Ultra, Laura Shellabarger Hunt's remarkable only published work, is intended to convey a message. As she tells us in a preferatory address:
There are many “truths” dropped herein between these covers that you will not find while absorbing the story. Go back and pick them up, “for there shall be nothing hidden that shall not be uncovered.”
We believe this book should be allowed to speak for itself and trust it will speak so loud we need not hear what you have to say.
A work which “speaks so loud” that it drowns out the protests of the reader is an original conceit indeed. But Ultra is unusual in other ways, too, as will become clear.
Superficially it appears to be a conventional family saga, which opens with the familiar device of a mismarriage. Ira Sheldon, a go-getting businessman from a wealthy paper-making family, takes Marion (whose maiden name we never learn) as his bride. Marion is a vacuous country lass who is in the habit of taking herself off to a shady corner of a wood, where she occupies herself in day-dreaming:
Along the banks of the creek, nearly opposite the falls, grew an old sycamore tree whose overhanging branches of dense foliage extended far out over the water and screened from view a sequestered seat which Marion had found in her ramblings, and it was here that the most potent development of her mind was formed, for nature is loved by that which is best in us. When she was happy, she loved to steal away and vibrate in sympathy with the waters babbling over their, stony bed, while the birds, singing sweetly in branches overhead, were to her the grand choir in Nature's realm, chanting joyousness to her young soul.
Marion has sadly been too busy vibrating to learn to read and write, and it is her illiteracy which brings about all the troubles which follow. Her new father-in-law, made suspicious by her failure to read a passage from a book, vows to expose what he considers her imposture, while she in turn schemes to keep it hidden from her husband. Alas! It is during this time of conflict, that she falls pregnant:
Little did Marion know [...] that she had attracted to herself the cunning and selfish soul of Alacia (whose time for rebirth had arrived) by the power of her own thoughts in hypocrisy, selfishness and murderous deceit, and that she was but reaping a harvest from her own sowing. 0h, mothers! Do you understand this Iaw within you by which you make or mar your destiny and, having the power within you, thus constitute yourselves magnets to attract or repel according to your own free will?
Here is the book's vital message to expectant mothers: think good thoughts or you'll attract the wrong sort to your womb, in this case the wicked Alacia. Marion and Ira go on to have three more children: two girls, Zella, Norma, and a boy whom they saddle with the unfortunate name of Rutledge. They also adopt another girl, Jessie.
Alacia, as fated, proves to be a right little bitch, always trying to cause misery to her sister Zella. Jessie, by contrast “the sunny-natured treasure of the household” is Alacia's little slave. The household is further augmented when the philanthropic Ira takes in a homeless lad, Matthew Arden, and gives him a job at his factory. Matthew, who turns out to be a decent sort, falls in love with the now-grown Jessie and proposes marriage to her, to everyone's approval. The general joy is shortlived when the night before the wedding, Jessie is carelessly shot dead by Alacia:
... the feeling of an overpowering presence of someone near made [Jessie] shiver. She rose trembling and turned toward her bed, when bang, rang out the sharp report of a pistol. Jessie, shrieking, threw up her little hands above her head and fell forward on her face. Alacia, partly awakened out of a dream in which she saw robbers stealing Jessie's jewels and wedding presents, and were about to escape through the window, she reached for her pistol, which was always on the table beside her bed, took deliberate aim to hit the thief before he got through the casement, but Jessie received the full contents of the weapon in her breast, just as she had turned to go to her bed.
In the aftermath of this tragic accident, Zella goes to stay with some relatives in Detroit. While she is away, she meets an attractive - and amusingly named - military type, one who would be quite a catch, as her uncle Judge Harper makes plain:
“Now, Zella,” said the Judge, half seriously and half jocularly, as the carriage rolled along, “Detroit has many beaux, but first let me tell you, there are none like Colonel Whitney Huston.“His family is one of the oldest and best in this part of the country. His father is of 'blue blood' old English aristocracy and his mother, intellectually, is way ahead of her associates and has a master mind. Whitney, I have known from a boy, and there is not his peer in this section.”
