It is November 27, 2015. In France, a memorial service is held for the victims of the November 13-14 attacks. Earlier this week,Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet. Stateside, Robert Dear shoots up a Planned Parenthood clinic, killing three. Because he was a white man, the news never once described him as a terrorist, and indeed Fox spent a few hours claiming it was actually a robbery gone wrong because he’d mistaken the clinic for a bank or something. Though SWAT teams were used to bring him in, he was taken alive, and isn’t even in jail, since he was deemed incompetent to stand trial, again, because white.
Earlier this week, reporter Serge Kovaleski was mocked by GOP hopeful and costar of the 1989 film Ghosts Can’t Do It Donald Trump for his physical handicap. This was widely considered to be the end of his political career. I’m going to just lay down and cry for a bit.
Creed, eighth film in the Rocky franchise (Rocky, Rocky II, Rocky III, Rocky IV, Rocky V, Rocky Balboa, The Rocky Horror Picture Show), premiered this week. So did the James McAvoy/Daniel Radcliffe bomb Victor Frankenstein. Shaun the Sheep is released on home video. One Direction takes Artist of the Year at the AMAs, Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” takes Song of the Year. Adele’s 25 has the single best sales week for an album ever. Correspondingly, “Hello” continues to to hold the top spot on the Hot 100 for the third week in a row, and it’ll stay there for the rest of the year. I won’t bother you with the rest of the top ten since it was only like a year and a half ago. It’s got Drake and Bieber and Taylor Swift, because of course it does. The Game Awards are next week, where The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt will be named best game, while Her Story will get Best Story and Best Character Performance.
I release this Tales from /lost+found. This is weird. Real Doctor Who airs the penultimate episode of series 9, “Heaven Sent“. I liked it; it’s kinda when I started the healing process toward finding a new way to like Doctor Who. Not like I used to, but, like, some. Chris Evans announces the return of Top Gear next spring with himself as the new presenter following the, ahem, retirement of the previous hosts. Matt LeBlanc’s addition to the cast is not yet revealed. In the US, Superstore will be premiering this week, while Minority Report is ending. Power Rangers Dino Charge airs “Wishing for a Hero”, which introduces the characters of Hekyl and Snide, who will become the Big Bad for much of the following season. I don’t watch a lot of TV any more, so I’m not really up on what’s airing. I guess they based a TV series on Limitless? We’re so close to the present day that Chris Brown is Trevor Noah’s guest on The Daily Show.
And D. G. Leigh releases an ebook titled The Massacre of Mankind: Sherlock Holmes vs. The War of the Worlds. Or possibly Sherlock Holmes vs. The War of the Worlds: The Massacre of Mankind. It’s rendered one way on the cover and the other way on the page headers. But never mind that, it’s Sherlock Holmes fighting the Martians. Fuck. Yeah.
Y’know how last time I was expecting The Last Days of the Thunder Child to be crap and it turned out to be good? Yeah, that’s not happening this time. This book… Okay. This book is not irredeemable. In fact, it’s got a cool premise, it’s well-engaged with its source material, the plot is fairly solid, and frankly, there’s really only one thing wrong with it.
Unfortunately, that one thing is the writing. The writing is bad. The writing is very bad. Sentences so frequently omit such niceties as subjects or verbs, to the point of sounding downright telegraphic at times. And the word choice is frequently wrong, such as “beneficiary” for “beneficial”, or the charmingly off-kilter, “The delicious soup didn’t satisfy the hungry I had growing inside me.”
It’s so clumsy that you almost could’ve saved it with the right conceit. The prologue explains that this is one of those cases that Watson had held off publishing for fear of, “Thus diminishing both mine and Holmes’ creditably but now my companion’s brilliance is legendary fact I consider our reputations safe and firmly respected for me to reveal the most astounding case file of them all.” (The sentence actually does begin “Thus”. Like I said.) In Holmesean scholarship, it’s a common conceit to pretend that the Sherlock Holmes stories really did happen, and rather than writing works of fiction, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle acted as a literary agent for a real Dr. John Watson. Now, some people view Doyle, in this model, as little more than a middle-man, but others propose that he really was a legitimate writer, responsible for the heavy lifting of tooling Watson’s case notes into a narrative, albeit with the occasional misstep such as relocating Watson’s war injury from time to time.
