Lost Worlds of Space and Time

by Arthur B

Arthur reviews two recently-reprinted Clark Ashton Smith compilations.
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"You shall know Tsathoggua by his great girth and his batlike furriness and the look of a sleepy black toad which he has eternally. He will rise not from his place, even in the ravening of hunger, but will wait in divine slothfulness for the sacrifice."

- The Seven Geases

Bison Books - an imprint of the University of Nebraska Press - have as part of their Frontiers of Imagination series reprinted Lost Worlds and Out of Space and Time, two classic collections of Clark Ashton Smith short stories, in nice paperback editions with new introductions by Jeff VanderMeer. This is important, and a reason to celebrate: Smith is in many respects the "missing member" of the Weird Tales triumvirate of the 1930s. Conan the Barbarian is a uniquely iconic and controversial figure, enough so to ensure that Robert E. Howard's work has remained well-known, if not necessarily well-loved. Lovecraft's name has been invoked by just about every important horror writer for the last seventy years, and Cthulhu has become a beloved (if somewhat played-out) geek icon. Smith's work, meanwhile, has remained frustratingly obscure, often languishing out-of-print, despite the fundamental importance of his work to fantasy and science fiction. The stories of CAS were major influences on Jack Vance, especially with regards to Vance's first Dying Earth stories. The Dying Earth, meanwhile, deeply impressed Gene Wolfe, and inspired The Book of the New Sun. And Smith, Vance and Wolfe, between the three of them, have influenced just about every SF/fantasy author you could care to name.

If Smith's work has been neglected, though, it has at least remained relatively unspoiled. Lovecraft's reputation was damaged for decades by third-rate pastiches written by August Derleth and published under Lovecraft's name in order to promote HPL's work (as well as Derleth's personal theories about the Cthulhu Mythos, which aren't even slightly supported by Lovecraft's own writings). Howard's Conan stories were heavily revised and, in some cases, rewritten by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, the unaltered texts remaining out-of-print for years, and there was even a point where Conan stories by other authors were flooding the market while Howard's writings were out-of-print. Smith avoided this fate through the simple expedient of not dying: unlike Lovecraft and Howard, he lived to see the first mass market anthologies of his work published. Smith was the third author - after Lovecraft and August Derleth - to be published by Derleth's Arkham House publishing firm, and in a series of six volumes (Out of Space and Time, Lost Worlds, Genius Loci, The Abominations of Yondo, Tales of Science and Sorcery and Other Dimensions) they would publish a complete collection of his SF, horror and fantasy short stories. As the first two volumes of this set, then, the two Bison Press volumes are both ideal introductions to his work and important summaries of it.

Smith was an artistic prodigy, and the stories collected in these books were mostly written between 1930 and 1936. Before then, he mainly wrote poetry, and after 1936 - and the deaths of Howard and Lovecraft - he mostly stopped writing short stories and spent most of his time working in sculpture, including a number of pieces inspired by Cthulhu Mythos entities. It's his background in poetry which really comes across in his fiction writing, his prose style employing the same thesaurus-gouging range of words as Lovecraft but in a far more pleasing manner. Where Lovecraft is wooden, Smith is lovingly carved, and his descriptions of the utterly bizarre worlds and situations he imagines are incredibly vivid. Plot and characterisation are of a secondary priority to having fun with language: whilst Smith does frequently succeed in presenting excellent stories and surprisingly nuanced characters, he occasionally gets lost in descriptive ecstasy.

While Smith has a distinctive prose style, he is able to be far more diverse in theme and tone than Howard or Lovecraft ever managed. Howard never could quite pull off writing which didn't fit in the sword-and-sorcery genre, and Lovecraft's attempts to stray outside his niche tended to be disasterous (witness his Dreamlands stories, terrible attempts to mimic Lord Dunsany's style). Smith, on the other hand, ranges from eldritch horror to comic fantasy. Two different Smith stories might have a similar theme - a wizard using black magics to inflict a hideous vengeance upon those who wronged him in the past, say, or a forlorn protagonist falling foul of powers beyond his ken - but could be melancholy or hilarious, depending on his mood. Smith is, in addition, the only writer in the Weird Tales triumvirate who could write about love and have it ring true; whereas Lovecraft entirely skirts the subject and Howard veers on the misogynistic, Smith can pull romance off without making me want to throw the book across the room.

That said, Smith does tend to have a preferred tone - one which allows him to exercise a gruesome sense of humour and which tends to lead to bad endings for his protagonists. Occasionally, a Smith hero will survive the challenges before him and win the day, but more often their small victories will require the ultimate sacrifice, or they will perish utterly before forces far greater than they. You never know what's going to happen when you read one of Smith's stories, unlike Lovecraft (the protagonist is going to die, go insane, or win a temporary respite) or Howard (the protagonist will crush his enemies, have them driven before him, and hear the lamentation of their women).

The stories in Lost Worlds are grouped by setting, and those in Out of Space and Time are grouped by theme. The fictional backdrops Smith constructs for his stories, such as Poseidonis (last outpost of the doomed continent of Atlantis), the demon-haunted French province of Averoigne, and the warm Arctic continent of Hyperborea, are the real draw of his stories. Although Smith's familiar prose style remains the same, the atmospheres, themes, terrors and wonders differ subtly from setting to setting, and you get the impression that CAS had the most fun inventing and developing these places. Some of them are apparently part of a common timeline - the prehistoric realms of Hyperborea and Poseidonis are referred to in stories of Averoigne and far-future Zothique, and could conceivably be part of the same world as Howard's Hyborea and Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos - but locations like Xiccarph seem entirely separated from the continuity of the other stories.

