G. W. Thomas
THE KINGS OF THE NIGHT
One of Gary Freeman's Illustrations from "The White Isle"
"This is my path. I will not turn from
-- Mysteries of the Faceless King
DARRELL SCHWEITZER is
an important figure in fantasy fiction today. His short stories are masterworks
of literary writing as well as exciting tales of the fantastic. He edits
WEIRD TALES Magazine as well as being one of the best interviewer and critics
of modern fantasy writers.
G. W. THOMAS: Do you consider The White Isle a Sword & Sorcery tale? How did it come to be written? How was it received?
DARRELL SCHWEITZER: The White Isle was originally written when I was about 20, as a 10,000 word novelet. You can find that version in Weirdbook 9. I wasn't capable of writing anything longer at the time, but it was still clearly too complicated for its length, so I rewrote it into more or less the present form by about 1975. This is the version that was serialized in Fantastic in 1980. Before then it had had a checkered history. At one point Borgo Press signed a contract to publish it as a book, then backed out of printing fiction altogether. I also sold it to a German magazine about then which folded before publishing it.
Is it Sword & Sorcery? What do you mean by sword & sorcery? See my editorial in the next Weird Tales (October 2003) on this very topic. Adventure fantasy set in imaginary worlds has evolved away from the strictly Conan-derived image into a wider variety, and has become what we now call Fantasy. Does Sword & Sorcery exist as a distinct form? Possibly in the same way that hardboiled detective stories (in the Hammett/Chandler mode) exist within the larger context of mysteries.
Is it sword & sorcery in the Howard mode? No. For one thing, the hero is of only middling physical strength and is qjuite civilized.
I can cite a variety of "sources" for this story. The last half obviously owes a lot to The Tempest. It is the story of Prospero gone bad. I have to admit I was never convinced by the cheery optimism of The Tempest. I returned to this a few years later in "Caliban's Revenge." (in Weirdbook 13.)
Otherwise, obvious sources include the Orpheus story, and Clark Ashton Smith's "The Isle of the Torturers," in which, after everybody has been tortured long enough, someone releases a white contagion out of a ring, and this envelopes the entire isle.
I also remember something from a Japanese version of the Orpheus story, in which the hero bribed the demons of the underworlds with fruits of Earth.
There's also an obvious, rather bookish awareness of epic conventions here. Invocation to the gods, descend into the underworld, epic journeys, etc. When I said, "I'm writing an epic," I wasn't kidding . . . or not entirely.
GWT: The White Isle is a pretty dark story. Everybody dies under an oppressive god and the main character smashes himself into oblivion in defiance. Your other fantasy tales seem more poetically optimistic. Why was WI so dark?
DS: I don't know. It came out that way. It's a 23-year-old's attempt to write tragedy. The basic premise is this: what if Fate and the Gods really have screwed us over? Life's a bitch, and then you die. The afterlife is worse. There is no right and wrong. Everyone goes to Hell.
GWT: I often think of The White Isle as the last true S&S novel. Everything that followed was either AD&D or pastiches of classic characters like Conan. This might not be true but do you feel S&S really exists anymore?
DS: See above. See my editorial, which is entitled "Is Sword & Sorcery Still Possible Anymore?" Someone could write a series of adventure fantasies set in an imaginary, barbaric world, which are entirely original. But how do we define sword & sorcery? By the sword? By the sorcery? Have you read my The Mask of the Sorcerer? A much better novel. It's got lots of sorcery in it. It even has a sword, which plays some role in the plot. (It belonged to the hero's sorcerer father, who joined an order of crusading warriors in a period when he was trying to deny what he was.) Why is this not sword & sorcery? Is it because the hero is a scrawny 15-year-old boy whose mind is filled with the ghosts of dead sorcerers? If that is so, then anytime a story gets at all original, it escapes from the definition of "sword & sorcery." If that is so, then I am not sure sword & sorcery is good for anything.
Is Gene Wolfe's Soldier in the Mist sword & sorcery? If not, why not?
Here's a deep, dark secret. The Mask of the Sorcerer was written on the rebound from my failed Conan novel. (See my essay "My Career as a Hack Writer" in Windows of the Imagination for the gory details.) I wrote a Conan novel for Tor. They paid for it. They asked for revisions. I did everything. Then they declined to publish it. (I got to keep the money.) It was set in Stygia and, to a large degree, in the Stygian underworld, among the shades of the dead. A very weird Conan novel. I probably did not handle the Conan character very well. I wasn't doing a very good Robert Jordan pastiche, and Jordan (who was editor) wouldn't let me let Conan have any emotional life. So I had this muscular, cardboard cut-out wandering through interesting landscapes of my own invention.
