BEAST OR MAN?
by Sean M'Guire
The lost-race novel was in its time a robust genre. The Stuart Tietler collection boasted over 2,500 items and the actual total of books on the theme is probably closer to 3,000. Noted author and scholar Jessica Salmonson has catalogued and provided brief synopses to over 1000 titles at violetbooks.com. The genre received its greatest boosts from Sir H. Rider Haggard with his wonderful adventure novels of Allan Quatermain. In Haggard’s time, the source of the Nile had yet to be found, the interior of South America was an enigma and the possibility that dinosaurs still roamed the jungles as per The Lost World of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle seemed a distinct possibility. The North and South Poles were as of yet unexplored, and the idea of gateways to the interior of the Earth and subterranean cities peopled by the descendants of Atlantis or Lemuria seemed quite plausible.
The genre slowly began to die, not by lack of reader interest, but by the hands of cartographers and explorers. While it was said “there is always something new out of Africa”, by the early 1900s it was apparent that these new things would be unlikely to include fabulous cities of gold or descendants of Alexander the Great living in the African interior. By the time that Sean M’Guire authored his two exceptional novels, Spider Island and Beast or Man?, the lost-race genre as known by Haggard and his scores of imitators was mostly a thing of the past. Thanks to the efforts of an American author, who took his cues from no less an author than Rudyard Kipling, a new twist on the theme had become popular, that of the human raised in savage environs by anything from tigers to gorillas to the missing links of the Tarzan novels.
In Sean M’Guire’s Beast or Man? we have a novel that is of interest for several reasons. The book starts as relatively prosaic tale of African adventure and goes on to touch on some very serious themes such as conservation and the inherent wrongness of man’s willy-nilly invasion of the forestlands and the banality of trapping intelligent creatures for no greater purpose than to serve as menagerie exhibits. These concerns alone are sufficient to raise this book head and shoulders above most of M’Guire’s contemporaries, who were much more likely to support such concepts as “manifest destiny” and the inherent supremacy of the European.
There were scores of pallid imitations of Haggard and Burroughs, generally books that at best served as weak pastiches of the originals, (Otis Adelbert Kline, Roy Rockwood, etc.) captured all that was bad in either author’s style, or were just outright racist trash with the noble white man easily triumphing over the “evil” schemes of the savage black men. (The fact that said “evil schemes” generally involved resistance to the “noble white man” helping himself to ivory, gold, diamonds, or anything else that happened to catch his fancy was downplayed by the authors.) By the 1930s, anyone expecting anything of greater substance from this genre was most likely in for a disappointment . . .
M’Guire’s novel was a breath of fresh air, as was his earlier Spider Island. That both books saw only marginal commercial success is a sad statement regarding the readers of the day that were likely far more comfortable with the racist trash of Edgar Rice Burroughs than with adventure stories that actually called upon the reader to think about serious moral and ethical issues. If I’m making this book sound like a dull philosophical tract, please excuse me, it is anything but. Both of M’Guire’s novels are in the vein of H. Rider Haggard (putting them several notches above Burroughs from the get-go); however, both are far deeper than anything Haggard attempted, though both operate easily enough as pure pulp adventures.
Wherein lie the differences? M’Guire is not at all afraid to show that there are right bastards both black and white. His noble characters are also flawed . . . Dick Fearless reflects on the banality of his life as a big-game hunter and the titular character’s hands are red with the blood of innocents; (there was certainly a good deal of provocation for his actions, but whether the response is disproportionate or not is a question for the reader to reflect on.) As well defined characters as exist in fantastic fiction, the cast of characters presented by M’Guire are all memorable. We readers may guess from the start that the act of training and organizing gorillas to defend their homeland is foredoomed to failure, but M’Guire is a skilled enough author to keep us turning the pages. We may also suspect that the fate of the missionaries that sets the events in motion will not be pleasant, but I was caught by surprise by the sheer horror of the torture scene that would not have been at all out of place in an issue of Terror Tales or Dime Mystery.
The first quarter of the book is a tale of tragedy set in Africa, with no elements that would have been out of place in the American pulps such as Argosy or the general fiction magazines of the UK such as McClure’s or Cassell’s. The novel switches gears abruptly in Chapter Six with the introduction of a new cast of characters and veers into the realm of the fantastic with a highly intelligent and organized troop of club-wielding gorillas doing their level best to drive away the humans (both black and white) that are encroaching on their territory.
What makes M’Guire’s novel unique is that the archetypical character of the human boy raised by apes is mostly an off-stage figure and it his progeny, the half-man, half-gorilla who becomes the central character of the book and who is the subject of the titular query.
On one level Sean M’Guire has authored a “page-turner” which combines adventure, mystery, and the fantastic; on another level, he poses some serious questions about what it means to be human and that nobility is not merely the province of the more advanced species.
Sadly, M’Guire was not a prolific author; I’ve been unable to find any short fiction under his by-line and a careful search of the most comprehensive bibliographies shows only this book and his earlier lost-race novel, Spider Island, (which, if anything is even more firmly in the realm of the fantastic with the lost-race being webfooted amphibians). We hope to bring you a new edition of Spider Island in the very near future, and the search for other works by M’Guire will continue . . . Assuming that these two novels are his only contributions to the realm of fantastic fiction, Sean M’Guire still deserves to be remembered alongside his more famous contemporaries such as Talbot Mundy, Ganpat, and Mark Channing.
Midnight House — 2009