Smith's work, when it is given any attention at all, is usually mentioned in the context of the Cthulhu Mythos, but put all of Smith's writings into that category. Smith developed his own mythologies at the same time that Lovecraft and Howard were inventing theirs, and all three borrowed elements from one another. There are slumbering Old Ones in the depths of the Earth in Smith's Hyperborean tales, it is true, but they have a distinctly different character from Lovecraft's elder gods. HPL never - except in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath - had a character converse directly with an Old One; Smith often has his characters converse with divine entities, and manages to avoid ruining the aura of mystery and power about them. Smith also varied the tone of his stories a lot more than Lovecraft did, occasionally veering into delicious comedy - could Lovecraft have written The Seven Geases, in which a selection of Old Ones - including Tsathoggua himself - pass around an unwanted human sacrifice like the last sandwich on the plate, because none of them are hungry but they are all too polite to throw him away? And then, of course, there are those mythologies of Smith's which remain untouched by Cthulhu's influence - like Xiccarph, the trinary star system ruled over by the arrogant and omnipotent sorcerer-scientist Maal Dweb.

The collections are not perfect. Like all pulp authors of the time, Smith occasionally wrote stories purely for cash, and indulged in racism. It's in The Letter from Mohaun Los, in Lost Worlds, that this finds the worst expression: the story is dull, the prose limp and entirely lacking the sparkle Smith normally invests his work with, and the character of Li Wong, the protagonist's Chinese manservant, is an appalling charicature: he's described as being "the most discreet and intelligent of mortals", but his response when informed that he and the narrator are going on a voyage through time is to say "Me go pack... You want plentee shirt?"

Luckily, this story is pretty much the only bad one in the collection. Smith's racism usually only exhibits itself as a sort of cheerfully patronising elitism. None of the stories in this collection try to turn inter-racial relationships into a source of horror, as Lovecraft did; nor does he ever write a story that consists of a protagonist slicing through hordes of black people, as Howard would occasionally have Conan do. He does, however, tend to throw in negros and orientals when he wants to add some exotic spice to proceedings, and he does pull out the old Lovecraftian "white rationalists finds hidden truths within ethnic superstition" plotline on occasion. In at least one of his stories his human protagonist ends up falling in love and living happily ever after with an alien woman - something neither Howard nor Lovecraft could conceive of.

As far as writing stories to pay the bills goes, the tales within Smith's invented mythologies tend to all be solid gold - it's the tales which don't fit into any specific series which tend to be a bit ropey, although even then most of them have something to recommend them. A couple of them even rank amongst his best work - The Light From Beyond begins with a tale of strange sightings in the woods which could have come straight from a UFO book (impressive, considering that it was written over a decade before UFOs became big news), and ends up making occult allusions to the Tree of Life, and The Demon of the Flower gives a fascinating glimpse of a planet ruled by malign plants.

Smith's stories are enjoying a surge of popularity at the moment, but if past form is anything to go by this won't last. Go and pick these anthologies up while you still can, and his work is absolutely central to the development of the fantasy genre. 10 quid for 300-odd pages of incredible originality is excellent value.
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Comments (go to latest)
Michal at 19:54 on 2011-07-10
This was written a while ago, but I have to put in -- I really hated Jeff Vandermeer's introduction to Lost Worlds.
Arthur B at 00:20 on 2011-07-11
I confess I haven't read it - my copies are actually really old paper back versions put out for the UK market, I just referred to the Bison Books editions in the review because I'd noticed they'd come out and I wanted to loudly promote them to people. What does Vandermeer say?
Michal at 01:25 on 2011-07-11
He spends much of the introduction denigrating Clark Ashton Smith's chosen prose style. You can read the first two pages here. It's rather unflattering, and I can't imagine why Bison Books slapped it at the beginning of that collection rather than find a more appropriate author who leaned more towards the "love" than the "hate."
Arthur B at 02:02 on 2011-07-11
Vandermeer is dead to me. Dead to me.

Seriously, he calls the prose style "ritualistic" as though that weren't precisely what was intended.
Michal at 03:14 on 2011-07-13
I'm fairly unfamiliar with VanderMeer beyond his internet shenanigans, and only realized about now that he wrote that much-despised introduction. I tried to read Finch once, but thought "I've read Chandler, and this is trying hard to be Chandler...but it isn't anything like Chandler," and put it down. I can see why he might object to Smith's ornate prose based on that novel, where he took it too far in the other direction for my taste.
Steve Stirling at 03:50 on 2011-07-13
Just as an aside: Howard had Conan slicing through hordes of black people. He also had him slicing through hordes of yellow, brown and white people.

The "slicing" and "hordes" thing just went with Conan. Conan was an equal-opportunity slicer. Dismembered bodies were part of the package wherever the hell he went, from Asgard to Kush.

Note that Conan was not only a pirate, but sailed with the black corsairs of the southern isles, cheerfully leading them to loot, pillage and ravish among white people -- something the Hyborians regard with utter horror. In "Hour of the Dragon" he gets his necessary transportation by starting an uprising among black galley-slaves, who then massacre all the white people (save for Conan, of course) on the ship.

Conan's a barbarian and proud of it. He's a savage; in the Hyborian mythos, to be a barbaric savage is a -good- thing. Civilization is degenerate and weak.
Michal at 06:06 on 2011-07-13
If we're going to talk about Howard, my main objection here is this:

Howard never could quite pull off writing which didn't fit in the sword-and-sorcery genre,

Since I though Howard wrote some very good historical adventure stories ("Hawks of the Outremer", "Lords of Samarcand", "The Shadow of the Vulture", so one and so forth), as well as westerns, humour ("A Gent from Bear Creek"), boxing tales, and an unexpected set of magic realist stories ("The Sea Curse" and "Out of the Deep"). It's the horror, I find, where Howard would fall flat on his face, especially of the Lovecraftian variety: Cthulhu mythos stories just don't work when the hero slices the ancient horror to death with a sword. And the yellow peril stories or anything with the Yezidees involved are just...blech.

