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 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 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.

Living Alone

Review: Living Alone, Stella Benson, 1919.

This is not a real book. It does not deal with real people, nor should it be read by real people. But there are in the world so many real books already written for the benefit of real people, and there are still so many to be written, that I cannot believe that a little alien book such as this, written for the magically-inclined minority, can be considered too assertive a trespasser.

“There can be few more charming, witty and irreverent novels to arise out of the Great War”, says science fiction critic and historian Edward James of Stella Benson’s Living Alone.

I myself have recently read some novels to come out of that war, novels of fantastic fiction. After almost a 100 years, none has such a singular and memorable combination of plot and voice as Benson’s.

That is just the opening of the book, and anyone can write a snappy epigram. But Benson’s voice is wry and flippant from the very beginning, a dear confidant chattering away about recent news and whatever thoughts occur to her. It’s not technically first person narration, but it has that tone even if technically it’s the voice of some unknown party. Continue reading

The Terror

I came to this short novel in researching fantastic fiction that touches on World War One and whose authors were adults during that war. I was interested in stories that use historic clasts from the Great War rather than transmuting the experience into metaphors.

I came across a reference to this work in the “World War 1” entry of the Encyclopedia of Fantasy. John Clute’s one line summation pretty much empties the reading experience of suspense and mystery. It also created some false expectations on my part.

I’ll deal with those in the additional thoughts and criticisms section after the main review.

As most of the readers of this blog know, reading older works in science fiction and weird fiction, genres which often rely on surprise conceptual revelations and plot twists and where yesterday’s novelty becomes today’s commonplace, requires a certain frame of mind. It’s a mental gaze rather like staring at aerial stereo photographs to construct topographical maps. The eyes must see two photos and yet must also relax and cross over to see the hidden information contained in those photos. So the reader of past genre fiction must see with the eyes of the past and their own time.

As with The Angel of Mons, I read this one out of The Works of Arthur Machen, the ebook from Delphi Classics.

Review: The Terror, Arthur Machen, 1917.The Terror

This is a novel of wartime dis-ease. It is not the dis-ease of loved ones returning from a foreign land dead or maimed. It is not the dis-ease of wartime rationing.

It is the dis-ease of a land which has been shelled by German ships, where munitions factories have blown up, where Zeppelins have dropped bombs from the sky. It is the dis-ease of a country whose social ties are becoming undone.

Written seemingly after the Somme Offensive began on July 1, 1916, most of the story takes place in England during the summer of 1915.

Wartime censorship has crippled the ability of the Englishman to know what is going on in his country. He has grown so used to trusting his beloved newspapers “that the old faculty of disseminating news by word of mouth has become atrophied.” Like Machen himself, the narrator is a journalist. He notes “Now a censorship that is sufficiently minute and utterly remorseless can do amazing things in the way of hiding … what it wants to hide.” Questioning into events often leads to suspicion of espionage.

The land is rife with rumors. German saboteurs are responsible for those explosion in munition factories. Trains packed with Russian soldiers hurtle through the night on their way to eventual deployment in France. The upper class has colluded, before the war, with the Germans and underground cities have been prepared and the Hun placed in them for the crucial hour. “It would be just like the Huns, everybody agreed, to think out such a devilish scheme as this; and they always thought out their schemes beforehand.”

Tensions are not eased by a series of strange incidents that the narrator investigates, their totality unknown by few except the government.

A deserted ship sails up the Thames. An aviator’s plane suddenly falls from the sky. A family is found dead in the road, their heads beaten in. A woman falls in a quarry. A man and his son fall off the path through a marsh. Panicking animals attack an army camp in Wales. Two schoolboys and a sailor drown.

In his investigations, reminiscent of Holmesian inductive reasoning and its literary offshoot, the occult detective, the narrator encounters many with explanations for the deaths: “ancient devils”, a German “Z Ray” to induce panic in animals, German commandoes offloaded from a submarine, Germans from those underground cities.

