Robert E. Howard, Feminist! – Guest Post by Paul Lucas

Now that I’ve click-baited you with that misleading title, I’m going to spend some time introducing you to one of The Forgotten Kick-Ass Women of PulpTM – Dark Agnes, the heroine of REH’s Sword Woman. And kick-ass she most certainly is.

According to both howardworks.com and isfdb.com, Sword Woman was not published during Howard’s lifetime, so it’s hard to date. However, C. L. Moore corresponded with him about it at the start of 1935 – she loved it – which gives us a reasonable idea. It’s been published a few times since it was rediscovered, but the version I read was in The Second Book of Robert E. Howard, edited by Glenn Lord, published by Zebra Books in 1976.

Our heroine is called Dark Agnes because of her ferocity, not because of her colouring. In fact, she is one of those redheads that fantasy writers love so much. REH even works that into the first line of the story. “Agnes! You red-haired spawn of the devil, where are you?” It was my father calling me, after his usual fashion.”

So, we are quickly introduced to Agnes de Chastillon, a fiery young woman living in a village in post-mediaeval France. The story starts on the day that she is supposed to be married off to the ‘fat pig’ Francois by her brute of a father, who thinks nothing of knocking her out and dragging her home by the hair when she refuses. In a moving early scene, Agnes’s downtrodden sister gives her a knife with which to take her own life and save herself from a life of drudgery. Of course, this being an REH story, Agnes disdains both choices proffered to her by other people – death or domestic slavery – and uses the knife for something else – to cut her way to freedom. She stabs her betrothed, flees, makes a friend on the road called Etienne Villiers, but is betrayed by him and almost sold into prostitution, beats him up in return, makes another friend, the more honourable Guiscard de Clisson, a leader of mercenaries, then fights again, is shot and so on and so forth, as you’d expect of Howard.

However, this isn’t a manic story, just fast paced. The story is told through lots of action, but the action fits the psychology of Agnes. She is a female berserker, driven with rage to fight her way out of her vulnerable position in society. Indeed, I was convinced enough by her rage and her backstory, which are given in a few vivid strokes by Howard, to overcome my disbelief about her fighting abilities. She doesn’t suddenly turn into a fighting machine, but develops by stages, first standing up to her father, then stabbing her betrothed, and progressing from there. Even so, she is not invulnerable and needs some help in becoming the independent fighting woman she wants to be to escape from the drudgery of domestic life.* Hence, she gains her own martial mentor who is then shuffled off the page, Obi-Wan Kenobi style, when he’s served his purpose. Pulp writers never let a character grow old or outlive their usefulness.

Most of the men who mistreat Agnes, she either kills or beats up herself in one of her rages, or they suffer at the hands of others. In this, she is a catalyst for chaos, but the chaos is already part of her society and she simply brings it out. Her brutal father is ‘marked with scars gotten in the service of greedy kings and avaricious dukes’. The land outside their village is a desperate place filled with criminals, vagrants, wandering mercenaries, and retainers working for unscrupulous nobles. France and the Holy Roman Empire are on the brink of war. It is a turbulent age. No wonder she is so angry all the time.

Agnes is simply someone fighting against her position in a dangerous society, and the same applies to her friend-cum-adversary Etienne Villiers. He is initially her silver tongued rescuer but is later revealed to be a blackguard; however, he does, perhaps, have more fairness buried even deeper still. Both of them are interesting characters with their own sense of honour, their own moral codes, perhaps alien to those of us living in the twenty-first century. It’s their alien codes that gives these characters life, their sparkle.

Despite all the indignities heaped on Agnes, the story isn’t a hate filled screed against men, nor is it a political tract – not that you’d expect any of that from Howard. He just produced a story with a different type of protagonist for his market – a peasant girl. He did give her the expected motivation for many a fictional character – the desire to escape a miserable life – but made sure her motivation was different in other ways – the need to escape a forced marriage to a man she despises, and the need to hide her sex from the world as she flees. That gave Howard interesting material to combine into something new, and it worked. Given Agnes’ background, you would almost think that Howard was writing the prototype of a progressive or feminist story, but in his case the ‘progressive’ elements were there in the service of the story rather than driven by a political agenda.