I never understood why Howard's horror so often failed, since stories like "Worms of the Earth" have extremely effective and chilling moments within a wider story (actually, "Worms of the Earth" is probably Howard's best story all-around, though "Delanda Est" and "The House of Arabu" are also up there). I guess Howard just couldn't carry the same atmosphere throughout an entire text.

Stirling: as to your mention of Conan and the black corsairs, I think the main problem is that sympathetic black characters in the Conan tales are nothing more than bit players who serve under a white master, if present at all. And I don't think there's any way to excuse "Shadows in Zamboula" (Why would you keep slaves that ATE YOUR CITIZENS at night? Did no one see a problem with this?) or, say, "The Vale of Lost Women."
Steve Stirling at 06:38 on 2011-07-13
Stirling: as to your mention of Conan and the black corsairs, I think the main problem is that sympathetic black characters in the Conan tales are nothing more than bit players who serve under a white master, if present at all.


-- nope. There's Sakumbe, his co-king. Who is notably and obviously smarter than Conan, by the way, who spends most of the story as Sakumbe's puppet and enforcer.

(Howard was once asked why he made Conan a bit thick; he replied that it made for easier narrative -- nobody expected him to do anything but hack and slug his way out of trouble.)

In any case, everyone in a Conan story plays second fiddle to him.

And I don't think there's any way to excuse "Shadows in Zamboula" (Why would you keep slaves that ATE YOUR CITIZENS at night? Did no one see a problem with this?)


-- they don't eat the citizens, just vagrants and foreigners! 8-). That's made very clear.

I'm not sure, but operating from memory I think this incident was taken from one of the medieval Arab chronicles. Ibn Khaldun? Ibn Battua?

or, say, "The Vale of Lost Women."


-- this entire story is told from the p.o.v. of Livia, who is civilized ("degenerate", in the Hyborian world). The whole point of the story is the contrast between her assumptions and Conan's.

(Well, the whole point beside the chopping people up and naked dancing and the mysterious brown jungle lesbians and their human-sacrifice-devouring moth-god, but what the hell.)

Livia is disgusted by the "barbarism" of the blacks and finds them unbearably repulsive.

Conan, who is a chief of one of the tribes, is not in the least disgusted and plunges into the feasting, dancing, drinking and savage fighting with gusto and enjoyment.

The blacks are barbarians and savages. So is he. In the Hyborian universe, this is a complement. And (vide "Beyond the Black River") the barbarians and savages always win in the end.

Incidentally, the repulsive toad-like chief of the tribe holding Livia hostage is taken almost word-for-word from descriptions of King Gezo of Dahomey, a West African kingdom of the 19th century. Gezo was a seriously Bad Man.
Steve Stirling at 08:08 on 2011-07-13
Since I though Howard wrote some very good historical adventure stories ("Hawks of the Outremer", "Lords of Samarcand", "The Shadow of the Vulture", so one and so forth), as well as westerns, humour ("A Gent from Bear Creek"), boxing tales, and an unexpected set of magic realist stories ("The Sea Curse" and "Out of the Deep"). It's the horror, I find, where Howard would fall flat on his face, especially of the Lovecraftian variety: Cthulhu mythos stories just don't work when the hero slices the ancient horror to death with a sword.


-- Agreed on his excellent historicals. Not as good as Lamb or Mundy (at his best), but then he didn't have their advantages. (Lamb was a genuine historian, and Mundy had traveled extensively in the areas he wrote about.)

Howard and Lovecraft had certain basic differences in outlook that made Howard's attempts at Lovecraft pastiche... unfortunate.

Lovecraft had a sense of personal physical helplessness that is all over his fiction. He didn't and probably couldn't even -imagine- being a fearless, brawny adventurer.

This was, ah, rather obviously not Howard's problem; though Ghu knows Howard had problems. Odd to think he might well have been writing into the 1970's if he hadn't killed himself.

Agreed "Worms of the Earth" is very good; though I'd say "Red Nails" is Howard's best overall. Obsession and revenge he could do very well.
Arthur B at 10:27 on 2011-07-13
@Steve:
Just as an aside: Howard had Conan slicing through hordes of black people. He also had him slicing through hordes of yellow, brown and white people.

And by and large the white people were presented in a fairly diverse range of ways, whereas all too often the black, yellow and brown people were presented in a manner grotesquely close to the worst stereotypes in adventure fiction at the time about such people.

I don't think even a cursory investigation of Howard's views is needed to establish that even though Conan might have been an equal opportunity killer, Howard himself was incredibly racist. And that filters through into his fiction; see the Solomon Kane stories for an even more distasteful example.

That said, to be fair to the man the Conan stories are a notch or two better than some of his other material - at least, the ones he actually completed in his lifetime. There's a particularly nasty fragmentary tale which is literally just "Conan kills a bunch of African cannibals" which is seriously stomach-churning.

The point you make about Conan being willing to work with black characters on occasion is reasonable; in fact, I think he served under a black corsair captain once, and as you point out there are other instances where he interacts with non-white characters as sort of-kinda equals. This puts him ahead of Solomon Kane. But a few exceptions here and there don't overthrow a general trend across the entirety of Howard's writing.

The non-white characters that Conan allies with are basically those non-white characters that Conan personally approves of, and because Conan is basically always right when it comes to his assessments and judgements of people, this ends up in a situation where non-white (and, indeed, female) characters only get to shine in a story if they meet the approval of the white hero - and, by extension, the white author, because whatever Howard's virtues as a writer were, hiding his personal outlook on life wasn't one of them. It's very clear from his letters that the worldview expressed in his writing was one he at least claimed to adopt in real life. For instance:

Conan's a barbarian and proud of it. He's a savage; in the Hyborian mythos, to be a barbaric savage is a -good- thing. Civilization is degenerate and weak.

This reflects very closely Howard's own opinion that the whole of history is simply a long saga of racial conflict, and that the white race happened to be on top at the moment but would eventually become decadent and succumb to some other rising race - that is, unless it were able to claim the steel and resolve and vigour of its noble, savage ancestry.

