Pharos the Egyptian by Guy Boothby
Once upon a time, when the British Empire was at its zenith, adventure fiction and fantastical writings began to deal with the idea that London — and tacitly, all Britain — was under threat by some ancient, terrifying force (frequently from a place where Britain had established a colony). There was an immense fascination with the occult versus the modern, the venerable old kingdoms versus the new British Empire, and most of all, the diabolical arcane opponent versus the plucky, civilized Englishman. It’s a trend that gave us such well-known works as Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Henry Rider Haggard‘s She, but prior to these there was Guy Boothby and his mummy novel Pharos the Egyptian (1899).
The story is fairly straightforward: a young Englishman named Cyril Forrester comes into contact with an extremely elderly, very mysterious man called Pharos, who appears to be traveling Europe with his ward, a beautiful violinist named Valerie. Captivated by Valerie’s beauty and appalled by Pharos’s cruelty, Forrester pursues the duo and becomes embroiled in a devilish master plan to curse the entire European world.
For a novel with such big ideas and such an urgent premise in play, Pharos the Egyptian is actually quite tedious. The prose is inoffensive and the events occur with enough frequency that the reading process never becomes unbearably boring, but the protagonist is played as maddeningly unintelligent (the better to contrast with Pharos’s Machiavellianism, it seems), and the plot grows very repetitive in a short space of time. A typical chapter goes something like this: Pharos does something evil, Forrester is horrified and confronts him, Pharos offers a feeble explanation, and Forrester immediately believes him and apologizes. Forrester is told at the outset of the novel by his lady love that Pharos is a magician, yet hundreds of pages on, he’s still wondering whether this Egyptian chap could be (gasp!) magical. Many of Pharos’s smaller schemes on the way to bringing his master plan to fruition simply should not have been possible given an even slightly effective opponent. As the novel progresses, though, what becomes increasingly apparent is that Forrester (along with Valerie, for that matter) is basically shackled by the plot to the point of utter uselessness. He is a spectator, powerless to stop the mummy’s curse, and Pharos is effectively the only “real” character in the novel, walking through a world of cardboard cutouts and pushing them over when it suits him. Boothby’s interest is not in the conflict between the modern and the ancient — the result, for him, is a foregone conclusion. He merely wants a Watson to bear witness to Pharos’s essentially effortless destruction of the Western world.
Ordinarily, such a blatantly weak protagonist would suggest that Boothby had some statement or another to make. If that is the case with Pharos, however, the result is unclear. Pharos’s goal is attacking the West, but exactly why he’d want to do so is poorly defined. Perhaps it’s because of Western colonialism in Egypt, but if so, no one ever brings it up. The only offense committed against Egypt is the transport of mummies from their resting places, and that is only mentioned once – whereupon the narrator promptly apologizes and returns the mummy in question. If Boothby’s point is that Europeans are foolish creatures and deserve to die, surely the point could have been made with much more delicacy and pathos by reflecting the focus back onto the protagonist occasionally, but Forrester is as inconsequential in negative actions as he is in positive. His impact is so small that it is difficult to envision him as any sort of exemplar, good or bad.
I think there may be a message under all this, but it’s muddled and reeks of the same poor planning and fumbling grasp of proper emphasis that informs much of the rest of the work. The book, while at least quick-moving at the outset, becomes repetitive and tiresome by its finale, as everyone alive figures out the “big twist” a hundred pages before we’re transparently intended to experience this grand revelation, which is still a good way in advance of when the protagonist manages it. Once the frustrating Forrester manages to finally cotton on, the novel casually shunts him aside one last time to limp into a baffling and laughably tacked-on resolution.
Overall, Pharos the Egyptian feels as though it had exactly two big ideas, and one of them was “Evil mummy!” Pharos, as I said above, is the only even slightly interesting character in the novel, but his brand of evil is so obvious and his justifications so flimsy that it’s impossible to sympathize with him. He’d still work if we could admire him, either as a fascinatingly drawn character or as a bombastic, charismatic villain, but that’s not the case. Ironically, the sheer stupidity of Forrester and Valerie — almost certainly intended in part to emphasize Pharos’s intellect — backfires and actually makes Pharos appear rather less impressive by association. Yes, he might be a manipulator, but he’s dealing with a man who seems physically incapable of a single original thought, and a woman who is… well, a love interest in Victorian adventure fiction. It’s rather like watching Professor Moriarty kicking a pair of toddlers repeatedly in their backsides. The Professor might be brilliant and all, but he’s hardly exerting himself, is he?
The best I can say about this book is that it’s readable. I blasted through it in a couple of sittings, and — especially early on — I even found the prose and pacing engaging enough to keep me going. If Boothby is mediocre in many other areas, he’s at least managed to learn the skill of keeping the reader invested on a basic level. Also, while I realize I’ve been more critical of this novel than of almost any other I’ve reviewed, I have to add that when it comes to the individual elements, I’ve seen worse in most cases. It’s only in the aggregate that they become so annoying. Basically, the novel is not even entertainingly bad. It’s just mediocre in every respect.
I’m thus obligated to give it an extra star on the basis of objectivity, but I almost wonder if mediocrity isn’t worse than outright awfulness. As an example, I read the “authorized sequel” to Dracula some years ago. It was called Dracula the Un-Dead, and it was stupid. How stupid? Dracula’s actually a big softie at heart, and he has a swordfight with Elizabeth Bathory. Yes indeed. That novel was so incandescently, soul-shatteringly dreadful that I think a SyFy adaptation would actually improve it. But I’m still going to remember Dracula the Un-Dead, heaven help me, a long time after I’ve consigned Pharos the Egyptian to whatever dusty closet of my memory contains things like “waiting in line at the supermarket,” “watching my computer booting up,” and Waterworld.