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.