Gaston Leroux’s The Machine to Kill was written in NINETEEN TWENTY-FOUR. Many book sites list it as 1935, but that was just the year it was finally translated into English.
Personally I would use the title The Clockwork Dead Man or The Clockwork Killer because for modern readers The Machine to Kill sounds like a traditional science fiction tale about technology run amok.
In reality this neglected Gaston Leroux novel is a horror/sci fi hybrid about an android/ cyborg mix whose mechanized body has been outfitted with the brain, eyes and nervous system of a guillotined murderer. The robotic man – called Gabriel – was created by Dr Jacques Cotentin, who needed an absolutely fresh brain, hence having to settle for a just-executed criminal.
And not just any criminal, but Benedict Masson, a monstrous-looking recluse put to death for a series of gory dismemberment killings whose quasi-sexual nature probably shocked readers in 1924. The foolish Dr Cotentin believed the brain and nervous system would simply serve as an operating system for Gabriel, animating his body but with no consciousness of its previous life.
Needless to say he was wrong. Masson’s mind is intact and now resides in a robotic body impervious to pain and stronger than six men put together. In addition he does not need to breathe, sleep or eat and is powered by radium.
“Gabriel” is also impervious to cold, which gives him a huge advantage against his pursuers and prey since the story is set during a snowy French winter. The clockwork dead man was not provided with the power of speech, however, and his face is handsome but immobile since it was crafted out of artificial skin by Dr Cotentin’s artist fiancee Christine Norbert. (Leroux loved naming his heroines Christine, didn’t he?)
That artificial skin was not outfitted with pain receptors so there are nicely horrific moments (for the 1920s) where Gabriel’s victims try to fight him by stabbing him or such and he just keeps relentlessly, silently coming after them. That combined with his frighteningly inexpressive face and tendency to burst through doors will give modern readers a kind of Michael Myers/ Jason Voorhees vibe out of the proceedings.
At any rate Gabriel seizes the first opportunity to overpower his creators and escape. Dr Cotentin and his allies try to recapture the artificial man, always one step behind as they follow Gabriel’s mayhem-strewn path.
To the public at large the days over which the story plays out prompt a growing feeling that the late Benedict Masson may have been innocent. After all, the exact same type of blood-soaked killings are continuing even though he was already put to death. There is a huge outcry to reopen the murder cases and, in the Post- Dreyfuss Affair atmosphere police and politicians are feeling the pressure.
I know parts of The Machine to Kill may sound derivative but as always Gaston Leroux comes at the story from off-kilter ways that enhance the creepiness of the proceedings. (“Literary Dutch Angles” I like to call them.)
In addition to the preceding Leroux throws in a cult whose membership includes some of the most powerful people in France. The cult seems based on old public suspicions about Madame Blavatsky’s sect, but emphasizing Hindu lore the way Blavatsky and company emphasized Egyptian lore. To me this cult is too similar to Leroux’s Incan Cult in Bride of the Sun.
On the positive side there’s also an interesting character named Lebouc, a former detective who now wants to be a reporter and under the alias “XXX” is writing about Gabriel’s rampage and the cult. Lebouc has that air of an unthanked and unrecognized hero and the supernatural story makes him a type of French Kolchak.
On the negative side there’s a cumbersome sub-plot about alleged ghost sightings of one of the victims of the murders Masson was executed for.
Leroux’s talent for creating wonderful set pieces and memorable moments is on fine display in this novel:
** You’ve got a scene reminiscent of Cronenberg- style body horror when Gabriel/ Benedict Masson uses keys to open his chest and sees a massive cavity with a few clockwork gears and a radium power source. (Gabriel needs to “wind” his innards once a day like an old timepiece, which gives the story a quaint Steam-Punk or Diesel-Punk feel.)
** The cold and the periodic snow add to the horror aspects as the police and others trailing Gabriel are at an enormous disadvantage due to his imperviousness to the elements.
** A frantic car and bus chase through 1920s Paris that features colossal wrecks and additional carnage. A silent film of the era would have presented this magnificently.
** A midnight gathering at a vast mausoleum in an eerie graveyard.
** The equally eerie former residence of Benedict Masson, to which Gabriel temporarily retreats. The home has certain sinister elements that will once again put modern readers in mind of assorted serial killers.
** Gabriel’s horror at and resignation to the fact that he is NOT anatomically correct and therefore not “fully functional” as a man. What that means to a man like Benedict Masson is confined to language and imagery safe for the 1920s, despite the adult nature of that aspect of Gabriel’s unnatural existence.
Overall I wish this work was much better known. Gabriel as a horror character is almost worthy to stand beside Leroux’s most famous creation – Erik, the Phantom of the Paris Opera House. And he’s certainly superior to Balaoo, Leroux’s half-man, half-ape character from the eponymous novel. +++
FOR MY REVIEW OF an 1812 Gothic Horror story featuring a Mandragore, an undead servitor and a She-Golem click HERE
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