basement of the bewery) they were several rounds in. I stood around, tried to answer some questions, but eventually left and went back to my room for an early Saturday night. I had a 6:00a.m. flight home.

The NecronomiCon was excellent. It was really great to get to meet so many people in this Lovecraft, mythos, and weird fiction fandom.

August 16, 2019

Michael Meyerhofer's "Then, Stars": Sword and Sorcery and Life Lived Intensely Unto Death

At Robert E. Howard Days this June, on the 4th Annual Glenn Lord Symposium, I presented a paper titled, "Conan the Compassionate:  'Red Nails' and the Dehumanizing Stalemate War." Videographer and REHUPAn Ben Friberg uploaded a video of it. You can watch it here, if you're interested.

In the paper, I argue that Conan, and his female compeer in this tale, Valeria, are distinguished from the dehumanized denizens of the decaying, war-torn city of Xuchotl because of a surprising capacity to show compassion to each other. In contrast, the two factions who engage in bloody warfare--the Tecuhltli and the Xotalanc--are distinguished by their inhumanity, by their absolute lack of compassion.

Rehearsing every detail of this argument isn't necessary to reiterate the paper's central claim: sword and sorcery is a literature through which runs a strong vein of elemental, human compassion.

Several protagonists of sword and sorcery, Conan the Cimmerian not least of all, are characterized by virtue of their valuing of individual human dignity. Though many S&S protagonists are death-dealers who glory in battle and blood and eschew compassion strategically, many are nevertheless acutely aware of the vulnerability and finitude of the ephemeral human form. Not necessarily heroes who seek to sacrifice themselves for others, S&S heroes are often stirred to action by human suffering.

Here's an example. Many argue that Solomon Kane is an Ur-source of the sword and sorcery protagonist: consider his famous reaction in "Red Shadows" to the horrible spectacle of human suffering, a raped and bleeding young woman:
     Suddenly the slim form went limp. The man eased her to the earth, and touched her brow lightly.
     "Dead!" he muttered.
     Slowly he rose, mechanically wiping his hands upon his cloak. A dark scowl had settled on his somber brow. Yet he made no wild, reckless vow, swore no oath by saints or devils.
     "Men shall die for this," he said coldly.
***

I recently read a story by Michael Meyerhofer, "Then, Stars," published in the most recent issue of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly that powerfully demonstrates this surprising element of S&S, its occasional thematic preoccupation with compassion. Meyerhofer's story is an emotionally powerful chronicle of an anonymous soldier's last words. The aesthetic strategy of the story is to coax the reader into focusing on the death of an anonymous soldier, to "exorcise" this soldier's anonymity. The story itself represents a rhetorical act of compassion, the translation of what is traditionally a minor, supporting character (the squire) into a main character.

Let me summarize it before proceeding (spoilers galore):

The story relates the dying words of a squire who has been dragged bleeding from a battlefield where he had been left for dead. In a first person narrative p.o.v., the squire recounts how he became a squire to Sir Bryson of Akonbree, how he followed Sir Bryson into a battle with the Shii-duán, and how he was mortally wounded by a Shii-duán who caught him unawares during the battle. After the battle, as he is lying wounded, night falls, and the Shii-duán come into the field. At first the dying squire thinks they are looters. Instead, he discovers that they are gathering the wounded and giving quick death to those who are suffering. Eventually he is discovered by a Shii-duán, one Eli Ben-Sodr, who can communicate with him. The squire learns of an important Shii-duán custom: if they can be given, a dying person's last words are sacred. By and by the squire is taken to Eli Ben-Sodr's house where he is attended and his pain alleviated (as much as is possible). The squire is then asked to tell his story. The reader realizes that what they have been been reading is in fact a transcription of the squire's final words.

