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.


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. 


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.

July 22, 2019

A Critical Comparison of Sword and Sorcery and Espionage Fiction

Sketch by Jessica K. Robinson

During a conversation about the sword and sorcery (S&S) genre, the writer Daniel J. Davis brought up the espionage fiction (EF) genre, and specifically the James Bond franchise. 

Rehearsing the conversation will test patience because it has become centripetal, spinning out from an initial disagreement to an intellectually fecund hodgepodge of related questions. 

Sufficiently answering these questions would be require an entire convention, several panels, the intellectual labor of a book (or several books). So, the focus here will be much more narrow.

Thesis: sword and sorcery is a universal genre that will endure; espionage fiction, in comparison, is probably ephemeral and will pass away in time. Moreover, S&S shouldn't emulate EF's emphasis on male wish fulfillment fantasy.

Comparing Sword and Sorcery and Espionage Fiction

To substantiate this argument, let's get more concrete: consider two specific texts of the same medium (film) and a similar historical milieu of origin (Hollywood in the early 1960s).

For sword and sorcery, let's consider Don Chaffey's Jason and the Argonauts (1963), a widely acclaimed S&S film due to Ray Harryhausen's legendary stop-motion animations. For espionage fiction, Terence Young's Do No (1962), definitely not the best James Bond but nevertheless an iconic one (1962). 

Both film are based upon literary texts; moreover, both are archetypes of their respective genres: Jason and the Argonauts' (S&S film) and Dr. No (EF film). And, both are equally campy at times.

Bond's Dependence and External Motivation

Arguably, Bond is a dependent. Bond is an agent of MI6, a branch of the government of the United Kingdom. Accordingly, he is part of a pecking order. He benefits from the support provided by MI6, the agency, its associated engineers, and its intelligence operatives who provide him information.

Additionally, Bond's is not, technically speaking, self-motivated. Instead, he is externally motivated. His mission in Dr. No is an investigation at the behest of his superior, M.

Jason's Autonomy and Self-motivation

Jason in Jason and the Argonauts isn't dependent on an agency like MI6. He autonomously embarks on his quest, goes in search of the Golden Fleece, because he wants to claim the Thessalian throne, his divine inheritance. Authorized by the gods to embark, he is not part of a pecking order but establishes one himself by bringing together a crew of the Argo. Because Jason and the Argonauts takes place in a pre-industrial world, Jason doesn't have to rely on high-tech gadgets produced by engineers (except, perhaps, his ship). Let's not forget, though, his occasional recourse to divine aid.

Bond and Navigating Complex Systems

What is the central conflict of Dr. No? A super-intelligent villain, Dr. No, aims to exhort ransom payments from world governments. Bond has to unravel Dr. No's tangled conspiracy and disrupt it. Bond uses a variety of skills to do this: his charisma, his seduction skills, his ingenuity, his technology, and ultimately his fighting abilities (he throws Dr. No into boiling water).

Jason and External Conflict

What is the central conflict of Jason and the Argonauts? There is an artifact of legend, the Golden Fleece, that Jason seeks. In the course of discovering its whereabouts, Jason has to face a variety of external enemies: a giant Talos, a group of horrible harpies, a treacherous pass of clashing rocks, a hydre, and finally, the Dragon's Teeth -- death incarnate. Like Bond, Jason uses a variety of skills to achieve his goals, but his challenges are less complex than Bond's. They tend to be monsters that need killing.

Setting in S&S and EF: Historicity vs. Timeless Mythology

Dr. No takes place in Jamaica in the midst of the Cold War. The setting is very specific, geographically and historically speaking. Jason and the Argonauts takes place in a Mediterranean world that never was; this unreal Mediterranean world is a mythological rendering, somewhat out of time. Like Robert E. Howard's Hyborian Age, the setting is timeless.

To generalize, Jason and the Argonauts' setting is universal and ahistorical whereas Dr. No's setting is particular and historical.

Theme of James Bond and Dr. No

Bond is historically contingent, requires some basic knowledge of Cold War politics (international espionage, spies, UK, MI6, etc.) so its claim to universality are tenuous. One could argue EF is about the power of an augmented man, a kind of proto-cyborg, except the prostheses that supplement the protagonists are gadgets and at-broad systems of support. It makes sense that the pioneers of 1980s Cyberpunk would pull from the tropes of EF in the 1980s.

