REH Alive & Well As a Ghost in the Pop Culture Machine (An Occasional Series)

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In the article I recently posted surveying Sword-and-Sorcery since the Eighties, it was a particular pleasure to push the ornery-in-the-best-sense, refusing-to-consent-to-consensual-reality work of Matthew Stover as hard as I could. Stover’s latest novel will be throwing elbows on bookstore shelves this fall, and over at his blog he’s been musing about how, while the women who enjoy the adventures of Hari Kaine (an assassin as lethally talented at kingdom-decapitating as Gemmell’s Waylander) really, really enjoy them, a certain post-graduate studies quality makes demands that will at least partially exclude some readers:

The real problem with gathering feminine readership for the Acts of Caine, it seems to me, is that [Heroes Die, Stover’s first Caine novel] depends on an SFF-savvy reader — for it to have full effect, the reader should already be well-versed to the point of exhaustion with the various tropes that the story is twisting into less-familiar shapes. Which seems to be more of a guy thing, overall.

Make sure the woman you lend the book to has already read Conan and Bran Mak Morn, Elric and Hawkmoon and Fafhrd & Gray Mouser and the like, and I’m pretty sure she’ll like Caine.

This is a problem with male readership as well. As one editor at Del Rey told me:

“What stops Caine from being more successful is that he’s only accessible to people who are already hardcore fans. Write something ‘entry-level’ — not necessarily Harry Potter, but even more grown-up entry-level like most of Jonathan Carroll or Neil Gaiman, something where someone who knows nothing about SF and fantasy can enjoy it — and you’re golden.”

Unfortunately for me and my career, I’ve never been able to pull something like that together, outside of Star Wars.

Mentioning not just Conan but Bran Mak Morn, not just Elric but Dorian Hawkmoon — these for me are confirmations of street cred, (and the first two are pertinent to a discussion at where a troll shambled out from under its bridge braying for evidence that Howard had influenced authors other than KEW and David Drake). The casual, clued-in circulation of Howard character names and titles is good for REH and good for heroic fantasy.

As for what “outside of Star Wars” means, Stover has notched several tie-in or spin-off bestsellers. Me, I’m as resistant as they come to Lucasverse merchandising, but this one writer is able to alchemize his commissions into personal projects, evading mere hired gun status while showing off gunfighterly prowess in a way I haven’t seen since John Maddox Roberts’ Conan novels. His Revenge of the Sith was so much better than the actual movie it wasn’t even remotely funny, and his 2004 Shatterpoint, a Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now riff in which the Samuel L. Jackson Jedi takes a lightsaber to a nightmarishly Nietzschean jungle world, was so feral as to render laff-riotous any pretense of occupying the same continuity/galaxy as The Phantom Menace or the new prodigy of fanbase-alienating.

So best of luck with Caine Black Knife, Mr. Stover, and thanks for the Pictish king name-dropping.