Steve Tompkins: Ten Years Gone

Ten years ago, we lost one of our own.  REH scholar and peerless writer Steve Tompkins passed away on 3/23/09, from complications related to an illness.  It was the first such death to affect me on more than a surface level.  I want to share something from the archives, from the first anniversary of Steve’s passing:

The Ideal Reader: A Tribute to Steve Tompkins

It has become something of a cliché to say that authors write for an audience of one. Clichéd, but nonetheless true. Most often, this singular audience is the author himself, but some also write for the enjoyment of another, for an individual they hold in esteem: a spouse or loved one, a friend, an old teacher. Sitting metaphorically at the author’s shoulder, this individual becomes their Ideal Reader—a person who, to quote Stephen King’s excellent On Writing, “at various points during the composition of a story, the writer is thinking, ‘I wonder what he/she will think when he/she reads this part?’”

Steve Tompkins was my Ideal Reader.

I never got the chance to actually meet Steve, nor were we correspondents. I knew him solely through his dense and erudite essays at The Cimmerian; essays filled with insights and deliciously turned phrases that often forced me to reach for my dictionary. From each one, I gleaned a little something about the kind of man Steve was: passionate, eloquent, and generous in both praise and criticism. The highest laurel I can lay upon his brow is to say that he was a world-class scholar of literature; as a writer in his notice, especially one newly published, that forged in me a desire to bring my best work forward.

I have two moments as a published author that I will never forget. One was hearing that my first novel, Men of Bronze, had earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly; the second was casually clicking the link from my blog to The Cimmerian blog and reading an essay wherein Steve Tompkins recommended my work. It was a heady moment, and I doubt he knew how much his approbation bolstered my self-confidence. I was a writer! And I knew it, by God, because Steve Tompkins said so!

In the end, the Fates decided to cut Steve’s life far too short. It is to my eternal regret that I didn’t take time to send Steve more than a cursory thank-you note; I regret I didn’t express how much I appreciated his kind words, and that his essays were like peripatetic sojourns into the dark heart of the fantastic. I regret I did not write faster, so he could have read The Lion of Cairo.

Most of all, I regret not letting Steve know he was my Ideal Reader.

raise the horns

Raise your horns, mates, and drink to the shade of one of our own!


The Shadow of Vengeance Companion — Chapter Two

Welcome back to the Companion! Hopefully, this weekend you’ve had a chance to read the second installment of “The Shadow of Vengeance” appearing in the pages of Marvel’s Savage Sword of Conan #2. If not, well . . . go fix that. We’ll wait.


So, Chapter Two marks the first appearance of our hero, Conan of Cimmeria. I see this as the “make or break” chapter in terms of pastiche writing. Because if I can’t nail this character, then what’s our purpose here? We didn’t pick up the comic to get generic barbarian fantasy, did we? Hell, no. We came for Conan, and Conan needs to sound and act like REH’s indomitable Cimmerian.

Before we get into the nuts and bolts, I’d like to address a review from over the weekend. S.E. Lindberg is a mate, and a damn fine writer himself. In his review of SSOC #2, he states:

“The bonus serial installment of “Shadow of Vengeance” by Scott Oden was an okay follow-up to an awesome beginning from Savage Sword Of Conan (2019-) #1. Conan is now on stage with Octavia. I appreciate the call outs to the Hyborian Age milieu but it ate two of the this three-page dose.”

It’s a fair criticism. My word count limit per chapter was 1500 words, so why did I expend the first 779 words on bits that might not matter? Who cares how the fishing village survives? Yadda yadda yadda . . . it’s a fishing village, they survive on fish. And the boats! Do we need to know what they are? Just call them boats and move along! And who gives a fig what Conan is wearing? Slap him in a loincloth, strap a sword on him, and there you go! Why are you wasting words!?

The technique I’m using is one known in film and TV as the Establishing Shot. You start at a wide angle, the landscape, and narrow your focus until you’re centered on a single character — or, in this case, a pair of characters, Conan and Octavia. It’s a technique Howard used quite often (he was a surprisingly cinematic storyteller for the early 20’s and 30’s), though I’ve never been able to match his economy of words.

Here, the technique serves a deeper purpose: to anchor my fictional landscape firmly in Howard’s. As I said, this is not an attempt at writing generic barbarian fantasy. This is Conan, and the aesthetic of Conan is more historical adventure than fantasy. And most historical adventure is deeply rooted in time and place. But, what to do when both time and place do not exist? My best answer is to create the illusion of existence. And that’s what the 779 words that open Chapter Two are meant to accomplish, to splice Djerda into the complex roots laid down by Howard. To give the stage on which the balance of the story is played out the illusion of existence.

