Saturday, August 27, 2011

Captain Vampire by Marie Nizet

Marie Nizet was 19 years old when she wrote Captain Vampire. Published in 1879, it’s been claimed as an influence on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, published fifteen years later. In fact Captain Vampire is a remarkable work in its own right and the comparison to Dracula is both misguided and unnecessary.

Nizet’s novel was one of the many 19th century vampire tales that pre-dated Dracula. It owes a certain debt to John Polidori’s 1816 The Vampyre but Nizet was primarily interested in the symbolic significance of the vampire myth.

Nizet was born in Brussels and never visited Romania but her novel is heavily influenced by both Romanian folklore and ever more especially by Romanian politics. She had two very close female friends who were Romanian and they had an immense influence on her.

In his introduction to the novel translator Brian Stableford claims this as one of the first important anti-war novels and a significant example of vampirism as a metaphor for the horrors of war. Actually it seems to me to be much more concerned with Romanian nationalism and with an anti-Russian message rather than being concerned with the evils of war.

The background to the novel is the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 which resulted in Romanian independence from the Ottoman Empire, but at the cost of political subservience to Russia. Many in Romania felt that Romanian troops had been cynically used as cannon fodder by the Russians and the arrogant Russian attitude towards Romania caused bitter resentment.

The vampire of the title is Boris Liakoutine, a Russian officer with a mysterious and sinister reputation. It is said he has cheated death several times, in impossible circumstances. It is also said that several young women unlucky enough to become involved with him have met strange deaths. Liakoutine earned the sobriquet Captain Vampire although he is now in fact a colonel.

Ioan Isacescu is the son of a moderately prosperous peasant in a small village near Bucharest. He serves in a Romanian army regiment and is engaged to be married to the beautiful Mariora. The impending war is regarded with foreboding by the villagers who have no love and no trust for their Russian allies. Ioan, his friend Mitica and their friend Relia Comanescu (a young member of the local gentry) will all find themselves embroiled in the war, and in the disastrous assault on the infamous Gravitza Redoubt in which the Romanians believed their troops were cynically exposed to needless slaughter by their supposed allies.

Both Ioan and Mariora will have fateful encounters with the notorious Captain Vampire.

The supernatural elements in this story are very ambiguous indeed. They are not explained away as having a natural explanation but at the same time such an explanation does seem possible. The author is in fact much more interested in the figure of the vampire as a metaphor. While Stableford believes that in this case the vampire represents war it’s just as likely that in fact the vampire represents the Great Powers, and especially Russia, and their treatment of the smaller nations of Europe.

Nizet’s book enjoyed no success in its own time and was forgotten for many years. Its less than flattering attitude towards military glory and power politics would have guaranteed its success half a century later but in 1879 the message fell on stony ground. The Black Coat Press edition seems to be the book’s first appearance in the English language.

Nizet was quite a skillful writer and when you consider this was a first novel by a 19-year-old it’s an impressive achievement. Definitely worth seeking out if you enjoy slightly unusual approaches to the vampire mythos or if you have an interest in the evolution of the vampire sub-genre.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

The Moonstone, published in 1868, occupies an important place in the history of the crime novel. Wilkie Collins certainly didn’t the invent the detective story, but he was one of its earliest exponents and the huge success of his “sensation novels” such as The Woman in White and The Moonstone helped to create the market for this genre, and thus contributed to the detective fiction boom of the late 19th century.

The Moonstone is more than just a crime story. Collins combines his mystery with some social satire and some pertinent observations on subjects such as colonialism and the position of women. The book opens with the theft by an English army officer of a fabulous diamond from an Indian shrine. The diamond is not destined to bring happiness either to the man who originally stole it or to the members of his family to whom it is subsequently passed on, and the Brahmins charged with recovery of the stone are determined to get it back even it takes them decades to do so. The jewel is bequeathed to young Rachel Verinder, but on the very night when her cousin Franklin Blake presents her with it the moonstone mysteriously disappears.

The unravelling of the mystery takes place in a typically leisurely 19th century style, but the writing is so witty and so entertaining that there’s never any danger of boredom. The cast of colourful subsidiary characters also helps to maintain interest.

