February 20, 2020

Review of Brian Murphy's, Flame and Crimson: A History of Sword-and-Sorcery (Pulp Hero Press, 2020)

On the way to inventing the fantasy subgenre of "sword and sorcery" (S&S), Robert E. Howard crafted the quasi-S&S hero, Solomon Kane, a brooding, puritanical demon hunter, bane of zombies, vampires, and other supernatural horrors. With the first Solomon Kane story, Howard mixed genres like a manic alchemist raiding his reagent cabinet: he combined historical fiction, swashbuckling adventure, and supernatural horror. Indeed, this modernistic hybridization of genre tabooed the first Solomon Kane story for many pulp editors. Consider the famous Solomon Kane rejection letter Howard received from the editor of Argosy: "In some ways this story is very good, and in others it is rotten [...]. It starts out as a period story, & finally changes into a combination of modern & medieval African jungle story. You can't mix periods & atmospheres like that. Stick to one or the other" (qtd. in The Robert E. Howard Guide [Skelos P, 2019] 68). This rejection didn't discourage Howard too much. Many speculate the rejection motivated Howard to submit the story to Weird Tales, the pulp where he would pioneer the S&S genre. Patrice Louinet, commenting on the Argosy rejection and subsequent acceptance by Weird Tales, speculates, "Howard had understood or at least felt that the strength of his character resides precisely in this total scorn of established conventions" (69).

It's an old story worth rehearsing briefly: Howard would go on write several Solomon Kane stories. Later, elements of the Kane stories, specifically the mixture of swashbuckling adventure with supernaturalism, would be incorporated in the Kull of Atlantis stories. By and by, Kull of Atlantis, through revision, would morph into Howard's most enduring creation, Conan the Cimmerian, the character whose world and adventures would become the "Ur-source" of the genre of S&S. 

From a certain perspective, S&S began with rejection. 

Let's hope it doesn't end that way.

"Sword and sorcery." Readers react to the term in a variety of ways. The genre is often the locus of critical paradox: (1) proto-feminist and sexist, (2) a form of modernist experimentation and formulaic pulp entertainment, (4) distinctively literary and ephemeral popular culture, an unpretentious multimedia phenomenon incorporating RPGs, music, and video games. 

The story of S&S is, to put it mildly, complicated. 

Here's a key theme: some criticize S&S for its conventionalism, its reliance upon a hackneyed formula. Shorn of all story incidentals, the spine of a typical S&S tale looks like this: a male barbarian faces off against a sorcerer in order to win a woman-as-prize. Seen in this light, it's hard to take S&S too seriously. Consider, for example, Brian Hval's lamentation along these grounds, published in the April 1970 issue of the S&S fanzine, Amra: "I have finally been exhausted by the same repetitious plots of half-naked barbarians chasing equally naked women through numberless perils, the entire series of episodes menaced by some slimy Elder Evil. [...] All brainless boozing barbarians!" (qtd. in Murphy 171). With this view of the genre in mind, it is sobering to recall that it began as genre defined by its generic formlessness. 

BUT! If one returns to the origins of S&S, you find this phrase: "Total scorn of established conventions." Alas, look at the end of the end of the story, you find this phrase: "The same repetitious plots." 

What the #$%& happened?

Brian Murphy's Flame and Crimson: A History of Sword-and-Sorcery (Pulp Hero Press, 2020), begins to wrestle with this story. Flame and Crimson is a much-needed survey of this venerable yet vivacious subgenre of fantasy literature. The book does more, however, than chronologically laying out the rise, development, decline, and (ongoing) rebirth of S&S. It lodges a compelling defense of S&S's enduring cultural significance in modernity; it provides an insightful description of its conventions and distinguishing features, and begins to connect the subgenre to its (often lamented) multimedia uptake in music, film, and gaming. 

Who is it written for? This book will be valuable to experts, casual fans, and newcomers alike. Experts might find a few chapters superficial and thin; casual fans might find some chapters technical and over-detailed; newcomers might wonder what all the fuss is about. But if you're interested in S&S--despite where you are coming from--this book is required reading. 

Below are a few of the reasons why.

Murphy's prose style is excellent, lively, unaffected, and precise, a delicate balance to strike.

Although it is written for a deep reader of fantasy, it does not assume that the reader knows everything there is to know about S&S already. It evinces a journalistic style: it is accessible, hospitable, and avoids the insular language of the academic. This is because it is truly an introductory survey. 

