Fiction Reviews

Black Hand Gang

(2010) Pat Kelleher, Abaddon Books, £7.99, pbk, 335pp, ISBN 978-1-906-73535-7

This novel, the first in a series called 'No Man’s World', begins with some excellent 'authentication'. The back-story is the disappearance of 900 men and a party of nurses from the Western Front in 1916, leaving a gigantic crater attributed to an experimental German mine. Ten years later, film canisters and documents were found on the site and gave rise to a widely circulated story that the missing men were transported to another world. Although dismissed by the authorities as a myth, the story gave rise to a wave of SF between the Wars, was filmed in 1951 as Tommies in Space (starring Richard Attenborough and Richard Todd) and featured as an adventure strip in the comic Triumph. Now, supposedly, Pat Kelleher has uncovered the true story. There are people on the internet who believe it.

For most writers the excuse of the 'experimental explosive' might suffice, but Kelleher attributes the displacement to black magic, a spell cast by a villain whom Aleister Crowley cast out of his circle as too dangerous. Clearly similar events have happened before, because there are humans on the nameless planet that the men of the Pennine Fusiliers are transported to. Although dismissed by the Tommies as mere natives when first met, they are adapted to the environment and at least they know where the dangers are, even if they lack ‘modern’ weapons to deal with them.

The 13th Battalion takes some heavy losses in learning how to handle local carnivores, carnivorous worms and man-eating plants – but only once each, as it seems. Despite the parasites and the corpses, the Battalion clings to the circle of trenches and no-man's-land which arrived with them, in case it is suddenly transported back. I can see that; I can see why it attracts the predators and the scavengers; but I cannot see why they do not keep coming, or why it would not be preferable to let them clean it out?

It turns out that many of the humans already on the planet have been enslaved by its insectile rulers, who lose no time in raiding the encampment to obtain samples of the newcomers. The subsequent rescue mission takes up the second half of the novel. Substitute insects for reptiles and it’s a bit too much like the film version of

At the Earth’s Core – substitute Attenborough and Todd for Peter Cushing and Doug McLure. It all seems too easy, even with the help of an aircraft, a tank, a flamethrower and gas weapons. I kept thinking that it would not have gone half so well in the tunnels of Starship Troopers or the hives of Quatermass and the Pit.

Although the Tommies are victorious, and on the trail of a way to get home, I was left feeling let down at the end. Some of the feeling probably stems from the incomplete story, which leaves open what will happen when the fuel and the ammo run out – and the implication at the beginning that although film and diaries are eventually returned to Earth, the people are not. But it will be worth catching the next instalment to see where the story goes next.

Duncan Lunan

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