Who does that remind you of?

@Michal:
Since I though Howard wrote some very good historical adventure stories ("Hawks of the Outremer", "Lords of Samarcand", "The Shadow of the Vulture", so one and so forth), as well as westerns, humour ("A Gent from Bear Creek"), boxing tales, and an unexpected set of magic realist stories ("The Sea Curse" and "Out of the Deep"). It's the horror, I find, where Howard would fall flat on his face, especially of the Lovecraftian variety: Cthulhu mythos stories just don't work when the hero slices the ancient horror to death with a sword. And the yellow peril stories or anything with the Yezidees involved are just...blech.

I confess that I've only ever been able to track down reprints of Howard's horror work, which left me extremely sceptical about his ability to write stories about anything which don't involve manly men killing stuff.

I can see how his historical adventure stuff might be worth a look, since so much sword and sorcery is just swashbuckling fiction with a bit of magic added and the historical research tossed aside. :)
Michal at 16:27 on 2011-07-13
-- nope. There's Sakumbe, his co-king. Who is notably and obviously smarter than
Conan, by the way, who spends most of the story as Sakumbe's puppet and
enforcer.


Was that "Drums of Tombulko" (sp?)? Because I'll admit, I haven't read that story in quite some time; if I do go back to Conan, I tend to only re-read the ones I remember enjoying the most. In this case, I was chiefly thinking about "Queen of the Black Coast" and The Hour of the Dragon.

I'm probably one of the few Howard readers who prefers his other material to Conan.

I guess I'm rather weary of making justifications/explanations for this sort of thing after reading Charles R. Saunder's essay "Die, Black Dog!" (you'll need to navigate to the essay through the "blog" link on the sidebar). I used to "lense" the Conan tales and others to downplay the racism present, but it felt just a bit too easy for me as a white dude to do, when others read these stories and realize that the grotesque description of a person of a non-white race is actually of them.
Steve Stirling at 19:48 on 2011-07-13
And by and large the white people were presented in a fairly diverse range of ways, whereas all too often the black, yellow and brown people were presented in a manner grotesquely close to the worst stereotypes in adventure fiction at the time about such people.


-- nope, in Howard everyone's a stereotype.

I mean, Aesir and Vanir in horned helmets? Really fucking diverse, man. Real psychological depth there, not a trace of ethnic essentialism. Add in the fact that Conan is a goddamned cartoon Irishman, complete with the drink-fight-fuck thing.

The Aquilonians are pulp-adventure medieval Europeans (French, basically), the Bossonians are English archers right out of Conan Doyle, the Zingarans are Rafael Sabatini/Jeffrey Farnol "Don Lardo Baluna del Lobby y Corridor" Spanish Main types, and I could go on and on.

The Shemites (including Belit, the great love of Conan's life) are a cross between pulp Bedouins and pulp archaic-Semitic ancient Assyrians and Carthaginians.

The Turanians are medieval Turks, pretty much; the Venhyans and Afgulis are Mogul-era Indians and Afghans, respectively, and so forth and so on.

Howard took his depiction of Africans from 19th and early 20th century anthropology and traveler's tales, people like Burton or Mary Kingsley. He's actually surprisingly well-read for a rural Texan of his era.

Howard himself was incredibly racist.


-- actually for a small-town Southerner of the 1920's and 30's, he was rather enlightened. Scolding someone from 1936 for not being like someone from 2011 (and a particular subculture of 2011, at that) is sort of futile, except as an exercise in narcissistic self-congratulation.

(PS: shock news, Shakespeare was a sexist and believed in the Divine Right of Kings.)

Howard's black characters are usually brave, ferocious, and often smarter than white heroes like Conan or Solomon Kane. They're also often murderous and greedy and treacherous... just like most people in his fiction.

this ends up in a situation where non-white (and, indeed, female) characters only get to shine in a story if they meet the approval of the white hero


-- you did notice that Conan ended up -working for- Belit? As in, she was the brains and he was the bone-breaker who did what she said? That's made quite explicit in "Queen of the Black Coast".

The non-white characters that Conan allies with are basically those non-white characters that Conan personally approves of


-- So? That's exactly how Conan approaches -everyone-. He has friends, allies, and enemies/victims wherever he goes. The only group he's really prejudiced against are Picts, who are hereditary enemies of his people. Everyone else he takes as he finds them, and deals with on a strictly self-interested basis, unless they happen to become personal friends.

You'd expect a wandering mercenary who basically kills people for money (and is an outright bandit a lot of the time) to operate any other way?

Conan is not a social democrat.

Steve Stirling at 20:01 on 2011-07-13
This reflects very closely Howard's own opinion that the whole of history is simply a long saga of racial conflict, and that the white race happened to be on top at the moment but would eventually become decadent and succumb to some other rising race - that is, unless it were able to claim the steel and resolve and vigour of its noble, savage ancestry.

Who does that remind you of?


-- Godwin's Law! Godwin's Law! I win!

8-).

More seriously, it reminds me of virtually everyone in the period. Howard was a social Darwinist.

His basic outlook was that the world worked according to:

"The good old rule
The ancient plan;
That he who has the power shall take
And he shall keep who can."

Since there's considerable evidence that this is pretty much true, I don't see it as a negative factor.
Steve Stirling at 20:21 on 2011-07-13
Was that "Drums of Tombulko" (sp?)? Because I'll admit, I haven't read that story in quite some time; if I do go back to Conan, I tend to only re-read the ones I remember enjoying the most. In this case, I was chiefly thinking about "Queen of the Black Coast" and The Hour of the Dragon.


-- "Drums of Tombalku", right. It was done in outline and partial first draft by Howard and then "completed" by de Camp for the Lancer Conan series in the 60's.

Conan wanders into the interior of the Black Kingdoms and meets an old friend, Sakumbe, who he knew when he was "Amra the Lion", with the black corsairs on the coast. (Sakumbe, IIRC, was a fence and slave-trader.)

