Short Story Review: “Roads” by Seabury Quinn

(Cover by Margaret Brundage. Weird Tales, January 1938.)

Who Goes There?

Some authors are vindicated posthumously while others see their high reputations in life dwindle in death: Seabury Quinn is one of those latter authors. In the ’20s and ’30s he was almost certainly the most popular author to appear in the pages of Weird Tales; he was so popular that, as far as the disreputable realm of pulp fiction went, he was basically a celebrity. (I’m thinking of an anecdote wherein prostitutes in a New Orleans brothel recognized Quinn as that most prolific and starred contributor to Weird Tales, offering him a “round” free of charge.) His Jules de Grandin series, starring the eponymous occult detective, would alone have made him a household name, but as fate would have it both Quinn and de Grandin are overlooked nowadays—names to be checked off for people like myself who get a kick out of genre factoids. Yet Quinn was surely not bereft of talent, as he was deemed both good and overlooked enough to have “won” the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award.

No doubt a good portion of Quinn’s output was hackwork; this was not unusual among authors of the era, who had to crank out story after story to make a quick buck. All this, however, brings us to today’s story, which Quinn had apparently written out of passion and which, ironically, did not become the cover story for that month’s issue of Weird Tales. “Roads” is a Christmas story, one of such high caliber that Sam Moskowitz (who mind you was not religiously inclined to hold Christmas in special reverence) considered it the best Christmas story ever written by an American, putting it in the same league as Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. This is my first time with Quinn and something tells me I’ll be tracking more of his stuff down, because “Roads” fucking rules.

Placing Coordinates

First published in the January 1938 issue of Weird Tales, which is on the Archive. ISFDB says there was also a highly limited chapbook release that same year, but it does not give a month of publication, which means the chapbook was probably released some months after the story’s magazine appearance. Of much more interest is the chapbook from Arkham House that released in 1948, which a) is riddled with lovely illustrations by Virgil Finlay, and b) may trick you into thinking this is a novella—a trick that even fooled the folks at Wikipedia. No, “Roads” is not a novella; the type in the Arkham House chapbook is almost laughably big, never mind the Finlay illustrations. There are two facsimile reproductions of that chapbook: one in hardcover and the other in paperback, with the former by Red Jacket Press and the latter by Shadowridge Press. The facsimiles are pretty affordable, and if you don’t mind your wallet crying that original Arkham House chapbook is still circulating in the second-hand market.

Enhancing Image

The thing about “Roads” is that I reckon it’s no longer than H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch-House” (review here), but whereas Lovecraft’s story is a novelette that just goes on and on, “Roads” is essentially three short stories for the price of one; it’s split into three distinct sections, each covering a different period in will turn out to be a very long life for the protagonist. Just how long are we talking? Wait and see…

We start in Biblical times, indeed not long after Jesus’s birth, the star over Bethlehem and all that. As should be expected, though, life in ancient Roman-occupied Jerusalem is brutish and often short, encapsulated with the opening scene, wherein some marauders try to kill and rob Our Hero™, who is very much not a man of Biblical times: he is Klaus, later (Quinn all but tells us in advance) to become Santa Claus, and he’s a decorated gladiator for Herod—and a Viking. Some of you may be raising an eyebrow at this, since the Vikings would not become a thing for several more centuries. It’s not like this was a silly little detail Quinn snuck into the narrative; no, much is made of Klaus being Nordic, and, in contrast to pretty much everyone else in the story, built like a brick shithouse. On top of being dressed for battle, Klaus carries “a double-bladed ax” and “a long two-handed sword with a wide, well-temptered blade, pointed and double-edged,” which makes me wonder how the fuck these bandits hoped to rob him.

The affair goes about as well for the bandits as you’d expect. Actually a bit better, because Klaus breaks a guy’s wrist rather than smash his head against a stone. Later opponents will not be nearly as lucky.

Klaus, being a stranger in a strange land, is not terribly picky about whom he serves; the idea seems to be that he’ll fight for you so long as you treat him with decency, and so long as you don’t order troops to go around killing infants. Right, about that. Klaus gets along surprisingly well with the Roman occupiers, who treat him basically like a good dog and who even give him a sort of pet name. “Though he had been among the Romans since before his beard was sprouted, their rendering of his simple Nordic name of Klaus to Claudius had never failed to rouse his laughter.” Trouble brews, though, when local king Herod, having been told a prophecy that another will take his place, orders men to go out and slaughter any Jewish boy under the age of two. If you’ve read the novel (or at least the Wikipedia synopsis for the novel) that “Roads” is loosely based on then this sounds like a faithful adaptation so far, insofar as the Jesus narrative is concerned.