Leigh could have bought himself some goodwill, then, if he’d framed this story as one that The Literary Agent had passed on, forcing Watson to publish his own unpolished words. While it might not have made the book less cumbersome to read, it would’ve been a cool idea and helped to account for the fact that, while Leigh has his Sherlockiana down pretty solidly, he’s not even close to emulating the narrative voice of the Canon.
We start out with a forward that isn’t especially promising, but does give us an honest sense of what we’re getting:
This is a serious and intelligent interpretation and not a comical fusion of two classic genres. Using pivotal sequences portrayed in Wells’ masterpiece, we’ll accompany Holmes & Watson as they experience and tackle the horror of a full scale Martian invasion. Includes new plot twists with updated science.
Y.Yay? He goes on to do something that sends up a bit of a red flag for me. He offers a kind of glossary of two terms he’s “not happy with”. One of them is “Underground” to describe the London subway system. He’s unhappy because the Underground technically refers to a later incarnation of the London subway system, and the one in use at this time is more properly the “Metropolitan Railway”, but he’d feared that readers would be confused and not get that he was talking about a subterranean train system.
The other word he apologizes for is “Darkie”.
G’head. Let that sink in. He was exactly as bothered by being “forced” to use a racial slur for the sake of, ahem, historical accuracy, as he was about being “forced” to use an anachronistic term for a subway system. It’s one stupid throwaway line, too, that comes up in the context of someone mistaking the Martians for an unlikely counter-invasion by one of the African nations nineteenth-century Europe had been exploiting. It doesn’t have to be there, it adds nothing, and if he really were as unhappy about using the word as he claims, he could have just not used it.
And I haven’t gotten to the story yet. As the foreword explains, this is a retelling of Wells’s story, hitting on many of the famous scenes, but re-imagined in the style of a Sherlock Holmes story. And there is some solid imagination behind it. The general story feels like a very legitimate candidate for “How would Holmes behave if he were thrust into these events?” even if the actual text itself doesn’t work.
So how do you approach Sherlock Holmes in The War of the Worlds? Rewriting the story so that Holmes is actually responsible for the Martian defeat is a possibility, of course. It’s been done before, in books I may or may not get around to. But what Leigh does strikes me as somewhat more interesting. He sticks to the plot of the novel: the Martians are felled by common bacteria, through a lucky break for humanity. Holmes himself is largely powerless against them. Holmes’s genius, then, is directed not toward defeating the Martians, but more straightforwardly toward survival. Despite the “vs” of the title, this is less a story about Holmes taking on the Martians, and more a story of Sherlock Holmes using his great intellect to survive an apocalyptic scenario.
The major divergence from Wells’s novel comes with Watson’s assertion that the Martian invasion was covered up by the British government. “The August invasion got officially documented by our trusted scholars as the Great London Hurricane of 1894. The millions that perished died from an outbreak of cholera as a direct result of the storm’s aftermath.” The cover-up is implied to be motivated by a desire to keep secret the recovery of Martian technology, which Watson fears will resurface in the twentieth century as weapons of war. The impossible scale of the cover-up is facilitated by Leigh’s alteration to the nature of the black smoke. Rather than being deadly, it is imagined as an “amnesia gas”. Holmes, in the first of many places where Leigh drops in an adroit reference to Holmes arcana, likens it to the smoke used by beekeepers. The smoke pacifies anyone who breathes it, allowing the Martian handling machines to collect humans with ease for consumption (Rather than simply drinking human blood, Leigh’s Martians are described as pureeing their victims’ whole bodies). And I find it interesting that even this change is presented in a way that you could imagine Wells’s version as being an honest mistake: that another observer might see the smoke released, see only dead bodies remaining when it dissipated, and draw the obvious conclusion. There are other additions in a similar vein: the aliens are said to emit a sound which humans find subtly enticing. Holmes likens it to a dog whistle. I get the impression that Leigh wanted to reconcile the fact that the Martians are interested in harvesting humans for food. There’s some friction in the original book between the fact that the Martians clearly came with the intention of harvesting humans for food and their wholesale wanton slaughter of humanity. So Leigh’s Martians, though as deadly as ever, slightly modify their tactics toward harvest rather than slaughter.
