The One Lord

Here’s a story recently shovelled from the depths of my mind-bucket. It was supposed to be set in The World Apparent, the fantasy universe I co-created with Martin Bolton (he made the tea and encouraging noises) but turned into something else and now I don’t really know what it is or where it is set. However, here the thing is, served up for your entertainment gratis and free of charge, you lucky trolls.


The One Lord

by David Pilling

In that summer, the worst of summers, the Jackal clan came down onto the plains. The mountains were their ancestral home, but they had little choice. They were being hunted again, and this time their hunters had more than sport in mind: nothing less than the total extermination of all the Half Blood peoples was their goal.

The Jackals were lucky. They had wise elders, and a capable chief of mature years who knew when to fight and when to run. Their cousins were not so ably led. The skies over the Frostfall Mountains were bruised with the smoke of burning villages, the high forests strewn with butchered corpses.

“The ironmen have learned to fight properly,” remarked Silver Hide, the Chief Jackal, as he crouched on his haunches by the campfire one night. The fire was kept low in case the light should attract hunters. They had reached the fringe of the Wide Plains, a vast expanse of moor and desert, with the rugged silhouette of the Frostfalls marching away to the west.

The lesser chiefs and elders around him stared bleakly into the flames. Only a handful were left now. Their brothers were all gone, slain by ironmen blades or the cholera that always stalked their homelands at this time of year.

“Silver Hide speaks truth,” growled Broketooth, the bravest of them, a grizzled old fighter with a mouthful of broken teeth and a knife-scar where his left eye used to be, “some traitor among our own folk must have gone to Silverback and taught the whiteskins our way of war.”

He stabbed a grimy, broken-nailed finger at the ground. “In the old days the ironmen didn’t know how. They rode or walked into our mountains in neat little lines, and we used to shoot them down from the cliffs. When their numbers were thinned out, we would rush down from the heights and carve up the survivors. That was the way of it. Not now.”

Silver Hide nodded ruefully. The Frostfalls were spotted with the rotting remains of earth and timber forts, thrown up by the ironmen of past generations. They had sent army after army into the mountains, lumbering hosts of arrogant fools in metal suits, stuck up on big horses, and footmen armed with long spears and heavy crossbows. Deadly on the lowlands, their weapons were virtually useless in the mountains.

The chieftain stroked his plaited beard. It had taken the ironmen many generations, many defeats, to change their strategy. Now the One Lord of the Black Tower sent armies of light horsemen and fleet-footed archers armed with longbows against the Half Bloods, led by cunning and determined generals, as sly as they were merciless.

“Everything changed when the One Lord took power,” he said in his deep, throaty voice, “before that, the ironmen had left us alone for years. What use are our damp forests and mud huts to them? We have no wealth. There is no precious metal to be mined in the Frostfalls.”

“They want us gone,” said one of the elders in a high, whistling voice, “we are brute beasts to them. Our very existence is an offence. A stench in their nostrils. We are a reminder that other people held sway in this world before they crawled from the pits of Hell. An earlier folk. A nobler folk.”

The elder stretched out his long, stringy arms. “My children, we are the last of the first. Once we are gone, nothing will remain save a few ancient graves, broken pots and the like. The rubbish of history.”

Shortly before dawn, the Jackals moved on. Silver Hide knew he couldn’t afford to rest in one place for too long. His hope – a last, desperate hope – was that the bands of ironmen hunters wouldn’t think to come down from the mountains in search of prey. No Half Blood clan had ever dwelled on the inhospitable plains, and no wonder. The soil was poor, the game virtually non-existent.

“Three months,” Silver Hide whispered to himself one morning, as he stared at his reflection in a pool of clear water. After wandering for several days through trackless, icy waste, the Jackals had come to a slightly more fertile region, watered by a network of shallow streams.

“Three months,” he repeated, “let us hold out in this wilderness for that time. Let the ironmen stay in the mountains, and not think to look for us here. When the snows come it will be safe to return. None save the Half Bloods can survive in the Frostfalls in the depths of winter.”

Or so he hoped. Silver Hide peered closer at his reflection. Compared to the tall, pale-faced ironmen – or ‘whiteskins’, as his folk sometimes called them – he was a dark, stunted creature. His heavy shoulders were matted with silvery fur (hence his name) his eyes small and sunken inside deep sockets, his jaw heavy, with a pronounced underbite. Enormous strength dwelled inside those shoulders and the long, well-muscled arms, ending in powerful hands and curving yellow nails.

He wore a simple deerskin jacket, padded with straw, and for weapons carried a serrated bone dagger and an axe with a jagged flint head. Unlike their enemies, his people had never discovered the secret of iron.

   Ape-men, they call us, he thought, relics of a bygone age. Fit only to serve as slaves, or to be wiped out. They hunt us with dogs, as though we were animals, like the deer and the wild boar.

   His grim thoughts were shattered by the cry of a horn, rising from a patch of woodland to the south. The trees covered a rocky slope leading down to a ravine, where the Jackals had made their camp for the night.

