"Some day, there will be a legend like this. Some day from steamy Venus or arid Mars, the shaking, awe-struck words will come whispering back to us, building the picture of a glory so great that our throats will choke with pride—the pride in the men of Terra!"
That's the introduction Leigh Brackett wrote for Keith Bennett's "The Rocketeers Have Shaggy Ears," a short she personally selected for inclusion in The Best of Planet Stories #1. The latter was a reprint paperback anthology she edited in 1975 for Random House, paying tribute to the all-stars of the magazine that earned her the nickname, "The Queen of Space Opera." Under Brackett's editorial eye, Bennett's tale joined stories by such Golden Age heavy hitters as Poul Anderson, Frederick Brown and a young Ray Bradbury, not to mention Brackett herself.
I'd first heard of Bennett's story thanks to a glowing review from Morgan Holmes over at the Castalia House blog, when he did a write up on the Planet Stories anthology. So glowing, in fact, that I shelled out $25 for a used copy just so I could read it myself.
As usual, Morgan didn't steer me wrong.
Folks, this novella is one of the very best MilSF tales ever written, and thanks to the fine folks over at Project Gutenberg, it's finally available in a free e-book edition. If you're even a casual fan of the genre, you owe it to yourselves to experience this wonderful, mostly forgotten classic.
I'm not the only one who thinks highly of this story. No less an authority than David Drake has expressed his admiration for this obscure tale, as outlined in this brilliant essay at Tor.com. Fair warning, Drake's essay does have a few spoilers. I'd recommend reading the story first, both so you can experience it "cold," and so you'll have a greater appreciation for Drake's insights. And make no mistake, Drake's observations about Bennett and what he successfully manages to convey in his classic short are well worth a read. Among other things, Drake makes some razor sharp points about the gallows humor of the combat soldier.
As for the story itself, it's an amazingly simple one, about a platoon of marooned Rocketeers who must fight their way back to a friendly base through hostile territory on a savage Venus. It's basically an SF-nal take on Xenophon's Anabasis, right down to the main action being relayed through the eyes of a junior officer.
For that reason, fans of Nick Cole and Jason Anspach's Legionnaire--the first book in the wonderful Galaxy's Edge series—will arguably find the most to enjoy here. It's a Golden Age SF take on the same themes they explored, with surprisingly little ground lost in the 67 years between each story's publication. "The Rocketeers Have Shaggy Ears" is the olive drab fatigues and steel pot to Legionnaire's Marpat and Kevlar. Sure, there's some differences in terminology and tech. But it's still recognizably a grunt's eye view of war in the future, told by someone who knows what that hell looks like right now.
And like Legionnaire, it isn't sugar-coated.
You can read and download "The Rocketeers Have Shaggy Ears" from project Gutenberg.
Earlier this week, the topic of classes in Dungeons & Dragons popped up in my Twitter feed again. More specifically, the question of whether or not the classes successfully represented fantasy archetypes.
Now, maybe in current editions—particularly the overstuffed and bland 5th edition—you could argue those classes don't represent much of anything. But in classic editions like OD&D? They absolutely do represent archetypes.
The Fighting-Man, the Magic-user and the Thief all have direct literary antecedents in the fiction that inspired the game. The Fighting-Man is none other than Edgar Rice Burroughs' Virginia fighting-man, John Carter. He's also Conan. He's also Eric John Stark. The Magic-User? Take your pick. He could be any of the magic-users from Jack Vance's Dying Earth. Or Harold Shea from The Compleat Enchanter. He could be Elric. Or Corwin. Thieves? Gary Gygax's Appendix N is lousy them, most notably the two best thieves in Lankhmar, Fritz Leiber's legendary Fafhrd and Gray Mouser.
The classes—the core classes at least—most certainly do represent archetypes. They're the archetypes of classic pulp fantasy.
What's more, those three archetypes—broadly speaking, the Strong Guy, the Mystic Guy, and the Sneaky Guy—represent just about every possible solution to a problem you could run into.
The only one missing is the Cleric.
Surely, the Cleric's design is just a function of pure game mechanics—a need to have a "healer" class to go delving with. It's not really archetypal at all, right?
Hold your horses.
