As great as swords & sorcery is, it is not the field to enter if you’re looking for a way to put your wife and kids through college. The real story of how Swords Against Darkness editor Andrew J. Offutt made ends meet would come as a shock even to his own son– who only found out when he inherited 1,800 pounds of smut upon his father’s death.

Men’s Health has the full story. My favorite bit deals with how deviancy was marketed:

The cartoonish cover art of Wife Swapping Report from 1964 depicts a window with a shade not fully drawn, behind which is a silhouetted couple in deep embrace.

Looking at the cover forces you into the role of voyeur. The back cover reads:

Wife swapping has become standard procedure for millions of married Americans. The practice is part of the sexual revolution of our time. Has it become “normal”? Is it insane?

You must decide for yourself after reviewing the case histories of this report—case histories that are personal and explicit. They will make you wonder about your own desires.

I admire this text for its advertising acumen and foreknowledge of potential buyers.

It opens with conjecture presented as truth—wife swapping is standard. (It’s not now, and it certainly wasn’t then.) That it’s a “report” based on “case histories” gives the contents legitimacy.

Next comes the forced dichotomy of “normal” and “insane.” Technically, neither is true or ever will be. But the implication is clear—the book confirms that the fantasies of a casual browser are normal, and you’d have to be insane to think otherwise.

The introduction concludes with an explanation for why the book reads as a novel—the result of careful and difficult work, with details changed and fragments edited for clarity.

The reader is assured of its authenticity, with a reminder that it won’t be tedious and dry. It’s not a novel, but it reads like one!

Read More

WRIGHT ON: Lost Works

The Real Buck Rogers

Inspired by the Appendix N columns of Jeffro Johnson, and by the gift by a generous fan of a complete collection of the Ballantine ‘Adult Fantasy’ line edited by Lin Carter, I would like to invite, in this and future columns, the readers here at the Castalia House blog to come time traveling with me.

Let us visit the lost and neglected works of the golden age of science fiction pulps or the silver age of pre-Tolkien fantasy, and see the futures as once they were. 

ARMAGEDDON 2419 A.D. by Philip Francis Nowlan is a title only devout aficionados of early science fiction, whereas everyone, even a muggle, has heard of Buck Rogers. Indeed, in days gone by, the phrase “The Buck Rogers Stuff” was the by-word for science fiction.

It is strange that so memorable a character comes from a short novel so unmemorable.

While the work for its time contains the essential properties of solidly speculative Science Fiction, and some astonishingly fine futurism, it is astonishingly bland and ill-composed. In all due justice, it suffers indeed from the drawbacks for which many a literary critic dismissed the whole genre of SF as juvenile trash, and these are not drawbacks to be excused by the different tastes of different audience in different decades.

Or, I should say, some of those drawbacks. There is one aspect of this little novella which any fan of the genre would do well to study, if you want to understand the soul of science fiction. This yarn has it.

Read More

Today is the 111th birthday of Robert E. Howard. Born in Peaster, Texas and lived in Cross Plains for his adult life. He died too young at age 30. There are three transformational writers for fantasy fiction of the 20th Century: Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft, and J. R. R. Tolkien. Almost all fantasy written after these three bear the imprint of one or all.

Robert E. Howard is generally acclaimed as the founder of sword and sorcery fiction. Sword and sorcery is the punk rock of fantasy. Howard is also often credited with creating the weird western though there were others in on the formation of that niche genre.

He wrote straight westerns, humorous westerns, historical adventures, weird/horror stories, and that near extinct form of sport fiction, the boxing story.

Howard’s influence was present after his death in 1936 in the pages of Weird Tales when others such as Henry Kuttner and Clifford Ball wrote sword and sorcery stories. In the 1940s, Howard’s influence could be found with Frederic Arnold Kummer, Jr., Leigh Brackett, Gardner Fox, and Bryce Walton. Even in the early 1950s, a young Poul Anderson was writing Howardesque stories (“The Virgin of Valkarion”). Gardner Fox wrote the first sword and sorcery comic book story with “Crom the Barbarian.”

