Wednesday, May 30, 2012

George Allan England’s Empire in the Air

George Allan England’s Empire in the Air was serialised in All-Story Cavalier Weekly in 1914. Although he was a successful writer at the time the story has since been all but forgotten, until its publication by Black Dog Books in 2006.

A pioneer aviator named Kramer is attempting to set a new world altitude record when he suddenly disappears. Completely. No wreckage, no explosion, just one minute he’s there and the next he and his plane have vanished. Almost as if they’d been sucked into the Fourth Dimension.

Which is of course exactly what happened!

Scientists at the Observatory in Boston were tracking the flight on an array of high-tech (by 1914 standards) instruments but they are mystified by the vanishing aircraft and aviator.

His girlfriend Ethel immediately swoons and falls into a coma.

Then something even more uncanny happens. A strange greenish transparent globule appears in the Observatory and leaves a mysterious message purporting to be from Kramer. One of the scientists at the Observatory, a man named Keane, also receives a visit from the globule, and another message - in Kramer’s own handwriting!

Further messages are received through the unconscious Ethel who speaks in Kramer’s voice. Kramer’s message is a frightening one. The earth is on the brink of invasion from the Fourth Dimension! But there is hope, if Kramer’s instructions are followed.

The first stage in the invasion comes soon afterwards. Millions of globules spread death and destruction across the entire globe. Boston is devastated, but Keane survives and makes contact with Ethel’s doctor, Dr Rounds. Between them they determine to carry out Kramer’s instructions - it is the only hope for humanity’s survival.

A team of flyers will need to ascend to 20,000 feet where they will be transmuted to the Fourth Dimension. There they will make contact with Kramer and do battle with the invaders. Keane and Dr Rounds find another ally in Hildreth, an Army Aviation lieutenant and a friend of Kramer’s. The future of the world rests on their shoulders, and on the shoulders of the handful of men they manage to collect from the Watertown Arsenal.

While the ideas in this tale are fairly outrageous the energy and urgency of the story-telling are enough to allow for the necessary suspension of disbelief. There’s plenty of excitement  and heroism, and Kramer is battling to save not just the world, but the woman he loves.

George Allan England (1877-1936) was a lifelong socialist, something that was apparently very obvious in a none-too-subtle way in some of his other science fiction writings, but curiously enough this book seems to say more about the virtues of good old American rugged individualism than the joys of collectivism although he also manages to suggest a somewhat chilling belief in the necessity of dictatorship in a crisis. This was of course (and still is) a common failing of intellectuals when responding to crises.

Luckily though politics doesn’t intrude very much on what is basically a fun pulpy story. Recommended.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Thirty-Nine Steps

The Thirty-Nine Steps, published in 1915, was the first of Scottish novelist John Buchan’s five Richard Hannay espionage novels.

Buchan produced both fiction and non-fiction and wrote in a variety of genres including some excellent horror stories and even what could be described as a paranormal adventure novel (The Gap in the Curtain). Buchan was also a successful politician and ended his career as governor-General of Canada (as Lord Tweedsmuir).

But it is for the Richard Hannay novels that he is now best remembered.

The Thirty-Nine Steps is a classic chase story. South African Richard Hannay is bored by life in London but he is about to get more adventure than he’s bargained for when he meets the mysterious Scudder. Scudder is an intelligence agent and his story about the assassination of a Balkan political leader seems fantastic to Hannay. Then Scudder is killed by enemy agents and Hannay finds himself in possession of a secret that could cost him his life.

Being uncomfortable with city life at the best of times he decides he would have a better chance of survival in some wild place where his experiences on the veldt would stand him in good stead. So he heads off in the direction of the Scottish Highlands. He is on the run not only from the German spy network but also from the police, being a suspect in the murder of Scudder.

