Saturday, October 9, 2010

Junk Creatures Out of Rags and Bones (Commando and Conan)

When the day of judgment gets off its ass and comes around, having been postponing itself now for 1943 years longer than The Last Dangerous Visions, Arnold Schwarzenegger will find himself being judged not for his mismanagement of the California state budget, but rather for his role in neutering Conan the Barbarian from his classic original form into a generic 80s wisecracking action hero.

In truth, Conan is the masterwork of Robert E. Howard, a classic tragic genius who fails to have the outsized legacy of his close friend HP Lovecraft for what is essentially no reason whatsoever. Both were part of the classic generation of Weird Tales, a magazine whose place in the history of American letters is strangely marginal given that in its 29 year run the magazine published Lovecraft, Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury, Fritz Leiber, Ted Sturgeon, and, perhaps most bizarrely, the first published work of Tennessee Williams. Of this block it is Lovecraft, Howard, and to a lesser extent Clark Ashton Smith who are most associated with the magazine, likely due to their opting to die instead of move on to other publication venues.

It is clear from the first page of "The Phoenix and the Sword," Howard's first Conan story, that Howard was, to be blunt, a wildly better writer than Lovecraft. Consider:

"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."
With the possible exception of Nyarlathotep, by miles Lovecraft's best piece of prose, the fact of the matter is that Lovecraft does not come close to the sort of sweeping and poetic epicness of this paragraph. "Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery" alone is worth the price of admission.

(For my part, my main Lovecraft and Conan periods came in late 2004, early 2005, towards the end of my time in Chicago. This period marked a small explosion of passion for the vintage pulp genres, fed in no small part by my writing Pulp Decameron at the time. In hindsight, the period is more remembered as the lingering tail end of my relationship of the time. Foreshadowing existed in the form of the sheer and bitter acrimony her parents felt towards me. While large parts of my memory, in hindsight, reveal flaws in my actions I was unaware of at the time, this period is unusual in that, in hindsight, her parents were actually crueler, more selfish, and more hateful than I gave them credit for. My capacity for grudges is often more limited than I let on, but they manage the remarkable feat of, even now, over five years since I last had anything to do with them, being among the most miserable and horrible people I have ever interacted with. I actually have more animosity towards them than I do towards my ex-wife. And this animosity stems entirely from the sheer hatred they directed towards me in this period. In hindsight, the staggering black hole of anger they positioned in my life forms a better explanation for my fondness for stories about unspeakable cosmic evil than anything else.)

The Conan stories are not great literature. In this regard it is arguable that they differ from Lovecraft's best work. Their essential problem is that they aspire to nothing more than the delivery of thrills. Their appeal comes from the fact that they offered new thrills, ushering in the Swords and Sorcery subgenre of fantasy that later found its peak expression in nothing whatsoever, kicking about the outer ghettos of the scifi-fantasy-horror genre that has slowly metastasized from any sort of coherent form (which it did essentially have when Howard and Lovecraft were writing, the three of them being the major subgenres of pulp adventure stories. These pulps, of which Weird Tales is one of the most notable, formed a sort of genre Pangaea, which saw its end as both mystery and westerns split off to become their own continents. The remainder has organized itself into a set of continents, but like Europe, Asia, and Africa, the exact mechanics of splitting them up is, in places, a wee bit tricky). Swords and Sorcery is a sort of great white hope in this morass, the massive influential genre that never was, in no small part because Tolkien published The Hobbit the year after Robert E. Howard killed himself, establishing a different default fantasy literature.

Thus Howard's creation, better known for its potential than for its execution, enjoyed no opportunity to become the norm. A world famous wrong turn, a historic dead end, Conan the Barbarian is, in essence, a clear demonstration of how successful one can be while still managing utter failure.

As a video game, 1991's Conan: The Mysteries of Time, more often simply called Conan, is terrible. It's actually a reskinning of another game, Myth: History in the Making, an unremarkable game at best. The controls are awkward, the graphics are awful, and the game feels like it was slapped together in a short time even for its ignoble creators, System 3, and its equally ignoble distributors, Mindscape, both of which were (and are) known for their deep and enduring commitment to shovelware.

As a game, then, it has no purpose. It's skippable. It adds nothing to the Nintendo Project.

Here is a seemingly unrelated question. What is the minimum size for a pantheon? The Christian/Muslim answer that dominates Western culture, one, seems unsatisfying, dependent as it is on the exclusion of vast swaths of the world from any sort of specialized oversight. Monotheism deprives one of worship through the specific - no means of prayer or praise holds special resonance for omnipotence. The Jewish approach offers a somewhat more promising angle by condensing the monotheistic being's sphere of concern to one specific people. The result, however, is the abandonment of the universality of monotheism. What does Judaism prescribe for the non-Jew? The question is tricky - the answer is clearly not conversion, given Judaism's explicit cautioning against that approach. No - let's be more clear on our question. How many deities are necessary to create a pantheon with specific coverage of all things? The question is in essence one of language - how many characters are needed to create an alphabet that suitably forms a language that can express all things?

Put another way, how many Nintendo games are needed? Conan is not. (How many works of literature are needed? Conan is - the clear establishment of a genre takes place in it. But how much art is needed to span the breadth of expression?) Commando, on the other hand, poses a trickier issue. The game combines the linear progression through a 2-D space filled with masses of shootable enemies of a Gradius-style shooter with the sort of tactical advancing of Contra's overhead levels (about which more later) to come up with something that is not entirely unsatisfying. I am damning with faint praise here, but seriously, I haven't played a classic game since Chip and Dale - a game that, notably, posting this has scrolled off the frontpage.

