Anyone here ever read any of the Guy Boothby "Dr Nikola" books? Just noticed that Wordsworth is planning a book - I've heard of these often over the years but never got round to reading them (actually I don't think I've ever seen a copy). They sound good, but I'd hate to get my hopes up too much...
Review from my old and now defunct Stilettoblade website:
A BID FOR FORTUNE (ENTER DR. NIKOLA) by Guy Boothby (1895) EDITION: Newcastle Publishing 1975
Guy Boothby introduces his creepy supervillain Dr Nikola in a novel that has all the gothic eeriness of a Sheridan Le Fanu story. BID FOR FORTUNE develops at a slow but relentless pace, presenting mystery upon mystery and leaving much unexplained. Written in 1895, the narrative is old-style Victorian in the manner of stories written half a century before rather than matching contemporary authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle. But it doesn't suffer for that. In fact, the slightly antiquated approach adds to the weird, unsettling mood of the piece.
Though Boothby was an Australian, this story is plainly influenced by the Decadence movement which was at its height in Britain at the time. With Oscar Wilde as their figurehead, the decadents were fascinated with charismatic characters, the inheritance of wealth, wasted and obsessive personalities, forbidden love and supernatural evil. All those themes are present here in one degree or another.
It begins with a strange meeting in London, presided over by the sinister Dr Nikola. With his black cat, the doctor is, perhaps, an early forerunner of a James Bond villain (Blofeld). His hypnotic eyes and fascination with the Orient also mark him as an obvious inspiration for Sax Rohmer's Dr Fu Manchu. But we learn very little about him in this tale; he's ruthless, he has tremendous personal magnetism and he's totally without scruples. Apart from that, he remains a mystery.
A crime of some sort is being planned and many of the people we'll encounter later on are mentioned during the meeting but, at this early stage, the whole thing is an enigma.
Meanwhile, in Sydney, an adventurer called Richard Hatteras rescues a young lady from a group of thugs. Phyllis Wetherell quickly wins his heart but, unknown to Hatteras, she plays a key role in Nikola’s nefarious scheme. Her father owns a small stick of Chinese origin. We are never told what function this item has; merely that it’s the key to untold wealth and power. Nikola wants it and will do anything to get it… including kidnapping Miss Wetherell and holding her to ransom.
Dr Nikola From here, the various strands of plot are woven together with consummate skill, sending the characters on a breathtaking chase from the northern hemisphere to the southern, from London to Egypt to Sydney and the South Seas. Throughout, the presence of Dr Nikola haunts every move, hanging over the characters, an omnipresent threat. Each time he appears, it’s as if all the other characters whither. His awful allure is so commanding that a mere gesture can render a person practically helpless. Is he paranormal? A sorcerer? Or simply an uncanny mesmerist? We never find out. But despite the lack of explanations, in one horribly suggestive and terrible scene, it feels as if we learn too much: Hatteras barges into a room and finds Nikola inside. It's lined with huge bottles holding the pickled bodies of humans. Smaller containers hold babies and animals. There are skeletons on stands and the apparatus for every kind of murder known to man. Exotic weaponry hangs from the walls. Two figures are chained either side of a massive fireplace:
‘That on the right hand was apparently a native of Northern India, if one might judge from his dress and complexion. He sat on the floor in a constrained attitude, accounted for by the fact that his head, which was at least three times too big for his body, was so heavy as to require an iron tripod with a ring or collar in the top of it to keep it from overbalancing him and bringing him to the floor. Too add to the horror of this awful head, it was quite bald; the skin was drawn tensely over the bones, and upon this veins stood out as large as macaroni stems.’
On the other side is a creature half-ape and half-man. Dr Nikola stands at a large table in the centre of the room. He is dissecting a creature ‘strangely resembling a monkey’, watched by his fiendish black cat and an albino dwarf.
It’s spine-chilling stuff; all the more so because we never learn what Nikola is up to. And, fantastically, the story doesn’t end with a victory (at least not for the heroes) and leaves the door wide open for another visit to Dr Nikola’s chamber of horrors. And you just know you’ve got to return… …
DR NIKOLA by Guy Boothby (1896) EDITION: Ward Lock & Co. Ltd 1906
In BID FOR FORTUNE, Guy Boothby introduced us to the mesmeric and sinister Doctor Nikola. The villainous occultist remained a mystery throughout that book, somehow managing to dominate it with his brooding presence without actually taking centre stage very often. The plot concerned his efforts to secure possession of a three-inch long stick of Chinese origin. Eventually, he succeeded though we never found out what the stick was or why he so desperately wanted it. Now, in the sequel, everything is explained. The tale is narrated by Wilfred Bruce, a traveler and master of disguise who has fallen on hard times in Shanghai. With his rent due and his bank account empty, he eagerly accepts a job offered by Nikola despite the fact that various acquaintances turn white and shake with fear when the doctor's name is mentioned.
