After the great wave swept away the atolls of his kingdom, Kanatanka fled into what he thought was
an endless ocean --
an endless ocean --
Only to find himself in a strange land --
Filled with strange creatures.
In the distance he sees it...
And of course there's something else that goes along with this kind of nonsense -- something possibly NSFW.About a year or so ago I started working on what was intended to be an online adventure comic strip. In order to make life easy on myself I decided to do something simple and familiar. (Note to self -- this never works.) There are certain tastes of mine that are like malaria -- I can go for years without thinking to indulge them and then they resurface and I'm swept away on a feverish tide.
In this case it was Sword & Sorcery. When I was a kid back in the seventies there was a revival of this form of fantasy, spearheaded by the work that Lin Carter and L. Sprague deCamp put in on Robert E. Howard's Conan stories. Ballantine Books has recently republished all of Howard's Conan stories (among others -- the Soloman Kane series being a particular favorite) and going over those rekindled my interest in this very minor sub-genre.
(As an aside, in a lot of ways this revival was fueled by the population of the Lord of the Rings -- even though the Weird Tales crew was active long before the Inklings. Conan predates Frodo.)
Here are two different ways of looking at S & S. First is that it's the fantasy equivalent of hard boiled fiction, that it was Howard taking the more mannered tradition established by William Morris (yeah, that William Morris) and Lord Dunsany and giving it a gritty, here-and-now perspective. The characters are going to be gutter-dwelling underdogs before they achieve greatness, and they're more likely to be motivated by a need for drinking money as by destiny. Magic isn't so much the organizing principal of the cosmos -- it's more like a Saturday night special. And so on.
From another point of view S & S came about as the result of Howard combining two genres -- historical adventure and horror. Howard's setting for the Conan stories was a thinly-veiled Europe, Africa, and Near East and his historical precedents were taken from any time that struck his fancy -- everything from the Neolithic to the Edwardian period.
I've always wanted to try my hand at that stuff. But I wanted a non-Eurocentric background -- a big part of my pleasure in fantastic literature derives from a sense of exoticism and other people have been playing in Howard's sandbox for so long that most work modeled on his stuff is dull, dull, dull. I wanted something different.
Hmmm. A vague pre-historic setting with a wild mix of creatures and cultures... Hey, you know where and when they had a great mix of critters just begging to be used in this kind of story? Miocene Central America. This would predate the evolution of man -- but this is a freaking fantasy, man. And there are rumors of everyone from the Polynesians to the Chinese having left their mark on prehistoric Central America. So I decided to go the Howard route and include anything that felt like fun rather than construct something that was intended as serious speculation.
Thus was born Kanatanka -- AKA Conan the Samoan. As a young king, his forbidden love led to the destruction of his island home. Fleeing the destruction, he finds himself in a strange new land...
The initial story, Tribes of the Black Tower, was partially inspired by my brother-in-law, Aubrey Ankrum. He was telling me about a show he'd seen about cairn builders and their practices of worshipping their ancestors. As he described how they'd creep through the narrow passages into the chamber where the bodies lay I found myself vividly imagining the experience and when we got to the part where they reached the chamber...
Well, the idea of what would happen to people breathing the gasses of decomposition came to me in a fashion that was not subtle.
"Dude," I said, "they were totally huffing corpses. They were getting high off that shit!"
And there was borne the degenerate cult of the Black Tower.
I wound up having to ditch Kanatanka as the novel proved too demanding. But as part of the experiment I tried writing a story using the character and setting. Aubrey thought it was the best thing I'd ever written; Rob thought it was the worst -- that it lacked the anger and fear that grounds the majority of my work. I can't figure out where to send the damned thing so here it is, in the first comment section. Hey, everyone, free story!
I will say that it was about as much fun as I've had with fiction. I didn't write it so much as sit back and transcribe the movie I was watching and when I was done it needed almost no edits to get it into its current state. So put yourself into a seventies state of mind -- picture Kanatanka airbrushed on the side of a van -- and read The Mask of Gold.
I think I may have to go back to Tribes of the Black Tower when I'm done with the rest of the novel...