10 Best Adventures of 1911
November 30, 2016
One hundred and five years ago, the following 10 adventures — selected from my Best Nineteen-Oughts Adventure list — were first serialized or published in book form. They’re my favorite adventures published that year.
Please let me know if I’ve missed any 1911 adventures that you particularly admire. Enjoy!
- G.K. Chesterton’s crime adventure story collection The Innocence of Father Brown (serialized 1910–1911; as a book, 1911). Chesterton’s Father Brown character — a plump, unassuming Roman Catholic priest — is, in important ways, the anti-Sherlock Holmes. He is modest, empathetic, un-dashing and un-athletic. Like Holmes, however, he has made a lifelong study of evildoers: “Has it never struck you,” he demands, in his first outing, “that a man who does next to nothing but hear men’s real sins is not likely to be wholly unaware of human evil?” In this first collection of Father Brown stories, we also meet Aristide Valentin, head of the Paris Police, and Flambeau, the world’s most famous criminal; both characters, at times, will be Brown’s friends and foes. In “The Blue Cross,” the first Father Brown story, Valentin attempts to prevent Flambeau from robbing Father Brown; but Father Brown remains one step ahead of both men the entire time. What is Father Brown’s method? H puts himself imaginatively into the minds of criminals. He also relies on casuistry — the resolving of moral problems by the application of theoretical rules to particular instances. That is to say, he is prejudiced! Fun fact: The stories collected here first appeared in the magazines The Story-Teller and The Saturday Evening Post. The best Father Brown movie remains the 1954 film, Father Brown, starring the perfectly cast Alec Guinness.
- Henry Darger’s Radium Age science fiction adventure In the Realms of the Unreal. Darger’s 15,000-page novel is bound in fifteen immense volumes, three of which consist of several hundred watercolor paintings on paper derived from magazines and coloring books. Most of the book, titled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, follows the graphically violent, epic adventures of seven princesses who assist a daring child-led rebellion against the evil regime of child slavery imposed by the Glandelinians. The setting is a war-torn planet around which the Earth orbits. The first nine volumes were most likely written between 1911 and 1928; the remaining volumes were completed by 1938 or 1939. Fun fact: Henry Darger was a reclusive man who worked as a hospital custodian in Chicago; Darger’s landlords came across his work shortly before his death, in 1973, and preserved it. Darger is today one of the most famous figures in the history of “outsider art.”
- Jean de La Hire’s Radium Age science fiction adventure Le Mystère des XV (also known as: The Nyctalope on Mars). Léo Saint-Clair, alias the Nyctalope, is an indomitable Doc Savage-style crimefighter gifted with night vision. As we learn somewhat late in the series, he’s also equipped with an artificial heart, which he gained after being tortured and nearly assassinated, and which prevents him from aging. In this, the first of a series of exploits published through the mid-1940s, the Nyctalope battles Oxus, leader of the sinister Society of the Fifteen, who is plotting to conquer Earth from his secret base on Mars. Later, however, he allies himself with Oxus and the planet’s benign inhabitants in order to defeat H.G. Wells’ evil Martians. Then he gets married! Fun fact: French title: Le Mystère des XV. In subsequent adventures, the Nyctalope will travel to the planet Rhea, discover a lost civilization of Amazons in Tibet, and have himself cryopreserved — so that, 170 years later, he can defeat an enemy who has also been frozen (hello, Demolition Man and Austin Powers).
