Offutt’s First Effort As Editor

While I don’t quite buy John Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces theory, I do think that there are certain basic frameworks that stories can (but never must) follow, and which can yield a nigh-infinite variety of different permutations of the same basic ideas whilst leaving room for the author’s own themes and personality to shine through. The Hero’s Journey is one such case in point; another one, which through an act of epic pretentiousness I’ll dub the Traveller’s Intervention, was fleshed out by a number of authors in the early 20th Century and goes a little something like this:

A hero, often itinerant, almost always foreign, finds himself called upon to intervene in a dilemma which frequently involves the ambitions of one or more powerful individuals. Often the hero will have his or her own ambitions, which will usually involve some form of personal advancement; occasionally the hero will be unwilling to intervene, but find themselves compelled to, either by external force or their own conscience. Eventually one side or the other in the dilemma will turn out to be in the wrong; sometimes the true villain of the piece will prove to be a raging, instinct-driven beast, whereas sometimes it will turn out to be a manipulative individual who believes that they are invested with the right (whether by tradition or by occult means or by virtue of their special qualities) to do as they please to whom they please; in the latter case, this could turn out to be the person who requested the hero’s intervention in the first place. The hero eventually discerns the correct course of action and defeats the villain, and usually endures physical danger and occult menace in the process; in most cases the hero will win through by virtue of his or her wit and skill. The situation having been resolved, the hero will normally move on, although not without a certain reward for his or her efforts. The hero, in this model, is an agent of societal change, whose intervention has the effect of either breaking a stalemate or championing the underdog, but is not a part of society but exists externally to it.

This is the formula which once refined by Robert E. Howard (with the aid of such precursors as Edgar Rice Burroughs) became the seed of the sword & sorcery subgenre of fantasy, with authors as diverse as Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, Poul Anderson and Michael Moorcock making important contributions to it. As with the Hero’s Journey, of course, the above outline is only a loose and ridiculously broad framework, and most authors (including Howard) produced works that diverge from it radically, but even then it’s notable as a departure from the standard format. (For example, the Elric series by Michael Moorcock centres around a weak-willed cripple who wins his Pyrrhic victories by virtue of his soul-stealing magic sword, but aside from this the original novellas fit the above formula surprisingly well.)

A limitation of this particular monomyth is that it appears to be more suited to short stories than to novels; whilst there are a few examples of excellent sword & sorcery novels (including much of Michael Moorcock’s output from the 1960s and early 1970s), most of the foundational works of the genre are in the short story format. This may in part be due to the framework I’ve described covering only one incident of many in an individual’s life, whereas the Hero’s Journey tends to describe the most important and valuable thing the protagonist is ever likely to do. (This may be why the quest narrative is so popular in high fantasy); I think it is also due to this sort of story working best when it has a nervous, energetic, Howard-like intensity to it, with fast pacing and lightning-fast action; this is a mood which is decidedly sustainable over the course of, say, a novella, but is difficult to maintain for the duration of a novel.

Of course, another factor has to be the origins of sword & sorcery in the first place: whilst high fantasy has its roots in novels by the likes of William Morris, E.R. Eddison, and of course Tolkien, sword & sorcery sprang from the pages of 1930s pulp fiction magazines, with a few antecedents in the form of the short stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Lord Dunsany. The fact that the framework seems especially well-served by the short story format probably has a lot to do with the fact that it was devised for the short story format in the first place. But with the waning of the short story magazines as forces in SF/fantasy publishing, and with the audience’s tastes spurning most epics shorter than, say, Dune or Stranger In a Strange Land, the genre found itself in trouble in the mid-to-late 1970s. The apparent intellectual vacuity of the subgenre probably didn’t help, and neither did its undeserved reputation for misogyny and racism; both of these image problems may have resulted from oversaturation of the market by Robert E. Howard’s work, posthumously-completed Howard stories, and people writing lazy Howard pastiches. But the genre does not deserve to be written off as the disreputable legacy of an anti-intellectual, racist bigot from rural Texas, and it didn’t deserve that in 1977; luckily, a lone hero sallied forth to save the day, that hero being Andrew Offutt, editor of the Swords Against Darkness anthology series.

