Hunji The Hindoo – one of the last things written by Harry Blyth

Harry Blyth is a curious name in the pantheon of British comics. He created one of their greatest-ever characters, Sexton Blake, but had virtually no other input into the development of that great character. Nor did he see his creation reaching the the household name status that it eventually would. Born in 1852 (probably) he worked for several publishing companies as a freelance writer and journalist. He wrote a series of stories called “Third Class Crimes” that bought him to the attention of Alfred Harmsworth, who had just launched his new story-paper The Halfpenny Marvel, and commissioned Blyth to create a detective character. Thus Sexton Blake was created in 1893, and Blyth wrote a handful of other stories before his death from typhoid in 1898.

So, as the creator of such a great and long-lived character, he must have been an amazing writer? Well actually… no! Pretty much all the stories I have read by him have been borderline unreadable. They are often held together with ridiculous coincidences, things that happen with no explanation and amazing events being completely forgotten about 5 minutes after they happen. Apart from Sexton Blake, Harry wrote a several other adventure stories, including “The Magic Island”, reviewed in my old Union Jack Index blog. One of the very last things he must have written was not for Amalgamated Press, but for Cassel’s leading story-paper, Chums.

Hunji The Hindoo

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The start of the first installment. “Fighting for the Flag” was also the title of an early Union Jack tale… but that was written by somebody different, and of course the UJ was published by a different company, so Chums or another Cassell’s publication must have carried another story with the same title.

I should start by clarifying the title, in those days “Hindoo” did not nessescarily refer to a Hindu, it instead described somebody’s appearance. That appearance was actually more like the traditional costume of a Sikh – a turban and long beard.

HOWEVER nobody seems to have told the artist of the story this, so Hunji actually looks like the image usually used in comics of that age for a general “swarthy villain” – often an Italian, Spanish or Gypsy. His religion, too, is totally unrelated to Hinduism, Sikhism or Islam… or any other for that matter. It is perhaps closest to the vague understanding most Britons had of Chinese religion in that age.

But lets not dwell on such details, or before you know it i’ll be judging antique publications by modern standards in the way pathetic hacks for rags such as The Guardian do when they can’t dream up anything else to lecture the nation about. I’ll run through the story part by part looking at the inexplicable events, silly cliffhangers and odd occurrences within. One of the things i like about this serial is how, on occasion, the story shifts to the perspective of the villain. This even extends to some of the cliffhangers, where we see Hunji’s despair at his plots being foiled, only for him to recover in the next episode and continue to menace our heroes.

Part 1 – Chums no. 278, January 5th 1898

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Cover billing! The hero, Ready Ralston, is being arrested while Hunji lurks in the background.

This first installment introduces the hero of the tale, Ready Ralston (Harry clearly had a thing for unusual names too!) . He is a pupil at Dr ‘Caney’ Woodward’s school, and rescues a new pupil called Willie Scott. This lad is (presumably) half Indian, but his parents were murdered because his father took something from a temple belonging to an “exclusive sect” of, ahem, Hindoo’s. So Willie ended up living with his English uncle, who is a scientist. Willie is also due an inheritance of some kind when he is older, which the members of that “exclusive sect” want to capture for themselves by killing Willie.

Their conversation turns to sailing, for Ready owns a small yacht and promises Willie a sail in her. They then return to the school where they meet Hunji the Hindoo! He says he was a friend of Willie’s father and uncle in India, and so wished to meet Willie. As he does so he drops some poison into the wine Willie is about to drink. But just then a policeman walks into the room, to arrest Ready Ralston! Hunji insists Willie finish his wine before they all go to the station together.

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Was the Kaiser-ish moustache intentional?

Part 2 – No. 279, January 12th 1898

Just as Willie is about to drink the poisoned wine the highly stereotyped Scottish groundskeeper of the school (why no, I doubt Matt Groening has read this story!), also in the room, spots the headmaster coming and throws it out of the window, saved! Ready Ralston is to be arrested for “setting about” Ned Breton, an expelled former pupil of the school. When actually Ready had just fought him off to protect the young Willie. Thugs and bullies running to the police as soon as somebody stands up to them? It’s the same thing 112 years later!

