Fantastic Fiction and the Great War

This column seems to have disappeared from the Innsmouth Free Press website where it appeared in 2016.

Essay: Fantastic Fiction and the Great War

Arnyvelde, Andre. Translated by Brian Stableford. The Ark. Black Coat Press (August 15, 2015). Paperback USD $22.95. 313 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1612274324.

Atherton, Gertrude Franklin Horn. The White Morning: A Novel of the Power of the German Women in Wartime. Amazon Digital Services (March 6, 2012). Kindle USD $0. 124 pages. ASIN: B007HT2OGA.

Benson, Stella. Living Alone. Amazon Digital Services (May 17, 2012). Kindle USD $0. 280 pages. ASIN: B0084BB9YI.

Burroughs, Edgar Rice. The Lost Continent. Running Press (June 25, 2014). Kindle USD $0.99. 149 pages. ASIN: B00LAMPLG0.

Froisland, Frois. Translated by Nils Flaten. The Man with the X-Ray Eyes & Other Stories From the Front. Harper & Brothers, 1930. Hardcover USD $275. 276 pages.

Meyrink, Gustav. Translated by Mike Mitchell. The Green Face. Dedalus (October 2004). Kindle USD $13.99. Paperback USD $10.75. 224 pages. ASIN: B0038U2V8S. ISBN-13: 978-0946626922.

Phillips, Forbes and Hopkins, R. Thurston. War and the Weird. Amazon Digital Services (March 24, 2011). Kindle USD $0. 116 pages. ASIN: B004TQ205O.

Robida, Albert. Translated by Brian Stableford. The Engineer Von Satanas. Black Coat Press (July 31, 2015). Paperback USD $24.95. 337 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1612274256.

Stableford, Brian. “An Accidental Prophet: Albert Robida’s Future Wars.” New York Review of Science Fiction no. 322 (June 2015). Kindle USD $2.99.

Stevens, Francis. The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy. University of Nebraska Press (October 1, 2004). Paperback USD $21.95. 404 pages. ISBN-13: 978-0803292987.

The roar of the wind was so constant, so deafening, that Hauberrisser began to think that all around was shrouded in a deathly hush. It was only when he went to nail back the trembling shutters, so that they would not be blown against the glass, and found he could not hear the hammering, that he realised how great the din outside must be.

… when he did risk a tentative glance, he saw it still towering up undamaged, but it was an island in a sea of rubble: the rest of the frieze of spires, roofs and gables had been almost completely flattened.

How many cities are there left standing in Europe? he wondered with a shudder. The whole of Amsterdam has been ground to dust like crumbling rock; nothing left of a rotten civilization but a scatter of rubbish. He was gripped with awe as he suddenly comprehended the magnitude of the cataclysm.

Published in the middle of the Great War for Civilization, Austrian Gustav Meyrink’s 1916 novel The Green Face imagined a post-war Amsterdam crammed with refugees from many nations. Hauberrisser, a man tired of “the old game of civilization: first peace to prepare for war and then war to win back peace,” wants to see “a fresh, unknown world.” Idle curiosity propels him on a mystical quest that starts with a chance entry into Chider Green’s Hall of Riddles. He moves through a city of unemployed intelligentsia and the “dregs of Paris and London, of the cities of Belgium and Russia, fleeing in panic the revolutions that had broken out in their own countries … aristocrats who would rather die than crawl.” He will meet a Zulu witch doctor, a fake Polish count, a mystical entomologist, and a group of occultists who seek eternal life by slow transformation of their bodies. One predicts his ward, Eva, who longs for death, may be Hauberrisser’s prophesied wife in a marriage of destiny out of which will come a new world.

That wind that roars through Europe at the end of the novel blows in a new spiritual order.

The Great War destroyed empires, tested terrible and effective weapons, touched off attempts at genocides, and ensnared people from every continent except South America. It is to be expected that many writers of fantastic fiction, as observers and participants in its horrors, used the war in their work. As the centenary of the war rolled around, I wanted to see exactly how they used it.

Some writers chose to transmute the raw material of war into metaphor. For instance, J.R.R. Tolkien served in the trenches of France. The corpse-infested no-man’s-land of the Western Front became the Dead Marshes. The men he commanded as an infantry officer inspired him to create Frodo’s loyal batman Sam Gamgee, based on men “far superior to me,” Tolkien said.

