Episode 20 – A. Merritt’s “Burn Witch, Burn!” with special guest Stephen Newton

Special guest Stephen Newton joins us to discuss A. Merritt‘s Burn Witch, Burn!

Abraham Grace Merritt (better known by his byline A. Merritt) has the odd distinction of being perhaps second only to Edgar Rice Burroughs in popularity as a writer of fantastic fiction during the first half of the 20th century, only to be largely forgotten today. Perhaps this is because Merritt’s relatively small body of work didn’t feature recurring iconic heroes like John Carter of Mars or Conan of Cimmeria, or it may be down to his prose style’s reputation for being more baroque and densely descriptive than is the norm nowadays.

Merritt came from a poor Quaker family, and financial difficulties forced his withdrawal from legal studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He landed a job at the age of 19 in 1903 as a reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer and remained a journalist for the rest of his life. Early in his career Merritt experienced or witnessed something (political corruption? heinous violence? eldritch horrors?) of which he never spoke again. Merritt was forced to lay low for a year in Mexico and Central America, where he visited many pre-Columbian sites and befriended the indigenous peoples. Merritt’s Latin American exile sparked in him a lifelong love of travel to exotic locales and a keen interest in the rituals and legends associated with those places. This anthropological eye would inform all of Merritt’s fiction, from his first published story “Through the Dragon Glass” (1917) to his final uncompleted novella “The Fox Woman” (first published in 1946). Merritt’s powers of imagination and description would inspire generations of writers of fantastic fiction, not least the “Big Three” of Weird Tales, H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and Robert E. Howard.

Unlike many of the Appendix N authors, Merritt did not need to survive on his fiction work since he was one of the best-paid journalists of his time–in 1912 he was tapped to be the assistant editor of The American Weekly and was earning $25,000 a year by 1919 (over $365,000 in 2017 dollars). Merritt served as the editor-in-chief of The American Weekly from 1937 until his death in 1943, by which time he was earning $100,000 a year (over $1.4 million in 2017 dollars). Merritt’s editorial responsibilities and his tendency to re-visit and rework his stories meant that he only completed 8 novels and 7 short stories in his lifetime. But regardless of whether Merritt’s commitment to The American Weekly limited his fantastic fiction output, his time there was well-spent as it also allowed him to champion and hire Virgil Finlay and Hannes Bok, two up-and-coming artists who would become among the greatest of the pulp era. Both Finlay and Bok would go on to illustrate many of Merritt’s stories and Bok was given permission to complete and publish two unfinished Merritt novellas, The Fox Woman and the Blue Pagoda (New Collectors Group, 1946) and The Black Wheel (New Collectors Group, 1947).

Merritt’s second to last novel, Burn, Witch, Burn! was originally serialized in 6 parts in Argosy Weekly magazine in the fall of 1932 and compiled in hardcover the following year by Liveright, Inc. It’s a mark of Merritt’s literary respectability at the time that he shared the same publisher as Theodore Dreiser, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Sigmund Freud, and E.E. Cummings among others. Burn, Witch, Burn! was reprinted in 1942 in Famous Fantastic Mysteries magazine with a gorgeous Virgil Finlay cover:

famous_fantastic_mysteries_194206

That same year Avon Books first published Burn, Witch, Burn! in paperback. There were multiple re-printings through 1951, all featuring a cover and interior spot art by William Frost (no further information about William Frost was readily available, so any readers who are in the know, please drop us a note – Hoi):

BRNWTCHBRN0000

Gary Gygax did not specifically cite Burn, Witch, Burn! in Appendix N, which is odd since he did list its 1934 follow-up Creep, Shadow, Creep (aka Creep, Shadow!). Given Gygax’s known fondness for Merritt’s fiction, it’s unlikely that he hadn’t read Burn, Witch, Burn!, so why then was it left off the list? The less interesting answer is that it might simply have been an oversight, as it was out of print in the U.S. from 1952 to 1996. A textual answer might be that whereas Merritt works such as The Moon Pool (1918) and The Ship of Ishtar (1924) journey to hidden worlds or alternate planes of existence, Burn, Witch, Burn! takes place entirely in modern-day New York City and thus reads more as a mystery/horror novel than an epic fantasy. Nonetheless, the formidable Madame Mandilip makes for a memorable antagonist, and her arcane powers can easily be rendered by canonical Dungeons & Dragons spells such as Silence, Charm Person, Sleep, Hold Person, and Geas. The power of a great villain rests far more in their description and actions than their stat blocks of course….

