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Earlier in the year, I mentioned the Kickstarter being run by Singularity & Co. to “Save the Sci-Fi” whose goal was setting up a science-fiction oriented bookstore in Brooklyn and preserving (digitizing) what would otherwise be lost novels in the genre. So far they’ve had four releases, one of which was the 1920 novel The Torch by Jack Bechdolt.

The Torch has an interesting if brief history. It’s one of only three novels penned by Bechdolt—not exactly a well-known writer despite his “some six thousand” short stories, nor in his other trades as journalist and cartoonist—first serialized in Argosy in January and February 1920. Apparently it’s Bechdolt’s most famous novel, since it earned its own Wikipedia page. Indie publisher Prime Press felt the need to reprint it in 1948, and the novel returned again in a 1951 issue of reprint magazine Fantastic Novels Magazine. So, it was popular enough to be reprinted twice, but after that fell by the wayside and into the dustbins of history… until Singularity & Co. tracked down a copy and digitized it.

Prime Press – 1948 – illo by L. Robert Tschirky, who also drew the interior illustrations.

In the 2070s, decades after a vague atomic/comet catastrophe in the 1980s left the world in ruin, the world has devolved to a form of feudalism. In the remains of Manhattan Island, a strict caste system has emerged: the powerful Towermen rule from the heights of the ruins, overseeing the simple and enslaved Folk who toil away as menial laborers and workers. Looming over both is the ruin of the Great Lady, whose shattered, hollow arm remains raised for some mysterious purpose.

Returning fresh from the war is young pettycaptain Fortune and his manservant Ham, a hero who prevented hundreds of wildmen from storming the walls of Manhatten. Fortune returns with a secret—something important enough for several attempts on Fortune’s life to be made—and the ambitious young officer hopes to leverage this secret into power and privilege. His hopes are more than surpassed when he meets first with Wolff, head towerman, and Wolff’s manipulative daughter Alda as well. After starting up the social ladder, Fortune decides to visit the Isle of the Lady—Liberty Island, duh—to track down Mary, a girl who caught his eye years ago. But, instead, he ends up captured by the Comrades of the Torch, a group of revolutionaries who wish to overthrow the Towermen and restore democracy to the Folk… and who want Fortune to lead their peasant armies.

You may think you see where this is going; the only thing standing in the way is that Fortune is a gigantic ass. He mistreats his manservant Ham until it’s too late; he’s cocky, hot-headed, and tends to resort to threats and blackmail; upon seeing Mary again, his first thoughts of love are to capture her and sneak away, which results in his capture by the Comrades. Fortune, despite having such a badass name, is wholly unlikeable. To some degree I think this was intentional—the novel tracks his evolution from a immoral, chauvinistic Towerman, a product of a flawed society, to become an icon of democracy and freedom who fights for equality and justice—but it doesn’t make him more likeable or sympathetic. I think Fortune’s negative traits were rammed home too often and too early, making his change deus ex machina via lust and not real character development.

It was neat seeing a vision of The American Ur-City in its future ruined state, the skyscrapers of the 1920s collapsed and replaced with ruins and forest; the remains of Grand Central Station, its subway tunnels and long-lost trains just ghosts of the past age’s wonders. There’s a lot of mythology built around the Statue of Liberty, and what was held in its broken arm. The Folk retain folksy little rhymes about when the torch burns again, though the Towermen believe it must be a sword, symbol of power to go with her crown and tablet of law. The Folk rhymes also involve a lucky man named Fortune who would come to rule—prophecy, of course. We all know how that works out.

The novel reminds me a lot of Metropolis, with its revolt by the subterranean downtrodden masses, and a hero whose interests are swayed by a girl… only Metropolis placed into a post-apocalyptic American setting. It’s hard not to see glimpses of socialism in this worker’s revolt—calling themselves Comrades is a good start, as is the horrible oppression of the Towermen, who treat the Folk like cattle, forcing them to live in work-camps down in the subway tunnels. At one point the book mentions how the Towermen keep everyone in check through the use of currency, making them into the stereotypical capitalist robber-baron the likes of which haven’t been seen since the Depression era.

Fantastic Novels - April 1951 - Lawrence Sterne Stevens

Fantastic Novels – April 1951 – Lawrence Sterne Stevens

Bechdolt’s writing is pretty run of the mill for the era; nothing to complain about, other the antique misogyny and Fortune being a big damn jerk, but nothing really to write home about, either. The pacing and writing style brings to mind other writers in the adventure/SF pulp market like Burroughs and Merritt—the female roles are particularly Merrittesque—though while the plot has problems (especially in the predictability department) it’s not as formulaic as Burroughs’ tales. I loved the setting, since I am a sucker for the apocalypse, and the swashbuckling action and epic adventure was quite good. As a serial, it does suffer from some brevity and a lot of “telling” when the author glosses over a segment of time, and has a few cliffhangers to indicate likely stopping points.

All in all, neither an exceptional novel nor an underwhelming one. Though it is a neat historical curiosity. I can see why The Torch was reprinted twice in 1948 and 1951, and why it’s since been forgotten; it has some interesting ideas and is a pleasant little adventure romp, but it’s a tad archaic and brings little new to the plate. Which is what disappointed me the most; I swear I’ve read this same plot structure before, in the works of Burroughs and Merritt (and of course Fritz Lang). Bechdolt’s attempts to show Fortune’s evolution from brainwashed pawn of the Towermen to freedom fighter of the revolution doesn’t quite work, and the character is too unlikable and misogynistic early on. If you like obscure pulp adventure stories, you’ll probably love that Singularity & Co. has rescued a truly obscure tale—and it’s very enjoyable and readable, if you’re into swashbuckling heroics. If you want more serious, less dated reading fare, you’d be better served looking elsewhere.

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