Monday, March 26, 2012

Pulp Fantasy Library: Beyond the Wizard Fog

Issue #5 (March 1977) of Dragon (or The Dragon, as it was still called back then) saw the second appearance of Gardner F. Fox's barbarian protagonist, Niall of the Far Travels. The story begins as Niall is aboard a boat traveling along the great river Thalamar toward the great city of Urgrik, where he hopes to find lucrative employment. His journey is interrupted by the appearance of a "great white fog" on the river, a fog that Niall believes smacks of sorcery, a claim of which the ship's captain is not so sure. The two of them examine navigation charts of the river and on them the barbarian warriors spots something that, in his mind, confirm his suspicions:
“There,” Niall said, jabbing his finger.

“Those ruins . . .” “ . . . are only ruins,” scoffed the captain.

“Na, na. They’re more than a pile of rocks. There’s evil there, Edron Hobbort. Ancient evil.”

“Now, how can you know that?”

Niall straightened slowly. He tried to think, yet could not. Almost dazedly, he passed a hand across his broad brow. “I — cannot say. And yet — I know. It’s as if — something whispered into my mind. But it told me of an evil that has come recently to life, back across eons of Time — and made its home close by this river.”

Edron Hobbort snorted. “Nonsense. That ruin has been uninhabited since Porthia Malvia was queen in Angalore, and that’s about ten centuries ago. We’ll go on. If the sails won’t work, the oars will.”
Niall is, of course, right to be worried, especially after the ship enters the fog and strange things begin to happen. First, the fog stings his flesh, as if tiny insects had flown across the deck. Then, the ship moved, seemingly of its own accord, toward an ancient wharf, and the ship's crew, including its captain disembarked, hypnotized by some force that did not affect Niall. Not long after they enter the fog, the swordsman hears a cry. Against his better judgment, he rushes headlong into the fog beyond the wharf, thinking at first he might find a hint of what became of the crew. Instead, he comes across a young woman being lowered into a pit, at the bottom of which is a giant snake.

Naturally, Niall rescues the woman, whose name he learns is Kathyla. She expresses surprise that the barbarian was unaffected by the same magic that bewitched the crew of the ship on which he traveled. She explains that this island, Kor Magnon, is now the home of an evil wizard called Ulkarion.
“Ulkarion needs sacrifices for Sisstorississ, the snake-like god who dwells in labyrinthine hells far out in space. Long ago, Sisstorississ was worshipped here in Kor Magnon.” She caught the bewilderment in his eyes and smiled faintly.

“Kor Magnon is the name of this place where we stand. Long and long ago, it was the lair of a race of serpent-men who were worshippers of Sisstorississ. They stole human sacrifices to offer the snakegod, until the peoples of this region rose up and attacked it.

“Kor Magnon fell, everyone in it was put to death. From that day on, it has lain empty, abandoned, until all record of its location was forgotten.Yet Ulkarion searched for it, hampered only by the efforts of another wizard named Iphygia. Eventually, he defeated Iphygia and came here to worship Sisstorississ, so that the snake-god would make him powerful and almighty.”

The girl shrugged. “I was to have been the first sacrifice to Sisstorississ — until you came along. I — am grateful.”

Niall eyed her cautiously. “You know a lot about this magician.”
It's here that the true story of "Beyond the Wizard Fog" picks up and it's another enjoyable yarn, which, like the first appearance of Niall, has something of a surprise ending. It's too early to tell whether or not Fox will make these climactic twists a staple of his Niall of the Far Travels stories or not, since I've only read two so far. Much as I like them, I think it'd be a shame if the series devolved quickly into a formula, particularly since they already borrow so much from other sword-and-sorcery tales. At the same time, I can't deny that I really enjoyed "Beyond the Wizard Fog." It's neither deep nor original, but it is cleverly written and unpretentious. Fox clearly knew what he was about when he wrote this and that self-awareness, I think, elevates the story above mere pastiche and into the realm of genuinely enjoyable pulp fantasy.

3 comments:

  1. Edron Hobbort / L. Ron Hubbard

    Coincidence?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Any chance of a review of the curious story "the Gnome Cache" by 'Garrison Ernst' from the same issue ?

    ReplyDelete

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