A THOUSAND DEATHS (1899) – This story was the first published work by Jack London and it definitely shows, but it still has certain merits. The protagonist – who is never named – is the scion of a wealthy British family. Feeling stifled by his rigid upbringing he ran off in his teens to roam the world. He’s fallen into various shady professions over the years and now at age 30 he’s begun having regrets.
His latest misadventure involved diving off a ship he regretted signing onto as soon as he sobered up and as soon as the vessel left San Francisco Harbor. Our hero miscalculated the distance back to shore, however, and now faces the prospect of drowning.
He seems to feel himself going under but then wakes up after an indeterminate time on board a luxurious yacht. The man has various tubes and wires connected to his body and soon learns that he has been saved from drowning by the crew of … his estranged father. That father (who also goes unnamed – it’s early Jack London all right) fails to recognize his son because of the changes the younger man’s rough life has inflicted on him.
Our protagonist (If that IS his real name – I’m kidding.) uses a phony name to hide his identity from his father. And Jack London apparently felt that even that alias was none of our damn business so don’t ask. The undercover son learns from his oblivious father that he really HAD died from drowning, but his father – a mad scientist – used the machines he’s strapped to, to literally bring him back from the dead.
In the following weeks the mad scientist teaches the rescued man enough information about his advanced science to serve as his technical aide. When the ship at last arrives at the uncharted South Seas island owned by the wealthy madman our anonymous protagonist learns the dark purpose behind their journey.
The hero is far from civilization and is completely in the power of his deranged father and his hired guards. The mad scientist coldly explains to his captive that – since he would have died anyway if not for him – the scientist will have no qualms about using him as a human guinea pig in his further experiments.
The island’s laboratory is appointed with all of the madman’s futuristic science and he intends to test the limits of his resurrecting devices by killing the younger man over and over again and then bringing him back to life. When or if he happens to die permanently from the experiments the doctor will simply move on to another human subject.
As the preparations begin our now-paniced hero desperately tries to convince his estranged father that he is his long-lost son. At first the father refuses to believe it, but then is at last convinced. After false feelings of relief our protagonist learns his father has decided that his relation to his experimental subject is irrelevant.
He already has biometric data from his victim’s FIRST resurrection and it would waste too much time to start over with a new subject so early in the experimental stage. The nightmare continues for our main character as he gets subjected to death by different poisons and gasses, by strangling, by electrical shocks of varying voltages, by assorted diseases and by drug overdoses.
Our protagonist’s ghoulish descriptions of his many deaths and resurrections don’t go far enough to set a proper mood but the tastes of the times may not have permitted any deeper exploration. Eventually his father’s experiments on him move into an even darker stage. Prompted by desperation our main character uses his father’s own twisted science to assemble a high-tech weapon right under his tormentor’s nose.
London fails to exploit the potential tension of not knowing if our protagonist’s wild plan will succeed in saving him or not. The ending is satisfactory and violent enough for lovers of horror but overall the story is underdeveloped to the point that the ONLY figure who is named is the mad scientist’s dog, Dan. The 1939 film Torture Ship is loosely based on this tale. ++
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