Anthologies of all-original SF/fantasy stories (as opposed to mere compilations of the year’s most notable output) such as Swords Against Darkness were all the rage in the 1970s and 1980s, having somewhat supplanted SF magazines; sure, if you were good with a typewriter you could get into the magazines, but if you were a real hotshot you got picked for the anthologies. The craze probably started with Harlan Ellison’s seminal Dangerous Visions, although apparently many of the all-original anthology lines of the era abjectly failed to turn a profit, and the petering-out of the Swords Against Darkness series may be a consequence of this; though Offutt would produce five such anthologies from 1977 to 1979,

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Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and Its Imitators, Part 4

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

The story so far: August Derleth’s put out the original Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos anthology through his Arkham House publishing imprint, and after he died the original Tales was revised by Jim Turner. Arkham House attempted to follow it up first with New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, edited by Ramsey Campbell, which was a bit hit-and-miss, and the rather more successful Jim Turner-edited Cthulhu 2000.

However, Arkham House’s star was well and truly fading by the 1990s, despite these Mythos-related efforts and others (such as the issuing of new editions of Lovecraft’s works with the texts corrected by S.T. Joshi). With the death of August Derleth and the copyright on Lovecraft’s work coming closer to lapsing worldwide, the fandom was less inclined to look to the publisher as being the be-all and end-all of the Mythos; the backlash against Derleth’s heavy-handed pronouncements of canon gathered pace, and new sources of Lovecraftian writing and criticism appeared here and there. In addition, Jim Turner’s personal take on the Mythos and his lauding of high literary value and science fiction-oriented works over pastiche earned its own backlash.

Against this background, a new publisher arose – Fedogan & Bremer. This small press aimed to produce books more oriented towards the old style of Arkham House, before Turner’s custodianship took the publisher on a different path from the one it had taken under August Derleth. (This was not an overly adversarial situation, though – they saw their books distributed via Arkham House, for one thing.) Like Arkham House, some of their material has disappeared into the aether whilst others have been reprinted as trade paperbacks by other publishers – with a few even making it into Ballantine’s line of Lovecraftian releases, putting them on the same level as their issues of Arkham House material.

Among the more prominent Fedogan & Bremer releases are a number of anthologies edited by Robert M. Price, who at this point had established himself as a loud voice in Cthulhu fandom. Up to this point, Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos had tended to represent an unattainable high point in the ranks of Mythos anthologies; Price tilted directly at this windmill..

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Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and Its Imitators, Part 1

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Despite the fact that even during Lovecraft’s own lifetime the Cthulhu Mythos was well-established as a multi-author shared world type of affair, and despite the fact that the various contributions to it tended to be in the short story format, it took a surprisingly long time for a fully Mythos-themed short story anthology to appear. In the first few decades of Mythos fandom, when August Derleth exerted a lot of influence over the field and Arkham House as close to being the de facto “official” publisher of such material as anyone could claim to be, Arkham didn’t really put out any all-Mythos multi-author anthologies, unless you count books put out under H.P. Lovecraft’s byline that included falsified collaborations by August Derleth or essays by Lovecraft Circle members. Instead, Mythos stories were sprinkled among other material in Arkham House’s genre anthologies.

That changed in 1969 with Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos; this inspired a trickle of other all-Mythos multi-author anthologies, like the Lin Carter-edited Ballantine Adult Fantasy series entry The Spawn of Cthulhu from 1971 (an anthology now largely redundant due to the material mostly being reprinted in other, more easily-available sources), or the DAW Books release The Disciples of Cthulhu from 1976, to Arkham House’s own New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos from 1980. In the 1990s, the pace of such publications picked up, in part because of figures from fandom like Robert M. Price gaining prominence as anthologists and in part because of Chaosium starting up their own fiction line as a tie-in with the Call of Cthulhu RPG.

The anthologies I am going to review in this article series will cover Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and subsequent Arkham House releases that can be seen as sequels to it, as well as two series of anthologies that can be seen as attempts by prominent Lovecraft critics to craft their own take on Tales – one anthology grouping is by Robert M. Price, whilst the other is by S.T. Joshi.

