Monday, November 26, 2007

The Slovenia-Slovakia mixup

As is well known, Slovenia and Slovakia are often confused by outsiders. See the excellent (and often very funny) series of posts on this subject on The Glory of Carniola.

Well, recently I've had my first direct experience with this phenomenon, when a book I had ordered from a seller in the U.K. reached me with a few days' delay. As the stamp on the envelope shows, after leaving England on November 6, the book reached Bratislava, Slovakia on November 9. From there it was redirected to Slovenia and reached me a couple of days later.

A concrete example of the Slovenia-Slovakia mixup

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Saturday, November 24, 2007

BOOK: Matthew Lewis, "The Monk"

Matthew Lewis: The Monk. Edited by Howard Anderson, introduction and notes by Emma McEvoy. Oxford World's Classics, 1998. 0192833944. xl + 456 pp.

I'm quite fond of gothic novels, though I haven't read very many of them yet; just Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto and E.T.A. Hoffmann's The Devil's Elixirs, and now Lewis's The Monk. I also have several novels by Ann Radcliffe, which I intend to read eventually.

Anyway, I enjoyed this novel a lot. It's got plenty of everything one expects in a gothic novels; ghosts, devil-worship, monasteries, scheming clerics, a picturesque castle in Germany, subterranean dungeons with distant moans and creaking of chains, sex, rape, murder, lots and lots of melodrama. (For a synopsis of the story, see its page in the Wikipedia.) Sure, it's the pulp fiction of an earlier age. I usually think of reading pulp fiction as a guilty pleasure, but this time I didn't even feel any guilt; I just enjoyed it.

This OUP edition also has an interesting and fairly extensive introduction, which compares The Monk with other gothic novels, especially those of Ann Radcliffe (none of which I've read yet). Apparently The Monk is somewhat of an exception in this genre, and other gothic novels aren't quite as lurid or as explicit. See esp. pp. xiv and xix.

One thing that I found interesting about this novel is how many crimes the bad guys get away with, and for how long. Sure, in the end the good side wins, sort of, but how much damage has been done until then! Especially the monk, Ambrosio — the deeper he sinks into his crimes, the less they bother him, and the manages to murder Elvira and kidnap and rape Antonia before the novel is over. And then there's poor Agnes, her circumstances getting worse and worse despite all the efforts to the contrary, until at the end of the novel she is rescued from the very brink of death. First we see how her scheming relatives manage to get her to enter a monastery, despite the best efforts of don Raymond; and then, when the nuns discover her pregnancy, the abbess and a few other older nuns, after failing to obtain enough support among the others to have Agnes condemned to the worst sort of underground imprisonment, resort to trickery — they drug Agnes, making it seem that she died, and then after her ‘burial’ they convey her to the secret prison. Anyway, my point here is that we see evil doing very well indeed throughout most of the novel. It's true that the good side wins in the end, but it's hard to feel quite reassured by this after all the harm that's been done until then. From this point of view, this is not so much a reassuring story that good will win in the end, but rather a cautionary one that the world is a dangerous place with lots of evil people. In fact the steady progress of Antonio's corruption reminded me several times of what you usually see in another writer of the same period, namely de Sade; except that de Sade went one step further, and made the evil side triumphant at the end of the story as well, not just during it.

Especially in the last part of the novel, the last third or so, I felt that the novel was also one big cry of protest against religious fanaticism. I don't know if Lewis intended it to be seen that way (or maybe he did; perhaps he wanted it to function as an anti-Catholic work?), but the vast majority of the bad things that happen in this novel, especially towards the end, are ultimately due to religious fanaticism. It was this that made it possible for Antonio's ambition to be channelled into the career of a zealous and famous preacher, with the result that, between the pious celibate austerity (on which his reputation depended) and the wanking off to a picture of the Madonna, it's no wonder that he ended up crazy with lust, first for Matilda and then for Antonia. Likewise, it was religious fanaticism (and not her own) which made it possible for Agnes to end up in a convent in the first place, and then to be imprisoned by the evil abbess and her accomplices (another example of ambition that was channelled towards evil deeds due to religious fanaticism). And there's the inquisition near the end of the story, which is another sad result of excessive religious zeal. Now admittedly the situation is made more complicated by the presence of the devil, which the narrator of the novel takes quite seriously and matter-of-factly; he is no mere apparition but genuinely takes Ambrosio out of jail and later kills him. But even this, the presence of the devil in the novel, can be seen as another sorry consequence of fanaticism — people end up believing in this kind of terrible fictitious entities (and being afraid of them).

In ch. 2, p. 58 there's a passage where the novice Rosario admits that he is in fact a woman named Matilda. Well, this reminded me of this excellent comic.

On p. 79, when Ambrosio feigns sleep: “None sleep so profoundly, as those who are determined not to wake.”