Nikola explains that he is seeking entry into a mysterious monastery in 'Thibet' (nearly all place names have antiquated spelling). It's the base of a clandestine esoteric society - 'ten times as powerful as any government or priesthood in the world' - which has the knowledge to extend life, perform magic and even raise the dead. With these medical miracles, says Nikola, he could change the world. The Chinese stick is a 'key' through which entry can be gained... but not for outsiders. However, with his own and Bruce's talent for disguise, he hopes to penetrate the forbidden citadel and learn its secrets.
The society is ruled by three holy men. One of them has recently died and a replacement has been elected and is travelling to take up his new post. But Nikola and Bruce arrange for this priest to be captured and held prisoner while the doctor assumes his identity. After a brief diversion caused by the local consul's daughter who requires rescuing from an angry mob (Bruce obliges, promptly falls in love, and they get engaged), the two adventurers set off on their journey to Thibet.
They encounter many difficulties and survive various escapades en route and become firm friends. As he recounts their exploits, Bruce paints a much more positive portrait of Nikola than the one we got from Richard Hatteras in the previous volume. However inexplicable and disturbing his powers may be, Nikola is presented as a loyal and attentive friend who's motivated by a desire to better the world.
For much of its length, DR NIKOLA reads like something written by H. Rider Haggard. The alien and disconcerting nature of the oriental character presents a constant threat to our European heroes and, from the reader's point of view, the exotic atmosphere is totally intoxicating. I was sucked into the mood of this story so forcefully that whenever I put the book down it remained with me until I picked it up again.
Journey over, the two men gain entry to the sacred monastery. Here, Nikola undergoes an initiation ceremony, spied upon by Bruce. The doctor witnesses the healing of a paralysed man, the resurrection of a corpse and the raising of the spirits of the cult's former leaders. But at the very last moment, the man who Nikola has replaced turns up and exposes him as an impostor. The story reaches a climax with a daring escape followed by a desperate flight with angry monks in hot pursuit. It's thrilling stuff but it doesn't end as I expected. I thought Bruce would suddenly discover the doctor in the middle of some nefarious deed; that their friendship would end. It never happens. Nikola is heroic and affable throughout. Confusing! Is the man a devil, as BID FOR FORTUNE suggests, or are his intentions perfectly honourable, as seems to be the case here? Guy Boothby keeps us guessing.
THE LUST OF HATE by Guy Boothby (1898) EDITION: Wildside Press (undated)
The typesetting in this edition of Guy Boothby's third Doctor Nikola story is the worst I've ever encountered. Random italics, spontaneous outbursts of punctuation (including a nice neat row of seven commas), misspelled words and eccentric spacing vied to distract my attention on practically every page. They didn't succeed. Boothby delivers such a riveting narrative that the pages could've been printed in the wrong order and I'd have sped through them nevertheless. This is thrilling reading.
Oddly, though, Nikola himself has little more than a walk-on role. This is all about Gilbert Pennethorne, one of life's losers. Born under a star of ill-omen, his fortunes go from bad to worse until, eventually, he ends up prospecting for gold in Australia. Here he's cheated out of a fortune by a bullying scoundrel called Bartrand. The latter immediately boards ship for England where he establishes himself as one of the moneyed gentry. Pennethorne, meanwhile, after recovering from a serious illness, is hot on his tail.
For the first few chapters, fury blazes from practically every paragraph. Pennethorne's desire for revenge is overwhelming and very well described. His passion infuses the story with such blackness that a sense of doom hangs over the narrative like a heavy storm. I found myself reading this at a hundred miles an hour; flying through the pages as the protagonist spiraled towards his life-changing encounter with Nikola. Boothby's prose occasionally turns a little purple but never quite crosses the line. There are moments of laziness, where it seems he was telling the story so quickly that coherence almost slipped out of his grasp, but it honestly doesn't matter at all. He simply sweeps you along on a tide of emotion, steering you helplessly through the plot in the wake of Pennethorne, who tumbles from disaster to disaster.
