Friday, May 6, 2016

The Curse of Capistrano (a.k.a. The Mark of Zorro) by Johnston McCulley

Cowboy swashbuckler superhero
In the golden age of pulp fiction, author Johnston McCulley was known for a number of recurring characters, among them The Spider, Thubway Tham, The Black Star, and the Crimson Clown, all of whom have since faded into relative obscurity. One of his creations, however, endures to this day: Zorro. The swashbuckling caballero’s debut, The Curse of Capistrano, was originally serialized in 1919 issues of the magazine All-Story Weekly. Soon after, the novel was adapted into the movie The Mark of Zorro, starring Douglas Fairbanks. In 1924, the novel was published in book form for the first time, with the title changed to match that of the film.

The story takes place in the early 19th century in California, before it became a U.S. state and was still a part of Mexico. An oppressive Spanish governor reigns over the land, stepping on the rights of the Indian peasants, the Franciscan friars, and even the Spanish landholders. One man dares to stand up against injustice—a masked rider known by the name of Zorro, a mysterious master of horse and blade who has been known to carve his initial into the flesh of those who oppose him. Like a Mexican Robin Hood, Zorro is revered as a folk hero by many and scorned as a criminal by some. The governor’s soldiers are constantly trying to capture and kill him, placing the hero in a series of perilous predicaments from which there seemingly can be no escape.

Zorro is a creation of pure genius, a brilliant chimera of Western gunfighters, French swordsmen like the Scarlet Pimpernel and the Three Musketeers, and the benevolent bandits who show up in folk tales around the world. In his depiction of the colonial missions, ranches, and Indian pueblos of Old California, McCulley creates a vivid and romantic atmosphere. He develops the chivalry of the caballero into a sort of mythology, which I suspect has greatly influenced subsequent depictions of the “Latin lover” in American pop culture.

It’s a little troublesome that Zorro has no qualms about slashing the governor’s soldiers to ribbons, when, like their civilian counterparts, they are also likely victims of their master’s oppressive rule. However, every such adventure story needs its bad guys, so there’s no point crying over spilt blood. For today’s reader, the book’s main fault is its familiarity. If you’ve ever seen a Zorro movie­—whether the Douglas Fairbanks, Tyrone Power, or Antonio Banderas incarnations—you know where the story is heading and where it’s going to end. The resolution of each scene is a foregone conclusion. Still, McCulley throws in enough surprises to keep the reader thoroughly entertained. The action sequences are exquisitely rendered and choreographed for maximum suspense. The identity of the man behind the mask is quite obvious from Chapter 1, but McCulley doesn’t officially reveal the swashbuckler’s secret until the penultimate chapter. I highly doubt McCulley intended the ending to be a surprise. Rather, I think he keeps playing the Clark Kent/Superman game throughout the book simply to provide some comic amusement.

Almost a century after it was written, McCulley’s prose shows no signs of the antiquated clunkiness one frequently finds in vintage pulp fiction. 21st-century readers will still find much to enjoy in this classic swashbuckling thriller. The Curse of Capistrano is a timeless adventure story, and Zorro is a hero for the ages.
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