Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Clifford Ball: Apprentice to a Fallen Master [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

The world of fantasy was shattered in 1936 when Robert E Howard put a gun to his head and ended it all. The fledgling genre of heroic fantasy was at a loss. Who would take up the torch and continue on from where Howard began with his tales of Bran Mak Morn, King Kull, and especially, Conan the Cimmerian? These larger-than-life warriors had found a home in an unlikely place: the horror magazine, Weird Tales. And it was in those same pages that the next sword-and-sorcery writers would appear.

Now Robert E Howard was not the only fantasy writer at "The Unique Magazine." CL Moore had created her swordswoman Jirel of Joiry in October 1934 with "The Black God's Kiss" and its sequel "The Black God's Shadow" (December 1934). Nictzin Dyalhis had written one classic piece, "The Sapphire Siren," in February 1934. Edmond Hamilton had been writing many kinds of science fiction and fantasy for Weird Tales and could have taken up the crown of sword-and-sorcery. But none of these writers did. CL Moore would write only one more Jirel tale after Howard's death. Dyalhis and Hamilton wrote other things.

The mantle fell to a fan of Robert E Howard, the inexperienced Clifford Ball (1896?-1947?). Ball would produce three sword-and-sorcery stories for Weird Tales: "Duar the Accursed" (May 1937), "The Thief of Forthe" (July 1937), and "The Goddess Awakes" (February 1938). His next story after these was "The Swine of Aeaea" (March 1939), a tale of a modern day Circe. The two that followed that were pedestrian horror tales. Not much is known about Ball, but his bio in the magazine suggests a young man who traveled around looking for work before taking up the pen to write pulp. From his writing we can tell he was a fan of both Robert E Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs. All three tales make mention of white apes: "If the guardsmen had been startled before, now they were certainly in a panic, much as if they had captured one of the terrible white apes from the hills of Barsoom..." This tidbit is telling, but jars the reader out of Ball's imaginary world. Such are the errors of youth.

In plot, "Duar the Accursed" is reminiscent of Howard's "The Scarlet Citadel" (January 1933), but also draws from other sources. Duar has been captured by the Queen Nione, who throws him into a dank dungeon known as the Pits of Ygoth. Duar is rescued by a supernatural being named Shar, who loves him and can restore his lost memories of how he was an emperor over Atlantis eons ago before its destruction and his curse. Duar refuses and instead takes on a mission for the queen: to enter the Black Tower and return with the Rose of Gaon, a fabulous and magical jewel. Duar climbs the stairs and faces the terror that none have survived to describe.

On a pillar surrounded by skeletons sits the Rose of Gaon. As the swordsman approaches he finds his limbs becoming tired and lifeless. He will stay that way until he dies of starvation. Shar reappears to remind him he is King Duar and to use his sword to destroy the Rose, for it is actually the heart of a demon. Duar rallies and destroys the gem, having power to deny the magic because of his ancient lineage. Shar offers to take him away, revive his memory, and work with him to rule the entire world again. Duar refuses and walks off to spend the rest of his years in Nione's bed. That opening scene with Duar chained before Queen Nione, defying her will seems cliché today having been used in multiple sword-and-sorcery tales since, but it may not have been so shop-worn in 1937. We have to remember Ball was the first to play with the story building blocks that Howard left behind. Lin Carter selected this story for his anthology, New Worlds For Old (1971).

The last two stories Ball wrote did not feature Duar. Instead they are about a thief and adventurer named Rald. "The Thief of Forte" begins with two conspirators: a strange wizard name Karlk and the swordsman Rald. They enter the imperial palace to steal the royal jewels and the throne. While doing this, Rald meets Princess Thrine, the king's sister, who is very beautiful and spirited. She stalls the two long enough for King Thrall to show up and disarm the thieves. The two men are tied up and left. It is then that Karlk reveals something about his mysterious person. He has a second set of small, hairy hands that he uses to untie himself. He leaves Rald tied up as he prepares to ambush and kill the King and Princess with a magic blast. Rald can not lie by idly as death comes for Thrine, so he burns off his ropes and arrives in time to stop the wizard. Karlk is stabbed, and while dying admits why he wanted to kill the royals. Karlk is actually a woman, it is revealed as her disguise is pulled off. She is the daughter of a woman who was carried off by one the white apes (shades of Barsoom again!) so she has two sets of arms. Karlk dies horribly as the demon Nargath, who gave her her power, comes to claim her. King Thrall goes to thank Rald for saving them, but Rald has disappeared. Thrall wonders if Rald will come back. Thrine tells her brother that Rald will be back... for her.

