This book is about what we would today call a “conspiracy theory,” although the events in question actually predate the use of the term “conspiracy theory” by several decades. It’s based on the idea that Marshal Michel Ney, one of Napoleon’s greatest officers, faked his execution and fled to America, where he lived under the name Peter Stuart Ney until his real death in 1846.
The book examines, in great detail, how this might have happened and what it would have required in order to be true. In broad outlines, it paints Ney’s supposed escape as a slap in the face to the restored Bourbon King by the Duke of Wellington, in retaliation for the king’s ingratitude to England’s Iron Duke.
Ney is portrayed as brave and heroic, unafraid to repeatedly face death. Which, by all accounts he was; with some saying he actively hoped to be killed on the field at Waterloo, only to somehow, by some devilishly ironic miracle, survive the carnage.
I have to admit, the notion that Ney’s execution was faked undercuts one of the most hardcore stories of his bravery: that he gave the orders to his firing squad himself. What kind of courage it would take for a man to look down the barrels of loaded rifles and order them to be fired! Obviously, if it was all a sham, this lessens Ney’s mystique.
Speaking of lessening mystique, I want to discuss how this book portrays the Duke of Wellington. Wellington is kind of a divisive figure. The British, of course, love him and say he’s one of the greatest commanders in history. Bonapartists, on the other hand, tend to view him as a merely mediocre fighter who happened to get lucky against a vastly superior opponent.
There are plenty of facts one can cite to support either viewpoint. But the way this book portrays him, despite the fact that his actions help the heroic Ney, Wellington seems cold, aloof, snobbish and arrogant. Admittedly, you can see how someone called “the Iron Duke” is probably not a warm fuzzy guy, but nothing about him says “great leader.” He seems tough and smart, but without any great vision or charisma.
I guess the easiest way to say it is, imagine Wellington in a situation analogous to Napoleon on the road to Grenoble. (See dramatization here.) I wonder if a British infantryman, hauled from some workhouse and flogged into obeying the regulations of His Majesty, might not have tried a shot?
But, I’m going off-topic. Wellington and Napoleon aside, Ney is certainly a fascinating historical figure, and the mystery of his possible escape is an interesting one. If you forced me to offer an opinion, my guess is that it probably didn’t happen, and he really did die by firing squad. But I can’t say it with certainty.
I enjoyed this book very much, and am grateful to Pat Prescott for recommending this author, which is how I learned about it. Mace has a number of other intriguing historical novels as well, which I plan to read in the future.
I read somewhere about Richard Harding Davis, who was a journalist during the Spanish-American War and a major supporter of Theodore Roosevelt’s political career. He was one of those rough and tumble, vigorous living types, and so when I read he’d written an adventure novel, I had to check it out. What could be better than a tale of adventure and combat and danger, written by a man who had experienced same? I settled in for a rollicking story of action and thrills.
What I got was not that, but something much more interesting.
Oh, to be sure, there are plenty of battles in this book. The hero of the story, Robert Clay, is an engineer for a mining company in South America. He just wants to build mines, but local politics keep it from being so simple. President Alvarez and his wife are plotting to dissolve the small republic and reign as monarchs. Meanwhile, the ambitious General Mendoza is plotting to oust them in a coup and establish himself as dictator. All the while, the people prefer the Vice President, the gallant General Rojas.
In this volatile mix, Clay finds himself trying to run a lucrative mining operation sure to be disrupted by a political revolution. When the mine’s owner, Mr. Langham, comes to visit, he brings his daughter Alice, the star of the New York social scene, with whom Clay has been obsessed for years.
As an aside, there is all this talk early on about “debutantes” and “seasons” and whole social structures which I don’t understand at all. This is kind of embarrassing, but I still don’t really have a handle on what a woman making her “debut” is. I felt like I was reading about an alien civilization.
And this leads me to what was surprising about this book: there is far, far more focus on relationships and conversations than I was expecting. For an adventure book, it has a great many dances and conversations about feelings.
For instance, at one point, after a visit to the mines, Clay is disappointed Alice doesn’t show more interest in his work, and she is disappointed he didn’t take a more active role in showing her around:
“I wanted to hear about it from you, because you did it. I wasn’t interested so much in what had been done, as I was in the man who accomplished it.”
To which Clay replies:
“But that’s just what I don’t want,” he said. “Can’t you see? These mines and other mines like them are all I have in the world. They are my only excuse for having lived in it so long. I want to feel that I’ve done something outside of myself.”
This is the sort of honest conversation about feelings that is important in all relationships. The fact that these two are able to talk things out this way clarifies things and saves much heartache down the line.
That’s what impressed me most about the book: how straightforward everyone is, particularly Clay. I know that I, the master of the long-winded, rambling, convoluted blog post, am a fine one to talk, but when it comes to serious matters of interpersonal relationships, directness is quite valuable.