The headmaster discovers that the only magistrate on the warrant for Ready’s arrest is the father of Ned Breton! With such a clearly prejudiced case he can’t allow Ready to be taken, and sends the policeman on his way. He then speaks to Hunji, who says he wants to work for Professor Scott and so has come to see Willie.  He is shown around the school and secretly marks Willie’s bed, and the door of his dormitory.

That night various other boys dress up as ghosts to “haze” Willie on his first day. However as they creep to his dormitory they run into a hideous creature – as tall as a man, with leathery bat-like wings, slippery skin and two glowing red eyes!

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Part 3 – No. 280, January 19th 1898

The dreadful scream of the boys who came across the horrible creature rouses the school, who find them in shock. The groundskeeper is convinced that one party dressed as ghosts ran into the other unexpectedly and they scared each other! The headmaster then shows up and the “ghosts” slink off to their beds. However one of the boys, the one who first ran into the monster, is found insensible – dead!

Hunji appears, feigning ignorance as to the cause of the screams. He inspects the dead boy and finds that he is not dead, simply shocked. The doctor who has been called says that the boy has been bitten by a small animal, but Hunji wipes away the “bites” and says he is simply in shock. But then seconds later says that Indians are more used to “such attacks” by small animals? Eh?

The tale then jumps to the house of Professor Falkland Scott, who is working on a way to decompose the elements (you need one of them Hadron Colliders, mate). Hunji comes to see him and we learn a little about his odd religion – He accepts an offer of curry, saying he is cosmopolitan in his tastes (as an Indian being offered Indian food would, eh?) but the story says that his religion doesn’t allow him to eat meat. They then talk about seeking “the great sun stone”, mentioned in manuscripts written by “Isiti the sage” which talk of “the god of the sun” who cast his fires upon the earth and so created volcanoes. However one of his missiles, the sun stone, came to rest on an island where time has removed it’s evil qualities and filled it with good… thus anybody who owns it will somehow have “limitless wealth and endless fame!” …none of which has anything to do with Hinduism!

Hunji says he has a map which tells of the location of the sun stone – an island that was Chinese, but is now ruled by Japan, but which is still a hide-out for Chinese criminals. He says he needs money for an expedition, money that Professor Scott can provide. The two plan their voyage, but conversation turns to Willie Scott – when he is 21 he will inherit his father’s money and also the “Staff of Vashti”, the object that had been stolen from the temple of the “exclusive sect” – who are now named as Mesus. Was he just making this up as he went along? The professor says that if Willie is killed before reaching 21 then nobody will be able to obtain the money, though the staff is in his house. Hunji realises if he wants the money he will have to capture Willie, but he determines to get at the staff there and then, and creeps into the room where it is kept. However just as he picks the lock of the chest it is in, a rabid dog bursts through the window and attacks him!

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The first time in the story where the cliffhanger ending actually puts the villain in peril rather than the heroes – a brilliant idea! It’s just a shame it’s saddled with this story! One wonders what Harry Blyth could have come up with if he’d been given time and money to write something decent and not hack out any old nonsense just to pay the rent!

You will notice that the episode of the hideous, demonic creature is completely forgotten about, nor is it explained in any way. It seems that Hunji is able to summon real creatures from hell and everybody’s fine with that! Note also the part about the island being a haunt of Chinese criminals but part of the Japanese empire. Do Chinese or Japanese people show up at all in the story? Nope!

 Part 4 – No. 281, January 26 1898

Hunji drops the staff of Vashti to defend himself against the dog, however the staff groans like a human when it hits the ground, causing the dog to pick it up and run away with it. Hunji quickly replaces the lid of the chest and lays on the floor as if he’s fainted, and this is how the Professor and his housekeeper find him. He then pretends to recover and is left alone. He pulls out some small idols to worship, but then gets angry at them for causing his loss and stamps on them, only to then have an attack of superstition and pray for forgiveness. He plans to discover the whereabouts of the staff after the voyage to recover the sun stone – by allowing the Professor to be killed on Formosa and then returning and digging up the entire grounds of his laboratory.

