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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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.

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 Chameleon””

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.

 

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World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “The Deaths of Jeremiah Colverson”

“The Deaths of Jeremiah Colverson”, George Wilhite, 2015.

This story shows a token use of World War One. It does not use images from the war as a short hand to evoke horror, a technique I suspect was used less and less as those who lived through the war died off.

Here the war is just another variation on a common experience. Specifically, the story deals with an American soldier killed in his country’s civil war, the first of its civil wars it turns out.

But, unlike his fallen comrades, he will not join Death and “refuses to learn the dance and follow him to the River Styx”. Jeremiah pleads he is a failure, there is still more he can do for his fellow soldiers, more heroics to perform.

Death describes what happens next:

You felt like a failure. You begged me for more time. Jeremiah’s time is up, I told you. But I’ll see what I can do.”

Death arranges a new identity for Jeremiah. A soldier in World War I on the German front lines, John Carter, is taken to the Underworld prematurely, his soul replaced by Jeremiah’s. This process is repeated two more times— Jack Corelli, World War II, and Joshua Campbell, Vietnam.

That is the sole mention of World War One in the story, merely one link in a series of repeating events. Other American wars could have been substituted and the narrative remain unchanged.

The hero, incidentally, finally accepts his death — in the Fourth Civil War of the United States of America.

World War One Content

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

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World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “Through the Furnace”

“Through the Furnace”, R. Thurston Hopkins, 1916.

Like his “The De Gamelyn Traditions“, this story concludes with the presence of the Divine successfully rallying British troops on the battlefield.

The story begins with Hilaire O’Hagan, “an incorrigible rascal”, having a mystical vision of a monk who chides him for his immorality after stealing a woman’s briefcase. That night he dreams of the same monk and wakes to save his earlier victim from a house fire.

We next see O’Hagan in the trenches, where, after six months of fighting, he is starting to suffer battle fatigue.

He was no longer master of himself. He was afraid. Every man has the instinct that prompts fear, for upon that instinct the whole foundation of life-preservation is founded. But over and above this instinct, common to all of us, O’Hagan had imagination—the graphic, vivid imagination that always lurks in Irish blood. Is not the entire history of the Celt a rejection of the things of this world for the Shadow and the dream? Upon this basis of fear and imagination O’Hagan started to build, building and building until he had created a grand structure of blind terror which yielded a most exquisite torture to his mind.

Yet he goes over the top for yet another attack.

The stalled offensive, the artillery fire get to him. He runs away and takes refuge in a “little wrecked church”. There he encounters the monk of his vision who shows him a coffin where lies another Hilaire O’Hagan who died in 1696.

The monk is sympathetic, knows how tired O’Hagan is. But O’Hagan still has a remaining duty:

“Brother,” he said, in a moved voice. “You must go back and help your comrades. There is no peace for you yet. Yes, brother, I know it is written that we shall rest from our labours—but the beginning of our rest is not yet. We must go and help them in the firing line yonder——”

“No, no, holy man!” O’Hagan pleaded. “I have had enough…. There is hell over there.”

“They are calling us, don’t you hear them—the living and the dead——”

As with “The De Gamelyn Traditions”, Hopkins story cites duty to not only comrades but the past as a reason to continue the struggle.

The “deserter O’Hagan” shows up while the Germans are assaulting the British lines, seemingly at the Second Battle of Ypres.

A tall man in a priest’s cassock, wielding a flaming sword, appears on the battlefield. Beside him is O’Hagan “holding a massive brass altar cross above his head”. O’Hagan hacks and stabs with the cross, drives the Germans back. It is the Angel of Mons vision all over again:

Men who watched him said he ran amok. His great voice rose high above the chattering machine guns in a beautiful Franciscan chant and the voice of the priest joined in. What O’Hagan, bearing his mighty cross, must have looked like in the eerie dawn mist, Heaven knows. But seeing such an apparition and hearing the strange chant, it is possible the Huns thought the devil had joined in the fight. Then a man in the rear trench pointed to the west, where a great image of the cross was shining against a blood red sky, and a voice cried “Forward.” It passed from man to man, and the regiment advanced, howling, with O’Hagan. They drove the Germans before them like chaff before a fan, and fell back, in triumph, to their lost trenches.

The story ends with O’Hagan seemingly buried beside the coffin of his ancestor, the monk of the vision blessing his grave.

The story has the tone of sincere devout Christianity and not just the use of Christian imagery and ideas in its plot. It reminds us how much religious motivations shored up many of the Great War’s soldiers.

World War One Content

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

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World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “The Mills of God”

The Mills of God“, R. Thurston Hopkins, 1916.

This story takes place entirely on the Western Front after the trenches have been dug.

It is short tale of divine vengeance for the murder of a small French boy, Bodru. He is a favorite of some British troops. The village he lives in is in a contested area of the front, and the story opens with the British deciding to retreat from the area since it “was full of spies”.

A few weeks after the British retreat, a German soldier enters the home of Bodru and his mother. He is seemingly a deserter given “There was no sign of cap-badge or title on his shoulder straps, and he was horribly dirty.”

Soon he’s drunk on a bottle of confiscated Benedictine and has an argument with Bodru who mocks him. “I think you may be like the man in the English soldiers’ story, who turned into a pig—a baby killer perhaps.”

Bodru gets bayoneted and his body concealed in the attic.

As his mother frantically seeks Bodru and the German soldier is still in the house, the British soldiers return. They notice blood on the German’s sleeve.

At that moment, a shell strikes the roof, and Bodru’s body falls from its concealment in the attic. The German soldier flees and is shot.

The convenient results of artillery fire, shelling as a revelation of a miracle, calls to mind the alleged miracle of crucifixes surviving the destruction of churches that vicar Forbes Phillips talks about in his introduction to the work, War and the Weird, where this story first appeared.

What isn’t here is any real mention of organized German atrocities, the so-called “Rape of Belgium”, that helped sustain the war effort in Britain. Calling the German “baby killer” is about the closest the story gets, but he isn’t acting in concert with other Germans.

German atrocities in Belgium were real as discussed in a recent BBC broadcast, “The Great War of Words, Episode 1”. It became fashionable in the late 1920s, particularly with Robert Graves’ Good-bye to All That, to argue that they never happened. But German records document thousands of Belgiums, including children, being executed by the forces of Imperial Germany. Some may have been justifiable as being conducted against partisans not in uniform and beyond the Geneva Convention’s protection, but there is no doubt Germany’s behavior in Belgium, apart from the very act of invading a neutral country and unrestricted submarine warfare, did it no favors.

The Kaiser didn’t help either when, during the Boxer Rebellion, he was the one who dubbed the German Army “Huns”

So, it is a bit surprising in a tale where divine intervention avenges a German atrocity, that Hopkins gives us a small scale story that only very slightly touches on what was such an emotional motive for Britain to fight the Great War.

World War One Content

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

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