Reading Resources:

http://freeread.com.au/@RGLibrary/AbrahamMerritt/AbrahamMerritt.html is an online public domain repository of all of Merritt’s fiction with the exception of a few unpublished fragments discovered in the mid-1980s.

Famous Fantastic Mysteries v04 n02 – this scan of the June 1942 issue includes a complete reprint of Burn, Witch, Burn! along with masterful interior illustrations by Virgil Finlay.

Additional Reading:

“The Marvelous A. Merritt” is terrific short overview and appreciation of Merritt’s writings and career by historian of science fiction Sam Moskowitz from Satellite Science Fiction magazine.

Gaming Resources:

Dungeon Crawl Classics #93: Moon-Slaves of the Cannibal Kingdom by Edgar Johnson features a key non-player character directly inspired by Burn, Witch Burn! and is available in PDF here (RPGNow affiliate link) or in print here.

Dungeon Crawl Classics 2015 Halloween Module: They Served Brandolyn Red (RPGNow affiliate link) is Stephen Newton’s Edgar Allan Poe-esque level 0 Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG adventure. Gruesome good fun, with a rich backstory. Play it or run it if you can!

Stephen Newton is also the main writer at Thick Skull Adventures and all of their DCC products can be found here. (RPGNow affiliate link)

 

If you are in Brooklyn and want to join the IRL book club, then come over here.

The list of books we will discuss are outlined within this link.

And finally, the in-print omnibus, anthology, and online resources are living over here.

Episode 19 – Jack Vance’s “The Eyes of the Overworld” with special guest David Hoskins

(Please also see the Episode 4 show notes for additional information about the Dying Earth saga)


Special guest David Hoskins (artist/writer of Acceptable Material and SVMMONING SICKNESS) joins us to discuss Jack Vance’s The Eyes of the Overworld! David also went above and beyond to provide an original illustration depicting Cugel the Clever, Firx and many other story elements:

Hoskins Cugel art

The Eyes of the Overworld (Ace Books, 1966) marks Jack Vance’s return to the Dying Earth setting after a break of 15 years. The book is a fix-up of the stories “The Overworld”, “The Mountains of Magnatz”, “The Sorceror Pharesm”, “The Pilgrims” and “The Manse of Iucounu” all of which appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction between December 1965 and August 1966. To these stories Vance added a second chapter “Cil” to expand the book to novel length. The Eyes of the Overworld is contains many elements of the picaresque novel, from its episodic structure, generally satirical nature, and most importantly its roguish or even outright villainous protagonist Cugel, a man of no particular standing who ultimately never learns anything or changes his essential nature, despite his world-spanning journey and many travails.

Jack Gaughan’s marvellously weird and humorously phallic cover for the first paperback edition features Cugel contemplating the edibility of TOTALITY in the chapter “The Sorcerer Pharesm” :

THYSWRLD031966

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).

The “Vancian Magic System” is usually cited as the Dying Earth series’ most important influence on Dungeons & Dragons, but in the case of The Eyes of the Overworld the outstanding contribution to gaming is probably the depiction of Cugel himself. As Gary Gygax wrote in issue #2 of The Excellent Prismatic Spray (2001), Vance’s Cugel the Clever was one of the greatest influences on the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons thief class as described in the The Players Handbook (1978). Certainly the following section from the thief class description could only have come from Cugel’s misadventures:

At 10th Level (Master Thief), thieves are able to decipher magical writings and utilize scrolls of all sorts, excluding those of clerical, but not druidic, nature. However, the fact that thieves do not fully comprehend magic means that there is a 25% chance that writings will be misunderstood. Furthermore, magic spells from scrolls can be mispronounced when uttered, so that there is an increasing chance per level of the spell that it will be the reverse of its intent.

Talislanta (1987) is another roleplaying game and setting that is inspired by the Dying Earth series to the extent that every edition since the first has been dedicated to Jack Vance. In 2001 Pelgrane Press began publishing the officially licensed The Dying Earth Roleplaying Game and a supporting magazine The Excellent Prismatic Spray. Goodman Games has since licensed the Dying Earth setting for its Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game, with development ongoing as of the end of 2017.

