Clifford D. Simak’s fantasies

Clifford D. Simak is best known for his science fiction, but he has written several fantasy and science fantasy novels, and in the past year or so I’ve read four of them. Going chronologically they are: The goblin reservation (1968), The enchanted pilgrimage (1975), The fellowship of the talisman (1978), and Where the evil dwells (1982).

The goblin reservation is a bit of an outlier as it is more of a science fiction story than a fantasy, and transcends genre by combining elements. It is a murder mystery, a love story, and time travel tale, and involves both extraterrestrials and fairy folk like goblins and leprechauns, as well as a ghost, and comes closest to being a comedy.  There are echoes of this book though in his later fantasies, particularly in: the depiction of goblins as mischievous but basically benevolent; the use of a ghost as a character; the mixing of science fiction and fantasy; the inversion of established tropes in genre literature; and a preoccupation –either explicit or implicit– with morality.

The other three all read more like traditional “high fantasy” novels, with a party of adventurers of assorted races undertaking an epic quest into unknown and menacing lands. Some readers have dismissed them as being retreads of each other and a million similar LOTR ripoffs, but each has some interesting ideas and all can be read as meditations on morality and theology.  Tightly connected to this is the theme of otherness as expressed in the different demihuman races and their perception by, and relationship to, the human characters.  There’s probably a great term paper in that, if any students are reading this.  I’m just writing a quick review though!

The enchanted pilgrimage is the shortest and the least interested in questions of morality (which become much more central to the last two novels).  What was most interesting to me when I read this was the role of demihumans and humanoids.  For example the gnomes in this world are smiths and live underground, but they are also illiterate and have practically no sense of history.  Flipping the trope, mankind is the ‘elder’ race as far as the demihumans are concerned, for they keep books and record history, while the demihumans live in the present.  The enchanted pilgrimage has been criticized for lacking coherence and having an anti-climatic ending, which (spoiler alert) veers way off the fantasy track into science fiction with time travelers, UFOs, and aliens. However it is an interesting setting (at least in the first half of the book) and a clear precursor to the two others, which remain solidly fantasy-based.  The quest begins with a scribe who stumbles upon something of great importance and he sets out, slowly acquiring a motley band companions, for the menacing and forbidden Wasteland, home of chaos and magic.  What he finds there is not what he, or the reader, expected, but also fails to live up to the promise of the first half of the book.

The fellowship of the talisman is probably the most traditional of the novels.  The story is again centered on a quest, again revolving around a manuscript, and again we have a slowly growing party, although this time the world is much like our own, only a recurring invasion by the “Harriers” — amorphous and demonic, and barely described in any detail — has prevented mankind from developing past medieval technology and culture.  The crusades, the discovery of the new world, the renaissance, the reformation, and the enlightenment: all are stopped or interrupted irrevocably by the Harriers. But in a backwater manor in England, someone discovers a manuscript, written by a contemporary of Jesus, which may hold the key to saving mankind.  The characters are not particularly believable and there are several heavy-handed and tedious conversations where they seem very aware that mankind’s progress has been aborted.  How they could possibly recognize this, given their benighted state, strains credulity, but as exposition it is bearable. Apart from mankind and the Harriers, there is again a wide array of demihumans and supernatural creatures that are allied with neither man nor the Harriers, but which are mostly willing to aid the party, since they oppose the Harriers.  Despite the frequent aid and succor they get from them, though, the two principal characters spend the first half of the book insulting and distrusting the demihumans and other creatures.  I found the heroes very unsympathetic until it became more clear that they were slowly losing some of their prejudices.  The journey itself has some interesting encounters and environments but for so long a book (over 300 pages) not a lot actually happens.  The party here is the most diverse, with humans, a goblin, an assortment of animals, a ghost, a banshee, and a demon all working together in an unlikely fellowship.  There is some suggestion of a sci-fi element in the origin of the Harriers, but at the same time other elements go further into the folkloric and mythic than any of Simak’s other fantasy novels.  For example there is (minor spoiler) an “Isle of wailing for the world” where three Norn-like women literally wail for all the world’s sorrows.  I am totally going to throw that into my campaign world somewhere.  There are also some great minor characters, like a senile, dying wizard in a hidden, timeless castle, and a minor lord of a manor in the middle of the Forlorn Lands (the region decimated by Harrier attacks) whose band is hopelessly holding out against the Harriers.

