The City of Wonder by E. Charles Vivian
Just recently, this reader had some words to say about a lost-race novel written by an Englishman; no, not H. Rider Haggard, the Norfolk-born writer who would go on to become “The Father of the Lost-Race Novel,” but rather Victor Rousseau, who had impressed me with his 1916 offering The Sea Demons. Well, now I am here to tell you of another lost-race affair, written some six years later by still another Englishman. The book in question this time is called The City of Wonder and was written by one E. Charles Vivian. A more impressively penned novel than Rousseau’s, the book combines the standard lost-world/lost-race tropes with a pleasing dollop of supernaturalism. And whereas the Rousseau novel had as its locale for those sea demons a very precise location in the Shetland Islands, Vivian’s book has as its location … well, I’m really not sure. More on this in a moment.
The City of Wonder was originally released in 1922 as a hardcover book by the British publishing firm Hutchinson, and bearing the title City of Wonder. Its printing history would then get a little strange. The following year, the NY-based house Moffat, Yard & Co. released the novel as a hardcover, but, for some odd reason, changed the title to The City of Wonder. When the book was reprinted complete in the October ’47 issue of Famous Fantastic Mysteries (a pulp that, despite its name, reissued many sci-fi and fantasy novels), the “The” in the title was retained. Flash forward 26 years, to the 1973 Centaur Press paperback (part of that firm’s Time-Lost series), and the “The” has been omitted again. After this, Vivian’s work would once again go OOPs (out of prints), for a good 48 years this time, till the fine folks at Armchair Fiction decided to revive it, in the fall of 2021, for their ongoing Lost World/Lost Race series, which currently stands at 42 volumes … and with that “The” once again restored!
As for E. Charles Vivian himself, the name was a pseudonym; a pen name for the author born Charles Henry Cannell, in 1882, in Haggard’s Norfolk. Cannell would serve as a soldier in the Boer War and work as both a newspaperman and magazine editor. He would also, ultimately, author over 80 novels, in such diverse genres as nonfiction, historical novels, Westerns, fantasy and sci-fi. Those 80-plus novels included works in a good half dozen series; one series, featuring the exploits of supernatural detective Gregory George Gordon Green, aka Gees, consisted of eight novels alone. Vivian had started his writing career sometime in 1907 and continued straight on till his passing in 1947, at age 64. The City of Wonder (I am keeping the “The” in out of respect for the Armchair edition that I just read), therefore, was a book written in the first third of Vivian’s 40-year career, and happily, it reveals itself to be a rather pleasing addition to a wonderful genre.
Vivian’s book is narrated to us by a man named Jack Faulkner, who, along with a much younger chap named Cecil Bent, had been hired by one Philip Watkins to assist in his latest venture. It seems that Watkins had read, in a diary of one of his family ancestors from 150 years ago, of a long-lost city called Kir-Asa, purportedly the oldest city on Earth, that had actually been visited by his 18th century kinsman’s brother. An avid explorer himself, Philip had made his investigations and had learned, from an old Dyak tribesman in Borneo, the precise location of the lost city. And so, as Faulkner tells us, the men had suffered many travails while en route to the legendary locale, including fever swamps, a run-in with a vampire bat, and some nasty local natives who had blown poisoned darts at them. They had braved a death-defying climb down a precipitous gorge (finding a warning message from Watkins’ forebear, dating from 1768, scratched on the wall of a cave, during their descent); crossed a volcanically heated river via a swaying stone “bridge;” and climbed up the gorge’s other wall, only to face two more challenges that the 18th century explorer had warned them of: “The Place Where Ghosts Chase Women,” and the Nantia, she being a woman who guards the pass to Kir-Asa with a pack of killer orangutans. But our three heroes had successfully overcome all the many obstacles, slaying the Nantia along the way, and finally, after weeks of travel, had arrived at the stone-hewn city of Kir-Asa, which lay at the foot of a smoldering volcano.
