Gilbert Stuart MacDonald and Passchendaele

Gilbert Stuart MacDonald

Gilbert Stuart MacDonald, 1889 – 1917

As I’ve mentioned before, there is not much of a tradition of military service in my direct ancestors.

One served in the 42nd Wisconsin Infantry during the Civil War. But he joined in August 1864 and was out in less than a year. The company was on “post and garrison duty” in Illinois during that time.

Before that I have to go back to the American Revolution for ancestors who were in the military (as well as ancestors who were Loyalists and had to flee to Canada after the war).

But among indirect relations on the Canadian side several saw combat. One was in the Canadian Mounted Rifles in the Boer War.

Two were involved in World War One. One never left Canada and served as a cook in a training camp.  (He was also an American citizen born in Missouri but drafted in the Canadian Army. I am unclear about the legalities involved.)

The other was Gilbert Stuart MacDonald who died 100 years ago today.

I was told he died at Passchendaele, so I took a couple of books on the battle off the shelf and read them for the anniversary.

Review: Passchendaele: The Tragic Victory of 1917, Philip Warner, 1987 and Passchendaele: The Untold Story, Robin Price and Trevor Wilson, 1996.

Americans give little thought to Passchendaele. Neither American soldiers or marines fought in it, and Americans generally don’t give a lot of thought to World War One. It is the American Civil War and World War Two which are important in American culture and thoughts.Warner Passchendaele

But the British and Australians and Canadians and New Zealanders definitely still think about it. It was, in some ways, the most horrible battle of the war.

The bare metrics of the battle don’t agree for battles Commonwealth forces fought in. John Terraine’s The Smoke and the Fire provides some. It says Passchendaele lasted 105 days to the Somme’s 21 days. The Somme and the British offensive of August through November 1918 had more casualties than Passchendaele’s 244,000. Many other battles in the war exceeded its casualty average of 2,121 per day.

Nor was the battle the worst in the number of casualties measured against the ground taken or movement of the lines.

But it was the worse for the conditions it was fought in. (The fighting in the Italian Alps between Italians and Austrians, where avalanches and tunnels were part of the weaponry,  has its own unique, if smaller scale, horror.)

Some of the most iconic pictures of the war are from Passchendaele: men and beast moving across duckboards in a landscape of flooded craters and a few shattered trees. Men and horses really did drown when they stepped off those boards. Wounded men really did scream as they lay helpless in craters filling with water. Marches that would take an hour under normal conditions would take many multiples of that as men moved through the mud. Weapons clogged in the mud and rain; artillery shells had to be cleaned of mud before firing. Men waded exhausted across swamps under machine gun fire.

Passchendaele’s horrors came from the incessant rain and the nature of the battlefield.

It was fought on low ground, badly drained because of an underlying layer of clay. What little drainage work had been constructed before the war was destroyed by massive use of artillery, the highest density of shelling yet seen in the war.

Rain was expected around Ypres – the official name of the battle is the Third Battle of Ypres, but the rains were unusually heavy that year.

The battle started with a bang, a very loud bang, the largest explosion in history when 19 mines were detonated under the Germans at 3:10 AM on June 7, 1917. Over a million tons of ammonal explosive going off was heard as far off as London where David Lloyd-George, the British Prime Minister, was working late in his office. To give an idea of the low topographical relief, one of the mines was under Hill 60, a German strongpoint a mere 60 meters above sea level.

Yet, the chaos caused by those mines, some sources say about 10,000 German troops were killed when they exploded, didn’t start the battle proper. General Douglas Haig’s offensive started on July 31, 1917 and ground to a halt, the Germans pushed off their “high ground” of Messines and Passchendaele Ridges and the Gheuvelt Plateau, on November 10, 1917.

I read Prior and Wilson’s book second, but I should have read it first. Even Martin Marix Evans, author of several books on the battle, points out in the February 2007 issue of Over the Top: A Magazine of the First World War (put out by the people who do the Roads to the Great War site listed on my blogroll), who disputes their conclusion that the battle lacked “discernible consequences or achievements”, admires the clarity of their presentation.Wilson Passchendaele

They break each phase of the battle into its own chapter with relevant, clear, small scale maps showing lines of movements and zones of operation for the Commonwealth forces. Warner’s book, a popular history, uses 1920 maps from French sources. While they sometimes show important villages and topographical features lacking in Trevor and Wilson, they don’t show locations of units. It’s even hard to discern the Menin Road that is so much a part of British memory (as much as anything of World War One is) and site of the Menin Gate monument. Continue reading

Advertisements

“The Horror at Red Hook”

Yes, it’s time, with no apologies, for that story.

Raw Feed (2005): “The Horror at Red Hook”, H. P. Lovecraft, 1925.Dagon and Other Macabre Tales

This is the first of what I term the “I really hate New York” stories of Lovecraft. Part of their charm is the sheer hatred and disgust of the city that comes through Lovecraft’s vituperative prose.  The city and its mongrel, money-grubbing inhabitants are base, degraded, devolved, unimaginative, and unregeneratively evil.

