Michael Shea -- Five Years Gone

It is a bitter thing that each of us must finally be blown out like a candle, and have the unique ardor of his individual flame choked off, and sucked utterly away like smoke in the dark. Do we ever accept this in our hearts, any of us?
— Michael Shea, from Nifft the Lean

I think it was John C. Hocking who told me Michael Shea had died. That was in the cruel winter of 2014, when so much I had known was gone or going. So, when Hocking told me of Shea's demise, I was just a bit numb to it all, but it grieved me nonetheless.

I first encountered Shea by way of the Cthulhu Mythos. I'd heard he was a good writer--this being in reference to his classic, Nifft the Lean--but I stumbled onto his Mythos novel, The Color Out of Time, first. The cover blurb made it sound cool, I was always in the market for good Mythos fiction, so I bought it.

I enjoyed the novel--and enjoyed it moreso upon rereading it a couple of years ago--but what I didn't realize was that Shea had two different writing styles. One, which was what he used for The Color Out of Time and his other works of horror and contemporary fiction, was fairly lean and matter-of-fact. His other style was more lyrical and ornate, though still fast-moving. That was what I found out when I got hold of Nifft the Lean.

Nifft the Lean reads like Jack Vance writing tales of Cugel the Clever, albeit with strong traces of Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber. Reading it, one is not surprised to learn that Vance tapped Shea to write a sequel to The Eyes of the Overworld, which was titled A Quest for Simbilis and published by DAW Books in 1974. However, Nifft the Lean betrays--as did A Quest for Simbilis before it--a Dantean predeliction to explore exotic and hellish underworlds that Vance barely touched upon in his Cugel tales. Such otherworldly descents would remain a hallmark of Shea's work throughout his career.


Nifft the Lean won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 1983. It was categorized by Locus as a "collection." I suppose I'd call it a picaresque, episodic novel written firmly in the Klarkash-Tonian tradition of sword and sorcery. Shea's Nifft the Lean is the only S&S novel in literary history to win a major award. In doing so, Michael Shea won one for all of us.

Shea was something of a legend in the SFF/horror community, a larger-than-life figure. Marc Laidlaw, in this post on his site, tells the tale of Shea debating holding some typescripts for ransom and later throwing his typewriter into a lake. Another story out there is that Shea got jailed after a bar-fight and then called up Don Wollheim--DAW Books was Shea's main publisher until Don died--to bail him out. 

More reminiscences of Michael can be found in the tribute volume, And Death Shall Have No Dominion from Hippocampus Press. It also contains several works of fiction and poetry from Shea, including the award-winning horror tale, "The Growlimb." Read this excellent review here and make your own decision.

Ave atque vale, Michael. Death has no dominion over your legacy.