Wednesday, December 27, 2023

SSW: Jeff Segal and Todd Mason on David Drake, 24 September 1945-10 December 2023

Todd Mason:

As readers of this blog might've seen before, the fifth volume of The Year's Best Horror Stories: Series V edited by Gerald W. Page, was a kind of revelation to me...evidence that such favorite writers of mine already as Robert Bloch, Fritz Leiber, Manly Wade Wellman, Harlan Ellison and Joseph Payne Brennan were still actively writing new work...and look at all their similarly-active peers, whose work I would read in this volume for the firstime (hell, Tanith Lee, Arthur Byron Cover, H. Warner Munn and Charles Grant had new, previously unpublished stories in the book). And one of the writers new to me, with an elegant dark historical fantasy (reprinted from F&SF), was David Drake...and I would come to welcome his short stories in this mode and related ones over the next decade as I found and read them, in YBHS, in the First World Fantasy Awards volume edited by Gahan Wilson, in Whispers anthologies (and, eventually, in issues of the magazine the anthologies were mostly drawn from--which Drake helped putogether), and in Fantastic and Ramsey Campbell's anthology Superhorror, in Kirby McCauley's anthology Frights...and the only non-fantasy/horror story in the materials I had at hand was a "Hammer's Slammers" story in an issue of Destinies, a paperback magazine edited by James Baen for Ace Books, which was the last sf magazine my father would buy for himself, into early 1979. It didn't make as much of an impression on me. Eventually, I had a secondhand copy of the first Hammer's Slammers anthology, but only read some of it, without getting caught up in it--Jeff Segal had a much more engaged (and sensible) response.

David Drake continued to do interesting work in likely and unlikely places over the next several decades, until recent ill-health kept him from writing fiction any longer, but I had lostrack of his work, while being aware of it being in the marketplace. I should still pick up some of his anthologies along with some of his novels and certainly his collections I let slip by. (I was a bit late on the scene to buy most of his and Karl Wagner's Carcosa collections of Manly Wade Wellman's work and others when they were new.)

Unsurprisingly, he has been remembered as a gracious friend and acquaintance by many, even those who might never, say, take part in, nor read, his collaboration on one book with Newt Gingrich and Marianne Ginther (athe time, still married to Gingrich). And among his fans who goto know him rather better than I did is my old friend Jeff Segal:

Jeff Segal:

An especially important author, and sometimes-editor, in my reading evolution, along with his late friends and associates Karl Edward Wagner and Manly Wade Wellman (though my appreciation of Wellman really kicked-in later, as I matured enough to appreciate the authentically Appalachian settings of a lot of his horror and fantasy fiction).

The first Drakes that ripped into my awareness were: one of his I-was-there Vietnam War-set horrors, the vignette "Best of Luck"; and the historical axe & sorcery (or is it sorcery?) chiller "The Barrow Troll", a tale with one of Drake's bitterly ironic finales.

Drake was a vocal advocate for fantastic fiction, especially pulp magazine-era stories, and both his short fiction and novels often served as tributes to neglected books. Publishers Tor and Baen Books have repackaged his short fiction in many combinations, but also encouraged him to promote and harken back to worthy novels and stories by other hands, which too often had been half-forgotten over the decades. For example, his dark tale "The Automatic Rifleman" was inspired by Fritz Leiber's "The Automatic Pistol", which he also heartily recommended to his readers, and I would finally track it down some years afterward (Leiber's classic Weird Tales story opts for a supernatural premise, rather than the apocalyptic-sf direction Drake employed). 

I wrote to him, and eventually we corresponded about failed military missions; he steered me toward a classic, The March Up Country: A Translation of Xenophon's Anabasis, a primary-source historical and inspirational work (which the multi-lingual Drake likely read in its original Greek), and I dipped into it recently when studying the evolution of Walter Hill's movie The Warriors (1979) (Anabasis inspired both the Sol Yurick source-novel and the film).
My first exposure to the "Hammer's Slammers" mercenary yarns which made Drake famous...or notorious...was in a secondhand copy of the 1979 Ace paperback collection with that title. The stories, reinforced with contextual essays, displayed the universe from the POV of a far-future frontline warfighter. One of them, "Cultural Conflict", reads like a critique of the film Aliens, except it was published half a decade before that movie dominated the 1986 summer boxoffice (I saw it three times in theaters). I read the collection too swiftly and the effect of its concentrated violence was somewhat sickening at first, until I broke down how Drake achieved his effects on a literary level. The Slammers stories, and eventually novels and role-playing games, hammered Drake's name into the world of science fiction, though I'd argue that his finest military-oriented sf novel was the standalone Redliners (1996), which he admitted was a cathartic experience to write, allowing him to expel the toxins of war he hadn't known he still carried. It is also a magnificent achievement in creating, to borrow Harry Harrison's term, a "deathworld".

