Retro Review: “Iron Mask” by Robert Bloch

Weird Tales May 1944

Margaret Brundage’s cover is a surprisingly accurate depiction of a scene in the story.

“Iron Mask” is a novelette by Robert Bloch, which was first published in the May 1944 issue of Weird Tales and is therefore eligible for the 1945 Retro Hugos. The story may be found online here. This review will also be crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.

Warning: There will be spoilers in the following.

“Iron Mask” starts out at the headquarters of the local Resistance movement in the French town of Dubonne. American Eric Drake, an AP correspondent who got stuck in France after the beginning of WWII, confronts Pierre Charmand, the former mayor of Dubonne and now head of the Resistance. Eric is furious because Charmand has sent his girlfriend, Charmand’s daughter Roselle, to the ruined Chateau D’Ivers to retrieve some important papers Charmand has hidden there. For not only is the Chateau supposedly haunted, the local top Nazi Gauleiter Hassman is also heading there with a squad of soldiers, presumably to look for the same papers as Roselle.

Charmand is a lot more sanguine than Eric. He assures Eric that the Chateau is definitely not haunted (famous last words that). As for why he sent Roselle rather than one of the male members of the Resistance, a woman is less likely to arouse suspicion. But when dusk falls and Roselle still hasn’t returned, a determined Eric goes after her, Nazi patrols be damned.

Braving patrols and bats, Eric makes his way to the Chateau. Once inside, he hears Roselle scream. He follows the scream and finds Roselle unconscious on the floor, a sinister cloaked figure bending over her, clutching the papers. As Eric approaches, the figure vanishes.

Once Roselle comes to again, she insists that she was attacked by a thing wearing an iron mask. And this thing was not a ghost, but real. Eric agrees that the attacker was real enough, because ghosts don’t steal important papers and they don’t leave footprints.

Eric tells Roselle to return to her father. Meanwhile, he will go after the attacker and get the papers back. Roselle, on the other hand, doesn’t want Eric to go alone. For Roselle shot her attacker in the head, which didn’t even slow him down. “He’s a monster,” she insists. Eric, on the other hand, points out that Roselle’s bullet must have hit the iron mask, which is why the attacker was not injured or killed.

So Eric follows the footprints of the attacker deeper into the ruined castle. When they lead to seemingly dead end, Eric finds a secret passage through which the attacker escaped outside. He chases the attacker down a hill, only for both of them to run into a squad of Nazi soldiers coming up the hill. Soon, Eric finds himself fighting side by side with the masked stranger against the Nazis. Eric uses his gun, while the masked stranger hurls rocks at the Nazis with superhuman strength.

Once the fight is over, Eric demands that the masked stranger – whose mask is not made from iron but velvet – hand over the papers. Turns out that the stranger is working for the Resistance as well and also planned to procure the papers, before they could fall into the hands of the Nazis. As for why he wears a mask, the stranger tell Eric that he was a French soldier whose face and hands were burned by flamethrowers. The doctors attempted to save his life, but left him disfigured. So the stranger donned a mask and started his solo crusade against the Nazis.

Eric wants to take the stranger to the Resistance meeting (he is rather trusting – after all, the stranger could be anyone, even a Nazi in disguise), but the stranger doesn’t want to come. Eric assures him that his damaged face doesn’t matter. “You don’t understand,” the stranger says, “I have no face.” Then he takes off his velvet mask to reveal an iron mask where his face should be. So Roselle had been right after all.

Eric nonetheless takes the stranger and the papers to Charmand, who also accepts him a lot more readily than I would in his position. Only Roselle remains sceptical. Charmand also tells the stranger that there is an important Resistance meeting taking place at midnight (when else?), where the Resistance will plan their campaign against Gauleiter Hassman’s attempt to conscript French men as forced labourers. However, Charmand is still missing an important report, because two of his men have not returned yet. The masked stranger offers to procure the report, though he won’t say how he plans to do that with only an hour left until midnight. “I have developed a certain – technique – in such matters,” he declares.

