Harold Lamb’s “Swords from the West” is a collection of Historical Pulp Adventure so intense that it has its own phantom Heavy Metal soundtrack pounding and howling on the borders of auditory perception.
For myself, I must admit I approached this Lamb collection with enthusiasm tempered by some trepidation, since he was writing between 1917 and about 1960.
As well understood by anybody who has ever tracked down an album of Huey “Piano” Smith and his Clowns (because they gave Little Richard his start), artistic ancestors can be something of a letdown.
This is especially true of the roots of Fantasy. Claw deeper through the sedimentary layers below Tolkien and Howard, and you discover mostly the romantic and the self-conscious – Lord Dunsany’s ersatz fairytales, and Eddison’s overblown epics – of interest to the enthusiast, but not a good read in their own right.
Harold Lamb… is different. His stories influenced both Historical Adventure and Sword and Sorcery, but – to draw a musical analogy – it is as if Jimi Hendrix chronologically preceded Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis.
As I read story after story, I found myself giggling with glee at the sheer rightness of steel clashing, arrows flying, and knightly swordsmen battling Mongol and Tatar.
It was like discovering a vast collection of unpublished Robert E Howard stories, except that Lamb is arguably in some ways better than Conan’s progenitor.
First and foremost, Lamb was an actual historian and sufficiently expert in the Middle East to serve as a spook in WWII. So, though his Western swashbucklers swack their blades with as much gusto as Conan or Kull, they do so in well-researched Historical settings in the midst of an epic clash of cultures. The authenticity never hampers the story, but God’s Teeth it lends it punch. (It’s also intimidating as hell for the wannabe. I wonder if it’s what propelled Howard to flee into the Hyborian age…?)
What strikes most is the sheer authority with which Lamb delivers us to other times and places.
Lamb picks his story worlds with care, gravitating to times and places where classes, cultures or kingdoms clash. In the clashing, these great players bring each other to life in our imaginations, just as the sound of sword on shield implies the existence of both. They also generate high-stake adventures, and create a grand thematic backbone from which the more shabbily personal narratives can dangle; the story a swordsman in the slums of some Black Sea hellhole is really about the majestic clash of East and West.
Such story worlds are hostile to their inhabitants, who in turn take that hostility seriously. The reader unconsciously echoes this seriousness, and thus the world itself acquires a virtual gravitas. A benign utopia could not be quite so real as a Black Sea hellhole under the shadow of the Tatars.
Meanwhile, the world view of the inhabitants is itself unremittingly hostile to that of the reader. Superstition is science, theology is a geography for the soul, honor is more tangible than gold, and institutions are not questioned, even as they are resisted. Every collision between ancient and modern drives home the truth that the characters will never break role and reveal anachronistic sensibilities, for they have none. This time and place are real.
No wonder, then, that the custom and morality are both a serious response to the hostility, and piquantly alien. The restrictions on a noblewoman exist for good reasons – the “plucky” heroine of cheap historical romance or unicorn fantasy would not last five minutes before becoming pregnant or enslaved, or both. At his peril would the trusting plowboy ignore the complex rules of hospitality and the etiquette governing encounters between strangers.
So, like a spider creating a web out of tensioned strands, Lamb builds his story world from lines of conflict, and thus snares our imaginations so that for a brief hour the time and place seem real.
It also helps that Lamb was a grown up, with a wife and family, and experience of the wider world. If he never quite achieves the dark pinnacles reached by Howard in his best Conan stories, he compensates by creating well-rounded characters who have some sense of connection to their followers and their milieu. Conan was always too much of an adolescent wish-fulfillment character to be a convincing leader.
And, Lamb’s prose is more transparent, more consistently professional than that of Robert E Howard, even though his fights are just as brutal, with limbs and teeth flying to the field like something out of Malory.
Which leads to the surprise. Lamb, despite his early dates, feels modern. Sure, there’s an innate sexism in his work with pliant females cleaving to the handiest alpha-males, but then he’s writing about an era when this was arguably the norm. Beyond that, the only indication that this is a pulp writer of yesteryear is his habit of lacing the speech of his characters with King-James-Bible-isms, e.g., “Dost…”, “Thou…”, “Wilt…”. Fortunately, this is not a show-stopper in such a laconic genre, and you soon get used to it. (If you don’t believe me, there’s an excerpt on the publisher’s website.)
The modernity also comes as a relief, because the stories in this door-stopper collection (600+ pages!) would be good enough to force you to read on, even if they had been written in Medieval English. In all seventeen stories – including a couple of novellas – I counted one reused trope (which still works in both deployments), and one effort I would have red-penned (a 1950s piece with a good Dark Age battle story weakened by being shoe-horned into a modern frame).
Really my only complaint is that this volume is slightly too heavy to read comfortably in the bath…