During their many weeks spent in the ancient city, the men had befriended the family of Ner-Ag — one of the city’s five councilors who were “pinch-hitting” for the insane king Saya-Comin — and Faulkner had fallen in love with his daughter Eve. The men had been put on trial for the slaying of the Nantia, and had assisted Ner-Ag to become king himself, after Saya-Comin’s death. But major trouble had arisen when Faulkner and Watkins were forced to kill two of the insane king’s sons, and the third and youngest son, Macer, had declared war on Ner-Ag and all his followers. During the resultant civil war, our heroes had naturally fought on Ner-Ag’s side, and all seemed to be going well … until, that is, Macer had decided to risk all by entering into an alliance with those “women-chasing ghosts,” which were, in actuality, the semimaterial evil remnants, the leftover spiritual dregs, that could not amalgamate with corporeal primitive man millions of years ago. Exuding the essence of evil and capable of killing Kir-Asa’s womenfolk with a mere touch, these malignant ghouls had soon begun to march on the ancient city, with Macer guiding them on to possible victory…
All told, The City of Wonder is an impressive addition to the lost-world canon, and one that most readers will regret not having been able to lay hands on for almost half a century. The book is surprisingly well written and nicely detailed, allowing us to learn quite a bit about the architecture of Kir-Asa, as well as its complicated political backdrop, the lifestyle of the people … and even a little of its murky history. (“I set down these details as necessary, though perhaps tedious,” Faulkner tells us at one point, but happily, they never are the least bit tiresome.) The book is occasionally quite violent (the sudden deaths of several of the lead characters are unfailingly shocking) and even quite gory; indeed, some of the bloody carnage wrought by Macer’s followers and the Nantia’s simian army is decidedly not for the squeamish. Our three intrepid leading men are all well drawn and nicely differentiated, although one of them (no, I’d rather not say whom) is not all that likeable. And oh my goodness, is that Watkins ever a cool cucumber under pressure! I love when he says to the threatening Nantia woman, “If you’d kindly lead us to a quick lunch-bar, or even a coffee-stall … I’d hate to get your monkey up over this, madam…” The addition of a supernatural element — namely, those partly-tangible evil essences from the days of prehistory — puts this lost-world tale neatly in the category of fantasy, serving the same function as Haggard’s flaming, pillarlike Spirit of Life in the 1886 classic She. And fans of a healthy addition of romance to their adventure tales will be glad to learn that the love affair between our narrator and his Eve is a lovely one, with Faulkner almost moved to poetry when writing of her. Thus, this description of the young maiden:
…The fresh beauty of English woodland in early summer dawns; the perfection of the world’s great love songs, and their infinity of desire; the music that is in the long, slow roll of waves on to a quiet shore; the splendour of gold and flashing gems; the fragrance of old gardens, and the questing sweetness that is in the breath of the west wind come over harvest fields — like these, and more than these, was Eve to me…
But lest you be thinking that this novel might have sold the reader short in the action department, let me assure you that that is hardly the case. Indeed, Vivian’s book drops us into the thick of the adventure on its very first page, and proceeds to regale us with any number of stunning set pieces, among them those more-than-hazardous obstacles the men encounter in the book’s opening third; Faulkner’s reconnaissance of Macer’s army, accompanied by only six other men; Nantia’s bloody attack on the army of Macer, her orangutan troop inflicting indescribable havoc; and Faulkner’s solo trailing of Macer and his spirit cohort. Interestingly, this is a book featuring a simmering volcano that does not erupt during the course of its story, unlike the one in another lost-world affair that I’d recently experienced, R. H. Hazard’s The House on Stilts (1910), which blew its sulphurous top, as might have been reasonably expected, by the novel’s end. Here, though, the Kir-Asa volcano is used merely as a scenic backdrop, as well as the repository of the people’s funeral ceremonies and capital punishments. Vivian’s novel ends on a deliciously ambiguous note, one in which the ultimate fate of two of our male heroes is very much left up in the air, and had the author chosen to write another book set in Kir-Asa with these characters, he could have easily managed it. A pity that he didn’t, actually, as The City of Wonder does indeed live up to its title, and is a pretty wonder-filled book, indeed.
I actually have only two quibbles to lodge against Mr. Vivian’s work here, both of them having to do with the matter of ambiguity; no, not of those two characters’ ultimate fates — I kind of appreciated that — but rather, of the precise background of the Kir-Asa folk, and the exact location of their city. The reader is given all sorts of conflicting information regarding the people’s origin, with Watkins speculating that their ancestors were Lemurian, and later saying that they were Atlantean. We never do find out for sure, but do learn that the current residents of the city are actually the third race to occupy the area since its construction millennia ago. As to the location of Kir-Asa, it is initially inferred that the setting is Borneo (the setting of another very fine lost-world novel that I’d recently experienced, Patrick and Terence Casey’s The Strange Story of William Hyde, from 1916), but later, another Indonesian island is suggested, and finally, an island in the Pacific! (Although how the people of Atlantis could have founded a colony on the other side of the world is a subject never broached here.) Wherever the island is, it must be a fairly large one, as our heroes trek across it for many days to achieve their goal, finally arriving at Kir-Asa at an altitude of 5,000 feet. But this vagueness as regards the island’s location is partially explained by Watkins’ and Faulkner’s decision to hold that information private, so as to keep the little Eden unspoiled by outside influences. Still, would it have been giving away too much to say whether we are in the Pacific or in Indonesia? The lack of specificity here regarding the people and their location in this world can be very vexing. As the recipient of Faulkner’s manuscript tells us late in the book, “…the manner of writing the story is such as to give very little clue, even to one who knows the Pacific archipelagoes, to the precise direction in which to search…” But at bottom, The City of Wonder remains a very solid entertainment that I can recommend unreservedly to all fans of this wonderful genre. To read it is to become an instant fan of Mr. E. Charles Vivian, with a need to experience more of his work. As for me, I am now left with a desire to check out the author’s 1925 sci-fi novel Star Dust, as well as another of his lost-race tales, Woman Dominant (1929). Wish me luck as I endeavor to track them down. And hopefully, it will entail a lot less effort than Watkins & Co.’s search for Kir-Asa!
“Kill Nantia—who rules the Monkeys!”
With those words and a path to guide them, the three explorers set off to find a city lost in time and to confront whatever friend of foe is still alive within its crumbling walls.