Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Curse of Capistrano (The Mark of Zorro) by Johnston McCulley

And now for a bit of unashamedly pulpy fun!

I should quickly correct a misconception which perhaps the existence of this blog causes from time to time. I do not have highbrow literary tastes. My tastes are all firmly lowbrow. I enjoy a good game of Pooh sticks. I enjoy it when characters sock each other on the nose. And I love a good duel. It's moments like these that make the classic literature worth reading.

This kind of melodrama is perhaps best enjoyed as a sprinkling on top of something more substantial. But there is a particular genre of book, regularly written around the first half of the last century, which was wall-to-wall melodrama of the highest quality. Classics of this genre include The Prisoner of Zenda, The Phantom of the Opera, Captain Blood, The Scarlet Pimpernel, To Have and To Hold, A Princess of Mars, and anything else ever written by Edgar Rice Burroughs. The genre gainfully employed Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn for years, and finally morphed into the whole superhero genre by way of the story featured in today's post.

For years I was unaware of the existence of the short novel known, rather misleadingly at first, as The Curse of Capistrano. I had seen one of the recent Zorro movies and decided to look around for the original book--the story was so old that I knew there must be an original book. What I stumbled across was Zorro, pretentiously subtitled A Novel, no doubt in order to distinguish it from all those other books which have exciting sword fights and swooning ladies and galloping black horses in them, which though fun enough in their own way for children and adults with the stunted intellect of a cockroach, cannot be worthy of the name of ~*Novel*~. Zorro: A Novel made it quite clear that there would be none of that sword-swinging, damsel-succoring, witty-repartee nonsense here, thank you very much. Instead it invited the reader to contemplate, not so much his own navel, as the navels of a rather repulsive, surly, and lecherous cast that never did anything remotely interesting (but got full marks for cultural and religious diversity, socioeconomic conflict, political correctness, feminism, and postmodernism). The monstrosity was written by a thoroughly modern lady novelist, and it will serve me right if I ever poke my nose into one of her books ever again.

Then I discovered Johnston McCulley's 1919 book The Curse of Capistrano, and all was well with the world.
Before her stood a man whose body was enveloped in a long cloak, and whose face was covered with a black mask so that she could see nothing of his features except his glittering eyes. She had heard Senor Zorro, the highwayman, described, and she guessed that this was he, and her heart almost ceased to beat, she was so afraid.
"Silence, and no harm comes to you, senorita," the man whispered hoarsely.
"You--you are--" she questioned on her breath.
He stepped back, removed his sombrero, and bowed low before her.
"You have guessed it, my charming senorita," he said. "I am known as Senor Zorro, the Curse of Capistrano."
So this book is basically a retread of The Scarlet Pimpernel, only in Spanish California. The oppressive government is being terrorised by Senor Zorro, a masked caballero who dashes about righting wrongs, scaring baddies, and giving back the taxes as fast as the Governor's men can take them. Secretly admired by all right-minded inhabitants of the little pueblo of Reina de Los Angeles, Zorro is hunted by the authorities. Which of the local dons is behind the bold highwayman's mask? Certainly not Don Diego de la Vega, a foppish bookworm who can hardly bring himself to the exertion of riding four miles down the El Camino Real to court the hot-blooded Senorita Lolita Pulido. Meanwhile Senor Zorro himself has also taken an interest in the senorita, and the authorities, noticing this fact, cook up a scheme to deal with Zorro and with the Pulido family for good...

This book is a lot of fun, completely preposterous, and effortlessly better than Zorro: A Novel. While the characterisation is not as memorable as The Scarlet Pimpernel's, I'd be prepared to say that the writing is better. Otherwise, the book was not meant to be taken seriously, the plot is as insubstantial as a politician's promise, and there are things in it that will not tend to edify--the conduct of the heroine's love-affair, for instance, to say nothing of that weary old vintage-novel trope of "Advance once step farther, sir, and this knife plunges into my bosom!"  

For all this, The Curse of Capistrano still has more character than half the books written today. At the end of the book--I am going to spoil it, so be warned--at the end of the book, the day is saved, not by the masked hero or his dramatic lady, but by a group of local caballeros deciding they've had enough of the evil government. Inspired by Zorro, they man up, hold the governor to account, dispense justice, and restore law and order. It's a heartwarming demonstration of the doctrine of interposition in action. What could be better?

Find The Curse of Capistrano on Amazon, The Book Depository, Manybooks, or Librivox. 

In 1920, silent actor Douglas Fairbanks made The Curse of Capistrano into a movie titled The Mark of Zorro, and Senor Zorro began his long ride through popular culture. In 1940 the movie was remade with Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone; that version of The Mark of Zorro is one of our favourite movies. In 1998 another film, The Mask of Zorro, appeared, not a bad movie by today's standards--but the 2005 sequel has sunk into well-deserved oblivion.

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