Swastika Night by Murray Constantine

SF Masterworks cover, art by Eamon O’Donogue

Swastika Night is described by the Encyclopedia of SF as “the first Hitler Wins tale of any significance”, and the interesting thing about this (and the thing that made me want to read it) is that it was published in 1937 — i.e., before World War II. At least one contemporary review notes that “Murray Constantine” is a pseudonym, but it was not generally known that the author was in fact Katharine Burdekin (1896–1963) until the 1980s.

The novel is set in the Year of Our Lord Hitler 720 — presumably measured since the end of the “Twenty Years War”, or what we would call World War II. The globe is, at this time, divided between two empires, the German and the Japanese, which have been in a static truce for centuries. There are no uprisings (the Germans “ruling with such realistic and sensible severity that rebellion became as hopeful as a fight between a child of three and an armed man”), and Nazi rule is ensured via a religion in which Hitler is a god, not born of woman but exploded into existence, who took the form of a seven foot tall, blond, bearded giant. The catechism of this religion enforces a rigid hierarchy, beginning “As a woman is above a worm // So is man above woman”, and goes on to place Nazis above all foreign men, and the elite Knights (hereditary descendants of the Teutonic Knights created by Hitler) above everyone else. (As well as worms, women do get to be above one other thing: Christians.)

Women are kept separate from men, in huts in caged compounds, and are allowed only once each month into the swastika-shaped temples to worship Hitler. Their hair is kept shorn. They have no right to refuse any man, and if they give birth to a male child, it is taken from them after eighteen months.

Gollancz HB, 1937

Not unsurprisingly, their numbers are declining, though this is not something anyone but a few Knights have noticed, at this point. In fact, the German Empire as a whole is in a state of deep stagnation, and the only thing that prevents it being attacked and defeated by the Japanese is that their empire, equally hierarchical and militaristic in nature, is in a similar state.

The story follows a middle-aged English mechanic, Alfred, on a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to the Holy Land (i.e., Germany). He seeks out a German friend, Hermann, who spent some time in England, and who is clearly in love with Alfred. A rather happy-go-lucky man unafraid to speak his mind, Alfred tells Hermann that he knows how to defeat the German Empire: not through violence, but ideas. It only rules, after all, thanks to the ideals and values it forces on its subjects. Key among these is the notion of “the Blood”, the hereditary nature of the Nazi that makes him essentially superior to all others. Alfred has decided that such a belief is in fact a weakness, and that “acceptance on my part of fundamental inferiority is a sin not only against my manhood but against life itself.” The Nazi ideals of “pride, courage, violence, brutality, ruthlessness” are, he points out, “characteristics of a male animal in heat”, and “A man must be something more, surely?”

Feminist Press PB from 1985, cover by Odilon Redon

Hermann, loving Alfred too much to do the patriotic thing and turn him into the authorities, merely groans helplessly. Later, the two meet a German Knight, Friedrich von Hess who, sensing something in Alfred, takes him into his confidence and shows him (and, at Alfred’s insistence, Hermann), two things that will give a new focus to his airy talk of bringing down the German Empire. The first is a book containing an account of the true history of the world before the founding of the German Empire (which has taught its subjects they were savages before it civilised them); the second is a photograph of the real Hitler, proving him to be not a blond giant but a shortish, dark-haired man with a silly moustache. But Hitler’s true physical nature isn’t the real revelation of that photograph. Perhaps the best moment in the book is when it’s revealed to Hermann and Alfred that the youthful, vigorous and attractive long-haired blond creature standing next to Hitler is not a boy, as they immediately assume, but a girl…

The bulk of the book is devoted to conversations between von Hess and Alfred, about how the German Empire set about consolidating its power — by destroying all knowledge of the before-times, and eradicating all culture except music. The result is that the Empire has come to a dead end:

“We can create nothing, we can invent nothing—we have no use for creation, we do not need to invent. We are Germans. We are holy. We are perfect, and we are dead.”

The moment when the “boy” in the photograph with Hitler is revealed to be a girl is an illustration of what this book does so well: capturing how deeply people justify their irrational beliefs, all the better to cling to them. As someone in this book says of women with their shorn heads:

“Why, if they were meant to have hair on their heads they would have it on their faces. Have you ever seen a woman with a beard like mine?”