Drake's writing style, distinctly lean and ruthlessly efficient, and his raptor's eye for detail, plus his obsessions and quirks, would often stretch creative muscle over simple or awkward plotting. A case in point is The Dragon Lord, one of my favorite novels of his, a savage take on historical myth with the Camelot crowd, warts and all, serving as supporting players--its wonky back-and-forth traveling plot-structure was more than balanced by the quality of the writing, the research and some engaging characters (traveling and quests are often a part of Drake's longer works regardless of genre; for instance, his Lord of Isles cycle, an epic set almost a 1000 years after a fantasy world's apocalypse, is charmingly told, for all its ambition, in the kind of simple structure that Edgar Rice Burroughs built a successful career around--scatter your protagonists and send them off on separate adventures, while having them attempt to find one another). And The Dragon Lord demonstrated another of the author's talents: the ability to craft credibly menacing creatures with genuine impact and weight; the epic's maturing wyvern, conjured into the world by the scraggly Merlin at the behest of a typically cynical and Drake-esque King Arthur, intended to be employed as a WMD against those pesky Saxons, is used sparingly throughout the book...but it comes across as one helluva intimidating threat by the climax of the story.
Drake was adept in writing horror (primarily in short stories), fantasy (often based in realistically-rendered historical backdrops, though some of his work thus was set in newly-created worlds), and science fiction, the last in harsh military-sf or similarly rugged space opera. He had no qualms about mixing genres. The first and stronger of his two Tom Kelly espionage novels, Skyripper, is as devotedly a Cold War pursuit-thriller as any of its early-Reagan-era ilk, the McGuffin involving a cracked, ingenious Soviet scientist who wants to defect to the US in order to share his conceptual space-warfare plans with Uncle Sam to ward off "an alien invasion" he claims will occur...but there are hints that something is "off" during the brutal multi-threat spy hunt, which results in a hell of an ending, in the tradition of "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean THEY aren't after you.”
Drake had many interests I share, which would continuously come roaring into his fiction (paleozoology, for instance). History, myth and classical-era literature were integral to much of his bibliography, rather like a bloodthirsty Roger Zelazny (Zelazny's 1969 novel Damnation Alley offered a proto-Drake hardman in a killer vehicle on a nightmare-filled deathworld road-trip). Drake also demonstrated some fascinating contradictions, such as delight in battle-glory action-filled sword & sorcery stories by Robert Howard, and Fritz Leiber (whose Fafhrd and The Gray Mouser bromance tales were repeatedly a big influence on Drake's own characters, fantasy and otherwise) but...Drake's own haunted Vietnam War service acquainted him with the effects of genuine brutality, where there is little glory. [And Leiber, who leaned toward pacifism, was very aware of this in a way that Howard was not. --tm]

Karl Edward Wagner and Drake cowrote a short story that was published in the 1974 first issue of the "little"/"semi-pro" fantasy-fiction magazine Midnight Sun. The tale predated the cult films Without Warning (1980) and Predator (1987) but anticipated something of the alien hunter/predator-on-Earth scenario, though set in ancient Rome. In the '80s, Drake and Wagner nursed the tale into a full-length novel, Killer, which I enjoyed, despite Drake's bad experience with this particular project. The Roman Empire and its frontiers provided a backdrop for his cycle of short bromance historical fantasies featuring the lethal Centurion, Vettius, and his cunning two-fisted merchant pal Dama, as they confront menaces both human and unnatural. Rome also was the setting or inspiration for some of his other short and long fiction. He may have gained a larger audience with the short tale "Ranks of Bronze", which, along with Orson Scott Card's "Ender's Game", I first encountered in the initial volume of Jerry Pournelle's anthology There Will Be War. "Bronze" was expanded into a well-received Bildungsroman novel, which inspired some follow-up books (I first learned about Bildungsromane on his website, an invaluable resource for his fans and scholars).

