Anatomy of a Pastiche, Part Two

Read Part One here.

This is a long post, so grab a frosty beverage and buckle in.

So, we’re skipping ahead a few pages from the opening of “Conan Unconquered”. After the establishing scene of Conan receiving the hill-men, I laid out the frame story — soldiers on the night before battle, drinking ale and swapping tales. Among his dog-brothers, Conan is at ease; Amalric demands a tale, and Conan obliges. At this point in the structure of the tale, two things occur: a.) I mix Howard’s own prose, the Yaralet Fragment, in with my own, and b.) I cannibalize an old unpublished story of mine, file off my own serial numbers, and thread it into the narrative. Why do this? Short answer: it sped up the physical act of writing, which is great when one is on a tight deadline (I wrote this in about a week, around April 30 of 2019).

Frazetta

Cannibalization is a tried and true pulp technique. Unused and unsold stories, early drafts, discarded bits . . . these things are the writer’s junkyard of spare parts. I keep everything I write, most of which I’ll likely never use. But, it’s sitting there under a metaphorical tarpaulin like a wrecked ‘66 Ford Mustang, full of parts that can easily be fitted to whatever classic chassis I’m working on. In this case, I had a generic barbarian story I’d finished and set aside, unhappy with the ending. But, it had some good bits of prose in it. So I selected a few, filed off story-specific details, and layered it into the Yaralet Fragment. Two disparate chunks of prose coming together as a whole. I want to show you how I did this, so we’ll start with the base layer, REH’s discarded fragment . . .

The Yaralet Fragment

The battlefield stretched silent, crimson pools among the still sprawling figures seeming to reflect the lurid red-streamered sunset sky. Furtive figures slunk from the tall grass; birds of prey dropped down on mangled heaps with a rustle of dusky wings, Like harbingers of Fate a wavering line of herons flapped slowly away toward the reed-grown banks of the river. No rumble of chariot wheel or peal of trumpet disturbed the unseeing stillness. The silence of death followed the thundering of battle.

The Yaralet Fragment
Conan, Lancer Books

Written sometime in the 1930s, The Yaralet Fragment was completed by Lin Carter and published as “The Hand of Nergal” in the anthology titled Conan (Lancer, 1967).  It is included in its original form in The Coming of Conan of Cimmeria (Del Rey, 2003).  It is a dark fragment, grim and brief, describing the aftermath of a great battle.  Bleeding from a wound to his thigh, Conan limps among the dead seeking loot.  He discovers an injured woman among the reeds, and very nearly delivers a coup-de-grace.  Instead, he takes pity on her.  Howard goes on to describe the fear-haunted city of Yaralet, where “people barred windows and bolted doors, and sat behind their barriers shuddering, with candles burning before their household gods until dawn etched the minarets.”

It’s a great piece, evocative and reeking of atmosphere, but scant on details of when or where in Conan’s career . . . which made it perfect for my needs.  Or, almost perfect.  I had to change a couple of things (cue horrified screaming: “How dare you?!”).  Here is the second paragraph of the Yaralet Fragment:

Yet one figure moved through that wide-strewn field of ruin pygmy-like against the vast dully crimson sky.  The fellow was a Cimmerian, a giant with a black mane and smoldering blue eyes.  His girdled loin-cloth and high-strapped sandals were splashed with blood.  The great sword he trailed in his right hand was stained to the cross-piece.  There was a ghastly wound in his thigh, which caused him to limp as he walked. 

Two things: I did not need to re-introduce Conan, and I needed him to wear more than a loin-cloth.  Here’s how it appears in “Conan Unconquered” (changes in bold):

Yet one figure moved through that wide-strewn field of ruinpygmy-like against the vast dully crimson sky.  He was Conan the Cimmerian.  His sleeveless hauberk of leather and iron scale was in tatters; blood splashed his blue linen kilt and high-strapped sandals.  The great sword he trailed in his right hand was stained to the hilt.  There was a ghastly wound in his thigh, which caused him to limp as he walked. 