Indeed, the stranger returns with the report just in time for the Resistance meeting. But almost as soon as he has handed it over, the Nazis storm the Resistance headquarters, led by Gauleiter Hassman himself. By this point, this reader at least became even more suspicious, because the Nazis’ timing is mightily convenient.

In the ensuing battle, Charmand is killed. Eric escapes with Roselle, the papers and the masked stranger who is seemingly impervious to bullets. Not knowing where else to go, they retreat to the Chateau, where Eric demands to know just how the stranger could survive being hit by at least fifty bullets. Now, the stranger finally admits that he is no flamethrower burned French soldier. Instead, he is the legendary Man in the Iron Mask. Oh yes, and he is immortal, too.

Iron Mask tells his story. He is the grandson of Nostradamus and was supposed to continue the family trade of alchemy and prophecy in Paris, advising the aristocracy. Over time, the future Man in the Iron Mask became extremely influential, until he was the de facto ruler of France. Alas, King Louis XIV suspected him of having an affair with his secret wife Madame de Maintenon and therefore ordered him arrested, imprisoned and locked into an iron mask for the rest of his days. However, neither the King nor the Man in the Iron Mask realised how long this life sentence would last. For just before he embarked for Paris, Iron Mask had been given a potion by his alchemist father that grants eternal life.

After thirty-four years of imprisonment, the Man in the Iron Mask finally managed to escape by passing off the body of a recently deceased prisoner in the Bastille for his own. The entries in the prison records of the Bastille containing his true identity vanished at around the same time. But even though Iron Mask was immortal, his face still aged, so he continued to hide it beneath his mask. Ever since then, he has reappeared to aid France in her hour of need. And so he joined the Resistance.

Alas, the Resistance in Dubonne has been all but wiped out – only Eric, Roselle and the Man in the Iron Mask are left. Their headquarters has been discovered as well. Luckily, Iron Mask knows of an alternative: The sewers under the old townhall, now the Gauleiter’s headquarters and the last place where the Nazis would think to look.

So the three of them retreat to the sewers, where Eric informs the others that he has an important meeting with a representative of the Paris Resistance. He plans to hand over the papers they rescued to this representative and receive his instructions what to do, when the Allies land in France (it’s notable that the Normandy landings did not take place until June 1944, i.e. a month after this story was published). However, the Nazis are on the warpath and have patrols everywhere, so Eric has little chance of reaching the representative. Luckily, he has a plan.

He sends out Roselle to check if the Resistance representative is at the meeting point. Meanwhile, Iron Mask will keep the Nazi patrols busy and draw them away. Since he is immortal, their bullets can’t hurt him. Once Roselle gives the all clear, Eric will head to the meeting. However, as soon as Roselle and Iron Mask have left, Eric opens the cask with the papers, finds one that is of interest and sneaks into the Nazi headquarters instead.

Roselle and Iron Mask return just in time to see Eric returning from his spying expedition, the Nazis hot on his heels. The three escape through the sewers, the Nazis in pursuit. During the ensuing fight, a pipe bursts and drowns the Nazis. Once again, only Eric, Roselle and Iron Mask escape.

Iron Mask demands that Eric turn over the papers to him and he’s not asking nicely. Eric, however, wants to give them to the Resistance representative. He draws his gun and when that doesn’t stop the Man in the Iron Mask – well, he is immortal, after all – Eric fires.

The bullet does not hurt Iron Mask, but it tears a hole into his cloak, revealing metal underneath. The stranger isn’t just wearing an iron mask, his entire body is made from iron. He’s a robot and a rampaging one, too.

Eric and the robot fight. Eric finally gets lucky and hits the robot with the butt of his gun, splitting its iron skull. And that’s the end of Iron Mask.

Eric now reveals that he had his suspicions about Iron Mask from the beginning. If he had really been a burned soldier, there was no way bullets wouldn’t have hurt him, iron mask or not. And while Iron Mask was clearly immortal, he was no saviour and protector of France, but instead her mortal enemy.

Iron Mask was created in the thirteenth century by Roger Bacon, when Bacon was imprisoned in the Bastille. Indeed, Iron Mask was the fortune-telling Brazen Head that legend attributes to Bacon. And because Bacon was furious at the French for imprisoning him, he programmed his immortal robot to take revenge and destroy France, which the robot proceeded to do in the centuries that followed.