This is a powerful, artfully told story that inverts a lot of conventional S&S tropes. The protagonist isn't powerful at all but a wounded soldier who is dying. The enemies, the Shii-duán, aren't dehumanized foes who the powerful protagonist kills en masse; instead, they are noble in their own way and live by a code. There are also representations of "domestic" (ordinary) spaces in the story, a straw-lined deathroom in Eli Ben-Sodr's house populated by servants, Ben-Sodr's wife, and his young daughter (conventionally S&S is set in extraordinary spaces). One might argue because "Then, Stars," inverts so many tropes of S&S--the powerful protagonist, the hordes of dehumanized enemies, the emphasis on extraordinary (not domestic) spaces--that the tale ceases to be S&S and something else. Perhaps. But I don't think so.

This story maintains its status as sword and sorcery because of the outlook of the protagonist. Despite the squire's impending death, he maintains a grim determination to live and, most importantly, to justify his existence even as he dies anonymously in darkness. By virtue of their intense (though ephemeral) experiences, their powerful (though finite) sensoriums, sword and sorcery heroes become their own monuments by living. 

To clarify, consider this passage, where the squire is recounting being carried from the battlefield with a spear still stuck in his abdomen:
I'm no poet so I don't have the words for how much it hurt when they moved me. I don't remember screaming but they say I carried on so loud and pitiful, one of Eli's sons wanted to slit my throat--maybe mercy, maybe nerves. Only Eli stopped him and I passed out instead. They took me to their home. I slept most of the way, but when I woke, the hurt wasn't as bad. I looked up and saw the first tendrils of moonlight peeking behind a dark sky, like bare parchment peeking through spilled wine. Then, stars.
"Like bare parchment peeking through spilled wine. Then, stars." What a powerful, singular, yet archetypical image, a hauntingly beautiful allegory for the transition from life to death that this story dramatizes.

Meyerhofer's story blew me away. It reminds me of the great thematic range of sword and sorcery, its contemporary fecundity as a living literary tradition. Moreover, it shows how S&S can incorporate powerful protagonists and enervated protagonists; how S&S, surprisingly, is concerned with compassion, our capacity to withdraw it and our equally surprising (perhaps more surprising) capacity to give it in the midst of violent conflict.

Finally, Meyerhofer's story reaffirms why S&S, as campy as it sometimes can be, nevertheless contains the germ, the potential to render high literary art: it is concerned with nothing more nor less than life lived intensely unto death

In the world of sword and sorcery, the ephemeral human form is destined for formlessness. The sword and sorcery protagonist lives intensely. Why? From their point of view, death is ever present, looming above, like the infinite stars.

August 7, 2019

Sword and Sorcery and Realistic Renderings of the Unreal: Howie K. Bentley's "Thannhausefeer's Guest"

Sketch by J!ndo

A few weeks ago I looked at D.M. Ritzlin's sword and sorcery (S&S) tale, "The Infernal Bargain," the leading story in DMR Books' free anthology, The Infernal Bargain and Other Stories. The story was excellent, a sincere pastiche of pulp-era S&S. It demands that one read more of the anthology.

Scrutiny as Active Valuing

My mentor taught me something about how critics can actively value literature: scrutinizing a work is an intrinsic act of valuing as such. Moreover, one of the main ways a critic compliments and supports an artistic enterprise is by attending closely to it, to its fine brush strokes, i.e. its intentional technical decisions.

I'm going to try and put that principle in action by analyzing the second story of DMR's The Infernal Bargain and Other Stories, "Thannhausefeer’s Guest," by Howie K. Bentley.

