World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “The Bowmen”

World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “The Bowmen”, Arthur Machen, 1914.

The war was not yet two months old Arthur Machen when published his story. As the story alludes to, trenches were already being dug though, of course, they were not the extensive trenchworks that later in 1914 extended from Switzerland to the English Channel.

However other, later realities of the war, the ones that became iconic and symbolic shorthand in later stories of the fantastic, do not show up: muddy trenches, assaults into a leaden storm of machine gun bullets or the steel storm of an artillery barrage, or fields clotted with barbed wire. Continue reading “World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “The Bowmen””

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The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War

The Philip K. Dick series will resume in the future.

For now, though, I’m actually putting out something new for the first time in over three months.

This is the first of four posts centering around Arthur Machen’s “The Bowmen”. They’re already written, and I’ll put out one a day.

This may seem familiar to long time readers of the blog. The original entry had some factual errors in it, so I’m making corrections based on my recent research.

This collection came as part of the giant (in terms of megabytes) ebook The Works of Arthur Machen from Delphi Classics.

I came to it as part of a research for an article on fantastic fiction dealing with World War One and written by authors who were adults during the war. (The article  was published at Innsmouth Free Press.)

Eventually, I’ll take a closer look at the other stories besides “The Bowmen” in this collection.

Review: The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War, Arthur Machen, 1915.The Angels of Mons

When you talk about fantastic fiction and the First World War, Arthur Machen’s “The Bowmen” is the ur-story.

It may be the most known work of primary fiction to come out of that war. The only other contender I can think of is, mostly because of its title and the movie adaptations, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. But how many know Machen’s story or have read it?

You may never have read a word of Machen and know this story: retreating British soldiers in the early days of World War One are protected from pursuing Germans by an angelic army appearing in the sky.

I think I first came across the story as a grade schooler reading a Twilight Zone comic book digest. (And, if that isn’t true, it will be a “fact” in the future thanks to the wonders of search engines.)

Except that’s not Machen’s story. That’s the folklore it created.

In his introduction, a bemused and mostly annoyed Machen talks about how his story became a legend.

In his story, British soldiers, the “Eighty Thousand”, occupy a key salient under attack by the Germans. They expect to die. One, musing on a picture of St. George he saw in a London restaurant, thinks of St. George’s motto “Adsit Anglis Sanctus Geogius — May St. George be a present help to the English”.

Next thing you know, the din of battle lessens and bowmen from the Battle of Agincourt appear in the sky and kill the advancing Germans.

Note, bowmen — not angels. (Machen, a Welshman notes that, to be historically accurate, the bowmen of that battle should have spoken Welsh and not French.) In modified versions of the legend, arrows are found in the bodies of the dead Germans. Machen says he considered that for his story — and rejected it as too over the top.

Machen spends a lot of the introduction — written, based on internal evidence, about June 1915 — debunking the Angel of Mons stories and how none of them can be documented to have existed before his story was published on September 29, 1914. It’s not, says Machen, that he’s a disbeliever in the supernatural. He just sees no evidence for the truth of the Angel stories.

It is this introduction that Forbes Phillips was responding to in War and the Weird, Phillips, of course, being a believer in the Angel of Mons.

The other three stories in the collection are nothing special as Machen works or supernatural fiction in general. They do have the merit of being short and not stretching their premises into tedium.

German beastliness in Belgium and the consolation of a heavenly reward for self-sacrifice on the battlefield are the themes of “The Soldiers’ Rest“, a story conceived in August 1914 and preferred by Machen over “The Bowmen”.

More German barbarism is at the center of “The Monstrance“, specifically, in its explicit use of Christian symbols, the notion that Germans are a menace to not only civilization but that religion as well.

Next to “The Bowmen”, “The Dazzling Light” is the most interesting. It hearkens back to the medieval tradition of dream stories as in Langland’s Piers the Plowman. Lieutenant Smith falls asleep on holiday on the coast of Wales on August 16, 1914. His peculiar vision is

of men in various types of armour, carrying maces and metal balls about their waists and with crossbows

on the battlefields in France.

