Authors of the Amorphous: John DeChancie
Castle Perilous—More than just a Nexus?
Navigating the Bleeding Edge: The Castle Perilous novels have a legitimate case to stake a claim in the wild, unpredictable world of the New Weird.
I recall the early ’90s: I was fresh from high school, looking to shed my angsty teen-age persona and find a new modus operandi. Of course, while I was doing so, I had plenty of time to read, because where better to find a new you than in the pages of a book? At the time I was a big X-Men fan, and though I didn’t have the income to get all the titles I wanted, I’d recently read the storyline ending when Rogue and Nimrod pushed Mastermold through the Siege Perilous. A few weeks later I was in a bookstore, my pockets full of money from my most recent paycheck, and I noticed a book series lounging innocently on the shelf the way tempting books often do. Its title, Castle Perilous, reminded me of the recent comic I’d so enjoyed. Thus began my years-long affair with a castle which is simultaneously a monstrous hunk of stone, a gateway to 144,000 worlds, a demonic dragon on a scale requiring units of measure usually reserved for landmasses to properly appreciate, and the creator of those 144,000 separate realities, one of which is known by its inhabitants as Earth [ 1 ].
The Castle Perilous novels by John DeChancie are normally shelved with fantasy, occasionally wandering over to comedy when librarians are feeling snobbish about text that makes a reader giggle, but in general aren’t seen as New Weird. Why, then, am I including them in our exploration of the Amorphous Sea? Because much like Stephen King and the sequential art universes of Marvel and DC, both of which I discuss in other articles of this series, I posit that the Perilous novels have a fully legitimate claim to their own real estate in the New Weird.
Beyond that, much as King’s Dark Tower laid down what might be considered the base of the genre with its core of horror and fantasy, Lumley’s Necroscope covered that base over with the richness of more mystic supernatural elements mixed with science and math, and the above mentioned DC and Marvel fertilized that potent mixture with an infusion of action and what might be considered more accessible stories, DeChancie’s Castle Perilous brings rays of bitter light in the form of humor; while quite a lot of the humor is light slapstick, a substantial amount of the funny in the books takes the form of darker, more intellectually challenging commentary on the world we live in [ 2 ].
As we’ve spoken about before, the New Weird lies at the intersection of fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Common components include parallel worlds, deconstruction, genre blurring and blending, and central to all of this a deep, sometimes almost hidden goal of making the reader question reality as they know it. We’ve referred to it as existential dread, terror, or horror, but in the end the common component of all of those is fundamental doubt in existence as we are aware of it.
So thinking about those in relation to the Perilous novels, it’s pretty clear just from the description that with 144,000 “aspects” of Castle Perilous, each one accessible via one of the castle’s windows, each one its own universe with its own physical laws which may or may not be similar to all the others, DeChancie has the “parallel universes” thing sewn up.
An interesting point on this, though: in many cases in the New Weird, the characters, at least the “ingénue” types, will react with frozen astonishment when presented with something which cannot be explained by the physics with which they are familiar. “It’s bigger on the inside,” as it were (Doctor Who fans and Voltaire listeners alike might have cringed there). In Perilous, on the other hand, most new visitors to the castle adapt with impressive speed not only to the existence of magic, which is a real thing within the castle and many of its aspects, but also to the existence of additional aspects and the differing rules within each of these contingents. Where many New Weird authors would play that card to shake the reader via the character’s sense of dread, DeChancie doesn’t go for the easy win; his characters not only adapt, but they also each gain some type of magical talent of their own within a short time within the Castle proper. Now there are a few things to explain this suggested in the novels, like the Castle only letting in people who will adapt well, and who look on the unusual as terrific rather than terrifying. There’s another, darker explanation, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
For now, we’ll move on to the next logical thing; with so many worlds to choose from, each with different physics, and a cadre of characters chosen specifically to roll with whichever world they find themselves in, you can bet genres will be mixed, matched, folded, spindled, and mutilated, occasionally all at the same time. I recall one fight in the castle involving magic spells, machine guns, talking dinosaurs, and ray guns. The kicker here is that wasn’t a climactic battle scene: that was Castle Perilous on a random Tuesday during a round of golf, and the characters involved were more interested in the golf than the battle. Okay, I think the talking dinosaur may have been more focused on the battle, but he was the caddy, so he didn’t have to worry about his handicap. In short, DeChancie uses parallel worlds to include every item trope of fantasy, science fiction, and suspense that I can think of off the top of my head. Genre: blurred.
A Loving Parody of Fantasy
Of course, quite often the mix of various genres allows DeChancie the opportunity to deconstruct the tropes of one or both of those genres. Like many deconstructions, Castle Perilous often winds up being both a straight up fantasy adventure and a loving parody of those same adventures; much in the way that other parody or satirical genre works (like Terry Pratchett’s Discworld stories), these tales succeed without breaking stride or the fourth wall, at least not too much. Within any given aspect, there will usually be one character from such a different setting that they are functionally an ingénue, which allows them to pull the lampshades off all the sillier tropes of any genre included in that aspect.