Summary

The story begins with an enthralling (though disorienting) montage of battle images combined with the panicked interior monologue of a nameless protagonist. After a horrible battle at sea, the protagonist seems to be dragged from the water (or tossed by a storm). He is discovered by a beautiful woman named Lydiana. As the protagonist, now nicknamed "Manannan" by Lydiana, convalesces, he realizes he has memory loss (i.e. the perennial literary theme of anamnesis). Thus, the main conflict becomes Manannan's struggle to learn his identity and the mystery of the violent circumstances that begin the story. By and by, Lydiana informs Manannan that he is in a realm of the giant Thannhausefeer, who is hosting gladiatorial battles. Lydiana takes Manannan to Thannhausefeer's hall; he learns the giant is a cannibal who eats the warriors who fall in his deadly games. To the triumphant survivors, the giant gives various boons such as women and treasure. The story proceeds through a series of excellently rendered gladiatorial battles, a sword and sorcery version of golden age WWF match ups (but with more blood and more blades). The climax happens when, after witnessing Lydiana dancing hypnotically, Manannan recalls his identity: he is Argantyr Faoladh of the Tuath je Danaan, also known as King Argantyr Fenris, ruler of Skaldavia. Moreover, he recalls that Thannhausefeer is his mortal enemy against which he had been waging war for the giant had kidnapped and killed his (Argantyr's) true love, Friona. Also--surprise--Argantyr is a @#$%ing werewolf. Argantyr transforms, rips out the giant's throat, and kills Lydiana (for she had abetted Thannhausefeer's transgressions). The story concludes when Argantyr is rescued by an ally's men, the Sea Hawks of King Friodere.

My summary doesn't do justice to the story, which gives a convincing antiquity of atmosphere; it is hauntingly dream-like at parts, such as the tastefully rendered sex scene with Lydiana. It is pervaded by beautiful, often lyrical, descriptions of bloody battle. As a touchstone, it reminds one of Poul Anderson's "The Tale of Hauk," which is often read in Andrew J. Offutt's S&S anthology, Swords Against Darkness (1977)

Mythology and Literary Realism in S&S

What distinguishes "Thannhausefeer's Guest" is the way it relates to mythology realistically. To generalize, "Thannhausefeer's Guest" is a literary chimera, the suturing of an ancient form (mythology) to a newer form (literary realism).

This rhetoric is worth exploring because the surprising combination of (1) realism and (2) "unrealism" (mythology, the supernatural, magic, demonology, etc.) is an aesthetic dimension central to S&S more generally speaking.

The setting of "Thannhausefeer’s Guest" is distinctive. Although it is an unreal world of cannibalistic giants and werewolves, it makes references to actual mythology (largely Irish) rather than "constructed mythology," á la Tolkien's Silmarillion. It also uses quasi-Irish language rather than the fantasy convention of the verbum novum; for example, consider references to the "Tuath ja Danaan" (or "Tuatha Dé Danann"), which is a direct citation of Irish mythology. The protagonist's sobriquet, Manannan, refers to another figure from Irish mythology. 

As mentioned above, the deploying of ancient mythology in modern fantasy writing suggests Poul Anderson's S&S, such as The Broken Sword (1954), as well as Fletcher Pratt's and L. Sprague de Camp's (and others) enchanter stories of Harold Shea (1940).

In these examples, the S&S writer uses mythology in a specific way: they bring mythology to life by eschewing alienating verse forms of the original texts (i.e. alienating for uninitiated modern readers); they then deploy novelistic writing techniques--i.e. modern narrative rhetorics of scene, temporality, dialog, and characterization--to render the wonders and spectacles reported of mythology in a contemporary fashion. Put another way, they take an antiquated aesthetic artifact--e.g. epic poetry derived from the oral traditions of sagas, such as the Táin Bó Cúailnge--and they modernize it by rendering it in a form that readers today can relate to.

"A full and authentic report of human experience": Novelistic Writing and S&S

Such writers intuit the insight expressed by Ian Watt in his classic history of the novel, The Rise of the Novel (1957):  a "novelistic narrative technique" (or "formal realism" for Watt) uniquely provides "a full and authentic report of human experience." Why try to do this? Put simply: to make the aesthetic experience of a mythological narrative into something like an unmediated, virtual experience for new readers.

