Ghor, Kin-Slayer: A Look Back

ghor_kin-slayerSometime in the late 1970s, the Rev. Jonathan Bacon (a one-time member of REHupa) came up with a fairly cool idea. Bacon was the editor of Fantasy Crossroads, a Howard-centric fanzine. Through Glenn Lord, Bacon had acquired the Robert E. Howard fragment, “Genseric’s Fifth-Born Son” (the title derives from Lord, as far as I can ascertain), a part of the “James Allison” series of reincarnation tales. Bacon thought it would be interesting to bring together many of the active fantasy authors at that time and have them “complete” Howard’s fragment in a round-robin fashion. Robert E. Howard himself had participated in something similar when he wrote a chapter for “The Challenge From Beyond,” a round-robin tale published by the fanzine Fantasy Magazine in late 1935. In some ways, Bacon was just following a trail that REH had helped blaze. However, he chose to discard the Lord title for the fragment as a title for the entire work, deciding upon Ghor, Kin-Slayer as being a better designation.

A more complete account of how Bacon strove to get all chapters of the collaboration he envisioned published is told elsewhere. It suffices to say that only twelve out of seventeen chapters ever saw print in Fantasy Crossroads, the last being in January of 1979.

Jonathan Bacon then dropped off the map. However, Glenn Lord still retained a complete manuscript of all seventeen chapters. Nearly twenty years later, March Michaud of Necronomicon Press, learning of the complete manuscript, decided that he would publish the entire round-robin tale. Utilizing the editing talents of Rusty Burke, Michaud got Ghor, Kin-Slayer published in August, 1997. I received my copy in early 1998.

Ghor, Kin-Slayer is a chimerical beast, no way around it. The contributors to the tale range from Karl Edward Wagner and Charles R. Saunders to A. E. Van Vogt and Marion Zimmer Bradley. I intend to examine the whole story on a chapter-by-chapter basis. For those of you who tend toward spoiler-phobia, I suggest you stop reading right about now.

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Something to Do with Deathlessness, Part Three: Splintered Shards of Time’s Reflection

Part One: Violence Reigns

Part Two: Eyes We Dare Not Meet in Dreams

Sergio Leone’s 1972 film Duck, You Sucker was released as Once Upon a Time, the Revolution in France. Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane, like Leone’s Sean Mallory, is a revolutionary, the very first revolutionary, and might nod understandingly at Mallory’s confession that “When I started using dynamite I believed in many things, all of it. . .Now I only believe in dynamite,” but Once Upon a Time, the Revolution works better as an alternate title for the 1979 Conan novel The Road of Kings than for any Kane story. Wagner wrote two Howard pastiches that redeemed the very concept of a Howard pastiche, and if The Road of Kings does not quite measure up to Legion from the Shadows it is in no small part because it is not the novel he had in mind. Just as Duck, You Sucker was a movie that Leone planned only to produce — in his head and heart he was already hard at work on Once Upon a Time in America — until the prospect of a walkout by Rod Steiger and James Coburn forced him back into the director’s chair, The Road of Kings is a fallback option, a salvage job necessitated by L. Sprague de Camp’s veto of Wagner’s original idea. The usurpation epic Day of the Lion was smothered in its cradle to make room for de Camp and Carter’s War-of-the-Roses-with-plastic-petals Conan the Liberator.

Duck, You Sucker was conceived as a riposte to spaghetti Westerns like Damiano Damiani’s A Bullet for the General or Sergio Corbucci’s A Professional Gun and Vamos a matar, compañeros, all of which involve uneasy alliances between cynical gringo or northern European mercenaries and initially apolitical campesinos who down tools and take up arms in response to injustice. Mallory, Leone’s northern European, is an explosives effort but also a full-time revolutionary, an IRA man with a British price on his head, while Juan Miranda is a bombastic bandit who is duped into a new role as “a great, grand and glorious hero of the revolution.” Wagner’s Northern mercenary is none other than Conan, ideologically naïve — his co-conspirators tease him about there being no word for “republic” in Cimmerian — but not a naïf. As a title, Day of the Lion was intended to evoke The Hour of the Dragon, and Wagner, than whom Howard has had no more alert and attentive reader, clearly picked up on the extent to which Zingara in the REH novel is not post-reconquista Spain but rather the anarchic Mexico of the same period covered by Duck, You Sucker.