As for Conan himself, the description is meant to echo the description Howard wrote in “The Devil in Iron”, and to disassociate readers from the fur-diaper-wearing barbarian of pop cultural memory. This is the Real Deal. The exchange between Conan and Octavia, then between Conan and Ivanos, were the hardest lines of dialogue I’ve ever written. The Cimmerian’s voice had to sound like Howard’s Conan, not Oden’s Conan.

To achieve this, I opened a text file and imported the text of my favorite Conan stories from Project Gutenberg. Then, I excised everything but Conan’s dialogue. This became my guide, my bible, to replicate Howard’s syntax, style, word choice, even punctuation. I think I pulled it off, but ultimately you’re the judge of that, Gentle Reader.

Trivia: “Djerda” is a corruption of “Djerba”, an island off the Tunisian coast that has a long history of piracy. Details of Djerda’s commerce are drawn from an article on the Caspian Sea found on Wikipedia. I imagined the Red Brotherhood as a fleet-borne army and the landlubbers who took over Djerda as their camp followers.

Trivia 2: The ships presented at the beginning of the chapter are Byzantine, shading into Ottoman. I found great write-ups on them in Lionel Casson’s The Ancient Mariners (Macmillan, 1959) and in Pirates!: Brigands, Buccaneers, And Privateers In Fact, Fiction, And Legend by Jan Rogozinski (Da Capo Press, 1996).

Trivia 3: The details of Conan’s attire are drawn from the study of Ilya Repin’s 1891 masterpiece, Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire. I think Howard himself intended for the Zaporoskan kozaks to be analogous with the Zaporozhian Cossacks in more than name only.


Trivia 4: We last saw Ivanos in the April, 1934 issue of Weird Tales, in the story “Shadows in the Moonlight” (“Iron Shadows in the Moon”). He was Sergius of Khrosha’s mate who took Conan’s side after the latter killed the former in a duel.

That’s it for Chapter Two.  If you have any questions, drop me a comment here or hit me up on social media.  Next time, things start to go pear-shaped in Chapter Three!

The Shadow of Vengeance Companion – Chapter One

By now, many of you have hopefully read the first chapter of “The Shadow of Vengeance” in Savage Sword of Conan #1. If not, look away (unless you have no fear of under-the-hood, nuts-and-bolts spoilers regarding inspiration and craft). Better yet, go get it and read it. I’ll wait . . .

Got it? Read it? Good. Welcome to the inaugural post in a series that explores the process behind the writing of each chapter of the novella. Here, I’m going to discuss what I recall about inspiration, research, stylistic concerns, and trivia. Right now, my plan is to publish a new post on the Monday following each issue’s release. So, if you have questions, get them to me over the weekend after you read the next chapter.

Thus, without further ado . . . Chapter One.


I don’t know if it’s a burning question, but one good question I’ve been asked is, “why a sequel to ‘The Devil in Iron’? Is that your favorite Conan story?” No, as a matter of fact. “Black Colossus” is probably my favorite, with The Hour of the Dragon and “People of the Black Circle” vying for second place. But I chose to write a sequel to “The Devil in Iron” – as opposed to just a ‘generic’ Conan story not affiliated with canon – because it seemed like a good place to introduce the notion of of a death cult that would serve as a Hyborian Age parallel to the historic Assassins of Alamut. That’s what the Sicari are: a self-homage to my REH medieval homage, The Lion of Cairo. Yeah, I’m that guy, the one who homages his own homage in homage to the person he’s homaging . . . [insert me giving myself the stink-eye]

Moving on. Writing a follow-up to “The Devil in Iron” also gave me some room to explore a few of REH’s own characters. The relationship between Jehungir Agha and Ghaznavi always intrigued me. It reminds me of the relationship between Socrates and Alcibiades – a sort of father-son dynamic, mentor and student. And, as I pondered what the story here was going to be about, the image of a vengeful old schemer came to mind. If anyone was going to hire an assassin, it’d be old Ghaznavi. I made him regent, ruling in Jehungir’s stead until a replacement could be sent from Aghrapur. I have no idea if that could even happen in Turan, based as it is on the Ottoman Empire, but it made for a good bit of tale-spinning.

Trivia: In Turkic and Mongolian myth, the death-god Erlik had nine sons and nine daughters, the Karaoglanlar and the Karakizlar, respectively. Karash Khan was one of those sons, the god of darkness.

Trivia 2: Sicari is a corruption of sicarii, the dagger-men of the Jewish Zealot movement from the Roman era, who predated the Assassins. It’s not terribly creative, but it fits (to me) Howard’s pattern of taking historical sources and tweaking them a bit for inclusion into the Hyborian Age. Kozak for cossack is a good example.

Trivia 3: I based the plan of Khawarizm on that of medieval Antioch (see below). Call the river the Zaporoska and give it a waterfront and mole-protected harbor and there you go.