Initially, our unfortunate hero simply stalks the streets of London trailing Bartrand with the desire to murder him but too much of a conscience to do the deed. But then, seemingly out of the blue, he's approached by Dr Nikola who offers a foolproof scheme whereby Pennethorne can do away with his nemesis and get off scot free. The plan proceeds but, at the last second, Pennethorne has a mysterious vision of a beautiful woman who seems to urge him to think twice before committing the act. He backs out of the plan. Unfortunately, it seems to be too late. Bartrand appears to be dead and Pennethorne, in a blind panic, flees the country convinced that the police are in pursuit. Under a false identity, he sails in the Fiji Princess for South Africa where he intends to lose himself in the wilds.
While aboard ship, he saves a woman - Agnes Maybourne, the daughter of a rich mine owner - after she falls overboard. He's astonished to discover that she's the woman from his vision. They are thrown together again when the Fiji Princess strikes a rock and sinks, killing all the crew and other passengers. Pennethorne and Agnes make it to a nearby island in a lifeboat where they manage to survive (and fall in love) until, eventually, they see a vessel passing nearby. Attempting to reach the ship, they're enveloped in fog and become lost. They drift for days, almost starving to death. This particular sequence was, for me, the highlight of the story. Boothby's portrayal of their despair is truly moving and is matched by extremely vivid descriptions of the seascape and its various moods.
Just as they're at death's door, a ship rescues them and they continue on to South Africa. Agnes's grateful father rewards Pennethorne with a job as manager of a mine. But there are still more perils to come; the natives are on the warpath. Throughout all these misadventures, the romance between the two characters grows ever stronger but Pennethorne cannot allow himself to indulge in it. As far as he's concerned, he's a murderer and unworthy of Agnes's affections. So from blind fury, the emotions change to hopeless despair and unbearable longing. It's a heady brew with a strong flavour of Victorian melodrama about it.
After his all-too brief appearance earlier in the story, Dr Nikola finally shows up again to tie the loose plot strands together and bring it all to a happy resolution for Pennethorne. How he does this, and what it means for the Doctor himself, I'll leave you to discover. The ending is rather unexpected and intriguing, though.
One last thing; Boothby continues to keep us guessing about the sinister Nikola. In the first of the series, he was undoubtedly evil. In the second, it seemed like we may have misjudged him. In the current volume, his wickedness is indisputable. Not only is he indirectly responsible for at least two murders, he's also an extortionist who intends to use his ill-gotten gains to become a power in Europe… a plot he readily admits will cost millions of lives. But exactly what this scheme involves is left a mystery. We simply don't spend enough time with him to find out. Perhaps it'll all become clear in the next novel, DOCTOR NIKOLA'S EXPERIMENT.
DR. NIKOLA'S EXPERIMENT by Guy Boothby (1899) EDITION: Ward and Lock Co. (undated)
The fourth book in Guy Boothby's fabulous Nikola series reveals a little more about the mysterious doctor's plans. It's extraordinary how the main story arc has been developed so gradually through these four volumes. Initially, in A BID FOR FORTUNE, we learned only that Nikola would employ any means, no matter how nefarious, to gain possession of a small decorated stick of Oriental origin. By the end of that first story he had the object but we were left with no clue as to what it was or why he required it. The second book, DR NIKOLA, revealed that the item was a talisman through which entry could be gained into a secret monastery in Tibet wherein lay medical knowledge that could change the world. With a companion to aid him, Nikola penetrates the innermost sanctum and makes off with the information he wants. We don't learn whether he intends to employ it for good or for evil. And his success is tempered by the fact that a squad of deadly assassins are set on his trail.
Nikola is a confusing character. Unrelentingly evil in the first book, he seemed like an almost heroic figure in the second. The third, THE LUST OF HATE, re-emphasises his dark side, though Nikola himself spends very little time 'on stage'. We do find out, though, that he intends to use his new-found knowledge to become a power in Europe… a plot he admits will cost millions of lives.
Guy Boothby likes to team Nikola up with losers. It seems as if men who're down on their luck are much more susceptible to his mesmeric influence. In DR NIKOLA'S EXPERIMENT, the gentleman in question is a young medical man called Douglas Ingleby for whom life goes off the rails with an almost malicious regularity. Poverty and ill-luck push him to the brink of suicide but a chance meeting with an old acquaintance changes his fate and he finds himself employed as Nikola's assistant. All this seems like happenstance and is never revealed to be anything else. But such is the power of Boothby's writing that it's difficult to avoid the impression that Nikola is pulling the strings somehow, even before he makes an appearance.
