Book Review: The Time Machine

Book Review: The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

H.G Wells (1866-1946) was not the first science fiction author, nor even the first one to write about time travel.  But he was the first writer in English to produce multiple important works in what would become the science fiction genre.  The Time Machine was published in book form in 1895, reworking a magazine serial The Chronic Argonauts, that first ran in 1888 and was then revised and updated in 1894.

The Time Machine

The guests at a dinner party are skeptical when a philosophical discussion of Time as the Fourth Dimension (after length, breadth and depth) is revealed to be practical.  Their host claims to have invented a device for moving through the chronal dimension, a “time machine.”  He demonstrates a small model, which appears to work, and announces that he plans to have a full-scale one ready for the next party.

That next week, the host is late to his own party, and appears in great dishevelment, shoeless and limping.  Once he’s tidied himself up and dinner has been eaten, the Time Traveller (as he is called) spins a fantastic tale of the future he has seen.  The narrator visits him again later, only to apparently miss his friend’s departure–the Time Machine is also missing, and neither ever appear again.

This story is a distinct departure from earlier time travel tales, which tended to feature either “visions” or suspended animation as the travel mechanism, and were in the “Utopian” mold.  The traveler would be ushered around the shiny (or horrific) future by a friendly guide that explained everything.  This story has the Time Traveller able to navigate at will while on his machine, and he must draw his own conclusions from his observations, as no one speaks English in the year 802,000+.

To be honest, the Time Traveller is, despite his scientific prowess, kind of a stumblebum.  It doesn’t occur to him to pack for a time voyage, or even put on sensible shoes.  He loses the Time Machine overnight, and only gets it back as an indirect result of accidentally starting a forest fire that probably kills the one person in the future who actually likes him.  He’s also far too fond of the word “incontinently”, using it at least six times in this short narrative.  He makes and discards hypotheses about what has happened to create the fey Eloi and the nocturnal Morlocks; he admits that his final guess could be completely wrong,

Those who have seen only the movie adaptations should be aware that the romance with Weena isn’t really in the book.  The Time Traveller isn’t even sure if she’s biologically female, and being “not a young man” seems to consider her somewhere between a granddaughter and a really smart pet.  He also gets over any compunctions about killing Morlocks very quickly.

We also see glimpses of story ideas Wells had and discarded; the Very Young Man’s second thought for using a time machine is to make himself rich, and one of the potential hitches in the plan is mentioned.

The last couple of chapters are very somber, as even the last traces of humanity have evidently vanished from the far future Earth, and the Time Traveller finally reaches a cold darkness that convinces him it is time to return to the present.

I received this book as part of an anthology of Wells’ major works for Christmas, thanks, brother!  It remains a classic well worth looking up; as it’s in the public domain, you can probably download it free on the internet, or find an inexpensive edition in used bookstores.

Manga Review: Yukarism

Manga Review: Yukarism by Chika Shiomi

Teen author Yukari Kobayakawa was born with a birthmark that resembles a sword wound.  His books set in the Edo period of Japan are best-sellers; but curiously he never does any research for them.  It’s as though that knowledge is his birthright.   Yukari’s life goes from odd but low-key to outright bizarre when he meets classmate Mahoro Tachibana, who also has a strange birthmark.  Yukari finds himself apparently reliving a previous life as Yumurasaki, a beautiful oiran (high-class courtesan.)

Yukarism

Hilarity ensues as Yukari commutes between his two lives, and more people from that past lifetime show up in different forms in the present.  But it’s not all fun and games–if that birthmark is anything to go by, Yumurasaki is doomed to a violent death, and soon!

This is a shoujo (girls’) manga by the creator of Yurara and Rasetsu.  As such, there’s a strong undercurrent of romantic tension between the various characters in each time period.  The supplementary material shows that unlike her main character, Ms. Shiomi has to work hard on the historical research so she can get costume and building details right.  Rough stuff for someone who paid no attention in history class!

Yukari seems less freaked out than amused at ending up in Yumurasaki’s body and getting to experience the Edo period atmosphere.  For some reason, he has the courtesan’s cultural knowledge, but not her personal memories, or any of the training in proper feminine gestures and movement.  Thus he often shows hilariously inappropriate modern teenage boy body language in her form.  This worries Yumurasaki’s fellow employees, as an oiran‘s grace and delicate movement is key to her appeal.