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Dissecting Lovecraft Part 8: Supernatural Horror In Biography

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Having covered much of Lovecraft’s work from the early 1930s, we’ve now come to the point when he put the final touches on Supernatural Horror In Literature, so this seems to be the best time to take a good look at it. It’s easily the most widely reprinted of Lovecraft’s essays, and to be honest it genuinely deserves to be because it’s far and away the best of his nonfiction writing and represents a useful early survey of the genre as it had developed up to the time Lovecraft wrote it. He had begun it way back in 1925 during his New York stint, but revised it and added new discoveries of his when the prospect of it being republished came up; several versions available, including the one in the second volume of the Collected Essays series, helpfully indicate where the new insertions are.

As the title suggests, the essay is about the literary merit of the weird tale. Lovecraft suggests that only a few readers will really appreciate such material, because most people are too bound up in the daily routine to get much out of literature that does not deal with real life and won’t be especially sensitive to transcendental themes. This may have been accurate enough at the time of writing – and goodness knows Lovecraft was in a better position than many to appreciate how limited the audience for Weird Tales and other such outlets for supernatural horror was.

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Several Species of Bizarre Racial Theories Gathered Together In a Mythos and Grooving With a Pict

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

So, at the start of this year I wrote a mammoth-sized article about Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories which attracted a certain amount of attention, including some posts by Howard’s defenders, and much earlier I wrote a review of the Solomon Kane stuff which got S.M. Stirling all hot and bothered. A few of these comments were broadly reasonable in their tone; others, well, ended up sounding a bit like this. I hadn’t really intended to return to Robert E. Howard’s work after this because I find it bigoted and amateurish and was sceptical that any of the other material out there would make me change my mind, but when I saw copies of Conan’s Brethren and The Haunter of the Ring and Other Stories going for £1 each at the sprawling used book shop in Notting Hill I swing by from time to time to hunt down rarities, I thought “hell with it, let’s go in for another round”.

A frequent complaint in the discussion on Ferretbrain provoked by my last article was that I was mischaracterising Howard based on only a limited set of his material, and I needed to read more widely if I was going to get a proper picture of his work. The complaint itself doesn’t really stand up as a counter to my criticism of the Conan stories because, well, I was criticising the Conan stories. What judgements I made about Howard’s worldview as an author and the racial theories he put forth there were based on how those stories present said subjects. If the views Howard presented in the Conan material did not accurately reflect his own views, then that doesn’t exonerate the stories at all, and it doesn’t really let Howard off the hook: writing an overtly racist story you don’t really believe in for the cash is just as odious, though in different ways, as writing an overtly racist story you actually believe in. I did, in fact, concede in the previous post that the market Howard was targeting with the Conan stories might have brought out the worst in him – a point at least one of his defenders also made – which is about as fair as I can be to the guy without saying stuff I don’t actually believe myself.

Still, I’ve got these tomes now, and I may as well put them to good use. By which I mean entertaining use. By which I mean waving them about and yelling “Look, look damn it! It’s not just the Conan and Solomon Kane stories that air these racist views! They’re not even the worst examples!”

A little word about the publications in question. Conan’s Brethren is a chunky hardback put out by Gollancz, and the selections within it are meant to be representative of Howard’s non-Conan sword and sorcery and historical adventure material – it’s part of that line of ostentatiously huge editions of Lovecraft and Howard and (inexplicably) Jack Vance they have with the ornate pseudo-leather covers so you can pretend you have the actual Necronomicon on your bookshelf (except they stopped naming the things after Mythos tomes after the first Lovecraft volume they did). Happily, my edition is a more compact normal-sized version made for Book Club Associates, so yay for not trying to read this ridiculously big thing on the train in the morning. The Haunter of the Ring is published by Wordsworth Editions and picks out stories to represent his horror output (including a cross-section of his Cthulhu Mythos stuff, written in honour of his dreamy penpal HP “Creepy Howie” Lovecraft), being part of their “Wait, we can totally do a Horror Masterworks series using solely out-of-copyright material” line.

