Nine Years

This blog is instinctively, resolutely, and deliberately un-self-reflective.

It also marks few anniversaries or commemorations though that’s just a matter of poor planning.

But the spirit has temporarily moved me to make an exception to both.

WordPress informs me it’s been nine years I’ve been at this.

The stats?

So, that’s 36.78 views a day, 22.27 visitors a day, and a mere .52 posts a day.

Lifetime hours spent? Haven’t a clue.

Opportunity costs? Probably millions of dollars lost. Undoubtedly. Really. Honest.

Am I going to keep it up? Reflexively and without a thought like a plant twisting and thrusting toward a beclouded sun.

And thanks to all of you who have stopped by.

“The Thing in the Cellar”

David H. Kellar is an author I’ve always meant to read more of after, decades ago, reading his first and very memorable story “The Revolt of the Pedesterians”. So, I’m glad my nomination to discuss this story was taken up by LibraryThing’s The Weird Tradition group.

Review: “The Thing in the Cellar”, David H. Kellar, 1932.

Cover by Mauricio Villamayor

The story starts out by describing a house somewhere unknown though reference is later made to London streets so this may be around London England, but it could be around London in Pennsylvania, a state Kellar lived at one time.

The house’s cellar is much larger than the house. Perhaps the original house burned down and a smaller building was built over it. The entrance to the cellar is in the kitchen and has a massive door, reinforced with a sturdy lock. It is weirdly inappropriate for an interior door and more suitable for a door to the outside. The inhabitants of the house, over the years, have created a “barricade” of firewood, vegetables, and junk in the basement so the whole thing is rarely used.

We then switch to the Tucker family and their one child, Tommy. The Tuckers are hardworking if rather “simple-minded” people. Tommy is a good child and somewhat clever. 

He has one peculiarity. Being in the kitchen makes him nervous if the door to the cellar is unlocked or ajar. He’s fine when’s it’s locked. He even goes over to fondle the lock when its engaged. He absolutely won’t stay in the kitchen when the cellar door is open. He screams and flees. At times, when playing in the kitchen when his mother is working there, he will put things like bits of cloth or wood between the bottom of the cellar door and the floor much to the annoyance of his mother. He’s perfectly normal in the rest of the house. He’ll help his mother with chores – except he will not go down into the basement though he refuses to say why. 

When he starts school at age six, his parents are troubled enough that they take Tommy to see Dr. Hawthorn since the father, though proud of his boy’s performance in school, is a bit embarassed by this oddity regarding the cellar. 

Hawthorn talks to Tommy alone. Tommy doesn’t know what he’s afraid of. He’s never seen anything in thecellar or smelt anything. He just knows there’s something there to be afraid of.  Even Hawthorn gets frustrated with Tommy by the end of his talk. 

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The Handbook of French Science Fiction

Since I’ve been spending so much time in Le territoire de la romance scientifique Français and will be staying there awhile longer, I decided I needed to pick up another literary map.

Review: The Handbook of French Science Fiction, Jean-Marc & Randy Lofficier. 2022.

Cover by Vincent Laik

In 2000, McFarland published the Lofficiers’ massive 800-page tome entitled French Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror and Pulp Fiction: A Guide to Cinema, Television, Radio, Animation, Comic Books and Literature from the Middle Ages to the Present. In 2003, Black Coat Press was founded by the Lofficers to publish, for an English-speaking audience, some of the works they talked about.

Recently, they’ve reworked and reorganized that volume into four books that have started to be published by Black Coat Press. Besides this one, I’ll be reviewing The Handbook of French Fantasy & Supernatural Literature.

This book is 315 pages of text and an index – more on that later.

Organized chronologically, the book starts with the 1500s and goes through 2000. While there is a bit about French science fiction after that year, the Lofficers say they made no real attempt to extend their original coverage of their subject.

