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.

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World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “Through the Furnace”

“Through the Furnace”, R. Thurston Hopkins, 1916.

Like his “The De Gamelyn Traditions“, this story concludes with the presence of the Divine successfully rallying British troops on the battlefield.

The story begins with Hilaire O’Hagan, “an incorrigible rascal”, having a mystical vision of a monk who chides him for his immorality after stealing a woman’s briefcase. That night he dreams of the same monk and wakes to save his earlier victim from a house fire.

We next see O’Hagan in the trenches, where, after six months of fighting, he is starting to suffer battle fatigue.

He was no longer master of himself. He was afraid. Every man has the instinct that prompts fear, for upon that instinct the whole foundation of life-preservation is founded. But over and above this instinct, common to all of us, O’Hagan had imagination—the graphic, vivid imagination that always lurks in Irish blood. Is not the entire history of the Celt a rejection of the things of this world for the Shadow and the dream? Upon this basis of fear and imagination O’Hagan started to build, building and building until he had created a grand structure of blind terror which yielded a most exquisite torture to his mind.

Yet he goes over the top for yet another attack.

The stalled offensive, the artillery fire get to him. He runs away and takes refuge in a “little wrecked church”. There he encounters the monk of his vision who shows him a coffin where lies another Hilaire O’Hagan who died in 1696.

The monk is sympathetic, knows how tired O’Hagan is. But O’Hagan still has a remaining duty:

“Brother,” he said, in a moved voice. “You must go back and help your comrades. There is no peace for you yet. Yes, brother, I know it is written that we shall rest from our labours—but the beginning of our rest is not yet. We must go and help them in the firing line yonder——”

“No, no, holy man!” O’Hagan pleaded. “I have had enough…. There is hell over there.”

“They are calling us, don’t you hear them—the living and the dead——”

As with “The De Gamelyn Traditions”, Hopkins story cites duty to not only comrades but the past as a reason to continue the struggle.

The “deserter O’Hagan” shows up while the Germans are assaulting the British lines, seemingly at the Second Battle of Ypres.

A tall man in a priest’s cassock, wielding a flaming sword, appears on the battlefield. Beside him is O’Hagan “holding a massive brass altar cross above his head”. O’Hagan hacks and stabs with the cross, drives the Germans back. It is the Angel of Mons vision all over again:

Men who watched him said he ran amok. His great voice rose high above the chattering machine guns in a beautiful Franciscan chant and the voice of the priest joined in. What O’Hagan, bearing his mighty cross, must have looked like in the eerie dawn mist, Heaven knows. But seeing such an apparition and hearing the strange chant, it is possible the Huns thought the devil had joined in the fight. Then a man in the rear trench pointed to the west, where a great image of the cross was shining against a blood red sky, and a voice cried “Forward.” It passed from man to man, and the regiment advanced, howling, with O’Hagan. They drove the Germans before them like chaff before a fan, and fell back, in triumph, to their lost trenches.

The story ends with O’Hagan seemingly buried beside the coffin of his ancestor, the monk of the vision blessing his grave.

The story has the tone of sincere devout Christianity and not just the use of Christian imagery and ideas in its plot. It reminds us how much religious motivations shored up many of the Great War’s soldiers.

World War One Content

  • Living Memory: Yes.
  • On-Stage War: Yes.
  • Belligerent Area: Yes.
  • Home Front: Yes.
  • Veteran: Yes — probably.

More World War One in Fantastic Fiction.

World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “The Mills of God”

The Mills of God“, R. Thurston Hopkins, 1916.

This story takes place entirely on the Western Front after the trenches have been dug.

It is short tale of divine vengeance for the murder of a small French boy, Bodru. He is a favorite of some British troops. The village he lives in is in a contested area of the front, and the story opens with the British deciding to retreat from the area since it “was full of spies”.

A few weeks after the British retreat, a German soldier enters the home of Bodru and his mother. He is seemingly a deserter given “There was no sign of cap-badge or title on his shoulder straps, and he was horribly dirty.”

