Encountering repetitive themes is something that often happens to sword and sorcery readers. This is not necessarily a bad thing. As fans of the genre, most of us are obviously fond of tales about swashbuckling swordsmen, enchanted weapons, cosmic deities, dark necromancers, barbaric amazon wenches, and the different ways that these subjects are intertwined into savage yarns of blood and thunder. These are the kinds of things that drew us to this type of literature in the first place, and with the vast amount of work that has been put out over the years, it is only natural that this would occur (as it does in most forms of art). When an idea does echo, it is nice to be able to appreciate how each of our favorite authors put their individual fingerprint on it, and deal with various often-used subjects in their own way.
When authors of a certain genre tend to draw inspiration from like sources, it is not surprising that their work might yield similar results. This makes it quite noteworthy when a very different and unique idea emerges. Along with a handful of others, Michael Shea is one of the authors whom I’ve always admired for having a fresh approach to weaving interesting, out-of-the-ordinary plots into his sword and sorcery tales. This seems strange for an author who got his start writing sequels to other people’s works. Shea’s first book, the fantastic A Quest for Simbilus is an authorized sequel to Jack Vance’s The Eyes of the Overworld and he later penned the Lovecraftian The Colour out of Time which is a follow-up of sorts to the famous similarly-titled weird tale.
It is in Michael Shea’s Nifft the Lean where the author really shines in the way of crafting some amazing and unique dark fantasy. While using a familiar Dying Earth type of setting, and a style of prose that one might compare to Clark Ashton Smith or Fritz Leiber at times, it is the inventiveness of the plots that set the stories apart. Although Shea continued the Nifft series later in his career, the original saga published in the 1982 DAW collection consisted of four main tales:
Come Then, Mortal, We Will Seek Her Soul
The Pearls Of The Vampire Queen
The Fishing Of The Demon-Sea
The Goddess In Glass
While each are darkly enchanting adventure yarns with heavy prose and a great sense of grim otherworldliness, it is “Pearls of the Vampire Queen” that I find to be the most different for an S&S story.
After fighting giant beetles in the great Salt Marsh, the famed rogue Nifft and his brute companion Barnar venture to the swamp lands south of the Salt-Tooth Mountains. Beneath these waters, giant polyps dwell hording large, black swamp pearls. The pearls are extremely valuable and the two comrades mean to get rich by harvesting them. The polyps however, are deadly and monstrous. They bear dangerous palps that have mouths with sharp teeth along their length. They also have blisters which contain the pearls, and a weird “strangling node”, named for the use men put it to. The thieves devise a crude system of diving beneath the murky waters and attacking the things. It consists of one of them assaulting the strangling node, while the other breaks open the blister and snatches the pearls— all the while avoiding the deadly palps. After going to great lengths to kill one creature, they are able to harvest a pearl or two. It is dangerous, strenuous work, and the two must kill many in order to gain few pearls. Also creeping within the swamps are monsters called lurks which are big spidery, insect-like things, as well as the strange and morbid humanoid wraiths known as ghuls.
Nearby is the city where the beautiful Vampire Queen Vulvula reigns and governs from her great pyramid that towers high into the clouds over the swamp. She is the ruler of the land due to her mastery of sorcery and ability to keep the natives safe from the ghuls.
While harvesting the pearls, Nifft and Barnar encounter another thief named Kirkin, and the body of his friend who perished while hunting for pearls. The three join forces and continue deeper into the swamp. Using the body of Kirkin’s slain comrade as bait, they are able to distract the polyps with it while attacking them unaware.
When resting on shore after a day’s grueling work of collecting several more pearls, Kirkin tells Nifft about an annual ritual held within Queen Vulvula’s pyramid called “The God-Making Rite of the Year King”. The ceremony involves a chosen denizen deemed the Year King whom the Queen will drink every drop of blood from in front of the entire city. By doing this, she is able to restore her youth. The conditions of the spell, however, require that a single drop of blood not be spilled or else her eternal youth and magic would be lost. The Year King is then immortalized and sentenced to dwell beneath the city alongside the previous years’ captives as a King of Night. Kirkin recommends they go to the city to get a gawk at the Year King in his cell before the ceremony. The young poacher soon gets eaten by a polyp though.
Continuing on without Kirkin, Nifft suddenly develops a brilliant scheme to enter Vulvula’s domain and steal a small amount of blood from the Year King. With the missing blood in their possession they could hold it ransom for 5,000 swamp pearls, as the Queen’s spell is useless without the full amount.
In order to be accepted into the city within the great pyramid they need to disguise themselves as successful game hunters. This means they must kill a ghul and carry it into the city in order to gain rank amongst the other hunters. They find one of these grotesque creatures in the Black Hills to the west of the swamps cooking a human body over a camp fire. Barnar approaches it and strikes up an awkward conversation. When the ghul tires of Barnar’s chatter, it rears back to throw the dead human’s head at Barnar with killing force. Just before it releases the head, Nifft, hiding in the brush, hurls a spear through the abomination’s body, killing it.
As another part of Nifft’s plan, the two rogues must also kill a lurk which is another dangerous task. After a grueling fight in the heart of the marsh, they are able to conquer one. Dragging it to shore, they discover a way to liquefy and drain out the guts of the spider-like creature by stuffing it with hot coals. Doing this ensures that they can smuggle its lightweight husk into the city along with the dead ghul, and at length, use it as a hideous marionette to distract the guards while stealing blood from the Year King.
Equipped with the carcasses, Nifft and Barnar enter Vulvula’s pyramid and the real fun begins, leading to a clever, unexpected, and rather epic climax.
For those looking for an interesting and amusing adventure tale that defies the usual clichés, “The Pearls of the Vampire Queen” is not only bejeweled with exciting weirdness, but bears a uniqueness akin to that of the early pulp masters.
Matthew Knight is the vocalist, guitarist and songwriter of the US epic heavy metal band ETERNAL WINTER. The band has recently finalized the recording sessions for the forthcoming album, Archaic Lore Enshrined: Songs of Savage Swords and Dark Mysticism and it is soon to be released. The album is a tribute to various dark fantasy works, including Michael Shea’s “The Pearls of the Vampire Queen.” Matthew has also recently collaborated with Howie K. Bentley and Byron A. Roberts to co-write a gothic-inspired sword and sorcery novel called Karnov: Phantom-Clad Rider of the Cosmic Ice, coming in December from DMR Books.