Where the evil dwells, the last of the four fantasies, was actually the one I read first, many years ago when it first came out in paperback in the 1980s.  As a boy I read it as straightforward adventure yarn, and it certainly works as one. I reread it recently and was surprised to find a good deal more depth than I remembered.  It is set, like The fellowship, in our world, but on a different timeline, where the Roman Empire holds out a good deal longer than in ours, but the enemies that threaten it are not barbarians, they are “the Evil.”  The Evil are basically all the nonhumans and demihumans of myth and legend.  A few of the “Little People” are perhaps merely mischievous rather than Evil.  However the occasional acts of Gygaxian brutality we see in The fellowship (where fallen enemies are never spared and can at best hope for a merciful skull-smashing) are amplified and almost glorified here.  The protagonists see the bodies of crucified ogres, for example, and only one so much as feels a slight discomfort at the sight; when an outcast troll joins the party and proves himself loyal and reliable, they continue to abuse, threaten, and distrust him.  Again, a trope of fantasy –here, the white knight do-gooder party– is subverted.  Overall it is a much darker adventure than the usual fare.  There is also a section that very strongly evokes H. P. Lovecraft (or at least the “mythos” developed by his admirers) and, uniquely, no real science fiction connection.

D&D fans should find plenty to enjoy here, and while none of Simak’s works made it into the DMG’s “Appendix N” (the last two were published after the DMG anyway), they certainly provide some inspiration.

Published in: on July 17, 2013 at 4:57 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Orcs, and Hordes of the things

Although the dictionary definition of orc is merely “monster,” modern authors universally follow the lead of Tolkien in using the term as a synonym for a large goblin.  These have not had a fair press. They are fanatically brave in spite of being weaker and less practiced than most other humanoids, and must be kind to animals, since they train them so well.  It is interesting that Tolkien’s characters describe them in terms very similar to those used by medieval chroniclers to describe Mongols, who in our day are considered a nice friendly people of slightly eccentric lifestyle.  We might instead think of such goblins as a fantasy counterpart of the apocryphal northerner: clannish, rough spoken, given to imbibing of strong but peculiar liquor, keeping analogues of whippets and pidgeons, prone to mob violence at away fixtures and perhaps too easily influenced by radical politicians of other races. –Phil Barker, Sue Laflin Barker & Richard Bodley Scott, Hordes of the things

The paragraph above is the caption for the orc & goblin army list in Hordes of the things (or HOTT).  I love this “defense” of orcs.  The write-ups in the army lists are not all as good, but here’s my other favorite, for the “Generic barbarians” list:

Humans lacking in non-oral culture and fond of old fashioned sports like head-hunting, cattle raiding, or world conquest.

What else do you really need to know? HOTT is a fantasy wargame that was first released in 1991 and which uses fairly simple principles found in De Bellis Antiquitatus (DBA).  It uses the same standard unit size (an ‘element’ or base of several miniatures, usually three or four but as many as 8 or as few as one miniature might be used, depending on the troop type), but whereas DBA uses 12 elements for every army, HOTT has a ‘points’ system allowing armies of varying sizes depending on the troops bought.  The rule book includes a large number of army lists, although in principle there are relatively few restrictions on what kind of army you could field.  The list of armies is helpful because it gives examples of what the authors intend by some of the very generic troop types, and also as sort of bibliography for some classic sources for fantasy gaming. The “generics” are elf or fairy, dwarf, goblin or orc, gnome, undead, reptillian, ratmen, medieval, barbarian, nomad, pirate, evil humans, chaos, good kung-fu, and evil kung-fu (the last two based on 70’s and 80’s movies). Here’s the rest, the parenthetical entries being separate lists:

  • Summerian myth (human, good demonic, evil demonic, hosts of the dead, Asag and the stone allies)
  • Homeric myth (Greek, Trojan)
  • Greek myth
  • Amazon
  • Arthurian epic
  • Carolingian epic
  • Irish epic (Ulster, Irish)
  • Norse myth (Aesir, giants)
  • Arabian myth
  • Persian epic
  • Japanese myth (Imperial descent, Kumaso)
  • Indian myth (Rama, Lanka)

Those were the armies of myth & legend; there are also some semi-historical types that would incorporate mostly historical forces, but which are highly speculative and include fantasy elements.  These are inspired by films, period legends, and popular culture.