Reading Resources:

Tales of the Dying Earth (Orb Books, 2000) collects all four books in the Dying Earth series and is available here:

Tales of the Dying Earth (trade paperback)

Tales of the Dying Earth (Kindle ebook)

Additional Reading:

A Quest for Simbilis (DAW Books, 1974) is Michael Shea’s authorized continuation of Cugel’s story, although it has since been rendered non-canonical by Jack Vance’s official sequel Cugel’s Saga (Timescape Books, 1983).

SVMMONING SICKNESS is David Hoskins’ fully illustrated zine/encyclopedia of black magic and the occult. The horribly beautiful art and the evocative text are sure to provide inspiration for your horror or fantasy RPGs.

Gaming Resources:

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook (1e) (RPGNow affiliate link)

The Dying Earth Roleplaying Game (RPGNow affiliate link)

The Perilous Wilds (RPGNow affiliate link) is a Dungeon World supplement by comic creator Jason Lutes that can easily be used with most fantasy RPGs. It is geared towards collaborative world-building and map-making and is well-suited for creating the weird landscapes a la the Dying Earth.

Talislanta.com – all the Talislanta material from the 1st through 5th editions of the game are available here for free under a Creative Commons license.

 

If you are in Brooklyn and want to join the IRL book club, then come over here.

The list of books we will discuss are outlined within this link.

And finally, the in-print omnibus, anthology, and online resources are living over here.

Episode 18 – Fritz Leiber’s “Swords Against Death” with special guest Jen Brinkman

(Please also see the Episode 3 show notes for additional information about the saga of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser)

Swords Against Death (Ace Books, 1970) by Fritz Leiber was originally published in paperback as part of Ace Books’ complete seven volume saga of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Although Swords Against Death is second in the series chronology, it was actually the fifth book published.

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.

Jeffrey Catherine Jones provided the cover art for Swords Against Death, opting to create an overall mood of mystery and epic adventure rather than a literal depiction of a scene from any of the stories. Once again though, the trade dress of later printings constrained and compromised the overall effect:

SWRDSGNSTC1970

SWRDSGNSTD1970

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser were written-up for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in issue 27 of The Dragon (1979), followed by the Twain and various other denizens of Nehwon being given a whole chapter in the Deities & Demigods (1980). TSR released the generally well-regarded Lankhmar: City of Adventure in 1985, followed by the adventure modules CA1: Swords of the Undercity (1985) and CA2: Swords of Deceit (1986). The Lankhmar setting would continue to receive attention with the release of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition, but once again that’s a tale for another day….

Reading Resources:

Swords Against Death (Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser Book 2) (trade paperback/Kindle ebook)

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser publication order reading listMichael Curtis and the Goodman Games crew have compiled an original publication order reading list for the DCC Lankhmar Kickstarter, helpfully highlighting stories they consider “essential reading”.

Additional Reading:

Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser: Cloud of Hate and Other Stories collects the 1973 DC Comics series Sword of Sorcery, featuring adaptations and original tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser by comics legends Denny O’Neil, Howard Chaykin, Walt Simonson, and Jim Starlin.

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser (Dark Horse, 2007) – This is a trade paperback collection of the 1991 Epic Comics series scripted by Howard Chaykin with pencils by Hellboy creator Mike Mignola. In the mid 1990s Mignola would also go on to provide the cover art and interior illustrations for White Wolf Publishing’s four-volume collected edition of The Adventures of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.

 

If you are in Brooklyn and want to join the IRL book club, then come over here.

The list of books we will discuss are outlined within this link.

And finally, the in-print omnibus, anthology, and online resources are living over here.

Episode 17 – Robert E. Howard, L. Sprague de Camp, & Lin Carter’s “Conan of Cimmeria”

(Please also see the Episode 2 show notes for additional details about the Lancer/Ace Conan books.)

Conan of Cimmeria (Lancer Books, 1969) by Robert E. Howard, L. Sprague de Camp, and Lin Carter was part of the first comprehensive paperback edition of the Conan saga. Conan of Cimmeria  was the seventh tenth volume published, although it is second in the internal chronology–later printings of the series numbered the books in chronological order. When Lancer went out of business in 1973, Ace Books picked up and completed the series, keeping it in print until the mid 1990s.

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).

Frank Frazetta once again contributes an unforgettable cover painting, this time of Conan’s battle with Atali’s brothers from “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter”:

2 - Conan_Cimmeria_Lancer_1970

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.