The story is a bit of a secret history, an account purporting to offer some of the reasons why the Allies had not prevailed on the Western Front in 1915 and 1916.

Of course, the narrator does arrive at a solution, interesting if not convincing. It is an ending showing Machen, a spiritual man living in the midst of a war with an unknown outcome, pondering what the war was doing to the order of the world

Short, interesting in its picture of wartime England, and suspenseful, this novel is worth a look even if its end does not entirely satisfy.

Additional Thoughts with Spoilers

The solution that Machen presents at novel’s end is a mystical one.

Clute summed it up well: “animals – at first mistaken for Germans – revolt against humanity’s corrupt and destructive rule.”

Do not, as I did, expect a sort of “revenge of nature” story a la those 1970 movies like Day of the Animals. This is not a story of polluted Earth avenging itself through animals.

As Machen ends the novel, it is something more spiritual:

I believe that the subjects revolted because the king abdicated. Man has dominated the beasts throughout the ages, the spiritual has reigned over the rational through the peculiar quality and grace of spirituality that men possess, that makes a man to be that which he is. And when he maintained this power and grace, I think it is pretty clear that between him and the animals there was a certain treaty and alliance.

…For long ages he has been putting off this royal robe, he has been wiping the balm of consecration from his own breast. He has declared, again and again, that he is not spiritual, but rational, that is, the equal of the beasts over whom he was once sovereign. He has vowed that he is not Orpheus but Caliban.

But the beasts also have within them something which corresponds to the spiritual quality in men — we are content to call it instinct. They perceived that the throne was vacant — not even friendship was possible between them and the self-deposed monarch. If he were not king he was a sham, an imposter, a thing to be destroyed.

Hence, I think, the Terror. They have risen once – they may rise again.

Machen was a student of many occult movements, but I don’t think you need to look any further for the religious idea at play here. It is the old notion of the Great Chain of Being. (Yes, there seems to be a whole blog to show how this idea shows up in literature.)

Machen’s novel has two bits of specific interest. One is a look back at his literary ancestor Edgar Allan Poe. The other may have helped H. P. Lovecraft crystalize one of his famous epigraphs.

Some of the deaths in this novel are asphyxiation by moths. There is a Poe story, “The Sphinx”, in which a man thinks he sees a great monster stalking the countryside outside his window. It turns out it’s just a moth on the window, a trick of perspective, mistaking the very close for something larger and more distant.

Machen’s description of a moth implicitly evokes that story then explains this monstrous manifestation of the Terror:

I have been amazed by the wonderful burning and the strange fiery colors of the eyes of a single moth, as it crept up the pane of glass, outside. Imagine the effect of myriads of such eyes, of the movement of these lights and fires in a vast swarm of moths, each insect being in constant motion while it kept its place in the mass . . . the moth race had entered, it seemed, into a malignant conspiracy against the human race.

I wonder if this section of the novel:

It was about this time, so far as the date can be fixed, that a whole district, one might say a whole county, was visited by a series of extraordinary and terrible calamities, which were the more terrible inasmuch as they continued for some time to be inscrutable mysteries. It is, indeed, doubtful whether these awful events do not still remain mysteries to many of those concerned; for before the inhabitants of this part of the country had time to join one link of evidence to another the circular was issued, and thenceforth no one knew how to distinguish undoubted fact from wild and extravagant surmise.

was not the inspiration for Lovecraft’s famous opening of “The Call of Cthulhu”:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.

And, while we’re on the subject of literary associations, the whole idea of secret subterranean cities staffed with Germans, literally underground subversion, struck me as an inversion of the plans of the artilleryman in H. G. Well’s The War of the Worlds. He plans to flee the Martian invasion and live underground.

I hope, in a future posting, to take a closer at the novel’s specific World War One elements.

 

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

The Angel of Mons

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.

As usual, the plan is to more thoroughly examine these stories later in my World War One in Fantastic Fiction series.