Now, as noted earlier, the Castle Perilous books are often shelved with humor. Those deconstructions and parodies are the source of a lot of the laughs within the Castle’s walls. At the same time, while the characters are laughing, it’s often laughter at the reaper, refusing to quake in the face of death or worse. Quite frequently the characters will crack wise about some aspect of an aspect, even as that feature is trying quite earnestly to kill them. Granted, all sorts of genres use this trope. I believe we’re all familiar with the phrase, “You’re going to need a bigger boat” [ 3 ]. Action movies where the main character might literally be made of one-liners are the home of a different archetype, but the connection is easy to see here. I suppose then it’s little wonder that the series started in the ’80s.
Existential Dread as a Narrative Technique
There is, however, one thing that the characters do not mention, at least outright. A few of the characters, like the lord of the castle, a sorcerer named Incarnadine, or the former Earth sorceress Linda Barclay, hint obliquely at the true reason for the characters’ devil-may-care adventurous outlooks, even as they state the mechanism for said outlooks; the Castle, you see, isn’t the connection point for 144,000 different alternate realities; it creates these realities by its very existence.
During one point in one of the Perilous tales, the Castle is transmuted from its brick-and-mortar form of castle to its one that is more aptly described as a “demonic dragon monster” of gargantuan, epic proportions. When this transmutation occurs, those alternate realities that the castle created simply cease to exist. When it is returned to its form as a castle, these same realities not only return to existence, but do so at points in their individual histories when the characters pulled into Perilous can be pulled once more.
In other words, it is hinted subtly that the characters allowed into Perilous are not filtered by the castle but instead created by the castle in the process of creating these countless realities. The entire existence of each one of these characters can be chalked up to the need for Perilous to provide itself with individuals the castle needs to fulfill certain tasks and roles. In the Castle Perilous universe, the answer to every person who ever asked, “why am I here,” could very well be “you are a byproduct of the creation of Gene Ferraro and Linda Barclay.”
A lot of us are gamers, and familiar with the concept of a realm being its own bouncer, seething with sentient malevolence. Ravenloft and its way of “welcoming” new inhabitants begs the evilest to become rulers, taking in innocents every so often to ensure the overall population (and supply of victims) remains stable [ 4 ]. Now, there’s quite a leap from inviting someone in (or just kidnapping them from wherever they might dwell) and creating your “guests” from whole cloth to suit your needs and wants. Maybe this is part of what makes one setting horror and the other comedy. Are the stakes higher in Ravenloft because of a victim’s “real experiences?” Granted, Perilous doesn’t really bill itself as horror in that way, and maybe that’s the point. Also, Ravenloft doesn’t really do that many jokes in its novelizations. I think the fans might be rather upset if it did.
There’s an aspect of the crossroads here. No demon is waiting to make a deal with you; your soul isn’t in peril. But the setting is poised to make its characters feel like the deal is to be made any minute now, because what sane reality would put them in these situations? DeChancie seems to be riding on this. Well, that’s an assumption on my point, since most interviews (and the man’s own website) seem to not have a readily available presence on the Internet [ 5 ].
Can a novel shelved in the comedy section, often considered a spoof, fill you with existential doubt? No? Well, try thinking that the only reason you exist is because every one of Perilous’ aspects exists simply to provide it with another way of experiencing itself, and the universe wherein the Perilous books exist is just another way of Perilous to look upon itself. In other words, Perilous created this reality to ensure that author John DeChancie would be born, grow up, learn how to write, and then pen stories about itself that would then spread the tale of this supposedly “fictitious” castle. In this reality, you, me, and everyone else who have read Perilous were created to provide DeChancie, and by extension, the castle itself, an audience. We are but angles in the multiplex mirror a demonic, draconic castle at the center of the universe is using to view itself. There is no spoon.
On that cheery note, I’ll leave you to convince yourself you’re not actually in an alternative reality, and I’ll see you next time as we Navigate the Bleeding Edge.
- “Some might begrudge DeChancie a place in the ‘New Weird’ genre. However his embrace of varying systems and rules for each of the 140,000 distinct aspects (or demiplanes) within Castle Perilous is exemplary of the bizarre tropes within the term.” Source: https://www.amazon.com/John-Dechancie/e/B000APFJXI%3Fref=dbs_a_mng_rwt_scns_share
- “Much like Discworld, Xanth and other parodies, DeChancie’s Castle Perilous series has certainly left an enduring mark, while poking at genre conventions.” Source: https://www.thebookstoreonpluto.ca/products/castle-perilous-trilogy-john-dechancie-set-only
Having wandered through multiple careers, hobbies, and educational paths over five decades of life, Robert’s body of work has ranged from systems analysis, work a butcher, a baker, a professional educator, and published author. A regular speaker at PhilCon and other events, he’s been a force multiplier for community youth outreach. Steam-Funk Studios senior creative staff, his insights helped shape both The Unconventional and The Living Multiverse punctuated by his dry pronouncement, “Boom.”
- Todd, Mel. “Castle Perilous.” Bad Ash Publishing, Bad Ash Publishing, 13 May 2019, badashpublishing.com/castle-perilous/.
- “Literature / Castle Perilous.” TVTropes, TVTropes Team, 16 Jun 2020. tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Literature/CastlePerilous. Accessed 3 Nov 2020.
- Spielberg, Steven. Jaws. Universal Pictures, 1975.
- Connors, Steve Miller And William. Domains of Dread. TSR, 1997.
- DeChancie, John. “Author Bio « John DeChancie.Com.” The Official Website For Author John DeChancie, 12 June 2015. Internet Archive, retrieved 25 July 2021, web.archive.org/web/20150612033454/http://johndechancie.com/blog/author-bio.