2017 French edition, art by Jean Bastide

As with Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which this novel is often compared to (there’s no evidence, apparently, Orwell read Constantine’s book), Swastika Night has encapsulated some essential ideas about how power warps reality in order to entrench its rule, and how difficult it can be to make one’s way out of the dead end this creates, once all alternatives, and even the possibility they once existed, have been eradicated.

Contemporary reviewers seem generally united in finding the book “as entertaining as it is frightening” (from The News Chronicle, 23 June 1937), but some reveal surprising caveats about the focus of the book’s attack — surprising, anyway, from the position of looking back with a knowledge of subsequent events.

Phyllis Bentley, for instance, in The Yorkshire Post, felt it was unfair of the author to project such a horrible future and blame it on a real people:

“That it is fair, right, and civilised, even in a work of fiction, to throw the onus of creating such a nightmare of a future on any specific nation, whether German or Japanese or other, I have strong doubts; but if we will take the satire ourselves, and regard it as the results of those human tendencies towards fear, greed, and stupidity which must be conquered if they are not to prove fatal, the lesson is striking enough.”

H S Woodham, in The Daily Independent (in Sheffield), makes a statement I still can’t quite fathom, unless it’s a comment on how so many intellectuals between the wars sought to condemn nationalism of any type — both the war-like and the prideful — as a means of preventing future conflicts:

“Murray Constantine is the nom-de-plume of a very able individual who seems to dislike the Nazi system without also disliking his own country—which borders on the unusual.”

He goes on to conclude:

“I do not imagine that the author believes this fantastic picture for one moment; he has exaggerated and caricatured with deliberate intent. Even so the story is fascinating, whether we agree with its trend or not.”

That “with deliberate intent” sounds oddly like the accusation of a crime, and is surely nonsensical, as the alternative is that Constantine wrote the book without intent, i.e., by accident.

Katharine Burdekin

Perhaps the fact that Swastika Night is about Nazis specifically (rather than, as with Orwell, an invented and therefore multiply-applicable ideology) might obscure its insights into the workings of power generally, seeming to relegate its problems to history (though it was certainly prescient in its time) and not the ongoing need to prevent the rise of any such form of totalitarianism. But its core lesson, that you must look to the most ill-treated members of society to understand how the forces in power achieve their ends, remains valuable. (As Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addition puts it: “How you treat the weak is your true nature calling.”) I have to admit I found the conversations in the book a little too long, particularly when they weren’t dealing with the book’s themes but its plot (which is slight), but Swastika Night remains a classic for its key ideas, as well as its boldness in stating them before a world that was, at the time, perhaps not quite ready to listen.


The Alabaster Hand by A N L Munby

1974 Tandem paperback

In a brief foreword to The Alabaster Hand and Other Ghost Stories (first published in 1949), A N L Munby says that these stories “were written between 1943 and 1945 in a prison-camp just outside the ancient walled town of Eichstätt in Upper Franconia”. In fact, Alan Noel Latimer Munby — “Tim” to his friends — spent five consecutive years in German POW camps. He’d joined the Territorial Army some years before the Second World War started, and in 1940 was sent to the continent to help defend Calais. Two days later, with German guns less than 100 yards from the town, Munby and the captain of the French defending forces shared a bottle of brandy, then gave themselves up. Munby was sent to Laufen in 1940, Warburg in 1941, and then Oflag VII B in Eichstätt in 1942. While there, he formed an antiquarian society and gave lectures (he’d been a book cataloguer for Sotheby’s before the war), wrote humorous poetry and a mock-Baedeker guide to the camp, helped make fake uniforms and stand-in parade dummies for escapees, and, of course, wrote ghost stories in the style of M R James. (At least one of which, “The Alabaster Hand”, was composed during an air-raid blackout, with Munby and a friend composing alternate paragraphs.) Three of these tales — “The Four Poster”, “The White Sack” and “The Topley Place Sale” — were published in a camp magazine, printed on a press owned by the Bishop of Eichstätt. (A fellow POW, Elliott Viney, who helped with the magazine, was later the printer of the first edition of The Alabaster Hand in England.)

