The Blending of Two Genres

I love occult detective stories. My first ever speculative fiction story acceptance was for one (although sadly the market closed before its publication), and I've completed a novel that incorporates both occult detective and urban fantasy.

THE PARANORMAL DETECTIVE is the title of the panel I'll join at Boskone 56 tomorrow evening, Friday February 15th, with distinguished award-winning authors BRENDAN DUBOIS, author of the Lewis Cole mystery series, DANA CAMERON, author of the Emma Fielding Mysteries (and their television movie adaptions, the newest, More Bitter Than Death just premiered February 10th on the Hallmark channel!), SARAH SMITH, author of the Alexander von Reisden mysteries and of Chasing Shakespeares which has been developed for the theater, and THOMAS SNIEGOSKI, author of the Remy Chandler urban fantasy series, the Fallen young adult series adapted as movies for ABC Family television, and the Magic Zero quartet that is being developed by Universal motion pictures. This is only a partial list of their many works and accomplishments.

And then there is yours truly. (′ʘ⌄ʘ‵). The new "kid."

Still, in preparation for our panel discussion, I delved into the origins of Paranormal-Occult Detective fiction, from the purported first "detective" stories by Edgar Allen Poe and similarly the first tales (excluding folklore) of "supernatural horror," and the subsequent blending of the two genres beginning in the latter 19th century and early 20th century. And nearly all of it is in the public domain -- i.e. free to read! So get your spade and your wolfsbane and electric pentacles and click on the links below to enjoy a graveyard full of the earliest adventures into mystery and occult detective fiction.


· Edgar Allen Poe[C. Auguste Dupin]: Poe is credited with creating the first “detective” before the word and subsequent genre of tales were coined. Dupin solves mysteries through his power of “ratiocination” (i.e. deductive reasoning).

o The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841), widely considered the first fictional detective story.

o The Mystery of Marie Rogêt (1842)

o The Purloined Letter (1844)

· Sir Arthur Conan Doyle[Sherlock Holmes]: The Hound of the Baskervilles possesses all the trappings of a Gothic horror mystery, one that is inevitably unveiled and overcome by Sherlock Holmes’s unyielding logic and his power of deductive reasoning

o The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901-1902)

o Complete Works


· Horace Walpole – He wrote the first novel of “Gothic Horror,” combining a medieval setting, romance, tragedy and death with elements of the supernatural and horror.

o The Castle of Otranto (1764)

· Mary Shelley

o Frankenstein (1818)

· M. R. James – A medievalist scholar who wrote ghost stories in contemporary settings where the supernatural elements are unequivocal and often related to antiquarian objects.

o Ghost Stories by an Antiquary (1904)


· Sheridan Le Fanu[Dr. Martin Hesselius ]: Le Fanu is credited with creating the first occult/paranormal detective, Dr. Hesselius. Hesselius’ investigation and encounter with the lesbian vampire Carmilla predates Dracula by 26 years. Many stories are told via his medical secretary in a “frame narrative” device that became common in both detective (e.g. Sherlock Holmes’s Dr. Watson) and paranormal detective fiction (e.g. Carnacki’s Dodgson; and Prince Zaleski’s M.P. Shiel and Lucius Leffing’s Joseph Payne Brennan – i.e. the authors of these stories).

o In a Glass Darkly (1872) Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3

o Review Link 1and 2

· M. P. Shiel—[Prince Zaleski]: The prince is an exiled Russian nobleman who spends his days smoking cannabis and opium among his collection of curios from antiquity in his half-ruined abbey in Wales. Here, the author visits him seeking his help to solve mysteries that have baffled the greatest minds in England. Tales of ghosts, murder, severed fingers, inexplicable suicides, and cursed gems.

o Prince Zaleski (1895)

o Review Link

· Bram Stoker—[Dr. Abraham Van Helsing]: Helsing is an aged brilliant Dutch doctor of medicine, of law, of letters with a string of letters after his name as long as his arm. When Seward, a former student of Van Helsing, calls for his help regarding a mysterious illness that has beset Seward's love, Van Helsing diagnoses that she's a victim of vampirism. And the hunt begins.

o Dracula (1897)

· E & H Heron—[Flaxman Low]: The creation of the mother and son team whose real names are Hesketh Hesketh-Prichard and Kate O’Brien Ryall Pritchard, Low is described as “one of the leading scientists of the day” and an expert in the occult and that newfangled science: “psychology.” The authors are credited with creating the first psychologist detective as opposed to the first psychic detective.

