Strange Compassion:

The genius & tragedy of fantasist David Madison

by Jessica Amanda Salmonson


The short life of David Madison resembled that of Robert E. Howard, except even shorter. I can never speak of him without a tear. The following essay was written as an introduction to a volume of David's "Marcus & Diana" heroic fantasy tales as Tower of Darkness: Decadent Tales of Sword & Sorcery, with an intended follow-up volume Palace of Light: Decadent Tales etc. These two books would constitute the "complete" Marcus & Diana, including several stories as yet completely unpublished. The project was taken on by The Celt Press. That publisher had produced Paul Garcia Capella's very nice The Leopard of Poitain (tales mainly from the Hugo-winning REH fanzine Amra, with a hero contemporary to Conan), & Tower of Darkness got as far as the finished typesetting. But then nothing. There were afterward other publishers interested in this project -- one publisher retired, another suspended all publications. Cursed though my David Madison project has been, I have every expectation of eventually getting his stories preserved in, at least, limited edition hardcover. With the current craze for fine limited editions of ghost stories, I am waiting for some smart quality publisher to realize a fifth ghost story press isn't needed just now, but something similar for heroic fantasy now needs to be done. But for the moment, you will have to get by with just my essay.


Throughout the middle of the 1970s David Madison & I exchanged highly charged & personal letters & went through many changes together, if anyone is ever truly together through correspondence. His increasingly disturbing confessions of sexual doings & desires eventually got on my nerves & revealed to me a conservative streak I might not otherwise have known I possessed. But our friendship survived my reluctance to hear any more about the pansexual life of a Texas farmboy.

One of our big topics was suicide & we eventually made an anti-suicide pact, after my second hospitalization. David promised never to kill himself if I stayed alive, & I promised not to kill myself as long as he was living. To a small degree this contributed to my surviving those dark days, circa 1973, when my always gloomy disposition descended several pegs under & the world seemed far too horrid to deserve my presence in it. I felt betrayed when in the end David failed to keep his half of the bargain.

Life would have improved for David but he lost faith in mere prospects. We were both lonesome outcasts of melancholy disposition, filled with sorrow for the condition of the world. We were also both fascinated by the twisted & chiefly subconscious things we perceived behind the escapist facade of sword & sorcery: Nietzchean-cartoon nightmares posing as simple entertainment; murder & rape promoted as heroic fun; all the sewage of the human psyche dished onto a plate of choice adventure.

I was writing criminally bad stories about a terminally ill hero questing for a cure & not a snowflake's chance in hell of finding one, for I felt sword & sorcery was about The Big One: Death. David was writing about adventuring perverts because for him the violence in other sword & sorcery was a sort of encoded sexuality, furtive & frightened, waiting for him to break the code & erase the fear. We were full of theories. We felt we were the only ones who liked this stuff out of more than stupid bad taste.

He sent me manuscripts hoping I would include them in my little magazine Fantasy & Terror. I kept rejecting them as unpolished, despite their intelligence & innovation. The only thing I published for him was a sensitive vignette about the demise of Sodom & Gomorrah. I felt compelled to try to convince him to learn to type so that the idea of multiple drafts & revisions would be less daunting. He thought me a shit for not agreeing that the stories were perfect as they stood. He had a very high opinion of his work despite low self-esteem in other aspects of his life.

It bears commentary as to why he felt it necessary to publish what were essentially first drafts (albeit painstaking first drafts). Because he couldn't type (even hunt-&-peck was difficult for him) he had to hire typists. He lost money every time he "sold" a story, given that the income ranged from a contributor copy to one-fourth cent a word. The cost of typing represented an enormous drain on an underemployed young man's funds.

He told everyone he was dyslexic in order to excuse his inability to spell, to type, even to use lower-case letters. His handwriting consisted of block letters, odd abbreviations, bizarre spellings, questionable syntax & misplaced punctuation. His typists rarely did more than do away with the persistent capitalizations.

He probably wasn't dyslexic at all, for he was a rapid reader, devouring whole books in one sitting, retaining it all. Dyslexics tend to see phrases backward, thus read slowly. David may have had a subtler disability affecting eye-hand coordination. But the greater disability was his stubbornness in believing he could build a house without a hammer or write professionally with a felt pen.