  • Semi-historical Egyptian
  • Kyropaedia (Persians, Lydians) [after Xenophon]
  • Arthurian semi-historical (Arthur, Saxons)
  • Chinese semi-historical
  • Da Vinci Italian [renaissance Italy + Da Vinci’s drawings of war marchines!)
  • Japanese epic [including legends as well as Kurosawa films]
  • Aztec semi-historical
  • Conquistador semi-historical
  • Munchausen 18th century (Russians, Ottoman Turks)
  • Napoleonic semi-historical
  • Victorian science ficiton
  • Boxer Rebellion (Boxer, Foreign devils)
  • Alien invasion (Aliens, Humans)

Various fantasy books and stories:

  • Hyborian (Northern barbarians, Picts, medieval states, Shem, Stygia, Black nations, near eastern nations, Vendhya, Khitai) [R.E. Howard and later pastiches]
  • Barsoom (Red men, green men) [E.R. Burroughs]
  • Fairie queen (Gloriana’s knights, League of enchanters) [Edmund Spencer]
  • De Camp Novarian (Othomae, Shvenite, Fedirun, Mulvanian, Paaluan) [L. Sprague DeCamp]
  • Well of the Unicorn (Vulking, Salmonessan, Dalarnan) [Fletcher Pratt]
  • Kregen (Pre-Prescott Vallia, Imperial Vallia, Loh, Clansmen, Radvakkas, Pandahem, Hamal, Moorcrim, Shanks) [the Scorpio/Kregen/Antares series by Alan Burt Akers/Dray Prescot]
  • Deryni (Army of ex-queen Ariella, army of grand-master Jebediah, amry of King Nelson, army of Archbishop Loris) [Katherine Kurtz]
  • Tekumel (this one does not list separate nations but just gives a list of possible troops) [M.A.R. Barker]
  • Dragaeran (Dragaeran, Easterners) [Steven Brust]
  • Black Company (Plain of Fear army, army of The Lady, army of The Limper, Shadowmaster’s army) [Glen Cook]
  • Dracula (Dracula, Dracula’s foes) [Bram Stoker]
  • Discworld (Ahnk-Morpork, Seriphate of Klatch, D’regs, Agatean Empire, Agatean insurgents, Lancre) [Terry Pratchett]
  • Atlantis [H.Rider Haggard and others]

and lastly pure fun

  • Christmas wars (Santa Claus, The anti-claus)
  • Garden wars (Garden gnomes, Ants, Wasps)

The army lists are NOT in the free pdf that HOTT’s publishers have kindly provided while HOTT remains out of print. (N.B. this pdf is for personal use only!) <update: as the newest version is finally in print, the pdf link is dead>  However using the rules and some imagination, you should be able to make up whatever army you want.  HOTT is designed with large scale battles in mind, but as you might have inferred from the inclusion of lists like “Dracula’s foes,” scale really doesn’t matter.   A wild range of armies were on display on the Stronghold, a web site that for years provided resources for HOTT players including house rules, variant armies, galleries of armies, and so on.  The site has been down for a few years but you can still see the front page and many of the pages archived here. <update: the Stronghold is now a blog here> The mythological and literary lists are generally well-researched (as you might expect a community of wargamers to do; after all considerable number of ancients wargamers have learned ancient Greek and Latin just to research the armies and battles of the period). One of my favorite variants was called “D20 HOTT,” which attempts to create a point of conversion for D&D games to HOTT, so that your character can participate in mass battles.  The only problem with such a scheme though is that players who expect the battle to ‘feel’ like a D&D combat will certainly be disappointed, and this might go even more so for spell-casters who will find their powers reduced to artillery or counterspells (if mages or clerics, respectively).

Published in: on June 18, 2013 at 8:59 pm  Comments (4)  
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Book score, spring 2013

Got these at my local library’s book sale; they always have one the first weekend of May.  Not bad for $7.  mostly in pretty good shape.

Swords of Mars / Edgar Rice Burroughs. Ballantine, 1963 (1979 printing)

The land of Oz / L. Frank Baum. Watermill Classic, 1983.

The fabulous riverboat /Philip Jose Farmer. Granada Pub., 1975.

The magic labyrinth / Philip Jose Farmer. Berkely Books, 1980.