Holmes, of course, recognizes the impending invasion from the time the flashes of the Verne Gun first become visible on Mars. He calculates that they are too regular to be a natural phenomenon, and more, that the slight variations in timing correspond to the gun tracking Earth as the planets pass each other. (I will apply greater Holmes arcana, though, and note that canonically, Holmes doesn’t know shit about astronomy because he can’t be bothered to waste space in his brain with anything he doesn’t think will be relevant to casework) Watson is slower to believe, and claims that, “The chances against anything manlike on Mars are a million to one.”
Holmes also fails to find a receptive audience when he drags Watson to the Greenwich Observatory. They meet Ogilvy, and Watson recognizes something of Holmes in the brilliant, addled astronomer who’s been without sleep for days as he observes the unique phenomenon. But Ogilvy dismisses Holmes’s theory of an inhabited Mars launching an invasion, and is disappointed to conclude that the great Sherlock Holmes is a disappointment in person. He first objects on the grounds of Mars being lifeless — he does not contest the existence of alien life, but considers Mars an unlikely source of it. He then challenges the level of precision necessary to hit Earth from Mars via cannon, then the unlikely utility of attacking another planet with a single shot per night. On this point, Watson surprises himself by defending Holmes’s theory, citing from his own military experience that many guns firing simultaneously would look the same from their vantage point. Ogilvy also challenges Holmes’s certainty that such an action must indicate an attack, rather than a means of communication, particularly when Holmes calculates that the first projectile would arrive in three days.
Holmes’s theory is confirmed in part, though, when the Martian armada passes through a meteor shower, causing explosions visible on Earth. This is also Leigh’s explanation for the invasion limiting itself to England: without justification for knowing this, Watson claims that nine cylinders destined (or rather, “destine”) for France were destroyed.
The best weather in recent years, skies crystal blue clear. Our thriving world must’ve looked so appealing against the vast empty backdrop of space. The Martians regarded our Earth with envious eyes. Drew plans against us. So unbelievably close to their own stricken planet, what fortune.
Nice reference, but, I mean, you coulda just actually quoted the line from Wells directly. At least it would’ve been gramatically correct.
Watson assumes Holmes has been shooting up with heroin when he turns up at dawn the morning after the first cylinder lands at Horsell Common. This is… neither straightforwardly right nor wrong. Cocaine was Holmes’s drug of choice in the cannon, though he was known to use morphine on occasion. Since The War of the Worlds is set some time around the turn of the century, “Heroin” would still be a new drug: it had only come on the market in 1898 — it was a brand name owned by Bayer. It’s entirely reasonable to suppose that Holmes might have dabbled in an exciting new opium derivative, but there’s no direct evidence for it.
Watson allows himself to be dragged out to Woking, but does not pass along Holmes’s warning that his wife should flee the city and hide in the Yorkshire coal mines. They meet Ogilvy at the landing site, and the two geniuses argue over the provenance of the cylinder. Ogilvy suggests that it might be copper, to explain its green glow, though Holmes counters that copper’s melting point is too low for a copper meteor to survive reentry. Ogilvy’s objections seem weak at this point, since the cylinder is clearly manufactured. Watson offers up the possibility that it’s a stray piece of ordinance from nearby Longcross — Leigh showing off some sound knowledge of the relevant geography and history, and again referencing Watson’s military background. But he’s so obviously wrong that he doesn’t even convince himself.
One of Leigh’s more interesting innovations on canonical characters is how Ogilvy reacts when the Martians emerge from the cylinder, mooting the question of its origin. Seeing absolute evidence of life from Mars coming to Earth. Ogilvy does an about-face, and this brilliant astronomer draws what he thinks is the only possible conclusion:
He reckons the Martians are Nephalim.
“I understand completely.” Ogilvy’s face beamed with enlightenment. “My whole life I’ve studied the heavens. God left us originally on Mars. When there was still a breathable atmosphere, that’s why they went there first. Those were the flashes we saw. There wasn’t a flood that Noah had to navigate. It was a drought of oxygen. The Ark’s voyage came here, to Earth, carrying the seed of man.”
