Collwen the Cimmerian Volume One (2019) by Matthew N. Sneedon

“KNOW, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars—Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west. Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen- eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.”
—The Nemedian Chronicles

Robert E. Howard, “The Phoenix on the Sword”

Know, you scholars of the occult, that during the patriachal years of Hyborian Age the crazy and decadent kings established their totalitarian kingdoms under the sky: Nemedia, with its spurious and imprecise chronicles; Ophir; Brythunia; Zamoa, where young girls were forced to prostitute themselves in dark temples; Zingara and her presumed knights; Koth, who sold their daughters as slaves to the harems of Hirkania to be covered with silk and gold chains. But the greatest and most powerful was Aquilonia, the tarnished jewel of the West in the hands of conceited and incapable men.

And from Cimmeria came Collwen, a free and indomitable woman from the north, with black hair as the firmament, eyes as intense blue as the hottest flame and the animal profile of a wild mountain panther; sword in hand and ready to crush with her footsteps the arrogant patriarchs of the world.

Imagine that the ultimate hero of sword and sorcery, no matter how much the misogynist chronicles had distorted it, was a strong and indomitable woman. Imagine that a daughter of CImmeria would have been the protagonist of thousands of adventures as mercenary, pirate and chief of men; and that her inimitable feats, marked with the tip of her sword, deserved not to be forgotten again.

Matthew N. Sneedon, Collwen the Cimmerian Volume One

Most of Robert E. Howard’s heroes were men. A survey of the pulp magazines those characters appeared in during his life such as Weird Tales and Oriental Stories showed that this focus on male protagonists was common. It was unusual for there to be women protagonists in those pulps, and rare indeed to see a woman serial character such as C. L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry, who first saw life in “Black God’s Kiss” (1934).

When Jirel appeared, two years after Robert E. Howard’s Cimmerian first took to the page in “The Phoenix on the Sword,” readers of Weird Tales hailed her as a veritable female Conanbut that wasn’t strictly accurate. Jirel was not an alternate-gender version of Howard’s most famous barbarian, nor were the stories of Jirel of Joiry the same kind of hardboiled fantasy rooted in historical adventure fiction that the Conan tales were. If there were any characters like that, they were in Howard’s own stories: Bêlit, the Queen of the Black Coast; Valeria of the Red Brotherhood; Red Sonia of Rogatino; and Dark Agnes de Chastillonthe latter of whom never saw print during Howard’s lifetime, but Moore would read her story and gush about it in her letters with Robert E. Howard.

The first pastiches of Howard’s particular style of fantasy did not see print until after his death. Weird Tales tried to fill the gap the pulpster had left in their pages with Clifford Ball’s fantasies “Duar the Accursed” (WT May 1937) and “The Thief of Forthe” (WT Jul 1937), and Henry Kuttner’s Elak of Atlantis in “Thunder in the Dawn” (WT May-Jun 1938), “Spawn of Dagon” (WT Jul 1938), “Beyond the Phoenix Gate” (WT Oct 1938), and “Dragon Moon” (WT Jan 1941). Very likely, the dismissal of Farnsworth Wright and the ascension of Dorothy McIlwraith as editor of Weird Tales signaled an editorial policy shift away from heroic fantasy, a field that was rapidly becoming competitive.

Musclebound barbarians of any gender were not the norm in fantasy fiction during the 40s and 50s, although male protagonists still dominated in fantasy fiction such as Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword (1954) and J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1955). The 1960s, with its paperback reprints of Howard’s Conan and other fantasies, saw a revival of interest with a new generation of writers. Michael Moorcock created Elric of Melniboné with “The Dreaming City” (Science Fantasy No. 47, June 1961), and Joanna Russ created her swordswoman Alyx with “I Thought She Was Afeard Till She Stroked My Beard” (Orbit 2, 1967), among others.

Marvel Comics obtained a license from the Robert E. Howard estate, and in 1970 published Conan the Barbarian, which would run for decades and hundreds of issues, spawning many different series, graphic novels, and related works. In Conan the Barbarian #23 (1973), series writer Roy Thomas and artist Barry Windsor Smith introduced the character of Red Sonjainspired by Howard’s Red Sonya of Rogatino from “The Shadow of the Vulture,” Red Sonja was created to be a female swordswoman in the Howardian mold, a female counterpart but not clone of their successful Cimmerian. Red Sonja would go on to have her own series, guest star in various comics, serve as the protagonist in six fantasy novels by David C. Smith and a 1985 film, and her adventures continue today.

Unlike Conan, Red Sonja had no single main writer, and because she is a licensed character, her continuity has seen a great deal more flux. Where most of the official Conan pastiches by writers like L. Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter, and Robert Jordan kept the Cimmerian firmly grounded in Howard’s Hyborian Age, Sonja’s career has been more varied. There is no single “Probable Outline of Red Sonja’s Career,” the way there is for Conan. While her comics often have long story arcs or reoccurring characters like the villainous wizard Kulan Gath, they do not exist in a single rational chronicle.

Many of these stories are little more than generic quasi-medieval European fantasies with a female swordswoman protagonist who happens to be Red Sonjaand various writers and artists have taken advantage of this fact by writing their own versions of the She-Devil. Marada the She-Wolf (1982) by Chris Claremont and John Bolton was originally planned as a Red Sonja story, but was changed because of licensing issues. Frank Thorne worked on Marvel’s Red Sonja stories, and when he left the book created his own, more explicitly erotic version of the character, Ghita of Alizarr in 1979.

There are many many more examples that could be cited. For instance, Jessica Amanda Salmanson’s Amazons! anthology in in 1979, which introduced the Sword & Soul character Dossouye, inspired by the real-life women warrior society of Dahomey; and Marion Zimmer Bradley began the long-running Sword and Sorceress anthology series in 1984. The point of this brief history is threefold:

  • There are plenty of women protagonists in heroic fantasy.
  • They are not just Conan the Cimmerian with the serial numbers filed off and a pair of breasts.
  • Their stories are not simply Robert E. Howard pastiches.

These are important points to keep in mind when considering Collwen the Cimmerian Volume One (2019), because this is a work which exists in a specific context, and it has to be evaluated both for what it is, and what it is trying to be, as far as the author Matthew N. Sneedon has stated in his introduction.

Unlike Jirel, Red Sonja, Dossouye, etc., Collwen the Cimmerian is a deliberate and explicit gender-swapped version of Conan the Cimmerian. While their adventures are not identical, the basic descriptions, attitudes, and activities of the characters are substantially similar, and they are operating in the same milieu: Sneedon has set Collwen’s adventures in Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age, in the cities and countries from the Conan stories. In this respect Collwen the Cimmerian is perhaps a bit closer to fanfiction or The Song of Bêlit (2020) by Rodolfo Martínez than any of the original heroic fantasy women about such as Jirel or Alyx.

There are two stories in Collwen the Cimmerian Volume One: “The She-Master of the Dark Conclave” and “The Offspring of the Depths.” Both are serviceable and straightforward pastiches; “The Offspring of the Depths” has some initial similarities to Howard’s Conan story “Gods of the North” but turns into something more Lovecraftian before the end. Collwen is a perfectly adequate female pastiche of Conan, played absolutely straight: there are no jokes, no sly asides about gender trope reversals like rescuing and bedding princes, and very little about Collwen’s sexuality at all. The one time it comes up in any substantial way is a single passage:

Collwen had left her homeland to travel the world on her two powerful legs, not on a palanquin. She did not wish to spend years lying on a couch surrounded by maidservants to fatten up and let a round merchant impregnate her with a dozen cubs. She was not motivated by gold or gems. She just wanted to make the most of life; to see all the forgotten corners and wonders of the world, from the western coasts of the Picts to the eastern jungles of Khitai; to eat, drink, love and, above all, fight. She had not board to Stygia to obtain a sack full of gold, but to relish the war that had seen her being born.

Matthew N. Sneedon, Collwen the Cimmerian Volume One

Robert E. Howard’s Conan never explicitly denied the desire to settle down with a wife and have a bunch of kids after a big score. He never had to: there were fewer social expectations for men in the 1930s to settle down and procreate compared with women. Most male protagonists in heroic fantasy don’t have to consciously address or even acknowledge the gender and sexual expectations of their period; by contrast, women fantasy protagonists like Jirel and Red Sonja have had to explicitly deal with these social norms and mores, and how these issues are brought up and dealt with has changed over time.

In her own series of Marvel comics, for example, Red Sonja was noted for an oath to maintain her virginity unless defeated in battlea point which allowed the series to titillate in her chainmail bikini but avoided the appearance of promiscuity that Red Sonja would have had if she had engaged in as many casual sexual liaisons as Conan did. Her oath of celibacy was essentially a hard-coded example of the double standard about sexual experience between men and women in the 20th century. Gail Simone’s 2013 soft reboot of Red Sonja discarded both the character’s celibacy and her heterosexuality, making Sonja both bisexual and removing the supernatural onus against casual sex; writers since have played with both ideas in their own interpretations of the character.