o Ghosts (1899); also as Flaxman Low, Occult Psychologist, Collected Stories

o Review Links 1 and 2

· Algernon Blackwood—[John Silence]: Blackwoods’ prose is rich and evocative. Silence is an independently wealthy physician who takes cases, pro bono, that interest him, particularly those who suffer from psychic affliction. Where Flaxman Low and Thomas Carnaki make use of science to battle back the darkness, and later occult detectives like Lord Darcy, Titus Crow, and Harry Dresden employ magic, Silence employs the power of his mind like his natural detective predecessors Dupin, Hesselius, and Holmes and his gift (or learned skill: ”training at once physical, mental, and spiritual”) of psychic sensitivity

o John Silence, Physician Extraordinary (1908)

o Review Links 1 and 2

· William Hope Hodgson—[Thomas Carnaki]: Despite his Edwardian-steeped manners, diligent to the social hierarches and customs of his day, I submit Thomas Carnaki as the first “common man” occult detective. Not to say the refined bachelor of 472 Cheyne Walk is of overly modest means or unrefined, but he demonstrates relatable emotion, particular fear as appropriate to the soul-harrowing encounters to which he applies not only his power of deductive reasoning but both the science of his day, employing flash photography and electricity (e.g. the electric pentacle) as well as spiritual magic (e.g. the Signs of the Saaamaaa Ritual and rituals from the 14th century Sigdmund manuscript). Hodgson’s conception of cosmic horror strongly influenced Lovecraft and his “Circle,” while the transitional Carnaki served to influence authors of the “modern” paranormal detectives of the 20th century like Seabury Quinn(Jules de Grandin), and Manley Wade Wellman (John Thunstone), and others.

o Carnaki, The Ghost Finder (1913)

o Review Link 1 and 2


· Ella Scrymsour—[Sheila Crerar]: Crerar is the first female occult detective - pulp heroine. Orphan nineteen year-old Sheila Crerar of Scotland makes her way to London to find work, discovers her her psychic abilities, and puts out her shingle as supernatural investigator. Lacking both the quiet reserve, knowledge, and especially financial means of her occult detective predecessors, Sheila combats specters, ghouls, and werewolves directly with Scottish wits, daring, and physicality. 1st appearance 1920.

o Sheila Crerar, Psychic Investigator (1920)

o Review Link

· Seabury Quinn—[Jules de Grandin]: Paris-born de Grandin, now of Harrisonville, NJ is like many of his occult detective predecessors a physician and a man of great knowledge, yet like Sheila Crerar, he is ruthless in the excising of evil, be they human or supernatural; and he trusts more in blade or bullet than any magic or ancient ritual or blessings –e.g. put a big enough hole in a werewolf, and it suffices. First appearing in 1925, Quinn’s de Grandin was the most popular and frequently published character in Weird Tales, with a total of ninety-three tales written through 1951.

o The Complete Tales of Jules de Grandin Volume 1

o Sample Tale: Pledged to the Dead (1937)

o Review Link

· Robert E. Howard—[Steve Harrison]: Tales of weird menace faced head-on by the brawling police detective Steve Harrison.

o Steve Harrison: Detective of the Occult (2018), an ebook sampler of three tales

Review Link

· H. P. Lovecraft & C. J. Henderson—[Inspector Legrasse]: Legrasse is even more “common man” than Carnaki in that he lacks the latter’s awareness and knowledge of the supernatural. He is a Louisiana detective, tough and dedicated in his opposition to crime who does not seek out the occult, and could not conceive of its existence if he did, until the occult comes inescapably to him in the form of nothing less than dread Cthulhu. Appearing in but the one eponymous tale of that Great Old One, Legrasse’s awakening to the cosmic horrors outside mortal ken results in a strain on all he has heretofore accepted as true and “normal.” The emotional impact of the occult on the average detective is chronicled by author C. J. Henderson in a series of successive encounters.

o The Tales of Inspector Legrasse (2005)

o Story: The Call of Cthulhu (1928)

o Review Link

· Manly Wade Wellman—[Judge Pursuivant, John Thunstone, John The Balladeer]: Thunstone is similarly the occult detective-pulp action hero, a protector of the Earth and humanity. Armed with knowledge, weapons, and determination, he seeks out supernatural threats and eliminates them. 1st appearance in 1943. Unfortunately, inexpensive collections of Thunstone are currently rare.

o Goodreads listings

o Review Link

· August Derleth—[Dr. Laban Shrewsbury]: Shrewsbury, a professor of anthropology and philosophy of Miskatonic University stumbles upon the cosmic horrors of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos and takes the battle to them. Scarred and blinded in the fight, he perseveres using both his mind and magic, he accepts one small win at a time, temporary reprieves against malign powers so much greater than men. 1st story appearance in 1944.