In fact, Dark Agnes is much more interesting than the gender-neutral characters we see in a lot of stories these days – ‘there are no differences between the sexes’. Thankfully, 1 To use the jargon, she has a character arc. Howard harnessed these differences between men and women, their psychologies and their positions in their society, to produce a vivid and exciting story, much as C. L. Moore did with Black God’s Kiss. It’s no wonder the Queen of Weird Fiction liked this story so much.

My blessings! I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed ‘Sword Woman.’ It seemed such a pity to leave her just at the threshold of higher adventures. Your favorite trick of slamming the door on a burst of bugles! And leaving one to wonder what happened next and wanting so badly to know. Aren’t there any more stories about Agnes?

In fact, there were two sequels, Blades for France, which was left unpolished, and Mistress of Death, left unfinished. Howardworks.com and ISFDB list the completed 2 3 and published versions of these stories.

*To use the jargon, she has a character arc.

Paul Lucas is a writer with a story in an upcoming issue of Cirsova Heroic Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine; he can be found here on WordPress.

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Some Thoughts on Conan + Margaret Brundage

Though I read and talked about Kull some time back, I have only recently started reading Conan. Beginning at both ends, I’ve been reading the Del Ray collection “The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian” in bits on my lunch breaks and have just finished the 1977 edition of Red Nails over the last couple days at home.

Though I’m enjoying the hack & slashery of the late Conan (I haven’t made it far enough into the early stories to form an opinion), I have to say that it does not quite reach the momentous depths of Kull. Of the stories collected in Red Nails, Beyond the Black River comes the closest to those gloomy and brooding tales of the Atlantean King, with its sense of impending doom that hangs over the fragility of civilization’s facade.

Thulsa Doom

Okay, so maybe Delcartes’ Cat wasn’t a high point for Kull, Thulsa Doom or Howard.

However things that were absent from Kull (namely the copious amounts of naked shrieking women and girl-on-girl whipping) did leave the impression that they were tacked on in an attempt to make sales and land a Margaret Brundage cover*, and, in isolation, could explain why Lovecraft scholar ST Joshi would write Howard off as a hack and why his statements would be so perplexing to someone who had read Kull but not Conan. Brundage had real influence on the magazine’s content, and writers would more or less cater to her fetishes in hopes that Wright would throw one of their story’s scenes her way for a cover.

Brundage herself is experiencing a bit of a resurgence; she received a posthumous award at last year’s Worldcon and is up for another this year, I believe. As female icons of the early sci-fi era are being rediscovered and celebrated, Brundage gets to enjoy some of the deserved accolades for her contribution to the field, but she also presents a bit of an uncomfortable truth that iconic women aren’t always going to be what people who are looking for iconic women want to see.

While some women in SFF have faced erasure, Brundage apparently faced pillory. In the Foreword and Afterword of the 1977 hardback of Red Nails (published only a year after Brundage’s death), Karl Edward Wagner took the opportunity to excoriate Brundage for terrible art no less than four times**.

Today’s controversial figures like Bayonetta or Lara Croft pale in comparison to those depicted by Brundage, who herself was clearly fascinated (perhaps enamored) with BDSM. As people rediscover her and her artwork, they are bound (pun intended) to be polarized by her subject matter.  Regardless of how you feel about her and her artwork, her influence on the fiction of the 1930s is undeniable.

*There was additional intent for Howard, however, as he’d said once wanted to explore the themes of how institutionalized deviant sexuality was symptomatic of cultural decadence.  Worth noting that by Howard’s comments on sexuality, law and civilization, we’re probably about where Xuchotil was right before their wizards all died off.

**:I’ll admit, I misremembered this; while he mentions Brundage several times, he does not out and out say that she herself is bad, but does reference a few of her works negatively:

“It is late spring of 1935. Despite the wretched Margaret Brundage cover, you have just plunked down a quarter for the May issue of Weird Tales.”

“Wright seems to have been experimenting: the issue featured “a weird Craig Kennedy murder mystery” by Arthur B. Reeve, set off by a non-erotic Margaret Brundage cover that was possibly her worst ever.”

and he does go on to praise the cover for “Shadows in Zamboula” as “one of Margaret Brundage’s best pastels”.