Sneedon doesn’t spend much time on this particular aspect of Collwen’s character, nor does he necessarily have to: having a female character doesn’t necessarily require talking about such issues any more than a male character might. However, in the context of the opening paragraphs to these two stories, it is interesting to note that Sneedon spends little time or effort to actually depict the patriarchal nature of the Hyborian Age. There are a few echoes of the casual sexism that punctuated Robert E. Howard’s Conan series (like calling a grown woman “girl” as a diminutive), but less sexual discrimination or efforts to violently enforce gender norms than perhaps might be expected given the explicit contrast apparently intended between Conan and Collwen’s sagas.

If the patriarchy that Collwen is supposed to rebel against isn’t well-defined, Collwen the Cimmerian Volume One unfortunately fallen into one of the traps of pastiching fantasy fiction from the 1930s: racism in the setting. Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age was marked by a combination of contemporary racial attitudes and ahistorical social conventions. Slavery existed, and it was largely slavery as practiced in antiquity or Biblical timesnot restricted to a single race or by skin color, as was the chattel slavery of the South before the American Civil War. Yet when Howard speaks of that slavery he sometimes casts it in explicitly contemporary racial terms:

“Valerius does not protect his subjects against his allies. Hundreds who could not pay the ransom imposed upon them have been sold to the Kothic slave-traders.”

Conan’s head jerked up and a lethal flame lit his blue eyes. He swore gustily, his mighty hands knotting into iron hammers.

“Aye, white men sell white men and white women, as it was in the feudal days. In the palaces of Shem and of Turan they will live out the lives of slaves. Valerius is king, but the unity for which the people looked, even though of the sword, is not complete.[“]

Robert E. Howard, The Hour of the Dragon

In the 1930s, Howard could get away with explicitly exporting contemporary racial attitudes into his mythical Hyborian Age simply because they were so utterly common and widely-held that few readers or editors would find fault with such sentiments; he would lean more heavily into such ideas in describing the racially segregated society in “Shadows in Zamboula,” and would be most explicit about the racial and sexual dynamics in “The Vale of Lost Women”(1967).

Writers who choose to pastiche Howard thus face a challenge: how to be faithful to the spirit of the world Robert E. Howard created and maintain continuity with his stories without explicitly continuing or endorsing those same racial prejudices and attitudes in their own fiction. It can be a fine dance: it is appropriate in a historical story to have a character with historically accurate racial prejudices; it is not appropriate for that character’s prejudices to be portrayed by the narrative as true or accurate. The failure of writers like L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter to observe this distinction in their own Conan pastiches was specifically called out in “Die Black Dog! A Look At Racism In Fantasy Literature” (1975, rev. 2011) by Charles R. Saunders.

Sneedon has not managed to find the correct balance. For example, one character states:

Ngozi is my servant. She was a real princess in her tribe, but here she’s worth less than nothing. We must fear nothing of her. She’s a brute and an ignoramus, incapable of understanding what we expect. But she does understand what would happen to her if she tried to betray me.

Matthew N. Sneedon, Collwen the Cimmerian Volume One

Having a character be racist toward another character is unpleasant, but can help to define a character as unsympathetic or evil, and the relationship between the characters can be defined by that tension of racial prejudice with its arrogance and potential violence. Yet at no point does Sneedon do anything with Ngozi to disprove this prejudice, or to develop this relationship along those lines. Ngozi has no agency, no real voice for her own perspective, no chance to defend herself or deny or defy the stereotypes. The betrayal never takes place, and perhaps was not even planned. It is an attitude that a Howardian villain might well have expressed in a Conan story, but it was written in the 2010s, not the 1930s…and that is terrible. Sneedon should have known better.

Whenever a reader or critic comes across a work like this one, which takes a familiar character and setting and then changes some fundamental aspect like the gender of the main characterquestions have to be asked: why Collween the Cimmerian? What is it about the Hyborian Age in particular that made it the correct setting for Collwen as a character? How is Collwen different from Conan, and how is that difference integral to the stories written about her? Is it just fanfiction, or is there any deeper purpose to these pastiches that serves as contrast to and comment on Robert E. Howard’s stories?

Unfortunately, answers aren’t very forthcoming.

Collwen the Cimmerian Volume One (2019) by Matthew N. Sneedon is available on Amazon Kindle.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“Up from Slavery” (2019) by Victor LaValle

They had done the same thing on other planets; having manufactured not only necessary foods, but certain multicellular protoplasmic masses capable of moulding their tissues into all sorts of temporary organs under hypnotic influence and thereby forming ideal slaves to perform the heavy work of the community. These viscous masses were without doubt what Abdul Alhazred whispered about as the “shoggoths” in his frightful Necronomicon, though even that mad Arab had not hinted that any existed on earth except in the dreams of those who had chewed a certain alkaloidal herb.

H. P. Lovecraft, “At the Mountains of Madness”

Slavery was a part of Lovecraft’s heritage. While his immediate family never owned any slaves or showed any inclination to, the oldest of his aunts could remember the American Civil War and emancipation; Lovecraft himself was well aware of the part slavery had played in his own native Rhode Island, and liked to remind correspondents that his ancestor Robert Hazard had left 133 slaves in his will.

When Lovecraft wrote his alien entities, the two most detailed civilizations—the Old Ones in Antarctica in At the Mountains of Madness and the people of K’n-yan in The Mound—they were both defined by slave ownership. Why isn’t exactly clear; the exact forms of slavery involved were both like and unlike the chattel slavery of the American system or the slavery practiced by civilizations like the Romans in antiquity. There was no way for slaves in Lovecraft’s stories to earn freedom, and in fact much of the economics and social ramifications of slavery are unexamined…except for one: as in the antebellum South, the Old Ones and K’n-yans lived in the shadow of a slave revolt.

Victor LaValle’s “Up from Slavery” is a riff on an uncommon theme; a companion piece in many ways to “Shoggoths in Bloom” (2008) by Elizabeth Bear. In both stories, the experience of Black people in America, who deal every day with the legacy of slavery, draws parallels with the plight of the shoggoths.

“You were born to serve,” he said. “It’s genetic.”

Victor LaValle, “Up from Slavery” in Lovecraft Mythos New & Classic Edition 217

In many ways, the slavery of the shoggoths is closer to that of replicants in Blade Runner than to what is described in the first chapter of Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery (1901)—but the overall morality is identical. Whether a sentient being is kidnapped and forced into service, or grown in a lab and made to serve, the end result is the same. Because of this, slavery narratives work for shoggoth characters. No one has written Uncle Tekeli-Li’s Cabin yet, and maybe never will, but there is real empathy for shoggoth characters who run away from slavery, or fight back to avoid being returned to a state of slavery.

That is important because in a lot of ways the protagonist Simon Dust is unlikable. He carries a big chip on his shoulder, and not without reason. The world through his eyes is stacked against him because of his race. It colors his interaction with others, and his response to little things…people not sitting next to him on the train, muted anger at discovering he has a father after 29 years as an orphan who grew up in foster care, the white neighbor’s disbelief when he shows up. It is familiar territory; LaValle explored the Black experience in his novella “The Ballad of Black Tom” (2016) as well, and he is excellent at presenting an individual who has labored all their life under a sword of Damocles, and has to deal with a thousand little microaggressions every day or face the consequences.

It is weird to think that Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) and H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) were contemporaries…but their lives did overlap, even if they did not intersect. LaValle’s use of Washington’s autobiography helps ground Dust’s experience, and that of the shoggoths. Up from slavery shows that being born into slavery may only be the first chapter of someone’s life, even if the experiences and scars of that first chapter stay with them. Likewise, we may say that though Lovecraft may have written slavery into his Mythos, that too is only the first chapter in the saga of the shoggoths, and there is much more that may be written.

“Up from Slavery” by Victor LaValle first appeared in Weird Tales #363 (2019) and was reprinted in Lovecraft Mythos New & Classic Edition (2020), The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2020 (2020), and Nightmare Magazine #100 (Jan 2021). The story won the 2019 Bram Stoker award for Superior Achievement in Long Fiction.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

The Barbarian King 1: Le Spade Spezzate (2019) by Massimo Rosi & Alessio Landi

Oggi Aquilonia has ottenuto la pace a caro prezzo e il Barbaro ormai è un vecchio stanco Re pieno di rimorsi, sognando il clamore della battaglia e l’adrenalina dell’avventura… questi sono tempi in cui il fuoco e l’acciaio potrebbero dettare le nuove leggi dell’uomo.

Today Aquilonia has obtained peace at a great price and the Barbarian is now a tired old King full of remorse, dreaming of the clamor of battle and the adrenaline of adventure … these are times when fire and steel could dictate the new laws of man.
— The Barbarian King 1: Le Spade Spezzate

Dead pulp authors can eternal lie, and in strange aeons many of their works may still be under copyright or have certain characters trademarks depending on the intellectual property laws of any given country. In Europe, the works of Robert E. Howard may be in the public domain, and because of that they are fair game for reprinting and reimagination. This applies both for prose works like the novel The Song of Bêlit (2020) by Rodolfo Martínez, and for comic books and graphic novels like French publisher Glénat’s gorgeous series of new adaptations of Robert E. Howard’s original stories of Conan the Cimmerian.

