Having a book you’ve yet to read by one of your favorite sword-and-sorcery authors is to possess a great treasure. I had been saving The War Hound and the World’s Pain for many years. I decided to read it recently. In some ways the book was not what I expected.
Michael Moorcock sets the scene in first person with a grey and dismal world ravaged by war: It was in that year when the fashion in cruelty demanded not only the crucifixion of peasant children, but a similar fate for their pets, that I first met Lucifer and was transported into Hell; for the Prince of Darkness wished to strike a bargain with me.
What follows is some background information as we learn Ulrich von Bek, lately Commander of Infantry, has deserted his men due to some of them contracting the plague. A fighter and leader of soldiers in the religious war that nearly destroyed Central Europe, von Bek has left all faith behind for reason and the pragmatism necessary to survive. Sometimes that means doing cruel and terrible things.
Von Bek, known as the War Hound, roams the countryside of war-torn Germany, seemingly immune to death, destruction, plague, and pox. Beyond the fringes of the Thuringian Forest he comes upon a deserted castle and spends an idyllic vacation for ten days or so. Things are moving slow for a Michael Moorcock novel at this point. Don’t worry, it’s not long before there is a confrontation and some supernatural elements are introduced.
The War Hound is soon enthralled by the witch, Sabrina and immediately falls in love with her. Sabrina serves Lucifer. He possesses her soul. The War Hound meets the Devil and finds out he belongs to Lucifer, as well. The Prince of Darkness informs him if he wasn’t already damned he would not have been able to enter his castle. Here, a deal with the Devil is struck and Ulrich von Bek agrees to go off on a quest for the Holy Grail. Starting to sound like stock fantasy? Have some faith here. This is Michael Moorcock telling this story. Anyway, everyone is playing for big stakes now. Lucifer has a plan to end the world’s pain utilizing the Grail. By doing so, the Devil hopes to make amends with God and be granted entrance into Heaven again. Lucifer tells Ulrich if he will bring him the Grail he will free Ulrich and Sabrina from his service, no longer damning them to an eternity in Hell. And the quest begins!
Some sword-and-sorcery purists may not like the addition of black powder firearms, but the story is set during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) and those weapons were used.
Because of the real-world historical setting I have the feeling that Moorcock held back a bit on the weird fantasy elements, though they are present, but more so later in the story. Just take a look at this: Dead flesh stank in our nostrils; dead hands reached out for us. And more came up behind the first riders: running things, half-ape, half-man, in knotted leather with spears and hardwood clubs, their teeth like tusks. And behind them came thin-faced, long-bodied warriors with waving grey hair, in green-and-white livery and no armour. These carried great two-handed blades and guided their thick-bodied mounts with their thighs. And to one side of them were demons, all horns and warts, on demon-horses, and there were women with filed teeth, and women with the snouts of pigs, and apparitions whose flesh ran liquid on their bodies, and there were lizards bearing monkey-riders, and ostriches carrying lepers in arms, and hooded things which cawed at us—and still we galloped… This scene could have easily been inserted into Stormbringer, or any other Elric, Corum, or Dorian Hawkmoon novel.
And speaking of Elric, Duke Arioch is leading a rebellion against Lucifer in Hell. But this time Arioch is on the antagonist’s side. Mutiny in Hell! Chaos vs. Order! And it’s hard to tell who the good guys are.
There is plenty of philosophizing and introspection and it weighs the story down a little. I think most readers will find this a slower moving novel than the rest of Moorcock’s sword-and-sorcery oeuvre.
There is plenty more to this novel than what I’ve covered here, but I don’t want to spoil it for those who have yet to read the book. The War Hound and the World’s Pain was a worthwhile read, and I look forward to the continuation of the story of the von Bek family in The City in the Autumn Stars.