Ghor, Kin-Slayer was conceived in the late 1970s by Johnathan Bacon, editor of Fantasy Crossroads, a popular fanzine during the Robert E. Howard “boom” of that period. At the time Bacon had been presented with an unfinished story by Robert E. Howard, “Genseric’s Son”, which he quickly recognised as having strong possibilities if completed not by one, but a whole series of authors.
Beginning with Fantasy Crossroads in March 1977 Bacon lined up top authors in the fantasy field to each contribute a chapter until the novel would be completed some 17 installments later. Each issue of Fantasy Crossroads would include two or three chapters until the saga was finished. Unfortunately, thouh, after on 12 chapters saw print with the January 1979 issue, Fantasy Crossroads was no more, and for all intents and purposes, Ghor, Kin-Slayer was lost forever.
—Publisher’s Note, Ghor, Kin-Slayer (1997), 176
“Doom of the Thrice-Cursed” is the sixteenth and penultimate chapter in the saga of Ghor, the round-robin which began with an incomplete story by Robert E. Howard and in time included some of the most prominent names in fantasy and horror—including Karl Edward Wagner, Michael Moorcock, Manly Wade Wellman, Brian Lumley, Frank Belknap Long, Ramsey Campbell, and many others. The only black author was Charles R. Saunders. The only woman was Marion Zimmer Bradley.
Marion Zimmer Bradley had been involved with science fiction & fantasy fandom since the mid-late 1940s, claimed to have met her first husband through the letters pages of Planet Stories, and by the mid-1950s was a published author in her own right, and found particular success in her Darkover series, a science-fantasy sword & sorcery world that takes its inspiration, and some of its names, from Robert W. Chamber’s The King in Yellow (1895), as well as from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1955). She was also published in Amra, one of the premier Robert E. Howard ‘zines of the 1960s, and became one of the most outspoken and well-known women in science fiction and fantasy, and much of her most popular and celebrated work involved female protagonists and a focus on their points of view and concerns—a rarity in male-dominated fantasy and sword & sorcery at the time. After Ghor, Kin-Slayer, she would go on to edit the long-running Sword and Sorceress anthology series, and find international acclaim with The Mists of Avalon (1983).
The story up until the point that Bradley received it was, like many round-robins, not well-balanced in terms of plot and pacing. Ghor had begun as a James Allison tale; Howard had written several tales with Allison, most notably “The Valley of the Worm” (Weird Tales Feb 1934) and “The Garden of Fear” (Marvel Tales Jul-Aug 1934). In each of these stories, the crippled Allison in the present day would cast back his mind into previous, more heroic incarnations, to relive the glories of past lives and loves. This literary device allowed Howard to explore different fantasy historical periods and settings—in this case, Howard set the stage of Ghor’s adventures in Vanaheim and Asgard, and so implicitly in the Hyborian Age, making Ghor a contemporary (of sorts) with Conan the Cimmerian.
Whatever initial plot Howard had in mind and never finished, in the hands of other fantasy writers, the Ghor saga got properly weird; involving as it does the Cthulhu Mythos, a prophecy, losing a limb and gaining a magical prosthetic (a la Lludd of the Silver Hand), becoming a werewolf, and gaining an affinity with the Hounds of Tindalos. Old pulpster H. Warner Munn left off the previous chapter with Ghor leaving the Caves of Stygia…
Out of the caves of Stygia, then, with the great river Styx bursting forth at our feet and across the desert; Shanara, still unconscious against my breast, and at my feels the dread Hounds, invisible, only a rustling and a panting and a fleeting brush against my thigh. On, Northward through the night, drawn by the northern stars that flickered cold above us; but even the giant strength that I, James Allison, wielded in those nigh-forgotten days when I was Ghor, kin-slayer and great were-wolf, was waning.
—Marion Zimmer Bradley, Ghor, Kin-Slayer (1997), 152
Despite this being the penultimate chapter, it is really in many ways the wrap-up of the whole preceding saga; Richard Lupoff, who got chapter 17, offers something more along the lines of a postscript or epilogue. So Bradley’s 11-page chapter is, in essence, a short story in itself trying to bring about a satisfying conclusion to whatever threads are left—principally, the three curses Ghor had accumulated—starting with:
[…] Shanara had probably been less than faithful wife to me. Well, I thought, looking at her haggard, ravaged features, for that too she had paid. And indeed in such a world as this, a woman had no choice but to obey whoever held her body; she had become my bride by no less forceful process, and that we had come to love one another was only a single blessing showered on me amid many curses. No; I would not ask Shanara what price she had had to pay for surviving the long ordeals of capture. (ibid. 153)
If the tone seems reminiscent of “The Vale of Lost Women”(1967) by Robert E. Howard, it should be remembered that this bit of casual sexism is being filtered through a female fantasy writer, and Bradley is neither entirely unsympathetic to Shanara nor does she ignore the physical and psychological impact of the implied rape. Which includes one of the oldest tropes of body horror, well-familiar to Mythos fans:
For her body was swelling, ripening…and I knew that look. Even her sullenness and the persistent thirst was part of that, and it was not hunger alone set her to seeking the bitter desert herbs as we travelled. Within her breeding body the curse of Gaea was ripening. (ibid. 154)
There is a question of who is the father; and Ghor entertains that it might be his, the sorcerer who kidnapped her, or even “some nameless thing somewhere in the realms of sorcery and evil” (ibid). Ironically, Ghor has no real issues if the child isn’t his; the wild-man’s own family situation being what it was (exposed at birth as an act of infanticide, raised by wolves, killing his own birth-family), he is rather progressive in his determination to adopt Shanara’s kid.