Silver Hide had heard that cry before, many times. A war-horn, sounded by the ironmen before they charged into battle. He spun around and loped towards the scattered collection of rough hide shelters and bivouacs beside the stream.

“Move!” he shouted, “get into cover! They have found us!”

His people, women and children among them, spilled out of their tents and fled for the cover of the woods beyond the northern bank. The young fighters snatched up their weapons and ran to join their chief. The horn rang out again, a piercing wail, this time much closer. The ground shook under a flurry of racing hoofs,

“Curse our scouts,” spat Brokentooth, “what are they doing, trimming their arse hairs?”

He soon had an answer. A wave of armed horsemen in iron helms and ringmail exploded out of the woods. Their white tunics were emblazoned with the black sword of the One Lord. The foremost of them carried spears. Every spear was decorated with the severed head of a Jackal scout.

Silver Hide could do little to prevent the massacre that followed. The ironmen knew their work. Their band split in two. Half their number charged his warriors, while the other half skirted the ravine and plunged after the fugitives in the woods.

“Sell your lives!” he roared, hurling his axe. It clanged off a round shield. He reached for the bone knife stuck into the sash at his waist. Too late. An ironman thundered towards him. The polished head of a mace flashed in the soldier’s hand. It swung down and thumped against Silver Hide’s brow.

His skull exploded with pain. A gout of hot red blood splattered across his eyes. Then all was darkness.


He awoke to agony, and the slaughter of his people. While he slumbered the Jackals had been wiped out, butchered to the last child. Silver Hide struggled to his feet and wandered among the dead. His head was on fire. Warm blood mingled with salt tears trickled down his cheeks as he searched in quiet desperation for any survivors.

There were none. At last, after he had wept over the dismembered corpse of She-Who-Walks-In-Moonlight, the woman he had intended to marry, a black rage fell upon him. All his pity and grief and despair quickly shrivelled away. The bereaved chieftain, the last of his race, now lived only for revenge.

“Gods above and below,” he begged, falling to his knees, “you have taken everything I loved – home, family, clan, the future mother of my children – and left me with nothing save a blood-debt. Grant me revenge, I beg you. Let me come within striking distance of my enemy. Just one blow is all I need. One blow to slay the One Lord.”

The gods didn’t answer. They never did. Silver Hide cursed them, and set out on his hopeless quest. According to the legends of his folk, the Black Tower lay somewhere to the east. Far, far away. No Half Blood had ever seen it with their own eyes, save those taken as slaves by the ironmen. None of these luckless souls ever came home again.

Once, Silver Hide would have condemned any effort to reach the Black Tower as a fool’s errand. Now he set out alone to find it. Fresh tears coursed down his face as he stripped the dead of food and water and clothing, all he would need for the journey ahead.

“I am sorry,” he said to each of the corpses in turn. “Sorry for failing to protect you. Sorry for robbing you. When my task is done, and the One Lord lies dead, I shall cut my throat and apologise in person to your shades.”

The lone figure struck out east, delving blindly into the unknown. For days he saw no other living creature. For days he trudged wearily across a seemingly endless grey desert under bone-white skies with ragged stretches of black cloud. The land degenerated into waste, a sterile desert where nothing grew or lived.

Silver Hide kept his eyes fixed on the stark horizon, sustained by the bread and water he had taken from the dead. After three days he began to encounter signs of life, nature fighting back against the desolation. He almost cried out at the first sight of a tough, wiry plant with purple leaves, sprouting defiantly through the dusty grey soil. The plants became ever more frequent, more lush, until he found himself traipsing through fertile countryside. He followed a thin stream, ziz-zagging its way through the undergrowth, and thanked the gods – and his luck – when the roar of rushing water sounded in the distance. The stream flowed into a river, deep and wide and driven by a powerful current. Silver Hide refilled his empty skins in the cold, foam-flecked waters and then wallowed naked in the shallows.

A scream, adruptly cut off, made him scramble to the bank. He dragged on his clothes, snatched up his axe and looked around wildly for its source. His heart skipped as he heard another cry. The same voice, raised in anguish:

“Help – help me! Mother of Mercy, I cannot bear it! Gods above, Gods below, help me!”

The wail died away. It had come from the trees to the west. Silver Hide padded soundlessly through the wood, axe in one hand, knife in the other. Raised since childhood to move in swift silence through the forests of his homeland, he kept low, peering cautiously ahead.

The trees ended in a roughly circular clearing, dominated by a grey tower on a green mound, surrounded by a deep ditch. Silver Hide gazed in awe at the square pile of masonry, rising high above his head, higher than the tallest trees. He had heard stories of how the wealthiest ironmen lived in the east, of their grand palaces of stone and gold and iron, but never seen one for himself. The strongholds they built in the Frostfalls were crude mounds of earth and timber. Even the largest was barely half the size of this towering bastion.


The cry echoed through the clearing. Again the same voice, wracked with pain. It came from somewhere inside the tower. Silver Hide, who had heard men die before, recognised the pain and desperation. Whoever the voice belonged to did not have long to live.