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Something to Do with Deathlessness, Part Two: Eyes We Dare Not Meet in Dreams

Part One: Violence Reigns

Part Three: Splintered Shards of Time’s Reflection

For a Few Dollars More is the second film in Leone’s Dollars or “Man with No Name” trilogy and the only one equipped with an epigraph: “Where life had no value, death, sometimes, had its price. That is why the bounty killers appeared.”

They also appear in Wagner’s “Raven’s Eyrie,” the basic situation of which — “ruthless, half-wild outlaws hounded by killers as remorseless as themselves” — recalls For a Few Dollars More, as does the disclosure that “The Combine cities of Lartroxia’s coastal plain had set a high bounty on Kane, and Pleddis meant to claim it.” Colonel Mortimer in the Leone film is out to avenge his sister, who killed herself while being raped by Indio; Ionor, raped by Kane seven years before the events of “Raven’s Eyrie,” does not kill herself but only her maternal instincts while scheming to be her own Mortimer. If Kane seems to be cast in the Indio role in “Raven’s Eyrie,” he behaves like the No Name of For A Few Dollars More in “Sing a Last Song of Valdese,” intervening at the moment of truth to secure another man’s vengeance for a rape and murder. As Leone once said, “An assassin can display a sublime altruism while a good man can kill with total indifference.”

Bounty killers presuppose the existence of men on whom a bounty can be collected, and due to costuming and casting constraints and perhaps a venerable European susceptibility to New World noble savages, spaghetti Westerns tended to ignore Indians and the skirmishing associated with John Ford’s cavalry films in favor of bandits by the dozens and hundreds. Wagner’s repertory company is also chockablock with desperados. In “Sing a Last Song of Valdese” we meet Mad Hef, who is by no means resigned to his capture by Ranvyas the ranger: “There was other smart bastards all set to count their bounty money, but ain’t one of them lived to touch a coin of it.” Hechon in Bloodstone doesn’t know enough to get out of Kane’s way, and Grey’s bandits in “Lynortis Reprise” are particularly Leone-esque: “A circle of grinning wolfish faces, casually moving in across the space of washed stone and dry bones.”

Orted ak-Ceddi in Dark Crusade could be straight from an Italian Western — “for all his pose as a popular hero and champion of the downtrodden, Orted the bandit chieftain had been a ruthless outlaw who left a wake of murder and rapine wherever his band passed through” — and just as Indio’s dependence on marijuana was a departure for a Western in 1965, Wagner’s matter-of-factness about “the tingling rush of cocaine” after Orted has “snorted, sneezed, [and] swallowed” marked an arrival: sword-and-sorcery had caught up with the Seventies.

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Something to Do With Deathlessness, Part One: Violence Reigns

Part Two: Eyes We Dare Not Meet in Dreams
Part Three: Splintered Shards of Time’s Reflection

[On October 13 it will have been 14 years since we lost Karl Edward Wagner. On April 30, 2009 we will have had to do without Sergio Leone for 20 years. These are wounds that don’t heal, absences that are always present, and what follows is an attempt to honor both men by way of a two-great-tastes-that-taste-great-together approach]

In his own way he is, perhaps, the most dangerous man who ever lived!
(From the United Artists advertising campaign for the 1967 American release of A Fistful of Dollars)

Once upon a time, two genres got the troublemakers and Maker-troublers they deserved. What Sergio Leone did with — and to — the Western, Karl Edward Wagner did with and to modern heroic fantasy. Both men toyed with clichés and conventions cat-and-mouse–style, and both subjected the phatic discourse of the retread and the rehash to brutal interrogations. Neither, however, was simply a revisionist. Leone and Wagner came not to revise but to revive, and where the revisionist impulse often expresses itself in harangues, they favored the parable and silver-scalpeled illusionectomies.