o The Trail of Cthulhu (1962 )

o Review Link

· Joseph Payne Brennan—[Lucius Leffing]: Harking back to the tradition of the gentleman occult investigator who enjoys the comforts of his New Haven, CT home and has little inclination to room more than picking up pistol, blade, or enchanted paraphernalia to dispense justice upon evil. Leffing studies and unveils the mysteries of psychic disturbances, hauntings, and other supernatural disturbances with assured urbane proficiency and alacrity as told by his literary colleague, the author Joseph Brennan himself. 1st appearance 1962.

o Chronicles of Lucius Leffing (1977)

o Review Link

· Randall Garrett—[Lord Darcy]: For those who like alternate history with their paranormal detective where Richard the Lionheart’s descendants rule the Anglo-French Empire and the laws of magic have developed in place of the laws of physics up to the present day. 1st appeared in 1964.

o Murder and Magic Lord Darcy Volume 1 (2013)

o Review Link l

· Brian Lumley—[Titus Crow]: Psychic sleuth and occult investigator Titus Crow is in manner, intelligence, learning, and distinguished appearance like John Silence yet versed in both the use of science and magic as Thomas Carnaki and faced with the same Lovecraftian cosmic malign powers as Inspector LeGrasse and Laban Shrewsbury. 1st appearance in 1971.

o Titus Crow Volume 1

o Review link

· Lin Carter—[Anton Zarnak]: Zarnak’s past is a mystery and his moods are near-schizophrenic -- as is his residence that shifts from the exotic streets of London to New York to San Francisco by some unknown means. A physician, metaphysician, theologian, and musician, the breadth and depth of Zarnak’s knowledge is as uncanny as his appearance. At moments kind and at others caustic and ruthless, Zarnak is a catch-all of the best and worst qualities of the occult detectives that preceded him. 1st appearance 1989.

o Anton Zarnak, Supernatural Sleuth (2002)

o Review Link

OTHER LINKS: Tim Prasil of Brom Bone Books is an unequaled sleuth and depository of knowledge regarding occult/paranormal detective fiction as well as an author and publisher of the same. I heartily recommend the many well-researched articles at his website.

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Harlan is inescapable.

I spoke, by phone, with Harlan only once on a cold February night in 1995; but what I discovered while preparing for this panel is, for me, Harlan has always been present, sometimes where I never expected. It's a bit creepy. But it is also, in a strange (Strange Wine) sort of way, encouraging - even oddly comforting.

For all of his 5’2”, 5’4”, or (per his own claim) 5’5” of Napoleonic height, he has been a giant in “science fiction” (a term, we should note, he loathed while simultaneously recognizing his debt to the field and its fans) since his earliest days as a teenage convention fan until… well, even now, after his passing, as we gather together here at Arisia for this In Memoriam, and I suspect for decades perhaps centuries to come.

Ellison the man is as legendary as his creative works and both have been the subject of much acclaim and controversy and even, on occasion, condemnation.

In the revolutionary/evolutionary 1960’s, with award-winning stories like I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World, “’Repent Harlequin,’” Said the Ticktockman,” and A Boy and His Dog and with his seminal anthology Dangerous Visions, Harlan both led and shepherded the "New Wave" authors of science fiction - at least its sharper edge. His subject matter and skillful meticulous prose revealed the darker id-driven human underbelly of our times. He uncovered and shook in our faces the Jeffrey Dahmer corpse cutlets stocked within the freezer of Ozzie and Harriet.

For we who were initiated into science fiction by Golden Age authors like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Hal Clement and others who raised our eyes to the stars by the wonders and brighter future promised by science and technology, Harlan and his New Wave compatriots grabbed our chins and thrust our attention down into the gutter and drew our thoughts inward to issues of social consciousness, societal pretensions and injustices, and the gritty passions beneath our veneer of civility - both individually and as a species; “the heartache, and the thousand natural shocks/that flesh is heir to” upon which the Bard long-ago lamented.

Harlan brought our attention to the unaddressed un-redressed rot in our society, our species, with a tap to the cheek - albeit one with brass knuckles. He skewered our innocence and our naiveté while simultaneously thrilling us with his schadenfreude “Angry Candy” (fyi, a title of one of his later story collections that he borrowed from the last line of e. e. cummings' poem the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls:

“… the/moon rattles like a fragment of angry candy.”

The New Wave authors like Harlan demonstrated the power present through the vehicle of science fiction to convey meaning, not only by what was said but how it was said - i.e. the choice of narrative style, voice, tone, sentence structure, even words. Value and merit in story-telling once thought to be only the purview of “literary” fiction was, is, present in these tales. By this art, “genre” fiction was elevated. These speculative tales could be emotionally devastating, forcing the reader to ponder real human conceits and concerns on subjects ranging from prejudice, social injustice, and morality - even loyalty and love as, I submit, anyone who has read Ellison’s short story of love after the nuclear apocalypse, A Boy and His Dog, knows.