The structure of the novel is fiendishly complex, with multiple narrators and multiple points of view, but Collins draws the threads together with great skill. The very different personalities of the various narrators (such as the religious fanatic Miss Clack, the ageing but brilliant police detective whose real passion is roses rather than crime and the family steward who firmly believes that the answer to every problems can be found in the pages of Robinson Crusoe) and their very different perspectives on the case also add to the interest. Collins has a great deal of fun at the expense of the truly appalling Miss Clack! The unfortunate medical man, Ezra Jennings, is one of those wonderful characters who make 19th century English novels worth reading.

The solution to the mystery is suitably ingenious and the ending is exceptionally satisfying. A marvellous book, and not just for fans of crime fiction.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Rudyard Kipling's Science Fiction

When we think of early science fiction writers Rudyard Kipling is not exactly the first name that comes to mind. But Kipling did indeed write science fiction, and he was surprisingly influential. Nine of his science fiction tales can be found in the collection Kipling's Science Fiction published by Leonaur.

His reputation as an SF writer rests mainly on two very interesting stories, both set in the same SF universe. With the Night Mail: A Story of 2000 A.D. was written in 1905; As Easy as ABC in 1912. Powerful high-speed dirigible airships fill the skies. Air transport has become so important that an international body was established to regulate it, the Aërial Board of Control (the ABC). And as air transport grew further in importance the ABC’s power expanded to the point where it became a de facto world government.

In theory the ABC still exists merely to regulate air traffic, but its charter contains the fateful words “and all that that implies.” This effectively allows the ABC to control everything.

English power had traditionally rested on a combination of sea power and commerce and Kipling has drawn the obvious conclusion that in the future air power would be the key to political power, but with the ability to effectively eliminate national frontiers and therefore making political power a global rather than a national affair. It’s a rather clever premise. Anything that might be construed as a threat to air traffic is suppressed. This includes democracy. And the press. War has been more or less outlawed as tending to interfere with air traffic. The ABC has established a kind of Pax Aeronautica, but at a price - the loss of any and all political freedom.

Just as interesting as the ideas is the style. With the Night Mail is written in a lively journalistic style and Kipling came up with an ingenious method of world-building. Rather than including a large mount of exposition and background information in the story itself he published the story as if it had appeared in a magazine of the future, surrounded by brief news stories, announcements and advertisements which serve the purpose of filling in the background.

Kipling was certainly very strong in the area of relating technological developments to political and social developments and that is enough to make him an important figure in the history of the genre.

The other seven stories in the collection stretch the definition of science fiction a little, but they’re perhaps even more interesting for that very reason.

The Eye of Allah is particularly good, a “what if” story based on the idea that the secret of the microscope reaches Europe from the Arabs several centuries before that invention actually appeared in Europe. A group of monks must decide if the invention will be a benefit or a curse to mankind.

In A Matter of Fact a number of journalists witness an extraordinary occurrence while on a sea voyage, but can even a journalist persuade the public to believe something as strange as this?

Kipling was fascinated by technological developments, but in an interesting way, seeing mechanical devices such as steamships and railway locomotives as a form of machine life, possessing a kind of machine soul. The collection includes several stories along this line.

The final story, Wireless, is ostensibly about the first experiments in radio but Kipling uses this as the springboard for speculations about the transmission of thoughts and even of poetic inspiration.

This collection demonstrates that Kipling was not just an interesting writer of tales with a science fictional edge but that he was a master of the kind of genre-crossing writing that almost a century later was to labelled slipstream. Kipling of course had the advantage of not having to worry about genre since it didn’t exist as such at the time.

Highly recommended.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Chinese Parrot, by Earl Derr Biggers

The Chinese Parrot, published in 1926, was the second of Earl Derr Biggers’ Charlie Chan mysteries and was even more successful than its predecessor.

I was in some ways a little disappointed that this one, unlike The House Without a Key, wasn’t set in Hawaii. 1920s Honolulu was such a cool setting. There are compensations however. Charlie Chan himself moves more to centre stage in this second book and becomes a more vivid and more complex character.

