Rank #1: Episode 4 - Jack Vance's "The Dying Earth" with special guest Gavin Norman
Jack Vance originally wrote the loosely connected stories that comprise The Dying Earth while serving in the United States Merchant Marine during World War II. Vance’s fiction had started appearing in pulp magazines as early as 1945, and The Dying Earth marked his first book publication when it was released in digest-sized paperback in 1950 by Hillman Periodicals, best known as a comic book and magazine publisher.
The Dying Earth appears not to have been particularly successful at first, as it was not reprinted even as Vance’s career went on an upswing in the late 1950s & early 1960s. Hillman ceased publishing in 1961 and Lancer Books snapped up The Dying Earth, reprinting it in paperback in 1962 with a cover by the ever-versatile Ed Emshwiller depicting the denouement of the story “Ulan Dhor”.
The Dying Earth did well enough that Lancer kept it in print until they went bankrupt in 1973, by which time its reputation was such that it has remained in print to this day through a series of different publishers. No doubt the continued success of The Dying Earth led Jack Vance to revisit the setting starting in the mid 1960s. These new stories that would eventually be published as The Eyes of the Overworld (1966), followed by the post-Appendix N books Cugel’s Saga (1983) and Rhialto the Marvellous (1984).
Gary Gygax wrote in issue 2 of The Excellent Prismatic Spray (2001) that he first became a fan of Jack Vance after reading The Big Planet (1957) in the pulps in the early 1950s and then was “absolutely enthralled...as no work of fantasy had done for a long time” with the publication of The Eyes of the Overworld in 1966. The Dying Earth further cemented Gygax’s love of the setting.
When it came time to devise a magic system for Dungeons & Dragons, Gygax felt that a “Vancian” system of memorized spells that are expended when cast and that then must be re-learned before casting again was the best way to provide flavor and balance the magic-user against other classes. The Enchanter series by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt would provide the situational pre-conditions for spellcasting in D&D, but these spell components were often glossed-over, as Gygax laments as early as 1976 in issue 6 of The Strategic Review, the predecessor to Dragon magazine.
Oddly, D&D’s publisher TSR appears never to have tried to license the Dying Earth setting even though Gary Gygax remained a huge fan of Jack Vance and actually had significant contact with him after Dungeons & Dragons took the world by storm. The first time gamers would get to officially adventure in the Dying Earth was with the publication of Pelgrane Press’ The Dying Earth Roleplaying Game in 2001. Goodman Games has since licensed the Dying Earth setting for its Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game, with a target release date of late 2017.
Jul 31 2017
Rank #2: Episode 3 - Fritz Leiber's "Swords and Deviltry"
Leiber and his lifelong friend Harry Otto Fischer created Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser in an exchange of letters in 1934, basing the pair loosely on their own friendship, with Fischer as the diminutive Mouser and Leiber as the towering Fafhrd. The first story featuring the Twain (as they are often called) to appear in print was “Two Sought Adventure” AKA “The Jewels in the Forest” in 1939 in Unknown magazine. A handful of further Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories trickled out over the next two decades until Cele Goldsmith commissioned brand-new stories for Fantastic magazine starting in 1959, which lead to the Ace paperback collections of the late 1960s.
Other than the continued interest in Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, this new appreciation of Leiber’s fantasy fiction was one of the biggest contributors to the sword and sorcery renaissance of the 1960s. In fact, Leiber is credited with coining the term “sword and sorcery” in 1961 when Michael Moorcock called for a name for the type of fantasy fiction that Howard, Leiber and others were coming to exemplify.
By the time Swords and Deviltry was published Leiber had been writing tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser for over 30 years, but it is only in this book that he revealed their full origins in the stories “Induction” (1957), “The Snow Women” (1970), “The Unholy Grail” (1962), and “Ill-Met in Lankhmar” (1970).
