Today is Robert E. Howard's birthday. For me, the picture above is the beginning. My first exposure to Robert E. Howard and Conan the Cimmerian. Though cover dated March of 1974, this comic was actually on the spinner racks in December of 1973. This copy was purchased for me by a favorite Great Aunt at a drugstore in my home town of Canton Georgia, as part of a random stack of comics she gave me for Christmas. This is the actual comic, which I've had ever since. Note that I got it signed by writer Roy Thomas. The signature is above the statue's shoulder on the left. The Conan books were out of print at the time, but eventually this comic led to my reading anything I could find by REH. Weird to hold this sometimes and know that the first time I held it, I was eleven years old.
Monday, January 02, 2017
The Sword and Sorcery quotient has been on the rise here at Singular Points. Last week I had a guest post from Scott Oden, and today I have one from my friend and frequent collaborator James A. Moore. Jim has a brand new Grimdark Fantasy book out, the first in a series, that's bound to please readers of his Seven Forges books. Today Jim's going to talk about the origins of Grimdark, which is really the modern equivalent of S&S.
From Wikipedia: “Grimdark is a subgenre or a way to describe the tone, style or setting of speculative fiction (especially fantasy) that is, depending on the definition used, markedly dystopian or amoral, or particularly violent or realistic. The word was inspired by the tagline of the tabletop strategy game Warhammer 40,000: ‘In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.’
Let me state this unequivocally: Grimdark is not new. The term is, to be sure, but the actual writing style? Hardly. I imagine a dozen different scholarly types would go back in time and tell you exactly where they believe Grimdark started. I am not a scholar. I read. I write. Somewhere along the way I started writing Grimdark.
What I write is often grim and certainly dark. I’m not known for happy endings in my stories and the best of my characters tend to have a rather vague concept of the moral high ground. When I was writing Horror it was just called Horror, or, oddly, Urban Fantasy. When I started writing Fantasy, I thought of it as Sword & Sorcery.
That was the right definition in both cases, but, like horror, Grimdark borders on being an emotional mindset. The notion that the world will not end nicely, the thought that sometimes good people do bad things and that the best people aren’t really at the center of your stories? That’s not new. It’s been around since Shakespeare at the very least. It’s just been renamed.
I’m going to stick with books. I could go into movies and point out several recent ones, actually, but I’ll stick with books. Some of the movies I would point out make my blood boil (Sorry, Man of Steel is NOT a superman movie. It’s a movie about an alien with an “S” on his chest. It’s properly Grimdark, but it ain’t Superman.
Ewe can look at several mythologies and see certain elements of Grimdark. The Norse had a special love of bloodshed in their tales. The best fighters, the most savage and fearless, got a reward when they died. They got to go live among the gods and fight with them every day until the universe ended. How’s that for happily ever after?
But I said I was sticking with fiction. I won’t argue the validity of mythologies. I’ll just stick with the printed word and the pulps. Going with the definition that Wikipedia gave us, I’d have to say that the real origins of the subgenre go all the way back to Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber. Howard’s Conan and Solomon Kane among others are seldom swashbuckling adventures about characters with a high moral background (Kane is arguable) Kull the Conqueror, really most of Howard’s fantasy creations, all have certain things in common. They are tough as nails, they are flawed, and they answer most questions with carnage. Do you want to know why most Conan movies don’t hold up? Because they feel the need to make Conan a likeable character, and, frankly, he ain’t. He might be a nice enough guy if you’re on his good side, but first and foremost he’s a survivor in a bad time. Each movie feels the need to make him noble. Each movie wants to tell you how he was wrong and recovered from impossible odds. They must, as with previous Spiderman and Batman movies, tell you how he became Conan.
Go find the story where Robert E. Howard told that tale. I mean, yeah, we know he was born on a battlefield, but an actual origin story? When you find it, please send me the link where I can buy it.
Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser tales are another perfect example of Grimdark in my eyes. You have a cutthroat and a barbarian going around and doing their utmost best to survive in a world that seems determined to kill them. Along the way, much slaughter ensues and any attempt to find morality is pushed aside as sorcerers and worse things cross paths with the good guys repeatedly. Seriously, you should read these books. They’re amazing. There is humor but it is dark and earthy. There are tales of greed, lust, woe and the occasional deity.