Meanwhile back at the school Ned Breton sneaks aboard Ready Ralston’s yacht and plans to scuttle her. But then Ready and Willie happen along and set out on their cruise. Ned is hidden below.

Part 5 – No. 282, February 2, 1898

Ned Breton is still concealed below on the yacht as Ready and Willie enjoy their day sailing. He assumes, judging everybody by his own standards, that they will throw him overboard and drown him if he is discovered. He lays hidden for several hours, going near-mad and starting to think he is held prisoner below by the evil men on deck.

Ready and Willie are having a great time, not hampered by a storm that blows up. They savour the hard work and element of danger in sailing on such rough seas. However Ned Breton is driven more insane. When Willie comes below for something the thug attacks him and ties him up. Then he is driven on deck to beg Ready to let him help sail and save the yacht. When Ready refuses Ned reveals that he has Willie captive below – and inadvertently that he is carrying a drill – for an obvious purpose! However as they argue Ready spots a large vessel approaching them on a collision course, and then Ned is dragged backwards into the cabin!

Part 6 – No. 283

Willie appears on deck, he had escaped Ned’s crude bonds. The two break out the oars to try and row the yacht out of the path of the approaching steamer, but the heavy swell holds them still. Ready snatches up Willie and leaps at the last moment, grabbing a trailing chain from the steamer. The yacht is smashed into matchwood and the wreckage, with Ned Breton swimming amongst it, is lost astern. The two climb aboard the steamer but find the decks deserted, there is not even a watch. They take a look around, peer through a skylight and are shocked to see…

The story then jumps back to Burton Towers, where Hunji and the Professor are preparing for their voyage. The professor has the idea that “such an ancient race as the Hindoos” must possess great secrets that have been lost to time, and that modern science is simply a rediscovery of the ancient ‘magic’ of long-lost civilisations. Hunji implies that some of this is true… and that he is in fact possibly centuries old, his ageing halted by the elixir of life!  (The search for such a potion is also the theme of another Harry Blyth tale, The Magic Island, from The Union Jack).

Hunji later introduces the professor to the captain and officers of the ship he has engaged, who are little better than pirates. The first mate is a hideous villain named Thomas Pill, the cook is named Mr Bundersnatch and boasts he can drink a gallon of rum and not get into a fight. The captain is called Nathan Jork, as these sailors start to party the professor’s housekeeper suddenly springs at the captain, determined to settle some old score. Meanwhile Thomas Pill draws a dagger and advances on his captain’s attacker…

Part 7, No. 284, February 16, 1898

Hunji throws Tom Pill off just before he lands a fatal blow, then drags the Professor’s housekeeper, Dennis, away too. Dennis says that Nathan Jork apprenticed his son, only to subject him to ruthless and barbaric treatment and finally kill him. Jork fills in the story – he had forced his crew to swear that the death was an accident, but one of the other sailors on that voyage had made a deathbed confession to Dennis. However a jury had found Jork innocent at the time, and Dennis had been confined to an asylum for a time… and now who would believe a lunatic?

The sailors later leave for the ship, The Weasel, complaining that these modern times aren’t nearly as “fun” as the old days of piracy! Dennis watches them go, determined to save the professor from “the villainy that hems him in on all sides”. The voyage commences and Hunji muses on his failure to recover the staff. If he doesn’t bring it to his masters he will be killed, as well as being denied entry to paradise after death.

