Thursday, July 5, 2012

B-List Barbarians: Clifford Ball's "The Goddess Awakes"

"The Goddess Awakes" is the third story published by Clifford Ball in what can only be assumed was his attempt to cash in on the audience built by Robert E. Howard in the pages of Weird Tales with his Conan tales (For a look at his first two stories, go here and then here).

Ball's third story originally was published in the February 1938 issue of Weird Tales. The copy I read is included in the book Realms of Wizardry. Realms is an excellent collection of stories published in 1976 and was edited by Lin Carter. I use the word excellent to reflect the talent collected between it's covers: James Branch Cabell, A. Merritt, Lord Dunsany, Robert E. Howard, H. Rider Haggard and H.P. Lovecraft, just to name the authors printed upon the dust jacket. In fact, seventeen authors in total are included; however, one of the stores, "Quest of the Starstone", was a joint written tale by C.L. Moore and her husband Henry Kuttner. It involves Catherine Moore's two most popular characters, Jirel of Joiry and Northwest Smith, joining forces. The collection also includes an introduction and introductory notes to each story written by Lin Carter. An appendix for further reading is also included. If you find a copy at a used book store, don't hesitate to pick it up.

Like "The Thief of Forthe", "The Goddess Awakes" features the character Rald as its main protagonist; however, at this point in his career, Rald has given up thievery and has become a mercenary hiring out his sword to any who can afford him, unless the opposing army is of Forthe. In a vague way, Ball references his earlier story "Thief" in which it was implied that Rald would become involved with a lady of the court of Forthe (actually, the King's daughter). Due to his involvement with the Lady of Forthe, Rald will not take up arms against her kingdom. It is obvious to point out that Ball, by having Rald advance from a thief to now a mercenary is at least vaguely echoing the career of Conan for his character of Rald; he also did this for the first character he created then abandoned, Duar of "Duar the Accursed".

In this story, Rald has joined forces with the smaller framed mercenary Thwaine. Ball creates an easy banter between Rald and Thwaine that brings more life to this story then his former "Thief of Forthe". The two compliment each other well. I have never read the next three stories written by Ball, so I do not know if they were written in the same universe as his first three, if they were, I hope that he kept the team of Rald and Thwaine together. Of the two main protagonists created by Ball for his stories, Duar and Rald, Duar is the most interesting; however, Rald combined with Thwaine makes for a recipe as interesting as Duar and his back-story of cursed fate.

At stories beginning, Rald and Thwaine are on the run from a battle that their side lost. The two barely escape with their lives and are planning their next move. By pure coincidence, they come upon a lost civilization that is composed of warrior women. Ball never names these women as Amazons; however, he does name them as coming from:

[women who] were of warrior stock. It was said that [they] bowed to a dreadful goddess, called Bubaste, the same that ruled in a far-off land known to few, in a strange country by a sluggish river named the Nile.

This quote points out an interesting thing about Clifford Ball. In the three stories I read, he cobbled together his fantasy realm stealing freely from the created mythologies and/or concepts of Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs and H.P. Lovecraft. At the same time, he references places and things from real history. In this story alone, he makes reference to the Nile and to the existence of Buddha. Ball has no compunctions about borrowing from anyone or anything. His world, to me the geek who grew up playing role playing games, seems very like a home brewed world for a Dungeons & Dragons game; of course it is not, as D&D and games of its ilk were not created until the 70's.

Rald and Thwaine become prisoners of this race of warrior women, who are in turn at the mercy of an evil priest/wizard named Throal. Throal claims to have sired the incarnation of the goddess Bubaste, or Bast, the two names are used interchangeably. Many years ago, he brought his demon-goddess, named Hess, to the warrior women's kingdom:

Hess, the sacred blood-relative of Bubaste, of Bast, daughter of Isis

Hess is a statue by day, but under the rays of the full moon comes to life and hunts. Throal, utilizing the fear and awe generated by Hess, has convinced the warrior women to enslave all the men of their kingdom by addicting the males to a drug that leaves them in a zombie like state. Even though the warrior women have a queen, Queen Cene, he rules in all but name. The women fear him so much that they willingly give themselves as sacrifice for what are described in the story as rites of orgy. 

Ball plays with lots of fetish fantasies in this story. It is easy to see why it would appeal to an audience that often read Weird Tales for its lurid covers and thinly disguised sexuality (but don't think for a moment that I don't approve of such things). 

In this story, Ball returns to his concept of fate, which he played with first in his story "Duar the Accursed". Balls characters, both Duar and Rald (but decidedly more Duar) are unable to escape their fate, unlike Howard's Conan who absolutely makes his own fate. Observe one of my favorite paragraphs from "Goddess" in which Rald ponders that perhaps his fate is driven by greater forces, it is also a good bit of exposition: 

Rald clutched his sword-hilt fondly and gazed upward, beyond the torches and helmets of the warrior host, to where the stars of the heavens had begun to twinkle about the yellow planet whose beams were distributed alike over friend and foe. Perhaps there was madness in the lunar rays, mused the ex-thief; perhaps the great orb possessed the power to change mortals into demonic shapes as the seers of so many lands proclaimed, but to him it seemed that a strength beyond the ken of physicians or the use of drugs flowed from those same beams to mingle with his blood-stream; he felt exultant beneath the rays, free like the desert winds, capable of confronting any difficulty he should chance to encounter. Perhaps--it was a wild fancy, but perhaps he was one of the chosen, a child of that great planet, waxing and waning in his impulses, his contrast of a life of thievery mingled with heroic and generous deeds, enven as the dead world was accredited with forces both good and evil. Certainly, beneath its rays, he gained a confidence in his own ability and ultimate preservation he had never experienced beneath the light of day.

Rald and Thwaine are to be sacrificed to Hess. I won't give away fine details, but I must say, the manner in which they do away with Hess and her master was disappointing at best. 

While I found the ending disappointing, I enjoyed this story much more then "Thief of Forthe" and I liked it bit more than "Duar the Accursed". In his introductory notes, Lin Carter states: 

No one has ever collected Ball's Sword & Sorcery tales into a book, which seems to me a shame. His stories--possibly the only ones he ever wrote--today molder forgotten in the yellowing pages of an extinct pulp magazine, and their author is a forgotten man in the history of modern fantasy.

While I don't feel as strongly about Ball's stories as Mr. Carter, it is a shame that they are so hard to find.


Steve Dilks said...

I haven't read this one but I found "The thief of Forthe" enjoyable enough.

Kilsern said...

If for no other reason than the historical value, I do wish that Ball's stories were more available.

Jase said...

I have been wanting to read this one for a while now as well. I consider the other stories by Clifford Ball among my favorite Sword & Sorcery stories especially Duar the Accursed.