There's a brilliant blue sky today, and it's cool. At least in the shade. There is a breeze. I have a touch of wanderlust, which in Singapore is like having a craving for pork chops in a Muslim country: You gotta go somewhere else to satisfy it. So I go to the place that doesn't require standing in line at an immigration checkpoint: My imagination.
I've been working on a prequel to Thagoth. I've been working on it, off and on, for about a year or so. I'm at 36,000 words, which is maybe 5,000 or so short of the halfway mark, give or take. I'll write 500 or a thousand or five thousand words, then put it aside for this or that reason for days, weeks, months at a time. Bu unlike a half-dozen other projects I've started since Thagoth was finished, this one keeps going, albeit in fits and starts. Unlike other projects, there is no guilt associated with putting it down, and no stress wondering if I can pick up the thread of the narrative again.
I like writing about Amra and Holgren, you see; it's like revisiting old friends, listening to them bicker, watching them going from frying pan to fire to blast oven. I enjoy creating villains and situations that make them stretch as protagonists, as people. I enjoy the mix of melodrama, humor and bloody viciousness that makes up one of their tales. Even if I were to venture out of this comfortable little literary ghetto known as Sword & Sorcery and write something 'serious', I would always return. The sights and sounds and smells here are home.
Of course, home is not always a pleasant place. For those of you who don't read any sort of fantasy, you should know that it's not all fairies and princes and that kind of bullshit. Especially Sword & Sorcery. Here's a taste of prison life for you (at least in the world I've created):
'Mother-man', as I came to think of him, was never truly quiet. Even in his sleep he would moan for his dam. I assume he was sleeping. And when he woke, he’d scream “Mother! I’m blind! Moooother!” On and on until they came to beat him quiet. Then he’d start again with that monotonous call for maternal comfort.
Eventually I couldn’t stand it anymore. I screamed at him, “Your whore of a mother is dead, shit-brain. Shut it!” It only made him go on louder. Which made me invent ever more gruesome ends for her. Run over by a carriage. Gored by bulls, made into meat pies. Drowned in a cesspit. Gnawed to death by rats, face first. Dead of syphilis. It only made him carry on the louder, which made the guards come. They beat us both.
I found myself hoping they’d come to hang either him or me soon. I didn’t really care which.
As bleak as anything Dumas came up with. Come to think of it, books like The Count of Monte Cristo probably have more to do with the creation of the Sword & Sorcery genre than fairy tales. I can see Robert Howard, sitting in his tiny room in his tiny house in North Texas, reading Dumas, feeling just as trapped as if he too were an inmate in Chateau D'If. I can imagine him planning his great escape. Thwarted by his mother's failing health, thwarted by love and obligation, escaping instead into Hyperboria, into his imagination.
Sword & Sorcery was created by Howard, of course, the day his character Conan the Cimmerian first strode onto a battlefield, sword in hand. But Fritz Leiber coined the phrase, and Fritz was the one that carried S&S forward after Howard committed suicide. How odd, that a Texan invented it and a yankee German immigrant carried it forward. As unlikely as any Sword and Sorcery story, I guess. And fitting.
Thinking about Howard's death has made me morose. What a waste. I think perhaps he too wrote fantasy to stave off the predators in his own psyche. He was brilliant and crude and unstable, and above all he was a creator. He was a master storyteller. He was brutish and eccentric, and his amazing mind was hidden behind a harsh, unlovely face. I have been to his home town, to his little white crackerbox wooden house. If I had lived there, I would have gone mad. He was surrounded by hundreds of miles of almost nothing. Even today, seventy-odd years later, there isn't much more than there was then. But they say he loved that land. They say he was planning to write a serious history of it.
He shot himself in the head before he ever got around to it.
I feel a connection with him, of course. Us Texans are like that. So are us fantasists. Oddly, I never had any urge to copy him, though. The fantasy I write is different from his, just as it is different from Leiber's. If you read a Conan story, it is full of vitality and color and spectacle. The writing is larger than life, because the characters and theme are larger than life. If you read Leiber's Fafhrd & Mouser tales, you get a more intricate, more well-crafted story; but you also get one that doesn't hesitate to pause and wink at the reader, as if to say 'we're all just having fun here'. Howard never winks. He carries you along by the force of his own belief. After you're done, you might think the plot weak, the prose overblown. But while you're reading, you just want to know what happens next.
So I try to take something from both of them; Howard and Leiber. From Howard, I took the idea of the need to drive the story forward; that it is better to leave the reader breathless than yawning:
“Tell the Elamner he’d better back off if he doesn’t want the golden toad melted down.”
“You have it?”
“No, I just assumed he’d want a golden toad. Doesn’t everybody?”
“We can do business, then.”
“Yes,” I said. “We can deal.”
“How shall we contact you?”
I yanked out a handful of his hair and pushed him into the gutter. I tucked the hair into the top of a boot.
“Don’t worry. I’ll find you.” And then I turned and tried to make myself scarce. I was sure the mage Holgren would know just what to do with Bosch’s greasy locks.
It wasn’t Bosch’s men that got me. It was the Watch. Markgie’s Rest wasn’t the Rookery, or Silk Street. When taverns got busted up and blood got spilled, and people started running around in the street with bared blades, they came. In large numbers. Quickly.
There was just nowhere for me to go. Three appeared ahead of me, and two more behind, blocking off the alley. Black, varnished billys thunked into meaty palms. Blank walls rose on either side.
“Kerf’s shriveled balls,” I spat, and dropped my knife, and put out my hands.
They beat me unconscious anyway.
And from Leiber I learned that it's okay to have a laugh once in a while, and that you should write no less maturely for a Sword & Sorcery story than you should for any other sort of story. Never write down to your reader.
He walked through the door less than an hour later. Holgren didn’t bother with knocking. Or locks, for that matter. He took a look around, one eyebrow raised.
“Did you upset the housekeeper?”
“Ha ha. Somebody turned the place while I was in prison.”
“You were in prison?”
“Don’t remind me. Wine?” I held out the bottle.
“Is it any good?”
“The very best I have.”
He took a sip. Swallowed, reluctantly. “That’s ghastly.”
“True.” I took another swig.
The final lesson I learned from both of them was to try and always make the world your characters walk in a world of wonder and of war, but one that makes sense. And that can be the hardest of all. That's what makes the difference between a passable story and a great one. I'm still working on that. I don't know that I'll ever be satisfied with my attempts.
But that's the way it goes, whatever you write.