Things get uncomfortable when Yukari is reminded of what it is a courtesan actually does, and parents of younger teens may want to check to see if they think their kids are ready for the topic.  Fortunately, the client does not follow through, at least this time.  But he’s still kind of creepy, and so is his apparent reincarnation.

Mahoro is kind of a generic love interest character, outside of being reincarnated; she mostly gets to be puzzled or jealous as Yukari behaves oddly.

This story could go some very dark places, or remain light; it’s difficult to tell where it’s headed from this first volume.  Best, I think, for fans of reincarnation romance themes.

Book Review: Life Learned Abroad: Lessons on Humanity from China

Book Review: Life Learned Abroad: Lessons on Humanity from China by Brandon Ferdig

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book free from the author in the expectation that I would write a review.  No other compensation is involved.

The traveler’s tale is one of the oldest forms of narrative; going to a faraway place and telling those at home what was seen and learned there.  The rise of low-cost independent publishing has made such memoirs easy to make available to the public, even if it is still just as hard to convince them to read it.

Life Learned Abroad

Mr. Ferdig is a Minnesota resident who spent a year in China, primarily to teach English.  He spent most of the year in Zhuhai, a modern city in southern China, and close to both Hong Kong and Macau.  Towards the end of the year he also managed to travel to Beijing, a village in rural China, and a mountain where he spent two weeks learning Tai Chi.

This book is heavily illustrated with photos (in black and white) taken on the journey; this makes it easier in many places to understand what Mr. Ferdig is saying in the narrative.  While the vocabulary is suitable for junior high students on up, some discussion of intercultural romantic relationships and China’s sex industry may convince parents it’s best for senior high students and up.

As the subtitle indicates, the main theme of the book is the lessons learned on this voyage; about humanity, about China and also about himself.  Mr. Ferdig tried to be open to any lessons that could be learned from his experiences; some he sought out, and others were thrust upon him.  And like all of us, the author sometimes had to learn from his mistakes.

I would recommend this book as an introduction to modern China from an outsider’s perspective, as it gently brings in various topics of interest.  (A book about modern China from the perspective of a resident would be a good counterpart.)  The paperback is a bit bulky, about the size of a college textbook, so the space-conscious person may be more comfortable with the Kindle edition.

Come to think of it, with a little revision to tighten up the narrative, and appropriate study materials, this might make a good text for a community education class on China.

Book Review: The Silence of the Loons

Book Review: The Silence of the Loons edited by The Minnesota Crime Wave

The long-time reader may by now have realized that I have something of a weakness for anthologies.  Collections of short fiction are an excellent use of limited lunch reading time.  And I am also a faithful son of Minnesota.  So this book of short mystery genre stories hits several of my buttons.

The Silence of the Loons

Perhaps it is our long, cold, dark winters that inspire thoughts of murder and mayhem, but Minnesota has a bunch of mystery-genre writers, thirteen of whom wrote stories set in the Land of the 10,000 Lakes for this volume.  They were also instructed to choose from a short list of clues.  It will become very evident by oh say the third story which clues those are.  Some uses are quite clever, others are forced.

My favorite story is “The Gates” by Judith Guest, which isn’t really in the mystery genre as such, edging more into horror–but explaining why would spoil the surprise.

The first story in the volume is “Holiday Murder at Harmony Place” by M.D. Lake, which takes place in a senior citizen apartment building only a few blocks from where I live.  This familiarity gives it a great sense of place; the story itself is a “cozy” with a resident of the building investigating the death of a particularly obnoxious neighbor.  The detective work is clever, but fallible, appropriate for amateurs.  (A lot of the stories involve senior citizens; Minnesotans tend to live a long time.)

Finishing the book is “Jake” by Pat Dennis.  A man has quickly tired of his new bride, who is not at all as she presented herself on the internet.  He decides that murder is the best solution, but may have underestimated just how much she lied.

And ten more stories, including “Norwegian Noir” by Ellen Hart, a cautionary tale of a small town woman moving up to the big city suburbs; who can she trust?

While this book is calculated to appeal most to Minnesotans, I think it will please most mystery story fans who enjoy a little dry humor with their murder.  Consider purchasing it directly from Nodin Press.

