Monday, October 3, 2016

The Slayer of Souls, Robert W. Chambers

The Slayer of Souls(1920) is the second book of Robert W. Chambers' that I have read. It is available for free at and The edition I am reading is from Feedbooks. The difference between the two is generally that the transcriptions on are better than that of On the other hand, the Feedbooks edition has a preface. After having read it all, I highly recommend reading the Gutenberg edition, as the Feedbooks edition has so many errors in it. They don't often obscure much, but it's like listening to a great album with a lot of scratches on it. Sometimes I had to stop and look around to figure out what should have been written in Feedbooks' edition.

First, the preface: Included is a criticism of legendary writer H. P. Lovecraft's, in which is excerpted, "Chambers is like Rupert Hughes and a few other fallen Titans - equipped with the right brains and education but wholly out of the habit of using them." The preface also includes a criticism from Frederic Taber Cooper, which reads, "So much of Chambers's work exasperates, because we feel that he might so easily have made it better." Regarding Lovecraft: I have only read a few things of Lovecraft's stories, "At the Mountain of Madness" and "The Alchemist". So, perhaps I'm missing something. However, I see his work as significantly inferior to that of Chambers'.

Take The Slayer of Souls which I am reading as an example: the descriptions are vivid. There is good dialogue, which is something which feels so lacking in Lovecraft's writing. Further, in the types of literary exposition, there is what is called 'show' and 'tell.' Lovecraft's two stories I have to go by is mostly 'tell' with some 'show,' whereas Chambers' is skillfully described.

The story could occupy several genres: fantasy, speculative fiction (according to Wikipedia), weird fiction, and horror. In this world which is set in the real world is an older one with magic set in the period just after world war one.

The main character, Nan-Yang Maru, aka Tressa Norne, has a great deal of this magical power. She was forged in magical China where demons are worshiped. She is a very powerful female hero, which is considerably rare. In fact, I cannot recollect any books that I have read prior to 1920 or even around that period where women are the heroes and main characters in this kind of fiction. For this reason alone Chambers has invoked a great deal of respect from me.

From the beginning, Chambers gives a taste of her power as she faces her most powerful nemesis: Sanang. Sanang breaks into her room on a boat headed to San Francisco from China, using psychokinetic powers, "(She) saw the double locked door opposite the foot of her bed slowly opening of its own accord." She holds a pistol at him. She uses some of her magical power and throws at him a yellow snake which terrifies him.

The first attempt at her assassination comes from a tough character, Gutchly Kan. He plots her dath, deriding Sanag's love for her and his fear. But Gutchlug instead is killed by one of her snakes, sent psychically from below his own room.

Senang and his surviving assassins are refereed to as Yezidees, and the demon they worship is Erlik.

When Tressa Norne finds herself in the US, she is unable to provide for herself. She tries to become a magician to entertain. But rather than using the typical setups of a magical show, she uses real magic instead. However, this does not amuse the audience, and she cannot make a living. There is no family for her, and she is extremely vulnerable.

Physically, she is described as boyish, her breasts being 'undecided.'

To survive, she is prepared to sell herself as a prostitute. But this is implied and never explicitly said. She is given an alternative: work for the US government for 3x what she was receiving before as a magician. Of course she agrees, despite knowing that by doing so she violates her promise to never reveal the inner workings of the Chinese assassins' guild, the Yezidees.

She was brought to China by her father. But, it would prove fatal to her father when the Yazidees "took Yian in 1910, threw him into a well in his own compound and filled it up with imperial troops" when she was 13. Some years later, her mother is killed, and she is forced to become a temple sorceress.

Her biggest problem is that she believes her soul is already dead. As soon as her body dies, she dies with it. For this reason, she will do anything to survive, as long as she can. The man she meets that recruits her is Victor Cleves, who ends up marrying her to save her reputation. A couple living together unmarried, apparently, would harm her reputation. She consents. As time goes on, however, it becomes clear that they are quickly falling in love with one another. Perhaps it is this love which helps her overcome the sorcerer-assassins.

Tressa is a remarkable character: horribly weak in some ways, and in others, perhaps, the most powerful person in the world. She defeats one after another of those who would kill her and subvert America into communism, but sees herself as completely unworthy of Cleves.

The prose is often poetic. It is well written, even romantic at times. I am very impressed with this novel and highly recommend it. I can't help but wonder if Chambers' harsh critics were jealous of his obvious talent.