Swords and Deviltry featured a typically moody Jeffrey Catherine Jones cover, although the effect is compromised by the trade dress of later printings:
Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser’s gaming history actually predates their first publication, as Leiber and Fischer created a complex three-dimensional board game in 1937 to amuse themselves and help them visualize the Twain’s stomping grounds of the city of Lankhmar and the world of Nehwon. This game was later re-developed and published by TSR as Lankhmar in 1976.
Leiber and Fischer weren’t mere hands-off IP licensors, however. Leiber would contribute a witty conversation with Fafhrd and the Mouser about wargaming in the very first issue of The Dragon (1976), followed by the short story “Sea Magic” in issue 11 (1977). Fischer’s short story “The Childhood and Youth of The Gray Mouser” then appeared in issue 18 (1978).
Lawrence Shick and Tom Moldvay gave Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser their first Advanced Dungeons & Dragons write-up in issue 27 of The Dragon (1979). The Twain and various other denizens of Nehwon were given a whole chapter in James M. Ward’s and Robert J. Kuntz’s Deities & Demigods (1980), with memorably gritty illustrations by Jennell Jaquays.
Future notes on the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series will cover later TSR Lankhmar publications, post-TSR licensees and other games that have been directly influenced by the city of Lankhmar. Stay tuned!
Jul 24 2017
Rank #3: Episode 50 - Extra Credit - Clark Ashton Smith's "Hyperborea" with special guest Jeffrey Talanian
Jul 15 2019
Rank #4: Episode 2 – Robert E. Howard, L. Sprague de Camp, & Lin Carter's "Conan"
In a now controversial move, series editors de Camp and Carter filled in gaps in Conan’s timeline by expanding Howard’s unpublished notes and fragments, re-writing non-Conan stories, and writing entirely new stories, thus jump-starting the Conan pastiche era.
For the purist, the Howard-only stories in this collection are “The Hyborian Age, Part 1” (1936), “The Tower of the Elephant” (1933), “The God in the Bowl” (1952, Howard’s original version first published 1975), and “Rogues in the House” (1934).
Regardless of the editorial controversies, the Lancer/Ace series was the only widely available source of Howard-penned Conan stories for nearly three decades, sustaining the sword and sorcery boom from the late ‘60s to the mid ‘90s. Robert E. Howard’s furious prose and the now-iconic Frank Frazetta cover illustrations on many of the volumes have cemented Conan the Cimmerian in popular culture. Frazetta had clearly read and internalized the dynamism of the Conan stories, as shown by his cover painting of Conan’s epic struggle with Thak the apeman from “Rogues in the House”.
As Dungeons & Dragons was created in the era of peak Conan, it is natural that Conan’s presence would be felt, starting with a write-up in Robert Kuntz and James M. Ward’s OD&D supplement Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes (1976). Gary Gygax himself would write up Conan as he appeared in various stages of his career in Dragon magazine issue 36 (1980)--a treatment that presaged the eventual AD&D Barbarian class in Dragon issue 62 (1982) and Unearthed Arcana (1985).
Conan the Cimmerian has since remained a perennial roleplaying game property, both with TSR and other publishers, but that’s a story for another day….
Jul 14 2017
Rank #5: Episode 5 – J.R.R. Tolkien's “The Hobbit"
"Bilbo Baggins was a Hobbit who lived in his Hobbit hole and never went for adventures, at last Gandalf the wizard and his Dwarves persuaded him to go. He had a very exiting (sic) time fighting goblins and wargs. At last they get to the lonely mountain; Smaug, the dragon who guards it is killed and after a terrific battle with the goblins he returned home — rich!
This book, with the help of maps, does not need any illustrations it is good and should appeal to all children between the ages of 5 and 9."
Young Rayner Unwin’s recommendation convinced his father to publish The Hobbit in hardcover in 1937, to strong sales and critical acclaim. Stanley Unwin asked Tolkien for a sequel to The Hobbit as early as December 1937, a request that would take over 15 years to come to fruition as The Lord of the Rings. During that long process, Tolkien would revise The Hobbit for the first time to bring it into closer agreement with developments in The Lord of the Rings, especially in the depiction of Gollum and the One Ring.