The book places a much heavier emphasis on relationship details like this than I expected, and you know what? That’s a good thing. It makes the characters feel interesting and alive. True, those expecting non-stop action will be a little disappointed, although there is one big battle sequence at the end that is really well done.
Now, a word about covers. The one pictured above is the cover for the edition I read. I hate it. It looks like a Warren Zevon album. It’s got guns and money; all that’s missing is the lawyers. And while both this book and the Zevon song are indeed about danger and crime in South America, this is just the wrong vibe for a book written in 1897.
Then we have this cover for a paperback. It is… odd. Clearly, it depicts a modern soldier, but in the style of Classical artwork. It’s a striking image, but unfortunately this book is from neither the modern nor classical periods.
Next we come to the hardcover version. This is probably the best at capturing the book accurately. We have a handsome soldier, his young girlfriend, a plausibly South American setting… it’s not bad. A solid B+ entry, I’d say. Alas, this version costs $22.
And finally, there is the Classics Illustrated comic book edition. This, I admit, is tempting. From glancing at the Amazon preview, it’s clear they have taken many liberties with Davis’s story, but still, it looks interesting all the same. Doesn’t the central figure look a bit like David Niven as Phileas Fogg?
As a final note, just to reiterate, the book was written in 1897, and therefore has some language and depictions of characters that may disturb some readers. It’s actually pretty mild by the standards of the day, but nevertheless, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that.
I had never heard of William Gilmore Simms until a few weeks ago. Apparently, he was a prominent name in American literature in the first half of the 19th century. Edgar Allan Poe called him one of the greatest American novelists. Naturally, I had to find something he had written.
I found this story in an anthology of his works, but you can also read it here. It’s a short ghost story, told through multiple framing devices. The introduction is just a killer:
The world has become monstrous matter-of-fact in latter days. We can no longer get a ghost story, either for love or money. The materialists have it all their own way; and even the little urchin, eight years old, instead of deferring with decent reverence to the opinions of his grandmamma, now stands up stoutly for his. He believes in every “ology” but pneumatology. “Faust” and the “Old Woman of Berkeley” move his derision only, and he would laugh incredulously, if he dared, at the Witch of Endor. The whole armoury of modern reasoning is on his side; and, however he may admit at seasons that belief can scarcely be counted a matter of will, he yet puts his veto on all sorts of credulity. That cold-blooded demon called Science has taken the place of all the other demons. He has certainly cast out innumerable devils, however he may still spare the principal. Whether we are the better for his intervention is another question. There is reason to apprehend that in disturbing our human faith in shadows, we have lost some of those wholesome moral restraints which might have kept many of us virtuous, where the laws could not.
The effect, however, is much the more seriously evil in all that concerns the romantic. Our story-tellers are so resolute to deal in the real, the actual only, that they venture on no subjects the details of which are not equally vulgar and susceptible of proof. With this end in view, indeed, they too commonly choose their subjects among convicted felons, in order that they may avail them selves of the evidence which led to their conviction; and, to prove more conclusively their devoted adherence to nature and the truth, they depict the former not only in her condition of nakedness, but long before she has found out the springs of running water. It is to be feared that some of the coarseness of modern taste arises from the too great lack of that veneration which belonged to, and elevated to dignity, even the errors of preceding ages. A love of the marvellous belongs, it appears to me, to all those who love and cultivate either of the fine arts. I very much doubt whether the poet, the painter, the sculptor, or the romancer, ever yet lived, who had not some strong bias-a leaning, at least,— to a belief in the wonders of the invisible world. Certainly, the higher orders of poets and painters, those who create and invent, must have a strong taint of the superstitious in their composition. But this is digressive, and leads us from our purpose.
That out-Lovecrafts Lovecraft, it does! What a nice way to start a story. Also, note how it would so not get published today. We’re two long paragraphs in, and we haven’t even met any of the actual characters yet. That’s no way to hook readers. Of course, Simms was writing in an era when having time to read must have seemed like an almost decadent luxury.
The story goes on to relate a tale told to the narrator by his grandmother, of an experience which she was in turn told about as a young girl traveling through the Carolinas in the aftermath of the American Revolution.
The whole setting is rich with references to the early United States and the recent revolution, as a party of travelers encounters two very different persons in the forests and swamps of the south.
Here’s the funny thing: the actual story is pretty mundane and straightforward, but the way it’s told adds layers of interesting complexities to it. And the ending! It’s perfect as far as I’m concerned. It offers the reader two possible explanations for the events they have just read, and lets them choose which they prefer. In my opinion, every ghost story should end that way.
Above all, the story gives a great sense of how profoundly hard life was then. As a matter of routine, the characters are described doing more difficult physical work than I do in a month. It really brings home to you how tough day-to-day existence must have been. Just for the visceral sense of setting alone, it’s worth reading this.
Did I not say, in my end-of-year post for 2022, that I intended to review a greater variety of books? Well, this is an example of what I mean. Never before on this site have I reviewed a comic book. I haven’t even read a comic book since I was about 12 years of age.
