|... if you didn't
know better, you wouldn't be able to believe his bestseller and
the other seven were written by the same man.
|-- The Wounded Land|
I love books. My vision of paradise includes a room filled
wall to wall with books ... including a bunch by the following
authors who like Stephen Donaldson have written some incredible
J.R.R. Tolkien. Okay, this is a gimme. Tolkien crafted the most loved, enduring fantasy stories in the English language. My personal favorite (or 'favourite' as the Professor might've said) is the Silmarillion, though I understand a lot of Tolkien fans don't like it compared to the Lord of the Rings or the Hobbit. He also wrote some spiffy poetry.
Clark Ashton Smith. Possibly the best fantasy author you never heard of, he was a colleague of H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, August Derleth and other greats of the 20s and 30s. I chalk up his relative obscurity to the fact he didn't publish book-length stories and his imagination encompassed so many fantastique locales and characters they could only be imprecisely clumped together into categories like Xiccarph, Hyperborea and Zothique. His imagination soared to amazing heights and plunged to depraved depths; his monarchs are often petty and jaded, his sorcerors typically revel in necromancy and the wildlife -- flora and fauna both -- is usually predatory. To an even greater extent than Donaldson, the entirely self-educated Smith drenched his works with obscure, cryptic or polymorphed words and phrases to establish a mystical, ancient-feeling atmosphere. Like Robert E. Howard, Smith wrote powerful poetry. Fortunately a nice guy put together a web site called Eldritch Dark with just about everything CAS ever wrote, and a section for original works by admirers (including humble me). Smith's sections are worth many repeat visits.
Robert E. Howard. Poor guy, so many folks are turned off to his work after seeing an abortion like the "Conan the Destroyer" movie or reading a Lin Carter / L. Sprague de Camp / Andrew Offutt / [insert no-talent author's name here] Conan pastiche. The Conan stories authored by Howard himself are among the most dynamic written works in literature. He didn't write to explore human neuroses, craft intricate plots, or develop well-rounded characters. He wrote (for a cent or two a word) to thrill and enthrall the reader in a welter of straight up savage swordplay and sorcery unfolding at breakneck speed, and he succeeds wildly. Howard garnered fame as a pulp magazine contributor and penned prolifically in a wide variety of genres including mysteries, horror, westerns, (sometimes comedic) pugilism, softcore erotica (how innocent they were back then!), tall tales, poetry and my favorite ... fantasy based on historical events, peoples or locales. Robert E. Howard was a darkly powerful poet whose verse reverberates with unusual passion and intensity and rhymes with the same economical grace as the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe or Rudyard Kipling. Believe it or not, Conan isn't even close to his most interesting hero. Try reading Swords of Sharazar, The Sowers of the Thunder, Marchers of Valhalla, The Road of Azrael, Solomon Kane or the especially haunting short story The Grey God Passes and see if you don't agree.
Karl Edward Wagner. The tales of the curse-haunted swordsman/sorcerer Kane can be thought of as grimmer versions of Robert E. Howard's stories ... and by anyone's standards, Howard wasn't particularly sunny and light. Where Conan, Kull or Gordon Sullivan might win the battle and ride off into the sunset with a voluptuous woman and saddlebags crammed with loot, Kane would more likely limp into the moonless dark bleeding from a dozen wounds with savage foes close on his heels. Wagner also wrote the only decent Conan knock-off I've ever read, titled Conan: the Road of Kings. If you prefer Stephen R. Donaldson to Tolkien and are looking for short stories and even shorter poetry instead of novel-length books, you may very well enjoy Karl Edward Wagner's brand of fantasy, including Death Angel's Shadow, Darkness Weaves (With Many Shades), Night Winds and Dark Crusade. As you might guess from the titles, these books will not be making an appearance on Oprah's book list any time soon!
Jack Vance. Like Clark Ashton Smith, Jack Vance created highly distinctive fantasy realms populated with all manner of interesting, unique and often humorous protagonists, antagonists and monsters. I can't recommend The Dying Earth highly enough and certainly Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel's Saga and Rhialto the Magnificent are worth your while.
Fritz Leiber. Fritz Leiber wrote a lot of science fiction but he'll always have a treasured place in my personal library because of the adventures of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser in and out of the magical land of Newhon. They have to be the greatest (and funniest, and most peculiarly salacious) sword-swinging duo I've ever encountered. I forget exactly which of the five or six F+GM books comes first but they're slight variations on the "Swords Against" theme such as Swords Against Death, Swords Against Deviltry, Swords in the Mist, etc. Look for the one with the short story "Ill Met in Lankhmar" in it. I'll never forget the hilarious episode where Fafhrd finds religion (sort of), the separate but equally terrible rat and bird infestations of Lankhmar, their grim journey to the Bleak Shore, their epic mountaineering adventure up Stardock, their dreamy exploration of the underwater kingdom, or the fantastic subterrene city of Quarmal. I'll be re-reading Fritz Leiber's delightful stories until I grow old and die.
Barry Hughart. You're probably asking Barry who? Beg, borrow or steal a copy of Bridge of Birds and you'll start asking where the heck you can find the rest of his books ... a feat in itself nearly as difficult as recovering the heart of the Great Root of Power -- apparently thanks to a truly dumb-ass publishing company. He writes of a China that never was but should have been (or maybe not), with buffoonish yet humane heroes charging off on unlikely mythic quests against and among a chaotic panoply of bizarre, sublime, infuriating, endearing, horrifying and comic characters (sometimes all in one). I've never read another author who could blend such a literary jambalaya in one book and make it work. One minute I'm rolling on the floor laughing, ten minutes later I'm crying and half an hour after that I'm scared shitless. To quote Anne McCaffrey, "Li Kao may have a slight flaw in his character but this book has none. I recommend it unconditionally ..." Me too. How something this damn good remains unknown to the general public is beyond me.
Michael Moorcock. One word ... Elric.
Glen Cook. Here's an author who pumps out a new book about every six months, Lord bless him. His fantasy/gumshoe books about private investigator / ex Marine Garrett among elves, dwarves and red-headed babes require copious amounts of suspending your disbelief but are entertaining and frequently humorous. You can almost picture his wife picking up the manuscript and then leaning over to smack him upside the head. His best stuff however is the (apparently) neverending saga of The Black Company, starting with the book of the same name. Also not to be missed are The Tower of Fear and, for those of you who like your sword and sorcery creepy, The Iron Spike which is actually interrelated with the Black Company stories, set somewhere around the Company's near-annihalation and flight to the South.
Edgar Rice Burroughs. Man, how could I forget about this guy? He was one of the first authors I picked up in the library in grade school. Not because of Tarzan, but for the otherworldly tales of Barsoom (that's Mars to you 'n me) where valiant swordsmen battle inhuman foes for the love of incomparable red-skinned hotties. Say what you will about his "dated" outlook on sword and sorcery writing, I still rank him in the top ten of all time. His good guys are thoroughly good and chivalric, the baddies fit the adjective "dastardly" and his plots are so transparently contrived you never have to stretch your brain wondering how it's going to turn out (hint: good guys always win in the end). Despite the fact that every story E. R. B. ever wrote is basically the Same Damn Story, he radiates an innocent sense of wonder and adventure I find irresistable, and maybe you will too -- and it'd help if you're under sixteen. Start out with A Princess of Mars and the rest of the Barsoom tales; if you're double-lucky you'll scare up one of the books illustrated by the incomparable Frank Frazetta. If you're still hungry for more, try to locate the Carson of Venus series.