Sakumbe has intrigued and poisoned his way onto one of the thrones of the local kingdom, which has a dual monarchy. He manages to get Conan onto the other throne, because he knows and (somewhat) trusts him, and because as he says frankly at one point Conan is white and so safer -- the people would never accept a white man as sole monarch, so Sakumbe doesn't have to worry about him staging a coup.

(Note there's no nonsense about Conan being able to overawe everyone with his sublime paleness; he's a lone adventurer without a local power base and dependent on Sakumbe.)

There's a hilarious passage (I'm not sure how much of it is Howard and how much de Camp) where Conan complains they should be conquering all their neighbors because they need "strong borders" and so forth. Sakumbe then asks him what they'll do if they conquer everything within a thousand miles; Conan replies that they'll pile up the gold, party, and drink. Sakumbe replies very reasonably that they have all the power, gold, women and booze they can use right now, so why go to all that trouble? Conan is caught with his mouth open, scratching his head and mumbling.

I used to "lense" the Conan tales and others to downplay the racism present, but it felt just a bit too easy for me as a white dude to do, when others read these stories and realize that the grotesque description of a person of a non-white race is actually of them.


-- as I've pointed out, the Conan stories aren't particularly racist, and I get tired of people endlessly repeating that they are when they just aren't.

What Howard's stories aren't is "sensitive". He just accepts that groups and tribes will come into conflict; it's not about "good" vs. "bad", just "us" vs. "them", and everyone is for their own Us and against their own Them. Everyone will do the dirty to their neighbors if they get the chance.

Charlie Saunders is a fine writer (I wish he'd done more of the Amaro stories) and he's entitled to his opinion, but so am I, and I'm not going to privilege his.
Cammalot at 20:41 on 2011-07-13
This would work better for me if the black characters got the chance to be a bunch of different SORTS of black, as the white characters do. Yeah, it's old writing and a product of its time and all that, so's a lot of stuff, so's a lot of stuff I *like* -- that's why I'm not beating my breast and tearing my hair. But it's not the best equivalent.
Arthur B at 20:56 on 2011-07-13
-- nope, in Howard everyone's a stereotype.

But the fact that you're able to name a fairly decent number of European cultures that Howard draws from to create these stereotypes kind of proves my point. In Howard there isn't a broad range of African cultures. There's just jungle savages. The fact that Howard might have constructed his stereotypes from his reading seems neither here nor there in face of the fact that Howard shows willing to depict a wide range of cultures in one continent, and a rather cartoonish monoculture from t'other.

-- actually for a small-town Southerner of the 1920's and 30's, he was rather enlightened. Scolding someone from 1936 for not being like someone from 2011 (and a particular subculture of 2011, at that) is sort of futile, except as an exercise in narcissistic self-congratulation.

Did you read the Saunders article that Michal recommended? There's a part there where he talks about how the era someone lived in can explain their behaviour but should not be seen as justifying it which I think is quite relevant here. Obviously Howard had very objectionable views by modern standards and lived in a world full of people whose views were similarly objectionable.

But I don't live in 1936. Neither do you. It's one thing to say that Howard's attitudes as displayed in his stories are unpalatable for 2011 but would have seemed more moderate back in the day. But it's quite another to say that a reader from today reading the stories now shouldn't be offended on that basis. And I'd sincerely hope you wouldn't rush to the defence of an author who wrote a story based on Howard-derived racial theory today.

(PS: shock news, Shakespeare was a sexist and believed in the Divine Right of Kings.)

But if you walked around behaving like Shakespeare today you'd be put away.

-- you did notice that Conan ended up -working for- Belit? As in, she was the brains and he was the bone-breaker who did what she said? That's made quite explicit in "Queen of the Black Coast".

It's also made quite explicit that, unusually for one of her ethnic background, she has ivory white skin. It's also made quite explicit that she is particularly avaricious thanks to the inherent lust for wealth of the "Shemite soul".

You'd expect a wandering mercenary who basically kills people for money (and is an outright bandit a lot of the time) to operate any other way?

Not at all, but I wouldn't appreciate being asked to approve of any of that.

"The good old rule
The ancient plan;
That he who has the power shall take
And he shall keep who can."

Since there's considerable evidence that this is pretty much true, I don't see it as a negative factor.

I think it's depressingly common but I can't see it as a universal law myself - I'm not a Social Darwinist, in fact I think part of the point of being a social animal is to overcome "survival of the fittest" and get at least the base levels of Maslow's heirarchy of needs more or less sorted for as many people as you can. There's so many examples of people who supposedly hold power actually being entirely at the mercy of events and the whim of the fickle mob that I think a might-makes-right philosophy can only be a massive oversimplification.

Which isn't to say that I can't enjoy a story about a warrior who conquers and kills and pillages, but I don't like being asked to pretend that this is a morally upstanding thing to do. The strength of many of the Conan stories is that Howard doesn't ask the reader to do that. The failing of many other Howard stories (including some of the weaker Conan material) is that he slips into asking you to do just that.

What Howard's stories aren't is "sensitive". He just accepts that groups and tribes will come into conflict; it's not about "good" vs. "bad", just "us" vs. "them", and everyone is for their own Us and against their own Them. Everyone will do the dirty to their neighbors if they get the chance.

I think this is where we part ways. I can't see groups and tribes as monolithic collectives, and I think it's dangerous to brush over the distinctions which make us individuals to that extent. And that's where Howard's depictions of race often falls down - yes, sometimes he does cook up exceptional individuals, but he very often falls back to the "Us vs. Them" mindset which underpins his theory of history. To my mind, individuals ought to be the norm, not the exception.
Steve Stirling at 21:16 on 2011-07-13
This would work better for me if the black characters got the chance to be a bunch of different SORTS of black, as the white characters do.


