The air has turned crisp, the sun is dipping below the horizon earlier each evening, and the supermarket candy section seems to have grown exponentially. Halloween is just around the corner and, like many of you, my mind has turned to haunts and frights.
Horror is one of the primary elements dividing swords & sorcery from epic fantasy. To quote the Horror Writers Association’s site, horror fiction is that which “elicits an emotional reaction that includes some aspect of fear or dread.” Horror has been intrinsic to the genre from its earliest days. Robert E. Howard’s heroes, Kull, Conan, Bran, and Solomon Kane all face off against supernatural horror. In general, the worlds of S&S are dark and dangerous. The protagonists, mostly loners, find themselves pitted against an inimical universe populated with carnivorous forces of darkness that sate their hunger on humanity.
Epic fantasy is concerned with things like the fate of the world, the battle between Light and Darkness, or big dynastic squabbles. There may be moments of terror in epic fantasy (e.g. LotR’s Watcher in the Water; A Song of Ice and Fire’s wights), but it’s rarely the main event. Not in every story, but in most of their S&S work, writers like Clark Ashton Smith, Karl Edward Wagner, and C. L. Moore, created tales that were horror first and foremost. They spun nightmares and darkness into thread and, along with strands of adventure and mystery, wove from it something moodier than Prof. Tolkien or his successors.
Clark Ashton Smith wrote some of the most dread-soaked stories in S&S. With lapidary prose, Smith composed stories that are almost suffocating in their intensity. In “Empire of the Necromancers,” two foul wizards revive a whole nation of the dead to serve them at their pleasure. In “The Testament of Athammaus,” a demonic bandit wreaks increasing degrees of terror on the city of Commoriom when his sentence of beheading fails to prove fatal. My favorite, the one that unsettles me the most, is “The Charnel God.” In a city where all the dead are claimed by the priests of the titular Mordiggian, young Phariom’s wife is taken when she slips into a cataleptic state. He follows Mordiggian’s priests to his temple, on a mission to rescue her:
The priests went on, and Phariom kept them in sight as well as he could in the blind tangle of streets. The way steepened, without affording any clear prospect of the levels below, and the houses seemed to crowd more closely, as if huddling back from a precipice. Finally the youth emerged behind his macabre guides in a sort of circular hollow at the city’s heart, where the temple of Mordiggian loomed alone and separate amid pavements of sad onyx, and funerary cedars whose green had blackened as if with the undeparting charnel shadows bequeathed by dead ages.
The edifice was built of a strange stone, hued as with the blackish purple of carnal decay: a stone that refused the ardent luster of noon, and the prodigality of dawn or sunset glory. It was low and windowless, having the form of a monstrous mausoleum. Its portals yawned sepulchrally in the gloom of the cedars.
Phariom watched the priests as they vanished within the portals, carrying the girl Arctela like phantoms who bear a phantom burden. The broad area of pavement between the recoiling houses and the temple was now deserted, but he did not venture to cross it in the blare of betraying daylight. Circling the area, he saw that there were several other entrances to the great fane, all open and unguarded. There was no sign of activity about the place; but he shuddered at the thought of that which was hidden within its walls, even as the feasting of worms is hidden in the marble tomb.
Like a vomiting of charnels, the abominations of which he had heard rose up before him in the sunlight; and again he drew close to madness, knowing that Elaith must lie among the dead, in the temple, with the foul umbrage of such things upon her, and that he, consumed with unremitting frenzy, must wait for the favorable shrouding of darkness before he could execute his nebulous, doubtful plan of rescue. In the meanwhile, she might awake, and perish from the mortal horror of her surroundings… or worse even than this might befall, if the whispered tales were true…
I have written of both Night Winds and Death Angel’s Shadow, Karl Edward Wagner’s short story collections about Kane, the murderous, always-plotting, swordsman and sorcerer (follow the links to the reviews). Neither title would look out of place gracing a mid-seventies horror novel, complete with embossed cover and garish artwork. The stories feature vengeful demons, a vampiric femme fatale, ghouls, a werewolf, and a half-dozen other things that regularly feature in a Mario Bava movie. While Smith’s stories are more about atmosphere and setting, Wagner’s are tightly wound scare-fests. As such, they are more plot-reliant, so I won’t give any of them away. Suffice it to say, I recommend them completely, particularly for this season.
