Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Voyages Extraordinaires #16: Les Indes noires

To Mr. F. R. Starr, Engineer, 30 Canongate, Edinburgh.

If Mr. James Starr will come to-morrow to the Aberfoyle coal-mines, Dochart pit, Yarrow shaft, a communication of an interesting nature will be made to him.

“Mr. James Starr will be awaited for, the whole day, at the Callander station, by Harry Ford, son of the old overman Simon Ford.”

“He is requested to keep this invitation secret.”

Such was the letter which James Starr received by the first post, on the 3rd December, 18—, the letter bearing the Aberfoyle postmark, county of Stirling, Scotland.

The Indies are a symbol for an extraordinary source of wealth and prosperity; 'Black Indies' is a vast resource of coal. Historically the phrase seems to have been used for Newcastle upon Tyne and the surrounding area. Verne, however, is using the phrase more generically, since The Black Indies (a.k.a. The Underground City, a.k.a. The Child of the Cavern, a.k.a. Black Diamonds) takes place near Aberfoyle, Scotland. Aberfoyle was only ever known for tin, not coal, but it's very clear that Verne has chosen his impossible location for a coal mine deliberately. Since most of Verne's novels are structured on an itinerary of interesting places to see and visit, I suspect he mostly just wanted a story in the Trossachs of Scotland, and it merged with an independent story idea about a city in a coal mine, without regard for geology. It actually works; Verne is drawing on Scottish folklore and Sir Walter Scott to give a fairy-tale spirit of romance to Coal City, a sense of the fantastic in the modern-day. It blends beautifully as tale.

James Starr, the former engineer for the now-defunct Aberfoyle coal mines, receives a mysterious letter from a former foreman in the mine, Simon Ford, asking him to come to the coal-mines; then, shortly afterward, a different message telling him not come. His curiosity piqued, he vists the mine, where he finds Simon Ford and his family, including Ford's son Harry, living in a cottage in the mine. As Star expected, Ford had discovered a new seam of coal, and together they put the mine back in motion, and a city grows up within the mine itself, Coal City. But there are many strange things happening in the mine; they discover a mysterious girl, Nell, and people have had experiences of a great winged thing flapping about, and there is evidence that there is someone in the caverns connecting to the mines who is hostile to their entire project. Can Harry and Nell win through to a marriage? What malice flies through the caverns and above the underground lake of Loch Malcolm? Can Coal City survive the trials of water and fire that will be unleashed by the King of Darkness and Flame? You'll have to read to see.

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