The Stiffest Upper Lips: my top ten early pulp fiction reads
I’m writing a lot about Victorian/Edwardian adventure fiction currently. This is because I love it (shamefully – see here for why it’s a guilty pleasure) and because my forthcoming book Think of England is a romance set firmly in the Edwardian pulp milieu, with spies, derring-do, reticent British officers and mysterious foreigners (sort of). As a small tribute to a beloved genre, I rather cheekily grafted my hero, Archie Curtis, onto the family tree of one of the great Victorian adventurers: Sir Henry Curtis, the warrior hero of King Solomon’s Mines.
This isn’t something that will affect a reader’s enjoyment if you haven’t read King Solomon’s Mines, though I hope it will give a bit of extra pleasure if you have. However, discussions on this led various people including Liv Rancourt to request a reading list of great Victorian/Edwardian pulp fiction – so here it is.
A few provisos:
- This is my personal Top Ten, spanning thirty years, randomly scattering among British and American, straight adventure, occult and sci-fi. There are many others I love and more I haven’t read so this makes no claim to be exhaustive or definitive. Recommend the hell out of me in the comments, please!
- All these books are out of copyright. Free books! I’ve linked to Project Gutenberg where possible, where you can download them in various electronic formats for free, though the formatting can occasionally be a little shonky. You can also mostly get them for a few quid in new and tidier editions, or a few pence in a second-hand bookshop.
- This is problematic stuff for a modern reader. Again, see my earlier post on bigotry in Edwardian fiction. Many of these books are written from a very imperialist perspective that unconsciously assumes British/white/Christian/male/het superiority. That’s how it was; the best of them challenge it. I haven’t included the most egregious examples of racism (Bulldog Drummond, Fu Manchu), but you are likely to come across it in casual comments throughout, and the sexism is frequently eye-watering. In a lot of ways these books also challenge the prevailing assumptions, and generally reveal, rather than actively support, the prejudices of their era, which was very different and a long time ago. But consider yourself warned.
Right, here we go. Images have been selected for my personal entertainment and may not be good reflections of the book.
King Solomon’s Mines by H Rider Haggard (1885)
The daddy. A grizzled South African hunter, Allan Quatermain, narrates his adventure with Sir Henry Curtis and Captain Good RN, as they seek Sir Henry’s estranged brother through Africa. Includes desert treks, mass elephant slaughter, evil wizened priestesses, lost kings, diamond mines, hardship, derring-do, the classic ‘predict an eclipse of the sun and amaze the natives’ gag, and a roomful of dead kings being turned to stone.
This is just a magnificent adventure story. It is, obviously, massively imperialist and of its time, and the cod-medieval dialogue of the more heroic characters will make your hair hurt, but in its favour may I offer Foulata: a young black woman who falls for the white Captain Good, wins his affections and is not condemned for having a sex drive. I can only think of one other example of this happening in all Victorian lit, so kudos to Haggard, even if the character is so cardboard she’s flammable.
The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope (1894)
The book that gave us Ruritania as a name for pointless romantic little Mitteleuropean kingdoms. A magnificent tale of mistaken identity, scheming dukes, swordfights, love, duty, sacrifice, characterless heroines, sexy redheaded men, and the utterly irresistible villain Rupert of Hentzau. You can’t not read this, honestly.
The King in Yellow by Robert Chambers (1895)
I cannot encourage you enough to read at least the first four stories in this collection. They are a tremendous example of early American Weird and a big influence on HP Lovecraft. ‘The King in Yellow’ itself is a play that sends anyone who reads it mad. The stories of its disastrous influence are incredibly decadent and perverse and unsettling, until the last three stories in the collection, which are so-so romantic fiction. I have no idea why this happens.
Dr Nikola series by Guy Boothby (1895-1901)
Dr Nikola is a full-on antihero, a brilliant occultist looking for eternal life via Tibetan wisdom, but without any of that Buddhist ‘being nice to people’ stuff. Think Professor Moriarty but with a little bit more humanity, a tragic past, and possible uncanny powers. Dr Nikola has piercing hypnotic eyes and wears a black cat on his shoulders and is involved in large-scale plots across exotic locations and basically is a Bond villain. He’s the antagonist in his own books, with the victims of his plotting tending to be the viewpoint characters. Lovely stuff.