But I am going to talk about those writers whose war experiences were not transformed by time and metaphor into something else. These writers, sometimes composing even before the War ended, worked the clasts of war into their stories.

The shooting had been going on for less than two months before Arthur Machen produced the most famous story of the war, “The Bowmen,” famous because it became the template for the “true” story of the “Angel of Mons.” It was published on September 24, 1914, about a month after the Battle of Mons concluded. A salient of “Eighty Thousand” British soldiers is protected by the appearance of “shining and benevolent supernatural beings” — specifically, Welsh Bowmen from the medieval Battle of Agincourt in the sky. They unleash their arrows, killing Germans and protecting the salient.

In his 1915 collection The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War, Machen, somewhat irritated, convincingly lays out how all the consolatory (at least, to the English) stories of angelic intervention protecting the British on the battlefield have no evidence behind them and are based on his story. The rest of the collection’s stories are also consolatory and not particularly memorable. “The Soldiers’ Rest” is a heavenly tavern where heroic soldiers, like the protagonist who sacrifices himself to save colleagues from a German ambush, are served by the Archangel Michael. German atrocities in Belgium are the basis for “The Monstrance.” It’s a journal detailing the final vision of Sergeant-Major Heinz, priest-killer and child-crucifier.

“The Dazzling Light” uses a theme many writers were to pick up on: that the war seemed a reversal of human progress. Its protagonist falls asleep on a sea cliff on August 16, 1914 and has a vision of men in armor, carrying maces and metal balls about their waists and with crossbows. Months later, in France, he sees this vision of medieval warfare confirmed in the dress and weapons of the soldiers.

Machen’s pieces were honestly presented as fiction. War and the Weird, published in 1916, was somewhat different. It had an agenda. Its seven-part introduction, by Forbes Phillips, is best summed up by two quotes: “The region of spiritual dynamics is destined to be the science of the future” and “Strange that where death is busiest the evidence of life beyond and above it all should abound.” For Phillips and his co-author R. Thurston Hopkins, the war provided real evidence of the supernatural: life beyond death and the existence of real entities like the angels of Mons.

But the five stories of Hopkins, a literary journalist, are sometimes more memorable than Machen’s, and all but one have fantastic elements.

“Ombos” is a club story. Its middle recounts events in a village near Ypres turned into a “heap of senseless wreckage” by the war. Ombos is a proprietor of an antique shop and uncle of the beautiful Margot. He’s also an alchemist determined to infuse his soul into a bronze statue of Albert Magnus. Shelling destroys the shop. Ombos drops dead one day. The narrator, Margot, and the statue go back to England where, it seems, there may be something to Ombos’ claim.

While “Ombos” doesn’t seem to deal with Phillips’ and Hopkins’ metaphysical interests, “The De Gamelyn Traditions” does. It follows young Tim de Gamelyn, heir to a long military tradition. He starts out a boy disappointed by the disconformities between modern life and the chivalric tale he reads.

His first – and last – combat experience is vividly described and ends with a bowman in armor handing Tim the Sword of Life and Death. The bowman is, in fact, one of the ancestral De Gamelyns. Remembering his father’s dictum that a soldier’s duty is to fight and not avoid death, Tim rallies his comrades. After the battle, they swear that the old, rusty sword in his hand seemed to be a “sword of flame.”

Playing off German atrocities in Belgium, “The Mills of God” has the crime of a child-murdering German soldier seemingly revealed by divine agency.

O’Hagan, hero of “Through the Furnace,” is a dodgy sort of soldier. A thief who enlisted after a mystical vision, he starts to lose his nerve after being in the trenches six months. During a failed assault, he takes refuge in a church partly destroyed by shelling. He sees the same monk he saw in his first vision. The monk tells Tim that the peace of death is not to be his yet.

The scene then shifts to O’Hagan’s comrades facing a German counterattack. The monk, brandishing a flaming sword, turns the Germans back. At his side is O’Hagan, wielding a giant cross. O’Hagan will get his wish to lie dead in that church.

