September 6, 2020
Another volume curated by L. Sprague de Camp, The Spell of Seven offers a stellar lineup of talent. Each of the seven tales features a Virgil Finlay illustration. How about that for lagniappe? Now, I’m guessing the cover looked better as a pencil and ink drawing. Colored, it looks more like the cover to an EC horror comic than the cover to paperback short story anthology. But that’s grousing and doesn’t in the least detract from the yarns behind the cover.
As I mentioned, the contributors are all stars in the Sword-and-Sorcery field. After an introduction from de Camp providing an overview of the field, Fritz Leiber leads off with one of the more memorable Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser tales, Bazaar of the Bizarre. This one is always fun. It is a reminder that the fictional universe of Nehwon is a strange place indeed. There is a razor-edged whimsy to many of Leiber’s stories of the duo. But Leiber was such a talented stylist that what might read as ludicrous from a lesser scribbler feels natural in the setting he created. Also, I always enjoy an appearance from Ningauble and Sheelba.
Clark Ashton Smith is next, providing one his macabre stories (The Dark Eidolon) that make one question whether or not it qualifies as S&S. I’m not going to quibble. It is too much of a pleasure to read Smith’s prose to split hairs. Let’s call it weird fiction and consider it close enough. Smith provides no one to root for here, in this tale that seems to owe its existence to 1001 Arabian Nights. The narrative goal of the story, it seems to me, is to see if each of the cast of malefactors gets his just deserts.
Lord Dunsany is next with a thematically similar story, The Hoard of the Gibbelins. Dunsany crafts a fairy tale with a crafty, forward thinking protagonist. One the reader does rather root for. But alas…It seems to me that the first three stories are all about overreaching, whether out of greed or lust for vengeance. The authors are examining the dark underbelly of the human soul. Entertainingly.
In the previous entry of this series on anthologies, I mentioned that de Camp, as editor, had foregone including one of his own yarns in the book. He is not so reticent in this one, though he modestly leaves it up to the reader to judge if his story belongs in such prestigious company. As much of an admirer as I am of de Camp, I have to say that his contribution, The Hungry Hercynian, falls short of the mark. Not that it is a bad story. Far from it. It is an entertaining, amusing S&S story. I recommend it. But the bar is set pretty high in this collection. There is no shame in not clearing it. There is a certain weightiness to the other stories, even those written with a certain whimsical quality. De Camp’s story lacks the depth, real or apparent, of the others. Still, I was amused. Probably appropriate, given my lack of depth.
After the amuse bouche of The Hungry Hercynian, Michael Moorcock returns us to more serious fare with Kings in Darkness. My opinion of the Eternal Champion stories hasn’t changed. But there is no denying this is a classic Elric tale. I liked it rather more than some of the others. Elric’s head isn’t so deeply in his navel in this one, and the story is relatively straight forward. And I have a fondness for Moonglum, though I think his value as a character lies more in my imagination and faulty memory than on the page. Kings provides another story involving vengeance. Also ghouls, animated skeletons, chases, escapes, and sword play.
Next is the great Jack Vance, with Mazirian the Magician. We have here another story of overreaching. Lust seems the motive here. Since it is a Vance story, you know it will contain drollery, glorious archaic language, scoundrels and outright villains as main characters, and imaginative novelties in pretty much every other paragraph. The fecundity of Vance’s inventiveness is a source of never ending amazement.
Rounding off the seven is the man himself, Robert E. Howard with Shadow in Zamboula. This a solid Conan yarn, featuring several memorable scenes. As with most REH stories, the pace is headlong, seldom pausing for breath. We have multiple villains, all of whom overreach by underestimating the Cimmerian. There are cannibals, massively strong stranglers, an evil sorcerer, a beautiful, nakedl woman in distress, and the world’s worst innkeeper. Through strength, brawn, steel, and wit, Conan keeps one step ahead of all of them. A satisfying conclusion. Of course, you can’t really go wrong including a Conan story in an S&S anthology.
So, all in one slim volume, The Spell of Seven offers Leiber, Smith, Dunsany, de Camp, Moorcock, Vance and Howard. That’s a spell worth casting, don’t you think?
I’m not fool enough to think I measure up to those seven, but if you want to take a chance on at least mild diversion, check out some of my scribblings.