World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “Ombos”

Ombos“, R. Thurston Hopkins, 1916.

When this story was written, the Great War was just part of the contemporary background. It is a fairly standard occult tale about a man infusing his soul into a bronze statue of medieval occult scholar Albert Magnus. Murder and mystery ensue. The Great War just happens to be the setting for part of it.

The war shows up mostly in the middle of the story when Captain Crabbe relates how, in June 1915 near Ypres, he meets the titular Ombos, the man with the statue, for the first time. Ombos runs an antique shop, and Crabbe learns of his plans and briefly meets Ombos’ niece Margot.

He visits the shop one more time before Ombos dies and once afterward. He suddenly becomes romantically interested in Margot (the story ends with their marriage) and makes arrangements to have her placed in his home along with the statue after Ombos’ death.

Crabbe is wounded, returned to his home, where the presence of the statue disturbs him. A couple of murders take place and the wonder of Ombos’ success is revealed.

The day after Crabbe leaves the antique shop the second time, German artillery, with its “Coal Boxes” and “Jack Johnsons”, turns the town into “a heap of senseless wreckage”.  (“Coal boxes” are supposedly shell bursts producing black smoke as are “Jack Johnsons.”)

Crabbe says he’s gone for a month before returning to Ypres which confuses the story’s chronology. He says he’s been in France since the beginning of the war, August 1914, and clearly states he arrived in the town around June. The Second Battle of Ypres officially ended May 25, 1915. The book was published in 1916 before the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) which started July 31, 1917. Crabbe may be referring to some small action not large enough to constitute an official battle.

Crabbe vividly describes the ruined Ypres he sees on his return:

“Men, children and horses were lying dead in every gutter.

“In due course I arrived at the shop. A large hole had been ripped in the pavé road before the door, and I had to step over a dead and twisted soldier to gain an entrance. … Silence—only the faint boom of a gun far away in the French trenches—awful, ghastly silence. Then a deafening roar and a falling of masonry as Krupp’s marked down another house in the town of sorrow. The horror of it!

“I turned dismally away, out into the Rue Bar-le-Duc, and along the square. A few scattered lights shone feebly through the evening mist, and over towards the Norman bridge the yellow flames from a burning house lit up the sky with a lurid glow. At nearly every street corner little groups of civilians had collected and were talking and gesticulating in a terrified manner. When a big shell came with a hoarse, rattling noise through the air, like a racing motor cycle on the track at Brooklands, they would rush into their homes, panic-smitten. If death winked, and passed them over, out they would creep again. And so they lived in an inferno of shells for weeks on end.

“An ambulance wagon overturned in the middle of the road attracted my attention. I could not repress a shudder as I looked on the shell-shattered wreck…. It was the old type of four-horse ambulance used by the army in South Africa; possibly it had jolted into the shell-swept death-trap of Spion Kop, or carried men into the reeking enteric camps of Ladysmith. Well, it had made its last journey this time! The four dead horses had not been cut away from the traces, and from underneath the huddled and twisted heap stuck out an arm, and in the hand was clutched one of those short, stumpy whips which are used by the lead driver of a gun.”

Crabbe, with the help of a British military policeman, a so-called Red Cap, saves Margot from a “rough”, and he arranges, with the help of the British Ambulance Service Corps (tellingly only identified as “A.S.C.”).

World War One Content

  • Living Memory: Yes.
  • On-Stage War: Yes.
  • Belligerent Area: Yes.
  • Home Front: Yes.
  • Veteran: Yes — probably.

More World War One in Fantastic Fiction.

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