A Man Of Wealth And Taste: Jack Chalker’s And The Devil Will Drag You Under
Jack L Chalker is known for his series novels—the Well Of Souls series probably being the most famous. I can’t comment on any of them, I think I may have tried to read Midnight At The Well Of Souls once, but I don’t think I finished it. It certainly didn’t leave much of an impression on me.
On the other hand, And The Devil Will Drag You Under, written early in Chalker’s career (1979) did make a big impression on me. It’s a standalone novel, and it’s a fast moving adventure story that blends science fiction and fantasy concepts, so it will probably come as no surprise that it’s out of print. Like many of the books that I plug in this column, it is available on Audible as an audiobook, and used paperback copies seem to be fairly easy to come by.
So—the story. The Earth is about to be hit by an asteroid and there is the usual widespread panic one expects in these situations. The asteroid is a big one, and the end of human life is pretty much guaranteed. A man named Mac and a woman named Jill, strangers to each other, end up in a college bar in Reno, Nevada and find themselves talking to a strange old drunk who claims to be a demon, and says that he can stop the asteroid, if they agree to help.
The old drunk really is a demon—sort of. He is an alien creature with demon-like features, named Asmodeus Mogart. (There is a thick vein of irreverent humor running through this book.) Asmodeus’ species has the ability to create alternate universes and they use them to set up experiments. Earth is one such experiment, and the fact that it’s about to be smashed by a huge space rock is just part of the simulation—the demons’ real interest is elsewhere. In fact, Asmodeus is stationed on this planet because he’s a drunk and fairly useless and has been put out to pasture. No help is coming from the Head Office. By himself, Asmodeus can’t even get off the doomed planet.
But Asmodeus isn’t entirely helpless. He has a magic jewel—excuse me, technologically advanced artifact—that allows him to influence events. He has used it to summon Jill and Mac, and to keep the bar safe from the worst of the end times chaos. One jewel isn’t enough to effect major changes—like knocking a rogue asteroid out of the sky—but the jewels can be combined to amplify their power. If he can get his hands on six of them, he can make an Eye of Baal—a super-mega-jewel that can save the world. Or even make a new one.
All he needs are a couple of brave hero types willing to journey to other universes and steal magic jewels from the resident demons. Quite reasonably, Mac and Jill decide that sounds way too dangerous and choose to stay on Earth and get squashed like a couple of bugs on a windshield instead—ha, ha, just kidding. Of course they agree to go after the jewels and save the Earth.
Chalker’s world-building shines in the five quest sections that follow. Each universe feels very real, with its own physical and supernatural laws. The quests are varied, requiring a mix of action and shrewd calculation to get in, get the jewel, and get out. The other demons are a motley group—Asmodeus having chosen demons who were, like him, given backwater assignments due to their incompetence.
Which is not to say that any of the quests are easy. Chalker maintains a feeling of real danger—time is short and the stakes are high. Jill and Mac are thrust into some very strange worlds without any preparation or backup. And it doesn’t help that the supernatural creature who is pulling their strings is rapidly getting too drunk to sit up straight.
This is a really fun book. The tone is fairly light, for the most part, without ever mocking the characters or their mission. There are a few twists and turns—at least one of which I didn’t see coming the first time I read it. Plus the title is taken from a song from Guys And Dolls, and there just isn’t enough showtune inspired science fantasy out there.
Misha Burnett is the author of Catskinner’s Book, Cannibal Hearts, The Worms Of Heaven, and Gingerbread Wolves, modern fantasy novels collectively known as The Book Of Lost Doors.