There’s surprisingly little reliable biographical information about Sterling E. Lanier, but like many Appendix N authors he does seem to have been a man of many parts. Most accounts of Lanier’s life have him studying archaeology and anthropology at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania before working as a researcher and historian for most of the 1950s. His other interests included sculpture, natural history, and cryptozoology, all of which would bear on his creative endeavors.
In 1961 Lanier began his literary career with the publication of his first short story in Analog magazine and by landing an editor’s position at Chilton Books, best known then and now as a publisher of automotive repair manuals. Lanier cemented his place in science fiction history in 1965 by convincing Chilton to publish Frank Herbert’s Dune in hardcover after it had already been rejected by over 20 publishers. Lanier’s strong interest in ecology must have made the Dune stories jump out at him as they were being serialized in Analog magazine. Unfortunately a prophet is never honored in his own land and Lanier was let go from Chilton the following year when Dune initially failed to live up to sales expectations.
Lanier’s creative output was jumpstarted by his dismissal from Chilton and he began working in earnest as a sculptor, jeweler, and writer in the late 1960s. Among his notable works from this period were miniature portrait sculptures of characters from The Lord of the Rings that were supposedly admired by J.R.R. Tolkien himself and that may have served as character models for Peter Jackson’s film trilogy.
During this time Lanier also began writing his Brigadier Ffellowes short stories, which were inspired in equal part by Lord Dunsany’s Jorkens “club tales” and his enthusiasm for cryptozoology. Lanier’s interest in ecology and weird creatures would come into full bloom in his first novel for adults, Hiero’s Journey, which his old employer Chilton published in hardcover in 1973, followed by a Bantam Books paperback in 1974.
Hiero’s Journey is clearly the main literary inspiration for James M. Ward and Gary Jaquet’s Gamma World (TSR, 1978), the archetypal post-apocalyptic role-playing game. Gamma World and its spiritual descendants such as Mutant Future (Goblinoid Games, 2008) and Mutant Crawl Classics (Goodman Games, 2018) form the weird, kitchen-sink, far-future branch of post-apocalyptic role-playing games as opposed to the more gloomy and “realistic” near-future post-apocalypse RPGs typified by The Morrow Project (TimeLine Ltd., 1980) or Aftermath! (Fantasy Games Unlimited, 1981).
Gary Gygax cited Hiero’s Journey as an influence on Dungeons & Dragons and it’s easy to see why. For example, from the original 1974 rules we have the various jelly, mold, ooze, pudding, and slime monsters that echo the outgrowths of the House; they were later fully fleshed (sprouted?) out in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual (1978). Psionic powers were first introduced in Dungeons & Dragons Supplement III: Eldritch Wizardry (1976) and have appeared in many subsequent editions of Dungeons & Dragons, although they’ve never co-existed easily with the magic system. As for the protagonists, Hiero Desteen* provides one model for how the cleric class could be roleplayed as warrior-priests as opposed to the typical healer/protective spellcaster; of course, Hiero could also be modeled as a ranger with the same effect in play. In a similar vein, Brother Aldo provides a slightly different take on the druid as cheerful and kind-hearted, yet resolutely dedicated to preserving the balance of nature.
A third book in the Hiero saga was planned but never materialized, but it’s said that Hiero’s Journey is very popular in Russia and that as many as 20 unauthorized works set in Hiero’s world were published in Russian around 2002-2004--apparently, a Hiero never dies….