Filled with trips to Hell and back, C. L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry stories are akin to one’s darkest dreams. They walk a line between Smith’s and Wagner’s stories, with ambience and narrative holding equal importance. Again, I won’t reveal anything about them except a few lines from my favorite Jirel story, “Hellsgarde.”
Hellsgarde — Hellsgarde and Andred. She did not want to remember the hideous old story, but she could not keep her mind off it this evening. Andred had been a big, violent man, passionate and willful and very cruel. Men hated him, but when the tale of his dying spread abroad even his enemies pitied Andred of Hellsgarde.
For the rumor of his treasure had drawn at last besiegers whom he could not overcome. Hellsgarde gate had fallen and the robber nobles who captured the castle searched in vain for the precious casket which Andred guarded. Torture could not loosen his lips, though they tried very terribly to make him speak. He was a powerful man, stubborn and brave. He lived a long while under torment, but he would not betray the hiding-place of his treasure.
They tore him limb from limb at last and cast his dismembered body into the quicksands, and came away empty-handed. No one ever found Andred’s treasure.
Since then for two hundred years Hellsgarde had lain empty. It was a dismal place, full of mists and fevers from the marsh, and Andred did not lie easy in the quicksands where his murderers had cast him. Dismembered and scattered broadcast over the marshes, yet he would not lie quiet. He had treasured his mysterious wealth with a love stronger than death itself, and legend said he walked Hellsgarde as jealously in death as in life.
From John Fultz, Mask of the Sorcerer by Darrell Schweitzer, which he called “Harry Potter in Hell.” Schweitzer’s novel, The White Isle (reviewed here), and the collection We Are All Legends were strongly recommended too.
Stan Wagenaar suggested Chris Carlsen’s Berserker Trilogy. Carlsen was a pen name of the talented Robert Holdstock. The book isn’t available in the US yet, but I’m hoping it shows up soon.
Charles Rutledge recommended Brian Keene and Steven Shrewsbury’s King of the Bastards.
Morgan Holmes offered up Ramsey Campbell’s Ryre stories and Joseph Payne Brennan’s Kerza stories. I have actually reviewed the former, but know nothing of the latter, though with the recommendation coming from Morgan, I feel an automatic need to hunt them down.
Morgan also suggested I look into the S&S stories, some written by Archie Goodwin and Gardner Fox, in the horror comics, Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella.
Just putting this together, I remembered that at least one of Charles Saunders’ Imaro stories found its way into a Karl Edward Wagner-edited Year’s Best Horror Stories. Andre Norton’s “The Toads of Grimmerdale” (which has been discussed a few times here at Black Gate), leaves me a little queasy each time I read it.
This dread, the fear of what’s lurking in the dark, waiting to strike, has been integral to S&S from they very beginning when Robert E. Howard took tried and true historical adventure fiction and mixed it with the burgeoning weird fiction of Lovecraft, Merritt, and others. Without it, fantasy is something else. Not bad, but not S&S.
Let me draw things to a close with a quote from Keith West regarding this subject, and which I stand by one hundred percent:
I think horror is essential to what makes sword and sorcery distinctive from other forms of fantasy adventure. The best S&S stories Robert E. Howard wrote are infused with a sense of dread or horror. Think “Tower of the Elephant” or “Worms of the Earth,” to name just two examples. Without the horror element, a lot of what is marketed as S&S is really just fantasy adventure with S&S trappings.
Fletcher Vredenburgh reviews here at Black Gate most Tuesday mornings and at his own site, Swords & Sorcery: A Blog when his muse hits him. He’s also got four horror-related posts for your edification and amusement over there too — 1, 2, 3, and 4