Deviations

In Howard’s original, Conan is attempting to scavenge something from the windrows of the dead, some measure of wealth to fatten his purse ‘ere he heads off.  All to no avail.  Human jackals got there before him.  And so:

Glaring out across the littered plain, he saw no body unstrapped or moving.  The knives of the mercenaries and camp-followers had been at work.  Straightening up from his fruitless quest, he glanced uncertainly afar off across the deepening plain, to where the towers of the city gleamed faintly in the sunset. — The Yaralet Fragment

Comic Vine

Here is where I really start to deviate from the Fragment.  The story I’m telling needs to match some of the themes of the video game it is to be bundled with — a desperate bid for survival against an overwhelming horde of foes, your resources limited and your manpower, too — and here is where I start to lay the foundation for that.  Here’s what I added:

Glaring out across the littered plain, he saw no body unstrapped or moving.  The knives of the mercenaries and camp-followers had been at work.  Straightening up from his fruitless quest, he glanced uncertainly afar off across the deepening plain, to where the domes and spires of Yaralet gleamed, sinister in the sun’s fading light.  Yaralet, whose foundations were laid down by the ancient Zhemri; in cellars and catacombs, the rites of that darkling folk were still practiced by chanting votaries who offered the hearts of their sacrifices to nameless gods.  And though it claimed the mantle of eldest, Yaralet had long since ceded its position as the beating heart of Zamora to Shadizar in the east.

But Yaralet was still a city where fortunes might flourish, and merchants continued to make the trek to this seldom-visited corner of Zamora, where trackless forests met the sharp crags of the Karpash Mountains.  For here, in the long mountain valleys, the bulbous opium poppy grew in profusion.  Called the Sleep-bringer, it was a balm to those who knew suffering, from the warrior stricken on the field to the woman struggling at the birthing blocks.  The fierce trade in this purple-hued flower was the cornerstone of Yaralet’s power – making Artavatas, the Black Prince of Yaralet, a threat to his neighbors.  It was the growing threat of Yaralet that brought the Red Company of Tarento over the mountains from Corinthia.  — “Conan Unconquered”

If you read that and think, “hey, that could have been written by Howard, himself!”, then I’ve done my job correctly.  No doubt he would have made it even more powerful and succinct, but I do what I can.

Cannibal Corner

What I’m going to share, next, is three rather lengthy sections: one from the Yaralet Fragment, one from my untitled short story, and one of the final product from “Conan Unconquered”.  It will show you the essence of literary cannibalization.  In the Yaralet Fragment, Howard had introduced Conan, added a wrinkle with the discovery of a woman on the battlefield, and was setting up Conan’s opposition when he stopped working on it and moved on to something else.  The last section of the Fragment is pure atmosphere, outlining a creeping horror that likely presaged some sorcerous foe Conan would need to shorten by a head in order to triumph.  Here is that section:

In the city of Yaralet, when night came on, the people barred windows and bolted doors, and sat behind their barriers shuddering, with candles burning before their household gods until dawn etched the minarets.  No watchmen walked the streets, no painted wenches beckoned from the shadows, no thieves stole nimbly through the winding alleys.  Rogues, like honest people, shunned the shadowed ways, gathering in foul-smelling dens, or candle-lighted taverns.  From dusk to dawn Yaralet was a city of silence, her streets empty and desolate.

Exactly what they feared, the people did not know.  But they had ample evidence that it was no empty dream they bolted their doors against.  Men whispered of slinking shadows, glimpsed from barred windows-of hurrying shapes alien to humanity and sanity.  They told of doorways splintering in the night, and the cries and shrieks of humans followed by significant silence; and they told of the rising sun etching broken doors that swung in empty houses, whose occupants were seen no more.

Even stranger, they told of the swift rumble of phantom chariot wheels along the empty streets in the darkness before dawn, when those who heard dared not look forth.  One child looked forth, once, but he was instantly stricken mad and died screaming and frothing, without telling what he saw when he peered from his darkened window.

On a certain night, then, while the people of Yaralet shivered in their bolted houses, a strange conclave was taking place in the small velvet hung taper-lighted chamber of Atalis, whom some called a philosopher and others a rogue.  — The Yaralet Fragment

Howard is about to introduce his villain, I’m certain of it.  And I need to do the same thing.  I mentioned him, above, but the villain of “Conan Unconquered” is Artavatas, the Black Prince of Yaralet.  Being a sword-and-sorcery tale, I need him to be sinister, sorcerous, and as black-hearted a rogue as I can manage.  I wrote and erased a couple different introductory scenes before I remembered I already had just such a scene already written, just sitting unused in a file.  I hauled it out.  The tale centers on a barbarian spearman hired to escort a courtesan on a mission of mercy, from the sorcery-steeped city of Khem to an ancient half-ruined city by the sea.  Both are unaware that one of the courtesan’s former lovers has engaged the services of a hunter-magus; his task is to hunt down and kill the barbarian and bring the courtesan back in chains.  Here’s the relevant section:

The crossroads outside Shamusat simmered beneath a gibbous moon.  Down among the rills and canals, where the waters of the Nilus ranged without rhyme or reason, the night was hot and damp, fecund.  The four rutted roads met in congress atop a broad dike, bone-white and dusty in the thin light, surrounded by wild thickets and marshes.  Here, nothing moved.  An uncanny silence had fallen; no frogs trilled, no insects chirruped, and the voices of a thousand bog scavengers faded – as though something so terrible drew near that it stole the breath from their lungs.  Only the breeze remained, defiant, its fingers rustling the tall grasses and the dry leaves of sycamores and acacias.

Soon, even it died away.

Had any man been standing at the crossroads, then, they would have beheld an eerie sight: a wall of swirling darkness drifting down the branch of the road that led from Khem – an inscrutable cloud shot through with flickering green ghost-lights.  As it reached the crossroads the darkness shredded and dissipated, revealing a chariot of age-blackened wood.  Unknown hands had carved coiling sigils in its surface, hieroglyphs from an age when serpents walked upright like men and made our apish ancestors their slaves.

What pulled this chariot was a thing from nightmares.  A mammoth black-furred beast, like some unnatural spawn of hyena and ape; it was taller than a man at the shoulders and as broad as four, with hackles raised and rigid like the spines of a great lizard.  It clawed the earth with feet the size of round shields.  Green eyes flashed; slaver dripped from knife-like teeth as its tittering laughter profaned the silence.  Neither traces nor reins led back to the driver, who stood with legs wide apart and braced – Kha’apophis it was, the fearsome hunter-magus, his spare frame swathed in dark robes.  His hood fell back a fraction as he shifted his weight, moonlight revealing a faience-bound beard and hieroglyphs tattooed down one patrician cheek.  A silver-handled whip uncoiled; he cracked it in the air above the beast’s head.

The chariot trundled to a stop.

The magus sniffed the night air.  It was moist and alive, redolent with mud and decay.  And death.  He could smell it – the lingering stench of bowel and bladder, the coppery tang of spilled blood.  But there was something else, too.  He cupped the air and released it beneath his aquiline nose, drawing in deep lungfuls.  There.  The magus caught only the slightest hint of the oil of lotus.  A woman’s perfume.  A courtesan’s.

“Ammeshki,” he hissed, a sibilance in his voice that hearkened back to the Serpent Folk.

He stepped down from the chariot and surveyed the ground.  After a moment, he crouched by a patch of marsh grass where flies buzzed over days-old dried blood.  Here, a body had fallen; it had lain for a day, perhaps more, before slaves from the city collected it.  Kha’apophis could read the spoor as easily as he read hieratic writing, for he had been a hunter of a different sort in his youth – the crushed grass; the claw-marks of small scavengers; hoof prints; the impressions in the dust from a wheeled cart; the imprint of a bare human foot.  The magus frowned.  It was the custom of Shamusat to burn the dead in great brick ovens then seal their charred bones in jars of terracotta.  Such traditions foiled the arts of those who would prey upon the dead, the tomb robbers and necromancers.  Fortunately, the magus was neither.

He settled back on his haunches, oblivious to the blowflies and the stench; from inside his robes, Kha’apophis drew forth a bone flute.  The beast yoked to his chariot stamped and pawed at the ground as its master began skirling out an eerie tune, long fingers moving spider-like over the dozen holes.  Discordant notes coaxed black tendrils up from the ground to hang in the heavy air.  These drank in the light of the moon, reflected nothing.  There was no beauty in the music; it was by turns harsh and screeching, then low and rough, with nothing the human brain could comprehend as artistry behind it.  But as the hellish song reached its crescendo, the tendrils coalesced into a shape hewn from black fog – a sheut, the shadow of the dead man.

The magus lowered the flute.  “Who sent you to your ka?”

The sheut twisted and writhed.  A moaning sound came from it.

“Who sent you to your ka?”

