The Coming Race (Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1871)

A man descends a deep mineshaft and finds himself in a subterranean world populated by an advanced human-like species known as Vril-ya, so-called because of their command of the almost magical power vril, which they harness to create all manner of scientific wonders. The man spends some time (months? years? quite hard to tell in a land with no day or season) among the Vril-ya, and primarily concerns himself with observing their society.

It is on its surface a utopia — without war, without class, without hunger, without disease. The people live in quiet ease, all labor having devolved to automata or made trivial by the use of vril. However, on reflection, it’s culturally stagnant and is governed by a brutal dictatorship masked only by the bland complacency of the inhabitants, at peace with its neighbors only by the mutually assured destruction of a vril war. The man fears the annihilation this “coming race” would spell for his own people if and when they reach the surface world. On the other side, the Vril-ya are deeply concerned with the dangers this Tish (literally tadpole, but meaning barbarian) poses to the Ana (people) should his Pah-bodh (false) ideology spread, risking their decline into¬† Koom-Posh (…hard to translate concisely, let’s say degeneration) or even Glek-Nas (utter corruption).

Incidentally, a great deal of time is spent expounding on the Vril-ya language. The vocabulary presented is no more than a dozen or two words, but Bulwer-Lytton does set forth a thought-out grammar, seemly quite influenced by Sanskrit and Welsh.

The daughter of his host, Zee, falls in love with the man, which is most perilous for him. Such a match between a Gy (female Vril-ya) and a Tish is proscribed and the Tish will be executed to prevent it. And it does come to that. The Tur (leader) issues the man’s death warrant, but Zee, rather than see her beloved killed, returns him to the cavern he entered by and he escapes back to the surface world.

The book was a touch disappointing, if only because I went in with such high hopes. Zanoni and A Strange Story are masterpieces of esoteric fiction, and as I knew Bulwer-Lytton had a personal interest in the Hollow Earth theory, I expected so much from a story that explores it. Unfortunately, he’s a bit too caught up in the concept of inner-earth people and on speculating on what they might be like, and as a consequence, he never gets around to much in the way of plot or character development.

No inscriptions.

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Trajan (Henry F. Keenan, 1885)

Trajan Gray, a young American artist in Paris, has resolved himself to suicide after being rejected by Theo Carnot. Theo, in truth, is nothing more than an adventuress and had never intended to marry Trajan at all — she was using him as part of a smuggling scheme. Trajan is rescued by Elliot Arden, also American and also young, but despite his age, he’s the head of an immensely rich Boston family. Elliot befriends Trajan, and through him, Trajan meets and ultimately falls in love with Edith, Elliot’s sister.

Now returns Theo to the story. The Carnot fortune is quite ruined and Theo has fixed upon marrying Elliot. Elliot is already semi-engaged to his cousin Bella, but that’s not a great obstacle for the master tactician Theo. The presence of Trajan is the bigger problem, but she’s aided by Elliot’s supreme naivety and she’s quite able to drive a wedge between the two friends and expel Trajan from the group.

All the while in the background of the story is Napoleon III and the tottering French Second Empire. At last, the house of cards crumbles and the country is plunged into war. Paris is seized by the Communards, whose rule, though short-lived, brings a second reign of terror dotted with robbery, rape, and murder all in the name of the Commune. Trajan, in his earlier days, was something of a radical himself, but now he finds himself targeted as a “suspect”. It goes without saying that this is Theo’s doing.

Elliot at last discovers Theo’s treachery and sets about rescuing Trajan once again. It would have been better if he hadn’t, as while Trajan is quite capable and has in fact already freed himself, Elliot isn’t and only succeeds in getting himself arrested. Now Trajan must save Elliot, which he does nearly at the cost of his own life.

In the end when all is reveled, Trajan and Elliot are reconciled, Trajan marries Edith, and Elliot marries Bella. Even Theo makes out all right and manages to land a prince and a fortune.

I’ve left out several subplots of more or less importance, but that’s the main story line.

Inscription: Signed and dated on the front fly leaf in dull pencil, Katherine F. Stone, May 1885. Kat’s also underlined several passages throughout the book that she evidently found to be of particular wit.

The Understanding Heart (Peter B. Kyne, 1926)

Between the author’s several diversionary misogynistic, racist, and anti-immigrant screeds, there’s a story about a lawyer who quits his practice to become a forest ranger, meets and falls in love with a woman who’s stationed at the fire look-out, then quits the rangers to become a lawyer again to defend the woman’s friend, who has been convicted of murdering the man his wife was having an affair with, but it was actually some convoluted plot by the local mining company to steal his land.

Inscription: Signed George A. Thomas in a great, sprawling hand diagonally across the entire front endpaper.