I could, again, argue that Shakespeare is close to the real start, but let’s be honest here: there is no true origin. A lot of it depends on what you like and where you look. You could argue that the blues and jazz are the foundation of rock & roll. You could also argue that rock and country come from the same place.
My buddy Charles is letting me post this rant on his blog and I can basically guarantee you that he could find seven more sources for Grimdark. Most people look toward Fantasy as the setting for Grimdark and some point out that Sci-Fi can be just as nihilistic.
Some would argue that Grimdark didn’t start until novels came along. I’ve discussed that with a few people and I’m not sure I agree. I can see their logic. I just don’t think it’s accurate. I think Sword & Sorcery is best served as a short story. I think Grimdark works well on both levels. Leiber, Howard, a lot of modern Sword & Sorcery writers, wrote short stories. They didn’t write novels. They collected their tales into books, but they didn’t really write very many novels. A few, I’ll grant that. Mostly, however, they worked in shorter forms.
The thing is, High Fantasy, The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Chronicles of Prydain, Terry Brooks’ Shannara series, to name a few, works better in novel form. There’s a different sort of paradigm. There is definitely darkness in all of them. They get grim and gritty, but there is a different perspective. The heroes might be weak from time to time, but they are, overall, a different breed of people. The stories themselves talk of prophecies and good versus evil in a different light. The stories lend themselves to sweeping combats, epic battles and legends that span centuries. There is almost always going to be an ending where the heroes have made sacrifices for the betterment of the world. Where the world is better for those actions.
Grimdark can have epics, but they aren’t the same beasts. That’s just not the case in Grimdark. Your hero might be aiming to make the world a better place, or might believe the actions taken will be for the betterment of all, but, really, the predestination is gone. The light of a better tomorrow is dimmed by the bloodshed and actions of world populated by less savory people. You don’t get high kings and heroes. You get politicians, sellswords and homicidal maniacs with bloodied axes. You get torturers, sorcerers with an agenda that has nothing to do with helping the world out. You get wonderfully flawed people who are part of a tapestry that is dyed in stains of red and gray instead of black and white. The best colors are muted by shadows. The brightest places are buried under mountains of ash.
Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion series of books often has an element of High Fantasy. His Elric of Melnibone books, however, do not. Elric is a drug addict, a hedonist, a powerful sorcerer who rules over a stagnating empire and a morally bankrupt soul that takes what he needs in order to survive. And he’s the good guy. And most of the bad guys are honestly even worse. Though there are heroes in the series, most of them are mowed down by Elric and his unearthly sword, Stormbringer. It isn’t Elric doing the killing, either, it’s the sword. In order to survive, he needs the sword far more it seems than the sword needs him.
Lest I forget, a few names you should be considering as you go about your research of Grimdark. Tanith Lee is often catalogued in Dark Fantasy and Gothic fiction, but some of that is simply because Grimdark didn’t exist hen she was doing most of her writing. You should check out her works. Try the Birthgrave Trilogy. It doesn’t get much grimmer. The same is true of Marion Zimmer Bradley. While some of her words are decidedly High Fantasy, she never hesitated to slide into the Grimdark regions. Try the Darkover series if you doubt me. Just a couple of names that are often overlooked in the history of Grimdark, and names that I feel should not be ignored. They certainly had their influences on my work.
Do we even need to discuss Joe Abercrombie? No. Let’s leave it at he is one of the kings of Grimdark and you should be reading him.
I mentioned Rock & Roll earlier. The thing is, Grimdark is a lot like Rock and Roll. Grimdark is its own thing. But if you look back, you can see the roots of it hidden in other things. Shakespeare? Sure. Why not. Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein? Absolutely. It doesn’t get much darker. Leiber and Howard? You better believe it. You can throw Lovecraft into that mix, and Machen and a few dozen others. Just as with Rock, they’ve added riffs here and there. They’ve tossed in certain sounds and sensations that are uniquely their own, often imitated and never duplicated. The seeds come from all over the place, the roots grow together in a dark place where heroes are flawed at best and amoral at worst. The gods of these realms don’t promise light and redemption: they demand sacrifice and they offer nothing in return but, perhaps, continued existence. There is no Christ here. There is Crom. There is no magic without a cost and the price is high enough that only the foolish or the very mad would consider working those dark sorceries. Hope is a foolish notion and the best you can hope for is being strong enough to survive the worst life tries to throw your way.