Now, when I received the commission from Perilous Worlds, my agent warned me about the tight chapter considerations. 1500 words (roughly 3 printed pages) per chapter; twelve chapters. Each chapter needed some sort of mini-cliffhanger. “Action haiku”, he called it. And he was right. I started with a very detailed synopsis of each chapter, including relevant dialogue and some action. Some were like pulling teeth to fit them into the 1500-word limit. But, Chapter One was probably the least painful chapter to write – partly, because I’d already written it, after a fashion. I cannibalized the first chapter of my old Richelieu story (which had also been cannibalized for my now-shelved Barbarian Story).

A note on style: while most of my work has been written in my own style, heavily influenced by REH and a few other writers, this is the first time I’ve tried to consciously ape his style. It’s not him, but in places it does a decent imitation of him. To that end, I patterned the first sentence after the opening of Chapter Two of “The Devil in Iron”:

Jehungir Agha, lord of Khawarizm and keeper of the coastal border, scanned once more the ornate parchment scroll with its peacock seal, and laughed shortly and sardonically. – “The Devil in Iron”

Ghaznavi, regent of Khawarizm and the one-time chief counsellor to its dead lord, Jehungir Agha, laid aside the parchment scroll and pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. – “The Shadow of Vengeance”

So, questions? Comments? Gripes?



Thought some readers might want to compare the synopsis version of Chapter One to the finished version.  The biggest change was the villain’s organization going from “the Heshayeen” to “the Sicari”.


In the port city of Khawarizm, near the mouth of the Zaporoska River on the southern shore of the Sea of Vilayet, Ghaznavi retires to his quarters after a hard day spent administering to the affairs of the city. He is a bearded, careworn old grandee who hides the shrewd mind of a diplomat behind the affable exterior of a market storyteller. For many years, Ghaznavi served as chief counselor to Jehungir Agha, the lord of Khawarizm. But, since the latter’s death on the mysterious island of Xapur, the rule of the city has temporarily fallen on Ghaznavi’s shoulders. He awaits the arrival of his new lord – a royal cousin from Aghrapur – with the zeal of a man awaiting the gallows.

Ghaznavi, though, has not been idle. He has sought to bring death and ruin upon the head of the outland barbarian responsible for his lord’s demise – a chief of the kozaks, that loose confederation of brigands and desperate men who haunt the fens of the Zaporoska and the steppe beyond. And this night, as he is about to kindle a lamp, his patience is finally rewarded. A voice accosts him from the shadows:

“Strike no light.”

An apparition lurks in the corner of his chambers; by the thin light of the moon, Ghaznavi has the impression of a cloaked silhouette, tall and lean, with glittering eyes and the barest hint of a beard showing from the depths of a hood. “We have heard your whispers, Ghaznavi of Khawarizm,” the figure says. “We have heard your prayers. You wish for a death.”

Ghaznavi knows, then, that this mysterious visitor is the Amir of the Heshayeen, a splinter cult of Erlik sometimes known as the Brotherhood of the Nine. Ghaznavi nods. “I wish for more than a mere death, O Amir,” he replies. “A simple death we could procure, given time – though our nemesis has proven inscrutably resilient to guile and force of arms. No, what I wish . . . what I desire more than anything, is to see him humiliated and cast out in shame ere you deliver him unto your dark and bloodthirsty god. I seek vengeance, O Amir.”

“And in exchange?”

“The wealth of Khawarizm!” replies Ghaznavi.

But, the Amir scoffs. “We have gold in plenty. Offer us something else.”

Ghaznavi is silent a moment. His shrewdness seeps through the affable exterior. “Your sect is outlawed. Indeed, the Grand Monarch himself has set a bounty upon the heads of you and your eight Heshayeen. I have heard rumors . . . of poison in a cup and of a king on his deathbed, but I dare not pry. I gather, however, that you seek a safe haven, and a chance to return to the Grand Monarch’s good graces.”

The Amir inclines his head, accepting Ghaznavi’s assessment.

“I can give you these things,” Ghaznavi says. “If Erlik’s temple here in Khawarizm, perchance, needed a new priest. Would this be of worth to you?”

“It would be worth a life. Though, you have no qualms? My presence alone is treason against the House of Yildiz.”

Ghaznavi leans forward, his features as resolute as those of the most bloodthirsty of lords. “For vengeance against Jehungir Agha’s slayer, I would plot treason against the gods, themselves!”

There is silence. Then: “Give us the name of the one you would see so humbled.”

“He is a hetman of the kozaks,” Ghaznavi says. “Those wastrel swine lurking at the edges of all that is good and civilized. A treacherous devil, he is, and a barbarian, to boot. He is called Conan.”

“Your vengeance will be done.”

Suddenly, the moon dims. A wind moans through the chambers; in the distance, a dog howls in terror. Fumbling, Ghaznavi strikes a light.

And in the unsteady glow of an oil lamp, he sees nothing but an empty room . . .