World War One in Fantastic Fiction: The Dark Star

One of the many ongoing series at this blog is World War One in Fantastic Fiction, and it’s time we got back to it, this time with scholarly accoutrements.

I came across a mention to this novel in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia’s World War One entry.

Review: The Dark Star, Robert W. Chambers, 1916.

First serialized starting in the October 1916 issue of Cosmopolitan, this novel puts most of its fantastic content at the beginning in a prelude of dark prophecy and occult matters.

After a poem featuring two of the novel’s characters and a bit of prophecy, we get a section, “Children of the Star”, which, in narration sweeping into the recent past and around the world, introduces us to the novel’s characters.

We hear about the Dark Star Erlik and how it is a “a bloody horoscope” cast over the births of millions. The Dark Star makes a a 200,000 year orbit, and it’s come around to effect Earth again. (Chambers’ 1920 novel The Slayer of Souls also features the followers of Erlik according to the editorial notes in Delphi Classics’ Chambers collection.)

Those millions include Princess Mitschenka, painter James Neeland, daughter of missionaries, Ruhannah Carew (known as Rue), singer Minna Minetta aka German spy Ilse Dumont, and Minna’s husband Eddie Brandes.  

The plot involves espionage on the eve of World War One and the first day or two of the war in Paris. There are romantic entanglements and unrequited love aplenty.

When the Carews were serving as missionaries in the Gallipoli area of the Ottoman Empire, they were befriended by a German engineer. He saved them from a Turkish mob at the cost of his own life when they attacked a missionary school. Before his death, he entrusted the Carews with a box of papers that included a Yellow Devil statue. The papers are drawings and specs on Turkish fortifications, and the engineer was a spy for Imperial Germany. 

The Carews settled down for a life of very limited means in Grayville, New York. Rue wants to be an artist but has to enter work at the local mill when she becomes 17. However, she will inherit $6,000 from her grandmother when she marries or reaches age 25.

At a local dance, Rue draws the eye of a local man she’s met before, James Neeland. He has studied art in Paris and now works as a commercial illustrator, both things Chambers himself did. In passing, he mentions a sort of patron he has in New York City, Princess Mitschenka. There is a lot of talk about studying art in Paris and commercial illustration, and Rue is fascinated by James, and he is interested enough to give her his first kiss.

But the trajectory of love promised by that meeting must, of course, be foiled. And here that’s done by one Eddie Brandes, a “sporting man”, gambler, theatrical speculator, and occasional fight promoter. Traveling through Grayville one day in his car en route to Saratoga, New York, Brandes catches sight of Rue and, to the disgust of his numerous criminal confederates, develops a genuine love (the first time ever) for a woman and wants to marry her.

There is one problem. Eddie is still married to Minna Mitti, daughter of a German agent who moved to Canada. We hear she is a vengeful woman. 

Brandes succeeds in marrying Rue after getting the permission of her parents. He plans to honeymoon in Paris where Rue can study art though he is not keen on her working since he can support them. However, disaster strikes in New York City when Minna and another enemy of Brandes’ show up and confront him. Rue learns Eddie’s a bigamist and flees, with half of her inheritance in a suitcase, to the only man she knows in New York City: James. 

He puts her on the Lusitania in the care of the Princess, and Rue stays with her in Paris. She becomes a beautiful and accomplished woman, a better artist than James. The Princess and Turkish agents find out about the papers in the Carew’s home in Grayfield home. When Rue’s parents die, the Princess asks James to secure that box of papers. 

In doing so, he encounters Ilse, whom he dubs Sherezade, and they have a peculiar relationship which is one of the most enjoyable parts of the novel. It starts when he overcomes her after she puts some shots his way, escapes from her confederates, again escapes an attack from her colleagues on the train to New York City, and again on a ship bound for Paris. However, by this time, Ilse is covertly sparing James from the murderous attentions of her comrades. On the way to Paris, James encounters Brandes on the train and some of his confederates. Pretending not to understand English, he overhears that most of Brandes’ associates have contracted out as spies for the German government, but Brandes is going to double-cross them and his ex-wife. He still has a thing for Rue.

In Paris, Ilse’s gang manage to get the wooden box, but agents from multiple intelligence services show up in a Paris café; Brandes is killed; the Princess, at James’ requests, helps Ilse flee to America, and Rue and James are on the path to marriage. To be honest, I’m not sure if the box and Yellow Devil idol are actually recovered by Russian intelligence whom the Princess works for.

