Jules Verne was a French master of fictional works portraying the fantastical that were primarily geared toward young readers, literary escapists/adventure seekers, and adults who want to experience a taste of their childhoods. Three of his best-known works are probably Around the World in 80 Days, 20,000 Leagues under the Seas, and Journey to the Centre of the Earth, which, respectively, go a little something like this:
1. A man, for some reason or other, decides he can make it around the world in 80 days.
2. A man, for some reason or other, decides to travel to the center of the earth.
3. A man, for some reason or other, spends his time in his fish-shaped submarine taking out the bad guys.
If you’re like me and grew up in the suburbs reading the Wow! Doritos of literature like the Fear Street series or anything based in the Midwest and prominently featuring ox-drawn wagons and corn, you had almost zero contact with anything Vernian and probably looked up the above summaries on a website that’s like Wikipedia on paint fumes.
That said, I was excited to crack open my first ever Verne book (and the first English translation of The Secret of Wilhelm Storitz). However, the only information I had to reference style-wise was what translator Peter Schulman wrote in his introduction: “. . . Verne’s later novels became increasingly pessimistic and alarming to a young readership used to the earlier, joyous tales of travels and discoveries.” Additionally, The Secret of Wilhelm Storitz is said to be Verne’s final novel, and one of those mystical manuscripts that was only discovered and published in the original French in the 90s.
The plot of The Secret of Wilhelm Storitz deals with the elements of dark magic and, more importantly, the idea of invisibility. Narrator Henry Vidal, travels to Ragz, Hungary, to meet his brother Marc’s fiancé Myra Roderick and her family. But soon Henry learns that creepy, recluse, German scientist-type guy Wilhelm Storitz, who recently proposed to and was turned down by Myra, is still lurking in the peripheral picture and is probably out to take revenge. For the longest time no one’s really sure how far the scorned Storitz will take things, but once all kinds of weird, invisibility-related shit starts happening to the family and in relation to Marc and Myra’s upcoming wedding, it’s almost unanimous that the source is a certain creepy, recluse, German scientist-type guy:
That’s when I saw . . . actually, a hundred people could see what I was seeing, but we all refused to believe it.
Here was the bouquet lying on the table—the engagement bouquet, suddenly ripped to shreds; its flowers were apparently being stomped upon and strewn all over the floor . . .
This time it was a sensation of terror that fell upon us! Everyone wanted to flee the scene of such strange goings-on! . . . I was even asking myself if I were completely sane amid such irrational occurrences.
Captain Haralan had just joined me, and pale with anger, he announced:
‘It’s Wilhelm Storitz!’
Wilhelm Storitz? . . . Had he gone mad? . . .
At that very moment, the bridal wreath rose from the cushion upon which it had been placed, traveled across the drawing rom, then, without our being able to see the hand that was holding it, flew through the gallery and vanished into the garden.
The rest of the story mostly involves waiting for the narrator and other characters to catch up to Storitz and figure out how he’s been pulling all these freaky-malicious stunts.
Because I’m unable to compare The Secret of Wilhelm Storitz to Verne’s earlier works, my next best bet was to line it up next to Henry James—specifically The Turn of the Screw. Not only does Verne’s story contain the similar, chilling and spooky content as James’ famous ghost story, but Schulman has done well in mimicking the vocabulary and sentence structure of late 1800s/early 1900s English in his translation, something that is already apparent in the first paragraphs of the text.
While not as fantastically flourished as James’ writing, that turn of the century feel the translation has is immediate—something that definitely made it easier to get right into the swing of and accept Verne’s novel for what it was—a simple and straightforward kind of mystery-cum-fantasy story. And as said in the book’s introduction, The Secret of Wilhelm Storitz definitely has its share of dark events and pessimism. The plot itself stays within Verne’s realm of magic realism, and reads quickly and lightly, but also has those undeniably dark moments that keep it far from slipping into the children’s literature genre. Think city mobs, torched houses, and semi-random corpses.
And while I can’t say I agree with the quotes on the back cover that say the novel “soon accelerates into an intense, high-speed thriller” or that the plot is “a sinister, devious fable with an unprecedented ending that grows more and more astonishing the longer you think about it” (I mean seriously, have any of these people read The Turn of the Screw? That book and ending eff with your mind for weeks . . .), or Peter Schulman’s incorrect use of the word “myriad” (three times in 190 pages), what I can say that it was an enjoyable read and wonderful introduction to Verne’s style of storytelling.
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