-- what, like Stygians and Kushites? Howard doesn't -have- more than a couple of stories set in that part of the world.
Cammalot at 21:30 on 2011-07-13
Howard doesn't -have- more than a couple of stories set in that part of the world.


And if one had more time, one could ask, "And why is that?"

Sadly, one does not, just now. Back in a bit. ;-)
Cammalot at 21:35 on 2011-07-13
Oh hey, Arthur B has made my point MUCH more effectively:

But the fact that you're able to name a fairly decent number of European cultures that Howard draws from to create these stereotypes kind of proves my point. In Howard there isn't a broad range of African cultures. There's just jungle savages. The fact that Howard might have constructed his stereotypes from his reading seems neither here nor there in face of the fact that Howard shows willing to depict a wide range of cultures in one continent, and a rather cartoonish monoculture from t'other.


Howard chose what to write. He chose where to spend his fictional time, and who with. Whatever influenced those choices, time period and motives and he-was-relatively-nice-considering and evenjudgements aside, it's still not a crime to notice.
Steve Stirling at 22:04 on 2011-07-13
In Howard there isn't a broad range of African cultures. There's just jungle savages.


-- have you ever actually -read- these stories? In a word, no, you're wrong.

There are jungle savages, trading cities, and fairly complex kingdoms like Kush; which considering we're talking about maybe 4 stories is a pretty good record.

(The Asian civilizations shown in the Howard stories are fully comparable to the Hyborian world, with complex hierarchical societies, great cities, artisan skills and so forth.)

For the period (when African archaeology and history were in their infancy) Howard is actually rather well-informed. As late as the 1950's it was accepted even in academic circles that Africa didn't have any history to speak of. Howard was already better-informed than that a generation earlier.

Obviously Howard had very objectionable views by modern standards and lived in a world full of people whose views were similarly objectionable.


-- I have my own opinions, which differ from Howard's, but I don't mistake them for some sort of eternal "truth", which is a myth.

Opinions are like assholes; everybody's got one, and few bear close examination. It's important to remember that you're not the holder of the Final Revealed Enlightened Truth, and that the time you live in and the consensus of ideas which you inhabit and feel comfortable with have no inherent claim to privileged status. This too shall pass.

Sub specie aeternitatis, we're all just assholes with opinions. Change is an objective fact; progress is an opinion. A non-falsifiable hypothesis, to quote Popper.

And I'd sincerely hope you wouldn't rush to the defence of an author who wrote a story based on Howard-derived racial theory today.


-- I'd find it rather odd, like someone writing a SF story based on the luminiferous aether. There is no luminiferous aether, though it was the orthodox physics of its time; likewise, race doesn't actually exist in the way that Howard and his era thought of it.

("Race" is a social construct, and a historical phenomenon which is real -as- a social construct, but doesn't correspond to any biological or genetic pattern that can be scientifically discerned.)

But if you walked around behaving like Shakespeare today you'd be put away.


-- First Ammendment to the Constitution... 8-). Hint: you are not the Discourse Police. There are, thank Ghu, no Discourse Police.

It's also made quite explicit that she is particularly avaricious thanks to the inherent lust for wealth of the "Shemite soul".


-- and that Conan is mindlessly belligerent and depressive when not drunk because he's a Celt. As I said, in Howard everyone's a stereotype.

Belit isn't actually avaricious. She lives on a galley and walks around naked most of the time, when she's obviously rich enough to buy a palace full of boytoys and retire. She just likes the shiny. Pirates tend to.

I notice that you don't answer the question; did you notice that Conan ends up working for Belit, who's obviously a better pirate and commander than he is?

Not at all, but I wouldn't appreciate being asked to approve of any of that.


-- did anyone ask you to? If it makes you feel good to exult in your moral superiority to a pulp fiction hero, go right ahead. Sort of silly, but it's a free country.

in fact I think part of the point of being a social animal is to overcome "survival of the fittest"


-- no, the point of being a social animal is to compete -as a group- with other groups.

Eg., note that the primary cause of death for adult wolves in the wild is other wolves. They sneak onto other packs' territory and mob each other.

Or study the results of recent investigations in forensic archaeology. It turns out that if you classify the cause of death for all known human remains derived from pre-State societies, about 35% of male skeletons and around 15% of female show evidence of death by intra-specific violence. That's certainly an underestimate since soft-tissue damage often doesn't show up on the bones.

(Hence Otzi the Iceman, whose 5300-year-old preserved body turned out to have 'defense cuts' on the arms and to have been shot in the back with an arrow.)

And 10% of the population of Asia is descended from Genghis Khan/Temujin.

Our society is uniquely privileged in many ways, and the middle-class segment of it even more so. This has its advantages (I'll seize and keep every bit of privilege I can get and break the bones of anyone who tries to infringe on it) but it has its drawbacks.

One is the possibility of a seriously unrealistic notion of how the world generally operates.

For all his lurid oversimplifications, Howard didn't fall into -that- trap.

I can't see groups and tribes as monolithic collectives.


-- neither do I, but that's a classic straw-man argument. The Germans who gassed my grandfather at Passchendale in 1917 were individuals, and so was he -- and so were the Germans who he sent off this mortal coil (you can still see the blood-etching on his Lee-Enfield sword-bayonet). I've had people try to kill me because of my ethnicity too.

Human beings are social animals. They treat each other as members of groups -and- as individuals, to differing degrees depending on the context and circumstances.

"No man is an island, sufficient unto himself." Trying to be a pure individual is like trying to outrun your own sweat.
Arthur B at 22:35 on 2011-07-13
Opinions are like assholes; everybody's got one, and few bear close examination. It's important to remember that you're not the holder of the Final Revealed Enlightened Truth, and that the time you live in and the consensus of ideas which you inhabit and feel comfortable with have no inherent claim to privileged status. This too shall pass.

So... what's the point you're trying to make here? That because opinions are transient we should refrain from having them and discussing them? Surely you can't mean that, considering how readily you're offering yours.