In that café, James encounters a couple of Tzigane fortune tellers. We get an exchange about that yellow idol which, earlier, a Mongolian missionary visiting Rue’s father said was of Erlik, the Yellow Devil of the Mongols, “The Prince of Darkness”.

’There will be war,’ remarked Nini with a shrug of her bare, brown shoulders over which her hair and her gilded sequins fell in a bright mass.

’Why?’ asked Neeland, smiling.

’Why? Because, for one thing, you have brought war into Europe!’

’Come, now! No mystery!’ said Sengoun gaily. ‘Explain how my comrade has brought war into Europe, you little fraud!’

Nini looked at Neeland: ‘What else except papers was in the box you lost?’ she asked coolly.

Neeland, very red and uncomfortable, gazed back at the girl without replying; and she laughed at him, showing her white teeth.

’You brought the Yellow Devil into Europe, M’sieu Nilan! Erlik, the Yellow Demon. When he travels there is unrest. Where he rests there is war!’

’You’re very clever,’ retorted Neeland, quite out of countenance.

. . .

’Very clever,’ repeated Neeland, still amazed and profoundly uneasy. ‘But this Yellow Devil you say I brought into Europe must have been resting in America, then. And, if so, why is there no war there?’

’There would have been — with Mexico. You brought the Yellow Demon here, but just in time!’

’All right. Grant that, then. But — perhaps he was a long time resting in America. What about that, pretty gipsy?’

. . .

’Is your memory so poor, M’sieu Nilan? What has your country done but fight since Erlik rested among your people? You fought in Samoa; in Hawaii; your warships went to Chile, to Brazil, to San Domingo; the blood of your soldiers and sailors was shed in Hayti, in Cuba, in the Philippines, in China — —’

’Good Lord!’ exclaimed Neeland. ‘That girl is dead right!’

. . .

’Show me your palms,’ said Nini, and drew Sengoun’s and Neeland’s hands across the table, holding them in both of hers.

‘’See,’ she added, nudging Fifi with her shoulder, ‘both of them born under the Dark Star! It is war they shall live to see — war!’

’Under the Dark Star, Erlik,’ repeated the other girl, looking closely into the two palms, ‘and there is war there!’

Robert W. Chambers. Works of Robert W. Chambers (Kindle Locations 174057-174059). Delphi Classics.

But what of Chambers use of World War One history? He largely sticks to what was recent history for him.

Mentioning the Lusitania and Gallipoli early in the novel may have been done to capitalize on the emotions those names would evoke in an American reader in 1916. One, of course, was sunk in 1915, and the disastrous Gallipoli campaign ended in early 1916. On the other hand, the Lusitania was the largest transatlantic liner in operation at one time and an obvious choice for the Princess to travel on.

This is a 35-chapter novel, and the war doesn’t explicitly start to intrude until Chapter 14 with a discussion between James Neeland and his father. It’s sometime in July 1914. The Austro-Hungarian Empire has issued its ultimatum to Serbia. The senior Neeland notes an uptake in commercial orders:

. . . the Gayfield woollen mill has just received an enormous order for socks and underwear from the French Government. They’re running all night now. And another thing struck me: there has been a man in this section buying horses for the British Government. Of course it’s done now and then, but, taking this incident with the others which have come to my personal knowledge, it would seem as though something were brewing over in Europe.

Robert W. Chambers. Works of Robert W. Chambers (Kindle Locations 171191-171194). Delphi Classics.

Securing supplies in America did, of course, become a key activity for the Allies in World War One, but, in July 1914, there was no anticipation that the July Crisis would become the Great War, so this seems ahistorical. On the other hand, this may reflect some personal knowledge of Chambers given that he lived in New York State in the summer, and, since his father and maternal grandfather were prominent corporate lawyers (though both dead by 1914), he may have had social contacts who told him this.

The German and Ottoman Empires did, of course, eventually become allies in October 1914, but that wasn’t at all the certainty as this utterance by James suggests, after he examines the papers of that German engineer:

’Well, I’m damned,’ he thought, ‘if it doesn’t really look as though the plans of these Turkish forts might be important! I’m not very much astonished that the Kaiser and the Sultan desire to keep for themselves the secrets of these fortifications. They really belong to them, too. They were drawn and planned by a German.’ He shrugged. ‘A rotten alliance!’