Meanwhile the captain and his officers, such as they are, are already deciding to steal the “loot”, whatever it turns out to be, that they are sailing to recover, and murder the professor and Hunji. They then begin to talk in superstitious tones about the powers of the Hindoo, when he reveals that he has entered the room without them knowing. He pretends not to have heard what they were saying and joins them in drinking. Soon they are blind drunk but he is as sober, cool and calculating as ever. He returns to the cabin he shares with the professor thinking he has nothing to fear from the pirates. He also muses on Indian nationalism and thinks that if all his countrymen had his own intelligence and ruthlessness then maybe Britain would be in the Indian empire, and not the other way around! However his thoughts are broken when he enters the cabin and finds Professor Scott huddled on the floor – dead!

This is the episode in which Harry Blyth’s death is announced, so he must have passed away at some point in the preceding week. The note does not make it clear what his last story was, only that Hunji the Hindoo is “one of the latest”. With the typical style of the age they are able to slip in an advertisement for another Cassell’s publication!

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A British comics creator passes… too many have gone unnoticed by all except the publications they appeared in.

Part 8 – No. 285, February 23, 1898

Hunji discovers that Professor Scott has taken some poison accidentally, he meant to take a “sleeping draught”. Hunji fetches a deadly poison of his own and gives it to the professor. This poison is deadly but destroys other poisons as it does it’s work, so they cancel each other out. However the after-effects leave the professor brainwashed and liable to suggestions. Hunji plans to use this in his favour – getting the professor to sign a document that turns Willie over to Hunji’s care should any ‘accident’ happen.

Asking the captain for his two most reliable men as witnesses, Hunji hypnotises the professor and has him write out the document. However just as he is about to sign it Willie Scott and Ready Ralston burst in – the ship they had ended up on board was the Weasel!

Part 9 – No. 286, March 2, 1898

Hunji quickly hides the document the professor was about to sign. The appearance of his nephew brings the professor back to himself, but he can remember nothing about what passed whilst he was hypnotised. One man does know what happened, though, Tom Pill, who was hiding under the table! He is discovered when he is accidentally kicked, but makes up a story about being asleep under there. He has, however, decided that Hunji is beyond the pale and vows to “make a start on” the Hindoo.

Hunji attempts to cultivate the friendship of Ready Ralston during the voyage – and is shocked when the youth asks him for the paper he was trying to get Professor Scott to sign! Hunji is trapped and hands over the paper, which goes overboard. But Hunji then traps Ready, by saying that as a feud existed between Ready Ralston and Ned Breton it will take the testimony of the ship’s crew to clear Ready of the possible charge of murdering Ned.

Ready, surprisingly, cultivates the friendship of Tom Pill. Hunji engages the latter in conversation and offers him twenty pounds to throw Ready overboard. Tom refuses and stalks away, muttering he’d like to throw Hunji overboard just for the fun of it. A few days later the island of Formosa is reached… but, as Hunji cries in despair, “the god of fire has seized the island for his own!”. A sheet of flame flashes over the mountains and the terrible heat can be felt on board the ship!

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The god of the flash has seized most of the picture for his own!

 Part 10 – No. 287, March 9, 1898

The huge fire is not a volcano, but simply the natives starting a fire on a mountain-top to burn out the spirits, so says Tom Pill. The story then turns into brief profile of the island. It has two ports that are better suited to Chinese junks than European ships, and the native tribes of the unexplored interior are constantly at war with each other – except for when they unite to hunt for the heads of Chinese and Europeans!

Hunji suggests that he, Professor Scott, Captain Jork and Tom Pill go ashore in a boat. Ready convinces them to take him and Willie along. Which Hunji readily agrees to. The party land their boat on the mouth of a river but barely have time to look around before a horde of savages burst from the undergrowth. The small party are worried and Ready tells Willie to swim back to the ship and get help. However Hunji reveals that he is the chief of the tribe! He asks for Willie to be bought forth, but is dismayed to see him boarding the Weasel. Hunji springs at Ready, who knocks him down. Seconds later the ship explodes and Captain Jork begins to grapple with Ready… meanwhile the savages move in, to avenge the attack on their leader!

Part 11 – No. 288, March 16, 1898

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Ready suffers torture by ape under the throne of the king of the savages!

