The Thief of Forthe and Other Stories by Clifford Ball
If I were to ask 1,000 people what the words “Clifford Ball” meant to them, those to whom it meant anything, I have a feeling, would reply that the Clifford Ball was the first weekendlong concert bash that the jam band Phish ever held, back in August ’96, in Plattsburgh, N.Y. Fewer, perhaps, would know that the provenance for the name of that shindig was the aviation pioneer Clifford Ball, whose moniker the Phish folks thought would be a cool and punny handle for their event. But it is not of these two Clifford Balls that I would speak here, but rather of another: Clifford Ball the author, whose claim to fame today is his being the first writer to continue on in the sword-and-sorcery tradition after the suicide of Robert E. Howard in 1936. If you have not previously heard of Clifford Ball the writer or encountered his work before, I suppose that it is understandable, as the man only created six stories during his lifetime, all of which appeared in the pages of the famed Weird Tales magazine. But Ball’s work, it seems, also encompassed the fields of modern-day fantasy, sci-fi and traditional horror, as DMR Books’ new release, The Thief of Forthe and Other Stories (2018), makes abundantly clear. The first-ever volume to collect all of Ball’s work between two covers, this new offering — from the fine folks who had also given us an equally splendid collection of stories by another little-known Weird Tales writer, Nictzin Dyalhis, entitled The Sapphire Goddess: The Fantasies of Nictzin Dyalhis — is a must-have for all fans of Howard, sword and sorcery, and pulp fiction in general.
In his introduction to the Ball collection, D. M. Ritzlin (obviously the D.M.R. of DMR Books) tells us that “little is known about Clifford Ball,” and that Ball had had a variety of unrelated jobs prior to becoming a writer for Weird Tales. But Ritzlin does mention that Ball had been a devoted reader of the magazine since 1925, and was profoundly saddened by Howard’s premature passing. It is to be inferred that Ball felt that someone had to rise to the challenge of keeping Howard’s legacy going, and thus rose to that challenge himself … and, apparently, did a simply marvelous job, for the short time that he kept at it. This new DMR collection presents his six tales in chronological order, enabling us to witness his patent growth as a wordsmith over a 4 ½-year period. It is a beautiful little volume, by the way, with front- and back-cover paintings by the great Virgil Finlay, for the stories “The Thief of Forthe” and “The Swine of Aeaea,” respectively, both of which paintings had appeared on the front covers of their Weird Tales issues back when.
As for the stories themselves, though, the collection kicks off with Ball’s first, “Duar the Accursed” (from the 5/37 issue of Weird Tales), to get the, uh, Ball rolling. Here, the author presents us with a sword-wielding barbarian character very much in the Howard tradition: Duar, who used to rule over his own kingdom but who is now a homeless wanderer. When we first meet the ex-king, he is being brought in shackles before the queen Nione of Ygoth. He is summarily hurled into the foulest dungeon in Nione’s castle, only to escape with the assistance of an elemental spirit named Shar, who tells the ex-king that she was once one of Earth’s Elder Race, as had been Duar in a former life. Once again a free man, Duar confronts Nione in her bedchamber, seduces her with his masculine ways, and goes on a quest to find a legendary jewel called The Rose of Gaon, which resides in Ygoth’s accursed Black Tower. Ball’s first attempt at writing is a surprisingly suspenseful and imaginative affair, in which the author evinces not only a love for Robert E. Howard, but also for Edgar Rice Burroughs (ERB’s Barsoom is homaged in the line “white apes from the hills of Barsoom…”) and H. Rider Haggard (“the battlefield of Kor” is referred to). In all, a most impressive debut.
Up next is another sword-and-sorcery offering, but one featuring a new lead character, Rald the thief. “The Thief of Forthe” (7/37) finds Rald entering into a bargain with a suspiciously motivated wizard named Karlk. Rald, using his masterful gifts of stealth and thievery, must only find his way into the castle of King Thrall, ruler of Forthe (a neighbor of the previous tale’s Ygoth), and purloin the diamond necklace that gives its possessor the right to rule the kingdom. Rald will become the new king, with Karlk pulling the strings behind the scenes. And all seems to go well for Rald, until he is caught in the act by Thrall’s sister, the Lady Thrine, and the evil wizard takes matters into his own hands … all four of them! This story again features some genuine suspense and some pleasing surprises, especially as regards the precise facts about Karlk’s nature and background. Trust me, you will be startled.