At first, I thought I’d start with the same comic that Joy highlighted. But you know me, I prefer to start a series at the beginning. Or close to it. The real beginning of Wonder Woman is actually in All-Star Comics #8. But this is her second-ever appearance and, well, Sensation Comics #1 is free on Kindle, whereas All-Star Comics#8 costs $1.99. Yes, I’m cheap; I admit it.
One sees instantly that the art of comic books evolved greatly in the years between ’42 and ’87. Compare the lavish artwork by Pérez with the, um, less lavish ones we find here:
Another thing which I did not expect, though perhaps I should have, was that this plot was already known to me.
You see, I know Wonder Woman from the 1970s TV series starring Lynda Carter. The pilot episode for the first season is a fairly faithful adaptation of this comic, albeit with more subplots interwoven.
The basic plot is this: Wonder Woman rescues American pilot Steve Trevor, and takes him back to Washington, D.C. Entering the “world of men,” she draws much attention, first for her appearance and then for foiling a bank robbery. She is hired to perform her feats of super-strength by a sleazy impresario, who attempts to flee with the revenue, but is of course thwarted.
Trevor, by this point recovered, attempts to fly a mission but is shot down by an enemy plane. Wonder Woman rescues him and together they find the bad guys’ hideout and defeat them. Wonder Woman then assumes the identity of a nurse at the hospital named Diana Prince.
As you know, I’m not big on rules of writing, which is good, because this comic definitely breaks some fairly basic guidelines for dramatic storytelling. You know, things like “don’t randomly give your characters new powers transparently for the purpose of advancing the plot.” That sort of thing. And frankly, I was okay with this. People nowadays take everything too seriously and want even their superhero stories to conform to dramatic conventions. But there’s nothing wrong with a bit of daft fun now and then.
William Moulton Marston… struck upon an idea for a new kind of superhero, one who would triumph not with fists or firepower, but with love. ‘Fine,’ said Elizabeth. [Marston’s wife] ‘But make her a woman.'”
[Note: I highly recommend reading Marston’s wiki. It’s one of those “impossible-to-predict-the-next-sentence” things.-B.G.]
Marston ran with Elizabeth’s idea, writing:
“Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who, I believe, should rule the world.”
And of course, if you’ve seen the show, you must remember the theme song:
Make a hawk a dove / Stop a war with love / Make a liar tell the truth.
Which is why it’s hardly surprising that in both this comic and the TV show, Wonder Woman solved problems through conversation and empathy rather than fists and force.
LOL, psych! That’s not what happens at all. She pummels baddies left and right. She doesn’t, say, fly the invisible plane to Germany and slap the golden lasso around Hitler. I mean, that might have saved some trouble, right?
You know, there were real people, even in the 1940s, who tried to “stop a war with love.” I recently finished reading Human Smokeby Nicholson Baker, a book which, through chronologically cataloging first-hand accounts and contemporary news reports, tells the story of the global pacifist movement during the beginning of World War II. And it ends on December 31, 1941. Which means if you read Human Smoke and then read Sensation Comics #1, you’re effectively reading primary sources of World War II in chronological order.
Human Smoke is perhaps the single most depressing book I’ve ever read. Going from it to a comic book that sold for 10¢ in drugstores to amuse children is a uniquely bizarre and downright discomfiting experience. But you see, I love history, and Wonder Woman is surely as much a piece of history as any other document printed in the 1940s.
Needless to say, the real-life efforts at stopping war with love went down to defeat. Perhaps it is for the best. There are plenty of moral justifications for the use of force, and World War II is literally the textbook example. Not to go all Lt. Col. Dubois on you, but perhaps Wonder Woman is simply acknowledging the need for controlled violence to prevent uncontrolled violence. The proper role of the state, most philosophers would say, is to use its monopoly on violence to uphold the set of standards which produce civilization. A matriarchal society, as Marston apparently envisioned, would obviously need something to act as guarantor of its authority. Ultima ratio reginarum, you know…
Ah, but you see? I’m doing just what I said not to do, and taking things too seriously. That’s what happens when you read an unsparing catalog of all the human sins and miseries that led up to a global war of annihilation, and then follow it with what amounts to cotton-candy for the brain. But as the Ancient Greeks would follow their tragedies with satyr plays, so I feel compelled to follow something dark with something light. “If one is to understand the great mystery, one must study all its aspects…”
Or something like that. Anyway, Wonder Woman is an iconic character, and as silly and quaint as her early incarnations may look to us today, when you put them in the context of their time, you realize they must have served as a welcome dose of hopeful idealism and light entertainment in a world gone mad.
Robert E. Howard was a popular pulp author in the 1920s and ’30s. Mostly, he is remembered today for Conan the Barbarian, but he wrote a great deal of adventure and sword-and-sorcery stories, many of which appeared in the pages of Weird Tales.
