1946 was a very good year indeed for sci-fi’s foremost husband-and-wife writing team, Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore. Besides placing a full dozen stories (including the acknowledged classic “Vintage Season”) into various magazines of the day, the pair also succeeded in having published three short novels in those same pulps. The first, The Fairy Chessmen, which was released in the January and February issues of Astounding Science-Fiction, was a remarkable combination of hardheaded modernist sci-fi and almost hallucinatory reality twists. Valley of the Flame, from the March issue of Startling Stories, was an exciting meld of jungle adventure, Haggardian lost-world story and unique fantasy. And that summer, in Startling Stories again, the team came out with The Dark World, a work that is pretty much a “hard” fantasy with some slight scientific leavening.
In this one, the American flier Edward Bond is whisked from the Pacific theatre during WWII and transported to the eponymous Dark World, an alternate Earth that has diverged from its parent in space as well as time. His counterpart on the Dark World, Ganelon, head of a coven of mutated overlords who are busy keeping that realm subjugated, is sent to our Earth with Bond’s memories. The book’s plot is difficult to synopsize, and gets a bit complicated when Ganelon is brought back to the Dark World sometime later, his body now housing two distinct minds and personalities. Thus, the understandably mixed-up warlock can’t quite decide whether or not to help his fellow “Covenanters” wipe out the forest-dwelling rebels, or join those rebels and destroy the Coven, not to mention the dreaded, sacrifice-demanding entity known as Llyr. Though called the Coven, Ganelon’s fellows number only four, and include Medea, a beautiful vampire who feeds on life energies; Matholch, a lycanthrope; Edeyrn, a cowled, childlike personage whose power the authors choose not to reveal until the novel’s end; and Ghast Rhymi, an ancient magus whose origin really did surprise this reader.
Peopled with colorful characters as it is, and featuring a nicely involved plot and ample scenes of battle, sacrifice, magic and spectacle, this little book (the whole thing runs to a mere 126 pages) really does please. That small scientific admixture that I mentioned earlier takes the form of rational explanations for the vampire, werewolf and Edeyrn phenomena; these explanations, while not exactly deep or technical, do tend to make the fantastic characters on display here slightly more, well, credible. But for the most part, The Dark World is a somber fantasy, and a darn good one, at that. Not for nothing was it selected for inclusion (as was Valley of the Flame) in James Cawthorn and Michael Moorcock‘s excellent overview volume Fantasy: The 100 Best Books. “I consider the work of Henry Kuttner to be the finest science fantasy ever written,” says Marion Zimmer Bradley in a blurb on the front cover of the 1965 Ace paperback (with a cover price of 40 cents) that I just finished, and readers of The Dark World will probably not feel inclined to give her argument.