Sword and sorcery fiction was a casualty in the pages of Weird Tales magazine when it went bimonthly and had a new editor in 1940. The sub-genre did live on with some entries in Unknown/Unknown Worlds. Less known are some stories that showed up in Fantastic Adventures and Planet Stories.
The stories that appeared in Planet Stories in the later 1940s and early 1950s are generally thinly disguised with some pseudo-science instead of sorcery and an extra moon in the sky to give a superficial appearance of science fiction.
Planet Stories (1939-1955) is an often maligned magazine in science fiction histories. It picked up where the Clayton Publications era Astounding Stories of Super Science left off. There was no pretense about predicting the future. Planet Stories pages are filled with space patrols, galactic empires, pirates, and you were as likely to encounter swords as ray guns. The sort of stuff most of us want to read.
Poul Anderson (1926-2001) had thirteen stories in Planet Stories. He had started out in Astounding Science Fiction in 1947. He branched out to Future, Super Science Stories, and Planet Stories starting in 1950 with fiction more decidedly adventure prone.
Amidst these adventure oriented stories were three very Howardian stories in Planet Stories. Anderson said in a piece entitled “Conan the Chronicled” (Amra V2, N 70, September 1981):
“I have been enchanted ever since discovering the Cimmerian while still in college, in Skullface and Others. At that time I was unpublished, writing for amusement, and started off on a wandering barbarian of my own.”
“Witch of the Demon Seas” appeared in the January 1951 issue of Planet Stories under the pseudonym of “A. A. Craig.” He also had the first Dominic Flandry story (“Tiger by the Tail”) in the same issue.
The story starts out with captured pirate Corun of Conahur presented to Khroman the Conqueror, Thalassocrat of Achaera. Anderson describes Corun as:
“Corun was as big as Khroman, a fair-skinned giant of a man in chains and rags. Weather-bleached yellow hair hung to his shoulders from a haughtily lifted head, and his fire-blue eyes were unwavering on the king’s. His face was lean, long-jawed, curve-nosed, hardened by bitterness and suffering and desperate unending battle.”
Khroman’s predecessor had conquered Corun’s homeland, killed his father and brothers, and set Corun as a puppet. Corun escaped and became a pirate attacking Achaeran ships and raiding Achaeran ports.
Things don’t quite make sense. Anderson mentions the skies being cloudy most of the time. When the sun rarely breaks through the clouds, water boils on the sea and fires start on land. Though it is never said, the intimation is this world is Venus. There is mention of archipelagos of islands ruled over by the Achearans.
“Tall, fair men from Conahur, fur-clad barbarians from Norriki, blue-skinned savages from Umlotou, black men from misty Orzaban, the copper colored Chilatzis, the yellow wizards from mysterious Hiung-nu.”
If the skies are cloudy all the time, no one is going to be blue, black, copper, or yellow, or even get a tan. Everyone is going to be rather pasty in complexion. If humans are transplants to this planet from Earth, their complexions are going to lighten up generation after generation.
The Achaerans appear to be based on Classical Greece with some Roman and Phoenician elements thrown in.
One wonders if this was one of Anderson’s early sword and stories lightly converted for Planet Stories.
Corun and his crew are to be executed by being thrown in the arena. Corun is separated from his crew but approached in the dungeon by the sorcerer Shorzon and his grand-daugher Chryseis, who happens to be Khroman’s daughter.
Shorzon gives Corun a choice– death or lead them to the islands of the Xanthi, a mysterious sentient amphibian species.
Corun decides to lead Shorzon though it will probably end in death. During the voyage on ship, Chryseis develops an infatuation with Corun.
There is a nice battle with the Xanthi who are now described as reptiles (but they have gills). Anderson was never a slouch when choreographing combat with edged weapons.
Shorzon demonstrates his sorcerous ability to gain admission to the citadel of the ruling Xanthi. He wants to make a deal with the Xanthi to take over the Achaeran Empire with Shorzon as its ruler.
Corun is able to escape and free the imprisoned blue-skinned Umlotuan crew from Shorzon’s ship. Corun sets a fuse/cord on fire to blow up the Xanthi stock of “devil-powder.” He and the Umlotuan crew fight their way out with the citadel getting blown up. The Umlotuan ship captain conveniently dispatches Shorzon during the escape.
Corun goes back to find Chryseis who is a raging fiend. She knocks him out with a well-placed thrown rock. He awakens to find her tending to his wounds. Turns out she had a geas placed on her by her sorcerer grand-father at birth. Her love for Corun allowed her to overcome the geas.
Overall, this is a rousing story, pulpy but entertaining. Poul Anderson knew his history and able to infuse his fiction with verisimilitude. He is one of my favorite science fiction writers. Give me Poul Anderson, Jack Vance, and H. Beam Piper over Isaac Asimov or Robert Heinlein.
Rereading this story, I was surprised that Anderson made Corun more vaguely Celtic than Norse. Corun swears by Breannach Brannor. He did the same thing with “Swordsman of Lost Terra,” in which critic Steve Tompkins called “a remarkable act of cultural ventriloquism.”
Robert Hoskins reprinted the story as “Demon Journey” (Anderson’s original title) in Swords Against Tomorrow in 1970. That was during Signet/New American Library’s brief but good fling with sword and sorcery fiction.
Armchair Fiction has reprinted it and the story is in a Wildside Press electronic megapack.
There is a great Poul Anderson collection that could be made with his three sword and pseudo-science stories from Planet Stories, a couple stories from Fantastic from the early 60s, and six or so historical and Viking stories. Tom Barber could do the cover.