As the subtitle suggests, this book aims to tell the story of Howard’s life through a close analysis of his literary output, using quotes from Howard and his contemporaries.
Literature is a business to me–a business at which I was making an ample living when the Depression knocked the guts out of the markets. My sole desire in writing is to make a reasonable living.
So Howard himself wrote, in the early 1930s. Smith argues that in fact, Howard did have literary ambitions, but that he cloaked them with this sort of practicality.
Howard was a hard-nosed, hard-boiled kind of guy. An amateur boxer and weightlifter, he’d seen more than a little nastiness growing up and, Smith argues, his dark and violent stories reflect his upbringing.
I confess, prior to reading this book, I’d only ever read one thing by Howard: a short story called Ye College Days. It’s a dark comedy, in the vein of Ambrose Bierce, that seems to be satirizing college sports rivalries. Funny, in a macabre sort of way.
Howard, Smith repeatedly tells us, was fixated on physicality and violence in his fiction. His stories tell of fighters and warriors, struggling in mortal combat, either against one another or sometimes against otherworldly demonic entities.
This is in contrast to Howard’s friend and fellow pulp author, H.P. Lovecraft. Howard and Lovecraft corresponded frequently, and Lovecraft’s brand of weird fiction influenced some of Howard’s works.
HPL and REH had their share of disagreements, too, including one over a fairly abstract philosophical point about whether it is better to live in the comfortable regulation of civilization, or the liberated wilds of barbarism.
My favorite parts of the book are the ones about Lovecraft and Howard’s relationship, as they debate and discuss ideas while critiquing each other’s fiction. Unlike Howard, Lovecraft was a quiet, scholarly, would-be aristocrat who had probably never even been in a fistfight, and his characters are much the same; as bookish as Howard’s were barbaric.
The entire Weird Tales community strikes me as a forerunner of internet fandoms and forums. Fans could and did write to Weird Tales, seemingly usually to complain about something. Today, we know Robert Bloch as the author of Psycho, but once upon a time he was a teenaged kid writing angry letters to Farnsworth Wright, the editor.
Speaking of Farnsworth Wright, here’s his take on the readership of his magazine:
While we have many quick-witted and intelligent readers, we also have many whose intelligence is rudimentary.
This is the problem with having a wide readership. Not that Weird Tales was necessarily a blockbuster success, since financial difficulties seem to have been a recurring theme. On the other hand, at one point we are told that in 1928, Howard:
…earned $186 from his writing, sufficient for him to no longer require other means to support himself and to help with his family’s expenses.
I looked up estimates of the purchasing power of $186 in 1928. Seems it’s equivalent to about $3,000 in today’s dollars, so I’m guessing this was monthly income.
A dream come true, to most of us self-published authors! Imagine if we all made $3K a month. Howard was clearly making a decent living, at least before the depression.
But let’s try to zero in on the specifics of the pulp publishing business. Weird Tales pays Howard $186 a month for his stories. Why? Presumably because they think his stories sell magazines. Of course, since each issue contains stories by multiple authors, there’s no way to precisely know how many sales are due to the presence of a Howard story. But he did have a tendency to be favored with having his story illustrated on the cover. (A fact that annoyed Bloch.)
About those cover illustrations… most of Howard’s tales were illustrated for WT by a woman named Margaret Brundage. A quick sample of her oeuvre on Wikipedia left me thinking, “More like Margaret Bondage, am I right?” Ms. Brundage’s covers frequently depicted naked women in various sorts of peril, which many Weird Tales contributors were keenly aware of when writing their stories.
Smith writes that Howard “wrote from experience and with a deep respect for history, and the best Conan stories are melancholy with the sharp memories of greater days gone before.” Perhaps, and yet I can’t help wondering if the reason his stories sold was because of the titillating covers that usually accompanied them.
This is a pretty bleak conclusion for anyone looking to draw writerly insights from Howard’s career. Whatever qualities his fiction may have had, was it popular because it provided a basis for many a teenager’s fantasy? If so, what hope is there for authors in a world that also contains DeviantArt?
However, I take a more optimistic view. We still read the Weird Tales authors today, and enjoy the worlds they were able to conjure. The quality of their writing does matter after all!
Imagine if you could tell Howard, or Lovecraft, or any of the others, that in the year 2023, we’d be using a global communications network to discuss their works. I would imagine they’d be delighted.
As I see it, the ironic thing about the pulp community of the 1930s was that theywere not thinking big enough. If they had known the future, would they have been grousing over whose story got the cover illustration? No! These trivial concerns melt away when you consider the influence their ideas would one day have in popular culture.
Comes the cynic’s reply: probably waste it by arguing over petty nonsense. A forum is only as good as its members. While I obviously have a great deal of respect for some of their work, there’s no denying most of the major figures at Weird Tales were, well, weird. (Especially Lovecraft. His eccentricities, both the harmlessly amusing ones and the kind of appalling ones, come through clearly in this book.)
