Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Charles Saunders and Imaro

I'm very happy this week to find myself enjoying an author I hadn't read before: Charles R. Saunders, seminal writer of sword-and-soul set in a mythical Africa-that-never-was. I first learned of Mr. Saunders' work over at Swords and Sorcery; Mr. Vredenburgh has also reviewed it at Black Gate. I read (er, listened to) Saunders' 1981 fix-up novel Imaro over the weekend, and finished up Imaro 2: The Quest for Cush today.

And, wow. Something about it just resonates with me. I've read latter-day sword-and-sorcery by the likes of Fritz Lieber and Michael Moorcock, and found it enjoyable enough, but to me it just doesn't carry the bite or freshness of Robert E. Howard or the other old pulp writers. Charles Saunders' brooding Imaro obviously owes a lot to Conan, but the tales of his exploits have a depth and substantiality all their own. For all that they're entertaining adventure stories, they take themselves seriously, and occasionally transcend the genre.

As in the best of fantasy, the Imaro stories are suffused with the living presence of their secondary world. And, to me at least, it's a refreshingly different secondary world. Nyumbani is a beautiful and stirring picture of the soul of Africa and its peoples as seen from within, as opposed to the exotic and alien but essentially flat backdrop of Howard's, Burroughs', or Haggard's Africa.

It's pretty obvious to someone who adulates and emulates the great triumvirate of the pulps (REH, HPL, CAS) that Mr. Saunders is inspired by their works – the first two especially – but with a certain amount of inner conflict. I've written a bit about this on my own account. In one story that I particularly like, "The City of Madness," the first part of Imaro 2, the hero encounters a lost city of white men – a common trope in Haggard, Burroughs, and Howard – where the inhabitants' conquests are celebrated in carvings of lordly white men subduing "apish" (Saunders' word) black men, a dehumanization that deeply angers Imaro. That descriptor is drawn, with heavy irony, from Robert E. Howard, who uses it to describe the black men in his stories. And as for H. P. Lovecraft, whose racial views are well-known, the story concludes with a crude jest at the expense of a cosmic entity with a name not unlike Yog-Sothoth.

But at the same time, this and the other Imaro stories are not "smart" postmodern exercises in deconstructive metafiction. No, they're ripping good yarns told with a straight face, with the zest and aplomb of the best pulp writers. So in Saunders I see someone who genuinely loves the work of HPL and REH while deeply hating the racism that mars it, and who has the audacity and courage to write stories that celebrate the good while critiquing the bad.

Here's another example. Weird horror leaks into the Imaro stories all over the place – as it should in any true sword-and-sorcery tale – and its form is often reminiscent the Chthulu mythos. In "The Place of Stones," the third story in Imaro, the eponymous hero, an isolated half-breed, encounters a sorcerer whose willing commerce with the dark forces of mchawe have transformed his body into something out of "The Dunwich Horror." The parallel seems pointed. HPL's Wilbur Whately is a monster precisely because he is a half-breed. Imaro, on the other hand, is a half-breed pitted against an adversary who has made himself a monster through his own choices. In the former, evil is in heredity; in the latter, evil is in choice.

So there are incisive comments here and there, for those with the eyes to see them. But, as I said, the stories themselves are not commentaries. They don't preach or moralize. They are supremely enjoyable S&S tales, unapologetic homages to REH and the rest. Imaro may pause to brood over bas reliefs, but he then goes into the crumbling city like Conan into Xuthal or Xuchotil to save his woman and thwart elder evils.

This is a writing blog (mostly). When I review books, I do so from the point of view of a writer. As a writer, I think Mr. Saunders will be an inspiration to me in the future.

For one thing, his Imaro books have had a difficult career, to say the least. The first three volumes were published by DAW Books in the eighties, but a cover quote calling Imaro "a black Tarzan" (!?) on the cover of the first provoked a lawsuit from the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate, causing delays and poor sales. The series was eventually dropped by DAW after the third installment as a financial failure. Attempts to revive the series over the next decade or so proved unsuccessful.