The answer came at the end of a hiss, as though the moonlight burned the shadow’s incorporeal essence.  Already, shreds of it were dissipating back into the ground.  “Tagoth,” the sheut whispered.  “VarangianSpear.”

“Where is he bound?”  Kha’apophis played a short, sharp note in an effort to arrest the sheut’s disintegration, but to no avail.  “Quickly!  Where has Tagoth gone?  Answer me!”

Without the otherworldly music to bolster it, the sheut melted in the silvery light; but ere it vanished back into the ground a last syllable escaped its essence: “Akro—

And then it was gone.

Kha’apophis rose smoothly to his feet and tucked the flute into his robes.  He paused to look away to the northwest, where clouds scudded and the unearthly green glow of an aurora crackled across the horizon.  A smile flirted at the corners of his perfect lips.

“Akrotiri,” he said, as though it were the answer to a riddle that had long perplexed him.  “The Fates spin their webs and laugh as we dance to the same tunes throughout eternity.”

And the magus, who had hunted lion by necessity as a youth – and who now hunted men for sport – resumed his place in the chariot.  The whip cracked twice over the beast’s head.  And with the echo of its maniacal laughter drifting across the marshes of Shamusat, the beast lurched forward into the darkness, taking the little-used road that led to the seaside town of Akrotiri . . . — “Untitled Barbarian Story”

I really like that imagery as a character intro.  It’s atmospheric, descriptive, and (to me) flows well.  Of course, in order to use it for Prince Artavatas I’d need to change a few things — some cosmetic, like place names; others more in depth, like the sorcery he is preparing to employ.  And I needed to fit it into that last portion of the Yaralet Fragment.  So, taking all of the above into consideration, here’s what the scene looks like with the cannibalized segment in place, cleaned up, and painted with the pigments and hues of the Hyborian Age:

Conan Unconquered

In the city of Yaralet, when night came on, the people barred windows and bolted doors, and sat behind their barriers shuddering, with candles burning before their household gods until dawn etched the spires.  No watchmen walked the streets, no painted wenches beckoned from the shadows, no thieves stole nimbly through the winding alleys.  Rogues, like honest people, shunned the shadowed ways, gathering in foul-smelling dens, or candle-lighted taverns.  From dusk to dawn Yaralet was a city of silence, her streets empty and desolate.

Exactly what they feared, the people did not know.  But they had ample evidence that it was no empty dream they bolted their doors against.  Men whispered of slinking shadows, glimpsed from barred windows-of hurrying shapes alien to humanity and sanity.  They told of doorways splintering in the night, and the cries and shrieks of humans followed by significant silence; and they told of the rising sun etching broken doors that swung in empty houses, whose occupants were seen no more.

Even stranger, they told of the swift rumble of phantom chariot wheels along the empty streets in the darkness before dawn, when those who heard dared not look forth.  One child peered from his darkened window, once, but was instantly stricken mad and died screaming and frothing, without telling what he saw.

On the night of the battle, then, the people of Yaralet shivered in their bolted houses and mourned the dead, their bodies left to feed the jackals by the banks of the Zaporoska.  The battlefield shimmered beneath a gibbous moon.  Down among the bloody rills and folds of the earth, where the waters of the river ranged without rhyme or reason, the night was hot and damp, fecund.  Here, nothing moved.  An uncanny silence had fallen; no frogs trilled, no insects chirruped, and the voices of a thousand scavengers faded – as though something so terrible drew near that it stole the breath from their lungs.  Only the breeze remained, defiant, its fingers rustling the tall grasses and the dry leaves of sycamores and acacias.

Soon, even it died away.

Had any man been alive on that gory field then, they would have beheld an eerie sight: a wall of swirling darkness drifting down the road from Yaralet – an inscrutable cloud shot through with flickering green ghost-lights.  As it reached the edge of the killing field the darkness shredded and dissipated, revealing a chariot of age-blackened wood.  Unknown hands had carved coiling sigils in its surface, hieroglyphs from an age when serpents walked upright like men and made our apish ancestors their slaves.

