Beast Or Man? by Sean M’Guire
A little while back, I shared some thoughts here on FanLit regarding American author David V. Reed’s unforgettable 1943 novel Return of the Whispering Gorilla. In this truly sui generis creation, an army of gorillas is brought together by Plumbutter – a 400-pound member of their own species with the surgically implanted brain of a human male – and fights a regiment of Nazis in equatorial Africa. But, as it turns out, 13 years earlier, on the other side of the pond, an English author had already stunned his readers with a story concerning the formation of a gorilla brigade by one of their own with above-average intelligence. And that book is the one I’d like to tell you about now; namely, Beast Or Man?, by Sean M’Guire.
Beast Or Man? was originally released in the U.K. in 1930 by the publisher Cecil Palmer, featuring a cover by one Beresford Egan that inappropriately depicted the book’s simian general as a redheaded, Mr. Spock-eared, vampire-toothed demon. Sadly, M’Guire’s novel would then go OOPs (out of prints) for almost 80 years, till the fine folks at Ramble House elected to resurrect it in 2009 – the very first book bearing its Dancing Tuatara Press imprint – thus making it easily obtainable for a new generation to marvel at. Featuring another wonderfully informative introduction by John Pelan – which compares it quite favorably to the thousands of other novels in the Haggardian lost-race genre – as well as an entirely appropriate piece of cover art by the Australia-based illustrator Gavin O’Keefe, the book is a very fine addition to this enterprising publisher’s ever-expanding catalog of unusual fiction.
Before proceeding on with some thoughts about the novel, a brief word on Sean M’Guire himself … very brief, I’m afraid. Other than the fact that the author was British and released two novels during the course of his lifetime – and incidentally, I am only assuming that Sean M’Guire was a male, that name just as likely as not being a pseudonym – nothing can be found on the Google machine relating to his life story. His first novel was the intriguingly titled lost-world affair Spider Island, which was released in either 1928 or 1929; sources vary. Beast Or Man?, his second novel, thus appears to have brought down the curtain on his writing career, and that is a real pity, as my recent reading has revealed the book to be an absolutely smashing and intelligent lost-race/jungle-adventure novel with a lot more on its mind than mere thrills and chills. To be succinct, I really loved this one!
Beast Or Man? cleaves into three discrete sections. In the first quarter of the book, set in 1880, we are introduced to the English missionary Martin Hillier, a single-minded, egocentric man who, despite the pleas and objections of the German commissioner, insists on bringing his wife and newborn son with him as he treks into the wilderness of Cameroon (in what one might think of as the armpit of Africa). After many travails, the Hilliers arrive at a village in the jungle depths, where the natives tolerate him just barely while practically worshipping his saintlike wife, Mabel, who ministers to their medical needs. But when Hillier gives false witness against the native libertine Kofi and is found out, he is put on trial and, in a truly shocking sequence, tortured to death. Kofi, after staging an uprising, becomes the new chief and sets his amorous gaze on the widow Hillier. But before anything more can be done, a devastating nighttime raid by a group of unknown assailants wipes out the entire village and all its people. Mabel is attacked in her hut and her throat is torn out, after which her baby son is taken away by the marauders…
The story then jumps forward 50 years, to the modern day (well, 1930, at any rate). We are now introduced to John Passinger, a young, English millionaire who, despite being engaged to the beautiful Mary Humberlayne, has decided that he wishes to employ his hunting skills by capturing gorillas and being the first man to bring some back to an English zoo. To further his plan, he retains the services of a big, burly, red-bearded professional trapper with the appropriate name of Dick Fearless (hmm, you know … I wish my name were Dick Fearless!), and before long, the two fetch up in Cameroon. Hearing of a gorilla-populated region farther inland, they and their native bearers soon arrive at a village on the same site of the tragedy of a half century earlier; a village now called Nganda. The friendly chief warns the hunters not to harm the local gorillas, saying that the entire area lives in fear of possible retribution from the giant apes, but of course, Passinger and Fearless go ahead anyway. To their astonishment, however, their traps are sprung and destroyed, and the one (seemingly spiritless) gorilla that they do manage to capture is easily released from its cage following a nighttime mission by a gorilla band. Not put off, Fearless and Passinger manage to kill a mother gorilla in a distant part of the forest and capture its baby, resulting in disaster. Once again, the entire village and practically all its inhabitants are brutally killed in a nighttime raid, and this time we see that the attackers are indeed hundreds of well-organized gorillas, led by a slightly taller, only half-simian general! Upon returning from their hunting trip, Fearless and Passinger discover the massacred village and decide to hightail it back to the coast, all the while fighting off attacks from the enraged gorilla horde. Ultimately, however, they do escape and shoot down the half-simian leader, bearing its still-breathing, hirsute body back with them to the Cameroonian capital of Dualla.