- G.K. Chesterton’s historical adventure The Ballad of the White Horse. An epic poem (one of the last great traditional epics written in English) about King Alfred of Wessex’s rout of the Great Heathen Army of invading Danes, circa the year 878, at the Battle of Ethandun/Edington — thus preserving British Christendom. The invaders are nihilists, who believe that “the soul is like a lost bird,” and “the body a broken shell.” Inspired by a vision of the Virgin Mary, Alfred musters British chieftains — Eldred (a Saxon), Mark (a Roman), Colan (a Gael) — and the two forces clash. The action is bloody, there is a magic spear, stirring speeches are made on both sides, the Danish chief converts. After the battle, Alfred and his followers scour the weeds which have grown over the prehistoric Uffington White Horse — an act intended to remind British Christians never to relax their vigilance. Fun fact: Eldred, Mark, Colan, and Alfred represent aspects of Christian theology; and the Danish leaders represent aspects of Nordic myth. One of Robert E. Howard’s favorite poems, and an influence on battle scenes in his Conan stories. PS: Bram Stoker’s bonkers The Lair of the White Worm appeared in the same year; I feel like someone — perhaps James Parker — should write a mashup.
- Hugo Gernsback’s Radium Age science fiction adventure Ralph 124C 41+: A Romance of the Year 2660 (1911–1912). Ralph One-to-foresee-for-an-other (get it?) is a great American scientist, and a superior type; the honorific “plus” at the end of his name signifies it. But what kind of big-headed superman story is this, anyway? The polar fleece-wearing citizens of solar-powered, geothermally heated New York don’t fear or resent Ralph; in fact, they’ve erected a glass-and-steelonium luxury tower for him in Union Square. Ralph isn’t an evil genius; he’s something of a bore, and so is his techno-utopian society. Except maybe when his girlfriend is kidnapped by a Martian! Despite the wooden prose and juvenile adventure, this Edisonade is worth a read because of all the technology it accurately predicts: e.g., fluorescent lights, microfilm, radar, television. Also, I suspect that we’re on the cusp of seeing the Hypnobioscope, which allows you to avoid subscribing to newspapers in your sleep. Fun fact: Reissued by Bison Frontiers of Imagination. In 1926, Gernsback launched the first sci-fi pulp, Amazing Stories; later, he’d also publish Wonder Stories. Science fiction’s Hugo Award is named after him.
- Alfred Jarry’s ’pataphysical adventure Gestes et opinions du docteur Faustroll pataphysicien: Roman néo-scientifique suivi de Spéculations (w. 1898, p. 1911, trans. as Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician). The scientist-inventor Dr. Faustroll travels — in a high-tech (capillarity, surface tension, equilateral hyperbolae are involved) amphibious copper skiff — from the Seine from point to point through the neighborhoods and buildings of Paris. He is accompanied by his Wookiee-like baboon butler Bosse-de-Nage, and also by the story’s narrator, Panmuphle, a lawyer attempting to convict the good doctor of debt. Opposed to mainstream science’s principe de l’induction, Faustroll practices a “science of imaginary solutions” that he calls ’pataphysics. Whereas the inductive reasoner brackets his imagination and blinkers his perspective, the ’pataphysician embraces as many perspectives as possible; no conjecture is regarded as impossible. Spoiler alert: Dr. Faustroll dies! But he manages to send a telepathic letter to Lord Kelvin describing the afterlife and the cosmos. Fun fact: Jarry is best known as the author of the proto-Dada play Ubu Roi. This posthumously published novel is regarded, by exegetes, as the central work to his oeuvre.
- Hanns Heinz Ewers’s fantasy adventure Alraune. With the help of his ubermensch nephew, Frank Braun, scientist Jacob ten Brinken collects the semen of a condemned man (ejaculated at the moment of the man’s execution) and uses it to impregnate a prostitute. He is conducting a test of medieval German folklore about the fertility powers of the mandrake root, which was believed to be produced by the semen of hanged men under the gallows; witches who made love to the mandrake root, it was believed, produced offspring who had no soul. Alraune, the fruit of this experiment, cannot overcome her genetic inheritance: She is a sociopathic, perhaps vampiric child; and as an adult, she drives lovesick men — including Jacob ten Brinken — to ruin and death. However, Alraune meets her match in Frank Braun, who is worse than a vampire: He’s a lawyer. The novel’s final chapters are a catalog of the couple’s outrageous sexual practices. Fun fact: The book’s English translation was made, in 1929, by Guy Endore. This is the second of three Frank Braun novels, the others being The Sorceror’s Apprentice (1907) and Vampire (1927). An early member of the Nazi Party, Ewers alienated its leadership by insisting that the Nazi obsession with blood (genetics) led inevitably, properly, to vampirism.