The basic problem with assigning the Cleric a fantasy archetype like the other three is in looking to the same sources for its inspiration. But the Cleric doesn't have pulp fantasy roots. I'd argue his archetype is actually something much older and more primal than that.
In his wonderful video on dungeon theory-crafting, Dungeon Design and You, Mr. Wargaming outlined and explained some of the metaphysical and spiritual ideas surrounding the concept of "the Underworld," and how they apply to gaming.
Mr. Wargaming was, by his own admission, drawing on the work of other great gamers and thinkers on the subject, notably Jason Cone and his famous segment on "The Dungeon as Mythic Underworld" from Philotomy's Musings. But Mr. Wargaming's video is a much more succinct, accessible, and thorough discussion on the topic than anyone else has given to date, and if you haven't watched it yet, I'd highly encourage you to do so.
In brief, what Mr. Wargaming describes as "the Dungeon" or "the Underworld" isn't just a cave filled with kobold bandits. It's a place where the rules of reality itself are suspended the deeper you go, because you're getting farther from the light (sun) and the source of goodness, closer to the sources of Evil and Chaos.
The parallels with Hell and pandemonium are in no way coincidental.
So what does all this have to do with the Cleric?
Simply that if you think of the game in terms of the Mythic Underworld, Hell, and Chaos, the Cleric archetype is—quite literally—the opposite of all that. If Chaos, Hell, and a march toward Entropy are what define the Underworld, then Humanity, building greater creations, and adherence to the gods' Laws are what define the surface world. If that's so, then the Cleric as an archetype isn't just Humanity, it's a Humanity perfectly in touch with the Divine.
What's more, it's Humanity taking its faith in the Divine down into the dark places for a reckoning. It is the good, the holy, and the natural going down into the earth to cleanse the evil, the unholy, and unnatural. Parallels with Dante obviously spring to mind here. So does Jesus' harrowing of Hell. Not to mention much older things like the myth of Ishtar, descending from the world of natural laws, into the foreboding Underworld realm of her sister goddess Ereshkigal.
For those unfamiliar with the Ishtar myth, Ishtar passes through seven gates, each time removing an item of her regalia, in the end becoming naked and powerless, and having to trust the power of her own name as a goddess to guard her against her sister. It ends up being a mistake, but the point stands.
What can I say? Sometimes, you TPK or get captured...
The point is, this is a far older and far stronger archetype than anything in Sword & Sorcery fiction. We're talking the stuff of myth, legend, and religion here. We're talking about archetypes as old as the recorded word itself, if not as old as humanity.
The Cleric's Archetype is the Divine—and our faith in it—against the deep, dark Underworld, when all the other weapons we have are useless.
Though I don't entirely agree with everything the man wrote, there's a damn good reason that almost half of Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand faces describes a pattern in which the hero descends into an underworld. It's because these symbols are powerful, and hold powerful meanings around the world and across cultures. They're as close to hardwired into the human mind as anything can be.
Admittedly, all this is heavy stuff for a game of make-believe about Elves and Goblins. You may wonder why it's worth even adding this stuff in. But what guys like Jason Cone, Mr. Wargaming, and I are pointing out is that you're not really adding it in. This stuff has been there all along, just beneath the surface. You just need to know where to look.
Start by playing a Cleric.
It will all unfold naturally from there.
In case you missed it, I was invited to write a guest blog over at DMR Books earlier this week. The subject was A. Merritt's incomparable proto-Sword & Sorcery novel The Ship of Ishtar, but the larger topic was the idea of "adult" fantasy, and how it's far bigger and more meaningful than just violence, sex, and swearing.
You can read the whole thing here.
DMR has actually honored me by asking me to participate in their annual Guest Bloggeramma event for three years running now. It's always both humbling and exciting to be included among the talent Dave Ritzlin and Deuce Richardson gather up each January. The writers they invite are some of the very best essayists and fictioneers in the pulp and Sword & Sorcery fields, and getting to throw my $.02 in alongside them is just as big a thrill as seeing what they have to offer every year.
For completeness' sake, (and on the off chance any readers here missed them the first time around) here are links to my other two articles.
