The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

"A Thousand Deaths" (1899)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

“A Thousand Deaths” was written by Jack London and first appeared in Black Cat (May 1899). London (1876-1916) was a very successful writer whose works are still read with pleasure today. “A Thousand Deaths,” an obscure London story, is creepy even by modern standards.

The nameless narrator of “A Thousand Deaths” is the son of an English bourgeois couple, but they were neglectful of him. His father was “constantly lost in the abstractions of his study” and his mother “sated herself with the adulation of the society in which she was perpetually plunged.” So the narrator turned to dissipation and was eventually disowned by his parents. At the age of thirty he has led a wandering, aimless life and is drowning in San Francisco Bay when he is rescued by his father. The father does not recognize the son (and later, when informed of his son's identity, does not care). The father picked up his son from the water to test a hypothesis:

Starting from the proposition that the direct cause of the temporary and permanent arrest of vitality was due to the coagulation of certain elements and compounds in the protoplasm, he had isolated and subjected these various substances to innumerable experiments. Since the temporary arrest of vitality in an organism brought coma, and a permanent arrest death, he held that by artificial means this coagulation of the protoplasm could be retarded, prevented, and even overcome in the extreme states of solidification. Or, to do away with the technical nomenclature, he argued that death, when not violent and in which none of the organs had suffered injury, was merely suspended vitality; and that, in such instances, life could be induced to resume its functions by the use of proper methods.1 

The father discovers the method. The narrator had been drowned when rescued, but after rescue he is attached to a machine:

It was composed chiefly of glass, the construction being of that crude sort which is employed for experimentative purposes. A vessel of water was surrounded by an air chamber, to which was fixed a vertical tube, surmounted by a globe. In the centre of this was a vacuum gauge. The water in the tube moved upwards and downwards, creating alternate inhalations and exhalations, which were in turn communicated to me through the house. With this, and the aid of the men who pumped my arms, so vigorously, had the process of breathing been artificially carried on, my chest rising and falling and my lungs expanding and contracting, till nature could be persuaded to again take up her wonted labour.2 

It was this, combined with an unknown method of resuscitation (although the narrator does refer to “hypodermic injections of a compound to react upon the coagulatory process”), which saves the narrator. After being rescued the narrator pretends to be only a sailor. He takes an interest in his father’s studies, for the narrator is well-educated and interested in scientific matters. The son becomes the father's assistant. But the narrator eventually discovers his father's plot: to repeatedly kill his son and then resurrect him. The father takes the narrator to “an uncharted South Sea Island” and then puts his plan into action. The father kills the son using “a series of experiments in toxicology,” starting with strychnine. As the months pass, the father's “speculations took wilder and yet wilder flights. We ranged through the three great classes of poisons, the neurotics, the gaseous and the irritants, but carefully avoided some of the mineral irritants and passed the whole group of corrosives.”3 The only mishap with the poisons is from a “minute quality of that most frightful of poisons, the arrow poison, or curare.”4 But the father manages to save his son’s life, and then resumes the experiment. The narrator is electrocuted and resuscitated. The narrator is given lockjaw, but “the agony of dying was so great that I positively refused to undergo similar experiments.”5 Not so with asphyxiation, drowning, strangling, suffocation by gas, and morphine, opium, cocaine and chloroform overdoses.

The narrator, who seems to suffer from no psychological dysfunctions through all of this, rebels when he discovers that he had been kept in cold storage for three months and that his father had been “tampering with my breast.” The narrator sets a trap for his father–two “powerful batteries” projecting “tremendous forces” between them–and gets his father and his father's servants to walk into them. At story's end the narrator is free and his father has been disintegrated.

“A Thousand Deaths” is interesting for a couple of reasons. It’s very early work from London, only his second published story, and it prefigures his later work: “the story¼is like a fetus in which we can detect the characteristic features of many of his later creations. And as a fetal form, ‘A Thousand Deaths’ images its nineteenth-century past and develops toward a twentieth-century future.”6 The mad scientist of “A Thousand Deaths” is not the high-pitched Romantic genius of Frankenstein, but a cold and calculating scientist, not unlike the real-life and fictional mad scientists to come in the twentieth century.

Setting aside the story’s casual racism—racial slurs are constantly used, unsurprisingly so considering London’s own racism—the modern reader sees London attempting to scientifically extrapolate, more or less along theoretically possible lines, from what was scientifically known in his day. London shows his awareness of contemporary science fiction in his reference to apergy (see: Across the Zodiac [1880]) and his invocation of John Jacob Astor’s name. Most interestingly, there is the issue of London's parentage as it relates to “A Thousand Deaths.” London was the child of parents who had briefly shared a common-law marriage. London’s father was an itinerant astrologer who left London's mother before London was born. London could never quite face up to the fact of his bastardy. In modern terms, he was in denial through much of his life, although later in life he admitted the true story to his daughter. Two years before “A Thousand Deaths” was published London had written to the astrologer, who responded by denying that he was London's father. “A Thousand Deaths” should therefore be viewed in psychological terms as well as literary ones, as a cri de coeur from London.

Recommended Edition

Print: H. Bruce Franklin, ed. Future Perfect: American Science Fiction of the Nineteenth Century (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1995).


For Further Research

H. Bruce Franklin, ed. Future Perfect: American Science Fiction of the Nineteenth Century (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1995).


1 Jack London, “A Thousand Deaths,” in Future Perfect: American Science Fiction of the Nineteenth Century, ed. H. Bruce Franklin (New Brunswick, NJ: 1995), 211.

2 London, “A Thousand Deaths,” 212-213.

3 London, “A Thousand Deaths,” 217.

4 London, “A Thousand Deaths,” 217.

5 London, “A Thousand Deaths,” 217.

6 H. Bruce Franklin, Future Perfect, 205.