It’s often a dark world. But the rules are simple. Survival of the fittest. He who draws first wins. The Old West is made manifest. The empires of the world are shaped and restructured depending on the whims of sorcerers, gods and men who can wield a bloodied sword.
He who sacrifices the most is not guaranteed a place in Heaven, but he who can cut enough throats might make it to a place where they can retire in relative peace. Or not.
It’s a Grimdark universe. I like studying the roots of that particular world tree whenever I can.
Charles says: Great Post, Jim. Thanks for stopping by. And you're right. There is Crom. And he doesn't care. Not one bit.
This isn't a Year's Best List. This is a list of my favorite books I read this year, no matter when said books were published. Most of the books on the list didn't come out this year. Just making things clear before I get started. It wasn't a huge reading year for me. Long time readers of Singular Points know that I used to read two or three fiction books a week. Since I became a published author, I don't have as much time to read. My other writer friends warned me about this. But I still love to read and I work in as much stuff as I can. So let's get started, shall we?
CLICKERS II: THE NEXT WAVE by J.F. Gonzalez and Brian Keene.
This how you write a creature novel. Gets off to a very fast start with monsters eating people in the first few pages and barrels through to the end with barely a pause to catch your breath. Gory and messy and everything anyone who ever watched monster movies wants. Plus some dark Lovecraftian stuff too.
THE SOFT WHISPER OF THE DEAD
THE LONG NIGHT OF THE GRAVE
THE DARK CRY OF THE MOON
All three of these books were written by Charles L. Grant. They are his homage to the great Universal Horror films of the 1930s and 1940s. WHISPER is about Vampires, NIGHT is about a Mummy, and CRY is about a Werewolf. I absolutely loved these books. Not only am I the target audience for this sort of material as a reader, but as a writer I was amazed at how these short novels were put togther. WHISPER in particular is a little gem of construction. Grant was known as the master of 'quiet horror' and these books certainly show that he deserved that title.
THE RISING by Brian Keene.
Yeah, Keene again. Brian is a friend, but that doesn't get him any slack. This is an amazing and incredibly influential zombie book. Without it, we might not have all the zombie mania we have right now. But Brian's zombies are very different and original. This ain't George Romero territory here.
WITCH HOUSE by Evangeline Walton
As my review from earlier this year notes, I'd been meaning to read this one for a long time. My buddy Cliff Biggers gave me a copy for my birthday and I dived right in. A really cool ghost story, quite Gothic and creepy. And I got to read it in the original Arkham House Edition.
A BAD DAY FOR VOODOO by Jeff Strand
I love a good Young Adult book, being a kid at heart. This was one of the most fun YA books I've read in a long time. Strand is known for his ability to mix horror and comedy in his books for adults and he does the same thing here. Just a tremendous amount of fun.
DEAD RINGERS by Christopher Golden.
I'm a sucker for a book about Doppelgangers and this is a terrific take on the idea. People's doubles begin to show up and cause all kinds of trouble for the original folks. This is the kind of 'idea' book that Stephen King used to do. Golden writes my favorite horror Comic, BALTIMORE, and his prose work is just as impressive.
HAP AND LEONARD RIDE AGAIN by Joe Lansdale.
I've been reading Lansdale, and Hap and Leonard for years. This is a collection of short stories drawn from the series, some of which feature characters other than the boys. Lansdale hits a lot of different notes here and none of them are sour. Probably my favorite story in the collection is 'The Boy Who Became Invisible'. That one stays with you a long time after you close the book.
I think I'll stop here, because I'll begin to repeat more authors, including Lansdale, Golden, and yes, more Keene. This is a favorites list anyway, and those were the standouts.