The first is 2020's, which was a deep dive into the hidden history of John Bloodstone's novel Thundar: Man of Two Worlds. Read it here.
The second is from 2019, which was a comparison and retrospective of Robert E. Howard's two stories about the 1014 battle that ended Viking rule in Ireland, "The Grey God Passes" and "Spears of Clontarf." Read it here.
New voices in Cosmic Horror are a dime a dozen. Unfortunately, good new voices in Cosmic Horror are just a bit harder to come by. All too often, the writer takes the tract of "just add tentacles" with no real understanding of what makes a Cosmic Horror story actually work, let alone any inkling of how early writers of the form like Lovecraft and Smith used baroque language and Gothic imagery to build atmosphere.
Which is why I was so happy to finally get my hands on an early review copy of Matthew Pungitore's new collection, The Report of Mr. Charles Aalmers. This slim little collection offers up tales of madness, horror, and existential dread alongside the occasional moment of haunting, gothic beauty. And it's all told in a florid style, one newer writers mostly seem to have forgotten how to use effectively.
Readers, I'm here to tell you that Pungitore hasn't. If you've been looking for a writer whose prose style falls somewhere between that of Poe, Lovecraft, and Smith, Pungitore might just be the man to scratch that itch.
But what about the subject matter?
Well, if you want some idea whether or not this book is for you, there's a line in the title story that that offers a perfect litmus test. How you feel about the following sentence is more or less how you're going to feel about the book:
"Humans were never meant to plumb reality without nepenthean delusion afore their minds."
That line, both similar in subject to, yet stylistically different from Lovecraft's more famous "The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents," pretty much perfectly encapsulates everything Pungitore is trying to do here. He's dealing with the same themes of Cosmic Horror, but he's doing it in his own unique voice, one much more influenced by older Gothic writers.
That said, this book is no simple Lovecraft pastiche. You won't find any of the Gent From Providence's Old Ones or Elder Gods, nor any mention of the Necronomicon. Pungitore, instead, has done the much harder work of creating his own interlocking mythos in these tales, subtle call backs and references to Abbeys, characters, and events that may or may not have happened in the characters' consensus reality.
That's an achievement in itself, and one that far too many "new weird" writers would shy away from even trying at this stage in their careers. Especially when low-hanging fruit like shoggoths, Cthulhu, and Nyarlathotep are all right there.
So why am I putting this under "Conservative Culture Review," instead of just doing a simple review column? The answer is in the way Pungitore handles religion, which is something I honestly believe sets him apart from just about anyone else writing this sub-genre right now.
The characters in many of these tales are God-fearing, often Catholic folks. As such, when they're confronted with the idea their belief system didn't account for the cosmic horrors and alien gods they encounter in the forgotten corners of the Earth, they don't react as "men of science" clinically describing the breaking of their own minds.
They react like men of faith, literally "losing their religion" in the face of a greater devil than the one they were taught to guard against by the church fathers. In other words, Pungitore took Cosmic Horror, re-examined it through the eyes of the devout, and used that lens to make it feel scary again.
After decades of snarking, cynical takes on the subject, Pungitore's refreshingly straight example of what Cosmic Horror can actually be is just the shot in the arm the genre desperately needed.
If you're a reader of Cosmic Horror, buy this book. Experiencing these stories through the eyes of Pungitore's characters will give you the same kind of thrill you had the first time you discovered the genre.
If you're a writer of Cosmic Horror, buy it, read it, but more importantly, pay attention. Pungitore has found one of the keys to making the genre work again, and he's applying it in a way that feels damn near effortless here.
With all this crowing about how impressed I am with Pungitore's ability to create atmosphere, build his own mythos, and make a tired genre feel scary again, I should probably say something about the stories. All 11 of the tales on hand were solid, entertaining reads, but the following ones left the strongest impressions.
The title story is the clear standout of the collection. It's a multi-layered tale about a Medievalist, his unrequited love for a working partner, and their discovery of a previously unknown chapter of Arthurian Myth with sinister implications. The middle section of this tale, in which the narrator recounts the lost myth, has an entirely different feel to the rest, one that strongly recalls Lord Dunsany's lyrical fantasies. The story's smooth tonal shift from Lovecraftian search for lost knowledge, to whimsical fantasy, back to Lovecraftian-style search, demonstrates an awesome level of skill on Pungitore's part. In lesser hands, this "story within a story" device would be jarring. Here, it just accomplishes the intended purpose of making the world feel older, richer, and far stranger than the narrator previously believed.