Voyagers in time : twelve science fiction stories / ed. by Robert Silverberg.  Tempo Books, 1967.

Dead & buried / a novel by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. Warner Books, 1980. Novelization of the horror movie.

Sword and sorceress X : an anthology of heroic fantasy. Daw books, 1993. Marion Zimmer Bradley, ed.

Sword and sorceress XII : an anthology of heroic fantasy. Daw books, 1995. Marion Zimmer Bradley, ed.

Ancient images / Ramsey Campbell. Tor Horror, 1990.

The early Del Rey. Volume 2 / Lester Del Rey.  Ballantine, 1975.

Day of the giants / Lester Del Rey. Airmont, 1964.

Mention my name in Atlantis / John Jakes. Daw Books, 1972.

Bloodstone / Karl Edward Wagner. Baen, 1991.

The fellowship of the talisman / Clifford D. Simak. Ballantine, 1979.

The wall around the world / Theodore R. Cogswell. Pyramid, 1962.

In the flesh / Clive Barker.  Pocket Books, 1988.

The lost valley of Iskander / Robert E. Howard. Zebra Books, 1974. Special illustrated ed.*

Feat of fear / edited by Vic Ghidalia. Manor Books, 1977.

Ghost stories of an antiquary / M.R. James. Dover, 1971.

King Arthur and his knights : selected tales / by Sir Thomas Malory; ed. by Eugene Vinaver. Oxford University Press, 1975.

Two non-fiction books:

A field guide to the little people / Nancy Arrowsmith & George Moorse. Quality Books, 1977.

The druids /Peter Berresford Ellis. Eerdmans, 1995.

*The one thing I hate about these book sales is all the rare/used book dealers who rummage through everything with their ipads etc. checking values and trying to get anything valuable for resale.  Heard two dealers discuss and reject this one because only the Conan stories sell.   Philistines.

Published in: on June 3, 2013 at 6:00 am  Comments (2)  

Your swords library!

I just read The book of swords — not the Fred Saberhagen series (the first three of which were pretty good but not strong enough to make me really want to read the many sequels) — but a nonfiction book by the late Hank Reinhardt.   (Link goes to memorial page; it turns out his personal collection of weapons is being sold off, in part, and there are some articles by him, including some cringe-worthy stuff on politics that I’ll pretend I didn’t see!) Mr. Reinhardt is best known for his tireless promotion of medieval weapons, as the founder of the HACA and sword designer/consultant/co-owner for Museum Replicas.  This book was unfinished at the time of his death but so far it’s a pretty good read.  The style is extremely conversational, and that is not necessarily a bad thing.  The illustrations are photos (selected by the editor, his widow) and line drawings made by his friend Peter Fuller.  They don’t always have much to do with the text they accompany, at least in the first few chapters, and frustratingly there are several passages that really scream for an illustration but have none.  His widow owns Baen Books and the book was published under that imprint, so perhaps the editor/publisher could not be objective in deciding whether the book was ready to go into print.  I’d still place the quality of the proofreading above many self-published books, but what this book probably needed was someone who would be willing to make cuts and changes.  I suspect that conversational tone was something his widow and friends were unwilling or unable to fix, since that would mean removing some of his personality from the book, and the preface admits that his death was sudden and left them all in a bit of shock.  As it is there are some distracting goofs here and there, a bit of rambling which the author acknowledges, and some lack of organization as points are raised, forgotten, picked up again, and in some cases left completely unexplained.

Reinhardt mentions that Arab swords are among his favorites and they deserve their own chapter, but sadly he never wrote that chapter.  I am reminded of Sir Richard Burton’s Book of the sword, which similarly promises a section on Japanese swords which he never got around to writing.  I suppose you could use these two books together then, although Reinhardt is rather less enthusiastic about katanas than Burton is about scimitars…

Reinhardt concludes his survey of swords with a couple of chapters on playing and fighting with swords.  He has some suggestions for making practice targets for cutting, and also gives his advice for those entering contests and sparring.  He has a great deal of skepticism about the fechtbuchs that have recently been garnering attention (authentic manuals written by duelists).   I skimmed these chapters.  He also talks a bit about his field tests of various swords on an armored pork roast, which is interesting, but we’ve all seen that sort of thing on the History Channel and You Tube (search: “Cold Steel” or “Arms in Action” for some entertainment!  The Deadliest Warrior series had a few good sequences too but they always used very inferior butted mail rather than the riveted mail actually used by knights. )

