“You Northerners believe in trolls, so my brother tells me,” said the priest.
“Aye, long before the gold I’d heard of the Parma troll,” the berserker agreed. “Ox broad and stronger than ten men, shaggy as a denned bear.”
–David Drake, “The Barrow Troll”
One of my haunts for used books, Webhead Enterprises in Wakefield, MA, seems to house more than its fair share of exceptional short story collections (I’ve scored copies of Prime Evil, Dark Forces, and Revelations in Webhead, to name a few). It was there I purchased the excellent anthology Whispers, whose contents include “The Barrow Troll,” a terrific short story by David Drake.
“The Barrow Troll” was originally published in 1975 in Whispers magazine, a former periodical specializing in dark fantasy and horror. Drake, a former assistant editor for the magazine, wrote a nice piece about Whispers on his personal Web site.
Starting in 1977 editor Stuart David Schiff released the first of six best-of collections from the magazine in a book series also entitled Whispers. “The Barrow Troll” appears in the first of these anthologies.
In his introduction to the story, Schiff describes “The Barrow Troll” as “a brutal and shocking piece.” That about sums it up. It’s a wonderful fusion of horror and fantasy, probably my favorite entry in what is an almost-uniformly excellent collection (though Karl Edward Wagner’s “Sticks” is also an absolute gem). Whispers’ table of contents reads like a who’s who of legendary horror/fantasy authors, as it includes stories by Fritz Leiber, Robert Bloch, Dennis Etchison, Hugh B. Cave, Richard Christian Matheson, Robert Aickman, Joseph Payne Brennan, Manly Wade Wellman, and Ramsey Campbell, among others.
I’ve said before that I wish there were more outlets for hard-hitting, grim, adult, and well-written short fantasy fiction. “The Barrow Troll” satisfies all of these criteria. The basic details of the story are as follows: Barbarian warrior Ulf Womanslayer seeks out a rumored great treasure housed within a barrow and guarded by the notorious Parma Troll. All you need to know about Ulf is that he received his surname after cutting a woman named Thora to pieces with his great four-foot axe during a hall burning. He’s a berserker, the kind so feared by the English whose coasts they raided, as it was rumored they were incapable of being harmed while in their berserk state.
Ulf drags with him at the end of a rope the captive priest Johann, whose services he requires if he is to kill the troll, according to Thora’s last words. “And she told me of the Parma lord and the treasure he brought back from Ireland, gold and gems. And she said it was cursed that a troll should guard it, and that I must have a mass priest, for the troll could not cross a Christian’s fire and I should slay him then,” Ulf says.
Here’s a sample of Drake’s fine writing in “The Barrow Troll”:
Ulf’s eyes began to glaze. He slashed his axe twice across the empty air and shouted again, “Troll! I’ll spit on your corpse, I’ll lay with your dog mother. Come and fight me, troll, or I’ll wall you up like a rat with your filth!”
Johann stood frozen, oblivious even to the drop of pitch that sizzled on the web of his hand. The berserker bellowed again, wordlessly, gnashing at the rim of his shield so that the sound bubbled and boomed into the night.
And the tomb roared back to the challenge, a thunderous BAR BAR BAR even deeper than Ulf’s.
Drake does a fine job building up the tension until the final encounter between Ulf and the troll. The battle is well-portrayed and contains an unexpected twist that I won’t spoil here. I’ll just add that if you like Northern/Beowulf-flavored fantasy, “The Barrow Troll” is worth tracking down.
I’ve never read anything else by Drake, but in researching this piece I discovered his personal and exhaustive Web site. After digging around on it, I discovered that “The Barrow Troll” has appeared in nine different publications spanning more than 30 years, the latest in 2007 (Balefires by Night Shade Books). It was also one of only four short stories to be nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 1976. Here is its publication history:
“The Barrow Troll” Whispers, December 1975.
————– Savage Heroes: Tales of Sorcery and Black Magic, M. Parry, ed. 1977, London: W. H. Allen.
————– Whispers, S. D. Schiff, ed. 1977, Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
————– The World Fantasy Awards, Volume Two, S. D. Schiff and F. Leiber, eds. 1980, Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
————– From the Heart of Darkness. 1983, New York NY: Tor.
————– Vettius and His Friends. 1989, Riverdale, NY: Baen.
————– Heads to the Storm, D. Drake and S. Miesel, eds. 1989, Riverdale, NY: Baen.
————– The Best of Whispers, S. D. Schiff, ed. 1994, Baltimore, MD: Borderlands Press.
————– Balefires, 2007, San Francisco: Night Shade Books.
Among other finds on Drake’s Web site, I discovered that he worked with the great Karl Edward Wagner, sold his first short story to August Derleth of Arkham House, was influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard, and regularly re-reads Howard and Clark Ashton Smith. He’s also a Vietnam veteran and claims that the war was “the greatest single influence on [his] life.”
Overall Drake seems like a really interesting guy, and if his other stuff (he’s written or co-written over 60 books) is as good as “The Barrow Troll,” he’s certainly worth reading.