I’m going to delve into an area I honestly know nothing about…the English “Penny Dreadful.”
No, not the television series, which is about as annoying as a movie entitled “Pulp Fiction.”
Don’t get me started….
Generally, I shy away from these for the simple fact that I predominantly collect 1940s through 1950s British fiction booklets and digests (and occasionally, yes, some pulps).
I made the exception when approached by an Aussie clearing out a family estate. He had a handful of interesting items that fit my interests, and, this one science fiction penny dreadful in the mix, too. Was I interested? Vaguely. After some discussion, I asked if the booklet was complete.
Rear cover? Yes.
Firm binding? Yes.
No missing pages? No.
No missing text? No idea, it’s wrapped and I rather not open it to look that closely.
Fine. I’ll take the chance.
It arrived, and damn it all, the original owner had it in plastic wrap. I find this to be extremely annoying, especially for fragile items. After very carefully removing the Saran wrap, I found that the worst was yet to come. Let’s repeat the above questions with my new answers….
Cover? Present, but detached.
Rear cover? Entirely missing (son of a bitch!)
Firm binding? Hardly. Very brittle. Splitting. Pages parting.
No missing pages? Aside from the rear, no.
No missing text? All text concerning the story is present. (phew!)
You get the general idea. This is nothing new for those dealing with and collecting penny dreadful items. This item is printed on pulp paper. It simply was not designed to survive. A cheap read, and in the trash bin or consumed as fire kindling.
Without further ado and boredom from my blathering, let’s move on, shall we?
THE HELIOPLANE: The Story of a Voyage to the Planets
Publisher: James Henderson & Sons
Address: Red Lion House, Red Lion Court, Fleet St., London
Series: The Nugget Library # 223
Date: undated (1912)
Page Count: 56 pages
Cover artist: unknown
Author: Stanley Gray
This is the “1st” incarnation of the Nugget Library series, running 330 issues, from 1907-1916. This issue was printed 1912 (per Robert Kirkpatrick, authoritative penny dreadful researcher in collaboration with the British Library archives). A second series resurfaced after The Great War, spanning 1919-1922 (70 issues).
Whether “The Helioplane” is a reprint or not is unknown (to me).
The story opens discussing an article published recently in the 21st of June, 191- issue of the Physicist, in which a Professor Norton Colby discusses the term absolute zero. A future issue contains a vehement reply by a Professor Gama Mese noting the absurdity of Colby’s claim that helium, in being reduced to absolute zero, would deny the laws of Earth’s gravitational pull and allow one to leave the planet for space and beyond.
The truth is that both professors are working along similar lines and that Mese simply wished to derail Colby’s thought processes. Sadly for him, Colby is the more brilliant (though vastly underfunded) of the two, and managed to eke ahead of Mese in the space-race. Having completed his vessel, he invites Mese (and his son, whom is a schoolmate of Colby’s nephew) out to view his machine. Mese, irritatingly, accepts, after shredding the letter to pieces.
On arriving, they are treated pleasantly by the Colby’s, for they are at heart good people. They misjudge the Mese’s kindness and all board the vessel. Mese is startled to discover that the mechanic is Bennell, an ex-convict. The association between Mese and Bennell is never exploited, however, it is clear that both know each other.
Mese and son, prior, had arranged a secret signal to handicap the vessel. The boy falls onto a device and the vessel is in ruin, or, Colby is in financial straits. The latter becomes the case and the boy clumsily falls and releases the helium, sending them all hurling immediately into outer space. Mese arranges to blackmail Colby, forcing him to sign off against his discovery. He has no choice. It would take a financial miracle to re-accumulate the helium necessary, and Mese, he is quite funded. Bennell takes matters out of Colby’s hands by smashing the lever to return to Earth and sends them all hurling away.
Within 3 days (yes, the writer said “three days”) they arrive on Mars. Add to that speedy fact that the atmosphere is breathable and there is some forms of edible vegetation, and you have a true miracle in science fiction. Here, the story becomes a pure boys’ yarn.
