Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Best Team-up that Never Happened.

It’s not often that you find in Western literature a Cossack warrior as a hero. But in a series of superb adventure stories by pulp writer Harold Lamb (recently reprinted in four volumes), we do get to follow along with a Cossack as he gets caught up in one wild adventure after another.


Set in the last 16th Century, Lamb’s stories introduce us to Khlit, an aging warrior whose wits are as sharp (and often as deadly) as his sword. "His ability to think clearly into the future," we're told in one story, "had kept Khlit alive until his hair was gray, when few Cossacks lived to middle age."


Khlit gets around. In the first few stories, he’s hanging out with his fellow Cossacks. But despite constantly proving himself to be smarter than everyone else (and still a master swordsman), they think he’s getting too old to fight. So he wanders off on his own. At this point, his adventures really kick into high gear. He gets involved in finding the hidden tomb of Genghis Khan. He sneaks into a city of Assassins and finishes them off from the inside out. He gets accused of assassinating the emperor of China (who has really only been kidnapped by traitors). He gets hunted as prey by the Tartars. He has myriad single combats and fights in huge battles involving tens of thousands of soldiers. He fights and thinks his way out of prisons and certain death on a regular basis.


Lamb gave his stories consistently fun finales. There's be a twist--or we'd get to see the culmination of Khlit's plan in dealing with his current situation--then there would often be another bigger twist on top of that, highlighting just how clever the Cossask is.


These stories were printed in Adventure magazine between 1917 and 1926. Adventure was a unique pulp, taking pride in printing high quality stories that combined excitement with historical accuracy. Lamb’s stories were standouts even among works by Rafael Sabatini and Talbot Mundy. Khlit is one super-cool guy and Lamb’s prose is animated and lively.


Reading these stories (most of which have never been reprinted before) reminded me of the one other Cossack pulp hero that I’m aware of. Here we have to turn to a writer who admired and was highly influenced by Lamb’s stories—Robert E. Howard.


“The Shadow of the Vulture” is a novella published in the January 1934 issue of Magic Carpet Magazine. Here we first meet Red Sonya, a red-haired warrior woman who is helping to defend the city of Vienna against the Turks during the siege of 1529.


She also spends a lot of time defending Gottfried von Kalmbach, a knight who has a price on his head. Some years earlier, Gottfried had personally wounded the emperor Suleyman on the battlefield. Now Suleyman has sent his most ruthless soldier, Mikhal Oglu, to bring him Gottfried’s head. So the knight has not only survive a series of regular battles, but also watch his back for treachery.


Sonya is at first contemptuous of Gottfried, but she gradually warms up to him and they become companions on the battlefield (how far their companionship might eventually go is never made clear). And if you need someone to watch over you on the battlefield, you can’t do better than Sonya, whose “blade is a blur of white fire, and men went like ripe grain before the reaper.” She saves Gottfried—who is no slouch himself in a fight—at least three times; once after he’s kidnapped by double agents inside Vienna’s damaged walls. There is an absolutely wonderful shock at the story's climax.


The novella is yet another exciting example of Howard’s own storytelling skills. It’s sad that he never got around to writing any more stories about Gottfried and Sonya. In the 1970s Conan comic book published by Marvel, Red Sonya (now Red Sonja) was moved back to the Hyborian Age to team up with Conan. She’s been in sword-and-sorcery land ever since, both in comics and in a series of paperback novels published at some point in the 1970s. There was also what is reputed to be a very bad movie (I haven’t seen it) made in the 1980s.


So the original 16th Century Red Sonya is limited to her one appearance. It really is sad.


But while reading the Khlit stories, I got to thinking. It’s not impossible that Sonya—a few decades after the siege of Vienna—could have met a young Khlit. Maybe she returns to her homeland after adventuring around Europe and the Middle East for a couple of decades with Gottfried. Khlit might have been a youthful warrior, just getting started in the business of warfare. Maybe Sonya is the person who taught him his swordsmanship. Maybe they even had an adventure or two together.


It’s a nice thought. But, sadly, we'll never know for sure.

4 comments:

  1. Ooh, that's a good one.

    There are a lot of Howard/Lamb crossovers I've wanted to see, most involving Cormac Fitzgeoffrey in some form, but the ultimate team-up in my mind is Dark Agnes and Red Sonya (maybe featuring Khlit and Michael Bearn!)

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  2. Gee whiz, I'd forgotten all about Dark Agnes. She was around in the same century as Sonya, wasn't she? Sonya and Gottfried could very well have run into her at some point. Now I'll have to dig up the Agnes stories somewhere and read them again.

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  3. Aggie and Sonya were both in the same timeframe, and could have met up quite handily. They might've started off at blows - Sonya could've looked on the Frenchwoman as a "Turk lover" - but REH liked to have enemies become friends. Look at Cormac Mac Art and Wulfhere.

    Del Rey are releasing "The Sword Woman and Other Historical Adventures" next January. I saw a preview of the art at Howard Days, looks excellent.

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  4. Very true. Several of his Crusades-era stories had Muslims and Christians teaming up. "The Road to Azrael" might be the best example of that.

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