 

Kull the Quandarer

In the long shadow of Conan hides an almost forgotten literary character who may be one of the great lost tragic figures of 20th century fiction: King Kull.  Most of those who have heard of Kull know him only through the deservedly panned Kevin Sorbo flick “Kull the Conqueror”, which is a shame, given a fandom that looks to Elric as its dark and brooding modern hero.  While Elric is moody broody glam-star for a post-acid age, King Kull of Atlantis is a timeless hero of almost Shakespearean mold.

Kull is an Atlantean who fled his home, served as a galley-slave, a mercenary and a general before seizing the throne of Valusia from its tyrannical hereditary king.  Though Kull was an adventurer, the focus of the tales of Kull surround his later years as King of Valusia, the mightiest of the human empires, whose descent into decadence he cannot but fail to stop.

At the heart of Kull lies a question of legitimacy.  His rulership was achieved not by traditional means; he is an outsider and is intently aware of it, learning that the skills one needs to seize a throne and the skills one needs to hold it are very different.  Kull is an Othello with no one Iago to undo him, but countless faceless Iagos who would see him fall because of his foreign birth.  Thulsa Doom?  Hardly!  Kull could best even a sorcerer with his martial prowess, but he is constantly aware of how his sword arm fails him when it comes to dealing with intrigues and matters of state.

The phrase “By this Axe, I Rule!” either evokes again the cheesy Kevin Sorbo movie, Val Hallan from Justice Friends, or some other heavy metal silliness.  In context of the Kull stories, it springs from his frustrations as King of Valusia: as King, he feels trapped – enslaved even – by the ancient laws and customs of the land he rules.  He cannot do what he feels is right and just and moral in his heart – allow a marriage of love to take place – because law and tradition prevents him.  He shouts this line, grievously wounded, as he symbolically rends a tablet of the law so that the young couple (a noble and a slave) who saved his life from a conspiracy could marry.  It is implied in this and other stories that there may be repercussions of this to come, but what these are we can only guess based on the fall of the Valusian empire sometime after Kull’s reign.

Kull is constantly trapped by his station as a usurper king, which feeds into his paranoia.  It’s not just the hidden serpent men who plot against him, but his own people.  His only true friend and most loyal ally is Brule, the Pict, who is also an outsider, thus his state of isolation is further reinforced.  His status as usurper king is always up against blind dynastic loyalty.  He is the outsider, thus he is bad in the eyes even of those whose lives are better for his rule.

“I know what the people think, and with what aversion and anger the powerful old Valusian families must look on the state of affairs.  But what would you have?  The empire was worse under Borna, a native Valusian and a direct heir of the old dynasty, than it has been under me.  This is the price a nation must pay for decaying: the strong young people must come in and take possession, one way or another.  I have at least rebuilt the armies, organized the mercenaries and restored Valusia to a measure of her former international greatness.  Sure it is better to have one barbarian on the throne holding the crumbling bands together, than to have a hundred thousand riding red-handed through the city streets.  Which is what would have happened by now, had it been left to King Borna.  The kingdom was splitting under his feet, invasions threatening all sides, the heathen Grondarians were ready to launch a raid of appalling magnitude-

“Well I killed Borna with my bare hands that wild night when I rode at the head of the rebels.  That bit of ruthlessness won me some enemies, but within six months, I had put down anarchy and all counter-rebellions, had welded the nation back into one piece, had broken the Grondarians.  Now Valusia dozes in peace and quiet, and between naps plots my overthrow.  There has been no famine since my reign, the storehouses are bulging with grain, the trading ships ride heavy with cargo, the merchants’ purses are full, the people are fat-bellied but still they murmur and curse and spit on my shadow.  What do they want?” (pp 168-169)

Brule reminds Kull that he didn’t become king for the sake of others but for his own ambition.  But what of it?  He has the throne, because that was his desire and ambition, but now he must hold it, and kingship gives him so little pleasure.  Kull may desire some sort of legacy, something beyond himself, but he finds that kingship alone does not reward him this sense of self-actualization he desires, and his fears of insurgency claw at him constantly.  Again, Thulsa Doom, though memorable due to his appearance in the Conan movie, is not Kull’s most dangerous foe, but Ridondo and his fellow poets, and Kull knows this: their songs will outlive him and his reign.  “A great poet is greater than any king.  He hates me; yet I would have his friendship.  His songs are mightier than my scepter, for time and again he has near torn the heart from my breast when he chose to sing for me.  I will die and be forgotten; his songs will live forever.”(p145)  Indeed, after Ridondo and his cabal are rooted out and killed by a reluctant Kull, a character in a later story is idly singing one of Ridondo’s poems to himself.

