Where to begin? Not with my favorite author, the inimitable Tom Robbins, and not even with my favorite sci-fi authors, Ian M. Banks or William Gibson. A fleeting mention possibly, at this stage, to Frank Herbert’s DUNE, my first “unputdownable” novel, but really I’d have to start with Robert E. Howard – a fantasy author (amongst other genres) naturally. DELYRIUM is, after all, predominantly a fantasy novel.
Howard specialized in short stories, notably about a rather large savage gentleman called Conan. He had an amazing ability to drop this enigmatic character anywhere within his vivid diverse Hyperborian Age, be it the Pictish Wilderness, frozen Cimmeria, the jungles of Kush, or even accursed Zamora, and within a couple of pages you’d be right there with him. As Michael Moorcock wrote: “The ability to paint a complex scene with a few expert brushstrokes remains Howard’s greatest talent.”
This talent from a lifelong resident of rural Texas! How did Howard’s imaginings conjure forth these images? And if he could do it, could anyone (namely, me) do it? Was it possible to write a novel in the same vein as the Conan short stories, but with different characters?
As a starting point, I tried to recollect an anecdote I’d heard many years ago that alluded to Howard’s uncanny storytelling abilities, with particular regard to Conan. For “many” you could probably substitute forty, so I decided to look into the matter in a little more detail. And eventually, the tale emerged. It transpired that when Howard was undergoing a particularly barren period in his writings, something fairly unsettling apparently occurred. Every evening the candles in his study would flicker and an immense shadowy figure, bearing an even more immense shadowy axe, would appear before him and demand that his heroic deeds be committed to paper (or parchment presumably) – under pain of death.
O.K. True or false, not much point meandering down that particular avenue then. So where next?
Not much further as it turns out. Although the “shadowy figure” anecdote is, in actual fact, somewhat fanciful, it is, nevertheless, only Howard’s own musings extrapolated to an absolute extreme. This, rather, is what the man himself had to say on the creation of Conan:-
“I’m rather of the opinion myself that widespread myths and legends are based on some fact, though that fact may be distorted out of recognition in the telling. While I don’t go so far as to believe that stories are inspired by actually existent spirits or powers (though I’m flatly opposed to denying anything) I have sometimes wondered if it were possible that unrecognized forces of the past or present, or even the future, walk through the thoughts of living men. This occurred to me when I was writing the first stories of the Conan series especially. I know that for months I had been absolutely barren of ideas, completely unable to work up to anything sellable. Then the man Conan seemed suddenly to grow in my mind, without much labor on my part, and immediately a stream of stories flowed off my pen, or rather, off my typewriter, almost without effort on my part. I did not seem to be creating, but rather relating events that had occurred. Episode crowded upon episode so fast that I could scarcely keep up with them. For weeks I did nothing but write of the adventures of Conan. The character took complete possession of my mind and crowded out everything else in the way of storywriting. When I deliberately tried to write something else, I couldn’t do it. I do not attempt to explain this by esoteric or occult means, but the facts remain.”
Here was something I could relate to. Not a story demanding to be told exactly, but more a series of visions I couldn’t get out of my head. Visions of certain locations that always manifested themselves in great detail and demanded to be linked by a story. But what I quickly realized was that couching that story in the fashion of a full length Conan novel was next to impossible. Was this why Howard never strayed from the short story format? What was going to materialize was an extended saga of condensed mayhem and violence – no bad thing you might think. But it is. It becomes repetitive and boring.
For a novel (and obviously there are exceptions), it’s necessary to set the scene. Confront the reader initially with something that will set his/her imagination soaring but then only drop a series of markers or hints after that, as you move on to create a backdrop and an ambience against which the tale is told. All of which, conveniently, leads me to those, Howard apart, who have inspired me the most to do just that …
J.R.R. Tolkien :
It seems now to be somewhat fashionable to deride THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Inevitable I suppose in today’s society, where there seems to be a need, usually via social media, to pick fault with anything popular, the almost inevitable protagonists being, I might add, those lesser souls incapable of producing anything themselves. But give me a break – quite simply an inspiration to the imaginings of millions and the greatest tale ever told.
Mervyn Peake :
Gormenghast is a place of claustrophobic extremes. For backdrop and ambience, look no further. Glorious characters, including literature’s greatest villain, carrying out insane meaningless rituals. All the better for a story that builds at a snail’s pace, because the grotesque extravagant descriptions don’t allow for anything else.
Mistress of intoxicating gothic paradys.
Master of unshackled prose.
Michael Moorcock :
Creator of Elric and Stormbringer – not sure which was the greater.
Ursula Le Guin :
Earth mother. Creator of detailed utopias where but rarely did the clash of swords resound.
Marion Zimmer Bradley :
For bringing myths to life.
Fritz Leiber :
For the unforgettable bickering of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser.
Roger Dean / Phillipe Druillet / moebius / Ivan Bilibin :
Illustrators of fantasy and the fantastical.
These writers/artists then are the apparent building blocks upon which DELYRIUM is founded. Yet I can’t help but wonder. About those visions, I mean. Could it be possible that unrecognized forces do indeed walk through the thoughts of living men?