Soon he’s drunk on a bottle of confiscated Benedictine and has an argument with Bodru who mocks him. “I think you may be like the man in the English soldiers’ story, who turned into a pig—a baby killer perhaps.”

Bodru gets bayoneted and his body concealed in the attic.

As his mother frantically seeks Bodru and the German soldier is still in the house, the British soldiers return. They notice blood on the German’s sleeve.

At that moment, a shell strikes the roof, and Bodru’s body falls from its concealment in the attic. The German soldier flees and is shot.

The convenient results of artillery fire, shelling as a revelation of a miracle, calls to mind the alleged miracle of crucifixes surviving the destruction of churches that vicar Forbes Phillips talks about in his introduction to the work, War and the Weird, where this story first appeared.

What isn’t here is any real mention of organized German atrocities, the so-called “Rape of Belgium”, that helped sustain the war effort in Britain. Calling the German “baby killer” is about the closest the story gets, but he isn’t acting in concert with other Germans.

German atrocities in Belgium were real as discussed in a recent BBC broadcast, “The Great War of Words, Episode 1”. It became fashionable in the late 1920s, particularly with Robert Graves’ Good-bye to All That, to argue that they never happened. But German records document thousands of Belgiums, including children, being executed by the forces of Imperial Germany. Some may have been justifiable as being conducted against partisans not in uniform and beyond the Geneva Convention’s protection, but there is no doubt Germany’s behavior in Belgium, apart from the very act of invading a neutral country and unrestricted submarine warfare, did it no favors.

The Kaiser didn’t help either when, during the Boxer Rebellion, he was the one who dubbed the German Army “Huns”

So, it is a bit surprising in a tale where divine intervention avenges a German atrocity, that Hopkins gives us a small scale story that only very slightly touches on what was such an emotional motive for Britain to fight the Great War.

World War One Content

  • Living Memory: Yes.
  • On-Stage War: Yes.
  • Belligerent Area: Yes.
  • Home Front: No.
  • Veteran: Yes — probably.

More World War One in Fantastic Fiction.

World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “The De Gamelyn Traditions”

The De Gamelyn Traditions“, R. Thurston Hopkins, 1916.

Those who eagerly read fiction when young sometimes have to learn that life does not imitate art.

That is the problem of this story’s protagonist, Tim Gamelyn.

The Viktor of the “old book” Viktor the Valiant is Tim’s hero. Unlike Viktor, Tim has an unheroic nickname, “Carrots”, on account of his red hair. His efforts to imitate Viktor fail. His soccer debut is unremarkable. His attempt to stop another boy from abusing a dog is not only unsuccessful but uncalled for.

Tim begins to think Viktor is “a bit of a prig—also a fraud.” The book is traded in for two oranges and a slingshot.

Two years go by. Tim gets better in sports, runs afoul of the school’s headmaster, and, though never destined to become a great soldier or sailor, becomes a lively enough part of Thetford Grammar School that, when he leaves, the place seems “flat and spiritless”.

But there is another tradition, another set of stories, another code of conduct he does not abandon.

Tim is the son of Old Sergeant Gamelyn of whom it is said, “what old Gamelyn didn’t know about soldiering weren’t worth knowin'”. The Gamelyns have been soldiers for centuries.

Tim has read the “forgotten drill and manual exercises, the uncomfortable and graceless manœuvres of the rigid but redoubtable men who fought at Waterloo”. He’s seen the “pictures in colour of warriors in three-cornered hats, high stocks and powdered wigs” He knows “by heart the quaint words of command in which Wellington’s men were told to charge a musket with powder and ball”.

So, it’s not surprising that in August 1914, Tim answers the call to duty.

And it is there, when the reality of the Great War meets the memories and practices of history, that the story gets interesting and shows the reality that the armies of Europe had to adjust to.

The modern rifle would not allow men to march into battle with colours flying and bands playing: the old brave way was impossible in the face of machine guns. The pomp and pageantry of battle had departed and there was nothing left but for the attacking party to crawl in a most inelegant fashion upon the ground.

“Down!” cried the sergeant-instructor to poor Tim, who started his lessons in field training with some vague idea about marching on the foe with “head and eyes erect” and with “pace unfaltering and slow.” “When you get out to Flanders you will have to get right down on your belly if you want to live a little longer than ten minutes. Extend to five-six-ten paces and get as close to old mother earth as possible and hide your bloomin’ selves!”

“Hide yourselves!” thought Tim. “Not thus is it written in my father’s book of drill! It plainly said therein that the duty of a soldier was to learn how to die, not to hide from death.”

Eventually Tim and his company make it to the “long dull plains of Northern Europe” and see battle.

Oddly, trenches are not mentioned when Tim makes his acquaintance with 20th century warfare.

From the right came a curious gasping choke, and looking, he saw the man next to him throw up his arms and pitch forward on his face. Suddenly he became aware of a peculiar wailing above him, as if the air itself was in torture. Again a long line of fire flashed out ahead of him and again came the wailing sound. A Boche machine-gun loosed a few belts of cartridges in the spasmodic style of her kind. There was no mistake about it this time—massed infantry were sweeping the plain with rifle fire, and the quick-firers were feeling for an opening.

Another man was hit—close to Tim. He squealed like a girl; and a fellow near turned a dirty white, stumbled, with a clatter fell in a fainting fit. Tardily the men advanced, and any acute observer would have seen they had little heart in the business. Some hung behind almost unconsciously, and had to be hurried up by the sergeants. The bullets became more thick. A man started to blubber behind. “Gawd ‘ave mercy! I … I can’t stand it! I won’t go on!” he whined. It turned out to be a sergeant, who had broken down too. He’d had little rest, poor chap, through shepherding his company … and now he had knocked under. The company swayed and hesitated. Some of them faced round. It was touch and go. “Steady there! Steady! Come on, men;” said Stansfield, the little company lieutenant, as the men wavered on the grey edge of collapse. “Steady that company; what in hell’s the matter with ’em. Keep your men up and going, Sir!” shouted a captain rushing over. But the company had gone all to pieces. The fire of battle had departed from them, and it flung itself on the ground. And soon the whole battalion was taking cover in the same way. A captain called on Tim’s company to advance. Two men obeyed and one of them was Tim. But the enemy’s fire redoubled and the other man was shot, and so Tim at once took cover again. The saying of his sergeant-instructor in England came to his mind, that a man must lie down and hide if he wished to live, and he felt quite justified in hugging the earth.

It is then that Arthur Machen’s “The Bowmen” enters the picture or at least its central image.

Tim sees a man appear before him, his expression “lofty and noble”. The man chides him, mocks him for not upholding the De Gamelyn traditions. The figure taps his “shoulder with a barbed shaft trimmed with grey goose feather”. He also hands Tim the Sword of Life and Death.

Wielding the fiery sword, Tim rallies the company. The shade of Nigel De Gamelyn summons “the armies of the unconquered dead”.

The company is triumphant, but Tim dies from a bayonet wound possibly that “barbed shaft” Nigel taps him with. (I don’t think we are to think Nigel kills Tim, just that he is present at Tim’s death.)

The Sword of Life and Death is revealed to be just a rusty old sword hundreds of years old. But the flaming sword is a real miracle and observed by many. It is Hopkins continuing the tradition of Machen’s story and fictionalizing the miraculous stories Forbes Phillips mentions in the introduction to the volume this story first appeared in, War and the Weird.

World War One Content

  • Living Memory: Yes.
  • On-Stage War: Yes.
  • Belligerent Area: Yes.
  • Home Front: Yes.
  • Veteran: Yes — probably.

More World War One in Fantastic Fiction.

World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “Ombos”

Ombos“, R. Thurston Hopkins, 1916.

When this story was written, the Great War was just part of the contemporary background. It is a fairly standard occult tale about a man infusing his soul into a bronze statue of medieval occult scholar Albert Magnus. Murder and mystery ensue. The Great War just happens to be the setting for part of it.

The war shows up mostly in the middle of the story when Captain Crabbe relates how, in June 1915 near Ypres, he meets the titular Ombos, the man with the statue, for the first time. Ombos runs an antique shop, and Crabbe learns of his plans and briefly meets Ombos’ niece Margot.

He visits the shop one more time before Ombos dies and once afterward. He suddenly becomes romantically interested in Margot (the story ends with their marriage) and makes arrangements to have her placed in his home along with the statue after Ombos’ death.

Crabbe is wounded, returned to his home, where the presence of the statue disturbs him. A couple of murders take place and the wonder of Ombos’ success is revealed.

The day after Crabbe leaves the antique shop the second time, German artillery, with its “Coal Boxes” and “Jack Johnsons”, turns the town into “a heap of senseless wreckage”.  (“Coal boxes” are supposedly shell bursts producing black smoke as are “Jack Johnsons.”)

Crabbe says he’s gone for a month before returning to Ypres which confuses the story’s chronology. He says he’s been in France since the beginning of the war, August 1914, and clearly states he arrived in the town around June. The Second Battle of Ypres officially ended May 25, 1915. The book was published in 1916 before the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) which started July 31, 1917. Crabbe may be referring to some small action not large enough to constitute an official battle.

Crabbe vividly describes the ruined Ypres he sees on his return:

“Men, children and horses were lying dead in every gutter.

“In due course I arrived at the shop. A large hole had been ripped in the pavé road before the door, and I had to step over a dead and twisted soldier to gain an entrance. … Silence—only the faint boom of a gun far away in the French trenches—awful, ghastly silence. Then a deafening roar and a falling of masonry as Krupp’s marked down another house in the town of sorrow. The horror of it!

“I turned dismally away, out into the Rue Bar-le-Duc, and along the square. A few scattered lights shone feebly through the evening mist, and over towards the Norman bridge the yellow flames from a burning house lit up the sky with a lurid glow. At nearly every street corner little groups of civilians had collected and were talking and gesticulating in a terrified manner. When a big shell came with a hoarse, rattling noise through the air, like a racing motor cycle on the track at Brooklands, they would rush into their homes, panic-smitten. If death winked, and passed them over, out they would creep again. And so they lived in an inferno of shells for weeks on end.

“An ambulance wagon overturned in the middle of the road attracted my attention. I could not repress a shudder as I looked on the shell-shattered wreck…. It was the old type of four-horse ambulance used by the army in South Africa; possibly it had jolted into the shell-swept death-trap of Spion Kop, or carried men into the reeking enteric camps of Ladysmith. Well, it had made its last journey this time! The four dead horses had not been cut away from the traces, and from underneath the huddled and twisted heap stuck out an arm, and in the hand was clutched one of those short, stumpy whips which are used by the lead driver of a gun.”

Crabbe, with the help of a British military policeman, a so-called Red Cap, saves Margot from a “rough”, and he arranges, with the help of the British Ambulance Service Corps (tellingly only identified as “A.S.C.”).

World War One Content

  • Living Memory: Yes.
  • On-Stage War: Yes.
  • Belligerent Area: Yes.
  • Home Front: Yes.
  • Veteran: Yes — probably.

More World War One in Fantastic Fiction.

War and the Weird

War and the Weird

Above is the cover for the $1,100 version. I just have the free public domain version downloaded from Amazon.

I had never even heard of this book until I saw it mentioned, with a lot of books I had heard of, at the end of the Science Fiction Encyclopedia’s “World War One” entry.

I haven’t found out much about the authors on the Web of a Million Lies.

Forbes Phillips seems to have been an Anglican vicar who wrote other books on Christian matters. R. Thurston Hopkins wrote several biographies of authors including ones on Oscar Wilde and Rudyard Kipling, both humorously alluded to in passing in the stories.

Review: War and the Weird by Forbes Phillips and R. Thurston Hopkins, 1916. 

On its own merits as philosophy or entertainment, this combination of weird fiction and theological theorizing doesn’t have much to offer a modern audience. Continue reading