The doctor commissions Ingleby to board the steamship Dona Mercedes, sailing from Cadiz to Newcastle, in London. For the remainder of its voyage he's to care for an elderly man, Don Miguel de Moreno, who's aboard with his great-granddaughter, Dona Consuelo. Don Miguel is comatose and on the verge of death. Ingleby must keep him alive long enough to reach Newcastle then the party will travel northwards to the Scottish coast, where they'll repair to Doctor Nikola's secluded castle. But things aren't quite as straightforward as they sound. Oriental agents are abroad, out to revenge themselves on Nikola. Ingleby manages to protect his patient from danger but it's a close run thing and when the group finally arrives at home base, closing the drawbridge behind them, the enemy remains on the doorstep lurking in the shadows of the battlements.
We now learn what Nikola is up to. Using the knowledge stolen from Tibet, he's been perfecting a technique whereby the aged can be rejuvenated. There have been failures. In one part of the castle, locked behind an iron grill, the horrific experiments-gone-wrong live; shambling masses of flesh and warped limbs. Ingleby, narrating the story, is almost driven mad by the sight of them... which perhaps explains his inability to describe them properly. I'm not sure exactly what these things he gazes upon are but his reaction certainly speaks louder than words. Maybe some Things are better left vague.
With Ingleby's assistance, the Doctor begins to treat his new patient. Once again, there's some ambiguous hinting that the ultimate outcome of the experiment, if it's successful, may have less than palatable repercussions. A greatly extended life span sounds like a good thing... but how will it cost millions of lives? We don't find out... which, in my case, left me salivating for the next book in the series.
Unfortunately for Nikola, things don't go to plan and, when an Oriental assassin finds his way into the stronghold, a deadly game of cat and mouse ensues. The author achieves an intensity of claustrophobic horror that seems to darken the room you're reading in. I was scared to put the light out and go to bed! There's just something unbearably nerve-shredding about those shadowy corridors of Nikola's castle; the bare stone walls, unopened doors, and the possibility that a very nasty fate lurks just beyond view. Irresistible stuff!
As with the previous volume, the tale finishes with the Doctor's plans in disarray. But he's made some headway and chances are he'll progress even farther in the next story. But towards what end? The continuing mystery adds immensely to the character's enigmatic personality. Subsequent volumes simply have to go on the reading list... the series is a puzzle which can't be left unsolved.
Boothby's work was massive in his day, and he died quite young, I think, which makes his fecundity all the more astounding. Certainly, it makes me want to read the volumes that I haven't... I had a lovely old Ward Lock edition of Dr Nikola, with that classic portrait of the hooded-eyed Doc with the cat peering maliciously over his shoulder that Peter Haining bunged in his suspense and mystery art books.
The thing that struck me about it was, as you say, that it doesn't read as contemporary to its time. The subject matter is in tune with thrillers of the day, but the style is almost a throwback to the great age of gothic. It's a juxtaposition that gives it one hell of a weight. I was also struck when reading it by the immense sense of despair and loss from Bruce when he's wandering alone at the end of the book... well, near the end. It also seemed like Nikola wasn't the great supervillain I'd been led to belive - that's what you get for reading one alone, and out of sequence, by the look of it!
The Wordsworth Dr Nikola, due in January, comprises A Bid for Fortune and Dr Nikola (with an introduction by Mark Valentine) so thanks for the timely introduction to the series, Skipper. To the best of my knowledge, the only Guy Boothby stories i've read are the grim horror shorts Remorseless Vengeance, A Strange Goldfield and The Black Lady Of Brin Tor (all recommended to lovers of Victorian terror tales). From your review of A Bid For Fortune in particular it's clear he continued to indulge his fondness for the macabre in his mystery novels. It sounds bloody marvellous!
Thanks for sharing the reviews!
From the first, I set myself against "literature"; the story was the thing, and no amount of style could persuade me to select a story that lacked genuine, unadulterated horror. For those who wanted something high-brow there was plenty.
just picked up three wordsworth collections that are worth a mention though somewhat at a tangent to tyhe general run mentioned here.
first, there's the HH Munro 'Collected Stories Of Saki'. no westminster alice, Brassington, or When William Came, but sticks to the stories alone (is it me, or did a previous edition include the rest?). so Reginald, Clovis and all the faves from anthologies are here. worth every peny of 1.99, and i'm looking forward to renewing my acquaintance with this over xmas.
in their 5.99 range (cheaper on amazon) they have a massiove GK Chesterton volume, which eschews poetry and essays in favor of fiction. at around 1500 pages, even if you have the volumes wordsworth issued sepeartely (which are included), there's still over a thousand pages of long out of print stuff. all the Father Brown, some novels which probably haven't seen print since the 30's, and the incredible The Man Who Was Thursday and The Napoleon Of Notting Hill. mystic and philosopher, like i said elsewhere once he's the Light Lord to Machen's Dark Magus, and any Machen admirer who isn't aware of him should give it a go.
