In some divergent reality, the name Sarban could have been spoken of in the same breath as John Wyndham or Philip K. Dick. In an alternative universe, he could have become one of the giants of post World War II science fiction. But like many of his fictional characters, Sarban was a person out of time and out of place – a stranger in a world not yet ready to understand him.
Sarban was an anomaly, even in the quirky world of science fiction authors. Those who knew him (there were very few who did) recall his hatred of writing. Almost nothing was known about him during his lifetime (Russell: 2001). The curiously named author guarded his identity with Thomas Pynchon-esque zeal. It seems his distaste for writing was eclipsed only by his disdain for the fame that came along with it.
His career spanned a mere three years and produced only three titles (Russell: 2001). Sarban’s debut work Ringstones and Other Curious Tales was published in 1951. By 1953 he had simply disappeared, his true identity unknown. Disappeared that is, until his death in 1989 revealed the secrets he had spent a lifetime keeping.
Born John William Wall (1910-1989), Sarban grew up in the small middle class town of South Yorkshire, England (Russell: 2001). There was nothing particularly remarkable about his childhood. He had a disappointingly average British upbringing, went to a thoroughly typical school and lived on a dull, respectable street. Like his peers, he filled his leisure hours with pastimes such as cricket and became an expert small game hunter (Russell: 2001). He was destined for bigger things than could be offered by a small town in the English countryside. In 1928 he won a full scholarship to Jesus College, Cambridge where he studied English. It was at Jesus College he discovered what would become his lifelong love – the study of Arabic. Immediately upon graduation he took the Consular Service Exam. In 1933 the British Foreign Office awarded him his first post as Probationer Vice-Consul to Lebanon.
Sarban/Wall spent his career as a reliable, if unremarkable, diplomat. He plied his trade in exotic locales such as Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Azerbaijan (Russell: 2001). Although he eventually rose to Consular General to Egypt he could never fully shake his middle class upbringing. Friends recall the contempt he showed for his upper class peers. In particular he loathed the privileged loafers he felt populated the diplomatic world (Russell: 2001). His love for all things Arabic and his distaste for high society would figure prominently in his writings.
On the face of things it would appear that Sarban/Wall led the uneventful, grey life of a government bureaucrat. Perhaps this life of mediocrity was too much for him to handle. For a few brief years he became Sarban, the writer of some of the most disturbing supernatural tales ever told. He settled on a single pseudonym, the genesis of which is unclear (Joshi: 2005). The name sounds vaguely Arabic and would certainly have seemed exotic to a British readership. He may simply have been too embarrassed to have his unsuccessful writing career associated with his more serious work as a diplomat.
Most scholars mark the end of the Golden Age of science fiction to coincide with the end of World War II (Joshi: 2005). A new wave of science fiction authors speculated on a utopian world where technology would bring about an era of peace and prosperity (Joshi: 2005). With memories of the war still fresh in the British psyche, readers were more than happy to escape into these optimistic fantasies.
Sarban’s milestone novel, The Sound of His Horn (1952) must have seemed like a slap in the face to those wishing to forget the horrors of Nazi Germany. Sound was one of the first novels to speculate on the consequences of a Nazi victory and world domination by the Third Reich (Joshi: 2005). British soldier Alan Querildion escapes from a WWII Nazi prison camp and inexplicably finds himself transported 100 years into the future. He arrives in a world where the Third Reich rules the globe. Nazi aristocracy has taken Adolf Hitler’s beliefs on Master Race superiority to brutal extremes. Genetically modified “under-races” (non-Aryan humans) are used as slave labour and are hunted for sport in specially built amusement parks. Sarban/Wall adeptly prophesied human cloning and genetic manipulation. Borrowing heavily from Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game (1924) the novel centres on a human version of the British fox hunt. While the Connell novel was a straight-up thriller, Sarban/Wall throws in a less than subtle helping of social commentary.
Sound clearly thumbs its nose at comforting symbols of British colonialism (Joshi: 2005). The hero is set free in the forest to be tracked and hunted by his Nazi captors. The reader sees the hunt from the prey’s point of view. They experience the terror and isolation that only the hunted can feel. The similarities to the popular British pastime of fox hunting are too obvious to be ignored. The trappings of high society barely mask the savagery that lie beneath. Sound strips away fox hunting’s veil of make believe courtesy and exposes the underlying brutality of the sport.
The fox hunt analogy is also used to skewer the upper crust socialites that Sarban/Wall so greatly despised. The substitution of fictional Nazi bureaucrats for the real life British hunters was a blatant insult (Joshi: 2005). The hero (playing the part of the fox) uses cunning and wit to escape his increasingly savage captors. As they see their prey slipping away, the Nazi hunting party degenerates into savagery, frustration and anger. Feral instincts overpower their civility and the hunters allow their primitive urges to engulf them.
