Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Monarch of the Rings

I was paging through Everett F. Bleiler's Science Fiction: The Early Years when I came across a story description that caught my eye. It's Paul Ernst's novel The Black Monarch which was serialized in five parts in Weird Tales in Feb.-June 1930.

"We've got to stop meeting like this."

The story involves an evil overlord who uses rings to control the wills of others in an attempt to conquer the world. What struck me about the story is how similar the main plot strand is to Tolkien's later fantasy, The Lord of the Rings. Unfortunately the novel has never been reprinted. And since there are no scanlations of these issues available, and since the actual copies of Weird Tales can run $100 each, I've never read it. So I have to rely on Bleiler's summary, which goes like this...

Novel. World peril, a criminal mastermind, and a kitchen sink full of oddities. * 1992, mostly Algeria. * Neil Emory awakens from a somnambulistic episode to find himself partly through the porthole of his ocean-liner cabin. The attempt seems to be linked with an antique ring set with a blue diamond that he is wearing. Not long after this Emory sees another man (Dr. Eden Sanderson) go through the same actions. He, too, was wearing a ring like Emory's which he then discarded. * Sanderson tells a strange story: His foster-father, an inventor, after creating a machine that responded to thoughts waves, attuned it to locate evil. He found one enormous focal point, but before he could isolate it, a stranger visited him, leaving a ring, and after that the invention did not work. But the ring shows images of a gigantic man with a metal arrangement over his head. * Sanderson's foster-father reared Sanderson to be a champion against the evil being, and Sanderson invites Emory to join the quest, which centers on Algeria. * For a time the men search unsuccessfully, until a landslide reveals a tunnel leading to an underground world illuminated by golden plates. The land is inhabited by small, robot-like men. After separate adventures, Sanderson and Emory are captured and are taken before Rez, an enormous man with a metal head who rules the underworld. * Rez (who resembles H. Rider Haggard's Ru in She and Allen) is an ancient Egyptian more than six thousand years old. He wears a metal case to accommodate his enlarged brain. The master of an incredible science, he has very highly developed paranormal powers, conversing by telepathy and controlling the wills of others through a diamond crystal a dozen feet across. Fragments of this crystal, set in rings, are distributed around the world, and through them Rez controls his victims. Rez has fostered wars, greed, cruelty and crime, and is about to push the world into a war that will end civilization, after which he will emerge and take over. * Actually, he summoned Sanderson and Emory and caused the landslide which admitted them. His purpose: He needs surface men on whom to test his mind drugs and mental surgery. The two men resist, but the great crystal easily overpowers them. Rez's drug them turns Emory into a zombie-like being with no memory of the past. * The situation seems hopeless, but Sanderson conditions the nearly mindless Emory into smashing the diamond and then bests Rez in mortal combat. Neil, led by a surface woman they met below, escapes, but Sanderson dies holding back the zombie-like guards. Outside, Emory gradually regains his mind.

In addition to sounding like the plot of any number of comic book stories - just add leotard clad vigilantes and stir - and like the template for Richard Shaver's entire output, it's also surprisingly similar to the main plot of The Lord of the Rings. Since it's extremely improbable that Tolkien ever heard of this novel, let alone read it, I'm sure this is just a strange coincidence. But I find it fascinating that years before anyone had heard of Hobbits or Middle-earth there was a dark lord seeking world domination through the agency of the rings he controlled.

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