Friday, 8 January 2016

The Crystal Scepter (1901) by Philip Verrill Mighels

The person of Philip Verrill Mighels is a bit of a mystery to me at present. I didn't find a single photo of the man for starters. I found pictures of his parents, his wife, even his wife's second husband but none of the man himself.

Mighel's family grave

His personal details are limited to the year of his birth (1869), the year and place of his death (1911 in Carson city) and the fact that he married Ella Sterling Mighels, a pioneer and historian. And a handful of choice anecdotes: the fact of his being raised in Nevada, the second son of Nellie Verrill Davis and Henry R. Mighels, who both worked as editors on Carson city's "Morning Appeal"/"Carson Daily Appeal", his being a lawyer and journalist, a snippet from the publically available section of the New York Times concerning his wife's divorce from Mighels, which states that Mighels had deserted his wife in Nevada under some circumstances and another NYT article which lists him as one of the people present for the funeral of Mark Twain. According to "No Rooms of Their Own: Women Writers of Early California" by Ida Rae Egli he died at the age of 42 in a hunting accident a year after their divorce.

Philip's parents Henry and Nellie Mighels

Of his novels, most seem to deal with the old west and the frontier, and seeing the place he died at, the fact that he wrote some novels about prospectors doesn't come as much of a surprise. The only other work of his that seems to have some immediate interest beyond the fields of period adventure and gold digger fiction seems to be"When a Witch Is Young", his 1901 historical novel taking place around the time of death of Metacomet, the so called "King Philip".

The only piece of his fiction that is known to me to deal definitely with anything fantastic, beyond the elusive 1896 story "The Polar Magnet" from the Black Cat magazine mentioned on the SF encyclopedia page for Mighels, is his 1901 tale "The Crystal Scepter".

In it Mighels describes the journey of the narrator, who remains nameless for more then half the book, where thanks to a ballooning mishap hefinds himself in the middle of somewhere, on a tropical island, face to face with primitive early humans which he dubs "Missing Links". The novel focuses on him forcing improvements onto the poor savages, including better cooking, housing and defense mechanisms. The narrator never actually explains his own backstory in any way, but seems strangely knowledgable about archery, mixing explosives and boat building.

The tribe of Missing Links good old John Nevers finds himself sharing his lot with are white, and constantly besieged by a horde of other Missing Links who are black. Now there seems to be some racial bias in the way these latter ones are treated, beyond the one good natured black Link who was raised by the white Links and who, for his athletic figure, is dubbed "Fatty" by the narrator. However at least Mighels clears them of the charge of having murdered a traveller whose skeleton the narrator finds in their camp, as it turns out to have been an accident.

The novel, while it could have opened up to far more fantastic things, is a solid read regardless, though the Crystal Sceptre of the title, being the chiefly insignia of the head of the tribe the narrator joins forces with, is a rather miniscule part of the novel, though it's a good title I suppose. Oh and there's a woman who ended up crashing on the same island and was the unwilling guest of the black Links. I can't really say anything about her as she comes into the story in Chapter 36 (out of 45) and there's not much space actually given her.

The book is written in an amusing way, and Mighels is good with an occasional quip or two. Still there's a certain thing that happens at the end which I hope he wouldn't have done because it was a bit sad and it was also kind of a clich├ęd thing to do, and seems rather tacked on to the ending.

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