Shall we take the mortality of the participants of this conversation as implicit and not worry too much about prefacing our arguments with caveats about relativism?

-- I'd find it rather odd, like someone writing a SF story based on the luminiferous aether. There is no luminiferous aether, though it was the orthodox physics of its time; likewise, race doesn't actually exist in the way that Howard and his era thought of it.

I think the crucial difference is that people have not suffered appallingly in past years, and do not continue to endure prejudice, discrimination, and a society set up to preserve and perpetuate the privilege of an elect minority, all because of the concept of the luminiferous aether.

-- First Ammendment to the Constitution... 8-). Hint: you are not the Discourse Police. There are, thank Ghu, no Discourse Police.

I wasn't telling you to shut up, I was telling you that if you walked around in the modern day with the thoughts and opinions and attitudes of a person from Shakespearean England you'd end up getting in trouble very quickly. I stand by that. I think the authorities in the US (I assume that's where you're from given your citation of the First Amendment) take the dim view of people trying to run Catholics out of the country, or institute a monarchy.

Also, I dread to ask, but who is this Ghu person you refer to?

I notice that you don't answer the question; did you notice that Conan ends up working for Belit, who's obviously a better pirate and commander than he is?

He's in theory on her crew. In practice he hardly adopts a servile or even deferential attitude towards her, nor does he have to work his way up through the ranks. He gets to be an officer because he happens to be boning the captain.

-- did anyone ask you to?

The Conan stories regularly invite the reader to do so. Not explicitly, but implicitly, in the way they're set up. The love interest of the week is captured by the brutish savages, only Conan can save her, yes he's a brute who claims to be totally mercenary but he almost always goes out of his way to do right by his current squeeze.

Our society is uniquely privileged in many ways, and the middle-class segment of it even more so. This has its advantages (I'll seize and keep every bit of privilege I can get and break the bones of anyone who tries to infringe on it) but it has its drawbacks.

You know, I'm a middle-class white male myself and I've never felt especially threatened by people "infringing" on my privilege. I'm not sure what you're getting at.

"No man is an island, sufficient unto himself." Trying to be a pure individual is like trying to outrun your own sweat.

Howard seemed to like the idea.
Michal at 02:12 on 2011-07-14
-- "Drums of Tombalku", right. It was done in outline and partial first draft by Howard and then "completed" by de Camp for the Lancer Conan series in the 60's.

Aha, that explains why I never revisited that story. I'm not very fond of "Lin Sprague de Carter's" contributions to the Conan saga, whether completions, pastiches, Thongor stories with the names changed, or editing work. ("Conan vs. Conantics gives a fairly succinct throw-down that I mostly agree with). I still have my Lancer editions because they were easy to snap up from used bookstores, but I really should invest in the unaltered Del Rays. Only my copy of The Hour of the Dragon has the unaltered Wierd Tales text (and, from what understand, de Camp shut the Berkley editions down).

Charlie Saunders is a fine writer (I wish he'd done more of the Amaro stories)

Saunders has finished the Imaro saga. You can order Imaro: The Naama War off his website (that is, if you weren't already aware). It's dedicated to Steve Tompkins; an unfortunate thing that he's not around to see it.

So...um...Clark Ashton Smith, anybody?
Steve Stirling at 04:12 on 2011-07-14

And if one had more time, one could ask, "And why is that?"


-- because Howard came up with the Hyborian Age to provide a backdrop where he could throw in all the tropes of historical adventure fiction with the kitchen sink and a side-order of pizza; knights, longbowmen, ancient Egyptians, Romans, Cossacks, Bedouin, Turks, Afghans, the Spanish Main pirates, etc.

There simply wasn't much in the way of African historical fiction settings available in Howard's time because, as I mentioned, African history and archaeology were just getting started.

Howard used a fair bit of what -was- available.

Steve Stirling at 04:38 on 2011-07-14
So... what's the point you're trying to make here? That because opinions are transient we should refrain from having them and discussing them?


-- no, that we should avoid excessive earnestness. "And above all, gentlemen, no zeal", as Tallyrand put it. Avoid chronological snobbery, the conviction that oneself and one's friends represent the high point of intellectual evolution.

I think the crucial difference is that people have not suffered appallingly in past years, and do not continue to endure prejudice, discrimination, and a society set up to preserve and perpetuate the privilege of an elect minority, all because of the concept of the luminiferous aether.


-- true, but why should I accord this any particular significance? Philosophically speaking, I'm not one of Jeremey Bentham's children; I don't attach any existential importance to suffering as such. The Buddhists are right about one thing; life -is- pain. Then you die. The usual difference between those who endure suffering and those who inflict it isn't morality, it's opportunity.

Also, I dread to ask, but who is this Ghu person you refer to?



-- SF in-joke, referring to the work of H. Beam Piper. An extraterrestrial deity.

He's in theory on her crew. In practice he hardly adopts a servile or even deferential attitude towards her.


-- it's stated that she comes up with the schemes and targets, and he helps implement them. It's made fairly obvious that this is because she's more experienced, knows the area, and that she's just smarter than he is.

That's not unusual. Conan has a certain animal cunning but he's not what you'd call a mental giant nor is he shown to be such. In fact, one of his main assets is that people underestimate him.

nor does he have to work his way up through the ranks. He gets to be an officer because he happens to be boning the captain.


-- he gets to bone the captain because he's a mighty warrior and the best fighter around, which is more or less a given of the series. He's the best fighter around -everywhere-.


The Conan stories regularly invite the reader to do so. Not explicitly, but implicitly, in the way they're set up. The love interest of the week is captured by the brutish savages, only Conan can save her, yes he's a brute who claims to be totally mercenary but he almost always goes out of his way to do right by his current squeeze.


-- what do his girlfriends have to do with the price of yams? He's a -thief-. He starts out as a second-story man breaking into people's houses to lift their valuables, then moves up to looting caravans and suchlike, before becoming a hired killer, and eventually stealing a whole country.