But before this makes it sound as though Munby had a jolly war, when he was freed and returned to England in 1945 he found that his wife, whom he’d married only the year before his capture, had just died. (He’d marry again, and have a son.) Munby returned to his work for Sotheby’s, but soon left to become librarian at King’s College, Cambridge.

If it weren’t for that foreword, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to look for signs of the Second World War in the Alabaster Hand stories — though that, of course, may be the point. Munby’s narrators (or, quite possibly, his single narrator, as they could all be the same person) gad about the British countryside, visiting friends who own country houses, popping into isolated chapels in remote villages, or take walking trips in Welsh or Scottish mountains. They peruse booksellers’ catalogues, discover the stories behind obscurities in their own antiquarian collections, and have time to listen to the supernatural experiences of old acquaintances. It’s quite possible these ghostly stories, scary though they are, were mainly designed as a sort of mental holiday from the realities of Stalag life, both for their writer and his fellow-prisoners.

But there are a few moments when war — not the Second World War, but still possibly based in elements of Munby’s own experience — breaks through the pipe-smoke fug of academic bookishness and M R James-ishness. For instance, in “The Lectern”, we learn of one Thomas Prandle, whose sheep-farming forebears raised themselves to somewhat surly minor gentry (there are a few examples of upstart gentry behaving badly in these stories, and they always get their comeuppance). Prandle joins the late-18th century equivalent of the Territorial Army, and eventually gets his chance to do some overseas soldiering, though not (as with Munby) in France, but in Ulster. It falls far short of his dreams of soldierly heroism:

“It very soon became clear to Prandle and his troop that this wasn’t the glamorous business for which they’d been training so long. Instead of the dashing cavalry charge that he’d pictured he found the drab necessity of conducting house-to-house searches in a hostile countryside. There is no glory for the soldier matched against guerrillas — no enemy is drawn up in line to do battle, only a sordid series of murdered sentries, shots in the dark and vanishing assailants. The inevitable reprisals only made a bad situation worse. The soldier is at an enormous disadvantage in dealing with civilians. If he is a man of chivalry, they can insult him with impunity, for he cannot retaliate. If an unarmed man is killed by a soldier there is an immediate outcry…”

This surely can’t have been Munby’s experience in Calais, as he wasn’t part of the occupying forces, which makes me wonder if he perhaps formed this picture of Thomas Prandle from observing his German captors.

First HB cover, with art by Joanna Dowling

The only explicit mention of modern war comes in “Number Seventy-nine”, the tale of an antiquarian bookseller’s cataloguer, Merton, who “came down from Oxford in 1913, and got caught up in the war before he’d settled down to anything. He was badly shell-shocked in France, and when he got his discharge in 1918 he was a nervous wreck…” Merton, much to his employer’s delight, becomes engaged, but is even more distraught when he loses his fiancé in an automobile accident. (Reading which, I couldn’t help wondering how Munby must have felt about this tale when his own wife died before his return to England.) Merton turns to spiritualism and then, in a final desperate move, to a manuscript on necromancy his employer has just acquired. His employer (who is telling the sorry tale-within-a-tale to Munby’s narrator) hears Merton scream and run from the shop, and looking out, sees “a shadowy figure… of grey colouring” following him, accompanied by a smell he recognises from an exhumation he’d happened on as a boy. (Smells — quite often of burning — accompany other Munby spectres, too. The reality of burned flesh may be another wartime experience of Munby’s.)

The most visceral passage in all of these stories comes in “The Tudor Chimney”. The narrator’s wealthy friend, who has recently taken up the hobby of renovating an old house, opens a bricked-in chimney and looses something that the narrator encounters one night. Generally, in these tales, the spook is witnessed by someone else, or is even relegated to a tale-within-a-tale-within-a-tale, but this time the narrator himself sees the thing, and his response is authentic:

“There are certain human passions that strip from a man the veneer of civilised culture which normally encases him, that turn him into something primitive and elemental. I felt myself spiritually naked when face to face with the apparition that confronted me that night.”

