The Sea Demons by Victor Rousseau
In his 1896 short story entitled “The Sea Raiders,” British author H. G. Wells wrote of a newly discovered race of giant cephalopods, Haploteuthis ferox, that suddenly takes to terrorizing and devouring some unfortunate residents on the Devonshire coast. It is a wonderful tale, really, expertly written by the legendary author in an almost documentary manner. But this, of course, was hardly the first time that an English writer would give us a tale of oceanic monstrosities rising up from the deep. Just 20 years later, thus, the world was given another such story, one that was not nearly as well written as the Wells piece, but, to its credit, posited a menace on a much broader geographic scale. The book in question, The Sea Demons, was written by an author named Victor Rousseau and has, like its titular protagonists, emerged from obscurity to flabbergast a new generation.
The Sea Demons first saw the light of day as a four-part serial in the January 1st, 8th, 15th and 22nd, 1916 issues of the American pulp magazine All Story Weekly (cover price: 10 cents); incidentally, the final segments of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ six-part serial The Son of Tarzan also appeared in those first two issues, and the January 1st magazine featured beautiful cover artwork by one W. C. Fairchild for the Rousseau story. Eight years later, in 1924, the British publisher John Long Ltd. would release Rousseau’s novel as a hardcover book (bearing on its front cover, for some strange reason, one of Rousseau’s many pen names, in this case, um, H. M. Egbert!), after which the novel would go OOPs (out of prints) for a good 52 years, until Hyperion Press revived it, in 1976, in both paperback and hardcover editions. And then, Rousseau’s tale would submerge into oblivion once more, for another 45 years, till the fine folks at Armchair Fiction decided to salvage it for the modern-day reader, in the fall of 2021, and boasting the same Fairchild cover artwork as had appeared 105 years earlier.
As for Rousseau himself, his career is difficult to synopsize. Born in London in 1879 with the name Avigdor Rousseau Emanuel, the author would later live in South Africa, Canada, Britain and New York. His work covered many fictional genres – sci-fi, horror, Westerns, Canadian adventure tales, “spicy stories” – and, besides working as an author, he would become an editor for Harper’s Weekly magazine, as well as a screenwriter for Universal. Before his death in 1960, at age 81, Rousseau would release three “serious novels,” hundreds of short stories, and a bewildering number of serialized genre novels. The Sea Demons, as far as I can make out, was written just six years after Rousseau became a published author, in a career that would extend for almost four decades. Thus, it is a relatively early work by a writer clearly still attempting to hone his craft, yet one who surely displays hints of a definite talent.
In Rousseau’s book, we are introduced to a British naval lieutenant named Donald Paget, who has just been given his first command, that of the eight-man sub the D55, in the middle of WW1. While emerging from the Admiralty’s office in Whitehall, Donald chances to bump into an old instructor of his, Capt. Jonathan Masterman, who has been pretty universally derided by the Royal Navy as being a crank, following his reports of sea serpents and whatnot. Masterman buttonholes Donald, coerces the lieutenant to join him for dinner at his club, and proceeds to pour into the younger man’s ears a fresh tale of marine monstrosities that he had just tussled with up by the Shetland Islands. Masterman, unfortunately, dies of some kind of a fit at the conclusion of his tale, leaving the skeptical Donald shaking his head in wonder. But later, while searching through the captain’s London abode, Donald happens to come upon several vats, containing … well, something; semitransparent, gilled creatures, being kept alive in a liquid solution. Before he can investigate further, he is knocked unconscious by Masterman’s nemesis, the evil genius Prof. Ira MacBeard, who absconds with some of the captain’s papers and flees into the night.