The structure is interesting. At first there’s no evidence that any crime of any sort has been committed. Just a vague sense of things being not quite right, a feeling that slowly grows into a fairly strong conviction that dark deeds really are afoot but still without anything resembling proof. And even then, even if a crime may have been committed, exactly what was the crime?

Detective-Sergeant Charlie Chan of the Honolulu Police has been looking forward to visiting the mainland US for years. He finally gets the opportunity, and decides to combine a vacation with a favour for an old friend. Forty years earlier Sally Phillimore had been the most sought-after heiress in Hawaii. Now she is broke, thanks to reckless investments by her much loved but hopelessly irresponsible son.The only way to retrieve the family fortunes is to sell the fabulous Phillimore pearls.

Another old friend of Sally’s, Alexander Eden, is a successful jeweller in San Francisco. He has a buyer lined up, the wealthy financier P. J. Madden. Charlie Chan’s job is simple. All he has to do is to escort the pearls from Honolulu to San Francisco. Eden’s son Bob will pick up the pearls from the dock. The handover does not go smoothly however - Bob Eden spots a suspicious looking character who seems to be shadowing him. This is the first faint sign that perhaps the transaction is not going to be straightforward. When Charlie Chan and Bob Eden agree to deliver the pearls to P. J. Madden’s desert ranch just outside a town named Eldorado they spot further disquieting signs that all is not quite as it should be.

Charlie Chan’s instincts tell him that perhaps something is very wrong indeed, and the affair of the parrot adds further to the sense of unease. To reveal any details at all of the plot from this point on would spoil the fun as Biggers skillfully weaves a series of small incidents into a fiendishly complicated web of intrigue and mystery.

As in the first novel Biggers has fun mocking racial stereotypes, but he does it with such a lightness of touch that you never have the uncomfortable feeling of being preached to. The anti-racist message is subtle but effective.

There are colourful supporting characters and there’s a love interest in the shape of Paula Wendell, a location spotter for the movies (the sleepy desert town of Eldorado is about to be invaded by a Hollywood film crew, a fact which will also have an unexpected bearing on the plot).

It’s all great fun. The Wordsworth Charlie Chan Omnibus includes the first three novels involving the redoubtable Chinese detective from Honolulu (based on a famous real-life model) and I recommend it very highly.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A. Merritt's Seven Footprints to Satan

Published in 1927, Seven Footprints to Satan is part horror, part adventure and part crime novel. A bit like a combination of Fu Manchu and Indiana Jones.

It involves an intrepid explorer who finds himself ensnared by a diabolical criminal mastermind who calls himself Satan. The seven footprints of the title are a wonderful idea – they’re the footsteps of the infant Buddha, some of which were turned to evil, and they form the centrepiece of a cruel but ingenious game by which Satan’s victims can escape his clutches, or become his servants forever.

There’s much more to the idea than my brief summary would indicate, and I think it’s a delightfully clever idea. The book combines suspense and romance, and packs an enormous amount of fun into a mere 224 pages.

If he’s remembered at all these days Abraham Merritt (1884-1923) (usually known simply as A. Merritt) is remembered for his 1924 fantasy classic The Ship of Ishtar. His other books though are definitely worth checking out. His stories are classic pulp fiction but delightfully written and highly inventive.

This is the third book of Merritt’s that I’ve read, and they’ve all proved to be highly original and sparkling entertainment.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Carter Brown's The Stripper