Book Review: The Players of Null-A

Book Review: The Players of Null-A by A.E. van Vogt (Also published as The Pawns of Null-A)

Note:  This book is a direct sequel to The World of Null-A and this review will spoil elements of that first novel.  Like, immediately after this paragraph.

The Players of Null-A

With the death of the mighty Thorson, the plans of the Greatest Empire for Venus and Earth have been thwarted.  But that empire and its master Enro the Red are still active threats to the Galactic League.  As well, Gilbert Gosseyn, the man with the extra brain,  has come to the attention of the mysterious Follower.  Even with the aid of his Null-A training, can Gosseyn survive long enough to learn the true nature of his enemies?  And who is the Player who seems to be guiding Gosseyn?

This story was originally published as a magazine serial in 1948, and revised for book publication in the 1950s.  It follows van Vogt’s standard formula of short scenes and plenty of plot twists, while using psychologically tricky phrasing to slow the reader down and make them think a bit.  Still, the plot practically gallops.

One thing Mr. van Vogt did well was allow his overpowered protagonist to still feel challenged.  His training in non-Aristotelian logic gives his cortex (seat of reasoning) mastery over the thalamus (seat of emotions) so that he is able to understand his own feelings and psychology.  This has allowed Gosseyn to reach the peak of human mental and physical conditioning.  In addition, his apparently unique extra brain allows him to teleport himself and other objects without the aid of machines, as well as other minor tricks.  Oh, and if he’s killed, there are backup bodies.

But Gosseyn is up against Enro the Red, a dictator with the resources of an empire and the ability to see and hear events anywhere he chooses; and the Follower, a living shadow with the ability to predict the future.  To make things even more complicated, Gosseyn is forced into a different body from time to time, one without any special powers or training to assist him.  While if he gets killed, Gosseyn will revive in a new body, he doesn’t know where that body is stored–it could be far from the places he needs to be.

Eldred Crang, the Null-A detective, is also busy, but mostly behind the scenes with his alleged wife (who turns out to be Enro’s sister, and co-ruler of the planet…but with no power over the extrastellar empire.)

There are several competent, strong-minded women in the story, but for reasons, none of them are fully trained in Null-A, so they play subordinate roles.  There’s a scene where this book almost passes the Bechdel Test.  It seems that Enro has a childish attitude towards women, considering their primary use to be sex objects (including his sister), so Gosseyn has two of them engage in “girl talk” so that if Enro is listening in, the inanity of it will mask the men’s plot-relevant conversation.   Doesn’t quite pass the test, as none of the women’s dialogue is quoted.

The ending is very abrupt, like one of those old kung-fu movies that stops at the moment the hero lands a knock-out blow on the villain.  Mr. van Vogt was not big on wrap-up chapters, so the fate of several characters is up in the air at the book’s end.

The Null-A philosophy extracts that start each chapter can be a bit repetitious, and one has to wonder just how one leaps from them to rewiring your brain through intense training.  There’s also a lot of technobabble around the teleportation system.

You might want to read the previous book first, (try to get your hands on the 1970s revision which fixes some of the worst plot holes in World), but this is perfectly acceptable pulp science fiction that might give you something to think about.

Manga Review: Batman: the Jiro Kuwata Batmanga

Manga Review: Batman: the Jiro Kuwata Batmanga by Jiro Kuwata

In the mid-1960s, the Batman TV show was a huge hit not just in America, but also in Japan.  As a tie-in, 8-Man creator Jiro Kuwata was hired to create a manga version of Batman for the local market.  While the television show was more based on the late 1950s comic books, the research materials Mr. Kuwata were given were from the “New Look” period, which discarded many of the sillier elements that had been layered onto the franchise over the previous decade to make the Batman comic books as serious as you could expect in the Silver Age.

Batmanga

Thus, this manga has relatively little humor, focusing on Batman as a scientifically-trained detective.  Robin is a bit irreverent, but not nearly as much of a wise-cracker as he was in the American comics.  The serialized weekly format also changes the structure of the stories, which is more obvious in the plots that are lifted directly from the U.S. version.

