Hither Came Conan: Ruminations on “The Phoenix on the Sword”

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Hither_PhoenixDHSwordBobby Derie wrote a great essay on the first Conan story, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” for this Hither Came Conan series. Certainly, better than anything I could ever come up with. But I still wanted to do a post on this tale. Because:

A –I wanted to contribute more than just what is likely going to be a bottom-rung essay on my assignment (fans of “Rogues in the House” – sorry, you drew the short straw); and

B – I’m pretty sure “Phoenix” was the first Conan story I read. Now, it might have been “The Thing in the Crypt,” in the first Lancer/Ace collection, which I had bought and then stuck on a shelf for at least a decade or two. But I didn’t remember that story when I started going through the Ace books, AFTER exploring Conan via the Del Rey trilogy. So, I think it was “Phoenix.”

So, because I’m a wordy typer, what started out as just one-third of a post on the first three essays in our series, grew into a solo show.

The Phoenix on the Sword

It is well known that “The Phoenix on the Sword,” the first story of Conan the Cimmerian, was a rewrite of a previously unsold tale of an earlier Howard character, Kull, an exile from Atlantis.

Howard sold three Kull stories to Weird Tales, appearing in the August and September issues of 1929, and finally, in November of 1930. Howard also wrote nine more tales about the character, which were not published until after his death. So, only 25% of his Kull stories sold. Not exactly a money-maker.

However, “By This Axe I Rule!”, which had failed to sell to Argosy and Adventure, was dusted off to feature a less philosophical barbarian.

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The Golden Age of Science Fiction: Peter Nicholls and The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2019 | Posted by Steven H Silver

Cover by Chris Foss

Cover by Chris Foss

Cover by Chris Foss

Cover by Chris Foss

Cover by Dave Christensen

Cover by Dave Christensen

Peter Graham is often quoted as saying that the Golden Age of Science Fiction is 12. I was reminded of this quote last year while reading Jo Walton’s An Informal History of the Hugo Awards (Tor Books) when Rich Horton commented that based on Graham’s statement, for him, the Golden Age of Science Fiction was 1972. It got me thinking about what science fiction (and fantasy) looked like the year I turned twelve and so this year, I’ll be looking at the year 1979 through a lens of the works and people who won science fiction awards in 1980, ostensibly for works that were published in 1979. I’ve also invited Rich to join me on the journey and he’ll be posting articles looking at the 1973 award year.

The Best Nonfiction category was not one of the original Hugo categories in 1953, and since its introduction in 1980, when Nicholls won the inaugural award, it has been something of a Frankenstein category, a place where anything that doesn’t clearly fit into another category has been placed. This has resulted in books, websites, comics, podcasts, and music all going up against each other in a chaotic mélange. At various times, the category has been for Related Work, Related Book, and Nonfiction. While the award has not been well defined, it has been a constant on the Hugo ballots since its introduction in 1980. Not only did Peter Nicholls win that first award for The Science Fiction Encyclopedia, he won it a second time for the 1994 expansion with John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction as well as in 2012 for the web-based The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, Third Edition, with Clute, David Langford, and Graham Sleight. In 1980, the Hugo Award was presented at Noreascon Two in Boston, Massachusetts on August 31.

The Locus Awards were established in 1972 and presented by Locus Magazine based on a poll of its readers. In more recent years, the poll has been opened up to on-line readers, although subscribers’ votes have been given extra weight. At various times the award has been presented at Westercon and, more recently, at a weekend sponsored by Locus at the Science Fiction Museum (now MoPop) in Seattle. The Best Related Non-Fiction Book category has gone by several different names over the years. It was presented as a one-off award in 1976, when James E. Gunn won it for Alternate Worlds: The Illustrated History of Science Fiction.  It was reintroduced in 1979 and given to Frederik Pohl for The Way the Future Was.  Some form of the award has been presented every years since then.  In 1980, Peter Nicholls won the award for The Science Fiction Encyclopedia. In 1980, the Locus Poll received 854 responses.

The Pilgrim Award was established in 1970 by the Science Fiction Research Association. Named for J.O. Bailey’s book Pilgrims through Space and Time, the first award was presented to Bailey and recognizes individuals who have devoted their lives to science fiction research and scholarship. The 1980 award was presented at the SFRA Annual Conference held from June 18-21 on Staten Island. Australian author Peter Nicholls (1939-2018) received the award in 1980, the same year that his landmark The Science Fiction Encyclopedia won the Hugo Award for Best Nonfiction and the Locus Award for Best Reference Book.