Harlan was... complex: outspoken, articulate, and unpredictable. His personality was one of stark contrasts, per those who knew him best. He was a man of:

“…intense loyalties, volcanic outbursts … a life that from the outside at least often appeared to be lived id first. ... To say he was complicated is not to mitigate his failings or to minimize his successes. It’s more to say that he lived his life enormously, in all directions.” – John Scalzi, LA TIMES JUN 28, 2018 | 3:15 PM

If one ascribes to the validity of the Myers-Brigg Type Indicator personality assessment, Harlan may likely have been of the rare INTJ personality type. That is, Introversion, Intuition, Thinking, Judgment.

INTJ types tend to believe that with effort, intelligence and consideration, nothing is impossible, while at the same time they believe that people are too lazy, short-sighted or self-serving to actually achieve those fantastic results. Yet that cynical view of reality is unlikely to stop an interested INTJ from achieving a result they believe to be relevant.
Rules, limitations and traditions are anathema to the INTJ personality type – everything should be open to questioning and reevaluation, and if they see a way, INTJs will often act unilaterally to enact their technically superior, sometimes insensitive, and almost always unorthodox methods and ideas. 16 Personalities.com

[Note: Harlan is actually quoted under the definition for the INTJ personality type at this website].

It has been proposed that the INTJ personality carries a risk for clinical depression. Regardless of one’s acceptance or skepticism of Myers-Brigg personality indicators, Harlan sadly did suffer from, and was clinically diagnosed with, clinical depression. I am not proposing this excuses his excesses, moments of insensitivity to others, or impulsive untoward behavior, but I do suggest it provides insight and a better objective understanding of the Harlan the man – and perhaps some of his stories; The Deathbird, for example. This 1974 Hugo winning novelette was written after the passing of his deeply beloved dog Abu - who was also Ellison’s inspiration for the telepathic canine Blood, in A Boy and His Dog and its pre/sequels.

Harlan’s been accused of being a womanizer and even a misogynist (e.g. for A Boy and His Dog), and yet Harlan wrote strong women characters such as Spike in Blood’s A Rover. Harlan protested for women’s rights and for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. He marched with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, Alabama. He also demanded that writers be paid and respected for their work.

He fought on behalf of all of us for recognition that writing is work – and that we, as writers, need acknowledge this as well. On the latter, as eulogized by Tor.com contributor Ryan Britt [Jun 28, 2018], Harlan was quite clear:

“…writing shouldn’t be looked upon as a ‘holy chore,’ but rather as real work… one that has to be labored at seriously in order to be done well.”

And much like a professional athlete,

"The fleetingness of brilliance, the hard-earned success of a writer in the face of repeated rejection, is summed up brilliantly in this Ellison quip: ‘The trick isn’t becoming a writer. The trick is staying a writer.’ Ellison’s belief in hard work being key to overcoming all obstacles.”

Apt words. Ones that I find myself contemplating quite often, presently. Well, perhaps “ruminating” would be the more appropriate gerund as I add my most recent rejection letter to the file I’ve accumulated this past year.

Is Harlan still relevant? I am of that “certain age " (i.e. a baby boomer). I suckled at The Glass Teat and have read SF and followed the SF community for over a half-century during which Harlan cast a tall shadow, one darker and deeper that those of the Golden Age greats who came before him. Per Darrell Schweitzer in a recent review of the Ellison biography A Lit Fuse:

“some booksellers have (said) that Ellison’s work is not ‘transgenerational’ and the kids today can’t make any sense of it” - The New York Review of Science Fiction – APR 2018

I am uncertain if this is true, but as I write and edit during this latter third of my life, for me Harlan is even more relevant. He shouts:

  • that good writing is work;

  • that as creative artists we have a responsibility to respect that our work has value and we should be paid for it;

  • that our work is ours. Changes to our work requires our consent;

  • that we have a responsibility not only to our craft but to our fellow on our little dustball, to awaken each other to injustices, to shake up society (and each other) where and whenever we need to be shaken;

  • to be wary of censorship;

  • to oppose ignorance and the false belief of entitlement:

"You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant.'

In preparing for this Arisia 2019 convention panel In Memoriam: Harlan Ellison, Harlan surprised me yet again:

I discovered that he’d been present, even inescapable, during all my more than half-century exposure to SFF. He'd been with me from the start - unknowingly to me, insidiously.

The very first two SF books I read as a child were The Runaway Robot by Lester Del Rey and Revolt on Alpha C by Robert Silverberg. Harlan had roomed with Lester and his wife in New York when he was starting out as a writer, and he was tuckerized as “Harl Ellison” in what was Bob Silverberg's first published novel.