Although The Hobbit had been available in the U.S. from 1938 in hardcover, it had not been published in U.S. paperback by the mid 1960s, partly because of Tolkien’s distaste for the “degenerate” paperback format. This all changed when Ace Books put out an unauthorized U.S. paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings in 1965 after finding what they perceived to be a copyright loophole. Ballantine Books rushed to put out authorized U.S. paperback editions of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit in 1965. Tolkien made additional revisions to both works both for his own satisfaction and to cement their U.S. copyright status, with The Hobbit’s third edition appearing in 1966.
The most common version of The Hobbit available during the Appendix N era would have been the 45th printing and onwards of the Ballantine Books revised paperback, featuring a lovely watercolor cover illustration by Tolkien himself of Bilbo’s escape from Mirkwood astride a barrel.
Gary Gygax denied that Tolkien’s works were a particular influence on the development of Dungeons & Dragons, but he certainly would have been conscious of the desire of prospective players to experience the trappings of Middle-earth. Many denizens of Middle-earth including Hobbits, Ents, Orcs, and Balrogs were present in the “Fantasy Supplement” of Chainmail (1971), Gary Gygax’s medieval miniatures wargame that was the immediate predecessor to Dungeons & Dragons.
The Tolkienian references continued in Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson’s original Dungeons & Dragons (1974) box set until the Tolkien estate caught wind of this. To avoid copyright and trademark violations, TSR modified or removed Tolkienian references from Chainmail and Dungeons & Dragons in 1977, with Hobbits becoming Halflings, Ents becoming Treants, and Balrogs becoming Type VI Demons, etc.
Aug 07 2017
Rank #6: Episode 41 - L. Sprague de Camp's "The Goblin Tower" with special guest Luke from the Cromcast
Mar 11 2019
Rank #7: Episode 28 - Robert E. Howard's "Conan the Freebooter" with special guest Diogo Nogueira
As with the other Lancer/Ace Conan books, series editor de Camp filled in gaps in Conan’s timeline by expanding Howard’s unpublished notes and fragments, re-writing non-Conan stories, and writing entirely new stories. For the purist, the Howard-only stories in Conan the Freebooter are “Black Colossus” (1933), “Shadows in the Moonlight” (AKA “Iron Shadows in the Moon”, 1934), and “A Witch Shall be Born” (1934).
In 1955, L. Sprague de Camp rewrote the then unpublished Howard story “Hawks over Egypt” as “Hawks over Shem”, changing the setting from Cairo in AD 1021 and adding the fantastic elements to turn it into a Conan tale. “The Road of the Kings” received the same treatment, being transferred to the Hyborian Age from the Ottoman Empire in AD 1595. Both of the original Howard stories were suppressed after de Camp’s rewrites and would not see print until they were collected in the small-press hardcover The Road of Azrael (Donald M. Grant, 1979).
John Duilo contributed possibly the worst Conan cover ever, an anatomically nonsensical depiction of Conan’s battle with the great gray man-ape from “Shadows in the Moonlight”:
The sad thing is that Duilo was normally an exceptional illustrator, as evidenced by the moody romanticism of his Western art and the sleazy verve of his men’s magazine covers.
The later Boris Vallejo cover interpreting the climax of “A Witch Shall be Born” is much better, but static in comparison to the furious energy of Frank Frazetta:
In both “Black Colossus” and “A Witch Shall be Born” we see Conan as a cunning strategist who leads thousand of men into battle. It’s easy to imagine Gary Gygax and company playing out these Hyborian Age conflicts in the pre-Dungeons & Dragons miniatures wargame Chainmail (1971) or in the later Swords & Spells (1976) ruleset. Other story elements from Conan the Freebooter that stand out as being proto-D&D include Shevatas the “thief among thieves” from the prologue to “Black Colossus” and gray man-ape of “Shadows in the Moonlight” is certainly the “APE, Carnivorous” of the AD&D Monster Manual (1977). As always, Robert E. Howard’s stories remain the motherlode of swords & sorcery inspiration….
