As you may have noticed, over the past six months I have been dipping into Armchair Fiction’s current Lost World/Lost Race series of 24 novels, and with mixed results. One thing I have observed is that the best of this bunch — such as Frank Aubrey’s The King of the Dead (1903), Rex Stout’s Under the Andes (1914), John Taine’s The Purple Sapphire (1924) and A. Hyatt Verrill’s The World of the Giant Ants (1928) — all feature exciting set pieces and copious amounts of realistic detail to help put over their central conceits, whereas the weaker entries — such as Frank Ashley’s The Temple of Fire (1905) and David Douglas’ The Silver God of the Orang Hutan (1922) — do not. Sadly, the item that I most recently experienced, S. P. Meek’s The Drums of Tapajos, must be added to that latter, weaker category. More on this in a moment.
The Drums of Tapajos initially appeared as a three-part series in the November and December 1930 and January 1931 issues of Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories magazine, the first publication that devoted itself exclusively to science fiction, ever since its first issue in April 1926. Meek had served as an Army chemist during WW1, and indeed, many of his works appeared as by “Capt. S. P. Meek.” Although his writing career had only started one year earlier, between 1929 and 1935, Meek would come out with dozens of sci-fi stories and novels, 14 of them in his series dealing with Dr. Bird and Operative Carnes. The Drums of Tapajos, thus, finds him fairly close to the beginning of his career, and I can only presume that his skills as a wordsmith grew better with practice. Combining as it does jungle safari adventure with Haggardian lost-world tropes, the book would seem to be a surefire winner, but unfortunately, Meek’s talent at this point was just not fully up to the task.
The book is narrated by Lt. George “Dune” Duncan, who, along with Lt. Frank Nankivell and Capt. Bob Mariston, finds himself at loose ends in their Texas base at the end of WW1. Desiring a little lucrative action, Mariston calls his older friend, soldier of fortune Ray Willis, in the hopes that perhaps the quartet will be able to lend their services to a well-paying revolution of some kind in Central America. But Willis has another idea. During a recent trip to the largely unexplored region of Brazil’s Para state, between the Tapajos and Xingu Rivers (yes, they’re there in your atlas, if you care to look them up!), he had found a dying old man near his tent, who, before he’d expired, had drawn for him a map and handed him an unusual knife. The knife was Hebraic in character, was once adorned with precious stones, and had a blade made of an alloy that no chemists in the States could later identify. And most eerily, right before the old native had drawn his last breath, the faint sound of drumming had been heard, seemingly coming out of nowhere.
Willis, even though he had since lost the map, now proposes to his fellows that they venture into this Cardoso region, the so-called “Tierra Prohibitiva,” where the local Indians are afraid to go, and so find the source of the priceless dagger. Thus, the four do indeed make the attempt, joined by an old Indian guide, Pedro, who, as a youth, had barely gotten out of the region alive; the only survivor of a party of 16. In the book’s first third, the party makes its way down an increasingly problematic Tapajos tributary and then into the dense jungle, encountering leeches, ticks, chiggers, oppressive heat, an anaconda, poisonous arrows that are delivered by invisible natives, the roar of beasts whose footprints hark back to the age of the dinosaur … and those infernal drums, seemingly coming from within the brain of the listener. For this reader, this was the stronger, more suspenseful portion of Meek’s/Dune’s story. Ultimately, our quintet comes upon — or, to be more precise, is herded onto — a road constructed of what appears to be some kind of rubberish material; an actual road, in the heart of the primeval jungle! The road leads our adventurers to a hill (or perhaps it’s a mountain? The author is typically short of detail in this area…) in which a metal door opens to admit them to the people of Troyana, a race consisting of the remnants of perhaps the 10 lost tribes of Israel, perhaps of Troy (Nahum, the elder who conducts Dune & Co. around, is, uh, vague on this point), as well as the brutish remnants of Atlantis. Troyana, it seems, has been ensconced in this Brazilian nowheresville for at least the past 5,000 years, its civilization being divided into six discrete castes. But, as our heroes soon learn during their extended visit, one of the lowest classes, the Bearers of Burdens, made up of the downtrodden Atlanteans, has become increasingly dissatisfied with their millennia-old lot, and violent revolution is in the works…