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Hither Came Conan: Fletcher Vredenburgh – The Frost Giant’s Daughter

Monday, January 21st, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Frank Frazetta's famous work

Frank Frazetta’s famous work

Submitted in 1932 to Weird Tales, “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” is possibly the first Conan story of entirely new material (read Keith West on the story’s publication history), and it is also unique in its style. It is stripped down to the bare, primal essences of sword & sorcery, and exists on the lip between reality and nightmare. There’s more of myth and dream to “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” than to any other Conan yarn. When I first encountered it in my younger days, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, but since then, I’ve come to appreciate it on several levels.

The lone survivor from a band of Aesir, Conan the Cimmerian finds himself facing Heimdul, the sole survivor from a Vanir war party, on a corpse-littered field of snow. As soon as Conan defeats and kills the Vanir warrior, he finds himself overcome by the blinding sunlight reflected off the blood-stained snow.

He is raised from his stupor by the arrival of an ivory-skinned, red-haired woman of surpassing beauty. She is barefoot and naked, save for a filmy gown. Soon she is taunting him and he is chasing her. Both rage and mad lust drive him after her into increasingly mountainous terrain with a sky streaked by the colors of the borealis. As he finally nears her, two armored giants rise up from the snow and the woman reveals herself to be their sister. She has lured the Cimmerian northward to his doom.

He proves too powerful, though and, driven by a primal urgency, dispatches them quickly. Unable to ward off Conan any longer, the woman calls on her father, the terrible god, Ymir, and in response to her cries a cascade of blinding blue lights from the heavens strike Conan, leaving him unconscious again. He next finds himself shaken awake by some of his comrades from another war band.

A debate follows whether Conan’s experience was real or just the result of the blow to his head that dented his helmet. One old soldier, Gorm, claims to have seen her in his youth. She is Atali, daughter of Ymir, and has lured men to their deaths for ages. Only Gorm’s wounds kept him from following her himself. Despite the tale, Conan is still unsure of what really happened – until he realizes he still clutches a gossamer gown in his hand.

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Artzybasheff’s Robots

Wednesday, January 16th, 2019 | Posted by Steve Carper

Mechanix Illustrated Oct. 1954, 84 Boris Artzybasheff Brings Machines to Life

Boris Artzybasheff is one of my favorite science fiction artists. He’s one of my favorite artists, period, but I put it that way because most people never think of him as a science fiction artist. Look at his work through that modifier, though, and it snaps into place. Perhaps no other artist sees the alien in the everyday as much or depicts it as well as Artzybasheff.

Born in Russia in 1899, he fled to New York in 1919 after having fought with the White Russians. He didn’t speak a word of English. Nevertheless he was a working illustrator by 1922 and supplied the art for the Newbery Award winning Gay-Neck, written by Dhan Gopal Mukerji in 1928.

That early art was stylized but mundane, in the f&sf usage of the word. Nevertheless, publishers saw his true strengths from the beginning. Few mainstream presses released fantasy before WWII but those who did made Artzybasheff their go-to artist. He did the covers for classics like The Worm Ouroboros, The Incomplete Enchanter, and Land of Unreason.

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Hither Came Conan: Bobby Derie – The Phoenix on the Sword

Monday, January 14th, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Hither_PhoenixFightOur Hither Came Conan series gets well and truly underway this week with Bobby Derie presenting the case for “The Phoenix on the Sword.” Grab your loin cloth and tulwar (or zhaibar knife, if you prefer…)  and tread upon some jeweled thrones!

“Know, oh prince…”

The Texas pulpster sat at his typewriter, pounding away at the keys, talking the story out loud as he typed. The long novella of King Kull, “By This Axe I Rule!” written some years earlier remained unsold, rejected by Argosy and Adventure. Already the Texan was working over the history in his mind, weaving together bits of fact and legend of the “Age undreamed of.”

Thinking back to just months ago when he had been down south, in a dusty little border town of the Rio Grande valley, and a character had come into his mind…a raw conception with an old Celtic name, and…

“Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.”

The opening to “The Phoenix on the Sword” is the greatest incipit in pulp fiction, an invocation to the muse of artificial mythology, a sketch of a world and a character all at once. It ran as the banner across the Marvel Conan comics for decades, and an abbreviated version opened the 1982 film which introduced the Cimmerian to a whole new audience. It almost didn’t happen.