Comic books and graphic adaptations of the Cimmerian are intriguing because from 1970 to 1993 Conan (and other Robert E. Howard characters) were licensed to Marvel Comics, which provided a distinctive and iconic interpretation of the character—all the more so because the Conan comics were translated and published everywhere from Japan to Turkey. Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian was the most successful sword & sorcery comic of all time, with tie-ins to the 1980s Arnold Schwarzeneggar films, merchandise, and the lore of Robert E. Howard became intimately entangled with the Marvel Universe—including the Serpent-god Set, the Serpent Men, the eldritch entity Shuma-Gorath, the sinking of Atlantis, and by extension the Hyborian backstory of Varnae the Vampire and Kulan Gath, the villain of a popular X-Men event.

Marvel wouldn’t be the first to publish a Conan comic—La Reina de le Costa Negra in Mexico has that honor with its blond barbarian—nor the last, as Dark Horse held the license for many years. Yet Marvel’s Conan remains distinctive in fixing the barbarian’s appearance and some of his mannerisms and the development of his world. Even Dark Horse’s Conan under various artists and writers looked a bit more like the Marvel Conan than it did the original illustrations in Weird Tales, although the Frank Frazetta covers for the Lancer paperbacks in the 60s had their influence on both. Both Marvel and Dark Horse worked to both adapt Robert E. Howard stories and to publish new adventures of the barbarian, woven in and around his published career.

Which makes it really exciting to see how different creative teams handle the character.

The Barbarian King is an Italian-language series of fumetti (comics, equivalent to perfect bound graphic novels in the United States) from publisher Red Dragon and Leviathan Labs. The creative team for the first volume, Le Spade Spezzate (“The Broken Swords”) is Massimo Rosi & Alessio Landi (script); Luca Panciroli, Federico de Luca, & Alessandro Bragalini (pencils, ink, & layout); Marco Antonio Imbrauglio (colorist); Enrico Santodirocco (editing); Mattia Gentili (letterer); and Lucrezia Benvenuti (logo & map design).

In adapting Conan to comics there are traditionally two routes to take: adaptation of the original stories or the creation of new works that are based on past works and/or the same characters—Marvel also had a habit of adapting some non-Conan Robert E. Howard stories, non-Robert E. Howard Conan stories, and even some non-Conan sword & sorcery stories as Conan comics. One reason Marvel could “get away” with this is because they took a very different approach to continuity than Robert E. Howard did.

By the time Marvel got Conan, essentially all of his adventures had been published. These were initially written and published out of chronological order; Robert E. Howard was not setting out to create a single sprawling epic novel like The Lord of the Rings or The Odyssey, the adventures of Conan were written and published out of order, telling different stories from different periods of Conan’s life. This freed Howard from any strict timeline of events, much as the Hyborian Age—as a prehistoric hodgepodge of different places and eras—allowed him the freedom to shift setting and tone. Conan could be in a young thief in police procedural one story (“The God in the Bowl”), then an experience adventurer in a pirate story (“The Treasure of Tranicos”), then a king of a mighty nation overthrowing usurpers in a medieval war (The Hour of the Dragon), and it was up to the fans to piece together a probably outline of Conan’s career…which a couple of early fans did in the 1930s, and which other fans have added to or revisited ever since.

Marvel and to a degree Dark Horse would use these outlines as the skeleton on which to build their own storylines. By starting more or less linearly from the beginning of Conan’s career, they could intersperse Robert E. Howard adaptations with original storylines, follow the trace of Conan’s journeys and develop additional characters and plots—sometimes expanding on what Howard and others had written, sometimes adding new elements, even borrowing from the Cthulhu Mythos or staging crossovers. As a method, this has the advantage in that the Conan comics often had a kind of narrative flow that is usually missing from monthly comics in the United States: you can often literally trace Conan’s travels on the map of the Hyborian Age.

It also allows the development of series characters—sidekicks, reoccurring antagonists, etc.—which are almost entirely absent from Howard’s stories. Robert E. Howard’s Conan is not like Michael Moorcock’s Elric to have a Companion to Champions along for the ride for several subsequent adventures, neither does he have the same lover or enemy. Stygian sorcerer Thoth-Amon as Conan’s arch foe is entirely a creation of later writers; they never even meet in “The Phoenix on the Sword,” or in any other Howard story (although Conan runs afoul of the wizard’s deeds in “The God in the Bowl”). Conan’s habit of killing every wizard he meets and always ending the story with a different girlfriend was one of the major critiques laid against the pulp hero—but in the comics, many more encounters could be planned and carried out, more tension built up, relationships would have more lasting impact because they lasted longer from issue to issue and story to story.

The Howard’s Conan chronology ends, effectively, with The Hour of the Dragon. There he is king, he has survived multiple attempts on his life and rule, and he is going to take as queen the young woman Zenobia. No Howard stories are set after this point, though other authors and comics picked up at this point because it is a natural gray area: anything can happen, because nothing more is written after this point! Conan could even die—an impossibility in earlier tales, because of course he has to survive for the next adventure that is already planned out.

So after the events of The Hour of the Dragon is where The Barbarian King picks up.

King Conan is conspicuously different in this incarnation than the Marvel or Dark Horse versions: heavier, hairier, with grey streaks in his beard and scars on his face. While Conan comics have often been a bit more mature than others on the stands, able to get away with more gore and nudity than most comics, The Barbarian King leans into both more than most, but less for exploitation than because this is a very different, darker, more mature story than more readers will be familiar with and occasionally gritty, multi-media artwork fits the tone.

If acid sword & sorcery is a thing, this might be it.

When Roy Thomas and other writers began to adapt Conan to comics in the 1970s, they did so in part with the guidance of L. Sprague de Camp; de Camp had inserted himself into the editing of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, and had written several Conan pastiches, finished various fragments and synopses, and expanded the outline of Conan’s career. He didn’t do this for free or even directly, and Roy Thomas is frank about their relationship in his great memoir Barbarian Life: A Literary Biography of Conan the Barbarian, but de Camp’s influence was still strong on the series. Dark Horse’s comics, on the other hand, were published after a revolution in Howard studies & publishing had strongly emphasized the publishing of the original, unedited Robert E. Howard texts and the decline of pastiche—so show fairly less influence from de Camp—but they still follow Campian certain trends, like the emphasis on Thoth-Amon as an archvillain.

The Barbarian King ignores de Camp more or less entirely. Rather than setting Thoth-Amon up as the villain, they turn to one of the most iconic Conan stories of all time: Yara from “The Tower of the Elephant,” who has escaped from his prison and is now in command of new and inhuman powers from the Cthulhu Mythos to revenge himself on the barbarian king. This crossover isn’t the first time the Mythos have entered a Conan story (Robert E. Howard himself included explicit refrences to Lovecraft’s Mythos in the first draft of “The Phoenix on the Sword”), but it set the tone for the series as it develops: this is sword & sorcery with a strong blend of horror into the mix.

If The Barbarian King avoids de Camp and Marvel’s legacy for the most part, the influence of the 1982 film Conan the Barbarian is still very obvious, in theme, language, and occasional artistic flourishes that call back to the iconic Atlantean sword. Perhaps some of the costuming and nudity may also be reminiscent of 1980s Italian Sword & Sorcery films that were inspired by Conan, such as the Ator series or Sangraal…or perhaps not; the artists and writers on this project are obviously keen on the genre, but this is a Robert E. Howard project through-and-through.

Il desiderio era fondere il Fantasy Eroico Howardiano con un qualcosa di quasi Lovecraftiano e Barkeriano, cosa che immaginai quando lessi i VERMI DELLA TERRA con Bran Mak Morn la prima volta, nonché flavour che ho ritrovato da poco in Britannia di Milligan e Ryp, ad esempio.

The desire was to blend Howardian Heroic Fantasy with something almost Lovecraftian and Barkerian, which I imagined when I first read WORMS OF THE EARTH with Bran Mak Morn, as well as the flavor I recently found in Milligan and Ryp’s Britannia, for example.
—Massimo Rosi, “Intervista a Massimo Rosi a cura di Italian Sword & Sorcery” in The Barbarian King 1: Le Spade Spezzate

The story is brutal enough in some places to edge toward grimdark, although I don’t think the story is amoral or dystopian in that sense. It is definitely less reminiscent of Howard’s more high-hearted hero and more Conan in his darker and broodier moods, pushed in directions that Howard would never have dared take him in the pulps—and in that respect, I think, the series is highly reminiscent to the new Elric graphic novel adaptions being published by Titan books beginning with The Ruby Throne. Comic storytelling can be grittier and more explicit now than ever before, and in revisiting these characters these writers and artists are pushing the limit a little, going beyond just the words in old paperbacks and pulp magazines…and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Questo è il Re Barbaro! E sono sicuro che lo riconoscerete nell’albo che stringete ta le mani, perché gli autori che lo hanno realizato sono figli di Cimmeria e hanno compreso da temp il segreto dell’acciaio; ad animarli è la passione per le battaglie e per le donne; a contraddistinguerli uno lo spirito libero, sprezzante della censura e del politically correct. Chi sono io per dirlo? Son il cronista delle loro imprese e brindo alla loro gloria. Ma ora, bando alle ciance, è tempo di tornare nel mondo hyboriano.

