This Sunday I’m thrilled to present a GrimDarkTober guest post from a book blogger who needs little introduction! One of the many awesome people I met through a Wyrd & Wonder read along, Peat Long’s blog offers up a ton of book reviews, articles, lists, plus many other curiosities. With no further delay, here’s his article!
Roots of Darkness: The Horrifying Origins of Sword & Sorcery
For many, October tis the month of darkness. Gloom, murk, and perhaps a side of iniquity. Book twitter is full of tributes to this spirit, which is obviously difficult as bookish folk have no taste for the macabre and spooky, not least of which is Athena’s Grimdarktober.
Therefore, in my own tribute, I give her and you this post on sword & sorcery.
Some of you might not see the connection here. You might be thinking what does the genre of over-muscled louts seeking a totally not-compensating for anything life of big swords and scantily clad ladies have to do with dark fiction? The answer to that starts with two words.
Back in the 1920s, when pulp magazines played a big part in the American literary landscape, there was a magazine named Weird Tales. It was founded specifically to be a home for supernatural stories at a time when there was none, with repeated references to a particular influence: Edgar Allan Poe. A lot of the fiction published in the magazine reflected that influence; ghost stories, gothic stories, horror stories. But some of it was the nascent genre of sword & sorcery. How did that happen? And what influence did that have on the stories?
Some of the how lies in the peculiar mindset of Robert E Howard, whose Conan stories formed the accepted recipe for sword & sorcery. He was a bookworm who absorbed everything, a would-be pugilist with a dislike for the modern world, not to mention an author in search of ways to make a sale. Unconventional settings and violent stories came naturally to him, and were a natural addition to the more conventional horror fo the magazine.
A great deal of the how also lies with the very nature of Weird Tales. Its writers formed a close-knit community, writing to each other often, and few of them wrote as often as old Mr Nightmare Fuel himself, HP Lovecraft. His influence was felt in many ways – one proto S&S tale was inspired by him asking the author why not a story told from the werewolf’s perspective, another story got published after he prodded the editor – but the biggest was that of his stories.
At which point you start to see some other S&S staples enter the canon. Weird snakemen. Sinister sorcerers and their eerie cults. Indifferent, terrifying gods. Alien monsters and forgotten communities of malevolent people. In some respects, these are things the early S&S authors would have looked at anyway as these did reflect the fears of the time, but these are very much the sort of thing Lovecraft loved. As such, they very much part of what Howard, and other early S&S writers influenced by Lovecraft such as Clark Ashton Smith and Fritz Leiber, used.
Which means that, amid the tales of conquest and feud, of picaresque adventure in exotic locales, you get a distinct vein of sword & sorcery stories that are almost pure horror. Situations where mighty sinews, honed skill, and indomitable wills only allow our heroes to survive where all others have died. The worlds might be more historic than Lovecraft’s contemporary gothic stylings, the heroes more alive and sane at the end, but the similarity is marked.
And the result is some very dark fantasy fiction, perfect for your October reading! Want some examples? Here’s a few to look up…
Worms of the Earth by Robert E Howard – Howard’s most horrifying tale probably belongs to the character Bran Mak Morn, whose attempt to get revenge against the Romans involves making common cause with those he’d rather have nothing to do with. Very creepy.
The Howling Tower by Fritz Leiber – This adventure of Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser can be found in Swords Against Death, a collection which features a great many horror-esque stories. In this case, what seems a simple case of finding treasure in a tower goes rather unpleasantly wrong.
The Black God’s Kiss by CL Moore – This one can be found in just about any Jirel of Joiry collection, many of which are named after this story. The long and the short of it is some bastard takes Jirel’s castle and makes some presumptions about her sexual interest in him, so she elects to go to hell to find a weapon to right all of this. Hell is, unsurprisingly, somewhat unsettling.
The Testament of Athammaus by Clark Ashton Smith – This short can be found in the Hyperborea collection. It is the tale of a city’s downfall and an execution that won’t go right, told with mordant humour and gruesome horror, and a very nasty villain.
The Unspoken Name by AK Larkwood – From the old to the new. Larkwood’s riff on The Tombs of Atuan also includes plenty of that horror S&S feeling as the former priestess Csorwe navigates many, many terrifying challenges in her bid to prove her worth to her saviour.
The Border Keeper by Kerstin Hall – Another recent piece of weirded out adventure that seems to be in the spiritual lineage. It is more high flying and epic than most of the names here, but the adventures of Vasethe through the nine-hundred and ninety-nine spirit realms contains a good dose of uncanny wonder.
So there you go. Even the hardiest of heroes have horrifying moments, and all because it’s baked into the genre right at its very inception – hopefully you look up some of these stories and enjoy the dark side of sword & sorcery this Grimdarktober
You can find Peat online at:
– Twitter: @PeatLong
– Blog: https://peatlong.wordpress.com/