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Strange Shadows: Best Classic Fantasy

Link - article by Avi Abrams

Fantasy "Glitches in the Matrix"; Immense Stretches of Baroque Magical Lands; and more!

We wrote recently about epic space adventures here on Dark Roasted Blend, and now it's time to highlight the best examples of high fantasy and the "Unknown Worlds"-type of weird pulp tales. We are going to cover some rare and marvelous examples here, not as well-known as, say, J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle Earth, or C. S. Lewis' Narnia. Fortunately for those who are looking for pure and wondrous fantasy, there is enough lore and treasures to be found to keep one busy reading for months on end.

(illustrations by incomparable Sydney Sime, 1867–1941)

Shadows, clearly misbehaving!

The first really interesting example was not even published back in its day - it was perhaps intended for the "Weird Tales" magazine when it was written by legendary Clark Ashton Smith in 1940-1941 (it certainly has that special entertaining "weird pulp fiction" feel, plenty of good-natured humour and some appropriately sinister atmosphere). Not sure why it did not end up on pages of "Weird Tales" in the 1940s, but as we have it now, the story exists in three different versions - and in all of them human shadows have a ball mutating, morphing into independent creatures of half-light, mischief and very dubious intentions.

(left: art by Ian Miller; right: letter from Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, via)

Clark Ashton Smith
"I Am Your Shadow"
(also as "Strange Shadows")
© 1940-1941(Weird Tales)
Strange Shadows: The Uncollected Fiction and Essays of
Clark Ashton Smith, 1989, Greenwood Press
--/ fourth place fantasy story - DRB Best Fantasy Lists

I immensely enjoyed this tongue-in-cheek, perfect noir concoction, and highly recommend it to any fantasy fiction enthusiast as an example of the lighter side of Clark Ashton Smith's work. When he chooses to paint in dark tones, he lays it on really thick and there is enough morbidity to compete with the best of Edgar Allan Poe - but when he switches gears to Henry Kuttner's sort of humour (while retaining his trademark baroque, highly esoteric vocabulary and sophisticated style) - his fiction turns into a sort of treat that would be impossible to put down.

This story is available online for free, so read it here. As a bonus, you can read all three different versions of this story, tracing the development of characters and the evolution of the plot - catching a rare glimpse of a writer's kitchen.


(left: art by for "Night of Impossible Shadows" by Allison V. Harding, Weird Tales Sep 1945; right image: art by Hugh Rankin for "Shadows in the Moonlight" by Robert E. Howard, Weird Tales Apr 1934, via)

Allison V. Harding
"Night of Impossible Shadows"
© Weird Tales, Sep 1945

The next find is a story by an even more mysterious writer, so mysterious in fact, that even Internet Speculative Fiction Database gets it wrong about who this person really was. According to researcher Douglas A. Anderson, Allison V. Harding (who published quite a few stories in "Weird Tales" in the 1940s) was none other than Lamont Buchanan, the associate editor of "Weird Tales" himself. His stories are not known as masterpieces of fantasy, but they do posses that special quality of thick, 1930s weird pulp atmosphere, comparable to works by early Kuttner, or even early Fritz Leiber.

In this story the troublesome shadows again are misbehaving and acquiring the mind of their own, but in a more sinister way. If in Clark Ashton Smith's lighthearted urban environment they were cavorting and scheming around quirky and carefree, then here we have the heavy, ponderous, unspeakably vague shadows IN THE DARK WOODS. This is a great "cabin in the woods"-kind of scenario that would be exploited in many B-movies decades later. Now I have to hunt down more fiction by Allison V. Harding, which only exists within the pages of "Weird Tales" pulp and has never been anthologized, or printed anywhere else.


"Shadows Alive" are not the only glitches in the world's fabric. There are also... spelling errors!

Fredric Brown
"The Angelic Angleworm"
© Unknown Tales, Feb 1943
Angels and Spaceships, 1954

Fredric Brown has written a hilarious tale of the world unraveling slowly, thread-by-thread - sort of like an experience from the "Truman Show" - because somebody in charge messed up the world's script, or admitted some spelling errors into the everyday run of things. I especially enjoyed the novella's first chapters where our poor hapless hero encounters things like an inexplicable (and highly confused) duck (as in "duck, the bird") inside a locked museum glass case, or worms that float up into the sky without going to all that trouble of turning into butterflies first. Fredric Brown's work in the weird pulps during the 1940s is highly recommended, with stories like "Come and Go Mad" or "The Geezenstacks" - and these were heavily anthologized, so will not be hard find.


One of the First Crown Princes of High Fantasy

(right image credit: Sydney Sime via)

Lord Dunsany
"The Fortress Unvanquishable Save For Sacnoth"
© The Sword Of Welleran, 1908
--/ fourth place fantasy story - DRB Best Fantasy Lists

Some of the most intriguing and exciting examples of early high fantasy are the magical (and sweepingly mythical in a true Tolkien style) tales of Lord Dunsany, or Edward Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany - who quite appropriately lived all his life in an ancient castle (seen below, looming in the mist), with a beautiful lady who faithfully stood by his side throughout the years:

(Lady Dunsany, Beatrice Child Villiers - and the Dunsany Castle, via)

Speaking of Tolkien, the wealth of Dunsany's work (which is many books and more than a hundred tales) served as a powerful inspiration for Middle Earth, and not vice versa. The world of Lord Dunsany is wildly fantastic, inherently beautiful, even though painted in broad strokes, sketchily realized (due to the immensity of the canvas) but nevertheless a fully enchanting and addicting environment - which, once tasted, cannot be forgotten.