It is, of course, not a real prediction by Machen via Smith but a retrodiction of the peculiar medieval aspect trench warfare took on through troops’ clubs, knives, grenades (those metal balls), grenade throwers (those crossbows) and even, in some cases, metal armor.

The collection ends with a wistful, short essay: “The Bowmen and Other Noble Ghosts”. It’s attributed to “The Londoner”. That would seem to be Oswald “Londoner” Barron, a medievalist and friend of Machen. Both men wrote for the (London) Evening News. Barron laments that stories of the war are all that is written now and how he no longer writes about Greece.

Actually, the book doesn’t entirely end there. In a postscript, responding to Miss Phyllis Campbell’s article “The Angelic Leaders” in the magazine The Occult Review, Machen takes one more swipe at believers in the Angel of Mons legend.

 

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

World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “Cool Air”

“Cool Air”, H. P. Lovecraft, 1926.

While written a mere eight years after the war ended, H. P. Lovecraft’s still uses the Great War in the most general and allusive way possible.

The story is an updating of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”. In that story, a man’s consciousness exists post-mortem and in his body because of an experiment in mesmerism.

Lovecraft’s brilliant Dr. Munoz has achieved the same effect and “lived” past his death 18 years ago by keeping his body temperature lowered with a refrigeration unit in a New York City apartment.

Dr. Munoz doesn’t look well even before his air conditioning fails, and he liquefies. (Lovecraft himself said the end derived not from Poe but Arthur Machen’s “The Novel of the White Powder”.)

Before that, though, he has a visitor:

One September day an unexpected glimpse of him induced an epileptic fit in a man who come to repair his electric desk lamp; a fit for which he prescribed effectively whilst keeping himself well out of sight. That man, oddly enough, had been through the terrors of the Great War without having incurred any fright so thorough.

It’s the most general use of World War One in a weird story — to say that the uncanniness and horror of the story exceed even the horrors of the Great War.

 

More entries in this series are indexed on the World War One in Fantastic Fiction page.

The Ark

I picked up this collection of two French novels thinking that The Ark, given that it was literally written in the trenches of the First World War, would have material for my World War One in Fantastic Fiction series.

That was not to be the case. It is from the war but not of the war.

Review: The Ark, Andre Arnyvelde, trans. Brian Stableford, 2015.The Ark

Right up front, I’ll say I can’t really recommend these two novels, The King of Galade (1910) and The Ark (1920), to anyone except a scholar of French sf, antiquarians, or those, like me, who are seeking fantastic works related to the Great War.

This review will not be spoiler free.

Stableford, in one of his usual thorough introductions, notes that Arnyvelde aka Andre Levy is still widely read today for his journalist pieces on many areas of the arts and sciences which include a lot of information on his contemporaries who were or would become famous: Marcel Proust, Claude Monet, Filippo Marinetti, Edmond Rostand, and the Giradouxes. (I’m not even going to wax wiki glib on these names since I recognize none except the first two and don’t care enough to research the others.)

The King of Galade is reminiscent of Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas in that its protagonist leaves a valley kingdom isolated from the Europe that surrounds it. (Or so my memory of Rasselas has it from decades ago. I couldn’t even be bothered to wiki that either. Are you picking up yet on the general apathy most of this book induced in me?)

The first part of the story talks about protagonist Emmanuel’s royal ancestor Harb who discovers a way into the outside world and builds his palace around it. He kills the Wise Men who complete a tunnel from their grotto to the outside from their cave. (Technically, he has a servant kill them after they complete the tunnel and then he kills the servant.) Harb builds a palace around the grotto and enjoys secret access to the outside world and makes trips outside to bring back “practical and spiritual information”.