Machen would return to the war as a subject in 1917 with his short novel The Terror. No consolations of an afterlife, valiant sacrifice, and flaming swords as with Hopkins and Phillips. On internal evidence, it seems that Machen wrote his story after the beginning of the disastrous Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916, but the story takes place mostly in the summer of 1915.

The overwhelming sense of the work is the decay of English society and culture due to the Great War. Englishmen can’t trust what they read in their beloved newspapers. Gossip and rumor run riot. There are stories of “trains, packed with gray-coated Muscovites, rushing through the land at dead of night.” There are whispers of literal underground subversion, subterranean cities prepared by the wealthy before the war in collusion with the enemy. German agents are responsible for the explosions in munition factories. “It would be just like the Huns, everybody agreed, to think out such a devilish scheme as this; and they always thought out their schemes beforehand.”

A series of bizarre deaths strikes the green and pleasant land: An aviator is downed by a flock of birds. A family has their heads beaten in in the middle of a road. A father and son drown in a marsh. A woman falls in a quarry. Are German agents responsible? Commandos offloaded from a submarine? A “Z Ray” weapon? Machen’s narrator, a journalist particularly affronted by the stonewalling authorities he meets, pursues answers. The story is constructed like a detective story, with theories proposed and disposed.

The solution is strange and symbolic. The murderers are animals who have caught “a contagion of hate.” Man, the rational king of nature, has deposed himself with the insanity of the war.

“But the beasts also have within them something which corresponds to the spiritual quality in men – we are content to call it instinct. They perceived that the throne was vacant”.

The book ends with the story hushed by the authorities and animals assuming their normal place, but “they may rise again.”

Across the Atlantic, American Edgar Rice Burroughs thought his country should enter the war. Two months after the sinking of the Lusitania, he began The Lost Continent (AKA Beyond Thirty).

Its narrator, commander of an “aero-sub” of the Pan-American Federation, accidentally journeys to Europe in violation of the prohibition to cross the 30th Longitude West:

My interest is keenest, perhaps, not so much in relation to known facts as to speculation upon the unknowable of the two centuries that have rolled by since human intercourse between the Western and Eastern Hemispheres ceased – the mystery of Europe’s state following the termination of the Great War – provided, of course, that the war had been terminated.

You will probably not be surprised our hero encounters a barbarian princess of England who needs rescuing. There are some wry bits of satire on what the Great War might end up doing to Europe and white imperialism in Burroughs’ own time.

Like Burroughs, Adrien Bertrand thought the war threatened something precious, so, even though he was a socialist and pacifist, he joined the French army immediately upon France being invaded. Shrapnel wounded his lungs in October 1914 and he ultimately died of those wounds in 1917. But during that failed recovery, he managed to write the famous French war novel L’Appel du sol and some short pieces, including “The Rain That Surprised Candide in His Garden” (included in The Engineer Von Satanas).

It’s the post-mortem philosophical discussion that Vaissette, Bertrand’s alter-ego and also the hero of his novel, has with several characters from famous works of literature. Besides mocking Homer and Achilles (who, it is pointed out, participated in very little combat), Bertrand talks of how he reconciled his pacifism with war to protect society from the “pillagers, the uncivilized, friends of vice, rapine and brigandage”.

And Bertrand talks of the beauty of commanding men running towards death: ” … I know that, deaf and blind in the unleashed tempest, while the heavens were exploding over our heads and the earth was being torn apart under our feet, we experienced the horror of a sacred frisson!”

Bertrand, of course, died before peace – however temporary – began. But Vaissette speaks for Bertrand in hoping there will be a better “new order of things,” a wonderful harvest from peace.

Gertrude Atherton’s The White Morning: A Novel of the Power of the German Women in Wartime is fantastical only in the sense any other near future political thriller is. Atherton was an associate of Ambrose Bierce and wrote several supernatural and ghost stories including the frequently anthologized “The Striding Place.”

The White Morning was published in 1918 before the war had concluded and follows the life of the formidable Countess Gisela Niebuhr as she goes from a loyal Prussian woman to a feminist subversive determined to end the war and German suffering. This is no farcical revolt of women withholding sex to bring the men of Germany around. She develops a complex, well-executed plan to seize several centers of power simultaneously and cause Germany to sue for peace.

