Some of My Favorite Sword-and-Sorcery Monsters
by Bill Ward
Where would hulking barbarians and fantastic swordsmen be without monsters to pit their steel against? Sword-and-sorcery, that delicious combination of adventure fiction and supernatural horror, is as famed for its weird foes as it is for its self-reliant protagonists. And while it isn’t locked into strict adherence to formula, every writer of sword-and-sorcery since the time when Robert E. Howard first infused his viscerally real narratives with the sharp shock of otherworldly unreality has tried their hand at cooking up a vile horror or two. Here are some of my favorites.
The Cloud of Hate
Fritz Leiber, “The Cloud of Hate” (Swords in the Mist)
A sinister and serpentine mist nearly indistinguishable from river fog, save for the bloody red glints deep within its tendrils, the Cloud of Hate is the result of a depraved ritual in a cult temple deep beneath the streets of Lankhmar. It moves with purpose through the streets, possessing thugs and killers in an apparent mission to crash a royal wedding, rendering all those who partake of its “heady white wine of murder” into marionettes of death. Fafhrd, recently flushed with a self-justifying protective idealism, and Mouser, too narcissistically absorbed by his own personal hatreds and envies to heed external ones, prove immune. Leiber’s sinuous prose style brings the clammy creepiness of the Cloud to life, and the cast of one-off scoundrels and the terrific byplay of the twain make this simple story, and its titular peril, truly memorable.
Clark Ashton Smith, “The Seven Geases” (Hyperborea)
A sentient pool of filth, a suppurating mass of ever-mutating flesh, a charnel jelly of living vomit, Abhoth is perhaps the very essence of disgusting, the “ultimate source of all miscreation and abomination.” Dwelling so far beneath the earth of Smith’s lost prehistoric continent of Hyperborea that the surface world is but a horrifying and perplexing rumor, the utterly alien Abhoth even rejects the sacrifice of a man sent to feed him with the remark that he does “not care to endanger [his] digestion with untried articles of diet.” Lest you think that makes him somehow less terrible, it’s worth noting that the myriad misshapen spawn continually shed and reabsorbed by Abhoth possess a far more adventurous palate. A contribution to the Cthulhu mythos from the Great Klarkash-Ton, Smith’s baroquely poetic description of this singular being makes of it a vivid horror even in this tongue-in-cheek tale.
The Fhoi Myore
Michael Moorcock, The Second Chronicles of Corum/The Prince With the Silver Hand
“Mist precedes them, ice and snow follow…the earth dies and the trees bow when the Fhoi Myore march.” Seven vile giants commanding hosts of half-dead slaves, pinesap-blooded warriors, heat-draining ice phantoms, and ferocious hounds of war, the Fhoi Myore are Michael Moorcock’s riff on the Fomorion invasion in this deliciously skewed version of Irish folklore. Corum Jhaelen Irsei, the Prince with the Silver Hand, reborn in a world not his own, is the only hero who can stop these servants of Chaos and Old Night. Moorcock’s powers of invention are firing on all cylinders in describing his Lords of Winter, and the mystery and dramatic tension surrounding these alien beings half-glimpsed in mist is some of the most powerful imagery in the entire Eternal Champion saga. Having slipped between the gaps in the walls of the multiverse, the hulking and bizarre Fhoi Myore seek to remake the world into their native Limbo, plunging the globe into a final deadly winter, all while their own bodies rot and decay in consequence to the entropic diseases they spawn. The half-hint that the Fhoi Myore, semi-idiot beings of implacable will who themselves are as doomed as the world that they are in the process of destroying, may actually be the final form of the magnificently puissant Chaos Gods of the first Chronicles of Corum makes them all the more monstrous and strange.
The Worms of the Earth
Robert E. Howard, “The Worms of the Earth” (Bran Mak Morn: The Last King)
Driven by a bitter, terrible revenge upon the Roman Governor who tortured and executed his men, Bran Mak Morn debases his own noble nature to secure a devil’s bargain with the hideous Worms of the Earth. In one of Robert E. Howard’s darkest tales, Bran, himself last of a dying race whose very humanity is slipping away with each passing generation, must face the dark mirror of his people’s doom in the foul subterranean beings that once were men, but no longer. Cleverly kept in the shadows by the author to heighten their mystery, their presence felt more as a palpable loathing and searing hatred for Bran, who “glimp[ses] only billowing masses of shadow which heaved and writhed and squirmed with almost fluid consistency,” the Worms are a horrifying sub-human throng made all the more foul by the certain knowledge that once they walked the world as fully human. Their final capture of Bran’s enemy comes after they level a fortress to get at him, and the Roman’s destroyed sanity and pitiable ruination render the Pictish King’s killing stroke one of mercy, not vengeance.
Poul Anderson, “The Tale of Hauk” (Fantasy)
“The moon waxed. On the first night that it rose full, Geirolf came again.” Grown old and bitter, wasting away until all his former strength was exhausted and he died the miserable straw death of a thrall, Geirolf cannot rest quiet in his grave. In the tour de force “The Tale of Hauk,” Poul Anderson combines a Weird Tales style horror with the culture and language of the sagas, giving us no mere zombie but a draugr, fantastically strong revenent immune to the bite of steel.“The mould of the grave clung to him. His eyes stared unblinking, unmoving, blank in the moonlight, out of a gray face whereon the skin crawled. The teeth in his tangled beard were dry. No breath smoked from his nostrils.” Every night Geirolf returns to his old steading to torment his own family and retainers, killing anyone he finds outside, stumping along the roof of his former hall to instill terror in those within. The personal malignance of the draugr make him far worse than the brainless undead we are more familiar with – it isn’t just seeing a loved one return as a horrible walking corpse, but knowing that he hates you that’s the real horror.
The Elephant God
Robert E. Howard, “The Tower of the Elephant” (The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian)
Not all monsters are terrors. In a story that sees a young Conan, a “gray wolf among gutter rats,” dispense lessons in barbarian courtesy to ‘civilized’ street scum, both out-thief the greatest thief in the world and out-instinct the King of the Beasts, the ultimate final confrontation is resolved by an act of compassion. The true monster of the story, of course, is the Priest Yara that keeps the alien Elephant God, Yag-Kosha, in a tortuous imprisonment:
“…and Conan’s gaze strayed to the limbs stretched on the marble couch. And he knew the monster would not rise to attack him. He knew the marks of the rack, and the searing brand of the flame, and tough-souled as he was, he stood aghast at the ruined deformities which his reason told him had once been limbs as comely as his own. And suddenly all fear and repulsion went from him, to be replaced by a great pity. What this monster was, Conan could not know, but the evidences of its sufferings were so terrible and pathetic that a strange aching sadness came over the Cimmerian, he knew not why. He only felt that he was looking upon a cosmic tragedy, and he shrank with shame, as if the guilt of a whole race were laid upon him.”
Horrible in its alienness, it is rendered pitiable in its suffering, and it is a pathos as vast as the being’s own eldritch and cosmic nature. Conan, far more attuned to the sacredness of natural law than the venal city priest Yara, demonstrates that barbarism isn’t the same thing as savagery, freeing one monster, and exacting justice on another. A brilliant reminder that not all monstrous beings need a length of steel rammed through their bellies – just most of them.