As for Howard himself, his own story ended in a rather sad way, the details of which I won’t discuss because they have little bearing on his literary work. All I’ll say is that it would have been interesting to see what he might have produced had he lived to write for a full natural lifetime. Stephen King called much of Howard’s work “puerile.” Smith contests this accusation vigorously, and rightly so, but he never brings up what I consider the most obvious objection: Howard died at the age of 30, and so never could produce more mature works.
After reading this book, I decided to give another of Howard’s stories a try. I read Wolfshead, because Smith seemed to think it’s one of his best early stories.
It’s not bad, I have to say. Of course, for multiple reasons, it is shocking to the sensibilities of modern readers. But it’s got a good atmosphere; a creepy castle in some remote jungle, a cast of interesting characters, and a memorable narrative voice.
Looking through Howard’s works on Wikisource led me to The Battle That Ended The Century, which is a humorous in-joke story, allegedly by Lovecraft, packed with references to various members of the Weird Tales crowd, including Howard, or as he is called in the story, “Two-Gun Bob.”. My favorite line:
[T]he eminent magazine-cover anatomist Mrs. M. Blunderage portrayed the battlers as a pair of spirited nudes behind a thin veil of conveniently curling tobacco-smoke.
Can’t you just picture the sort of scene that’s being described? I bet when you started reading this review, you had no idea who Margaret Brundage was, and now you are able to appreciate inside jokes about her art style that were originally intended for a specific group of writers in the 1930s.
Such is the power of a writing community! Here we are, nearly a century later, and still reading their words. Would anyone in 1936 have dared imagine that the contributors of this strange little pulp would still be remembered? And what will people in 2110 remember about 2023, I wonder? An interesting question to ponder, indeed. But for today, I have gone on too long already.
But there’s a reason I don’t often review memoirs. It’s hard to do. I can’t claim “I didn’t like this” or “The author should have done that.” It’s his life. Who am I to say how Jünger should have lived it?
Because the way he lived it is simply astounding. The Storm of Steel tells of his service in World War I in the 73rd Hanover Regiment.
Maybe I should start by briefly describing World War I. The best executive summary I ever heard was, “Because a Serbian shot an Austrian, Germany invaded France.”
Is that an oversimplification? You bet. But it succeeds in conveying one important truth about World War I: it was insane.
Jünger could clearly see it was insane. And he wasn’t necessarily against it, either. Indeed, throughout the book, one gets a sense of him as a strongly patriotic German, who fought bravely for his country:
“[T]here is someone within you who keeps you to your post by the power of two mighty spells: Duty and Honor. You know that this is your place in the battle, and that a whole people relies on you to do your job. You feel, ‘If I leave my post, I am a coward in my own eyes, a wretch who will ever blush at every word of praise.'”
In many ways, Jünger fits the stereotype of the well-drilled, almost machine-like German soldier. There is little sentimentality in his reports, and almost no questioning of his duty, save the occasional gripes about senior officers out of touch with the front line reality.
This is a big reason I read memoirs, especially old, relatively obscure ones. You “meet” people, strange people, people to whom you can barely relate. While reading it, I ask myself, what would I have done, in Jünger’s world? What would he make of mine, if he could see it?
My sense is, almost all people from the past would find the modern world unbelievably luxurious. Everyday people caught up in wars, like Jünger, had it especially hard, but even the Kaiser himself lived a life that was full of many more day-to-day inconveniences than, say, mine.
We are all familiar with so-called “First World Problems.” People will complain about something, and then add that phrase to signify their recognition of their own privilege. And then usually go right on complaining.
Funny thing, though: prior to 1914, Europe was the “First World.” Germany, France, England… all were thought to represent civilization at its most advanced. Civilized comfort is always a state of exception; more fragile than many realize, and easily giving way to barbarism.
I am extraordinarily lucky to be able to live in more material wealth and comfort than the vast majority of humans who have ever lived could imagine. If nothing else, I owe it to them to read what they experienced.
I don’t want to come across as glorifying Jünger excessively. He fought for German Imperialism, and he was, by his own admission, a harsh and even callous man. How could he not be, after everything he lived through? After everything he did? The fact is, it’s close to impossible for me to relate to Jünger, or almost anyone who lived in his time, or before. Their world was so different; their experience of life so alien to that of most modern Americans.
I’m as guilty as the next guy. This very morning, I was annoyed by a little plastic flange on a bottle of bug repellent that didn’t work right. What a trivial problem to be concerned with, right?
A life of comfort can breed a taste for destruction, as Jünger well understood:
“The horrible was undoubtedly a part of that irresistible attraction that drew us into the war. A long period of law and order, such as our generation has behind it, produces a real craving for the abnormal, a craving that literature stimulates.”