Iron Mask was an adviser to kings, true, but he inevitably gave bad advice. He whispered the policies that would eventually lead to the French revolution into the ears of the respective monarchs, he set Napoleon Bonaparte on his way to become a tyrant, he advised Bismarck in the Franco-Prussian War (maybe that is the reason Otto von Bismarck was known as the Iron Chancellor) and he made a deal with Hitler, allowing the Nazis to conquer France. In fact, Gauleiter Hassman was taking orders from the robot, while Iron Mask set about to destroy the Resistance. As for why he was so keen to get his hands on those papers, among the papers were the vanished prison records of the Bastille which would have revealed Iron Mask’s secret, so the robot had to procure and destroy them. Conveniently, those papers also revealed that Bacon had built a weakness into the robot, a weakness Eric exploited to destroy Iron Mask.

Skeleton in the Closet by Robert BlochI’m not sure what I had expected when I decided to read and review “Iron Mask”, but it certainly wasn’t a gonzo WWII spy adventure cum Tim Powers-esque secret history starring a malevolent medieval robot with a pathological hatred of French people. Because honestly, there is no way you could expect a story like that. As a matter of fact, “Iron Mask” is an excellent example of how very strange the pulps could be at times. With a few tweaks, this story could be one of the more offbeat adventures of Captain America, Peggy Carter and/or the Howling Commandos.

“Iron Mask” is an action-packed tale and follows the pulp school of plotting with frequent twists, turns and reveals. In fact, I am pretty sure that the major reveals map onto Lester Dent’s pulp fiction master plot, even though “Iron Mask” is a long novelette rather than a six thousand word short story. But unlike with e.g. A.E. Van Vogt, whose random plot twists often don’t make sense, the plot twists and reveals in “Iron Mask” all fit naturally into the story.

“Iron Mask” is very well written. The action scenes – and there are many of them – are  thrilling and visceral. The descriptive moments, whether it’s Eric disturbing some bats in the ruined chateau or a fire fight with Nazi soldiers in the cellar of a disused brewery, are suitably atmospheric. Bloch was only twenty-seven, when “Iron Mask” was published, but then he was something of a prodigy and had been writing professionally for more than ten years at this point. Bloch’s first story “Lilies” appeared in Marvel Tales in 1934.

Nowadays, Robert Bloch is mostly remembered for Psycho and his contributions to the original Star Trek, but his range was much greater. He wrote Cthulhu mythos stories, while still in his teens, he was responsible for the mid-century Jack the Ripper renaissance (via the 1944 Retro Hugo finalist “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper”) and also for our modern obsession with serial killers in general. And at least based on “Iron Mask”, I’d also say that Robert Bloch originated the secret history subgenre, eight years before Tim Powers, the SFF author most associated with secret history fiction, was even born.

Because “Iron Mask” is certainly a secret history. Bloch uses historical facts – the legend of the mysterious man in the iron mask, the fact that records regarding the man’s identity went missing from the Bastille (they were eventually recovered in 2015 and didn’t reveal the identity of the man in the iron mask, though they did reveal that his jailer was a greedy jerk), Roger Bacon’s stay in Paris (though he was never incarcerated in the Bastille, because it was built almost a century after Bacon was in Paris), the rumours that Bacon had a metal head which could foretell the future, the various points in French history where things went disastrously wrong – to create a wholly fictional narrative of a villainous robot manipulating French history through the centuries. The secret history subgenre sits on the borderline between SFF and thriller and “Iron Mask” is no exception. There even if a classic MacGuffin in the form of the secret papers that the Nazis, the Resistance and Iron Mask are after. The story certainly is thrilling stuff, even though I find it a little hard to swallow that kings, generals and political leaders all took the (highly questionable) advice of a masked man with a metal head. I mean, I could almost see Hitler making a deal with a malevolent robot, but Bismarck? Sorry, but the old Iron Chancellor strikes me as way too practical for that.

