The Curmudgeon


Monday, November 24, 2014

The Cross of Carl

A self-avowed allegory published in 1931, The Cross of Carl was written by one Walter Owen. The author is described in General Ian Hamilton's preface as "a man of business in the Argentine", so presumably he was the Scots translator and stockbroker who "transvernacularised" the South American epics into English. The translator was born in Glasgow, and the book refers at one point to a "Balclutha of the soul", Balclutha being derived from the Scots Gaelic for "town on the Clyde". According to his own prefatory note, Owen was prevented from taking part in the Great War by a painful illness, the symptoms of which he attempted to alleviate with opium. Under the drug's influence, in July 1917 he had a form of out-of-body experience in which he simultaneously experienced and observed the events described in the story.

The story's four sections are titled after stages in the passion and resurrection of Christ. Carl, an overweight rookie whose nationality is never specified, goes over the top in a dawn attack on Hill 50: "you'll never get there," his sergeant says laconically. "Might as well be Hell 50." Although Owen's prose, especially at its most allegorical, is occasionally somewhat convoluted, it can also be inventively poetic, and the advance on the hill is a tour de force of horror:

He is treading on bodies on which his feet slip and blunder. It is like walking on bolsters full of stones. Bones pop underfoot. He looks down and sees a face give under his boot, then slides and comes down. A gnashing mouth closes on his leg; he frees himself and is up again. A lane crashes through the crowd, missing him narrowly, and a welter of fragments whirls around him. A man in front goes down on his knees and, shrieking, grabbles blindly at a stringy mass that pours downward from the lower part of his body...

Carl survives the attack, but falls unconscious from his wounds and is mistaken for a corpse. The empire for which he fights does not waste its dead; they are neatly trussed up and sent to a Factory, which renders them into "pig-food, fats, glycerine and manure". Carl's experiences at the Factory drive him insane; he wanders the countryside and eventually digs himself a grave, from which he is resurrected by the Emperor and Marshal on whose orders the slaughter is occurring. Now possessed by a prophetic voice, Carl denounces these minions of Mammon at some length before being put in his place; nevertheless, the Emperor condescends to observe that "he did his bit" and the customary metal trinket is dispatched to his wife.

Presumably it was the Factory scenes that led Karl Edward Wagner to list The Cross of Carl among the thirteen best science-fictional, as opposed to supernatural or non-supernatural, horror novels; given the ending, and depending on one's religious beliefs, a case could just as easily be made for placing it in either of the non-SF categories. The Factory reminded me of the industrialised nightmares in Peake's Titus Alone, to say nothing of the more recent enterprises of a certain supermarket chain. In fact, the latter comparison is unfair: Satanic evil is easily outdone by British bad taste, and whatever else it may be, the Factory is not pretty. The book ends on a note of approaching and proportionate doom for the villains; but for the moment they seem, as usual, to be doing very well.


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