(illustrations by Sydney Sime via)

You can read some of the Lord Dunsany's stories for free at the Internet Archive: for example, the Book of Wonder. Gorgeous illustrations by Sydney Simes are a perfect fit for the fantastic beauty of Lord Dunsany's tales (and even early H.P. Lovecraft's epic fantasy efforts) - they are indeed epic in the best sense of this word:


More "Baroque Enchantment" than you can possibly consume in one sitting

H. P. Lovecraft
"The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath" (nv)
© 1926, original
Arkham Sampler, 1948

Beyond The Wall Of Sleep, 1943
At The Mountains Of Madness, 1968
--/ FIRST place fantasy novella - DRB Best Lists

Reading this novella was a peculiar experience - a dream, or rather a trance, with sights floating by, wonder upon wonder, written in ornate, intensely descriptive prose; a narrative that - if you let it - will draw you in and leave you stranded inside this very dream. Which is exactly what happened to me. Can you believe it, I've never been able to finish reading it... Somewhere half-way along the quest the sheer weird beauty and the awe of thousands of wonders reached a critical mass in my head and prevented me from going further, prompting me rather to stop, to savour at length and to reflect on what I've read up to this point. Maybe one day I will try to read this book again, approaching it in a more jaded and indifferent way, and thus escaping a bizarre dream-like effect... But for now, all I can say is that nothing I have ever read before (not even Tolkien) produced such vivid images of strange worlds and stupendous exploration in my head.

H. P. Lovecraft modelled this novel upon Lord Dunsany's magical tales, and it ended up to be perhaps the ultimate in "high imaginative calorie" food. It has a minimal plot, and fulfills exactly the promise of the title: it's "a Dream Quest in a Mysterious and Haunted Land" with elements of dark and high fantasy intermingled. A painting, perhaps? A symphony? Any of these things, but not a novel per se, rather - a haunting poetry.


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Collecting Pulp Magazines

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Enchanting Victorian Fairy Tale Art

"Then world behind and home ahead..."

Exceptional British Scifi Artwork from the 1950s

Space Pulp Art by Ron Turner and other British artists

Pulp Pleasures: Eando Binder

Great space adventure fiction from the 1930s
"Where Eternity Ends" and other rare gems

Epic Fantasy: the Start of the Journey

Part 2 of our "Best Classic Fantasy" series
incl. works by Henry Kuttner, Tolkien, etc.

Strange Shadows: Best Classic Fantasy

Fantasy "glitches in the matrix",
...lovely baroque magical lands, and more

Classic Cyberpunk SF Novels: Reviews

Neal Stephenson, William Gibson, K. W. Jeter, et al
(awesome must-reads)

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Going beyond the obvious "Dances with Smurfs"...
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"Steampunk" Anthology: Full Review

some truly crazed stories in there...
(plus artwork by John Coulthart)

"Dune", Plus Often-Neglected
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"Dune", plus some overlooked gems:
"The Santaroga Barrier" and "The Green Brain"

Universe at Play:
Two Must-Read Novels of the Fantastic

"The Yiddish Policemen's Union" by Michael Chabon...
and David Mitchell's "Cloud Atlas"

Two of the Most Entertaining SF Novels from the 1980s

"Vacuum Flowers" by Michael Swanwick...
and Tim Power's "The Anubis Gates", of course!

"The Body Snatchers" and Other Alien Pods

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Exploring the Noir and the Grotesque

Jack O'Connell "The Resurrectionist"
and other newest examples of the bizarre

Overpopulation, Sex and Sensibility

Robert Silverberg's "The World Inside"
and other classic sf blasts

H. P. Lovecraft "At the Mountains of Madness"

and other masterpieces of terror
including original illustrations

"Constellations", edited by Peter Crowther

original anthology, 2005
full review: mind-bending stories

The Ultimate Guide to New Writers of SF&F

more than 2,000 writers, 1990-2009
Ratings, awards, web links

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"The Situation", "The Cookie Monster"
Weird fiction by Jeff VanderMeer and Vernor Vinge

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"UBIK", "Now Wait for Last Year", etc.

Theodore Sturgeon's "More Than Human"

There’s a problem with this new gestalt being: needs a conscience.

Jack Williamson's "Legion of Space" Series

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The ultimate weapon, controlled by a gorgeous woman

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Jack Williamson, Nat Schachner, "Doc" Smith
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Rare Pulp SF&F, Issue 3

Leigh Brackett, Fritz Leiber, Vic Phillips
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"Nova" and "Babel-17"
New Wave Milestones, and then some.

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Part 3 of Pulp Sf art series...

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and other Vance extravaganzas

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Full Issue Review
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Astounding Stories, May 1941

Full Issue Review
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Horace Gold; P. Schuyler Miller

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Interview with John C. Wright

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Adventures in Space & Magic

Frank Belknap Long

"The Horror from the Hills"
Great Lovecraftian Weird Novella

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"SF&F Reading Experience" is part of "Dark Roasted Blend / Thrilling Wonder" family of sites. We try to highlight the most entertaining and rewarding science fiction and fantasy, with emphasis on memorable reader experience, not necessarily general acceptance by the critics. Have fun, and delve into our extensive ratings and reviews!

Most reviews are written by Avi Abrams, unless otherwise noted. Reviews also appear on our unique historical retrospective page Wonder Timeline of Science Fiction. Feel free to submit your own review, if a particular story is not listed here.

All major OFFICIAL AWARDS are highlighted in BLUE
("winner" has a letter "W" by it, otherwise it is a runner-up only)

Our PERSONAL AWARDS (ratings) are highlighted in RED and PURPLE:
--/ first place :
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--/ cool : (equal to fifth place)

These awards are given in the following categories:
- novel :
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Also, there are our personal STYLE / GENRE SPECIFIC AWARDS. These reflect the story's content and the lasting impression on the reader:

--/ wonder award
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Again, please feel free to leave your own review or comment under every writer's entry; also recommend us other stories you liked.