Atherton may have partaken of plenty of the Allied prejudices of the time, but she also lived in Germany shortly before the war and took a great interest in the life of its women. The novel does, despite its implausible hopes and misconceptions, highlight some realistic issues of the war: the atrocities of Germany in Belgium and the desperate state of affairs on the German home front.

But the most memorable scene is when Gisela kills an old lover who comes back into her life on the eve of revolution:

Why, in God’s name could not he have come back into her life six months hence?
No woman should risk a sex cataclysm when she has great work to do. Nature is too subtle for any woman’s will as long as the man be accessible. And the strongest and the proudest woman that ever lived may have her life disorganized by a man if she possess the power to charm him.

… Gisela opened his shirt gently and bared his breast. She held her breath, but he slept on and she took the dagger from her belt and with a swift hard propulsion drove it into his heart to the guard. He gave a long expiring sigh and lay still. A gallant gentleman, a brave soldier, and a great lover had the honor to be the first man to pay the price of his country’s crime, on the altar of the Woman’s Revolution.

Of course, the war ended eventually, and writers began to take stock of its horrors in new works.

One of the most significant and memorable was Albert Robida’s The Engineer Von Satanas.

“Memorable,” though, is a somewhat questionable word. Published in 1919 and not reprinted until the English language translation of this year, Robida’s work is a remarkably vitriolic and sincere. Brian Stableford has given Robida the rare title of “accidental prophet.”

Robida the artist and writer did two short, illustrated stories called “War in the 20th Century.” One was published in 1883 and the other in 1887. Both are breezy japes full of future tech. The first details the Australo-Mozambique War of 1975 started by Australians manipulating the Mozambicoville Stock Exchange. The second is even more comic, the story of how a French bachelor, a reservist in the 18th Territorial Aeronauts, has his vacation interrupted by a war in 1945. The opponent is unnamed, but it’s pretty obvious it’s Germany. At story’s end, the hero is rich and married into the Mexican aristocracy. The stories are full of aerial warfare, chemical weapons, barbed wire, and tank-like weapons.

The Engineer Von Satanas opens with a couple of prologues. The first introduces us to the sinister Brother Schwarz. He’s been disturbing a medieval monastery with his alchemical pursuits and ultimately gives a local aristocrat the secret of gunpowder. The second prologue, set at the fictitious 1909 Peace Conference in the Hague, has the famous engineer Von Satanas, who looks a lot like Brother Schwarz, showing delegates the military potential of new technologies, “all the ingenious things of which use would obviously never be made.”

Then we get the main story, the return to civilization of our hero Paul Jacquemin, a naturalist who left on an arctic exploration in April 1914. He returns to Europe after 15 years of being stranded with his fellow expedition members. The seas are strangely empty, the lighthouses dim. And then their ship hits a mine, and all but Jacquemin die. Floating in the sea, Jacquemin meets Marcel, the survivor of another sunken ship.

The two wash ashore and are immediately grabbed by the locals, bags put over their heads, and they’re whisked off to a cellar.

That’s their first meeting with the locals, a motley collection and many not possessing all their limbs: a French aviator; businessmen from Romania, Spain and Armenia; infantry men from France, Britain, Senegal, and Venezuela; an American millionaire; a Swiss history professor; a Dutch ship owner; and two French women. They are flotsam from the storm of war. The Germans, not really beaten, renewed the war in 1920. Paul and Marcel were whisked away from asphyxiating gas.

Paul also meets Robida’s mouthpiece, Dr. Christiansen. And, almost from his first words, he states what will become the refrain of book:

You’re a man of science? Me, too, unfortunately. I’m not paying you any compliment – oh no! We’re colleagues, then; I’m a poor devil of a Danish scientist. Doctor of medicine and many other things … very repentant and disillusioned, I assure you. Oh, that slut, Science! The harlot! The whore!

In the rubble, the survivors of that war scavenge for goods, hunt, and carry on with their lives. A love triangle even forms with Marcel wooing one of the women. Christiansen rails against science. The professor rails against “the folly of domination … the imperialism of despots, their rage of domination and hegemony … the furious domination of a race of prey!”

I doubt Robida was seriously predicting that the “Boche” would re-start the war in a year. But I don’t doubt the sincerity of Robida’s rant against science. The type of war he had predicted in frivolous stories turned out to be all-too-real.