Infuriated by the Mese’s attempts to waylay them upon landing, they exile the pair to Mars, sending them in one direction, while Bennell and the Colby’s explore the opposite direction. While exploring, they find vegetation that is edible and take wholeheartedly to eating up the sweet foods, and inadvertently up pops a Martian from under one of the large leafy plants. It is kindly-looking and very unintelligent, with wings, and it flies away. They are soon surrounded by a swarm of these shiny winged beings (described as a “cherub-like youth) and an airship arrives. (The deck of this monster airship, though it was like no earth-conceived dirigible in its proportions or mode of flight . . . in the centre of the ship was a clear space, raised like a dais, upon which stood the leader of all).
They soon delve into a language readily understood by one another (how convenient!) and the leader, Magna Protog, notes that they knew of their arrival. It is soon discovered that the Protogs have what equates on Earth as a “seer” among their people.
The tale then delves into the politics of the planet and thus the Colby’s learn that the evil Mese pair had walked in the direction of the villainous Martian, cannibalistic encampment. Fearing the worst, they visit the seer and discover that the Meses have worked their way into the inner confidence of the Molu, and are planning murder against the Protog base and to slaughter the Yahbi (these were the densely unintelligent cherub critters first met on Mars and a favorite delicacy for the Molu to feast upon, since they have zero combat skills).
The next couple dozen pages details combats and massive frays and butchery. The Molu murder hundreds of Yahbi in spikes and fly away with their impaled food. Worse, a Martian storm later destroys much of the Protog base and buries their airship which boasts their powerful lightning weapon, which in description, appears to harness the power of lightning in the form of an incinerating laser beam.
In the final battle, the Yahbi realize that they are soon to be eradicated and suddenly, from deep within their inner being, a cry of war and survival bubbles to the surface. They fight back! What’s more, the Colby’s discover that the violent Molu bullies are easy to fight. They lack fighter skills. They are used to flying in and impaling with no resistance, to the point that they really have no idea how to combat.
To their dismay, they learn that the Meses have taught the art of steel blades to the Molu. The fight become bloody quickly, but sheer Yahbi numbers turn the fight in their favor, before they discovery that Mese has directed a full assault on the base from another direction. The first assault was a blind!
The fighting Yahbi battalion is formed into a British combat “square” formation and rebuff the secondary attack, engulfing the Molu from all sides. The fleeing Molu pour into the Magna Protog fortress (which was originally created by the Molu) and seek respite there. The building is ringed by the last of the fighting Yahbi. None dare enter.
Then, like a futuristic Fanthorpian novel, the Protog airship is uncovered, functional, and the weapon aboard ready for action. Those necessary for flight board, with Norton and Will Colby and the mechanic, Bennell, to fly up above the storm-ruined fortress, and offer the Mese pair a final ultimatum. Mese senior accepts, while his son reposes at his feet in a dead faint. He begs them to lower the airship, so that they may safely depart the crumbling structure.
In a continued action of deceit, Mese makes his last play at revenge, attempting yet again to murder Norton Colby! Two shots ring out from Gama Mese’s revolver, in a treacherous play to bring down Colby and the Magna Protog. Apparently, Mese is the worst shot both on Earth and Mars, and in retaliation, Magna Protog unleashes the blinding power of the ship, a secondary secret weapon.
The air round about burnt and scorched with the same living blue flame
which had lit up the interior of the helioplane during the progress of the
great electrical cyclone. But this time the flame did not dart about in
different directions. Instead, it flew forward like a bullet out of a cannon.
Forward it flew, and downward, carrying with it the seared bodies of every
Molu who had taken wing from the golden dome.
Then the blast ripped into the domed structure and . . . there was no more. The structure was as of dust, obliterated, and all inside and flying about, gone forever. The Meses were no more. There was no trace of their remains. Nor would there be.
The trio board their airship and the Magna Protog bid them farewell, and perhaps, one day, they might again come to visit their planet, Mars.