A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder by James De Mille science fiction book reviewsA Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder by James De Mille

A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder by James De Mille science fiction book reviewsAs I believe I’ve mentioned elsewhere, British author H. Rider Haggard‘s back-to-back-to-back releases of King Solomon’s Mines, She, and Allan Quatermain from 1885 – 1887 served as a sort of triple shock wave on the worldwide literary community. From that point and for the next half a century, scores of imitators would come out with hundreds of works that attempted to emulate the so-called “Father of the Lost-Word Novel,” and with varying degrees of success. But if Haggard deservedly remains the writer most identified with this type of story, he was hardly the first, as anyone who’s read, oh, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838) and Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864) will readily tell you. In truth, many writers were toying with this type of wondrous tale before Haggard popularized it so sensationally, and I would now like to tell you of one such early example that I have recently experienced, namely James De Mille’s A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder.

De Mille’s novel was apparently written sometime in the 1860s but not published until 1888 … eight years after its author’s passing. And since Haggard’s earliest novel, Dawn, was published in 1884, there is very little likelihood of De Mille ever having heard of H. Rider or being influenced by him, as so many dozens of later writers in this particular genre were. A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder was first released as a Harper & Brothers hardcover with interior illustrations by Gilbert Gaul, and, later in 1888, on the other side of the pond, as a hardcover from the British imprint Chatto & Windus. Over 80 years would pass before the novel was revived, this time as a paperback in 1969 by the publisher New Canadian Library. A good dozen more incarnations of the book would appear by the time the fine folks at Armchair Fiction released their own edition in 2015 (the one I was fortunate enough to acquire), with nicely faithful cover art by Lawrence Stevens and the same 11 wonderful interior illustrations by Gilbert Gaul that had graced the first edition. (The book is #5 in Armchair Fiction’s Lost World – Lost Race Classics series, a series that currently stands at an impressive 58 volumes!) Wildside Press issued still another edition of the novel in 2016, and several ebook versions are currently available. The bottom line is that De Mille’s fascinating lost-world story should pose no difficulty for any prospective reader to lay hands on today.

Oh … before I proceed, a quick word on the author himself. James De Mille was born James DeMill in St. John, New Brunswick in 1833. A professor of history at Dalhousie College in Halifax, Nova Scotia, De Mille (the name he preferred for his works of fiction) ultimately penned more than two dozen novels, including historical fiction, adventure tales, and stories for boys. A Strange Manuscript…, which was serialized in Harper’s Weekly magazine before its 1888 publications, remains his most well-known work. Sadly, De Mille passed away in 1880, at the age of 46.

As the book’s title infers, the story here largely does take the form of a lost manuscript that is discovered, floating in its copper container, by four yachtsmen between the Canaries and Madeira Islands. The barnacle-encrusted, 18”-long cylinder had been fished out of the drink and axed open, and during the course of De Mille’s book, the quartet of Englishmen take turns reading the many sheets of papyrus out loud, occasionally pausing to comment on, ridicule, or elucidate the remarkable document therein. Written six or seven years prior to its discovery by the four men in 1850, the document was the work of another Englishman, first mate Adam More, who, while sailing west from Tasmania, had decided to go with his ship’s second mate, Agnew, to do a little ill-advised seal shooting on an ice-covered island. Unfortunately, while on that island, a sudden storm had arisen and the two mates had become separated from their mother ship; helplessly marooned on the high sea in their tiny rowboat, and in one of the most desolate areas of the planet! The two had sailed down a narrow strait and come across a hideous-looking but seemingly friendly people. Too late, the pair had learned that they were among cannibals! Agnew had been lost, while More had continued his hopeless journey, soon entering a long subterranean chamber, in which he’d battled a sea monster of some kind, passed out, and found himself … in a lost world!

As it turned out, More had made his way, inadvertently, to the south polar region … a zone almost tropical in nature (!), and surrounding a vast inland sea. The friendly people who had found More, called the Kosekins, had taken him in warmly and lavished him with luxuries. But slowly, Adam had become aware that there was more to the amiable Kosekin than at first met the eye. At the beginning of their six-month-long period of night, wholesale human sacrifices were made atop the city’s truncated pyramid. The Kosekins, More soon learned, revered death, hated the burden that is life, and abhorred luxury and wealth and comfort and love. They despised the six-month-long daylight season, and their most highly esteemed societal class was the paupers, the actual rulers of the city. While among the Kosekins, More had fallen in love with a woman, Almah, who hailed from another south polar nation and did not share the Kosekins’ topsy-turvy philosophies. More had attended a sacrifice, gone on several hunts, witnessed the prehistoric fauna that still survived in the area, and had been taken, with Almah, to the Kosekins’ largest metropolis, across the inland sea. There, he’d met the Kohen Gadol, the wealthiest man among the Kosekins (and thus, the most despised and pitied), and had aroused the hot-blooded fancy of the Kohen Gadol’s daughter, the beauteous Layelah. More and Almah had also learned that, on the coming of the new daytime season, they were to receive the blessing of being sacrificed upon the city’s pyramid, followed by the even greater blessing of the Mista Kosek, during which their corpses would be eaten by the populace! After a failed attempt to escape via athaleb (an enormous, pterodactyllike creature), the two had been returned to the city and – far from being punished – were given even more “blessings”: The lovers were to be separated, stripped of their possessions, and locked in dark caverns with other paupers, preparatory to the sacrifice and the cannibal ceremony. Talk about “killing with kindness”!