“They who are conscious of Mankind's perfidy and selfishness, ever receive an obligation with apprehension and distrust: They suspect, taht some secret motive must lurk behind it: They express their thanks with restraint and caution, and fear to praise a kind action to its full extent, aware that some future day a return may be required.” (Vol. 2, ch. 3, p. 249.)

There are some amusing remarks on the Bible on p. 259 (vol. 2, ch. 4): “That prudent Mother, while She admired the beauties of the sacred writings, was convinced, that unrestricted no reading more improper could be permitted a young Woman. Many of the narratives can only tend to excite ideas the worst calculated for a female breast: Every thing is called plainly and roundly by its name; and the annals of a Brothel would scarcely furnish a greater choice of indecent expressions. [. . .] Of this Elvira was so fully convinced, that She would have preferred putting into her Daughter's hand ‘Amadis de Gaul,’ ” and other novels of chivalry.

An illustration of Antonia's utter innocence (vol. 2, ch. 4, p. 261): she says to Ambrosio, “ ‘Father, you amaze me! What is this love of which you speak? I neither know its nature, nor if I felt it, why I should conceal the sentiment.’ ” Especially the phrase “what is this * of which you speak” is priceless :)) See the Language Log for more examples (link 1, link 2 — the above passage from The Monk seems to be the earliest instance of this cliche that they're aware of), and also this post on Language Hat. The comments there contain a few excellent examples (“I was educated with the Queen's English with all its biases. I spoke it rather well. The first time I met with blacks from the States I was puzzled by their continuous use of a word sounding like ‘fucking’. I had never heard it. So I asked them, what does that word mean? What is fucking?”) :)))

The phrase “The Marquis constantly fell into the most terrible access of passion” appears on p. 282 (vol. 3, ch. 1). I wonder if it's simply a misspelling for “excess” (either Lewis's own, or perhaps by the typesetters of this OUP paperback edition?), or if Lewis deliberately used “access”. Its meaning could after all be stretched far enough to fit into this sentence; e.g. includes the meanings “an attack or onset, as of a disease; a sudden and strong emotional outburst”).

On p. 302 (vol. 3, ch. 1) there's a passage where the monk Ambrosio is caught as red-handed as one could possibly be, just at the point where he was about to rape Antonia. Of course, since this is a gothic novel, events proceed relatively gruesomely (Ambrosio ends up killing Antonia's mother Elvira, who had just caught him), but in general this type of situation is a great vehicle for humour. Here are some of my favourite examples: a recent one from I can has cheezburger?, a slightly older one from Sexy Losers, and a classic from one of the late, lamented parts of (the link points to the version in the Internet Archive; it's very slow, if the image fails to load, try this direct link instead; or try simply searching for whytx.jpg in Google to find mirrors, such as this one).

On p. 321 (vol. 3, ch. 2), Jacintha complains how everything goes wrong for her, despite all her efforts to purchase god's goodwill: “ ‘ [. . .] What signifies my having made three Pilgrimages to St. James of Compostella, and purchased as many pardons from the Pope, as would buy off Cain's punishment? [. . .] ’ ” :)

The end is remarkably lurid and melodramatic. The devil even tells Ambrosio that he is related to his victims: “ ‘ [. . .] That Antonia whom you violated, was your Sister! That Elvira whom you murdered, gave you birth! [. . .] ’ ” etc. Someone seems to have been reading too many Greek tragedies :)

Incidentally, the text in this book is based on Lewis's manuscript and preserves many of the quirks of his spelling. He is very fond of starting his words with capital initials, but I didn't get the impression that he is following any simple consistent rule in his choice of which words to capitalize. Another curious spelling is “risque” for “risk”.

Also incidentally, I am shocked to see that this novel was originally published in three volumes. It fits quite comfortably into one, and it isn't even particularly thick. Even if they used large type, the three volumes would still have to be very thin. I suppose it must have been done for some commercial reason, to increase the publisher's profits, but I'm surprised that the buyers went along with this.


  • Other gothic novels, especially those by Ann Radcliffe.

  • The introduction in this book, p. xiii, mentions another interesting-sounding title: The Necromancer, translated into English in 1794. It is also mentioned in the Wikipedia: The Necromancer: or, The Tale of the Black Forest (1794) by ‘Ludwig Flammenberg’ (pseudonym for Carl Friedrich Kahlert; translated by Peter Teuthold).

  • It might be interesting to read some of Lewis' poetry. The biography on p. i says that The Monk is Lewis' only novel, but that he later wrote many successful plays, and also “produced some volumes of poetry, and was well respected as a poet”.

    Incidentally, there are also several poems sprinkled throughout The Monk. They may not be terribly thrilling, but aren't that bad to read either. Anyway, I find that I usually don't particularly care for poems that are included within novels. Among the rare exceptions is Scott's wonderful Proud Maisie.

