The Medieval Treasures of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Tuesday, January 28th, 2014 | Posted by Sean McLachlan

Automaton of a cittern player, possibly made in Spain in the second half of the 16th century. A mechanism inside it makes her play the cittern and turn her head.

Automaton of a cittern player, possibly made in Spain in the second half of the 16th century. A mechanism inside it makes her play the cittern and turn her head.

The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna is one of Europe’s great art museums. With its origins in the personal collections of the Hapsburgs, it has extensive collections of French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Dutch art. There are also large galleries dedicated to Classical and Ancient Egyptian art. Of the most interest to Black Gate readers is the medieval collection, which is the best I’ve seen in ten years of exploring Europe’s artistic treasures.

The emphasis here is on luxury items that once graced the homes of nobility. Of especial interest are the numerous automatons, such as the 16th century cittern player above. There’s also a 16th century gold ship that rolls along a table and fires its cannon, a 17th century moving chariot that doubles as a clock, and a 17th century gilded Diana and centaur that wheel around in circles while moving their heads and eyes. These rare items were the wonders of their time and acted both as forms of conspicuous consumption and a way to celebrate the latest in technology.

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Ancient Worlds: Jason and the Original MacGuffin

Tuesday, January 28th, 2014 | Posted by Elizabeth Cady

It's a clock. A really, really spooky clock. Did we ever learn what it was for? It was a J. J. Abrams show, so PROBABLY NOT.

It’s a clock. A really, really spooky clock. Did we ever learn what it was for? It was a J. J. Abrams show, so PROBABLY NOT.

Question: What do the Maltese Falcon, a suitcase full of money, a crystal skull, and a cow shaped silver creamer all have in common?

Answer: They’re MacGuffins.

MacGuffins are ubiquitous to storytelling, especially in genre fiction. They’re That Thing that Our Guys need to get before Their Guys do. The Rambaldi device / relic of George Washington / critical data file… it doesn’t matter what it is, it’s entire purpose is to give the story, well, purpose. We don’t care why the jewel thief is after this particular necklace, we just care that he is. The chase itself is the story.

While the term was popularized by Alfred Hitchcock (and may have been coined by one of his writers), the MacGuffin is an ancient plot device. And its earliest example in Western Literature is, to my knowledge, the Golden Fleece.

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40 Years of Adventure

Tuesday, January 28th, 2014 | Posted by James Maliszewski


ONCE UPON A TIME, long, long ago, there was a little group known as the Castle and Crusade Society. Their fantasy rules were published, and to this writer’s knowledge, brought about much of the current interest in fantasy wargaming. For a time the group grew and prospered, and Dave Arneson decided to begin a medieval fantasy campaign game for his active Twin Cities club. From the map of the “land” of the “Great Kingdom” and environs — the territory of the C & C Society — Dave located a nice bog wherein to nest the weird enclave of “Blackmoor”, a spot between the “Great Kingdom” and the fearsome “Egg of Coot”. From the CHAINMAIL fantasy rules he drew ideas for a far more complex and exciting game, and thus began a campaign which still thrives as of this writing! In due course the news reached my ears, and the result is what you have in your hands at this moment. While the C & C Society is no longer, its spirit lives on, and we believe that all wargamers who are interested in the medieval period, not just fantasy buffs, will enjoy playing DUNGEONS and DRAGONS. Its possibilities go far beyond any previous offerings anywhere!

So began Gary Gygax’s foreword (charmingly misspelled as “forward”) to the original edition of Dungeons & Dragons. That foreword is dated November 1, 1973, but it would still be a couple of months before D&D was “formally” released. I put the adverb in scare quotes, because, at the time, Tactical Studies Rules was a tiny shoestring operation, consisting of only three people: Gary Gygax (editor), Don Kaye (president), and Brian Blume (vice-president). It was more like a game club than a business; it was certainly a much more modest venture than what it would later become.

Initially, the three-book boxed set was sold through the mail, the first advertisements for which appeared sometime in the Spring of 1974. Of course, copies of D&D had undoubtedly been released “into the wild” of the miniatures wargaming scene before that. Just how soon before that is anyone’s guess, which makes determining a precise “birthday” for the world’s first published fantasy roleplaying game hard to establish. Nevertheless, gaming historian Jon Peterson, who’s done more research on this and related topics than anyone, advocates January 26, 1974 as a likely candidate. Barring further evidence to the contrary, it’s as good a day as any other, meaning that D&D celebrated the Big 4-0 just two days before I penned this entry.

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Duelists, Animal People, and Machinery Not Meant to be Fiddled With: The Prophecy Machine by Neal Barrett Jr.

