Read The Stealer of Souls Online
Authors: Michael Moorcock
All the stories in The Stealer of Souls and Stormbringer…
Kings in Darkness (with James Cawthorn)
The Caravan of Forgotten Dreams
The Flame Bringers)
Early artwork associated with Elric’s first appearances in magazines and books
The Secret Life of Elric of Melniboné
(by Alan Forrest)
The Zenith Letter
(by Anthony Skene)
Praise for Michael Moorcock and the Elric Series
To the memory of E. J. Carnell,
who originally asked for these stories,
and for Betsy Mitchell and John Davey,
who created this edition
All the stories in
The Stealer of Souls
first appeared in
magazine from June 1961 to April 1964.
“Putting a Tag on It” first appeared in
vol. 2, no. 15, edited by George Scithers, May 1961.
“Mission to Asno!” first appeared in
vol. 7, no. 25, September 1957.
“Elric” first appeared in
no. 8, edited by Ed Meskys, March 1964.
“The Secret Life of Elric of Melniboné” first appeared in
no. 14, edited by Alan Dodd, June 1964.
“Final Judgement” (under a different title), by Alan Forrest, first appeared in
no. 147, February 1965.
“The Zenith Letter,” 1924, first appeared in
Monsieur Zenith the Albino,
by Anthony Skene, Savoy Books, 2001.
Cover artwork for
Sexton Blake Library,
3rd series, no. 49, by Eric Parker, June 1943.
Cover artwork for
magazine by Brian Lewis, no. 47, June 1961, and James Cawthorn, nos. 55 and 63, October 1962 and February 1964.
“The Age of the Young Kingdoms” map, by James Cawthorn, 1962, first appeared in
The Fantastic Swordsmen,
edited by L. Sprague de Camp, Pyramid Books, 1967.
cover artwork by James Cawthorn, Herbert Jenkins, 1965.
James Cawthorn’s “The Adventures of Sojan” illustration first appeared in
vol. 7, no. 25, September 1957.
THE RETURN OF THE THIN WHITE DUKE
by Alan Moore
I remember Melniboné. Not the empire, obviously, but its aftermath, its debris: mangled scraps of silver filigree from brooch or breastplate, tatters of checked silk accumulating in the gutters of the Tottenham Court Road. Exquisite and depraved, Melnibonéan culture had been shattered by a grand catastrophe before recorded history began—probably some time during the mid-1940s—but its shards and relics and survivors were still evident in London’s tangled streets as late as 1968. You could still find reasonably priced bronze effigies of Arioch amongst the stalls on Portobello Road, and when I interviewed Dave Brock of Hawkwind for the English music paper
in 1981 he showed me the black runesword fragment he’d been using as a plectrum since the band’s first album. Though the cruel and glorious civilization of Melniboné was by then vanished as if it had never been, its flavours and its atmospheres endured, a perfume lingering for decades in the basements and back alleys of the capital. Even the empire’s laid-off gods and demons were effectively absorbed into the ordinary British social structure; its Law Lords rapidly became a cornerstone of the judicial system while its Chaos Lords went, for the most part, into industry or government. Former Melnibonéan Lord of Chaos Sir Giles Pyaray, for instance, currently occupies a seat at the Department of Trade and Industry, while his company Pyaray Holdings has been recently awarded major contracts as a part of the ongoing reconstruction of Iraq.
Despite Melniboné’s pervasive influence, however, you will find few public figures ready to acknowledge their huge debt to this all-but-forgotten world, perhaps because the willful decadence and tortured romance that Melniboné exemplified has fallen out of favour with the resolutely medieval world-view we embrace today throughout the globe’s foremost neoconservative theocracies. Just as with the visitor’s centres serving the Grand Canyon that have been instructed to remove all reference to the canyon’s geologic age lest they offend creationists, so too has any evidence for the existence of Melniboné apparently been stricken from the record. With its central governmental district renamed Marylebone and its distinctive azure ceremonial tartans sold off in job lots to boutiques in the King’s Road, it’s entirely possible that those of my own post-war generation might have never heard about Melniboné were it not for allusions found in the supposedly fictitious works of the great London writer Michael Moorcock.
