10 Best Adventures of 1908
February 13, 2018
One hundred and ten 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.
Note that 1908 is, according to my unique periodization schema, the fifth year of the cultural “decade” know as the Nineteen-Oughts. Therefore, we have arrived at the apex of the Oughts; the titles on my 1908 and 1909 lists represent, more or less, what Oughts adventure writing is all about.
Please let me know if I’ve missed any adventures from this year that you particularly admire. Enjoy!
- G.K. Chesterton’s metaphysical thriller The Man Who Was Thursday. Subtitled “A Nightmare,” Chesterton’s best novel follows Gabriel Syme, a Scotland Yard man, as he infiltrates the London chapter of the European Anarchist Council. Lucian Gregory, an avant-garde poet, publicly endorses anarchism… in order to make himself seem harmless, when in fact he is up for election as “Thursday,” one of seven members of the Council, each named for a day of the week. Syme gets himself elected in Gregory’s place… only to discover that nothing is as it seems. The Council’s president, Sunday, is a sinister mastermind who has purposely recruited undercover police detectives and pitted them against one another! As Thursday and his colleagues pursue Sunday, the “nightmare” becomes more and more fantastical and absurdist. I the end, we’re left to puzzle over whether Sunday is evil or… Christ-like. Fun facts: Included on Michael Moorcock’s list of the 100 Best Fantasy Novels. Orson Welles’s 1938 adaptation of The Man Who Was Thursday for The Mercury Theatre on the Air is pretty great.
- Edith Nesbit’s The House of Arden. During the Oughts (1904–1913), E. Nesbit produced an extraordinary run of terrific children’s books — including The New Treasure Seekers (1904), The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904), The Story of the Amulet and The Railway Children (1906), The Enchanted Castle (1907), and The Magic City (1910). Her own two favorites were the so-called Fabian Time Fantasies, The House of Arden and Harding’s Luck (1909), in which children visit different time periods and grapple with social issues such as gender roles, economic exploitation, and race relations… while having exciting adventures. Here, the quarrelsome Edred and Elfrida Arden inherit a decrepit Castle and search it for a lost family fortune. With the assistance of the Mouldiwarp (a cranky magical mole, who can only be summoned via original poetry), they search for clues in earlier periods of English history, testing their wits against witches, highwaymen, and renegades in 1807, as Napoloen prepares to invade England, in 1605, during the Gunpowder Plot, and so forth. Nesbit is a witty writer — there’s plenty here for adults as well as kids. Fun facts: At one point, Edred and Elfrida bump into “Cousin Dick,” who is also time-traveling. He will be the protagonist of Harding’s Luck.
- Kenneth Grahame’s children’s fantasy adventure The Wind in the Willows. When they aren’t enjoying the simple pleasures of life in England’s Thames Valley, three anthropomorphized animals — the naive Mole, the friendly Rat, and the fierce Badger — struggle to keep their hapless friend Toad, a wealthy idler with a mania for automobiles, out of trouble. Readers are treated to a jail break and hunted-man adventure, during which Toad — who was imprisoned for stealing a car, and is now disguised as an elderly washerwoman — flees from his pursuers via steam engine and horse-drawn barge, only to steal the same car again. Immediately after this sequence, which is so entertaining that Disney Land designed a ride in its honor, Toad’s friends must help him to recapture his stately home — via a secret tunnel sneak attack — from weasels and stoats who’ve invaded the Wild Wood. The preceding chapters are perhaps less thrilling than these, but still funny, sweet, and utterly charming. Fun facts: The Wind in the Willows has been adapted as a movie several times, most notably by Disney in 1949, Rankin/Bass in 1985/1987, and Terry Jones in 1996. British bands from Pink Floyd to Iron Maiden have referenced the mystical chapter “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” in their music.
- Jack London‘s Radium Age sci-fi novel The Iron Heel. Between the (near-future) years of 1912 and 1932, according to the on-the-scene MS presented here by a far-future historian, an oligarchy known to its foes as the Iron Heel arose in the United States. (We learn, from the future historian, that the Iron Heel would maintain power for 300 years until a socialist revolution finally overthrew it, ushering in a utopian future society.) The Iron Heel is composed of robber barons who have bankrupted the middle class and reduced farmers to serfdom; they use mercenaries to keep laborers — in all industries except steel, rail, and others important to the oligarchs — in check. The Iron Heel has an amazing city built — it’s called Asgard, but let’s face it, it’s Google-era San Francisco — where the proles are wowed by technological advancements but prevented from advancing into the middle class. Fun fact: Sci-fi historians believe that The Iron Heel influenced Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Whether or not that’s the case, Orwell himself described London as having made “a very remarkable prophecy of the rise of Fascism.” Serialized here at HILOBROW during 2018.
- H.G. Wells’s Radium Age sci-fi adventure The War in the Air. After Bert Smallways, a forward-thinking bicycle mechanic, is accidentally carried off in a hot air balloon belonging to Mr. Butteridge, inventor of a revolutionary maneuverable aircraft, he is shot down in Germany. Prince Karl Albert, who has organized an air-ship attack on the Eastern United States, takes Smallways along for the invasion — since he believes him to be Butteridge. (Simultaneously, the Confederation of Eastern Asia — China and Japan — launches an aerial attack on the Western United States.) Smallways looks on in horror as an American naval fleet is obliterated by German aerial bombardment; soon after, German air ships rain destruction on New York City. However, not long after this, German air fleet is attacked by the Confederation, whose one-man flying machines firing incendiary bullets overpower the hydrogen-filled zeppelins. Can Bert turn the tide of battle by helping America to develop Butteridge’s aircraft? Will the entire “fabric of civilization” (the late-period Wells is over-fond of such formulations) be torn asunder, and England revert to a medieval social order? Fun facts: Written in four months, serialized in 1908 in The Pall Mall Magazine.