And the next story in this collection, “The Goddess Awakes” (2/38), again featuring Rald, is even better. Here, though, Rald has given up his thieving ways and is now a mercenary, fighting for whomever pays highest. At the beginning of this tale, Rald and his boon companion, the stockier and more thoughtful Thwaine, are escaping from a recent battle during which they’d fought on the losing side. The two men are captured while making their way through a mountain pass and brought to the underground kingdom of Ceipe. It is a domain ruled by Queen Cene and governed by women; men are automatically made drugged slaves or forced into an amphitheater to fight. But Ceipe is actually ruled by still another evil wizard, Throal, who keeps the populace cowed by controlling the panther goddess Hess. And in the story’s extended climax, Rald and Thwaine are dropped into the arena and forced to combat the gigantic, stonelike cat creature to the death. A marvelously detailed and exciting story, “The Goddess Awakes” tips the hat again to Haggard, having that arena lie at the base of an extinct volcano, reminiscent of Ayesha’s kingdom of Kor in the seminal classic She.
Very much a tale of hard fantasy but set in modern times, “The Swine of Aeaea” (3/39) is, for me, the most impressive offering in this volume. The story is narrated by a fiction writer who is perhaps Ball’s overly modest conception of himself and the publishing world of the pulps.
I am a writer; not a good one … more civilized persons read these things later and laugh — when they have been set into the convenient sanity of printed type. They are temporarily amused by a crackpot writer and his opium-laden imagination. So they laugh. They are entertained; my publishers pay me…
Our narrator meets a down-on-his-luck sailor at the seedy tavern where he is wont to pick up ideas for stories, and is told a tale of the sea like none that he — or the reader — has ever come across. The sailor, Sam Mercer, 10 years earlier, had been serving on a tramp steamer when a stowaway had been discovered on board, while the ship was off the coast of Greece. The stowaway was an English sophisticate named Charles Brighton, who’d told the captain that he was engaged in a search for the mythical isle of Aeaea, whereon the enchantress Circe had changed Ulysses’ men into swine in Homer’s The Odyssey. The captain and crew were amused by Brighton’s talk, but their attitudes soon changed when an uncharted island appeared in a morning fog, and when two men who were sent ashore to search for fresh water failed to return… A highly atmospheric story just brimming with marvelous touches, “The Swine of Aeaea” combines nautical adventure, fantasy, and glints of Lovecraftian horror into one very potent brew, and even pleases with some unexpected surprises (such as the actual background of that Mercer character). A bravura effort by Clifford Ball here!
“The Little Man” (8/39) again takes place in modern times, on the mean streets of what the reader can only gather is NYC. Here, the diminutive pipsqueak of the title, later revealed to be one Prof. Lucian Peters, goes on a killing spree, offing all the men who had previously scoffed at his work. Despite his small stature, Peters is somehow able to snap the necks of his much burlier victims; indeed, in the story’s opening pages, we see the little man hurl a brawny cop (to whom he had been confessing his first murder) five feet through the air! Could Peters’ theory about “concentrating power into molecules or compressing atoms” indeed have any basis in fact? What do you think? Anyway, this tale conflates science fiction and the hard-boiled detective story to winning effect, generously laced with a goodly dose of humor. A very entertaining winner.
Ball’s final story for Weird Tales (and in his short career) was the traditional horror outing “The Werewolf Howls” (11/41). In this one, set in an indeterminate time period, a large wolf — believed to be the werewolf of myth by the populace — has been terrorizing the region surrounding the vineyards and chateau of Etienne Delacroix, in France. The elderly estate owner instructs his three sons that the wolf must be killed and then burned that very evening, when the full moon would emerge. He provides the trio with the requisite silver bullets to do the job right. And perhaps I should say no more, as a twist ending (that, in truth, most readers will see coming) does cap off this beautifully written little story … capping off Ball’s career as a purveyor of fiction, as well.
To read DMR’s The Thief of Forthe and Other Stories is to make the acquaintance of a pulp author who most assuredly deserves to be reintroduced to readers, now 72 years since his passing. Inevitably, the reader will regret Clifford Ball’s decision to quit the field after creating these six marvelous tales, as the man was undoubtedly possessed of more than a modicum of talent. A very pleasing volume, this one, and more than highly recommended…