The editors made a good effort at adding some bibliographical references to supplement his writing, but it’s not clear that they necessarily represent the sources of his ideas or facts; it is more of a selected bibliography of his personal library. (The introduction promises to eventually release a list of his personal books but that effort seems to have been abandoned.)  A few chapters have Reinhardt’s own suggestions for further reading and I’ve added a few to my to-read list.  The point of this post was actually not to review Reinhardt’s book so much as to mention a few books on weapons that I think are worth checking out.  I have a small collection of books on arms and armor that I draw on for reference now and again and Reinhardt’s book will certainly join them.  I’ve weeded my own collection a few times, and I think the ones I still have are all useful although not all of them are reliable.  But they are some of the more widely available books on weapons so I thought it might be worthwhile to give my own little bibliography of books on weapons.  I’ve noticed that although there are many, many books on swords, there are few if any books devoted just to hafted weapons like axes and maces.  At best you’ll find a chapter or two devoted to ‘other weapons’ in a swords book, with perhaps a dedicated chapter on polearms in some books too.  Granted there would be less romance and folklore to collect, but surely there is room for a book on maces?  Maybe it’s just me, but I find hafted weapons just as interesting as swords.  Anyway, here goes a list, more or less in chronological order:

Burton, Richard F. The book of the sword. Originally published in 1884, there have been many affordable reprints including a Dover edition which I have and, since it is now in the public domain, you can find scans and other digital copies pretty easily.  There is a terrible scan in Google books and very good one here at  (as Google is listed as the digitizing partner at, I’m not sure why the two scans are so different…).  some of this is outdated, obviously, but Burton is one of the few modern writers on swords who actually used swords in combat and I understand he was a pretty good swordsman.  (Most books by fencers, duelists, and martial artists are more focused on technique and mental preparation, so it’s cool to see Burton’s views of the sword as an artifact.)

Ashdown, Charles Henry.  British & foreign arms and armour.  This book (originally published in 1909) has appeared under several different titles and in various sizes.  I have a large (folio) sized edition put out by Wordsworth Editions as An illustrated history of arms & armour, but it has also been published as: European arms and armour and Weapons and armour in the Middle Ages.  I was fooled by all these title changes and had two different editions for a while.  Again a digital scan is available at  I have a theory that some of the confusion about the different armors (“banded mail,” “splint mail,” “ring mail”) might be due to the taxonomy of mail in this book, which seems to take every different depictions in Medieval art (especially funerary brasses of armored knights) to be different kinds of armor, rather than different ways of representing mail.  Probably someone else has already thought this, and I just forget where the idea was first put forward.  Still, it has great pictures and anecdotes.

Oakshott, Ewart. The archaeology of weapons.  1960.  A true classic, and given it’s early date it’s surprising how much craziness made it into RPG books and popular culture regarding the weight and lengths of weapons and so forth.  I remember my brother repeating the story his teacher told him around 1980 that Viking swords weighed 10 or 20 pounds.  Sigh.  Oakshott has a few other books on weapons I haven’t read, but which are more technical and narrower in focus.

Norman, A.V.B., & Pottinger, Don.  English weapons and warfare, 449-1660. 1966.  Also published under the title Warrior to soldier, 449 to 1660.  This book reminds me a lot of Ashdown’s.  The illustrations though are mostly original line drawings that look good.

Halbritter, Kurt. Waffenarsenal. 1977.  Translated as Halbritter’s armoury and Halbritter’s arms and armor through the ages. (I have the second version.)  This is a purely satirical book on weapons, armor, and fortifications that is very amusing and may provide some ideas for the sorts of innovations humanoids might come up with in your D&D games.  Some illustrations are reproduced in low resolution here.

Balent, Matthew. Palladium Books presents– the compendium of weapons, armour & castles. 1989.  This is a monster compilation of the old Palladium weapons & armor books from the 1980s, complete with the statistics for an unspecified system (which is not quite compatible with Palladium’s FRPG, either!).  The art is pretty good, and the listing of weapons is about as close to exhaustive as you will get. I’m not sure all the terminology is as precise as the book  suggests, but in terms of giving pretty much every weapon a name, it serves its purpose.  I owned the original Palladium books on Exotic weapons and Weapons & assassins; I think my brother ‘inherited’ them when I inherited all his minis; he had the Weapons & castles and Weapons & armor books too anyway.  (He’s the only person I know as interested in weapons as I am, apart from our nephew Quinn!)  I’m not sure the assassins book material is reproduced but everything I recall from the other books seems to be there, some with new or enlarged illustrations.