While evading capture Hannay also has to puzzle out the full meaning of the conspiracy uncovered by Scudder, and it goes far beyond anything he originally imagined. It is nothing less than a plan for destroying the British fleet on the outbreak of war. But what is the meaning of the thirty-nine steps that keep getting mentioned in Scudder’s notebooks? And how can Hannay, a mere civilian, convince the British government of the truth of this amazing story? He will need evidence. So while Hannay is the hunted he is about to turn hunter.

Hitchcock’s classic 1935 film version is the best-known of the several movie adaptations of this novel. The plot of the 1935 movie differs quite markedly from the plot of the book. In the book the thirty-nine steps is not a mere McGuffin as in the film (a McGuffin being something of no importance in itself except insofar as both the heroes and the villains happen to be seeking it). In the book the thirty-nine steps are crucially important and the espionage conspiracy takes centre stage (while the movie is essentially just a chase movie, albeit one of the greatest such movies ever made).

Richard Hannay is one of the great fictional spy heroes, a rather taciturn but very determined character who is driven by both patriotism and a thirst for adventure.

Buchan’s novel is a classic of the spy genre and is a must-read for any spy fan.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Brotherhood of the Seven Kings

The Brotherhood of the Seven Kings is a series of linked short stories involving what may well be the world’s first female diabolical criminal mastermind, Madame Koluchy.

Written in 1899, it was one of many collaborations in the mystery genre between L. T. Meade and Robert Eustace. L. T. Meade (Elizabeth Thomasina Meade Smith) was a popular writer of stories for girls while Robert Eustace specialised in thrillers with a medical or legal bent.

The narrator, Norman Head, had as a young man met Madame Koluchy in Naples when he became involved in a secret criminal society known as the Brotherhood of the Seven Kings. Madame Koluchy had been the head of this society. When Head discovered the sinister nature of the society he determined to have no more to do with them. He has since been living as a virtual recluse, amusing himself with scientific experiments.

Now their paths have crossed again, and Head realises this will be a duel to the death. She cannot afford to let him live while his honour will not allow him to permit her to ruin any more lives.

Madame Koluchy is also a scientist, and a doctor. In fact she is the most famous doctor in London, her apparently miraculous cures having made her a celebrity while her charm and beauty have made her the darling of English society.

With the aid of his friend Dufrayer, an eminent solicitor, Norman Head is determined to bring this woman to justice. Madame Koluchy uses her medical skills to gain the trust of her victims. They then find themselves the victims of blackmail, robbery, kidnapping or worse crimes.

Norman Head is brave and intelligent, but he is up against a woman of enormous resourcefulness and cunning.

The stories are all entertaining and cleverly constructed. As you would expect, given Robert Eustace’s special interests, many of the stories involve medical conspiracies. There are fiendish plots, ingenious murder attempts, death by X-ray, and infernal machines.

These are crime thrillers that occasionally veer just a little in the direction of what you  might call speampunk techno-thrillers.

Highly recommended.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan of the Apes

Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan of the Apes Tarzan remains Edgar Rice Burroughs' most famous creation. Apart from the huge sales of the many Tarzan novels the character appeared in numerous movies and television series. Like Sherlock Holmes Tarzan is an indelible part of our popular culture. People who’ve never read a Tarzan book know who Tarzan is.

Tarzan of the Apes, first published in book form in 1914, was the first of the series and is therefore crucial in not only introducing the character but in giving us the story of his birth and his childhood among the apes.

Lord Greystoke and his wife are marooned on the West African coast after a mutiny on the ship in which they were travelling. They do not survive for more than a year, but their newborn son (and heir to the title of Lord Greystoke) does survive after being adopted by an ape who has lost her own offspring. The young Lord Greystoke is named Tarzan by the apes.

The apes among whom Tarzan is raised are not gorillas. They are an imaginary species of ape, slightly higher on the evolutionary ladder than gorillas. They are a sort of missing link between mankind’s ape ancestors and modern humans, still basically animals but possibly possessing rudimentary language skills. Tarzan claims also to understand the language of elephants and other animals so the question as to whether the apes really possess a language as such is perhaps debatable.

