I’d like to tell you about a terrific book that I have just finished reading. In it, a 2,000-year-old Arabian woman, living her immortal existence in the heart of an extinct volcano after being endowed by a mysterious force of nature, waits patiently for the reincarnation of her dead lover to reappear to her. “Hold on,” I can almost hear you saying. “I know that book … that’s She!” And if that is indeed your reaction, a gold star for you, my friend, for being familiar with one of the most classic, and indeed seminal, works of fantasy literature of the past 150 years. But no, it is not to H. Rider Haggard’s 1886 classic that I refer to here, but rather to a work that came out almost a full half century later: Jack Williamson’s Golden Blood, which first appeared as a six-part serial in the April – September 1933 issues of Weird Tales magazine.
Editor Farnsworth Wright must have known back when what a hugely popular series this would turn out to be, as he allowed both the April and May issues to feature beautifully faithful illustrations for Golden Blood on their front covers. Though little discussed today, the novel was a big hit amongst the famous pulp’s readers in 1933, with Part 6 voted an especial fan favorite. This reader, fortunately, was able to acquire the typo-riddled 1964 Lancer paperback reprint, the first edition since the novel’s initial appearance over 30 years earlier, which also sported a nicely faithful cover, by Ed Emshwiller. To my great delight, the book, despite its heavy debt to Haggard, reveals itself today as a fantasy/adventure triumph, written by the man who would very shortly thereafter deliver up one of the great space opera series of all time, The Legion of Space, as well as one of the great horror novels of the 20th century, Darker Than You Think. Simply put, the book is a blast.
In it, the reader meets a 31-year-old adventurer named Price Durand. When we first encounter him, he is engaged — along with a bunch of seedy, hard-bitten mercenaries and a Bedouin tribe — in a daring attempt to trek into one of the most unexplored and hazardous regions of the world: the Rub’ al Khali Desert, in central Arabia. There, the men hope to find a legendary lost race, which lives atop a mountain in a castle made of solid gold. But Durand’s plans are interrupted when he comes to the aid and protection of a fleeing maiden, named Aysa, angering some of the other men, who have, uh, less than chivalrous designs on the young beauty.
Retreating deeper into the desert wastes, Durand and Aysa discover the ancient and deserted city of Anz, now a ruin, but harboring a most-welcome oasis. The two spend some idyllic days there, until Aysa is kidnapped by the immortal, golden-skinned priest Malikar, and brought to that above-mentioned volcanic sanctuary, even deeper in the desert. Durand follows, and discovers that the evil priest lives with an immortal female companion there: the equally golden-skinned Vekyra, who regards Price as the reincarnation of the eons-dead Anzian king, Iru. And more trouble arises, when Durand learns that Malikar plans to make the lovely Aysa his immortal consort, by exposing her to the golden mist in the heart of the mountain; a mist that confers virtual immortality by replacing all the body’s moisture with metallic gold! (As a plot device, perhaps not quite as convincing as She’s flamelike Pillar of Life.)
It seems that Price will not only have to contend with two immortals for his lady love, but also with their followers (all of whom sport the image of a snake branded into their foreheads), as well as Vekyra’s pet, an immortal gold tiger the size of an elephant, and Malikar’s plaything, an enormous, metallic snake with hypnotic eyes. Not to mention all the enemies that Price has made of his ex-companions, and the rigors of Earth’s harshest environment. Yes, Durand surely does have his hands full here…
Reading Golden Blood today, modern readers will most likely wonder how the Weird Tales customers of 1933 were able to wait a full month between each action-packed installment. To be sure, Williamson’s book is a nonstop thrill ride, careening from one exciting set piece to the next, offering up wonder upon wonder as things progress. Fans of the Indiana Jones movies — which were of course based on the Saturday matinee movie serials of the ‘40s and ‘50s, and which were themselves indebted to the adventure pulps of the ‘30s — should just love what Williamson does here. The book offers any number of wonderful sequences, such as the exploration of that lost city of Anz; Malikar entombing Price in an underground crypt therein (Durand, tough guy that he is, pauses to smoke a cigarette while he is dying from asphyxiation in that tomb!); Price and his companions, armed with rifles, mortars and a tank, engaging in a desert battle with Malikar’s men, who shoot killing rays of cold from their mirror weapons; and the book’s rousing finale, in which Price battles the two immortals atop a narrow bridge, spanning a bottomless chasm, while the soporific golden mists threaten to put him under.