- Maurice Renard’s Radium Age sci-fi adventure Docteur Lerne, sous-dieu (Doctor Lerne, Undergod). Returning to the castle where he grew up, after many years away, Nicolas Vermont is surprised to discover that his uncle Frédéric, a retired surgeon, is changed and hostile. Frédéric is engaged in mysterious scientific research, and forbids Nicolas access to his laboratory greenhouses; he also insists that Nicolas not court his protégée, Emma. Nicolas defies both injunctions. When Frédéric realizes that Nicolas has discovered the nature of his research — uncanny plant/animal hybrids! — he temporarily exchanges Nicolas’s brain with that of a bull. (Renard plays with mythology, in this story: the lab is a labyrinth; Nicolas’s bull-brained body is a Minotaur.) Frédéric then develops a means of projecting his own consciousness into a machine — Nicolas’s high-tech automobile. A Symbolist-esque homage to H.G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau. Fun fact: This was Renard’s first novel. The poet Apollinaire was a fan: “A little marvel of fantasy: charming, cultivated, and effortlessly learned.”
- William Hope Hodgson’s supernatural adventure The House on the Borderland. Directly over a vast chasm near a remote Irish village, some two hundred years before our narrative begins, someone has built a weird stone house — circular, with “little curved towers and pinnacles, with outlines suggestive of leaping flames.” As our narrator — the Recluse, whose journal it is that we’re reading — soon discovers, the house is a space/time portal. He’s oppressed by a hallucinatory vision, in which he travels to another planet (or dimension) where he finds a version of the house; and he’s attacked by humanoid “swine-things,” who emerge from the chasm. The house also transports the recluse to “the Sea of Sleep,” where he reunites with his lost love — who warns him that the house was “founded on grim arcane laws.” The man is afforded a cosmic vision of Earth passing through eons to its destruction… and he’s infected by a luminous fungus! Fun facts: Via this book and the Radium Age sci-fi novel The Night Land (1912), among other writings, Hodgson pioneered a strain of cosmic horror that would prove influential on the likes of H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith.
- Alexander Bogdanov’s Radium Age sci-fi adventure Red Star. Leonid, a scientist-revolutionary active in the Russian Revolution of 1905, is befriended by Menni — who turns out to be a Martian in disguise. Leonid, it seems, has been selected by the Martians to visit them — which he does via the “etheroneph,” a nuclear photonic rocket. Mars, Leonid discovers, is a post-revolutionary society — an idyllic communist-esque social order boasting a planned economy and advanced cybernetic control; Martians work only as much as they want to. The “red star” also boasts nuclear fusion and propulsion, atomic weaponry, computers, blood transfusions, and (almost) unisexuality. However, the Martians have run out of resources and are considering an invasion of either Earth or Venus! Sent home, after he kills one of the Martians who threaten to colonize Earth, Leonid rejoins the revolutionary struggle. Fun fact: Bogdanov (1873–1928) was one of the early organizers and prophets of the Russian Bolshevik party; Stalin was a fan of his writing. He followed this novel with a prequel in 1913, Engineer Menni, which detailed the creation of the communist society on Mars.
- Gustave Le Rouge’s Radium Age sci-fi adventure Le Prisonnier de la Planète Mars. Amateur astronomer Robert Darvel arranges to have himself transported to Mars in a capsule propelled (how else?) by a psychic energy produced by thousands of Indian yogis gathered together as one cosmic soul. Among other observations he makes about Mars’s flora (carnivorous grass) and fauna (giant crabs, jelly-like octopi with pseudo-human faces), Darvel discovers that the planet is inhabited by dull-witted humanoids who are herded and harvested by three species of vampire creatures. The vampires are controlled by squid-like, invisible beings haunting an abandoned city. Even worse, a Great Brain, which inhabits a crystal mountain surrounded by magnetic storms, is controlling the squid-vampire creatures! Mars, it seems, is like an evil version of Oz; L. Frank Baum’s books began appearing in 1900. Darvel finally returns back to Earth, with some of the invisible vampires in tow… thus setting up this book’s 1909 sequel, La Guerre des Vampires. Fun fact: “The best novel of one of the most important SF writers in France at the dawn of the twentieth century,” according to Arthur Evans, author of Jules Verne Rediscovered and managing editor of Science Fiction Studies. Reissued by Bison Frontiers of Imagination.
- John Fox Jr.’s frontier adventure The Trail of the Lonesome Pine. For thirty years the Tollivers and the Falins have been feuding in the Cumberland Gap — near the border of Kentucky and Virginia in the Appalachians. As the railroad, and the coal and iron industry, exert their influence in the area, an enterprising engineer and geologist, John Hale, enters the scene. The enlightened, progressive Hale attempts to institute the rule of law in the area, which makes him the enemy of both the Tollivers and Falins, who insist on following traditional clan law. Meanwhile, the beautiful June Tolliver has been away to New York for her eduction… when she returns, will her sympathies lie with Hale or with her hillbilly family? Fun facts: The author grew up in Kentucky, then attended Harvard. The Trail of the Lonesome Pine was a best-seller, inspiring a 1913 song and movie adaptations — including a 1936 Technicolor film starring Henry Fonda.
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