Nor were the two men iconoclasts, except insofar as iconoclasm involves smashing existing sculptures and thus yields detritus from which even larger and more mythic figures can be fashioned. Christopher Frayling, the author of Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys & Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone and Sergio Leone: Something to Do with Death, draws a crucial distinction by describing Leone’s “melodramatic expressionism” as “an act of demythologisation, rather than demythicisation.” Wagner’s Kane and Leone’s pistoleros are liberated from ossified mythologies while suffering no shrinkage in stature. Their mischief-making remains mythic in both reach and grasp, and their anarchic activities cannot be plea-bargained down to hero’s journeys.

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After Aquilonia and Having Left Lankhmar: Sword-and-Sorcery Since the 1980s

[When Howard Andrew Jones writes about sword-and-sorcery and the desirability of “putting a new edge on an old blade,” it behooves those of us as protective of the subgenre as he is to pay attention, and perhaps pay him the compliment of trying to put our own thoughts in order. To that end, and with a bemused glance at a June 22 post by Gary Romeo, who never loses an opportunity to generalize about Howard purists even if he did lose the chance to celebrate the centennial of his nearest and dearest, I’m rolling out the following article, originally written in 2006 for an anthology that apparently could not be more snake-bitten were it to traipse barefoot through Stygia]

The subgenre of modern fantasy with which Robert E. Howard is nearly synonymous died down in the mid-1980s but did not die out. Far from it; sword-and-sorcery proved to be as difficult to kill as many of its protagonists. But before we can celebrate Howard’s legacy by following the subgenre’s fortunes for the last several decades, we need to establish what we mean by sword-and-sorcery. For starters, what is meant at least for the purposes of this article is an approach to heroic fantasy that became aware of itself when Howard decisively expanded on the promise and premise of Lord Dunsany’s 1908 story “The Fortress Unvanquishable Save for Sacnoth” with “The Shadow Kingdom” in 1929.

The verb “expanded” is chosen with no disrespect whatsoever intended toward Dunsany’s story; it is possible that during his much-debated involvement with sword-and-sorcery, L. Sprague de Camp never did the subgenre more of a favor than when he selected “The Fortress” for his anthology The Fantastic Swordsmen (1967).

(Here, on the other hand, Leo argues that the only place for poor old “Sacnoth” in an S & S muscle car is: the ejector seat)

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Slay Cat Blues


Great and terrible flesh-eating beasts have always shared landscape with humans. They were part of the ecological matrix within which Homo sapiens evolved. They were part of the psychological context in which our sense of destiny as a species arose. They were part of the spiritual systems that we invented for coping. The teeth of big predators, their claws, their ferocity and their hunger, were grim realities that could be eluded but not forgotten. Every once in a while, a monstrous carnivore emerged like doom from a forest or river to kill someone and feed on the body. It was a familiar sort of disaster–like auto fatalities today–that must have seemed freshly, shockingly gruesome each time, despite the familiarity. and it conveyed a certain message. Among the earliest forms of human self-awareness was the awareness of being meat.

That’s from David Quammen’s memorable-if-not-haunting 2003 Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind, a meditation on how “the alpha predators, and the responses they evoke, have transcended the physical dimension of sheer mortal struggle, finding their way also into mythology, art, epic literature, and religion.” One of the alpha-est predators, arguably the iconic carnivore of the Cenozoic Era, is figuring very prominently indeed in the trailers and promos for the March 7 release 10,000 B.C., directed by Roland Emmerich: Smilodon, the sabre-tooth tiger. Aficionados of Nature red in tooth and claw hope the film’s CGI and editing create charismatic killer cats that surpass Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion sabre-tooth in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger and reclothe the animal in the dignity that was shed with the Denis Leary-voiced Diego in Ice Age and Ice Age 2. In honor of the occasion, I’d like to pay tribute to the two foremost mega-felines in all of modern fantasy, the gliding, pouncing juggernauts of Robert E. Howard’s “Beyond the Black River” and Karl Edward Wagner’s “Two Suns Setting.”