Klaus, a natural warrior who is used to fighting with honor, is naturally repulsed when he discovers that legionaries have been marching through the streets and snatching babies from their mothers’ breasts. Although he is not aware of it at the time, Klaus does in fact save an infant Jesus from a small group of soldiers, as the kids parents (though not his real dad) try to get the hell out of Dodge. The fight between Klaus and the soldiers is one of the more shockingly violent scenes I’ve read in recent times, but it’s justified partly because of Klaus’s swordsmanship and partly because of his righteous fury that so-called honorable soldiers would carry out such an order. He fucking cuts a dude in half diagonally. A lesson a lot of people should but do not learn throughout the story is that you don’t want an angry Northman who looks and acts like he belongs in a Robert E. Howard adventure on the rampage. Anyway, Joseph and Mary thank Klaus and inform him of the massacre, and meanwhile there’s something a bit odd about their own, which naturally spooks Klaus at first.

(So Joseph says, “Only last night the Angel of the Lord forewarned me in a dream to take the young child and its mother and flee from Nazareth to Egypt, lest the soldiers of King Herod come upon us unawares.” People took dreams very seriously in Biblical times, but also Joseph taking his family out of Nazareth without warning anyone else in advance is, if you ask me, more than a little morally dubious. Indeed if you want to see the actual moral quandry that would spawn from such an action I recommend checking out José Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. Good novel, that one. I’m getting a little sidetracked here. Quinn is writing a compelling Christmas story, but he’s also deliberately toying with very old and revered material that some people take very seriously.)

The infant Jesus, unbeknownst to Mary and Joseph, communicates with Klaus with what I can only call telepathy. Of course we know that Jesus, being both entirely God and man, is conversing with Klaus in the former form while his baby self just stares at him and makes blup-blup sounds. It’s here that Jesus tells Klaus about the broad strokes of the rest of the plot and how he will eventually give up his warrior ways to become a friend to all children—and not only that, but that Klaus will be made immortal, something that only a couple figures in the entirety of the Bible are granted. (No one is sure what happened to Enoch; maybe he went out to get some milk.) The baby Jesus with his Jedi mind powers has this to say:

When the name of Odin is forgot, and in all the world there is no man to do him reverence at his altars, thy name and fame shall live; and laughing, happy children shall praise thy goodness and thy loving-kindness. Thou shalt live immortally in every childish heart so long as men shall celebrate my birthday.

It’s here that the first section of “Roads” ends, with Klaus and the infant Jesus parting ways, Jesus to return to the land of his birth eventually and Klaus to stay with the Romans. Between the first and second sections there’s a thirty-year time skip: Klaus, a man who should at least be pushing sixty, has not aged a day while Jesus, the man destined to rise from the dead, sees himself at the other end of his mortal life. By the time the two meet again Klaus has become the right-hand man of Pontius Pilate, who, as he is depicted in “Roads,” is a little bitchy and a little antisemitic, but who ultimately has little interest in executing or even punishing Jesus. I know I’m biased, and I’m thinking of a certain movie while reading this tale, but I keep imagining David Bowie in the role of Pontius Pilate; it must be the bitchiness and coded gayness, what with how he calls Klaus “my Claudius.” Well, you can take the Roman out of Rome but you can’t take Rome out of the Roman, or something like that…

This review may seem frontloaded with summarizing the first section, but I wanna give you some time to adjust to the nature of the story’s world before we get into spoilers, which after all are hard to define since, like I said, the broad strokes of the plot are laid out for us in advance. We know that Klaus will eventually become Santa Claus and that his role as a friend to children and the downtrodden is inextricably tied to Christianity (ironic, given that Klaus is, at least for much of the story, a devout pagan). An old platitude goes that it’s not the destination that matters so much as the journey, though, and what follows makes good on the promise made in that first section—that being that this will be one of the weirdest and most capitvating Christmas stories I’ve read in a long time.

There Be Spoilers Here

This section is basically gonna be a series of random notes for me, because while I would looooove to give a beat-by-beat rundown of this story, I’m pressed for time and also, as I said, this one is hard to spoil. As such I’m more interested in the ways Quinn messes with the Jesus narrative and other things more than the beats of the plot. Some may say the liberties Quinn took border on blasphemy, but as far as I’m concerned he’s simply taking a story that is already at least partly fabricated and moving some pieces of the jigsaw puzzle around, occasionally also adding in pieces from a totally different puzzle. In fact let’s make this a list, shall we?