One of the many tragedies of Kull is that he never finds love of his own, though it is intensely clear how important love and marriage are to him.  Some of the thematic repetition may be due in part to the nature of a story told and retold in reworkings, as much of Kull went unsold and unpublished during Howard’s life, but the themes are unquestionably there.  Marriage becomes a symbol and mirror of legitimacy.  Kull’s chief councilor warns that marriage and blood could lead to challenges to his own legitimacy as king.  The first appearance of Thulsa Doom in Delcardes’ Cat relates to an attempt for a woman to marry outside of her station with the help of the King.  In this case, near tragedy would have been avoided had the woman simply been allowed to marry whom she loved.  Swords of the Purple Kingdom is an effective rewrite of By This Axe, I Rule!, so twice we have stories in which law or custom would prevent matrimony, but the couple saves Kull from traitors so they are rewarded with marriage.  Even in his youth, Kull’s legitimacy is questioned in a tale relating to marriage.  He had been adopted by an Atlantean tribe not his own; his ideas and beliefs of right, wrong, and, you guessed it, marriage put him at odds with his people.  When a girl will be killed because she chose to marry outside the tribe, Kull grants her a quick death rather than allow her to be burned alive, and he is forced to flee, sending him on his journey toward the Valusian throne.  Kull is constantly torn between wishing to reward love and the restraints of custom which grant him legitimacy as ruler in the eyes of those around him.  He is peerless, however; no other Valusians come close to the nobility and honor of Kull, and while this sets him above, it also sets him apart.  He is a part of “the natural aristocracy of true manhood”, but it is a lonely place with few equals.

Kull is an honorable man who wants to be a wise and good king but learns just how difficult it can be to be all of those things.  Stories of his reign embody the whole “Heavy is the head that wears the crown” in ways unlike nearly any other figure in popular culture.  We never learn what ultimately becomes of Kull, though it is as undoubtedly as sad and tragic as Howard’s own end.  If Kull grew old and had heirs, he would have died a King Lear, though we do not know if he was even that blessed.

“Strange savages roam the elder lands and new lands flung strangely from the deeps, defiling the elder shrines.  Valusia is vanished and all the nations of today; they of tomorrow are strangers.  They know us not.” Kull, p208.

The original paperback illus is about the only one that reflects that Kull and Brule are pretty explicitly non-white characters, another aspect that reinforces the modernist themes of isolation.

The original paperback illus is about the only one that reflects that Kull and Brule are pretty explicitly non-white characters, another aspect that reinforces the modernist themes of isolation of an outsider – a barbarian – ruling the ‘civilized’ land of Valusia.  If that scary guy front & center isn’t Brule, it is almost certainly one of Brule’s Pictish lieutenants.  

It Was Actually a Thulsa Doombot That Time…

Thulsa Doom was not a particularly effective villain in his first appearance.Thulsa Doom

Sure, he got Kull to fall for a talking cat and got him to dive into the ancient forbidden lake of evil pre-human aquatic horrors, including but not limited to giant snakes and multi-limbed shark men, but if he managed to replace the original ventriloquist, win himself into Kull’s confidence and get Kull alone, why couldn’t he, y’know, kill Kull then and there if he really was the most powerful and dangerous necromancer the world had ever known?

Civil War Update later today.

Robert & the Reptoids (or The Conspiracy of Kull)

For years now, we’ve heard about the Reptoid Conspiracy, the crux of which is that key figures in the places of power within human society have either been replaced by or have always been extra-terrestrial reptilians in the guise of humans who almost certainly do not have our best interests at heart.

Most people think of the Reptoids as a relatively recent tin-foil hat conspiracy associated with David Icke, but the modern origins of this 20th century myth go back at least a bit further than most realize to Robert E Howard’s first Kull story, The Shadow Kingdom.

Not only are we introduced for the first time to Howard’s proto-Conan Kull and his Pictish blade-bro Brule, but we are plunged into a world of mystery, conspiracy and paranoia. There is a plot against Kull’s life by the shape-shifting Serpent men who have secretly been ruling Valusia for thousands of years. Kull can trust no one, as his closest advisers and councilmen have either been replaced by these ancient monsters from the stars or were never human to begin with.