  • One notable plot element in The Monk is a kind of zombification: the victim is given a drug which causes her to fall into a kind of deep sleep in which she is invariably recognized as dead. She wakes up after two days, which gives the perpetrator enough time to have her buried and then steal her body so that he can manipulate with her later. See e.g. p. 329 here (vol. 3, ch. 2). Unlike in traditional zombification, however, the drug doesn't affect her state of mind after the point when she wakes up. Anyway, this method is used here in The Monk by the abbess against Agnes, and by Ambrosio against Antonia. Well, this reminded me that I would like to eventually read The Serpent and the Rainbow, a curious book by Wade Davis about zombification in Haiti.

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Saturday, November 17, 2007

BOOK: Sophia McDougall, "Rome Burning"

Sophia McDougall: Rome Burning. London: Orion, 2007. 9780752860794. xviii + 472 pp.


This is a sequel to Romanitas, an alternative-history novel set in the present time but in a world in which the Roman Empire never collapsed but instead occupied approx. half of the world. (See also my post about Romanitas, which I read last year.)

I enjoyed reading Romanitas a lot, but I liked Rome Burning even better. Just like with Romanitas last year, I was staying awake later than usual because I couldn't put the book down.

Comparison with Romanitas

According to a note on p. vi, this is the second of three books set in this alternative-history timeline; the third one is planned to be published next year. Well, one question that often interests me when it comes to trilogies is how well their individual parts stand on their own, i.e. if you consider them as individual works rather than as parts of a trilogy. Romaintas did just fine in this respect: it didn't assume that the reader has any prior knowledge of the alternative-history world in which the story takes place (which is of course natural as this was the first book in the series), and it provided a reasonable ending of the story so that the reader doesn't feel that the story is incomplete (although you could see that things have been set up so that the story could conveniently continue in the sequels). In contrast to that, Rome Burning is in my opinion not so suitable for being read as an individual work; it would be better to read Romanitas first. It's true that you get, here and there, brief explanatory passages of information that you already remember from Romanitas (if you have read it) and that could therefore in principle be helpful to a reader that hasn't read Romanitas yet; but I doubt that these passages would be enough to make such a reader really comfortable. They are OK to refresh your memory if you have read Romanitas a year or two ago and have forgotten the details, but a newcomer to the series would do best to start with Romanitas rather than jumping ahead and reading Rome Burning first.

The other thing is about the ending of the story; in Romanitas, as I said above, there was a normal enough end of the story; but here in Rome Burning the end is very abrupt and doesn't give you a sense of closure at all. In Romanitas you could see just that the story *could* conveniently continue, while in Rome Burning you see that it absolutely *must* continue, otherwise you will be left quite frustrated. Indeed the end here in Rome Burning is very dramatic; it reminded me of what I heard was a widespread practice in some TV series that span multiple seasons: at the end of the season, in the last episode, they gather most of the characters in one place and set up a big explosion or some other kind of disaster just at the end of the episode. That way any of the characters could either survive or die, and both of these possibilities would seem equally plausible. The purpose of all this is to prevent the actors for demanding higher salaries when they are negotiating for the next season: the producers can conveniently sack any actor who gets too demanding, since his character's absence from the next season will be easily explained to the audience by saying that he died in the disaster at the end of the preceding season. This practice strikes me as horribly cruel, cheap and sleazy. In a novel, it is not so objectionable since no real people are suffering because of it, but still it strikes me as a somewhat cheap way of building suspense. The end of Rome Burning looks like a classic example of what I have just described. It isn't clear to me whether the members of the Imperial family were evacuated from their box in time or not, or if the explosion did affect them, which ones would survive and which ones won't; and even Dama could, with a bit of effort, be made to survive his fall from the roof of the Colosseum. Anyway, this doesn't really bother me much by itself; what annoys me more is that the ending is so incomplete that I can really hardly wait for the third part of the series, to be published next year. I suppose this is just what the publishers want, of course, but I'm not entirely happy about it :)

There are several other aspects in which I felt that this book was an improvement on Romanitas. Una's paranormal abilities (about which I have already grumbled in my post about Romanitas last year) aren't so prominent here in Rome Burning, and aren't so crassly employed to create more suspenseful situations. I think this is a very nice improvement. Another thing I liked about Rome Burning is that the story moves through a wider range of locations. A considerable part of it even takes place outside the Roman Empire, mostly in China, and one brief scene in Japan. We also observe Marcus' train journey through the Sarmatian steppes, and towards the end of the novel there's a chapter that is set on some remote island in the Hebrides.