The Beetle by Richard Marsh (1897)
Another occulty one. This is pure bloody genius and I implore you to read it. It was published the same year as Dracula and was initially more popular. The…villain? thing? person? god?… at its centre is deeply sexually ambiguous and the books is all about threats to the British Empire: homosexuality, the rise of the East and the power of other nations, the New Woman, the urban poor – basically it’s a sweaty, hallucinatory, sex-reeking fear-dream. Marvellous.
The Four Just Men by Edgar Wallace (1905)
A cracking novel of psychotic vigilantes that would make Frank Miller proud. The four just men (actually three, one’s dead) are basically rich international terrorists who judge and murder people ranging from criminals to aristocracy. But let’s not say terrorists because they’re heroes. Honest.
If you’re okay with the brutal murder of a member of the British government, and I see no reason why you wouldn’t be, you will enjoy this hugely. It’s a howdunit rather than a whodunit: the main puzzle is how the Just Men get at their latest victim. Wallace made an epic mess of publishing this: he offered a gigantic £500 prize in the newspapers for anyone who guessed the solution correctly (it was serial publication) but forgot to limit the number of possible winners. Even though the book was a massive bestseller, the prize money bankrupted him and he had to flog the rights for £75. However, he went on to write another 170 novels and nearly 1000 short stories as well as 198 plays, so he was fine. (Sanders of the River is a great Kiplingish read set in Africa, if you want to read more, and there are several other Just Men books.)
Weirdly, this isn’t on Gutenberg but there are many cheap electronic editions.
The Mysterious Mr Sabin by E Phillips Oppenheim (1905)
Got to have an Oppenheim. This is my favourite of his, another book more interested in the villain than in the nominal hero and heroine. Mr Sabin’s schemes are complex and large-scale, his morality flexible and his story a brilliant read. The sequels aren’t bad but – inevitably – he gets redeemed by the love of a good woman, which, meh.
The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle (1912)
Dinosaurs. Alive dinosaurs. Like Jurassic Park but on a big South American isolated plateau. Did I mention dinosaurs? And a hero who is basically, if Brian Blessed was a brilliant scientist? What the hell are you waiting for? (By all means read the other Professor Challenger stories, except, for the sake of your own happiness, The Land of Mist, where Doyle bastardises his own magnificent scientist hero to put forward his newly found Spiritualist beliefs. Depressing beyond words.)
King of the Khyber Rifles by Talbot Mundy (1916)
If you’ve read The Peshawar Lancers you’ll recognise this book. The first half is a magnificent pulp classic about the adventures of a British secret agent in India during the First World War. The second half goes into mystical sub-She shenanigans and I wouldn’t bother, but the first half is amazing.
Greenmantle by John Buchan (1916)
I assume you already know about The Thirty-Nine Steps. Greenmantle is the second Hannay adventure, putting together his team of recurring characters: Peter Pienaar, the crack-shot Boer scout; John Scantlebury Blenkiron, the obese, dyspeptic, wonderfully placid yet brilliantly scheming American; Sandy Arbuthnot, the sex-on-a-stick Scottish aristo, Eastern wanderer and international man of mystery. God, I love Sandy. He may be even sexier than Rupert of Hentzau, with the thoroughbred-nervous thing he has going on. Mmm.
This book takes us from Berlin to Constantinople in the depths of the First World War, with shelling and spies and a sexually ambiguous thug of a German villain and a plot to set the Middle East ablaze. A tremendous galloping plot, and if you can read the last chapter without goosebumps you may be dead. Buchan was a man of huge talents and great sympathy, and although Richard Hannay glories in his duty and gets caught up in the struggle, he never loses sight of the humanity of the enemy or the pity and terror of war. If you like this, go read everything else Buchan wrote. You won’t regret it.
That’s my top ten (today; if you asked me tomorrow I might give different answers). Feel free to argue, scorn or add your own in the comments! Anything say 1870 to 1920 is legit…