Silver Hide loped around the northern side of the tower. He froze at the sight of dead men strewn over the grass. Soldiers in iron helms and ringmail, wearing brightly coloured coats splashed with blood. Some wore coats painted with golden eagles against a black field, a symbol Silver Hide didn’t recognise. The rest wore the black sword and white tunics of the One Lord.

He wandered carefully over the battlefield, trying to piece together what had happened. At the foot of the tower there was a door of cross-grained black oak. The door had been flung open, and a bridge of planks lowered over the ditch. He guessed the soldiers inside the tower had charged out to fight. The result was a bloody stalemate with no victors.

Over forty men lay dead. Silver Hide found the slaughter difficult to understand. Why were the ironmen filled with such hatred? Why were they compelled by the urge to conquer, to destroy, to tear their fellow man to pieces? Their ancestors must have committed some great evil and been cursed by the gods as a result.

He jumped as cold fingers clutched feebly at his ankle. “Please…” whispered a voice he recognised, now drained of strength, “a little water…please…”

Silver Hide crouched beside the dying soldier. A young man, barely twenty summers, handsome under his scrubby yellow beard. He wore the golden eagle on his coat, and the light in his soft blue eyes was fast fading. His lifeblood oozed from a great wound in his belly, torn open by a barbed spear. The spearhead was still lodged in the wound.

“Here,” said Silver Hide, putting his waterskin to the lad’s parched lips, just enough to moisten them.

The dying man’s eyes struggled to focus on him. “Are you…” he whispered, “are you for the One Lord, or against?”

“Against,” Silver Hide replied instinctively, “I mean to kill him. I will kill him.”

“Then I wish you joy, friend…”
The soldier coughed blood. His eyes took on a glassy, unseeing quality. Silver Hide watched him die, and then got up and searched the battlefield for anything useful. He had always wanted to own an ironman sword. He found one to his liking, cleaned the blood off the blade with a wisp of grass and stuck it into his sash. After some hesitation, he also took an iron helmet with a visor and a round shield.

He pushed on into the east, deeper into enemy territory, his mind full of what he had seen and heard. It seemed the ironmen were at war with each other, civil war, which might explain why few of their chieftains – or knights as they called themselves – had come to the Frostfalls in recent times. Silver Hide was not surprised. If the One Lord was as cruel to his own people as he was to the Half Bloods, no wonder they had risen against him.

“Don’t let an ironman blade strike him down,” Silver Hide muttered as he hurried through the emerald green forest, “he is mine to kill. Mine.”

The prospect of an eternity of shame drove him on. If the One Lord was slain by another hand, then Silver Hide would have failed in his quest. When he died, and was transported to the Beyond where the shades of his clan dwelled, they would refuse to accept him. His soul would be banished, to wander the dreary wastes of the afterlife forever, dishonoured and despised and utterly alone. Among the Half Bloods, to fail in life was to be punished in death.

Days passed. The forests petered out and he found himself wandering across farmland, wide stretches of cultivated fields dotted with settlements. Yet all was desolation. Crops were left to rot in the fields, farmsteads burned, villages empty and weed-grown. Deer cropped grass in the streets, roofless houses gaped at the sky. Clouds of flies buzzed about the bodies of men, women and children, stripping the flesh from their bones. The survivors, if there were any, had fled.

Silver Hide gave the dead a wide berth and hurried on. Once he passed a castle, an awesome pile of high towers and battlemented walls like rows of grey teeth, rearing on a crag high above a river valley. The gates were shut, and he thought the sun glinted off helmeted heads on the walls. Perhaps some ironman chief still dwelled there with his folk, cowering inside their stone prison.

After seven days and nights, footsore and weary in heart, mind and body, he arrived within sight of the Black Tower. In truth it was no tower at all, but a mountain, a lone peak of black rock rising high above the plains. Though it was summer, layers of ice glimmered on the mountain’s upper slopes.

Silver Back shuddered. The Black Tower was said to be an unnatural place, where the laws of nature were twisted and manipulated by the evil creatures that dwelled inside. His childhood nightmares were stalked by them, hideous red-eyed monsters in black cowls, employing the darkest of forbidden arts to shape the world to their purpose.

He thrust aside his fear. Stories, he thought, foolish tales, recited by the Jackal elders to scare infants. There is only one evil inside the mountain. I shall destroy him. 

  There were no signs of life outside the mountain. Silver Hide advanced towards the great gates, visible from a mile distant, twenty feet high and forged of steel. He drew his sword, expecting the gates to yawn open and disgorge hundreds of ironmen lancers on their heavy horses. If he could kill one, just one, before going down under their hoofs, at least his soul might not be totally dishonoured.

The gates remained shut. The rugged grandeur of the mountain loomed overhead. He shaded his eyes and peered up at the stone ramparts and watchtowers carved out of the rock. White pennons bearing the black sword flew from the towers, but they appeared to be unguarded.