Finally, in the book’s last quarter, our English hunters attempt to communicate with their unusual specimen, whom they dub Peter. After getting over his fury at being captured and his sorrow for all the soldiers lost under his command, Peter does indeed learn to communicate verbally with his captors. And, some three years later, he is even able to give his new friends the backstory of his rather remarkable life…
Now, okay, wiseguy, if you believe that you have riddled out the answer to Peter’s origin, please know that you are probably wrong. This is no simpleminded Tarzan-type tale here, but rather one of the finest homages to H. Rider Haggard-style African adventures that I have ever read; an absolutely first-rate, multigenerational jungle thriller with abundant food for thought. M’Guire’s book is surprisingly literate and well written, yet penned in an easygoing style. Despite its well-drilled gorilla army, truly a fantastic conceit, this is otherwise a realistic and credibly presented tale, and its leading characters are interestingly complex. There are no good guys and bad guys here; no sharply defined black and white. In response to the book’s title question, the men here are shown at times to be beastlike, and the gorillas often seem quite human. Thus, early on, the German commissioner calls the detestable Hillier “a filthy swine” and “a foul beast.” And Hillier’s later actions – cravenly striking the commissioner on the head from behind, and refusing to aid an exhausted native because it would interfere with his journal entries – do bear those accusations out. Similarly, Fearless confesses that his profession is a bestial one – “…candidly, Passinger, I loathe it sometimes and myself for doing it” – and Passinger, after causing that gorilla mother’s demise and capturing her baby, is “thoroughly disgusted with himself.”
On the other hand, the gorillas on display here are, as mentioned, quite sympathetically drawn and practically human in their reactions. We learn of their abilities to take orders from their leader and employ sophisticated battle strategies; observe their loving reunion with wives and sweethearts; witness one of their surprisingly intricate funeral services for the comrades killed in battle; and see that their language is a complex one. And Peter, too, by the book’s end, becomes self-aware enough to feel remorse. As he puts it, “My one regret, and that is a regret which will be with me always, is that through me so many brave creatures should have lost their lives in a hopeless and a foolish cause.” So who is the beast and who is the man here? Again, the answer, to the author’s great credit, is not a simple one.
M’Guire’s book, thoughtful as it is, surely does not skimp on the thrilling action sequences. Among them: Hillier’s torture, which comes as a stunning shock to the reader; the death of Mabel Hillier, and ditto; the mano-a-mano battle between the unarmed Fearless and an unarmed gorilla; the trouble that Passinger gets into with a wounded and rampaging elephant; the destruction of the village of Nganda; the exciting battle between the hunters’ party and the gorilla hordes; the mano-a-mano battle between a club-wielding Fearless and the club-wielding gorilla Mguru; Peter’s lengthy backstory; and Peter’s valiant rescue of John and Mary’s infant son from a burning building, in a scene foreshadowing the ending of 1949’s Mighty Joe Young. Marvelous sequences all, in a book filled with many others, besides. Beast Or Man? is a surprisingly violent book, and its torture scene and depictions of the maddened apes tearing out the throats of their victims and braining them with clubs are surely not for the squeamish. Readers back in 1930 must have been truly shocked by these instances of bloody carnage … not to mention by the book’s suggestions of interspecies sex and marriage! Small wonder, then, that Mary’s father says of Peter’s story “There seems to be something uncanny, something unnatural, something, if I may say so, almost unwholesome about it…”
For the rest of it, M’Guire’s novel features a raft of interesting and well-drawn secondary characters (such as the valiant Kofi; Msuta, the old and cowardly chief of Nganda; the Reverend Henry Rogers, who befriends the English hunters in Dualla; Sam, the native who is hired to be the Englishmen’s safari cook; and that German commissioner back in 1880, who is secretly in love with Mabel Hillier). It is a novel filled with multiple ironies, and not just on the man vs. beast theme. Thus, Martin Hillier is deemed something of a saint a half century after his passing, and his wife a wicked woman, whereas the reader knows that quite the opposite was true. And how ironic is it that, despite their guilt feelings regarding hunting earlier on, by the book’s end, Passinger is shown to be happily shooting away once again, while Fearless goes on no fewer than three expeditions in search of the elusive okapi? The book also sports pleasing instances of humor, mainly centered on the antics of Sam and his romantic dalliances with the young maiden Delilah (the sole survivor of the Nganda massacre), as well as on his comically disastrous Christmas dinner. Conversely, the book’s final pages will most likely cause all but the most callous readers to grow a bit misty-eyed by its wonderfully tear-jerking finale.
Beast Or Man?, to be fair, is not a perfect book, and some small problems do crop up here and there. The novel, for one thing, depends a bit too much on coincidence, and needlessly so, I feel. That blasted “N word” is used once (granted, by the native Sam, as a means of elevating his own status), and the wrong date is given for the death of the historical missionary figure Alfred Saker, who passed away in 1880, not 1840, as stated. But really, that’s about it. Readers who experience this second novel by the author known as Sean M’Guire will surely come away wondering how such a terrific read could have been virtually unavailable for almost 80 years. They will also most likely feel the need to experience M’Guire’s first novel, Spider Island. In his introduction to this modern-day edition, written in 2009, the late John Pelan tells us that the earlier novel would be released by Ramble House “in the very near future.” Despite Pelan’s unfortunate passing, this reader sure does hope to see that earlier work revived one day soon. If Spider Island turns out to be anywhere near as fine a creation as Beast Or Man?, it will have been worth the long wait. “A stranger tale was never imagined,” opines the Reverend Rogers concerning the events depicted in Beast Or Man?, and most readers, I have a feeling, will heartily agree…