The story skips forward to the birth, and then to the final fulfillment of the curse. Ghor’s story comes full-circle.
In one sense, Bradley had her hands tied: fifteen chapters of increasingly odd sword & sorcery, bringing in everything from the Moorcockian Gods of Law and Chaos to the Cthulhu Mythos—and there were prophecies and curses to wrap up, physical distances to travel to get Ghor back from Stygia to Nemedia and finally in the icy forests where the story started under Robert E. Howard. In another sense, by putting the focus on Shanara and the goddesses who cursed Ghor, by addressing the sexism and realities of sex and family in the Hyborian Age, she makes the chapter her own.
It’s not a bad penultimate chapter by any means. Not something Robert E. Howard was likely to write, but then nothing that any of the other authors had contributed attempted to really pastiche Howard; they all knew better than to try and ape his prose, and they all brought their own ideas to the table while trying to keep the story moving. For fans in 1997 when this was published for the first time, they could likely appreciate that.
Today, readings of Bradley’s fiction tend to be colored by other factors in her life.
Walter Breen was prominent in Darkover fandom. Breen had been convicted of child molestation in 1954 and received a suspended sentence; his continued pederastic activities resulted in his banning from the 1963 Second Sci-Fi Pacificon. This caused an uproar in fandom, with Marion Zimmer Bradley vocal in her defense of Breen, though the actual cause of Breen’s banning was not universally known, and was called the “Boondoggle.” Breen and Bradley would marry in 1964.
In a 1998 deposition, Bradley said she was aware of Breen’s pedophilia and child molestation. They would separate in 1979, although Breen would continue to live on the same street and in Bradley’s employ for the next decade; they would get divorced in 1990. In 1991 he would be sentenced for child molestation, and die in prison in 1994. In 2014, her daughter Moira Greyland came forward to admit that Marion Zimmer Bradley herself had molested children, including her own children. Links to further accounts, and the story as it unfolded, can be read here.
The personal accounts of Marion Zimmer Bradley both as a serial child sex abuser, and as someone that facilitated Breen’s sexual molestation of children, cast a shadow on her fiction. Readers now look for any evidence of predilections which were perhaps not obvious to fans previously—and there are definitely scenes and relationships in Bradley’s work which, in light of these allegations, appear much more skeevy than perhaps they once were.
How do we read “Doom of the Thrice-Cursed,” through this lens? There are, fortunately, no incidents of child sexuality in this story. But the revelation of Bradley’s history of sexual abuse, and her marriage to Breen—how does that reflect on Ghor’s oddly accepting attitudes with regard to Shanara’s pregnancy? Is he actually being weirdly progressive in not caring if the child is his, and supportive of Shanara despite the social ramifications of rape in Hyborian culture—is it at all reflective of Breen and Bradley explicitly condoning and supporting each other in their own extramarital sexual relationships?
There are no good answers for these questions. Many folks, reading this story, would be glad not to have been aware of it at all. In 1967, Roland Barthes published the essay “La mort de l’auteur,” which would have strong and wide-ranging impact on literary criticism. With the death of the author, authorial intent needs no longer be a primary concern of literary criticism; the text can be read and interpreted on its own, apart from the facts of the author’s own life.
A straight reading of the text, with no knowledge of the author, would almost certainly not raise any associations with pedophilia in the reader’s mind. If you take Bradley out of the equation, then “Doom of the Thrice-Cursed” becomes little more than a chapter in a long but not-terribly-great Robert E. Howard fanfiction. The comments on sexism and the Hyborian Age remain, and the story can be ready, studied, critiqued, and enjoyed.
Yet…it is important that Marion Zimmer Bradley was the author, the only female author, in this round-robin. That she choose to address sexism in the Hyborian Age, or at least Ghor’s understanding of it, becomes important—because her male contemporaries in Sword & Sorcery largely didn’t. If you as a reader or critic consider sexism and gender disparity in the field of fantasy fiction important at all, then her presence, as more than mere tokenism, has to count for something.
Marion Zimmer Bradley inspired many. She injured many too.
Marion Zimmer Bradley also wrote a novel with Mythos elements, Witch Hill (1990).
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).