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Cold Light and Winter Soul-Reflections


Has anyone ever devised a deadlier zinger about a major author than Oscar Wilde’s “Henry James writes fiction as if it were a painful duty”? Many people, among them some professed cineastes, would also claim that Ingmar Bergman made movies as if it were a painful duty, or at least made movies the watching of which is necessarily a painful duty. After the Swedish director’s death last week just about every obit or tribute online that offered a comments section was gate-crashed by reverse snobbery-afflicted knuckle-walkers and know-nothings who sneered that the Bergman cult was/is an affectation of pseudo-intellectual, popular culture-despising coastal or campus elites — blue-staters, most likely supporters of public television and Volvo drivers. Oh well, in many ways Bergman was the heir of Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg, so we might say attacks by trolls are part of his Scandinavian heritage.

Jeezis wept, Joe Blog-Reader thinks, is he really going to inflict a post about Ingmar Bergman on us? I can’t help it, having arrived in New York City as a college freshman just in time for the twilight of the pre-videocassette arthouse/repertory cinema era. It didn’t take long before I had ascertained that Fellini and Fassbinder were not for me, but Buñuel, Kurosawa, and especially Bergman were.

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The GoH Who Got Away, a.k.a. Another Redbeard for the Black Circle

Greg Manchess, who came across so personably as both a panelist and an informal conversationalist during the recent World Fantasy Convention in Austin, will do his part and then some to ensure the success of the 2007 Howard Days as Guest of Honor. And yet his selection, through no fault of his, makes me want to recite Ossianic verses or intravenously inject peat whiskey or do something else expressive of Gaelic melancholia. Can’t help recalling the testimonials in Exorcisms and Ecstasies and reflecting what a Guest of Honor to End All Guests of Honor Karl Edward Wagner would have made, especially in advance of his Long Goodbye phase. Gary Romeo might have felt duty-bound to boycott the festivities and establish a rival or schismatic Howard Days, the equivalent of an Avignon papacy, outside a certain former residence in Plano, but most celebrants would have come away with anecdotes to be prized like amulets.

KEW is in no position to serve as Guest of Honor, unless we figure out how to work the Orastes/Valerius/Tarascus/Amalric trick. But with all due respect for the carnosaur-sized footprints the two current frontrunners have left all over Howard studies, he does belong on the Black Circle ballot as much as anyone save Novalyne Price Ellis herself (Leo asked for suggestions, and I can’t believe I spaced; guess I’m an imperfect Wagnerite). I went on and on in the Lion’s Den this past year about Wagner’s credentials as an REH editor and exponent, and will refrain from flogging that dead destrier here. Perhaps the thing to do is to add his name next year; for de Camp to beat KEW into the Black Circle would be a justice-miscarriage of Shub-Niggurathian proportions.

Sorry, Karl. Won’t happen again.

LEO ADDS: I put him on the list. No big deal, anyone who has voted and wants to change their vote before March 1 is welcome to. There’s probably a lot of others we could add to that list, but I figure we might as well wait until someone raises a stink about them.

Give Me That Old-Time Sword-and-Sorcery!


Guest blogger Morgan Holmes weighs in on a Sword-and-Sorcery post which appeared on this site a few weeks ago:

MORGAN: Steve Tompkins mentioned a couple weeks back about “various knights of doleful countenance” pining for mass market Elak of Atlantis. I like David Gemmell, have been reading him for over ten years, and view him as a standard bearer for the genre at a time when no one else did. These are two different issues though. A problem with Sword-and-Sorcery is the original fiction was never entirely presented in paperback form. Sword-and-Sorcery has been presented fitfully in bits and pieces since the late 1960s.

