The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

A Mexican Mystery (1888)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

A Mexican Mystery was written by “W. Grove, ” the pen-name of William Grove (?-?), about whom nothing is known apart from his British citizenship. Grove wrote a sequel to A Mexican Mystery: The Wreck of a World (1889). Both novels are moderately entertaining, and are early examples of the “Revolt Of The Machines” subgenre of science fiction.

A Mexican Mystery is the diary of John Brown, a Scottish locomotive engineer who is sent to Mexico to oversee the construction of a new railway line for the “new Emperor” (implicitly the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph [1832-1867]). Brown is sent to the small town of Xiqipu, which will be the location of his headquarters during the project. It is in Xiqipu that he meets Pedro da Luz, the local engineer for the project. Da Luz is a descendant of Montezuma and is independently wealthy, and although proud still welcomes Brown to the project. Brown, for his part, sees that da Luz is close to brilliant and respects his intelligence. Brown goes off to the front of the line, which is high in the mountains, to oversee its construction. Da Luz, meanwhile, stays in Xiqipu and works on his special creation, a train. The Emperor is holding a contest for the best new locomotive, and da Luz intends to win the contest. When he shows his new design to Brown, Brown is impressed. Da Luz’s engine is wonderfully designed as well as a self-feeder, so that it would need next to no supervision to drive. When the line is completed the Emperor goes on the rails for a trial run and then begins the contest. The other entrants are good, but da Luz’s Engine is a sensation. It feeds itself and pilots itself. Unfortunately, the Engine is too good at feeding itself, and it uses its claws to tear up the telegraph poles and throw them into its tender, panicking the bystanders. Naturally, the contest judges and the Emperor are most unimpressed by this, and they give the prize to another contestant and order da Luz to remove the Engine from the rails. Inez, da Luz’s sweetheart, and the other Mexicans are so frightened by the appearance and actions of the Engine that they feel it is “possessed by Satan.” A failure in the contest and rejected by his countrymen, da Luz is embittered, so much so that he begins ranting to Inez about wanting the chairman of the contest to die. Inez is repulsed by this display of spleen and breaks off the engagement with da Luz. Da Luz, seemingly contrite, apologizes to the railroad chairman for the Engine’s actions and requests a delay in removing the Engine from the tracks. The chairman grants it, and da Luz uses the time to complete the Engine’s design. When the time comes the Engine has vanished, and da Luz leaves Mexico for another country.

But he turns up dead in the town of Mestra, stabbed through the heart. The Engine is gone, and Brown can find no trace of it. And then bad things begin to happen to depots and other trains, mysterious accidents and supplies of wood and water depleted overnight. Rumors trickle in about the Engine being sighted moving around the countryside. The workers on the railway blame da Luz and tell Brown that he had made a “pact with Satan,” and they dig up his grave, burn his body, and scatter it to the winds. Then people begin disappearing, and the railway workers say that the Engine is feeding on humans. The countryside all around Xiqipu is deserted for fear of the Engine, and the Bishop of Mexico and various high-ranking Church members are called in to exorcize the “demon” Engine. The exorcism is performed, with a large crowd watching, but Brown makes the mistake of attending the exorcism, and the natives, who remember Brown as a friend of da Luz, call him a “heretic” and try to kill him. A mob is about to tear him to pieces when the Engine comes roaring down the track, directly at the natives. The priests flee, but one nine-year-old boy is not quick enough to get out of the way, and the Engine–unmanned, of course–grabs him, chops him up, and feeds his body parts into its tender as fuel. The Engine moves on, and a horrified Brown, now believing that there is something wrong with the Engine, sets out to destroy it. Brown deduces where the Engine is likely to appear and with the help of a group of workers, sets a trap for it, leaving a tree across the tracks where the Engine is likely to run across it and derail. But when the Engine arrives it slows down and stops in front of the tree. The Engine vents steam in such a way that Brown is sure it is snorting defiance at him, and then reverses itself. Brown admits temporary defeat and has the tree removed from the tracks, which are also used by legitimate traffic. The Engine then zooms on down the track. Brown sets another trap for the Engine, but when the Engine arrives at the trap it vents steam as if it is smelling the danger, and when the Engine sees Brown it reverses course and avoids the trap.