Diagram Group. Weapons: an international encyclopedia from 5000 BC to 2000 AD.  This book was originally published in 1980, then again with updates in 1991, and in 2007 under the title The new weapons of the world encyclopedia : an international encyclopedia from 5000 B.C. to the 21st century.  (Yes, the 1980 and 1991 editions both say “to 2000 AD”.  I only have the 1991 edition, and it is very good and fairly comprehensive, with a number of unusual weapons alongside all the familiar ones, and simple diagrams to explain how they work.   The book moves progressively from the simplest hand weapons to guided missiles and nuclear weapons, grouping them by types (all the knives in one section, all the spears in another, etc.)  I also liked the appendix which groups weapons by time period rather than types.

Paul, E. Jaiwant. “By my sword and shield” : traditional weapons of the Indian warrior. 1995.  A slim book that just focuses on India, which has an astonishing range of unusual and crazy-looking weapons.  I like kukris and katars quite a bit, and while I think the Viking sword is probably my favorite kind of sword, Indian swords look really scary.  This book gives a fair amount of detail on the construction and history of various weapons and is worth having.

Amberger, J. Christoph. The secret history of the sword : adventures in ancient martial arts. 1998.  (An earlier edition has less than half as many pages, but I haven’t seen it). This is a fairly entertaining read, and is more of a history of dueling and fencing than of swords or swordplay generally, but there are lots of great anecdotes and ideas sprinkled throughout.  The author is a little too in love with himself IMO but it doesn’t quite spoil the book.

Withers, Harvet J. S. The world encyclopedia of swords and sabres. 2008.  Also published as The illustrated encyclopedia of swords and sabres.  The illustrations here are all photographs of often gorgeous museum pieces and despite the title it also covers other bladed weapons like knives and bayonets, as well as a very few axes and hafted weapons.  The historical notes are solid and this is fun book to flip through if you like swords.  The same author is credited with several other similar titles that might be different versions of the same work. (It’s funny how  specialist books get re-published over and over with new titles.  I see this a lot at work as a catalog librarian and I’m pretty sure it has a lot to do with marketing — they will always appear as “new” books, right?  Cookbooks are also very guilty of this.

Honorable mention to several books I do not own:

Wagner, Eduard. Cut and thrust weapons. 1967.  A very comprehensive book focusing more on later period swords but also including a lot of information on the design and construction of swords. Very pricey on the used book market.

Wilkinson, Frederick. Antique arms & armor. 1972.  Also his Swords and daggers. 1968.  Two good books with photographs of museum pieces.

Sharpe, Mike. Swords and hilt weapons. 2012.  A nice coffee-table type book with photographs mostly of reproductions of the sort sold by Museum Replicas, Inc., Cold Steel, etc.  The big format gives plenty of space of reproducing the photos, which is almost all the book consists of.  There are several other books with the same title out there and they are more like the Withers book, showing photos of museum pieces.

Published in: on May 20, 2013 at 12:39 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Fairy tales on the big screen: The magic sword

I’ve got a nice copy of English Fairy Tales, retold by Flora Annie Steel & illustrated by Arthur Rackham.  I picked it up at a library book sale for the Rackham illos but I’ve also been reading the stories to my daughter.  Some of them are deeply disturbing, naturally, but all of them are pretty good.  I’ve read most of them a several times but somehow kept skipping the very first one, which is about St. George.  The story of St. George is retold here at Project Gutenburg (the rest of the book is here too, with the pictures!).

What jumped out at me (apart from the fact that St. George killed way more pagans than I would have guessed; I only knew about the dragon) is that this story is actually the basis of the 1962 movie The Magic Sword!  Seriously.  Things get sanitized a bit (instead of sacrificing babies, the witch-mom is pretty nice in the movie, etc.) and naturally a lot got dropped (the crusades mainly) but the broad strokes are all there — raised by a witch, the six international knights who join him, the ogre/giant, dragon, and magic sword, horse, and armor; notice too that our hero is Sir George in the film.  Lodac is new, and kind of replaces Almidor, the Moorish villain from the story, but for a movie that is so seriously bizarre, I was surprised to realize just how much of this acid trip movie was folkloric.  (OK, there are many versions of this tale, so F.A. Steel’s specific version may not be the basis of the movie per se; still I never realized how much of it was from ‘real’ legends.)

