The Howardian Cataclysm: A Review of “The Day After Ragnarok”
Saturday, July 4, 2009
posted by Al Harron
First of all, my sincere apologies for those looking forward to the final part of my series on Cormac Fitzgeoffrey. A combination of home events and gremlins in the computer mean that the final chapter will have to wait. I appreciate your patience in this interregnum.
In the meantime, something I was going to post after the Cormac series has been promoted to this week.
“Know, O Prince, that between the years when the Serpent fell and the oceans drank America and the gleaming cities, and the rise of the Sons of Space, there was an Age undreamed of, when nations guttered low and flared brilliant across the poisoned world like dying stars–California and Texas each claiming the flag of the West, France torn asunder and facing the desert, harsh Mexico, slumbering Brazil, Argentina where the seeds of Thule lay waiting, ancient lands of Persia and Arabia and Iraq between two empires, the coldly clutching Soviet Union whispering behind its Wall of Serpent, Japan whose warriors wore steel and silk and khaki. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Australia, the last green and pleasant land, ringed around by its dominions and bulwarked by the sea…”
The above text wears its influence squarely on its sleeve, and it is but one of a multitude of homages to Robert E. Howard in The Day After Ragnarok, a role playing game source book by Kenneth Hite. Hite has made no secret of this: after acknowledging the very real, and very weird, history of World War II occult and genetic experiments as influence, Howard takes pride of place in the “Inspirations” chapter of the book, mentioning the essential Del Rey Conan collections. It is clear Mr Hite has done his homework.
Confession time: when it comes to board games and tabletop RPGs I’m rather inexperienced. I’ve only played a few games of Dungeons & Dragons, mostly altered to include dinosaurs, ape men and other Lost World staples. That said, I still find the allure of the RPG fascinating, even if the barrage of numbers and die fill me with as much dread as any Tarrasque. Hence how I have more than a few volumes of the Conan RPG despite never actually playing a single game: I may not always agree with the writer’s extrapolations, but they’re usually well thought out and fascinating to read.
That appeal is simple enough. For all the desire for an intricate, spellbinding plot and dynamic character interplay, I find something fascinating about reading about the particulars of a setting. The nouns, as opposed to the verbs, if you will. If the standard style of dramatic fiction is the equivalent of a history book, then a source book is the equivalent of a textbook or encyclopedia: a book you can read in any order, at any page you desire. These books don’t even attempt to pull together a plot and introduce character interactions, they merely list the characters, places and occasionally events to set the scene for further adventure. I enjoy reading Howard’s “Notes on Various Peoples” and “The Hyborian Age” as much as any of his tales.
An example of this sort of “encyclopedia of fiction” is The New Dinosaurs by Dougal Dixon. This “alternate prehistory” posits a possible earth where the cataclysm which claimed the dinosaurs did not happen, and they continued to thrive. After sixty-five million years of evolution, the pages within detail a menagerie of that other earth. There are no heroes from “our world” desperate to get home, no observers in peril, none of those trappings–although they would make a great science ficiton adventure–just the world and its inhabitants. Other examples from Dixon include After Man: A Zoology of the Future, Man After Man: An Anthropology of the Future, and the television series The Future is Wild. Books in a similar vein are The World of Kong, a fictional encyclopedia of Skull Island megafauna; and A Natural History of the Unnatural World, a field guide to mythological creatures in a scientific context.
This is the approach I use for The Day After Ragnarok. Much of the book is less a narrative than a tome of eldritch knowledge, but the narrative that is found in the form of historical information happens to be refreshingly different, yet hearkening back to the pulps: gigantic happenings on the world stage, brave heroes and dastardly villains, strange cults and awe-inspiring science. Everything from the pulps and 1940′s serials can be found–yet with a sufficient infusion of Howardian themes, it’s still recognizably separate from the ripping yarns of Doc Savage, The Shadow and Flash Gordon, and especially modern homages like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.
Kenneth Hite is a man who knows what he’s doing. As an author and game designer, he shows a great knowledge of fantastic fiction. He’s even written Cthulhu Mythos tales for children, in Where the Deep Ones Are and the upcoming The Antarctic Express. Though a bit crestfallen that he cornered the Lovecraft Babies market before I could get The Toddler Out of Time published, it’s still amazing to see the sheer amount of output Hite has achieved. I must confess I haven’t read any of his previous work, but The Day After Ragnarok has entirely changed my stance on that.
A fascinating merging of Norse Mythology and Roadside Picnic, with bits and pieces of gung-ho war action, spy thrillers, and post-apocalyptic horror, the influence of Robert E. Howard on The Day After Ragnarok is very noticeable. Outside of a few sly references–for example, in this alternate universe, Ronald Reagan starred in American propaganda films as Conan–the essential hallmarks of Howard’s weird fiction are present and correct. There are great cataclysms rocking and reshaping the earth, barbarism defying the ruins of civilization as sinister cults seek to undo both, right down to the unshakeable malignity of snakes. We even have Set cultists running rampant throughout the globe.
