Wednesday, July 4, 2012

B-List Barbarians: Clifford Ball's "The Thief of Forthe"

In a previous post, I wrote of Clifford Ball's history (what little is known of him) and his first story published in Weird Tales, "Duar the Accursed". As I mentioned in that post, after the death of Robert E. Howard, Farnsworth Wright seemed to be attempting to find an author to fill the void left with the absence of Howard's stories (a decision Wright would shortly have second thoughts about and would in fact stop seeking/accepting stories that seemed imitative of Howard's style and/or stories). "The Thief of Forthe" was Ball's second published attempt to write a story in the tradition of Conan.

"Thief" first saw print in the July 1937 issue of Weird Tales. It has seen reprinting a couple of times. My reading copy comes from the story collection Savage Heroes (1975). Heroes, even without the Ball story, is a solid collection featuring: "Jirel Meets Magic" - C.L. Moore (and I have written of the the Jirel stories before); "The Spawn of Dagon" - Henry Kuttner; "Necromancy in Naat" - Clark Ashton Smith; "The Song at the Hub of the Garden" - Ramesy Campbell; "Alma Mater" - Daphne Castell; "In the Lair of Yslsl" - Karl Edward Wagner (whose Conan pastiche The Road of Kings, I have written of before); "The Barrow Troll" - David A. Drake; and lastly, "The Temple of Abomination" by my dearly loved Robert E. Howard.

Strangely, the cover states "Edited by Michel Parry"; however, the publication credits states the editor's name as Eric Pendragon. I am not sure if Eric Pendragon is a pseudonymous for Michel Parry, or not. In either case, it is illustrated throughout by Jim Pitts. I am not familiar with any previous or post work by Pitts and can share no information about him. Any further information known by readers would be appreciated.

As to the story itself, like "Duar", "Thief" is fast paced with no lack of action. In this story, gone is the character Duar to be replaced with the less interesting Rald. Rald is a thief to rival Conan, and it can not be helped but to draw comparisons between the two. Surly, Mr. Ball intended his stories to have a ready made audience and wasted no time making things familiar for the reader.

Rald the thief is drawn into a plot to steal the legendary Necklace of the Ebon Dynasty by Karlk the Magician. Via the deed of stealing the necklace, Karlk plots that Rald the Thief will become Rald the King, and hence in gratitude allow, either willingly or not, Karlk to be the power behind the throne. This gossamer reasoning is based upon the history of the Necklace:

"...the chief virtue of the heirloom lay not in its marketable worth, but in the legendary credits supposedly bestowed upon it by the multiple blessings of the Seven Gods...Hence the reasoning of Karlk, the magician: Many kings had worn the Necklace in judicial omnipotence, until the people of Forthe saw the wearer as a representative of the Seven Gods; if a man wore it...would not that man...[have] the right of kingship?"

I am not giving much away when I tell the good reader that Karlk is not what he seems and his intentions are not good. He really is not what he seems at all, meaning *SPOILER ALERT* Karlk is not human. He is what can best be described as an evolved white ape of Burroughs Barsoom stories (thinly veiled in Ball's story as "Jarsoom") whose evolution somewhat echoes the flavor of H.P. Lovecraft's stories (or perhaps more accurately, the flavor of a slip-shod Lovecraft pastiche).

As interesting as this twist is, it does not save Ball's story from being an obvious attempt to cash in on the absence of Howard's Conan yarns in the pages of Weird Tales. While it is a more focused tale than his previous "Duar the Accursed", it is also, for me, less interesting.

The only interior illustration for the story, art by Jim Pitts


Steve Dilks said...

"Savage heroes" was the first collection I read and introduced me to Jirel of Joiry, Elak of Atlantis, Kane and of course Cormac Mac Art.

Kilsern said...

It is an excellent sampling of Sword & Sorcery. I recently read "The Barrow Troll" and found it to be one the better S&S short stories I have come across in a long time.