Finally, he stood before the double set of gates. Fighting down a surge of panic, he reached out and laid his right hand flat against cold steel. He gave a gentle push, and the gate swung inwards without a sound.

Beyond lay shadow. “Gods of wind and water, earth and sky defend me,” Silver Hide whispered. He stepped inside.

The passage inside was large and airy and led through into a huge circular chamber, well-lit by shafts carved out of the rock. Silver Hide paused to gape in wonder at the vastness of the space, ten times the size of his smoky timber hall back in the Frostfalls.

He froze. There were a dozen arched doorways leading out of the chamber. Every one was guarded by a pair of guardsmen in shining plate and ringmail. Their white coats bore the sigil of the black sword.

Silver Hide dropped into a fighting crouch, sword in one hand, bone knife in the other. The guards carried halberds, wickedly sharp chopping blades mounted on long poles. If they all rushed him at once, the last of the Half Bloods knew he would be swiftly carved to pieces.

“Well?” he shouted, his voice tinged with fear, “why do you wait? Come at me!”

Still the guards didn’t move. They might have been statues, still and lifeless. Silver Hide warily approached the nearest, reached out with his sword and flipped up the man’s visor.

The face inside was pale, bearded and immobile, as if made of stone. Only the eyes, wide and staring and full of terror, betrayed any sign of life.

Silver Hide sheathed his knife and prodded the guard’s armoured chest. “You can’t move,” he said, “yet you live. Witchcraft.”

He moved closer to stare deep into those frightened eyes. “I could slit your throat,” he breathed, “and you would be powerless to stop me. I could slit all your throats. But I am after the shepherd, not the sheep.”

Silver Hide chose a door at random and padded through it, deeper into the mountain. He delved into a maze of spiral stairs, narrow corridors and massive vaulted rooms. The Black Tower was full of people, knights and guards and servants, all transformed into living statues. Intent upon his prey, Silver Hide ignored them, ignored the rich furnishings and elaborate tapestries and wall hangings. In one of the largest halls he found a group of men – there were no women in the Black Tower, save for a few kitchen maids – seated at some long benches. Their dinner had long since gone cold. Flies buzzed about the meat, hands were frozen halfway to grasping a loaf of bread or cup of wine.

“I have come to kill your master,” Silver Hide roared at them, “I will kill him! I will glory in his blood and smear it over your faces!”
At last, after what seemed like hours of blundering about this grand wilderness of stone, he stumbled into a chamber with a domed roof. The walls were bare and painted white, the floor paved with red and black tiles. There were no guards present.

His heart quickened. The only furnishing was a raised wooden dais, and on the dais was a tall black chair. Behind the dais there was an enormous window of tinted glass, through which the last rays of the evening sun filled the room with spectral red light.

There was a figure sat in the chair, silhouetted against the light. Another statue. Silver Hide padded slowly towards the dais, straining to make out the statue’s features.

“So you have come,” said a deep, unearthly voice, “the lone hero has overcome all his trials, and now faces the dark lord in his tower.”

The voice echoed and re-echoed weirdly inside Silver Hide’s head. His fingers were damp with sweat as they tightened on the grip of his sword.

“Come closer,” said the voice of the One Lord, “I shall not harm you.”

Buffeted by waves of fear, anger and confusion, Silver Hide loped a few steps closer to the dais.

He had expected a demonic creature in flowing black robes, red eyes blazing inside a helm of black iron. Instead he saw a surprisingly young man garbed in a plain white tunic, a belt with a silver buckle and soft buckskin shoes. His face was thin and hollow-eyed and leeched of colour, his hair cropped in military style. There was a tension about him, as though he fought against some inner pain..

And he was unarmed. Silver Hide measured the distance between him and the chair. A few more steps…a sudden leap…his quest would be over.

“Not yet,” said the One Lord, “I sense your eagerness. Your lust for my blood. You must be patient.”


Silver Hide sprang. The One Lord raised his left hand, palm upwards, and curled the fingers slightly. Silver Hide found himself suspended in mid-air, unable to move a muscle, held in the grip of some tremendous force.

He tried in vain to work his jaw, to spit a curse at the creature in the chair. Not a sound emerged.

“If I snapped my fingers,” said the One Lord in a calm, almost gentle voice, “I could stop your heart. I have that power. It would be easy. So very easy.”

“I could have killed you long before now,” he added, “I watched the massacre of your clan. I watched you traipse all the way across the Wastes. Even from such a distance, I could feel the heat of the rage in your heart. Such passion! I watched you at the stone keep, wandering among all those dead fools. I could have killed you at any time.”

He relaxed his fingers slightly. “You may speak.”

Silver Hide suddenly regained control of his voice. “Kill me,” he rasped, fighting back tears, “if you are so powerful, why prolong my agony? What joy can you take from such pointless cruelty? Make a clean end.”

The One Lord shook his head. “No,” he said sadly, “we both have a duty to perform. Death will soon release me, but you must carry the burden for a good while longer.”

“Listen. I had great hopes, once. I wanted to use the power I was born with to change the world for the better. I should have remembered the old lesson. Power corrupts. Always. Little by little, I found myself sliding into evil.”

