Monday, July 10, 2023

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Thief of Forthe

The death of Robert E. Howard on June 11, 1936 was a huge blow, not simply to his many friends and admirers, but also to the incipient genre of sword-and-sorcery. While it would be an exaggeration to claim that REH is solely responsible for its creation and popularization, there can be little question that his tales of Conan the Cimmerian played an outsize role in popularizing them among the readers of Weird Tales in the 1930s. 

Consequently, as news of Howard's death spread, several authors stepped forward in an attempt to fill the void he left in the Unique Magazine's pages. One of these was Clifford Nankivell Ball, who, by his own admission, had been "a constant reader" of Weird Tales since 1925. A huge fan of Conan's adventures, he mourned the demise of REH in the magazine's letters column, the Eyrie, in early 1937. However, rather than simply mourn, Ball wrote six original short stories of his own, three in the sword-and-sorcery genre, all of which were published in WT between May 1937 and November 1941.

Though Ball's first published story was "Duar the Accursed," far more interesting to me is his second effort, "The Thief of Forthe," which appeared two months later, in July 1937. Apparently, editor Farnsworth Wright must have also thought well of the story, since he gave it the cover illustration for the issue – and by Virgil Finlay no less! The titular thief is Rald, "prince among thieves," who, at the start of the tale, has been summoned into the presence of the magician Karlk.
The magician was of slender frame, of small features, and delicate hands and feet. He had never appeared in any other costume than the one he now wore – a long robe of ebon silk almost touching the ground as he walked, held by a twisted cord at the waist. A black cowl covered his head; the heavy beard and hirsute growth bear the ears left only the flashing malignant eyes and the thin nostrils visible. There were many whispers to the effect that Karlk was not really of the race of men and that if anyone would have the unthinkable courage to uncover this person, he would discover, not a human form, butn some monstrosity impossible for the mind of mankind to imagine.

Rald, meanwhile, wore only a "breech-clout ... and the sandals on his feet," as well as a "slender sword dangling by his side." He is "clean-shaven, his hair bound in the back by a gold chain," with "great scars" across his body to indicate that "he had known the clash of steel in combat." Most importantly, his "well-shaped skull gave proof that brain backed his brawn." This is an important detail, since Rald demonstrates again and again throughout the story that he became "prince among thieves" as much by the use of his wits as by his sword. 

He asks the magician why he has summoned him, to which Karlk replies simply, "I wish you to steal something for me." 

Of course you want me to steal! For what other purpose would you summon Rald? What seek you, wizard, that your magic cannot obtain? Some of [King] Thrall's jewels? – a stone or two from the Inner Temple? No women, mind you! I don't deal in them. What is the bargain and what is my reward?

Rald expanded his chest; he was proud with the pride of an expert in his profession.

Karlk laughed shortly, wickedly. "Jewels? The prizes of the temples? Ha! From the playgrounds for children unlearnt in the mysteries of the skies! I see a great prize, something so earthly my unearthly hands cannot touch it without the aid of your nimble fingers, oh Rald! I seek the kingdom of Forthe!"

Shocked, the notorious thief started upright in the stone chair. Bewilderment strained his countenance; incredulity stamped horror on his features as he sought to comprehend blasphemy.

"Forthe!" he exclaimed. "Forthe! Why – none but the Seven Gods could steal Forthe from King Thrall of the Ebon Dynasty!"

"Except Karlk," amended the magician.

What Ball might lack in polish, he makes up for in enthusiasm – and intriguing ideas. I must confess that, before I began "The Thief of Forthe," I was unsure what to expect. The fact that Ball was a self-professed fanboy of Robert E. Howard who'd never written a word of fiction before 1937 didn't fill me with much hope. Likewise, the start of the tale, with its ponderous descriptions and portentous dialog, led me to expect very little of value. Yet, as I reached the section above, in which Karlk explains to an unbelieving Rald his intentions, I can't deny that my interest was piqued.

"Steal Forthe!" muttered Rald. "Rebellion – treachery – millions to bribe – for what? A powerful kingdom – aye! But who shall rule it, granting you gain it? You with the blood of its peoples on your hands and the terror of yourself in their hearts?"

The magician's voice became a whisper. "King Rald!" he said.

Mine is not the only interest that was piqued. Karlk's bargain is that, in exchange for his assistance in helping Rald steal the kingdom of Forthe from its current ruler, he would be granted a "voice behind the throne," as well as "just a little more freedom for – experiments." Rald is not keen on this bargain, but he "dreamed a dream of empire, as many powerful men had done before" and so agreed to enter palace to steal "the legendary Necklace of the Ebon Dynasty."

The Necklace was composed of a string of fifty diamonds, each one itself worthy of the ransom of a king, and the lot, in their magnificent entirety, of fabulous value. But the chief virtue of the heirloom lay not in its marketable worth, but in the legendary credits supposedly bestowed upon it by the multiple blessings of the Seven Gods when, eons ago, they granted the rights of kingship to the Ancient One who had been the first King of Forthe and the subsequent founder of the dynasty.

 Naturally, Karlk imagines that, once Rald is acclaimed king by virtue of his possession of the Necklace of the Ebon Dynasty, he would have no trouble bending the thief to his will, "pull[ing] strings to make the puppet dance." 

"The Thief of Forthe" is clearly the work of a novice writer, imitating the style and subject matter of a more accomplished author whom he admired. Despite this, the plot is genuinely interesting and the twists and turns it takes unexpected but fairly satisfying. The story, though rough, holds a lot of promise. I can't help but wonder what might have become of Ball had he continued writing after 1941. With more experience, I suspect he might well have honed his craft and come closer to achieving his goal of filling the void left by Robert E. Howard. As it is, he is mostly an intriguing "what if" in the annals of pulp fantasy. A pity!


  1. Worth noting that his writing career was (like that of many authors of his day) interrupted by military service in WW2, and he died by accidental drowning only five months after he was discharged in 1946. Ball really didn't have a chance to resume writing and improve his skills, sadly. While he might not have been as talented as REH, he did unfortunately follow in his idol's footsteps by dying far to young.

  2. I love your Pulp Fantasy Articles. You always turn me on to cool stuff, and, so far, I've been able to find them online for free due to the age of these stories.

  3. A full biography of Clifford Ball, so far as it can be reconstructed, can be found here:,and%20sorcery%20subgenre%20of%20fantasy.