Tarzan might not be as strong as an ape but he grows stronger than an ordinary man and this allied with his superior intelligence allows him to survive, and eventually to become the chief of the band of apes. He is now Tarzan, King of the Apes, a fearsome hunter and killer. Tarzan exults in his hunting prowess but he has vestiges of a human conscience and kills only to survive.

When the apes encounter hostile African tribesmen Tarzan proves to be equally successful as a hunter of men.

The hut in which his human parents lives until their deaths becomes a sort of shrine to Tarzan. Although he he is unaware of his human parentage he comes to suspect that he is  not an ape but a man. From books in the hut he learns to read but not to speak English.
Then comes the day he encounters his own people again. The eccentric Professor Porter, accompanied by his daughter Jane and his colleague Philander, has also been shipwrecked after what seemed to be a crazy treasure hunt proved to be surprisingly successful. This encounter will eventually lead Tarzan to Paris and to the United States.

Tarzan will also discover love, with Jane Porter, but he has two rivals, one of whom provides an unexpected link to his past.

Burroughs was always fascinated by the ideas of lost worlds and of evolution going in unexpected directions and while these ideas are dealt with in a different way here compared to say the Peklucidar or Barsoom books, they’re still present. The ape society in which Tarzan spends his childhood and youth is typically Burroughsian.

This Tarzan is both more savage and, paradoxically, more civilised than the Tarzan of the movies. He’s truly a man caught between two cultures, and between the two sides of his own nature.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

H. Bedford Jones' The Master of Dragons

The Master of Dragons H. Bedford Jones (1887-1949) was an incredibly prolific pulp writer producing work for most of the well-known pulp magazines in a variety of genres.

The Master of Dragons
collects four adventures of two American soldiers of fortune, O’Neill and Burket, in China in the 1920s. This was the era of the warlords, before the rise of the Kuomintang. Central government had all but disintegrated and military leaders (who were often little more than bandits) carved out what were virtually private miniature kingdoms, each warlord having his own private armies. These private armies were generously supplied with generals and colonels even if they only numbered a few hundred men.

In the first adventure the two American adventurers fall foul of one of the senior warlords, the wily Governor Wang. He finds himself outmanoeuvred though and can’t just have them killed, so he cooks up a better plan. He supplies them with a Fokker two-seater (O’Neill is a pilot) and sends them off to impose fines on his subordinate warlords. If they succeed they get a share of the proceeds. Wang can’t lose. If they’re successful he gets lots of money, if they fail and get killed he’s rid of two trouble-makers.

The other three stories recount their attempts to carry out this apparently impossible mission. There are double-crosses and narrow escapes, there’s plenty of action and they do a few good deeds along the way. They’re rogues, but they’re honourable rogues.

The unusual and exotic settings are effectively rendered despite the fact that the author had never been to China. Whether it accurately reflects warlord-era China or not is an open question but this is pulp fiction so what matters is entertainment rather than accuracy  and on the entertainment front these stories score highly.

Modern readers who insist in political correctness may not be pleased but the stories reflect the kinds of values that were once regarded as important - heroism, decency, friendship, loyalty. The people from whom O’Neill and Burket extort money are all criminals, and vicious criminals at that. Personally I have no requirement for political correctness in my reading matter and no interest in trying to impose today’s fashionable prejudices onto the past.

There’s a multitude of dastardly villains and it’s all good pulpy fun. O’Neill and Burket are likeable if cynical heroes. The author’s style is energetic and enthusiastic and if you’re a pulp fan there’s absolutely no reason why you won’t love this book.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Nicholas Blake, The Beast Must Die

Nicholas Blake, The Beast Must Die Nicholas Blake was actually a pen-name used by the poet Cecil Day Lewis when writing detective stories. 

As you might expect from someone who moved in the same circles as Auden and Isherwood, his crime novels of the 1930s display a somewhat sceptical attitude towards the forces of law and order, and at times a surprising degree of sympathy for the criminal.  This is a more complex moral universe than you normally encounter in English detective stories of this era. 