“My own people turned against me. I allowed them to raise armies and slaughter each other, simply for amusement. I could not stop myself. I started as a knight, a simple man who wanted to do good. Now I am the One Lord, the hated villain sitting in his mountain lair, waiting for a hero to come and slay him. Fate has marked us out, my friend.”

He smiled thinly at Silver Hide. “The universe demands balance. There is always a villain. Always a hero. Why do you think I bewitched my followers? You were allowed to come here. I am tired of this role I have been forced to play.”

The unseen power gently lowered Silver Hide to the floor. Then it was gone. He could move his limbs again. Speak. Act.

He leaped up the steps of the dais and rammed his sword, point-first, into the One Lord’s thin breast. His enemy shuddered violently. Bright red blood spurted from the wound and splattered over the tiles.

The One Lord’s lips were spread wide in a ghastly smile. More blood coloured his teeth and dripped down his beardless chin.

“Thank the gods,” he whispered, “thank the gods…”

Silver Hide planted both hands on the hilt and worked his sword in deeper. He wanted to hear the One Lord scream. Beg for mercy.

The dying man said nothing more. His body went limp. The red light pouring through the window gradually intensified. Within seconds it was the colour of blood. A great heat entered the room, filling it up like a steam-bath. Silver Hide cried out in pain and curled up beside the chair.

His entire body was on fire. He was burning, burning, the flesh stripped from his living body.

“Let me go,” he rasped, “let me die.”

No. You have a duty to perform.

The One Lord’s hateful voice sounded distantly inside his head. Silver Hide flung his head back and screamed.

In a moment, a heartbeat, all was normal again. The One Lord sat in his chair of carved black wood, contemplating a map of the world spread out on the floor below the dais. Six of his knights stood nearby, anxiously awaiting his commands.

“All this must be ours,” said the One Lord, once a Half Blood chieftain known as Silver Hide, now transformed into his greatest enemy, “all the world shall bow to my will. This is my purpose.”

He had few memories of his former self. Even these were fast dwindling. Yet he could hear a faint voice, deep inside the winding chambers of his mind.

   “Now you must play the role, my friend…”


Beyond the Wall of Sleep: The Dreams of H.P. Lovecraft

Spoiler Alert

“I have frequently wondered if the majority of mankind ever pause to reflect upon the occasionally titanic significance of dreams, and of the obscure world to which they belong.”Beyond the Wall of Sleep by H.P. Lovecraft

H.P. Lovecraft is probably best known for macabre horror tales such as The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and Herbert West – Reanimator (the latter being adapted into the 1985 movie, Re-Animator). It was these stories, the captivating At the Mountains of Madness and Lovecraft’s use of language (archaic even in his time) that first drew my attention. But having worked my way through a good chunk of Lovecraft’s work, it is his fascination with the human mind, and in particular the dream world, that really piques my interest.

Lovecraft experienced vivid dreams, which he recounted in letters to his many correspondents. One in particular shows just how much his dreams inspired his writing.

H.P. Lovecraft, June 1934

H.P. Lovecraft, June 1934

He dreams he is Lucius Caelius Rufus, a provincial Roman official serving in a region which is now Spain where every year the “dark folk” (miri nigri) come down from the hills to take citizens away for human sacrifice. One year there is a fight in which a number of the “dark folk” are killed. Following this, they are not seen again for some time. Rufus (Lovecraft) suspects they are plotting a reprisal and decides to lead the garrison in an attack on their camp. As the Romans approach the hills the torches begin to dim and he hears the cries of frightened legionaries and the screams of their horses. The air grows colder and is stirred by “terrible undulations which I could not help connecting with the beating of huge wings”.

The Statement of Randolph Carter, written by Lovecraft in 1920, is the story of a man (Carter) who assists occult researcher Harley Warren with his dark work. Warren leads Carter into the swamp late one night to find an old graveyard. The tale includes a typically visceral description of the scene.

“The place was an ancient cemetery; so ancient that I trembled at the manifold signs of immemorial years. It was in a deep, damp hollow, overgrown with rank grass, moss, and curious creeping weeds, and filled with a vague stench which my idle fancy associated absurdly with rotting stone.”

Carter goes on to tell how he and Warren stop by one particular sepulchre, the stone lid of which they remove, revealing a flight of steps leading down into darkness. Warren commands Carter to stay on the surface before descending into the black hole with a portable telephone (described as a “portable telephone outfit” and Warren has a coil of wire to enable him to communicate with Carter while he explores the tomb). The story ends with Warren saying he’s found something “terrible – monstrous – unbelievable!” and beseeching his friend to replace the slab and run for it. Warren then goes silent and Carter hears the voice of a “thing” which he describes as “deep; hollow; gelatinous; remote; unearthly; inhuman; disembodied…”

“YOU FOOL, WARREN IS DEAD!” is the final line. The Statement of Randolph Carter is almost identical to a dream of Lovecraft’s in which he is in place of Randolph Carter and the part of Harley Warren is played by Lovecraft’s friend, the poet Samuel Loveman.

