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Worlds Beyond Worlds, by John R. Fultz

reviewed by Graham Thomas Wilcox

Issue #2, Autumn 2022

   A specter is haunting sword-and-sorcery. Since the first large-scale sword-and-sorcery revival in the 1970s, criticism has been leveled at the subgenre for reasons almost beyond count or care. Sword-and-sorcery has been (and still is) cast as mindless escapism, a haven for retrograde attitudes, and as derivative dreck (the “Clonan” phenomenon of yore). All aspersions applicable to most any genre of fiction—Sturgeon’s Law, even more than Murphy’s, ever reigns supreme—but the consistency with which critics have applied these labels to sword-and-sorcery can sometimes lead fans to wonder: are we, perhaps, the baddies? Is the specter of Clonanism—among other concerns—inescapable? Did the genre reach its peak in the days of Howard, Moore and Smith—with a Silver Age ushered in by Moorcock, Lee, Shea, and Wagner et al.? Do we even now toil in a fallen epoch, retreading forevermore the well-worn paths of our elders, our betters? 

The answer, as provided by the myriad authors of the modern sword-and-sorcery revival, is (of course) a resounding no. As readers and fans of sword-and-sorcery, we’re lucky to have some of these answers, whether it be the conscious Howardian revivalism of Scott Oden’s Grimnir novels, the Vancian vistas of Sky Hernstrom’s “Gift of the Ob-men,” or the genre-melding splendor inherent to the works of authors like E. Catherine Tobler, Laird Barron and R.K. Duncan. We are lucky indeed to have authors who manage each of these qualities in one collection, an accomplishment realized in John R. Fultz’s latest work, Worlds Beyond Worlds.

Worlds Beyond Worlds collects John R. Fultz’s recent (2010-2018) sword-and-sorcery short fiction, and was  published by DMR Books in 2021. The volume contains eleven short stories, published originally in myriad anthologies and literary magazines, ranging in tone from mythopoetic (“Chivaine”) to cosmic horror (“Strange Days in Old Yandrissa”) and dark fantasy (“Ten Thousand Drops of Holy Blood”). 

Though almost every story in the anthology slots into the sword-and-sorcery genre without issue (shorter tales like “Oorg” may stretch the definition), Fultz invests his writing with an alchemical experimentation that borrows and remixes elements from other sub-genres without losing its foundation in two-fisted action-adventure. There is an element of the gothic and the folktale in Fultz’s prose that adds to, rather than subtracts from, the atmosphere of his stories in a fashion similar to Clark Ashton Smith and Tanith Lee. Yet, Fultz’s work also includes powerful, character-driven violence with a frequency beyond those aforementioned masters. This heightens the drama, the weirdness, and the bittersweet tragedy of his tales.

Indeed, bittersweet might be the watchword for the entire anthology. Fultz often juxtaposes the prominent violence in his narratives against the emotional and mental suffering of his protagonists: melancholy and doom pervade the stories collected herein, though Fultz is careful never to smother all hope. Indeed, several of the best stories in the collection, such as “Chivaine” and “Yael of the Strings,” combine bloody melee, melancholic—even tormented—heroes, and all the concomitant tragedy resulting therefrom with endings that, if not exactly comfortable, do afford some measure of light amid the darkness.

“Chivaine,” whose plot provides the stunning cover-art by Brian LeBlanc, was my favorite story in the collection, and typifies those qualities that vault Fultz to the forefront of the modern sword-and-sorcery revival. A tale of an undead knight making war upon barbarians from the utmost North, “Chivaine” manages an antique atmosphere reminiscent of a chivalric romance, or perhaps the more gothic brand of fairy-tale. Replete with a sense of longing and doom, “Chivaine” nevertheless ends on a hopeful (though not saccharine) note. Fultz’s prose, quick pacing, and strongly sketched characters are all on display here, and the story constitutes a powerful opening to the anthology.

“Daughter of the Elk Goddess” proves another highlight. A pastiche of Clark Ashton Smith’s Hyperborea, first published in Cody Goodfellow’s excellent Deepest, Darkest Eden: New Tales of Hyperborea, “Daughter of the Elk Goddess” is—setting aside—wholly Fultz’s own. Fultz does not ape Smith’s distinctive, lush prose but instead stamps his own mark on the demon-haunted wastelands of Smith’s antediluvian continent. The story follows a barbarian hunter accompanying a sacral princess (the eponymous daughter of the elk goddess) on a mission through the dangerous mountains of the Voormis. Here Fultz’s worldbuilding shines: he evokes a dying, frosted world populated by mammoth-hunting tribesmen, gods-obsessed citydwellers and strange, alien things. Everything built upon Smith’s foundation, of course, but the end-product is all Fultz: action drives the plot along at rapid pace, the characters are melancholy without succumbing to mopiness, and the ending is grim without descending into parody.

John R. Fultz is, like many of his fellow sword-and-sorcery revivalists, perhaps underappreciated and under-read in his time. A condition endemic to sword-and-sorcery as a whole (certain outliers excepted), and detrimental to its authors, who (like any artists) deserve fair compensation for their work. If one were to find a silver-lining, it might be that this marginalization of the subgenre has perhaps contributed to its status as literary borderland, a place where various influences and subgenres might meet, mix and otherwise contact one another and thereby produce works of startling imagination and profound storytelling that could not otherwise have been created. A fitting testament, one might think, to a genre so often focused on the outcast, the renegade, and other such marginalized persons. 

Fultz’s work in Worlds Beyond Worlds continues this tradition of experimentation, of diversity, of genre-mixing and remixing, of telling small tales with big characters that can, in many ways, affect stronger emotional resonance than the wider lens employed in epic fantasy and its associated subgenres. One hopes that, as the sword-and-sorcery revival gathers steam, we may see more of Fultz’s literary vision in the future.  

About the Author

   Graham Thomas Wilcox is an author and freelance editor. He lives near the Atlantic coast with his wife and their two dogs.

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