- Joseph Conrad’s political thriller Under Western Eyes. John Le Carré meets Dostoyevsky (for better or worse); many readers consider this Conrad’s best work, though some find it slow going. In St. Petersburg, shortly after the failed Russian Revolution of 1905, Russian conspirators are plotting the downfall of the repressive Tsarist government; the Tsar’s secret agents, meanwhile, are attempting to infiltrate their ranks. Razumov, a philosophy student, whose willingness to listen to the conspirators may have given them the impression that he’s a fellow traveler, gives shelter to another student… who has just killed Russia’s brutal Minister of State (an incident inspired by the real-life 1904 assassination of Vyacheslav von Plehve.) Although he secretly arranges for the assassin to be captured, the revolutionists consider Razumov a heroic figure. The action shifts to Geneva, where Razumov is importuned by a fellow expat, a wealthy woman funding the revolutionists, to take a leadership role in the burgeoning movement; meanwhile, he falls in love with the beautiful, intelligent sister of the student who he betrayed. However, the police want Razumov — a deeply conflicted double agent — to spy on his comrades! Fun fact: An influence on Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham, and John le Carré. The titular “Western eyes” are those of the novel’s narrator, an English teacher of languages living in Geneva, who attempts to untangle the knotty complexities of Russian politics for the readers’ sake… but who further complicates matters by introducing his own biases.
- J.D. Beresford’s Radium Age science fiction adventure The Hampdenshire Wonder. Victor Stott is a giant-headed “supernormal” child mutated — in the womb — by his parents’ desire to have a son born without habits. After surveying science, philosophy, history, literature, religion, the best that has been thought and said, the Wonder is dismissive: “So elementary… inchoate… a disjunctive… patchwork.” Young Victor’s adult interlocutors are shattered by his statements about the nature of the universe and human progress; his philosophy begins with rejecting “the interposing and utterly false concepts of space and time,” and ends with the notion that life and all matter are merely “a disease of the ether.” Alas, his interlocutors are unable to live without illusions; they reject the Wonder’s disenchanting insights. Worse, the superboy also makes an enemy of the local clergyman, who (the reader is left to suspect) murders him. The narrator’s eulogy: “He was entirely alone among aliens who were unable to comprehend him, aliens who could not flatter him, whose opinions were valueless to him.” Fun fact: The first SF novel of real importance about intelligence; it’s the ancestor of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End and A.E. Van Vogt’s Slan.
- Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre’s crime adventure Fantômas. A bloodthirsty avenger/artful dodger adventure about the ruthless Fantômas — who would become one of French crime fiction’s most popular characters. When Marquise de Langrune is murdered, her friend Rambert accuses his son, Charles, of having committed the heinous crime. Inspector Juve of the Paris Sûreté suspects that Fantômas was to blame, but it’s too late — Charles’s body is pulled from a river, an apparent suicide. Meanwhile, Lord Beltham has disappeared; Juve finds his body stuffed into a trunk belonging to Beltham’s friend, Gurn. Then, when a Russian princess is robbed, Juve questions Mademoiselle Jeanne, the hotel’s cashier — who knocks him out, before revealing herself to be… Charles, who is not dead! (Charles winds up becoming Juve’s assistant.) Juve captures Gurn, who is actually… Fantômas! How will Fantômas escape the guillotine? Fun fact: Allain and Souvestre would crank out over 30 subsequent Fantômas feuilletons together — including nine in 1911 alone! These lowbrow entertainments were devoured by high-lowbrow artists and authors — Raymond Queneau, Blaise Cendrars, René Magritte, Robert Desnos, Guillaume Apollinaire, James Joyce — some of whom were inspired to introduce adventure elements into their own writing.
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