The background story is highly reminiscent of one of the more interesting Cthulhu Mythos pastiches, Charles Stross’ “A Colder War.” In this novelette, the events of “At The Mountains of Madness” are documented history, and in 1961 a followup mission to Antarctica takes place. What results is a fusion of espionage thriller, science fiction mystery and (of course) cosmic horror. The Day After Ragnarok is, at its core, an alternate history where Howard’s fiction has a basis in reality. Jormagundr must truly be one of Set’s children, if not Set himself; the Narts echo the cold might of the Ice-Giants; the various mangled and chaotic things that issue from the Serpent’s innards remind of the horrors of the Scarlet Citadel, the Isle of the Eons, and the Worms of the Earth. The presence of sorcery-fueled imperialism in Russia instantly evoke the weird menace of “Skull-Face,” “The Black Bear Bites’ and “Black Colossus.”
The world is familiar, yet the vague differences in continental outline make it uncannily alien. The majority of North America and Ireland has become a hellish wasteland, South America is split open by volcanoes, the Soviet Union sprawls from Chukotka to the Alps: only Australia resembles its pre-Serpentfall self. Civilization as it was in 1945 is gone. The remnants of the British Empire struggle to retain cohesion with the loss of Great Britain, wrestling with the French Colonies for territory in Africa. The states of America are united no longer, crumbling into petty kingdoms and nations akin to those in A Canticle for Leibowitz. All eyes watch over the ruins of Egypt, known now as Ras al-Thuban–the Serpent’s Head–a dark land so scorched and warped by sorcerous energy that would give Mordor a run for its money. Most drastic of all is the great new mountain range formed from the body of the serpent, stretching from Scotland to Egypt, with the Serpent’s gargantuan skull leering over the blackened wounds of the world.
My one complaint–if it can be called that–is that my beloved homeland did not appear to survive Serpentfall, crushed under the scales of Jormagundr. The knowledge that the Auld Enemy came off just as poorly was little solace for this proud Scotsman. Still, the joy of such a campaign setting is that there is still plenty of room for story ideas. Has Scotland somehow survived being crushed by a trillion ton World Serpent, the peaks of the Grampians and Cairngorms leaving gaps between snake and valley, resulting in a sort of Scottish “Pellucidar”? Then again, considering the horrors proximity to Jormagundr brings, I’d say once Bonny Scotland would have a “Level 7 Serpent Taint” according to the game’s system of geographic corruption, a chaotic inferno just shy of Pandmonium.
It is often said that Howard, along with Tolkien, is one of the foundation stones upon which the grand tower of modern fantasy is built: it is just unfortunate, as with Tolkien, that so many look at the surface elements like people, places and things, and assume that this is their lasting appeal. With Tolkien it is the elves, dwarves, orcs and quests to defeat Dark Lords which run wild in dime-a-dozen Tolkien imitations, with none seeking to adopt or even address the deeper themes: the sense of deepest tragedy and loss, that nothing is permanent in this world despite the grand designs of elves and men, of the far-reaching consequences of war affecting even the faraway Shires of the world, and the realization that no matter what power a Dark Lord can exercise, he cannot reach to beyond the stars.
With Howard, it is the obvious pulp trappings like the thickly muscled barbarian hero rescuing frightened, voluptuous damsels from irredeemably evil sorcerers or monsters that turn up time and again: little to none of the deeply cynical worldview, fighting the cold indifferent cosmos with all the fire of human spirit, striving to survive in a dangerous and violent world. Most of all, the innate tragedy of man, who despite his strength and will is yet powerless against the might of time, a brief candle in the mad immensity of night. Those stories of Ersatz-Conans in other worlds, or even “official” pastiches, are no more like Howardian under the surface than He-Man is like Conan.
The real Howard influence goes beyond mere setting and character, to look at the timeless truths his greatest stories share, be they set in An Age Undreamed Of, Dark Age Britain, Medieval Outremer, 19th century Afghanistan, or 1930′s Texas. There’s more to Howard than Conan, or even Sword-and-Sorcery: there are deep, unifying themes that carry through all his tales, and that is what makes a story–or a setting–”Howardian.” It is frustrating that few look beyond the surface of Howard’s fiction, not just for Howard’s sake, but for the sake of future Sword-and-Sorcery.
Luckily, there are some who do look beyond the sex and violence to the darkly beautiful poetry beneath. The Day After Ragnarok is more Howardian in theme, scope and detail than many supposed “Conan” or “Howardian” stories combined. Kenneth Hite gets it. If only there were more in the literary and gaming industry who do.