The professor, who is largely absent-minded and emotionless anyway, sets about trying to help Hunji up rather than mourn for the sudden death of his nephew. This appeases the natives, who stop attacking. They are also appeased by Ready Ralston being held firmly by the captain. They assume this man is in league with Hunji and are prepared to wait until they can torture Ready and offer him up as a human sacrifice.

Hunji orders his tribe to press on into the forest, telling the captain and Tom Pill to remain behind on the beach. These two feel it would be death either way, so decide to covertly follow Hunji and kill him. However Tom no longer trusts his captain, and so forces him to go ahead, unarmed!

The party of natives, Hunji and the professor press on into the jungle. Hunji explains that his father is the king of this tribe. He also casually explains that his father is a thousand years old and he himself is of incalculable age. The professor seems to take this amazing statement totally in his stride. But that’s a Harry Blyth story for you!

Soon the reach the city of the tribe, where Hunji’s father sits in state. They also have a pet ape that is super-strong and intelligent. Hunji orders it to kill one of the tribe at random, which it does. He then orders it to attack Ready. The professor shoots at it, but discovers too late that Hunji has loaded his revolver with blanks! Ready and Professor Scott are made prisoners… but at night Ready is awoken by Willie! He survived the blast and tracked them here, as he starts to untie Ready one of the savages begins to crawl towards them.

Part 12 – No. 289, March 23 1898

Willie finishes untying Ready and then hides, so Ready is able to surprise the savage. Soon he is tied up in Ready’s place and the two make their escape from the tribe’s arena-like city. They finally hide up a tree in the surrounding forest and talk about what to do next. Willie doesn’t really explain how he survived the explosion. Nor does he know how the ship was blown up, vaguely suggesting that “there was a good deal of powder on board, and the crew were a dreadfully careless lot”. Hmm, something exploding with only the vaguest explanation seems to be a Harry Blyth trademark! Though here it’s more likely Hunji had planted a bomb or something aboard the ship before he left her.

Nathan Jork and Tom Pill happen along at that point, and stop right under the tree that Ready and Willie are hiding in. However they shoot a snake, which is bound to bring the natives running. As they argue Ready and Willie drop on them, and soon capture the guns. Captain Jork runs off but Tom Pill vows to stick by Ready for the coming fight. The three hear the savages ahead of them, and Ready urges the other two to hide in a tree. He is quickly captured by Hunji… but suddenly seems to have a change of heart and immediately tells the hindoo where Willie is hidden! Willie is in deep despair at this betrayal as the three are led back to the native city.

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Also during this part Tom refers to guns as “settling tools”, which is the phrase i will be using if i ever end up on some adventure where i need to carry firearms.

Part 13 – No. 290, March 30, 1898

Hunji turns the charm on Willie as they trek back to the city, with Ready Ralston joining in. Tom Pill is easily placated by being told that he can become the next king of the tribe once Hunji’s father returns to India. Tom is immediately lost in thoughts of creating a country of lawlessness with himself at it’s head.  Somehow he doesn’t see the possibility of a trap in the scheme!

With the three safely back in the city, and Professor Scott too absorbed  in his studies to even realise he is a prisoner, things look bleak. Ready becomes more and more friendly with Hunji. The two make plans that will result in his and Tom Pill’s fortunes being made, for there is a rich diamond mind elsewhere on the island. But first Hunji needs the professor’s signature on a will, just like he did before. He gives Ready a ring that will allow him to pass among the natives in safety. But no sooner is this in Ready’s hands than Hunji finds himself set upon and tied up! Ready was only bluffing and now rushes to the rescue of his friends.

Part 14 – No. 291, April 6, 1898

Ready comes before Hunji’s father, wearing the ring. However elderly leader suspects a trick regardless and calls to the tribe’s pet ape. It springs at Ready who is, erm, ready with Hunji’s prized jewelled dagger. He plunges this into the beast and kills it. Hunji’s father says Hunji would not give his dagger to anybody unless he completely trusted them, and leads the way to the professor. He shows Ready two inks, one of which vanishes after an hour, the other lasts forever. They must get the professor to write a document with the first and sign with the second… so that they may later fill in something else!