Conclusion: Why S&S will Endure Longer than EF

Dr. No is a wish fulfillment fantasy dramatizing the adventures of (excuse this irreverent term) a boyish man who uses all the gadgets he needs to beat the bad guy and nail the bikini model.

Jason and the Argonauts treats universal psychological archetypes: the slaying of dragons, the defeat of death, the triumph over our inevitable demise (consider the final skeleton fight where Jason literary fights incarnations of death and triumphs). 

Both are entertaining films. Both are fun. Both are occasionally campy. But one possesses artistic potential. Guess which one?

Some would like to conflate sword and sorcery with the same kind of adolescent masculinist fiction represented by Dr. No. They shouldn't. S&S is superior to EF. Arguably, S&S is a modern incarnation/iteration of epic and heroic poetry, a narrative architecture that is deep part of the human experience.

For artistic, philosophical potential, sword and sorcery triumphs over espionage fiction; and it's at least equal to espionage fiction for entertainment value.

Post-script: EF fiction is ephemeral because it does not take itself seriously, is merely entertainment. It doesn't seem to aspire to art (and that's o.k.). There is some S&S, however, that is artistically ambitious. In my opinion, the S&S that apes the gender dynamics of EF will pass away, not necessarily because of those gender dynamics, their unpopularity, their non-PC nature, but instead because focusing on male wish fulfillment fantasy is a symptom of immaturity, lack of sophistication, and boorishness.  Inversely, the S&S that acknowledges its origins in epic poetry, the greatest literary art, will endure.

July 12, 2019

"The Diamond in the Tang Where the Quillons Meet": A Sword and Sorcery Response to Holmes, Trueheart, and Davis

Drawing by Jessica K. Robinson
Fritz Leiber  (1910-1992) is one of the great stars of the sword and sorcery constellation along with Robert E. Howard, Jack Vance, Poul Anderson, Lin Carter, Michael Moorcock, Roger Zelazny, and many more. Moreover, Leiber can be regarded as forging the term for the kind of heroic fantasy his Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser tales helped to epitomize. Leiber did so in a few letters to fanzines, Ancalagon and Amra in 1961. Here is an except from a widely-cited letter to Amra (April 6th, 1961):
I feel more certain than ever that this field should be called the sword-and-sorcery story. This accurately describes the points of culture-level and supernatural element and also immediately distinguishes it from the cloak-and-sword (historical adventure) story-- and (quite incidentally) from the cloak-and-dagger (international espionage) story too!
Leiber brings "culture-level," "supernatural element," and specifically distinguishes S&S fiction from "historical adventure" and "international espionage."

These caveats are worth analyzing closely.

"Culture-level." Most S&S takes place in a pre-modern, pre-gunpowder, pre-industrial world, although there are exceptions (e.g. several will argue that Robert E. Howard's Solomon Kane's stories are S&S despite Kane's use of firearms).

"Supernatural element." Most S&S pits protagonists against the supernatural. Black-robed sorcerers, eldritch tentacle-demons, sexy vampire-witches, giant slavering apes, gore-mouthed cyclops, etc.: these are not the good guys. They are dangerous, irredeemable, killable-without-any-guilt enemies. Moreover, the protagonists ploy their death art against them, and the sword dance that ensues is a key spectacle of the genre.

Many will cite the distinctive ontological status of the supernatural in S&S unreal worlds as fundamentally transgressive to sharply distinguish S&S from epic fantasy or high fantasy. For example, in The Lord of the Rings, there are good wizards, good elves, good tree monsters, even good... Gollums. In S&S, however, by and large, the supernatural is an abomination that must be beheaded, split in twain, garroted, skewered, introduced to the pointy end of a blade in other ways, and so forth.

Some literary genealogy: S&S's relationship to the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft needs to be addressed Doing so might begin to explain the distinctively irredeemable nature of the supernatural in S&S.