As you’d also expect, his books are packed with literary allusions.  They’re also highly entertaining, with a likeable amateur sleuth (Nigel Strangeways), intricate plotting, characters with at least some depth to them, and written in an easy and amusing style.  The Beast Must Die, published in 1938, opens with a lengthy extract from the diary of a writer of detective fiction, describing a real-life murder he intends to commit.  His son was killed in a hit-and-run accident, and since the police have been unable to bring the killer to justice he determines to take matters into his own hands. 

Needless to say, things turn out to be much more complicated than they appear at first.  Highly recommended.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Death in the Stocks, Georgette Heyer

Death in the Stocks, Georgette Heyer Georgette Heyer is best remembered today as having been virtually the inventor of the Regency Romance genre but she also wrote a dozen or so detective novels. Her fourth detective novel was Death in the Stocks, published in 1935.

A man is found stabbed to death in the middle of the night, in the stocks in the village square. His name is Arnold Vereker. Superintendent Hannasyde will face a number of problems in solving this case, not the least of them being that everybody who knew Arnold Vereker had an excellent motive for wanting to murder him. Even worse, not one of the suspects has an alibi.

An even bigger problem will be the Vereker family. To say they are eccentrics is putting it mildly. Both Arnold’s half-sister Antonia and his half-brother Kenneth are not only delighted he is dead, they are absolutely thrilled to be considered suspects. Antonia is engaged to be married to Rudolph Mesurier, who also had a very strong motive for killing Arnold. There are several other suspects and the case is already shaping up as a major challenge when yet another suspect arrives on the scene, and this new suspect also has no alibi!

Despite the best efforts of their cousin Giles Carrington who is acting as their solicitor Antonia and Kenneth insist on making no serious effort to clear themselves being far too busy sorting out their complicated love lives.

Heyer’s husband apparently wrote the plot outlines for her mystery novels while Heyer herself was more interested in the characters. And it’s the characters and the sparkling dialogue that are the strong points of <em>Death in the Stocks</em>. Judged purely on its plotting it’s nothing special. As a witty social comedy though it’s highly successful.

An enjoyable and very amusing read.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Ghosts: being the experiences of Flaxman Low

Ghosts: being the experiences of Flaxman Low includes all twelve adventures of ghost-hunter Flaxman Low. The stories were written between 1898 and 1899 by a mother-and-son writing team, Hesketh V. Prichard (1876-1922) and Kate O'Brien Prichard (1851-1935), under the pseudonyms E. and H. Heron.

Flaxman Low was the first of the great fictional psychic detectives. The stories are less well-known than William Hope Hodgson’s tales of Carnacki the ghost finder or Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence stories. I’m not really sure why.  They’re perhaps not quite as good but they’re still highly readable and very entertaining. They certainly don’t deserve the obscurity into which they’ve fallen.

One interesting thing about Flaxman Low is that like Sherlock Holmes he has a great nemesis, an evil criminal mastermind with whom he is obsessed. Flaxman Low’s Professor Moriarty is Dr Kalmarkane. Rather than being a master criminal Kalmarkane is something much more dangerous, an occult researcher who uses his powers for evil while Low uses his knowledge of the occult for good. Kalmarkane aims to gain unlimited power through the aid of diabolical allies and black magic.

The stories were obviously patterned on the Sherlock Holmes stories except that Flaxman Low is the brilliant amateur investigator you call in when you’re menaced by a ghost. It’s unfortunate the authors didn’t write more of these stories as they seemed in the later installments to be evolving more and more towards the pattern of the Sherlock Holmes stories with young Dr Gerald d’Irman playing the Dr Watson role and it would have been interesting to see where later stories might have gone.

The stories we do have are mostly haunted house stories. The authors are very much concerned with place. The ghosts are intimately connected with the houses they haunt. The ghosts are linked to both the houses they haunt and in many cases with the people they haunt, or with the original inhabitants of the house.