I’ve written before about how, in the early 20th century, it was almost like the people of Europe could sense something was brewing. The artistic movements of the period all pointed the way towards decline or catastrophe, as though people had grown tired of the century of Pax Britannica that prevailed after Waterloo, and had developed a kind of perverse wish to see a true crisis.
If so, they got it. What does it look like when an advanced civilization turns its resources to the primal urge for war? What does it look like when a decadent aristocracy, long removed from concern for the people it governs, decides to throw its full weight behind creating the very thing it was intended to prevent?
I don’t know the answers. But Jünger did, and therefore I give him the last word:
“Thus all the frightfulness that the mind of man could devise was brought into the field; and there, where lately there had been the idyllic picture of rural peace. there was as faithful a picture of the soul of scientific war. In earlier wars, certainly, towns and villages had been burned, but what was that compared with this sea of craters dug out by the machines? For even in this fantastic desert there was the sameness of the machine-made article. A shell-hole strewn with bully-tins, broken weapons, fragments of uniform, and dud shells, with one or two bodies on its edge… this was the never-changing scene that surrounded each one of all these hundreds of thousands of men. And it seemed that man, on this landscape he himself had created, became different, more mysterious and hardy and callous than in any previous battle…
[…]For I cannot too often repeat, a battle was no longer an episode that spent itself in blood and fire; it was a condition of things that dug itself in remorselessly week after week and month after month. What was a man’s life in this wilderness whose vapour was laden with the stench of thousands upon thousands of decaying bodies? Death lay in ambush for each one in every shell-hole, merciless, and making one merciless in turn.”
I applaud you for reading this. You could have just left well enough alone by reading the first part and marking this down as a gentle romantic comedy. But you want to know “the rest of the story,” as Paul Harvey used to say.
I breezed past some of the world-building elements of this book in the first part, but now I want to get into the nitty-gritty.
First, as mentioned in H.R.R. Gorman’s review, the Victorian class system is very much intact. Helena and August both have family servants. Now, in keeping with the principle of noblesse oblige, and because Helena and August are good people, they treat their servants well, and they, in turn, are deeply devoted to their employers. Which is all swell, and will be a dynamic familiar to anyone who ever read a Jeeves novel.
But… it’s still a class system. Helena’s servant Fanny is never going to be a member of the ruling class. Which may be fine, as Fanny shows no desire whatsoever to be a member of the ruling class. But I am just saying.
“Okay, Berthold,” you reply. “So there’s a feudal dynamic. Whatever; I’ve watched Downton Abbey. What’s the big deal?”
Nothing… it’s just very Victorian. Which is to be expected since it’s in the title. I’m not arguing that it’s a flaw or that it shouldn’t have been like that. It’s just interesting, especially in light of other things.
Because then you have that hybrid DNA test and dating service which finds promising romantic matches based on a person’s genetic makeup. Did I mention this service is run by the Church of England, which at this point now encompasses all religions practiced in the Empire?
To be clear, the gene-matching program in That Inevitable Victorian Thing is purely based on individual choice. There is no compulsion (unless you are actually a member of the Royal Family) to marry certain people based upon it. It’s just a rite of passage. Like getting your driver’s license. Or registering to vote.
Oh, about voting… yes, well, I don’t think that happens here. Now, if you’re a neo-Imperialist, you’re like, “What part of ‘absolute monarchy’ is confusing you, Yankee Doodle? Of course there’s no voting!” (Real die-hards may also be unable to refrain from adding aloud, “And rebellion and treason are forcèd to yield!“)
So, just to recap: we have a strict class hierarchy, a social system predicated upon genetic compatibility and overseen by the Church, and unelected monarchs who rule for life and hold supreme executive power.
Does this sound to you like the setting for an idyllic romance, as I described in the first part? Or does it sound like, I don’t know, nine different dystopias are about to break out all at once?
Of course, the story is the story. If Johnston wants to write a book about a genteel, peaceful, and civilized society governed by absolute monarchy and based on eugenics and class, she can do it. And there’s no unreliable narrator sleight-of-hand going on here, either, trying to make us think it’s one thing when really it’s another. Believe me, I put on my Hildred Castaigne goggles and looked.
Part of the reason is, as I mentioned earlier, everyone in the story is basically good. As Plato himself said, the best form of government is the kind where the best people are in charge. (Well duh, Plato! How much are we paying you again?)
And because everyone is basically good, they can do fine with a form of government which, in the wrong hands, one can easily imagine being used to turn the Empire into a nightmarish hellscape.
Speaking of nightmarish hellscapes, I want to talk a little about how the alternate future of That Inevitable Victorian Thing depicts the United States of America. Not that it depicts it much. The book largely takes place in Canada, with other characters from different parts of the Empire dropping in now and then.
But when something bad shows up, chances are it came from the USA. The USA of this world is the rotten ruin of a failed experiment. It has no culture. Its food is terrible. It is apparently overrun with pirates. When the neo-Victorian ruling élite discusses it at all, it is with a mixture of disgust and pity.