After a chapter on utopias, most of the following chapters are divided into “Journeys to Other Worlds” (space or alternate dimensions or dream worlds), “Journeys to Other Lands” (earthbound tales of lost races, utopias, and science and technology), and “Journeys to Other Times” (future tales, alternate histories, and time travel) sections. Some chapters add sections on major authors, notable authors, publishers, young adult titles, publishers, and mainstream authors who also produced science fiction. Only Jules Verne gets his own section.

I read this book cover to cover and found must of it interesting. It was only toward the modern periods with their abbreviated lists of authors and descriptions that my eyes started to glaze over.

Many major works get enough of a description to pique your interest, and footnotes give the ISBNs of all the referenced works that have been issued by Black Coat Press. The coverage of an author or theme doesn’t always neatly stay in the chronological borders assigned its chapter.

The broad outlines of French science fiction were known to me up to 1950, the stopping point of Brian Stableford’s The Plurality of Imaginary Worlds, so Lofficers’ coverage of the next 50 years was all new to me. The Silver Age of 1950 to 1970 saw a massive introduction of translated American science fiction into France. While the period was one of ‘rebirth, growth, and consolidation”, French science fiction found its themes and “modes of expression” dominated by American examples of the genre. The 1970s saw the French New Wave in science fiction and the politization of the genre. The number of published works greatly expanded until the mid-1980s.

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Chalet in the Sky

This one was mentioned in Brian Stableford’s introduction to Henri Allorge’s The Great Cataclysm, so, I picked up a copy.

Review: Chalet in the Sky, Albert Robida, trans. Brian Stableford, 2011.

Cover by Eric Lorin

Brian Stableford’s “Introduction” is particularly useful in this novel. This is the third Robida volume published by Black Coat Press, so there is not so much autobiographical material here. Instead, Stableford places these stories in the context of literature and Robida’s career. “Un Potache en 1950”, “A Schoolboy in 1950”, was published in 1917 and Un Chalet dans les airs, Chalet in the Sky, Robida’s last novel, was published in 1925.

In the 1890s, when technology allowed the easy printing of photographs in newspapers, Robida’s career as a writer and illustrator began to be crimped, and that accelerated with World War One. He began to write for younger markets where his humorous illustrations were still favored. In his heyday, he was well known for his garish illustrations of future warfare and life in the 20th century. Eventually, he found himself doing a lot of illustrations for other people’s work. A pacificist, he came to hate illustrating seriously speculative tales of war. When the Great War started, the market for illustrating future war or even doing illustrations on life in the future largely evaporated. The exception was the juvenile market which still wanted to shield children from the horrors of war and maintain morale.

The public school story was a genre that started with Tom Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays in 1857 though Stableford says it wasn’t established as a genre until the late 1880s with the work of Talbot Baines Reed. It had already been parodied in 1882 with F. Antsey’s Vice Versa. In 1906, Angela Brazil expanded the genre with stories about a girls school. 

While these British works were translated into French, French writers didn’t write in the genre. Stableford says Robida’s genius recognized two things: the school story is sort of a utopian fantasy and that, decades before J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, the genre could be enlivened by introducing fantastic elements. 

In the 1880s, Robida started to produce works on life and war in the year 1950. That world of 1950, especially with its aviation technology, seemed a good fit for a school story. After Robida got the post-war bile and vitriol out of his system with The Engineer von Satanas in 1918, Robida did “In 1965”. It was intended for adults and not very well received. 

Stableford says of “A Schoolboy in 1950”

its Utopian ideals are tarnished, if not frankly deceptive. The disasters featured in the novel are the results of accidental breakdown rather than malice, but that only serves to make their threat seem more ominous, especially in combination with the story’s visit to England, and the discovery there of the continuing thrust of the Industrial revolution.”

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“The Sign-Painter and the Crystal Fishes”

This week’s bit of weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing.

Review: “The Sign-Painter and the Crystal Fishes”, Marjorie Bowen, 1909.

This is a strange story with lots of mystery. 

It opens beside a river with many rundown and dilapidated houses on its banks. It’s near sunset, and only one house has a light on. It’s the rundown, sparsely furnished house, complete with many cobwebs, of Lucius Cranfield. The shutters have broken hinges, and the windows have no glass. 

Cranfield, once handsome, is pallid with bloodshot eyes. 

Up the rotting stairway comes Lord James Fontaine. Given his dress, this is probably sometime in the mid-18th century. 

Fontaine asks if Cranfield paints signs. Cranfield asks why he climbed up to the second level of the house. His workshop is downstairs. He rang below and got no answer is Fontaine’s reply. Fontaine wants a sign like the nicely done, brightly hued one hanging downstairs. 

Does he want the same subject? Fontaine says the subjects are curious and asks where Cranfield got them. From his life, responds Cranfield. 

He must have had a strange life, says Fontaine, given the symbols on the sign:

a gallows, a man in a gay habit hanging on it, and his face has some semblance to your own; the reverse bears the image of a fish, white, yet shot with all the colors…it is so skilfully executed that it looks as if it moved through the water…   

Cranfield’s expression changes to interest. Has Fontaine ever seen a fish like that? Never, says Fontaine. Cranfield rises stiffly from his chair and says, as if speaking to himself, there are two fish like it in the world. Before “the end”,  he will find both, and his life will be mended and put straight. 

“Unless you lose your own token first”, Fontaine harshly responds. 

Cranfield’s response is quick and sharp. How does Fontaine know he has such a token? Because, says Fontaine, Cranfield’s going mad living all alone in this old house. 

No, says Cranfield, he won’t go mad while he has his “crystal fish” and before he finds the other one. 

As they stand in the dark room, Fontaine mocks Cranfield and shows he knows something of his life. Why wouldn’t Cranfield be mad when he thinks how rich and handsome he once was and that his father was hanged, he ruined, and all because his enemies lied about hm? 

Cranfield asks Fontaine to accompany him downstairs and pick out a design for a sign. At the top of the stairs, Fontaine again mocks Cranfield by saying how terrible it is for a once great gentleman to live in such a house. Cranfield responds that, when he finds the other crystal fish, he will be a great gentleman again or kill his enemy, “that is the spell”. 

Fontaine asks about Cranfield’s long and dull days. He keeps busy, says Cranfield, painting and making parasols. Maybe Fontaine, would like one for his wife. 

Fontaine hasn’t given his name. It seems Cranfield knows a lot abou him.

“I know what you call yourself” is Cranfield’s engimatic reply. 

The workshop is full of drawings of “horrible and fantastic things” and parasols. Fontaine again asks if Cranfield knows about him. There is no reply. 

Fontaine doesn’t like Cranfield’s designs. He wants something cheerful. He wants a sign with a crystal fish. Cranfield says he can’t paint it again. Then I’ll buy the sign, says Fontaine. No, it’s outside that “whoever holds the other fish may see it . . . and then . . . “ 

Fontaine again calls him mad. What is Cranfield going to do if someone who has the other fish does show up? 

“Then I shall find my enemy. The witch said so . . . “ 

But he may die first, Fontaine says. No, insists Cranfield, he won’t die before the spell is accomplished, and he won’t lose his fish. 

Fontaine puts a hand in his pocket and, saying the light is too dim, asks to see a violet parasol in the corner. Cranfield says he began to work on that one the night his father was hanged. He thought of his enemies and his hatred for them. The night he killed one of them, he finished the parasol and carved a rose into its ivory handle. 

“You have sinned also”, says Fontaine through gritted teeth and takes his hand out of his pocket and puts it behind his back. 

Fontaine picks up the parasol. It’s not for sale, choose another design and leave, says Cranfield.

Just then, Cranfield looks out a broken shutter and looks at a star that is above a tree always knocking on the shudders. 

Fontaine’s hand comes out from behind his back. Cranfield says something odd: you never see the star or the tree at the same time. 

Fontaine stabs Cranfield in the back. Cranfield falls to the floor. 

Fontaine searches his body and finds a crystal fish. Fontaine goes to the window to look out. Starlight falls on the crystal fish in his hand. It begins to writhe in his hand and leaps from his hand and into the river. Fontaine is angry at this, but he’s satisfied nobody is going to find the fish there. 

Fontaine picks up his walking stick and leaves. But then, thinking of that violet parasol, he goes back inside, gets it, and leaves again. 

In the next section, we’re in a garden, and Fontaine is with a gypsy and playing Faro with him. Fontaine wins as the gypsy says he always does. 

A woman then shows up. It’s evening, and she declines being introduced by Fontaine to the gypsy. She says she hates the ringing church bells.

Here name is Serena Thornto and, tomorrow, she will never hear the bells again because she will be marrying Fontaine. She says she broke the violet parasol he gave her. (This implies that Cranfield was wrong. Fontaine is not married.) Fontaine says it can be mended, but she says she sent it out today to be mended. There’s nobody around here, he says, who can mend it. He’ll get it repaired. She says there’s a man in the village who can mend umbrellas, and he “came here yesterday”.

He heard the man was painting a new sign for “The Goat and Compasses” and had made a lovely blue parasol for the owner, so he sent “my parasol” to him for repair. (It’s somewhat unclear if Serena or Fontaine says this. It makes more sense for Serena.)

 He says it was careless of her to break the parasol. She couldn’t help it, is the reply. Serena was walking by the river two days ago with the fish that she showed Fontaine in her hand, and she saw another fish like it appeared in the river. (Presumably she means the crystal fish.) It tangled up in some weeds by the water. 

That doesn’t explain how she broke her parasol, says Fontaine. She tried to bring the fish closer to her with the parsol and broke its handle, she replies. Did she get it? Yes, and Serena shows it to him. She notes it has a red color like a blood stain which the one Fontaine lost didn’t. 

It’s curious she found it, notes Fontaine. Didn’t a wtich give her the other one. Yes, and

“she told me that the other was owned by my lover, and that he must live in misery till he found me.” 

She goes on to say “You should have had it.” 

Fontaine says he won 3,000 pounds at Faro last night and present her several pieces of jewelry as a present. They have amethyests, and she says she doesn’t like purple. 

At the evening meal, she goes to, strangely, try on her wedding dress which Fontaine says is supposed to be bad luck.

(Spoilers ahead) 

As Fontaine is staring out the window at the river, he turns to see Cranfield in the doorway. He says he’s brought back a purple parasol Fontaine asked to be mended. How much does he owe him, asks Fontaine.  (So how did Cranfield get it again?)

“A great deal.” 

Cranfield is now much better dressed and much healthier looking than what Fontaine last saw him. 

Fontaine asks for the price again and gets no answer. Fontaine says he doesn’t even think Cranfield is alive. How did he escape the rats? Cranfield notes it’s the same river outside. 

Fontaine approaches him and tells him he’ll pay for the parasol tomorrow.

 It’s not his debt, says Cranfield. He mended the parasol for the “lady of the house, Serena Thornton”. 

She’s engaged to him, says Fontaine, and he’ll pay Cranfield tomorrow. (Perhaps, since it’s night, he thinks the ghostly Cranfield won’t appear in daylight.) 

No, says Cranfield, he’ll pay him tonight. 

But, mutters Fontaine, Cranfield lost the crystal fish. 

But someone else found it, Cranfield replies.

“No!  It is at the bottom of the river!” 

Then Cranfield lunges at Fontaine, grabs his neck, and breaks it. He looks out the window and starts to sing. 

Serena, in her wedding dress, enters the room. At first she just stares at the dead body of her fiance. Then a change comes over her. She sits in a chair, looks at the purple parasol, and listens to Cranfield singing. Eventually, she goes back to her room, strips off her fine clothes and makeup, and leaves her jewelry in a heap. She then changes into a simple brown dress. Looking at herself, she realizes Fontaine would not recognize her in her new clothes. She even carries herself differently. 

Going back to the room with the dead Fontaine, she finds Cranfield gone. She picks up the parasol and goes outside where Cranfield is singing by the river. The bells are pealing one last time in rehearsal of her planned wedding tomorrow. 

She hears him sing

If I have won, ’tis little matter; If I have lost, ’tis naught at all; The wind will chill and the sun will flatter, And the damp earth fill the mouth of all. 

She bids him good evening and tells him she found his fish. He tells her they are going to “a house where a tree with white flowers knocks for admittance on the shutters,”. She knows that.

They get into a boat. They smile at each other in the moonlight. 

They see two figures on the bank. It is Fontaine and the gypsy playing cards. Repeating Fontaine’s remark, Cranfield says he doesn’t believe the two (or, maybe, just Fontaine) are alive. He can almost see through them. Serena mockingly asks if they know her. They will never get to the house, says Fontaine. 

Fontaine will go to the house tomorrow and see, as he did at story’s beginning, an empty boat.

’There is no tomorrow for such as you,’ leered the gipsy. ‘You had your neck broken an hour ago…presently we will go home…your deal…’ 

Then the gypsy starts singing the same some Cranfield did earlier. That song brings an element of fatalistic doom to the story. Cranfield got his revenge, but he seems a ghost now. Serena has her love, but he’s a ghost. There’s also a suggestion that Fontaine will now be trapped (which, after all, some ghosts are in tales) to repeat the events of the opening of the story.  (He also seems to, in fact, recognize Serena even though she looks very different.) 

And one witch seems to have tied both men together through a spell of vengeance and love. 

Perhaps I missed something, but I think the story is hurt somewhat by Bowen’s occasional imprecision in important matters. But it’s an odd story about a seeming curse that povides death, vengeance, and love all at once.

The Great Cataclysm

This was another book I sought out since it was listed as a possible inspiration for Théo Varlet’s The Xenobiotic Invasion.

Review: The Great Cataclysm, Henri Allorge, trans. Brian Stableford, 2011.

Cover by Grillon

Brian Stableford says in his “Introduction” that not much is known about Allorge. He published poetry which included poems on mathematical and scientific subjects. He may have been a teacher. He wrote mostly for juveniles after World War One. That includes some possibly juvenile science fiction. Published in 1922 as Le Grand Cataclysm, roman du centième siècle, this work won the prestigious Prix Sobrier-Arnould very probably, says Stableford, because of its pacificist message, but its more notable today for its ideas concerning resource depletion.

Like J. -H. Rosny Âiné’s The Mysterious Force and Théo Varlet’s The Xenobiotic Invasion, this is a story of what happens when the power goes out in an electrified civilization.

But the lights don’t go out here in a contemporary society but in a far future utopia, the city of Kentropol in the year 9978.

Allorge’s novel wasn’t at all what I expected. It’s funny at times, not at all a humorless and stern screed against militarism and industrial civilization.

The furnishings of Kentrepol are mostly what you would expect from a utopia of the time.  

Electricity powers a number of labor-saving devices including electrostatic removal of dust and provides beamed power for aviation. Confirming national stereotypes, French romans scientifiques are often concerned with synthetic foods. Here custom-made pastes and liquors provide all the nutrition an individual needs. Here you don’t take a coffee or tea break but “have a bottle of perfume”. The government is a mixture of elected assemblies and academics. Weather can be precisely predicted. People have odd names. Here they are all derived from geometric shapes. Births are regulated to maintain an optimum male-female ratio. All surnames are derived from geometric shapes.

There are some not so standard elements. All that electricity comes from generating plants using solar or tidal energy. Money is radioactive to increase its velocity and to discourage its accumulation. A large part of medicine is the removal of organs and washing them or replacing them with animal ones. Here you can get a literal brainwash. A minor motif in French science fiction are intelligent simians, here chimps and orangutangs. They are slaves and smart enough to even pilot aircraft. There are also sentient Martians, and the residents of Earth and Mars are attempting to work out an interplanetary alphabet.

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The Mysterious Force and Other Anomalous Phenomena

Long time readers of this blog won’t be surprised that, after hearing Brian Stableford cite Rosny’s The Mysterious Force as an influence on Théo Varlet’s The Xenobiotic Invasion, I decided to read it.

Low Res Scan: The Mysterious Force and Other Anomalous Phenomena, J. -H. Rosny Aîné, trans. Brian Stableford, 2010. 

Cover by Vincent Laik

Depending on which source I’m reading (Brian Stableford or the Brothers Lofficier), Rosny vies with Albert Robida for the title of second most significant writer of French science fiction after Jules Verne. These days he’s mostly remembered for the prehistoric fantasy Quest for Fire which was made into a movie. But there was much more to Rosny than prehistoric fantasies.

Since this is the third of eight Rosny books put out by Black Coat Press, Stableford’s “Introduction” doesn’t include a lot of detail on Rosny’s life and works.

The Catacylsm” is certainly worth reading, but I’ve already reviewed it elsewhere under its alternate title “Tornadres”.

The remarkable The Mysterious Force was published as La Force mystérieuse in 1913 and it’s pretty clear this was an inspiration for Théo Varlet’s The Xenobiotic Invasion. Here it’s not an alien fungus that alters civilization but an alien life form that may come from space and, possibly, an alternate dimension.

Both alien invasions greatly degrade technologies relying on electromagnetism. But Rosny’s novel is much more complex in its plot and concepts. 

Things get off to a rapid start with Georges Meyral, a scientist, noticing something has altered light. Double refraction lines can be detected and the spectrum seems to be disappearing starting with its ulltraviolet end. Meyral summons his friend Antonin Langre over to his home. Langre is a somewhat embittered scientist. A younger colleague stole his work which went on to great acclaim. A signficant part of the novel is the two scientists’ investigations into this new phenomena and it ends with their somewhat tenuous speculations. Rosny gives us detailed descriptions of that work.

Langre’s work is is interrupted by a call from his daughter Sabine. She has finally left her loutish husband Vérranes. He is sometimes abusive and always self-pitying. Meyral loves Sabine, but he never proposed to her. He didn’t think it right to do so given that he regards the older Langre as a mentor. He doesn’t even say anything when an exasperated Langre says he wishes Meyral would have married his daughter.

But the trip to get Sabine reveals a “fevered humanity” on the streets of Paris. Tempers are flaring and murderous mobs roam about. But Meyarl manages to find Sabine and her two children in a train station and get them back to Langre.

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The Castaways of Eros

My look at the fiction of Théo Varlet concludes.

Review: The Castaways of Eros, Théo Varlet, trans. Brian Stableford, 1943, 2013. 

Cover by Jean-Felix Lyon

In the 1936 second edition of The Xenobiotic Invasion, Varlet mentioned a sequel to that novel. However, that sequel, titled Aurore Lescure, pilote d’astronef, wouldn’t be published until 1943, five years after Varlet’s death.

In his “Introduction”, Brian Stableford speculates Varlet may have hoped this novel would be picked up in translation in America. Varlet was almost alone among roman scientifique authors of the time in his interest in advances in rocketry. While Varlet’s style probably wouldn’t have been amenable to an American pulp audience, if he had managed to place it in that market before he died, it might have been fondly remembered as the first pulp story to feature sentient dinosaur-like creatures. Instead, that distinction goes to Norman L. Knight’s “Saurian Valedictory”.

This novel is Varlet’s least ambiguous and most explicit attack on modernity, specifically industrial civilization.

It’s two years after the events of The Xenobiotic Invasion. The great powers of the world, still fearing infection from more alien fungi, are still maintaining a moratorium on rocket flights exiting the atmosphere.

But what are they doing behind the scenes? Well, young reporter Oscar Frémiet has discovered, working undercover, that the German military is very interested in rocketry and has been doing secret launches. (Varlet even mentions Hermann Oberth, one of the future inventors of the V-2.) He plays a minor, but important, role in the preceding novel and is narrator Gaston-Adolphe Delvart’s nephew.

Oscar, not so coincidentally, shows up at his parents’ house to see Delvart and his wife, Aurore Lescure. He’s trying to sniff out why Aurore Lescure is meeting with the famous Madame Simodzuki. She’s a billionaire and a very famous philanthropist who inherited her dead husband’s industrial fortune.