In addition, one of my own earliest fantasy discoveries and writing influences was the Weird Tales author and poet Clark Ashton Smith. CAS, "the Emperor of Dreams," was a lesser known contemporary of the more famous and infamous H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Robert Bloch (of Psycho fame); and yet here again Harlan, my personal “Kilroy,” was there first:

I have no hesitation in saying had it not been for Clark Ashton Smith and the wonders he revealed to me, at that precise moment of my youth in which I was most malleable, most desperate for direction, I might well have gone in any one of the thousand other directions taken by my contemporaries, and wound up infinitely poorer in spirit, intellect, prestige and satisfaction than I am today. As I owe a great debt to science fiction as a whole, to fandom as a particular, and to the other writers who encouraged me in my work ... I owe the greatest of debts to Clark Ashton Smith, for he truly opened up the universe for me.
Letter on Clark Ashton Smith, by Harlan Ellison, from Emperor of Dreams: A Clark Ashton Smith Bibliography, Donald Sidney-Fryer. Donald M. Grant, 1978.

As for that long ago winter night’s conversation between Harlan and me “when biting Boreas, fell and doure / Sharp shivers thro’ the leafless bow’r,” I’ve yet to share it with anyone outside the family. Therefore, for now, I will first reserve it for the attendees to our upcoming Arisia panel. I’ll say only that, at the time, when I was self-consumed with my medical career and family, I’d yet to learn the lessons Uncle Harlan had been expounding upon for decades that I briefly mention above. On that lonesome dark winter night when the Maine winds blew Arctic cold and whipped snow against the windowpanes, I experienced both extremes of his legendary personality.

And was made the better for it.

Harlan, not unexpectedly, wrote his own epitaph:

“For a brief time I was here, and for a brief time, I mattered.” —Harlan Ellison, 1934-2018

I think he sells himself short.

[ I know. He’d likely verbally bludgeon, bruise, choke, and castrate me for the innocent use of that particular adjective. :D ]

R.I.P. Harlan.


Film-related - On Himself:

Film-related - From His Work:

  • A Boy and His Dog – The film is available to view on You Tube, but (recalling Harlan's view of a creator should be paid for his work) buy the DVD or watch it on Amazon Prime Video.

  • The Terminator/Soldier copyright lawsuit –James Cameron & The Ellison Dispute

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I. CAVEAT (“It Wasn’t Me!”)

Humor should not be dissected,

because nothing lives through dissection.

Blood's a Rover, Harlan Ellison, Subterranean Press [2018]

We can all agree that we often disagree on what is funny. Humor takes many forms: slapstick, satire, juvenile, sophisticated, droll, ironic, morbid, self-deprecating, caustic, farcical, witty, parodic. [See: 20 Types and Forms of Humor by Marc Nichol]. What one finds hilariously entertaining may cause another to yawn or furrow their brow and say, “I don’t get it,” or worse, become incensed: “That’s not funny!”

What makes you laugh? The Three Stooges slapping one another or Steven Wright’s dry deliver and play-on-words? Or both. A person’s sense of humor, I’ll propose, can be graphed as a parabolic curve. Some are narrow; some broad.

To make it more complex, this curve fluctuates with mood, age/experience, and even the company we are with.

The preceding is all a cautionary note, that our suggestions to you of “underappreciated genre” works of humor “beyond Adams and Pratchett” – and, I hope, yours to us during the Q&A that will follow – may not necessarily make you chuckle or even grin. But if it does… there’s nothing finer than sharing a good laugh.

And which of us on the panel have the best suggestions doesn’t matter. It is not a competition. We laugh at the suggestion (but I laugh more).


God's Final Message to His Creation: “We apologize for the inconvenience.”

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, Douglas Adams, Harmony Books, [1984]

Susan hated Literature. She'd much prefer to read a good book.

Soul Music, Terry Pratchett, Victor Gollancz, Ltd., [1994]

What makes the best humorous SFF? They are stories with relatable characters in absurd situations; relevant stories with humorous elements. A good joke may make you laugh, but a good SFF story will make you think, make you see the world, and perhaps yourself, a little differently.

In addition, the great humorists are masters of delivery. What is said is not as important as how one says it. Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett were masters of this. It is the style of their writing, their wordcraft, that distinguishes them. Both were British farcists (I can imagine both writing a Monty Python-like Hitlerian parody of the term), writing witty moral comedies involving extravagant improbable situations and characters. Of the two, I’d personally give the victor's wreath to Terry Pratchett, perhaps unfairly, because Douglas Adams tragically died so young. In addition to mastering humor through style, Terry I believe gained a greater skill in plotting. After the fourth Discworld novel, each subsequent book can stand alone despite shared characters and setting, but they are also richer when considered as part of the same greater Discworld story.

