Remembering John Jakes (1932 -2023)

Writer John Jakes died yesterday aged 90, not quite a month before his 91st birthday.

Most people will probably associate John Jakes mainly with the weighty historical epics that made him a bestseller in the 1970s and 1980s. If you were a kid during that time, John Jakes’ Kent Family Chronicles and North and South were probably on your parents’ bookshelves. They certainly were on my parents’ bookshelves (and still are, in fact).

And even if your parents or grandparents didn’t read John Jakes, you’ve probably at least seen the North and South TV miniseries and its sequels Love and War and Heaven and Hell, which were smash hits in the 1980s that everybody watched. Reruns of the three miniseries – called Fackeln im Sturm (Torches in the Storm) in Germany, because a TV executive claimed North and South sounded like the title of a travel program – still get good ratings in Germany almost forty years later. The Bastard, The Rebels and The Seekers, the first three Kent Family Chronicles novels, were made into TV mini-series as well, though they never had quite the impact that North and South did.

For many years, I mentally shelved John Jakes as a writer of the sort of historical doorstoppers that were immensely popular from the 1960s to the 1980s. John Jakes was very much “parent literature”, enjoyable and interesting enough when you found yourself stuck on a holiday with nothing to read but your Mom’s paperback copy of North and South. His novels were also better researched than many others of the same type – and indeed Jakes was aware of his responsibility as a writer of historical fiction, since he knew that for many people, his books would be the first and only time they ever heard about the historical events they covered. However, Jakes was not really someone whose works I would seek out on my own.

And indeed most obituaries, such as Robert D. McFadden’s from the New York Times and Mike Barnes’ from The Hollywood Reporter, focus mainly on John Jakes as a writer of bestselling historical fiction. Interestingly enough, I couldn’t find any German obituaries at all, even though North and South was immensely popular here in the 1980s. I find this very telling, especially since I found at least five different obituaries for the far more obscure German Romanian writer Richard Wagner (not to be confused with the composer of the same name), who happened to die on the same day.

What is only a footnote in all of the mainstream obituaries is that John Jakes was also an SFF writer as well as a writer of crime fiction, westerns and erotica long before he found success beyond imagination with historical sagas.

I certainly had no idea that John Jakes had written SFF before I came across his name in a review at Galactic Journey and thought, “Wait a minute, the North and South guy used to write SFF?” Turns out John Jakes did not just write SFF, he wrote a lot of it and was also one of the protagonists of the second sword and sorcery boom.

John Jakes debuted towards the end of the pulp era (and indeed was probably one of the last surviving authors of the pulp era) with a story called “The Dreaming Trees” in the November 1950 issue of Fantastic Adventures, when he was just eighteen years old. The story in question is an early work of ecological science fiction and may be read online here. In fact, that story sounds fascinating and I will probably do a Retro Review of it eventually.

Fantastic Adventures November 1950

The Dreaming Trees by John Jakes

Interior art by James B. Settles for “The Dreaming Trees” by John Jakes

John Jakes’ next story “Your Number Is Up!” appeared only one month later in the December 1950 issue of Amazing Stories. More stories appeared in rapid succession in the Ziff-Davis SFF magazines, but also in If, Planet Stories, Imagination and even Galaxy and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, at the time two of the most prestigious SFF magazines.

Your Number Is Up! by John Jakes interior art

Interior by Edmond Swiatek for “Your Number Is Up!” by John Jakes

A lot of these early John Jakes stories sound quite fascinating – a mix of horror, crime fiction and delightfully pulpy SFF. Here’s one from 1951 which appears to be a murder mystery set on a mansion on Venus. Honestly, I feel Retro Reviews coming on.

At the same time, John Jakes also wrote westerns for the remaining western pulps as well as mysteries, crime fiction, historical adventure fiction (pre-empting his later career mainstays), men’s adventure fiction, TV tie-ins and even erotica. Like many writers of the pulp and early paperback era, John Jakes was a Jack or rather Jakes of all genres. At Dark Worlds, G.W. Thomas traces the seventy year writing career of John Jakes in a three part part post.

John Jakes was a fan of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, even though he was only six months old, when Conan of Cimmeria burst onto the scene in the November 1932 issue of Weird Tales. And so he created his own sword and sorcery hero loosely inspired by Conan in Brak the Barbarian, whose adventures initially appeared in Fantastic Stories of Imagination between 1963 and 1965 under the editorship of sword and sorcery champion Cele Goldsmith Lalli (more on her in an upcoming article in issue 1 of New Edge Sword and Sorcery Magazine).