(No relation, I presume). Since Zella and Whitney's souls vibrate in perfect harmony, it is not long before they fall in love and are married. Whitney is inexplicably appointed American consul to Sweden and their journey to his new posting provides the opportunity for Ms Hunt to pad her novel with pages of irrelevant travelogue in the guise of letters from Zella. This sample is typical:
The famous Lofoden fisheries are prosecuted on the east coast of the Islands from the middle of January to April. Millions of cod, which come here to spawn, are caught annually with nets, an average catch being from five to six thousand fish per boat. Many times the winter fishery is attended with great loss of life from the sudden gales. The total length of these islands is about a hundred and thirty English miles, and their permanent population ls nearly thirty thousand souls. On Saturday morning we reached Tromso, coquettishly located on an island of the same name.
(What Ms Hunt means by “coquettishly located” I am not sure. As a free spirit her use of words is presumably unconstrained by the petty rules of mere lexicographers.)
Zella and Whitney go on to have a child, Selma, but their happiness is cut short when they are in a train crash in which Whitney, while trying to shield his infant daughter from harm, takes a blow to the head and “enters the portals of eternity”. The bereaved Zella and little Selma return to the family home.
Meanwhile Alacia has herself found a husband, one Jerome Attwood, an indolent artist. When tragedy strikes yet again in the form of a factory fire, the stress of dealing with which causes Ira to suffer a stroke, Alacia plots to gain control of the family fortune, contriving to get a lawyer called Eule Nubb, over whom she exercises power, appointed as conservator. To seal her ascendancy over the rest of the family she is prepared to use even more extraordinary measures:
lt was just about this time that Professor Frick, of hypnotic fame, appeared in Milwaukee, and gave a number of exhibitions of his marvelous hypnotic powers. Alacia attended every one of his exhibitions and after each performance she was given an hour's audience by the professor, in one of the private anterooms, where she had slyly entered unobserved.
Even with the mystical power of mesmerism she cannot achieve her goals as quickly as she would like, so she sets about poisoning Ira. Somehow, although a cloud of suspicion falls on her, she manages to kill him without being detected or punished. The family money is inherited by Marion, so Alacia still has work to do to get her hands on it. Using her influence over her weak-willed mother, Alacia contrives to get her siblings, Norma, Zella and Rutledge, pushed out of the nest, then - seeing Jerome now merely as an useless expense - manoeuvres him into divorcing her. She unsuccessfully attempts to dispute Ira's will in the hope of getting a larger share of the estate, but just then Marion conveniently falls ill and dies. Alacia at last inherits the house she has coveted but finds no happiness in her final triumph. Instead, she goes extravagantly crazy and starts spouting sub-biblical gibberish:
“There is one now: parading in a purple robe; with a stole of gold upon his breast; and under his arm he carries a roll marked, 'Dissembler'. Listen! He ls saying in that subtle melodious voiced 'Follow me, follow me,' but shut the door, and do not let that imp of Satan in. He is black, and has horns with 'Lie' written on every one as they protrude from out his ill-shaped head, piercing 1n every direction. Now fear of my soul, spare me this shadow of death. Why do you stalk in your naked skeleton before me, in all your gaunt hideousness, with a desert of serpents let loose around you? ...
A fittingly overblown climax to a preposterous piece of nonsense. Given its bizarre premise, meandering and confusing plot, strangely named characters, garbled and at times incomprehensible prose, its publisher - the Times-Mirror Press of Los Angeles - evidently did not set the bar very high.
In a curious postscript, Ms Hunt's own will would become the subject of dispute, on the grounds that it “was procured by the undue influence of respondents”. Could it be that Ultra, improbable as it is, was actually based in some way on real life? The case report is tantalisingly short on detail but perhaps lurking behind the legalistic jargon there is a genuine “Alacia”, vibrating off-key and bringing misery to the humanity around her. A chilling thought indeed.