Nu? Therefore, if you like Adams and Pratchett, the following book series may interest you:

Robert Asprin (& Jody Lynn Nye): MythAdventuresAnother Fine Myth [1978] (Book 1 of 21)

  • “An outrageously tongue-in-cheek series tracing the haps and mis-haps of a young sorcerer named Skeeve and his brusque demon-mentor, Aahz (“Oz?” “No. No relation”). In the course of their travels, they lampoon every done-to-death plot of action-adventure-fantasy literature and cinema.”

Piers Anthony: XanthA Spell For Chameleon*(M) [1977] [2012](Book 1 of 41)

  • Also a "reworked edition" [2012].

  • Winner of the British Fantasy Society Award 1977. A lively and whimsical interpretation of a genre often criticized for taking itself too seriously. “Piers Anthony's Xanth series is a tongue-firmly-in-cheek affair, filled with awful puns about bad dreams delivered by horses — literal "night mares" — and corny jokes… A Spell for Chameleon is no fairytale, the princess is a crone and the prince's name is Bink. Seriously. Bink. But both Bink and Chameleon found the person who accepted them as they were — the very essence of magic.” [NPR.org]

  • *(M) misogynism concerns raised – Note: not an uncommon complaint for many a twentieth century work retrospectively assessed .

Christopher Stasheff – Warlock of Gramarye – The Warlock In Spite of Himself [1969] (Book 1 of 13)

  • A cross-genre series that blends, science fiction, fantasy, romance, mystery, and a little off-beat western at times. Not intentionally written as humor, for the most part, but funny naturally; situational humor, puns, etc.

  • "Rod Gallowglass is a man of science who does not believe in magic. Gramarye is a world of witches and warlocks. Of strange abilities and phenomena. A world where society mirrors Earth's own Middle Ages, and a world headed for doom. Rod Gallowglass must become a part of the local fabric to save the world from both itself and external forces that threaten its existence. But to do so, he must put aside his own convictions and beliefs, and become a warlock, in spite of himself."

Roger Zelazny and Robert Sheckley: The Millennial Contest – Bring Me The Head of Prince Charming [1991] (Book 1 of 3)

  • "People feared, back in the Middle Ages, that the world would end with the millennium. They weren’t wrong. It does this every millennium, only nobody notices—except for the Forces of Good and Evil who vie for control of the universe every thousand years. Azzie’s proposal to the Powers of Dark is simple: He will create a Prince Charming and a Sleeping Beauty. In time-honored fairy-tale fashion, the prince will fight his way through numerous perils to reach the side of the spellbound princess—at which point Azzie’s evil twist will ensure that the Powers of Dark will win the grand prize. But even with an unlimited satanic credit card to order up any evil he needs, Azzie’s plan is in trouble from the beginning."

L. Sprague DeCamp – NovariaThe Fallible Fiend [1973] (Book 1 of 6)

  • "The demon Zdim was happy with his philosophy on the Twelfth Plane, until he was conjured to Prime Plane to serve the human wizard Maldivius. There, to a logical fiend, men seemed wholly irrational. He was ordered to eat the first being to enter a sanctum, then beaten for devouring the wizard's apprentice. But war came to the city of Ir. The role of savior should have gone to a hero out of the legends. But there was only Zdim — and he was fallible."

Ira Neyman – Transdimensional AuthorityWelcome to the Multiverse [2014] (Book 1 of 3)

  • When a dead body is found slumped over a modified transdimensional machine, rookie Noomi Rapier of the Transfdimensional Authority investigates. Her investigation leads to a variety of realities where Noomi comes face-to-face with four very different incarnations of herself, forcing her to consider how the choices she makes and the circumstances into which she is born determine who she is. Ira’s style is at times surreal, even off-the-wall, with the humor flying at you from unexpected angles; he describes it as fractal humor.

For stand-alone novels in the Adams and Pratchett vein:

Philip Jose Farmer (as Kurt Vonnegut's Kilgore Trout) – Venus on the Half Shell*(NP) [1974]

  • Simon Wagstaff, the last surviving human being after the Earth gets destroyed in a second Great Flood caused by an alien race that goes around the universe cleaning planets. He escapes in an abandoned space craft that just happens to pass by, encounters many strange aliens with strange customs and has strange adventures, while he travels to the most distant corners of the multiverse, to seek out the answers to the questions no one can seem to answer. Sound familiar? All he’s missing is a towel which, after the Great Flood, he is in greater need of one than Arthur Dent; but Venus On the Half Shell was published in 1974, four years before The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy first aired as an audio drama on BBC radio. [1974]

  • *(NP) Not for the prudish. Sexual content as per Kurt Vonnegut's depiction of Kilgore Trout in Vonnegut's own work [e.g. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater].

