I remember John Russell Fearn from my younger days (cough, wheeze) as being a somewhat mediocre science fiction writer — rather in the mold of Charles Eric Maine but, in my youthful opinion, not as good. It was only quite recently that I discovered he also wrote quite a number of mysteries and that these were, by all accounts, far more worthy of investigation. So I decided, perhaps unwisely, to dip my toe in the water with this shortish novella, billed as a “science fiction mystery.”
Richard Shaw is something financial in the City of London. At 37 he’s well on his way to becoming a confirmed bachelor when he runs into Beryl Wilson, and after a whirlwind romance they’re wed. On their way off to the honeymoon, however, the car crashes at high speed and they’re both hospitalized for six weeks, at the end of which time Beryl, though physically entirely restored, has become a different woman — cold, demanding, callous, ignorant in odd respects — from the one whom Dick married.
Quite obviously, although it takes Dick some while to realize this, Beryl has been possessed by an entity that has come to earth from the Andromeda galaxy to try to recover the Bloodstone, a mighty gem that’s of existential importance to the entity’s species. Mere humans have known about the stone, but not its true nature:
“A species of mineral allied to the carbon group, but remarkable for its deep blood-red hue. Originally the bloodstone was one massive piece of glasslike mineral, and was found in a remote corner of Arkansas by a trader in 1548. It was then handed down through various families. In 1630 it was split into four parts and became a prize for antique hunters. . . .
“The actual origin of the stone is lost in antiquity. Science has puzzled over the fact that ít represents no mineral form known on earth; therefore it seems not illogical to assume that perhaps it came in the dim past from a passing meteor, or as the result of some fusion in the cosmos—”
The sciencey bits here are, of course, twaddle, and there’s plenty more twaddle where that came from — including the portable rocket that the pseudo-Beryl builds from, it seems, scrap metal and bits of household appliances, but that despite its humble origins is pluckily capable of making the long journey to the Andromeda galaxy. (It’s possible, to judge by a comment elsewhere in the book, that Fearn, despite writing this in 1946, wasn’t aware of Hubble’s work in the 1920s proving that the Andromeda [and ciuntless other] nebulae were in fact galaxies far beyond our own, but even then I’m unconvinced by the homemade spaceship.)
I did wonder if there’d prove to be a groanworthy link between Beryl’s name and the gem, but no.
A “science fiction mystery”? I raise an eyebrow at the “mystery” claim. What I did discover is that Fearn was a far better writer than I’d noticed back in the day. Okay, so there’s the occasional exception (“Right enough,” I confirmed. “Only heard of him by hearsay . . .”), but by and large From Afar is really quite neatly told. I came to the conclusion while reading the book that its failings were in precisely those aspects that my younger self sought science fiction for: mindblowing ideas, great science, action. (My tastes were actually a bit more sophisticated, but that’s the barebones version.) I’d still regard From Afar as a pretty undistinguished piece of sf, because of its lack of intellectual ambition and its garbage science, but today I’m a little more charitable towards it because of the quality of its writing.
Charitable enough, anyway, that I’ll be trying some of Fearn’s genuine mysteries soon.
Footnote: That’s a splendid cover Wildside Press has given the novella, don’t you think?