Any one of these elements in the world Johnston has built might seem like a trifling bit of counterfactual history put in just for the sake of being different. But together, they form an unnerving and weird backdrop to the light and pleasantly mild main plot.
Which is, I think, the point. After all, the real Victorian world, which we often see with rose-colored sentimentality, had its unnerving and weird side too. But the real Victorians, who read books like Jane Eyre without thinking of what you might call the Wide Sargasso Sea perspective, were probably oblivious to the unnerving and weird aspects of their society. So is everyone, in every society.
To read That Inevitable Victorian Thing is to get a vague sense of what it would have been like to read a Victorian novel as a Victorian, and not as a modern looking back at the literature of a bygone era. In that regard, while it’s probably not for everybody, it is a fascinating literary experiment.
It’s not easy to categorize this book into one genre. It has historical fiction, horror and psychological thriller elements. The book begins with a couple, Michelle and Tom Cleveland, moving into their new home in South Africa. For a housewarming party, they play with a Ouija board. Soon after, strange things begin to happen to Michelle, and she realizes she and her husband are being haunted by a poltergeist.
The vengeful spirit is named Estelle, a young woman who died in the aftermath of the Second Boer War. Along with her, the house is also haunted by the shades of Estelle’s father, Pieter, a Boer farmer turned soldier, and Robert, a British officer. These two ghosts are not malicious, but all three are intertwined in tragic ways due to the war.
And this is where the historical fiction part comes in: much of the book is told in flashbacks, showing Estelle’s, Pieter’s, and Robert’s experiences in life. As someone who has only very slight knowledge of this period, these passages were fascinating to me, bringing a semi-forgotten time vividly to life.
And believe you me, the Second Boer War was brutal. Did you know that’s when the term “concentration camp” originated? After pursuing a merciless “scorched earth” policy, the British sent their captives to camps, where disease and starvation were rampant.
The book spares no detail in describing the horrors of war and its after-effects. Some passages are so poignant and disturbing they are hard to read. It’s easy to see how Estelle’s spirit came to be so bitter and vengeful.
Meanwhile, in the modern day, Michelle works to piece together the story of the three ghosts. She comes to realize that Estelle has her reasons for choosing to haunt her and her husband, as Tom has dark secrets in his own past.
I won’t spoil how it all ends up. The best way I can say it is to say it’s a story full of horror and forgiveness. Forgiveness is a major theme in the story. Though, come to think on it, I think there are some things that shouldn’t be forgiven.
Yes, that’s right; I’m very sympathetic to many of ghost-Estelle’s arguments, demonic though she may be. I won’t say any more, just that I think the reader will have to decide for themselves whether certain characters can be forgiven for their actions.
Maybe this is a good time to bring up trigger warnings. I don’t always do those, just because it’s tough to know what may be upsetting to different people, but in this case, it’s not hard to guess. Pretty much every disturbing thing you can think of happens here. It’s a book about war, and war is a brutal business, and every kind of trauma is referenced here. This is not for the faint of heart, by any stretch. If you want to know more, email or DM me.
If you’re fascinated by history, as I am, then this will be an excellent introduction to the Boer War Era. I’ve been trying to learn more about the period, which is why this is the second Boer War-based novel I’ve read this year. (Curiously, that book was also about forgiveness.) It’s an unsparing, brutal take on it, that depicts the British Empire’s attempt to seize the resources of the Transvaal as a bloodthirsty conquest. While some low-ranking British soldiers and officers, such as Robert, are portrayed sympathetically, the overall picture of people like Lord Kitchener and other high-ranking officials is very harsh.
The whole thing feels very grim and depressing. Mindless violence and cruelty perpetrated for an empire that no longer exists. Once, while researching the Boer War, I came across a song about it by a singer named John Edmond. The song title and refrain is “What In The Hell Was It For?” This echoed in my head repeatedly reading this. It really is that dark, but it’s to the author’s credit that it feels so real and immediate.
As for the supernatural horror element, I liked how it mostly lurks in the background of the story, only to periodically explode in moments of intense terror. It’s used sparingly, but packs a punch when it needs to.
A few technical notes: first, the book is told in the present tense, which may be off-putting to some readers. It felt odd to me at first, but I got used to it. Second, on the Kindle version, there were a few places where the font-size changes abruptly. I think this is due to the smaller font for the footnotes spilling over into the main text. It may also be a function of my using a very old version of the app.
There were a handful of typos. But we indie authors are all used to that sort of thing and know how hard they are to get rid of, and this is a long book, which just makes it harder. It didn’t bother me overmuch.
The last thing is a stylistic point: the dialogue is not naturalistic. It felt to me more like lines from an opera than dialogue from a novel. Now, there are certainly many different ways of handling dialogue, none of which appeals to everyone. It’s just that at times, it seemed a little too “formal” to me, if that makes sense. However, that may not be everyone’s impression, so don’t let that put you off checking it out.