If we accept that Robert E. Howard, with his Kull stories, created S&S, then we should be ready to acknowledge that at this time Howard was under the literary influence of H.P. Lovecraft. Their voluminous correspondence is available in a fine edition by Hippocampus Press. Also, Howard was not just publishing in but also reading (and enjoying) Weird Tales and contributing to the Lovecraft circle's inside-joke pseudo-bibliographies and unreal mythologies.

A key element of Lovecraft's philosophical outlook was his materialism, atheism, and scientific view of the world, which conditioned him to view the supernatural idiosyncratically as the "most terrible conception of the human brain." He described it in this way: "a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space." The supernatural, for Lovecraft, is bad news (to say the least).

This idea is clearly contra to other fantasists like Tolkien, whose Catholic faith reconciled him to the supernatural. Lovecraft's anti-supernaturalism, however, is a powerful aesthetic resource, one that Howard drew from as he created S&S.

Lovecraftian anti-supernaturalism clearly influences the way the supernatural manifests in Robert E. Howard's S&S. Arguably, it ramifies in the later evolution of the genre.

The thematics of this famous literary enterprise--the meaninglessness of humanity as it is juxtaposed against the vast cosmos, the unfathomable indifference and occasional hostility of outer spaces, the paranoid idea that all is not as it seems and that there are watchers waiting, lurking--these were part of the gloriously fecund muck that vomited out our beloved S&S.

Moving on.

Sword and sorcery is not (necessarily) historical fiction. Still assuming Howard created S&S, we must also acknowledge his love of history and of writing historical fiction, and how this affinity influenced the shape S&S took.

It is firmly established that Howard's S&S tales, specifically the Conan stories, allowed the commercially-minded writer to scratch his historical fiction itch without having to do tons of research and so arrest his literary production. A legacy of that is that historical verisimilitude and actual historical facts aren't a sufficient defining characteristic of S&S. Sure, some S&S can be set in an actual historical epoch rather than a secondary fantasy world with funny names, but a defining characteristic of S&S is its lack of a need for historical verisimilitude.

Finally, espionage fiction. This confuses me. I am not sure why Leiber makes this distinction. James Bond novels and international espionage fiction in general don't seem to have much in common with S&S other than its emphasis on the literary archetype of the high status competent male. So, Leiber's distinction seems gratuitous here. I could be wrong.

Winnowed to its essential elements, Leiber's definition of S&S is pretty dang specific: S&S is set in a premodern world, the supernatural must be present, historical accuracy isn't a concern, and it is not espionage fiction.

Is this a sufficient definition? It doesn't seem to be for a lot of people. For example, Morgan Holmes, Jared Trueheart, and Daniel J. Davis think that S&S is fundamentally a genre about masculine prowess.

They insist that S&S is male-centric and that its masculinist elements are the key to its appeal to readers. Sword and sorcery has balls, they insist hysterically.

To an extent, one might understand where they are coming from. Look at the heaps of creased-spined paperback S&S published in the 1960s and 70s, and you will find lots of evidence to confirm their view. Specifically, look at the covers of those beautiful novels. What will you see?

Frazetta. And several other artists emulating and paying homage to Frazetta's genius. Accordingly, assuming Robert E. Howard created S&S, you can look at the original issues of Weird Tales that published the first S&S yarns and you will see the beautiful (and scantily clad) women of Margaret Brundage squirming in the arms of a barely-recognizable Conan.

If you judged S&S by its covers, then you would assume that it is fundamentally a genre of the alpha male, fighting and killing evil, and taking as a prize the sexy damsel.

We learned this in kindergarten: never judge a book by its cover.

Is that all S&S is? Or, is such a characterization an insulting simplification of a highly artistic genre of imaginative literature that actually contains surprising philosophical depths?

I think Holmes, Trueheart, and Davis are wrong to anti-intellectualize S&S. Sword and sorcery is more than alpha male fantasy. Consider Conan's famous answer to Bêlit's question, "What do you believe?" The usually taciturn, grim, alpha male responds with a monologue that raises my hackles every time I read it:
He shrugged his shoulders. 'I have known many gods. He who denies them is as blind as he who trusts them too deeply. I seek not beyond death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom's realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer's Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.'
Fundamentally, S&S is about the human condition, our ephemeral bodies, our finitude, and our existential struggles in a cruel and often hostile world; and, more importantly, it grants readers symbolic agency, even power, in that struggle.

