REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:

   

HARRINGTON HEXT (EDEN PHILLPOTTS) – Number 87. Thornton Butterworth, UK, hardcover, 1922. Macmillan, US, hardcover, 1922. Wildside Press, US, hardcover/trade paperback, 2008, as by Eden Phillpotts. Prologue Books, US, trade paperback, December 2012.

   A policeman, standing at the time on the suspension bridge that crosses the ornamental waters, heard a single, loud cry from the path that approaches the bridge easterly, and hastening to the spot he found a man lying upon his face on the grass at the path side. Close at hand, though but dimly visible, for the night was foggy, P,C. B49 declares that he saw a large and living animal, such as he had never seen before. He attempts no exact description of this creature, but has sworn that he distinguished a black, humped object, ‘as large as a horse’ with a very long neck and a narrow head above which were set tall ears. Its eyes shone like a cat’s as he turned his lantern upon it, and it appeared to hesitate as he advanced a short distance towards it. He then blew his whistle, and the thing, evidently alarmed, hopped twice, then spread black wings, ascended swiftly into the air and disappeared. The constable likens the creature to a huge bird, and though four other officers, who ran to answer his summons, saw nothing of this alleged rara avis, in one particular they corroborate a detail reported by John Syme (P.C. B49). All were conscious of an overpowering taint and reek in the air — an animal smell.

   
   The first sighting of the creature the world will come to know as the Bat in London is little but a curiosity, but soon it will become a world wide sensation of terror and horror, a monster striking from the sky and leaving death and destruction in its wake.

   Eden Phillpotts, who under the pseudonym Harrington Hext penned fantastic thrillers, was a considerable literary light in his day well respected by critics for his regional novels; a recognized master of the mystery novel whose The Red Remaynes (1922) stands with Trent’s Last Case by E. C. Bentley as one of the first novels to create the Golden Age of the Classic Detective Novel; the man who convinced a discouraged Agatha Christie to keep writing because he saw something in her work; who partnered with notable writer Arnold Bennett (Doubloons); wrote early Science Fiction (Saurus and others); lost worlds (The Golden Feitch); and had more literary honors than we can list here, was born in 1862 (and died in 1961).

   In the late Victorian Era he made his debut with a pamphlet for a railroad line that both pioneered and popularized an entire sub genre the railroad mystery with My Adventure on the Flying Scotsman, and one of his last novels (1951) featured a murder involving an experimental nuclear physicist . That would be a full career for any writer in any age.

   But back to the central question, what is the Bat, and what is the secret of its reign of terror?

   Alexander Skeat is the first victim, no mark on him but a tiny red spot. Yes, because this one is no fair play detective novel, a drug unknown to science is the culprit. Indeed in the tradition of the thriller mysterious drugs, monstrous bat winged flying creatures, and enough thrills, horrors, and mysterious doings for a dozen weird pulps fill the pages of this unrepentant extravaganza. Even Edgar Wallace could take a few notes from Phillpotts.

   Our narrator is Ernest Granger, the Secretary of the Club of Friends and agent of the Apollo Life Insurance Company, both of who are intimately involved in the history of the Bat. His fellow club members General Fordyce and his scientist brother Sir Bruce, Rev, Walter Blore, Leon Jacobs Stockbroker, and Jack Smith, a barrister all figure in the action.

   Drawn into the case by the death of Skeats, a scientific charlatan, the drama will take the men from London to New York, to Yugoslavia (Jugo-Slavia here), Russia, and China in a race to discover what the Bat is and who is behind it, and why it has targeted the relatively new Christian Science movement.

   Like many books of the Post WWI era, Number 87 is concerned with the future, the fear of another Great War, and how to avoid that fearful fate.

   “The old security of the strong and the freedom of the mighty are gone. We are all in the same leaky boat, great and small together, and power is not vested in what you call ‘the humanities’ — far from it. Science, not the Arts, ended the war. War, indeed, is a ghost for a moment, but it remains for the men and women of this century to decide if the ghost shall vanish into thin air, or presently grow solid and clothe itself again with bones and flesh. We must, then, accept existing conditions and not indulge in metaphysics. Physics alone offers salvation. Physics alone is stronger than treaties and more trustworthy than the word of living man; because physics means power.”

   
   That voice is key to the solution of the novel, a modern Prometheus (and no, the Mary Shelley reference is no accident) who reaches too far and through mere humanity becomes a monster rather than a hero of mankind is the culprit and the Miltonian figure at its center.

   Like much popular fiction of the era the villain is no Fu Manchu or Bond villain, but a flawed superman of sorts, a figure both ultimately admired and feared, and in the end both he and his creation Number 87, the Bat, suffer exile rather than destruction more on the model of Nemo or Robur than the less noble villains to come.

   Phillpotts is hardly hard-boiled or pared down as a prose stylist, but he can write and his works, while dated, are often still quite good reads. This brief scene when our narrator first spies the creature for himself is a good example.

   Suddenly the light was darkened, but by no cloud. A black shadow fell and moved upon the moonlit fern, and looking upward I perceived an enormous winged object flying above the tree tops. For a moment it had crossed the disk of the moon and so attracted my eyes. It appeared to be a gigantic bat… Moonlight showed the thing standing where it had settled. I saw its long neck; its low ears set far back upon a snake-shaped head, its large, open eyes of phosphorescent green — the sort of illumination now familiar to me as the light from glowworms. The mass of its body was hidden by the fern and I could only see its head and neck and the hump of its shoulders rising above them.

   
   Revelations, horrors, and terrors are to come before Granger and his friends find the remarkable solution to what the Bat is and who lies behind it much less why. It is admittedly old fashioned, but not bad for that. Certainly not to everyone’s taste, but well worth taking the time to find (easy in e-book edition if not hard copy).

   It was the dark hour before dawn and one could actually see nothing of what happened; but within twenty minutes we all marked the eyes of ‘the Bat,’ like twin sparks of fire, upon the roof of the manor house. The machine ascended and became invisible to us, whereupon through the night there drifted drearily a strange mutter and a moaning — the lamentation, as it seemed, of that ancient Elizabethan pile, shuddering and sinking down under a swift rain of electrons, that transformed the granite at a touch and ground the ancient porphyry into dust.

   
   Splendid blood and thunder that.