Does Bentley succeed on these grounds? Does he render a mythological narrative in novelistic discourse, i.e. as something like an unmediated, virtual experience, one where the imagination of the modern reader can temporarily dwell? Is the reader transported to the giant Thannhausefeer's Hall? For an answer, consider this description:
Manannan marveled at the colossal archways, doors, and vaulted ceiling as Lydiana led him down the corridor to the great hall where the Lord of the Realm held court. The roof was supported by columns that raised the ceiling high into the sky -- at least twice the height of any castle he had visited until now. The hall was abnormally wide, and he guessed that the walls were nearly twenty feet thick. Torches the length of spears blazed in sconces high up the walls beyond his reach. He could hear the clash of weapons down the hall.
This skillfully establishes a vivid, concrete setting. There is a specificity of detail that is distinctive to novelistic discourse. References to size is mostly mathematically precise (e.g. "twenty feet thick," "torches the length of spears," "twice the size of any castle he had visited"). 

The Literary Effect of Reality

As modern readers we tend to take this sort of specificity of description for granted. At one point in Anglophone literary history, perhaps before the publication of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719), this close attention to the surface details and textures of the world would have struck the reader as odd. Don't believe me? Consider this description of the Herot Mead-hall from Beowulf (from the Lesslie Hall "literal" verse translation):
The greatest of hall-buildings; Heorot he named it
Who wide-reaching word-sway wielded ’mong earlmen.
His promise he brake not, rings he lavished,
Treasure at banquet. Towered the hall up
High and horn-crested, huge between antlers.
This would have definitely been more vivid in the original context: listening to it being recited by a bard to a melody in a mead-hall at night time, no doubt while being pleasantly drunk on mead. However, read as a dead text and not as a performed poem, the language here doesn't signify in the precise way we expect of most modern writing. We make different demands on paperbacks held in the hands read silently alone. 

Compare the description of Heorot to Robin's description of his camp in Robinson Crusoe, widely considered the origin text of novelistic writing in English:
I soon found the place I was in was not fit for my settlement, because it was upon a low, moorish ground, near the sea, and I believed it would not be wholesome, and more particularly because there was no fresh water near it; so I resolved to find a more healthy and more convenient spot of ground. [...] In search of a place proper for this, I found a little plain on the side of a rising hill, whose front towards this little plain was steep as a house-side, so that nothing could come down upon me from the top.  On the one side of the rock there was a hollow place, worn a little way in, like the entrance or door of a cave but there was not really any cave or way into the rock at all. On the flat of the green, just before this hollow place, I resolved to pitch my tent.
This precise description of the camp site does not seem so innovative or experimental to modern readers, but in Defoe's literary milieu, his attention to detail--the disenchanted surface of the world--represented a new, a "novel," form of writing. What emerges in Robin's description of his campsite (and is missing in the passages from Beowulf) is something the literary theorist Roland Barthes calls an "effet de réel," a kind of aesthetic/literary effect of verisimilitude, a virtual reality (consider reading Barthes' 1968 essay for a more in-depth discussion of this effect).

In any case, the quality of precision of the description of Thannhausefeer's hall creates a virtual space, a kind of experience, for the reader to mentally inhabit. It is rendered realistically even though it is a clearly a residue of a mythological imagination. To an extent, the description of Thannhausefeer's hall is attempting to achieve a similar effect to the original epic poetry but it is importantly a modernized rendering of a mythical place out of time.