Rosemary Gray has compiled another massive 5.99 volume - Gripping Yarns - which is very similar to the old 30's hardbacks. lots of Edwardian and Victorian ghost, supernatural and thriller material. the usual suspects are represented from those volumes, though sometimes with unusual choices. and let's face it, even the usual suspects to us musty book searchers are going to be new to the casual browser. plus, there are massive selection of Edgar Wallace (horray!) and Conan Doyle that feature tales very rarely anthologised (now see Dem prove me wrong and show my ignorance!).
all three from amazon for a shade over eleven quid, and only fourteen from the shops. you know it makes sense.
Thanks for the Dr Nikola info - I think I might have to give him a try. I like a bit of moral ambiguity.
OK - Thought I should update this. I found a second hand copy of an Oxford Press paperback (foreword by Prof John Sutherland) edition of the first Nikola story. I read half of it and gave up. Not my thing at all, I found it incredibly dull and tedious.
I think it suffers hugely from having originally been published in installments in a magazine... I don't know if Boothby was deliberately spinning it out, or was just making it up as he went along, or what - but there seem to be big chunks where nothing very much happens at all.
Post by wordswortheditions on Jan 13, 2009 13:04:58 GMT
Derek at Wordsworth here, just dropping in to wish you all a Happy New Year.
First, many thanks to all of you that took the time to drop me a line and suggest possible new titles for the Mystery & Supernatural series. I now have a really good selection to choose from for our 2010 releases, but I’m thinking that perhaps I should go one step further, and give you all a chance to vote for the titles you would really like to see published. I’ll put a deadline of 31st January for any final suggestions, that can be e-mailed to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
I can tell you that two we are definitely going to be doing is a complete collection of the stories of Oliver Onions, and also a complete ‘Varney the Vampyre’, which is going to be a very big book for £2.99!
We really do appreciate everyone’s efforts at spreading word of our books, as it can be very difficult for us, as a small publisher, to raise our profile. I have to say probably the most effective way we have done that is by having all of our titles listed on Amazon. I know from experience that if I see some good reviews for a book, then I’m more likely to buy it, so if any of you feel like leaving a review on there of any of our books that you’ve enjoyed, then that would be very welcome.
I’ll drop in again in a couple of weeks with details of the poll. Thanks again for your support and encouragement.
Post by Craig Herbertson on Jan 13, 2009 13:49:56 GMT
and happy new year. I've only bought three of the series. I would buy them all if I had the money. I can repeat without equivocation that they are quite wonderful and I've been recommending them to everyone. As soon a I get a moment there will be five stars going up and an over effusive review for the three on Amazon.
Just to read the introductions was worthwhile in itself. Thanks ever so much for the time and trouble to create these little gems. .
Happy New Year to you and your colleagues, Derek and every success to you in 2009.
I'm thrilled to learn that there's going to be a Wordsworth edition of Varney the Vampyre! The Mystery & The Supernatural series is excellent and strikes me as the modern equivalent of Dennis Wheatley's library of the occult for Sphere in the '70's (that's a compliment by the way, or at least it is on this board!). I'm hoping i'll be able to provide you with a possible title for consideration when i hear back from a certain anthologist friend of ours. Oh, and i'm not sure if he is out of copyright but another name you might consider - Frederick Cowles!
From the first, I set myself against "literature"; the story was the thing, and no amount of style could persuade me to select a story that lacked genuine, unadulterated horror. For those who wanted something high-brow there was plenty.
Just a quick question-will the Onions colection have anything from "Back O' The Moon"?Its I think his first and is both rare and unscaned.
Also,if you ar doing Guy Boothby titles,(if thats the corect Idea,that I got anyway),then are you considering "The curse of the snake"?
We have direct access to Oliver Onion's personal papers, which include all his written works, so it is our intention, if space allows, to publish a complete collection.The format of our books allows us to go up to a maximum of 1184 pages, so we have a fair amount of space to work with.
Our edition of Guy Boothby’s ‘Dr Nikola’ books has just been published, and it is possible we will consider more of his titles in due course, although at the moment, we are concentrating on expanding the number of authors that the series covers.
Thanks to everybody for the author suggestions received so far!