Hey, that’s an interesting thing for someone to conclude. Kind of an inversion of the Curate becoming convinced (particularly the Parson Nathaniel version) that the Martians are demons. There’s obvious parallels to Pastor Matthew from the George Pal film as well, and I kinda suspect that’s the main motivation for it, given that, for its flaws, Leigh’s adaptation is the one I like the best for not pretending it was birthed in a vacuum and homaging the breadth of its influences. Even so, it goes farther than anything else I’ve seen. Maybe it’s even an oblique reference to the Ray Bradbury story Mars is Heaven.
And does jack all with it. Ogilvy runs toward the ship and gets squished by a falling hatch when it opens up to disgorge the tripods and that’s the last we hear of this whole “Mars is Eden” thing.
Leigh makes a change to the tripod armaments. The normal heat-ray is present, of course, described as two funnels which alternate firing. But this weapon has a third funnel with a different function: “The demonic third tube. Nobody deserved to die like this. An almost invisible beam that disintegrates the human skeleton. Still conscious men collapsed in a heap. God sparingly this terminal metamorphosis was fleeting.” Perhaps a reference to the film’s “skeleton beam”? Watson witnesses a man reduced to jelly by the weapon and tries to comfort the dying, boneless victim. It never comes up again.
Watson twists his ankle during their retreat, and takes shelter along with Holmes in a hollow log, which gives them a vantage point from which to witness the rout. “What I’m about to describe will sound crazy,” says Watson, sounding nothing at all like Watson ever, but the tripods are basically made like that liquid metal Terminator, and their legs deform around obstacles rather than having to navigate them. Holmes pockets some beetles that are, like humans, drawn by the dog whistle sounds of the tripods and try to drink their legs. The liquid metal poisons the beetles, but also seems to irritate the tripod.
When our heroes finally make it to Woking, they luck into meeting up with a cameo by recurring guest star Inspector Lestrade, who’s escorting a VIP sent by the government to help formulate a defensive strategy. The VIP is a genius, a professor of high regard, from Whitehall, whose field of study includes the occult and unexplained and we all know who he’s going to turn out to be, right?
In Leigh’s continuity, this is the first meeting of Holmes and Moriarty, which is a reasonable adaptation, though in the canon, Holmes and Moriarty have both died and at least one of them has gotten better again by now. Well, maybe. I don’t think Leigh directly mentions the year. I’d been assuming the story was set between 1898 (The publication of War of the Worlds and time most often assumed in adaptation) and 1900 (The closest we get to an actual date in the text), with Watson’s reference to heroin by brand name affirming this. But Watson is married in this story, and his wife is named as “Mary”, and as it happens, Mary Watson died in 1894. She was his only undisputed wife, though there’s a variety of opinions among scholars as to when and how many times Watson married. So maybe Leigh is implicitly setting this invasion earlier?If Holmes suspects the professor, he doesn’t let on, though Watson is put off by Moriarty’s almost-admiring tone toward Martian technological prowess. Moriarty explains his charge: “An approaching cylinder shattered the windows at Buckingham Palace. Overshot London crashed into the Thames estuary [sic]. Vanished beneath the frothing waves before a line could be gotten to it [sic]. A second craft came to settle in Highgate Woods. That’s one of Her Majesty [sic] favourites. She’s not impress [sic] with it being flatten by an uninvited lout. That’s when I was appointed on her behalf. Make contact, establish a dialogue. That’s before the Martians fired on civilians.”
Watson is knocked unconscious by another Martian attack which interrupts the exchange of information between Holmes and Moriarty. Though Lestrade had high hopes that an organized military counterattack would stop the Martians, these tripods are equipped with a “bell jar barrier”, which has to be a reference to the protective shields in the George Pal movie. Moriarty is seemingly killed fleeing the attack. Though Holmes wants to withdraw to the Isle of Wight to formulate a battle plan, he abandons the plan to accompany Watson back to London when his friend reveals that he hadn’t passed along Holmes’s warning to Mary. Holmes proposes they sneak into London via the Underground (There’s that word Leigh didn’t like), “Right under their feet.”