All told, A Strange Manuscript… is a smashing lost-world novel, and the Kosekin turn out to be a finely depicted lost race. Their culture and mores, strange as they are, are convincingly presented, and the reader is given no fewer than 27 Kosekin words and phrases to roll around on his or her tongue. (My favorite is their traditional salutation: Atoesmzori alonla!) Eventually, this people’s contrary philosophy put me in mind of the Bizarro folks in the old Superman comics, and their outlook on life and death can be seen as a sort of inverted reflection on our own modern life. As the Chief Pauper tells Adam, “I have everything that heart can wish … I have poverty, squalor, cold, perpetual darkness, the privilege of killing others, the near prospect of death, and the certainty of the Mista Kosek….” As the old song goes, “Who could ask for anything more,” right? Truly, this is quite an ingenious lost-world affair, made even more impressive by its having been written before the Haggardian influence swept the globe. And, anticipating many of the works of ol’ H. Rider, this novel does feature two very different sorts of women for our hero to contend with.

De Mille’s book, I should note, is very impressively written, in that distinctively classy mid-19th century manner, with finely rendered dialogue and some lovely descriptive passages (the subterranean transit, the central ocean whose horizon seems to rise upward, and the desolate volcanic isle of Magones are particularly well described). And More’s account, written in a simpler style than are the interlarded sections with the four yachtsmen, is fascinating, exciting, gripping and suspenseful. Any number of wonderful sequences are given to the reader, among them: More and Agnew’s desperate attempt to get back to their ship on a nighttime, storm-tossed sea; their nightmarish stay amongst that first group of cannibals; the subterranean passage and the encounter with the sea monster; More going on two “sacred hunts,” the first to kill another sea beastie on the open waters (while the Kosekins with him charge into the fray, hoping for death), the second in the dense forest, seated on a giant, birdlike opmahera and going after some order of dinosaur; the grisly sacrifice atop the pyramid; a ship journey to the Kosekins’ main city, with the crew again hoping for death on the storm-lashed waters; the thrilling escape via athaleb to the volcanic isle; and finally, Adam and Almah’s separation and imprisonment, leading up to their sacrifice. Astute readers will notice the influence of Edgar Allan Poe here, not only in the book’s title (a nod to the 1833 Poe story “Ms. Found in a Bottle”), but also in its Antarctic setting (Poe’s only novel, the lost-world affair The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, was also set in the south polar area toward its conclusion). Throw in some homages to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) and you have here quite the unique entertainment, indeed.

Still, fun as it is, De Mille’s book does come freighted with several problems. For one thing, the book concludes so abruptly that it’s hard to know if More’s story has come to an end or if Lord Featherstone, the yacht’s owner, has simply tired of reading aloud. There is a slight instance of casual anti-Semitism (typical for the period) to be had, when one of the men on the yacht wonders whether the Kosekins might have been the remnants of the Biblical Ten Tribes, and Featherstone responds “Don’t think they’ve got much of the Jew about them … They hate riches and all that, you know. Break a Jew’s heart to hear of all that property wasted, and money going a-begging….” There are a few “oopsies” to be had in De Mille’s book, as well. When More tells Agnew that (the English explorer) Sir James Ross had discovered his Antarctic volcanos “last year” (in other words, 1842) … well, that should be 1841 … two years earlier. In another spot, Agnew cites some compass coordinates as he guesses where he and More might be on the ocean … coordinates that would place them right off the east coast of South America. So how does he expect to hit Africa’s Cape of Good Hope by heading west? Shouldn’t that be east?

There are other problems to be had. The book’s entire central conceit of a tropical zone in the continent of Antarctica, with a central sea, is obviously the product of a fanciful imagination, but since this book was written a good half century before Norwegian Roald Amundsen became the first human to reach the South Pole, in 1911, I suppose we can let the matter slide. Adam’s shocked reaction to Layelah’s blatant come-ons will surely strike modern readers as hopelessly old-fashioned, but again, this novel was written during Victorian times. More problematic for this reader were several instances of fuzzy writing (the terrace-and-cave arrangement of the Kosekin cities was particularly difficult for me to visualize) and the fact that the scenes back on the yacht tend to bring Adam More’s fascinating narrative to a grinding halt. During these interludes, Featherstone and the three others debate the manuscript’s veracity, speculate on which dinosaurs More might be referring to, and argue about the Kosekins’ origins and their language, in a somewhat off-putting yet surprisingly erudite manner. Still, these passages do add explanatory details and insight, I suppose, and even some welcome humor, especially when one of the men, Melick, calls the writer of the tale “tawdry; he has the worst vices of the sensational school – he shows everywhere marks of haste, gross carelessness, and universal feebleness … He is a gross plagiarist, and over and over again violates in the most glaring manner all the ordinary proprieties of style….” Ouch! Well, at least we can’t say that De Mille wasn’t sporting enough to poke some fun at himself! And besides, I have a feeling that few readers will be in agreement with Melick’s assessment. Most readers, indeed, will be more likely to concur with Lord Featherstone’s early appraisal of Adam More’s manuscript: “By Jove … this is really getting to be something tremendous”!

Published in 1888. A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder is the most popular of James De Mille’s works. It was serialized posthumously in Harper’s Weekly, and published in book form by Harper and Brothers of New York City in 1888. This satirical romance is the story of Adam More, a British sailor. Shipwrecked in Antarctica, he stumbles upon a tropical lost world of prehistoric animals, plants, and a cult of death-worshipping primitives. He also finds a highly developed human society which has reversed the values of Victorian society. Wealth is scorned and poverty revered; death and darkness are preferrable to life and light. Rather than accumulating wealth, the natives seek to divest themselves of it as quickly as possible. At the beginning of each year, the government imposes wealth (the burden of “reverse taxation”) upon its unfortunate subjects as a form of punishment. A secondary plot about the four yachtsmen who find the manuscript forms a frame for the central narrative.


  • Sandy Ferber

    SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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