Lovecraft actively tried to stimulate his dreams to make them all the more vivid and so provide him with more fantastic visions. He did so by reading until he was exhausted to fill his mind with ideas before he slept, believing his dreams would give him inspiration. He would wake and note down his ideas before their memory faded.

Many of his protagonists travelled through another world known as ‘The Dreamlands’.

A map of Lovecraft's "Dreamworld" by Jack Gaughan (1967).

A map of Lovecraft’s “Dreamworld” by Jack Gaughan (1967).

A collection of his short stories and novellas, known as The Dream Cycle, was either set in, or involved, The Dreamlands; a world part paradise, part nightmare, which is journeyed to via dreams.

Notable Dreamland tales include The White Ship, in which a lonely lighthouse keeper is taken away on fantastic travels by the captain of an ethereal white ship, The Doom That Came to Sarnath, The Cats of Ulthar and The Quest of Iranon.

Beyond the Wall of Sleep is a story narrated by an unnamed man who works in a psychiatric institute. He tells the tale of a patient, Joe Slater, from a mountainous backwater who has been tried for murder and found to be insane. Slater is a simple, quiet man who occasionally awakes ranting about a strange world, describing an unreal, alien landscape and a strange entity who has done him some terrible wrong and who he vows to vanquish. His attacks are so violent it takes several orderlies to restrain him. In these moments the dull-eyed, slack-faced man assumes a far more focused, intelligent demeanour, as if possessed by another being.

The narrator studies and gets to know Slater and has his own theories about the man’s ravings and visions. Eventually he constructs an apparatus which he hopes will allow him to enter Slater’s dream world. What he sees and feels there and the events that follow are confirmation of Lovecraft’s unique imagination and a clue to what Lovecraft may really have thought of his dreams.

If you are interested in reading more about Lovecraft’s work and life, I recommend the excellent biography by Paul Roland entitled The Curious Case of H.P. Lovecraft.

“Whilst the greater number of our nocturnal visions are perhaps no more than faint and fantastic reflections of our waking experiences – Freud to the contrary with his puerile symbolism – there are still a certain remainder whose immundane and ethereal character permits no ordinary interpretation, and whose vaguely exciting and disquieting effect suggests possible minute glimpses into a sphere of mental existence no less important than physical life, yet separated from that life by an all but impassable barrier.”

Article by Martin Bolton

The Hooded Man Cometh (Again)

Robin of Sherwood

This is a review of Robin Hood and the Knights of the Apocalypse (KOTA), a brand-new audio episode of Robin of Sherwood. For those who don’t know, RoS (to use a convenient acronym) was a British TV series back in the 80s that offered a very different take on the legend of Robin Hood. More realistic in some ways – the outlaws were a convincing bunch of roughnecks living inside a damp English forest, a world away from the sun-drenched Californian redwoods of the 1938 Errol Flynn flick – it was also the first screen version of the tale to introduce pagan elements. Unlike the devout Catholic outlaw of the medieval ballads, this Robin served Herne the Hunter, an ancient spirit of the forest, and took on the guise of The Hooded Man in the fight against Norman oppression. Thus, despite the historical backdrop, there were strong elements of fantasy in the show.Knights of the Apocalypse

For many Robin of Sherwood is *the* definitive screen version of the tale, and certain elements have influenced almost every version since: for instance, it was the first to introduce the idea of a deadly Saracen warrior among Robin’s band of freedom fighters. This notion was picked up – or ripped off, to be unkind – and recycled in Kevin Costner’s Prince of Thieves (1991) and the more recent BBC Robin Hood (2006-09). Alan Rickman’s notoriously over-the-top turn as the evil Sheriff of Nottingham also owed much to Nickolas Grace’s villainous Sheriff in RoS, though for my money Grace’s performance was far more subtle and interesting.

Knights of the ApocalypseSo to Robin Hood and the KOTA. Before I go any further, I should acknowledge the huge degree of love and care and effort that went into this project. It was no mean feat on the part of Barnaby Eaton-Jones and his friends at Spiteful Puppet to gather all the surviving cast, raise the money needed to fund the recording (via crowdfunding), as well as hack through the legal jungle simply to persuade ITV (who own the rights to the series) to allow the project to go ahead. Also worth mentioning is that all the money raised from sales of the recording will go to charity.

Now for the difficult bit. I’m a fan of the original show – though nowhere near as devoted or knowledgeable as many fans – and my expectations for the actual quality of the new episode were modest. Granted, Spiteful Puppet were using a leftover script by the show’s creator and original screenwriter, the late Richard Carpenter, but after thirty years could they really hope to recapture the magic? Early reviews were extremely positive, bordering on the ecstatic, so my hopes were raised a little.