To conclude, let's briefly consider character, specifically Bentley's description of Thannhausefeer:
The Giant’s red, square-cut mane was a shock of tangled hair held back by a massive leather band encircling his head. The head band held a large polished oval of azurite centered in front. Cold blue eyes bore into the two warriors endeavoring to deal death to each other. Thannhausefeer’s crimson beard fell down his chest and was braided at the ends by ornaments fashioned from the stringed bones of human fingers. Enormous steel sinews rippled under the deceptive roll of fat that partially concealed them. He was dressed in a silver-studded black tunic that fell below his waist and white wool britches. His boots were made of stitched animal hides and were as big as panniers. Red spiked leather gauntlets covered his forearms. He wore no crown; he needed none to proclaim himself the master of his demesne.
This description is compelling because the close attention to the sartorial style contributes to setting, character, and theme, all at the same time. For example, consider the "massive leather band" on Thannhausefeer's head, the "crimson beard," the ornamental fingerbones, the "roll of fat," the "animal hide boots," the "red spiked gauntlets": everything about this character's precise physical description signifies beyond the visual, suggests a charnel house, a rapacious appetite, a love of butchery, and a gormandizing spirit. The red gauntlets suggests a butcher's hands stained in gore; the giant is garmented in skin of many animals, even meat-bare bones; the roll of fat gives the disturbing intimation that the giant is well fed. And the crimson beard suggests a mouth besmeared with gore, a violent hunger suggestive of Goya's famous "Saturn Devouring His Son."

In this realistic rendering of an unreal cannibalistic giant, Bentley reminds the attentive reader of S&S of one of its key affordances: S&S is a distinctively modern genre but with an ancient DNA. Thus, the S&S writer can render the unreal realistically. 

With the proper incantation, with the right word, with the description just so, the S&S writer can truly summon demons from the thin air.

July 27, 2019

Sword and Sorcery and the Aesthetics of Assault in D.M. Ritzlin's "The Infernal Bargain"

Sketch by Jessica K. Robinson.

Visitors have been navigating here from a small press's site: DMR Books. They have a blog feature called the "DMRtian Chronicles," a digest that feature sword and sorcery discussions. The publisher and writer, D.M. Ritzlin, included a few Spiral Tower posts. They are an interesting press. Here is their description: 
"DMR Books publishes fantasy, horror, and adventure fiction in the traditions of Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, and other classic writers of the pulp era. We are dedicated to bringing you the latest cutting edge action/adventure fantasy fiction, as well as reprinting obscure gems from days past."
When you sign up for the DMR newsletter you get a free anthology of new sword and sorcery tales.

As a literary scholar, one reads past works. Because attention and time are finite, literary scholars are cowards as regards our reading choices. We wait for others to curate canons, to lay the gold thread through the labyrinth of the archive, before reading new stuff. That's a problem.

But the cover of this free DMR anthology, however (The Infernal Bargain and Other Stories) was too compelling to deny. It encapsulates so many of the often paradoxical aesthetic qualities that distinguish sword and sorcery: (1) the playful marriage of seriousness and camp, (2) an emphasis on fast-paced narrative, (3) a kind of roughness and intensity of style, and (4) skulls. Lots of skulls.

As a bonus there is a giant @#$%ing demon with a lolling tongue to make Gene Simmons jealous.

The cover hooked me. The first story made me stay.

Sword and Sorcery and the Aesthetic of Assault in "The Infernal Bargain"

First, a summary: "The Infernal Bargain" relates the misfortunes of Avok Kur Storn, a Cytheran, as he is jerked around like a dog god's favorite squeak toy through the world of Nilztiria. He is storm-tossed, nearly spear-skewered, and then imprisoned by one-eyed bird-men; he is clandestinely drugged by a demon-haunted sorcerer, offered as a foul soul sacrifice, and then, as a kind of severed head of a cherry on this mound of body parts sundae, he is threatened by the demon himself. Avok survives it all, however, and vows never to forget.

This is an intense story, the literary equivalent of a balls-to-the-walls death-metal song, a narrative enactment of assault.

This characterization isn't meant to denigrate the story. "The Infernal Bargain" is excellent. As "pastiche," it triumphs. 

A few thoughts about pastiche...

A "pastiche" is a work that succeeds or fails depending on the intensity by which it mimics and vitalizes that of a previous aesthetic. For example, Stranger Things is (arguably) a pastiche of 1980s-era Amblin Entertainment films like E.T., Gremlins, The Goonies, Back to the Future, and Harry and the Hendersons, (and more), i.e. sci-fi, fantasy, and horror-themed films that feature an intergenerational cast of characters responding to violations of the ordinary, usually the 1980s suburban ordinary. 