The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian (Conan of Cimmeria Book 1)
The Bloody Crown of Conan (Conan of Cimmeria Book 2) TPB (trade paperback)
The Bloody Crown of Conan (Conan of Cimmeria Book 2) (Kindle ebook)
These books are part of the Del Rey/Ballantine 3-book trade paperback series collecting the Conan stories in the order they were written by Robert E. Howard, often going back to his original typescripts. Also included are many of Howard’s Conan story drafts, note, and fragments, but none of the posthumous revisions and new stories by de Camp, Carter, et al. “Black Colossus” and “Iron Shadows in the Moon” both appear in the first volume and “A Witch Shall be Born” appears in the second volume.
http://freeread.com.au/@RGLibrary/RobertEHoward/REH-Conan/@Conan.html is an online public domain repository of all of the Conan stories that were published during Robert E. Howard’s lifetime and several posthumously published works that are out of copyright.
Sword Woman and Other Historical Adventures collects Robert E. Howard’s original versions of “Hawks over Egypt” and “The Road of the Eagles”, untouched by L. Sprague de Camp.
Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells (PWYW RPGNow affiliate link)
Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells Addendum (PWYW RPGNow affiliate link)
Jun 11 2018
Rank #8: Episode 40 - Lin Carter's "The Warrior of World's End" with special guest Howard Andrew Jones
Feb 25 2019
Rank #9: Episode 14 - Sterling E. Lanier's "Hiero's Journey"
In 1961 Lanier began his literary career with the publication of his first short story in Analog magazine and by landing an editor’s position at Chilton Books, best known then and now as a publisher of automotive repair manuals. Lanier cemented his place in science fiction history in 1965 by convincing Chilton to publish Frank Herbert’s Dune in hardcover after it had already been rejected by over 20 publishers. Lanier’s strong interest in ecology must have made the Dune stories jump out at him as they were being serialized in Analog magazine. Unfortunately a prophet is never honored in his own land and Lanier was let go from Chilton the following year when Dune initially failed to live up to sales expectations.
Lanier’s creative output was jumpstarted by his dismissal from Chilton and he began working in earnest as a sculptor, jeweler, and writer in the late 1960s. Among his notable works from this period were miniature portrait sculptures of characters from The Lord of the Rings that were supposedly admired by J.R.R. Tolkien himself and that may have served as character models for Peter Jackson’s film trilogy.
During this time Lanier also began writing his Brigadier Ffellowes short stories, which were inspired in equal part by Lord Dunsany’s Jorkens “club tales” and his enthusiasm for cryptozoology. Lanier’s interest in ecology and weird creatures would come into full bloom in his first novel for adults, Hiero’s Journey, which his old employer Chilton published in hardcover in 1973, followed by a Bantam Books paperback in 1974.
Hiero’s Journey is clearly the main literary inspiration for James M. Ward and Gary Jaquet’s Gamma World (TSR, 1978), the archetypal post-apocalyptic role-playing game. Gamma World and its spiritual descendants such as Mutant Future (Goblinoid Games, 2008) and Mutant Crawl Classics (Goodman Games, 2018) form the weird, kitchen-sink, far-future branch of post-apocalyptic role-playing games as opposed to the more gloomy and “realistic” near-future post-apocalypse RPGs typified by The Morrow Project (TimeLine Ltd., 1980) or Aftermath! (Fantasy Games Unlimited, 1981).
Gary Gygax cited Hiero’s Journey as an influence on Dungeons & Dragons and it’s easy to see why. For example, from the original 1974 rules we have the various jelly, mold, ooze, pudding, and slime monsters that echo the outgrowths of the House; they were later fully fleshed (sprouted?) out in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual (1978). Psionic powers were first introduced in Dungeons & Dragons Supplement III: Eldritch Wizardry (1976) and have appeared in many subsequent editions of Dungeons & Dragons, although they’ve never co-existed easily with the magic system. As for the protagonists, Hiero Desteen* provides one model for how the cleric class could be roleplayed as warrior-priests as opposed to the typical healer/protective spellcaster; of course, Hiero could also be modeled as a ranger with the same effect in play. In a similar vein, Brother Aldo provides a slightly different take on the druid as cheerful and kind-hearted, yet resolutely dedicated to preserving the balance of nature.