L. Sprague de Camp was the first to present Sword-and-Sorcery in paperback form with anthologies from Pyramid such as Swords and Sorcery (1963), The Spell of Seven (1965), The Fantastic Swordsmen (1967), and Warlocks and Warriors (1970). The de Camp anthologies were pretty good introductions to the genre for neophytes. Pre-pulp stories by Lord Dunsany were generally included; Robert E. Howard, C. L. Moore, and Clark Ashton Smith from the pulp years. He would include a story or two from 1950s digest magazines by writers he knew (Poul Anderson, Fritz Leiber). De Camp even managed to include fairly new fiction by Michael Moorcock, John Jakes, and Roger Zelazny in those anthologies. Robert E. Howard is present in 100% of the anthologies, Lord Dunsany 100%, Clark Ashton Smith 75%, Fritz Leiber 75%, Henry Kuttner 75%, C. L. Moore 50%, H. P. Lovecraft 50%, and L. Sprague de Camp 50% (one story co-written with Robert E. Howard).

The Lin Carter-edited anthologies are more surveys of fantasy fiction as opposed to being strict anthologies of Sword-and-Sorcery. Anthologies such as The Young Magicians (1969) and New Worlds for Old (1971) have E. R. Eddison, William Morris, and James Branch Cabell juxtaposed with the pulp era of Robert E. Howard, C. L. Moore, and H. P. Lovecraft to post WWII fantasy of J.R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. Carter’s most Sword-and-Sorcery-oriented anthology is The Magic of Atlantis (1970) which is completely made up of pulp reprints except the Lin Carter story. Carter managed to include obscure Nictzin Dyalhis and Edmond Hamilton stories in the book.

The two anthologies edited by Hans Stefan Santesson, The Mighty Barbarians (1969) and The Mighty Swordsmen (1970) were derivative and inferior with a majority of the stories already found in other anthologies. There were new Lin Carter Thongor stories in each book. Maybe Santesson thought Lin Carter would entice people to buy the book.

That was about it for reprint Sword-and-Sorcery anthologies. Flashing Swords and the Swords Against Darkness series were made up of new fiction later in the 1970s. We had the adulterated Conan “edited” by L. Sprague de Camp, incomplete Clark Ashton Smith from the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, Jirel of Joiry by C. L. Moore (supposedly edited by Lin Carter), the two Prester John novels by Norvell Page, and the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser books by Fritz Leiber. That’s it! Everything else marketed as Sword-and-Sorcery in the late ’60s was new or science fiction disguised as Sword-and-Sorcery. As it was, the Jirel collection by Paperback Library missed a story ( “Quest of the Starstone” ) and the Sword-and-Sorcery of Henry Kuttner was never collected. Kuttner wrote four stories about Elak of Atlantis for Weird Tales and two stories about Prince Raynor for Strange Stories. Those six stories collected into one book would have given enough page count for a typical late 1960s paperback. No one bothered to pitch the idea or do the work of collecting six stories together. There was little interest in delving into the pulps to find out what else might be found. Savage Heroes and The Barbarian Swordsmen were pretty much retread anthologies of what had already been done.

It was not until 1987 when the first Echoes of Valor book came out edited by Karl Edward Wagner. This was the first and last attempt to methodically anthologize pulp Sword-and-Sorcery including a fair amount of obscure material. Wagner managed to get the more elusive C. L. Moore stories into print and also present Manly Wade Wellman’s Hok the Cro-Magnon stories for the first time in paperback. The first Echoes of Valor included a Kuttner story ( “Wet Magic” reprinted from Unknown ). The second volume had “Quest of the Starstone” co-written with C. L. Moore, a notoriously hard story to find. The third and last volume of Echoes of Valor included both Prince Raynor stories reprinted from Strange Stories. EoV III is also the closest we have ever come to having a Nictzin Dyalhis collection. Wagner had hoped to edit a fourth and fifth volume of Echoes of Valor but that was not to be. The series did not sell very well for Tor. It didn’t help matters that each book came out in two years intervals. If Wagner had five books ready to go at the outset, we might have a landmark series chronicling the early years of Sword-and-Sorcery fiction. Wagner might have presented lost gems from Planet Stories and Fantastic Adventures to a modern audience. He was beginning to excavate the genre the way Sam Moskowitz had with early science fiction. Science fiction had its massive landmark anthologies edited by J. Francis McComas or Groff Conklin in the 1940s and early 1950s rescuing the best of science fiction of the 1930s and ’40s. We never had that with Sword-and-Sorcery.