The first story is an adaptation of the appearance of very minor villain Death-Man.  For the manga version, his name was changed to Shinigamijin which would be literally translated back into English as “Death God Man”, so it’s rendered as “Lord Death-Man” instead.  The villain’s gimmick is that each time he’s captured, he dies, then comes back to life and commits more crimes.  This freaks Batman the heck out until he finally figures out the trick, and Lord Death-Man meets his final fate.

Oddly, there’s an appearance by a Flash villain, the Weather Wizard, renamed Go Go the Magician.  This story demonstrates Batman’s skill at “prep time” setting up a plan to deal with Go Go’s weather control powers which would normally make the villain hard for a normal human to defeat.

The final storyline in this volume, “The Man Who Quit Being Human”, showcases how adaptation changes stories.  Both versions feature the governor of whatever state it is that Gotham City is in discovering that he has a gene that allows for mutation.  He agrees to undergo an experimental process to stimulate this gene to see what mutants will be like, so that if more show up, humanity will be ready.  Unfortunately, it turns out that mutants are insanely powerful, implacably hostile to normal humans and will attempt to destroy humanity.  Batman is regretfully forced to destroy the mutant (his code vs. killing does not apply to non-humans.)

The Japanese version gives the governor a daughter who also has the mutant gene.  The scientific community debates what to do about this, and the consensus is that she, and by extension anyone else with the mutant gene, must be preemptively executed to prevent further evil mutants.  Can our heroes find a way to spare her?  This raises the stakes nicely.

The art is very 60s manga, and might take some getting used to for those used to modern art styles.  There are a few pages where Mr. Kuwata obviously took a lot more time for detailed renderings; these are particularly effective.

This volume is recommended for Batman fans, and fans of 1960s superheroes in general.  Note that some of this material has been previously been printed in a coffee-table sized book, which has a lot of extra information about the series and is highly recommended.

Magazine Review: High Adventure #126 Adventure Fiction Spectacular

Magazine Review: High Adventure #126 Adventure Fiction Spectacular

This issue of the pulp reprint magazine concentrates on stories of adventure around the world.  Three of the stories are by “Major” George Fielding Eliot, who was born in Brooklyn, raised in Australia, fought at Gallipoli and was a Canadian Mountie before settling down in the U.S. to a long writing career.

High Adventure #126

“Arms for Ethiopia” Lawrence Ward is the college-educated son of a gun-runner, who’s come to Africa to assist his father in smuggling weapons into Ethiopia in contravention of international sanctions.  When his father is badly wounded in a mysterious assault, the capable but somewhat naive Lawrence must complete the mission against all odds.  This 1936 story leaves out the reason Emperor Haile Selassie needed the arms; the Italian government wanted to expand its power and was about to invade Ethiopia from its territory in Eritrea.

The period racism is toned way down in this particular story, although Somalians might bridle at being described as stereotypically arrogant.  Our hero is quick to pick up on local customs and figure out how to navigate them, while being blind to the treachery of his fellow Westerners.

On the other hand, Lawrence and his father are criminals looking to make a big score.  The only thing that makes them the good guys is that they keep their word.

“The Lorelei of Lille” is a fact-based story of Louise de Bettignies. who served the Allies as a spy during World War I.  When she arrived as a refugee in England, the interviewing officer was struck by her intelligence and observational skills.  She was sent back to France to gather information on troop movements and artillery emplacements, and served extraordinarily well as the leader of the “Alice Dubois” spy network.  Eventually she was caught and imprisoned by the Germans, dying of incompetent medical care before the war was over.  Mr. Eliot may have cribbed much of this story from the book Queen of Spies by Major Thomas Coulson which was also published in 1935.  It’s still one of the rare pulp stories starring a woman of action.

“Siamese Sorcery” takes place in Siam (modern-day Thailand) as financially embarrassed American Bill Dorrance investigates a cry for help.  It turns out that there’s a dying Englishman to rescue, and this sets Bill on a quest for an Emerald Buddha statue.   Bill and the English people in the story are blind to the racism and religious prejudice that convinces them it’s A-okay to steal a religious artifact from the local priests.  The temple is guarded by panthers, which presents some logistical difficulties.

Fortunately for Bill, he doesn’t have to deal with the larger implications of his actions, as an Annamese gangster nicknamed the Toad kills off all the priests in an effort to secure the statue for himself.  Too bad for the Toad he’s never studied Shakespeare, as that is the final clue needed.  There’s a couple of missing pages toward the beginning of the story, so it doesn’t flow as well as it should.