Like the Carnacki the ghost finder stories you can’t always be sure that the strange events recounted will have a supernatural explanation. Mostly they do, but not always. When the explanations are non-supernatural they’re still delightfully bizarre.

Another distinctive feature of these stories is that they don’t always have clear-cut resolutions. Flaxman Low believes he has solved the puzzle but sometimes he’s not entirely sure. And the reader is not entirely sure either. It’s an interesting rather modern touch. Not everything can be explained with certainty.

I admit to being a big fan of the occult detective genre and if you share my enthusiasm for this style of story you’ll find this volume well worth the purchase price.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

E Hoffman Price’s weird fiction

E Hoffman Price (1898-1988) was a pulp writer and from all accounts a rather colourful character in his own right. He not only corresponded with Lovecraft but actually met him in person and collaborated with him on the story Through the Gates of the Silver Key. He started writing in the 1920s and was still going strong in the 1980s.

Like most pulp authors he dabbled in a variety of genres, from crime to science fiction. In the 1920s and 1930s his specialty seemed to be adventure tales in eastern settings that combined elements of crime and/or weird fiction. His knowledge of the Near East was considerable and he was fluent in Arabic. He wrote for most of the well-known pulp magazines including Weird Tales and Argosy as well as detective pulps.

CthulhoWho1’s blog has a sampling of his work available for downloading, and I’ve been dipping into their collection.

The Stranger from Kurdistan, published in Weird Tales in 1925, is a story of devil-worshippers that gained him some notoriety. It’s an interesting if not great story.

His work from the 30s seems much stronger. Plunder of Kurdistan might have been a straightforward crime story but Price adds some exotic touches and the result is rather entertaining.

Tarbis of the Lake and Satan’s Daughter illustrate what appears to have been one of Price’s hobby-horses - deadly immortal females. This has been something of a staple of weird fiction since the enormous success of H. Rider Haggard’s She in 1887 (and I think total sales of 83 million copies certainly qualifies as a success).

Price’s stories might not be in the same league as Haggard’s classic but he handles this theme with enthusiasm and skill. He also adds a considerable helping of eroticism. Eroticism is of course an element in any such tale but Price certainly doesn’t stint in this area. Both stories are excellent and qualify Price as one of the major pulp weird fiction writers. Price may be largely forgotten by everyone except for hardcore pulp fans but on the strength of these stories he’s due for rediscovery.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

aviation adventure stories

Aviation adventure stories were a popular pulp fiction genre in the 1920s and 1930s. Some were fairly straightforward war adventures usually with a hint of espionage while others added definite elements of weird fiction.

Age of Aces Books have made many of these stories available in book form in the last few years. At their website they have many stories that are in the public domain available for downloading. It’s a genre I’m quite partial to and I’ve been reading quite a few recently. 

Robert J. Hogan's The Spy in the Ointment (originally published in the November 1933 issue of War Birds) is representative of the flying mixed with spying sub-type. Not a great story but a mildly amusing tale of a couple of American pilots doing a spot of espionage behind the German lines in the First World War and almost managing to sabotage each other’s efforts. It’s intended as a humorous story but it tries a bit too hard.

William E. Barrett's Double Death (originally published in the December 1932 issue of Sky Fighters) is much more successful and represents the aviation adventure combined with weird fiction sub-genre, with some science fictional touches.

American squadrons operating on the Italian Front in the First World War are suffering heavy and unexplained losses. Planes seem to just disintegrate or fall out of the sky. They fear the Austrians have developed a powerful secret weapon but the really disturbing and inexplicable thing is that these disasters always happen in pairs. They might lose two aircraft or four aircraft at a time in this mysterious fashion, but never one aircraft, or three aircraft.

 The explanation is delightfully outrageous and wonderfully far-fetched. A very entertaining little tale. 

A genre worth checking out for pulp fans.