In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle salutes the master of heroic fantasy and one of his most curious novels
Like many people, I came to David Gemmell through Legend, his 1984 debut which would go on to become a classic of modern fantasy literature, and one of the most definitive novels in the subgenre of heroic fantasy. Unlike most, though, as I read my way through David Gemmell’s entire back catalogue, I found myself rating other novels far higher than Gemmell’s debut. Legend has heart, and it signalled the arrival of a distinctive new voice in fantasy, but, as Gemmell himself admitted, the writing wasn’t always perfect. He learned a lot in the years that followed, and, to my mind, the prequel he wrote nearly a decade later, The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend, is his most perfectly crafted piece of storytelling.
In between these two ‘Legend’ books, though, David Gemmell wrote a great deal: among much else, he produced Waylander, which introduced readers to the crossbow-carrying assassin who many readers rate superior to Druss the Legend; the standalone Knights of Dark Renown; and Wolf in Shadow, the first in a trilogy of novels centring on the gun-wielding Bible-reading Jon Shannow. The last of these had a curious origin in an especially dark time in Gemmell’s life, and the result was one of his most unusual and intriguing novels.
In August 1986, Gemmell’s mother was terminally ill, and his job as the editor of several local newspapers in southern England was under threat. (He would shortly be fired for using his colleagues as inspiration for the characters in his third novel, Waylander; his boss, Gemmell later recalled, regarded it as a poisonous attack on his integrity.) Demoralised and depressed, Gemmell was trying to power on with the draft for his next novel, but it wasn’t working. Then, having imbibed several Armagnacs in a hotel room in Bournemouth, where he was staying for a business trip, Gemmell put a new sheet of paper into his Olympia portable typewriter and wrote the sentence: ‘The rider paused at the crest of a wooded hill, and gazed down at the wide, rolling empty lands beneath him. There was no sign of Jerusalem…’
Where it came from, he wasn’t sure: it appears to have been a Eureka moment, a turning point, much like Tolkien’s fateful scribbling of the words ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit’ on the blank page of a student’s essay. Gemmell wrote on until dawn, wanting to discover what Pandora’s box he had opened with those opening words. The result was Wolf in Shadow, one of his most unusual novels, about Jon Shannow, the Jerusalem Man, a lone gunslinger in search of a city that ceased to exist centuries ago, travelling through a world of barbarism and violence.
Wolf in Shadow is a curious hybrid novel, combining the genres of fantasy, western, and post-apocalyptic fiction. Gemmell described the novel as his love letter to his favourite writer, Louis L’Amour, and we can also detect Clint Eastwood’s Preacher from Pale Rider (released two years before Gemmell’s novel) and perhaps a far-off echo of Stephen King’s Gunslinger, Roland, from the Dark Tower series. But Wolf in Shadow’s most important intertext is maybe the book which Jon Shannow holds the dearest: the Bible. Wolf in Shadow is perhaps Gemmell’s most explicitly Christian book, and reveals how deeply his idea of redemption was informed by his Christian faith. It is probably not a coincidence that Gemmell, who identified as Christian, stumbled upon Jon Shannow – he used to call them ‘Rick’s bar’ characters, in a nod to Casablanca, because such figures just walk onto the page fully formed – when he was at his lowest ebb, and that it was the word ‘Jerusalem’ that unleashed both the character and the novel.
It’s easy to dismiss David Gemmell’s novels as entertainment and nothing more, and he made no bones about the fact that he was formulaic (there were only a few basic plots in the world, as he acknowledged), his prose sparse and pragmatic (which he attributed to his training in journalism), and his worldview black/white rather than shades of grey. Yet each of these perceived weaknesses can be turned on its head. Like any good popular genre writer he respected his fans and sought to innovate with the conventions of fantasy without alienating his readers; his prose is refreshingly free from unnecessary adornment or self-indulgent purple patches, and occasionally, for all its sparseness, possessed of a simple lyric beauty; and his protagonists, while usually fighting on the side of right, are haunted by their demons and by the wrong turns they have taken, the ‘evil’ things they have themselves committed. Wolf in Shadow shows this perhaps most clearly of all of Gemmell’s early work, and paves the way for later developments in the genre, such as the epic series by George R. R. Martin (now adapted as the hugely successful Game of Thrones) and Steven Erikson, and the development of the subgenre known as grimdark. Gemmell got there first.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.