“The Trail of Fortune” is by John Murray Reynolds, who is best known for creating Tarzan knock-off Ki-Gor.  Aelward of Colchester is a Saxon driven out of his homeland by the Norman conquerors, so he and his friends go a-Viking, eventually ending up in the Varangian Guard of Byzantium in Constantinople (now Instanbul.)  Aelward soon finds himself falling afoul of Clitus, an ambitious naval Strategos, and having warm feelings towards Princess Maran.  When Clitus strands the Varangian Guard in Laodicea of Phonecia (modern Beirut), Aelward must find a way back to Constantinople before the treacherous warlord has a chance to overthrow the emperor.

Lots of exciting battle in this one, and the only story this issue where romance plays a major part.

Overall, a fun fast-paced issue, but the cultural blinders in a couple of stories may diminish the pleasure of some readers.

Manga Review: Bokurano (Ours)

Manga Review: Bokurano (Ours) by Mohiro Kitoh

Fifteen middle-schoolers are at summer camp when they discover a seaside cave and decide to investigate.  Inside, they find a man called Kokopelli, who is surrounded by electronic gear.  He claims to be developing a new game where you pilot a giant robot to defend the Earth against alien invaders.  He asks the children to help him test it, and they agree to become mecha pilots (but one boy prevents his little sister from participating.)

Bokurano

That night, the children find themselves transported to the cockpit of a giant robot (which will become known as Zearth) and watch as Kokopelli demonstrates how it works and defeats an enemy robot.  He then tells them it’s up to them now, and teleports them back to the beach, with a robot creature called Koyemshi as their guide.

Each of the children must now take their turn as pilot of Zearth, defending the blue planet of their birth.  But they soon learn that Kokopelli concealed important information from them, and the “game” is far crueler than they could have imagined.

Despite the age of the protagonists, this manga was aimed at the seinen (young men) demographic, and is not at all kid-friendly.  I’d rate it for senior high schoolers and up.

I’ll be discussing spoilers below,  so for those who prefer to go into series with some secrets preserved, I will say that this is a well-presented story, with disturbing themes.  The artist’s style works well with the awkward middle-school anatomy.  There is also an animated series that softens the ending a teensy.

SPOILERS beyond this point!

In a neat narration trick, the narration of the first few chapters is by Takashi, the first pilot and typical shounen genre protagonist.  It’s done in the past tense, making it sound as though Takashi is remembering it years later.   And then, after Takashi’s battle, Jun accidentally knocks Takashi off the 500 meter tall Zearth’s shoulder, and the narration cuts off mid-sentence.

Shocking, but that was an accident, right?  Until the second pilot just up and dies after their battle.  Turns out Zearth works on life force, and each child will die from piloting the mecha.  Oh, and the “alien invaders”?  They’re actually from parallel Earths, no better or worse than “our” Earth.  The losing robot’s universe is destroyed, and there’s an infinite number of “games” going on.

Meanwhile, the children (and a handful of adults who are let in on the secret) must live their own lives, and we learn about each pilot’s backstory and issues.  Some of them have normalish kid issues, others are Afterschool Special-worthy, and one story is Law & Order: SVU territory and may be triggery.

The volume at hand is number 11, the final book in the series.  We are down to our final pilot, Jun.  He’s not exactly the person you would have picked as Earth’s last defense, having been a real jerk in the earlier volumes.  But he’s learned that most of the assumptions he made to justify his horrid behavior were false, and seen the sacrifice that others made for him and the Earth.  And Koyemshi is finally opening up a little now that all the secrets are out.

Jun prepares for battle, but the enemy’s plan will give him one more cruel set of choices to make.  There is no escape from the cycle of death.

Comic Book Review: Essential Sub-Mariner Vol. 1

Comic Book Review: Essential Sub-Mariner Vol. 1 Edited by Stan Lee

Namor, the Sub-Mariner, first appeared in Marvel Comics #1 in 1939.  The son of Captain Robert McKenzie, an icebreaker commander assigned to the Antarctic area, and Princess Fen of Atlantis, Namor possessed hybrid vigor that made him stronger than any ten humans or Atlanteans, the ability to breathe both water and air, and tiny wings on his ankles that allowed him to fly.  (Best not to think about that too hard.)  Despite his mixed heritage, Namor considered himself an Atlantean first and foremost.