Review: The Angel of Mons aka 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 its 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, annoyed, and, yes, kind of proud 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 think 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 spoke 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 24, 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”. Machen 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: “The Thing on the Doorstep”

The Thing on the Doorstep“, H. P. Lovecraft, 1937.

The Word War One content of this story is exactly the sort you would expect in a story set several years after the war and written by someone with adult memories of the war. The war years are just a casual background detail neither exotic or the focus of the story.

In the first part of the story, the narrator talks of his relationship with the doomed Edward Pickman Derby. The narrator, eight years older than his friend Derby, talks of his life when Derby is 25: “When the war came both health and ingrained timidity kept him at home. I went to Plattsburg for a commission but never got overseas.”

plattsburg-2

Are You Trained to Defend Your Country?, 1915

Of course, many people were rejected from military service on health grounds. Lovecraft himself tried to enlist, before the U.S. draft went into effect on May 18, 1917, into the Rhode Island National Guard. His mother and a family physician got him discharged on health reasons, not precisely detailed, shortly afterwards.

On a June 22, 1917 to his friend Rheinhart Kleiner, Lovecraft said,

I am feeling desolate and lonely indeed as a civilian. Practically all my personal acquaintances are now in some branch of the service, mostly Plattsburg or R.I.N.G. [Rhode Island National Guard]

According to Leslie S. Klinger’s annotation in The New Annotated H. P. Lovecraft, Camp Plattsburg (aka Camp Plattsburgh) was established in 1914 at Plattsburg, New York. It was part of a general movement to set up military training for volunteers after the Great War broke out .

plattsburg-poster

Are You Trained to Do Your Share?, 1915

The camp opened in the summer of 1915 with 1,200 trainees. At first it was known as the Business Men’s Camp (derogatively known as the Tired Businessmen’s Camp in the press). Some of its first graduates joined the Military Training Camps Association which lobbied Congress for government funding in 1917. After America entered the war, the civilian camp became an officers’ training camp.

Footage exists of the early days of the camp.

According to the figures I’ve seen about 3 million Americans were drafted in World War One. About 2.8 million were sent to France, so Lovecraft’s narrator is in the minority in not being deployed overseas.

World War One Content

  • Living Memory: Yes.
  • On-Stage War: No.
  • Belligerent Area: No.
  • Home Front: Yes.
  • Veteran: No.

 

More World War One in Fantastic Fiction.

World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “The Chameleon”

The Chameleon“, Frois Froisland, translated by Nils Flaten, 1930.

This is not the only doppelganger story in Froisland’s The Man with the X-ray Eyes & Other Stories from the Front. There is also “I Stood Looking at My Own Corpse”. It, however, is a completely naturalistic tale with no fantastic content. This is a more borderline case.

The story opens: “A man may have a double. As a rule, when we say that, we have two persons in mind. I have thought a little about this matter. I believe that a man may be his own double.”

The chameleon in question is narrator Froisland’s friend and fellow journalist (and, seemingly, a lot of other things) Kinzo Yuratoku. Continue reading

World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “The Man with the X-ray Eyes”

The Man with the X-ray Eyes“, Frois Froisland, translated by Nils Flaten, 1930.

“The Man with the X-ray Eyes” is at once typical of the stories in Froisland’s The Man with the X-ray Eyes & Other Stories from the Front, a mixture of World War One history, travelogue, and fiction, and untypical.

Like nearly all the rest of the stories, framed by Froisland’s non-fiction descriptive pieces which open on the trench war and close with the triumphal march of Allied forces through Paris, it is an account of an individual’s psychological disintegration, a mystery never clearly explained because of the limited journalist perspective of narrator Froisland. But it is also the only story to be obviously fantastical and freighted with events that seem portentously symbolic. As the most unusual story in plot, theme, and title, it’s obvious why Froisland chose it for the name of his book. It is also the only story to dwell at length on physical injury, discomfort, and mutilation and to feature an American soldier.