Not all of Drake's work "popped" for me. For instance, the first and only novel in his proposed "Crystal Walls" series, The Sea Hag, displayed some lively imagination but fell short of the Jack Vance-ian heights he was aiming for. And the follow up to Skyripper seemed to be set in an alternate universe where the conundrum the first book had been building up to was erased. However, a lot of his odd experiments rocked. I warmed up to his "RCN" space-opera series, based, sometimes literally, on Patrick O'Brian's historical Aubrey/Maturin novels. His expansion of Jim Kjelgaard's 1951 paleolithic novel Fire Hunter, The Hunter Returns, enthralled me as much as the original had. His two novels based on Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore's "Clash By Night", The Jungle and Surface Action, were crammed full of terra-formed Venusian future-naval dreadnaught engagements and horror-choked jungles and seas, another striking deathworld. His take on the Cthulhu Mythos, by way of Joseph Conrad, "Than Curse the Darkness",
was a uniquely feral entry into the pantheon and provided a frightening and absolutely inhuman interpretation of Nyarlathotep, the Dweller in Darkness itself; no chatty Dark Man avatar for this version of the Crawling Chaos (unlike the walking dudes of Robert Bloch's early "The Shadow from the Steeple" and Stephen King's much later The Stand)--Drake's Nyarlathotep was an other-dimensional alien cancer attempting to metastasize throughout our world, summoned to the Congo by those who had been maimed by the Colonials. After humanity has been granted a breather to continue existing, the survivors reflect upon the situation; an American gunslinger, retained as a bodyguard, realizes that he and the singularly unempathic party he is with are the "good guys" and has himself a good laugh. A patented David Drake approach to their victory. That yarn scarred me quite deeply as did a lot of Drake's other efforts.
Finally, he could be quite prescient. His three "Jed Lacey" stories, involving a diagnosed sociopath who is subjected to a behavior-modifying aversion/Ludovico Technique due to his crimes, but who is subsequently "repurposed" as an investigator because he's useful to his AI-governed society, is set in a "Nation without Walls," a near-future United States riddled with omnipresent surveillance technology...a reality accepted by much of the population. When these stories began appearing in the 1970's, a Nation without Walls must have seemed comfortably like fanciful speculative fiction to most readers... 
David Drake and his contributions won't be forgotten by me.

--Jeff Segal

For more of today's short-story posts, please see Patti Abbott's blog.


TracyK said...

Nice tribute, Todd. I checked out Drake's website and enjoyed your comments and Jeff Segal's comments on Drake's writing.

TracyK said...

And I do want to find something to read by him. The most appealing at this time is Skyripper, but I have the problem that I have a goal to buy no books (new or old) until after the book sale in September 2024. I checked and their does not appear to be an ebook edition (I am buying ebooks if not too expensive). So it will have to be the first book to go on my list to look for at the book sale, or look for a copy later in the year.

Todd Mason said...

Thanks, Tracy!...and sorry for the long delay in response (it's been busy around here till now for more than a week). For my part, I'd derinitely recommend his historical fantasies first...and are the likes of an option you'd enjoy?

Jeff said...

Nice personal tribute, Todd. That volume of Year's Best Horror Stories is one of a bunch of the series that I tracked down many years after its publication ....and certainly some years after I had read the fascinating and almost poetic "Children of the Forest" (and Ellison's "Shatterday") in other collections. That volume and a number of others published in the seventies and later offered a rich bounty of fiction for readers. I think that the first two volumes of Years Best I encountered, new in bookshops, were maybe VII and VIII, and then I'd collect older entries I found at book sales and 2nd hand shops...and when cyberspace resources became available, ran down any missing US volumes. An early eighties 2nd hand bookshop gem for me was the 1974 Year’s Best Horror Stories: Series II, currated by editor Richard Davis, with a Christopher Lee foreward, which combined the contents of the two previous UK entries, and that find was a particularly revelatory treasure - T.E.D Klein's The Events at Poroth Farm, later expanded into a novel, became one of my most favorite read short tales, subtly leaking cosmic horror into our mundane world but also offering a meta-analysis of weird literature throughout the ages - I don't think I connected Klein the author with his then debuting Twilight Zone magazine editor gig; two fine tales from Brian Lumley, one of them being a memorably disturbing body horror mythos story; two spooky yarns from Ramsey Campbell, whose monsterously paranoid stories and emergent novels were becoming more visible; T. K. Brown, III's memorable and melancholy Haunts of the Very Rich (an interesting take on a common horror fiction trope and the source of a nifty tele-movie I saw decades later); the reliable Basil Copper's The Knocker at the Portico - Copper would weave in and out of the Cthulhu mythos and even provided his own novel length take on At The Mountains of Madness; Robert Bloch's wicked "The Animal Fair" which I think had been published in different markets sometimes with a compromised ending - later on, you had steered me toward the Bloch collection Cold Chills, Todd, which also had a version of "The Animal Fair"; while the novel length work of Gary Brandner struck me as made to order supermarket horror for the less demanding reader (his book The Howling was dramatically improved on by the movie it inspired, though I liked Brandner's tie in to the 1982 Cat People), he seems to have written the rare short tale and the Year's Best Horror Stories entry "The Price of a Demon" is a fun and mischievous contribution. There were several other stories in that volume but the one I'm most interested in re-reading is The Long-Term Residents by Kit Pedler as I know now that aside from his medical science background, Pedler was involved in crafting fiction and working on British tv, including Doctor Who; along with writer Gerry Davis, Peddler's great achievement may have been in co-creating the movie and book inspiring DOOMWATCH, a 3 season British series that grappled with the intentional and unintentional Ballardian changes wrought by "technological, social or environmental developments" onto our world.

Todd Mason said...

Glad to have your remembrance of Drake here, Jeff. And I'll have to look into who might've chopped up the end of "The Animal Fair"...I straightened out the sources and contents of YEAR'S BEST HORROR STORIES, in all the DAW Books volumes, for WIKIPEDIA and published the results here in the blog: