The Twenty-Fifth Hour • reprint novel by Herbert Best ♥♥♥+
The Secret of the Growing Gold • reprint short story by Bram Stoker
The Twenty-Fifth Hour • cover by Lawrence
Interior artwork • Lawrence
The Readers’ Viewpoint • letters
The reason I picked up this magazine was that the Herbert Best novel The Twenty-Fifth Hour had been recommended to me as one of the works I should consider reading for the 1940 Retro Hugo awards in the novel length category.1 Ah, I hear you say, but this is a 1946 magazine, so what is going on? Well, as I am sure most of you already know, Famous Fantastic Mysteries was a magazine that specialised in reprints. Originally started in 1939 as a vehicle to reprint fantasy and science fiction from the Munsey pulps The All-Story, The Argosy and The Cavalier, it was eventually sold to Popular Publications and thereafter used material that had not previously appeared in magazine form—hence the appearance of a 1939 (1940 in America) non-genre novel in a 1946 fantasy and science fiction magazine.2
I actually have a physical copy (as opposed to the scan I read) of its sister magazine Fantastic Novels which is the same size, a 128pp. pulp size magazine, and it doesn’t look particularly substantial. However, The Twenty-Fifth Hour runs to just over 80,000 words3 and there is also a short story and fairly long letter column in this issue as well.
But first things first: this issue has an absolutely stunning cover by Lawrence,4 something that could perhaps only have been produced by the generation that had gone through WWII, the concentration camps and Hiroshima. This artist also contributes this issue’s internal illustrations.5
As to the novel itself (numerous spoilers follow), it is an interesting, at times very interesting, novel of a world wiped out by widespread war in Europe and germ warfare in the Americas. It starts with an English officer, Captain Hugh Fitzharding, scouting an Eastern European chateau in the freezing snow. He knocks on the door, is fired upon and flees. The next day he lights a fire at the door as a diversion while the men from his unit enter at the back windows. During the short fight he refrains from shooting a woman who has descended from one of the windows and has fled, but two male prisoners they find in the cellar, one an old cripple and the other a terrified young man, are taken outside and bayoneted to death offstage. This grim event is organised in a matter of fact manner:
Sergeant Conley looked meaningfully at the two men.
“I suppose so,” said Fitzharding, “but outside, where it’s easier to clean up.” p.18
This British unit’s behaviour does not improve in the second chapter as the unit establishes itself in the chateau. The women are shown that all their menfolk are dead to extinguish their resistance and divided up as wives amongst the men:
Not while there was a living male of theirs left, not counting mere children, of course, would women submit to the most obvious defeat. That had been proved, time and again. But once assured that their men were dead, some primitive instinct permitted them to relax their opposition, even to turn toward the conquerors. p.19
Meanwhile, Fitzharding ruminates about the stateless expanse that Europe has become.
Unfortunately, just as this is all getting going, the novel switches locations to a depression struck USA, where brother and sister Geoff and Anne prepare for a yacht trip out to the Caribbean and away from the harsh environment they find themselves in. This next section of the book spans four chapters and follows the pair as they set up on the islands and start a life there. Just as they are becoming comfortable in their new lives the native population are wiped out by a germ warfare attack in the Americas that rapidly spreads over both continents.
Over the next few years the brother and sister concentrate on survival. Eventually they decide that they cannot just go on surviving and Geoff starts to get the boat ready to go back to the States to find a wife for himself and husband for Ann so they can have sons and daughters to look after them in their old age. A hurricane strikes but they survive and so does the boat. Geoff departs.
A recurrent theme of the book, amongst others, is that personal survival is not enough, that the survival of the species is important. This theme reappears later in the book.
The section where Ann is on her own drags somewhat and there is a sub-plot about a possible intruder that is of little consequence. However, she spends some time thinking about how to trap the young boy, and how to pacify and civilise him. Eventually Geoff returns but is in an awful state having barely survived the fruitless trip. The boy is forgotten: they provision the boat and set off for the Old World.
Back in Europe, the situation had become much grimmer than before. Captain Fitzharding has become ‘the hunter’ and spends his time stalking, ambushing and killing other humans for food. When he is not doing this he is hiding out of sight to avoid a similar fate. Almost the only people left are the hunters, and when he meets one of the very few surviving communities he will sometimes try and help them, but generally keeps his distance.
When hungry it is wise to lie on the stomach, which otherwise grows painfully distended and rumbles, so that an enemy in this ever-listening world might hear and kill in one’s sleep. p.69
Since wild animals were scarce in Europe, and the human animal unfitted in limb, lung, stomach and teeth, particularly in teeth, for hunting, he had fallen back upon the only source of food supply which existed in sufficient quantities: an animal, half deaf, by comparison with other animals, half blind, almost lacking in the sense of smell, slow of movement, nearly defenseless; he could only prey upon his fellow men. p.72
The hunter spends his time reflecting on a number of matters, such as how humanity allowed itself to become so specialised that few people had any connection with the land or ability to make it productive:
If only they could start their agriculture, they would save the human race those tens of thousands of years from hunting up through the stage of driving flocks. p.81
I was reminded in these sections of the latter part of Earth Abides by George Stewart, where one of the characters makes sure the children know how to use a bow and arrow, so the road back to civilisation will not be so long.
In one deserted town he meets an ex-Oxford, ex- Foreign Office man who has managed to survive as a vegetarian and who has been spending his time cheerfully murdering the hunters that come into his area. They eventually come to an uneasy truce and later travel towards Egypt, but are attacked and the hunter is wounded. On coming to consciousness he finds the Oxonian has disappeared.