Essential Sub-Mariner

When surface-dwellers’ actions threatened Atlantis, Namor decided to conquer them to put an end to this.  By himself.  This didn’t go exactly as planned; while individual surface-dwellers were puny (but often decent people) en masse they were extremely dangerous (and hostile.)  After a massive battle with the original Human Torch (one of comics’ first crossovers) Namor chose to concentrate his ire on the most evil surface-dwellers, criminals and Nazis.  Thus he became superhero comics’ first successful antihero feature.

After the war, superhero comics were on the wane, and Namor stopped being published in 1949, with a brief revival in 1954-55 that did not pan out.

By 1962. however, superheroes were back in force, and Namor reappeared in Fantastic Four #4, when the new Human Torch found him as an amnesiac derelict in the Bowery district of New York City.  Exposure to the Torch’s flame and being dunked in the ocean revived many of Namor’s memories, and the Sub-Mariner swam home to Atlantis, only to find it flattened, supposedly by surface-dweller atomic tests.  Incensed, Namor once again became an enemy to air-breathing humanity, battling the Fantastic Four and the Avengers (and accidentally helped bring back Captain America.)

Eventually, it was discovered that most of the Atlanteans were still alive, if scattered, and Prince Namor brought them together to build a new Atlantis.  He also met Lady Dorma, who would be his romantic interest for some years.  This softened Namor’s approach somewhat, and Marvel decided it was time for the Sub-Mariner to get his own solo feature.  Which brings us to the volume at hand.

Essentials are the Marvel counterpart to the DC Showcase volumes I’ve reviewed previously, thick volumes of black and white reprints for a reasonable price.

The storyline begins in Daredevil #7, with Namor trying to resolve his dispute with the surface-dwellers through legal means, randomly selecting the law firm of Nelson & Murdock.  Sadly, Namor doesn’t really understand the American legal system and has the patience of a cranky two-year-old, so he’s soon on a rampage that Matt Murdock has to contain as Daredevil.. It’s a severe mismatch, as Daredevil is basically a very acrobatic middleweight boxer and Namor can throw down with the Hulk.  It’s a pity this one is in black and white, as it’s the first appearance of DD’s red costume.

We then go to Namor’s solo feature, which took up half of Tales to Astonish while the Hulk had the other half (due to a distribution deal with DC Comics, Marvel could only print so many titles a month, and so many of them were timeshares.)  We learn that while Prince Namor was in the Big Apple, Warlord Krang seized power in Atlantis.  Namor decides on a dangerous quest to get proof of his right to rule, assisted at points by senior citizen Vashti (who is made vizier in gratitude.)

Namor cannot get a moment’s peace.  Even after regaining the throne, he must deal with crisis after crisis.  If it is not some surface-dwellers accidentally endangering Atlantis, it’s an Atlantean pretender to rulership who wants to overthrow Namor and sit on the throne himself.  There are epic clashes with Iron Man and the Hulk, as well as classic villains Puppet Master and the Plunderer.

In 1968, Marvel Comics finally got its own distribution, and it opened up space for the Sub-Mariner to get a full-length book of his own.   As a lead-in, there is a plotline in which Namor is banished from Atlantis, and finally decides to pursue the question of just how he came to be an amnesiac derelict for several years.  This turns out to have been the work of a powerful villain calling himself Destiny, who also destroyed the first underwater Atlantis.  Destiny temporarily defeats Namor, who then spends the first issue of his own title recapping his origin.

And that’s where we leave off.  There are some pages of original artwork, a spare cover from a story that was not printed in this volume because it only had one panel of Namor, and Namor’s Who’s Who entry.

This was the era of bombastic Marvel dialogue, as Stan Lee was writing (to a degree) most of the line’s output.  This gives us such gems as “Eternal Atlantis!  How my very heart leaps at the sight of its undersea beauty!  This is the land I was born to rule, and nothing that lives shall ever rob me of my birthright!”  There’s also some great art from the likes of Jack Kirby, Gene Colan and Bill Everett (who designed Namor back in the Golden Age.)