However as the two near his cell they are confronted by Willie, who is determined to stop the plot. They take him into the room, which has a door that can only be opened from the outside, and act as if they are getting the professor to sign a completley innocent document… one that will of course be changed later. However Ready puts himself between Hunji’s father and the door, then reveals his true aim! He ushers the Scotts out of the room whilst holding the chief at bay. Then goes to slam the door on him. At the last second the chief pulls out a concealed revolver and fires, hitting Ready. He collapses, wounded severely, and the professor goes to his aid… suddenly a voice rings out, telling them they are “in such a precious pickle as you can’t escape from till you are dyed more red than master Ralston is now!”.

Part 15 – No 292, April 13, 1898

The voice belongs to Tom Pill, who is thinking of helping the natives re-capture their escaping prisoners, to smooth things over for when he becomes their king. However Ready springs up and threatens him with Hunji’s poisoned dagger, and soon he is back on side. The professor tightly binds a stone against Ready’s arm to stop the flow of blood from the wound, and they begin to make their escape. Tom Pill’s status as king-to-be helps them get past the natives, as does the fact several of them are off hunting for Chinese heads!

They escape the city, and are forced to hide in a tree when a party of the returning savages passes beneath, carrying their gruesome prizes. The professor, slowing them up as it is with his constant stopping to inspect unusual plants, thinks he can  smell hints of volcanic activity in the air. Eventually they come to the diamond mine, and pick up a pocketful of the valuable gems. Tom Pill, driven crazy by greed, wants to get hold of the entire haul for himself, and when denied rushes back to the end of the valley in which the mine is located and shouts to Hunji and his tribe, who are now following closely.

However at that moment there is a huge and sudden volcanic eruption! The sky is turned black and flaming debris rains down. A huge part of the nearby mountain is blown away and millions of tons of red-hot rubble tumbles onto the luckless natives and their leader. Ready and the Scotts rush to the coast – finding the body of Nathan Jork, and Dennis, the professor’s housekeeper! He has followed the Weasel to the island in another ship and killed Jork in revenge for his son. Suddenly the professor hears voices in the jungle… Hunji has survived and is following them with the remains of his tribe!

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“The giant rocks crashed to pieces with a deafening roar”

Part 16 – No. 298, April 20, 1898

Ready, near to the point of collapse with his wounds at the long journey to the coast, is bundled into the ship’s boat and the party narrowly escape the spears of Hunji and his tribe. Aboard the ship, Merrythought, they run into Mr Bundersnatch who also survived the destruction of the Weasel. He says he is going to “regular turn over a noo leaf” and open up a shop selling lifebelts. Stuffed with shavings rather than cork for more profit, of course!

The captain of the ship says that the expedition to follow the professor was organised by Dennis, Dr Woodward of the school and Colonel Ralston, Ready’s father. He also warns that there are people saying that Ready must have murdered Ned Breton, as Hunji had threatened! However these details are forgotten on the long and tedious voyage. For all the villainy of Nathan Jork’s crew they knew how to sail a ship! Finally they reach England and are in for a shock – Hunji is there! And he immediately hands Ready and Willie to the police, charged with the murder of Ned Breton. He and Tom Pill both overheard their “confession”!

Part 17, No. 294, April 27, 1898

The case looks black against Ready and Willie. Their solicitor, Mr Bicks, says that Mr Bundersnatch has dissapeared. Not surprising for a pirate when the police are involved. The two are bought up in court and have no real way of disproving the charge. Their amazing story of adventure and account of Hunji’s villainy would do them no good in front of a down-to-earth jury.

Suddenly Squire Breton bursts into the court with his son! Ned had survived by clinging to the wreck of the yacht for two days. He was finally picked up by a Spanish ship, but was struck by fever and a raving lunatic for some time. Finally he recovered his senses and contacted his father, who came to find him, and then rushed back, learning of the court case. With the victim alive and well… and repentant too, there is no murder case! Hunji slips silently out of the court.