A third book in the Hiero saga was planned but never materialized, but it’s said that Hiero’s Journey is very popular in Russia and that as many as 20 unauthorized works set in Hiero’s world were published in Russian around 2002-2004--apparently, a Hiero never dies….
Nov 13 2017
Rank #10: Episode 12 - Michael Moorcock's "The Stealer of Souls"
At first glance, Elric of Melniboné appears to be the very antithesis of Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian: a physically weak sorcerer, addicted to drugs, symbiotically linked to the malignant black sword Stormbringer, and the rightful emperor of a cruel and decadent pre-human civilization. Moorcock and Elric are often characterized as a negation or rejection of Howardian swords & sorcery, but that’s a drastic oversimplification of Moorcock’s relationship to pulp fantasy.
Moorcock was precocious fantasy talent, creating fanzines as a schoolboy and becoming editor of the professional magazine Tarzan Adventures by the age 17 in 1957. Moorcock was a notable contributor to AMRA, a fanzine that was a hotbed of discussion about fantasy fiction and counted among its many notable correspondents Poul Anderson, L. Sprague de Camp, Fritz Leiber, and Roger Zelazny. As mentioned here, the term “swords and sorcery” was coined by Fritz Leiber in dialogue with Moorcock, although Moorcock has always preferred the term “epic fantasy”. Moorcock has at times minimized but never totally denied his appreciation for Howard, most likely hoping to let the Elric saga stand on its own two feet. He’s also held up his deep regard for the works of Leigh Brackett, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Fritz Leiber, and Fletcher Pratt among others and was later a founding member of the Swordsmen and Sorceror's Guild of America, none of which indicates someone contemptuous or indifferent to fantasy fiction.
Moorcock continued to write Elric stories in the late 1960s and the 1970s that were set prior to the events of Stormbringer. DAW Books republished the Elric Saga in 1977, arranging the stories by internal chronology, splitting the stories from The Stealer of Souls between The Weird of the White Wolf and The Bane of the Black Sword, the third and fifth books of Elric’s saga respectively. With Moorcock’s approval, Del Rey/Ballantine began publishing the “definitive” version of Elric’s saga in 2008, once again collecting the stories in publication order.
Elric’s saga clearly had an impact on Gary Gygax as he specifically mentions Elric as a playable figure in the “Fantasy Supplement” to Chainmail (1971). The Law vs. Chaos alignment system in Chainmail and original Dungeons & Dragons (1974) may have originated with Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions, but there’s a distinct Moorcockian flavor in practice, although that would obviously vary from gaming group to gaming group.
Rob Kuntz and James Ward wrote up Elric and the Melnibonéan mythos in the fourth Dungeons & Dragons supplement, Gods, Demi-Gods, & Heroes (1976). Four years later, Kuntz and Ward would detail the Melnibonéan mythos for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in Deities & Demigods (1980). Although TSR had permission from Moorcock to use Elric for D&D, their West Coast rivals Chaosium secured the official Elric license in 1981, leading TSR to remove the Melnibonéan section (and Cthulhu Mythos section) from the third printing onwards of Deities & Demigods. As a result, the first two printings of Deities & Demigods are now highly sought after collector’s items. In the meantime, Elric’s gaming presence has remained tightly bound up in the RuneQuest/Basic Role-Playing system for over 25 years, with the exception of Chaosium’s D20 System adaptation Dragon Lords of Melniboné (2001). There is currently no gaming license for any of Michael Moorcock’s works, so it remains to be seen if Elric will ever make an official reappearance at the gaming table….