The story

<spoiler warning> Here's a short summary of the story. It is three years after the events of Romanitas; the old emperor Faustus is temporarily incapacitated by a stroke and Marcus, his nephew, takes up the position of regent. Marcus' cousin Drusus, who has already been one of the leading villains in Romanitas, comes out of the woodwork and starts scheming how to overthrow him. Drusus is especially annoyed by Marcus' relative humanity and pacifism; for example, Marcus is doing his best to avoid the outbreak of war with the Nionian empire (i.e. Japan; the two empires have a common border in North America, and are on the brink of war due to the recent incidents there); he has also proposed the abolition of crucifiction, and has manumitted all the slaves in the Imperial palace. There seems to be no doubt that he would abolish slavery altogether when/if Faustus dies and Marcus inherits his position. One very important source of support and encouragement to Marcus is his girlfriend Una; Drusus, noticing that, attempts to kill her in a few splendid scenes that made me hold my breath with excitement. Fortunately, he fails and ends up in prison, awaiting trial. Marcus travels to China, where he will negotiate with representatives of the Nionian empire and try to restore peaceful relations between the two superpowers. Meanwhile Drusus persuades a general Salvius, the commander of the Roman army, to release him from prison and take him to the emperor; the still-ailing and bedridden old man is partly convinced, partly bullied into agreeing with them that Marcus' policies are misguided and will dangerously weaken the Roman empire. Drusus travels to China, surprising Marcus there with the emperor's order commanding him to return to Rome. A sudden explosion kills one of the leading Nionian representatives. Marcus takes advantage of the confusion to hastily hand Una and his advisor Varius over to the Nionians as hostages, partly to reassure Nionia that the Romans had nothing to do with this assasination but partly, and more importantly, to prevent Una and Varius from getting into Drusus' hands. Despite Drusus' efforts to delay his journey, Marcus eventually returns to Rome, talks to the emperor who, by now somewhat confused and tired by all this, insists that Marcus and Drusus must now share the regency. Marcus returns to China, which is a clear sign that Drusus' coup has not been quite successful and people's loyalties shift into Marcus' favour again; Drusus' position is quite weak for the remainder of the novel. The negotiations with Nionia continue and are eventually brought to a happy conclusion, involving a detente, perhaps even a condominium, in North America. But this comes at a huge personal cost to Marcus: he ends up having to marry Noriko, the Nionian emperor's daughter. Although they treat each other kindly enough, it is clear that neither of them is happy with this dynastic marriage. Una, not wishing to be a concubine, leaves Marcus and is also supremely miserable. Meanwhile it turns out that the incidents along the Roman-Nionian border, as well as several other acts of terrorism, are due to the activities of an organization set up by Dama, a former slave who helped Marcus and Una so much during the events described in Romanitas but was gone without a trace at the end of that novel. Dama is hoping to provoke a world war which would bring about the collapse of the three big empires (Rome, Nionia, China) and a more just world, free of slavery, would presumably be able to rise from their ashes. In the very last few pages of the novel, he carries out a suicide bombing in the Colloseum, hoping to include the emperor, as well as Marcus and the rest of the imperial family, among the victims. </spoiler warning>

Character development

There are a lot more psychological and emotional things going on in this novel than there were in Romanitas, which I think is another improvement. I often found myself wondering how I would react in this or that situation, although I usually found that I lack the life experience necessary to really imagine how I would react. The saddest part of the story is undoubtedly when Marcus has to get married to Noriko for dynastic reasons, and Una leaves him. All three of them are clearly so miserable that I was damned close to weeping once or twice myself, and I certainly felt even more gloomy than usual for a couple of days.

Another thing that was rather sad to see was how Marcus has grown somewhat harsher due to his struggle against Drusus; see esp. pp. 335 and 348–52. In this latter passage, Marcus beats up Drusus in quite a gruesome way; it's interesting how much the impression these things leave on one depends on how they are presented. I remember the movie 300, with lots of gruesome swordfighting scenes and blood spurting by the bucketful, and it was all so hilariously funny that I just laughed. But here in the fight between Marcus and Drusus, it was described in such a way that I couldn't help feeling rather aghast, cringing and thinking ‘oh dear, how horrible’ — a reaction similar to what I would probably feel if I saw such a thing in real life.

One thing that stands the author in very good stead in that scene is her medical or, should I say, physiological bent: “he felt a rubbery crunch of bone under his knuckles, which came away wet [. . .] pain inflated densely into the hollows of his skull [. . .] Drusus gulped in a bubbling red breath” (pp. 348, 350). This sort of focus on low-level physiological details also appears in many other passages both here and in Romanitas (where probably the best example is the description of how a crucifiction works at the beginning of ch. 3); in many instances it felt to me more like an annoyance than something that improves the style, but here in this scene it works very well. You can really see very clearly how Marcus is little by little beating the very life out of poor Drusus, and how he really would have killed him if Varius hadn't stopped him in time. And you can see that it's not so easy to kill a person, and that it's very gruesome; a welcome reminder nowadays that death by violence is so commonplace and boring, both in the movies and in the news. Also, I couldn't help feeling sorry for Drusus at that time (which I think is a good thing), even though he had done some very bad things up until that point.

