Friday, August 12, 2011
Forgotten Books: The Mark of Zorro by Johnston McCulley
A short history: The novel The Curse of Capistrano ran as a five-part serial in All-Story Weekly (the mag that later became Argosy) beginning August 9, 1919. Douglas Fairbanks thought it was so cool he bought the screen rights and released the pic, titled The Mark of Zorro, in 1920. The first appearance in book form, a Grosset & Dunlap photoplay edition (also issued in 1920), used the movie title, as have most editions since.
As always when reading McCulley, I was struck by how well his prose stands the test of time. After 90 years, it’s still fresh - and snappier than a lot of stuff being written today.
I've read this book at least twice, but it's been a while, and there were several interesting points I’d forgotten.
First, it has none of that jazz about Diego learning his letters - and swordsmanship - in Spain, and returning to California when summoned by his father. Instead, we learn that he practiced in secret at home, preparing for the day his fighting skills might be needed. (Don’t know when that Spanish angle crept into the mythos, but it would be interesting to find out.)
Anyway, the story starts with Zorro’s wrongrighting career already underway. It’s said he made his debut in San Juan Capistrano, a mission town a short distance south of Los Angeles, where he raised quite a ruckus - hence the nickname “The Curse of Capistrano.” So as this book opens, he’s already a legend, and the corrupt governor and his soldiers are hot to catch him.
Next, I was surprised (once again, no doubt) that we never see Diego changing into Zorro or vice versa. In fact, though it’s pretty obvious, the reader doesn’t officially learn they are the same person until the last chapter. That called for some very clever plotting by McCulley.
Then there’s the issue of Zorro’s mask. In this story it must be rolled up from the bottom whenever he wants to uncork a kiss on his favorite senorita. This sort of implies it could be one that just hangs down over his face (as depicted on the cover of All-Story, and later in West magazine illos). But that wouldn’t be practical for swordfighting or riding a horse, so it’s hard to say what McCulley really had in mind. It’s clear, though, that it’s not the pirate do-rag thing worn by Doug Fairbanks and his screen successors.
Here’s a shocker: Zorro wears a purple cape. Probably not exactly the color of Barney the dinosaur, but it’s still hard to picture him in anything but basic black.
In the end (yep, this a SPOILER ALERT), Zorro removes the mask and reveals his Diego identity to the whole pueblo. Zorro, he says, will no longer be needed.
And this brings us to the final surprise, that Zorro was not merely a disguise for Diego, but a whole ‘nother side of him. Diego’s listlessness and foppery was not just a pose, but the real deal. Yep, there’s a split personality thing going on, and Diego (for Zorro is no more) admits he’ll have to work hard to incorporate some of Zorro’s bold and romantic character into his own. Surprisingly, his bride-to-be, who has fallen for Zorro and not Diego, does not seem alarmed by this development.
I’m now reading the sequel, The Further Adventures of Zorro (aka The Sword of Zorro) from 1922, and it’s interesting to see how McCulley brought him out of retirement. More on that in a future edition of Forgotten Books.
P.S. This book is available for free download on the web, but the version I found was teeming with atrocious typos. I have since acquired a much better version in Word, and will be pleased to send it to anyone who asks. It should work great on your Kindle (or non-Kindle). Write me at email@example.com and I’ll shoot you a copy.
This week's Forgotten Books round-up is brought to you over at Sweet Freedom.
P.S. Don't miss the FIRST Forgotten Book post by my fellow critique groupee Doug Levin, over at Levin at Large. It features Dead Skip by Joe Gores.