Monday, July 5, 2010

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Maze of Peril

As I've noted on this blog before, Dr. J. Eric Holmes, better known as the editor for first Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, also had a career as a fantasy novelist. Writing under the name of John Eric Holmes (his full given name), he penned several pastiches, including an unfinished Conan one -- "Conan on the River of Doom," it was to be called, I believe -- but these were far from his only literary output. Throughout the 1970s, he wrote a series of loosely connected short stories that appeared in the pages of Alarums & Excursions and Dragon. These stories were all, to varying degrees, derived from Holmes's home D&D campaign and reading them provides many insights both into Holmes's personal take on the game and on the early culture of the hobby.

Holmes's short stories don't form a true serial. That is, characters change from story to story and plots are self-contained. Nevertheless, they all seem to take place within the same "world," one that ought to be familiar to fans of the Holmes-edited Basic Set, as there are multiple points of contact between the implied world of the Basic Set's rulebook and what's presented in his short stories. So there's a Green Dragon Inn, weresharks, centaur PCs, and so on -- all things Holmes mentions in passing in his rulebook and that appear to derive from his home campaign.

The Maze of Peril was published in 1986 by a small publisher in New York (from whom copies can still be ordered here, so far as I know). Though longer than any of Holmes's short stories by a wide margin, it's still only 147 pages in length, making it quite small by the standards of today's neverending fantasy epics. It concerns two characters previously mentioned in several of Holmes's short stories, a halfling named Boinger and an elf named Zereth (named Xoreth in an earlier story). The names of these characters alone set the tone for The Maze of Peril: this is not a self-serious fantasy novel dealing with Important Issues™. Indeed, it could be uncharitably described as a work of "fan fiction," since it reads a bit like an imaginatively written report of a D&D campaign's events -- and for all I know could be just that!

But such a characterization, while perhaps closer to the truth than we may wish to acknowledge, is also somewhat unfair. The Maze of Peril is a fun little novel. It tells the story of Boinger and Zereth's adventures into the underworld near the seaside settlement of Caladan (Porttown of the Basic Rules) and the consequences of their actions while there. It's absolutely filled with old school D&D goodness, from hiring mercenaries to accompany them to iconic monsters to using trickery, clever stratagems, and just plain running away to avoid death. Reading through it, you get a real sense of what many early D&D campaigns must have been like, right down to quirky creativity of individual referees who allowed centaurs to be PCs or saw nothing at all odd about dropping Latin-speaking Christian clerics into a vague fantasy world derived from a mishmash of Howard, Tolkien, Lovecraft, and whatever other ideas could be conveniently pillaged from nearby fantasy and science fiction novels.

I won't say that The Maze of Peril is a fantasy novel for the ages. Its primary sources of interest are its author, the remarkable J. Eric Holmes, and the way it presents evidence, in literary form, of what at least one early Dungeons & Dragons campaign might have been like. For those of us who admire Dr. Holmes and who have an interest in the early history of the hobby, the novel is a gold mine of information. It's also eminently readable, which, despite its other failings, puts it head and shoulders above many "real" fantasy novels published over the last thirty years. If you come across a copy, please do pick it up and give it a go; it won't take you long and you'll likely have learned a few things in the process.

11 comments:

  1. I picked up three copies last year from Time and Space, so yes, they still have copies. It took them a while to get to me, so don't expect Amazon-like efficiency for the shipping.

    I got about halfway through it and gave up on it. I am not a fantasy reader in general (I am more apt to read a tech manual or cyberpunk than a fantasy story), though, and if you're not either it's not likely to be the page turner you'd expect.

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  2. I bought and read this a few years back. I won't say it's particularly well written, but it's fun. It definitely read to me like a story version of a series of game sessions. Partly I think this is because the characters' actions and motivations felt very much like the game D&D and totally unlike the various D&D novels (Dragonlance, FR, etc.). I guess what I mean is that there really isn't an effort to get deep into the psyche of these characters. A buddy dies, everyone loots his body and they move on. I found it kind of refreshing in this way too. Certainly worth a read. Maybe I'll even read it again now that it's been a while.

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  3. I have JEH's Mahar's of Pellucidar on my reading list. Maybe I'll give it a try.

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  4. I really enjoy Holmes's work for the reason you pointed out; They feel like game reports of a good D&D game. The terror bird attack from Red Axe of Pellucidar is a great example. It's one of my favorite parts of the whole book, not because it was well written nor particularly suspenseful, but because the event reads like a Random Encounter.

    I ran a tribute game based on Mahars of Pellucidar last month that ran well enough I'm been trying to find time to run a sequel based on Red Axe some time after my wedding in a few weeks.. Maybe after words I'll base a game on or Mordred (Sadly I haven't read Maze of Peril yet.)

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  6. Some of the episodes in The Maze of Peril appeared as short stories in the Alarums & Excursions zine, with at least one of them containing D&D terminology. I seem to remember there are some such terms in the novel itself. This makes it fairly certain in my mind that much of the book is based on actual game sessions, which makes the book a great insight into the way Holmes played D&D.

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  7. Holmes wrote three Boinger / Zereth stories for Dragon Magazine, "Trollshead", "The Soceror's Jewel", and "In the Bag". I enjoyed the last one so much when I was a kid I created a halfling thief character named Boinger. Anyone know how I can get my hands on the Holmes stories printed in "Alarums and Excursions"?

    "Maze of Peril" – no masterpiece – was clearly influenced by the humorous fantasies of L. Sprague de Camp. My personal copy of Holmes' "Fantasy Role-Playing Games" is inscribed "Nov. 1983. For the de Camps – L. Sprague and Catherine, in thanks for the many, many enjoyable hours they have given me over the years. John Eric Homes MD." Cool, huh?

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  8. Since I enjoy reading write-ups of gaming sessions, this should fit right in ;)

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  9. Though longer than any of Holmes's short stories by a wide margin, it's still only 147 pages in length, making it quite small by the standards of today's neverending fantasy epics.

    Those were the days! Now, is any non-series fantasy being written? Anything under 250 pages?

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  10. I've been wanting to get my hands on this for several years now. I'll have to try an online retailer; I've given up trying to find it in a second-hand bookshop...

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  11. I'll have to try an online retailer

    Use the link James put in his blog post above, it's the publisher. I don't think you'll find anyone else who'll beat their price of $6.95, and that'll get you a brand new copy.

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