The evil (Yezidis — devil worshipping Kurds from Kurdistan) is still festering, growing again at Red Hook at story’s end. [Yes, I am well aware that Yezidis are not exactly Satan worshipers — at least not of a Christian version of Satan and have been aware of that since reading Arkon Daraul’s A History of Secret Societies in 2002.]

Unconquered evil, is of course, hardly exceptional in Lovecraft, though.

This story sort of stands at a cross road for Lovecraft. Like the story Lovecraft wrote immediately before it, “The Shunned House“, that features a rather traditional horror creature: the vampire with its reference to Lilith, this story has a traditional evil. Continue reading

“Under the Pyramids”

Yes, that’s the Harry Houdini on the byline and H. P. Lovecraft is lurking in the brackets because he was the ghostwriter. This is not the last time we’ll see him in that capacity. Most of his pathetic income was actually derived from ghostwriting.

Going from memory (because I’m not going to take the time to fact check) Lovecraft finished this story up during the honeymoon of his disastrous marriage and en route to New York City where he was going to have a horrible couple of years (even if he got to hang around with his friends in person).

But, as S. T.  Joshi noted in his biography of Lovecraft, the New York City exile strengthened Lovecraft as a person. It certainly led to a burst of creativity when he returned to his home in Providence, Rhode Island.

Raw Feed (2005): “Under the Pyramids”, Harry Houdini [and H. P. Lovecraft], 1924.Dagon and Other Macabre Tales

I would be curious as to why Houdini had this story ghostwritten for Weird Tales and why he chose Lovecraft as the ghostwriter.  (I’m sure when I get around to reading Joshi’s biography of Lovecraft, he will answer those questions.)  [And it does, and I’ll probably post something about it in the future.] Was Houdini at this point in his career (1924 — he was to die the next year) trying to become a multimedia star? After all, he had already done three movies in 1919. Though he wrote nonfiction, he may have had neither the inclination nor talent to tackle a work of fiction — which clearly is presented with the conceit that its narrator is Harry Houdini recounting an odd adventure he had in Egypt.  However, I’m still curious why he chose Lovecraft.

I’m fairly confident that the basic plot — Houdini going to Egypt, being stranded in some odd passages beneath the Great Sphinx, and escaping (without any revelation of trade secrets as to how he escapes his bonds) — was Houdini’s. However, the language and probably the conceit of elder surviving horrors beneath the Giza plain are Lovecraft’s. Continue reading

“The Festival”

The Lovecraft series is back while I work on writing some new posts.

Raw Feed (2005): “The Festival”, H. P. Lovecraft, 1923.Dagon and Other Macabre Tales

Reading this story first many years ago, I mostly remembered this story for two things: Lovecraft’s first mention of the Necronomicon and the classic alliterative line:

It was the Yuletide, that men call Christmas though they know in their hearts it is older than Bethlehem and Babylon, older than Memphis and mankind.

I was surprised at how effective a mood piece it was and that it’s sort of a dress rehearsal — in the plot element of a man being called by blood back to an old seaport where humans and things (here worms wearing human masks) have been having some sort of horrid intercourse — for Lovecraft’s classic “The Shadow Over Innsmouth“.

 

More reviews of Lovecraft related items are indexed on the Lovecraft page.

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

“The Wand of Doom”

New stuff is being written, but it’s going to be awhile before it gets posted, so I’m going to continue the Jack Williamson with one more item.

Raw Feed (2013): The Wand of Doom”, Jack Williamson, 1932.Wand of Doom

I was kind of surprised when this story was proposed for the Deep Ones discussion group over at LibraryThing. I don’t, with the possible exception of Darker Than You Think, think of Williamson as a weird writer. But Williamson wrote a lot of stuff in the earlier part of his career, and this is an sf story with weird fiction imagery.

Essentially this is another “monster from the Id” story, though, of course, it predates Forbidden Planet. Or, more precisely, it’s a monster from the unconscious, here  a childhood, yet also atavistic, terror of spiders which a super science instrumentality manifests. this idea of mental terrors physically manifested is an old horror idea, just the rationalizing instrumentality varies.

Here a scientist finds a way to manifest his thoughts, freezing the energy (as matter is frozen energy) into physical forms but maintained by the fields put out by a dynamo and generator. He not only recreates a version of his lost love — she died before they could marry – but the somnabulent Paul accidentally brings his old nightmare spiders to life. Continue reading

“Spew”

There’s one more Neal Stephenson bit from the archives.

This story seems rather ho-hum now — because Stephenson’s vision has largely been realized as we blithely trade our privacy for Google’s baubles of convenience.

Raw Feed (1994): ”Spew”, Neal Stephenson, Wired, October 1994.Spew

Another cyberpunk story by Stephenson.

He has his William Gibson-style patter of technology and science-laden metaphors and similes, mostly original down, but his narrative and plot here don’t pay off.