It’s strange and confusing that Holmes, Trueheart, and Davis insist on the exclusivity of a gender framework. This is what S&S about, when it is the best:
“I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.” (Ecclesiastes 9:11)
"Time and chance happeneth to them all," booms the cosmos. Conan's antiphonal confession: "I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content."

From the myopic, gender-exclusive lens of Holmes, Trueheart, and Davis, Conan's profound answer to the riddle of our tragic vulnerability to the violence of time is uninteresting, a distraction in the narrative thrust of a story speeding toward tits, glazed abs, rocking beds, and death dealing, a minor blip before the sword dance begins and, to quote Davis, the dubious scopophiliac pleasure of watching as "Conan gets hot and heavy with Belit."

Holmes, Trueheart, and Davis are wrong to dig in on this one.

Conan's response is not a distraction.

Conan's response is the diamond set into the center of the tang where the quillons meet in the sword of the genre.

June 29, 2019

A Response to Morgan Holmes and Jared Trueheart: Sword and Sorcery and the Inconsequentiality of Gender

Recently Morgan Holmes, a sword and sorcery expert, was interviewed by masculinity writer, Jared Trueheart, about the genre of sword and sorcery and its relevance to male readers. It was an interesting interview. Having written for the Robert E. Howard United Press Association since 1992 and several other Howard and genre-fiction related topics, Holmes is a fountain of knowledge.

With respect, though, Trueheart's focus on the gender dynamics of sword and sorcery is too narrow. Gender dynamics are an important facet of S&S, of course, but there is much more about the genre.

The High Status Competent Male as Archetype

Asked by Trueheart to discuss the unique appeal of sword and sorcery to male readers, Holmes states, "There is a magnetism of the alpha male rising in an adverse situation and prevailing." This isn't a distinctively sword and sorcery quality. There are several genres that focus on competent and high status men, and Holmes brings up a few: espionage fiction (James Bond), adventure (Allan Quartermain), detective fiction (Sherlock Holmes, Sam Spade), wilderness survival (Beauty Smith), modernist novel (Jake Barnes), and several more genres and writers. Arguably, there is nothing distinctively S&S about fiction that treats the archetype of the high status competent male.

The high status and competent male is an archetypical protagonist that is deployed in many genres. A lot of sword and sorcery is linked to that archetype, of course, and the Conan the Cimmerian stories are a great example. Nevertheless, there are lots of examples of sword and sorcery where the high status competent male is not essential.

Consider Fritz Leiber's "Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser" stories. If--and only if--one excuses Fafhrd's clownishness and ignores some of the difficulties that he clumsily gets himself into, one might argue that this lummox is a "man's man," a high status and competent male; but Leiber doesn't goes out of his way to emphasize Fafhrd's high status and/or his competence. The same goes for his companion, the Gray Mouser, who is physically diminutive, sneaky, and not very masculine, hardly a man's man.

Jack Vance's Dying Earth series comes to mind, specifically The Eyes of the Overworld. Cugel the Clever is one of the most memorable sword and sorcery protagonists there is and he is anything but traditionally masculine. He's an amusing twerp, a kind of harlequin figure. Although Cugel's taste for voluptuous women is insatiable, he is a fashion and food connoisseur, avoids physical altercations, and spends the novel waffling between sweat-streaked panic and bombastic overconfidence.

One also recalls the Albino Emperor, Elric of Melniboné, Thrall of Arioch, who is sickly, effeminate, anxiety ridden, not in control of his emotions, even hysterical at times.

And there are more examples...

The "high status competent male" is powerful archetype. There is no doubt that, as fantasy, this archetype resonates with adolescent boys and men, myself included. However, when sword and sorcery is analyzed with a wide enough angle, the archetype is not a defining characteristic of the genre. There are several examples of S&S that have no truck with the archetype, so universalizing claims that S&S is a form of masculine writing are questionable. A weaker claim is called for: lots of S&S fiction is masculine in nature.

S&S Criticism: Gender Myopia and the Gothic

Defining sword and sorcery is infamously difficult. Several folks tried to do so at a Sword and Sorcery Panel at Robert E. Howard Days in Cross Plains, Texas.

