Let me introduce you to Murdock and Jenny, the Scarlet Lady. Jenny is the common car of the future, “adjusts her course around rocks and potholes,” and can do so with or without her driver, Murdock, at the wheel, and for him “at times it seemed as if he were steering a very fast boat through night.” She even tries to get him to take a nap or just relax by playing “soft stringy music.” But Murdock is no average driver, and Jenny is “anxious to get on with his quest.”
Jenny is more than just a computerized car. “She was made to look like a carefree Swinger sedan: bright red, gaudy, fast,” with “rockets under the bulges of her hood and two fifty-caliber muzzles” below her headlights, underneath her “a belt of five- and ten-second timed grenades” and a spray-tank in her trunk “containing a highly volatile naphthalic,” an explosive. Jenny is a killing machine, what Murdock calls a “deathcar”.
Murdock and Jenny hunt a gang who strip vehicles, drain their fluids and smash their computer brains, killing the human passengers too, running some of them down in cold blood—inhuman. When our heroes investigate a raid they only find six of eight expected victim cars. Two of the cars joined the gang.
I said the gang was inhuman. I meant literally. It’s made up of computerized cars, now considered Wild Cars. Just think if KITT, the computerized car from the 80s tv show Knight Rider, went all Skynet on humans. Now imagine that all cars could go “wild” and you have Roger Zelazny’s short story “Devil Car.”
In this robot-versus-man story or our-own-technology-will-destroy-us story, the Devil Car is the leader of the pack, a black Cadillac that killed Murdock’s brother fifteen years ago. All Murdock wants is “to watch that Devil Car burn away to a metal skeleton.” “Huge it was, and shiny, and a skeleton’s face smiled from behind its wheel. Black it was, and gleaming chromium, and its headlamps were like dusky jewels or the eyes of insects.” “I have never seen a car that big,” Jenny says when she sees it for the first time.
They track the Devil Car and its gang to a hidden auto graveyard where it looks like Murdock and Jenny might battle his henchmen first, a “sleek yellow Chrysler,” two Lincolns, “a powerful-looking Pontiac” and two Mercedes, but they merely cut off their exit, and the other 45 cars of the gang standby as Murdock and Jenny battle the Devil Car one on one to the end.
Sometimes a singular work, usually a movie, dominates a theme in our culture when what it is really doing is representing an entire movement. We remember post apocalypse cars and think Mad Max, but we don’t always recall the dozens of other movies from the same time period. And these movements cross platforms and media too. Rush’s song “Red Barchetta” about a young man in the future driving his uncle’s illegal sportscar, came out in 1980, during the same time period.
Literature, though, is oftentimes twenty years ahead of these themes—think women writers of the 1900s and women’s right to vote in 1920. Roger Zelazny’s “Devil Car” first appeared twenty years before the car apocalypse movies, June 1965, in the science fiction digest Galaxy, and it’s a theme Zelazny explored often in his work to amazing literary effect, so when Murdock and Jenny battle the black Cadillac Devil Car, you can bet you’ll see some of them again.