The Plain People of Gaming: Otherworld (1)

Some of the fantasists of the early 20th century are arguable more popular and well-known than they were when they were alive. HP Lovecraft or Robert Howard, for example, with their Cthulhu and Conan tales cast titanic shadows over the fantasy genre. Other writers have slipped into comparative obscurity, like the wonderful James Branch Cabell. And then there are those who have a small but devoted following, like the Canadian academic L. S. Pierton.

Comparable perhaps to Burroughs in tone, if not in talent, Pierton is best known for his Kalamane Cycle, a series of adventures involving the brooding alchemist-swordsman Kalamane and his travels through the Night Jungle, the impenetrably thick and perilous forest that has swallowed much of the world. His first published work, though, was A Journey to the Otherworld, where a traveller from 1925 is magically transported to the Night Jungle by means of a mysterious scroll. The misadventures of Pierton’s transparent alter-ego “Professor Bravo” found little purchase among readers, but sales were just sufficient to convince the publisher, S.C. Griggs, to ask for a sequel focusing on the supporting cast. Professor Bravo shows up in a handful of other stories written by Pierton, but never again takes centre stage.

By 1932, Pierton’s ill health and inability to meet deadlines forced his editor to bring in a series of ghost writers. The first of these, Kalamane & the Witch of Enzar, is infamous as the ‘book that it killed the author’. Shortly after it was published, Griggs’ received a large parcel of papers and background notes from Pierton detailing his ‘observations’ of the world of the Night Jungle. Apparently, the ghost writer’s deviations from Pierton’s ideal so appalled the writer than he completely withdrew from public life and was never seen again. As reviews of Witch of Enzar were considerably better than those of the previous books in the series, Pierton’s reaction elicited little response from Griggs. Ghost writers on the series sometimes drew from Pierton’s notes for inspiration to some degree – as Witch of Enzar is the only book that was definitely written without any input from Pierton, some fans still argue it should be excluded from the canon.

The last Otherworld book from Griggs came out in 1938. For many years, fans debated whether this was due to dwindling sales or the unexpected suicide of regular ghost writer Cyril Browne. It wasn’t until much later than diligent research in the pages of 80’s fanzine Boat on the Azkar revealed a court case between S.C. Griggs and “J. Pierton”, a woman who claimed to be Pierton’s daughter and heir, who demanded the return of the notes. The case was thrown out of court after she threatened Griggs’ lawyer with a ‘replica dagger’, but the gap in the publishing schedule sank the series for many years. Like her alleged father, “J. Pierton” was never seen again.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that the series returned to life. By now, the firm of S.C. Griggs was long gone, and the rights to Pierton’s work were now owned by Arrow Books. While Miriam Benedash (writing under the pseudonym James Canton) could have found another publisher for her tales of the Night Jungle, only Arrow Books had Pierton’s notes in their archives. Benedash drew on these notes, using them to lend substance and structure to her almost dream-like depictions of the Otherworld. Her writing was considerably more vivid and compelling than Pierton’s, and introduced a new generation to the world of Kalamane. A selection of earlier novels in the series was reprinted with suitably lurid covers to cash in on Benedash’s success.

This success was regrettably short-lived. Benedash suffered a mental breakdown in 1974, and was committed to a hospital by her family. The manuscript for her last book was sold to a private collector instead of Arrow Books.

The 1980s brought a smaller resurgence of interest. There was a short-lived cartoon adaptation of the Kalamane cycle that largely ignored Benedash’s books, together with a more extensive comic-book series that covered most of A Journey to the Otherworld through to The Temple of the Emerald Eye. There was even a table-top roleplaying game set in the Night Jungle; a battered copy of it showed up in the GenCon charity auction in 2012, but was stolen before it could be sold.

The strangest latter-day incarnation of the Otherworld, though, is undoubtedly the Night Jungle theme park, built in Florida in the early 1990s by an eccentric millionaire. According to urban legend, this theme park covers some fifty acres of swampland, and contains dozens of attractions and rides based on locations from the Otherworld books. The park never opened to the public; a chemical spill polluted the land around the park, making it dangerously toxic. Photographs of an expedition to the theme park show that the abandoned buildings have been taken over by all sorts of dangerous wildlife, and there is some evidence of human habitation despite the environmental danger.

The Night Jungle theme park is one of the legends associated with Pierton’s legacy. Another is referred to online as “the Syndicate”. This myth claims that there is an organised conspiracy or corporation dedicated to acquiring material related to the Otherworld for some nefarious purpose. Devotees of this theory point to Benedash’s last manuscript or the disappearance of comic book artist Jeffrey Smythe as ‘proof’ of this sinister conspiracy.

Despite its obscurity, the Otherworld series has filtered a little into popular culture. For example, in 2009, the United States Fish & Wildlife Service nicknamed a mysterious invasive weed in discovered in southern Georgia as ‘Nightflowers’, after the similar plant in the Night Jungle stories.

Next month: Otherworld Characters

4 Responses to “The Plain People of Gaming: Otherworld (1)”

  1. J A G says:

    Hiyas!

    Fabulous piece. I’ve never heard of this writer before. Must seek his works… Maybe Project Guttenberg?

  2. Tim B. says:

    Would this make a suitable setting for 13th Age? Are there figures/factions that could qualify as icons?

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