You can track down the heroic fantasy of Henry Kuttner but it takes some work. The stories are scattered among various horror and heroic fantasy anthologies. I will here mention that Gryphon Books did collect the Elak stories back in 1985. The book had 500 copies and was marred by being printed with a dot matrix printer. The end result is unreadable. The time has come and gone for mass-market collections for the Sword-and-Sorcery fiction of Henry Kuttner. If it happens today, it will be some small press who produces the book and not Del Rey, Ace, Tor, or Baen though one can always hope.

STEVE ADDS: This would have been a much more enjoyable discussion to have before events prematurely relegated Druss and the other Gemmell heroes to the same past tense where Elak dwells. On his way from the Hans Stefan Santesson anthologies to Flashing Swords! and Swords Against Darkness Morgan skips over a treasure trove that deserves its own Germanic dragon: DAW’s The Years Best Fantasy Stories #1-6, edited by Lin Carter. I’m biased becuse #3, in 1977, introduced me to both KEW’s Kane (before that I knew Wagner only as the author of Legion From the Shadows) and Charles R. Saunders’ Imaro, but with George R.R. Martin’s “The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr,” Gardner Fox’s “Shadow of a Demon,” C.J. Cherryh’s “The Dark King,” and Ray Capella’s “The Goblin Blade” backing up Saunders and Wagner, that might be the pick of the litter. Most of Carter’s selections were either sword-and-sorcery or dark fantasies that were hardly a chore for the S & S aficionado to read; true, there’s Carter himself to deal with — his posthumous collaborations with Clark Ashton Smith are slightly less welcome than would be an actual ghoul chowing down on the CAS bones to get at their marrow — but I for one find Andrew Offutt in the 5 Swords against Darkness collections to be a more erratic editorial presence. Carter manages to rise above himself in #4‘s Niord/Hialmar pastiche “The Pillars of Hell,” and the Thongor stories he chose for the series offered a much less cloddishly Burroughsian barbarian than the Thongor novels of the Sixties. Plus, his excoriation of Terry Brooks at a time when epic fantasy hopheads were ramming their cars through bookstore windows to score copies of The Sword of Shannara makes up for quite a few of the sins of omission and commission in Imaginary Worlds. #4 also features Poul Anderson, Tanith Lee, and Ramsey Campbell wearing their heroic fantasy helms — seriously, any sword-and-sorcery library should include these collections. Carter was still capable of being a force for good in the mid-Seventies when he wasn’t hitting himself in the face with custard pies (think Ganelon Silvermane in the Gondwane novels or Amalric the Man-god in Flashing Swords!)

Berkley/Putnam Conans: Hardcovered, But Soft-Pedalled?

berkley_red_nails.jpg berkley_hour_dragon.jpg berkley_black_circle.jpg

What follows is excerpted from “A View From Corona #13,” a January 11, 2003 editorial by Jeremy Lassen. All of Lassen’s Views From Corona are worth reading, and he’s stockpiled good karma as the Night Shade Books editor who convinced Charles Saunders to write “Betrayal in Blood,” an all-new novella dealing with truculent sword-and-sorcery hero Imaro as a haramia (bandit) chieftain for whom nothing exceeds like excess until the armies of the feuding kingdoms he’s been raiding unite against him. “Betrayal in Blood” is now available as the concluding section of Imaro, the extensively revised version of Saunders’ 1981 novel published by Night Shade earlier this year.

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