The story then shifts to Emmanuel, the titular King of Galade. He’s so charming that the kingdom (and several husbands) don’t mind his many affairs with their many wives. He becomes infatuated with Melidine, a widow who won’t sleep with him. He suffers ennui before re-discovering his privileged access to the outside world. After concocting a story about going into monastic retreat for a year, he leaves his uncle in charge and enters our world.

At first, he finds the Europe ca 1910 technologically marvelous.Then he burns through his money and is forced to take a menial labor job. He then falls in with the world of the Parisian poor and anarchists. He becomes dismayed at how all the glorious things are not available to the poor. They not only don’t have the money, but their energy is sapped by manual labor. He is also bothered by life being bettered by technology but its benefits not fully shared with the poor.

Arnyvelde uses the metaphor of a coaler on a locomotive to address a standard capitalist apologia for this. He may be hurtling through the landscape like the rich, but he is forced into a life of regimentation and manual labor while some of his passengers don’t have that life.

A fellow laborer, an anarchist, asks Emmanuel to join in armed struggle.  Emmanuel agrees that the anarchist is right, all have the right to joy.

Then a philosopher from Galade shows up who advises him that every man “ought to demand from himself, and expect from himself alone”, that every man has the ability to live in the “realm of Ideas” before which voluptuousness and the “sensation of power” palls.  If we live in that realm, we will, upon leaving it for the world again, find the world changed and improved. Emmanuel returns to Galade and leads a spiritual revolution on these principles and finally is united with Melidine.

Essentially, Emmanuel is advised to do what the protagonist of The Ark does in wartime.

Started in the French trenches in November 1914 and finished in 1919, it reads like a combination dream vision and philosophical discussion. It is a difficult read. The only thing it has resembling a plot is the narrator, framing the story as a letter to his wife, meeting an “arcandre”, a mystical being with vast powers.

Levy, understandably for a miserable soldier in the trenches, discusses with the arcandre all the things hampering his great goal of Joy, the motive behind living. He will need vast powers to overcome the obstacles, and those powers, we learn at the end, will come through the science of the future. It’s a slog to get through some portions, but it develops a peculiar and compelling narrative drive at the end.

A random quote:

But as I extended my burning curiosity toward him, and just as I was about to question him, I suddenly saw him light up with a more ardent glare than that of the fantastic light that surrounded us, shining with an increasing scintillation, which became so intense, so various and so marvelous that even now, merely transcribing what was given to me then to contemplate, I am obliged to lower my eyelids, as if the mere memory of the moment were dazzling me.

There is no specificity linking this internal visitation to the land of ideas to the world Arnyvelde was inhabiting when he wrote it.

I finished The King of Galade on October 10, 2015. In preparation for this post, I had to make some notes on it. I had to skim the whole thing over again. It had almost entirely evaporated from my mind.

However, in thinking about it, both these works reflect Arnyvelde’s obsession: Joy. Specifically, it was Arnyvelde’s answer to Arthur Schopenhauer and Nietzsche’s question as to why humans bother to achieve things. Schopenhauer said it was the “will to survive”. Nietzsche said “will to power”. Arnyvelde said it was to achieve Joy.

Both novels are about removing the obstacles to Joy (which is more than just happiness to Arnyvelde; it’s something like self-actualization).

In The King of Galade, it is social obstacles that prevent all from enjoying life, the benefits of technology are not enjoyed by all, wasted human potential. The Ark is concerned with more basic questions on how technology’s development can give us godlike powers and Joy.

 

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

 

The Engineer von Satanas

Review: The Engineer von Satanas, edited and trans. Brian Stableford, 2015.Engineer von Satanas

“That slut Science!”

Some novels have memorable taglines. That’s the one for the centerpiece of this collection, Albert Robida’s The Engineer von Satanas.

I doubt that Robida, writing in 1919, seriously thought that World War One would start up again in 1920.

But I don’t doubt the sincerity of this amazing work of vitriol and bitterness.