The issuing of the Conan stories in paperback in the 1960s set off a sword and sorcery explosion. Characters influenced by Howard including Kothar, Brak, and Thongor not to mention a number of one shot paperbacks with covers painted by Frank Frazetta and Jeff Jones competed on the spinner racks against those science fiction paperbacks with Richard Powers covers.

Along with J. R. R. Tolkien almost simultaneously, fantasy became a viable form of fantastic fiction in mass market paperback publishing.

Read More

I called it. I don’t remember the exact date, and someone else gave it the absolutely apt name of “Pulp Revolution”, but I was the first to prophesize that the book in your hands (then a still-incomplete series of web posts) would spark a literary movement. People (among them the august author of this eldritch tome) have been astounded in retrospect by my perspicacity, and have asked me one simple question: “How did you know?”

Change was in the air. People are sick of the decay of popular culture. The misery-ification of popular culture, the preach-ification of popular culture, the social-justice-ification of popular culture. People are sick of it. Writers, editors, and above all audiences. Audiences, you know, the poor bastards we do this for? Audiences are sick of it, and they want something different. Lots of authors and editors were heeding this call, but few of them were really doing something with the pulps.

Pulps are awesome. In the pulps, anything goes. ANYTHING goes. Fantasy and horror and sci fi in the same story? HELL YES. So long as it’s fun and awesome and imaginative. The pulps are all about the imaginative and awesome and fun.

I liken it to this: 3rd generation Fantasy derivatives of Tolkien are like paintings done entirely in black and white. You can do quite interesting paintings entirely in greyscale, beautiful, moving, and involving paintings, but there is still an entire universe of awesomeness missing: the world of color. Discovering the pulps through Jeffro’s Appendix N series was like discovering every single other color in existence, after a lifetime of only black and white. Some of the pulp stories were bluescale, some redscale, and some used THE ENTIRE COLOR PALETTE.

Mind. Blown.

Read More

Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories and Edgar Rice Burrough’s tales of Barsoom were my primary entry points into the world of pulp SFF over the past couple of years. For me, the blood-pumping action and arguably unparalleled prose of the old masters are but one source of pleasure. Perhaps equally gratifying is the insight gained in relation to succeeding works over the years. Though never a comic connoisseur, I am denizen of various spheres of nerdom, and thrilled when I learned of John Carter’s part in the birth of Superman.

Conan’s role as progenitor for the noble barbarian archetype is pretty well-trodden ground. Look-alike characters scatter the landscape of our modern culture, across SFF and less serious genres.

The original

The posers


The look, feel, and even voice (thanks, Arnie) of Conan have become commonplace tropes for brutish fighting men, often apart from civilization and yet above it. As much as I’ve come to relish Conan’s adventures, however, an expanding awareness of Howard’s works has also brought a sort of melancholy. Despite the large shadow cast by his Cimmerian, the Texan was no one-trick pony; during his short time he created a number of memorable characters and settings that have continued to inspire his successors in the craft. Their current obscurity is tragic.

One of these characters, often overlooked but perhaps not so obscure as the rest, is the wandering Puritan, Solomon Kane. I’ve only recently begun to dig into his stories, but already I am receiving flashes of insight and blinks of cloudy suspicion. Kane shows a depth and ambiguity unlike that of his more barbaric Howardian brethren. While equally skilled and competent as Conan or Krull or Bran Mak Morn, Kane is driven by a fury of presumably divine origin. Conan possesses his own code of honor but most often seeks self-enrichment. Kane, on the other hand, possesses no riches and seeks no power. The execution of justice and the defense or avenging of the innocent are his. Were he less dark and brooding, less haunted and more pious, he could be more strongly evocative of the paladin paradigm. As it is, he is something different.

Read More

You already know about Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft.

You already know about Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan and John Carter.

You’ve seen Leigh Brackett’s handwork on the big screen.