Its weird fiction pedigree is signaled by the Poe-like beginning, so different from other story openings in the book:

Who has said that we must absolutely understand everything that happens in the world? We have perhaps, after all, not gotten beyond realizing that there are still things between heaven and earth which we simply must believe. Just believe — give up trying to reach bottom with our understanding. One may or may not believe the story about MacMurray, the corporal from Cincinnati — the man with the X-ray eyes.

The story begins, appropriately, at the Battle of the Saint-Mihiel Salient in France, the first independent action by American forces in the war. Coming under artillery fire outside the village of Hattonchatel, MacMurray’s squad hurriedly entrench. In the dark, a “huge German shell” strikes the ground behind the trench.

Explicitly inspired by the famous tranchee des baionnettes  at Verdun, Froisland buries the squad completely and fatally except for MacMurray and two others.

But, while they are not completely buried, they are not free. MacMurray is

“covered with earth, so that only the head and the left shoulder are free, the rest of the body forced into a twisted, unnatural, awful posture, with two meters of earth on top of him, legs forced apart and sprawling, the back in an awkward angle with the hips, the right arm broken and out of joint.

The night passes, the cries of all three heard only by themselves. The next day, Friday, September 13th, 1918, one of the men dies. The other man, Kentucky Jim, and MacMurray are mad with thirst and hunger.

Jim has freed his upper body, but it avails the two not. They are trapped. Rain pours down on them. They are unnoticed by gravediggers and corpsman passing them by.

Then, at some point after hours of unconsciousness and hallucination, MacMurray can see exactly what is in a knapsack within Jim’s arm’s reach. It has water, bread, wine, and a trench shovel. He yells at Jim to grab the bag. This goes on for a long time before Jim tells MacMurray to shut up, that he can’t possibly know what is in the knapsack.

Jim never does grab the bag, but, before the two are rescued, MacMurray knows of his new powers.

MacMurray is taken to the hospital. Gangrene has set in his two legs, and they are amputated. His eyes, his “double vision”, becomes the talk of the hospital. Tests are done. MacMurray can see through tissue dead and living, safes, and walls. The doctors laugh at first, but, three days later, he is an accepted and confirmed curiosity for patients and staff.

MacMurray can’t explain his power. It requires no great effort, no concentration, regular vision slips into x-ray vision by a thought. The resulting images are clear, sharp, not reversed like a mirror, and tinted in “wonderfully beautiful” colors. And they leave quickly. As MacMurray says, “Intuition I guess some people call the process; I should rather call it emulsion.”

The attention starts to tire MacMurray and so does the shifting between the two modes of vision.  He helps the hospital’s doctors diagnosis patients.

Scientists, “spiritualists, theosophists, and occultist” attempt to explain MacMurray’s power.

It’s here that Froisland seems to deviate from his usual historical detail with the mention of the Italian engineer Ulvi who used F-rays to destroy floating mines ten kilometers away in a test outside of the French port of Brest. In another test, he is said to have blown up the “dismantled British cruiser Terpischore” 20 kilometers away.

In fact, there was an engineer Ulvi, who eloped with an Italian admiral’s daughter, and did demonstrate such an alleged weapon for the Italian navy. However, British naval engineers from Portsmouth were, evidently, unconvinced. William J. Fanning’s Jr’s Death Rays and the Popular Media 1876-1939: A Study of Directed Energy Weapons in Fact, Fiction and Film provides additional details.

By way of Henri Becquerel’s discovery of radioactivity in uranium, Froisland asks if MacMurray’s power might be due to some substance in the human body that can act like a “ray projector”.

That’s the rationalization of weirdness using newspaper stories and science. Froisland’s scaffolding to suspend disbelief also mentions all those occult notions, and I think it is those that give shape some of its mysteries.