Oct 30 2017
Rank #11: Episode 23 - H.P. Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness" with special guest Bob Brinkman
Given H.P. Lovecraft’s omnipresence today, it’s easy to forget that he had largely faded out of reading public’s mind within a few years of his death in 1937. August Derleth and Donald Wandrei did their best to keep Lovecraft in print by founding the small press Arkham House in 1939, but the publishing house’s output for its first 20 years was mostly limited to high quality hardcovers in short print runs.
Arkham House was often on tenuous financial footing from its very founding, but the snowballing revival of interest in Lovecraft’s Weird Tales compatriot Robert E. Howard in the 1960s seems to have also raised Lovecraft’s visibility. Arkham House seized the opportunity by releasing three newly re-edited omnibus volumes of Lovecraft’s fiction, The Dunwich Horror & Others (1963, revised 1985), At the Mountains of Madness & Other Novels (1964, revised 1986), and Dagon & Other Macabre Tales (1965, revised 1986) and then licensing the stories for paperback publication.
At the Mountains of Madness & Other Tales of Terror (Beagle/Ballantine Books, 1971) was a slimmed-down version of the Arkham House hardcover and featured the novel At the Mountains of Madness and the short stories “The Shunned House”, “Dreams in the Witch-House”, and “The Statement of Randolph Carter”.
Mar 05 2018
Rank #12: Episode 49 - Margaret St. Clair's "Sign of the Labrys" with special guest Katie Shrieves
Jul 01 2019
Rank #13: Episode 48 - August Derleth's "The Lurker at the Threshold" with special guest Jon Hook
Jun 17 2019
Rank #14: Episode 17 - Robert E. Howard, L. Sprague de Camp, & Lin Carter’s “Conan of Cimmeria”
As with Conan, series editors de Camp and Carter filled in gaps in Conan’s timeline by expanding Howard’s unpublished notes and fragments, re-writing non-Conan stories, and writing entirely new stories. For the purist, the Howard-only stories in Conan of Cimmeria are “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” (written in 1934, first published 1953, definitive version published 1976), “Queen of the Black Coast” (1934), and “The Vale of Lost Women” (first published in The Magazine of Horror, 1967).
The de Camp and Carter originals in Conan of Cimmeria are “The Curse of the Monolith” (first published in the magazine Worlds of Fantasy in 1968 as “Conan and the Cenotaph”), “The Lair of the Ice Worm”, and “The Castle of Terror”. “The Blood-Stained God” is a de Camp rewrite of a then unpublished Howard story “The Curse of the Crimson God”, with de Camp changing the setting from early 20th century Afghanistan and adding the fantastic elements to turn it into a Conan tale. “The Blood-Stained God” first saw print in the hardcover collection Tales of Conan (Gnome Press, 1955). The final story in this volume “The Snout in the Dark” was completed by de Camp and Carter from synopsis and story fragment found in Howard’s notes. For the curious, the untitled synopsis and fragment can be found in the appendices of The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian (Del Rey/Ballantine Books, 2003).
In addition to the Conan influences on Dungeons & Dragons cited in Episode 2, Conan of Cimmeria was the probable source of the Monster Manual’s remorhaz, a sort of ice centipede inverse of the remora from “The Lair of the Ice Worm”. “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” probably deserves equal credit along with the first Harold Shea story “The Roaring Trumpet” for the Dungeons & Dragons treatment of frost giants, which first appeared in the original 1974 edition and were fully detailed in the Monster Manual (1977). Frost giants would become iconic D&D foes with the publication of TSR’s second D&D module, 1978’s G2: The Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl, the middle module of the Against the Giants trilogy.
Dec 04 2017
Rank #15: Episode 27 - Edgar Rice Burroughs' "Pellucidar" with special guest Harley Stroh
May 28 2018
Rank #16: Episode 42 - Robert E. Howard’s “Conan the Wanderer” with special guest Jon from the Cromcast
Mar 25 2019
Rank #17: Episode 18 - Fritz Leiber's "Swords Against Death" with special guest Jen Brinkman
The stories is this volume are “The Circle Curse” (1970), “The Jewels in the Forest” (1939), “Thieves’ House” (1943), “The Bleak Shore” (1940), “The Howling Tower” (1941), “The Sunken Land” (1942), “The Seven Black Priests” (1953), “Claws from the Night” (1951), “The Price of Pain-Ease” (1970), and “Bazaar of the Bizarre” (1963). “The Jewels in the Forest” was the very first Fafhrd and Gray Mouser story to appear in print, under its original title “Two Sought Adventure” in Unknown magazine in 1939. The subsequent four stories also appeared in Unknown, which was cancelled in 1943 due to wartime paper shortages.