Buona lettura cimmeri!

This is the Barbarian King! And I’m sure you will recognize it in the book that you hold your hands, because the authors who made it are sons of Cimmeria and have long understood the secret of steel; to animate them and the passion for battles and women; to distinguished by a free spirit, contemptuous of censorship and political correctness. Who am I to say? I am the chronicler of their exploits and I toast to their glory. But now, no more chatter, it’s time to go back to the Hyborian world.

Happy reading Cimmerians!
—Enrico Santodirocco, “Introduzione” in The Barbarian King 1: Le Spade Spezzate

A preview of the first few pages of The Barbarian King can be read for free on Issuu, and there is a video trailer on Facebook. While The Barbarian King is not yet available in English, the series and its art volumes can be purchased from Leviathan Labs, and some translations into other languages are available; O Rei Bárbaro (2019) for example is in Brazilian Portuguese and printed in black and white.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

“Nelle Spire di Medusa” (2019) by Massimo Rosi & Tommaso Campanini

Una chioma simile la faceva sembrare una principessa orientale dipinta da Aubrey Beardsley; quando li sciogleva le arrivavano sotto le ginocchia e brillavano come se possedessero una vitalita propria.

Chiunque avrebbe pensato sen’zaltro a Medusa o a Berenice…
The Miskatonic Diaries: Nelle Spire di Medusa e altre storie 25

Such hair made her look like an oriental princess painted by Aubrey Beardsley; when she melted them she reached under her knees and shone as if they possessed a vitality of her own.

Anyone would have thought of Medusa or Berenice without any doubt …
—”In the Coils of Medusa” (trans.)

There have been many graphic adaptations of H. P. Lovecraft’s work; adaptations of his revision tales are scarce, and it very unusual to run into two that cover the same story. However, there are two adaptations of “Medusa’s Coil” (1939) by Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft“Medusa’s Curse” (1995) by Sakura Mizuki (桜 水樹氏) and “Nelle Spire di Medusa” (2019) by Massimo Rosi (writing) & Tommaso Campanini (art), which is the title story to The Miskatonic Diaries Vol. 1—and it is interesting and informative to compare the two adaptations to each other, as well as to the source material.

001_by_tommydamninks_ddp9i2i-fullview

First story page, sans text, by Tommaso Campanini
DeviantArt

The title, to start with, is interesting: most Italian translations of “Medusa’s Coil” are titled simply “Medusa,” but the earliest translation listed in H. P. Lovcraft A Comprehensive Bibliography is “Nelle spire di Medusa” in a 1976 collection of the same name. The story itself hews closer to Lovecraft’s text than “Medusa’s Curse”: the setting is once more in the United States, in the early 20th century, and the main characters are Denis de Russy, his father, Frank Marsh, Marceline Bedard, and the nameless narrator. The character of Sophonisba, and all the other servants white and black, are absent. This is not to say that the adaption completely ditches the background of the original story:

C’era stata un’epoca in cui le capanne che sorgevano nella parte posteriore della proprieta—su un tratto pianeggiante ora sommerso dal fiume—avevnao ospitato fino a duecento schievi negri; sentirili cantare, ridere e suonare il banjo di notte equivaleva a cogliere il fascino di una civilta e un ordine sociale purtroppo estinti.
—”Nelle Spire di Medusa” (25)

There was a time when the huts that stood at the rear of the property—on a flat stretch now submerged by the river—had hosted up to two hundred black slaves; hearing them sing, laugh and play the banjo at night was tantamount to grasping the charm of an unfortunately extinct civilization and social order.
—”In the Coils of Medusa” (trans.)

Yet here there are some differences from the original story as well. Whether this was an issue with the translation or a deliberate twist by Massimo Rosi isn’t clear, but the character of Denis de Russy is given a little quirk:

Romantic young devil, too—full of high notions—you’d call ’em Victorian, now—no trouble at all to make him let the nigger wenches alone.
—H. P. Lovecraft & Zealia Bishop, “Medusa’s Coil”

Un giovanotto romantico ribelle, pieno di sentimenti che probabilmente lei definirebbe antiquati. E le assicuro che non era facile tenerlo lontano dalle ragazze negre!
—”Nelle Spire di Medusa” (26)

A rebellious romantic young man, full of feelings you would probably call antiquated. And I assure you it wasn’t easy to keep him away from black girls!
—”In the Coils of Medusa” (trans.)

While it is an inversion of Lovecraft’s original text, this formulation adds a bit of foreshadowing to later developments in the story.

As with “Medusa’s Curse,” the graphic adaptation greatly compresses and somewhat linearizes the original narrative; we never see the unnamed narrator arrive, by the time the story starts he is in the house with the elder de Russy, who is telling their story. The contours of the narrative, as with “Medusa’s Curse,” follow the general outlines of a romantic tragedy, right up until the point of the murder.

As in the original story, Marceline hardly gets any speaking lines. In “Nelle spire di Medusa” however, what she says has more portent than the dialogue Lovecraft gave her:

Voi tutti dovreste stare molto attenti se cantassi le vecchie preghiere o cercassi di evocare ciò che dorme a Yuggoth, Zimbabwe e R’lyeh. Ti facevo più prudente.
—”Nelle Spire di Medusa” (26)

You all should be very careful if you chant the old prayers or try to evoke what sleeps in Yuggoth, Zimbabwe and R’lyeh. I used to make you more cautious.
—”In the Coils of Medusa” (trans.)

Marceline Bedard in this story is more fully involved with the Cthulhu Mythos, or at least more openly conversant; while she doesn’t quite take Soniphisba’s place in ranting about “Marse Clooloo” and invoking Shub-Niggurath, there the Mythos element is more prominent, especially with the more compact narrative.

012_by_tommydamninks_ddp9i5w-fullview

Sixteenth story page, sans text, by Tommaso Campanini
DeviantArt

We never see the first two murders, not in the original story and not in the two adaptations. That lends an almost Gothic atmosphere as the elder de Russy has to follow the bloody trail back to Denis, and provides some great visuals…and it’s also where the story transitions from the romantic-tragedy to something weirder, where the hints of the supernatural cult background become shockingly, terribly real.

Which leads to the inevitable reveal…or, perhaps more accurately, the confirmation of what the readers already know, or have guessed. That the painting, as in “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” will be the mirror that reveals the truth about Marceline. In the original narrative, Lovecraft had this final confirmation placed at the very end of the story, and used it as a sort of double revelation as to both the truth of Marceline’s supernatural affiliations and, almost as an afterthought, her “passing” as white. As with “Medusa’s Curse,” Massimo Rosi and Tommaso Campanini move the reveal of the painting forward, so that the subsequent events flow naturally without requiring a flashback or other device to show what the painting looked like before its destruction.

Appena ho visto il quadro ho capito ciò che era e il suo ruolo nei tremendi segreti che si tramandano dai giorni di Cthulhu e dei Grandi Antichi…

Segreti che furono quasi cancellati dalla terra quanto Atlantide sprofondò tra le onde, ma che continuano a serpeggiare in certe tradizioni nascoste, in certi miti e riti esclusivi che si celebrano nel cuore della notte.

Vedi, non era una ciarlatana: sarei stato contento che lo fosse, invece era proprio quello che diceva.

Era l’antica, orribile ombra a cui i filosofi non hanno mai osato dare un nome… l’essere di cui il Necronomicon fa solo cenno, ed e simboleggiato dai colossi dell’isola di pasqua.
—”Nelle Spire di Medusa” (44)

As soon as I saw the painting I understood what it was and the role of him in the terrible secrets that have been handed down from the days of Cthulhu and the Great Ancients …

Secrets that were almost erased from the earth when Atlantis sank in the waves, but which continue to meander in certain hidden traditions, in certain myths and exclusive rituals that are celebrated in the dead of night.

See, she wasn’t a charlatan: I would have been glad she was, but that was just what she said.

She was the ancient, horrible shadow to which philosophers have never dared to give a name … the being of which the Necronomicon only mentions, and is symbolized by the colossi of Easter Island.
—”In the Coils of Medusa” (trans.)