Holmes published an apropos (and excellent) essay in the academic anthology, The Unique Legacy of Weird Tales: The Evolution of Modern Fantasy and Horror, that might help. The essay is titled, "Gothic to Cosmic: Sword-and-Sorcery Fiction in Weird Tales" and it explores the origins of sword and sorcery. In this essay, Holmes makes a compelling argument: "Historical adventure, gothic fiction, and planetary romance all came together to form the sub-genre." What is so compelling about this is Holme's appropriate inclusion of "gothic fiction." Why?

There are several parallels between the controversies surrounding gothic fiction and sword and sorcery. Like sword and sorcery, gothic fiction--at least at its historical origin point--seemed distinguished by a gender dynamic, i.e. a protagonist of a specific gender (female) and a gendered group of readers (women). Gothic fiction, originating in the pseudo-medievalist works of Horace Walpole, Anne Radcliffe, and M.G. Lewis, always featured a terrorized female protagonist, a middle-class virginal woman who finds herself incarcerated in a castle, a maze, a labyrinth, and who is then harried by supernatural threats that are holdovers of a medieval past. Consider The Castle of Otranto (1764), The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), The Monk (1796): all of these quintessential gothic novels feature labyrinths, supernatural occurrences, and medieval imagery, and a central terrorized female.

One might plausibly argue that the gender dynamics of gothic fiction are what make it distinctive. One could even speculate about why more women seemed to read gothic novels in the late 18th and early 19th century by examining its unique appeal to the female reader of the time. But by focusing too narrowly on the gender dimensions of gothic literature, one misses that it is concerned with far more than gender.

The gothic novel of the late 18th century, this central influence on sword and sorcery, is a symptom of the revolutionary changes happening in 18th century western Europe: the French revolution, the end of absolutism as a viable form of government, the blooming of industrial production, the decline of the power of the church, and more. The gothic is centrally concerned with the supernatural, with aesthetically violating the natural, the ordinary, and the real. If one focused too long on its gender dynamics, one wouldn't see its broader philosophical and historical significance.

Sword and Sorcery and the Violence of Time 

As regards sword and sorcery: I do not think the gender dynamics of the genre are unimportant. For example, in Holmes' S&S essay, he analyzes C.L. Moore's Jirel of Joiry stories and observes, "Many of Moore's stories have a suggestion of sexuality to them, and they could be considered feminine sword and sorcery." While the concept of "feminine" and "masculine" sword and sorcery is interesting, the central theme of sword and sorcery has less to do with gender and more to do with being human, with being a finite and vulnerable body subject to the ferocity of time: aging, violence, and the constraints of society and tradition.

The sword and sorcery hero or heroine--whether he be a high status competent male with bulging pecs or she be a rebellious spitfire with bulging boobs--is distinctive less for his or her gender and more for his or her unique enlightened stance toward a world that is changing rapidly: as ephemeral forms, the sword and sorcery hero and heroine stands stubbornly against the yawning vastness of cosmic, deforming time. They are animated by the understanding that life is brief, that the body weakens, and that the grains fall from cup to cup.

Conan, Fafhrd, the Gray Mouser, Jirel of Joiry, Cugel the Clever, Elric of Melniboné: they are all poised on the precipice of radical change--a dying earth, a cosmic struggle, a decaying empire, the retreat of a frontier; indeed, these S&S heroes are united less because of their gender, their status, and even their competence and more by their heroic disregard of social convention, their indifference to status hierarchies, their love of life, and their enlightened understanding of time and the irresistible threat it poses. Despite their context of radical change, they flourish, even glory, in their finitude and ephemerality as we readers, subject to time ourselves, cradle and dogear their acid-rich, paperback worlds.

Discussing aging boxers with August Derleth in 1933, Robert E. Howard, the creator of sword and sorcery, wrote this, which, by analogy, captures a central theme of sword and sorcery, a genre acutely concerned with the tragic passage of time, the way form inevitably and irresistibly decays into formlessness:
"It makes me feel like an old man to watch fighters I knew in their prime, get slapped around by kids. A fighter’s life is short at best, no time to waste, no time to rest; the spot-light shifts, the clock ticks fast, all youth becomes old age at last. Same way with writers, too, some of them."
Gender aside, sword and sorcery dramatizes our gender-neutral, all-too-human fight against (and inevitable defeat by) time.