In spite of glowing reviews and kudos from the literary world, the novel sold poorly (Russell: 2001). The reading public wasn’t ready to be reminded how close England came to destruction at the hands of Hitler’s Germany. The clear indictment of the fox hunt cannot have made Sarban/Wall many friends in 1950’s England. Years later other authors would make alternate histories a bona fide sub-genre of science fiction (Rosenfeld: 2005). Sarban themes appear in such works as Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962), Ira Levin’s The Boys from Brazil (1976) and Robert Harris’ Fatherland (1992). All used the spectre of a surviving Nazi regime to unnerve audiences.
Despite being spurned by readers, Sarban/Wall produced two collections of short stories. Ringstones and Other Curious Tales (1951) and The Doll Maker and Other Tales of the Uncanny (1953) met with much the same fate as his novel. The collections were skillful mixtures of supernatural fiction, ghost stories, mystery and science fiction tales. Both centred on female protagonists performing work typically reserved for male heroes.
Ringstones concerns Daphne Hazel, a young governess charged with the upkeep of an isolated English country manor. She discovers a stone circle and unearths a collection of dangerous and powerful relics. The remnants seem like mere curiosities until Daphne realizes she’s awoken an unearthly and primitive force. Again we see the theme of base instincts overpowering the thin sheen of civilization.
Doll Maker told the story of Clare Lydgate, a young woman who runs away from her stuffy boarding school. She meets Niall Sterne, a doll maker, and slowly slips into a world of madness populated by his doll creations. As in many of Sarban/Wall’s works, British convention is attacked. Living in the honey trap of the doll-world is preferable to Clare than the stodgy, confining halls of the institution. Methodical pacing slowly draws readers in and slowly seduces them. By the time they realize the doll-world is a trap, it’s far too late.
Sarban/Wall’s talent for genre blending may be appreciated in the modern day, but at the time readers were simply confused (Joshi: 2005). He did not fit neatly into either the science fiction, mystery or horror genres that were popular at the time. Perhaps ghost stories no longer had the power to frighten a public who could still recall the real life terror of German air raids. Sound had been praised as a forward thinking and chillingly real portrait of a future gone wrong. In comparison, Sarban/Wall’s other two titles were panned for being hokey and old-fashioned (Joshi: 2005). Again Sarban/Wall’s works were just out of step with the times. Readers may have missed the eerie subtlety that was the trademark of a Sarban/Wall yarn.
No one knows for sure why Sarban/Wall abandoned the quill after such a brief career. Even his closest friends can only speculate on the motives of this intensely private man (Russell: 2001). His career as a diplomat involved constant travel and frequent job changes. His duties cannot have left much time for the pen. Public indifference to his writing would not have served to inspire him. Since no one really knew who Sarban was it’s doubtful he felt anyone would miss him. In 1953, the Sarban half of his identity quietly faded away, and Wall went on his merry way.
For over forty years Sarban/Wall’s body of work sat largely dormant. There were occasional limited run reprints. His short stories would pop up in anthologies from time to time. It wasn’t until just prior to his death in 1989 that Wall publicly acknowledged his alter ego (Joshi: 2005). Memories of Sarban/Wall’s books had long since faded and this revelation made few headlines. It did capture the eye of Kingsley Amis, the prolific British novelist, poet and literary critic. Amis is perhaps best known as the author of several post-Ian Fleming James Bond spy novels. He contributed a forward to a small run reprint of Sound, but he was playing to an empty house.
The announcement raised eyebrows at Tartarus Press, an independent publisher specializing in resurrecting classic works of the macabre (Russell: 2001). Sarban/Wall’s 1953 retirement wasn’t the end of his career, it merely marked the last time he was published. His estate contained stacks of undiscovered works. Tartarus published Sarban/Wall’s manuscripts as The Sacrifice and Other Stories (2002).
Although he was misunderstood in his day, Sacrifice proved the timeless quality of Sarban/Wall’s work. This led to a mini-resurgence of his classic tales, even if it was only amongst hardcore collectors and aficionados. Although largely ignored in his day, Sarban/Wall foreshadowed many of the trends that have now become science fiction conventions. His themes consistently pop up in other author’s works. Perhaps now, sixty years after his retirement and twenty years after his death, we are finally ready to embrace his ideas.
Although not currently in print, all three of Sarban’s classic titles can be downloaded for free at www.Munseys.com. A posthumous collection of Sarban’s lost works is available from www.TartarusPress.com. The Merril Collection of Science Fiction at the Toronto Public Library also boasts a non-lending set of Sarban titles.
Clute, J. (1995). Science fiction: The illustrated encyclopedia. Toronto: MacMillan.
Joshi, S.T. (2005). Supernatural literature of the world: An encyclopedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Rosenfeld, G. (2005). The world Hitler never made: Alternate history and the memory of Nazism. England: Cambridge University Press.
Russell, R.B. (2001). Sarban. The lost club journal: A journal of literary archeology, 3. Retrieved May 21st, 2009, from http://www.tartaruspress.com/wall.html