"By Arnara's six breasts, it shall be you who samples death before long!" -- Elric
I discovered Elric in one of the first editions of the Dungeons and Dragons book Deities and Demigods, where Elric mythos game writeups appeared without exactly getting it legally cleared with creator Michael Moorcock. When I read the books those game stats depicted, I found them awesome.
I was an Elric fan without doing all my reading, though. I haven't read nearly as much Elric as I always intended to. But now I fix that. Elric: Stealer of Souls is the first in a collection of Elric stories from the first one in 1961.
This edition has nine Elric stories, along with nifty triviatic things like magazine covers, and Moorcock's letters to science fiction magazines. In these he discusses Elric minutiae, like the pronuncation of Melnibone.
He also mentions Blue Oyster Cult's Elric song "Black Blade." ("I was born to wade in gore.") I could have used more discussion of that, and less about labeling what genre Elric is in. That way lies madness.
The intro by Alan Moore reads like an induction speech into the hall of fame. Less impressive is Michael Chabon's cover blurb, calling Moorcock "the greatest writer of post-Tolkien British fantasy." Whatever happened to the hyperbole-drenched blurb? That praise is weak.
RevolutionSF ran a gallery of illustrator John Picacio's work on the book, and seeing it in the book now is just neat. Picacio captures the character best in "The Dreaming City," where a floating Elric clutches his sword Stormbringer for dear life.
In reading the stories in publication order, I found that Moorcock worked in continuity, in the early 1960s, when Marvel Comics was just discovering the notion. The stories fit together. He's miserable at the end of one, and has just come out of his funk, perhaps briefly, at the beginning of the next.
Elric is a bad person. He's not an anti-hero: he's a villain. He's the protagonist, but he has no heart of gold like other so-called "bad" dudes of heroic fiction like James Bond or Wolverine. Usually the way you get people to cheer a jerk or a bad guy is for them to fight villains worse than themselves. But in most Elric stories, Elric is the worst one.
In every heroic quest story, there is a hero, an archenemy, a loyal sidekick, and a love interest. In the first Elric story "The Dreaming City," Elric has all those. They all die. In his debut.
Where he goes from there is more misery. Elric brings it all on himself. He tries to let go of his parasitic sword, but takes it back and aims to make everybody else pay for his misdeeds. "Let us give this age cause to hate us," he says.
Elric is a quote machine, and he talks like a pro wrestling bad guy:
"You paltry bombast, return to your rabbit hole before I call down every power upon, above,and under the earth to blast you!"
The narrator gets into the act: Elric has "knowledge locked in his skull that would turn lesser men into babbling idiots."
When his sidekick lets the bad guy get away, he says he's sorry, and Elric says "So you should be."
Tarzan and Conan, for instance, even when things are at their worst, never lose hope. They still have their mighty thews. But Elric's plight is hilarious. In the first story, the narrator says Elric and his party are doomed, and sure enough, they are. So Elric abandons them. Better them than him, he thinks.
In "While the Gods Laugh," those gods must be tickled pink, because when Elric finds the maguffin of the story, it gets destroyed. Elric weeps. There's no crying in sword and sorcery!
Elric's teammates "dragged him, sobbing" to safety. At this point, you'll want to say, "Cheer up, buddy. You have a +5 sword."
But then he blames the whole mess on the lady who asked for his help. She offers him some sweet lovin', "Let me comfort you," and he says "Hell no, baby. I ain't got the time." Or something to that effect. That is excellent.
He's a jerk who gets what's coming to him at the end of every story, except when he runs like hell. Elric: Stealer of Souls is so fun. Elric may be depressed, but he is never depressing.