The Light in the Sky: Aztec Two-Step

The Light in the Sky by Herbert Clock & Eric Boetzel science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Light in the Sky by Herbert Clock & Eric Boetzel

The Light in the Sky by Herbert Clock & Eric Boetzel science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsIn H. Rider Haggard’s 16th novel, the epic blockbuster Montezuma’s Daughter (1893), the reader is introduced to a young man named Thomas Wingfield, a European (half English, half Spanish) who is captured by the ancient Aztecs in the New World of the 16th century. Wingfield eventually becomes something of a living god among them, marries the titular Otomie, and witnesses the arrival and eventual conquest of the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes. It is a truly wonderful piece of historical fiction, with minimal fantastic content. But 36 years later, another book would be released with many of the same plot points mentioned above, but updated to a modern setting, and with the fantasy elements very much in the forefront. And that book, entitled The Light in the Sky, has recently impressed this reader as a very wonderful creation in its own right, although hardly in the same rarefied atmosphere as H. Rider Haggard at his best and firing on all cylinders.

The Light in the Sky was initially released in 1929 as a hardcover edition by the American publisher Coward McCann. The book would then go OOPs (out of prints) for almost 50 years, until Arno Press resurrected it as part of its Lost Race and Adult Fantasy series in 1978. It would then vanish for another 35 years, until Literary Licensing released its own version in 2013. And most recently, the fine folks at Armchair Fiction opted to release the novel as part of their ongoing Lost World/Lost Race series, in the fall of 2021 … the edition that I was fortunate enough to acquire.

As for the creators of this fantastical wonder, they were Herbert Clock and Eric Boetzel, about whom I can tell you … well, not very much. Clock (1890 – 1979) was an American, born on Long Island. Boetzel (1884 – 1958) was born in Germany, and is widely assumed to be the same Eric Boetzel who went on to become the Manhattan Asst. DA and the NY State Attorney General. The Light in the Sky was the only bit of writing that either man ever created, and that fact will surely strike any reader who experiences it with both surprise and regret. This, I am happy to report, is an impressively well-developed, beautifully written, marvelously paced, and really quite thoughtful lost-race affair that has left me wondering just what Clock (supposedly the senior writer here) did with the rest of his long life. Such a pity that he never tried his hand at storytelling again!

The authors’ novel is recounted to us by another youngish European, whose name and nationality, unlike Wingfield’s, are never revealed. As our nameless narrator tells us, he had been a soldier in France toward the end of WW1, and had seen some pretty fierce fighting there. One evening, near the front, he had met a strangely silent French Red Cross nurse, who had mysteriously vanished from the barren hill upon which she had stood. After the Armistice, while boxing at the Inter-Allied Games in Paris, our narrator had seen that same woman observing his bout, this time dressed as a British Canteen worker, but again, the woman had disappeared by the time he had been able to look for her. But shortly thereafter, while sitting in a Parisian nightclub, our narrator had spotted the woman for a third time, and had actually shared a dance with her. The woman had been sitting with another dusky beauty, as well as a rather dark and cruel-looking officer he’d assumed to be a Romanian. And these two had risen to assist when the mysterious woman’s emerald ring, cut in the shape of a truncated pyramid, had scratched our narrator’s arm, causing him to quickly lose consciousness…

When our narrator had finally awoken, he was in a land such as he had never seen before, a land with no visible stars, sun, moon or source of apparent light. He had found himself ensconced in a lavishly appointed palace suite, from the balcony of which he could see a winding river, a city that was assuredly not Paris, a truncated pyramid with a temple surmounting it, lush gardens, and a dark-hued people inhabiting it all. After many days of exploring this city and being completely ignored by its populace, he had befriended a genial guard by that imposing pyramid, and learned part of the startling truth: He had been brought to Atzlan, which lay deep underground, beneath the Plateau of Mexico. The city had been created some 400 years ago by Tizoc, a scientist/magician who had been the brother of Montezuma and who was still very much alive today! Indeed, the guard who had shared this information with our narrator was none other than Juan Velasquez de Leon, the (real-life) right-hand man of Hernan Cortes, and the only Spaniard who had been taken underground when Tizoc and a band of other Aztecs had fled from the Spanish invaders. Tizoc, it seems, over the centuries, had so mastered the physics of light that he could actually employ it to alter matter, effect chemical changes, and halt the aging process! Our narrator’s mysterious siren, indeed, was the Princess Tinemah, the 400-year-old daughter of Montezuma himself, while her companions had been Tula, the daughter of one of Montezuma’s favorite generals, and Prince Naguma, Tizoc’s son, who craved vengeance on the Spaniards and the world in general for the wrongs they had perpetrated in the 16th century. As for our narrator’s abduction, it seemed that Tinemah, under the guidance of her uncle, had been searching throughout Europe for just the right man for Tizoc’s upcoming experiment … an experiment that would involve … well, no; I really shouldn’t say. Discovering the reason for our narrator’s abduction, after all, is really half the fun in this fascinating wonder of a book…

