Swords Against Darkness II: Thematically Ambiguous

Andrew Offutt’s introduction to Swords Against Darkness II deals with what term to apply to this genre of stories. He writes of sitting on four different panels over the course of a single year concerning this very topic. I wish convention panels would include such subjects nowadays. Currently about half of the list of panel topics I’m asked to consider consist of topics I’d gnaw my own head off to avoid. Offutt’s introduction is as personable and chatty as ever, informing us we have eight stories to look forward two. That’s one fewer than volume I, and — happily — six fewer than the overstuffed volume III. So, on with the show.

We open with Andre Norton and a Witch World story, Sword of Unbelief. Sigh. In a previous post I’ve expressed my heretical views on Witch World. While I’ve been favorably impressed with some Norton shorts before, this one does nothing to improve my opinion. The problem for me is that ninety percent of the conflict is internal. I have little patience for the 60’s and 70’s fad of psychic powers. It reads to me like a cop out, a cheap way of generating tension and a last minute victory against the odds without anything actually happening. I’ll pass on the lava lamp, bong hits, and psi-war. Thanks anyway. I did appreciate the emphasis on will power, in focusing on the self, the individual in opposition to compelled belief. So, there’s that.

Ramsey Campbell’s The Changer of Names follows. It is a Ryre story. That means there will be no lapis lazuli towers, no gleaming bronze citadels, no sun glinting from white-peaked pinnacles. No, we’ll be down in the muck, grappling with some mysterious worm-thing. Less S&S, more weird tale. Fine. But, is it any good?

As with Norton’s story, this one leans heavily on the importance of the self, in this case as manifested in a name. I like this one better than the other two Ryre stories I’ve read. It is more action oriented, an urban adventure that feels vaguely like something Fafhrd or even Conan might have become embroiled in.

The quality of the anthology keeps stepping up, as next is Manley Wade Wellman with The Dweller in the Temple. I’m happy to see Kardios again, the Erol Flynn of S&S heroes. We’ve had thematic stories dealing with the ego and the self. Kardios stories are — happily — more primal, more earthy. We have Kardios facing an early example of an ancient cultural convention, the sacrificial king: the man given power, gratification (sexual, material, etc.) for a period (usually a year) then sacrificed to the gods. With Kardios the time scale is telescoped to a day or so, but the concept remains the same. I suppose Kardios’ easy self-confidence could stand as a casual nod toward a collective theme of “self,” but a grand old story telling master like Wellman is content with a good yarn.

Next is The Coming of Age in Zamora by David M. Harris. Forgive the pun in the title. It probably won’t even hit you until after you’ve read the story. Harris writes of the inexorable hand of time pressing down upon even the greatest of warriors. And of denial, of the struggle to prove oneself still in his prime. Without blushing or recrimination, Harris writes bluntly of the barbarian, ruling by his own hand a civilization that — it seems — holds on to barbaric practices of its own. Some minor aspects of this yarn remind me of my own Magnus Stoneslayer. Harris writes with the cynicism of de Camp and, at times, he nears the salacious wit of Leiber. The tale is a meditation on aging and decline from a character who is not given to meditation, lacks the wherewithal for introspection, and has gotten all he possesses from sheer physical prowess. All that, plus sex and sword fights.

Richard L. Tierney follows with The Scroll of Thoth. Simon of Gitta. Hell yeah! This is a solid piece of historical S&S. Simon of Gitta is in some respects a dour version of The Gray Mouser, but with a more reliable moral compass: a thief, a fighter, and a magician. Here he helps rid the Earth of yet another artifact hanging on from Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age. Few philosophical questions of the self and identity are raised, except perhaps the notion that prolonging the self indefinitely would be a particularly bad idea if the self in question was mad and all powerful. So, thanks, Simon.

Tanith Lee is next with Odds Against the Gods. There is a playfulness about this story and a (deliberately?) Vancian touch, perhaps even a hint of Brunner’s Traveler in Black. It feels slighter, however, the world less grounded. And it does drag at times. I suppose I should defer to the editor’s judgement on the story’s categorical fitness for a Swords-and-Sorcery anthology, but I do retain a certain skepticism. As I read, it grew less amusing and more like a would-be parable. Ultimately it fails to achieve a cohesive payoff, to reach a conclusion that incorporates its own beginning. I wanted to like it more than I actually did.

On Skellig Michael by Dennis More is the penultimate yarn. And what beautifully written, historical S&S! Atmospheric, full of period details. I must look for more Dennis More. True, it is almost more of an anecdote than a story. I could have used more conflict and action. Still, I was engrossed and enjoyed it for what it was: an examp[le of the decline of the Old Ways in the face of the rise of Christianity, and a study on contrasting characters.

Last, is Last Quest, by Andrew Offutt. The anthology begins with a story in which love and holding on to the notion of self are essential to the resolution. It ends with a story of the opposite.

Offutt himself contributes this one to his own anthology. It begins as rather standard fare, including several pages of backstory (that I found tedious and puzzling, but are, in fact, essential to what Offutt hoped to achieve.) Offutt is seemingly writing a Lin Carter-esque tale of adventure and oddity, though with a more straightforward prose style. And then — Offut goes subversive. He somewhat shockingly contravenes expectations, ending the story on a tragic note. Last quest indeed. The self, will power, love — all ultimately powerless. I can’t decide whether or not I admire or dislike this story. Chalk one up for ambiguity, I suppose.

I’ve picked up a copy of Swords Against Darkness Volume IV. Can’t wait to read it. If you’d like something to read, may I suggest something of mine? An S&S novel, perhaps?