"I can imagine," said my friend. "This is the center of a secret, sinister cult. They're a gang of illegal immigrants from Kafiristan, where the ancient paganism survives. They worship a cthonian deity, which is in fact a gelatinous being that oozes its way through solid rock..."
"Why not go in and see?" I said.
L. Sprague de Camp wrote these tales in the 1970s, publishing many of them in places like The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Fantastic Stories. They take place at various points in the life of one W. Wilson Newbury, a mild-mannered banker who routinely wanders into implausible events and encounters creatures, characters, and tropes from the horror, science fiction and (in particular) fantasy genres.
While they're a fun read, the collection overall lacks the quality of de Camp's influential Tales from Gavagan's Bar (co-authored with Fletcher Pratt). They're of a similar nature, however. Some ordinary-seeming guy tells an improbable tale that involves impossible creatures or events, concludes by making an observation or (usually cheesy) joke, and then continues with his life. He has plot armor. Real consequences strike the villains (who range from evil to merely irksome) and the occasional hapless Redshirt. Newbury, his wife, their children, and his close associates are, like the principals of old TV shows, guaranteed survival.
De Camp was a rationalist and skeptic, but he loved writing about the fantastic. Newberry is a rationalist and skeptic, but he keeps encountering the fantastic. The best stories play on the incongruity. One story actually serves up the Scooby-Doo ending, with the fantastic given a logical explanation-- until its eldritch counterpart rears its head. In another, Newbury follows his gullible nephew into the headquarters of an exotic cult. It turns out, their leader really has stumbled onto genuine magic. However, he proves ill-educated about the forces he's summoning and ill-equipped to perform the necessary rituals. The results prove darkly entertaining.
With the exception of Newbury himself, the characters are thinly sketched, often stock. They serve the story. On occasion, they can be interesting. Nicolson, Newbury's adversary from "The Huns" tries to give "a direction" to his thuggish motorcycle club by making them a force for "national regeneration-- the restoration of the American spirit, making this a country fit for heroes," by which he means the "old original Nordic Aryan stock" who "made this country what it is-- or at least, what it was, before we let in hordes of biologically inferior" races. He harkens to the past, but he's a prescient creation. We've met him many times since the 1970s, and he's a lot harder to overcome in the real world than in de Camp's tidy fiction.
De Camp also throws in a cameo by Robert E. Howard and references to H.P. Lovecraft. Of course he does. De Camp admired Howard, completed some of his unfinished manuscripts, and penned further adventures of Howard's most enduring character, Conan. And, back in the 70s, referencing Lovecraft amounted to a nerd secret handshake. The eccentric author hadn't really penetrated the mainstream yet; not a few hardcore outsider teens, wannabe Satanists, and Sunday School teachers still believed the Necronomicon was real. The side of Lovecraft that would have agreed with Nicolson still went largely unacknowledged.1
De Camp had no patience for religious cults, pseudoscience, and revolutionary politics.2 Newbury, a stand-in for the aging and curmudgeonly author, often regurgitates de Camp's views. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with that but, at times, they're distractingly irrelevant to the tale he's telling or, more tellingly, the only reason for the story to exist at all. Even when I agreed with him I found he started to grate.3
The collection contains a few gems, and presents some intriguing ideas. "A Sending of Serpents" presages cyber-harassment. Mostly, however, The Purple Pterodactyls is a lesser work of de Camp's, sustained by his erudite but readable style. If you haven't encountered de Camp's work before, you probably want to start with The Best of L. Sprague de Camp, or drop by Gavagan's Bar. If you happen to like his lighter stories, you will probably enjoy at least some of this collection.
He even gets around to explaining its anomalous, amaranthine title.
1. De Camp himself proves an exception. He wrote about Lovecraft's racism in a 1975 essay, "Lovecraft and the Aryans." The essay tries to place Lovecraft's racism in the man's cultural and psychological context.
2. De Camp wrote many articles debunking pseudoscience, cults, and religious notions. His mother, he wrote, died of an "overdose" of faith healing. His rationalist attacks are, paradoxically, fueled in part by his own emotional history.
3. My reaction was further tempered by the fact that the first-print Ace paperback I read contained uncorrected errors, including typos and the identification of a dimetrodon as a pterosaur. Almost certainly, de Camp meant (and likely wrote) dimorphodon.
SciFiQuest 3020: Foresight is 3020