“Mysteries of the Faceless King” — THE BEST SHORT FICTION OF DARRELL SCHWEITZER, Volume 1 of 2. (April 2020)

Every young aspiring author needs a mentor. Some of us are lucky enough to get a good writing teacher in school, some of us find our mentors by pure luck, while others pursue a mentor because we’re drawn to them by the exceptional quality of their work. So what’s the difference between an “apprentice writer” and a fan? The apprentice writer WRITES, and keeps writing, and keeps taking advice from the mentor in the ongoing crusade to improve the work. As the old song goes “Everybody needs somebody…”

Back when I was a starry-eyed college student at the University of Kentucky (circa ’88 – ’91), I took a couple of creative writing classes that really unlocked my passion and set me on a path to becoming a storyteller. About that time I discovered Marvin Kaye’s WEIRD TALES: The Magazine That Never Dies anthology—which led me directly to the Terminus/Owlswick run of WEIRD TALES magazine edited by Darrell Schweitzer and George Scithers. This dynamic due had revived the mag in 1988, and they kept it going strong (despite the odd hiatus now and then) until 2007. Along the way they won a World Fantasy Award as an editorial team. The Terminus/Owlswick run remains a high point in WT history, which stretches all the way back to 1923.

I wrote story after story in my Creative Writing classes at UK, and I sent most of them to WEIRD TALES hoping to get published. It was my favorite magazine, and if I could get published there that would really mean something. I didn’t really know what I was doing yet, but I was determined. What kept me going was the advice editor Darrell Schweitzer gave me with every rejection. He pointed out to me where I was making rookie mistakes, where I needed to focus my efforts, and he even turned me onto Lord Dunsany, whose elegant and lyrical prose I began to study with a vengeance.

I was already a huge fan of Schweitzer’s fiction–his story “Mysteries of the Faceless King” in the above-mentioned Kaye anthology had set me on a path to finding more of his stories–which I found not only in the pages of WT, but also in mags like ADVENTURES OF SWORD-AND-SORCERY, SPACE & TIME, and INTERZONE. If I hadn’t been such a fan of Darrell’s fiction, he wouldn’t have been such a powerful mentor for me. Likewise, if Darrell had blown me off with “standard” rejections, I wouldn’t have gotten any advice to make my work better.

I kept sending in stories–every few years I’d send a new one—and every time I’d get back a polite rejection that included a hand-written critique and advice. From Darrell. Always from Darrell. That’s what a mentor does—he gives good advice. Boy, did I listen. And I applied those lessons every time I wrote something new.

I found out later that George Scithers (WT co-editor) had been a mentor to the young Darrell. So maybe DS was “paying it forward” by fostering a young no-name talent like myself. Whatever the case, this gifted author whom I’d never met in person became my writing mentor—my literary sensei—and I kept producing new efforts off-and-on for the next 15 years. I should note here that DS didn’t just publish me out of pity—he was ruthless in his critiques of my work—but he was also enlightening. Inspiring. I turned my raw frustration into a passion for improvement. Storytelling is a discipline like any other, and the only way to get better is to keep telling stories.

Weird Tales #340

Cut to 2004: After a decade-and-a-half of trying, I finally produced a story that impressed Darrell enough to buy it for WEIRD TALES. That tale was “The Persecution of Artifice the Quill,” which I wrote after an epiphany that came from reading one of Fritz Leiber’s FAFHRD & THE GREY MOUSER books. “Artifice the Quill” ran in WEIRD TALES #340 in 2006, and –voila!– I was now a published writer. It had taken me 15 years, but I had finally learned how to write a good story.

I sold Darrell two more tales set in the “Artifice” universe, but the magazine changed editoral hands in 2007 before either of those stories were published. They ended up going to BLACK GATE magazine and are now collected with all of the Artifice-related tales in THE REVELATIONS OF ZANG. But selling that first story—to the mentor who had been supporting my evolution for so long—was a major turning point.

Along the way I discovered tons more great Schweitzer stories—in his various collections mainly—and in the magazines that were wise enough to publish his work. After moving to Chicago in ’96, I read his phenomenal third novel MASK OF THE SORCERER, which I consider to be one of the best fantasy novels ever written. As a master of the short story form, Darrell didn’t write novels very often. There was also THE WHITE ISLE, his first novel, and THE SHATTERED GODDESS, his second. I love all three of these books, but MASK is the jewel in Darrell’s literary crown. I recommend it to pretty much every fantasy reader I meet.