Namor’s greatest weakness is not fire, which weakens his powers and saps his health, but his own overweening pride and hair-trigger temper.  Time and again, he leaps to conclusions, or reacts violently to minor slights, which leads to unnecessary battles and mutual distrust with the surface-dwellers.  Still, he does not wish to kill unnecessarily, and often goes out of his way to spare or save individuals who may not deserve it.

If you don’t mind a hero who consistently makes boneheaded decisions based on losing his temper, this is great stuff, and classic Marvel action.

Book Review: The Dead Riders

Book Review: The Dead Riders by Elliott O’Donnell

Burke Blake is at loose ends in China when he hears of an expedition to the Gobi desert, reputedly near the site of Genghis Khan’s tomb.  He invites himself along on the journey to try to steer it into treasure hunting.  Several misadventures later, Burke and several other treasure hunters find themselves captured by the lost cult of Lovona, who worship Dakoalach, or as Westerners say, Satan.  Burke barely escapes with his life, but two years later in England discovers that the Lovonans might be just as world-spanning as they claim….

The Dead Riders

Mr. O’Donnell (1872-1965) was a self-proclaimed expert on the supernatural, best remembered for his books of “true” ghost stories.  He had a long writing career; this book was published in 1952 and this paperback reprint is from 1967.  One thing that comes through in the story is the amount of research he’d done to namedrop relevant real-world people reputed to be black magicians and Satanists (except Aleister Crowley, perhaps as a slight to the other man’s reputation) and cites (out of date) newspaper articles as background to the events.

We’re in tight third-person with Burke Blake, so much of the narrative is colored by his personality, which is that of a self-centered jerk who assures himself he’s not a misogynist even as he is odiously sexist towards the women he associates with.  It doesn’t bother his conscience in the least to consider diverting an archaeological expedition into a treasure hunt, and he spares nary a thought to others in danger when he is escaping captivity.

He’s also rather thick; when he discovers that a country house might be being used for Satanic rituals, it doesn’t occur to him to find out who owns the house (even after his government contact suggests doing so!) or make inquiries in the neighborhood.  Burke also completely whiffs guessing the mastermind of the villains, someone all but the dimmest of readers will suspect the moment the character shows up.

Oh, and he’s casually racist and classist as well.  This last rebounds on him towards the end when he discovers that other people don’t consider him as socially elevated as he himself does.  Our hero, ladies and gentlemen.  It’s a good thing that women are attracted to him for no apparent reason, as it’s actually them that provide the plot’s forward momentum.  I leave it as an exercise to the reader if the author actually meant for Mr. Blake to be this awful, or sincerely believes this is the sort of fellow one should admire.

Admittedly, after recently finishing Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, any ordinary horror novel would have paled, but this one is particularly non-scary.  Part of it is that Mr. O’Donnell clearly had not updated his writing style from the early 1900s, which gives the story a feeling of happening in a setting divorced from 1950s culture–the denizens of the English part of the story seem to be much more in tune with earlier social norms.  The pacing is stodgy, with no Satanists showing up until chapter 15.

Despite the claim of a Lovona priest that “we are super-magicians and are acquainted with and can perform all manner of things outside the pale of Occidental Science”, the supernatural aspect of the book is distinctly lacking.  The magic show they put on to impress Burke with their powers consists of hackneyed stage tricks, and everything in the book that is attributed to magic could easily be explained as sleight of hand or smoke and mirrors.  Except the very last page, but by then it’s rather too late.

The English branch of Satanists turn out to be rather underwhelming as well.  Burke hears rumors of drug smuggling and “white slavery”  being backed by the Satan worshipers, but nothing is shown on page.  The villain does apparently have a collection of nude photographs, but we never see that either.  What we do see is a rather mundane prayer ritual in fancy robes, and a performance of slightly racy dancing.  Satanism in this book seems to have rather more in common with real-world scam cults that want your money than all-out human sacrifice and sex orgies.   The cult does, for some reason, have a waxworks collection that looks extremely sinister, but is not as I had hoped real people murdered and coated with wax.

There is torture in one chapter, conveniently titled “Torture”, which the easily triggered can skip.

Overall, this is a poorly-paced book that is unintentionally hilarious in places; I’d only recommend it to completists who collect any book that has Satanists as the villains (I know you exist.)

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