Fantastic May 1963

Brak the Barbarian debuted in “Devils in the Walls” in the May 1963 issue of Fantastic

Fantastic, January 1965

Brak meets “The Girl in the Gem” in the January 1965 issue of Fantastic. Note Brak’s signature ponytail, which gives him a resemblance to He-Man in the 1989 New Adventures of He-Man series.

Fantastic March 1965

Brak and friends explore “The Pillars of Chambalor” in the March 1965 issue of Fantastic.

When Cele Goldsmith Lalli left Fantastic for Modern Bride magazine, Brak’s fate like that the other sword and sorcery heroes who had appeared in its pages seemed sealed, for the new regime preferred cheap reprints to original fiction. However, when the second sword and sorcery boom was kicked into overdrive with the Lancer paperback editions of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, publishers scrambled to reprint any sword and sorcery they could and so the Brak stories were reprinted as a series of fix-up novels with striking Frank Frazetta covers starting in 1968. New Brak stories also continued to appear in Lin Carter’s Flashing Swords anthologies well into the time when John Jakes hit paydirt with The Kent Chronicles.

Brak the Barbarian

The 1968 paperback edition of Brak the Barbarian with a striking Frank Frazetta cover.

Brak the Barbarian is often called a “Clonan”, i.e. a Conan clone, but that’s unfair, because Brak is very much his own character. Yes, he is a Barbarian (and note that Conan never refers to himself as Conan the Barbarian) and an outcast from his people for daring to question their gods, but Brak is more vulnerable than Conan and frequently finds himself enslaved and forced to serve wizards against his will. Unlike Conan, who drifts through life, Brak is also on a quest to find the promised land of Khurdisan the Golden. He never finds it in the published tales, but rumour had it that there is one more Brak story in which Brak finally find the promised land, to be published only after John Jakes’ death. I really hope that rumour is true.

Even though John Jakes eventually left speculative fiction behind for the greener and more lucrative pastures of historical fiction (and who could blame him?), he nonetheless was and remained one of us, a writer and a fan of SFF and kept returning the genre throughout his life.

Rest in Peace, John Jakes.

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11 Responses to Remembering John Jakes (1932 -2023)

  1. Mike Glyer says:

    Excellent profile!

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  3. Steven French says:

    Excellent profile – I remember reading The Asylum World back in my early teens & it certainly made an impression!

  4. Fraser says:

    “Unlike Conan, who drifts through life, Brak is also on a quest” Funny, I see it the opposite. Conan doesn’t have a big goal but in every story he’s got an immediate goal, even if it’s just “enlist as a mercenary, fight people, party with my pay.” Brak rarely has goals — it’s more like “oh, here’s an evil thing, might as well fight it.”
    I much prefer Jake’s “The Last Magician” which is definitely not a Clonan.
    I read and enjoyed the Kent Family books. Never got around to North and South nor did I catch it on TV. My wife has the DVDS though so I’ve seen them with her several times.

    • Cora says:

      Brak is definitely more idealistic than Conan and his adventures are mostly sidequests, whereas Conan has an immediate goal in every story, but not really an overall goal. He does become king eventually, but he isn’t aiming for the throne until quite a while into his adventures. And Howard never directly shows us how Conan became king, though De Camp and Carter did.

      The North and South TV miniseries was broadcast in the three-channel TV landscape of the 1980s, so everybody was watching it, because there was not a lot of choice and it’s unlikely that something better was on one of the other two channels. It did have several Star Trek or otherwise SFF-adjacent actors for a historical saga. Riker-to-be Jonathan Frakes actually met his wife Genie Francis while filming North and South.

      • Sarah Elkins says:

        We all watched North and South in college, in Charleston S.C. I was confused when a literary podcast I follow (Backlisted) discussed *North and South*, but it turned out to be a British novel by Elizabeth Gaskell about industrialization (dirty industrious North v. green idyllic South). I didn’t know about Jakes’ science fiction! Thanks.

        • Cora says:

          I came across Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South at university and was very confused as well. Professors liked assigning it, because of the industrialisation theme.

          I only knew Jakes for his historical fiction and had no idea that he wrote SFF until I came across a review of one of the Brak stories at Galactic Journey.

  5. Rachel Jakes says:

    What a nice piece on John!
    Thank you so much.

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