Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Lord of Samarcand and Other Adventure Tales of the Old Orient

Lord of Samarcand and Other Adventure Tales of the Old Orient, by Robert E. Howard
April, 2005 Bison Books

As a kid I read the majority of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories, and though I'm no longer into the fantasy genre I've always retained a soft spot for the man's work. I knew REH had dabbled in historical fiction, and after a bit of research I discovered that several such of his stories have conveniently been placed together in this definitive volume, Lord of Samarcand.

This book compiles all of Howard's Oriental Magazine tales and all those which take place in the Crusades-era Middle East (with an occasional foray into the West). Howard obviously had a great interest in this era of history; his research is spot-on, as is the armor and weaponry he provides his characters. The only problem is that Howard was writing for the pulp fiction market, so these stories come off as repetitive and one-note, especially when read one after another.

Each tale features some stoic and deadly knight who defends one or another besieged castle or city against invading Muslims - and the problem is, each stoic and deadly knight is so perfect as to be boring after a while. The cumulative effect is, despite the number of eviscerations, guttings, beheadings, maulings, mutilations, and suppurations, the whole gory diorama eventually glazes over the reader's eye. And of course there isn't even the barest hint of sex.

Here are the stories which stood out for me:

Blades of Black Cathay: Norman Crusader Goddfrey travels far, far east at the behest of his lord, seeking out the mythical kingdom of Prester John. Goddfrey instead ends up in "Black Cathay," right alongside the border of China, where he defends the city against Genghis Khan. Goddfrey of course is the only one who can unite the "lazy" and "cowardly" people of Cathay against Khan (who, by the way, is so impressed that he ends up offering Goddfrey a slice of his kingdom!). Plus, Goddfrey gets the princess of Cathay, a virginal jaw-dropper who of course falls in love with this blood-soaked and battle-lusting heathen from the barbaric north.

Hawks of Outremer: In post-Third Crusades Outremer, a "Norman-Gael" knight named Cormac FitzGeoffery plans vengeance against those who murdered his comrade in arms. Where to start with this one? I love it to death, though likely not for the reasons REH would've desired. Describing Cormac in a letter excerpted in this book's introduction, REH writes: "I've never created a more somber character." Well, "somber" would be one way to describe Cormac. Another way would be "pompous blowhard." For Cormac is a jerk of jerks, slashing through the constraints of his one-dimensional world of print to slap the reader with his tedious self-importance. The story achieves the quality of a Saturday Night Live skit as Cormac buzz-kills conversations with irrelevant boasts like "At twelve I was running wild with shock-head kerns on the naked fens - I wore wolfskins, weighed near fourteen stone, and had killed three men." At another point he delivers the unforgettable line: "Hate and the glutting of vengeance!", which I now use to end phone conversations instead of "Goodbye." In the course of the story Cormac nearly cripples a gatekeeper (who's an old friend, no less!), boasts that "bloodshed follows my trail" while casually displaying the Viking sword which he took from his brother's murderer, kills via lance-turned-javelin an unarmed baron who refuses to fight him, saves a man nearly hanged to death and then proceeds to berate him, murders three (sleeping!) guards, and generally sows dissent wherever he goes, bragging about his courage every step of the way ("I will follow by another route - aye, by a road none but I can ride!"). The whole thing comes off like a Don Quixote-esque parody of the heroic adventure genre, with Cormac a razor-sharp spoof of the de rigueur "grim and gritty" warriors who populate such tales. Only REH was no doubt dead serious about the whole thing. In a way, that makes it even funnier, though Howard does tip his hat by giving Cormac a bit of an ego-bruising comeuppance in the end, when he realizes that his Muslim enemies aren't all cruel savages.

The Blood of Belshazzar: Another Cormac FitzGeoffery story, though not nearly as enjoyable as the previous one. This is more of a sword-and-sorcery plot mixed with a mystery, as Cormac must figure out who murdered the Genghis Khan-like sultan who serves as his current liege. The tale comes off like a prototype of Conan, with talk of demons and ancient gods and a blood-red jewel which demands the blood of innocents to retain its unearthly glow. Cormac here is a shadow of his former self, with hardly any of the pompous blowhardry he displayed so magnificently in "Hawks of Outremer." Probably because he's outdone in the bragging department by Skol Abdhur, the aforementioned Genghis Khan stand-in.

Sowers of the Thunder: This one takes place about fifty years after the previous tale, though Cormac FitzGeoffery gets a mention. Here we follow exiled Norman king Red Cahil as he arrives in besieged Outremer and gets involved in the last gasp of the failing kingdom's defense. The story takes a while to get going - first Cahil meets a loutish Arab who engages him in a drinking bout, then Cahil joins up with an old comrade who talks him into raiding a hidden Muslim treasure cache. REH jumps over this bit, though - we next meet Cahil after his raiding party's been decimated by Huns. Cahil rushes from one besieged Christian fortress to the next, proclaiming the oncoming Hun onslaught, and eventually takes a final stand against them in Acre. This story gets much favorable mention among REH scholars, but it left me a little cold.

Shadow of the Vulture: A change of scenery: Vienna in the 1500s as it is besieged by Suleiman the Magnificent. This story is notable because it (sort of) introduces Red Sonja. However REH depicts her differently than she's now known. For one, Howard's name for her is Sonya, not Sonja. And rather than a barely-clad babe who fights alongside Conan in the Hyborian Age, Howard's Red Sonya is a gun-toting warrior from 16th Century Poland. She has the same red hair and the same fiery temper, but otherwise she's nothing like we now think of the Red Sonja character, who was really more of a creation of Marvel Comics writer Roy Thomas and artist Barry Windsor-Smith. Gottfried Von Kalmbach is the actual star of the piece; in a letter reproduced in the introduction, REH enthuses about how "different' Kalmbach is from his previous characters -- a loutish drunk who's more interested in lazing about than in fighting. Yet Kalmbach turns out to be exactly like all other REH characters: a tough-as-nails stoic who is feared by his enemies, respected by his comrades, and lusted after by women. Howard's description had me hoping for a Tyrone Slothrop-esque character plunged into a grim Howardian world, but alas it didn't happen.

The problem with the stories in this collection is the same as that of all REH's other heroic fiction: the characters are too perfect. I realize this is a requisite of the genre, but it becomes deadening after back-to-back stories. REH could've ascended out of pulp fiction purgatory if he'd only applied a little self or genre-parody, but these tales are all told with a dead-eyed calm. My discovery is that REH is best taken in small doses; maybe read one of these a week or so, maybe even once a month (to fully achieve the "pulp" feel). And it's important to note than Howard's Conan tales are better-known for a reason; they are all stronger than those in this collection, and despite Conan's similar perfection, he at least had a black humor which made him somewhat human.

1 comment:

Jack Badelaire said...

I'm in agreement with you in your final analysis. Much of REH's historical fiction is very good, very grim and full of adventure, but if you read too much of the same "type" as you did, it does become repetitive.

Of course, that's the problem with these anthologies - they are collections of shorts that would have appeared weeks or months apart from each other in various periodicals, so what you suggested - read them with a few weeks' separation in between so as not to over-saturate yourself - is exactly how they were intended to be read.

The latest collection to come out of REH's work, Sword Woman, has most of these. I have yet to pick it up, but I should shortly - I have Sowers of the Thunder (the collection, not just the short story) and that contains a lot of these tales, but not all.