When wartime censorship was lifted, Robida poured his despair out in a work unremarked upon and unreprinted until this translation by Brian Stableford. It is, as Stableford argues, the pioneering work of all those science fiction stories of survivors existing in the rubble of civilization, heirs not to the ruins of natural disaster and cosmic randomness but human action, of the terribleness of modern war. It was a vein that entered British science fiction a few years later in Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins (1920) and Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage (1922) and into American science fiction after Hiroshima.

It wasn’t always that way. Continue reading “The Engineer von Satanas”

The Green Face

This title is mentioned in John Clute’s “World War One” entry in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy.

Given its mystical and occult preoccupations, I expected not to like this novel. A family member once described me as the “most unspiritual person I know”. An accurate description. While conspiracy theories and theologies sometimes interest me, mysticism does not though I appreciate its important effects in the world and history.

Meyrink’s work was compelling though. Perhaps that was because he was, as German literature scholar Franz Rottensteiner says in this edition’s afterword, a methodical skeptic. He may have belonged to several occult societies, but he also satirized elements of the occult. He particularly didn’t like astrology or mediums.

On the other hand, rumor has it that he was involved in the occult enough for accusations to stick that he used occult methods in his banking practices, and he ultimately was forced out of the profession.

Afterwards, he supported himself translating English language works including Charles Dickens, Lafcaido Hearn, and Rudyard Kipling. However, he doesn’t seem to have been aware of the supernatural writings of contemporaries like Arthur Machen or Algernon Blackwood.

The occult wasn’t the only thing he mocked. His satires on the Austro-Hungary army — some fantastic, some not — got him into trouble in 1917 when the German government launched a press campaign against Austrian Meyrink.

The Green Face was not his first novel. That was the very popular The Golem (seemingly not the inspiration for the early silent film). Still, it sold 90,000 copies.

While I will return to the novel as part of my World War One in Fantastic Fiction, I’m not exactly sure if this novel has any historical connection to that war. Specifically, was the refugee-crammed Amsterdam of this novel and the apocalyptic conclusion some kind of reaction or extrapolation of the war? Or something he wanted to write even before the war?

I call what follows a review, but it’s like a “raw feed” entry in that it’s lightly edited notes.

And you’ll definitely get a plot synopsis, a long synopsis.

Bottom line is that it’s a surprisingly enjoyable novel from a century ago.

Review: The Green Face, Gustav Meyrink, trans. Mike Mitchell, 1916, 2004.Green Face

The story starts out in (with a bit of typography recreating the sign) Chidher Green’s Hall of Riddles with protagonist (though the novel has multiple viewpoint characters) Fortunatus Hauberisser, an Austrian engineer. He is amused by the magic tricks on offer and the old books, detailing medical fads or Victorian porn, sometimes hidden behind things like a title purporting to be on the history of cod liver oil. (“Really, isn’t that just the twentieth century in a nutshell: all scientific mumbo-jumbo on the outside and inside: money and sex”, he mutters to himself.)

He also meets the bizarre looking Usibepu, allegedly a Zulu medical man studying with a Professor Arpád Zitter, Professor of Pneumatism.  Hauberisser comes across a merchant he vaguely recognizes perusing the porn and who makes an embarrassed and quick exit. Hauberisser suddenly feels a bit sick and, perhaps alluding to the war that has ended, thinks: “It must be some kind of illness – museumitis – unknown to medical science. Or could it be the air of death surrounding all things man-made, whether beautiful or ugly?” Continue reading “The Green Face”

The White Morning

I came across a reference to this novel in John Clute’s David Langford’s “World War One” entry in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

It’s only science fiction in the sense that all near future political thrillers are science fiction. The hopeful feminist revolution Gertrude Atherton conceived never happened, of course, and Germany’s misery did not stop even after Armistice Day. Hundreds of thousands of Germans starved to death between then and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. I’ll restrict this entry, though, to the general qualities and outlines of Atherton’s tale. The specifics of Atherton’s assumptions and perceptions and, especially, misperceptions of the war will be the subject of a future entry in my World War One in Fantastic Fiction series.