Tuesday, January 28th, 2014 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

oie_275513I22lm2dJThe late Neal Barrett Jr. wrote around thirty novels and seventy short stories. I’ve only read a little bit from his works, which include sci-fi and fantasy as well as crime fiction and magic realism. He seems to have slipped under the radar of most genre readers. On the other hand, everything I’ve read about the man marks him as one of those special authors held in high esteem by other writers.

My own experience with Barrett started when I found a copy of Aldair, Master of Ships in the attic. The back of the book hinted at the story’s plot, asking:

Where is humanity? What legacy has true mankind left to its manlike descendants that they must relive our past?

I was fourteen and that was enough to hook me. (In fact, only for a short, embarrassingly snooty period in my early twenties would that have been too pulpy to catch my eye.) Even so, I was struck by the strangeness of Barrett’s Roman Empire recreated with pig-men at odds with ursine and lupine barbarians. It took me several years to track down the other three books in that series, but it was well worth it. Now, of course, you can get all four together as a single e-book. There’s a wonderful strangeness and a blackly mocking sense of humor to these books that hold up well to this day.

My next run-in with Barrett also came about by accident. During a 1999 book run to the Montclair Book Center, I found the post-apocalyptic-set Through Darkest America (1987) and on a whim I bought it. Pretty much by the third or fourth page I realized I was not in a comic book, Mad Max world, but something so dismal and bleak it disturbed me to the marrow. What followed was an utterly grim coming-of-age story, where innocence is ripped away and violence is the standard.

When a second trip to Montclair secured me the sequel, Dawn’s Uncertain Light (1989), instead of joining in conversation on the ride home, I read most of the book, to the annoyance of my friends. The impact wasn’t as severe as the first book, but it still made me uncomfortable. Together, these books have a power that leaves me chilled if I just think about them for too long. If you think Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is the be-all and end-all of despairing post-apocalypse stories, I’m here to tell you you’re wrong and I’ll leave it at that.

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On the Origins of the Rust Monster

Tuesday, January 28th, 2014 | Posted by John ONeill

Origins of the Rust Monster-smallIn an entertaining and brilliant bit of scholarship, Planescape artist Tony DiTerlizzi traces the origins of some of the most iconic monsters in Dungeons and Dragons — including the owlbear, bulette, umber hulk, and rust monster — back to an obscure line of plastic toy dinosaurs from the early 70s that Gary Gygax and Dragon editor Tim Kask co-opted as miniatures for early D&D sessions.

Painstakingly tracking down pics of the original toys — which doubtless wasn’t easy, as even small lots sell online for upwards of $500 to collectors in the know — Tony has assembled a line up of vintage toy monsters that will make your eyes pop. If you ran afoul of these creatures more than once in your early adventuring days, Tony’s collection of pics will give you more than one OMG moment.

But his most amazing evidence is a series of quotes from Tim Kask on just how these tiny plastic beasties eventually became an integral part of countless gaming sessions. I found this one, on how Kask created the bullette, at The Acaeum Forums:

I had an empty page in that issue of The Dragon because a full-page ad either cancelled or was late, and I had to go to press. Now Gary and I had had several talks about creating monsters, and he had frequently encouraged me to let my imagination run wild. The umber hulk and the rust monster were fabrications (by Gary) to “explain” two plastic monsters from a bag of weird critters from the dime store that Gary had found and used in Greyhawk… There was still had one that had not been taxonomically identified and defined yet that intrigued me; they called it the “bullet”. I frogged-up the name a bit. At this same time, SNL was hitting its stride and… I imagined what a “real” (in D&D terms “real”) landshark might be…

As Tony puts it, “Dime store toys in the hands of those with wondrous imaginations became something more – they became the geeky stuff of modern fantasy lore.” See his complete article Owlbears, Rust Monsters and Bulettes, Oh My! — and all his marvelous pics — at his blog, Never Abandon Imagination. (Thanks to Wayne MacLaurin for the tip!)

How Edgar Rice Burroughs and Mad Magazine Got Me into Trouble

Monday, January 27th, 2014 | Posted by Nick Ozment

Don Martin's "Conehead the Barbituate" from Mad Dec. 1982.

Don Martin’s “Conehead the Barbituate” from Mad Dec. 1982.

michael_whelan_2-the_gods_of_mars-coverLast week, I reminisced about how some of my earliest scribbles were influenced by the interstellar dogfights I saw in Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica. I was always doodling — a look at one of my notebooks from any year of my schooling would testify to how it sustained me through boring classes.

There in the margins bloomed flora and fauna from the Dr. Seuss School of Zoology, spaceships, barbarians, and things that must have crept from the deeper recesses of the subconscious.

