The Pulp Swordsmen: Vincius the Reaper

Sunday , 26, July 2015 3 Comments

weird_3905Weird Tales magazine was dealt a double blow with the deaths of Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft. At the same time, Clark Ashton Smith cut his fiction production by more than half.

Fortunately, two Lovecraft protégés stepped in to fill the gap in the late 1930s– Robert Bloch and Henry Kuttner. Robert Bloch had started out an imitator of H. P. Lovecraft. In 1938-39, he was experimenting with different story types. He would later settle into his classic style with stories such as “Enoch” and “Your Truly-Jack the Ripper.”

One very out of character story is “The Dark Isle” from Weird Tales, May 1939. This is an out and out sword and sorcery story. The protagonist is Vincius the Reaper, a Roman legionary who is part of the expeditionary force to wipe out the druids on the island of Mona under Gaius Suetonius Paulinus in the year 60 A.D. (I don’t use B.C.E or C.E. which is stupid in its reasoning).

Robert Bloch needed to study up on his history a little better:

“The Celts knew it as Mona; The Britons called it Anglesey; but the Welsh spoke truly when they named the shunned spot ‘Ynis Dywyll’– the Dark Isle.”

The Britons were Celts. The term Welsh is an anachronism from centuries later. It is an exonym given by the Saxons ironically meaning “foreigner.” I have not found any Romans named Vincius. The name Vincentius was present. Maybe Bloch figured Vincius was the ancient version of Vinnie.

Bloch paints the druids in a dark tone:

“It was said that the Druids first came from Greece, and before that, from lost Atlantis; that they ruled in Gaul and crossed the seas in boats of stone…Certainly they were a sect of priests and sorcerers possessing powers before which the savage, blue-painted Britons quailed; black wisdom to quell the wild clans of Erin.”

Vincius the Reaper is described as having black eyes but that is about it.

“These eyes had seen Imperial Rome, they had beheld the Sphinx, they had visioned the dark forests of the Rhine, and the templed column of ancient Greece.”

Vincius first deals with a lich sent by the druids to kill men on the Roman ships. The landing the next morning does not go well at all when the initial Roman assault is beaten back with an arrow storm.

He finds a Roman castaway, Lupus, who had been shipwrecked on the island the year The Dark Islebefore and forced to serve the druids. They witness the burning of prisoners in wicker men. Fleeing into a cavern, they fight their way through a mass of serpents.

They come upon the Place of Mysteries where the druids are gathering poison from a massive severed dragon tongue. Vincius plunges his sword into the dragon tongue and cuts down the druids. He dives into a pool, making his way to the coast. The dragon attacks him and he plunges his poisoned sword into the dragon’s mouth. Bloch never did tell what happened to Lupus.

There is a lot packed into this story. It isn’t bad. H. P. Lovecraft would have been able to correct Bloch’s Roman mistakes. Before Lovecraft’s death, he and Bloch had considered writing a story together about a Roman colony in New England. Bloch liked druids as he wrote two other stories about them, “The Druidic Doom” and “Power of the Druid.” “The Dark Isle” is an oddity. Neither L. Sprague de Camp nor Lin Carter reprinted the story for their sword and sorcery anthologies. Karl Edward Wagner also did not reprint it in the Echoes of Valor anthologies. You can find “The Dark Isle” in the Arkham House collection Flowers From the Moon and Other Lunacies. (1998).

  • Alex says:

    Have you got this story ?

    I need it.

  • Morgan says:

    I have the story in the Arkham House collection FLOWERS OF THE MOON. I think that book is still in print.

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