That must have been sword & sorcery.
But when the hero becomes a 100-pound, barefoot adolescent, it isn't. (The Mask of the Sorcerer doesn;t re-use any material from my Conan novel specifically, save that it, too, is set in a gloomy pseudo-Egypt and spends much of its time in the Land of the Dead. The Mask of the Sorcerer is a much better book, possibly what my Conan novel was prevented from becoming because of this unconvincing barbarian I had wandering through it.
GWT: You are busy these days with editing Weird Tales. Any chance for more dark heroic fantasy?
DS: Yes, I will doubtless write more. Most recently I've sold two (of a series of five) stories to Interzone set in what I half-jokingly call Old Corpsenburg, a surreal setting where people live pointless, but very carefully ordered lives in a gloomy town where they spend most of their time finding places to put all the corpses that arrive at night, mysteriously, by sea. The stories are somewhere between horror, political allegory, and surrealism, sort of a necrophilic version of The Prisoner.
Look for a story of mine (reprinted from Interzone) in the first issue of H.P. Lovecraft's Magazine of Horror. Yes, I actually sold a Cthulhu Mythos story to Interzone.
I may well have more books out than you are aware of. I append a list of them after this. (See below)
The Mask of the Sorcerer is about to be re-issued by Wildside Press. Wildside will also publish Sekenre: The Book of the Sorcerer, which is a collection of all the Sekenre stories (from Weird Tales and elsewhere), forming a sort of sequel to The Mask of the Sorcerer. Also, I have to get to work on finally assembling Echoes of the Goddess, a collection of the "Goddess" stories (same setting as The Shattered Goddess -- fantasy set a million years hence in an Antique Future) which Donning was originally supposed to publish about 1984.
I have another book of interviews coming out, and also The Neil Gaiman Reader, as soon as I can complete it.
Sword & sorcery fans should read my The White Isle and also We Are All Legends, although both are fairly early works. My very best is probably The Mask of the Sorcerer and the stories contained in Refugees From an Imaginary Country and Nightscapes.
GWT: Weird Tales still publishes heroic fantasy. Very few magazines do anymore. The Internet has a few good zines. Do you see any new writers emerging from this sparse field?
DS: I expect most imaginary-world fantasy writers to emerge anytime soon will be novelists. I wish someone would found another magazine like Adventures in Sword & Sorcery or Weirdbook. Why don't you? In any case, Weird Tales will do its best to keep this sort of story alive in less-than-novel length. There is also Realms of Fantasy, which readers should not overlook. Otherwise, yes, it's hard to get S&S type stories into print. This is a big change from the late '70s, when most of the small press seemed to have emerged out of Robert E. Howard fandom.
I don't see a lot of e-zines. The problem is, no one does, and then they are gone like the snows of yesteryear. (This is a whole other topic, perhaps controversial. I think it's fair to say that publishing electronic-only is like publishing in newspapers. Here today, gone tomorrow, but for the efforts of a few diligent researchers digging through archives.)
GWT: Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead made it to the big screen, as did The Lord of the Rings. If a director wanted to make The White Isle into a film, how would you like to see it done?
DS: I'm not sure who I'd want to star or direct. Matthew Broderick when he was about twenty, as Evnos? When the novel starts, the character is very ordinary, rather immature, not a towering heroic type at all. He's too old for the role now. It would be tricky, because the hero has to age and become decrepit. With the technology we've seen in The Lord of the Rings it is clear that the visuals would not be impossible to do.
In any case, I seriously doubt such a movie will be made. I am not well-known enough for Hollywood to come sniffing around my works. The White Isle is, I can tell you from my knowledge of how many copies were sold (and are still selling), a pretty well-kept secret.
As for how the novel was received, it got mixed reviews when the book version came out. Richard Geis (of Science Fiction Review) liked it a lot. It's unlikely to get widely circulated, as publishing practices have changed profoundly since the 1970s. A book like that was just barely long enough in 1975. It is quite impossible to do in mass-market paperback today. Maybe if someone does a huge, instant-remainder collection of modern S&S, it could be anthologized. The book is 55,000 words long. Today, the bare minimum is about 85,000. Most fantasy novels are much longer, and part of a series.
GWT: Thanks for talking with me today.
See a list of Darrell Schweitzer books.