Needless to say, some teachers did not appreciate what they saw. I distinctly recall two occasions when my drawings elicited a phone call to my parents, followed by a dreaded talking-to by my father.

A Barsoomian Gender Mishap

The first incident must’ve occurred in the third grade — that’s when I started reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars series. I was immediately transfixed by Carter’s adventures on the red planet, and the creatures of Barsoom fueled much of my drawing at that time. In after-school daycare, I drew a Martian landscape rife with four-armed Tharks. I was emulating the Science Fiction Book Club illustrations (Richard Corben) as well as the Michael Whelan covers (those Ballantine paperbacks were the then-current editions that I checked out from my local library).

Problem was, I was no Corben or Whelan. In my attempt to portray the musculature of one thark’s buff pectoral muscles, I succeeded in drawing what one daycare worker interpreted to be bare BREASTS! (I understand comic-book illustrator Rob Liefeld would run into the same problem in the ‘90s with Captain America. Check out the image after the “Read More” jump to see one of the most anatomically challenged pieces ever rendered by a professional artist.)

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New Treasures: Tunnel Out of Death by Jamil Nasir

Monday, January 27th, 2014 | Posted by John ONeill

Tunnel Out of Death-smallJamil Nasir wrote a number of intriguing paperbacks for Bantam Spectra over a decade ago, including The Higher Space (1996), Tower of Dreams (1999), and Distance Haze (2000) — see all three here. They were an interesting blend of science fiction of fantasy, asking Philip. K. Dick-like questions about dreams and the nature of reality (the cover tag for Distance Haze was “If dreams are doorways, where do they take us?”). And indeed, Tower of Dreams was nominated for the Philip. K. Dick Award, given annually to the best original paperback published in the US.

Nasir has been relatively quiet since 2000, publishing one new novel from Tor in 2008, The Houses of Time. But he bounced back last year with Tunnel Out of Death, a science fantasy about a private detective hired to find a literal lost soul…

Heath Ransom, former police psychic turned machine-enhanced “endovoyant” private investigator, is hired to find the consciousness of the rich and comatose Margaret Biel and return it to her body. Tracking her through the etheric world, he comes upon a strange and terrifying object that appears to be a tear in the very fabric of reality. He falls into it — and into an astonishing metaphysical shadow-play.

For Margaret is a pawn in a war between secret, ruthless government agencies and a nonhuman entity known only as “Amphibian.” Their battlefield is a multi-level reality unlike anything humankind has ever imagined. When Heath learns to move back and forth between two different versions of his life, and begins to realize that everyone around him may be a super-realistic android, that is only the beginning of a wholesale deconstruction of reality that threatens more than his sanity…

I have to admit, that’s one of the most original plot synopses I’ve read in the last year. I ordered a copy last week; my to-be-read pile is hopelessly backlogged, but if I get a chance to crack it open, I’ll report back here. Tunnel Out of Death was published May 7, 2013 by Tor Books. It is 304 pages, priced at $24.99 in hardcover and $12.99 for the digital edition. So far, there is no paperback edition.

See all of our recent New Treasures posts here.

“Beware the Man With the Stolen Soul”: Steve Ditko and Stalker

Monday, January 27th, 2014 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

Stalker #1The first stop I made on my shopping expedition last Boxing Day was at my local neighbourhood comics store, which happens to be conveniently located two and a half blocks from my house. There, I found a deal in the back-issue bins: issues 1 to 4 of Stalker, a DC fantasy comic from the 70s. I’d vaguely heard of the title, but knew nothing about it. I thought I remembered hearing that it had good art, which I imagined perhaps meant work by somebody like Nestor Redondo or Ernie Chan. I was way off. In fact, the art was by the remarkable team of Steve Ditko and Wally Wood. As a result, it’s wonderful. And more than that: it’s truly weird fantasy art in every sense.

Ditko’s one of the most distinctive stylists in American comics. I’ve written before about his supreme accomplishment in fantasy, but Stalker’s an interesting work in its own right. Ditko creates a setting, a very specific world, and does it not by means of creating a consistent dress or coherent architectural style, but by imposing his own specific style and sense of geometric form upon the matter of the story. Wood, in turn, gives a sense of specificity and plausibility to the art, anchoring Ditko’s layouts with a sense of reality: trees, stone walls, suits of armour, all have enough subtle detail that you can feel their weight and mass. Yet at no point does he ever overwhelm Ditko’s pencils with his own style.