While we’re on the subject of history, I have some minor nitpicks regarding the accuracy of the story. And yes, I know it’s strange to say that about a story starring an immortal francophobic robot collaborating with the Nazis. That said, Gauleiters were a kind of provincial governor during the Nazi era in Germany, Austria, occupied Czechia and occupied Poland, i.e. what the Nazis considered their Reich. However, there were no Gauleiters in occupied France with the exception of Alsace, which was (and still is in part) largely German speaking, was part of Germany from 1871 to 1918 and was still considered part of Germany by the Nazis. From 1940 on, it was part of the Gau Baden-Alsace, ruled over by a particularly nasty piece of work named Robert Wagner. However, Dubonne is clearly not in Alsace, because the naming pattern is wrong for the region (speaking as someone with Alsatian ancestry) and therefore wouldn’t have had a Gauleiter. Furthermore, Gauleiter resided in major cities, not provincial small towns. So Bloch used the wrong title for his Nazi official, but then internal Nazi hierarchy is rather opaque. Also, the various Nazi patrols wouldn’t have been Gestapo men, but regular Wehrmacht soldiers. Not that any of this matters much, because Gauleiter Hassman’s role is mainly “generic evil Nazi” in this story. And I have to applaud Robert Bloch for giving his evil Nazi official the name Hassman, which literally means “hate man” in German. But then, Bloch was the son of German Jewish immigrants, so it’s likely that he spoke at least a little German.

The Fantastic Pulps, edited by Peter HainingCompared to the positively lurid villain (Iron Mask, not the mistitled Gauleiter Hassman), protagonist Eric Drake remains a tad bland. He’s your typical two-fisted pulp hero, quick with his gun, his wits and his fists, dedicated and heroic, but with few characteristics that set him apart from a dozen other pulp heroes. Before the war, Eric was a foreign correspondent for Associated Press, making him the third reporter hero I came across in the course of the Retro Reviews project. But then, journalist and reporter was a popular occupation for heroic characters in the first half of the twentieth century. Note how many superheroes work as journalists in their civilian identity and how many superheroes have journalists as their significant other. The heroic journalist, once such a common figure in popular culture, has sadly almost died out and journalist protagonists are thin on the ground in the twenty-first century, reflecting increased distrust of and disenchantment with the news media.

Roselle Charmand, female Resistance fighter, theoretically sounds like an awesome character, but in practice she remains bland as well and is given little to do aside from screaming and running. Though I did like the fact that Bloch casually mentions that many of the Resistance members are female, including seemingly harmless and pious looking housewives.

In spite of the stunningly gothic (and accurate for once) cover art, courtesy of Margaret Brundage (who is eligible for the Retro Hugo for Best Professional Artist again this year and who I really hope will win one day), “Iron Mask” is another contemporary tale, albeit one with gothic trappings. In fact, all of the Weird Tales stories I have reviewed for this project so far were contemporary tales. “Iron Mask” is also one of only two stories I reviewed for the Retro Reviews project that directly mentions World War II (the other is “Undersea Guardians” by Ray Bradbury), though several other stories address the war indirectly.

“Iron Mask” is also one of several robot stories I have reviewed for this project. Robots were certainly having a pop cultural moment in the 1940s, just as they are having a pop cultural moment now. And as Isaac Asimov said in the introduction to The Complete Robot, robots came in three flavours during the golden age, robot as menace “Iron Mask”, “The Jewel of Bas” by Leigh Brackett), robot as pathos (“No Woman Born” by C.L. Moore, even though Deirdre is theoretically a cyborg, and Jenkins from the “City” stories by Clifford D. Simak) and robot as a machine (“Catch That Rabbit” and pretty much any golden age robot story by Isaac Asimov). Bloch also reminds us that robot-like figures have been appearing in myth, legend and popular culture for centuries, even though the term “robot” only goes back to Karel Capek’s 1921 play R.U.R.

“Iron Mask” is a highly entertaining spy thriller cum secret history that will keep you on the edge of your seat. It’s also a fine example of how strange the pulps could occasionally be and how little they cared about genre boundaries.

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