With my usual relentless lack of efficiency I have finally gotten round to writing up the author’s notes for Ocean of Fear only two months after the book was released. Here they are now.
The tortured girl is dying, slowly and in agony. The brooding stranger who has come across her broken body by the side of the path listens to her tale of murder and rapine with mounting rage. As the girl passes, his wrath explodes. “Men shall die for this,” he says. And you, the reader, know they will. For the stranger is Solomon Kane, the puritan adventurer who has some claim to being the first great hero of the sword and sorcery genre, and when he makes a threat you know it will be carried out.
The opening of Red Shadows has stayed with me for decades, and even shorn of Robert E Howard’s muscular prose, you can understand why. It has a very real power. This scene came back to me in force when I sat down to write the sixth volume of Kormak’s adventures, Ocean of Fear. It’s not the situation so much as the emotional resonance. Kormak is hunting a pirate chieftain and when he comes across his handiwork, he finds he is motivated by the same rage and thirst for justice.
Solomon Kane is a driven wanderer, a righter of wrongs, a man willing to hound evil-doers to the ends of the earth to see that they get justice, or at least what Kane’s dour Calvinist conscience sees as justice.
Howard’s characterisation is more subtle than he is often given credit for. The puritan is depicted as a man who uses his religious faith to rationalise his own desire for violent adventure. He does good but often not for the reasons he would have himself or others believe.
Solomon Kane was a huge influence on my idea of Kormak.
Like him, Kormak has followed many a malefactor to distant corners of the world, and he too thinks he is religiously motivated. He is, after all, a champion of his Solar god albeit one with more than his share of doubts.
Kormak also has a hidden motive and we see this very clearly in the opening chapter of this book. He has just witnessed the aftermath of the utter destruction of the coastal village of Woods Edge by pirates.
A man lay nearby, his throat cut. Maybe he had been forced to watch the woman die before they killed him. Kormak fought to keep his mind from constructing narratives. It was all too easy to picture what had happened here. He had seen the like many times, the first when he had been eight years old and it had been his own people dying.
Two children lay nearby. They stared up at the sky with blank empty eyes. Their throats had been cut too. They bore a family resemblance to the man and the woman.
“It was a mercy,” said one of the soldiers. “The tykes would have starved to death without their folks to feed them.” He did not sound as if he believed it. He sounded like he was trying to comfort himself.
The state of the corpses and the fact that the fires still burned made it obvious the attack was recent, most likely last night, possibly even some time before the dawn.
The slow burn of an anger that he knew, given time, would become incandescent fury started in Kormak’s gut. He felt, as he always did, the need to make someone pay for this.
He unclenched his fists, took a deep breath and forced the rage down into the place where he had buried it long ago. A man in his line of work could not afford to give in to every spark of righteous anger. It was not his job to avenge these people. His duty was to find the sorcerer men called the Kraken and end his unrighteous career. Anything else was just a distraction.
Just for a moment we catch sight of the gigantic engine of rage that drives this otherwise decent man. He looks into his heart, sees it and tries to deny it. He is kidding himself of course. He can no more bury his wrath than he can keep from breathing. Men shall die for this before this story is over and he will kill them.
Ocean of Fear was written in the shadow of two Kanes. The first was Robert E Howard’s reckless Puritan and the second was Karl Edward Wagner’s murderous titan who shares the name Kane.
The influence of Wagner’s work is on the setting. The background of Kormak’s world has many similarities to Wagner’s. It looks as medieval as a conventional epic fantasy but in the background lurk hints of strange magical technology and voyagers who travel, if not between the stars, at least between worlds.
Wagner’s work was influenced by Lovecraft, as was a good deal of early sword and sorcery. There is a sense of weird science about many of his monstrous elder races, just as there is with Yag Kosha in Howard’s The Tower of the Elephant or any of the waifs from interstellar space who haunt the Conan stories. The horror is cosmic.
The greatest echo of Wagner’s Kane is seen in the Quan, modelled on the aquatic Scylrendi, one of the Elder Races who haunt the pages of Darkness Weaves.
The Quan originally appeared in the background of the Terrarch novel, The Queen’s Assassin, and I was keen to revisit them. With their gigantic living submersibles, these aquatic vampires sidled into the background when I was thinking about doing a sea-faring adventure in the Kormak series.
I was happy to throw in the Quan as a link between the Terrarch series and the Kormak books. The series are written in very different styles but they share a common background universe and this book went some way to making that obvious. I’ve always wanted to build my own little cosmos and this was my first real bit of carpentry to join my worlds.
The story of Ocean of Fear involves the quest for a dark sorcerer, the Kraken, who also happens to be a pirate. The Kraken’s dark destiny involves him in the power politics of Kormak’s world and his sorcerous skill and knowledge have provided him with a plan to shake that world to its foundations.
Kormak is hired to track him down and kill him, apparently by the Merchant’s Guild of the port of Trefal in reality by someone much more important and with a far deeper agenda. The hunt carries him from the Blood Coast through the haunted city of an Elder Race to the pirate haven of Port Blood and beyond. It reaches its conclusion deep beneath the waves of the World Ocean and brings our hero face to face with what is quite possibly the greatest monster he will ever face.
I really enjoyed writing this book. I mean what’s not to love about a tale of pirates, naval battles and gigantic sea monsters? Hopefully, it’s as much fun to read.
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