As in all superior action adventures, there are not only the two primary villains (Malikar and the beautifully seductive Vekyra) for our hero to vanquish, but also a whole gaggle of lesser nasties; to wit, Jacob Garth, Price’s duplicitous partner; de Castro, a slimy Macanese; the brutish Montenegrin Pasic, with whom Price has one helluva fight; and that ginormous tiger and snake! It is all remarkably exciting stuff, told with limitless gusto by the author, who manages to invest his fantasy with some pleasing bits of superscience (besides those freezing mirrors, Vekyra & Co. also control a device that can spy from a distance and send intimidating, mirage-like images high into the sky). Readers will marvel when they recall that Williamson was only 25 when he wrote Golden Blood, and had made his first professional sale, the short story “The Metal Man,” only five years before.
OK, I’m not going to lie to you. Williamson was a professional writer from 1928 all the way till 2006, when the author passed away at age 98. His writing, naturally, grew better and more polished as he matured, and his early work, enthusiastic and brimming with verve as it was, nevertheless can seem a bit coarse and unrefined in comparison. Williamson, in this particular novel, can be justly accused of overusing many of his favorite, pet words, such as “tawny,” “aureate” and “oblique.” And then there’s “xanthic,” a perfectly cool word (I needed to resort to an UNabridged dictionary to learn that it simply means “yellow”), which Williamson must use well over a dozen times during the course of his story. That’s a lot of “xanthic” for one book! Still, the author obviously did his homework here, and regales us with any number of Arabic words and convincing desert descriptions. And like one of his fellow Weird Tales contributors, H.P. Lovecraft, here, in this one book, Williamson opts for alternate, oddball spellings of common words (to engender strangeness or exoticism, perhaps?); thus, we get “surprize,” “gayety,” “fantasm” and “sirup,” rather than the conventional spellings.
Williamson manages to keep a firm rein on his sweeping story, though, only slipping up one time; when he mentions that the first of the Bedouins to be killed by those freezing rays was named Hamed, whereas earlier, we’d been told that his name was Mustafa. But this is a minor matter, and one that most readers will be far too engrossed to even notice. Williamson, at this stage, was already a master at pulp prose, and at keeping his readers spellbound. Thus, this description of the dead city of Anz:
…The black walls, of Cyclopean basalt blocks, stood half a mile away. Driven sands of ages had scored in them deep furrows. Here and there they had tumbled into colossal ruin, like a breakwater broken by the yellow sea of sand. Tawny, billowing dunes were piled against them in crested waves, sometimes completely covering them. Shattered ruins rose within the walls, crumbling, half buried, darkly mysterious in the dawn, emerging grim and desolate from night’s shadows as if from the mists of centuries immemorial…
To his great credit, Williamson here takes another homage to She and manages to make of it something new and exciting. No wonder the Weird Tales readers of the early ‘30s loved it so much! And perhaps it is no wonder that the novel Phantom City, in the December ’33 issue of Doc Savage Magazine (a scant three months after Golden Blood wrapped), was also set in the desolate wastes of the Rub’ al Khali! One of only two serials that Williamson ever sold to Weird Tales, Golden Blood is pretty much as exciting as pulp sci-fi/fantasy/adventure gets. Tremendous fun, for one and all. I find myself now wanting to read that other serial, the three-part Dreadful Sleep, which Williamson placed in the magazine from March to May 1938. Stay tuned…