The Sound of His Horn – Book Review
The Sound of His Horn, written by ‘Sarban’ (the pen name of British writer John William Wall) and published in 1952 was one of the first alternate history novels set in a world where the Nazis won the Second World War. Arguably though it’s more of a fantasy than an alternate history novel.
The Sound of His Horn: Logline
A British naval officer is somehow transported a hundred years into the future to a world where the Nazis won World War Two. Trapped in a game reserve with other humans and hunted by the Reich Master Forester, he tries to escape back to his own world.
The Sound of His Horn: Plot Summary
Warning: My reviews include spoilers. Major spoilers are blacked out like this secret . To view them, just select/highlight them.
It’s 1943, Alan Querdilion is a British prisoner in a German camp – Oflag XXIX Z. He escapes, and heads for the coast, hiding during the day and walking at night. One night, delirious from hunger and thirst, he sees a bright light in the forest. He runs towards it but hits some kind of barrier and passes out.
Querdilion awakes in a hospital, being looked after by two nurses. They refuse to tell him much, but let slip that he is near Hackelnberg. At night he hears a faint hunting horn in the distance. The nurse tells him it’s the ‘Reich Master Forester’, who owns the estate.
A doctor examines Querdilion and declares him recovered from his injuries. The doctor says Querdilion’s memories of 1943 are a delusion caused by the ‘Bohlen rays’ in the barrier surrounding the forest and it’s really Year 102 of a new calendar announced by Adolf Hitler. This makes the year around 2050 or 2060.
A dozen nurses and housemaids, and a similar number of muscular but docile and mute men, serve the doctor. He tells Querdilion that the women are German. The brutes though are artificially created as slave labour and controlled with shock collars.
Querdilion asks about the Reich Master Forester. The doctor agrees to take him on a tour of the estate. They go to the Forester’s castle, which is built in a rustic style integrated with the trees of the forest. There are several types of hunting dog, and Querdilion also hears some strange cries that the doctor says are ‘cats’.
On the way back, they meet a hunting party including baboon-headed boys on leads. There is a commotion in the forest and a bird-headed and feathered woman appears, chased by dogs. The hunters shoot her with a net-gun. The baboon-boys truss her up and carry her off.
That evening, Querdilion and the doctor go to the castle again. Querdilion sees the Reich Master Forester, Count Hans von Hackelnberg, dining with his guests in the great hall. The Count is a throwback to a barbaric age – a ferocious, giant, bearded man. Servants bring the bird-women in trussed up on platters and the Count invites his guests to ‘do what they will’. Then he changes his mind and suggests they join him first to see another spectacle.
Querdilion tags on the end of the group. They go to a pit full of the ‘cats’ Querdilion heard earlier. They are leopard-women, who attack and consume two deer. On the way back the Count spots Querdilion. He orders his servants to take him into the forest to be hunted like the bird-women.
Querdilion is left in the forest and told he will be shot on sight. He examines the barrier surrounding the forest. Seeing that the Bohlen rays kill anything that goes near the barrier, he plans to tunnel under it. He returns to the doctor’s house, hoping for help or to steal tools, but the doctor orders him driven off.
Back in the forest, Querdilion meets a bird-woman. She tells him that she is English and that her name is Kit. The Nazis gave her to the Count after she ran away from a re-education camp for those refusing Nazi dogma. She explains how the Count hunts the women for sport, but doesn’t kill them. Querdilion though, as a ‘criminal’, is in mortal danger.
Querdilion mentions his plan to tunnel under the barrier to Kit. She thinks it’s impossible, but agrees to help. They spend the day together and in the evening she goes to steal tools. While she is away, Querdilion finds the remains of another criminal torn to pieces.