"Black Torque Demon" is a tale of knightly valor, honor, and love, centering around a quest to lift an ancient curse. The order of the Black Torque Knights gives aid to lepers, pilgrims, and wounded vagrants. Sir Goswin vows to accompany his betrothed, the Lady Adelaide, to pray with them and work alongside them, a holy act which will lift the decades-old curse on her family. But curses don't go away so easily. Another great stand-out tale in the book.
"Idyll for an Allhallowtide Masque and Romance" is another almost Dunsanian tale, the story of a midnight dance with a mysterious masked stranger in the Massachusetts woods that leads to the classical Other-world of myths and legends.
"O Tumult Unearthly" is one of the two overtly Science Fictional pieces in this collection, taking place in the year 2642. The narrator is the sole survivor of a starship wreck, one rescued by a crew of mercenaries. He relates the nightmarish things he experienced, both before and after the crash. The visions of the future Pungitore presents here are downright hellish. Fans of the film Event Horizon will find a lot to like here.
"Jade Gorget Hex" is a story where Pungitore flexes a slightly more hard-boiled pulp influence. That said, it's still recognizably a part of this collection. The gothic atmosphere and baroque language are still front and center in this tale of a mercenary hired to recover an ancient artifact in some unspecified, cyberpunk-ish near future. Delightfully weird.
All in all, I recommend this collection to fans of Cosmic Horror, classic weird tales, and Gothic-infused fiction. Pungitore is a stylist who "gets it" when it comes to creating an effective mood on the page. Furthermore, he actually has the confidence to play the tropes of the genre dead straight. No winking at the audience, no subversions, no "too-clever-by half" takes. Just good, old fashioned horror tales, like the kind Grandpa H. P. & Great Uncle Clark Ashton used to make.
If that's not deserving of your attention at the beginning of 2021, I don't know what is.
The Report of Mr. Charles Aalmers will be released in paperback and ebook on March 21. You can preorder it here.
Last week, I took some random Twitter dumbass to task for mocking the idea conservatives have a culture. That post wasn't just meant as a "point and laugh" moment, however. I also wanted to highlight and call attention to some conservative works in my own little neck of the arts, SF and Fantasy. To that end, I included a list of writers and publishers who adhere to a couple of basic principles, ones that conservative readers I've talked to tend to value highly:
Admittedly, that last one is likely due to a heavy dose of selection bias, as I tend to run in Pulp circles these days. On the other hand, what else are all these "subversive" takes in mainstream entertainment attacking, if not those first two points?
Anyway, I don't plan to rehash that post here. I'm putting my money where my mouth is in regards to highlighting conservative works in the genre, so this is the first in a series of reviews. First up is Singaporean author and Hugo and Dragon-Award nominee, Kit Sun Cheah, with the first volume of his Dungeon Samurai trilogy, Kamikaze.
Kamikaze begins in a dojo in modern-day Japan, where 19 year old Yamada, his best friend Hiroshi, and their fellow students are studying traditional sword arts. Cheah doesn't wait to kick the story off, as by the end of the chapter, a demonic entity has whisked the entire class off to another world, a place resembling a small island.
The demon, Yamada learns, has summoned people from various times and places in history for its own entertainment, and it's been doing so for some time. The demon's terms are simple: it is waiting at the bottom level of a dungeon. As soon as the people get there and kill him, they are free to go.
Unfortunately, it hasn't been an easy task. At the humans' Roman Army-like encampment, Yamada learns the operation to clear and take territory in the dungeon has been a years' long process, and they aren't even close to the bottom yet. Hundreds have died, and each time the numbers dwindled, the demon has gleefully offered to summon more "replacements" from Earth, the latest batch of which includes Yamada and Hiroshi.