"The Thief of Forte," like "Duar the Accursed," uses another cliche plot (based on Howard's "Rogues in the House" (January 1934): that of wizard hiring a warrior to enter a heavily or magically guarded palace or tower to steal a magical item. Henry Kuttner would use this one as well a year later in "Spawn of Dagon" (Weird Tales, July 1938) and John Jakes and Lin Carter thirty years later in "The Devils in the Walls" (Fantastic, May 1963) and "The Thieves of Zangabal" (The Mighty Barbarians, 1969).

A letter from "The Eyrie" solves a small mystery for me when WC Jr writes about Virgil Finlay, WT illustrator. He points out that Finlay liked to play practical jokes on the writers: "For instance: Clifford Ball once stated in a letter to the Eyrie, previous to the publication of his first story, that the ridiculous theme of a woman being captured and carried off by a giant ape was passé. With this in mind, Virgil selected that particular scene in illustrating Ball's 'Thief of Forthe.'" When I saw this illustration originally I had reacted with a similar dislike for the picture. There are few sword-and-sorcery illustrations before the 1960s and every one counts. To see an ape-stealing-woman picture worthy of a Jules De Grandin tale, I sighed in disappointment. Now I at least know why...

"The Goddess Awakes" (February 1938) is Rald's second adventure. This time Rald and his comrade-in-arms Thwaine have fled a lost battlefield where they served as mercenaries. They encounter women warriors who knock out Rald and take them to their kingdom inside an extinct volcano. There they learn that the women warriors rule and all men are slaves in the mines by order of Throal. The queen of the land is Cene but she is under the power of the wizard Throal and his daughter, the living goddess and statue, Hess. Rald and Thwaine are promised to die in the arena by being eaten by Hess, a gigantic cat.

This tale smacks more of Edgar Rice Burroughs than Robert E Howard. It only becomes more creepy (and therefore more Howardian) when the cat goddess calls the victims names as the moon draws the living beast out of a stone sphinx. Rald, Thwaine, and their new comrade, Ating - one of the women guards who has fallen for Thwaine - are thrown into a pit. The men try to deal with the goddess with swords, but her gigantic body is impenetrable. It is Queen Cene who saves them by throwing Rald a firebrand. One touch of the flames explodes Hess like a hydrogen zeppelin. Cene takes back her throne by killing Throal with a spear. Like a vampire, he dissolves to an ancient set of bones. His reign is over and the men of Ceipe are free to rejoin the women. The tale ends with Thwaine and Ating ruling the country while Rald and Cene take a year long break to explore the world outside. The whole thing rings more of John Carter than Conan of Cimmeria.

In one respect Clifford Ball did not follow entirely in Howard's footsteps. Ball's three stories all feature very powerful women: the being Shar, the Princess Thrine, and the Queen Cene. Having written only three stories, it is as if Ball chose to copy the longer Howard tales that featured strong female characters such as Yasmina, Belit, and Valeria. His adventure amongst the women warriors of Ceipe plays out more like the opening of Burroughs Pellucidar (1915) than Howard's "Vale of Lost Women," which Ball would not have read since it remained unpublished until Spring 1967.

In just ten months, Ball had given us his version of Howard's style of sword-and-sorcery. These three were all he would do before veering off into writing more traditional fantasy and horror. After only six stories he would disappear from the pulps altogether. But the editors of Weird Tales had a replacement. Henry Kuttner, by far a superior crafter of words, would appear in May 1938 with "Thunder in the Dawn," the first of the Elak of Atlantis stories. Kuttner would more skillfully use the legacy Howard left behind and even innovate, but Clifford Ball can take credit for being the first of a long line of pastichers that would include L Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter, Bjorn Nyberg, John Jakes, Andrew J Offutt, Poul Anderson, and many more.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.
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