Monday, August 31, 2009

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Shadow People

When one looks at the list of authors Gary Gygax assembled in Appendix N, chances are good that most of the names at least are familiar, even if one hasn't read the particular stories associated with them. They're a veritable who's who of pre-1970s fantasy and science fiction, writers whose works formed the canon of these genres. A notable exception is Margaret St. Clair, one of only two women on the list -- the other being Leigh Brackett -- and one whose name was utterly unknown to me, never mind her novels.

When I was a younger man, I had no trouble getting hold of books by Howard or Merritt or Leiber, so I devoured those and promptly forgot about St. Clair and her 1969 novel The Shadow People. It wasn't until years later that I actually came across a copy of it in a used book store and picked it up on a whim. I dimly recalled the name and figured it might be worth reading if Gary considered it an inspiration on AD&D.

I'm glad I did so, because, whatever its shortcomings as a novel, it's one that (I think) gives some insight into the origin of everyone's favorite dark elves, the drow. The Shadow People is about human beings stumbling upon the dark fairy world that exist just behind the walls of certain places in the world, where twisted, emaciated elves lay in wait, plotting the downfall of the world above. Addicted to hallucinogenic fungi, their plots often go awry thanks to their penchant for treachery against their own kind, a trait that has probably saved humanity far more than outright heroics against the dark elves.

It's hard not to see the drow in St. Clair's dark elves, but perhaps I'm simply projecting them backward in time. After all, part of the drow's appeal is how archetypal they are. They draw so brilliantly on centuries of myths and legends about dark elves while having their own unique spin that they seem exactly as our subconscious would imagine them to be. St. Clair's dark elves have similar qualities, though they are a bit more explicitly mythical than are the drow, right down to their use of the hallucinogenic fungi to lure human beings into their own surreal kingdom.

I can certainly see why Gygax found the book so attractive. He had a great love for creepy fairy realms, something that reached its fullest flower in his post-D&D games, Mythus and Lejendary Adventure. The Shadow People is well written and enjoyable as a story in its own right, but I found it particularly useful for its presentation of another take on dark elves. I found myself with plenty of great ideas to swipe for my Dwimmermount campaign and I suspect I won't be the only referee mining St. Clair's novel in this way.

12 comments:

  1. James,
    --Thank you. I'll have to track down a copy.

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  2. Funny, I was just talking about this book a couple days ago in a thread at K&K Alehouse about rations in D&D. I agree with pretty much everything in this review, with the caveat that the plot takes a significant left-turn about halfway through that might not be to everyone's tastes.

    Also, another fun D&D-related trivia tidbit about Margaret St. Clair: under the pseudonym Idris Seabright she wrote a Dunsany-pastiche story called "The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles" that Gygax credited as the direction inspiration for D&D gnolls (as opposed to the more commonly assumed "How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art Upon the Gnoles," by Dunsany himself).

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  3. Andre Norton is a woman, so there are three female authors in Appendix N.

    I always thought C. L. Moore was in Appendix N too, but she isn't. She ought to be! And some people might think Marion Zimmer Bradley should be there as well.

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  4. I was just going to chime in with Andre Norton, too.

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  5. Thanks for that tidbit about the Dunsany pastiche, Trent!

    A worthy project would be to produce an annotated Appendix N (or even an expanded Appendix N to include CAS and others not listed, and to include the version from TD#4 [IIRC]), to suss out and catalog all of these various influences from the fictions into the game.

    Anyone know if something like that has been done yet?

    Allan.

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  6. What's your take on Changeling: The Lost? Have you seen the 4e Manual of the Planes, with its lengthy Celtic-myth-flavoured treatment of the 4e eladrin, aka high elves (which incorporate plenty of drow flavour)? For that matter, have you read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (Clarke) or Faerie Tale (Feist)? I ask because in the early 21st century it's no longer necessary to endure mid-20C pulp trash (Gygax included) to get your fix of dark mythic faerie worlds.

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  7. Wally:
    "...in the early 21st century it's no longer necessary to endure mid-20C pulp trash (Gygax included)..."

    Stop ruining our fun.

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  8. I ask because in the early 21st century it's no longer necessary to endure mid-20C pulp trash (Gygax included) to get your fix of dark mythic faerie worlds.

    Try rephrasing your questions in a more polite fashion and I might consider answering them.

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  9. How could I have mistaken Norton for a man? The shame ...

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  10. A worthy project would be to produce an annotated Appendix N (or even an expanded Appendix N to include CAS and others not listed, and to include the version from TD#4 [IIRC]), to suss out and catalog all of these various influences from the fictions into the game.

    Anyone know if something like that has been done yet?


    Kellri has done this, or at least made a start of it, with his "Old School Reading List 2008" pdf.

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  11. He had a great love for creepy fairy realms, something that reached its fullest flower in his post-D&D games, Mythus and Lejendary Adventure.

    Since I share the same love, what in particular should I look for in these things? I' must admit I rather steered clear of them.

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  12. Matthew,

    There was Epic of Aerth for Mythus, but it's hard to find and expensive to boot. I don't know the supplements for LJ nearly as well and I'm relying on things Gary said to me and online for an understanding of its treatment of fairy creatures. Supposedly, the whole LJ line will be carried by Mongoose, but I haven't seen any word on that front in many months.

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