The party, united again, have much to celebrate, though they suspect Hunji will make his way to the professor’s house. The following day they travel there, and discover Hunji, half-mad, perched on the edge of a cliff with the Staff of Vashti. He tells them all it will strike them blind by magic. They close in to capture him but the dog, angry at the theft of “his” staff, is quicker, and leaps at Hunji from a bush. The two of them plummet to their doom on the rocks below, the staff of Vashti, the source of danger for Willie, goes with them.

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The end of Hunji

 Overall

this is a pretty good story compared to other Harry Blyth efforts that I have read. Often his shorter stories in publications such as The Halfpenny Marvel or Union Jack tried to cram in far too many events and thus became very confused or illogical. This tale, being a serial, has a lot more room to grow and explain just why the characters are doing whatever they are doing.

That said there’s still plenty of strange and unexplained occurrences. For instance just what was the horrible bat-like creature encountered in the school? Is Hunji able to actually summon demons from hell? Is the magical staff of Vashti actually enchanted? It groans like a man when dropped and, after falling in the sea, is said to have returned to India. There’s also quite a few all-too-convenient events which aid Hunji’s plans, but which only happen by luck. For instance the professor taking a sleeping draught that renders him liable to suggestion… he seems rather distracted and absent-minded for the rest of the story. Even so far as allowing himself to be virtually imprisoned in the native city. The “sun stone” is pretty much forgotten once the party set foot on the island too.

In addition people returning from the dead is a cliffhanger and resolution that occurs rather too often. Hunji’s survival of the volcano and subsequent pursuit of the party through the jungle is rather too ‘soon’ and obviously just used to provide another action scene (mind you i suppose Harry only had a limited space to fit an installment in to, and felt the need to keep the pace up!). It would have been more ‘shocking’ if Ready and Willie think they have left Hunji’s body far behind only for him to re-appear in England ready to have them arrested. Some of the other cliffhanger escapes are rather lame too, puts me in mind of the “it’s only a cardboard cut out!” repeatedly used in Viz! The use of cliffhangers that involve the villains is, as i’ve said twice already, a fantastic idea that i’ve never seen in stories before, and which i will promptly stea-er-be inspired by.

A word must be said for the brilliant character of Thomas Pill, while i’m here. He is never really illustrated but his hideous, leering face springs off the page nonetheless. His complete and utter lack of morals and willingness to change sides at the drop of a hat to save himself is a perverse joy to read.

In the end this is a story i enjoyed reading, it rattles along at a good pace and there’s always some interesting reverse around the corner to keep the heroes and villains guessing. One wonders what would have happened if Harry Blyth had been given the chance to write a long serial about his greatest character in a paper such as The Boys’ Friend…

The oldest item in my collection…

Is issue 11 of the Halfpenny Marvel, published on the 17th of Janurary 1894. Containing only the one story (later issues would also have articles and instalments of serial stories) called A Golden Ghost, or Tracked by A Phantom.

It is the third (of thousands!) published story of Sexton Blake. And is regarded, even by fans, as a “farrago of nonsense”. Written by the detective’s creator, Harry Blyth (using his real name here as opposed to Hal Meredith, as he did on occasion) the story is indeed rather messy, revolving around a gem stolen from a Malayan tribe called the Zeefri, which is hidden inside an iron cube. A rich financier (who funded the expedition to steal the gem) being blackmailed because he once used money intended to be given to a girl when she grew up to bail himself out. The girl in question being in love with the nephew of the adventurer who stole the gem. Told you it was confusing… such a complex plot might make for an exciting story in the hands of a good writer, but unfortunatley mr Blyth was far from that. This is a lot better than the first Sexton Blake story, mind.