Tuesday, December 20, 2016
Born in the Shadow of Howard
By Scott Oden
With the advent of the Assassin’s Creed movie in theaters, this week, I’ve been roaming around the Internet hawking my 2010 novel The Lion of Cairo – oft-described as very much Assassin’s Creed-like. In it, a prince of Alamut called the Emir of the Knife is dispatched to aid the young Fatimid Caliph of Cairo against a host of enemies, both inside his palace walls and beyond. One reviewer said that it was “filled to the brim with assassins and concubines, caliphs and street thugs, the devout and the heretical. It’s partly a swashbuckling historical, partly a tale of palace intrigue, partly a fast and furious espionage yarn.” I would agree, but with this qualification: it is a tale of fantasy. The history is stretched thin over a skeleton built with bones scavenged from Robert E. Howard’s Crusader tales (especially “Gates of Empire”), Burton’s The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night, the work of scholars like Dr. Helen Nicholson and Dr. David Nicolle, and Orientalist artwork of the last century. More than that, it is an active homage to the aforementioned Robert E. Howard – a writer I’ve often looked to for guidance, inspiration, and sheer enjoyment.
The Lion of Cairo was born in early 2007. In late 2006, I had submitted a synopsis for a secondary-world fantasy featuring an Orcish protagonist to a friend who was also an editor at St. Martin’s Press. He called me to reject it, and to put a bug in my ear: “Why not a novel like those old pulps? Something medieval, like the Assassins as imagined by REH?” The bug bit; over the Holidays I hammered out a nine page synopsis. This, in due course, was also rejected. “More!” my editor exhorted. “Dig deeper! Make it memorable, and give me more detail!”
So I did. The next iteration of the synopsis came to a whopping nineteen thousand words – thirty-eight pages detailing the travails of the Caliph, the grim work of the Emir of the Knife, the evils of Ibn Sharr, the heroism of Parysatis and the tragedy of the Gazelle. The ending was left open, as this was meant to be the first book of a trilogy. My editor loved it, resulting in a four-book contract (book four was my Orc fantasy – which, by the by, will hit shelves on 20 June 2017 as A Gathering of Ravens).
The skeleton decided upon, what came after is best described as a paean to the memory of REH. The Emir of the Knife became a killer without remorse, his morals dictated by necessity; the tool of his trade, a yard-long salawar (also known as a Khyber knife), became a relic of an earlier age, imbued with sentient hate against all things living and requiring an iron will to keep its wielder from degenerating into madness. The head of a rival order of Assassins, the enigmatic Ibn Sharr, became a necromancer searching for the sorcery of Elder Egypt; his right hand, an apostate Christian called the Heretic, turned into the Emir’s equal. And sprinkled throughout were references to Howard’s Oriental tales.
Though the book never found a wide audience, it nevertheless taught me much about the art of long-form fiction. Prior to The Lion of Cairo I wrote by the seat of my pants; planning, if I planned at all, was only a chapter at a time. Lion taught me that I could write about a novel (in synopsis form) and then actually go forth and write it. Carving the bones beforehand helped me focus on the words, themselves. On the prose. With the pressure of plotting removed, I discovered something of a poet buried in my soul. Everything came together like literary alchemy, and the result was, in my opinion, the strongest book I’d written to date (an opinion which has since been amended after writing A Gathering of Ravens).
So, if you enjoy Assassin’s Creed, game or movie, or the work of Robert E. Howard, or swashbuckling historical sword-and-sorcery, then perhaps you will find The Lion of Cairo also to your liking. Thanks to my excellent host, and thank you for reading!
Charles says: Thank you, Scott! For more info on Lion of Cairo and Scott's other works, check out these links.
The Lion of Cairo (Kindle version): https://www.amazon.com/Lion-Cairo-Scott-Oden-ebook/dp/B003P2WJ1I/ref=pd_sbs_351_1?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=09TCKFPXT9J0YC0M7831
The Eye of Oden website: https://scottoden.wordpress.com/
Publisher’s website: http://us.macmillan.com/books/9781429927727
Saturday, December 10, 2016
The new anthology SNAFU: Black Ops dropped in Ebook form this Wednesday. It contains 'Black Tide', a story by James A. Moore and me, which features Jim's demon hunter/occult detective Jonathan Crowley teamed up with my character Kharrn. Kharrn is basically a 'Clonan' like Lin Carter's Thongor or Gardner Fox's Kothar. He's just still around.