Several days later, now on the high seas searching for German destroyers while in command of the D55, the events surrounding Masterman’s warning of an attack by suboceanic monstrosities seem like a dream to Donald. He has other things on his mind now, like sinking a German destroyer in the North Sea. After a tense battle, that destroyer is indeed torpedoed and wrecked, but not before it itself sinks the passenger liner S.S. Boeotia. (It will be remembered that the British passenger liner Lusitania was sunk by a German U-boat just eight months prior to this novel’s release.) Donald is then given a double shock when he picks up the liner’s sole survivor, Ida Kennedy, his lady love from the U.S., and when her lifeboat is attacked by the very monstrosities that Masterman had warned him about! After several run-ins with the ravenous “sea demons,” both above water and aboard the sub, the crew is reduced to just Donald; his second-in-command Davies, a 17-year-old “snotty” fresh out of training; and Sam Clouts, an amiable, harmonica-playing bear of a man. Along with Ida, they fetch up on lonely Fair Island, in the Shetlands, where they get into still more trouble, both under the ocean and on land, with the amphibious demons and their Queen, who develops a strange, sexual yearning for Donald himself. And as if that weren’t enough for our quartet of heroes to handle, that diabolical mastermind MacBeard soon pops up as well, having recently discovered, from Masterman’s stolen papers, how to control the sea folk and use them in his plot to conquer the world! And, despite Donald & Co. doing their best, the sea demons do indeed wind up swarming south from the Shetlands, to wreak havoc on not just England, but on the French and Belgian/Dutch coastlines as well…
Despite its interesting and fast-moving story line, The Sea Demons is ultimately revealed to be a rather middling affair, albeit an entertaining one. Let’s look at some of the novel’s numerous selling points first, though, shall we? Paget and his men make for a likeable and well-depicted crew, and Ida, happily, despite some seemingly inevitable screams, crying jags and fainting spells, is quite a spunky young gal, in a clutch. MacBeard makes for a fine, realistic villain, although his sudden infatuation with Ida strikes the reader as ringing a tad false. Actually, MacBeard can almost be seen as a prototype for the Ian Fleming 007 villain (although I doubt that Fleming would have chosen the first name “Ira” for one of his evildoers); we are told that he had previously harbored plans to utilize solar energy to precipitate worldwide volcanic eruptions, and also wanted to create a new race of supermen from a lair in Greenland! The diaphanous Queen is nicely mysterious, her sad eyes communicating her desire to evolve to human status, while bemoaning the fact that it will be eons before her kind looks like Donald and Ida. She is, unfortunately, underutilized in the book. As for her minions, the sea demons themselves, they are a memorable lot, being practically transparent while alive, as well as wholly vicious and quite ravenous. Their ability to separate the hydrogen from ocean water, leaving an oxygen-nitrogen area in which Donald and his friends are actually able to breathe beneath the waves without diving gear, also produces clouds of explosive hydrogen when they march on land, only adding to their fearfulness. Rousseau gives us some interesting locales for his action sequences (Fair Island, the Skjold Fjord in Norway) and dishes out for his readers any number of exciting and suspenseful scenes. Among the best: Donald’s discovery of those two sea demon samples in Masterman’s home; the tense cat-and-mouse game between the D55 and the German destroyer; Donald’s first dukeout with a gaggle of the sea demons, in that lifeboat on the high seas, and armed only with a set of oars; the desperate undersea walk that Donald and Ida take through murky waters, encountering a giant killer fish of some kind as well as grasping crinoids; the sea demons’ attack on Europe, while the populace begins to panic; and finally, that thrilling final showdown in Norway. Throw in the edgy strangeness of the Queen’s love for a human – and Donald’s atavistic and almost hypnotized attraction to her – some well-rendered dialogue, and glints of pleasing humor (the eccentrics at Masterman’s Inventors Club are a real hoot!), and you’ve got yourself a rather nice book to settle in with, indeed.
Unfortunately, as mentioned, there are some problems to be had here also. Although Rousseau’s writing is spirited, it can also be a bit fuzzy at times, and some of his descriptions (particularly of the sea demons’ underwater cavern) are a bit hard to visualize. He gets an occasional bit of information wrong (such as when he repeats the erroneous “fact” that Dagon was a Phoenician fish god), is guilty of a few instances of faulty grammar (“But soon he became as utterly lost as if he was threading the mazes of a primeval forest…”), and gives his readers several rather awkward lines (“[the German ship] might lie too unobserved for observation…”). Some of his throwaway references will most likely come off as dated for a 21st century reader (such as those to suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, and to the Dutch waterway the Zuyder Zee, which, following a flood in Holland in January 1916 – the same month that Rousseau’s novel was released – would be dyked off and largely reclaimed as usable land). The fact that the D55 just happens to be in the same area as the Boeotia when she is sunk, and the additional fact that the only survivor of that catastrophe just happens to be Donald’s girlfriend, constitute a double coincidence that is almost too large to be swallowed. And then there’s the unsatisfying explanation as to how the sea demons are able to convert the ocean floor to a livable, breathable zone of comfort; “far-fetched” doesn’t come close to describing it. So as you can see, Rousseau’s novel, fun as it is, must be deemed something of a mixed bag. Adding to the problematic nature of the book is the Armchair presentation that has been given to us here, another typo-riddled affair with numerous misspellings, missing words, and botched punctuation. Most of the Armchair releases that I’ve encountered over the years have been in fairly good shape; this one, sadly, is something of a mess. Still, the volume comes with my reserved approval. I only hope that the next Lost World/Lost Race novel that I read from Armchair, which will be Patrick and Terence Casey’s The Strange Story of William Hyde (also from 1916), will be in much more presentable shape than Victor Rousseau’s The Sea Demons…
I myself am often too unobserved for observation.
I actually laughed out loud at “McBeard,” which sounds more like a cartoon villain than anything else.
I like the descriptions of the “sea demons” though.
Marion, I enjoyed observing your observation about being too unobserved for observation….