019_by_tommydamninks_ddp9i89-fullview

Nineteenth story page, sans text, by Tommaso Campanini
DeviantArt

“Medusa’s Curse” side-stepped the racial reveal by eliminating the “passing” subplot of the story completely; “Nelle Spire di Medusa” chooses to address it by making it purely visual. Marceline’s race is never mentioned once in the text, and she is continually depicted as being light-skinned and with straight hair. If the reader goes back through the story and examines her features closely, they might find facial features which are ambiguous…but there is no shading that differentiates her from the rest of the characters. She basically does pass as white, even in death, except in the painting itself where she is deliberately shaded darker, with frizzier hair, and in the close-ups more pronounced features…but this aspect is never given any textual relevance.

It is a device that can only rally work in a graphic medium: it puts the onus of the issue of race on the reader as to how to interpret the painting, and thus how to interpret Marceline Bedard. Technically accurate to Lovecraft’s original, yet a new interpretation that presents a degree of ambiguity as to where the true horror in the story lies.

023_by_tommydamninks_ddp9i9c-fullview

Nineteenth story page, sans text, by Tommaso Campanini
DeviantArt

There is a bit of action in the ending, as the elder de Russy’s narrative draws to its close, the supernatural vengeance is culminated, Riverside house meets its “Fall of the House of Usher”-esque demise, and we are left with the disquieting ending where the narrator wonders at what ghostly events had replayed themselves…both “Medusa’s Curse” and “Nelle Spire di Medusa” play out these last few story beats fairly faithfully.

There’s no reason not to. It sounds weird when talking about one of Lovecraft’s least-loved stories, but once an adaptor resolves the question of how to handle the Marceline Bedard’s portrait (and all the issues bound up in that), the remaining narrative structure is cobbled together from bits and pieces that are almost too familiar: young woman marries into a family, big isolated house in the country, a friend arrives to set up the love triangle, a bloody double murder resolves the love triangle, a supernatural vengeance from beyond the grave, the house burns down, it was all a dream…or was it?

These are all very familiar story elements for anyone that’s ready a good chunk of weird fiction or Gothic fiction; they’re not all usually mixed together, but you can see the prototype of this kind of story in, for example, Robert W. Chambers’ “The Mask” from The King in Yellow (1895). The use of the Cthulhu Mythos and the revelation that Marceline Bedard is “passing” as white are novel to the story, but they also really don’t mesh well, and the slightly convoluted narrative structure that Lovecraft used to express the ideas unnecessarily conjoins those two plot threads, which is what makes the revelation of Marceline’s portrait both so memorable and so terrible: the one-drop rule is put on the same tier as some of Lovecraft’s cosmic horrors.

So if you just look at the story without that racial element, the rest of the story structure tends to fall into place fairly easily. Subtraction is the route that “Medusa’s Curse” took“Nelle Spire di Medusa,” however, goes for intimation. The story is technically very faithful to the original text, but it does so in a way that refuses to spell out the racial prejudice that underlay the original story prompt by Zealia Bishop. Whether or not that is enough is a question for the reader…and there are other questions readers might ask themselves:

Would it have been better if Marceline’s skin had not been shaded in? Will every reader of every adaptation of “Medusa’s Coil” go into the story looking for hints to her race? Would they have if they didn’t know that was the revelation all along?

You can read a Mythos story more than once, but you can only really experience that culminating confirmation, the ripping-the-band-aid-off sensation, the first time. Once you know what there is to know about “Medusa’s Coil,” there is little “shock” value left…it is only a question of the skill of the writers and artists that do the adaptation, and how they choose to handle the subject matter.

Massimo Rosi and Tommaso Campanini both do a more than adequate job on all the technical aspects of this adaptation: the narrative is relatively faithful, the pacing is right despite the front-loading of exposition and the relative death of action that are hallmarks of Lovecraft stories, and Rosi makes some clean cuts and welcome additions that tighten the narrative. Campanini’s art, in clean black-and-white except for the shaded segements of the portrait itself, are very pleasing; you can tell he put a lot of thought into the framing and layout, with a real preference for floating panels set above and in front of a larger illustraton which makes the reader sit back a little and take it all in. If I had to voice a criticism, it’s that Marceline’s hairlength is depicted inconsistenantly…it looks very short in many shots before her death…but chalk that one up to artistic license.

Tommaso Campanini uploaded the raw, textless art for “Nelle Spire di Medusa” to their DeviantArt gallery.

The Miskatonic Diaries Vol. 1: Nelle Spire di Medusa et altre storie (2019, Weird Books) is available on Amazon Kindle; the hardcopy graphic anthology does exist, but is a little harder to get in the United States. 


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

La Planète aux Cauchemars (2019) by Mathieu Sapin & Patrick Pion

PlancheS_65094

This is how you open a comic set in space.

When H. P. Lovecraft was writing science fiction in the 1930s, space was the province of rocket-men in slipstream vehicles that sailed from planet to planet, fighting wars between the stars with strange and terrible weapons from their clean, futuristic vessels of tomorrow…or they were cast onto some barbaric planet, to fight for their lives with sword and blaster, a la Robert E. Howard’s Almuric (1939) Lovecraft & Kenneth Sterling’s “In the Walls of Eryx” (1936). It was only the rare pulpster like Clark Ashton Smith in his Martian tales or C. L. Moore in her Northwest Smith stories that showed space as a little…grubby. A bit closer to the Wild West, where fortunes could be won and death was around every corner, where the “heroes” could be rogues and outcasts that shot first without conscience, and “civilization” and the associated laws, norms, and mores could be far away. Out on the borderlands of what is known, where things could get properly horrific.

The grimy, gritty, “lived in” nature of space opera is one of the hallmarks of Alien (1979). Space works very well for Mythos stories, and shown in “Elder Gods” (1997) by Nancy Collins“The Discovery of the Ghooric Zone” (1977) by Richard Lupoff & “In The Yaddith Time” (2007) by Ann K. Schwader, and the “Boojumverse” of Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette: “Boojum” (2008), “Mongoose” (2009), and “The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward” (2012). All of these are original works, pushing the Mythos beyond the present into a hypothetical future where humanity has at least begun to explore and colonize beyond their own planet. Extrapolating out past what Lovecraft & his contemporaries would have known of the universe.

La Planète aux Cauchemars (“The Planet of Nightmares,” 2019) is a bit different: it is a direct adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” only set entirely in space. This is a new dimension for Lovecraft country; the young woman trying to catch a cheap spaceflight to Arkham Beta takes a vessel from Newburyport through a planetary colony called Innsmüt, which has a bad reputation…

Mathieu Sapin wrote the adaptation (from Maxime le Dain’s translation of Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth”); Patrick Pion provided the artwork, Walter Pezzali the vivid colors, Jean-Luc Ruault the letters. As an adaptation, readers are basically familiar with the outlines of the story, and it’s not the plot that draws readers in—we know basically what’s going to happen, there are few surprises here on a strictly narrative level—it’s seeing what Sapin, Pion, & co. do with the idea. What does Innsmüt look like as a spaceport? How does that change the original story? What does that do to how our protagonist Agent Eva Orne interprets what she sees?

The cosmetic influence of the Alien franchise is there. Newburyport isn’t some pristine future. People worry about money, there’s dirt and grime, steam, rising up from vents before neon Japanese signs like a set-piece from Blade Runner, huge cables and tubes dominate the less-traveled sections, reminding us that space stations are, after all, mostly plumbing. Innsmüt itself is a dusty colony on the edge of a salty sea…a rundown future, a bare outpost of humanity (except the Innsmüt folk don’t look very human). Starscapes, stark and beautiful mark the transitions, and the panel layouts skew as Eva Orne drops down through the clouds to Innsmüt, where the Gilman hotel waits…and there are entire pages where not a word is needed to convey the action, because the silence works to the advantage here, letting the readers drink in the details and colors. The far towers of the Ordre de Dagon, the teeth on the dead fish washed up on the shores of the sea…Sapin knows not to drown a panel in paragraphs of descriptive text, that he can let Pion get on with the business of showing rather than telling.

The art for a lot of the bande dessinée is deliberately toned down—realistic in proportions, carefully planned and drawn, but the tones are flat, muted, the shapes largely sharply defined—until Orne dreams. Then the digital coloring makes a splash, the whole tone and lighting shifts to this dark quicksilver-tinted look, and the sharp inking give way to these beautiful painted pages that are gorgeous and hyper-real compared to the waking world. The shift is so abrupt that it makes the return to the waking pages jarring…but at the same time, if the whole book were done in that dream-like style, it would have not had the same impact. Keeping the shift in style to the dream sequence was the right choice. One of many good choices in this book, where Orne borrows more of her characterization from Ellen Ripley of the Alien franchise than from Lovecraft’s nameless protagonist.

The best lettering is what isn’t confined to the word balloons; I suspect this might be more of an issue where the creators were looking ahead toward potential translations, because there is plenty of space in the speech bubbles for the text, but it is mostly cramped and fairly prosaic. There are exceptions where the balloons convey the agitation and emotion of the speaker’s voice, but for the most part the dialogue comes across as very affect-less and probably the text is smaller than it needs to be. Easy to read, but doesn’t convey any emotion outside of one or two scenes, while the text written outside of the word balloons are very active and emotive sound effects—critch critch KLANG! FRRROUSHH!!! BOM BOM BOM—which are fantastic.