My own entry to the Moorcock oeuvre came, if I recall correctly, by way of a Pyramid Books science fantasy anthology entitled
The Fantastic Swordsmen
, edited by the ubiquitous L. Sprague de Camp and purchased from the first science fiction, fantasy and comics bookshop, Dark They Were And Golden Eyed, itself a strikingly neo-Melnibonéan establishment. The paperback, touchingly small and underfed to modern eyes, had pages edged a brilliant Naples yellow and came with the uninviting cover image of a blond barbarian engaged in butchering some sort of octopus, clearly an off day from the usually inspired Jack Gaughan. The contents, likewise, while initially attractive to an undiscriminating fourteen-year-old boy, turned out upon inspection to be widely varied in their quality, a motley armful of fantastic tales swept up under the loose rubric of sword and sorcery, ranging from a pedestrian early outing by potboiler king John Jakes through more accomplished works by the tormented, would-be cowboy Robert Howard to a dreamlike early Lovecraft piece, or one by Lovecraft’s early model, Lord Dunsany, to a genuinely stylish and more noticeably modern offering from Fritz Leiber. Every story had a map appended to it, showing the geographies of the distinct imaginary worlds in which the various narratives were set. All in all it was a decent and commendable collection for its genre for its time.
And then, clearly standing aloof and apart from the surrounding mighty-thewed pulp and Dunsanian fairy tales, there was the Elric yarn by Michael Moorcock.
Now, at almost forty years’ remove, I can’t even recall which one it was—one of the precious handful from
The Stealer of Souls
, no doubt, and thus included elsewhere in this current volume—but I still remember vividly its impact. Its alabaster hero Elric, decadent, hallucinatory and feverish, battled with his howling, parasitic blade against a paranoiac back-drop that made other fantasy environments seem lazy and anaemic in their Chinese-takeaway cod orientalism or their snug Arcadian idylls. Unlike every other sword-wielding protagonist in the anthology, it was apparent that Moorcock’s wan, drug-addicted champion would not be stigmatized by a dismaying jacket blurb declaring him to be in the tradition of J.R.R. Tolkien. The Melnibonéan landscape—seething, mutable, warped by the touch of fractal horrors—was an anti-matter antidote to Middle Earth, a toxic and fluorescing elf repellent. Elric’s world churned with a fierce and unself-conscious poetry, churned with the breakneck energies of its own furious pulp-deadline composition. Not content to stand there, shuffling uneasily beneath its threadbare sword and sorcery banner, Moorcock’s prose instead took the whole stagnant genre by its throat and pummeled it into a different shape, transmuted Howard’s blustering overcompensation and the relatively tired and bloodless efforts of Howard’s competitors into a new form, a delirious romance with different capabilities, delivered in a language that was adequate to all the tumult and upheaval of its times, a voice that we could recognize.
Moorcock was evidently writing from experience, with the extravagance and sheer exhilaration of his stories marking him as from a different stock than the majority of his contemporaries. The breadth and richness of his influences hinted that he was himself some kind of a Melnibonéan expat, nurtured by the cultural traditions of his homeland, drawing from a more exotic pool of reference than that available to those who worked within the often stultifying literary conventions found in post-war England. When Moorcock commenced his long career while in his teens he showed no interest in the leading authors of the day, the former Angry Young Men—who were in truth far more petulant than angry and had never been that young—cleaving instead to sombre, thoughtful voices such as that of Angus Wilson or to marvelous, baroque outsiders such as Mervyn Peake. After solid apprentice work on his conventional blade-swinging hero Sojan in the weekly Tarzan comic book or in the Sexton Blake adventures that he penned alongside notables such as the wonderful Jack Trevor Story (and, as rumour has it, even Irish genius Flann O’Brien), Moorcock emerged as a formidable rare beast with an extensive reach, as capable of championing the then-unpublished
by Burroughs (W. S.) as he was of appreciating the wild colour and invention that was to be found in Burroughs (E. R.). Whether by virtue of his possibly Melnibonéan heritage or by some other means, Moorcock was consummately hip and brought the sensibilities of a progressive and much wider world of art and literature into a field that was, despite the unrestrained imagination promised by its sales pitch, for the most part both conservative and inward looking.
Growing out of a mid-1950’s correspondence between the young writer and his long-serving artist confederate James Cawthorn, the first Elric stories were an aromatic broth of Abraham Merritt and Jack Kerouac, of Bertolt Brecht and Anthony Skene’s Monsieur Zenith, the albino drug-dependent foe of Sexton Blake who’d turned out to have more charisma than his shrewd detective adversary. With the series finally seeing daylight in Carnell’s
in 1961, it was immediately quite clear that a dangerous mutation had occurred within the narrow gene pool of heroic fantasy, a mutation just as elegant and threatening as Elvis Presley had turned out to be in the popular music of this decade or that James Dean represented in its cinema. Most noticeably, Elric in no way conformed to the then-current definition of a hero, being instead a pink-eyed necromaniac invalid, a traitor to his kind and slayer of his wife, a sickly and yet terrifying spiritual vampire living without hope at the frayed limits of his own debatable humanity. Bad like Gene Vincent, sick like Lenny Bruce and haunted by addiction like Bill Burroughs, though Elric ostensibly existed in a dawn world of antiquity this was belied by his being so obviously a creature of his Cold War brothel-creeper times, albeit one whose languid decadence placed him slightly ahead of them and presciently made his pallid, well-outfitted figure just as emblematic of the psychedelic sixties yet to come.
