Literary standards, like everything else, have changed a lot in the past century or so. Writers are not like crystal-gazers. They can fantasize and invent improbable futures, but in the end they can only write in, and of, the world as it is in their own times. And the world of the past is not always as we would like it to be.
Occasionally, we need to climb down from our twenty-first century pedestal of political correctness – dismount our morality steed as it were – to enjoy the stories of bygone days. We may cringe a bit at standards, habits and tastes of the past, at writers’ overt racism, sexism and (a new word for me, ableism), yet the marks of good literature were always there. I’m not talking here of great novelists like Jane Austen, who tended to avoid such controversies altogether, but of writers of adventure stories.
One who ticks all the wrong boxes is Dennis Wheatley (1897-1970), immensely popular in the middle years of the twentieth century, but less well-known and probably less read today. I have been exploring some of his fantasies. A half dozen or so – like The Devil Rides Out – made it into the seventies as a result of popular movies. However, I suspect most are ignored by the new readers of 2021.
One of the best, in my view, is The Satanist, published in 1960. Combining high adventure with black magic and an off-on romance between a reluctant Irish lord and an ex-prostitute, there are cringes throughout. Foreigners are the villains. And the head of the British secret service dismisses the female protagonist Mary Morden as a mere woman, quite unsuited for undercover investigation of her husband’s death. All credit to Wheatley for portraying Morden as a feisty, courageous heroine, but she is the exception rather than the rule. The plot of The Satanist relies for its success on a variation of the good twin – bad twin theme and a nail-biting climax in the mountains of Switzerland.
Of a different genre, They Found Atlantis features several foreign characters. Though not all are exactly villainous, they are not English, and this makes all the difference in Wheatley’s novels. In a preposterous yet exciting tale of the sea, a group of intrepid adventurers set out to rediscover the lost continent. Vaguely reminiscent of HG Wells’s The Island of Dr Moreau, Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and Rider Haggard’s (more of whom shortly) African adventures, Wheatley’s story portrays the Atlanteans as physically perfect beings in an Eden-like setting. But danger in the form of the blind subhumans of the sea caverns is never far away, nor are the emotions which led to the biblical ‘Fall’.
Henry Rider Haggard, born in 1856, was a contemporary of Wheatley for the first quarter of the next century. Both had a similar literary output of novels, short stories and non-fiction.***
Haggard specialised in African adventure stories, notably King Solomon’s Mines (which I was encouraged to read at school) and Allan Quatermain (which I chose as a prize in sixth form). Here, to Wheatley’s list of ‘isms’, we can add a total disregard for animal life, and we may well cringe at Haggard’s chief protagonist’s wanton destruction of elephants, lions and other creatures.
However, the Allan Quatermain books are great stories, full of mystery, romance and heroism, and several featuring lost worlds. Haggard’s vision of Africa, its history, its grandeur and its people is legendary and his novels remained influential for decades after his death. His seems less racist in his attitude towards the foreigner than is Wheatley, and his later advocacy of social reform earns him points in my eyes. Native Africans are heroes in several of his novels. He is my favourite author of the adventure yarn by a whisker or two.
Haggard wrote many wonderful stories apart from the Quatermain novels – see, for example, my reviews of Ayesha, The Ghost Kings, and She. But there are others equally good, like the bitter-sweet love stories Marie, and Nada the Lily, which introduces the reader to the Zulu chieftain Umslopogaas in his youth. ****
If you like high adventure, try one or two!
‘Umslopogaas was alone now, but he never blenched or turned. Shouting out some wild Zulu battle-cry, he beat down a foe, ay, and another, and another, till at last they drew back from the slippery blood-stained steps . . . thinking that he was no mortal man.’ (from Allan Quatermain)
One final, maybe controversial observation: the hunters of Rider Haggard’s day were responsible for much horrific and unnecessary killing, but they were what they were; we are supposed to learn from history. The smiling big game hunters of this century, standing next to their murdered prey, are beyond the pale. We are constantly being reminded of the damage our modern lifestyle is doing to the planet and its wildlife (not to mention the climate). For example, our irresponsible throw-away societies are wreaking havoc with the oceans and the creatures who live there. One cannot help but wonder whether the destruction we have caused, and are causing now, dwarfs that for which the real-life equivalents of Allan Quatemain were responsible in the eighteen and nineteen hundreds.
*** Wells was also a contemporary with a similar output of novels and non-fiction. He may have topped the short story league but as some of his short stories were contained in several collections, it is difficult to tell.
**** Allan Quatermain preceded Nada the Lily in Haggard’s bibliography, although the former portrayed the Zulu in late middle age.