The Light in the Sky by Herbert Clock & Eric Boetzel science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Light in the Sky is a very pleasing combination of the lost-world novel, Radium Age sci-fi adventure, and outright fantasy tale, with a lovely romance story added to the mix, and, surprisingly, a healthy dollop of what I can only call New Agey mysticism. Let’s take those elements one by one. The underground realm of Atzlan, peopled by the lost Aztecs and boasting an architecture of an almost fairyland nature, is a finely portrayed addition to the lost world/lost race canon, being at once exotic, timeless and beautiful. The sci-fi elements that the authors’ book offers up – other than a flying car that Tinemah uses to show our narrator the sights – are mostly centered on Tizoc’s knowledge of light. Thus, we see a light beam that brings about sleep to the populace at “night”; the effective use of invisibility via light wave manipulation; the agelessness already mentioned; and the all-powerful Eighth Color, with which Naguma hopes to conquer the outside world. The use of long-range telepathy from Europe to Atzlan (the science of telepathy, by the way, is very convincingly explained in this book) and the employment of “mini sending devices,” with which the Aztecs can both see and hear what is going on anywhere in the world, are also featured. As for the novel’s fantasy elements, for this reader, the big one was Tizoc’s master plan of using his light manipulation to … darn it, I wish I could say … although one cannot forget the mysterious Shadow Monster that lurks behind one of the locked doors in our narrator’s palace suite. As mentioned, the novel even throws in a lovely romance – that between our narrator and Tinemah, and, to a lesser degree, between Don Juan and Tula – and some mystical elements that perhaps Shirley MacLaine might smile on with approbation. The book, thus, tells us that rainbows are actually “God’s glorious promise to mankind,” or, as Tizoc puts it, “the symbol of God’s love for the life that His Light has created.” Indeed, there is a lengthy passage in the novel in which Tizoc goes on like this for quite a while; a passage at once charming and, coming out of nowhere as it does, somewhat startling.

The Light in the Sky has little in the way of action sequences, but somehow, every chapter seems to end on a cliff-hanger note. The book is never more suspenseful and mysterious than in its opening segments, as our narrator explores the city and endeavors to ascertain just why he has been brought there. Other very-well-done sequences include Don Juan’s description of the cataclysmic events of four centuries past; the scene in which Tizoc explains all to our narrator, while we try to figure out whether the scientist/priest is flat-out insane or a brilliant genius; and the climactic experiment, held atop the forbidden pyramid. Our nameless narrator – whom Don Juan calls St. Jago for some reason, whom the Aztecs themselves view as the incarnation of the great god Tezcatlipoca, and of whom Tizoc tells his populace “whatever the name, it is not important” – makes for a very likeable and sympathetic hero, whom we root for from start to finish. Clock & Boetzel give their readers a captivating intro as well as a charming coda to bracket their book, and their descriptions of the lost world and its people are finely detailed, barring the impressionistic, almost surrealist apocalyptic ending. Fittingly, in a book that stresses the importance of the various colors of the spectrum, this is a very colorful piece of work. And the authors also prove themselves adept at rendering beautifully written dialogue. Take, for example, this, in which Tinemah tells our narrator her thoughts about love:

…Love … who is worthy to speak of love, the sweetest song of time and space, the sunlight of the soul? Without which, sun and moon and stars shine meaninglessly, and life itself is lived in vain. Love raises men and women above the sordid things of Earth. It turns a hovel into a palace; and the night to morning. Love is immortal; love is divine; love’s feet are earthbound, but her eyes are stars…

…Because of love, man’s soul is born. Yet, for the baubles of Earth, men and women sometimes sell this divine gift of heaven, not knowing that he who sells love, sells life and he who buys love, buys death. Love prostituted, no matter for what, be it rank, position, wealth, is its own avenger. Love cannot be sold, neither can it be bought; it can be but given; blessed above all mortals is he who finds one to accept his gift of love and cherish it…

Perhaps not a realistic bit of dialogue, but surely a lovely one, right?

The Light in the Sky is a fairly flawless performance by Clock & Boetzel, and I could only discern two missteps that the authors make during its course, one minor and the other more serious. At one point, the lovely Tinemah goes off again, and begins quoting that Robert Herrick poem of the 1640s, “To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time”: “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may/Old Time is fast a-flying/And this same flower that smiles today/Tomorrow will be dying…” The only problem is, that second line should be “Old Time is still a-flying,” not “fast a-flying.” I know, I know … who cares, right? A minor matter, to be sure. More serious for me, though, is our narrator, late in the book, recognizing one of the Aztecs as “the Aztec soldier who had acted as my guide on that first day in Atzlan.” The only problem here is, our narrator had had no guide on his first day in the city, or during the many days that followed. As mentioned, every single person in the city had pointedly ignored him for some time after his advent! But other than these boo-boos, Clock & Boetzel, here in their first and final book, manage to deliver a wonderfully atmospheric and thoughtful work that will surely please most readers. Again, such a pity that this team never tried to follow up their great success here. For them, sadly, it was a case of one and done.

And, oh, one final word. Happily, this Armchair edition is mostly free of the typographical and punctuational errors that have plagued many of their other releases, and features interesting photos of Boetzel, the novel’s previous editions, and some alternate covers that the Armchair editors had been considering for this release. A pleasing package, indeed, befitting this lost wonder of a book…

Published in 1929. Armchair fiction presents extra-large paperback editions of the best in classic science fiction novels. “The Light in the Sky, Illustrated Edition” by Herbert Clock and Eric Boetzel is the 41st installment of our “Lost World-Lost Race Classics” series. Invaded by the Spanish, Tizoc and his people were forced to flee. With his people’s numbers so few, there was no hope of fighting back. Their home, as they once knew it, was destroyed. So they fled blindly into the bowels of the earth. Stranded in a deep cave with no means of survival, Tizoc’s people needed a miracle—and they got it. With the help of his scientists, Tizoc was able to use sunlight in ways never thought possible. New inventions and resources were cultivated; babies were soon born to a long, promising life and people stayed younger longer. The cave, once known to them as a pit of death and despair, became their paradise with the aid of Tizoc’s fantastic inventions. But, as with most inventors, Tizoc eventually became much too ambitious. Would those far-reaching ambitions cause everything he had built to come crashing down upon him and his people?

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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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