Friday, February 25, 2011

Forgotten Books: Phalanxes of Atlans - F. Van Wyck Mason

Okay, you’ve got these two intrepid adventurers and explorers, Victor Nelson and Richard Alden, who were pilots in The Great War. While attempting to fly across an unexplored and unmapped part of the Arctic, a storm forces down their plane. While they’re searching for help, Alden disappears, and when Nelson goes to look for him, he finds blood on the snow and strange footprints. The trail leads to a mysterious black hole in the ice with warm steam coming out of it. What could possibly be down there? Pellucidar? Maple White Land? Skartaris? The Savage Land?

Well, no. If the title of this book didn’t already give it away, I’m gonna spoil it right now. It’s the last remnant of ancient Atlantis, of course. And are these ancient Atlanteans living in peace and harmony? Nah, they’re at war with another group of people living in the same underground world, and naturally Nelson and Alden, with their outer world technology, wind up right in the middle of the ruckus. And for good measure, there’s a beautiful princess who’s captured and about to be sacrificed by the bad guys.

All right, all snark aside, this plot wasn’t nearly as hoary with age when PHALANXES OF ATLANS was published as a serial in 1931 in the pulp ASTOUNDING STORIES. (I believe this was when ASTOUNDING was still being published by Clayton Magazines, rather than Street & Smith, but don’t quote me on that.) Lost Race novels certainly weren’t anything new back then, but they probably weren’t as much of a cliché as they’ve become since then. So we have to approach this from the point of view of a reader in 1931. World-building is a key in stories like this, and author F. Van Wyck Mason does a pretty good job of it. The logistics of the Empire of Atlans existing underground actually make some sense, as do the weapons that the Empire’s soldiers use. Not only that, but Mason also throws in a couple of twists in the Lost Race plot, one of which works pretty well. (The other twist works in the context of the story but is rather politically incorrect even by 1931 standards, as is some of the writing. Consider yourself warned.) There are big battle scenes, spectacle, dinosaurs (you were expecting there wouldn’t be dinosaurs?), and even some humor.

I first became aware of Van Wyck Mason as the author of numerous espionage novels published from the Thirties through the Sixties, starring an intelligence officer named Major Hugh North, who actually got older and became a colonel in the course of the series. I liked these a lot. Then I noticed some big historical novels by F. Van Wyck Mason and figured they had to be by the same guy. (They are.) Then when I began collecting pulps I noticed a number of historical adventure serials by F.V.W. Mason. Yep, same guy. Mason’s stories published in ARGOSY during the Thirties are consistently good.

PHALANXES OF ATLANS is the earliest story by Mason I’ve read, and the only science fiction by him. While it has its weaknesses, it’s also an entertaining yarn if you’re in the right frame of mind. There’s an inexpensive reprint of the novel available from Wildside Press, so it’s not completely forgotten. Nor is Mason. I published a post about him on this blog five, maybe six years ago, and I still get a comment on that post every now and then. So he definitely has his fans. I really ought to read one of the Hugh North novels again and see how they hold up.


Fred Blosser said...

Boy, forgotten is right, James. I doubt many under 50 would know Mason's name or any of his books, even though his historical novels were once as popular ('40s through 60s -- even into the early '70s) as John Jakes' were in the '80s and Bernard Cornwell's are today. One of his pulp serials set in ancient times, later revised for Pocket Books publication (I forget the title now) featured a supporting barbarian character named Conan. Which made me wonder if Mason had read his fellow pulpster Robert E. Howard at some point,.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I wish Fred Blosser would send me a review of a forgotten book. I believe is an untapped mine of them.

Todd Mason said...

And in 1931, ASTOUNDING STORIES OF SUPER-SCIENCE was indeed edited by Harry Bates for the Clayton magazines chain. I think I've yet to read (that) Mason.

James Reasoner said...

I wouldn't be a bit surprised if Mason read Howard, and I think it's a safe bet Howard read Mason, as often as the latter appeared in ARGOSY during the Thirties.

You're right, Fred would be great at this stuff.

Thanks for the confirmation. I'd forgotten that Bates was the editor then.

George said...

I've read some of F. Van Wyck Mason's spy novels, but I never realized he had written a Lost City novel. I'm ordering it now. Thanks for the heads-up!

Steve Oerkfitz said...

I didn't know he wrote anything other than historical novels. Remember my mother reading him when I was a kid along with another forgotten writer-Frank Yerby.

Jerry House said...

Mason is a name I haven't heard of for some time. During the Fifties, it seemed like every other book issued by Pocket Books was by him, with the other half being by Erle Stanley Gardner. (An exaggeration, I know, but not by much.)

Anonymous said...

Mason's historicals range from good to excellent. I've dodged the Major North books because an early brush with one of them didn't satisfy me.
But I had no clue he wrote a pulpy Lost Race yarn. With dinosaurs!
All right, James, tell me true: Is there a scene where the heroes fight some dinosaurs?

John Hocking

James Reasoner said...

Hope you enjoy the book. I'm going to check and see if Mason did any other SF/Lost Race stuff.

I need to do a Forgotten Books post on a Frank Yerby novel. I've read a bunch of them, but there are plenty I haven't read.

I know what you mean. The ones that weren't by Mason or Gardner were usually by Frank G. Slaughter (another highly successful but forgotten author).

Yep. There's not a lot of dinosaur fighting, but there's some.

beb said...

Clayton went under in early 1933. Mason also wrote a short novel, "Death's Domain" set in the Sargasso. Sounds Sftnal but I've never gotten around to reading it. Argosy 1929.

daveteds said...

Death's Domain does have a little bit of sf feel as well as a little lost race thing going on. Mason also co-wrote two books under the Geoffrey Coffin pseudonym which have a sf feel to them.

James Reasoner said...

I didn't know about the Geoffrey Coffin pseudonym. Thanks!