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Dr. Joyce Kinkead on The Devil's Highway
Copyright 1979 by Joyce Kinkead.  Used by Permission.  

Continued from previous page.   

The novel is a scientific thriller, "an extremely grim and fearsome specimen of its kind; . . . the book has a grisly fascination which should keep many a reader enthralled and on edge until the dreadful Dr. Munsker's doom is finally sealed."[1]

Dr. Munsker, the "little Monster" as he calls himself,[2] is a mad scientist whose Arizona desert laboratory underneath a volcanic cone rivals the mad scientists' hideouts of British suspense writer Ian Fleming (1908-1964).  Dr. Munsker, a hideously deformed dwarf with a huge head and a large mental capacity, discovers a new force in nature, similar to electricity, which he calls "ethericity" (Devil, p. 144).  With it, he hopes to annihilate mankind.  His bitter hatred of the race is based upon the cruel treatment he received as a child, for he is the son of a Chicago prostitute and an unknown father (Devil, p. 216).

Drawn into Munsker's evil plan is Fred Ramsey, a brilliant graduate student, who comes to Pacific University to study science under Professor George Weston, a famous scientist and Fred's idol.  Unknown to Fred, Weston is an agent for Munsker, the student he had taught and whose genius eventually towered over the professor.  Fred begins his scientific research for Weston rather disturbed by the professor's lack of emotion, his idealism, as well as his concern for wealth.  The professor's daughter, Alma, is also disturbed by her father's attitude change; nonetheless, she and Fred soon fall in love and plan to marry.  However, before they can act, Weston tempts Fred with a demonstration of "ethericity" which can disintegrate an object or restore it to its original form (Devil, p. 133).  Fred is convinced of the value of the force and goes to the main laboratory, supposedly in Chicago, actually to work on the project.  Filled with scientific enthusiasm, he ignores Alma's protests and warnings.

Fred's destination is not Chicago, however; it is the desert laboratory southeast of Yuma, Arizona, across the Mexican border.  He is amazed at his new environment but accepts it eventually in his enthusiasm for scientific progress, unaware of Munsker's true purpose.  The other workers at the laboratory are devoid of emotion, and Fred, too, is finally brainwashed so that he has thoughts only for his work.

When Alma receives a letter from him breaking off their engagement, she realizes that Fred has become a scientific machine like her father.  She and Fred's cousin fly toward the Devil's Highway area, where they suspect that Fred is being held. Munsker, sensing the danger of the two people, uses his mysterious force to cause the plane to malfunction.  Then he neutralizes the pilot's brain. Alma is able to parachute to safety, and munsker and Fred plan to use her in their scientific experiments though these experiments may cause her death. During one such experiment, Alma's pure spirit somehow overcomes Munsker's evil spirit, and the mad scientist disintegrates. With Munsker's death, Fred, Professor Weston, similar agents worldwide, and the laboratory worker are freed from Munsker's control. The novel concludes almost two years after Munsker's destruction with the arrival of Fred and Alma's first child, who represent science mixed with humanity, Wright's idea of balanced science.

Although the love story of the novel is typically Wright, the last half of the book devoted to the maniacal super-scientist is thrilling horrifying. The scientific equipment Munsker uses is awe inspiring for 1932, but it has little impact on readers of the 1970s who live in a society which has nuclear power. Though the methods are outdated, Wright's concern about the boundaries of science is a theme which remains current; people still wonder whether or not scientists care less for humanity than for the "god of science" (Devil, p. 249).

Munsker is power hungry, a possible effect of scientific research when the scientist works with unknown forces. Professor Mills warns Fred of the possible evil of science:

            I believe that a really great scientific mind above all others needs the balance of a great ideal. I am convinced that all scientific advancement, if not attended and controlled by an adequate spiritual development, must, in the end, work havoc with the human race. (Devil, p. 98) 

Although Fred begins as an idealistic scientific researcher, he does not "keep the doors of his mind . . . open to . . . spirituality, beauty, art in all forms, love of truth, honor, nobility of purpose, the emotional relationship, friendship, family affection, . . . actual forces as real as electricity" (Devil, p. 104).  He subverts his idealism to the importance of scientific researching, disregarding his friendship and even his love.

Wright's warning about scientists, spoken by a clear-eyed newspaperman, presents the theme of this novel:

                        But by the same token I think you meddlesome scientists had better leave it alone.  If this world and all actually is mostly nothing but whirling forces and manifestations of energy about which you say yourself scientists know nothing, you'd better quit fooling with it.  You might drop one of your scientific monkey wrenches into the machinery and cause a heck of a wreck, or you might start something you couldn't stop. (Devil, p. 36) 

This speaker loses his live in one of Munsker's experiments. The authors have one purpose for this novel--to make scientists aware of humanity and to warn them about interference with nature's laws.

As a work of fiction, the novel excites the reader with its demonic picture of a scientist unleashed and gone mad, but it loses some of its power because of its dated scientific equipment and its rather typical love story involving purity triumphing over evil.  The spiritual victory does not fit the rest of the thriller and its scientific apparatus.  The Devil's Highway is the strangest novel in the Wright canon which normally focuses on church, nature, or good character.  Yet, in a sense, this novel is an extension of his religious theme, for it presents to the reader the idea that mankind cannot tamper with nature or refute God's laws, both of which as truths Wright views as supreme.

The three novels included in this chapter are explicit examples of Wright's commentary of society.  Although he includes a love plot in all of these books, the underlying purpose of the novels is to present Wright's message on three social subjects.  Helen of the Old House presents Wright's views on the labor movement.  He advocates a unified force of labor and management.  Without unification, strikes and foreign influences can cripple the country.  In The Eyes of the World, Wright criticizes writers and artists who sacrifice themselves and their work to gain success.  His criticism is pointed directly at writers of realism and naturalism, who he thinks have corrupted the country's moral standards.  The Eyes of the World is also his retaliation for the criticism he received as a sentimental writer.  The Devil's Highway makes one clear statement:  scientists should never put their work before humanity.  The results of science devoid of humanity and religion can be disastrous.  In these novels Wright clearly but subtly is the preacher.


Back to The Devil's Highway


    [1]"A Mad Scientist," rev. of The Devil's Highway, by Harold Bell Wright and John Lebar, New York Times Book Review, 3 April 1932, p. 22.

    [2]Harold Bell Wright and John Lebar, The Devil's Highway (New York:  Appleton, 1932), p. 244.  Subsequent references to this book will be incorporated into the body of the text as Devil and pagination.

         Copyright 1979 by Joyce Kinkead.  Used by Permission.  

 

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