Robert W. Chambers. Works of Robert W. Chambers (Kindle Locations 171579-171582). Delphi Classics.

There is a whole chapter, “The Battle for Ottoman Belligerence”1, in Sean McMeekin’s The Ottoman Endgame about the diplomatic game the Ottomans played in not committing to involvement in the war, much less on Germany’s side. On August 5, 1914, the Ottoman and Russian Empire discussed a possible alliance.  (McMeekin, location 1985). Even after the former German warship Goeben, now a part of the Ottoman Navy after its aggressive Captain Souchon escaped the British Navy in the Mediterranean and wound up in Constantinople where it was “sold” by the Germans, opened fire on Russian ships in the Black Sea, the Ottomans weren’t committed officially to war. Rather they “expressed regret for the ‘hostile act, provoked by the Russian fleet.”2 It wasn’t until November 2, 1914 that Russia had enough and declared war on the Ottoman Empire.

Chambers continues with his theme of the inevitability of the Ottoman and German Empires fighting together n board that ocean liner to Paris, James has a discussion with the captain, also an officer in the British Naval Reserve, about the pending war. The Austro-Hungarian Empire is on the verge of issuing an ultimatum to Serbia – which it did on July 23, 1914. (Incidentally, according to Michael S. Neiberg’s Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of World War I, Servia was the usual spelling of the country’s name before the war. Allied propagandists, deeming that it sounded too much like “servile”, changed the spelling to our modern one.)3

Austria has decided on an ultimatum to Servia. And probably will send it.

. . . Suppose the humiliation is too severe for Servia to endure? Suppose she refuses the Austrian terms? Suppose Austria mobilises against her? What remains for Russia to do except to mobilise? And, if Russia does that, what is going to happen in Germany? And then, instantly and automatically, what will follow in France?” His mouth tightened grimly. “England,” he said, “is the ally of France. Ask yourself, Mr. Neeland, what are the prospects of this deadly combination and deadlier situation.”

Robert W. Chambers. Works of Robert W. Chambers (Kindle Locations 172124-1721143). Delphi Classics.

Having the benefit of hindsight, Chambers history is perfectly fine here.

However, that scene goes on to the matter of cooperation between the German and Ottoman Empires:

’Turkey is supposed to be the ally of Germany,’ he said.

’I’ve heard so. I know that the Turkish army is under German officers. But — if war should happen, is it likely that this ramshackle nation which was fought to a standstill by the Balkan Alliance only a few months ago would be likely to take active sides?’

’Mr. Neeland, it is not only likely, it is absolutely certain.’

’You believe Germany would count on her?’

’There is not a doubt of it. Enver Pasha holds the country in his right hand; Enver Pasha is the Kaiser’s jackal.’

’But Turkey is a beaten, discredited nation. She has no modern guns. Her fleet is rusting in the Bosporus.’

“’The Dardanelles bristle with Krupp cannon, Mr. Neeland, manned by German gunners. Von der Goltz Pasha has made of a brave people a splendid army. As for ships, the ironclads and gunboats off Seraglio Point are rusting at anchor, as you say; but there are today enough German and Austrian armored ships within running distance of the Dardanelles to make for Turkey a powerful defensive squadron.’

Robert W. Chambers. Works of Robert W. Chambers (Kindle Locations 172143 – 172163). Delphi Classics.

Chambers is downplaying this contingency of history in light of later events. It’s understandable. It’s not like he had access to the diplomatic archives that historians of the Great War would later have.

The bit with Krupp artillery already at the Dardanelles is partially true. In 1913, the Ottoman Empire did place an order for Krupp artillery to guard the Dardanelles.4 However, after the German-Ottoman Alliance, the defenses in the area were substantially, unknown to the British, upgraded in 1914. British intelligence had a very misleading picture of the Ottoman defenses before their landing at Gallipoli:

Before Usedom arrived, the Dardanelles command had at its disposal twenty shore howitzers ranging from 15 to 28 cm (6- to 11-inch) caliber, mostly accurate only at short range, although the larger guns had an “extreme range” of 15 kilometers (9.3 miles). As the British knew, the main batteries were located at the southern tip of the Gallipoli Peninsula (Cape Helles, or Seddul Bahr, as the Turks called it) and at Kum Kale on the Asian shore opposite, with a second line of defense at the Narrows, at Kilid Bahr on the European side and the forts of Hamidiye and Chanak (Çanakkale) in Asia. What the British did not know was that Usedom and his 170 German gunnery experts had brought in heavy guns, including 355 mm (14-inch) Krupp monsters mounted south of Chanak. Many of the new mounted guns were cleverly camouflaged, while dummy batteries were erected elsewhere to draw off enemy fire. By year’s end, there were enough guns that the Dardanelles (Çanakkale) command formed a third artillery battalion, to man a new “howitzer zone” behind the entry area at Kum Kale/Seddul Bahr, “responsible for the delivery of plunging fire on enemy ships.