He's a loyal friend and doesn't slap women around, but that scarcely affects his social position. He's the Id set free.

You know, I'm a middle-class white male myself and I've never felt especially threatened by people "infringing" on my privilege.


-- neither do I, but I'm ready if anyone should try... 8-).

Howard seemed to like the idea.


-- Howard killed himself when his mother died. Howard -nearly- killed himself when his -dog- died. He probably died a virgin. Howard had severe self-image problems... 8-).
Cammalot at 04:43 on 2011-07-14
"There simply wasn't much in the way of African historical fiction settings available in Howard's time"

And the question remains, why was that? It's a fairly huge question, I won't pretend otherwise.

"African history and archaeology were just getting started."

No they were not. African histories had been there, had even been recorded and reported by white European folk as early as the 16th century. I'll grant you modern archaeology with modern tools and so on, but knowledge had been available and was actively suppressed.

The question is bigger than Howard. But he is a part of it. And you can't expect those of us it directly affects to simply be silent and pretend that "he didn't know any better" equals "that makes it all okay, and doesn't have any effect on how people today view and treat us at all," or to take pure and uncritical enjoyment from such works.

When people's response to a disaster in Japan is "Isn't it nice they weren't like nasty looting black people who have never had a civilization higher than a pack of chimpanzees," we whom that statement directly affects cannot help but think about where ideas like that may have originated and/or gotten reinforced. Ignoring it or rationalizing it away is simply not a luxury that I have.

I'm not telling you to not enjoy it. I'm not saying people who enjoy it are horrible or bad or anything but fine folk. But I resist the implication that pointing it out and discussing it are anything other than extremely valid and important activities.
valse de la lune at 05:45 on 2011-07-14
When people's response to a disaster in Japan is "Isn't it nice they weren't like nasty looting black people who have never had a civilization higher than a pack of chimpanzees," we whom that statement directly affects cannot help but think about where ideas like that may have originated and/or gotten reinforced. Ignoring it or rationalizing it away is simply not a luxury that I have.

I'm not telling you to not enjoy it. I'm not saying people who enjoy it are horrible or bad or anything but fine folk. But I resist the implication that pointing it out and discussing it are anything other than extremely valid and important activities.


I can't agree enough. This particular line of defense has always made me queasy.
Arthur B at 10:15 on 2011-07-14
-- true, but why should I accord this any particular significance? Philosophically speaking, I'm not one of Jeremey Bentham's children; I don't attach any existential importance to suffering as such. The Buddhists are right about one thing; life -is- pain. Then you die. The usual difference between those who endure suffering and those who inflict it isn't morality, it's opportunity.

Well, I admit to not being a Buddhist, but my understanding is that they also say that part of the point of living a good life is trying not to inadvertently contribute to the suffering of others. Since we know that race is an area in which harm has been done and continues to be done, it behooves us to tread a bit more carefully than when we're dealing with the luminiferous aether, which I can quite confidently say has never hurt anyone.

-- what do his girlfriends have to do with the price of yams? He's a -thief-. He starts out as a second-story man breaking into people's houses to lift their valuables, then moves up to looting caravans and suchlike, before becoming a hired killer, and eventually stealing a whole country.

He's a loyal friend and doesn't slap women around, but that scarcely affects his social position. He's the Id set free.

His girlfriends are relevant precisely because he usually has to step in and rescue them.

I think it's very easy to overemphasise the claimed amoral character of the Conan stories. Fact is, Howard usually finds a way to prompt Conan into doing something which we would readily recognise as heroic over the course of the stories. Sure, he starts plenty of stories plotting one heist or another, but there are few if any stories which are purely about him pulling off a robbery, or successfully attacking a highly-guarded caravan and making off with the army's pay coffers, or invading a neighbouring kingdom and putting their rulers to the sword. Usually he gets sidetracked somehow; he'll break into some place only to make friends with a Lovecraftian space elephant and enact a rough sort of vigilante justice on the fiend that kept the thing imprisoned, or he'll get accused of murder only for it to turn out a horrible monster did it and Conan has to spring in to save the day.

This happens repeatedly across the entire saga. If Conan isn't prompted by the events of the story into doing something that we are intended to interpret as heroic, then he's placed in absolutely dire peril and he has to struggle to survive. You never see a story which is solely about him pulling off an especially challenging burglary, enacting an especially daring act of piracy, or leading his armies in aggressive, unprovoked wars of conquest. There's almost always something extra for Conan to do, some good deed that prompts us to overlook his mercenary ways.

There are, after all, plenty of outright villains in the saga. If the stories really were taking the amoral position people so often claim they were, Howard wouldn't be setting those folks up as utterly corrupt horrors who need taking down. There's never a story in which Conan himself is the villain - a proposition which Karl Edward Wagner demonstrated was entirely possible in a sword and sorcery framework in most of the Kane novels. If he were really that amoral, you'd expect there to be at least a few.
http://ruderetum.blogspot.com/ at 11:02 on 2011-07-14
Steve, you seem determined to explain away the racist undertones in Howard's writing. I haven't stopped reading Howard because of them, but it seems futile to deny or try to justify them. Because surely we are all products of our time, but handwaving everything based on that is rather more relativistic and nihilistic than what I would agree to.

Also, it is rather doubtful that recognizing that everybody suffers is reason enough to sink into comfortable middle class complacency. It should make us realize that suffering of others is real and that we should try to help each other. We all live in a world made by others and those others very frequently made that world through the suffering of others. So as a privileged individual one should not live in the delusion that this is deserved or that this gives us the right to continue or not care about unfair cultural institutions and practices which plague the descendants of those on whose suffering our contemporary society is built on.

And I'm pretty sure that Bentham, as a lawyer was arguing that the goal of a society should always be to minimize suffering and maximize happiness. And in a societal sense it seems a reasonable enough paradigm for governmental policies.
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