Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Book Review: The Curse of Capistrano by Johnston McCulley

While researching another project I might kick off this year, I decided to read the original Zorro story, The Curse of Capistrano. Originally released as a five-part serial in the pulp magazine All-Story Weekly in 1919, the story was turned into a film, The Mark of Zorro, in 1920 and it was later published as a novella in 1924 under the film's title.

The story is pretty straightforward. Don Diego Vega is a listless, effete caballero by day, a fearless, swashbuckling vigilante by night. He punishes the wicked and avenges the innocents who are exploited by noblemen, crooked merchants, and violent soldiers. As the "bad guys" hunt for Zorro, he's thwarting them at every turn, while "Don Diego" is friends with all the soldiers and nobles who are trying to hunt down his alter ego, and he's casually pumping them for information.

I'd love to know more about the reaction readers had the first time they were introduced to the story. Although the reader isn't told who Zorro is until he unmasks himself at the very end, reading The Curse of Capistrano, it is immediately obvious that he and Don Diego are one in the same. On multiple occasions Don Diego departs a place, and Zorro appears minutes later, and then as soon as Zorro leaves, Don Diego returns, astonished that he's missed Zorro and bemoaning "These violent, turbulent times!".

Most everyone in town loves Don Diego, as he's rich as hell, politically well connected through his father, friendly and warm with people from all stations in life, and as one person in the story put it, "no more adventuresome than a lizard sunning itself on a rock". He's a disappointment to his father and the woman he is wooing because he's such a lackadaisical slacker, but of course, Don Diego is putting on a show, so that no one could ever suspect he's the fiery, dashing Zorro. I found myself actually laughing out loud at some of Don Diego's comments about how fatiguing life is for him, and how burdensome it is to expend effort on anything beyond dreaming about "the poets" and meditating on life.

But although the plot comes off as a little hammy to a modern audience, the book definitely has plenty of action. There are swordfights and gunplay, dramatic chase sequences and capers all throughout the book. Zorro is a master swordsman and McCulley is able to write some really engaging fight sequences. Zorro isn't a bloodthirsty character, and although he does kill when he has to, by and large he only wounds or disarms his opponents - he knows most of them are simply doing their duty to oppose him, nothing more. He uses a pistol on occasion, but usually as a means to hold his foes at bay when he is outnumbered or doesn't have the time or tactical advantage needed to challenge someone to a duel.

Overall this is a great story, and lays the groundwork for almost a hundred years of Zorro tales to come. Its immediate popularity is evident, with a movie being made only a year after it was released, and he's definitely the archetype upon which many of the later "masked vigilante crusaders" of later generations are built.

The Curse of Capistrano is available on Amazon as a Kindle ebook (that's how I got it) and I'm sure it can be found in EPUB as well as reprinted paperbacks, more than likely as The Mark of Zorro. If you can, pick it up - you won't regret it.


Tom Johnson said...

You have to consider the time period McCulley wrote the story in. Very archaic writing for this period, but he was one of the best back then. And many of his creations predated similar pulp hero characters in the 1930s & '40s. He was a strong influence in the coming costumed characters. I was lucky enough to have written several stories featuring his original character, like The Man In Purple and his Zorro imitation, the Whirlwind. In truth, his characters out-shined his writing style.

Unknown said...

Too much analysis. It's a fun, engaging, and entertaining read. Great adventure!