By 1963, when the character first appeared in book form, Britain was beginning to show healthy signs of energetic uproar and a glorious peacock-feathered blossoming, against which setting Elric would seem even more appropriate. The Beatles had, significantly, changed the rules of English culture by erupting from a background of the popular and vulgar to make art more vital and transformative than anything produced by the polite society-approved and -vetted artistic establishment. The wrought-iron and forbidding gates had been thrown open so that artists, writers and musicians could storm in to explore subjects that seemed genuinely relevant to the eventful and uncertain world in which they found themselves; could define the acceptable according to their own rules. Within five years, when I first belatedly discovered Elric sometime during 1968, provincial English life had been transmuted into a phantasmagoric territory, at least psychologically, so that the exploits of this fated, chalk-white aesthete somehow struck the perfect resonance, made Moorcock’s anti-hero just as much a symbol of the times as demonstrations at the U.S. embassy in Grosvenor Square or Jimi Hendrix or the
Naturally by then Moorcock himself had moved on and was editing
, the last and the best of traditional science fiction magazines published in England. Under Moorcock’s guidance, the magazine became a vehicle for modernist experiment, gleefully re-imagining the SF genre as a field elastic enough to include the pathological and alienated “condensed novels” of J. G. Ballard, the brilliantly skewed and subverted conventional science fiction tropes of Barrington Bayley and even the black urban comedies dished up by old Sexton Blake mucker Jack Trevor Story. Moorcock’s own main contribution to the magazine—aside from his task as commander of the entire risky, improbable venture—came in the form of his Jerry Cornelius stories.
Cornelius, a multiphasic modern Pierrot with his doings catalogued by most of Moorcock’s
writing stable at one time or other, rapidly became an edgy mascot for the magazine and also for the entire movement that the magazine was spear-heading, an icon of the fractured moral wasteland England would become after the wild, fluorescent brush-fire of the 1960s had burned out. His debut, starting in the pages of
in 1965 and culminating in Avon Books’ publication of
The Final Programme
during 1968 was a spectacular affair—“Michael Moorcock’s savagely satirical breakthrough in speculative fiction,
The Final Programme
, a breathtaking vivid, rapid-fire novel of tomorrow that says things you may not want to hear today!”—and a mind-bending apparent change of tack for those readers who thought that they knew Moorcock from his Elric or his Dorian Hawkmoon fantasies. Even its dedication, “To Jimmy Ballard, Bill Burroughs, and the Beatles, who are pointing the way through,” seemed dangerously avant-garde within the cosy rocket-robot-ray-gun comfort zone of early sixties science fiction. As disorienting as
The Final Programme
was, however, its relentless novelty was undercut by a peculiar familiarity: Cornelius’s exploits mirrored those of Elric of Melniboné almost exactly, blow for blow. Even a minor character like the Melnibonéan servant Tanglebones could turn up anagrammatized as the Cornelius family’s retainer John Gnatbeelson. It became clear that, far from abandoning his haunted and anaemic prince of ruins, Moorcock had in some way cleverly refracted that persona through a different glass until it looked and spoke and acted differently, became a different creature fit for different times, while still retaining all the fascinating, cryptic charge of the original.
As Moorcock’s work evolved into progressively more radical and startling forms over the coming decades, this process of refracting light and ideas through a prototypical Melnibonéan gemstone would continue. Even in the soaring majesty of
or the dark symphony of Moorcock’s Pyat quartet, it is still possible to hear the music of Tarkesh, the Boiling Sea, or Old Hrolmar. With these later works and with Moorcock’s ascent to literary landmark, it has become fashionable to assert that only in such offerings as the exquisite
Vengeance of Rome
are we seeing the real Moorcock; that the staggering sweep of glittering fantasy trilogies that preceded these admitted masterpieces are in some way minor works, safely excluded from the author’s serious canon. This is to misunderstand, I think, the intertextual and organic whole of Moorcock’s writings. All the blood and passion that informs his work has the genetic markers of Melniboné stamped clearly on each paragraph, each line. No matter where the various strands of Moorcock’s sprawling opera ended up, or in what lofty climes, the bloodline started out with Elric. All the narratives have his mysterious, apocalyptic eyes.
The tales included in this current volume are the first rush of that blood, the first pure spurts from what would prove to be a deep and never-ending fountain. Messy, uncontrolled and beautiful, the stories here are the raw heart of Michael Moorcock, the spells that first drew me and all the numerous admirers of his work with whom I am acquainted into Moorcock’s luminous and captivating web. Read them and remember the frenetic, fiery world and times that gave them birth. Read them and recall the days when all of us were living in Melniboné.
31 January 2007