There’s a strong chance you’ve missed out on the guy that combines the best elements of all of these creators into one tight package.

The guy was brilliant. Of all the grandmasters that have lapsed into obscurity the past three decades, Merritt is the best of the most forgotten.

Romance. Heroes. Wonders. Mind-bending terrors. Pitch perfect delivery of all the essential emotional beats. He’s awesome. And he had a major impact on establishing the norms of science fiction and fantasy as we think of it today.

If you don’t know where to start, I can suggest the short story Through the Dragon Glass and the novel Dwellers in the Mirage.


Jeffro asked me to write an introduction for his book and talk about “why Appendix N started a literary movement.” But I don’t pay attention to literary movements and don’t care about them. I read what I choose and that’s that. On the other hand, I’m a teacher at heart, and Jeffro is a great example of the value of teaching. Jeff took an online course I created, “Learning Game Design.” He told me recently, “. . . this [Appendix N] book is basically an application of your game design class and book. It was like a key to unlock my productivity.” What could be better for a teacher to hear?

I trust that what Jeff is teaching us, in his essays, will help someone else do exceptional things. Certainly it should help readers to discover science fiction and fantasy that senior citizens like me knew quite well “back when.”

I had read most of the Appendix N books before Gary Gygax wrote the Appendix.

Appendix N books were books that helped create science fiction and fantasy literature. I understand that nowadays many so-called science fiction fans sneer at, and will not read, anything written before 1980. I don’t understand how that can be, because it rejects some of the greatest authors such as Asimov and Heinlein, as well as many who were as good or nearly as good. And it rejects the founders of science fiction and fantasy. Edgar Rice Burroughs may not be technically the greatest science fiction and fantasy adventure writer – he depends far too much on coincidence – but he still wrote some outstanding adventures, and showed the way to many others.

In the old way of playing Dungeons & Dragons, we made up our own adventures and rarely supplemented them with professionally published material. We used science fiction and fantasy literature as resources. Nowadays, younger people apparently have less productive imaginations because everything in their lives is served to them on a plate, no imagination required, and so they tend to use professional adventures rather than make up their own, much to everyone’s loss.

Read More

There’s no one way to slay a dragon. It takes a combination of strength, fortitude, and brains. Father Abner Holyoak’s adventurous days of crusading are long past him, but when he stumbles into a dark manor house plagued by a vague menace, he knows that he is the right man in the right place at the right time. Priest, historian, scholar, and wandering mendicant, Abner Holyoak might just be the only man in Christendom that can free the Duke of Saltzburg and his family from the dark force that has made the Duke’s house it’s own home.

Don’t miss the rest of the series!

Short Reviews will return next week with George Antonio Wetter’s “Too Smart to Die”.

I backed the Starship Grifters Universe Kickstarter for a signed copy of Starship Grifters and some Big Sheep drink koozies on the strength of Robert Kroese’s shitposting alone. Seriously, if you’re not following that guy on Twitter, you’re missing out.

Starship Grifters is a very tongue-in-cheek sci-fi spoof that is sort of like a Space Balls with a cross between Zapp Brannigan and Tommy Flanagan: Pathological Liar as the main character.

Read More

To subscribe to the New Release Mailing List, please enter your email address in the box below, then hit the Subscribe button. You will receive an email that will ask you to confirm the subscription. You can unsubscribe at any time, and we neither spam nor sell the mailing list email addresses.

The year is 1997.  Otherwise known as the “far future” for people living in 1974.  William Mandella is a bright, young physics student.  Or he was, before he got drafted into the United Nations Exploratory Force (emphasis on force) under the Elite Conscription Act of 1996 (because wars aren’t really an outrage until the elite get forced to do their part).  Humans in 1997 haven’t just colonized the solar system.  With the discovery of “collapsars” in 1985, you can now “send a shipload of colonists to Fomalhaut for less than it had once cost to put a brace of men on the moon.”  That’s because you can travel between two collapsars with a travel time of exactly zero.  The galaxy just got a lot smaller.  Small enough for humanity to bump up against the alien Taurans (our word, there being no way to talk to them).  As you can guess, first contact doesn’t go well.  We are now in our first interspecies, interstellar war.