La Planète aux Cauchemars (2019, Rue de Sèvres) is a wonderful adaptation that really makes the most of its premise in a relatively brief 60 pages, and there are surprises there. It is only available in French at the moment, but I would be surprised if it didn’t end up translated before too long; unfortunately, not all the great bande dessinée works make it to the United States, but Dark Horse has done translations of Sherlock Holmes and the Necronomicon (2015) and Ablaze is currently translating Glénat’s Conan adaptations as The Cimmerian (2021), so perhaps English-speaking audiences in the US might get a chance to read this, which they should.

Mathieu Sapin and Patrick Pion previously collaborated on Les Rêves dans la Maison de la Sorcière (2016, Rue de Sèvres), an adaptation of Lovecraft’s “Dreams in the Witch-House.”


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

Black Stars Above (2019) by Lonnie Nadler & Jenna Cha

At length we observed a total change in their demeanour. From absolute stupor they appeared to be, all at once, aroused to the highest pitch of excitement, and rushed wildly about, going to and from a certain point on the beach, with the strangest expressions of mingled horror, rage, and intense curiosity depicted on their countenances, and shouting, at the top of their voices, Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!
—Edgar Allan Poe, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838)

Of course common reading is what prepared us both to make the interpretation, though Danforth has hinted at queer notions about unsuspected and forbidden sources to which Poe may have had access when writing his Arthur Gordon Pym a century ago. It will be remembered that in that fantastic tale there is a word of unknown but terrible and prodigious significance connected with the antarctic and screamed eternally by the gigantic, spectrally snowy birds of that malign region’s core. “Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!” That, I may admit, is exactly what we thought we heard conveyed by that sudden sound behind the advancing white mist—that insidious musical piping over a singularly wide range.
—H. P. Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness (1936)

RCO032_1576717890

Black Stars Above was published as a five-issue series from Vault Comics in 2019-2020, and collected in a trade paperback in 2020. The creative team was Lonnie Nadler (writer), Jenna Cha (artist), Brad Simpson (colorist), and Hassan Ostmane-Elhaou (letterer).

They tread rare territory.

Canada, 1887. Eulalie Dubois, a young Métis woman living on the edge of things with her family, trading moccasins and skinning muskrats. Yet at night she reads The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, and hopes one day to escape this life. There’s fascinating intersectionality there—youth and gender and race, all mixed up and coming together. Then it gets weird.

There were Canadian pulp magazines. Not just the Canadian edition of Weird Tales, but home-grown pulps by Canadian artists, writers, and publishers, set in Canada. Where the United States had Westerns, there was also a market for Northerns, pulp stories and novels set in Canada’s Northwest Territories, often investigated by Mounties as in Tales of the North-West Mounted Police (Sep 1933). Like the Westerns, the Northerns were concerned with Canada’s frontier—the extremes of climate and survival that comprised man vs. nature, the stress on human relationships that added frisson to man vs. man, and out at the edge of the known world…sometimes things slip over into man vs. supernature.

There are a few “Weird Westerns” out there. Not so many “Weird Northerns.”

Contrast Jack London’s “To Build A Fire” (1902), which is a straight survival story with shades of psychological horror, and Algernon Blackwood’s “The Wendigo” (1910), where the extremes of the environment is only the beginning of the horror, the prelude to things. There are stranger things in the Northern woods, and plenty of mundane horrors—Nadler and Cha give us a taste of that in the opening chapter. A grandfather whose leg was cut off by Mounties. A mother discriminated against for being First Nations. A daughter sold into marriage, as long as she passes for white…

One of the key aspects of frontier fiction—Western, Northern, Sword & Planet, etc.—is the primary motivation for going into that frontier. Sometimes it is altruistic: Star Trek went on a mission to explore and investigate, to scribble in the borders of the map. Often, it’s meaner: people want to exploit the resources and indigenous peoples, make their fortune, and get out, as in H. P. Lovecraft and Kenneth Sterling’s “In the Walls of Eryx” (1939).

Black Stars Above plays with motivations very strongly and with great intent. Not just Eulalie Dubois in her mission, but everyone else in the story has some reason to be there, some hope or need or order that drove them beyond where they should have gone. Which drives them still, far past where they should have turned back. That is part of what makes the story work, above and beyond the weirdness that is very Lovecraftian but which does not make any attempt to tie in explicitly to the Cthulhu Mythos or any other; despite the reference to “black stars” and the obvious influence of Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow there’s no other direct connection to the Yellow Mythos as with “Slick Black Bones and Soft Black Stars” (2012) by Gemma Files or “While The Black Stars Burn” (2015) by Lucy A. Snyder. It borrows the weird cry from The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, but that is exactly all that it is: the cry of the weird. Out beyond the unknown, signifying something that can’t be deciphered.

There are great and terrible hints, but this is a narrative that does some of its best work by choosing to show rather than tell. Jenna Na’s art works well because when things are real, the panels are sharp and defined, close and intimate; and when she pulls back for the wider shots…when the gutters fade away…the dreamlike quality is stark and beautiful but somehow more epic in perspective.

RCO030_1576717890

Brad Simpson’s colors add depth to the artwork. It would have been easy to leave this black-and-white, let the chiaroscuro hit the reader between the eyes, but the colors make the “real” portion of the story seem more real, and the “unreal” portions more strongly bizarre by contrast. There are a lot more shadows of darkness that can be shown with blues and reds than just white and black.

With the handwritten journal pages and Lovecraftian focus, it’s tempting to compare Black Stars Above with Alan Moore and Jacen Burrow’s Providence (2015-2017), and Lonnie Nadler does acknowledge the influence:

And just in terms of trying to do similar things, Alan Moore’s Providence. It’s definitely an influence on Black Stars Above, but I think it does different things, and more powerful things with responding to Lovecraft, in that it’s a direct response to Lovecraft and only to Lovecraft. (Well, I guess Chambers, too). I love that book. It doesn’t get enough credit in Alan Moore’s body of work. He said what he was trying to do was what Watchmen did with superheroes, Providence was trying to do for Lovecraft. And I think he very much accomplished that. And anyone who is a fan of Lovecraft, I think should read it, because it’s, it’s densely intelligent and rich. And I might like it more than Watchmen. And I say this, like, as someone whose favorite comic is Watchmen. I don’t know why, but people didn’t seem to latch on to that one like they do some of his other work. Maybe because Neonomicon was so off-putting to people.
—Robert Secundus, “Lonnie Nadler Part II: On ‘Black Stars Above,’ Margaret Atwood and why trains are weird” (28 Jul 2020)

Black Stars Above does do different things than Providence. For one, Eulalie Dupois does not follow Robert Black in suicide after the final revelations. Both of them faced the choices of simply going with the flow, to continue to exist without making waves. Neither of them could face that. Simply existing on the edge of things is not winning, even if the heart is beating and blood is pumping. Settling for a life of quite desperation on the end of everything, trapped in a life you don’t want…

For so many characters in such narratives, death is the only escape from the frozen hell.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“This Weave of Witchery” (2019) by W. H. Pugmire & Maryanne K. Snyder

I’ve been working with Maryanne K. Snyder on a book of collaborative work, and she has proved an absolute delight to work with.  I prefer to write alone, collaborating is a lot more work for me; but often writing with someone else can take you to places you would never otherwise discover writing on your own. 
—W. H. Pugmire, “New Story Sale” (6 Oct 2010)

On the surface, “This Weave of Witchery” feels almost unfinished. Bits of pieces of Sesqua Valley and Lovecraft Country, dovetailed together into a kind of prose poem, capturing echoes of old moods: “The Dunwich Horror” and “The Silver Key,” “Born in Strange Shadow” and “Some Distant Baying Sound.” Imagine treading old, familiar territory, only to look back and suddenly see it from an angle you’ve never seen it before. Familiar, yet strange. That’s the prevailing attitude of “This Weave of Witchery.”

The plot feels like a deliberate reworking of “The Silver Key,” but from a different angle. Many writers have worked around the theme of losing the ability to dream—either literally, or in the sense of losing some creative urge or muse. Lord Dunsany wrote a bit about that in the end of “Idle Days on the Yann”:

Long we regarded one another, knowing that we should meet no more, for my fancy is weakening as the years slip by, and I go ever more seldom into the Lands of Dream. Then we clasped hands, uncouthly on his part, for it is not the method of greeting in his country, and he commended my soul to the care of his own gods, to his little lesser gods, the humble ones, to the gods that bless Belzoond.

