Pulp-fest took place last weekend in Columbus, Ohio. One dealer there had some boxes with a nice variety of sword and sorcery paperbacks. I had most of them but still managed to find a few obscure items. I also upgraded my copy of Gordon D. Shirreffs’ Calgaich the Swordsman (Playboy Press, 1980).
Calgaich the Swordsman is a book that I buy whenever I see it used and give copies as gifts to friends. I discovered this novel 20 years ago at the venerable Mac’s Backs Paperbacks on Coventry Road in Cleveland Heights. I was not expecting much but to my delighted surprise, this turned out to be a keeper.
Gordon D. Shirreffs (1914-1996) had over 100 stories in the western pulp magazines from 1947-1957. He made the jump to the original mass-market paperback market with some great westerns for Gold Medal including Rio Bravo, Bugles on the Prairie, and The Border Guidon. His pulp westerns stories are over the top, one story has a Texas feud with shotguns blowing off arms. Another story has a bullwhip duel. His paperback novels are toned back if anything but they are hard-boiled violent westerns. Interestingly, he does not appear to have written stories for any other genre magazines. He did write some young adult novels about WWII including The Bolo Battalion.
There are a handful of historical novels written by western writers. Generally an historical written by a western writer is worth reading. T. V. Olsen’s Brothers of the Sword, Philip Ketchum’s Woman in Armor, Todhunter Ballard’s (as “Hunter D’Allard”) The Long Sword are all efficient pulpy action filled adventures. Interesting that Louis L’amour screwed the pooch with The Walking Drum.
Shirreffs must have wanted to take a break from western novels as he wrote a wonderful pirate novel for Fawcett, Captain Cutlass (Fawcett, 1978) and Calgaich the Swordsman about the same time. Calgaich is an historical set probably from 150-200 A.D. Calgaich himself is a big, blond Brythonic Celt warrior who hates Romans.
Calgaich the Swordsman starts out with Calgaich returning to Britain after a period of exile for killing his cousin in fair combat. The Irish ship he is on is attacked by Picts. These Picts, straight out of Robert E. Howard, are squat, painted, and savage.
His return to the Novantae tribe results in skullduggery with his uncle betraying Calgaich to the Romans. Calgaich is taken to Rome and fights in the Coliseum. He schemes to get back to Britain and make things uncomfortable for the Romans. Within this short description are a lot of violent and adult situations.
I had one copy of this book that I passed around to western writer James Reasoner, Glenn Lord, and others. One friend of mine who has a very high bar for liking a novel said “There was always something going on this novel, it never lagged.”
My impression has been Shirreffs had read Robert E. Howard and wanted to write something inspired by him. One friend when handing back one of my circulating copies said “You can see the Howard influence but it is written in his own voice.”
So if you are looking for something on the lines of Robert E. Howard, track down this novel.
Shirreffs’ original title was The Celtic Blade. He had wanted to write a sequel but Playboy Press delayed the publication for about two years so Shirreffs lost interest and went back to writing westerns. A shame as I would have liked to have read another novel about Calgaich of the Novantae.