In the end, Paul’s convinced and accepts the indictment against that “slut, Science.” A novel that, apart from Paul’s comrades drowning at sea, has been free of onstage death, ends with Paul and his new comrades, armed with bows and arrows, off to assault the Boche holed up in the Palace of Peace. The weapons of Machen’s “The Dazzling Light” may have appeared medieval. The weapons of this story are medieval. Civilization regressing is not an accident as in Robida’s story. It’s the desired end.

The novel concludes:

The Tree of Science has been felled; it’s necessary that it doesn’t grow again, to rip it up, root and branch! Oh, holy ignorance of recovered infancy, I bless you.

However sustained and vivid its vitriol, Robida’s novel seems familiar because, as Stableford points out, its theme of survivors in the ruins of a civilization ended by its own weapons showed up in British science fiction in the 1930s, and American science fiction after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Today, the theme shows up in the Terminator movies.

A voice that still seems fresh after almost a hundred years narrates Stella Benson’s Living Alone from 1919.

Witty, flippant, irreverent, and pointed, the novel talks directly to the reader, though it’s not told in first person. It follows two women. The first is Sarah Brown, sixth member of a War Savings committee in London:

… a person who, where Social Work was concerned, did more or less as she was told, without doing it particularly well. The result, very properly, was that all the work which a committee euphemistically calls ‘organizing work’ was left to her.

The other is Thelma Bennett Watkins.

Thelma maintains, on Mitten Island near London, the House of Living Alone for

those who dislike hotels, clubs, settlements, hostels, boarding-houses, and lodgings only less than their own homes; who detest landladies, waiters, husbands and wives, charwomen, and all forms of lookers after.

The book sparkles with lines like “People who work indoors under the government of clocks never meet time face to face,” and:

The more committees you belong to, the less of ordinary life you will understand. When your daily round becomes nothing more than a daily round of committees, you might as well be dead.

Benson knew of what she spoke. She was a social worker in London. As Sarah eventually leaves the House of Living Alone to cross the “threshold of the greater House of Living Alone,” Benson left England for America and, eventually, China.

The book is a look at the realities the war brought to England: passports, ersatz food, and aerial bombing of London. Benson personally witnessed an air raid in May 1915, the experience leaving her not “frightened, only brutally excited.”

There is magic in this book, too, and a farm of faerie, and Thelma is actually a witch. The two set pieces of the novel are Sarah and others huddling in a church during an air raid while Thelma, riding a broomstick, confronts a German witch accompanying a Zeppelin bomber over the skies of London. They fight and talk.

The German witch, “germ-bombs” hanging off her broomstick, speaks the cant of propaganda. “England is the World Enemy … the Robber State”.

Thelma, pointedly referred to as “our witch,” replies:

Nobody feels scourged or instructed by a bomb in their parlor. They just feel dead, and dead without a reason. … We are neither of us killing Evil; we are killing youth.

Like Bertrand and Robida and Meyrink, Benson also saw the war as bringing in a new age. Richard, a fairy, remarks:

That’s the curious part of this War. So gross and so impossible and so unmagic was its cause that magic, which had been virtually dead, rose again to meet it. The worse a world grows, the greater will magic grow to save it. Magic only dies in a tepid world. I think there is now more magic in the world than ever before. The soil of France is alive with it and as for Belgium – when Belgium gets back home at last she will find her desecrated house enchanted …. And the same applies to all the thresholds in the world which fighting-men have crossed and will never cross again, except in the dreams of their friends. That sort of austere and secret magic, like a word known by all and spoken by none, is pretty nearly all that is left to keep the world alive now.

Francis Stevens was another woman who wrote of World War I. While, as blogger Terence Henley has argued, she was not the actual inventor of “dark fantasy,” she was an important figure in fantastic fiction. She penned The Heads of Cerberus, a very early alternate history, and both H.P. Lovecraft and A. Merritt, before they wrote their major works, publically proclaimed their admiration of her, though she seems to have influenced Merritt more than Lovecraft.