The alt-history world of the book

Some new things that we learn in this novel about the alternative-history world in which it takes place:

  • there's a tunnel underneath the Otranto strait (p. 39);

  • the last lions and tigers were killed three hundred years ago; gladiatorial games still exist, and gladiators now fight against polar bears and sharks (p. 40). Fighting “the beasts in the arena” is also a possible military punishment (p. 259);

  • I already mentioned in my post about Romanitas that mobile phones are clearly not known, and there are several passages here in Rome Burning that confirm it. Many problems could be avoided if the characters were able to communicate simply, directly and immediately via mobile phones. Drusus' intrigue on pp. 145–8, where he lures Una into an out-of-the-way office so that she can use the phone, would be impossible. Etc.

  • Another thing that I already noted last year is the absence of airplanes. Now Marcus is flown from Greece to Rome in a helicopter on p. 22, but when he has to travel home from China he goes by magnetway (p. 172). The magnet trains, incidentally, travel at 300 mph (pp. 273–4) and the “Silk Road magnetway” across central Asia consists of ten parallel tracks (p. 274).

  • It would seem that Rome, China and Nionia don't exactly have a well-established tradition of diplomatic relations, otherwise they wouldn't be getting into the hilarious protocolary complications that are described on pp. 174–7.

  • The current Chinese emperor is just a figurehead and the country is really ruled by his mother, the empress dowager. I guess that this was inspired by the real-world empress Tzu Hsi, who ruled China on the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.

  • The Chinese and the Nionians eat with sticks, just like in real life; Romans use spoons and knives (p. 178; forks aren't mentioned). And: “Often the Romans laid down their spoons to scoop up their food with their fingers, as was normal in the Empire.” (Ibid.)

  • A Nionian general is developing a mysterious weapon of great power: “ ‘ [. . .] we would strike with a force like an invisible hammer, a hammer to level armies and cities two hundred miles away. In the near future, explosives will be virtually obsolete! [. . .] ’ ” (P. 183; and Romans will try to learn more about it and develop something similar of their own, pp. 317–8.) I guess that in the third novel we'll find out what exactly this is. Of course one's first thought is an atomic bomb, but that doesn't work “two hundred miles away”. Rockets perhaps? But that are still explosives. Maybe something altogether more exotic is intended [the HAARP project comes to mind :)].

  • Tea is known in Rome but not widely used (p. 184).

  • There is an interesting passage on the use of cars in Rome and China on p. 258. “Romans liked to travel in belligerent, implacable-looking behemoths, spacious within and seemingly capable of bulldozing over anything outside.”

  • There aren't any TVs in the remote parts of China, and even phones are rare and extremely expensive (p. 284).


On p. 66 there's a passage that says about Sulien's memories of some of the events three years ago that although he rarely remembered them now, “they were there, like radioactivity in the bone marrow”. This struck me as very incongruous — there is otherwise no sign in this book that the world in which the story takes place is familiar with radioactivity.

Grumbling corner: I have a complaint about the ink used in the book. As often, I used a white piece of paper as a bookmark and also to slide it down the page as I read, to guide the eyes and make reading a little faster. Well, by the time I finished the book, the formerly white piece of paper was more gray than white, and quite greasy with all the ink it had picked up from the pages along which it had moved. What sort of vile, filthy muck did the printers use for ink? Is there any cost-cutting method that these greedy publishers will hesitate to adopt? I shudder to think what this book will look like in a few decades' time. Grrr.


This is an excellent and delightful book, even better than its predecessor. I heartily recommend both of them to anyone who is interested in this type of alternative-history novel, and I can hardly wait to read the third volume in the series (to be published in October 2008, according to amazon).

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Saturday, November 10, 2007

BOOK: J. W. Spencer, "Limbo of the Lost - Today"

John Wallace Spencer: Limbo of the Lost — Today. New York: Bantam Books, 1975. (1st ed. was Westfield, MA: Phillips Publishing Company, 1973.) xvi + 188 pp.

This is an updated and expanded edition of a book that Spencer had originally published in 1969, when it was titled simply Limbo of the Lost. The biographical note on p. 188 says that Spencer is “the owner and manager of the Phillips Publishing Company”, so I guess you could say that in a way it was self-published.

Anyway, 1969 is fairly early compared to most of the other well-known Bermuda Triangle books, which were published only in the 1970s. The phrase “Limbo of the Lost” is simply Spencer's term for the Bermuda Triangle. As he explains here on pp. 174–5, he objects to the “Bermuda Triangle” because the area he has in mind is not particularly triangular, and he suggests that the term has been adopted for marketing purposes. This makes some sense, but his own term, “Limbo of the Lost”, doesn't sound much better, and his justification for using it (p. 174) is rather strained. And he has an annoying habit of repeating it ad nauseam — at the end of almost every section, he says something along the lines of “and so this is another disappearance in the Limbo of the Lost”.