A further handful of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories including “Claws from the Night” and “The Seven Black Priests” trickled out over the next two decades. In 1957 all of the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories to date except “Adept’s Gambit” (1936/1947) were collected in the Gnome Press hardcover Two Sought Adventure. This collection was later expanded to provide the spine of Swords Against Death.
Dec 18 2017
Rank #18: Episode 26 - Lord Dunsany's "The King of Elfland's Daughter" with special guest Andrew Sternick
May 07 2018
Rank #19: Episode 13 - Gardner F. Fox's "Kothar: Barbarian Swordsman"
Fox left or was cut loose from DC Comics in 1968 when the company shamefully declined to give health insurance and other employee benefits to its older writers and artists. He then turned to writing novels and short stories full-time, churning out tales of all genres both under his own name and under at least 15 pen names. Fox’s works included science fiction, fantasy, Westerns, historical fiction, and the sexploitation spy series Lady from L.U.S.T. (as Rod Gray) and Cherry Delight (as Glenn Chase).
Among the over 100 novels that Fox would pen over the next decade and half was the first of the Kothar series, Kothar Barbarian Swordsman (Belmont Books, 1969). Kothar Barbarian Swordsman was clearly meant to cash in on Conan/swords and sorcery boom of the era, but an old pro like Fox couldn’t resist having a little fun along the way, such as with the absurdly pompous introduction by “Donald MacIvers, Ph.D” which leaned heavily on the theories of the obscure German philosopher “Albert Kremnitz”. One can’t help but think that Fox was tweaking the likes of L. Sprague de Camp and other well-educated writers who were insecure about toiling in the vineyards of fantastic fiction. Fox by contrast wears his learning lightly, throwing in a myriad of historical but obscure terms such as “hacqueton”, “athanor”, and “cotehardie” more to amuse himself and because he may have liked their sound in a sentence than as a means to place himself above the material.
The Kothar stories are presented with economy, craft, and imagination, so it’s not surprising that they stood out to Gary Gygax amidst all of the other derivative swords and sorcery in print at the time. The most well-known borrowing from Kothar in Dungeons & Dragons would be the lich, a powerful sorcerer who has prolonged his life into undeath--Gygax confirmed this borrowing here. Liches made their D&D debut in the Original edition’s Supplement I: Greyhawk (1975) by Gary Gygax and Rob Kuntz. The lich would then appear in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual (1977) and as the demi-lich in the notorious deathtrap module S1: Tomb of Horrors (1978).
Gardner Fox and Gary Gygax became friends somewhere in this time period, paving the way for Fox to create the third of his swords and sorcery heroes, Niall of the Far Travels for Dragon magazine. Niall of the Far Travels premiered in issue two of The Dragon (1976) and would eventually appear in 10 stories over the next five years.
Gardner F. Fox was a man of many interests and it ultimately fitting that his presence is felt in a broad swath of pop culture from comic books to fantastic fiction to roleplaying games and all the media that have derived from them.
Nov 06 2017
Rank #20: Episode 19 - Jack Vance's "The Eyes of the Overworld" with special guest David Hoskins
After The Eyes of the Overworld Vance once more took a long hiatus from the Dying Earth before returning again to the setting in the mid-1980s with Cugel’s Saga (1983) and Rhialto the Marvellous (1984). The Dying Earth books remain Vance’s most recognizable works, even lending their name to an entire subgenre of science fantasy, although the evolution of the subgenre can be traced back at least through Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique cycle and William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland (1908) and The Night Land (1912).
Dec 25 2017