That’s the underlying plot, as for the story itself, well it lurches from scene to scene with little regard for logic or sense. The colonel who captured the gem is lured into a trap by the “Golden ghost” of the title, which remains completley unexplained. He later escapes and turns up just in time to thwart the plans of the villains, casually explaining that the building in which he was being held prisoner collapsed for no reason. In another lengthy page-filling sequence (also providing several forced ‘action scenes’) the colonel’s nephew, Wallace Roy, travels to Malaya and is captured and then escapes from numerous bloodthirsty tribes and wild animals. eventually falling captive to pirates, but choosing an opportune moment to spring overboard and swim to a British man-o’-war. To fill up more space a bizarre sequence concerns the gem going missing, and the reason being Wallace was sleepwalking to the Captain’s cabin and hiding it in a secret drawer he had been shown during the night.

Despite all this page-filling, the story ends very abruptly. With everything straightened out and Wallace marrying his sweetheart, the colonel is sent a present of a wicker basket during the wedding. He opens it and is attacked by a boa constrictor. Saved in the nick of time by Sexton Blake, he then decides that the Zeefri, who have been desperate to kill him through most of the story, will never attack him again. Just like that. If you ask me the story was most likely written right up to the deadline and there was very little time for such fancy procedures as editing. But there you go!

Being Sexton Blake’s early days, the characters of Tinker, Pedro and the irrepressible landlady Mrs. Bardell are all absent. Instead Wallace Roy aids the detective in the case at some instances (as was the way in most early tales… meaning it always had to be a some strong young man commissioning the ‘tec). In others Blake merely talks to himself. Sexton Blake’s partner, Jules Gervaise, who was a feature of a few early tales and even had a couple of solo adventures (also written by Blyth) is notably absent, and not even mentioned. Presumably he is on a case of his own in France at the time.

The Halfpenny Marvel issue 11

Early issues used both orange and black ink, however this was later switched to single colours. Dark red for a time, and then dark blue for many years.

Halfpenny Marvel 11 - 01

The first page, with the large illustration used on Harmsworth/AP papers of this type. Almost being a secondary cover… which is handy as often papers where bound into volumes without covers, see my Union Jack Index blog for more of that! You can see the back of the cover here, with the ink showing through… even in 1894 publishing a 16-page storypaper for a halfpenny meant very cheap & cheerful printing quality, which also explains why so few have survived. Luckily this sturdy volume has preserved the books well. My UJ’s from the same year have not been so lucky, and are crumbling.

Halfpenny Marvel 11 - 02

Fancy illustrated lettering to open new chapters… this also vanished along with the two-colour covers. Presumably further cost-cutting… once the Halfpenny Marvel had become a sucess Harmsworth set about pumping out more storypapers, such as the Union Jack, Pluck and Illustrated Chips. And the money had to come from somewhere!

Halfpenny Marvel 11 - 03

The snake in the basket which is the Zeefri’s final attack on the Colonel. They decide to stop after this attack fails… why? well there was no pages left for a start…

Halfpenny Marvel 11 - 04

This is what Sexon Blake looked like in the 1890′s. This illustration was used in several stories, including “The Missing Millionaire”, the first story in issue 6 of the Marvel, and “Sexton Blake: Detective” in issue 2 of the Union Jack

Halfpenny Marvel 11 bcover

The back cover, showing all the previous issues and four cover illustrations. The two men in the hot air baloon basket (issue 7) was the second Sexton Blake story, and above can be seen the title of the first- The Missing Millionaire. I did once order issue 5 off Ebay, but the guy said i hadn’t paid when i had, and ignored my emails. So issue 11 remains the oldest item in the collection so far!

Other notes

New Accquisition: a volume of 1904 Union Jacks. No Sexton Blake stories amongst them, though. I’m going back to Lincoln for year 3 of university tomorrow, though. So they’ll arrive after i’m gone. But here’s the pictures from the ebay auction.

1904 Union Jacks 1

1904 Union Jacks 2

There’s plenty of secondhand/antique bookshops in Lincoln (the more suited to my needs, the higher you have to climb, though), so my collection will be expanded whilst i’m there, which will give me plenty more to write about!