Stevens was an American and her first story to use World War I material was published just days after the country entered the war in April 1917. “The Nightmare” starts with a man surviving the sinking of the Lusitania in the sea off Ireland and waking up on a South Sea Island. There he gets involved in the struggle between two Russian brothers and their followers to control a treasure on the island. The brothers also feud over an American woman who served as a Red Cross nurse on the Western Front.

Apart from the set-up with the Lusitania, the story uses World War I as many post-war stories would: as exotic character detail.

More interesting as a story and in its uses of the war is Stevens’ “Sunfire” from 1923. A very enjoyable lost civilization tale, it has the accomplished Miss Enid Widdiup, daughter of an archaeologist. She’s also an aviator and would-be combat pilot who, instead, had to settle for chauffeuring troops at an army camp in Georgia. But Stevens also uses shell shock, a medical condition recognized during World War I, to explain her bizarre behavior.

That sort of casual, offhand use of World War I to explain or evoke a horror, or as a detail in a character’s history, shows up in post-war stories. Robert Barbour Johnson’s “Far Below” from 1939 was supposedly the most popular story ever published in Weird Tales and lies upstream from the fantastika tributary that gave us The X-Files, Hellboy, and the MIB movies – stories of secret government organizations fighting supernatural menaces. Its war reference is:

And if we’d told the people of New York City what really wrecked that subway train – well, the horrors of Chateau-Thierry and Verdun and all the rest of them put together wouldn’t have equaled the shambles that rioting mobs would have made of this place!

Lovecraft himself not only used a World War I background for “The Temple,” from 1920 and featuring a German U-Boat making a horrible underwater discovery, but also in a more autobiographical allusion in “The Thing on the Doorstep.” Its narrator goes to Plattsburg, an officer’s training camp in the war, for an officer’s commission, though he never goes to Europe. In a 1917 letter, written after his very brief time in the Rhode Island National Guard, Lovecraft lamented to his friend Reinhard Kleiner:

I am feeling desolate and lonely indeed as a civilian. Practically all my personal acquaintances are now in some branch of the service, mostly Plattsburg or R.I.N.G. [Rhode Island National Guard].

A peculiar response to the War was French writer André Lévy AKA Arnyvelde’s The Ark. Started in the French trenches in November 1914 and finished in 1919, it reads like a combination dream vision and philosophical discussion. It is a difficult read. The only thing it has resembling a plot is the narrator, framing the story as a letter to his wife, meeting an “arcandre,” a mystical being with vast powers.

Levy, understandably for a miserable soldier in the trenches, discusses with the arcandre all the things hampering his great goal of Joy, the motive behind living. He will need vast powers to overcome the obstacles and those powers, we learn at the end, will come through the science of the future. It’s a slog to get through some portions, but it develops a peculiar and compelling narrative drive at the end.

The feel of Frois Froisland’s collection The Man with the X-Ray Eyes & Other Stories from the Front is that of a travelogue. There’s no real animosity felt towards the Germans as Froisland gives us stories set on the Western Front, the Italian Front, Paris, and various places in France. Froisland clearly has a soft spot for the French and the last story is their triumphal march through Paris after the Treaty of Versailles was signed. As it was written in 1930, passions had cooled a bit from the war years, and Froisland was a Norwegian who drew on his days as a wartime journalist.

Only two of the stories have any real supernatural element. (The whole book is worth reading, but it is an expensive book. I was lucky to borrow it from a library.)

“The Chameleon” is sort of a doppelganger tale as the narrator keeps encountering what seems to be the same Japanese man in Paris – but in wildly different garbs and personae.

The titular story has an American soldier trapped for days after shelling collapses the trench he’s in on Friday the 13th in September of 1918. He’s rescued, but is severely wounded and requires the amputation of several limbs. As he slowly dies in his hospital bed, he develops psychic powers. His final vision, on the night of November 8th when the government of Germany was negotiating with the Allies to end the war, is mysterious and enigmatic. Does he see more horror beyond the peace?

Most of these authors saw the War promising – or requiring – a new order. As the years passed, the War became what all historical events, however horrific, become: grist for the fiction mills. That is to say, a source of exciting settings, colorful character detail, and off-the-shelf metaphor.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of fantastic works that use elements of the Great War. You will find more in the “World War One” entries of the Encyclopedia of Fantasy and Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. I also recommend Edward James’ website Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers in the Great War.

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