Rather than stretch the term "pulp fantasy" beyond the point of credulity, this week's literary post won't formally be part of my Pulp Fantasy Library series but rather a stand-alone musing. It was occasioned by my reading of several old interviews with Jack Vance in which he talked about the authors who most influenced him. Often, it's been claimed, not without plausibility, that Clark Ashton Smith was one of these influences, but I've never read anywhere in which Vance acknowledges such an influence. Instead, Vance has consistently named three (sometimes four) authors as his literary "mentors:" Jeffery Farnol, L. Frank Baum, and P.G. Wodehouse (with Burroughs being the fourth).
Of these influences, the one that stands out as the odd is P.G. Wodehouse. Baum wrote fantasies (as did Burroughs) and Farnol, though largely forgotten nowadays, was a popular writer of swashbuckling tales in the first half of the 20th century, so there's a clear connection to Vance's own work. But what of Wodehouse, a comic writer best known for having created the character of Reginald Jeeves, a gentleman's gentleman whose very name is now synonymous with knowledgeable and perspicacious manservants? What sort of influence could he have had over Vance?
I'm actually a devotee of Wodehouse, whose Jeeves stories I am now in the midst of re-reading (which is what occasioned this post). In doing so, the connection between the two writers has quickly become apparent. First and foremost, Wodehouse displays a remarkable facility with the English language, one that humorously combines sophisticated banter with the then-contemporary slang of London partygoers. The combination is often dizzying, taking some time to understand, but, once one gets the hang of it, Wodehouse's dialog reveals surprising depths. Reading the words of Cugel the Clever, you can hear echoes of Wodehouse. Wodehouse's characters likewise show many commonalities with those in Vance's works too. Whether they're foolish authority figures, puffed-up aristcrats, or zany eccentrics, many of them would, without too much effort, fit right into Vance's fantasy and science fiction tales.
Of course, Vance's tales have a decidedly "darker" edge to them. Their humor is often of a black sort and Vance's characters generally possess a venal streak beneath their buffoonery. Still, the influence is quite clear once you begin to look for it. I've amused myself while re-reading the Jeeves stories by picking out little bits of dialog that remind of something said in "The Dying Earth" stories. I fear that this practice has carried over into my gaming as well. My NPCs were always of a somewhat whimsical sort to begin with, but my immersion in Wodehouse these last few days has only stoked my whimsy further. The spoon-fancying priest of Typhon, Saidon, is probably one of my more Wodehousian creations and his reappearance in a recent Dwimmermount session gave me the opportunity to indulge myself yet again.
Wodehouse, like Vance, is likely an acquired taste and I can sympathize with anyone who doesn't find his writing as appealing as I do. Still, if you like well crafted dialog and eccentric characters, you could do worse than reading a story or two by the man. If nothing else, you might end up, as I did, naming an alchemist Marmaduke and enjoying the look on your players' faces when you first say the name to them.