It is proposed that MacMurray’s powers rest on a “spiritual, psychological-metaphysical basis”. He is a “supersensitive” to the vibrations of the universe. He has “cryptoscopy”, the ability to see hidden objects. MacMurray, it is said, is also a clairvoyant with vision into past and future.

And that escalation of reputed abilities seems to be verified by the conclusion of the story.

There is little hatred of Germans in Froisland’s book, but it shows ironically here.  MacMurray spends his days talking fondly of the Germans he knew in Cincinnati.

So he was pro-German. Well, he had certainly been nicely treated by his friends! If he lost his right arm, too — which seemed very probable — his friends would have <<reduced>> him to a trunk without limbs, a square-shaped monstrosity, with one arm for a handle, the wreck of a man, horrible to look upon and pitiful to think about.

But MacMurray also speaks of Jim five beds down. Jim seems to be on his way to full recovery. But MacMurray tells a surgeon Jim will die tomorrow. And so he does of an embolism.

MacMurray’s tranquility is replaced by a “perfect terror, of something that was about to happen to him”. He is only certain it is to be feared, not what it is. His x-ray vision is no longer limited to the range of the hospital. It goes much further. His mind turns to spiritual matters. He questions just how much forgiveness the Bible asks of Christians.

It is here the narrator directly inserts himself and speaks of his first meeting (he has gathered the rest of the story from others) with MacMurray on October 14, 1918.

MacMurray can now read minds. And he can now prophecy. When asked, at about 11:05 AM that day, when the war will end, MacMurray merely responds “ask me exactly four weeks from this very moment”. Four weeks is, in fact, Armistice Day: November 11, 1918.

At the end of October an unknown Red Cross sister shows up at the hospital and goes straight to his bed. With “a whimpering sound, as from a dying animal — a block of stone, as it were, rocking a little after an earthquake — and fluttering blue cloak covered them both” she collapses on his bed.

That scene is directly followed by an odd interlude about the “three wise apes” of see, hear, and speak no evil fame and how every cause of effect is preceded by thoughts, desires, and acts.

We then hear how the nurse, the Sister in Blue, has been wondering from hospital to hospital in the American sector after she arrived eight months ago from America. She may serve the other patients wells, but MacMurray doesn’t smile for her or anyone.

In the dark, she holds his remaining hand as he seems tortured by visions even the Sister in Blue knows nothing of. MacMurray’s body has suffered but “Thoughts may torture one worse than the most excruciating physical pain.” (Something of a theme for the fiction in this book.)

On the night before November 8th, 1918, MacMurray shouts “Now he comes!” He then gives a brief description of the Armistice negotiations that did start on November 8th.

The next day a soldier mutilated with a crushed pelvis and “vital organs torn” is put in the bed Jim died in. The soldier is his “old friend, Floyd Hill from Cincinnati” who he last saw 19 months ago. When the Sister in Blue sees Hill, and collapses in distress.

That night MacMurray dies but not before he has his bed pushed near Floyd’s and touches Floyd’s blanket to smooth it. Then:

He lay there white and still, just stared. His eyes did not dim, did not close. He lay as if he were looking into something.

No one knew when he died.

What was MacMurray’s final vision that terrified him? The wounding and likely death of his old friend because MacMurray’s own death does not frighten him? Something more general and apocalyptic like another war? 1930 seems early for that sentiment though French Marshall Ferdinand Foch famously remarked, when the Treaty of Versailles was signed, “This is not peace. It is an armistice for 20 years.”

And was the Sister in Blue not there for MacMurray but somehow anticipating Hill’s arrival? Did she know both Hill and MacMurray before the war? And was she somehow an acolyte or avatar for MacMurray?

Successful weird fiction often relies on unsolved questions, and this story succeeds on that ground and the poignancy of MacMurray’s fate.

World War One Content

  • Living Memory: Yes.
  • On-Stage War: Yes.
  • Belligerent Area: Yes.
  • Home Front: Yes.
  • Veteran: No.

 

More World War One in Fantastic Fiction.