The writing, from a young Paul Levitz, is solid. The plot’s tight, fast-moving, and designed around good sword-and-sorcery set pieces. Still, I can’t help but see the book as primarily Ditko’s creation. He’s laid out the action with his usual flair for the expressionistic; he’s designed any number of strange variations on fantasy furnishings (castles, swords, temples, evil priests); and he’s also left certain things alone, drawing from a stock of archetypal medieval imagery so that you can’t help but focus on the weirdness of the main action. The result is not like any other fantasy art I’ve ever seen, but it feels perfectly right for the story.

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Last Chance to Win a Copy of M. Harold Page’s The Sword is Mightier and Blood in the Streets

Monday, January 27th, 2014 | Posted by John ONeill

Blood in the Streets-smallOn January 7th, we announced a contest to win a copy of both of M. Harold Page’s exciting Scholar Knight novels: The Sword is Mightier and Blood in the Streets. Here’s the description for the second, Blood in the Streets:

Jack shifted both hands to his blade. With an animal roar, he executed a ‘Murder Strike’, swinging the weapon like a hammer. The crossguard caught the Lancastrian where only mail protected the nape of his neck. There was a loud crack. A shock reverberated up the blade stinging Jack’s palms.

AD1455. The Yorkists are marching on London. What happens next is History… but Jack Rose must still live through it. Jack had planned to live quietly as a country gentleman while wooing the illusive Theodora, a fiery Greek lady of mysterious origin. Unfortunately, the price of keeping his land is following his lord to war. Now Jack must stop his men from getting themselves killed, survive lethal assassination attempts, win Theodora despite her fear of losing him, and, ultimately, pick up his greatsword and plunge into the first brutal battle of the Wars of the Roses.

In this standalone sequel to The Sword is Mightier, Jack wades through brawl, skirmish and melee, his fallen foes paving his path from scholar to knight.

How do you enter to win? Simple — just send an e-mail to, using as the subject the name of the first Master Strike in the German School of Fencing (we’ll even give you a clue: it’s “Zornhau”), and we’ll enter you in the drawing.

Entries must be received by Friday, January 31, 2014. One lucky winner will win both books. The winner will be contacted by e-mail and books will be delivered in digital format.

All entries become the property of New Epoch Press. No purchase necessary. Must be 12 or older. Decisions of the judges (capricious as they may be) are final. Terms and conditions subject to change. Not valid where prohibited by law. Eat your vegetables. And good luck!

The Top 20 Black Gate Fiction Posts in December

Sunday, January 26th, 2014 | Posted by John ONeill

EE Knight-smallE.E. Knight’s sword & sorcery epic “The Terror of the Vale” vaulted to the top of our Fiction list in December — doubtless buoyed by the publication of the first story in the Blue Pilgrim sequence, “That of the Pit,” right here on December 8th. We’re proud to be able to offer both stories to our readers for the first time.

Mark Rigney’s “The Find,” part of his perennially popular Tales of Gemen series, was in second place, followed by Vaughn Heppner’s brand new Lod story, “Draugr Stonemaker,” the sequel to “The Oracle of Gog” (Black Gate 15), “The Pit Slave,” and “The Serpent of Thep.”

Novel excerpts continue to be popular with discerning readers. Our exclusive excerpt from Mike Allen’s dark fantasy novel The Black Fire Concerto claimed fourth place; fifth was our generous slice from Dave Gross’s Pathfinder Tales: King of Chaos.

Also making the list were exciting stories by Joe Bonadonna, Jason E. Thummel, John C. Hocking, Janet Morris and Chris Morris, Aaron Bradford Starr, Harry Connolly, Alex Kreis, Martha Wells, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Jamie McEwan, Peadar Ó Guilín, Judith Berman, and Howard Andrew Jones.

If you haven’t sampled the adventure fantasy stories offered through our new Black Gate Online Fiction line, you’re missing out. All through 2013, we presented an original short story or novella from the best writers in the industry every week, all completely free. Here are the Top Twenty most-read stories in December:

  1. The Terror in the Vale,” by E.E. Knight
  2. The Find,” Part II of The Tales of Gemen, by Mark Rigney
  3. Draugr Stonemaker,” by Vaughn Heppner
  4. An excerpt from The Black Fire Concerto, by Mike Allen
  5. An excerpt from Pathfinder Tales: King of Chaos, by Dave Gross
  6. The Moonstones of Sor Lunarum,” by Joe Bonadonna
  7. That of the Pit,” by E.E. Knight
  8. An excerpt from Pathfinder Tales: Queen of Thorns, by Dave Gross
  9. The Duelist,” by Jason E. Thummel
  10. Vestments of Pestilence,” by John C. Hocking 
  11. Read More »

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