Atherton was a famous novelist. She was an acquaintance of our old friend Ambrose Bierce.  (According to her Wikipedia entry, she carried on a “taunting” relationship with him.) She mostly wrote historical novels though she also did ghost and supernatural tales. Her “The Striding Place” still gets anthologized.

Her novels were known for being, by contemporary standards, sexually frank.  (In fact, I looked up a few phrases in Richard Spears’ Slang and Euphemism. I did not come away any more enlightened. A search on the Web of a Million Lies suggests the phrase “game of the gods” is not code for coitus but instead refers to chess.)

In later years, she undertook the rather science fictional step of undergoing radiation and “glandular” therapy. The experience was the basis of her Black Oxen which was made into an early film.

Review: The White Morning: A Novel of the Power of the German Women in Wartime, Gertrude Atherton, 1918.White Morning

There is little reason to read this novel unless you are undertaking a project like mine or want to read up on early feminist utopias. Atherton’s tone is pleasant enough. The novel is short. But it is not very memorable for the most part. It undertakes of several prejudices about “Prussianism”.

A contemporary reviewer, one Carroll K. Michener, reviewed the novel for the April 6, 1918 issue of The Bellman (coincidentally published around my part of the world: Minneapolis, Minnesota). Winding up for a plot synopsis, he recognized it had some kinship with science fiction: “It is unseemly , moreover, to laugh down even the most fanciful panacea for the present overmastering ills of the world; to do so would be to deny the firm triumphs of the many prophetic Jules Vernes of the world of fiction.”

I’m always willing to let others do the tedious plot synopsis – especially since it’s been a few months since I read the novel and my notes aren’t that extensive, so here’s more of Mr. Michener:

The overwhelming key-thought of the book, as might be expected, is feminism.  While it pleases President Wilson to find distinction between the German people and the German government, the author marks her cleavage in another direction: she sets up the proposition that Prussianism is embodied in German masculinity, and that the hope of democratic peace and Germany’s salvation lies in the hands of its women.

The book opens with what promises to be a valuable addition to the war literature designed to depict the German character. Its value for the reader has a priori attestation from the knowledge that Gertrude Atherton had more or less seven years of more or less continuous residence in Germany. The suppressed individuality of German womanhood and the blustering dominance of junker masculinity are given a forceful portrayal.

The central figure is Countess Gisela Niebuhr, who has sworn with her four sisters never to marry. From this family of feminine rebels she goes forth to various expansive adventures in self-expression, principal among them her life under an assumed name as a governess in a rich American family, and her university life in Munich.

In America the sentient womanhood of Gisela Döring overshadows for a time her militant feminism. She falls in love with a young German diplomat, the Freiherr Frans von Nettelbeck. The German social system engulfs their romance, and he goes back to Germany to wed a woman of his class and with the requisite dower, the countess being penniless after her father’s death, and maintaining even from her lover the secret of her high birth.

Returning to Germany, the countess, still in disguise, becomes a famous dramatist, and begins a subtle propaganda for overcoming the masculine overlordship of her countrymen. The war interrupts her programme and submerges it in more absorbing interests. She works heart and soul in Germany’s cause until two American women, encountering her in Switzerland on furlough from her Red Cross work, convince her that Germany is wrong and its cause lost. This is a naïve procedure, as is so much else in the book. The countess goes back to Germany resolved to rouse the women. This marvel is accomplished in the course of a few pages of writer’s magic, and “the white morning” finds the whole of Germany’s gigantic military machine inexorably in the grip of Germany’s unified, armed, embattled, uniformed millions of women; every munition factory and storehouse destroyed; the police and home guards murdered; the Kaiser a helpless prisoner in his palace: all this in a twinkling. (Ha! villain! Give me the papers!) After that how simple to proclaim a republic!