That notwithstanding, here is something Holmes said in Trueheart's interview that I completely agree with:
"I think men benefit reading period. There is good entertainment with writers such as Dashiell Hammett, Jack London, Ian Fleming, and the better sword and sorcery fiction. Contrary to popular conception, sword and sorcery has both the mental and the physical. Conan and the Continental Op [a protagonist created by Dashiell Hammett, popular in pulp fiction magazines, the proto-typical hard-edged detective] are both manipulating situations in addition to the action that we normally associate with the fiction. The very first Conan story opens with him working on a map of an area the Hyborians know nothing about. Conan learns various languages and has listened to philosophers.
"Both the mental and the physical." Indeed.

June 22, 2019

Reflection on Clark Ashton Smith's "The Return of the Sorcerer"

I recently participated in a discussion on the RPG podcast Plot Points about a Clark Ashton Smith story, "The Return of the Sorcerer" (Strange Tales, September 1931).  Here is an excerpt from Plot Points description: discusses "table-top role-playing games and their supplements as literature. Our quirky panel discusses games old and new, spotlights innovations in the hobby, and links to literature."

The discussion was with Ben Riggs, the host, and Clinton Boomer, a game writer and designer. The concept of the discussion was "Appendix N University." We selected a single author from Gary E. Gygax's "Appendix N" and discussed a story written by that author.

"Appendix N" is a famous list of (mostly) pulp writers that influenced Gary E. Gygax as he co-designed Dungeons and Dragons. It was revised for the recent 5th edition of Dungeons and Dragons and has been re-labeled the "Appendix E."

Curious enough, Clark Ashton Smith is not actually on the original Appendix N (but instead appears in the Appendix E of 5th edition). Pulp canon usual suspects, such as H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, are there, but Smith isn't included, and his absence is something of a controversy. When people discuss the Appendix N, it is common that Clark Ashton Smith is referenced. Most assume that Smith is an Appendix N author and only realize later that Gygax left him off. Perhaps this is why they included him in the updated Appendix E?

As an enthusiast of the Weird Tales Three (Lovecraft, Howard, and Smith), I have something of a theory about why CAS is left off the original but I can't verify this. I speculate Smith was left off because Gygax wasn't able to read Smith's works. In the late 1970s, Lovecraft would have been available in at least the Arkham House editions and probably (more likely) the Ballantine Editions. Howard's Conan stories would have been available in the Lancer editions. Alas, Clark Ashton Smith wouldn't have been available except for the original pulps and some earlier, rarer paperback editions, such as the Panther Lost Worlds anthologies. Am I wrong? Were the Panther's of CAS widely available?

Anyway, as a supplement to the podcast, I want to briefly analyze "The Return of the Sorcerer," the story we discussed in the podcast episode linked above. Spoilers below.

Plot Summary (spoilers): The story is about an out-of-work Arabic scholar, Mr. Ogden, who is hired by a scholarly recluse, John Carnby. Carnby wants Ogden to translate certain passages from the dreaded Necronomicon. Ogden does so. The first translated passage tells of how sorcerers can return from the dead to perform evil acts, and most often for revenge. Carnby then has Ogden translate another passage and this one treats "a singular incantatory formula for the exorcism of the dead" (17). By and by John Carnby confesses that he has murdered his twin brother, Helman Carnby, and so mutilated his body; alas, the many pieces of Helman's body have been shambling around the house. John Carnby is sure that his brother is going to wreak vengeance and so he struggles to exorcise his spirit from the house. The story ends when Helman's mutilated corpse reconstitutes into a gruesome form and murders Carnby. Ogden runs screaming from the house.