The main strength of Spencer's book, compared to the other Triangle books I've read so far, is in the large number of incidents it describes, and in the amount of detail provided about them. Berlitz, for example, spends just a couple of chapters describing the better-known disappearances of ships and airplanes, and then moves on to discussing possible explanations, which are of course just silly paranormal theories that I don't particularly care to read about. But here, Spencer dedicates almost the entire book to describing unexplained accidents and disappearances, and there are a lot more of them here than in the other Triangle books I've read; ships, airplanes, tugboats, drifters, submarines, the stories go on and on.

Unlike Adi-Kent Jeffrey, who likes to spin long yarns about each incident and include tons of made-up dialogue, Spencer focuses on telling his stories briefly and concisely, but includes plenty of factual details (if available). (This style is a result of his deliberate decision; see pp. 175–6.) Also unlike Jeffrey, who spends about half her book writing about pre-1850 disappearances where it's less obvious whether something really mysterious is going on, Spencer's book is more or less entirely about more recent events — another plus for Spencer, as far as I'm concerned.

Sometimes the masses of details he provides start seeming a bit unnecessary to me; e.g. he has a tendency to include complete lists of crew and passengers on lost ships or airplanes, including their ranks and home towns and states. But I guess that for those who lost a friend or relative in these events, such details are interesting; the rest of us can easily skip them, and they aren't really annoying.

Most of the time, the writing is remarkably sober — much more so than I would have dared to expect in a Bermuda Triangle book. I particularly liked the fact that he usually describes the search efforts in a lot of detail; the various hypotheses that e.g. the Coast Guard considered to try explaining the accident; the progress of the search, and its final abandonment; and in quite a few cases he mentions that some wreckage was found, i.e. the ship or plane didn't disappear entirely without a trace. But he does say, in such cases, that one would expect more wreckage to be found than that.

[Here's a funny example from p. 153. A cargo plane carrying frozen beef crashed into the sea for no very obvious reason in 1971, within sight of eyewitnesses on a nearby ship. “The crew upped anchor and within a matter of just a few minutes were at the crash site. The chilling part of the story is that nothing was there, no bodies, no debris, no oil slick; just one floating side of beef.” :)]

However, on those few occasions when the discussion does come to the subject of explanations for the Bermuda Triangle accidents and disappearances, Spencer leaves us in no doubt as to his views. He is quite sure that this is all due to the activity of UFOs; he talks of this as matter-of-factly as about everything else — as if no doubt or controversy whatsoever existed about this subject! See e.g. pp. 155–6, where he says that the frequency of Triangle events and that of the UFO sightings are correlated. And on pp. 177–8 he says that aliens “clearly do not want to socialize or fraternize with earth begins” so they built “their bases and laboratory facilities deep under the ocean” (p. 177); “whenever they need someone or something for experimental purposes, all they have to do is leave their facilities, take what they want, and return to their hidden underwater laboratories” (p. 178).

The first chapters, which are about airplane disappearances, are a bit heavy on jargon; probably because of his background in the U.S. air force and NORAD (p. 188).

He mentions on p. 64 that “a large store of Phoenician coins” was discovered on the Azores.

The section on the Cyclops (pp. 80–7) is fairly detailed, although still not as extensive as the story on Gian Quasar's web site. I was interested to learn on p. 86 of the disappearances of two sister ships, Proteus and Nereus, both colliers and similar to the Cyclops; they disappeared within a few weeks of each other in November 1941, and the cases bear several similarities with that of the Cyclops (including the lack of an explanation).

All in all, this is quite a good Bermuda Triangle book. If you want a book that emphasizes facts and details about the disappearances and accidents, rather than a book that emphasizes bizarre paranormal ‘explanations’ and theories, than this is the book for you.


  • Yet more Bermuda Triangle books, of course :) Once again, see the list in the Wikipedia article.

  • Spencer also wrote a book titled No Earthly Explanation, where he discusses his theory that the Triangle events are caused by UFOs. He says here on p. 178 that the book includes the story “of how U.S. Army helicopter pilot, Captain Lawrence J. Coyne, and his crew of three were hijacked by a UFO on October 18, 1973” :)

    [Incidentally, I like the fact that he says “hijacked” rather than “abducted” — alien abduction is a big cliche now, with a whole genre of books in its own right, and his use of a different term (“hijacked”) is a nice reminder of the times when these things were recent and original and even the terminology was not yet as established as it is now.]

  • There's an ad at the end of this book, listing several other delightfully kooky books published by Bantam at that time. Apart from several volumes of Däniken, the following titles sound interesting:

    • Richard Winer: The Devil's Triangle
    • Ralph Blum: Beyond Earth: Man's Contact with UFOs
    • Robert Dione: God Drives a Flying Saucer
    • Peter Kolosimo: Not of This World
    • Andrew Tomas: We Are not the First

    How could one resist all this vintage 70s weirdness? :))

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Saturday, November 03, 2007

BOOK: Adi-Kent Jeffrey, "The Bermuda Triangle"

Adi-Kent Thomas Jeffrey: The Bermuda Triangle. London: Star Books / W. H. Allen & Co., 1975. (1st ed. was New Hope, PA: New Hope Publishing, 1973.) 352398280. 143 pp.