Catherynne M. Valente – Space Opera [2018]

  • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy meets the joy and glamour of Eurovision.”

Isidore Haiblum – The Tsaddik of the Seven Wonders [1971]

  • “The tsaddik wanders around through time & space, while a wisecracking Retief/James Bond sort of figure from a galactic bureaucracy accidentally rescues a Polish princess. Eventually they all meet to fight an intergalactic real estate conspiracy, culminating in a climactic battle between hordes of demons & time-hopping Hasidim in a Polish castle. 60s psychedelia meets Yiddish humor." - iO9


The best thing about “the good old days”

Is that we were neither good nor old.

Literary humorous SFF: This is not an oxymoron [a term, I imagine, Pratchett or Anthony would animate as an unintelligent bovine]. I propose two types:

1. Humorous SFF set in the literary worlds of other authors:

L. Sprague DeCamp and Fletcher Pratt (& others) –The Incomplete Enchanter; - Collection – The Mathematics of Magic

  • Psychologist Harold Shea and his colleagues are propelled back into versions/worlds of a mythic or literary past: Norse, Irish, and Persian mythologies; the Finnish epic Kalevala, the literary worlds of Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queene, Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Samuel Coleridge’s Xanadu in his poem Kubla Khan, as well as Frank L. Baum’s Oz and even Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom, and more. Shea has a terrible time coming to terms with the local customs in worlds where magic and fictional science works.

  • Link to more about the tales of Harold Shea.

John Myers Myers – Silverlock

  • From John Adcox’s 2009 Review: "Silverlock is a booklover’s book, sure. But more importantly, it’s fun. There are battles, quests, love lost and won, drinking bouts, and enough adventure to fill a library. Which is, of course, fitting. There are belly laughs a plenty, and songs you’ll ache to sing. (Accompanied by) the bard Golias (a.k.a. Orpheus, Widsith, Amergin, Taliesin, and pretty much every other bard name you can think of from myth and legend), he encounters the witch Circe from Greek myth, Beowulf, Robin Hood, Puck, the Mad Hatter, Oedipus, Hamlet, Pangloss, Don Quixote, Faustopheles, and…well, dozens of other characters from myth, lore, legend, and literature…This isn’t just any island. It’s an allegorical place in the most mythic sense. It’s the Commonwealth of Letters, and it changes you. Chapter by chapter, we see Shandon… tempered and reshaped until, at last… he (transforms from) someone that’s easy to loath… into someone we can admire (and relate to)."

2. Humorous SFF written by literary authors

Mark Twain – A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (public domain)

James Branch Cabell – Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice (public domain) (free audio)

  • Jurgen is a rogue, and yet a pitiable schlemiel; an aging pawnbroker and his quest for lost love and coming to terms with his mortality. He is also a lascivious rogue who while devil-relieved of his nagging wife, sets off to rescue her. The tale is replete with sexual innuendos, but they are a mere sidebar.

  • “Cabell’s approach is a unique mixture of extreme romanticism and extreme cynicism, by turns achingly poetic and wildly funny, but ultimately the cynicism tends to win out. Successive chapters in Jurgen are titled “Of Compromises in…” various places, and compromises form the heart of the novel. Despite having the love of stunning beauties – Dorothy la Désirée, Guenevere, Anaïtis the Lady of the Lake and Chloris the hamadryad, and even having the opportunity to love Helen of Troy – it’s his comfortable home and his nagging wife that he wants back. Just not too quickly.” – Nyki Blatchely, Fantasy Faction, 2011.

  • Links: About Jurgen, Cabell's obscenity trial, and fame. Also Is Jurgen for You?

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. – Slaughterhouse Five and The Sirens of Titan

  • “Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.” - Slaughterhouse Five, Delacorte, [1969]

  • “When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is: ‘So it goes.’ -Slaughterhouse Five, Delacorte, [1969].


There are tales that promote themselves as humor, and then there are others with moments of humor in standard SFF tales that make us smile and even laugh aloud because we love (sometimes love-hate) the characters.

1. Series:

Jim Butcher – Harry Dresden of The Dresden Files

  • More a smartass caring wizard than rogue, in my humble opinion.

  • “The building was on fire, and it wasn’t my fault.” – Blood Rites, Roc, [2004].

  • “That’s the problem with you nearly immortal types,” I said. “You couldn’t spot a pop culture reference if it skittered up and implanted an embryo down your esophagus.” – Small Favor, Roc, [2009].