This passage stands out because, generally, Munby’s narrator is quite cool about the existence of ghosts. In “A Christmas Game”, the narrator sees one coming for a fellow guest, but, knowing it’s not there for him, doesn’t seem to feel any fear. It’s not as with Lovecraft, where the very fact of an entity’s existence is enough to drive a man to madness. Nor is this quite M R James’s approach. Mike Ashley has described Munby as the “Closest to inheriting the mantle of M R James”, and the air of antiquarianism, churchiness, strangely-historied things bought on impulse at auction, and horrors rooted in recent centuries past, is certainly there. But the differences are evident in a tale like “The Tudor Chimney”. While James generally lays out, piece by piece, the whole background necessary to understand the full import of his spook before it makes its final appearance, Munby has us see the ghost, and know it as a ghost, then his characters start the investigation into what or who it is, how it came to be a ghost, and how to lay its disturbed soul. And once it’s dealt with, the characters get on with life pretty much as before, no sanity points lost. A ghost, as the narrator of “The Tudor Chimney” says, “isn’t the sort of thing one can shut away and keep out of one’s mind”, but it’s also, in these stories, not the sort of thing to shake one’s faith.

Munby’s tales are brisk, compared to James’s, and once you get past the POW’s holiday-in-the-mind of gadding about the British countryside engaging in idle antiquarian research, the supernatural elements are introduced quickly, have their stories told in straightforward narratives rather than Jamesian hints, and then they’re put to one side. But they’re effective tales for all that, and if they’re lacking the weird power of M R James’s originals, they get their little shiver of terror by more than mere association.


The Sound of His Horn by Sarban

Tartarus Press edition, art by R.B. Russell

Delirious from lack of rest, food and water, Alan Querdillon, escaping from a WWII POW camp through endless German pine forests, sights a small lake and rushes towards it. Crossing a strange beam of pale light, he’s shocked into unconsciousness. He wakes in a private hospital, and when its German doctor invites him to his study for a chat, Querdillon notices an electric calendar-clock displaying the year 102 — “the hundred and second year of the First German Millenium as fixed by our First Fuehrer and Immortal Spirit of Germanism, Adolf Hitler”, as the doctor says, somewhat amused by his patient’s needing to have this explained. Querdillon has slipped into a future where Nazi Germany has won the “War of German Rights”, and reshaped the world to its wildest desires.

He’s being held in the castle of the Reich Master Forester, Count Johann von Hackelnberg, whose grounds are a sort of retreat where the Nazi elite can enjoy a bit of hunting. He soon gets to witness a fat and rather fed-up sportsman indolently shooting at (and missing) a deer or two, then perking up when he’s handed a peculiarly wide-bored gun and a new form of game is driven past the hunting hideout:

A figure had come into sight, running hard over the shock grass: a human figure, but fantastically decked. It came on, running for dear life and the unseen hounds clamoured close behind; there was no mistaking their intention to rend and kill now. The figure held my gaze; it was a tall, long-limbed girl, her head and features concealed by a brilliantly coloured beaked mask, which yet allowed her dark hair to stream out behind. To see her racing up the glade was as astounding as if you had seen one of the bird-headed goddesses of Old Egypt suddenly break from carven stillness into panic flight.

The wide-bore gun fires a weighted net. The hunter misses the first woman, but another follows, and she’s caught, trussed up, and taken away to be presented as the hunter’s prime catch at an end-of-day banquet.

Sphere paperback

Querdillon has already learned this is a harsh future. Slave men from the “Under-Races”, artificially matured, muted and neutered, do the work, while his nurses are all “Pure German maidens”, educated to such a level of discipline they’ll report their own misdemeanours, and suggest their own punishments (“They know better than to propose too little, too!”) rather than have their fellows beat them to it.

But the worst of it waits for the Count’s after-dinner entertainment. The monstrous Count von Hackelnberg takes his guests outside to a pit containing a couple of deer. Querdillon watches as twenty alluring but horrifying creatures file into the pit, a troop of “women transformed by a demonic skill in breeding and training into great, supple, swift and dangerous cats”. At a signal, they tear the deer apart and eat them raw. Then the Count spots Querdillon, and it’s time for some firsthand experience of what it means to be human prey.