The Bermuda Triangle, as is well known, is an area in the western Atlantic that is supposedly the site of an unusually large number of unexplained ship and airplane accidents, or, to put it more accurately, disappearances. Some dispute this claim, saying either that the number of such accidents is not unusual (given the large amount of traffic in the area), or that the accidents that are often cited by Triangle supporters are in fact not really that difficult to explain. The Triangle supporters, on the other hand, of course claim that something unusual indeed is going on and cannot be explained otherwise than by this or that kooky paranormal phenomenon.

I personally have no opinion about whether the number of disappearances in the Triangle is unusually high or not (after all I don't have any data on this subject), and I can't accept explanations that resort to paranormal phenomena. I am, however, under the impression that at least some genuinely unusual and hard-to-explain accidents did take place, and I'm simply curious about them, although I don't doubt that if an explanation would eventually be found, it would always turn out to be fairly mundane rather than paranormal.

Anyway, the golden age of the Bermuda Triangle was, unsurprisingly, the 1970s — a decade generally noted for its fascination with the paranormal. That's when the best-known book on the subject was published, The Bermuda Triangle (1975) by Charles Berlitz. I read it quite some time ago, several times in fact, and enjoyed it tremendously. Of course you cannot take Berlitz' explanations in the least bit seriously — the Atlantis, Edgar Cayce, UFOs, the Philadelphia Experiment, time travel, nothing is too flaky for him to consider as a possible explanation for the Triangle incidents. But regardless of that, his book was a great read, and his descriptions of the airplane and ship disappearances were quite chilling and often made me afraid to go to sleep afterwards, small child that I was at the time. Anyway, after that I've read several other books in this genre: Without a Trace, Berlitz' 1977 sequel to The Bermuda Triangle; then Gian Quasar's Into the Bermuda Triangle (2003 — one of the few recent books on the subject); and now Adi-Kent Jeffrey's The Bermuda Triangle. I think this genre is best thought of as a shifty cousin of science fiction, except that it's marketed as fact :)

The main difference between Jeffrey's book and those by Berlitz and Quasar is that she spends much more time on describing the incidents and less on dreaming up ridiculous paranormal explanations. This, in principle, is a very good thing — paranormal theories are easy to come by; what makes a Triangle book really interesting for me is the descriptions of the unexplained disappearances of ships and airplanes.

However, many of the disappearances described in this book are of ships from the age of sail. Inevitably, if a ship two hundred years ago went off to the sea and was never heard of again, it's hard to convince oneself that this must be due to some unusual or unknown phenomenon. Surely a simple storm or something of that sort is quite sufficient in most cases. In an age without radio and other modern technologies, months might pass before anyone would notice that the ship is missing, and nobody would have any idea where to look for its flotsam. Jeffrey tries to connect the incidents she describes to the Triangle by saying that if the ships in question had simply perished in a storm, somebody would certainly have to have found some wreckage at some point, but I'm not quite so sure of that.

Some of these early disappearances, which she describes in considerable detail, include: the Venture (1609), a boat carrying some shipwreck survivors originally travelling to Virginia (ch. 1); three Spanish galleons, disappearing in 1750 after being separated from the rest of their convoy by a storm (ch. 2); the 1813 disappearance of the Patriot, one of its passengers being Theodosia Burr, the daughter of the former U.S. vice-president, Aaron Burr (ch. 3; in the subsequent decades, many a former pirate claimed on his deathbed that it was he that had put Theodosia to death after the capture of the Patriot); the 1814 disappearance of a U.S. Navy ship, the Wasp, led by captain Blakeley, renowned for his courage (ch. 4).

Another disappointing story where you really have to stretch things very far to make it seem mysterious is from 1973: “the huge 13,000 ton German freighter, Anita, laden with a cargo of coal, steamed out of Newport News, Virginia, headed for Germany. She never made it. The Anita, like so many before her, was swept into oblivion with her crew of 32 men.” (P. 62.) Where the heck do we have any evidence that this even happened near the Triangle (rather than e.g. halfway across the Atlantic)? Or that the explanation wasn't something more mundane? At least she should write more details if she thinks there is reason to believe that the more obvious explanations wouldn't work here.

She briefly mentions the Cyclops (p. 61), but without much detail. For a longer version of this delightful yarn, see this account on Gian Quasar's web page.

There's a nice story of the Porta Noca, a ship that sailed from the Isle of Pines in 1926 and disappeared; told by one Rad Miller who, had he not changed his mind in the last moment, would himself have been a passenger on it (pp. 63–5). There's also the story of the famous Joshua Slocum and his disappearance in 1909 (pp. 66–70). The Revonoc (1958; p. 70) and the Witchcraft (1967; p. 76) are two classic Triangle disappearances. There's also the Enchantress (1964, pp. 73–5), which I don't remember from Berlitz.

