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.