After listening to KOTA twice, I have to say my reaction is mixed. It’s not the car crash I was dreading, far from it, but nor does it come anywhere close to the heights of the first two seasons of RoS. Part of the problem is the awkwardness of fitting a script intended for a feature-length screen film into audio format. The action scenes in particular suffer, though the producers did their best by adding swishing arrows, clanging swords, galloping hoofs etc. None of these studio tricks, impressive as they are – and KOTA is very well produced – can suppress the unintentional comedy of actors describing the action as it happens: “my sword is at your neck,” Nasir grimly informs a defeated opponent at one point. Unless he’s fighting a blind man, his opponent would presumably know that already.

Such criticism is perhaps unfair, since the only remedy would be to cut out the action scenes altogether. Sadly there are other issues. The script itself is derivative of earlier TV episodes, and at times comes across like an edited highlights package: Robin is once again captured by insane cultists, as he was in The Time of the Wolf, and once again has to fight a manifested demon, as he did in The Swords of Wayland (though to be fair that was Robin of Loxley, rather than his successor Robert of Huntingdon). Some of the dialogue is very clunky by Carpenter’s standards, and the banter between the Merries largely falls flat. Little John and Will Scarlet, played by Clive Mantle and Ray Winstone, are given some deeply unfunny jokes to work with, while the clumsy dialogue is not helped by a hefty slice of ham acting. Colin Baker is far too shrill as the villain Gerard de Ridefort, which makes his character come across as a dull, pompous buffoon. Fortunately, Anthony Head rescues the situation with a nicely understated performance as the chief villain, Guichard de Montbalm, though even he occasionally breaks into some startling Dr Evil-style peals of maniacal laughter.

Robin of Sherwood cast

Elsewhere the cast suffers from one unavoidable omission. The late Robert Addie, so memorable as the Sheriff’s blustering right-hand man Guy of Gisburne, was replaced by Freddie Fox. Fox is by no means bad as Guy, and has a certain sneering menace all of his own, but he sounds nothing at all like Addie. The difference jars, at least to my ears, and it might have been a better idea to omit Guy altogether and invent a new character for Fox. Nickolas Grace as the Sheriff initially sounds uncertain, as though he struggled to re-inhabit a character left behind thirty years ago (he isn’t alone in this) but by the end of the episode he’s back to his best, coldly informing the wounded Guy that he ‘was never any good’ and leaving him to bleed.

In case all this negativity sounds depressing or infuriating, I should point out some good bits. Jason Connery is very good as Robert of Huntingdon, and perhaps gives his best performance in the role. Connery’s performance in the old series still divides opinion among fans, some of whom maintain he was too young and callow for the part and not a patch on his predecessor, Michael Praed. Now, three decades on, his voice has a deeper timbre and he carries it with more authority. At times he comes across like an exasperated staff officer, curtly snapping orders at the Merries, which makes him less charming but more realistic: Robert is supposed to be a young nobleman turned outlaw in charge of a bunch of unruly wolfsheads, not all of whom welcomed his leadership at first.

Robert’s relationship with Marion is kept firmly in the background, perhaps wisely since the slightly unconvincing nature of it was one of the problems of the show. However this undercuts the big dramatic moment at the end of the third season when a heartbroken Marion, thinking Robert was dead, chose to go into a convent. Her decision to come out again and rejoin him in Sherwood is dealt with in just a couple of passing lines, which is a bit of a letdown – at least for those who enjoy wallowing in melodrama (as I do).

A mention should also go to Mark Ryan as Nasir. The brooding Nasir was given hardly any lines in the original show, but here he is almost chatty and surprisingly engaging. His brief monologue with a bird in a tree, turning to rage when the birds are all frightened away by de Ridefort, is one of the best moments. Phil Rose as Friar Tuck gets a nice scene where he baptises infants in defiance of the Interdict, but otherwise has little to do except a few fat jokes.

Another nice feature is an enlarged role for Michael Craig as Robert’s father, the Earl of Huntingdon. At one point the earl is called David, pretty much confirming that he is supposed to be the historical David of Huntingdon (1144-1219), brother to a King of Scotland. This in turn makes Robert an immensely powerful man if he wants to be, not only the heir to an earldom but with a decent claim to the Scottish throne. Disappointingly – at least for a history nerd like me – little is ever made of these connections, or the potentially fascinating narrative arc. As earl, with money and power and soldiers and a king for an ally, Robert would stand a far better chance of defeating injustice and curbing the excesses of King John. Instead he chooses to wander back to Sherwood and spend his days mooning over Marion and listening to some laddish banter. Oh well.

Despite my many criticisms of KOTA, it did leave me wanting more. There is life in this old dog (or wolfshead) yet, and plenty more scope for further adventures. Further audio episodes, provided the demand exists for them, would actually be written for audio and thus remove the problems of retro-fitting a screenplay. I see no reason why a team of able writers, steeped in RoS lore, couldn’t produce quality scripts that would do the story justice and bring it to an intelligent conclusion. Now we just need to find an eccentric millionaire or two to fund it…

David Pilling

Darkness and Deep Night

Welcome to The World Apparent. A fantasy fiction blog where co-writers of fantasy series The World Apparent Tales, David Pilling and Martin Bolton, will talk about their influences and inspiration in the world of fantasy.