The opening chapters distinguishes S&S from other traditions of fantasy in a valid and thoughtful way. It goes on to treats all the major authors of S&S. I'm anticipating later reviews of the book that decry that certain writers didn't get treatment (or deeper treatment).

If there is anything controversial here, then it is in its treatment of L. Sprague de Camp, the editor and ambassador of Howard's Conan the Cimmerian character and critical standard bearer for S&S. Murphy treads lightly. He doesn't strictly condemn de Camp for his 1970s characterization of S&S as escapist, unpretentious, and anti-intellectual entertainment. He neutrally recounts how and why de Camp held this view: for de Camp, hewing to convention was part of S&S's appeal. Although one gets the sense that Murphy disagrees with de Camp in part, he doesn't use his book as a basis for editorially decrying de Camp. Instead, he simply lays out the de Camp story and gets the reader to consider his ambiguous role in the history of the subgenre: de Camp was a popularizer whose influence had good and bad consequences. Although many have formed negative opinions of de Camp due to his biographical distortions of Howard's life in Dark Valley Destiny, the infamous Howard bio, Murphy's steady approach is nevertheless admirable.

Murphy also discusses the S&S renaissance that is ongoing. Murphy hits on all the major players: DMR Books, Rogues Blades Entertainment, From the Magician's Skull, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly. He also briefly talks about Grimdark and its tangential relationship to S&S. I'm sure writers currently participating in the S&S renaissance would have preferred a longer treatment of their movement or favorite writers; however, Murphy's book is part of that same phenomenon. It will probably emerge as the "go-to" critical companion to the S&S revival.

There are some elements of the book worth quibbling with: the chapter on Robert E. Howard seemed unambitious from a literary criticism perspective. That chapter seemed to assume Howard's uncontested centrality in the genre and rehearsed previous arguments deployed elsewhere. One can't blame Murphy's treatment of Howard here. He clearly knows his Howard and perhaps didn't want to go over old territory. Indeed, he writes about Howard with precision. It would have been interesting to hear novel speculations about Howard's critical significance. But this chapter is less a new theory of Howard and more a restatement of previous arguments about Howard's centrality to the subgenre. 

There is an enthralling chapter on the cultural impact of S&S, wherein Murphy discusses S&S's uptake in other genres and medias. This chapter was extremely interesting but it seemed only a cursory treatment of an otherwise massive archive of pop culture that fans of S&S haven't even begun to come to terms with. For example, there is mention of R.A. Salvatore and his Drizzt Do'Urden novels, for example. But what about the stacks and stacks of mass market paperback game tie-in novels? (The Warhammer Fantasy characters, Gotrek and Felix, for example, are an homage to Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser and Conan). A longer treatment of S&S as a multimedia phenomenon is needed. Central to this is the way S&S's narrative conventions have become central to Dungeons and Dragons, which, despite your stance towards the game, is the main way most experience the genre, its conventions, its atmospherics, and thematic concerns. D&D should be viewed as a literary wellspring because it has become the major engine (for good or ill) of new adventure fantasy fiction.  Murphy has struck new territory with this chapter. 

To summarize: this book is excellent. It is the beginning of a long overdue, serious, and honest appraisal of the S&S subgenre. S&S is sometimes simplistically decried as a genre of anti-intellectualism, misogyny, and ideological insularity, but it doesn't come through as that caricature here. Murphy renders a vital genre where many of the concerns about a distinctively modern human experience are explored . One begins this book expecting it to be a history, a recounting of bygone days, a record of what has happened. It ends, however, with an emphasis on the S&S revival, on the future. It's an exciting turn.

Let me conclude by citing the opening of Robert E. Howard's first professional sale, "Spear and Fang" (Weird Tales, July 1925). The narrator is describing a premodern human, an "Ur-artist," trying his hand at artistic expression: "With a piece of flint he scratched the outline and then with a twig dipped in ocher paint completed the figure. The result was crude, but gave evidence of real artistic genius, struggling for expression." This image reminds me of S&S. S&S, too, is sometimes crude, but in Flame and Crimson, Brian Murphy reminds us that, more than you would expect, it gives evidence of real artistic genius struggling for a voice.

January 4, 2020

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


Introduction

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

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

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

The Myth of the "Pure" Text

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

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

The De Camp Controversy (Abridged Version)

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

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

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

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

But let's back up.

Robert E. Howard and Popular Culture Exuda

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

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

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

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

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

Art Begets More Art (Sometimes)

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

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

My Descent into and Ascent from Snobbery

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

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

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

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

A Conclusion, and a Question

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

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

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

A question for another time.