After being appraised of the situation, Yamada and the rest of the new arrivals are also hit with the harsh truth: food supplies on the island are limited, and no one in the camp eats unless they pitch in and help with their assigned tasks, be it support, medicine, or fighting. In other words, they're all being drafted into the war against the demon. As the title suggests, Yamada and Hiroshi are selected for service as dungeon delvers, their martial arts experience being the single most valuable thing either brings to the community.
All this is really just the first few chapters' worth of set up, which Cheah gets out of the way skillfully and efficiently, so the reader can enjoy the main show. The bulk of the book is a richly-detailed military fantasy, albeit one that takes place in an RPG-inspired world. It's a blend that works wonderfully. Instead of the usual gaming tropes of adventurer's guilds and grinding for XP, we get a host of tropes swiped from MilSF, like a realistic boot camp sequence, war as boredom-punctuated-by-terror, and the importance of espirit de corps and morale in a combat zone.
Cheah has called Dungeon Samurai the "Anti-LitRPG," and it's easy to see why. Contrary to most of the genre, his heroes don't begin with super powers, and never get overpowered at all. This is dungeon-delving from the grunt's eye view, not from the video game super hero's.
In that sense, it reflects a traditional, old-school value set the rest of the LitRPG subgenre seems to lack. Yamada and his classmates aren't video game addicted shut-ins, suddenly given a chance to play out some power fantasy. They're hard-working athletes, boys who know the value of sweat-equity, discipline and teamwork. Moreover, the situation they're caught in reinforces the need for these values as a survival trait. Their new community is depending on these boys to quickly become strong men, and Yamada and Hiroshi are eager to prove themselves up to the task.
Religion is also an important part of Dungeon Samurai, and not just in the standard "Cleric-class as healers" trope found in most game-inspired fiction. Cheah's characters are men and women ripped from their daily lives, and dropped into unimaginable hardship. Add to that the very real and tangible evil of the demon--something the modern characters like Yamada thought of as imaginary before the story opened--and their faith is all they really have to keep them going.
What I want to call special attention to is the realistic and subtle way Cheah handles it. The struggle to take the dungeon is a slog, like any long military campaign, and Cheah uses the quiet moments in between operations to explore how each of his characters acclimates to his new situation. Primarily, we experience the island through our viewpoint protagonist Yamada and his Shinto faith. But we also get hints about Christian Hiroshi, whose faith makes him sort of an odd-man-out during downtime sequences. He spends religious services with the Westerners in camp, and Hiroshi sees less and less of him when they're not on missions. That said, neither man ever treats the other as anything less than a blood brother. It's a realistic depiction of how clashing faiths, but close relationships, play out in a combat zone.
The other important relationship in Yamada's life is his blossoming friendship--and possibly romance--with young shrine maiden, Katsura. She represents something of a break from the regimented, militaristic life Yamada has found himself in, a small breath of normality in a truly abnormal world. Their relationship is sweet, chaste, and courtly--genuinely not the kind of thing you see much of in mainstream fiction these days.
The battle scenes are well-drawn and exciting, and Cheah's vision of what military life would be like in a game-inspired universe is worth the price of admission alone. It's LitRPG with a layer of trail mud, blisters, and the sore and aching soldiers only an infantryman could appreciate. He's also made it much tougher for me to take the rest of the genre seriously, even as light entertainment. I keep imagining how the average isekai or LitRPG protagonist would fare dropped into the FOB of Cheah's dungeon, with a squad running patrol Ops in the harsh, unforgiving dark. The answer isn't usually good.
Bottom line, Cheah has written a book that's sure to appeal to gamers of all stripes, be it Old School D&D players, console-era players, or modern MMORPG fans. What's more, he's brought back a sense of tactical and strategic thinking to dungeon delving, and married it to his knowledge of real-life martial arts and combat. The result is the single most refreshingly original isekai or LitRPG published in the genre in years, and I'm mad I slept on it for over a year before reading it.
Kamikaze is available in e-book and paperback from Amazon. It has two sequels, Kama no Kishi and Seisen. If you're last-minute shopping for the gamer in your life, there's still time to get the entire trilogy in hardcopy before Christmas.
Take my word for it. They'll be happy you did.
I'm an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer based out of North Carolina. This is where I scream into the digital void. I like cookies.