Reading Resources:

The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian (Conan of Cimmeria Book 1) (Del Rey/Ballantine Books, 2003) is the first of a 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. This volume also features numerous evocative interior illustrations by Mark Schultz.

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.

Gaming Resources:

G2 The Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl (1e) (RPGNow affiliate link)

Monster Manual (1e) (RPGNow affiliate link)
If you are in Brooklyn and want to join the IRL book club, then come over here.

The list of books we will discuss are outlined within this link.

And finally, the in-print omnibus, anthology, and online resources are living over here.

Episode 16 – L. Sprague de Camp’s “Lest Darkness Fall”

L. Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall first saw light as a short story in the December 1939 issue of Unknown magazine before being expanded into a full novel for hardcover publication by Henry Holt & Company in 1941. Unknown was the companion magazine to Astounding, both of which were edited by John W. Campbell, the godfather of the “Golden Age of Science Fiction”. Campbell had taken the reins of Astounding in 1937 and had almost immediately turned it away from its freewheeling high adventure origins towards more scientifically plausible and therefore “realistic” stories. In 1939, Campbell launched Unknown with a very similar mandate towards fantasy fiction; his direction to writers was “For Astounding I want stories which are good and logical and possible. For Unknown, I want stories which are good and logical.”

As an aeronautical engineer by training and a paleontologist, historian and educator by inclination, L. Sprague de Camp was an exemplar of the new breed of scientifically savvy writer that Campbell was cultivating. De Camp’s essentially rationalist worldview seems to have given him trouble in depicting the truly impossible, at least in his nominally science fiction works. It makes sense then that he’d quickly gloss over the mechanics and metaphysics of time travel in Lest Darkness Fall in favor of playing to his strengths, in this case a deep knowledge of Late Antiquity, specifically the Gothic War (535-554) that devastated the Italian peninsula and sent it into a state of decline that was only reversed with the coming of the Italian Renaissance.

Lest Darkness Fall was de Camp’s first solo novel, but even then some of his tropes were in evidence, such as the highly educated and rational protagonist making his way in a strange new world, both aided and opposed by often comical or even buffoonish locals. De Camp’s writing can be compromised at times by the feeling that he’s holding himself above the material or at least failing to fully embrace it, but thankfully that’s not the case with Lest Darkness Fall. Padway’s dry wit rarely devolves into snark, and his 20th century education and native intelligence aren’t always enough to carry the day–ultimately Padway relies on persuasion as much as intellect.

Lest Darkness Fall’s balance of well-developed characters and careful extrapolation of history made it a cornerstone of the Alternate history sub-genre of fantastic fiction to this day as witnessed by its frequent reprintings over the last 80 years. It has also drawn reponses in the form of the short stories “The Man Who Came Early” (1956) by Poul Anderson, “The Deadly Mission of Phineas Snodgrass” (1962) by Frederik Pohl, “To Bring the Light” (1996) by David Drake, and “The Apotheosis of Martin Padway” (2005) by S.M. StirlingThe current king of alternate history fiction Harry Turtledove recently tweeted that the book changed his life: “ L. Sprague de Camp’s LEST DARKNESS FALL. Without It, I wouldn’t have studied Byzantium, and my whole life would be, well, an alternate history.”

The Ballantine Books 2nd paperback printing (1975) feature a Darrell K. Sweet cover illustration, but the groovy typography steals the show:

LSTDRKNSSF1975

Gary Gygax prided himself on being an amateur medievalist, so it’s not surprising that he cited Lest Darkness Fall in Appendix N despite the only overtly fantastic element being the lightning bolt that sends Martin Padway back in time. Padway’s efforts to keep the light of civilization burning are not dissimilar from the “domain game” aspect of Dungeons & Dragons. Aside from that, Padway’s depiction as the lone rational man in an uncouth world echoes is the essence of nerd self-image, and de Camp and Gygax are essentially proto-nerds made good….

Reading Resources:

Lest Darkness Fall & Related Stories (trade paperback/Kindle ebook)

Additional Reading:

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (public domain ebook) – Mark Twain’s 1889 novel is the most obvious antecedent to Lest Darkness Fall, although it is overtly satirical rather than an exercise in alternate history.

If you are in Brooklyn and want to join the IRL book club, then come over here.

The list of books we will discuss are outlined within this link.

And finally, the in-print omnibus, anthology, and online resources are living over here.