Wednesday, December 7, 2011

My Temptestous Relationship With "Fantasy"

As a younger man, I held fantasy fiction in disdain. Although I had an endless love for Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber, growing up in the '80s shaped my understanding of what fantasy was comprised of: Piers Anthony, Margaret Weiss, Anne McCaffrey, Terry Brooks, and J.R.R. himself. I tried reading this stuff, but found it tedious even at a young age. I loved fantastic worlds, but the bloodless epics presented within those pages lacked any real verve.

Those preconceptions kept me from reading many of the seminal pulp authors. Lovecraft appealed to me at an early age and I read his work voraciously, as well as his many imitators. I also enjoyed Clark Ashton Smith's weird tales, although I knew him primarily in relation to HPL, and his stories were of interest to me when they contributed to the "Cthulhu Mythos". Yet, I considered these two aberrations, the rest of the pulps filled with derivative works like Derleth and Lin Carter.

Howard, in particular, I avoided for far too long. Conan seemed at first glance to be nothing but a brutish lout, and what little I read of his work ("The Fire of Asshurbanipal") I considered only as a "Mythos" story. Doing so meant that the criteria by which the story was judged was purely based upon its ability to evoke a Lovecraftian mood, instead of dealing with it on its own terms.

It was not until attending a panel on Howard's work at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival that I began to reconsider this opinion. One of my favorite authors today, Cody Goodfellow, spoke of how dynamic REH's prose was and how his work was a constant source of inspiration. With such a hearty recommendation on Goodfellow's part, I took the plunge earlier this year, starting with the excellent Del Rey collection, The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian. I was awestruck, and more than a little embarrassed. How I had denied myself, based on presumptions and prejudices against his imitators!

Since then, I've been diving into Appendix N and continue to expand my understanding of the pulps, reading Vance and Burroughs, with Lieber and Moorcock on the way. What has impressed me the most is the unique appeal of each of their visions, unburdened by the weight of genre expectations.

A secondary effect of this exploration into swords & sorcery is my growing awareness of "space fantasy" and the thin barrier between these genres. I'm currently reading the excellent C.L. Moore collection of short stories Black God's Kiss, and have been struck not only by the strangely phantasmagorical nature of her work, but also by the science fiction elements that are hinted at but never clearly revealed. Howard, of course, employs similar in "The Tower of the Elephant" and CAS does so with glee, such as in the story "The Werewolf of Averoigne". Today such casual use of these elements would strike a dissonant chord with many fantasy fans, but it is a wonderful frission to my mind.

Inspired by the wonderful blog A Field Guide To Doomsday, and especially the "Devastation Drive-In" series, it occurred to me that there's enough unique creatures in swords & sorcery lit that you could run an entire campaign without once encountering Tolkienesque dragons, elves, or orcs. While this may seem a turn-off to some, it certainly appealed to me. Imagine a game world filled with Burrough's Tharks, Vance's Twk-Men, von Vogt's Coeurl, and Shaver's Dero! I'm still on the fence regarding mythological monsters, but I suspect they'll be purged as well, with perhaps a handful of exceptions (such as the Penanggalan, one of my favorite monsters).

Here's a few monsters I'm considering:

Hellmaids from Roger Zelazny's Guns of Avalon.

Elephant-men from Robert E. Howard's "Tower of the Elephant".

Formless Spawn of Tsathoggua and Half-Spawn from Clark Ashton Smith's "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros" and "The Testament of Athammaus".

Voormis from Clark Ashton Smith's "The Seven Geases".

The Beast of Averoigne from Clark Ashton Smith's "The Werewolf of Averoigne".

The winged apes from Robert E. Howard's "Queen of the Black Coast"

"Henchmen", based on Bobo from Robert Heinlein's "Orphans of the Sky".

The swarming critters, mocking shadows, screaming horses, hopping people, dangerous plants, infectious statue, and "Tower of Living Light" (AI) of C. L. Moore's "Black God's Kiss" and "Black God's Shadow".

Thoats and Calots from Edgar Rice Burroughs' The Princess of Mars, as well as the Plant-Men of Mars and Banths from Gods of Mars.

Oasts, fleshy plants and other vat-born from Jack Vance's Dying Earth

Farers, Pods, Children of the Sea, and Children of Skaith-Our-Mother (as 'High Voormis') from Leigh Brackett's The Ginger Star.

Cats of Ulthar, Gugs and Moon Beasts from H.P. Lovecraft's Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.

White Apes from H. P. Lovecraft's "Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family".

Ghouls which synthesize ideas from H.P. Lovecraft's "Pickman's Model" and the Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath with Clark Ashton Smith's "The Ghoul", "The Hunters From Beyond", and "Zothique", along with various Call of Cthulhu renditions, such as in the excellent The Realm of Shadows.

Rat-Things, like Brown Jenkin in H.P. Lovecraft's "The Dreams in the Witch House", organized into a horrifying society ala Brian Aldiss' Non-Stop.

The black slugs of Clark Ashton Smith's "The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis".

The Dweller in the Gulf as a "god" to the Dero, from the short story by Clark Ashton Smith.

 Vulthoom as another "god-being" of local worship, from the short story by Clark Ashton Smith.

 Whistlethistle, dumblers, traversers, bellyelms, the Black Mouth, and the immense banyan tree from Hothouse by Brian Aldiss. Presumably, I can come up with better names than these, but they're great monster designs.

Gyaa-Yoth from H.P. Lovecraft's "The Mound."

Aliens of Leigh Brackett's People of the Talisman.

Dire Wraiths and '50s Atomic Giant Monsters from Marvel Comics (I'm breaking my own rule here, but I can't resist).

Since I'm still an initiate in pulp fiction, I imagine this list will expand significantly with time, but it is certainly a start. I'd appreciate any and all suggestions that you'd care to make!
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