Wednesday, 22 May 2013

"He proclaimed himself the King of Darkness and Flame"

'Les Indes Noir' was published in 1877.  It's a thriller in a coal-mine. I found it by accident. It's pretty good, sort-of.

When we have a fetish for something it calls up powerful stuff inside us. Like a magnet with iron filings, it tends to create it's own antipole. Verne's rapturous, border-orgasmic view of coal, of industry and mining leaves a kind of dark space in his writing on the opposite side, that is often where the poetry leaks through.

First, a useful piece of Ludography taken from 19th Century potboiler logic. If  players receive a letter asking them to go somewhere they have never been by someone they knew a long time ago for an unspecified reason or reward, they may or may not go. If, a day later, they receive a second letter, written in a strange hand, on a torn up piece of scrap paper, telling them absolutely not to come under any circumstances, then they definately will.

With Verne, the poetry seems to leak out round the edges. The main characters are ok-but-dull. The written picture of Scotland is clearly a product of love, but could have been written by anyone. But then this:-

“Over a wide expanse bordered by a few stunted trees the ground was hidden under the black dust of the fuel, but nowhere were there to be seen any cinders, or lumps or even odd fragments of coal. All had been taken away and consumed long ago.

On a hillock appeared the skeleton of an immense framework, slowly corroding under the influence of the sun and rain. At its summit appeared a huge cast-iron wheel, and lower down were great rollers, over which had passed the cables to bring the cages up to the surface of the ground.

In the lower storey was the forsaken engine-room, once glittering with the polished steel and brass of the machinery. Odd lengths of the wall had fallen to earth in the midst of joists now broken and green with damp. Remains of the beams of the engine to which were attached the rods of the exhaust-pumps, broken or grease smeared wedges, toothless gear-wheels overturned weighing machines, some ladders fixed up to the walls, each resembling the backbone of an ichthyosaurus, rails along the top of a beam still supported by two or three rickety piles, tramways which could not have borne the weight of an empty truck – such was the desolate aspect of the Dochart pit.”

Verne loves industry in a way no modern write I am familiar with does. He is also already enraptured by the decay of the thing he loves. He loves mining too, then this creeps in:-

“’Indeed’ the young man exclaimed, ‘it’s a pity that nature hasn’t built the whole earth exclusively of coal; then there’d have been enough for several million years!’

‘No doubt there would Harry; but you must admit, all the same, that nature has shown it’s foresight in forming our spheroid principally of sandstone, limestone and granite which fire cannot consume.’

‘Do you mean to say Mr. Starr, that mankind would have ended by burning their own globe?’

‘Yes! All of it my boy,’ he replied. ‘The earth would have passed down to the last morsel, into the furnaces and railway-engines, traction-engines, steam-ships and gas works; and so some fine day, that would have been the end of the world!’

“That was why the monk with his face masked in a great hood, and his whole body tightly wrapped in a thick felt cloak, used to crawl along the ground. He could breathe down there, where the air was pure; and with his right hand he waved above his head a blazing torch. . When enough-fire-damp had accumulated in the air to form a detonating mixture, the explosion occurred without being fatal, and, by often repeating the operation, he succeeded in preventing any disaster. Sometimes the ‘monk’, struck down by the blast, died painfully. Then someone else took his place.”

“A labyrinth of galleries, some higher than the domes of the most lofty cathedrals, others like cloisters, narrow and winding – these following a horizontal line, those rising or falling obliquely in all directions – connected the caverns and allowed free communications between them.

The pillars which supported the vaulted roofs, whose curves were of every style, the massive walls between the passages, and naves themselves in the outcrop of the sedimentary rocks, were composed of sandstone and shales. But tightly packed between these unusable strata ran valuable seams of coal, as if the black blood of this strange mine had circulated through their inextricable network.”

“lets drive our working under the waters of the sea! Let’s tunnel into the bed of the Atlantic like a colander! Let’s hack a way with our picks until we join our brethren of the United States through the ocean floor! Let’s burrow into the centre of the globe if we have to, to tear out every last scrap of coal.”

The shadowed characters are about five times more interesting than the heroes. But then they always are.

“’No, Harry,’ answered Nell; ‘I was only thinking that the twilight is beautiful too. If you but knew what eyes accustomed to its depth can see! There are flitting shadows which make you long to follow them in their flight. There are circles which seem to intertwine, and one could gaze on them forever. In the depths of the mine are dark hollows full of gleams of light. You hear noises that seem to talk to you.”

Bless you Jules Verne, you must have really liked visiting Scotland. A lot of wandering around, gets two chapters, and entire Loch draining into the earth in “a few seconds” gets two paragraphs.

I was really hoping for weird underground race and didn't get one, but what I did get was almost as good.


“He used to see this strange solitary being prowling about the mine, always accompanied by a monstrous owl, a Harfang., who helped him in his perilous task by soaring aloft with a lighted fuse to places which Silfax himself could not reach. ……  A wild, savage sort of fellow, who held aloof from everyone, and was believed to fear neither fire nor water. It was by his own wish that he followed the trade of ‘monk’, which few others cared for. The continual danger of the business had unsettled his wits. He was said to be wicked, but perhaps he was only mad. He was prodigiously strong, and he knew the mine like nobody else.”

“His chosen refuge was far – very far from you. But he disliked feeling you were there. If I asked any questions about the people up above us, his face darkened, he did not reply, and he stayed silent a long time. ……….. He proclaimed himself the King of Darkness and Flame; and when he heard your tools at work on coal-seams which he regarded as his own, he grew furious. ……… My grandfather is everywhere and nowhere. I’ve never know where he hides. I’ve never seen him asleep. When he’d found some hiding place, he’d leave me alone and disappear. ………. He’s invisible himself, but he sees everything ….…. ,even in his madness, has a most powerful mind. He used to talk to me on very lofty subjects. He taught me the existence of God, and he only deceived me on one point – that was when he made me believe that all men were perfidious, because he wanted to inspire me with his own hatred of the whole human race.”

Of course I can always turn him into an entire race myself. Hooded crawlers lair in coal warrens protected by mazes of explosive gas only they understand. Symbiotic white owls. Kings of Darkness and Flame.

1 comment:

  1. This "monks" were reborn as the Deep Dwarves in Pratchett's Discworld novels.