Horror in Sword-and-Sorcery
Hi everyone, another great day here with the Skull. Welcome to all the new backers!
As part of this Kickstarter we are presenting essays on sword-and-sorcery fiction written by our contributors. If you pledge at the Legion of the Skull level, you'll get these nifty essays in a printed bonus album! Here are the previous essays:
- Defining Sword-and-Sorcery
- Sword-and-Sorcery's Grandfather
- Dynamic Duos of Fiction
- Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser: Two Who Sought Adventure
- The Dark Tower of Jaquays
- The Three Ms: Writing Horror in Sword & Sorcery
- Celebrating Robert E. Howard
- It Came From Appendix N: Roger Zelazny’s Jack of Shadows
- Celebrating Leigh Brackett
- By the Sword: Adding Realism to Sword and Sorcery Combat
- Finding Sword and Sorcery
- Striking the Balance
And for today's essay we present...
Horror in Sword-and-Sorcery
By C.L. Werner
One of the most distinctive aspects that separates sword-and-sorcery from epic fantasy, and indeed, many of the sub-genres of fantasy, is that of horror. The visceral nastiness of horror has a hard time thriving in high fantasy where there is a sense of mighty forces of benign nature working behind the scenes to support the heroes. It can be done, certainly, as Tolkien himself displays quite nicely with Frodo’s journey into Shelob’s lair, but such moments are just that -- moments. The overall narrative is too grand, too vast to get down to something as personal and sinister as horror.
Monsters in sword-and-sorcery are almost invariably superhuman in their presentation, making short and brutal work of anybody so unfortunate as to not be the hero of the tale.
Whether it is the intelligent rats encountered by Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser or the simian anthropoid Thak who menaces Conan, these creatures exact a bloodthirsty toll before they’re through. They are a credible threat, a violent violation of the natural order rather than a minor inconvenience to be overcome in a few paragraphs before the hero can move on with the main thrust of the story. In sword-and-sorcery tales, the monster is very often the focal point, the great obstacle that must be overcome.
The nature of magic is another arena where sword-and-sorcery strays into the realm of horror. Even benevolent magic has this gruesome atmosphere about it. While he helps Conan, Pelias the sorcerer is clearly a fiend in his own right. The juju practiced by N’Longa might help Solomon Kane, but it is still presented as an arcane and obscene art. When Jirel of Joiry turns to magic to aid her cause, she soon finds cause to regret her decision. Elak’s confederate Dalan the Druid even has an uncanny aura of “dabbling in things beyond” as he tries to steer the prince back to his rightful throne.
Nowhere, for me, does the resonance of horror sound more strongly than in Robert E. Howard’s classic “Worms of the Earth.” The Pictish king Bran Mak Morn seeks vengeance against a Roman governor. Unable to prevail against the Romans by force of arms, Bran turns to magic, seeking out the half-caste witch of Dagon-moor. Through her, he learns a way to harness the inhuman powers of the titular Worms of the Earth, a troglodyte race driven into the underworld ages ago by Bran’s ancestors. Forcing these creatures into action against the Romans, Bran like Jirel of Joiry finds that even when you get what you want, black magic does not give you want you want.
The presentation of the horrors of the title in “Worms of the Earth” is nebulous and unsettling, always hinting at a greater vileness hidden in the shadows wherein these troglodytes lurk. It is left a question which is more abominable, to believe these things were beasts thwarted in their efforts to become men or if they are men who have degenerated to the level of beasts. Everything about the way Howard handles the Worms is disturbing and leaves the reader with a sense of repulsion. That he builds upon this ghastliness by first exposing the reader to the revolting sorceries for the witch-woman only heightens their malignance, employing a lesser fright to magnify the greater terror still to come. Surely a keynote of any good horror story!