I was a Lord of the Rings freak and not really into pulp fiction. It was high fantasy or nothing, but one day I noticed something.
My dad, not a huge reader at the time, read these twelve books. So I picked up the first one. Pure pulp. The picture of a warrior, sword in hand, on the back of some creature locked in battle, was not something J.R.R. Tolkien ever showed me.
It was Conan. Curious about what got dad going, I read the first book. Then the second. And the the third. And kept going.
I cut my teeth on Middle Earth. Shanara. Cazmazotz. The Hyborian age of Conan’s world was something … different.
The big man on campus
One day, my dad brought home something not Conan. Conan I’d heard of, but this was completely new.
Kane, by Karl Edward Wagner.
The immortal swordsman lived in a far flung future Earth. He knew magic and could fight like a madman. He was cursed by God (or a god?). The stories were epic and had a poetic brutality.
In a fight between Conan and Kane, I’d put my money on Kane. Heck, in a fight between Godzilla and Kane, I’m betting Kane.
The thing is Wagner taught me something.
Sword and Sorcery can be deep. It can be poetic – some of Kane’s stories are actually poems. It can transcend settings. Kane’s stories ranged from horror to fairy tale, and just about everything in between. All with a savagery, not just in content but also in prose, I’ve never read before.
Wagner showed a S&S writer can be a wordsmith.
I’m not sure Elric of Melnibone is pulp. He’s certainly sword and sorcery but the story-telling ability of Michael Moorcock was incredible. It drew me in to the centuries-long story of one of the last people from Melnibone. Elric, the albino swordsman/sorcerer, traveling the “young lands,” taking on forces of good or evil, depending on who is in his way on any particular day.
It was different. The scope outsized Tolkien. The word smithing is superior to Robert E. Howard. And at times, Elric was as brutal as Kane.
It was love at first read.
The thing is, Sword and Sorcery is identified with pulp fiction, and pulp fiction is identified as something less. Something of a lower quality.
The thing is Conan turned my dad into an avid reader. Kane taught me poetry. Elric gave me a grand scope in storytelling. Many writers who might be in the pulp vein had something great and powerful to offer readers.
There are many other great S&S writers from the pulp era. They prove a literary quality to an oft-derided style of fiction.