Ironcastle by J.-H. Rosny, translated & retold by Philip José Farmer (book review).

‘L’Étonnant aventure de Hareton Ironcastle’ by J.-H. Rosny was originally published in 1922. In his informative introduction, ‘A Grateful Intrusion’, Brian Stableford tells us of his 1976 meeting with Donald Wollheim, in which he first learned of the first American edition of ‘Ironcastle’, which Wollheim had commissioned Philip José Farmer to re-edit, and re-imagine in an effort to lessen the religious aspect, an aspect that Stableford found notable by its absence, when he himself embarked on an accurate translation for Black Coat Press, which was published in ‘The Mysterious Force And Other Anomalous Phenomena’ as ‘Hareton Ironcastle’s Amazing Adventure’.

Of course, we have no clue as to who did the original translation that Wollheim had originally acquired or what changes/additions that translator might have made. It’s entirely possible that this unknown translator may have strengthened the religious aspects out of his own beliefs and preferences. It is notable that Hareton Ironcastle does do the occasional bit of praying in this new edition, which makes me want to read the Stableford translation, to see if it indeed was added by that previous translator.

This, of course, begs the question: why did Stableford see the need for a more accurate translation? This is where the ‘re-imagining’ comes in. Farmer made a number of additions to the text, which referenced certain other fictional characters. This served to slyly attach Ironcastle to Farmer’s own recent writings within his ‘Wold Newton Universe’. On reading the French original, Stableford concluded that there were enough differences to make an accurate translation worthwhile. I certainly plan on reading Stableford’s translation at some point, in fact I bought myself a Kindle edition as soon as I’d finished writing this review. I doubt I’ll get around to reading it for a while, though. I should add at this point that readers not familiar with Farmer’s ‘Wold Newton Universe’ or the works of the various other authors referenced here will still be able to enjoy this short novel.

The book opens in the Baltimore Gun Club, where Farmer does all his Wold Newtonization, via references to the work and characters of Haggard, Doyle, Verne, Burroughs, Dent and others. Hareton Ironcastle receives a letter from Samuel Darnley, who’d gone to Africa to search for new plants. He’d found so much more…he found things that seemed to exist nowhere else. The plants and the beasts differed fantastically from those in any other land, many of them very dangerous…and not just the beasts!

It goes without saying that Ironcastle immediately drafts plans to go see for himself. He enlists the aid of his nephew from France, Phillippe de Maranges, who has nothing better to do, and could seriously use a potential source of income. He also has to deal with the fact that his daughter, Muriel, insists on accompanying them.

No time is wasted on detailing the preparations and journey. The next chapter opens with our heroes, already encamped in the explored part of Gondokoro, along with Samuel Darney and one Sir George Curtis. H. Rider Haggard fans will recognise him as the nephew of Sir Henry Curtis, the regular companion of Allan Quatermain, first seen in ‘King Solomon’s Mines’. Other members of the expedition are only named when they become relevant to the story.

The book is reading very like an amalgam of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Haggard, with perhaps a dash of Verne, by this point. While they were definitely influences on Rosny’s writing, it’s pretty obvious that Farmer’s deft stylistic nous was instrumental in just how well this worked. I found myself often quite curious as to which parts were as Rosny wrote and which were embellished by Farmer. There is a fair bit of social comment about the devastating effect that the white man has had and would continue to have on the environment, the peoples and animals who lived in the places white men invaded. This is pretty ahead of his time for Farmer, so I’d be astonished to find that it was in Rosny’s original.

Considering the aforementioned influences, it will come as no shock to anyone that they encounter several strange species of beasts and a number of different odd races of more-or-less humanoid peoples. Strange and dangerous as all this fauna is, they are as nothing in the face of the extraordinary flora they find themselves having to deal with.

This is a short novel, coming in at just over 160 pages, so the reader isn’t really given much opportunity to become bored by anything dragging on too long. In fact, I felt that it could have actually benefited by an extra 60 or 70 pages to flesh it out. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if, had Farmer not had to answer to Wollheim, he may have been tempted to add more material than he actually did.

What we do have is a fast-paced lost world adventure that should satisfy most fans of the genre. This being a Meteor House book, however, it doesn’t end there. As well as Stableford’s introduction, we have an extra short story, ‘Iron And Bronze’ by Christopher Paul Carey and Win Scott Eckert, previously published in ‘Tales Of The Shadowmen 5: The Vampire Of Paris’ (Black Coat Press, 2009), plus a new essay by each of them.

I first read ‘Iron And Bronze’ by Carey & Eckert in that ‘Tales Of The Shadowmen 5’ anthology over two decades ago but I understood more of it this time around, after reading Ironcastle itself. Meteor House choose their bonus material very well, compiling it alongside the major works that make both clearer for those who haven’t read many of the previous works in this rather expansive oeuvre.

This story is a crossover fan’s dream, connecting as it does, ‘Ironcastle’ with various works by H. Rider Haggard, Guy d’Armen, Lester Dent and others, including Philip José Farmer, of course. Hareton Ironcastle is back in Africa, where he finds a certain axe, meets an immortal queen, probably not the one you may be thinking of, teams up with a bronze hero and defeats a future nemesis of another pulp hero. As per usual, Eckert & Carey do a masterful job of creating a story that can be enjoyed by the uninitiated, but will give the well-read fan something they can re-read every few years and spot more connections than they did previously.

Should anyone reading this still be put off by the prospect of a novel and short story, containing numerous literary references which might go over their head, fear not. In his essay, ‘Surprising Embellishments: The Wold Newton Mythos In Ironcastle’, Win Scott Eckert lays it all out very clearly for you. Covering both stories, Eckert lists the assorted references and where they come from. Beware, though, as this can lead to a surprisingly large list of books being added to your wants list.

In ‘Cosmic Roots: The Retelling Of Ironcastle In The Farmerian Monomyth’, Christopher Paul Carey expands our knowledge of the background of these stories even further and, yes, gives us a few more books, stories and essays to track down.

The original 1976 DAW paperback edition of Ironcastle only used a small detail of Roy G. Krenkel’s gorgeous cover painting. This new Meteor House edition lets us see the entire painting for the first time and the hardcover edition (limited to just 200 copies, signed by Stableford, Carey & Eckert) presents it with no lettering on the dustjacket. We also get all Krenkel’s black and white internal illustrations from the earlier edition.

The limited hardcover is still available at the time of writing, but will very likely disappear fast at Pulpfest in early August 2022.

Dave Brzeski

July 2022

(pub: Meteor House, 2022. 204 page hardback/paperback. Hardback 200 copy limited edition: Price: $65.00 (US). Paperback: Price $23.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-94542-725-1

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Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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