The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

Phosphor: An Ischian Mystery (1888)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

Phosphor: An Ischian Mystery was created by J. Filmore Sherry (1866-1894), about whom there is very little information available. Phosphor is among the stranger Lost Race novels published in the nineteenth century.

The narrator of Phosphor is Morton, an English doctor who specializes in toxicology. He falls in love with a woman in England and they marry, but she dies giving birth to their son, and their son dies three days after birth. Morton falls sick with brain fever, and sixteen months later his mother dies. With nothing left to keep him in England, Morton sells his practice and travels through Europe. He visits the Mediterranean island of Ischia and rents a cottage there to do further research on toxicology. A chance encounter with an Indian snake charmer leads him to purchase five cobra-di-capellas from the charmer in order to discover an antidote to their venom. After a month of research he achieves success: a dog he poisoned a week ago and dosed with an antidote appears on his doorstep. (He thought it had died, but it is still alive and well). Having established that the antidote will work on animals, he turns to experimenting on humans, starting with himself. But in case something goes wrong, he makes special arrangements to be thoroughly examined if he appears to be dead, and arranges to be buried in a coffin with breathing holes. His preparations complete, he doses himself with cobra-di-capella venom and takes the antidote thirty seconds later. Unfortunately, the antidote works imperfectly. The narrator is not killed by the venom, but he is paralyzed, aware of his surrounding but to all examination apparently dead. He is pronounced dead and sealed in the coffin of his choice. When he fully recovers from the venom he breaks out of the coffin. He finds himself in a vault, and while trying to find an exit from the vault he locates a hollow area in one of the vault’s walls. He breaks through the hollow area and lowers himself through the hole. He hits a steep slope, rolls down it, and hits his head, knocking himself out.

He awakens in a large underground cave filled with lava, crystals, huge phosphorescent mushrooms, and pools of black liquid into which snakes slither. The floor of the cave is filled with enormous writhing masses of serpents and huge bluish-white birds. One of the birds attacks Morton, and he kills it with a rock. In a short while another species of animal appears. Morton observes them from hiding. The creatures are between four and five feet tall and appear to be baboons, covered with long, lank, coarse, bluish-white hair. Morton wonders to himself if they are the missing link between ape and man. The creatures eventually become aware of Morton, and they herd him through a fissure in the cave and lead him to their queen. She is as ugly as the other creatures, but is taller and has a body completely white, beautifully shaped, and bearing normal hands and feet. Her hair is short, thin, white and silky.

In bad Latin the creatures tell their queen to execute Morton for his sacrilegious act of killing the bird. He explains the circumstances of the act, and she pardons him. The creature are unhappy with this, but they obey the queen’s orders, and Morton is provided with living space and food. That night one of the natives wakes Morton up and insists on leading him somewhere. He ends up in a chamber around a lava pit, into which a group of the creatures plan on throwing him. But the queen appears and again saves Morton, adding that she has decided that he will father children with her.

Morton continues to live with the creatures and accompanies them on foraging trips. Working from what the queen tells him and from various pictures on the walls of the caves in which the creatures live, Morton concludes that the creatures used to be apes and that they took refuge underground sometime during the third century B.C.E., during an earthquake cased by volcanic activity. Morton believes they were trapped in a cave-in and devolved while living a subterranean existence. During one foraging trip Morton is bitten by a snake, but he survives the bite, something which amazes the creatures. Morton decides his immunity to the snake’s venom is a residual effect of the cobra-di-capella antidote he injected into himself. The queen becomes insistent about producing children with Morton. The creatures have been reverting to their more primitive form, and the more intelligent members of the race are dying out, and Morton’s more vigorous stock is necessary to replenish the race. Morton promises to give her what she wants after the next foraging trip, but he is so repulsed by the idea of having sex with her that he plans to bring back a small snake and put it in her bed. They sleep in the same chamber, and while he is lying awake he has second thoughts about his behavior. He tries to get the snake, but it bites the queen and she dies. Morton spends the remainder of the night in the chamber, wondering what the creatures will do when they find out their queen is dead. But immediately after they discover her dead body the volcano above them erupts. In the chaos following the eruption Morton escapes to the surface.

Phosphor: An Ischian Mystery is a Lost Race novel. It was published only three years after H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (see: The Allan Quatermain Adventures) and only a short time after Haggard’s work began appearing in Australia. Sherry clearly put some thought into Phosphor. Not only are there references to several other works, including Edgar Allan Poe’s “Premature Burial,” Thomas De Quincey’s “Confessions of an Opium Eater,” and Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth (though the latter is never explicitly named), but Sherry also made an effort to portray the subterranean caverns of the creatures as a self-sustaining biosphere, with interdependent flora and fauna. And although the characterization of the novel is in no way remarkable or unusual—Sherry clearly lacked that skill—Sherry at least attempted to give the queen some depth. She is used to commanding the creatures, but she acts differently toward Morton, seeing him as a higher being. But she also expects to sway him eventually, and in a brief conversation with her in bed, before the snake kills her, she expresses a concern for the future of her people which adds a more humanizing element to her.

What separates Phosphor from most other Lost Race novels is its unusual approach to sexuality. Most Lost Race novels, especially those with an Ayesha-like (see: She) queen, inevitably have some form of sexual tension between the queen and the hero. But few Lost Race novels have a queen who is not only a member of a non-human race but is visibly non-human, and no Lost Race novels have a hero who seriously considers having sex with the non-human queen. There is really little difference between the queen in Phosphor and Dejah Thoris in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars/Barsoom novels, but the queen in Phosphor looks like a baboon, and Dejah Thoris is beautiful, and in the Lost Race novels that difference is usually enough to put off the hero. Unusually, this is not the case in Phosphor.

Recommended Edition

Print: J. Filmore Sherry, Phosphor: An Ischian Mystery. Melbourne: Centennial Pub. Co., 1888.