But getting back to those two crucial deficits in this lost-world adventure, I cannot think of one single action set piece in The Drums of Tapajos that stands out from the rest of the narrative, and surely did have a rough time visualizing much of what Meek was trying to get across. His descriptions of the jungle wilderness are sketchy at best; unlike Verrill, who was an explorer of South America as well as being a naturalist, and thus able to give his book prodigious amounts of convincing detail, Meek was undoubtedly neither. For the life of me, I could never picture how wide the Tapajos is by Meek’s description; my sense was that it is a rather narrow waterway, whereas a YouTube video that I looked at later reveals it to be at least a mile wide. The author’s descriptions of Troyana are especially frustrating, both the mazelike interior and the outdoor dwellings on the hillside. The net effect comes off almost like a simply written YA novel (Meek did become a children’s author later in his career), although I have a feeling that even teenagers might come away feeling a bit frustrated, especially since we never get to physically encounter that howling jungle beast (it is only viewed via a screen in Troyana, and revealed to be a froglike dinosaur that had survived the Atlantis sinking), the revolt of the Atlanteans is left up in the air, and the origins of the Troyanans are nebulous at best. (For example, it is revealed that the Troyanans came from a land to the southwest of Atlantis. Does that sound like where Troy would be? Or is that a reference to an Atlantic island that the ancient Trojans settled on after emigrating from Troy? And then again, how did these peoples wind up in the middle of the Brazilian jungle, anyway? Conveniently, these facts are said to be lost in the mists of antiquity.) New Wave sci-fi icon Samuel R. Delany has reportedly called Meek’s writing “unbelievably bad,” and in truth, his work here surely could have used some polish. Thus, we get a sentence such as “Again came the whish of an arrow and the missile buried itself in the ground about six inches ahead of Willis’ head.” Is it just me, or does not “…in front of Willis’ head…” read much nicer? Again, this is a novel from early on in Meek’s career, and the only one of his that I have read, so I can only trust that he improved with practice. And, oh, while I’m complaining: Some parts of the book strike the modern-day reader as being necessarily dated — such as the references to the NYC Aquarium, which closed in 1941, and to Bedloe’s Island, which was renamed Liberty Island in 1956 — but since the novel is supposed to take place immediately after the close of WW1, I am willing to let those references slide.
And happily, there is some good news to be had here. Despite its many flaws, The Drums of Tapajos is a likeable book, with an interesting story and four appealing and nicely differentiated main characters. Our narrator, Dune, is the steady, levelheaded scientist of the group; Mariston a nice combination of brains and athleticism; Willis the sturdy, adventurous “alpha male”; Nankivell the wisecracking goofball and, as it turns out, hopeless romantic. (A source of possibly unintended humor is the number of times one of the characters says “Shut up, Frank!”) Meek does go into some detail regarding the caste structure of Troyana and, surprisingly, the manifold rules regarding its governing council; if only the rest of his narrative had been as nicely fleshed out! The Troyanans are said to live to be around 400 years old, a fascinating concept that again could have been enlarged upon. And then there is the matter of those troglodyte-like Atlanteans! How refreshing, inasmuch as the people of Atlantis, in most fantasy literature works, are usually depicted as being rather civilized, with a high level of scientific attainment. Yet here, for a change, they are fit only for manual labor, and their religious ceremonies are depicted as being barbarous in the extreme. So yes, The Drums of Tapajos is a mixed bag at best. I enjoyed it up to a point, unsatisfying as it ultimately proved to be. It is marginally entertaining and ingratiating, and I’m afraid that I can only recommend it to hard-core, die-hard students of lost-world literature, such as myself.
Meek’s novel, as I inferred, winds up inconclusively, with several plot threads unresolved, and thus I was not overly surprised to learn, after I had finished this 1930/’31 offering, that the author ultimately did come out with a sequel. That sequel was entitled Troyana, and first appeared in the February, March and April 1932 issues of Amazing Stories. I would be curious to find out what happens next in Meek’s tale, and what transpired after the Atlanteans revolted and Nankivell returned to Troyana to be with his beloved Estha. I’d also be curious as to whether or not Troyana is an improvement on the first book. But based on my experience with The Drums of Tapajos, I am in no great hurry to search the Interwebs to track down a copy. Perhaps one day some fine, enterprising publisher will release both novels together, in one volume, as they really should be … and without the flabbergasting number of typos that are present in this Armchair edition…