McMeekin, Sean. The Ottoman Endgame (pp. 212-213). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

I suspect Chambers’ British officer is hinting at what the British Navy would come to learn later the hard way, not the way things were during that conversation. But, again, the British Navy didn’t know the real state of affairs guns at Gallipoli in 1915 so why should Chambers know about its defenses in August 1914?

In a later conversation between James and the Princess, the latter states what the German Empire wants from the Ottomans:

‘That is what the Ottoman Empire is today,’ continued the Princess Mistchenka, ‘a Turkish province fortified by Berlin, governed from Berlin through a Germanised Turk, Enver Pasha; the army organised, drilled, equipped, officered, and paid by the Kaiser Wilhelm; every internal resource and revenue and development and projected development mortgaged to Germany and under German control; and the Sultan a nobody!’

Robert W. Chambers. Works of Robert W. Chambers (Kindle Locations 173311 – 173332). Delphi Classics.

It is certainly true that Germany had been training the Ottoman Empire’s army before the war – as it is also true that the Ottomans approached Britian to train its navy. But, far from becoming a colony of Germany, the Ottomans demanded, as part of entering the war on Germany’s side, an end to the Capitulations it and other European powers enjoyed in the Ottoman Empire before the war. These involved “everything from trade concessions and legal immunities to the right to collect customs and tolls.”5 Germany obliged.

When James arrives in Liverpool, the British Fleet has sailed. Chambers describes it as “Ruler of all Waters, untroubled by a man-made Kiel.”6 Chambers is referring to the German canal around the German naval base at Kiel. The British naval mobilization occurred on August 2, 1914.

Given the espionage element of this novel and the general – and exaggerated – fear of German espionage in England, it’s not surprising that he has an associate of Isle, Karl Breslau, actually serving, under another name, as a member of Parliament. No such thing ever happened, of course.

In a discussion with those Tzigane fortunetellers, the Russian Empire’s mobilization is assigned a conventional date of July 25, 1925. It seems, as per Sean McMeekin’s The Russian Origins of the First World War that it may have started earlier, possibly at the beginning of July.7 That, though, would not have been something knowable to Chambers.

In a conversation between the Princess and James, the question of Armenians comes up. While Chambers doesn’t talk about what would become controversially known as the Armenian Genocide, Chambers, through the Princess, issues a correct, if woefully optimistic, prediction about Armenian deaths:

’ . . . Abdul the Damned is shut up tight in a fortress!’

’His shadow dogs the spurred heels of Enver Pasha,’ she said, striving to maintain her composure. ‘Oh, Neeland! — A hundred thousand Armenians are yet to die in that accursed shadow!’

Robert W. Chambers. Works of Robert W. Chambers (Kindle Locations 174456-174459). Delphi Classics.

Even Justin McCarthy, who holds the Ottoman’s didn’t exhibit the necessary intent to label the Armenian deaths as the result of genocide, says, in his Turks and Armenians: Nationalism and Conflict in the Ottoman Empire, that 540,000 Armenians died between 1914 to 1922, the end of the Greco-Turkish War.8 Other figures vary widely.

The bloodbath in the French café occurs in the early hours of August 3, 1914, the day Germany declares war on France. Chambers has the French police riding down “Apaches” (a French term for criminals and street thugs):

‘They’re ridding the city of apaches. It’s plain enough that they have orders to kill them where they find them! Look!’ he added, pointing to the dead wall across the street; ‘It’s here at last, and Paris is cleaning house and getting ready for it! This is war, Neeland — war at last!’

Robert W. Chambers. Works of Robert W. Chambers (Kindle Locations 174821-174823). Delphi Classics.

