Constable: Palatine author goes from bikini-clad warriors to female filmmakers

  • He has a cult following for his sword and sorcery books, but Palatine resident David C. Smith also loves historical fiction. His latest book, "Bright Star," includes references to the women who ran Chicago's silent film industry from 1912 to 1920.

      He has a cult following for his sword and sorcery books, but Palatine resident David C. Smith also loves historical fiction. His latest book, "Bright Star," includes references to the women who ran Chicago's silent film industry from 1912 to 1920. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 2/22/2020 4:30 PM

The 26th book from Palatine author David C. Smith tells the story of fictional silent film star Catherine Farr, who is smart, beautiful and modeled after one of several strong and powerful women who really did run the filmmaking business a century ago in Chicago.

"As the narrative progresses and Catherine's work becomes more political, Smith effectively and appropriately dramatizes the struggles that she faces, both as a woman and as a filmmaker," reads this month's Kirkus review of Smith's "Bright Star," a mystery with a dual timeline of early 20th-century Chicago and 2014 Palatine.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

A generation ago, Smith was writing about a different type of strong and independent woman -- Red Sonja.

She might have been wearing a revealing chainmail bikini on the book cover, but fantasy character Red Sonja was such a strong and independent woman that co-author David C. Smith of Palatine got thank-you letters from female fans.
  She might have been wearing a revealing chainmail bikini on the book cover, but fantasy character Red Sonja was such a strong and independent woman that co-author David C. Smith of Palatine got thank-you letters from female fans. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

"She lived in a world ruled by soldiers and sorcerers, and she was more than a match for any of them," reads the paperback cover of "Red Sonja: Star of Doom," which features the heroine walking softly in a skimpy loincloth and carrying a big sword.

Smith teamed with Richard L. Tierney to co-author a series of Red Sonja books. Even before that, Smith had created a sword and sorcery cult following, beginning with the publication of his first novel, "Oron," which he wrote as a student at Youngstown State University and which was published in 1978.

"His broadsword was wielded for women and wealth, and for the one they called Amrik, the bull man," reads the description of Oron on the cover, which shows the armored warrior holding a nasty-looking battle axe.

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David C. Smith wrote his first book, "Oron," while in college. The Palatine resident has built a cult following for his books and short stories in the sword and sorcery genre.
  David C. Smith wrote his first book, "Oron," while in college. The Palatine resident has built a cult following for his books and short stories in the sword and sorcery genre. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Smith's coffee table in the Palatine home he shares with his wife, Janine, and their 13-year-old daughter, Lily, can't contain all the sword and sorcery books he wrote into the 1980s. Many of his stories appeared in small chapbooks and fanzines. "They paid very little, but that's how we learned to write. This was our school," Smith says of the fraternity of authors.

"This one took a month, I got so good at it," he says of one book.

"This one I like because he looks a lot like me," jokes Smith, 67, as he grabs a book cover featuring a muscular and shirtless warrior with long, flowing hair. "It was guys who looked like this saving babes and fighting monsters. And I was having fun. I'm a cult author. I've got fans around the world."

More than 40 years ago, writers David C. Smith and Stephen King had the same agent. King went into horror and found tremendous success. Smith, who lives in Palatine, has a cult following for his books in the sword and sorcery genre.
  More than 40 years ago, writers David C. Smith and Stephen King had the same agent. King went into horror and found tremendous success. Smith, who lives in Palatine, has a cult following for his books in the sword and sorcery genre. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

One of his stories, "Engor's Sword Arm," inspired the song "Sword Arm," by the Siberian metal band Blacksword.

Smith's literary agent back then, Kirby McCauley, also helped promote a promising horror writer, Stephen King. The horror genre and King exploded on the literary scene. The sword and sorcery market faded as readers embraced high fantasy stories such as J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings."

"In the mid-'80s, we got Tolkien-type literature, world building, dynasties," Smith says. The sword and sorcery books fell to the wayside, and Smith found more traditional work as a medical editor in Cleveland. He came to Chicago in 1996 as editor of an ophthalmology journal and later was managing editor of the Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons in Rosemont before his retirement.

He's written books outside the sword and sorcery world, including a textbook titled "Understanding English: How Sentences Work" and an award-winning 2018 biography of Robert E. Howard, the writer who popularized the sword and sorcery genre and created the character of Conan the Barbarian before taking his own life at age 30 in 1936. Smith also has written some scary books, such as "Dark Muse" about a serial killer. But his love is historical fiction, and his new book led him to research the film industry in Chicago from 1912 to 1920.

Palatine resident David C. Smith had his first book published when he was 24 and built a cult following writing sword and sorcery stories, many featuring strong women such as Red Sonja. His latest novel, "Bright Star," is a fictional mystery revolving around the women working in the silent film industry in early 20th-century Chicago.
  Palatine resident David C. Smith had his first book published when he was 24 and built a cult following writing sword and sorcery stories, many featuring strong women such as Red Sonja. His latest novel, "Bright Star," is a fictional mystery revolving around the women working in the silent film industry in early 20th-century Chicago. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

"Women were some of the first to make movies," Smith says. "They were writing the scripts. They were running the cameras. They were cutting the film."

Coming on the heels of female directors being snubbed at this year's Oscars, a book about female filmmakers sounds like a movie idea.

"If you want to pass the idea along, be my guest," says Smith, who is comfortable being the writer he is. "I felt bad for a while because I really wanted to be Stephen King."

But Smith's books never fade away. He'll be in demand at the 20th annual Windy City Pulp and Paper Convention April 17-19 at the Westin Lombard Yorktown Center in Lombard, where fans of the old sword and sorcery genre gather.

"In the long run," Smith says, "I'll still be there when others are forgotten."

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