The important point that the Stranger Things example shows is that successful pastiches do not slavishly hew to established convention by woodenly reproducing the past. Instead, successful pastiche is something akin to an ekphrastic love song in praise of those conventions. Stranger Things is clearly an attempt to re-capture some of the magic of the distinctive Amblin Entertainment aesthetic. More importantly, Stranger Things is the work of sincere artists trying to render new experiences and not just repetitions of the old.

In terms of sword and sorcery, "The Internal Bargain" vigorously and freshly participates in that aesthetic. Moreover, I would also argue, like Stranger Things, "The Infernal Bargain" is an example of artistically successfully pastiche. 

Let me highlight a few of the reasons why.

The opening exposition...

In two compressed paragraphs, the protagonist is introduced, the secondary world is sketched (with broad strokes), and the action ensues: a bizarre world, an interesting character, and an engaging conflict are rendered vividly with this terminal sentence:
"He managed to survive by clinging to a piece of driftwood, but his fellow Cytherans were unable to locate him in the swirling darkness."
Avok, like many sword and sorcery heroes before him, has been extracted from the ordinary of home and hearth and plunged into the chaos of a strange and hostile world.

Avok's tumble into the unknown recalls Cugel the Clever's flight via demon to the remote Land of Cutz in Eyes of the Overworld (1966). It brings to mind Thongor's descent into Lemuria in the opening of The Wizard of Lemuria (1965). It echoes the opening of Robert E. Howard's "Red Nails," when Valeria and Conan endure the barren, dragon-infested wasteland outside of the decaying city of Xuchotl. There is even something of Corwin's first psychedelic hellride through shadow in Nine Princes in Amber (1970). Indeed, the opening recalls several other sword and sorcery tales and engages a specific genre idiom with lightning-strike speed.

Although the story echoes sword and sorcery conventions, it doesn't only emulate them, however. Instead, it provides a new image: the formlessness of a storm-wracked sea at night; land, sky, vapor, and flashing lightning swirling into a boundless defilement of order. This is an enthralling start to the ensuing phantasmagoria. 

World-building...

Sword and sorcery is a fantasy genre of secondary, autonomous, and cohesive worlds, but the world-building is subtle and oblique. In "The Infernal Bargain," much of the world-building is done economically and through the technique of the verbum novum, the new word: "Nilztiria," "Avok," "Cytherans," "Tul-theran slavers." These "verba nova," tiny brushstrokes, grant the world verisimilitude by indicating the vast distance in time and space from the readers' ordinary experience; they also suggest the autonomy, cohesion, and antiquity of the secondary world.

Additional world-building is done through dialog, the use of slightly antique and subtly bizarre diction such as Demstropux's excellently awkward verbalization: "There’s room in my soul-sack for two! Ho ho!" (my emphasis). World-building via dialog shines in the exchange between the demon, Demstropux, and the sorcerer, Ennek Taar.

Consider the sorcerer's dialog as he threatens the demon with a magical blade:
"Do you think you are the only one who has taught me dweomercraft, Demstropux? This ensorcelled dagger, fashioned from the fang of a long-extinct breed of dragon, has been attuned to you! Its slightest touch will cause you immeasurable pain [...]."
"Dweomercraft." "Ensorcelled" "Fashioned from the fang of a long-extinct breed of dragon." These diction and phrase choices do not only signify; they are also functioning aesthetically as well in the manner of poetry. Acoustically speaking, the words are melodious, and for the lover of sword and sorcery, such words, in narrative context, give something of the same pleasure experienced when reading the best lyrical poetry.

More could be said about the world-building technique, but let's move on.

Narrative / Plot...