I haven’t come across accounts of any such thing. Charles Inman Barnard9 an American living in Paris then, noted shuttered shops on that Monday and mentions some looting of “milk shops” by boys fifteen to eighteen in age. 

However, this passage from the novel more closely matches Barnard’s observation:

Otherwise, except for cyclists, there seemed to be very few soldiers in Paris — an odd fact immediately noticeable. Also there were no omnibuses to be seen, no private automobiles, no electric vehicles of any sort except great grey army trucks trundling by with a sapper at the wheel. And, except for the whiz and rush of the motors and the melancholy siren blasts from their horns, an immense silence reigned in the streets.

There was no laughter to be heard, no loud calling, no gay and animated badinage. People who met and stopped conversed in undertones; gestures were sober and rare.

And everywhere, in the intense stillness, Red Cross flags hung motionless in the late afternoon sunshine; everywhere were posted notices warning the Republic of general mobilisation — on dead walls, on tree-boxes, on kiosques, on bulletin boards, on the façades of public and ecclesiastical buildings.

Another ordinance which Neeland could read from where he stood at the window warned all citizens from the streets after eight o’clock in the evening; and on the closed iron shutters of every shop in sight of his window were pasted white strips of paper bearing, in black letters, the same explanation:

’Fermé à cause de la mobilisation.’

Robert W. Chambers. Works of Robert W. Chambers (Kindle Location 175143). Delphi Classics.

There is a grain of truth in the idea of the French authorities attacking known subversives. Michael S. Nieberg’s Dance of the Furies said that the French authorities, before the war, had a list, known as the Carnet B, of “subversives“ (anarchists, socialists, syndicalists mostly) to be arrested upon mobilization.  Estimates of the number of people on the list range from 2,000 to 4,000 with disputes about how many were non-Frenchmen. The actual number that ended up being arrested was 59.10

The novel takes, as American society as a whole did, a dim view on the morality of spying. It’s conducted by Europeans (even with American agents and on America soil) and is a dirty business as both Ilse and the Princess tell Neeland. The Princess even thought to recruit Ruhannah as a Russian agent but, coming to like the girl, she opts not to. 

Chambers’ novel, written during World War One, provides an example of how people living through great events often misunderstand them, motives and reality to only be uncovered later by historians.

Notes

 1) McMeekin, Sean. “‘The Battle for Ottoman Belligerence.’” The Ottoman Endgame: War, Revolution and the Making of the Modern Middle East, 1908-1923, Penguin Books, New York, NY, 2016, pp. 151–174.

2) Ibid, p. 172.

3) Neiberg, Michael S. “Notes.” Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of World War I, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2013, p. 239.

4) McMeekin, Sean. The Ottoman Endgame: War, Revolution and the Making of the Modern Middle East, 1908-1923, Penguin Books, New York, NY, 2016, p. 119.

5) Ibid, p. 158.

6) Robert W. Chambers. Works of Robert W. Chambers (Kindle Location 172692). Delphi Classics.

7) Sean McMeekin. The Russian Origins of the First World War (Kindle Location 757). Kindle Edition.

8) McCarthy, Justin. Turks and Armenians: Nationalism and Conflict in the Ottoman Empire. Turko-Tatar Press, 2015, p 184.

9) “Paris in the Early Days of the War: August 3, 1914 – (Charles Inman Barnard).” History & Lore of the Old World War, 27 Apr. 2015, https://oldworldwar.com/2014/08/03/paris-in-the-early-days-of-the-war-august-3-1914/.

10) Nieberg, p. 139.

2 thoughts on “World War One in Fantastic Fiction: The Dark Star

  1. deuce November 27, 2022 / 7:40 pm

    As HPL noted, RWC had the talent. The ‘Dark Star’ would appear in a slightly different form at the end of THE SLAYER OF SOULS. RWC described it like this:

    “that black and demon-haunted planet long known to the Yezidees, and by them called Yrimid, or Erlik’s World.”

    In my opinion, Yrimid was probably an inspiration for HPL’s Yuggoth.

    It has only been recently discovered that THE DARK STAR was definitely read by Robert E. Howard. It, along with TSoS, seems to have been his primary inspiration for the ‘Erlik’ mentioned in several Conan yarns and featured numerous times in REH’s modern adventure tales.

    Keep up the good work!

    • marzaat November 27, 2022 / 10:33 pm

      Thanks for the encouragement!

      Very interesting linkage between Howard and Chambers. I was not aware of it.

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