“But “The Phoenix on the Sword” has points of real excellence. I hope you will see your way clear to touch it up and resubmit it. It is the first two chapters that do not click. The story opens rather uninterestingly, it seems to me, and the reader has difficulty in orienting himself. The first chapter ends well, and the second chapter begins superbly; but after King Conan’s personality is well established, the chapter sags from too much writing.”
—Farnsworth Wright to Robert E. Howard, 10 Mar 1932

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The Golden Age of Science Fiction: Lou Tabakow

Monday, January 14th, 2019 | Posted by Steven H Silver

Photo by George Young

Photo by George Young

Peter Graham is often quoted as saying that the Golden Age of Science Fiction is 12. I was reminded of this quote last year while reading Jo Walton’s An Informal History of the Hugo Awards (Tor Books) when Rich Horton commented that based on Graham’s statement, for him, the Golden Age of Science Fiction was 1972. It got me thinking about what science fiction (and fantasy) looked like the year I turned twelve and so this year, I’ll be looking at the year 1979 through a lens of the works and people who won science fiction awards in 1980, ostensibly for works that were published in 1979. I’ve also invited Rich to join me on the journey and he’ll be posting articles looking at the 1973 award year.

The E. Everett Evans Big Heart Award was founded in 1959 and the first recipient was E.E. “Doc” Smith. The award was originally named in honor of E. Everett Evans, a fan who helped run the first Westercon and was active in publishing a fanzine in FAPA as well as participating in activities for LASFS (The Los Angeles Science Fiction Society). He helped found the N3F (National Fantasy Fan Federation). From is founding until 2000, the award was administered by Forrest J Ackerman and was one of the awards traditionally presented as part of the Hugo Award ceremony at Worldcon. In 2000, Ackerman stepped down as the administrator with David A. Kyle taking over. In 2006, Kyle renamed the award the Forrest J Ackerman Big Heart Award. The award was renamed a second time in 2018 and is currently the David A. Kyle Big Heart Award.

Lou Tabakow was born on January 14, 1915. He owned a dry cleaner in Cincinnati when Dale Tarr introduced him to science fiction fandom in the 1930s. When Tarr, Charles Tanner, and Ross Rocklynne founded the Cincinnati Fantasy Group (CFG) in 1935, Tabakow became the organization’s founding Secretary/Treasurer. Within a few years, Tabakow was functioning as the group’s President, a position he retained until his death, when he was succeeded by Bill Cavin.

Through his position within CFG, Tabakow helped found several long-running conventions, including Midwestcon, in 1949. Midwestcon is widely considered to have been the first relaxacon held. It has long drawn from the greater Midwest and over the years has been attended by pros as well as fans, despite its lack of programming.

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The Top Five Books I Read in 2018

Friday, January 11th, 2019 | Posted by Brandon Crilly

Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach-medium Alice Payne Arrives-small Redemption’s Blade-small

Okay, so maybe I’m one of those people who thinks, “Wow, how is it already a new year?” But then I think about everything I got up to in those 365 days and realize that time flies because I tend to keep myself pretty busy. Most relevant to my column here, that includes a ton of reading – and once again I’ve given myself the challenge of choosing my favorites, with a Top Five Books I Read in 2018.

In previous years, I’ve given myself the wiggle room that it didn’t matter what year the book was published in. I’m taking that away this time, forcing myself to choose from 2018 publications because, quite frankly, more recent titles need the signal boost more than something like Stephen King’s The Gunslinger. And I’ve managed to select a life-on-the-line, absolutely-have-to-choose #1 pick. For 2016, that title was An Inheritance of Ashes; for 2017, I went with The Nine by Tracy Townsend. But for 2018…

Life-on-the-Line Pick: Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach

The first time I saw Kelly Robson after reading her novella, I might have gone on a bit about a) how amazing it was and b) how there had better be a sequel in the works. (There is.) Lucky Peach is an action-packed, feels-jerking hopepunk story that somehow combines time travel, post-cataclysm environmentalism, transhumanism, tight character development AND a gut-punch of an ending. Seriously, go read this gods-damned book. Right now. Or if you’re not convinced, read my full review here.

And in alphabetical order, my other four picks for 2018 are…

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The Golden Age of Science Fiction: Titan Cover Art, by Paul Lehr

Thursday, January 10th, 2019 | Posted by Steven H Silver

Cover by Paul Lehr

Cover by Paul Lehr

Cover by Paul Lehr

Cover by Paul Lehr

Cover by Paul Lehr

Cover by Paul Lehr

Peter Graham is often quoted as saying that the Golden Age of Science Fiction is 12. I was reminded of this quote last year while reading Jo Walton’s An Informal History of the Hugo Awards (Tor Books) when Rich Horton commented that based on Graham’s statement, for him, the Golden Age of Science Fiction was 1972. It got me thinking about what science fiction (and fantasy) looked like the year I turned twelve and so this year, I’ll be looking at the year 1979 through a lens of the works and people who won science fiction awards in 1980, ostensibly for works that were published in 1979. I’ve also invited Rich to join me on the journey and he’ll be posting articles looking at the 1973 award year.

