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Sunday, December 6, 2015

Stumbling Through Fantasyland

Hands on hips, brows lowering, Emerson stood gazing fixedly at the recumbent ruminant. A sympathetic friend (if camels have such, which is doubtful) might have taken comfort in the fact that scarcely a ripple of agitated sand surrounded the place of its demise. Like the others in the caravan, of which it was the last, it had simply stopped, sunk to its knees, and passed on, peacefully and quietly. (Conditions, I might add, that are uncharacteristic of camels alive or moribund.)  — Elizabeth Peters.

 You may well ask what this quote, the first paragraph Elizabeth Peters’ delightful book The Last Camel Died at Noon, has to do with fantasy, as she is a well-known mystery writer.
    To answer that, we must first mention Allan Quartermain, and in so doing we find ourselves in the realm of Henry Rider Haggard, a writer of adventure tales, many set in Africa. Of the many books he wrote, he is most widely known for two: King Solomon’s Mines (1885), with Allan Quartermain and set in Africa and She, A History of Adventure (1887) with Horace Holly & Leo Vincey set in Africa, both of which had fantasy elements in them. She is considered a foundational work of the fantasy genre and, I think, deservedly so.
    Quartermain went on to star in many other African novels by Haggard, including his own encounter with Ayesha (She-who-must-be-obeyed) in She and Allan (1921). Mr. Holly has a further adventure with She in the sequel, Ayesha, the Return of She (1905), which is set in Tibet.
    These are lost world/lost race novels and King Solomon’s Mines is regarded as having started that particular genre and both are fun reading. As it happens, Elizabeth Peters shares with us an enthusiasm for H. Rider Haggard. Her novel, The Last Camel Died at Noon, one of her books about Amelia Peabody and her husband Radcliffe Emerson, is an entertaining tribute to Haggard’s books and involves—you guessed it—a lost race and city. Since her Peabody books are all set primarily in Egypt (Peabody & Emerson are Egyptologists), the lost race is tied to the civilization and culture of ancient Egypt as exemplified in the 25th Egyptian dynasty & its successor kingdoms of Napata and MeroĆ«. We loved it and its sequel, Guardian of the Horizon, which takes place ten years later. Peters
nods to Haggard dont stop there, however. In her novel The Snake, the Crocodile and the Dog, a major character is one Leopold Vincey, who, as mentioned above, was one of the main characters in Haggard's novel She. I have no doubt there are other such tributes to Haggard scattered throughout her Peabody series.
    We strongly urge you to investigate not only Elizabeth Peters (particularly if you also like mysteries which most of her Peabody books are), but most especially H. Rider Haggard.
    Stumbling along off the beaten track, we find an interesting book which is only nominally fantasy, the adventure novel-with-a-spin, The Sunbird (1972) by Wilbur Smith. It’s a lost city tale of sorts. The first half of the book is set in modern times and details the trials and tribulations of the search for the lost city of Opet and involves a rich mining executive, his archaeologist friend and the archaeologist’s lovely assistant/girl friend who, not surprisingly, create a problem for themselves in that the rich guy steals the assistant away from the potboy (yeah, I know — bad cheap pun). The twist:  the second half of the book is set a couple of thousand years ago in the ancient city of Opet and concerns a strangely familiar cast of characters. Are they the previous lives of the book’s three-some? Or...?? It’s a bit violent, as Smith’s books tend to be, but it is a romp, certain. Give it a go and see for yourself.
    Tripping further along the periphery of Fantasyland, we stumble over some books by Arthur O. Friel. He made a six-month exploratory journey up the Orinoco River in Venezuela back in 1922 and used his knowledge of that area to write some fun adventure novels with fantasy elements thrown in for good measure: The Pathless Trail (1922), Tiger River (1923), King of No Man’s Land (1924) and Mountains of Mystery (1925). Of these, I have read only the first two and thoroughly enjoyed them. Jungle adventure, green men, lost races, man/ape hybrids...oh, yeah! They were reprinted in mass market paperback with cover art by Jeff Jones in 1972 by Centaur Press (a small paperback company established by Donald M. Grant and Charles M. Collins. see Wikipedia). All of Friel’s books can be found in the used market, with Pathless Trail and Tiger River being readily available at a decent price.
    Friel also wrote about his journey up the Orinoco in The River of Seven Stars (Harper, 1924), which is also fun reading. Unfortunately, this book is not so easily found. I was fortunate some years ago to find a copy in a local used book shop and still have it, although it suffered some water damage a couple of years ago. It is still readable, however. The book was never, to my knowledge, published in paperback and the used market has copies of the first (and only) edition priced at $75.00 and up. If you can find a copy, it would be worth the money, but unless you are bent on having a hardcover, a library would be your best bet for this title. WorldCat shows 70 copies in libraries in the U. S., copies in the National Library of Scotland, Trinity College Library of Dublin, Oxford, St. Pancras, Cambridge University and the University of Essex. Copies can also be found in Germany, France and Australia.
    OK, we’ve stumbled along enough. I think next time I’ll discuss mysteries that have had an influence on us one way or another and a some we just read for the love of a good story.

– Richard, for J. R. Hardesty