Neither publisher fancied shelling out for the actual rights to any of this stuff, which meant that the collections are stuffed with out-of-copyright material. That means that there’s no collaborations (or at least no stories explicitly presented as collaborations) in the set, since the time limit for copyright expiry would run from the death of the last surviving collaborator and most of the folk who finished off Howard’s incomplete works after his suicide died long after him. The Howard material which is in the public domain for the purposes of UK law consists of everything he published when he was alive, plus any posthumously released works which were first made available to the general public 70 years ago (so, only posthumous releases from the first few years after his death are out of copyright). That represents a goodly chunk of his output, but it doesn’t actually include everything – for instance, none of the Dark Agnes stories saw print for decades after Howard’s death.

So, reader beware! It could be that Howard was actually an extremely progressively-minded sort with a passionate devotion to Minority Warrior causes, but due to the vicious market he was writing for this was never reflected the stories that were published in his lifetime; conversely, his posthumously published stories reveal an outlook distinctly at odds with the sexist, racist balderdash his editors lapped up when he was still with us.

Given that his in-copyright works include dreck like The Vale of Lost Women – yes, the one with the flappity space bat worshipped by a tribe of undomesticated African lesbians – I suspect that might not be the case.

In terms of how this is going to be arranged: I’m going to tackle the Conan’s Brethren stuff first and follow up with the horror material. This is a mildly artificial distinction in Howard’s work since there’s a substantial amount of crossover and overlap between the material, but the sword and sorcery tends to bleed into the horror more than the horror bleeds into the sword and sorcery, if you see what I mean, so by tackling the sword and sorcery material first and then moving on to the horror stuff I can better illustrate that. I’m also not necessarily going to tackle stories in the order they are presented in the collections or in the categories they’re offered up in the collections, instead bunching them together in a way which leads to a logical discussion that flows nicely. Lastly, I’m not going to cover the Solomon Kane stories because I already did ’em once.

Continue reading “Several Species of Bizarre Racial Theories Gathered Together In a Mythos and Grooving With a Pict”

We Need To Talk About Conan

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

This article is, to an extent, old news. There has been a ridiculous amount of ink spilled on the subject of Conan ever since Robert E. Howard began writing about the guy. Over and over again, people have said some variation of what Jason Sanford says here – to paraphrase, that Howard was tediously and egregiously racist by our standards, and that perhaps we shouldn’t keep loudly recommending his work as being essential reading in the fantasy genre. And like clockwork, in come the weaksauce defences. At best, you get pieces like this, in which Jonathan Moeller at least acknowledges that Howard was a racist but tries to argue that what Sanford was proposing was censorship. (It isn’t. Shunning is not censorship. Sanford never argued that Howard’s works should be suppressed or banned from publication, but Moeller seems to regard refusing to positively promote Howard’s works as being the same thing as actively working to suppress them.) At worst, you have people proposing the most incredible arguments as to why, despite all appearances, Howard wasn’t that bad of a racist, and wasn’t even a sexist either. We’ve had some of that here in the past, and I suspect we’ll see more; certainly, it seems to be a law that if you criticise Howard on your SF/fantasy website, fanzine or other forum, his defenders will manifest to wheel out the same tired arguments in his defence.

But the fact remains that the Conan stories have been skewered before, repeatedly, and by people with far more standing to complain about them than I’ll ever have. What’s prompted me to step in here?

Well, first off, it seemed timely. Having reviewed the Conan movies fairly recently, and having had exchanges about Howard on here too, the subject was on my mind. It had been a while since I had reread the stories anyway. People might be interested in a review since there seem to be several reprints making their way onto the shelves in the wake of the movie remake. Why not?

Secondly, the series seems ideal subject matter for the Reading Canary, though in the reverse to the way I usually do these articles – rather than being an exercise in asking “where does this series end up losing what made it good in the first place?”, this has turned more into a “which Conan stories might almost have been OK if Howard had been able to shut up?” deal. A lot of the tales I simply cannot enjoy any more because of the racism and misogyny on display. On top of that, one has to confront the stark fact that Robert E. Howard just wasn’t that good of a writer a lot of the time – remember, these stories were cranked out quickly, for a market that was permanently hungry for new material, and aside from some of the longer stories there’s little sign of polish. Howard would regularly recycle plots or slap a new name on essentially the same supporting character (I lost count of the number of female leads who were Caucasian escapees from dark-skinned slavers), and generally cut corners in order to produce as much product as he could. When the stories are often shit, often bigoted, and fairly often both bigoted and shit, the question arises as to whether any of them are worthy of their reputation at all.