The Analog Award was launched in 1979 for works published in the magazine in the preceding year. The Best Cover category was added in 1980, so this was the first year the award was presented. The award has been given every year since then with the exception of the year covering works published in the magazine in 2002, when the award was replaced, for one year only, with a cover artist award, when it was won by David A. Hardy, who painted two covers for the magazine (May and December issues).

Paul Lehr painted the cover for the first installment of John Varley’s four-part serial for the novel Titan, which ran from the January to the April issue of Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact.

The artwork from the January 1979 issue of Analog seems to depict the spindle that runs up the center of the torus moon discovered in orbit around Saturn. The tower looks like a mixture of organic parts, wires, and high tech platforms growing out of a small globe and inside a massive dome. The night sky with other moons of Saturn can be seen through windows and a rainbow-like arc stretches behind the tower.

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Rescued from the Vaults of Time: The Sapphire Goddess – The Fantasies of Nictzin Dyalhis

Tuesday, January 8th, 2019 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

oie_801451Zc9o2K4DDave Ritzlin, impresario of DMR Books, has rescued another writer from the distant, fog-obscured days of pulp fantasy. He has done for Nictzin Dyalhis as he did for the nearly-forgotten Clifford Ball (reviewed by me here). If you, like most people, have no idea who Dyalhis was, Ritzlin presents as much information as is available in an excellent introduction to The Sapphire Goddess (2018), his new collection of all nine of the author’s fantasy and science fiction stories.

A quote from the introduction:

Even though Nictzin Dyalhis was the eccentric author’s legal name at that time, it’s highly unlikely he was named that way at birth. He claimed that “Nictzin” was a Toltec Indian name and “Dyalhis” was an old English (or, alternately, Welsh) surname. Neither of these claims is true. Many speculated that his real name was Nicholas Douglas or Nicholas Dallas or something similar, which he modified into something more exotic.

Nonetheless, Weird Tales publisher Farnsworth Wright swore to Donald Wandrei that all the checks for Dyalhis’s stories “were made out to that name.” Whatever the reality, there’s something wonderfully perfect about a fantasist being remembered solely by a name of mysterious origins.

The nine stories in The Sapphire Goddess were published between 1925 and 1940. Eight were published in Weird Tales, with only “He Refused to Stay Dead” published in another magazine, Ghost Stories. Save for the explicitly sci-fi “When the Green Star Waned” and its sequel “The Oath of Hul Jok”, they are a mix of horror and heroic fantasy. Running through most of them is a theme of reincarnation or forgotten past lived in another dimension.

“When the Green Star Waned” (1925) and “The Oath of Hul Jok” (1928) are two adventures of the planet Venhez’s greatest heroes. The first concerns a journey to the now-silent planet Aerth to determine why no one’s heard anything from its inhabitants in years. Dyalhis’s first published story, it’s not an especially finely-wrought story, but it is very successful at creating a nightmare atmosphere, made all the more malevolent with horrible semi-material monsters from the dark side of the moon. It also seems to have introduced the word Blastor for ray guns. That alone is a more than worthy legacy for any pulp story.

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Birthday Profile: Violet Van der Elst

Friday, January 4th, 2019 | Posted by Steven H Silver

Violet Van der Elst

Violet Van der Elst on the west stairs at Harlaxton Manor

A look at a minor horror author.

Violet Van der Elst was born on January 4, 1882. Her parents were a coal porter and a washerwoman and she worked as a scullery maid. In 1903, she married a civil engineer and eventually she developed the first brush-less shaving cream, which made her fortune. Following her first husband’s death, she married Jean Julien Van der Elst, a Belgian painter.

Her shaving and cosmetics business allowed her to focus, if such is the word, on other activities. Her primary activity was fighting against the death penalty in England. Another activity was running for office and she failed to be elected to Parliament three times, each in a different borough.

In 1937, she bought Harlaxton Manor, a hundred year old mansion that the previous owner had tried to sell and couldn’t. She saved the building from being town down. It was this connection through which I learned of her, since I attended college at Harlaxton. Van der Elst was convinced that she could contact her dead husband and used a private seance room for that purpose.

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