Michael Shea, July 3, 1946 – February 16, 2014
For all of the many obituaries I’ve written, I’ve been fortunate enough to have to write only two for Black Gate contributors: prolific short story writer Larry Tritten, and Euan Harvey, taken from us too young. So it is with a heavy heart that I report the death of Michael Shea, BG contributor and one of the most acclaimed sword & sorcery and horror writers of the last four decades.
In the early 70s, Michael picked up a battered copy of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth novel The Eyes of the Overworld in a hotel lobby in Juneau, Alaska. Four years later, he tried his hand at fan fiction, writing a novel-length sequel to Vance’s classic titled A Quest for Simbilis. Not knowing what else to do with it, Shea submitted it to Donald Wollheim at DAW Books. Jack Vance graciously granted permission for it to be published (and declined any share in the advance), and Wollheim released it in paperback in 1974. It was a finalist for the British Fantasy Award and launched Michael’s career — a career that produced some of the most acclaimed fantasy of the past four decades.
Eight years later, Michael published one of the most important works of modern sword and sorcery: Nifft the Lean, a collection of four linked novellas published in paperback by DAW in 1982. It won the World Fantasy Award and was followed by two sequels: The Mines of Behemoth (Baen, 1997) and the novel The A’rak (Baen, 2000). His other novels include The Color Out Of Time, the sequel to Lovecraft’s 1927 story “The Colour Out of Space;” In Yana, the Touch of Undying (1985); and The Extra (2010) and its recent sequel Assault on Sunrise (2013). His highly acclaimed collections include Polyphemus (1987), The Autopsy and Other Tales (2008), and Copping Squid and Other Mythos Tales (2010).
I had the good fortune to meet Michael at the World Fantasy Convention in Saratoga Springs, New York, in 2007. We hit it off and a few months later, I found an original novelette of Lovecraftian horror by Michael in my inbox. I was proud to publish “Tsathoggua” as part of the Black Gate Online Fiction line.
I was shocked and dismayed to find that Locus Online reported today that Michael Shea died unexpectedly on February 16, 2014. He was 67 years old. He will be sorely missed.
Michael may be gone, but the gifts he left us remain, and we’ve been surveying them here.
So far we’ve covered his novels:
Nifft the Lean (1982)
The Color Out Of Time (1984)
In Yana, the Touch of Undying (1985)
The Mines of Behemoth (1997)
The Incompleat Nifft (2000)
The A’rak (2000)
The Extra (2010)
Assault on Sunrise (2013)
And one collection:
See all of our recent Vintage Treasures here.
Shocked and dismayed indeed. Time to reread Nifft.
A real loss. Nifft blew me away when I read it – a transporter accident blending Jack Vance, Clark Ashton Smith, and Hieronymous Bosch, unique and unforgettable.
Ah, I remember buying Nifft the Lean so, so long ago. Loved it. Sorry to hear this 🙁
A real pity. I’d regard ‘Nift the Lean’ as one of the great classics of modern fantasy – A’rak and ‘The Mines of Behemoth’ are both very good, but the first book is still the best in the sequence for my money.
He’s also one of the few writers who actually transcended his influences (ie, Jack Vance) to produce something utterly original.
Shea was my favorite among modern fantasy authors.
Back when I worked in a bookstore I used Mines of Behemoth to introduce many co-workers, most with literary tastes and little time for any kind of genre fiction, to Shea’s work. That under-rated volume, with its almost supernaturally vivid otherworldly adventures, dark humor, not-quite reliable narrator, and strangely transcendent conclusion, proved a near perfect gateway to both Shea and Fantasy fiction.
I corresponded with the author for a short time about 13 years ago. Conan Properties had let me know that they were looking for known authors to write fresh adventures of Conan, and I got Mr. Shea to approach them and offer his services. I’m convinced that the fact he was turned down deprived us of something remarkable.
Mr. Shea was never prolific enough or successful enough to please me. His best work had a mad invention and electric intensity that made it unforgettable.
I’m going to read some of it now.
You should, too.
[…] John O’Neill has posted a tribute at Black Gate. […]
I was deeply saddened to learn of Mr. Shea’s death. I had the opportunity to meet him at two World Fantasy Conventions, and he was warm and gracious. Later, at BG, I got to read and immediately pass on one of his stories to publisher John O’Neill.
The man was gifted. And kind. I wish the industry had seen more of him. I wish he were still here, for his family, and for us.
