THE WEIRD OF IRONSPELL (my novella currently being serialized at www.blackgate.com) is an unabashed tale of Swords-and-Sorcery inspired by my favorite S&S writers. While it’s still running I wanted to do a post about the most obvious influences on the tale. So here they are:

Robert E. Howard’s CONAN tales were a huge influence on me as a youngster. I first discovered them via the Lancer paperback series with the amazing Frank Frazetta covers. I bought and devoured as many of them as I could. Many of these books–especially the later ones–featured stories by other writers than Howard. Even at the age of 10 or 11, I could tell that the Howard stories were far superior to any imitators. “The Phoenix on the Sword” and “The Scarlet Citadel” still ring in my memory as two of the most amazing tales I read in those formative years. Of course I had been led to the CONAN paperbacks by Marvel Comics’ CONAN THE BARBARIAN and SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN comics.

Reading the actual prose of Robert E. Howard, the originator, was a wholly different experience: immersive, powerful, and full of fantastic imagery. I still remember being shocked and amazed by the scene in “Phoenix on the Sword” where King Conan smashes the hilt of his broken sword into an ememy’s skull, splattering blood and brains. It wasn’t until many years later that I read Howard’s only Conan novel, HOUR OF THE DRAGON. It stands as my favorite Conan tale, the greatest of his many achievements with this character. It’s nearly impossible to write a sword-swinging fantasy hero without a little bit of Conan the Cimmerian creeping in…

I don’t remember when I first discovered ELRIC OF MELNIBONE, the first of Moorcock’s Elric novels. It was sometime during my late teens. By then decades’ worth of tales about the Albino Prince had been collected into a basically chronological order in a series of “novels,” although most of them were story compilations. STORMBRINGER, the conclusion to the original six-book saga, was the greatest. Moorcock blows the hinges off the doors of his invented universe in this one…Elric engages in full-on battle against the Dukes of Hell (whom he previously served) and ends up blowing the Horn of Fate and ending the world!

Elric is an amazing character because he reconfigured the normal patterns of Sword-and-Sorcery: he was both swordsman and sorcerer in one. Beyond that, he was tormented by his unending guilt…doomed to be the one who would save his universe by ending it. He KNEW he was evil, and it tormented him even unto his final doom. His soul-drinking hellblade, Stormbringer, has to be THE coolest sword in all of literature. Elric’s constant companion in the later tales is the clever litle warrior named Moonglum, who takes care of practical things (like stealing jewels) while Elric focuses on the big picture. There is definitely some Moonglum in Ironspell’s longstanding chum Tumnal the Swift. And Ironspell, in the later part of his saga, is every bit as tormented as Elric, albeit for very different reasons.

I must admit that I didn’t discover the genius of Fritz Leiber’s FAFHRD AND THE GREY MOUSER stories until sometime around 2004. When I read the “Three of Swords” collection (which contains the first half of the substantial saga) I simply could not believe I had missed these tales. Leiber is credited with having coined the term “Sword and Sorcery” to describe these types of stories. No wonder. He writes about Fafhrd the barbarian swordsman, and The Grey Mouser, the wizard-turned-thief, with such originality, such flair, such skill and inventiveness, it could put any author, in any genre, to shame.

In the fantastic and surreal fantasy world of Newhon (pronounced “No-When”), Leiber’s characters live and breathe with such realistic fervor…they have three-dimensional personalities and very human foibles, despite being the greatest two swordsmen their world has ever seen. Another thing Lieber could do (which in most other writers would infuriate me) was incorporate humor in his stories…it was as much a part of Fafhrd and the Mouser’s personalities as their terrific swording skills. It’s said that he based the two characters on himself and a close friend (another author) and the fantastic city of Lankhmar on his  home city of Manhattan. And therein probably lies the key to the sheer believability of Leiber’s fantasy setting.

After reading the first half of the entire FAFHRD and MOUSER saga, something “clicked” in my brain. It was as if I’d found an mystical ingredient that was missing in the literary spells I’d been trying to weave. It was an epiphany that changed the way I approach fantasy forevermore. Leiber wrote these tales decades ago, but they were teaching me fresh lessons. There is definitely some Fafhrd and Mouser influence peeking through in the relationship of Ironspell and Tumnal (especially in the “Jewel and the Giant-King” chapter, where Tumnal is introduced).

There has never been a fantasist quite like Clark Ashton Smith, who was one of the “Big Three” legendary WEIRD TALES writers in the 1930s (alongside Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft). I first discovered Smith’s superb fantasy stories in bits and pieces, here and there in anthologies in the late 70s and 80s (mostly Lin Carter’s anthologies). I began seeking out his stories in new and used bookstores wherever and whenever I could. No  other writer has achieved such a poetic mastery of phantasmagorical imagery, lyrical prose, mythical imagination, and dark splendor. My favorite CAS works are his stories of the far-future continent Zothique, which were collected in the mid-90s into a slim volume called TALES OF ZOTHIQUE.

Zothique is a dying realm full of imperious wizards, demonic presences, deadly sorcery, blood-curdling necromancy, and strange, decaying cultures. Unlike most fantasy writers, Smith practically refused to give his warriors and wizards a happy ending. His tales take readers through a realm of dark delights, where entropy, weird forces, and cosmic destruction are nearly impossible to avoid. This is DARK FANTASY…these tales may even be the original prototype for all dark fantasy that has followed them. To read Smith’s lush, evocative prose is to be immersed in the Poet’s twilight web of glittering opulence and terror. The perfect blend of horror and fantasy. There is more than a touch of horror in the IRONSPELL novella, and Azazar the Undying would have been right at home in the ruined metropolises that sprawl beneath Zothique’s bloated and dying sun.