Harry Harrison – “Slippery” James Bolivar diGriz of The Stainless Steel Rat

  • Likable rogue; a thief turn law man.

  • “A hero who dares to do what we only daydream about. He's a rebel, an outsider. He is intelligent, quick-witted, with a sense of humor, and a seemingly endless supply of great high-tech gadgets. He values his own freedom and individuality, but at the same time he is a person who values life, all life: in ten novels he has only ever killed once, and then only in defense and with great reluctance and regret.” – Paul Tomlinson, 1999.

Keith Laumer – Jame Retief of The Corps Diplomatique

  • The sane man among rogues and fools. "Retief is a James Bond among timid, ass-covering diplomats; a hilarious satire where the diplomatic team proves its utter inability to negotiate its way out of a paper bag, followed by a James Bond story where Retief smoothly and debonairly accomplishes what entire government task forces could not, followed by more hilarious satire as the team of idiots attempts to claim credit for it."

  • The Retief tales were inspired by Laumer’s experience working with diplomats while in the United States Foreign Service.

Jack Vance – Cugel the Clever of The Dying Earth

  • Cugel is a rogue, an antihero. His self-appointed cognomen “the Clever” is akin to President Trump calling himself “the greatest President.” Yet for what befalls Cugel while he plans and schemes, he is both a schlimazel who evokes our sympathy and laughter.

Stephen Brust – Vlad Taltos of Jhereg

  • Jhereg is sort of a crime/mystery story. But rather than solve a crime, Vlad must figure out how to perpetrate one... Jhereg reads like a fantastic and slightly off-kilter version of a Golden Age crime story (with the) focus is on Vlad’s ingenuity (with) witty banter, snarky sidekicks, and action.” - Fletcher Vredenburgh, Black Gate.

  • Link: About the Vlad Taltos series.

2. Other Classic Tales Worth Mentioning:

Roger Zelazny – Trumps of Doom

  • Among other things, Merlin/Merle must deal with the mess left by his father in the first Chronicles of Amber series.

  • “I heard a crashing noise. A horned and tusked purple thing went racing along the ridge to my right pursued by a hairless orange-skinned creature with long claws and a forked tail. Both were wailing in different keys. I nodded. It was just one damned thing after another.” Trumps of Doom, , Arbor House, [1985].

Roger Zelazny (again) – A Night in the Lonesome October

Carol Carr – Look, You Think You Got Troubles? and Harlan Ellison – Searching For Kadak

  • These Carr and Ellison short stories are found in the anthology Wandering Stars by Jack Dann, a collection of Jewish SFF. The style and voice used in telling the tales and, admittedly, the type of self-deprecating yet pointed humor that for me is nostalgic, recalling my relatives when I was a child, made these stories particularly delightful for me.

Frederic Brown – From These Ashes

  • The original SF master of the short-short story.

  • Opening hook for the classic Brown short story Knock: “The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door …”

Robert Sheckley – Store of the Worlds

  • “Sheckley’s brand of humor is based on parody, allusion, satire, and word-play with ideas from all walks of popular culture and history, but especially from the conventions and traditions of science fiction and related genres.” – Greg Johnson, SFSite.

  • “A number of his stories could be called "farces of misunderstanding" -- situations in which two different cultures, or races, or species, are unable to understand each other, usually because of radically different world-views and assumptions.” – David Horwich, Strange Horizons, 2000.

  • E.g. The Monsters, a biting, very disturbing, social parody on perspectives. Who decides what is moral; and what is "human?"

Harvard Lampoon – Bored of the Rings

  • The quintessential, and the first and best, Lord of the Rings parody.


  1. Peter David – Sir Apropos of Nothing

  2. Catherynne M. Valente – Space Opera

  3. Tom HoltWhose Afraid of Beowulf?

  4. Christopher MooreLamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal

  5. Alex Shvartsman – Unidentified Funny Objects anthologies [1 of 7 to date] and his collection Explaining Cthulhu to Grandma

  • The Unidentified Funny Objects series delivers an annual dose of funny, zany, and unusual science fiction and fantasy stories.

  • “From satire to situations of pure irony, from fiendishly dark humor to quirky little scenarios, almost every style of humor is covered, which is a feat in of itself.” – Jeremy Szal, Strange Horizons, 2015.

And a shameless promotion (i.e. demonstration of chutzpah) for:

6. Frank Dutkiewicz – A Green Tongue and K. L. Schwengel – Last Time For Everything*

  • Two authors whose short stories I found delicious in their use of humor. So I selected them to appear in the 3rd and Starlight [2017] anthology (edited by yours truly).

  • And, since you are so nice, I’ve made the Kindle ebook ***FREE TO DOWNLOAD*** on Amazon during my Arisia visit January 18th and 19th, 2019.

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