Yet in retrospect I've come to realize my error in expecting David to polish his longer stories. The naive style, together with sword & sorcery's overall naivete, when contrasted to David's sophisticated interpretations, made for a textual irony to which I was at the time quite deaf.

David admired Clark Ashton Smith -- a late if favorite influence, so David was not imitating -- & he did want his fiction to be jewel-bright. Inasmuch as he stated a desire for poetic refinement, of however a decadent kind, I had felt justified in criticizing such rough-hewn diamonds. Yet as it turned out, his stories would have been robbed of their rambunctious quality & their textual irony had they been much fine-tuned, just as the primitive beauty of Grandma Moses or Henry Rousseau would have gained nothing by technical improvement.

It hardly mattered that I was too shortsighted to add David's rough-hewn masterpieces to my magazine. Other editors were lining up. In the small press milieu, he was a major name; & it was no slam to be a big fish in a mayonnaise jar. Karl Edward Wagner's gothic anti-hero Kane was first published in Gary Hoppenstand's fanzine Midnight Sun, later reprinted as successful Warner paperbacks. Charles R. Saunders' African hero Imaro (who I dubbed early on "chocolate covered Conan") began in numerous fanzines, notably the late Gene Day's Dark Fantasy, but eventually issued by DAW Books. When Andrew J. Offutt began to buy heroic fantasies for the Swords Against Darkness series at Zebra Books, it looked as though David had it made.

Alas, I must surmise this first evidence of inevitable success informed him only too closely that a dream achieved is not a cure-all for emotional distress. It was on the brink of reaching wider audiences that he ended his life.

I can easily imagine what his career might have been: learning to type, learning to revise, ultimately pumping out fantasy novels for Ace or Tor or DAW, known for his competence & reliability, gladly tolerated for his peculiarities as gifted writers always are. But his most loved stories would likely have remained his early work -- sadly to be his only work -- just as Jack Vance never improved on his first narratives of the Dying Earth, & Michael Moorcock's mature & expert writings never outdid the raw beauty of his early Elric stories.

David may have, after all, left to us his best.


How terribly tempting it is to compare him to that other depressive Texan, Robert E. Howard, who blew his brains out because his mother lay dying. But one never gets the impression REH knew what he was about. When Conan the Barbarian cuts a bloody swathe through the sinister hordes, there's no sense of irony, no understanding on the author's part that it is not only silly (though entertaining) but also a tad demented. That REH believed in the narrow spiritual dimensions of Kull & Conan made these stories very honest & winning, but they were not self-aware works. David on the other hand saw something hidden underneath these violent fantasies. He found the underpinnings of suppressed sexuality gone haywire into violence. He saw sexual fear. What would it become if the fear were stripped away? If that which was suppressed became overt? David showed us what it becomes.

When he created the first impotent muscle-hero Malak the Apostate; when he presented Marcus decked out in drag & sent Diana strutting in the glory of her feminismo, he was not merely putting the screws to otherwise banal stereotypes. He was not just turning cliches inside out for the sake of the jest. The satiric leaning was not the main point. Rather, these were the real Conan rendered the buffoon he really is; made ultimately more believable, no longer the fabricated Man As He Was Meant To Be (what a charade!) but a truer vision of humanity as violent, sexy, vulnerable, hopeless, & hopelessly comic.

David powerfully revealed the true underpinnings of sword & sorcery. Only Fritz Leiber ever came so close, but his playfulness undermines rather than highlights the tragedy of such violent scenarios; his heroes are unbelievably healthy-minded for all their interest in sex-with-rats, sex-with-the-dead, & similar what-nots imbedded in Fritz's marvelous stories of Fahfrd & the Grey Mouser. David, losing none of the fun of sword & sorcery, shows all this perversion & killing as pretty grim stuff (the killing grimmer than the perversion, let it be noted). He was also, of course, laying bare his own feelings, but I think it more important to stress that the perversity of Marcus & Diana is really what underlies all the mayhem of those comparatively simpleminded stories of Conan, Thongor, Elak, Brak, & all the other closet cases.

The masochistic tension is denied in much of REH's writings, in a classic "he doth protest too much" mode. Such muscle-flexing chaps are no less burlesque than any girly-show; the Frazetta image of machismo was never so accurately interpreted as when Boris Valejo accepted a commission from the Atlas Baths (where gay men spread AIDS). Boris's poster, revealing one of the thinly veiled secrets of sword & sorcery's success, portrays a Conanesque faggot astride a typical REH monster-serpent, a group of good-looking muscle-builders reaching upward toward dear Amra's crotch.

In the famous story of Belit, a Jewess & pirate of the high seas, REH allowed some truth to surface. Conan is portrayed as a simpering lapdog unable to fend for himself. With David's writing, the characters are honest throughout. He persistently, rather than once as if by a Freudian slip, strips away the ugly posturing & deflates the myth of ubermensch.

There is, of course, much more to be found in sword & sorcery than David's masochistic conclusions. Yet most fantasy readers are going to be individuals whose personality traits are a lot closer to such oddballs as Marcus & Diana than to any King of the Hyborean Age. Let's say at least this: If sword & sorcery heroes are essentially caricatures, David's caricatures reveal something truthful that the predecessors tried to disguise.

It might go as a footnote that David wasn't breaking entirely new ground. In the charnel Romanticism of Theophile Gautier & the PreRaphaelite prose of such as Swinburne, much that can be read as sword & sorcery has in it the same vision as David's. It's only modern sword & sorcery as it developed in pulp magazines that required David's reminder of what's really going on.

Such revelatory portraits are bound to be unsettling to some, but plenty of others are bemused rather than threatened. Those of us who are not the least insecure nor much deluded about our tacky tastes can be greatly rewarded by an author capable of revealing what previously lay hidden. The fact is, all these years after David's stories might have been lost & forgotten in the most obscure publications, he retains a small following. Some have never been able to forget stories encountered one by one as they appeared in the middle 1970s. Others have come to him fresh, either in used copies of Swords Against Darkness (volume III) or in back issues of Space & Time, & have begun to use the bibliographic volume Monthly Terrors as a guide to tracking down David's rarest items.

It might be supposed that some readers of sword & sorcery are, like much of the literature itself, somewhat suppressed, or that those who are especially fond of David's quirky interpretations share his libertine perversities. But my suspicion is that David's fans are sword & sorcery's healthiest devotees, good people with good hearts & sardonic wit. Open-mindedness recognizes originality, applauds the humor & surprising humanity of David's bent vision.

I am even no longer surprised when a sword & sorcery fan turns out to be familiar with such poets as Lord Byron (with whom David strongly identified) or can find their way through such as Tasso, Spencer, & Voltaire. Fans of this sort of thing, as well as its writers, whatever the other strengths or weaknesses of their intellects, tend to be baited into the form in depth, & glory in kinds of reading others approach only if it is essential for a college degree.

To appreciate Marcus & Diana stories, one probably does have to begin with an overall liking for sword & sorcery, from Tasso to REH, & such a liking may indeed be frought with folly. For those of us who do find this peculiar subgenre of fantasy a favorite cup of tea, then David Madison provides an exotic leaf ready for the brewing.

In unexpected ways, David is a muc hslyer & subtler writer than surface textures tell. For this reason he holds up to repeated reading. The first time through, don't treat it as essential to have your thinking-cap on. Don't try to comprehend every comic inuendo & revealing reference, each Swiftian aside or symbolic intent. Rather, wallow in the ribald simplicity of glorious adventure, intelligence be damned.

Then, if it haunts you afterward, as it certainly will, & it begins to sink in that you've enjoyed more than mere junkfood, go back to it again. You'll find subtleties, strange compassion, eloquent sentiment, & shocking beauty threading their way through David's odd tapestries.

If underneath the common & hokey sword & sorcery story there is to be found all this veiled perversity, then in David's work, with the perversity brought to the surface, something else awaits beneath that. The "something else" is a painful human empathy & a respectful awe for the condition of our species. Baudelaire would have loved these stories. Beardsley could have illustrated them. Henry Miller would have hopped for joy & clapped his mittens. And Robert E. Howard would have written a timid fan letter asking if it would be all right to come over & visit for an evening, preferably in the barn.


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