The very first post in The World Apparent is David’s thoughts on Robert E Howard, the creator of the iconic fantasy character, Conan The Barbarian.

Comment on this post to enter a draw for a free copy, paperback or ebook, of The Best Weapon (The World Apparent Tales Book 1) or The Path of Sorrow (The World Apparent Tales Book 2).

“They called it Cimmeria, land of Darkness and Deep night…”

Robert E Howard

Robert E Howard

This line is taken from Cimmeria, a poem written by Robert E. Howard while the author was in Mission, Texas: according to Howard, his vision of the fictional land of Cimmeria was inspired by the sight of the hill country of Fredericksburg veiled under winter mist. As many readers will know, he made Cimmeria the bleak homeland of his most famous creation, Conan. I’d like to take a look at the enduring appeal of Conan, and also shine a light on Howard’s skill and originality as a world-builder.

Conan the Usurper

Howard wrote a number of short stories featuring Conan before his essay, ‘The Hyborian Age’, in which he fleshed out the background setting for his character. Written in the 1930s but not published during his lifetime, The Hyborian Age is a four-part work of genuine depth and detail, written to maintain consistency within his universe and place Conan and Kull (one of Howard’s earlier characters) inside the same chronology. Howard penned an entire history of the Hyborian era – essentially, a fictional pre-pre history of our own world before the continents broke up. The essay also described the geography of individual kingdoms and the racial characteristics of the various peoples he had invented. JRR Tolkien pulled off a similar trick in his epic sagas of Middle-Earth, but the Conan stories were first published in the early 1930s, over twenty years before the publication of Lord of the Rings. Earlier writers such as Poe and Lovecraft had created fantastical worlds, but arguably Howard was the first to create an entire self-contained universe, complete with maps and kingdoms and its own internal mythology/history.

Weird Tales

Tolkien was an English academic, a formidable scholar and a leading author of literary criticism. His sources of inspiration are well-known: early Germanic, Norse and Old English literature, saga and poetry, all particular areas of expertise, which he drew upon to weave his Middle-Earth. In stark contrast, Howard spent all of his tragically short life in the towns of Cross Plains and Brownwood in Texas, scratching a living from odd jobs and writing short stories. The main outlet for his Conan stories was in the pulp fiction magazine Weird Tales, and he never saw any of them published in full-length book form (though a Conan novel was nearly published in 1934). Originally a poet, much of Howard’s prose has a lyrical, dreamy quality that effectively complements the raw savagery and straightforward muscular rhythms of the Conan tales. An admirer of Shakespeare, he set out his inspirations clearly in a letter from 1928:

“I have carefully gone over, in my mind, the most powerful men – that is, in my opinion – in all of the world’s literature and here is my list: Jack London, Leonid Andreyev, Omar Khayyam, Eugene O’Neill, William Shakespeare. All these men, and especially London and Khayyam, to my mind stand out so far above the rest of the world that comparison is futile, a waste of time. Reading these men and appreciating them makes a man feel life is not altogether useless.”

Tales of Conan

“Life is not altogether useless.” Here is an example of the deep angst lurking in Howard’s mind. Generally reckoned to be a depressive, he took his own life in 1930, shortly after his mother slipped into her final coma. Since his death many writers have tried to write further adventures of Conan, and none (for my money) have succeeded in recapturing the verve of the original stories. Perhaps this is because Howard poured so much of his own identity in them. He wrote westerns as well as heroic fantasy, most of them dominated by swaggering, capable alpha males in the Conan mould. As a teenager, Howard was a keen amateur boxer as well as addicted to severe regimes of exercise. These were intended to make him outgrow his skinny teenage frame and become more of a ‘man’, as he saw it: cutting down trees, lifting weights, punching a bag and springing exercises. Characters such as Kull, Conan and Solomon Kane, fearless warriors who could not be beaten in a straight fight, were his exemplars. They are also, Conan especially, morally ambivalent men, largely driven by self-interest. Conan performs a great many heroic deeds, but there’s nothing altruistic about them: he thirsts for gold, women, adventure, someone else’s blood on his sword. This ambivalence serves to make the character far more interesting than a straightforward, Superman-type hero, and may explain the character’s deathless appeal. Perhaps Howard’s own darkness, the self-destructive demons in his soul, are reflected in the stark nature of his most popular creation.


“It was gloomy land that seemed to hold
All winds and clouds and dreams that shun the sun,
With bare boughs rattling in the lonesome winds,
And the dark woodlands brooding over all,
Not even lightened by the rare dim sun
Which made squat shadows out of men; they called it
Cimmeria, land of Darkness and deep Night.

It was so long ago and far away
I have forgotten the very name men called me,
The axe and flint-tipped spear are like a dream,
And hunts and wars are like shadows. I recall
Only the stillness of that sombre land;
The clouds that piled forever on the hills,
The dimness of the everlasting woods.
Cimmeria, land of Darkness and the Night.”

Article by David Pilling