I get a lot of questions about Kharrn. Mostly people want to know just how old he is. He and Crowley teamed up before in the WHITE NOISE PRESS Chapbook, 'What Rough Beast', which takes place in the Old West, and there were hints in the story that the two men had met before even earlier in the past. The answer to his age is really really old.
In his original conception, Kharrn was a time traveler. I wrote one short story 'The Silent History' which is unpublished, and now no longer canon, in which Kharrn was sent forth in time to the Victorian Age seeking vengeance. Later I wrote a second story, “Sailing to Darkness” which appeared at the late lamented MOORCOCK'S MISCELLANEY in which Kharrn took a trip on Moorcock's 'Ship that sails between worlds' (With Mike's kind permission). That one showed that Kharrn occasionally traveled in other dimensions.
When it came time to use the big warrior in another story, I decided that the time travel element was too hard to keep up with, so I changed Kharrn's origin to make him an immortal. His first published appearance was in Pete Kahle's anthology WIDOWMAKERS where Kharrn teamed up with Carnacki the Ghostfinder in a story called 'The Beautiful Lady Without Pity', a Christmas Country House Ghost Story with a Barbarian. Hey, I write what I like. (It also got me a mention in that year's Year's Best Horror collection.)
Later that year, Kharrn and Crowley ran into some werewolves in 'What Rough Beast'. Jim Moore and I have another crossover in the works called 'The Doll Maker' which sees the boys facing an Eldritch menace in Victorian London.
Oh, the reason Kharrn is spelled with two 'r's is that when I wanted to use the name Kharn for my Lord of the Rings Online avatar, the name was already taken. So I added a second 'r'. I got used to typing it that way and it stuck.
Anyway, 'Black Tide' reveals the most about Kharrn's past of any story so far, so if you're curious about the immortal Barbarian, give it a read.
Sunday, November 20, 2016
One of the questions I get asked the most when people find out I'm a writer is, "What genre do you write in." I always have a little trouble with that because A.I don't like labels. B. Most of what I write doesn't fit a particular genre. People usually lump me into Urban Fantasy, which my market savvy friends tell me is now known as 'Supernatural Suspense', which works better, but the three Griffin & Price novels I've written with James A. Moore are rural, not urban, and I don't have most of the trappings of UF. I've been calling it Crime-Horror, though not all of the stuff I've done has both those elements. I think editor Geoff Brown has nailed it in his recent announcement about Griffin and Price books at Cohesion Press. 'Action Horror' was Geoff's phrase. I'm going with that because pretty much all my stuff has horror and action. Thanks, Geoff. Now I know what to say.
Saturday, October 29, 2016
You say Brian Wood's emo-Conan sent you packing? That manga-style Conan art gave you hives? Is that what's bothering you bunky? Well come on back to Darkhorse Comics because CONAN THE SLAYER is good for what ails you.
Seriously, Cullen Bunn gets the character as few writers have. Perhaps because Cullen writes horror (Harrow County. Also from Darkhorse) and sword & sorcery is always always always best when it has horror at its core. SLAYER has monsters, demons, and dark sorcery.
Plus, as I said, Bunn gets Conan. There's a scene in the newest issue, number 4, where Conan walks right into the middle of a camp full of armed foes and shows them how the world works. This is how I want to see Conan. Confidant. Reckless. Maybe a little crazy. Because, hello? Barbarian.
For me the people who have done well writing Conan comics is a pretty short list. Roy Thomas. Chuck Dixon. Kurt Busiek. Timothy Truman. Well ladies and gentlemen, we have a contender.
The artwork is great too. Sergio Davila would have been right at home in the pages of SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN. His Cimmerian has the right frame without being body-builder ridiculous. His Conan stalks red-handed through the pages, doling out the harshness.
You guys know I don't recommend Conan lightly. Give CONAN THE SLAYER a shot. And Crom count the dead.