What pulled this chariot was a thing from nightmares.  A mammoth black-furred beast, like some unnatural spawn of hyena and ape; it was taller than a man at the shoulders and as broad as four, with hackles raised and rigid like the spines of a great lizard.  It clawed the earth with feet the size of round shields.  Green eyes flashed; slaver dripped from knife-like teeth as its tittering laughter profaned the silence.  Neither traces nor reins led back to the driver, who stood with legs wide apart and braced – Artavatas, it was, the fearsome Black Prince of Yaralet.  His spare frame was swathed in dark robes.  His hood fell back a fraction as he shifted his weight, moonlight revealing a faience-bound beard and hieroglyphs tattooed down one patrician cheek.  A silver-handled whip uncoiled; he cracked it in the air above the beast’s head.

The chariot trundled to a stop.

The Prince of Yaralet sniffed the night air.  It was moist, redolent with the churned earth of strife, the lingering stench of bowel and bladder, and the coppery tang of spilled blood.  But there was something else, too.  He cupped the air and released it beneath his aquiline nose, drawing in deep lungfuls.  There.  He caught only the slightest hint of the oil of lotus.  A woman’s perfume.

“Rubati,” he hissed; the sibilance in his voice that hearkened back to the Serpent Folk.

He stepped down from the chariot and surveyed the ground.  After a moment, he crouched by a patch of marsh grass where flies buzzed over days-old dried blood.  Here, a body had fallen; not dead.  No.  Only stunned.  Injured.  Artavatas could read the spoor as easily as he read the glyphs of Stygia, for he had been a hunter of a different sort in his youth – the crushed grass; the claw-marks of small scavengers; hoof prints; the impressions in the loam of a sandaled foot.  The Prince frowned.  Someone had found Rubati; someone had taken her.

Artavatas settled back on his haunches, oblivious to the blowflies and the stench; from inside his robes, he drew forth a bone flute.  The beast yoked to his chariot stamped and pawed at the ground as its master began skirling out an eerie tune, long fingers moving spider-like over the dozen holes.  Discordant notes coaxed black tendrils up from the ground to hang in the heavy air.  These drank in the light of the moon, reflected nothing.  There was no beauty in the music; it was by turns harsh and screeching, then low and rough, with nothing the human brain could comprehend as artistry behind it.  But as the hellish song reached its crescendo, the tendrils coalesced into a shape hewn from black fog with slitted eyes the color of rot.

Artavatas lowered the flute.  “O child of night, friend of gloom; who revels in the laughter of jackals and thirsts for crimson gore,” he said.  “Rouse your sisters and attend!  By the blood of the Zhemri which flows in my veins, I seek redress!  Outlanders and interlopers have stolen what is mine!  Aid me, and their choicest cuts of flesh and freshets of hot foaming blood shall be yours!”

The answer came at the end of a hiss, as though the moonlight burned the shadow’s incorporeal essence.  Already, shreds of it were dissipating back into the ground.  “Mormo,” the spirit-thing whispered.  “Gorgo, the hound with a thousand faces, arise.”

And then it was gone.

Artavatas rose smoothly to his feet and tucked the flute into his robes.  He paused to look up at the night sky, where clouds scudded and the unearthly green glow of an aurora crackled across the horizon.  A smile flirted at the corners of his lips.

“Arise and fight again,” he said, as a moan rippled through the trampled grasses and furrows of churned earth.  Pale, mottled flesh jerked.  “Let the Fates spin their webs and laugh as we dance to the same tune throughout eternity.”

And the Black Prince of Yaralet resumed his place in the chariot.  The whip cracked twice over the beast’s head.  And with the echo of its maniacal laughter drifting across the banks of the Zaporoska, the beast lurched forward into the darkness, taking a wheel-rutted road that led into the hills.  Behind him, an army of the dead shuddered and arose . . . — “Conan Unconquered”

In Part Three, I’m going to finally get to the voice of Conan, himself; how I went about writing such an iconic character who has loomed large over my life since boyhood.  I’m also going to discuss a pet peeve of mine: the naming conventions of the Hyborian Age.  This latter, I think, is where a lot of pastiche and licensed fiction authors stumble the hardest.

If you’re enjoying this look under the hood, please do drop a comment below, and share the post around your internet haunts!

To be continued . . .

4 Replies to “Anatomy of a Pastiche, Part Two”

  1. I did as you suggested and grabbed a frosty beverage and started reading. The first time I read your story I found my Wandering Star (same as Del Rey) copy and had the Howard fragments available. I noticed your changes and get why you had to. I guess Howard would have made quite a different story (for example, the girl was naked and the fragments are so short). But I like your take on it. Impressive puzzlework on your part :). Looking forward to part three.

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