By chapter 3, Mandella is training on Charon.  Between the cold (cold) and the lack of atmosphere, they won’t be fighting in their skivvies.  We get treated to several chapters on power armor training.  They haven’t even started fighting yet, and this is really cool stuff, mainly because Haldeman is serious about keeping his science hard.  Between the cold and lack of atmosphere, if you suit fails, you die.  At temperatures approaching absolute zero, it’s easy to fall down.  You fall on your exhaust fins—heck, you just lean on them—you die.  And people do, long before we ever see an enemy.

We’re 50 pages in before we get a look at a Tauran.

He had two arms and two legs, but his waist was so small you could encompass it with both hands.  Under the tiny waist was a large horseshoe-shaped pelvic structure nearly a meter wide, from which dangled two long skinny legs with no apparent knee joint.  Above that waist his body swelled out again, to a chest no smaller than the huge pelvis.  His arms looked surprisingly human, except they were too long and undermuscled.  There were too many fingers on his hands.  Shoulderless, neckless.  His head was a nightmarish growth that swelled like a goiter from his massive chest.  Two eyes that looked like clusters of fish eggs, a bundle of tassels instead of a nose, and a rigidly open hole that might have been a mouth sitting low down where his adam’s apple should have been.

Like the aliens in The High Crusade, the Taurans don’t know much about fighting humans.  But they will.

From there we get a damn near perfect speculative fiction tale.  The science is hard and there is a lot of it.  As military SF, it is heavy on a mix of Kafka-esque bureaucracy and gallows humor, paired with some really good battles.  The futurology is always thought-provoking, if not particularly accurate (it never is).  It’s not just a military SF novel, it’s a war novel, and the characterization as Mandella grapples with war is terrific.  There is even a good love story stuck in there.  And the entire thing works on a figurative level (it was certainly a reaction to both Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and to Vietnam).  If this is message fiction, it’s message fiction as it should be done: smart, open to multiple interpretations, thought-provoking, subversive (to any orthodoxy), woven into the fabric of the story, and always, always entertaining.

Read More

I have never owned a Dungeon Masters Guide.

I discovered Dungeons & Dragons in the fall of 1975, when I started Junior High School. It was like nothing I had ever seen before. It combined the backyard playing pretend that I have never outgrown with rules to settle those pesky “I shot you!”/”No, I shot you first!” arguments.

At the time Dungeons & Dragons was three small paperback books in a white cardboard box. I managed to acquire the original books as a birthday present, and I scraped up enough money for the official supplements; Greyhawk, Blackmoor, Eldritch Wizardry, Gods Demigods & Heroes, over time. Not an easy trick at a time when my income came exclusively from mowing lawns and the average job involved me having to make change for a dollar.

I never did get a DMG, though. The year that it was released, 1979, my parents divorced and my mother packed me up to move to the big city where I got to find out what real poverty was. Of course, Sid Vicious and Zeppo Marx both died in ’79, so I suppose I wasn’t the only one having a bad year.

So I have to admit that my first exposure to Appendix N was when I started reading Jeffro Johnson’s blog. I was a a gamer, off and on, in the intervening years, but D&D has since been joined by dozens of other options and I tended to play either science fiction or horror games, rather than heroic fantasy.

When I started reading the works that Gary Gygax had recommended in the DMG I saw that many of my own favorites made the list. John Bellairs, Frederick Brown, Fritz Leiber, Philip Jose Farmer, H P Lovecraft, Michael Moorcock, Fred Saberhagen, Roger Zelanzy—all authors who have in some way inspired my own writing.

Reading Jeffro’s series of reviews I began to see why these works in particular were chosen.  There was a common theme of Heroic Fantasy—stories in which the protagonists were truly heroic and the worlds were truly fantastic.

Read More