I love this bizarre story. There are so many elements that are just right. The way that setting and atmosphere are put to the service of characterization is one element that I want to touch on. Consider this description of the house:
It was a large, two-story house, overshaded by ancient oaks and dark with mantling of unchecked ivy, among the hedges of unpruned privet and shrubbery that had gone while for many years. It was separated by a vacant, weed-grown lot on one side and a table of vines and trees on the other, surrounding the black ruins of a burnt mansion. (11)
The house is painted with shadow and choked by unruly vegetation. On the left is an empty, abandoned lot; on the right, another house, a charred ruin, a fleshless architectural skeleton. Although Smith is rendering a conventional haunted house here, he does so masterfully. It's almost as if the house has a disease. The lots in proximity to it have suffered for their closeness.

Another element of the story that I love are certain descriptive passages. Consider this description of Carnby's study:
There were tables strewn with archaic instruments of doubtful use, with astrological charts, with skulls and alembics and crystals, with censers such as are used in the Catholic Church, and volumes bound in worm-eaten leather with verdigris-mottled clasps. In one corner stood the skeleton of a large ape; in another, a human skeleton; and overhead a stuffed crocodile was suspended. (14)
This description is so satisfying and suggestive and bears some of the weight of characterizing John Carnby and his sorcerous endeavors: Carnby is meditating on the stars (charts), mortality (skull), the past (books), and the evolution/devolution of life (ape, skeleton, crocodile). In a highly compressed description, the narrator has given us a sense of the intellectual hubris of the the character.

I love when writers braid characterization into setting. Even though we have heard very little at this part in the story from Carnby, we have experienced his house from the outside and his study, his intimate space, and so we learn a lot about him.

The final passage I want to look at is the climax, when Helman Carnby's shambling corpse kills John Carnby, his murderous brother. Focus on the shadow and notice how what Smith hides is just as important as what Smith describes:
Huge, elongated, misshapen, the shadow was seemingly cast by the arms and torso of a naked man who stood forward with a surgeon's saw in his hand. Its monstrosity lay in this: though the shoulders, chest, abdomen, and arms were all clearly distinguishable, the shadow was headless and appeared to terminate in an abruptly severed neck. (26)
The shadow of a headless corpse wielding a surgeon's saw to murder: this is pulp at its finest, a kind of literary "Death Metal." The fact that we are not getting the bald description of the phenomenon but instead the shadow cast by it makes it all the more enthralling.

Smith is a masterful storyteller. "The Return of the Sorcerer" is a tightly constructed horror narrative that is structured around the climax of the demented murder. The climax is only one intense paragraph. So, Smith uses that rest of his words to build up to this most important of moments.

In this story, character and setting are inextricably linked; place shines light on character. By contrast, consider the protagonist, our surrogate, Mr. Ogden, who is almost a non-character, an abstract avatar (and strategically so). His function is to allow us, the reader, into this strange world to see for ourselves the horrible, climactic spectacle.

I highly recommend "The Return of the Sorcerer." I read it from an anthology, The Return of the Sorcerer: The Best of Clark Ashton Smith published by Prime Books in 2009. It has an excellent introduction by Gene Wolfe.

Read the story, check out the podcast episode, and let me know what you think.

June 14, 2019

Howard Days 2019

Nicole and I arrived in Abilene around 6 o'clock. We had a quick dinner and then holed up in our hotel room, reading and drinking decaf. I was eager to finish up Mark Finn's 2nd edition of Blood and Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard. I've attended Howard Days three times now; each time I read Mark's book en route on the various flights and during the various layovers. The first year I read the original Monkey Brain version, but now I read the REH Foundation edition, which is superior. I'm annoyed because my academic book went to press before I procured a copy of the 2nd edition, so references in my book are going to be to the first edition.

The next morning we woke up early and had breakfast. During breakfast I paged through Patrice's book, The Robert E. Howard Guide (Skelos). I really enjoy this book and loan it to my students when they voice interest in REH. Although the book presents itself as non-serious, I am still impressed by the analysis and speculation Patrice provides, particularly in the chapter surveying twenty stories that must be read. 

I then began polishing up my Glenn Lord Symposium paper. I made a minimalistic powerpoint consisting mostly of long quotes. My rules of thumb (I tell my students) for verbalized academic papers are few: (1) make sure they take no longer than 10 minutes to read (approximately 1800 words), make sure they are accompanied by a focused power point, and make sure they are read energetically. Otherwise, everyone will fall asleep. Also, remember, some people will fall asleep, and it's not an insult.