The first two volumes were published in revised editions by Night Shade Books in 2006 and 2008, together with the excellent audiobooks to which I'm listening. But, alas, nothing more came of that for Imaro, when the series was again dropped due to poor sales. Mr. Saunders subsequently published a revised version of the third volume independently, through Sword & Soul Media, and the fourth volume of Imaro finally came out through the same channel in 2009.

Now, okay, I haven't read the third or fourth volumes, but I've read the first two, and found them damn good. It's a shame that Mr. Saunders has had to resort to self-publishing. My natural reaction is: What is wrong with people? Apparently there's no room for Imaro on the shelves of readers or bookstores. Who's at fault? I don't know. Nobody, maybe.

And yet Mr. Saunders has stuck with it all these years. That really says something to me as a writer. He walks a difficult line, writing what he likes rather than what people think he ought to write. I found this on his blog:
I think we need to concentrate on writing good stories with fast-moving plots, compelling characters and intriguing backgrounds. Readers – whether they are black or otherwise – will be attracted to those stories, provided that they become aware of the stories' existence. I should amend that to say some readers. There will always be certain readers who simply don't like a writer's stuff. But there will also be those who love a writer's stuff, and the Internet provides an excellent way to connect with them... 
Meanwhile, I have no time for this "If you don't write about the ghetto, you ain't black" nonsense. You write what you are inspired to write. Inspiration is what motivates you to produce the perspiration necessary to pursue any creative endeavor, whether it's writing, visual art, music, or film-making. If a writer is inspired to write "street lit," then he or she should go for it. But we should not impose limits on our inspirations – or our imaginations. [Audience – Where Are You?]
But he's also caught flack of another sort. When Imaro was issued by Night Shade Books, one of its six stories ("Slaves of the Giant Kings") was replaced by a new story ("The Afua") because the former, Mr. Saunders felt, too closely resembled the Rwandan genocide. This didn't sit well with some readers, and one went so far as to accuse him of having made the change because of "misdirected shame" over the fact that blacks can behave just as atrociously as whites. The comment is offensive for multiple reasons which I'll not try to enumerate. But so there's that kind of thing, too.

Incidentally, I enjoyed "The Afua" considerably. I wasn't aware that it was a newer story while listening to it. The titular image, worshiped by a forest tribe, is a mute, enigmatic figure covered with golden spikes, reposing in a shrine remote from the rest of its village. It possesses a strange, creepy magnetism, and serves as the center that binds the community together. When the people are robbed of it they are robbed of common purpose and life's meaning. Disorientation and despair overwhelm them. Ultimately they meet a haunting fate in the deeps of the jungle.

I recently visited an African exhibit at a museum of fine arts. I looked at the artifacts carved of wood and decorated much as this Afua, and wondered what gulfs must separate my mind from their makers'. What was the world like to them? Was it a good place? A frightening place? What does an image like Afua mean to the person who venerates it? The term idolatry that a Westerner might be tempted to apply hardly seems sufficient, or just. For a people dwelling at the dawn of man (in state if not in time), enclosed by the dark womb of nature, the universe is a sublime and terrible place, and just because their instinctive movement toward latria can't be codified doesn't mean that their practices, though strange to our eyes, are mere simple-mindedness or superstition. I don't know if it is possible to really say what Afua means to them.

So you see, these are the kinds of things that occur to me while reading the Imaro stories. Elric of Melniboné sparks no such speculation. I intend to follow up the further adventures of Imaro in volumes three and four once I get around to ordering them, and may try Saunders' other work as well.

Thank you, Mr. Saunders, for continuing to write original, honest-to-goodness sword-and-sorcery. You are an inspiration, sir.


  1. Glad to be of service and thank you for the shout out. Happy to read you like Saunders' stories. He really is one of the best S&S authors, working in a straight line from the pulp-era founders, and there's never the secret smirk to his stories I find in some Moorcock or even Leiber. The Dossouye stories are a little too on-the-nose about bringing up and making certain points, but are still good, exciting tales.

    It was inspiring to see him leap into self-publishing when the Night Shade deal fell through.

    1. Yeah, it's disheartening to me that Saunders is not more well-known, but at least authors have access to a variety of outlets these days. I'll probably try the Dossouye stories at some point.