Next Brown tries laying mines on trees along the side of a section of track, but the Engine feeds on all the trees within reach of its claws. A mine destroys the claw with which the Engine had killed the boy, but the Engine is too clever to be taken in by the other mines and moves on. Brown then receives a letter da Luz had sent to him before his murder. In the letter da Luz talks about how he invented the Engine, how he accomplished “the imagined deed of Frankenstein.” (See: Frankenstein). The Engine tried to kill da Luz with its claws, but he was too quick and clever for the Engine. Da Luz compares men to machines and says that the Engine is like man, using the Darwinian instinct of self-preservation to keep itself alive. Da Luz also raises the frightening prospect of the Engine reproducing. Brown continues hunting for the Engine, but the Engine now flees whenever it sees Brown, and the Engine is too clever for Brown’s traps. Brown has all the trees within reach of the Engine’s claws chopped down from the side of the railway, and has all the water towers temporarily emptied, but the Engine’s pipes allow it to suck water from ditches on the side of the tracks. Brown sets up still another trap, and this time the Engine attacks, using an “unknown vent” to spray steam on Brown’s workers, killing them. Brown shoots the Engine with an elephant gun, causing it to shriek and flee. Brown follows it and finds that it went off the tracks into the wilderness of the mountains. Brown assumes that the Engine is at the bottom of a ravine, but some time later he hears word that the Engine has appeared to the Indians of the mountains, who assume it is the Aztec god Huitzlipochtli and feed it daily victims. When white men come close to it, it moves earth and wood with its claws and moves across the countryside.

In the sequel, The Wreck of the World, set in 1948, the Engine’s malign consciousness spreads, first to other locomotives and then to other machines, and within a century mankind is driven from North America. The remnants of mankind, pursued by sentient warships, settle in Hawaii, develop it into a utopia, and rename it “Jefferson.”

A Mexican Mystery is an entertaining light read, told efficiently and at a brisk pace. It is not complimentary of Catholics or of the average Mexican, although those of noble Spanish descent are portrayed kindly, but in other respects it could be read and enjoyed even today. If Grove does not play up the horrific aspects of the Engine, he still allows it to have some frightening moments, as when it kills the boy for fuel.

Most interesting to modern readers will be the book’s status as one of the first “Revolt of the Machines” novels. The idea that machines might develop sentience and rebel against humanity is a recurring theme in twentieth century science fiction and horror fiction. Ultimately the concept can be traced to Samuel Butler’s utopian novel Erewhon (1872):

The most famous–not necessarily the best–segment of Erewhon ingeniously extends Social Darwinism to the machines and ingeniously argues that they might grow into masters of a mankind they render content. But what might have become an important parable on Benthamite societal machinery dominating people, in a manner correlative to capitalist industrial revolution, is defeated by the overwhelming literalness of the narrative vehicle.1 

In Erewhon the Erewhonians have banned machines because of a fear that they would supplant man. In A Mexican Mystery and The Wreck of the World, written in engagement with Butler’s novel, Grove argues for the wisdom of the Erewhonians’ actions. A Mexican Mystery and The Wreck of the World are among the first novels to work with the theme of the “Revolt of the Machines,” departing from the techno-utopian ideas of Jane Loudon’s The Mummy (1827), perhaps the first novel to combine technology and the future, and prefiguring the rebellious robots of twentieth century pulp fiction.

Recommended Editions

Print: W. Grove, A Mexican Mystery. London: Digby & Long, 1889; The Wreck of the World. London: Digby & Long, 1890. 


1 Darko Suvin, “Victorian Science Fiction, 1871-1885: The Rise of the Alternative History Sub-Genre,” Science Fiction Studies 10.2 (July 1983), 152.