In any case, this question of the bare minimum needed to capture the whole is crucial. Human experience is defined not by the ephemeral and fragile flesh that offers us transcendental unity of apperception, but rather by the flickering specter of a consciousness engaged in memory for a moment before it recedes to the role of memory for some later flicker. (c.f. "The Demon Regent Asmodeus") We are psychic pointillist art, a lo-fi signal, a cosmic zip file waiting to be opened. The crucial human task is not memory but forgetting - eliminating unnecessary data to the point where what remains can be mistaken for consciousness instead of a psychedelic sensorium. Language is our greatest success in this venture, a massive amnesia severing us eternally from experience.

(Consider the scope of this forgetting - it is such that something as small as playing all of the NES games - a mere 150 MB of data, less than a third of what a text file consisting of a human genome would be - constitutes such semiotic overload as to be mystical)

On June 11, 1936, after confirming that his mother had, at last, slipped into a coma from which she would not awaken, Robert E. Howard walked out to his car, removed a gun from the glove box, and killed himself at the age of 30. A month later, Weird Tales began serializing Red Nails, the last Conan story Howard wrote, having finished it less than a year before his death. Frustrated with Weird Tales's erratic payment schedule, Howard intended Red Nails to be his definitive, final allegory. Its plot concerns a lost city and a civilization whose foundational myths contained the seeds of its own destruction.

(Aleister Crowley, alluding to Max Müller's statement about mythology, identifies magic as a disease 0f language. But what disease? The answer is clearly a tumor - magic is language cancer, an unrestricted growth of signification serving no purpose save its own perpetuation. The image is telling - numerous reports exist of people with brain tumors describing the experience as profoundly mystical. Terence McKenna, who argued that psilocybin was an alien message to humanity specifically encoded to be read on the human nervous system, said that the night in which his terminal brain cancer gave him three seizures was the most profound psychedelic experience of his life)

The Lovecraftian monster (favored in turn by Howard) emerges from the gaps in human cognition. It is the answer to the paradoxical question "What have you forgotten recently?" Within the black box of non-memory, necessarily anything could lurk. That which slams its graphemic body against the walls of this mental prison is our first monster. That thing we know we know but cannot find the words for, which, before we have learned the words, is every thing.

The focus of Howard's writing was always the ageless hero - a fundamental part of Sword and Sorcery fantasy writing that exists in contrast to the Tolkien "traveling band of commoners, misfits, and the tragically broken" model. Nothing in Howard's writing ever showed mortality as existing in a form other than a sudden turn of fortune. This, then, is his monster - one of our most common. The creak of bones, which have only one understanding of the afterlife - the liberation of flesh rotting off of them. This is their only heaven, and every creaking is but their yearning to abandon the suffering of a life of structural support for the blissful release of dirt.

Was Howard insane? Or was suicide the rational response to his predicament? Fenced in on one side by the unspeakable monster consuming his mother, and on the other by the fragility of material circumstance, did some option better than a decisive step out of the box exist? What place do the living have to criticize those who have done something we never have? It is like a slug criticizing the technique of a mountain climber.

So Howard was only capable of fantasizing the Army of One. This is perhaps his sin as a man and a writer. But pick up Commando, and once again, we see only universality in this mortal weakness. Video games, even more than Sword and Sorcery, depends on this illusion.

And I am of the Nintendo generation. A generation defined by the same creaking of bones that sent a bullet into Robert E. Howard's head. What does this mean? A monstrous generation. All generations are, in truth - whether lost in space, hiding from nuclear fallout under wooden desks, or dismembered across the fields of Europe, there is no such thing as a birth that is not monstrous. Let that be comfort against the creaking of bones.


  1. Speaking of Arnie, do you remember the Total Recall game? This was the one that had dwarves hiding in trash cans that fly across the screen when you punch them.

  2. wall of text, but one interestin wall i gotta reckon

  3. A sufficient number of walls of text constitutes, in time, a city.

  4. What does Judaism prescribe for the non-Jew? The question is tricky

    I disagree that it is tricky.

  5. The Noahide laws may provide prohibitions, but that is not the whole of religion. Any search for teleology will find them exceedingly unsatisfying.

  6. I have read just about everything Robert E. Howard has ever written (everything I could get my hands on anyway). I love his writing style. Masculine escapism at its best. I fell in love with the Conan series (both Howard's and other author's contributions) about the time the NES was released. Coincidence? I think so.

  7. I think you do Howard, and Sword and Sorcery as a genre, a bit of a disservice. From the point of view of today's fantasy scene it does look like Sword and Sorcery was a dead end, and that Howard's ultramasculine, ultrareal hero whose battle is with the users of magic (which would I suppose mean those who wish to exploit the gaps in our knowledge for their own dangerous ends) has been subsumed as just a trope within the Tolkein model, but I don't necessarily think that the battle was immediately lost.

    For a start, the fact that the trope survives at all - pretty much every book David Gemmell wrote is clearly traceable to Howard and Conan, while plenty of more Tolkeinesque stories have a Conan-lite character - is proof that something stuck. However, I think the thing that really killed off Sword and Sorcery as a major form (or as a possible major form) in the way you describe was that it was so perfectly answered, or rather completed, by Michael Moorecock when he wrote the Elric stories. It's as if, after that, no one serious decided it was worth looking at again in any great depth, so it was left to stagnate in form and become a cultural relic.

    (As an aside, it also can't have helped that, while Tolkein coded his racism in the fantasy elements of his stories, Howard's was always baldly explicit - thus dating his work to quite a damaging extent very quickly.)

    As always, though, yours is a really interesting and thought-through take on the subject.