  1. Despite Pontius Pilate sending Jesus, a man Klaus had served before, to his death, Klaus remains loyal to both Pilate and Jesus, even staying by the former’s side while he’s on his death bed. At first it may seem odd that Klaus bears Pilate no ill will, but Jesus makes it clear that he is supposed to be crucified, and that while Klaus and the others are not in on the details of Jesus’s plan, Jesus tells Our Hero™ to not be too worried about it.
  2. Speaking of the crucifixion, one of the most striking little things Quinn does, as far liberty-taking goes, is he puts Klaus in the shoes of the soldier who spears Jesus’s body between the ribs to make sure he’s dead, rather than leave him to the elements. “’Tis long since I have done that favor to a helpless man,” says Klaus, and Jesus in his spirit form thanks him for this act of mercy, however morbid it may be.
  3. I was worried for a bit during the middle section that Quinn was pulling a Mel Gibson and overemphasizing the role Jewish religious leaders played in Jesus’s execution, and I’m still not totally convinced there isn’t some antisemitism at play here. However, while nobody likes or respects the Jewish priests, this turns out to be a running theme in the story, not just with Jewish religious leaders but Christian ones later one. Be sure to put a pin in this note.
  4. Klaus later rescuse a girl from a collapsed building following an earthquake—a girl who will turn out to be Mrs. Claus. Oh boy, a few things to unpack here. First, Erinna is a prostitute who came from Lebanon, a fact that revolts Klaus until Jesus tells him to stop being an asshole and not slut-shame her. (Reminder that Jesus’s “cast the first stone” speech might be the oldest call against slut-shaming in the history of human literature, just so puritanical Christians in the audience are aware.) Klaus, being in need of companionship and aware that Erinna fucks like a champ (that’s right, Mrs. Claus is a SLUT), takes her as his wife, with her being made immortal as well.
  5. With Erinna taking on the married name of Unna, as is apparently a custom for Klaus and his people, the two start traveling the world and working for a number of governments, first over a span of decades and then centuries. Quite remarkably (by that I mean implausibly), Klaus and Unna being both famous and apparently ageless does not become a problem for them until Christianity has become the majority religion in mainland Europe—so like, a few hundred years at least. What I find interesting, though, is that the immortality thing doesn’t really become a problem for them until the crusades start.
  6. Ultimately this is still a “Christian” Christmas story, but something tells me Quinn did not get along with religious authorities, because regardless of their religion, they’re consistently depicted here as at best obnoxious and, later on, as actively murderous. When some Christian do-gooders capture Unna with the intention of executing her as a witch, Klaus shows them no mercy in rescuing his wife. Klaus is also repulsed when crusaders sack Muslim cities and murder what he considers to be innocent people in their homes. I wonder how alt-right shitheads are supposed to take all this.
  7. While it’s implied, via crosses Klaus and Unna wear in later years, that the former eventually abandons his pagan beliefs, we never actually get a conversion scene for Klaus. This is not a preachy work wherein the heathen “sees the light” and is swayed to become a Christian; rather Klaus spreads the best potential of Christianity because he wants to follow the words of a man he respects and whom he knew personally. Giving up his sword and ax at the end to become Santa Claus (with elves and reindeer and all that) at the end is merely the conclusion to an arc that had been in mottion since the beginning.

I could keep going, by the way. The fact that Klaus, who longed to return to his homeland at the beginning, goes back north at the end to evade persecution, only to meet up with the elves (who really are akin to Tolkien’s dwarves in that they’re short and born craftsmen), a fellow persecuted race; the fact that the first time he helps a child in an impoverished town he happens to be dressed in red; the fact that his Roman name of Claudius sets up his changing his name again, this time permamently. A lot happens, and not all of it “makes sense,” but this only really matters if you’re someone asking for strict rationalization in a story that, even without Quinn’s inserts, does not and cannot entirely make sense. The result is an adaptation that’s only slightly more fantastical than the source material, and no less quirky, only it’s not preached as being gospel.

A Step Farther Out

I wouldn’t call “Roads” perfect, but I’m also not sure if I’ve read anything else quite like it. Charlatans, or just people who don’t like to have fun, would knock this story for its “flaws,” but I’d argue those flaws are what give it character—for anything bereft of flaws cannot possibly be considered human, and “Roads” is very much a human story. We have here a retelling of the Jesus narrative with Santa Claus inserted as a Viking out of both time and place, a warrior with sword and ax who becomes a friend to all children. If you ever wanted to see a totally jacked Santa Claus cut down legionaries and crusaders like they’re trees, for some godforesaken reason, then boy do I have just the thing for you. This has to be the most violent Christmas story I’ve ever read/seen that wasn’t made to be edgy on purpose, and yet I can’t say Quinn is being disingenuous; on the contrary, the violence being juxtaposed with Klaus finding his calling as the role we know he’ll ultimately play makes the latter more profound. This is a Christmas story for those true believers who also happen to be fans of Conan the Barbarian.

So Finally we’ve reached the end of my month dedicated to stories from Weird Tales. I revisited a few familiar faces and came across some others whom I had never read before. It was also nice to take a break from covering serials and novellas, much as I love them. There was a lot of hackwork in Weird Tales, and some experiments that didn’t work out, but I was reminded that at the height of its popularity, Weird Takes was easily more daring than most of the pulp magazines on the market, even being a good deal edgier than the relatively puritanical Unknown which all but succeeded it. During this month we covered space opera, vampires, mad scientists, sword and sorcery, good old-fashioned ghost stories, and everything in between. You have to admit that’s a lot of variety for one magazine!

See you next time.


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