Gustave Le Rouge is an interesting example of “belle epoque” science fiction, a period of the highest interest. His book “prisoner of mars” and its sequel “war of vampires”, which I am reviewing today, dates from 1908-1909 but contains many elements found in the pulp science fiction of the 30’s.
The method of space travel depicted in this book is even more unusual than those featured in the « Mars » or « Venus » series of Edgar Rice Burroughs or in the “cosmic trilogy” of the excellent C.S. Lewis. Amazingly enough, Le Rouge sent his main character Robert Darvel to the red planet in a capsule propelled by a psychic energy produced in an indian monastery by thousands of yogis gathered together as one cosmic soul.
Darvel arrives on one of the most intriguing Mars planet ever to be depicted in early science fiction. It features a strange hierarchy of aliens, each one more exotic and frightening than the others. Semi-humanoid but retarded creatures are treated like cattle by their blood-drinking super intelligent masters ; these are themselves dominated by superior squid-like, invible beings haunting a mysterious city. And these in their turn fear a mysterious god-like power which dwells in a colossal crystal mountain to which they must sent every month scores of victims to be sacrificed as if to some monstrous martian Minotaur.
Le Rouge has a very engaging writing style, strangely visual and constantly bubbling with new creations and possibilities. He describes a luxuriant nature of carnivorous grass, flying aliens consisting exclusively of thought and disgusting feelers, and all sorts of hybrid monsters, with a full of organic details which makes you almost feel their presence. In one instance, he gives a fascinating description of the culinary delights of Darvel improvising a meal of minced pickled tongue of some martian bird, served on perfumed vegetable hearts.
His description of an eerie and abandoned martian city where Darvel flees from the Invisibles has a particular haunting beauty. The city has been built by an advanced but extinct martian civilisation, which collected in a complex maze all kinds of species, including a humanoid race. This huge, labyrintic necropolis leads to a gigantic underground aquarium where Darvel catches a furtive glimpse of some strange creature.
The subsequent adventures of Darvel lead him to accompany a group of sacrificial victims to the crystal mountain where the master mind ruling Mars dwells behind curtains of terrible and gorgeous magnetic storms and strange fogs. The dauntless Darvel discovers that the God of Mars has the appearance of a colossal brain living symbiotically in the planet. The incessant throngs of victims coming to the mountain are processed to feed him in some horrible way.
Using all his ingenuity and skills, Darvel succeeds to destroy the Master Brain. The grateful martians help the earthling hero to return home. But back on Earth, Darvel realises that he has been followed by the invisible vampires which begin to run havoc among the humans….
Le Rouge has written more than 350 books in the first three decades of the twentieth century, many of them abounding with interesting gadgetry : underwater railways, fortress islands drifting in enemy waters, machinery designed to create artificial storms and transform the climate of hostile regions, airborn battles between monstrous aircrafts, interplanetary communication by means of visual signals, bizarre synthetic food….
Le Rouge believed that machine was the future of man, but hundred years later his very sophisticated inventions have now a steampunk quality we can enjoy. Unlike Jules Vernes, Lerouge futuristic technology is more often than once sinister in nature : his other masterpiece, « docteur Cornelius », describes one of the first scientifical criminal and contains a astonishing catalogue of ingenious techniques to commit impeccable scientific crimes.
Le Rouge himself was a highly original person ; he had collected some huge curiosity cabinet, and was well versed in occult knowledge. By trade he was a journalist and specialized in the dark side of Paris ;he was fired because he was prone to make up the sordid details of a crime which he found too trivial.
Some books of Gustave Le Rouge (in french) can be downloaded as free E-book here.