Carter Brown (whose real name was Alan Geoffrey Yates) may well be the biggest-selling Australian author of all time, with sales reckoned in the tens of millions or possibly even hundreds of millions. He was also one of the most prolific writers in history, with 317 novels to his credit. He was born in Britain but moved to Australia in 1948 and became an Australian citizen. He wrote in most pulp genres but is best known for his crime novels. They were set in the US but this was a US that the author only knew from movies and books. In some ways this makes them more fun. He was rather similar to the British crime writer Peter Cheyney in that he enjoyed immense success in Europe. He was not quite so successful in the United States but still managed to sell a lot of books there. He also resembled Cheyney in his distinctly tongue-in-cheek approach to the hardboiled genre. Police detective Al Wheeler, working for the Sheriff’s department in a fictional California town, was one of his most popular heroes. The Stripper combines a lurid title with equally lurid subject matter. An apparent suicide leads Wheeler to a burlesque joint and a lonely hearts club. A girl called Pattie Keller jumps to her death from an office building but the strange thing is she’d already decided not to jump when she seemed to fall. And a huge quantity of a powerful analgesic is found in her body, a quantity sufficient to cause extreme nausea and dizziness. The death starts to look potentially suspicious. Pattie’s sister is Deadpan Dolores, a famous and very successful strip-tease artiste. Pattie had been a member of a lonely hearts club and when it turns out that both the dating agency and the burlesque club are owned by the same person Wheeler decides this is too much of a coincidence. Pattie’s last date arranged by the agency had been with a shy awkward florist but then Wheeler spots the florist in the burlesque joint doing some serious partying with two very glamorous strippers. The investigation will lead Wheeler to a white slaving racket. It will also lead him to the beds of a assortment of beautiful women. Al Wheeler has no problem combining business with pleasure. There’s plenty of delightful hardboiled dialogue and a certain amount of sleaze. This is not a story we’re mean to take too seriously. The emphasis is on fun. Like Cheyney’s books it treads a fine line between light-hearted crime action and outright parody. It’s all very very pulpy and highly entertaining.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

C. L. Moore's Black Gods and Scarlet Dreams

The pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s attracted some fascinating writers. One of the best and most interesting, and certainly the most unfairly neglected, is Catherine L. Moore. Her sword and sorcery stories featuring Jirel of Joiry (kind of an early version of Xena Warrior Princess) are among the best in that sub-genre.

She also wrote many stories recounting the adventures of Northwest Smith. Although they take place on other planets and involve space travel they really belong to the sword and sorcery (or sword and planet) sub-genre as well.

There’s very little action in her stories, but lots of atmosphere, and some wonderfully inventive and very creepy ideas. There are no conventional vampires in any of her tales, but there are countless variations on themes of vampirism.

Her Northwest Smith stories published in the 30s are perhaps not quite so well-known as her Jirel of Joiry stories.

In Scarlet Dream Northwest Smith finds himself in a dreamworld as a result of looking too closely at a strange pattern on an alien fabric. In Dust of Gods he finds himself searching for the mortal remains of a god. Lost Paradise is a classic time travel story, and it’s also a story of loss, of the unbearable sadness that time travel can involve. Julhi is one of her many vampiric stories, in which dimensions collide and intersect and let loose a creature that is both terrifying and tragic. Black Thirst is one of several superb science fictional vampire stories she wrote.

The Jirel of Joiry stories are among the best sword and sorcery tales ever written. Many are very dark indeed, verging on horror. The Black God's Thirst is especially fine.

The Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks collection of her writings, Black Gods and Scarlet Dreams, includes all the Jirel and all the Northwest Smith tales.

A fine writer whose work deserves to be much better known than it is.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Scandal at High Chimneys

Scandal at High Chimneys, originally published in 1959, is another of John Dickson Carr’s fascinating crime novels set in London’s past. This time it’s 1865, and a shameful family secret had led to murder.

Carr uses the detective novel as a means to explore the hidden underbelly of respectable Victorian England – a world of blackmail, kept women, disreputable night-spots, prostitutes and habitual criminals. He also shines a light on some characteristic Victorian fears – especially the dread of “tainted blood” and the ever-present horror of scandal.

This book deals with much of the same subject matter as Donald Thomas’s The Victorian Underworld but this time in the form of fiction (although it’s fiction based on what appears to be fairly thorough historical research). The novel is also interesting for its account of 19th century policing and law. Behind the façade of scrupulous respectability the world of the Victorians was as much a world of sex, sleaze and passion as our own world, and Carr brings this world vividly to life. And it’s all great fun.

