Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Forward! by Harold Lamb

If you've read all of Robert E. Howard and you're looking for something else, and tepid fantasy is letting you down, might I suggest some historical fiction by one of REH's favorite writers, Harold Lamb. Lamb was one of the heavyweights of the top selling pulp magazine Adventure and later became a writer of historical novels and historical biographies, and a screenwriter/advisor on numerous historical films. Back in the day, when people thought of history told in a vivid fashion, they thought of Harold Lamb.
Amazingly though, Lamb had fallen into obscurity, save for collectors of pulp magazines and old books, and I have to admit that as of about a decade ago I had never read any of his stuff and knew only what I occasionally picked up from comments by Robert E. Howard in Howard's letters. Enter Howard Andrew Jones, a fellow I met through our shared interest in Sword & Sorcery. Howard was an authority on Lamb and he sent me pdf files of various hard to come by Lamb stories, allowing me to read some tales that hadn't seen the light of day since their original publication. I was intrigued enough to order an old collection of Lamb's fiction called The Mighty Manslayer, which I loved. (I also wanted business cards that read Mighty Manslayer.)
And now, thanks to the aforementioned Howard Andrew Jones, you too can read some of the best historical adventure writing this side of Robert E. Howard without spending a mint at Ebay. Howard has assembled eight volumes so far of Lamb's short stories and novellas which are being published by Bison Books. Within the pages of these thick volumes Lamb runs the gamut of history. You'll meet Cossacks, Vikings, pirates, Cossacks, knights, corsairs, soldiers, crusaders and more Cossacks. Lamb liked writing Cossack stories. What can I say.
I was reading one of those Cossack adventures last night, a longish short story called Forward! from the collection Swords From the Sea. This one concerns a Cossack named Ivak, who is given a mission from the Russian Empress to escort a foreign advisor from St. Petersburg to the Black Sea. Ivak soon learns that it won't be a simple mission and that there is much intrigue and treachery afoot. There are shadowy figures lurking in the background who don't want the mysterious "Pavel' to make it to the Black Sea. Ivak is offered a bribe to kill Pavel on the road himself, but he turns it down when he realizes that some of the military are working against the plans of the Empress.
A couple of pages later, Ivak learns that the man known as Pavel is actually and American named John Paul Jones, once a pirate, but now slated to take over the reordering of the Russian fleet . If he can stay alive long enough to do so. Along with a British officer named Edwards and a couple of Tatars, Ivak and John Paul set out. This is where Lamb plays one of his favorite tricks. For the next few pages, things are reasonably calm. The bad guys try to slander John Paul by hiding a girl in his carriage and charging him with abducting her, but the wily Ivak clears that up. The travelers manage to stay clear of their enemies for a while, but then, when they are traveling downriver on a borrowed raft, the bad guys show up in full force. Because things have been so calm for the last few scenes, the impact of the attack is sudden and brutal. After that it's all out action for the rest of the story. Swords clash and pistols roar and blood flows. Just a great story, full of honor and base treachery and brave men and cowards.
As a narrator Ivak is a classic Lamb Cossack, at turns clever and comic, stubborn, loyal, and deadly in a fight, but at heart a good soul. That's one of the other great things about Lamb. Anybody can be the hero. Arab, Norseman, Hindu, Mongol, Russian. It doesn't matter. Far ahead of his time, Lamb seemed to have a very global view. Europeans are villains as often as they are heroes.
Anyway, the various Bison Harold Lamb volumes are readily available from Amazon. So far my favorites have been Swords of the West, which contains Lamb's tales of the crusades, and Swords From the Sea which features Lamb's Viking stories, but those address my own interests. I also like the Cossack tales a lot, particularly several in Warriors of the Steppes. But really, you can't go wrong with any of the books. I think anyone who enjoys historical fiction or old school sword & sorcery will have a good time with the writings of Harold Lamb.


Lagomorph Rex said...

I've been slowly, ever so slowly building up a collection of Lamb books. I think I have about half a dozen of his books.. but they are pretty difficult to come by.

I read his two volume history of the Crusades back in middle school and loved it.

Charles R. Rutledge said...

Yeah, that's why I'm such a booster of the Bison editions, because they're reasonably priced and readily available. His older stuff can, as you say, be hard to get and darned expensive. I always recommend Lamb to anyone who's run out of old school sword & sorcery because though they don't contain any magic to speak of, they have that same sort of pacing and action. Lamb was just a great story teller.