Darrell’s first love is the short story, and he’s written over 400 published tales since the early 70s, when his work started appearing in every issue of Paul Ganley’s original WEIRDBOOK run. He’s been producing new short stories almost nonstop his entire career, collecting them every few years in brilliant anthologies such as REFUGEES FROM AN IMAGINARY COUNTRY, TOM O’BEDLAM’S NIGHT OUT, NECROMANCIES AND NETHERWORLDS, NIGHTSCAPES, WE ARE ALL LEGENDS, THE GREAT WORLD AND THE SMALL, and EMPEROR OF THE ANCIENT WORD (et. al.). Ask anyone who knows what they’re talking about, and they will tell you that Darrell Schweitzer is an acknowledged master of the short-story form. His stories are spells cast from the hand of a literary sorcerer. A veritable word wizard, if you will.

“The Last Heretic” — THE BEST SHORT FICTION OF DARRELL SCHWEITZER, Volume 2 of 2. (April 2020)

So it’s about time someone published a retrospective looking back across Darrell’s long and distinguished career. England’s PS Publishing is making it happen. Next month they’re releasing a two-volume hardcover collection of Schweitzer’s best work. The stories included were chosen by Darrell himself, and each volume includes a brand-new story as well. “Mysteries of the Faceless King” is the first book (incidentally named after the tale that made me an instant Schweitzer fan), and “The Last Heretic” is the second book. PS is taking pre-orders right now at the above links. This will be a limited print run, so get yours while the getting is good.

Cover art is by the talented Jason Van Hollander, a frequent Schweitzer collaborator. And yes, that’s Darrell’s severed head floating in the iron cage or jar, hanging above two different urban weirdscapes. I’m used to seeing Darrell’s face wear a charming smile—he’s one of the world’s biggest Three Stooges fans—but having your head removed and stuck in a jar would put a grimace on anybody’s mug. At second glance I notice that the disembodied head has sprouted a couple of tiny clawed legs. Great example of Van Hollander’s phantasmagorical style, which is a perfect match for Darrell’s weird prose.

Jason Van Hollander’s eerie cover for WT #313 (1998)

Two master storytellers: Schweitzer and Poe. Pic taken at the 2009 World Fantasy Con in San Jose, celebrating Poe’s 200th birthday with red velvet cake and a spot of absinthe. Good times!

I’m proud to say that my longtime mentor has, over the years, also become my friend. After corresponding for over a decade, I was able to meet Darrell in person for the first time back at the 2006 Worldcon, and I’ve spent time with him at every one of the World Fantasy Conventions that I’ve been lucky enough to attend. He’s a font of historical and literary wisdom, especially concerning the history of fantasy and sci-fi fandom; he seems to know everybody who’s anybody, and they all know him. His quick sense of humor is a defining quality, something you might never guess from reading his darkest works. Now and then he channels that sense of humor into his fiction, most notably in stories such as his Tom O’Bedlam tales, which read like Terry Gilliam directing the Three Stooges on acid—surreal and metaphysical takes about the link between magic and madness.

Darrell is, in one respect, the fantasy world’s best kept secret. While not yet a household name, the quality and originality of his work towers far above the man himself, and fantasy enthusiasts know it. He is a humble and dedicated servant of the written word, an ever-present stalwart of fandom, and an inexhaustible bookseller. (He even wears a button that reads “May I shamelessly try to sell you a book?” And he will.)

Darrell at a recent convention panel.

For me he will always be—first-and-foremost—one of my favorite authors to ever walk this planet. But he’s also a buddy I’m lucky to have, one who encouraged me when nobody else did. One who believed in my talent and continues to do so, even when the world tells me I don’t matter. Darrell’s work continues to be a massive inspiration to me and to countless others.

Salute to PS Publishing for recognizing Darrell Schweitzer’s greatness while he’s still around to see it. His hardcore fans will snap up these BEST OF hardcovers immediately, and I hope a whole new legion of fans will discover in these volumes something they didn’t even know they were missing. Something wonderful and strange, born screaming and clawing from one of the world’s greatest imaginations.

Master fantasists don’t come along every day, so we need to celebrate them while we can.

Let the celebration begin.