Kit returns with a spade. They head for the wildest part of the forest where they might be able to hide for long enough to tunnel out. But behind them the Count’s horn sounds, announcing he is hunting for Querdilion…
They run towards the barrier until exhausted and then collapse. The Count and his pack of leopard-women catch up. Kit sacrifices herself, luring the leopard-women on to the barrier and killing herself and most of the pack. The Count orders the barrier turned off to retrieve the bodies. Seizing his chance, Querdilion sneaks across. The Count sees Querdilion escaping, but lets him go, saying he will hunt him again another night.
And on the far side of the barrier, somehow, Querdilion is back in 1943.
The Sound of His Horn: Analysis
The Sound of His Horn is a very odd book indeed with its hybrid creatures, Nazis, feudal lords, and unexplained time travel. Sarban tells it though in a calm, matter of fact and very English tone that tends to undermine the more fantastic elements and make it seem almost real.
Is the Sound of His Horn Alternate History?
Sarban sets The Sound of His Horn in a different world than our own, a world where somehow the Nazis are victorious, but is it really alternate history ? There’s no point of departure. In fact, there’s no explanation at all given of how the world changed or developed. The whole story takes place on the estate of the Reich Master Forester, and the wider alternate world is barely hinted at. The only mentions of an alternate history are that the characters call the Second World War the War of German Rights and that Kit mentions that the Nazis invaded Britain in 1945 and there has been resistance ever since.
Reality: Herman Goering
Herman Goering was the Reich Master Forester during the Third Reich. He had a large country estate, called Carinhall after his first wife, where he spent a great deal of time hunting. The Reich Master Forester in The Sound of His Horn is clearly strongly inspired by him. Goering was tried and found guilty of war crimes at the Nuremberg Trials.
Fantasy versus Sci-fi
The explanation of the time travel in The Sound of His Horn seems to be that the ‘Bohlen Rays’ in the barrier surrounding the Reich Master Forester’s estate created a temporal anomaly that caused Querdilion to time travel into a possible future. This ‘scientific explanation’ gives The Sound of His Horn commonalities with classic time-travel sci-fi like H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine.
Querdilion himself though declares several times that he must have just been temporarily insane, and he passes out in 1943 to wake in 2050, which is similar to a dream sequence or fantasy. The story also has much in common with the fantasy genre, such as feudal structures, medieval setting, minimal technologic explanation of either the time travel or the human-animal hybrids.
In the end, The Sound of His Horn is quite unique and doesn’t sit neatly in any genre.
The Sound of His Horn is in some ways similar to the sub-genre known as ‘Nazisploitation’, where villainous Nazis commit crimes against helpless women. However, it pre-dates Nazisploitation, as that subgenre was one of the sixties and seventies. It is also much less ‘exploitative’, it is not sadistic or gory.
It is though quite voyeuristic, describing the various semi-naked women-animal hybrids and their paraphernalia, such as metal claws, in some detail. A more likely influence is men’s ‘true adventure’ magazines of the 1950s, which often featured women being captured and threatened by Nazis or Communists and then rescued by two-fisted heroes in a prurient wish-fulfilment fantasy.
The difference in The Sound of His Horn is that Querdilion isn’t any kind of tough guy and doesn’t rescue any of the various animal-women he meets. In fact, Kit saves him at the end. Instead the story builds up to an extended scene of Querdilion himself being hunted. It is more masochistic than sadistic.
Reality: Prisoner of War Camps
Querdilion claims to have been held in ‘Oflag XXIX Z’. There was no such prisoner of war camp. German prisoner of war camps were named after the military district they were in and there were only twenty-one military districts, not twenty-nine. In 1941, Royal Navy officers were in fact held in Marlag X-B, and in 1942 they were moved to Marlag Nord O, both camps were in Saxony, northwest Germany.
The Sound of His Horn: My Verdict
An interesting curiosity. Worth hunting down.
Want to read it?
A Kill in the Morning
The Sound of His Horn had some influence on my novel A Kill in the Morning, which is also alternate history and features a related scenario of the hero being hunted for sport by Nazis. You can read the opening here: The first two chapters of A Kill in the Morning
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