No less imaginative strain is inflicted upon the reader in another is inflicted upon the reader in another element of the climax. The countess, confronted with the difficulty of disposing of Freiherr Frans when he appears unexpectedly on the night before “the white morning” to renew the old dream of love, slays him with her little dagger; not, however, before amply renewing said dream with him. There are reasons for this; reasons that lose their force quickly when the reader has wandered far from the tenuous persuasion of the text.

Mr. Michener than lands a few blows in his final paragraph.

There are some things to add and subtract from this.

I rather liked the melodrama of Gisela’s final encounter with Freiherr:

Why, in God’s name could not he have come back into her life six months hence?

No woman should risk a sex cataclysm when she has great work to do. Nature is too subtle for any woman’s will as long as the man be accessible. And the strongest and the proudest woman that ever lived may have her life disorganized by a man if she possess the power to charm him.

… Gisela opened his shirt gently and bared his breast. She held her breath, but he slept on and she took the dagger from her belt and with a swift hard propulsion drove it into his heart to the guard. He gave a long expiring sigh and lay still. A gallant gentleman, a brave soldier, and a great lover had the honor to be the first man to pay the price of his country’s crime, on the altar of the Woman’s Revolution.

Ok, I mostly like the phrase “sex cataclysm”.

I would also add that Atherton forsakes three clichés in her plot.

First, you will note this is not some farcical pacifist feminist revolution accomplished by women denying men sex. Atherton would very probably been aware of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. Modern viewers may be in favor of its notion of no peace, no sex. But, as classicist J. Rufus Fears mentioned in passing in his lecture series Books That Have Made History: Books That Can Change Your Life, contemporary Greeks would have regarded any man that allowed that trick to work as a pathetic loser.

Second, Atherton’s is free of certain modern clichés. There is no one radio station, no one government building, no one computer center, or no one Death Star that needs to taken over or destroyed to bring on the revolution. Gisela has to show a great deal of executive ability to plan the simultaneous take over of many parts of the German state.  Gisela’s female recruits are not the detestable warrior babes of modern film and fiction. Yes, they are armed. Yes, they kill, but it is entirely plausible in the quite well documented context of disparities between male and female physical abilities.

Originally, I thought Atherton’s depiction of the lives of German women as over the top. However, after learning, in her afterword “An Argument for my ‘The White Morning’”, she lived in Germany and knew these sorts of German women, I will give her the benefit of a doubt.

Those interested in some of the feminist dimension of Atherton’s novel can check out an excerpt from Karsten Helge Piep’s Embattled Home Fronts: Domestic Politics and the American Novel of World War 1.

A rather annoying aspect of Atherton’s prose, particularly for a feminist, is her tendency for physiognomy to mirror the inner spirit:

She was still a handsome woman, particularly in her uniform, but the pink and white cheeks that once had covered her harsh bones were sunken and sallow. Her mouth was like a narrow bar of iron. Her eyes were half closed as if to hide the cold and deadly flame that never flickered; even her nostrils were rigid. All her hard and sensual nature, devoid of tenderness, but dissolved with sentimentality while the man who had conquered her had lived, she had centered on her lover, and with his death she was a tool to Gisela’s hand to wreak vengeance upon the powers that had sent him out of the world.

I was also amused to see a reference to the German academy which was to influence American higher education so much and lead to today’s pernicious cult of credentialism: “He had not a grain of originality or imagination, but he too was taking the course in dramatic art, and reading for that degree without whose magic letters he could not hope to take his place in the world of art to which his parts entitled him.”

Finally, it’s pretty obvious Gisela is a wish fulfillment character for Atherton. Writers sometimes bore of thinking of themselves as the unacknowledged legislators of the world. The violent revolutionary of tomorrow can be a more pleasing fantasy. The blood and barricades are so much easier to manage from the writing desk.

 

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