This week I got back to work on my tale of swords, sorcery and cosmic horror inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft and R.E. Howard: Shadow of the Black Tower.
This piece has been one the most difficult things I’ve ever written. I started it back in September of last year and due to a combination life, drama and writer growing pains I still haven’t finished its first draft yet.
My original idea was to mix the Cthulhu Mythos of H.P. Lovecraft with R.E. Howard’s Hyborian Age, which is best known as the setting for Howard’s tales of Conan the Barbarian.
Lovecraft and Howard were friends that exchanged many letters and ideas, but never collaborated to write a story together in the truest sense. Both are authors whose works I respect and that have influenced me, and for a long time I’ve wanted to write something that mixed their themes as a sort of tribute to both of them.
So when I decided to write Shadow last year, I took the original mythos Howard and Lovecraft had laid down as canon background — along with their literary styles and themes — and used it as inspiration for my own tale, written in my own voice.
It proved to be anything but a simple project, and it has been as challenging as it has been rewarding. But it has also been a journey that’s allowed me to write a piece of speculative fiction steeped in the lore of these genre founders. In a way, it’s like working with their ghosts nearby… and I like to think that I’ve learned something thinking so deeply on the themes these very different men wrote about.
The works of Lovecraft and the original Conan stores written by Howard are listed as being in the public domain on numerous sources. So I really dug my hands into the lore of each, and created what I thought was a great mix of the two. To me, stories in the public domain are like a shared cultural heritage. When I create new stories from them it’s like I’m adding to that legacy and keeping the stories alive and refreshed. It’s a great feeling.
However, back in March of this year, Shadow of the Black Tower suffered a major blow when I discovered that the rights to Robert E. Howard’s original version of the Hyborian Age and Conan the Barbarian are NOT in the public domain.
The rights to Conan are complicated, but — long story simplified and made short — Cabinet Entertainment was deemed the current rights holder of the character and of REH’s original stories that form the core of his mythos. This occurred in legal proceedings between 2010 and 2012, and are true at least for the United States after a legal limbo occurred in 2007 on if the copyrights to the original stories had lapsed into the public domain or not.
This fact hasn’t been made very public, and many places like Wikisource and Project Gutenberg still have the original Conan stories listed as public domain. This led me to believe mistakenly that the setting was free for me to use, so long as I stuck to Howard’s original works. I was fortunate in coming across some media in doing research that challenged my prior understanding of the situation before I finished or sought to publish the tale… and even then it required a fair amount obscure and dedicated digging to get to the bottom of matters.
Now, Lovecraft’s work is in the public domain — or is de facto in the public domain because no entity in the 80 years since his death has won a legal battle to say they control the rights to it — so I’m in the clear there. But Shadow of the Black Tower was set fully in Howard’s Hyborian Age, and that setting’s flavor was quite permeated into the tale. Although my story doesn’t feature Conan in any way (in fact, my main character is quite unlike him), it still exists in a literary universe whose character and trappings are the intellectual property of someone else.
And thus came my crisis: The whole point of writing Shadow was to mix Robert E. Howard’s style, themes and setting of his most famous creation with the Cthulhu Mythos of his friend H.P. Lovecraft. What do I do now with half of that equation removed?
I mulled it over, almost opening a bottle of whiskey and having a conversation with Howard’s ghost about it. In doing so, I boiled down my options to three:
- I could quit and move on.
- I could change nothing, but know that when it’s done all my effort has been to create a fan fiction that I will have no rights to.
- Or I could do what George Lucas did when he couldn’t get the rights to Flash Gordon, and decided to make Star Wars instead.
I found the first two options very unappealing, so I’ve decided to go with the third… to which I think I heard Howard’s ghost say “Fuck yeah, kid. That’s what I’d do!” ;-)
So that’s how I started the daunting task of making something that honors Howard’s setting in theme and spirit, but isn’t a slipshod or ersatz copy of it. And after an intense month of worldbuilding, I created the mythical, lost, Aeolian Age:
I couldn’t have laid the foundations of the Aeolian Age without being very knowledgeable of REH’s world, and having tried my hand at building a Hyborian inspired setting only a few years ago for an abortive first novel. And going into the story and routing out all threads of the prior setting in action, place and background —then patching all the holes and the new holes those patches made— was a laborious trial of patience.
But once it was done, I was very pleased with the end result.
Although I lost the rich tapestry of Howard’s Hyboria to tell the story in, that loss forced me in creative directions I wouldn’t have otherwise considered. As a result, I rediscovered a cycle of HP Lovecraft’s work from the late nineteen-teens and very early 1920s set in a prehistoric, seemingly lost, age of Earth. The concept is extremely similar to what REH did with his Thurian Age of Kull of Atlantis and thereafter with the more famous Hyborian Age of Conan the Barbarian… settings that, in turn, I had ultimately based the initial tone of Shadow upon.
These early Lovecraft tales — like “The Nameless City”, “The Quest of Iranon”, “The Cats of Ulthar”, “The Other Gods” and “The Doom that Came to Sarnath” — are of a dark fantasy bent, tinged with an early dose of Lovecraft’s developing cosmic horror that would be expressed fully in his later Cthulhu Mythos. They fit perfectly into the backstory and present of my Aeolian Age, and with the themes of Howard, Lovecraft and myself that I wanted to present with the story.
After the change in setting, Shadow began reading better than before. I gained a tremendous amount of narrative freedom switching to my own Aeolian Age, and it allowed me to tailor the characters and backgrounds in a much more detailed way.
For example, I was able to restyle one of the antagonists into a more “dark side of Conan” allegory than I could before. And the change of setting and fresh look at concepts gave me a great idea to tweak a protagonist in a way that will make the climax of the story better.
Furthermore, I was able to integrate the locations of many of Lovecraft’s previously mentioned dark fantasy stories directly into the background and world of the Aeolian Age… something I could have never done with Howard’s setting. Ulthar, Sarnath, Leng… all of these are now places in this world that I have created.
Frankly, I couldn’t have asked for a stronger and more organic gateway to bridge Howard’s style of sword and sorcery into Lovecraft’s horror. After working those elements into the story, I was taken aback by how better it had become. It was like finding a key piece of a mosaic that I didn’t realize was missing, and its addition integrated the picture into a new whole far superior to that what I had cobbled together previously.
And now that I’ve got my authorly affairs in order — and Shadow of the Black Tower lined up to be something really special — it’s time for me to finish this tale. ;-)
Have a great week everyone, and keep writing!
~Jason H. Abbott.