|Vintage Pulp||Jan 4 2023|
Intelligent, thoughtful, scalding hot—what's the catch?
H. Rider Haggard's novel She is one of those rare fantasy/sci-fi novels that has been widely read through three different centuries. A pre-pulp novel, it was originally published in 1887, retained popular interest through the pulp era when it was made into a 1935 movie starring Helen Gahagan, continued generating interest through the mid-century paperback era and into the 1960s, when it was adapted with Ursula Andress in the lead role, and remains available in bookstores and from digital booksellers in the 2020s. The book has enjoyed such longevity because it's a well-written and archetypal lost world adventure with all the elements that sub-genre requires: intrepid explorers in an exotic land, savage encounters with locals, a central quest for something thought to be priceless or unobtainable, and a temptress at the center of the narrative.
The temptress, Ayesha, is an ancient but youthful countenanced woman of Arab descent who has discovered the secret to long life, but who's lost her true love along the way and awaits his reincarnation. She lives in a lost realm called Kôr amidst a host of Africans, who she hates, but rules while she pines for her dead lover to return. Two thousand years after his death, his direct descendant undertakes an expedition to the African interior, where he and Ayesha are destined to meet. This descendent, Leo Vincey, accompanied by his mentor and friend Horace Holly, has been handed down a story through the generations of an immortal woman who murdered his forebear. His quest is to find if such a fantastic story can be true, and possibly take revenge for his entire bloodline.
Haggard is good with descriptive passages, but what's equally interesting is that the book is partly procedural in nature, with long transcriptions of Latin, Arabic, and Greek, and an abundance of academic discussion. Eventually the tale centers around Ayesha's belief that Leo Vincey is her dead lover returned to her, which means her African vigil is mercifully at an end. Her plan? To go to England and rule it with Leo. She'll have to depose Queen Victoria to make that happen, but since she possesses advanced if not magical powers, she considers that no biggie. While we'd have loved to see the story head in that direction, obviously nothing written during the Victorian Age is going to involve a plot to destroy its eponymous figurehead. But what fun that would have been.
On a less fun note, and at risk of stating the obvious, books of this sort are culturally blinkered. The writers depict dark-skinned peoples as savage and deadly, though white-skinned peoples had by then ravaged the entire world, killing hundreds of millions upon hundreds of millions of people for no other reason than greed. This dismissal of non-white lives is exemplified when Horace Holly explains to Ayesha, who hates monarchs, that the nature of royalty has changed during the centuries of her self-imposed exile, and that Queen Victoria is, “venerated and beloved by all right-thinking people in her vast realms.” You have to smile at this, considering the British Empire was an industrial killing machine. Possibly Haggard wasn't aware of that back in 1887, but do any right-thinking people doubt he'd have ignored it even if he'd known?
It's a given that books such as She overlook or deliberately obscure these truths, therefore, if you crack one open, presumably you've made the decision to go along for the ride. While the book's cultural conceits will annoy some readers, it's worth noting that Ayesha's two thousand years of longevity provide Haggard the opportunity to espouse at least a few views unusual for the era, for example when she drops this nugget: “I have long seen that democracies, having no clear will of their own, in the end set up a tyrant and worship him.” Ayesha is Haggard's narrative savior, in our view. She's by far the most engaging character. Though he portrays her as ignorant due to her long sequestration, some of what she says is pretty damn insightful and ironic in 2023. It helps make She a little easier to swallow.
However, the flipside of Ayesha's sometimes intriguing opinions is that she's long-winded. You'd think two-thousand years of life would make her economical with words, but no—the woman can really beat a dead horse. Actually, so can Horace Holly, who narrates via a letter sent to a friend. These aren't dealbreaking flaws, merely ones to be forewarned about. They make the book many pages longer than it need be. And perhaps another small issue is that there aren't many surprises in the story—Holly's narration, being basically epistolary in nature, constantly hints at tragedy, and every plot turn makes a racket galloping at you from a great distance. But She is still good stuff from Haggard, and is a literary landmark for discernible reasons. This edition came from Dell Publications in 1949 with Lou Marchetti cover art.
|Vintage Pulp||Jul 12 2020|
You guys hungry? I've got some piping hot human souls here. They're dee-lish.
The lost world adventure She, starring Helen Gahagan and Randolph Scott, was produced by Merian C. Cooper, who made King Kong in 1933. With him involved you know She is a big production. It's also as pure a pulp movie as you'll find. It was based on H. Rider Haggard's pre-pulp tale She: A History of Adventure, which first appeared in 1886.
The story involves a man named Leo following in the footsteps of a distant relative who disappeared five centuries ago searching for a lost land and the secret to immortality. It turns out that secret is real and it's guarded by an ageless goddess, beautiful and cruel, who all those years ago made Leo's distant relative her consort. But he died, which means when the goddess sees Leo she believes he's her dead lover returned from the beyond, and she's determined to possess him again.
Gahagan is the goddess, Scott is Leo the explorer, and Helen Mack is his steadfast love, who takes none-to-kindly to some slutty goddess trying to lay her man. She is cheesy as hell, but it's also a high budget adventure with big sets, elaborate staging, and an insane fire stunt that comes during a chaotic climax. Movies this old always feel a bit alien, but it's still pretty good overall. It premiered in the U.S. today in 1935.
RKO Radio PicturesSheKing KongHelen GahaganRandolph ScottHelen MackMerian C. CooperH. Rider Haggardposter artcinemamovie review