Dunsany had followed this up in “The Shop In Go-By Street,” where the protagonist seeks once more to return to the Lands of Dream, only to find:

I would have waited three more days, but on the third day I had gone in my loneliness to see the very spot where first I met Bird of the River at her anchorage with her bearded captain sitting on the deck. And as I looked at the black mud of the harbour and pictured in my mind that band of sailors whom I had not seen for two years, I saw an old hulk peeping from the mud. The lapse of centuries seemed partly to have rotted and partly to have buried in the mud all but the prow of the boat and on the prow I faintly saw a name. I read it slowly— it was Bird of the River. And then I knew that, while in Ireland and London two years had barely passed over my head, ages had gone over the region of Yann and wrecked and rotted that once familiar ship, and buried years ago the bones of the youngest of my friends, who so often sang to me of Durl and Duz or told the dragon-legends of Belzoond.

There is something of this in Lovecraft’s “The Silver Key,” and perhaps in Pugmire & Snyder’s story something of Arthur Machen’s The Hill of Dreams:

He strove to rise from his chair, to cry out, but he could not. Deep, deep the darkness closed upon him, and the storm sounded far away. The Roman fort surged up, terrific, and he saw the writhing boughs in a ring, and behind them a glow and heat of fire. There were hideous shapes that swarmed in the thicket of the oaks; they called and beckoned to him, and rose into the air, into the flame that was smitten from heaven about the walls. And amongst them was the form of the beloved, but jets of flame issued from her breasts, and beside her was a horrible old woman, naked; and they, too, summoned him to mount the hill.

He heard Dr. Burrows whispering of the strange things that had been found in old Mrs. Gibbon’s cottage, obscene figures, and unknown contrivances. She was a witch, he said, and the mistress of witches.

He fought against the nightmare, against the illusion that bewildered him. All his life, he thought, had been an evil dream, and for the common world he had fashioned an unreal red garment, that burned in his eyes. Truth and the dream were so mingled that now he could not divide one from the other. He had let Annie drink his soul beneath the hill, on the night when the moonfire shone, but he had not surely seen her exalted in the flame, the Queen of the Sabbath. Dimly he remembered Dr. Burrows coming to see him in London, but had he not imagined all the rest?

Compare with:

It came as a wall of liquid blackness, an inky abyss in which he felt he would be drowned. There was something almost beguiling in its churning sentience, and he felt the need to speak to it, to name himself. Parting lips, he moaned his name as the blackness spilled into his mouth and shook him awake. […] Early sunset washed the sky over Sesqua Valley with muted color, and Thorley stood for a little while to appreciate the orange and pink effects that tainted the white stone of the titanic twin-peaked mountain. He had never thought to see that mountain again, and did not remember its effect on him, how it captivated one part of his mind and troubled another. He gazed at it until he felt himself grow faint, and then he remembered his mother’s words of caution, “It’s not wise to stare at Mount Selta for too long a time. Turn your eyes away.”
—W. H. Pugmire & Maryanne K. Synder, “This Weave of Witchery” in An Imp of Aether 211

These are old themes, paths well-trod, familiar territory for weird fiction aficionados. Donald Wandrei touched on such confusions of dreams and reality in the obscure Mythos story “The Lady in Gray”; and maybe there’s something of that in this weave of witchery as well.

If Pugmire & Snyder had done no more than write a prose poem in that tradition, one more bridge between the waking world and the Dreamlands, “The Weave of Witchery” would be an unremarkable yet solid entry. Yet they did manage to find a new perspective, one which Dunsany, Machen, Lovecraft, & Wandrei had not played with. Think back to “The Silver Key,” and Randolph Carter’s lament of what he had lost—and think of how it would change the story if he was wrong.

“This Weave of Witchery” is the fourth published collaboration between W. H. Pugmire & Maryanne K. Snyder, the others being “The House of Idiot Children” (2008), “The Hidden Realm” (2011), and “The Seventh Eikon” (2012). “This Weave of Witchery” was first published in An Imp of Aether (2019).


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“Nora” (2019) by Angela Oddling

I asked all our contributors to choose a god from Lovecraft’s pantheon and tell a story about them. It could be a horror story, sure. But it could also be sci-fi, fantasy, action, comedy or anything in between, as long as it focused on the gods of Lovecraft…or in some instances a new Lovecraftian god they created.
—Russel Nohelty, Cthulhu Is Hard To Spell

There is no wrong age to discover Lovecraft.

Anecdotally, a lot of fans discover Lovecraft when relatively young; twelve or thirteen is a common age given. Old enough for a childhood love of monsters to graduate toward some of the more literary horrors, where happy endings need no longer be expected as default. Everyone has their first exposure somehow: a comic book, a tatty paperback, the helpful librarian, a passing reference in a cartoon that leads to clicking through a link on a wiki article and then…

In a lot of ways, Lovecraft’s body of work is almost all-ages. There’s no explicit sex, and not much violence and gore. There is the very occasional N-word, but the same could be said of Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn. The four-letter word scale of expletives tops out at “damn” and “hell.” Lovecraft didn’t need to say “fuck” to communicate his horrors. You don’t need to be nasty or profane to be Lovecraftian; though some authors have found it effective.

You can see this generally in the number of Mythos works which are produced for all different ages. There are hardcore adult pornographic Mythos works and there is C is for Cthulhu. While they share an inspiration, the age range of the audiences they’re going for are completely different. Other products are more ambiguous. They try to hit the sweet spot of being for both young adults and older adults; scary stories that can be read in the dark and enjoyed by anyone.

Which is the basic mentality behind the comics anthology Cthulhu Is Hard To Spell (2019), and its first entry “Nora” by Angela Oddling. Hitting that sweet spot between growing up and grown up. The book contains works suitable for…not all ages, but most ages. No nudity or nipples, no gore and not much blood, but not shying away from the suggestion of sex, violence, or blood. Art and storytelling that varies between the comedic to the serious and back again. It’s a good mix.

“Nora” by Angela Oddling is a story that might strike readers initially as aimed at the teenager or adolescent end of the spectrum. The art is polished, but “cartoony” rather than realistic; the character has big eyes and big fangs and only four digits on each hand—the same coding for the characters on The Simpsons or Mickey Mouse. It’s easy to mistake that kind of visual rhetoric as code that something is “for kids” rather than “for adults”—but as Matt Groening’s Life in Hell and Family Guy should show, that kind of coding can be deceiving. Disney’s Mickey is an anthropomorphic mouse, but so are the Jewish characters in Art Spiegelman’s Maus. It’s what the creator does with those characters that tells you what audience they’re aiming for…

Nora

Oddling hits the “sweet spot” for both young adults and older adults. Her story has overtones of Lovecraft’s “The Outsider” to it, and it works for much the same reason. Human beings are social animals. Conscious of their need to belong. To find their tribe. It’s not a deep or complex story, but at 8 pages long it is just as long as it needs to be to make its point, without feeling rushed or stretched out. There’s a Sarah’s Scribbles-esque quality in how it addresses an anxiety that is at once shared by someone growing up, and someone that is already considered a grown up in society.

In this sense, the “simplified” art works well to not limit or define the audience; we all can see ourselves as monsters, and see ourselves in monsters. Oddling’s palette is deliberately restrained: the white and blue and black make the pale yellow “pop” with emphasis on the page, and highlight the transitions from cold/alone to warm/together…and finally the very last panel, with its balance of colors, to show the strange acceptance. Not a complicated visual language, but again, it doesn’t have to be: a simple idea well-executed can be tremendously effective in communicating ideas visually, to complement the text of the story.

“Nora” was created by Angela Oddling and published in Cthulhu Is Hard to Spell (2019, Wannabee Press), edited by Russell Nohelty. The book was originally launched on Kickstarter, though you can still buy hardcopies on etsy and digital editions are available on Kindle/Comixology.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

The Woman of Arkham Advertiser (A・Aの女): Article 01: In The Vault (2019) by Takata Yuki (高田 悠希)

It was the publicity attending this investigation which set reporters on the track of the Whateleys, and caused the Boston Globe and Arkham Advertiser to print flamboyant Sunday stories of young Wilbur’s precociousness, Old Whateley’s black magic, the shelves of strange books, the sealed second story of the ancient farmhouse, and the weirdness of the whole region and its hill noises.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Dunwich Horror”

The public knows of the Miskatonic Expedition through our frequent wireless reports to the Arkham Advertiser and Associated Press, and through the later articles of Pabodie and myself.
—H. P. Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness

As was only natural under the circumstances, this piquant debating finally got into print in the form of letters to the Arkham Advertiser; some of which were copied in the press of those Vermont regions whence the flood-stories came.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Whisperer in Darkness”

Lovecraftian manga have been undergoing a recent renaissance in Japan, with the critically acclaimed reception of Tanabe Gou’s adaptations of At the Mountains of Madness, “The Hound,” “The Colour Out of Space,” and most recently “The Call of Cthulhu,” all of which have been or are being translated and published in foreign language editions: Spanish, Italian, French, German, English, etc. Other popular adaptations include the Cthulhu no Yobi Koe series by Chuuou Higashiguchi (中央東口), and related manga include the Minase Yomu and the Really Scary Cthulhu Mythology (水瀬陽夢と本当はこわいクトゥルフ神話) series by Yoshihara Masahiko (吉原雅彦), and the many Zone of Cthulhu manga released by the SAN-EI Corporation (三栄)—which includes The Woman of Arkham Advertiser (A・Aの女) series by Takata Yuki (高田 悠希).