I mentioned Lin Carter’s legendary anthology work already, but here’s my favorite of Lin’s works of fiction: LOST WORLDS from 1980. In fact, it’s one of my favorite books ever. In this volume Carter exposed my 10-year-old self to stories he had written based on outlines and fragments left decades earlier by Clark Ashton Smith (“The Scroll of Morloc” and “The Stairs in the Crypt”), and Robert E. Howard (“Riders Beyond the Sunrise” featuring King Kull). While posterity remembers Carter more for his editorial sensibilities than his fiction-writing talents, this book stands as a testament that Carter could write a mean Sword-and-Sorcery tale. The stories are rollicking, colorful adventures, some laced with old-school horror (specifically the Smith collaborations).

Here were two of Carter’s best Thongor of Lemuria tales (“The Thieves of Zangabal” and “Keeper of the Emerald Flame”), a nod to H.P. Lovecraft (“The Thing in the Pit”), and some splendidly original wizard tales (“The Seal of Zaon Sathla” and “The Twelve Wizards of Ong”). In fact, “The Twelve Wizards of Ong” is my favorite Lin Carter story, ever. I won’t bore you with a summary, I suggest securing a copy of LOST WORLDS as soon as possible and discovering its greatness for yourself. Wildside Press released a reprint version back in 2008 that is still available at www.amazon.com 

Of course, the reprint is missing the magnificent original cover art by “Enrich.” This painting of a warrior maiden brandishing bloody sword and severed head while riding on the back of a savage centaur has to be one of the best fantasy book covers to ever see print. Like Frank Frazetta’s wonderful paintings, it sings with infinite possibilities, an image of pure adventure, a gateway to the fantastic worlds that lie in these pages.

Ironspell’s quest across the world chasing after Azazar was definitely inspired by Kull’s long-distance quest to confront Thulsa Doom in “Riders Beyond the Sunrise.”

 There is another influence I have to mention when it comes to Ironspell. Back in the 70s and 80s Mike Grell wrote and drew a Sword-and-Sorcery comic called  WARLORD for DC Comics. As a kid I was enthralled and utterly captivated by these barbaric tales of a modern-day pilot cast into a savage world beneath our own. Travis Morgan became a hero to the time-lost people of Skartaris in Grell’s exquisitely drawn adventures. The first few years of the title remain spectacular examples of Bronze Age comics. This was the ONLY comic that could approach Marvel’s CONAN THE BARBARIAN for heroic fantasy adventure.

I probably got my first issue of WARLORD when I was 12 years old, and it set me on a quest to find every back issue I could. I combed the flea markets, yard sales, and garage sales…I found a few early issues here and there; each one was a treasure. This was in the days BEFORE comic shops, when you had to pick up old comics wherever you could. Eventually I did complete a  sizable run of the early issues (when Grell was still inking his own work–THAT was the true gold).

Along about issue 16 Warlord’s nemesis, the sorcerer Deimos, steals his infant son and begins a story arc that would end in tragedy for the hero. There is no doubt in my mind that this storyline–so powerful to me as an impressionable youth–led to the theft of Ironspell’s son in THE WEIRD OF IRONSPELL.

These are the main ingredients that bubbled up into my story from years and decades previous. As to what I’m trying to do with the story, well, I want to take it somewhere that Sword-and-Sorcery rarely (or never) goes. And that’s why I love the work of Darrell Schweitzer so much. He takes Sword-and-Sorcery concepts and tropes, spins them on their heads, and invents something new and transcendent in the genre. His brilliant fantasies are often surreal in theme, deeply rooted in character, and filled to the brim with uncompromising sorcery.

Like Clark Ashton Smith, he tends toward a dark flavor in his works; and like many of the authors I’ve already named, he is a true master of the craft of fantasy writing. Like many of the Great Masters before him, Darrell often does not get enough recognition for his superb and innovative creations. He has written over 300 short stories, but his best-known book is probably the masterpiece of dark fantasy that is MASK OF THE SORCERER. A young boy inherits the immortal curse of sorcery (and it is indeed a curse in Schweitzer’s world) from his wicked father. A universe filled with dueling and murderous sorcerers attempts to wrest the boy Sekenre’s unwanted power from him. If Sekenre kills another sorcerer, he gains their power, their memories, their souls, and all the souls they have devoured. He carries multitudes of dead sorcerers’ personalities in his lanky 14-year-old’s body. There has never been a dark fantasy like MASK, and there very well may never be one that surpasses it.

After the novel, Schweitzer wrote plenty more stories about Sekenre’s cosmic and earthly adventures, which were eventually collected into SEKENRE: BOOK OF THE SORCERER. The novel and its succeeding stories have affected my own writing in deep and important ways. Very few writers can bring classic fantasy tropes to life and breathe fresh vitality into them as well as Darrell Schweitzer. Seek out his books and see what I’m talking about. He has many short story collections, but you can start with MASK OF THE SORCERER to really get a full grasp on why Schweitzer is an essential figure in modern fantasy.

Hopefully, when all is said and done, the ending of my Ironspell saga will bring a unique conclusion to this melange of influences. To rise above one’s inspirations is a lofty goal for a writer. In any case, THE WEIRD OF IRONSPELL will stand on its own as a tale of swashbuckling, wizardry, and heroic adventure. If it has any value beyond that is not for me to decide.

Peace!

John