Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, January 19, 2018

FORGOTTEN BOOK: THE BEETLE HORDE

The Beetle Horde by "Victor Rousseau" (Agvidor Rousseau Emanuel, 1879-1960) (1930)

Rousseau was a popular pulp writer in the first half of the last century and whose first novel was published in 1901.  much of his work in the pulps did not appear in book form until after his death.  His most famous science fiction were The Messiah of the Cylinder (1917) and The Surgeon of Souls (a collection of stories first published in various magazines in 1909-10 and released in book form in 2006).  He used a number of pseudonyms, most often "H. M. Egbert;" as "Lew Merrill" he wrote the cult favorite story "Bat Man" and as "John Grange"he wrote a few of the adventures of Doc Savage-clone Jim Anthony, Super Detective.

The Beetle Horde has a unique place in the history of science fiction.  It began as a two-part serial in the first issue of Astounding Stories of Super-Science (January 1930), the storied magazine that would morph into Astounding, then into Analog, which is still published today, 89 years later.  As the lead story of that issue, it received the magazine's first cover and was the story that the magazine published.

The tale concerns an expedition of the South Pole, several years after another expedition led by the famous archaeologist Bram was lost.  Among the current expedition were Tommy Travers, a well-known aviator, and Jimmy Dodd (not the head Mouseketeer from days of old), a scientist who had argued with Bram about some of his more unorthodox theories.  The two make a startling discovery -- the "fossilized" carapace of a giant beetle, some five feet long.  The they the take off in Tommy's plane in search of more of the fossils.  Entering a thick cloud, Tommy loses control of his aircraft and crashes, not into snow and ice, but into a warm crater which holds a large pile of these giant beetle carapices.  Foraging in this pile is a beautiful girl, Haidia, a native of the underground world from which the giant beetles came.  Evidently human, Haidia's race has evolved underground to have nictitated eyelids to help them see in the gloom.  Haidia's hair has grown long enough that she has braided the ends to wrap around her body life a shift.

The three are attacked by some live beetles, and each hides under a carapace.  They are captured and are taken below the earth's crust to Submundia, the vast underworld kingdom that is ruled by Bram, who was not dead as had been believed.  Bram is now totally insane.  Rumored to have been a morphine addict before, he is now completely controlled by the drug.  He has somehow found a way to control the savage beetles and now lives as a solitary mad king.  Besides the current beetle horde. there is large mass of trillions of larvae about to be hatched.  Then they mature, Bram intends to release them upon the upper world and destroy humanity because they scoffed at some of his theories.

Haidia's race of humans have been divided into three parts by Bram:  one for mating, one for slaves, and the third are culls -- those not fit, for some reason, to be in one of the other two classes.  Haidia is a cull.  Why?  Who knows?  Pulp stories don't have to explain themselves.

What follows is standard fare.  Escape.  Capture.  Escape. Battle scenes.  Death.  Destruction.  Rescue.  Finale.  Denouement.  All told in an early pulp style that thrillingly pushes the plot to its finale.

 Last week I panned another classic pulp adventure, Lieut. Gulliver Jones:  His Vacation.  While I found that one plodding and somewhat aimless, The Beetle Horde is different.  The writing can be clunky, to wit:


"'If we are attacked, you must sacrifice your life for me, Tommy, so that I can carry back the news.'
"'Righto!' answered Tommy with alacrity.  'You bet I will, Jim.'"


Underlying the entire book is a bright satire about academia, science, and competing theories.  Bram is perfectly willing to let Tommy, Jimmy, and Haidia live if only Jimmy will admit that he was wrong about Bram's theories.  Jimmy and Bram are both bull-headed; their own ideas are the most important part of them.  Jimmy is willing to die for his; Bram is ready to destroy the world for his -- something concerning a marsupial lion.  This conflict is well played throughout the book.

An entertaining and well-paced story that may be of interest to the modern reader.

7 comments:

  1. Jerry, I'm not familiar with Victor Rousseau and his work but I'm glad one can read his stories/novels in early sf magazines online.

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    1. Prashant, there is a lot of interesting stuff now available online, especially science fiction magazines from 1926 on.

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  2. "Righto...you bet I will, Jim!" (I'm still laughing) May I assume Haidia cuts her braids at some point? (My eyelids are nictitating at the very idea.)

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    1. Matt, Haidia still wore her hair as a **!!SPOILER ALERT!!** bridal gown toward the end of the book. Vera Wang, eat your heart out!

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