The conceit of the series is simple: Alice Allan is a cub reporter for the Arkham Advertiser, the local newspaper that appears in several of Lovecraft’s stories, and her “cases” cover a number of Lovecraft’s stories, both Mythos and non-Mythos, as set around Arkham. The result is a series of adaptations with a twist: we get to see the stories from a new perspective, that of a young newspaperwoman investigating the odd happenings. The series is categorized as a seinen (青年漫画), aimed at young men (18-30s), being more realistic and less action-packed than manga like One Piece or Dragon Ball, but readers of all genders and ages can appreciate it.

Chibi
Chibi version of Billy, a supporting character.

The adaptation is played seriously, but with more than a few laughs thrown in, the figures sometimes reduced to small chibi-style exaggerated figures to emphasize the one-off joke, familiar from manga like Shirow Masamune’s original Ghost in the Shell. The translation by Amimaru Translation and Localization Services Ltd. is mostly solid, although every now and again a joke may fail to land due to some cultural crossing of wires.

The small details and stark contrasts in the illustrations really shine though. Takata Yuki has worked hard to express the America of the 1920s, full of newsboys and the transition from the small industrial city of Arkham to out-of-the-way rural community of Peck Valley is like traveling back in time. Done in simple black-and-white, the bright outside scenes are given white backgrounds, while the moment the intrepid reporters step into the vault, the page is dominated by huge splashes of stark black, a very effective presentation that accentuates the emotional response of Alice Allan and her associate Billy.

Alice herself is the major focus and driver of the plot. She desires to prove herself as a reporter, and this is her first real opportunity to do so, by looking into the morbid details around the mysterious death and quick burial. While her enthusiasm is sometimes played for laughs, especially when contrasted against her long-suffering friend Billy, it is very effective at cutting right to the heart of Lovecraft’s story.

The story is not exactly a straight adaptation; Takata Yuki wisely doesn’t attempt to mimic the style of Lovecraft’s prose, and takes a few liberties with the ending, hinting at this being a small piece of a bigger picture that the reporters know they can’t quite see yet. Which works very well; Alice Allan is an engaging, energetic, enthusiastic protagonist, and starting slow with one of Lovecraft’s more low-key stories as their first “case” was a wise decision on the part of Takata Yuki.

The Woman of the Arkham Advertiser is available in Japanese on Kindle, and in English on Manga Planet subscription service.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

Kthulhu Reich (2019) by Asamatsu Ken (朝松健)

Yoth Tlaggon
A mysterious God. The first time the name was written was in a letter form H. P. Lovecraft to C. A. Smith, a close friend and associate of the American horror writer, dated April 4th, 1932. However, Father Lucio Damiani published a monograph on Ancient History entitled Visions of Kusha in which he writes that “In the days when Atlantis was still called Kusha, and Lemuria known as Shalarali, Yoth Tlaggon was named one of the Nine Princes of Hell.” Damiani could have had no knowledge of the Lovecraft letter, for it was not publsihed until 1970.
—Asamatsu Ken, Kthulhu Reich 228

Yoth-Tlaggon—at the Crimson Spring.
Hour of the Amorphous Reflection.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 4 Apr 1932,
Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 360

Kthulhu Reich (2019) by Asamatsu Ken (朝松健) is a novel from Kurodahan Press. It is comprised of seven interrelated short stories published between 1994 and 1999, and is presented here in English by translator Jim Rion. Each of the stories involves Nazi Germany, and involves the Cthulhu Mythos in some way, and though they do not form a single consistent narrative, together form a kind of occult history of World War II and its legacy.

Lovecraft died in 1937; he lived to see the rise of Mussolini and the fascists in Italy and Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party to power in Germany, and the opening shots of what would become World War II in the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. Though he did not know it, Lovecraft also became aware of the opening stages of the Holocaust as Hitler’s government instituted laws discriminating against Jews in Germany, a practice which the antisemitic Lovecraft had mixed feelings with—approving as he did of Nazi Germany’s ultranationalism, but not their unscientific racial discrimination. He never lived to see how wrong he was regarding Hitler and Mussolini, never saw the true horrors of the Holocaust.

World War II has become fertile ground writers of weird and fantasy fiction; the Nazi interest with the occult and esoteric, based partially on truth, as detailed in books like Nicholas Goodrick Clarke’s The Occult Roots of Nazism (1993) and Kenneth Hite’s The Nazi Occult (2013). Works like Le Matin des magiciens (1960) popularized the idea of the Nazi occult for a new generation, and have led to works like the Indiana Jones adventures Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), the Hellboy comic books and film, and innumerable other appearances.

“Hitler’s a nut on the subject. He’s crazy. He’s obsessed with the occult.”
—Musgrove, Raiders of the Lost Ark

This has been true for the Cthulhu Mythos as well. Herbert West famously found employment in Nazi Germany in Brian McNaughton’s “Herbert West—Reincarnated Part II: The Horror in the Holy Land”; Charles Stross’ The Atrocity Archives (2004) deals with the occult fallout of the Nazi’s Mythos-delvings; Mike Mignola and Jim Robinson have Hellboy team up with Starman and Batman to face Neo-Nazis (and classical Nazis!) summoning Lovecraftian horrors in Batman/Hellboy/Starman (1999).

LovecraftKnew
Art by Mike Mignola, script by Jim Robinson, Batman/Hellboy/Starman #2 (1999)

The Mythos occult WWII angle had become essentially a Mythos subgenre with the release of the roleplaying games World War Cthulhu (2013, Cubicle 7) and Achtung! Cthulhu (2013, Modiphius), which in turn have led to new anthologies like World War Cthulhu (2014, Dark Regions), and even video games.

Which is a long way to say that Asamatsu Ken was a bit ahead of the curve when he first published these stories in Japan in 1994-1999. Some of the stories are eerily prescient as far as capturing the essential dynamic of the post-2000 Mythos WWII craze. Magic is real, the Nazis—deluded and arrogant as they might be, playing with forces they don’t understand—are often portrayed as a genuine occult threat to the entire world. The action is often pulpy, but Asamatsu Ken shows real research in trying to make sure the names, dates, and equipment are correct. The individual stories are like separate, individual episodes taken from a long, drawn-out conflict, but they are constructed with all the care of a good hoax. Mythos references are typically slid in alongside real occult names and texts, the Nazi’s actual activities provide the context for the stories.

In the first place, it is important that we realize that the term “racist,” as used today, has strong post-WWII connotations. We have become much more liberal and open-minded following the dreadful experiences and revelations of the second World War, and anyone espousing extreme anti-ethnic views today must surely be a reactionary, a redneck, or a nut. “Racism” has become extremely unpopular, and we associate the term with the horrors of Auschwitz and Buchenwald.
—Dirk W. Mosig, “Was Lovecraft a Racist?” in Crypt of Cthulhu #98 (1998) 4

One of the shadows looming over Kthulhu Reich (or any other Mythos WWII novel or story) is how it addresses the nature of racism and antisemitism in general, and the Holocaust in particular. No nation in the conflict was free from prejudice and discrimination, but the attempts at genocide which were such a hallmark of WW II present a subject that writers have to decide how to deal with. It is perhaps appropriate that Asamatsu Ken chooses to begin the collection with “The Corporal’s Self-Portrait”—a story which would otherwise seem a bit out-of-place in the anthology, dealing as it does with a contemporary postwar Japan and touching on the attitudes towards racism and how they’ve changed.

“I can take the Koreans and the Chinese. They’re like us, at least. But the day all these Thais and Vietnamese, Cambodians and Filipinios, and Indians and Iranians and Iraqis shoed up, this place became unbearable.”

“Hey, come on… That’s really racist!” I chided, unable to must any real force.

Hirata ignored me.

“They come here to Japan and take the jobs honest students used to be able to count on. Then they send our valuable yen back to their own countries. And then there’s our women! They seduce our women and sully the pure blood of Yamato!”

“Cut it out, you’re talking crazy!”

—Asamatsu Ken, Kthulhu Reich 7

Hirata doesn’t stop. The narrator at least protests, though his words fall on deaf ears. The incident gains sinister connotations as the story unfolds, much like the film Max (2002), yet the reader is shown this angry young man, whose life parallels that of the eponymous Boys from Brazil, and he can muster only ineffective rebukes to his obvious and appallingly vocal prejudice. Asamatsu Ken does not turn a blind eye to the horrors that the Nazis perpetrated. Nor to the real threat that racism and prejudice still form.

Jim Rion deserves accolades here for an excellent translation on what must have been a difficult job—combining as it does real historical elements, occult jargon, Japanese cultural references, the Cthulhu Mythos, the unusual episode “April 20th, 1889” that consists of a series of found documents, and some really well-done action scenes in “The Mask of Yoth Tlaggon.”


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).