Monday, June 28, 2021

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Pit of Wings

Ramsey Campbell is generally called a horror writer, because he was deeply influenced by the work of H.P. Lovecraft, whom he first read at a young age. So enamored was he of HPL's tales that he wrote his own pastiches of them as a teenager. He submitted some of them to Arkham House for publication, where they caught the attention of August Derleth. Derleth was impressed with young man's abilities but rejected his submissions, advising him to rework them into stories set in Campbell's native Britain rather than in Lovecaft's New England (if only Derleth had followed his own advice). Campbell did as directed, leading to the publication of The Inhabitant of the Lake and Less Welcome Tenants in 1964 at the age of eighteen. 

Though the bulk of his work can be called "horror," Campbell has also written a number of fantasy stories featuring the swordsman Ryre. One of these, "The Pit of Wings," appeared in the third anthology in Andrew J. Offutt's Swords Against Darkness series. The series as a whole is well regarded for its inclusion of so many excellent sword-and-sorcery tales, but volume three holds particular interest for roleplayers, as it's singled out by Gary Gygax's list of inspirational and educational reading in Appendix N of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide. Precisely why Gygax included only the third volume of the series and not the previous two already available at the time remains a matter of debate among those with an interest in such things. 

What's not up for debate, though, is whether Campbell was as good a writer of fantasy as he was of horror. "The Pit of Wings" begins with Ryre traveling by horseback when arrives outside the port town of Gaxonoi. He sees laves, chained and obviously mistreated by their captors, hard at work along the road. 

Ryre hated slavery as only a man who has been enslaved can. Fury parched his throat. Yet he could not fight a town, or its customs, however deplorable.

He elects to ride past the town but cannot do so without a look of obvious distaste growing across his face. One of the slave-drivers notices Ryre "glare of contempt" and counsels him.

"Yes, ride on, unless you're seeking honest toil. We've a place for you, and chains to fit." His slow voice was viciously caressing as a whip. As he gazed up at Ryre, he licked his lips.

Ryre's grin was leisurely and mirthless. Though he could not battle slavery, he would enjoy responding to this challenge. He stared at the man as though peering beneath a stone. "Ridding the world of vermin? Yes, I'd call that honest."

The man's tongue flickered like a snake's. His smile twitched, as did his hand: nervous, or beckoning for reinforcements? "What kind of swordsman is it who lets his words fight for him?" he demanded harshly.

"No man fights with vermin. He crushes them." 

Despite the growing tension, a fight does not break out between Ryre and the slavers – yet. Instead, they allow him to enter Gaxonoi, where he makes his way down toward its docks. There, he enters a tavern and quickly gets the sense that something is odd about the town and its inhabitants. He later learns just what that is: a procession of cowled figures was making its way amidst the wharves.

Their robes were pale as fungus. They emerged two by two from a wide dark street at the edge of the dock. The slow pallid emergence reminded Ryre of worms dropping from a gap. There seemed to be no end to the procession; surely it would fill the wharf.

Despite its size, the procession was unnervingly silent. A distant flapping could be heard. There was violence amid the ceremony: figures struggling desperately but mutely, which seemed to hover in the air among their robed captors. Ryre distinguished that the victims were bound and gagged, and kept aloft by taut ropes held by robed men. The sight made him think of insects in a web.

 As they get closer, Ryre recognizes one of the cowled men as the slave-driver who'd taunted him earlier. This time, the swordsman is unwilling to stay his anger and a melee ensues, one that sees Ryre not only defeated but left alive so that he too could witness whatever it was that these robed figures planned to do with their captives. Needless to say, it's nothing pleasant and Ryre must find a way to free himself and possibly the others before they all die horrifically.

Like the best sword-and-sorcery yarns, "The Pit of Wings" is short and its action moves quickly. Ryre himself is not particularly memorable as a character; he's a fairly typical pulp fantasy warrior in most respects, certainly nothing special when compared to the likes of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser or Conan. Yet, Campbell's experience as a horror writer serves him well here, elevating the story with his command of rising suspense and hidden menace. Gaxonoi is a genuinely creepy place and the reader can feel Ryre's growing anxiety, which builds throughout the second part of the story until it reaches its unnerving climax – a compelling little story, better than most fare of its kind.


  1. "...advising him to rework them into stories set in Campbell's native Britain rather than in Lovecaft's New England (if only Derleth had followed his own advice)"

    Well, that got a spit-take from me. Coffee everywhere, damn you. :)

  2. I've always enjoyed Campbell's work and now I understand that DMR Books has bought the rights to publish all of his Ryre stories in one volume. Good news.

    1. That's good to hear. DMR Books is doing some excellent work.

    2. Hadn't seen that. Will have to keep an eye out for that one.

    3. Details here...

      (looking forward to this)

    4. Tasteful cover. Is that the original or the forthcoming reissue?

      I wondered if they would include “Madness from The Vaults”. It’s not actually a Ryre story but an early work of Campbell’s set on the same world of Tond.

    5. That's the original cover of the Necronomicon Press edition, but I intend to use the same artwork for the reprint. And yes, "A Madness from the Vaults" will be included this time around.

      --D.M. Ritzlin

  3. What a coincidence, I just read this for the first time in the [Appendix N anthology]( last night.

    Campbell’s roots in horror make this more of a survival story than the volume’s other tales of towns stalked by nighttime terrors. But it’s a little weak in explaining why the townsfolk feed and supplicate these creatures instead of just locking themselves up at night. Evil slavers can simply torture their victims; they don’t need undead things to do their work.

    You should review Dave Madison’s entry, “Tower of Darkness”, from Swords and Darkness III. To me, that is superior in all respects.

    1. I see my stab at markdown failed. Is there a format that works in the comments?

    2. I put things in <> like this in order to get italics or bold. I assume that would work for similar things?