Monday, 7 November 2011

Dennis Wheatley, Star of Ill-Omen (1952)

Wheatley was huge, once-upon-a-time; a global bestseller who wrote thrillers in a variety of genres. By the 1970s though,when I was at school, his star had waned to the point where he was associated only with naff horror gubbins like The Devil Rides Out; prolix, oddly genteel bodice-rippers about Satanism that were (amongst my peer group, in those days, at any rate) strictly for those without the stomach for James Herbert. So my knowledge of his oeuvre is small. The Devil Reads Not in fact. Earlier this year I read Robert Hanks’ elegant skewering of Wheatley as the worst writer to become globally successful since Marie Corelli (sadly, the article itself is behind a paywall; but it’s worth checking out); which did not inspire me to search out his backlist. But then I chanced upon a charity-shop edition of  Star of Ill-Omen, one of Wheatley’s SF novels—no, I had no idea that he wrote SF (he did though, and quite a lot); yes I bought this one (first edition incl. dust jacket good condition, £4); yes I read it; no it’s not any good. Interesting though.

It starts out as a cold war thriller. Argentina (under General Peron) is trying to start a nuclear programme; and our hero, the sub-Bond ‘Kem Lincoln’, is on a mission to steal the plans to the reactor from Colonel Esté Van Escobar’s safe, which he manages in part by seducing the Colonel’s wife, Carmen. Here’s the opening sentence, which gives some flavour of Wheatley’s prose-style, something to which the descriptor ‘good’ cannot, I think, truthfully be applied:
Kem Lincoln slid back the chamber of his automatic to make certain that it was working freely, snapped home a clip of bullets and repouched the weapon in his shoulder holster.
‘Repouched’ is a splendidly 'good show sir' stylistic touch. And, indeed, this sort of kangarooese flavours the writing all through; and despite having a name that sounds like an unaerodynamic model of 1950s US automobile, Kem Lincoln is plucky and resourceful. There're some fisticuffs and running around on the Argentine pampas, until the story takes an abrupt left-turn: ‘In the centre of the clearing, only forty feet away from him, reposed a Flying Saucer’ [76] ‘Reposed’. Yes. So, Kem, Carmen and the Colonel are abducted, and whisked away into outer space. What do the aliens look like?
They were twenty feet high, broad in proportion, and, from what he could make out in the starlight, naked … neither of the giants had beards or moustaches; instead they had great tufts of stiff hair fanning out from their nostrils and ears. Apart from that and their size they differed in no obvious way from human beings. Both were males, their hair on both their bodies was red, and both of them were completely bald. [80]
They spend quite a long time imprisoned on the saucer, flying through space. To pass the time, Escobar displays his surprising amount of cosmological knowledge (‘The universe is estimated to contain 300,000 million stars … there are at least 200 stars for every man, woman and child living on Earth.’ ‘Everyone knows that the universe is a pretty big affair,’ replies Kem, ‘but I had no idea that it was quite so colossal as that!’ [84]); and luckily for the three of them the saucer is supplied with ‘a large-mouthed fixed funnel leading down to a pipe about a foot wide, at the bottom of which daylight could be seen. It was clearly a lavatory on the same principle as those installed in railway trains, but lacking any form of trap, or, as far as could be seen, sluicing apparatus’ [88]. The abductees speculate about how the craft is powered. ‘I understand enough about Einstein’s Unified Field Theory to give you some conception of it,’ says Escobar, breezily:
’It has been proved by means of the tenescope that there are 1,257 magnetic lines of force in every square centimeter of matter. If a way could be found to cross two or more of those lines, the power so generated could be used to propel matter in any desired direction at speeds hitherto regarded as outside the bounds of possibility; and Einstein contends that by these means matter could be made to travel at the speed of light. [94]
Does he? Does he, really?
‘Jupiter; the big boy of the Solar family … he is ice all over, and ice miles deep at that.’[106]
Anyway, eventually the saucer takes our heroes to a Lowellian Mars, canals and all. They’re taken off the vessel inside giant bags and depouched (if I may) into a subterranean cinema, where they are shown a black-and-white film of Earth’s development, from the Chaldeans to nuclear power stations, for reasons that escape me. We discover the pink humanoid giants are actually in the service of some giant bee-beetles (‘incredible as it at first appeared, the fact was inescapable. These bee-beetles must be the masters of all life on Mars!’ 158). The three of them escape into the Martian desert where they meet Nickolai [that’s how Wheatley spells it] Zadovitch ‘the M.V.D. man’ and Anna ‘the pretty Russian who looked like a “good-time” girl but could be deadly with a pistol’ (dedicated Communists both, who had been abducted from Siberia the previous year) together with Harsbach, an old Nazi rocket scientist. It seems the bee-beetles are hoping to utilise the secrets of atomic power by kidnapping Earthly atomic scientists, though why they need it when they are able to build and fly the flying saucers isn’t explained. We also discover that Phobos and Deimos are not moons, but giant saucers. I think we can all agree that makes a lot more sense, astronomically speaking. The team pool their expertise to build a rudimentary atom bomb, in the hope of using it to hijack a saucer and get home.  Kem, naturally, sleeps with the Russian: ‘in everything but the sexual urge they were poles apart, but for the time being it dominated them both utterly. Straining their muscles, they kissed and kissed until their lips were bruised and sore’ [235]. Sexy! Wheatley has a low opinion of Communists in general of course, and a particularly low opinion of this one (‘Love, according to Western standards, played no part in her life. Like a young heifer, she merely had preferences for males who by a combination of strength and cunning could overcome their rivals’). The team builds the bomb; the Colonel and Zadovitch die along the way; and when the bee-beetles take them and it up in a saucer to test it, the remaining Earthlings seize control of the craft, in a splendidly bathetic struggle:
Thrusting out his free hand, [Kem] pushed the lever back, but only just in time to prevent the Saucer turning over. The insect threw its weight against another lever. [295]
‘The insect threw its weight against another lever.’ Now that’s a sentence worth savouring. Anyway, the victorious humans fly the saucer back to Earth—but, oh no! Harsbach plans to drop the atom bomb they made onto London ‘to revenge himself for the way we smashed Hitler!’ [315]. In one of the oddest endings I can remember reading for a long time, Kem and Carmen (who has forgiven him for sleeping with the heartless Russian heifer) secretly remove the innards from the bomb and hide themselves inside, such that when the evil Nazi and his evil female Communist colleague drop the bomb onto Tower Bridge—from, I might add, a height of 2000 feet—it does not explode. ‘Both Lincoln and Madame Escobar’ the novel relates at the end, ‘are suffering from bad bruising. But the doctors report that they should be fully recovered in a few days time.’ Of course they will. Of course they will.


Since I mention the incomparableGood Show Sir up there, I'll end with a few of other examples of Star of Ill-Omen covers. They're not good.

That is a scene from the book, sort-of; doesn't make it any less ridiculous as a cover. Then there's this one:

Hair-gel-tastic! Or this one:

'Must Earth be destroyed? Must it? Really?' This one, however, I quite like:


Jeff Prucher said...

A bomb with people in it being dropped on London by a Nazi? Now where have I heard that before?

David Duffy said...

He does make a cameo (of sorts) in Robert Irwin's _Satan wants me_