“I’ll Kill the Mama-Mfuka”: The Trail of Bohu in 2009

He saw Naama, its dark battlements thrusting against the sky of Land’s End. He saw the Erriten bathing in the emerald of mchawi. He saw the cities of the East Coast crumbling in blood-smeared ruin. He saw a cloud of darkness crawling inexorably northward…thousands upon thousands of armed men, and others who were not human at all, a cloud thicker than a thousand swarms of locusts and a thousand times more destructive. He saw the turrets of Gondur torn apart, stone by stone, and the stelae flung down to shatter in the streets. He saw his people dragged screaming to altars to be sacrificed to the Demon Gods. He saw the Erriten towering gigantic and triumphant, dominating all of Nyumbani. He saw the seed the Mashataan intended to sow to replace the children of the Cloud Striders…

Charles R. Saunders never left Imaro, nor did Imaro leave him; instead, the possibility of further publication left both of them for two decades after The Trail of Bohu (1985). The last of the three Saunders heroic fantasies from DAW Books in the Eighties, Bohu is its creator’s favorite because, as he informs us in an Author’s Note at the end of the revised-and-self-published 2009 edition, “it was the first Imaro novel that I wrote from scratch…Completing a novel that did not include previously published material was a major milestone in my development as a writer.” Those of us who pounced upon the 1985 version (insofar as its non-sea-to-shining-sea distribution allowed) have also always cherished Bohu for boasting the biggest budget, the most ambitious special effects, and the most on-location filming. Nyumbani grows by leaps and bounds, and the effect is as exhilarating as the opening of “Black Colossus,” wherein Shevatas orients himself in the ruins of Kuthchemes with a tour d’horizon encompassing fabled realms to the southwest, the east, and the north, all of which he knows “as a man knows the streets of his town,” or the scene near the end of The Fellowship of the Ring during which Frodo, his perspective newly panoptic thanks to the Seat of Seeing, in effect watches as the slavering jaws of the world war launched by Sauron close around Middle-earth.

We carry within the wonders we seek without us, Sir Thomas Browne wrote, There is all Africa and her prodigies in us: The Trail of Bohu in particular carries within it a prodigious number of African prodigies, both civilized (the glory that was Kush and the grandeur that was Great Zimbabwe) and barbaric — the trail in question leads past the most notorious killing fields in the history of southern Africa. The novel begins with inclement weather, with weather, in fact, that does not know the meaning of the word clemency. A storm is brewing at the southern end of Nyumbani, and the phrase “end of Nyumbani” applies in more ways than one. As we witness the enormities occurring in the High Chamber of the Erriten of Naama, which herald enormities greater still, the theme of both “The Call of Cthulhu” and “The Shadow Kingdom” swells again, the theme of man as an eviction-inviting squatter in a condemned edifice. In the words of Abadu, a character in David C. Smith’s novel Oron, “Humankind holds its life and its lands but precariously — and perhaps not at all.”

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Tatters of The Pale King

David Foster Wallace hung himself on September 15, 2008. On that day, the author of novels like The Broom of the System, Infinite Jest and (the unfinished) The Pale King resolved to shuffle off this mortal coil at the business end of a home-made gibbet (see “Word of the Week“). Having been hailed for years as a “genius” by a vast array of pundits and critics, his beautiful wife gone for the day, Wallace quite apparently felt that life was no longer worth living.


To all fans of Robert E. Howard, Wallace’s fate should evoke a certain amount of resonance. Wallace was in his forties (as opposed to REH’s 30.5 years of age) when he did himself in. Still, I’m sure DFW’s fans have been asking themselves that eternal question: “Why”? Wallace seems to have suffered from long-term depression. He even tried electro-convulsive therapy to alleviate his anguish, all to no avail. Anti-depressants were a mainstay of his existence, but Wallace felt that the drugs were creating a wall betwixt himself and the world he wanted to write about. According to D.T. Max of The New Yorker, in his article about DFW, “The Unfinished,” Wallace wanted, “to author things that both restructure worlds and make living people feel stuff,” (DFW’s quote to an editor). Is such a sentiment that far from what REH aspired to? In regards to his poetry and prose, Howard often expressed the view that he wasn’t measuring up to the standards he set for himself. In Wallace, we see a man who, despite all modern pharmacology and the welcoming embrace of post-modern criticism, just couldn’t carry on. Yet, there are those who feel that Robert E. Howard simply did not have sufficient reason to end his life. Fair enough. However, are those same postmortem/post-modern critics (and their ilk) going to hold DWF to the same stringent standards of authorial behavior as they do REH, or does Wallace get a free pass because he wrote about the “real world” (as if Howard didn’t )?

Tom Shippey once stated that the three landmark works of the twentieth century (1984, The Lord of the Flies and The Lord of the Rings) were all works of “fantasy.” Personally, I’d also nominate several works of Robert E. Howard into that category (damn good company, in my opinion). Just as in the works cited by Shippey, the narrative is heightened to illuminate universal questions and truths. Wallace, also, did not shy away from going beyond the fields we know, at least in a temporal sense. His Infinite Jest is set in a post-post-modern future. When all’s said and done, how different is Wallace’s tale from that of Robert W. Chambers’ “The Repairer of Reputations,” wherein Castaigne is an uncrowned “King of the United States of America” and there is always a “Government Lethal Chamber” within easy walking distance? Wallace seems to have shared the depressed, nihilistic world-view engendered by RWC’s fictional play, The King in Yellow.

Shippey noted that “realism” in fiction often doesn’t seem capable of expressing the truths that many of us suspect lie beneath the facade of modern life. A cosmic, Lovecraftian view, in some respects. David Foster Wallace, in his non-fiction work, Everything and More, looked at the cosmic and infinite as well. Did the cosmic vistas that Wallace glimpsed affect his viewpoint? Did the “black seas of infinity” and “mad immensities of Night” darken his outlook? None can say now. All that can be said is that Robert E. Howard, enduring a hard-scrabble existence in central Texas during the Great Depression, had just as much, or just as little reason to live as Wallace did in twenty-first century California.

At a memorial service for Wallace, Jonathan Franzen had this to say: “People who believe that David’s death is the story of a biochemical imbalance don’t need the kinds of stories that David told.”

Replace “David” with “Robert E. Howard” and I think y’all might see why I wrote this blog.

Heating Up Best Served Cold


Last Argument of Kings (2008) turned out to be the best Sword-and-Sorcery novel I’ve read since David Gemmell’s The Swords of Night and Day back in 2004, the culmination of Joe Abercrombie’s tough love redemption of the oh-so-discredited concept of the fantasy trilogy. An interview displaying the relaxed humor that’s only found in a creator deeply serious about his creations is now up at YouTube; don’t be alarmed by the fact that it’s in five parts, as each is of little more than blink-and-you’ll-miss-it duration.

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