This is a really moving, poignant book, and it’s clear the author did a huge amount of research for the Boer War setting, and the supernatural elements linking it with the “modern” part of the story were ingenious. You have to be in the right frame of mind for it, but if you are, I recommend it.
Dracula is about… oh, who am I kidding? You all know what Dracula is about. Even if you haven’t actually read it, you know the deal: vampire comes to England, mysterious things start happening to a couple of young women. One of them dies, and rises from the grave. Then her friend starts to have similar strange experiences. Eventually, her male friends, with the help of Doctor Van Helsing, realize she is being haunted by an undead monster.
That’s the story. I knew it long before I read the book, mostly because I’d seen the 1931 movie.
One thing I didn’t know was that the book was told as a series of letters among the characters. That was an interesting idea, and made the whole thing feel very immediate. Also, the movie minimizes the coolest scene in the book, the arrival of Dracula’s boat in England.
Now comes the part where I’m probably going to get into trouble: I don’t love the book. It is, in my opinion, just okay.
Part of this is not really anything intrinsic to the book. Dracula is iconic, and as such, most of the elements of it that must have seemed amazing at the time have now become clichés. Alas, there is just no way to read Dracula with the perspective of an 1890s Victorian reader.
Dracula, I’m afraid, doesn’t feel that way to me. It feels dated. That’s not to say it’s bad, because it isn’t at all. It’s fine. More than fine, I suppose. It has become become iconic for some reason. What is that reason?
I’m privileged to know many talented writers and artists. One of the things we often talk about is whether art needs to have a meaning or not. The reason for this question is raised not so much by art, but by the field of art criticism, which follows all art but is never as substantial as art itself, like a mere shadow on a wall.
Is a work of fiction just a pure fragment of imagination? Or are there lessons about the real world that we can take away from fiction?
Is any of this remotely true? Or is it all a bunch of academic navel-gazing?
My feeling is, if you could ask Bram Stoker himself, he’d tell you Dracula was just a cool story about a vampire.
But then… Bram Stoker was a Victorian, and so it is reasonable to suspect that in the process of telling his cool vampire story, he included some elements of himself and the world he knew.
As an example, it is interesting to know that Stoker modeled the character of Dracula after Henry Irving, the most famous actor of the period. Stoker was Irving’s business manager, and it seems he both adored and feared the man. Indeed, he wanted Irving to play the part of Dracula on the stage, but Irving refused, perhaps believing that playing “modern” characters like Dracula (and Sherlock Holmes, BTW) was beneath him.
This is an interesting tidbit, and maybe it tells us something about Victorian society. Maybe the vampire legend’s enduring popularity can tell us other things about society.
Then again, maybe not. Maybe it is just a cool vampire story after all. Either way, though, don’t you want to stick around to find out? 🙂 As I did with the Headless Horseman legend last October, each weekend this month I’m going to take a look at some of the stories related to Dracula and see if there’s anything interesting to be discovered.
This was the first Burke book I heard of, but as it’s the second in the series, I had to read the first installment, Burke in the Land of Silver.I loved it, and eagerly anticipated reading this one.
A bit of background: Burke is like a Napoleonic-era James Bond. (I actually think he’s more like Patrick McGoohan’s “Danger Man,” but hardly anyone remembers that series.) A spy for the British who monitors and sabotages the activities of Britain’s main geopolitical enemy, France.
Unlike Land of Silver, which was based on the true story of the real James Burke, Burke and the Bedouin is a fictionalized account, though most of the major events, such as Napoleon’s army clashing with the Bedouin and the Mamelukes, and the climactic Battle of the Nile, are real, and it is no doubt true that Britain would have had men like Burke present in Egypt.
The book is a bit faster-paced than the first one, and it seemed like there were fewer characters. That’s not a negative, though; just a difference in style. This felt more like an old-fashioned desert adventure story, compared with the political intrigue and machinations of the previous entry. Fortunately, I love a good desert adventure, so that’s all to the good.
And like the previous book, there are definitely times when you have to question just who you should be rooting for. Burke is a very likable protagonist, with a clear sense of personal honor and bravery, so he seems like a straight-up hero… but then you get a scene of him torturing a young French surveyor for information, or spreading sensational lies about the French among the Bedouin. Of course, he’s not doing this randomly–he’s a soldier, in a war. Ugly stuff happens, and people just have to deal with it.
The book does a great job of conveying the sheer brutality of the era. It’s easy to romanticize the Napoleonic wars, especially if you learn it as the history of dashing, larger-than-life figures like Nelson, Wellington, and of course, the Corsican himself. The everyday reality of it was much nastier, and this book captures that well.
If you enjoyed the first one, this book is a worthy sequel. And while it is true this would work as a standalone book, I would strongly recommend reading them in order. Fans of historical fiction, spy thrillers, and adventure books alike should all check out the Burke series.