Thirdly, I did this because in another life I might have been one of those defenders. I can remember reading the stories as a teenager and simply failing to notice the bigotry involved; I can also remember reading them again when somewhat older, and being able to recognise the bigotry but willing to argue that people should read the stories anyway because they were so influential and the quality shone through. Both are positions I regard with some embarrassment.

So, basically I am tilting at a windmill which already has a small forest of lances poking out of its sails for the sake of self-flagellating about my former bad taste. It’s more fun than it sounds, which is good because the Conan material is much less fun than I remember it being.

Obvious caveat: I’m a white man, so I have a thick woolly layer of privilege between me and a lot of the issues I talk about here. It’s entirely possible I give Howard an easy time in some places or don’t quite cut to the heart of what’s wrong in other places. I might even flip out at parts which aren’t actually that offensive in some places.

Oh, and trigger warning: racism and sexism aplenty in this stuff. Plus there’s one story which can be summarised as “Conan tries to rape someone and fails”, so yeah.

Continue reading “We Need To Talk About Conan”

What Is Worst In Film?

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

So recently I invited Dan and Kyra to come watch the new Conan the Barbarian movie with me, and they agreed because friends don’t let friends go into that sort of situation alone. It gave us a lot to think about and process, and you can rest assured our post-match analysis was pretty animated, but it’s only now that I think I’ve got my thoughts about the film in some sort of logical order.

Spoiler-free summary: it’s so bad that after it was over I went out and immediately bought the blu-ray of the original film so that Arnold Schwarzenegger could take the pain away in glorious high-definition.

But to understand just how much of a failure it is, we need to go right back to the beginning – to the original Dino DeLaurentiis-produced series of Robert E. Howard-themed movies, which spawned a horrifying tidal wave of second-rate imitators. Now, to be fair I’m not averse to 80s barbarian B-movies, but it’s a “so bad it’s good” sort of deal – they’re bizarre, badly acted and bizarrely-costumed cultural wreckage from a particular era and fun to watch when you’re in the mood for something completely fucking laughable, though they’re sufficiently offensive that I wouldn’t blame anyone for reviling them. The new movie is horrendous not just because it fails to replicate the success of the original, but it fails to be entertaining even on the lowest common denominator level of the imitators. Before I get to reviewing the remake, though, I want to give mad love to the original, and give its two sequels a kicking along the way too. Partially because there’s something comforting about shooting fish in a barrel, and partially to put this new failure in context.

In case you didn’t know, by the way, Red Sonja‘s premise and script are based largely on rape. So, Fantasy Rape Watch tag gets ticked, those as are likely to be triggered be warned.

Continue reading “What Is Worst In Film?”

The Racist Hand of Doom

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

The work of Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian (and, arguably, the entire “sword and sorcery” subgenre of fantasy fiction), is slowly but surely slipping into the public domain in jurisdiction after jurisdiction, making his work easy pickings for the good people at Wordsworth Editions, whose new “Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural” line has been featured previously on FerretBrain. The Right Hand of Doom is a slim compilation containing all the stories Robert E. Howard completed in his lifetime concerning the adventuring Puritan Soloman Kane, as well as a fragmentary story and a few poems. Like just about all of Howard’s protagonists, Kane is a man of action, strong with his fists, fast with his sword, and deadly with his pistols. Unlike Conan, he is gaunt and sinewy, and lacks the Cimmerian’s appetite for hard drinking and loose women. Interestingly, he also lacks a certain self-awareness; Howard states explicitly that Kane is ruled by a thirst for adventure and exploration, but never closely analyses his motives and rationalises them as an eternal quest for justice. This “justice” usually takes the form of bloody retribution; in many Kane stories he will come across evidence of a horrible atrocity, and then pursue the culprits to their utter destruction, no matter how far he must travel or how many years he must invest in the chase. Thus, Kane cuts a bloody swathe through the 17th Century just as Conan cuts one through the Hyborean Age.

So far, so good. There is, however, just a mild problem with the subject matter.

Continue reading “The Racist Hand of Doom”