This story, to re-work a Max Headroom phrase, is set “10 minutes in the future” in a world where our English major narrator-protagonist works as a “Profile Auditor”, someone who monitors the records of the “Spew” – Stephenson’s depiction of just how much of a data trail each of us leaves in our lives and what deductions someone can make from it.

Not only entertainment can be found (the “Virtual Mall” and the “Stalker Channel” – fed by surveillance cameras) but data on individuals. The narrator’s job is to use such personal data on buying and individual entertainment choices to find unexploited market niches. Continue reading

Snow Crash

Never let it be said that Marzaat is unresponsive to the interests and needs of its readers.

Sarah over at the Critiquing Chemist asked if I’ve ever read any Neal Stephenson.

Not much, but I have reviewed The Diamond Age, and one other novel.

So that’s why today’s post is …

Raw Feed (1992): Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson, 1992.Snow Crash

An excellent book.

As Ed Bryant said in a review, cyberpunk with a sense of humor. Not only cyberpunk with it’s well worked out vision of the virtual reality of the Metaverse with its conventions, and combination of play and business and constant developing states, but also a fast moving, very funny thriller.

(Stephenson is very hazy how one actually moves your avatar in the Metaverse and how you control it. I didn’t even catch a hint of a device that reads brain waves.)

I’m not sure if the novel absolutely qualifies as cyberpunk.

It’s a grungy enough world, and there’s a large element of crime here but there are middle class people (Y.T’s mom), and so much of what we consider crime — like the Mafia — is here de facto legitimized.

In fact, the Mafia is heroic in this story — sort of. Hiro Protagonist doesn’t have any illusions about them. Still, there’s the political and physical and social decay that marks cyberpunk. It’s manifested in a United States of America that just about exists in name only. Hiro’s mom works for them, and it’s an inefficient, tyrannical, hellish, and boring place to work. Weird franchises spread like viruses. There are self-contained Burbclaves and pirate fleets. Continue reading

The Stonehenge Gate

Continuing to retrieve Jack Williamson material from the archives.

This one was his last novel.

Raw Feed (2005): The Stonehenge Gate, Jack Williamson, 2005.

This is the latest work from sf legend Jack Williamson, a man whose career spans 76 years. This serial started in the January/February issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact, the magazine founded 75 years ago this year as Astounding Stories so Williamson’s whole career is longer than this venerable magazine. The whole careers of the Big Three (as they were once known — who knows how younger sf readers would nominate for that position) of Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke are bookended by Williamson’s works — and, of course, many another sf writer.

This story starts out promising — four college professors, including the narrator (an English professor at a New Mexico college –autobiographical for Williamson), who call themselves the Four Horseman decide, investigate some possible ruins in the Sahara. Continue reading

“The Ultimate Earth”

Digging out a few more Jack Williamson pieces.

Yes, eventually the Lovecraft series will continue as well as new stuff showing up.

Raw Feed (2001): “The Ultimate Earth”, Jack Williamson, 2000.Ultimate Earth

I believe that Williamson first published in 1928, and it’s good to see him still publishing good stories.

This story ricochets about the universe with a scope and pace of the old space opera Williamson wrote early in his career. Yet he also brings in the relatively new sf device of nanotechnology, here “nanobots”.

The plot is set in the far future with an Earth depopulated by cometary impacts and then repopulated by the efforts of a moon outpost – itself later wrecked by an impact. The members of that outpost are cloned.  (They seem to be partially made up of people who left earth right before the killing impacts.)

The clones, raised by a computer, are discovered by archaeologist Sandor Pen who treats them well as children but, as they grow older, he treats them more like scientific curiosities or museum exhibits than as real people. Museum exhibits are exactly what they are as Sandor Pen restores the moon station to its pre-impact state.

Nor does he allow the main base inhabitants to return to Earth. Continue reading

Darker Than You Think

A while back I did a Jack Williamson series and I found a few more related reviews in the archive, so I’m taking a brief detour from the H. P. Lovecraft series.

And I am working on some new material.

Raw Feed (2002): Darker Than You Think, Jack Williamson, 1940, 1948.Darker Than You Think

I originally read this novel because Fortean Miriam de Ford listed it as one of the sf works influenced by Charles Fort.  I see no evidence of that.

Fort is not mentioned or even obliquely alluded to.

I think, amongst other things, Williamson was clearly influenced by the work of Rhine on psychic powers, and the notion that these strange powers (which are mentioned in, partially, Fort’s Wild Talents) may be studied scientifically almost certainly comes from there.

If there is any Charles Fort influence, it may be by way of Eric Frank Russell’s Sinister Barrier.

Both novels were published in John Campbell’s Unknown magazine, Russell’s in 1939, Williamson in 1940.

Both novels feature a broad battle between humans and non-humans, Russell’s Vitons and Williamson’s witch-people, with the evidence of those battles showing up in human psychology and odd events. Continue reading