Sunday, April 20, 2008

Tower of Blood

I've mentioned, in an earlier post, how mysterious towers have figured prominently in an inordinate number of sword and sorcery stories. The Howling Tower. The Vanishing Tower. The Tower of the Elephant and the Strange High Tower in the Mist. To that list add Tower of Blood, a two part story that appeared in issues 43 and 44 of Marvel comics's Conan the Barbarian waaaaay back in 1974. I remember reading those two issues as a kid and really enjoying the story. What I didn't remember was that the two-parter had been adapted from a prose magazine story. I always assumed it was an original tale by long time Conan scripter Roy Thomas.
It was Roy who set me straight though, a couple of years ago in an article in the back of Dark Horse Comics The Chronicles of Conan volume 7. Here Roy explained that back in 74 he had happened across the story Tower of Blood in an issue of the now long defunct magazine Witchcraft and Sorcery. While this may sound like a magazine title designed to scare the same mothers who fear Dungeons and Dragons and Harry Potter, it was actually sort of a later day version of the classic pulp magazine Weird Tales. Oddly enough, the editorial staff was mostly here in Atlanta.
Anyway, Roy liked the story enough to contact its author David A. English, and request permission to adapt the story into a Conan tale. English said yes and Roy stretched the short story into two issues of Conan. I've mentioned before that Roy Thomas often adapted the works of other sword and sorcery writers into Conan yarns. Some folks have taken Roy to task over this, saying that he should have provided more of his own original tales, but I think that Roy wanted to get the feel of the then burgeoning S&S field by adapting the works of many of the authors working in the genre. He solicited plots from John Jakes and Michael Moorcock and adapted stories by Gardner Fox and Norvell W. Page. Besides, whenever Roy DID write his own stories, I think they often felt more like Robert E. Howard Conan tales that those written by a lot of the folks chosen to continue the Conan books.
But back to Tower of Blood. I had long wanted to read the prose tale and through the magic of Ebay I finally got the chance, scoring issue #5 of Witchcraft and Sorcery a week or so ago. In the original magazine story, the hero is a warrior type named Cromek. We first encounter him as he rides into desert country, pursued by a group of mounted warriors. Cromek has apparently dallied with another man's concubine and now the man's minions are out for his blood. He manages to escape but ends up in a strange valley where he is menaced by some half glimpsed winged creatures before being captured by the masters of the aforementioned Tower of Blood, a creepy pair of siblings named Uathacht and Morophla. Morophla is a sorcerer of considerable power and Uathacht is his vampy sister. The two are apparently very ancient, kept alive by the life energies they drain from the subhuman creatures they breed in the dungeons of their tower. It seems that the blood of these creatures needs renewing and they'd like Cromek to act as stud service to the pale, strange things that live in the darkness. Uathacht is pretty interested in ole Cromek's bod as well. Horror and violence ensue.
I have often stated that any true sword & sorcery story needs to have some element of horror, since Robert E. Howard created the genre by melding the historical fiction he loved with the weird tales style horror stories that he could sell. He wrote for money and he knew that WT editor Farnsworth Wright would buy his action stories if he stuck a Cthulhu style monster into them. Tower of Blood delivers. The brother and sister sorcerers are suitably macabre and the fate they plan for Cromek is repulsive in the extreme. Plus there are the winged things, results of some of Morophla's other experiments.
For the Conan adaptation, Roy Thomas kept most of the plot to tower of Blood intact, including the sexual elements, which is pretty amazing for a Comics Code approved comic book from 1974. To English's plot, Roy added more action sequences and a big monster just to give Conan something to do. If I have any complaint about the original prose story it's that Cromek is fairly passive after the first few pages. Not so with Conan. Roy knew his readers would want more action out of the big barbarian. The other major difference was the addition of Red Sonja to the two parter. She doesn't really have a lot to do in the story, but she's drawn so beautifully by Big John Buscema that I doubt anyone minded. Buscema, who excelled at drawing gorgeous women, did a nice job illustrating Uathacht too, contrasting her slinky looks with the more wholesome but no less sexy Sonja.
I've no idea if David A. English ever wrote any more stories about Cromek. I'm looking into getting some of the other issues of W&S just to see what other gems might be hiding in the yellowing pages. It will be hard to top Tower of Blood though. As Roy points out in his article, the story had a lot more verve and imagination to it than many stories by 'name' authors of the time. So, Mr. English, wherever you are, take a bow. You know how to tell a story.

1 comment:

Zimri said...

The comic is indeed very good.

I wonder if its authors agreed with you that English's Cromek was too passive. I read it as an alternate ending to Cromek's tale, where his spirit breaks and what's left of mind and body lives on as a husk. Conan arrives to put an end to that tragedy.