Legion from the Shadows
by Karl Edward Wagner
The Picts were an historical people who inhabited the region we now call Scotland during the early period of the Roman occupation of Britain. Not much is known about them. Even their name, which means “Painted Ones,” is a Latin construction. Whatever they might have called themselves is lost to history. This lack of detail combined with solid historical evidence of their existence made the Picts pretty much irresistible to Robert E. Howard, who would use them as villains in a number of Conan stories, and as heroes in a few other tales set during the Roman occupation. These latter stories starred another of Howard’s barbaric heroes, Bran Mak Morn, the king of the Picts. The Bran Mak Morn stories also featured another of Howard’s favorite devices, an underground-dwelling race of atavistic snake people. The Picts, it turns out, were part of the Cthulhu Mythos, and the Bran Mak Morn stories are equal parts historical fiction, fantasy story, and horror tale. Bran himself even gets a shout-out in H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in Darkness,” so despite the relative obscurity of Howard’s Pict stories, they always had a following.
In 1976, Karl Edward Wagner wrote a Bran Mak Morn novel, Legion From the Shadows. Wagner, no stranger to either barbarian or horror fiction, was part of that second generation of Lovecraftian/Howardian authors, along with Lin Carter, L. Sprague de Camp, and others. Wagner had his own sword & sorcery character, an immortal wizard-warrior named Kane, who purported to be the Biblical Caine, and who acted as the villain in Wagner’s tales as often as he played the hero.
Legion From the Shadows begins with the annihilation of the Ninth Legion by an army of Picts. Now, the Ninth Legion very famously disappeared north of Hadrian’s Wall, but because no one actually knows what happened, it has been fodder for tales ever since. In this novel, the Picts, brought together by Bran’s charismatic grandfather, wipe out the Legion. All perish save for a handful of soldiers and the women and children in the baggage train, who managed to retreat into a nearby cave. The Picts wall up the cave to seal the Romans inside, dust their hands off and declare the job done. But of course this story takes place in a Britain that is honeycombed with tunnels and caves occupied by a species of serpentine beings that worship dark gods. The Picts don’t know what is coming, but the reader certainly does.
The Ninth Legion literally resurfaces in Bran Mak Morn’s time, but they are now descended from the serpent folk. The infusion of surface genetic material and Roman discipline has made them a force far more formidable than the snake people – the “Worms of the Earth” – have ever been before. And having asked for their aid against the Romans in a Robert E. Howard story, Bran knows they were plenty formidable to begin with. But he also believes they are monstrous, horrid creatures and regrets his earlier actions, so when they offer another alliance in order to throw the Romans out of Britain forever, a goal Bran has been working toward himself, he refuses.
Thus begins the main action of the story, as the Legionnaires from below kidnap Bran’s sister to force his cooperation, and in an effort to rescue her he descends into the bowels of the Earth by himself. A mysterious warrior woman named Liuba eventually joins Bran, while Bran’s sister Morgain works to affect her own escape. Many captures, beatings, and reversals ensue, and there’s some good monster work and lightless depths work from Wagner, on top of the frenetic action. Wagner’s good at the gruesome too – the Ninth Legion removes the eyes from the 2,000 Roman soldiers they decapitate, and when Bran discovers what they’ve done with the eyes, the moment is genuinely unsettling.
For what is essentially fan fiction, Legion From the Shadows is a solid, entertaining continuation of Bran Mak Morn’s adventures. It builds on Howard’s stories, tells a decent yarn, and wraps up with everything essentially back where it started, or at least more or less where Howard left it.
One of my favorite past times is haunting used bookstores, looking for out-of-print and forgotten classics. My taste in literature tends to run toward fantasy, science-fiction, and horror, and I find modern novels too often weighed down by bloat and too much world-building. As a consequence, I tend to seek out older books that tend to focus more on ideas and action and move along more quickly. I always liked the “Box of Paperbacks” series at the A.V.Club, so I thought I’d take a stab at something in the same vein.