You can see the whole film here.  I think that, like Night of the living dead, this movie must be one of the casualties of copyright law and somehow got tossed into the public domain, based on the number of cheapo DVD releases it has had.

Also, both the film and the Steel book are veritable gold mines of D&D ideas.  What game would not benefit from chimpanzees in clothes, two-headed and/or pin-headed magicians’ servants, boiling pools of death, two-headed dragons, and that ape-ogre, or the orange tree and the magical falchion Ascalon?

Digging deeper into the Steel collection of fairy tales, the version of “Jack the Giant Killer” here is quite good and a reminder that the upcoming movie is really not an adaptation of that story at all, but of “Jack and the beanstalk” (which is also in this collection).  “The bogey beast,” “The golden ball,” “The three heads of the well,” “Child Rowland,” “Molly Whuppie and the double-faced giant,” and “The red ettin” all have some interesting monsters or encounters.

Rackham illustration for "The true history of Tom Thumb."  Looks like a scene from the Hobbit to me.

Rackham illustration for “The true history of Sir Thomas Thumb.” Looks like a scene from the Hobbit to me.

Published in: on April 2, 2013 at 9:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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The stone god awakens

tsgaThe stone god awakens, by Philip Jose Farmer.  That’s one hell of a book jacket.

Anyway I can’t say I’m a big Farmer fan.  I haven’t really read enough of his work to form a general opinion.  In fact this is the first novel of his I’ve read, and I’m not sure if I’ve ready stories by him in anthologies.

The premise of the book is that a physicist is frozen in time for millions year by some largely unexplained experiment, and emerges into a world populated by primitive humanoids that seem both human and animal.  He takes up with some cat-people who have been worshiping his frozen form as a god, and introduces bows, horse riding, and gun powder to them, and then gets increasingly involved in the various races and begins a search for other humans as well as battling another ‘god’ — a vast banyan tree system that threatens to consume the entire land mass.

The tree is huge — miles and miles across; thousands and thousands of feet tall; with thousands of branches.  Forests, rivers, and lakes form within the branches, and many strange animals and humanoids populate it.  It is fairly inspiring as a strange environment to explore: rivers course along some branches, to fall precipitously into waterfalls thousands of feet down; the ground beneath the tree is a perpetually dark, swampy mire, where bits of the tree occasionally crash down, and various vermin inhabit the decaying branches.  The tree itself may in fact be intelligent (why spoil the book?)

The other thing I liked about this book was that it provided a fairly a somewhat consistent world for Gamma World type adventures.  The world as we knew is long gone, and the flora and fauna are all unrecognizable.  It also suggests what is probably the most logical way to run GW: the PCs, like the protagonist, are from the past (or another world) and are discovering the mysterious environment.  Other have suggested running mutant PCs in the GW as tokens of  species, and this world would at least make mutated animals viable species.

Apart from using the book as inspiration for gaming, though, I would not really recommend it as literature.  The hero is never all that interesting, and his main conflict is whether or not he’s attracted to a cat-woman (I’m guessing Farmer is).  The book is not broken into chapters but is more like a really long short story, which gets kind of tedious.  The bad guys are obviously bad from the get-go, but no one has very clear or realistic motivations. The book also fails to end with any real sense of resolution, and it seems like Farmer may have wanted to leave opening for a sequel.  If not, he actually made a fairly bold and original choice, to leave the villain undefeated and hero wondering if it is worth fighting.  I guess I should give him the benefit of the doubt and say he breaks conventions a little; still, I had a lot of trouble caring about the characters or even telling most of them apart except by species.

Published in: on February 15, 2013 at 2:29 pm  Comments (2)  
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The drug and other stories (part of 1 of maybe 2)

The drug and other stories by Aleister Crowley


Wordsworth puts out lots of affordable editions of classics and public domain works, and I recently found a used copy of this collection of stories by Aleister Crowley.  It has 49 stories, many of them previously unpublished.  I know Wordsworth has at least one other collection of his stories which has all the ‘Simon Iff” mysteries and a few other miscellaneous fantasies.