And when did this happen? Apparently earlier this year!
(The Color Out of Time ebook)
I haven’t read the Nifft books or IN YANA, and after reading these eulogies I want to correct that oversight. I just popped over to Amazon and eBay to find that his books are commanding pretty high prices, alas — upwards of $30 for a clean copy of the first Nifft paperback, and over $40 for the Baen edition that collected the first two books. Looks like I’ll have to sell a few books before I can get these on my shelves.
> Time to reread Nifft.
That’s a splendid suggestion. I think I may join you.
> Nifft blew me away when I read it – a transporter accident blending Jack Vance, Clark Ashton Smith, and Hieronymous Bosch, unique and unforgettable.
That may be the finest one-sentence review of NIFFT I’ve ever read. Bravo!
> Ah, I remember buying Nifft the Lean so, so long ago. Loved it.
Hard to believe it came out over 30 years ago. I remember buying the original paperback. Ah, the years, they fly.
> He’s also one of the few writers who actually transcended his influences (ie, Jack Vance) to produce something utterly original.
He did it twice, I think — once with Vance, and again with Lovecraft (with The Color Out Of Time).
> I corresponded with the author for a short time about 13 years ago. Conan Properties had let me know that they
> were looking for known authors to write fresh adventures of Conan, and I got Mr. Shea to approach them and offer
> his services. I’m convinced that the fact he was turned down deprived us of something remarkable.
Ah! What a story! A Michael Shea CONAN novel?? What a concept!
In a parallel universe somewhere, modern fantasy took a very abrupt turn in the mid-90s with the appearance of that book. I would love to have read it!
Thanks for sharing that story.
> Later, at BG, I got to read and immediately pass on one of his stories to publisher John O’Neill.
I forgot you were the one to pass that story along to me. Another reason I’m in your debt!
> And when did this happen? Apparently earlier this year!
Thanks for the link! I had no idea there was an ebook version of The Color Out of Time. Another treasure to pack onto my Nook!
> I just popped over to Amazon and eBay to find that his books are commanding pretty high prices, alas — upwards of
> $30 for a clean copy of the first Nifft paperback, and over $40 for the Baen edition that collected the first
> two books. Looks like I’ll have to sell a few books before I can get these on my shelves.
Not at all. Very, very few vintage paperbacks cost anywhere near the price of a new paperback for the patient collector. Expect to pay around $5 for both NIFFT and IN YANA in great shape (including shipping), and you’ll be fine.
First, stay away from Amazon for collectible paperbacks (in general). eBay is a better bet. Start by looking for collections.
A set including both NIFFT and IN YANA in terrific shape recently sold on eBay for a top bid of $9.99 (including shipping):
A set including NIFFT, IN YANA, and QUEST FOR SIMBILIS in great shape ended without a single bid at the asking price of 9 bucks ($12.50 with shipping):
If you just want NIFT THE LEAN, auctions this week have run around $5, including shipping:
Don’t bother with the sellers trying to snag impulse buyers at a high price. Set up a Followed Search on eBay for NIFFT, make sure to check the box that asks for e-mail notifications, and you should expect to have a copy for under $10 soon. Under $6 if you’re patient.
There will likely be a flurry of buyers (and sellers) the first few weeks after his death. By April, prices will be back to normal.
Yeah, I didn’t know until – given the scarcity of finding Nifft in my travels (your latest reply to Nick notwithstanding) – I checked this morning.
I’m surprised there aren’t more Baen out-of-print titles available as ebooks lately. Again, something with their Amazon arrangement, I guess. It’d be nice if Nifft were available as ebooks – or maybe the rights have reverted from Baen. I never know.
I keep all sorts of Amazon wishlists and one of them is for out-of-print books. I review it a couple of times per month to see if anything has come out electronically. I’m pleasantly – perhaps ridiculously – surprised when I make such discoveries.
Happy to share!
John, Excellent advice! As soon as sellers slap “collectible” on something, you can expect the asking price to inflate about 300%.
I have to confess, in my quick search this morning I was holding out for the first edition you posted, with the nifty Michael Whelan cover. The more reasonably-priced editions I spotted were all of a later issue, with a rather generic cover of a guy holding a sword. If I just want to read the story, of course, the cover is a secondary concern.
I would love to see his entire catalog available electronically. I asked him about it on Facebook once a year or two ago, but at that point there was nothing in the offing. Yes, I wonder what the rights situation is these days.
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