The eye-opening revelation about the reptoid impostors who have been ruling by means of murder and deceit becomes the driving motivation behind Kull. Brule explains that “…the true men [in politics/statecraft] know that among them glide the spies of the serpent, and the men who are the Serpent’s allies – such as Kaanuub, baron of Blaal – yet no man dares seek unmask a suspect lest vengeance befall him. No man trusts his fellow and the true statesmen dare not speak to each other what is in the minds of all.” The only way to stop the snakemen would be expose one before a great number of people, because only then would people believe of the danger in their midst. But one had to be certain that one’s foe was indeed a snakeman. And even then, what if you were the only one who was not a snakeman?

1024px-Hugh_Rankin_-_The_Shadow_Kingdom

This conundrum threatens to send Kull spiraling into existential madness, “for all men wore masks, and many a different mask with each different man or woman; and Kull wondered if a serpent did not lurk under every mask.”

Eventually Kull is able to succeed in exposing this global reptilian conspiracy against mankind, though it almost costs him his life, by escaping an ambush just in time to make it to the council hall to strike down his own double. This experience and the paranoia it made him feel is what prompts Kull’s crusade against the pre-human races and informs his every action.  While it leads to the various missteps he makes, it is also what pushes him to fight for the good of all mankind.

We see similar themes of distrust come into play in the later story Black Abyss.  There, notable artists, poets and nobles of a town Kull is visiting are secretly worshipers of an evil immortal slug-worm.  What disturbs Kull most is that these are people he had talked with, dined with, and enjoyed the company of who turned out to be wild and murderous zealots.  And yes, it ends with Kull killing a lot of chubby naked people in the middle of a human sacrifice rite.  But it doesn’t quite grip the imagination in the way that wondering if your closest adviser had ALWAYS been a reptoid does.  So it is that which has lingered on in the public subconscious of the conspiracy minded and the perfectly rational alike.

Whether or not Serpent men, reptoids or whatever you wish to call them are metaphors for the treacherous and duplicitous nature of men in positions of power or if they are indeed literal space reptiles, you can be sure and tell your friends that reptoids have a much cooler origin than some boggle-eyed Green Party New Ager.

This post brought to you by Kent Cigarettes:

“C’mon. One snarky tweet from James Desborough does not mean you ‘Broke the Internet’.”

Conan and the Lamentations of the Women Working on His RPG

It’s a storm in a teacup to be sure, but when Monica Valentinelli put out a call specifically looking for female freelance writers to work on a Conan RPG, it was all but inevitable that someone would ask “why only females?”

The answer was because so far only men had applied.

Now, I could say that this smacks of tokenism, but why not give Monica the benefit of the doubt? It might be an interesting perspective to have a really good woman author writing a Conan story. I mean, the biggest problem I’m going to have reading sci-fi adventure pulps is that I’m going to be judging the manliness of all the protagonists against the ones that Leigh Brackett writes. As I mentioned before, I found myself saying of Gardner F Fox’s heroic male lead “Yeah, but wouldn’t it be great if he smoked cigarettes and called the alien queen ‘baby’?”

Well, here’s the thing about putting out a call for Conan: he’s a character that resonates a lot with a male audience, so a LOT of folks who would want to work on a Conan project are PROBABLY going to be male.   Just like if you put out a call for writers on something that appeals primarily (not exclusively, I am NOT saying exclusively!) to women, you’d probably have to put some effort into it if you were looking for a male contributor who would have the same level of interest, dedication and knowledge necessary.  That’s not to say that there might not be a woman who could do just as good, if not better, a job at writing about the manliest dude this side of Fist of the North Star.

It could’ve been that they were looking for another Norton or Brackett among the many fans who are applying.  But I’m starting to think that might not be what’s happening here.

Update: Jeffrey Shanks says it is.  The easiest thing to do would’ve been to just come out and say in the first place “yeah, well, we want a female perspective on the character/setting/game”, but hindsight is 20/20.

Addendum: I’m still not seeing anywhere anyone accusing her of breaking the law, at least not on Twitter.

Addendum 2: Well, nevermind Addendum 1.

Addendum 3: I had to look up this guy to realize he wasn’t trolling.

When I come back on Monday, I’ll be talking about Kull and why RE Howard may have inspired the Reptoid conspiracy.