Gaston, Oscar’s father, argues with the narrator and Oscar that each nation developing rocket technology will, inevitably, lead to an arms race as it did before World War One. Delvart argues that many nations possessing rocket powered weapons could achieve peace through deterrence.

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The Ottoman Endgame

This one I also read as research for my post on Robert W. Chambers’ The Dark Star. I wanted to learn more about the Ottoman Empire in World War One, and, having been very impressed with McMeekin’s The Russian Origins of the First World War, this seemed a logical choice.

Review: The Ottoman Endgame: War, Revolution, and the Making of the Modern Middle East, 1908-1923, Sean McMeekin, 2015.

McMeekin has argued elsewhere that World War One could rightly be thought of as the War of the Ottoman Succession, a war that lasted from 1909 to 1923. You could even argue, as McMeekin does in his concluding chapter on the pros and cons of Ottoman administration and what happened when it ended, that that war is still going on in the Middle East.

Of all the nations that inherited the remains of the Ottoman Empire, it was Turkey, in the heartland of the empire, that has had the most stable borders since 1923.

Edward Gibbon famously noted that we shouldn’t wonder that the Roman Empire it fell but that it lasted as long as it did. The same could be said of the Ottoman Empire. Some have put the date the irresistible rot set in as far back as 1529 when the empire failed to take Vienna. The famous remark about the empire being a “sick man” was uttered by Tsar Alexander Nicholas I to a British ambassador in 1853.

But, the sick man’s greatest defense was, paradoxically, the number of his enemies. They wanted Ottoman lands and to deny them to other great powers. The two most important of those powers were Russia and England.

McMeekin’s 593-page history (with additional notes, bibliography, photos, and several very useful maps) shows how that theme played out again and again from the Turco-Russian War of 1877-1878 to Italy’s invasion of Tripoli in 1911 (a forgotten war that saw the first use of many military technologies) to Soviet Russia arming the Ottoman Empire against a Greek invasion in 1921, an invasion supported by Britain.

This history covers both combat on the battlefield (one source is, surprisingly, a Venezuelan mercenary with the Ottomans) and political intrigues. McMeekin covers the grand sweep of things with the occasional illuminating detail about personalities and small incidents. He also covers relevant events outside the empire like the intrigues of the British cabinet and Russian revolutionaries. And, of course, the turmoil of Ottoman politics – the coups, countercoups, and counter-counter coups between 1908 and 1909 – are covered. 

McMeekin mentions several seldom-discussed events.

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“The Motion Demon”

This week’s piece of weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing – nominated by me as it turns out.

Review: “The Motion Demon”, Stefan Grabinski, trans. Miroslaw Lipinski, 1919.

I suspect Mark Samuels’ “The End to Perpetual Motion” was inspired by this story though it goes in a very different direction. This story is certainly weird and full of mystery and ambiguity.

The story opens on an express train running between Paris and Madrid. We start with the perspective of forest creatures seeing the frightening train, to them, roar past. 

We then shift to a first-class compartment where a man is alone and dozing, a book titled Crooked Lines on his lap and a stamp in the book giving us his name: Tadeusz Szygon. 

A conductor comes in to check the man’s ticket, and a terse exchange follows. 

The man doesn’t have a ticket. He doesn’t know why he didn’t buy one at the station. Yes, he’ll pay the fine. No, he doesn’t know where on the line he got on the train. Let’s just assume it was Paris and bill the whole fare plus the fine. No, he doesn’t care that a ticket will get him only to Madrid. He’ll get another train there as long as he can keep riding. 

The conductor says he’ll have to go away and prepare the ticket and figure out how much the fine will be. Szygon’s attention becomes fixed on the insignia on the conductor’s collar. It’s jagged little wings weaved to form a circle. 

Then Szygon becomes angry:

‘Mr. Wings, watch out for the draft!’

‘Please be quiet; I’m closing the door.’

‘Watch out for the draft,’ he stubbornly repeated. ‘One can sometimes break one’s neck.’” 

The conductor mutters that Szygon is either crazy or drunk and leaves. 

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