The plot is episodic. It is structured as a narrative menagerie of sword and sorcery spectacle. Like exotic animals paraded before the bulging-eyes of the vulgar groundlings, the curious incidents of the storm, the bird-men, the sorcerer Ennek Taar, the demon Demstropux, the demon-flight, and so forth, aesthetically try the reader's imagination. For example, consider this strange moment when the demon, Demstropux, is about to enact revenge on the prone sorcerer Ennek Taar:
A smile broke across the demon’s monstrous face. Demstropux turned to the fallen hermit and resumed his arcane claw gestures. Ennek Taar, stunned by Avok’s blow, was barely cognizant of the fate that was to befall him. An ethereal silver strand began to rise from the hermit’s body. Translucent yet shimmering, the ghostly strand spiraled upwards in accordance with Demstropux’s gestures. “Yes, yes. Come to me,” said the demon sinisterly. He seemed to be taking erotic pleasure in the ritual. (my emphasis)
As moderns uninitiated in the occult mysteries of sorcery and demonology, our minds struggle to actualize this bizarre and morbid image of perverse arousal. From where on the body is the strange silver thread issuing? Navel? Chakras? Err... groin? For my money, I imagine a mist rising from eyes and mouth and accumulating, spiderweb style, into a thick strand. Why does this arouse the demon so? Such are the indescribable terrors of those who have truck with hell spawn.

Some might argue that this kind of plot of aesthetic assault--spectacle after spectacle after spectacle--is unsophisticated. Admittedly, it might be unsophisticated for a genre like high fantasy or gothic horror. In high fantasy, much of the aesthetic effect is about the psychological growth of the protagonists; their internal struggles and growth are just as significant as the external struggles of great battles. Gothic horror, accordingly, requires subtle atmosphere, the strategic rationing of narrative events for the building up of tension.

But "The Infernal Bargain" isn't high fantasy or gothic horror.

S&S and dark humor...

There are other elements worth mentioning but one more will suffice. The story is sprinkled with humor. Consider the following example. Some background: by threatening the demon, Avok convinces Demstropux to ferry him with his large wings from the sorcerer's hermitage back to his homeland of Cythera. As the demon and Avok are flying through the night sky, Avok insults by demon by demanding that he fly faster. Here's the ensuing hilarious scene:
[Demstropux] had, of course, been plotting treachery all along, but he could no longer wait for the perfect moment. Without warning he spun in midair and Avok found himself upside down. [...] “What are you doing?” he shouted. “Right yourself at once!” Demstropux did not obey, instead spinning once more in an attempt to shake off his troublesome burden. Avok clutched tighter and drew the enchanted dagger. “If I die, you die too!” He stabbed deep into the demon’s ribs and twisted the blade. A deafening roar of pain erupted from Demstropux’s throat and he began to plummet. [...] “Take it out! Take it out!” screamed Demstropux as they fell ever faster. Avok removed the dagger from the demon’s body, and Demstropux was able to correct his course before they plunged into the icy deeps. Neither man nor demon spoke for the rest of that bizarre flight.
This is pure comedy.

Which brings me to a final point, which can only be expressed aporically: "The Infernal Bargain" succeeds because it takes itself seriously enough not to take itself seriously.

You might need to read that again.

Part of sword and sorcery is its intradiegetic awareness of its own absurdity. Several times in the story Avok laughs at the absurdity of his situation. Consider when Avok has been swept from the sea onto a desolate, magic-haunted island: "He had a tendency to find humor in absurd situations. It was a quirk that proved detrimental at times, but now it lifted his spirits as he thought about the tales he would tell upon his return to Cythera." Or consider when Avok reflects on the strangeness of his night flight with a demon across dark waters: "The oddity of the night’s affair suddenly struck Avok as comical." Sword and sorcery can be campy and serious at the same time, the same way some of the best metal music can be both serious and ironic at the same time.

Look closely: you might discover a slight, hidden smile on the sword and sorcery writer's grim face.