Monday, August 23, 2010

Devils in the Walls

Fans of sword & sorcery in particular and fantasy in general owe Cele Goldsmith a big debt. She assumed editorship of the magazine Fantastic in 1958 and reportedly was instrumental in getting Fritz Leiber back to writing Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories. According to Michael Moorcock she encouraged him as well. Another young writer who did some work for Goldsmith was John Jakes. Jakes is now a well known author of historical fiction, but in the late 1950s Goldsmith reportedly asked Jakes to "Write me some Conan stories," resulting in the creation of Jakes' blond Conan stand-in, Brak the Barbarian.
I read the Brak story 'Devils in the Walls' over the weekend in the 1970 anthology Swords Against Tomorrow. This was a changed and expanded version of the original, which appeared in the May 1963 issue of Fantastic. Devils in the Walls begins with Brak on the slave block. The burly barbarian had been caught off guard while recovering from a bout of sickness and captured by a group of slavers. Brak is purchased by a noblewoman who wants him to secure a treasure for her from a demon haunted ruin.
This is a fast moving little S&S story and Brak is menaced by not only the titular devils, but by half a dozen zombie leopards. Yes, undead leopards. You don't see that every day. There's a good deal of sword swinging action, but Brak ultimately has to uses his brains more than his brawn to beat the devils in the walls, showing that like his Cimmerian prototype, Brak isn't just a dumb slab of muscle.
The one problem I had with the story was a scene where the noblewoman had freed Brak from his chains and given him a sword. He asks her why he can't simply walk out now that he's free and armed, rather than doing her bidding. She tells him that she has four armed men in the next room. Yeah, that would slow Conan down. However we need for Brak to go along with the woman in order to keep the story going and he did kind of give his word that he would do what she wanted, so it isn't that big a thing.
I've read most of the Brak short stories and novels over the years and though somewhat uneven in quality, they're enjoyable for the most part. The 1980 collection Fortunes of Brak is probably the best of the lot if you want to give Brak a try. About a decade ago I interviewed John Jakes and talked to him a bit about Brak. To his credit he's proud of his days as a pulp fantasy writer, though he has little interest in the genre now.
The other story I read this weekend in Swords Against Tomorrow was Lin Carter's Vault of Silence. I had planned to review that one as well, but it got a bit complicated. More on that later.

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