Art by Richard Powers

The Sound of His Horn (1952) is the most well-known work by “Sarban” — real name John William Wall — who spent his working life (including during the Second World War) in the British Diplomatic Service, stationed in Beirut, Jedda, Tabriz, Isfahan, Casablanca and Cairo. During his lifetime he published three books (the other two being Ringstones and Other Curious Tales in 1951, and The Doll Maker and Other Tales of the Uncanny in 1953). In a few ways he reminds me of Daphne du Maurier (who I wrote about a little while back), in that his stories didn’t first appear in magazines or anthologies, but only in his own original collections. And, again like du Maurier, he tends to write quite a long short story, starting at an even pace and continuing that way through an often extensive build-up before we get to the meat of the story. His writing’s never dull. It keeps a measured, steady focus, as though every aspect of the build-up is relevant. But, to me, it does feel that at certain moments his writing bursts free and becomes a bit more intense and poetic. Sometimes, as in his long story “The King of the Lake”, this is when describing the underground wonders of the caves where a mysterious people live by a large, hidden, mid-desert lake. But generally Sarban’s poetic flourishes occur when he’s describing something that forms the ultimate core of several of his stories (including the title story of Ringstones, as well as “The King the Lake” and The Sound of His Horn): women being strapped into leather harnesses and being made to act like animals, usually as part of some sporting activity. In The Sound of His Horn, this is the “Jagdstück” or “game-girls” who are the hunting prey; in Ringstones it’s to act as human horses in a chariot race. At the same time, Sarban’s stories are usually focused on his female characters, who are intelligent, practical and capable people, which makes their frustration and humiliation all the more poignant.

Ringstones, cover by Bob Blanchard

It’s impossible to say there isn’t an element of misogyny here, but at the same time, Sarban’s sympathies seem to lie entirely with his female characters. Is he revelling in their humiliation, or identifying with their frustration? I think, as is probably true with most of the best horror fiction, the answer is an anxious mix of both. Sarban’s attitude towards his female characters is a conflicted mix of sympathy, fascination, and identification, rather than mere aggression. All this sports-and-leather-straps stuff at times comes across as a superheated version of John Betjeman’s love of confident, strong young women (“Pam, I adore you, you great big mountainous sportsgirl”), but the darkness at the heart of the stories is unavoidable. Was John William Wall (who, it seems, was somewhat dominated by his stronger wife, in an unhappy marriage), depicting his own sense of humiliation, vulnerability, and frustration — something he perhaps couldn’t express as a stiff-upper-lipped man of the 1950s — or was he inflicting it on others, in a sort of revenge fantasy? Bit of both, no doubt.

The frame story of The Sound of His Horn makes it clear that Querdillon was deeply affected by his experience of a Nazified future (which he escapes from, back to his own time, though of course everyone dismisses it as a hallucination caused by hunger and thirst), leading to his mother wondering why he isn’t marrying his long-standing fiancé:

Alan had lost his spirit; his manhood was lost or sleeping; something had so altered him that the girl’s animation, youth, ardour and beauty daunted him. He was simply afraid of her.

John William Wall, a.k.a. Sarban

His experience seems to have affected his identity as a man. And it’s not his witnessing of the (entirely male) Nazi elite’s inhumanity that has affected him, because man’s inhumanity to man is a long established fact — it’s his glimpse of the “utterly unhuman” cat-women’s bestial viciousness, which seems to have awoken a horror of his fiancé’s love of fox-hunting, as though he suspects that vision of women-as-cats has suggested they might all be cats, somewhere under the skin.

Sarban ceased publishing after 1953, blaming mixed reviews, but he continued writing, as Tartarus Press now include previously-unpublished works in their collections of his fiction. (They also run Sarban.co.uk, which has an interesting biography of the man.)

The Sound of His Horn is a real weird fiction classic, written in the urbane, well-controlled style of a well-read British man of letters, but with moments of genuinely dark strangeness of a sort that you just don’t expect to find coming from that well-read British man of letters.