I am only about 1/2 way through this collection, but I figured I’d comment on the stories I’ve read so far.  I’d say the stories in The drug and other stories have no overarching theme, and generally defy classification.

Some are clearly mystical/occult allegories, and I found these to be kind of boring, since they really presuppose a lot of knowledge of freemasonry and occultism, and of Crowley’s particular take on occultism.  Some of these occult stories seem to be autobiographical, and are a reminder of just how narcissistic Crowley was.  The writing is usually pretty colorful and vivid, but I found myself leaving many of these half-read.

Other stories have occult elements and symbolism but are more straightforwardly narrative, and often have a joke or twist ending.  Many of these showcase Crowley’s scandalous (for his time) interest in sex and he is clearly hoping to shock conventional readers.  It is a little surprising just how unsettling some of his stories manage to be, perhaps more for their brutal immorality than anything else.   Although he doesn’t revel in gore, some of the imagery is pretty disturbing.  He also makes many off-hand references to British social life and politics, and the editor explains some of these in footnotes.  Despite the obscurity of some passages, Crowley can be very witty, and some bits are very funny.

A few stories are straightforward political satires, and others are psychological studies.  These are usually pretty heavy-handed but have their moments.  A few are thinly veiled rants on moral or political issues, and it speaks well of Crowley that even these stories are entertaining.

Several stories are horror tales or ‘weird tales’, with or without supernatural elements.

The standouts for me were:
“Ercildoune,” a short novella about intrigue and revenge;
“The testament of Magdalene Blair,” which is probably Crowley’s most famous story and still has the power to disturb;
“The stratagem,” another of his more well-known stories;
“The vixen,” a very short fantasy involving shape-changers;
“The dream Circean,” a weird tale about a vanishing house in Paris;
”The soul-hunter,” a horror story about a scientist’s search for the human soul in an unwilling subject; and
“Lieutenant Finn’s promotion,” which reads like an adventure in colonial Africa but is actually a spoof on European geopolitics.

I think the stories are presented in chronological order, and I would definitely say Crowley’s writing improved with time.  Many were published under pseudonyms, and some were published in the various propaganda papers he published while working as a British spy, so I would hesitate to read too much into the politics of those stories — Crowley wore a lot of masks, and I imagine that some stories were written ‘in character’ in his assumed identities.

I know what you’re thinking — any gamable ideas?  The occult stuff has some potential, particularly with the descriptions of rituals and rituals spaces like temples.  I understand that “Atlantis,” a story I haven’t gotten to yet, is a fantasy tale, which sounds promising.  Nothing so far has really jumped out at me for DD, but I could see using many of the characters, places, and events in Call of Cthulhu.  In fact Crowley’s settings (Edwardian England, ‘belle epoque’ Paris, Russia, and colonial outposts in Africa and the East) are all the sorts of places you’d expect to find CoC adventurers, and Crowley himself — mountaineer, poet, mystic, cult leader, and spy — would make a fine CoC villain or hero.

Published in: on December 7, 2012 at 10:52 pm  Leave a Comment  
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A nonbook nonreview

I used think I’d grow up to be a book critic — back when I was a kid, my parents bought one of those  ‘classics of literature’ sets from an encyclopedia company and for a long time they got yearly updates which were compilations of reviews of books for the year by literary authors like John Updike and Doris Lessing.  I started reading them high school or junior high and thought that  reading books and writing criticism of them would be an awesome job.

Anyway I’ve been writing the odd review here and at Goodreads and this week an author actually wanted me to write a review for his ebook, which is terribly flattering.  (I’ve written reviews for a couple of people I know but that’s different.)

But alas my Kindle has been on the fritz and I haven’t had a chance to send it back to Amazon for repair, and anyway I’m already in the middle of like a dozen books, so I declined, but it sure sounds like an interesting read.  Here’s the Amazon link.  It’s called Death match and it’s a noir detective thriller about a punk rocker-turned-detective investigating a murder in the sordid world of pro wrestling.*

I’m not into mysteries so much but it sounds pretty interesting and has the stamp of approval of Ben Thompson, author of the Badass book and blog, so I do hope to check it out some time.


*There’s definitely an interesting modern RPG scenario there too…  I’d use Over the edge or GURPS, I think.

Published in: on August 17, 2012 at 10:11 am  Leave a Comment  
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