pulp novels, trash fiction, detective stories, adventure tales, spy fiction, etc from the 19th century up to the 1970s
Sunday, February 5, 2023
Johnston McCulley’s King of Chaos
American writer Johnston McCulley (1883-1958) is an important figure in the history of adventure fiction and pulp fiction who is now sadly neglected. He is remembered mainly as the creator of Zorro but while the various Zorro movies and the 1960s TV series have kept Zorro alive as a pop culture icon McCulley’s original Zorro novels and stories are all but forgotten.
McCulley wrote several Zorro novels and numerous short stories but they were only a part of his vast output. He created a number of memorable pulp heroes, most notably The Black Star, The Spider and The Crimson Clown.
The title story, King of Chaos, was originally published in Argosy in 1912. This novel belongs more to the tradition of late Victorian and Edwardian adventure fiction than to what we would normally think of as the pulp tradition. It has a definite Ruritanian flavour. In fact the theme of a man playing a royal role to which he may or may not be entitled is fairly obviously going to remind readers of Anthony Hope’s 1894 adventure classic The Prisoner of Zenda. And the tone is also not dissimilar.
Carl Henderson is twenty-one years old and he’s an obscure clerk in a brokerage office in Seattle. He’s rather surprised to find himself kidnapped. He awakes on board a steam yacht heading out to sea. He does not awaken in a filthy hold or a cell. He awakens in a luxuriously appointed stateroom. And everyone keeps referring to him as Your Majesty.
A certain Lord Bellan claims to be Carl’s prime minister. He assures Carl that the young man is in fact a king, but he cannot tell him where his realm is. The yacht’s secret destination is Carl’s kingdom.
Being a king turns out to be a rather difficult and wearisome task. There are two factions on board the yacht. One faction follows Lord Bellan. The other follows the yacht’s master, Captain Barrington. There is bad blood between Bellan and Barrington. The reason for this is Lady Elizabeth Bellan, Lord Bellan’s sister. There’s a romantic triangle in which Carl has become unwittingly involved but Lord Bellan’s ambitions play a part as well. An experienced king would have trouble keeping the peace between these two factions. Carl does his best, with some assistance from the ship’s doctor (who is also the court physician), an Irishman named Michael Murphy. Carl also gets some unexpected aid from Lady Elizabeth Bellan’s charming younger sister Grace.
While the two factions are constantly at each other’s throats Lord Bellan still refuses to tell anyone what is actually going on, where the yacht is headed and how a humble clerk like Carl Henderson could possibly be a king.
Bellan eventually does have to reveal the truth, and it’s the kind of outrageous story you expect in a late Victorian/Edwardian adventure tale. Carl had a suspicion there might be pirates involved (there was a rumour in his family that his great grandfather had been a pirate), and that turns out to be correct.
When the royal yacht arrives at Carl’s kingdom there is more trouble for the young king to sort out.
His kingdom is perhaps not quite the kingdom he might have hoped for.
And being a king is not all fun and games. In fact Carl finds it to be a nightmare. He makes mistakes but the subsequent disasters are by no means all his fault. He learns about betrayal, and he learns to be a bit more wary about trusting people. He does learn about kingship along the way.
Anyone who has read McCulley’s original novel of Zorro is aware that McCulley disliked injustice and he particularly disliked abuse of power. These themes surface in King of Chaos as well.
The obvious influences on this tale would be Anthony Hope’s great Ruritanian adventure romances The Prisoner of Zenda (1894) and Rupert of Hentzau (1898), both of which I’ve reviewed here. There’s also a certain kinship with Rudyard Kipling’s magnificent 1888 short story The Man Who Would Be King.
I’ve also reviewed McCulley’s most famous book, The Mark of Zorro (1924, originally serialised as The Curse of Capistrano in 1919).
It’s a rather outlandish tale and it’s best not to think about the plausibility of the plot. King of Chaos is however quite entertaining and it’s recommended.
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