Friday 26 February 2010

You Cannot Escape, Ruthless Culture!

You might've noticed that the offending article that attracted my wrath has mysteriously vanished. Well, being the good little sport I am, I saved the subscriptions for the comments, so not all is lost. Gather round, ye!

Patrick H said the following:

*cough*Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream *cough*

Oh yes, that hilarious "wouldn't it be funny if Hitler wrote High Fantasy, and it turned out to be just like real High Fantasy, because real High Fantasy is, like, totally fascist and junk?" He even called Hitler's pseudo-novel Lord of the Swastika. Subtle.

Jonathan M, evidently the author of the article, follows:

Al — Sorry but I don’t buy it.

Sorry, but I don't accept refunds.

Firstly, while Gulka is marked out as being an exceptional individual, he is the exception that makes the rule. The idea of swarthy sinister physical presence is applied pretty much across the board and the ‘thick red lips’ thing also pops up in the descriptions of another character.

Could the "thick red lips" be because... black people tend to have thick red lips? I mean, come on. Howard lived in Texas. How many black people do you think he's ever seen? Of course he's going to stick with basic descriptions like that. Now, if Howard said something genuinely false like "black people have devil's horns, they shave them down so they can fit in among real people" then I could get it. But attacking him for using something that describes a black man as surely as "harsh nose" might describe Caucasians, or "epicanthic folds" to represent Asians, is silly at best.

Secondly, I don’t think that you can tap into the kind of stereotypes and racist iconography that Howard does and then tap dance your way out of it by claiming that it is just this individual. Partly because it clearly isn’t JUST this individual and partly because channeling that kind of racist energy and tapping into those pools of audience emotion say something about you as an author and a person.

Of course it does. By describing Cormac Fitzgeoffrey as a gigantic, muscular, intelligent and charismatic warrior, is Howard describing all Irishmen as being Cormac clones? Howard was describing a stereotype in Gulka, true - but it's a stereotype that exists, and a stereotype he was drawing from. Just as surely as there are giant Nordic dudes who look like actual Viking gods, and there are big hairy Scots that look like angry badgers (I can personally attest), so there are huge African dudes who look like Gulka.

Yes, I know that Howard has Black characters elsewhere in his work without their being described as monstrous animalistic brutes but I think that being prepared to use that kind of language about a Black character pretty much requires a degree of racism.

This is laughable: essentially, nobody could write a racist screed unless they're racist themselves. "There's no smoke without fire." Even if you're a one-of-a-kind author like Howard, with an unparalleled imagination and poetic vigour, you simply couldn't have "made it up" - you HAD to be drawing from some personal feelings. By that logic, Howard must have been an Ape-man at some point in his life, because there's no way he could write "Spear and Fang" or the James Allison stories that "pretty much requires a degree of Apedom." Hell, he wrote the Dark Agnes from the first person perspective: maybe he was a woman at some point in his life? Please.

You might well argue that racism was more common then than it is now and place it within a wider context… fine. But I think that Red Shadows is a great and memorable story BECAUSE of the racism.

I think it's a great and memorable tale because of the story, which has little - if anything - to do with the racism you love so much. The racism of "Red Shadows" takes up, at most, a fraction of the story. The tale is about Kane hunting down the rapist and murderer of a little girl he found by the side of the road. It's the story of the Puritan Kane's conflict with the pagan Kane, as the very drums of Africa call him home. It's the story of a man going to the ends of the earth to do what's right, and finding that he might not be going to some strange place - but to home. (Was the unheard call Kane reacts to in "Solomon Kane's Homecoming", mayhap, the drums of distant Africa beckoning him home?) It's a story of wanderlust masquerading as divine mission, of the implaceable Right Hand of God delivering wrongdoers to their dark master, of a chase that ends with death, and of finding oneself. That's what the story's about. That's what makes it great and memorable.

The racism doesn't even enter into it halfway through. If you're going to talk about stories great and memorable because of racism, then at least talk about one that has the racism as an inescapable plot point like "Black Canaan." THERE'S a story charged with racism, and it's great, because racism is at its heart, being about a charismatic sorceror's manipulation of racial tension in the Deep South. It's a brilliant piece of writing that relies on the hideous period racism, much like To Kill a Mockingbird does.

Finally, if you're going to talk about the racism, then how come you don't bring up N'Longa from this very story? N'Longa, who utterly shatters Kane's and the reader's expectations by shedding the pigin-speaking Uncle Tomfoolery to reveal a being of intelligence, wisdom, eloquence and power? Where was your discussion of that, eh?

MINKI leaps to my defense:

I could not agree more with Al Harron he sums up the argument against your piece perfectly.
You stated that Howards “racism” belongs in that time, but there are storys still being published today that you could claim to be more racist, if you pick up on just one aspect as you have.

Cheers there MINKI.

Jonathan responds:

Which stories would these be?
I’m not sure I grasp your argument to be honest Minki. I’m not excusing Howard’s evident racism or necessarily inferring anything about it regarding his wider talents. I’m simply saying that the story gives a neat glimpse of a worldview which, though common at the time, is now much rarer.
The downside of racism’s wider unacceptability is that it now has the opportunity to lurk in the shadows and find new ways of expressing itself. Red Shadows is still relevant because racism is still relevant.

A shame he doesn't talk about "The Spirit of Tom Molyneaux." One wonders if Jonathan could fathom the two stories being written by the same man. Especially since he completely ignores N'Longa, from the same tale. There's a viewpoint that's even rarer, where the search for a Great White Hope to unseat a Senegalese bruiser ends with failure, with the only man up to the job being the happy-go-lucky Ace Jessel, the only black boxer and only world champion Howard ever wrote of.
One wonders if Jonathan M would buy it then.


  1. So, Norman Spinrad....we meet again.

  2. It always ticked me off that Spinrad didn't even try to make Lord of the Swastika a good story: surely that would've been the most damning indictment at all? Silly Norman.