This second European section of the book is satisfyingly grim reading, and paints a convincing picture of the hunter’s environment. It is a pity this part wasn’t longer.
At this point the two stories merge and the hunter ends up together with Anne on the boat. She cannot believe how bad things are so he takes her onshore one evening and they lay up until they are eventually attacked—this happens because she does not have the ability to lie absolutely still and is heard. The hunter kills the attacker and takes his body back to the boat to eat.
Conscientiously he prepared her for the need for such cold-blooded slaughter. “The only function of a modern savage is to kill or be killed, so that in an empty Europe wild life may creep back again, and Man once more start upward in his climb, from hunter to herdsman, from berry snatcher to tiller of the fields. The faster we wipe each other from the face of the land, the greater our service to posterity, for the sooner can civilization return.” p.92
“I always suspected that Cambridge gave one too narrow an education. No murder, no chicken stealing in the whole curriculum. I’ll send my sons to a more modern establishment.” p.96
They continue to sail towards Egypt. At an African coastal town Anne is injured by a spear as they try to approach the dock area. She professes her love for him while recovering from her wound.
Next, they end up in a huge storm and only just make it to a port they think is Alexandria. They are not permitted to enter the city but are fed while messages are sent to a higher authority. A twelve year old girl who breaks the cordon is not readmitted and is made to stay with them. When orders arrive they are provisioned and told to set sail to the East. This they do until they are intercepted by several galley-type ships.
The final part of the story finds them both safely in the Nile delta where they find the Oxonian is some sort of low-key ‘king’ of an utopian Egypt. This part is not really convincing, and the Oxonian as ‘king’ probably partially reflects the colonial outlook of the time.
Overall, I thought this was, in parts, an impressive work and am surprised by how little attention it seems to have received from the field (in the few places I found it mentioned, a sentence or two was all that was written).6 It has a grimness that I can’t recall in any work of its time or earlier, and has a clarity of vision and a particular reflectiveness about how low the human race could fall, and why, that is still cautionary today. Recommended, especially to readers who enjoy the disaster novels of John Christopher for instance, and if I had had a vote in the Retro Hugos, this would definitely have been one of my choices.
There is only one other story in this issue which is Bram Stoker’s The Secret of the Growing Gold (Dracula’s Guest, 1937). This story is about a rich man called Brent who takes up with Delandre, one of the village women who he subsequently attempts to kill while they are travelling abroad. He returns later with an Italian wife, and (spoiler) subsequently Delandre returns to her brother to tell him she is still alive and is going to see Brent. Brent kills Delandre and buries her under the cracked hearthstone. In the days that follow Delandre’s blonde hair starts to grow out of the crack.
There is a lot of extraneous waffle in this (mostly Delandre’s brother’s anger over her relationship with Brent) and the ending is just tacked on. This doesn’t succeed as any sort of story, never mind a horror one.
The only non-fiction in this issue is The Readers’ Viewpoint, quite a long letters column that has nearly unanimous praise for S. Fowler Wright’s The Island of Captain Sparrow and Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows in the April issue.
There are also a couple of moans about the skimpily dressed woman on the cover of that issue, and Joan Mohler of Washington is quite amusing about it:
Every cheap magazine you pick up, whether devoted to science-fiction or not, has the situation motif; […] a handsome faultlessly attired Northwest Mounted Policeman (with a well-placed trickle of blood down his left cheek) is fending off twenty-eight polar bears with a broken spruce twig in order to preserve a gorgeous female, whose expression invariably proves her not being worth saving… p.124
Another letter from Thelma Zander of Michigan details the most heinous crime:
I’ve been a Fantasy fan for a long time and have been reading F.F.M. ever since she started. It’s a great magazine, and it brings us grand stories which we probably never would get a chance to read. My uncle took All Story and Argosy since ’way back when, and he saved them all—quite a closet full, too—and then when they were too many, a few years ago, he took them all apart and put the best (and most) of the novels together and bound them in book form, and gave them to me. Bless his heart! p.125
Bless his heart? Cut off the vandal’s hands, more like.
Recommended for the Herbert Best novel, and perhaps the letter column.
- Unfortunately, I just found out about the 31st January deadline for membership to vote in the nomination round…
- Famous Fantastic Mysteries published 81 issues between 1939 and 1953, and Mary Gnaedinger was its only editor. This information about the magazine and that above was shamelessly cribbed from SF Encylopedia.
- I have it on good authority that the US hardback edition runs to 95,000 words so the magazine version is missing about a sixth of the content. The initial European and Caribbean sections felt rather out of balance to me: perhaps the abridgement accounts for this.
- ‘Lawrence’ was used by both Lawrence Sterne Stevens and his son. More information on SF Encylopedia.
- The elegant title page by Lawrence for the novel:
- One short review by Donald A. Wollheim in Super Science Stories (July 1940) was subsequently pointed out to me: The theme of this book is the end of the present war in Europe. Mr. Best foresees the worst. He paints a horrifying picture of destruction. Of the “total warfare” that engulfs each European nation, destroys all governments, and proceeds to drag down the unending butchery of the leaderless armies until Europe is a vast area of desolation inhabited by human beasts who live by cannibalism—for homo sapiens is the only large animal left in Europe. And if civilization collapses, what else is left to feed its teeming millions?
Two characters are particularly well-drawn in the book, an English soldier reduced to cannibalism in Europe and an American woman living in complete isolation on a Caribbean island. How they eventually meet and how the future of humanity resolves itself is best left to Best.