Incidentally, the ex-inspector of police, Jonathan Whicher, who plays such an important role in the book really did exist, and really did work as a private detective after being forced out of Scotland Yard.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Extraordinary Adventures of a Russian Scientist Across the Solar System

The Extraordinary Adventures of a Russian Scientist Across the Solar System was published in four volumes between 1888 and 1896. As translator Brian Stableford points out in his introduction it illustrates many of the problems faced by 19th century science fiction writers, and some of these problems have yet to be resolved.

The book was written by George le Faure, a writer of popular fiction, and Henri de Graffigny, an engineer who devoted much of his time to the popularisation of science. The two authors had divergent aims, which is part of the book’s problem. They also seem to have changed their minds halfway through as to the direction the story would take.

Despite some major flaws this remains one of the most ambitious of all early science fiction novels and in fact nothing with anything approaching its epic sweep would be produced for at least another half-century. At well over 900 pages in the two-volume Black Coat Press edition it’s also unusually long for a 19th century scientific romance.

The story starts in Russia where the great astronomer Mikhail Ossipoff has invented a prodigiously powerful new explosive. Why would an astronomer be working in explosives? The answer is simple. He intends to build a gigantic cannon to launch a manned projectile into space with the aim of reaching the Moon. Ossipoff has a deadly rival - Fedor Sharp, the chairman of the St Petersburg Academy of Sciences. Sharp plans to denounce Ossipoff to the secret police and steal his invention.

Fortunately Ossipoff has some allies. There’s the young French diplomat Gontran de Flammermont who is hoping to marry Ossipoff’s daughter Selene (named of course after earth’s satellite). Ossipoff is happy to agree to the match because he has somehow convinced himself that Gontran is a scientist as well, the son of a great French astronomer. While de Flammermont is a brave and intelligent young man his ignorance of astronomy is complete. Luckily Gontran has a friend who is a real scientist, the young engineer and inventor Alcide Fricoulet. Fricoulet agrees to help Gontran to keep the old man convinced that he really is a scientist. Gontran and Fricoulet are persuaded to accompany Mikhail Ossipoff on his journey to the Moon.

The first priority though is to rescue Professor Ossipoff from Siberia. Fricoulet’s latest invention, which he calls an aeroplane, will come in handy. But then there’s another problem - our would-be interplanetary adventurers no longer have access to the resources to build their space gun. Fedor Sharp has taken over that project and intends to launch his own mission to the Moon. How is Ossipoff to launch his space shell without a space cannon? The answer to this is obvious. They will need to find a volcano. A volcano is after all more or less a cannon, isn’t it?

Selene insists that she will not stay behind while her father and her hisband-to-be undertake such a dangerous exploit so she becomes the fourth member of the crew. The fifth crew member is an eccentric American millionaire who has been cheated by Fedor Sharp.

Not only do they reach the Moon, that is only the start of their adventures. With the help of the inhabitants of the Moon they travel to Venus, and thence to Mercury. A chance encounter with a comet and with the asteroid belt offers them the opportunity to visit Mars and the outer planets. And even that is not the end - their next stop is Alpha Centauri!

Stableford sees the book as a kind of hybrid, combining an action adventure tale with a kind of very early version of hard science fiction. And that’s where the problems behind, since the authors are reluctant to indulge in too much unwarranted speculation about other planets. That doesn’t stop them from getting things very wrong indeed since they were basing their ideas on the commonly accepted astronomical opinions of the 19th century. They assume that features that look like oceans on the other planets really are oceans.

They also firmly believe that all the planets are inhabited, and inhabited by creatures very similar to humans, which leads them to look for ingenious explanations as to how human-like creatures could survive on such obviously hostile worlds as Mercury and Jupiter.

As an adventure story it’s highly enjoyable, although perhaps a little over-long. There’s more fun to be had from the truly bizarre methods of interplanetary travel that the authors have devised (methods that are also insanely unscientific and frighteningly impractical).

Like all the early French science fiction stories Stableford has translated The Extraordinary Adventures of a Russian Scientist Across the Solar System is entertaining despite its faults and gives some fascinating insights into the evolution of the genre.