Nicole and I then drove from Abilene to Cross Plains and went straight to the panels. The first panel I saw was on writing about Robert E. Howard. It featured David C. Smith, Patrice Louinet, Bobby Derie, and Rob Roehm I was sad to learn that Mark Finn couldn't make it. He was listed as being on the panel. 

The panel was great. My lingering question was how does a writer strike a balance between diehard-fandom/scholarship and "just for fun" fan banter. We diehards can sometimes take the fun out of discussing this stuff, I think. How can we be ambassadors of Robert E. Howard while maintaining rigor? Patrice Louinet insightfully suggested to always keep one's audience in mind. Alas, it's difficult, sometimes, to get a clear sense of who one's audience is.

The next panel was the Glenn Lord Symposium.  Ralph Norris, Nicole, and I gave our papers. It was a pleasure meeting Ralph. I had trouble following his paper's argument but it seemed erudite and thoughtful. It's wonderful that an academic medievalist has turned his attention to Howard. I think Howard Days should have another Glenn Lord Panel. There are academics who would come but they need to have a legitimate "academic" venue, like the Symposium, in order to put in for travel reimbursement and academic service credit. Humanists are often quite poor and graduate students are poverty stricken. 

After that was the Foundation Awards. It's wonderful the foundation does this. The kind of work diehard fans and scholars do is often under-appreciated and sometimes feels thankless, so awards like this serve a useful incentivizing function. Nicole and I have been thinking about coming up with an award sponsored by The Dark Man, perhaps for best article or something like that.

After that we went back to the pavilion and shot the breeze. It felt a little empty considering Rusty Burke, Mark Finn, Frank Coffman, Karen Kahoutek, and others were missing, but it still was wonderful. Within a few minutes I was talking to some newcomers about the nature of the 1930s pulp magazine marketplace. Where else?

Fast forward to the banquet: David C. Smith's speech was excellent. I am so enthused that he emphasized Howard as a literary artist. Often I find myself so intrigued by Howard's life and times that I give short shrift to the centrality of his literary artistry. 

Sad to say, after the banquet, we went back to Abilene, to the hotel room (last year I stayed and drank beer into the night). At the hotel, I read an Oxford UP book by Belinda Jack, Reading: A Very Short Introduction (2019). If you're interested, I reviewed it on Goodreads. It is an excellent micro history of reading, from Sumerian clay tablets to the Kindle.

The next day Nicole and I didn't return to Cross Plains until around lunch. Scott Valeri, David C. Smith, Nicole and I had burgers at a local restaurant. We talked about all sorts of things: the weirdness of academic literary criticism, the history of pulp fandom, fantasy fiction and the influence of D&D in the 1980s, and more. These great conversations are why I attend Howard Days.

Next, there were panels. There was one on "sword and sorcery," with Jason M. Waltz, David C. Smith, Dierk Günther, and me. It was a great panel, I think, with David taking the lead. We touched on a lot of undecideds. The central idea was that sword and sorcery is infamously difficult to define, and this was captured succinctly in the panels inability to come to a consensus on whether or not Solomon Kane is a sword and sorcery character or not. Jeff Shanks contributed as well by sharing talking about the difficulty of writing an article about sword and sorcery for Gary Hoppenstand's anthology, Pulp Fiction in the 1920s and 1930s (Salem, 2013).

After that there was a panel on the future of Robert E. Howard. Nicole and I talked a little about The Dark Man: Journal of Robert E. Howard and Pulp Studies, its evolving status at our university (Christopher Newport University), and our hopes for it in the future. Paul Herman talked about the Foundation's future plans and a representative from Cabinet Entertainment, Michael Jacobson, talked about the future of Conan.

Nicole and I then went back to our hotel room for some quiet recovery. Like most deep readers, I'm an introverted, socially anxious person. All that socializing and talking--lunch and two panels--pretty much wiped me out. After a bit, we returned to Cross Plains, enjoyed the annual poetry reading, and ended the night chatting with people at the pavilion as the darkness crept in. Again, it felt a little empty but good conversation was had by all.

I'm really looking forward to returning next year. There was palpable energy. 2020 is going to be a great year for REH.