There's a nice chapter on the ‘ghost ships’ (ch. 6), the most well-known ones probably being the Mary Celeste and the Carroll A. Deering. But a far more bizarre story involves La Dahama, found in 1935 by another ship; she was in poor condition and unmanned. The bizarre thing is that another ship subsequently reported that she had encountered the Dahama during a storm, rescued its crewmembers and then saw the Dahama founder in front of their very eyes!

The chapter 7 on airplane incidents mentions all the well-known ones: the Flight 19, the Martin Mariner and the Star Tiger and Star Ariel. However, it also mentions an interesting disappearance that I don't remember reading about yet: in the summer of 1945, two out of a squadron of twelve bombers failed to return from a training flight, for reasons unknown (pp. 91–3).

There's also chapter 8 about the Devil's Sea, an area near Japan supposedly noted for disappearances similar to those in the Bermuda Triangle. It also mentions Ivan Sanderson's well-known theory that there are ten or twelve such areas around the world (pp. 116–17, including “one unique region of ‘land-deadliness’ — Afghanistan”), but curiously it doesn't mention Sanderson's own impressively silly term for these areas — Vile Vortices :))

Ch. 9 is particularly interesting — it's about submarines, which tend to be somewhat neglected in the Triangle lore. A large nuclear sub, the Scorpion, disappeared in 1968. However, unlike in many such ‘disappearances’, the sub was later found — the U.S. Navy took pictures of it on the bottom of the ocean, but they were unable to determine what caused it to sink (p. 126).

Ch. 10 briefly describes various more or less wacky explanations that have been suggested for the Triangle disappearances: “atmospheric ‘sleeves’ ” and other curious quirks in the fabric of space-time; magnetic aberrations; time travel; UFOs. There's an excellent story on pp. 138–40 of an airplane who had, in 1961, a brush with an antique-looking WW1-style biplane. Soon afterwards, just such a biplane was found in a nearby barn, scratched just where it should have been given the above-mentioned near-collision; and, as an added bonus, it contained an old logbook with an entry, dated sometime in the 1910s, in which the horrified pilot described his near-collision with an unusually futuristic and metallic airplane. Any yet those spoilsports at the Civil Aeronautics Board had the guts to say that it was all a hoax!

The author has to be commended, however: she cites, in this chapter, a number of articles with very scientific-sounding titles. She even includes the names of the authors (but not the names of the journals). Anyway, of course if one took the trouble to follow these articles up, it might turn out that they are either wacky or that they are sober but don't say anything that supports the wacky theories mentioned in this book; but at least she cites something — which is much more than you can say for most books on this subject.

So, what to say at the end? On the plus side, the proportion of the book dedicated to describing incidents rather than offering silly ‘explanations’ and theories is much higher than in the case of Berlitz (and Quasar). Jeffrey describes many incidents not mentioned in those other two authors. Another plus: she manages to affect, much of the time, a tone more sober and reasonable than I would have dared to expect in the average Bermuda Triangle book. I don't mean to say that the succeeds in resisting the lure of paranormal explanations — far from that, but at least much of the time she keeps them decently in the background.

On the downside, many of her incidents are ships from the age of sail and as such not very convincing. Additionally, the book is very short (143 pages, easily read in a single sitting) and contains lots of typos. And, ridiculously, the back cover says “16-page section of exclusive photographs” — and then most of them are from Culver Pictures and UPI... :)

One more thing, which can be either a plus or a minus depending on how you look at it: she often describes the incidents in a way that would be more appropriate in a work of fiction, i.e. she includes the details of what the people involved did or said even in cases where it's quite clear that she can have no firm proof that this is really how it happened — i.e. she's just making it up based on what seems the most likely to have happened. On the one hand, this is a tad dishonest; on the other hand, it makes for a better read, the whole thing's just hokum anyway, and besides, if it was OK for Thucydides, why not for Jeffrey?

Anyway, I don't regret reading this book, and if you are also a Triangle enthusiast like me, you'll probably enjoy it too. And I'm looking forward to reading still more books on the Triangle.


  • Other classic books about the Bermuda Triangle — see the Wikipedia page for a list.

  • Larry Kusche's The Bermuda Triangle Mystery — Solved (1975), a debunking of many well-known Triangle incidents. However, see also this page by Gian Quasar, which, if true, suggests that there are many serious errors in Kusche's book.

  • mentions several other books by Adi-Kent Jeffrey, also on paranormal subjects: Witches and Wizards; They dared the Devil's Triangle; and Ghosts in the Valley: True Hauntings In the Delaware Valley (this last one even has a sequel, both published in 2007, so apparently she is still alive and kicking).

  • See also this interesting web site with a compilation of data about the various disappearances often associated with the Bermuda Triangle. Among other things, it lists exactly which books mention which disappearance.

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