Gardner F. Fox needs no introduction to fans of pulp fantasy (or comic books), as his contributions to the field are well known. Strangely, this is the first time I've actually devoted an installment of this regular series to a book he's written, except for a brief one back in 2008, when I still called it "Pulp Fantasy Gallery." That's an oversight on my part I'll try to rectify over the course of 2012, since Fox was well regarded by Gary Gygax -- he makes it into Appendix N -- and because, as this entry shows, he was, like Fritz Leiber, directly connected to the early RPG hobby.
"Shadow of a Demon" introduces a new character, Niall of the Far Travels, who is depicted on the cover above. Fox describes him (and his situation at the start of the story) thusly:
He came into Angalore from the eastern deserts, a big man wearing a kaunake of spotted fur over his linkmail, his legs bare above warboots trimmed with miniver, with a sense of his own doom riding him. Niall of the Far Travels had not wanted to come to Angalore, for an old seeress had prophesied that he would be taken from this world by demons, should those warboots carry him into that ancient, brooding city.If that sounds a little like a Conan pastiche to you, I wouldn't disagree. Before creating Niall, Fox had created two other Conan analogs, Kothar and Kyrik, in addition to the suspiciously named Crom the Barbarian, about whom I've talked before. So, it's not entirely surprising to see Fox create yet another barbarian sell-sword for his Dragon series (yes, series: there were ten short stories published in its pages between 1976 and 1981). Like many pulp fantasists, his strength as a writer was not in his characters but in his ideas and in the zest with which he tells his tales.
Yet he had come here because his fate had so decreed.
He was a mercenary, a sell-sword, a barbarian out of the forested mountains of Norumbria. A wanderer by nature, he earned his keep wherever he went by the might of his sword-arm, by his skill with weapons. He feared no living thing, man or animal, though the thought of demons put a coldness down his spine.
Now he paused on the crest of a hill and stared at the city. Massive it was, and old, so old that some men said it had been here since men had first learned to walk upright. It lay between the river and the desert over which the caravans came from Sensanall to the south and Urgrik to the north. Ships lay in the little harbor that was formed by the river, riding easily to the lift and fall of its tides
"Shadow of a Demon" is no different in this respect, telling what would appear to be a fairly banal tale of a mercenary adventurer seeking to avail himself of a fabled treasure hidden in the dungeons beneath an evil wizard's castle. Adding to the seeming cliche, Niall even encounters a mysterious, beautiful young woman to whom he is attracted and who eventually finds herself a captive of the very wizard from whom he wished to steal. Yet, as is so often the case in short fantasy fiction, not all is as it seems, including the seeming cliches. Fox is playing with his readers' expectations, leading them to believe that his tale is in fact little more than a run-of-the-mill Conan knock-off. That's certainly what I expected after the story's opening, but it didn't take long to realize that there was more at work here.
"Shadow of a Demon" is no classic for the ages, but it's a lot of fun. And while it's true that Niall of the Far Travels is mostly a cipher, the situation in which he finds himself is intriguing and Fox tells it with vigor. As I said, I never read this story back in the day, but I enjoyed it enough that I made an effort to read all the others that followed and am glad I did so. In the weeks to come, I'll be returning to Gardner Fox's Dragon stories for future installments of Pulp Fantasy Library. They're well worth a look, if you can find them.