The Forbidden Garden by John Taine
Once again, it has been impressed upon me how very unfair the modern-day world of publishing has been to the Scottish-born author John Taine. Taine, whose career as a novelist extended from 1924 – ’54 – while at the same time that he plied his “day job” as a mathematician and professor under his given name, Eric Temple Bell – produced 14 works of fiction during that time, the bulk of which have been OOPs (out of prints) for many years. Some cases in point: His 1934 novel Before the Dawn, which I recently wrote of here, has not been reissued since 1975. His next two novels, Twelve Eighty-Seven (1935) and Tomorrow (1939), have never been reprinted since their initial publications, in the pulp magazines Astounding Stories and Marvel Science Stories respectively. And then there’s his next novel, The Forbidden Garden, which Taine’s fans back when had to wait a good long time for. This book was released in August ’47 as a $3 Fantasy Press hardcover and has not been reprinted in the almost 75 years since! And this strikes me as perhaps the most glaring oversight of them all, as a recent read has shown this late-career Taine novel to be not only one of the author’s very best, but a book that would surely appeal to a modern-day audience.
A big, finely detailed whopper of an adventure, the novel finds Taine, after his eight-year hiatus from fiction, at the very top of his game. The Fantasy Press volume, which I was fortunate to find online at a very reasonable price, features beautiful illustrations from one A. J. Donnell and is quite a handsome book overall. On its front cover, we find the words “A Novel of Science, Mystery and Adventure,” and for once this bit of come-on is hardly hyperbolic, but rather sort of weak in setting out the novel’s contents. The Forbidden Garden actually conflates a tale of exotic exploration and adventure with lost world/lost race tropes, stirs in some elements of espionage and international intrigue, adds a few dashes of mystery and whodunit, and spices things liberally with a healthy dose of hard sci-fi to come up with one lip-smacking stew indeed. Simply stated, all fans of any of those above-mentioned literary genres should have a blast with this one!
The book introduces the reader to two friends and fellow adventurers, both Americans. Vartan (I don’t believe we ever learn his first name) is a geological explorer and paleontologist, while William Shane is a paleobotanist; an expert in fossilized plants. The two are hired by Charles Brassey, owner of the world-famous, London-based flower-seed company Brassey House, to go on a perilous mission. Several decades earlier, Brassey’s older brother, James, evincing symptoms of the Brassey clan’s hereditary madness, had voluntarily left England and moved to India. But in the final stages of his madness, he had mailed to his younger brother a package of seeds that he had discovered. The seeds, when germinated, produced species of flowers unlike anything the Brassey scientists had ever encountered. Vartan and Shane’s mission, hence, is to locate the source of these flowers and to bring back four pounds of the soil in which they grow. Making their difficult mission even more problematic is the fact that industrial spies have been trying for years to worm out Brassey House’s secrets; spies that must be kept in the dark about this mission. And, as we later learn, a mysterious, international conglomerate known as the Society of Liberators has also sent out agents into this fray, for their own reasons.
Vartan and Shane, thus, fly to Bombay, where they meet Brassey House’s P.R. agent, Marjorie Driscott, who is to accompany them on their trek and give them additional information. The trio proceeds on to Srinagar, in northern India, where their caravan of 40 porters is assembled, and then, acting on various clues, moves into the Karakorum Range, one of the most forbidding regions on Earth, to prosecute their search. After numerous travails, Shane is injured and forced to return to Srinagar, after which the porters mutiny and are sent off. Now reduced to a party of three – Vartan, Marjorie, and Ali, the porters’ headman – our heroes, having already traversed a zone of radioactive waters and bizarre insect life, come upon a valley that lies 14,000 feet beneath the surrounding ramparts. After a perilous descent into this hidden vale, they discover hundreds of breeds of flora and fauna never before seen in the outside world, as well as a race of variously mutated humanoids living in a very primitive state. Vartan’s investigation of the valley’s fossil beds reveals that the prehistoric dinosaurs that had once made the valley their home had also shown physical abnormalities never previously encountered. The trio’s subsequent exploration of a nearby cave system turns up some bloblike and tentacled life-forms, evidences of an ancient astronomical cataclysm … and a very surprising personage, as Taine’s 13th novel veers into a modern-day cataclysm that threatens all forms of life in this lost world of the Karakorums…
Now, as to those literary genres previously alluded to, The Forbidden Garden, in its first half, is primarily a tale of high adventure and exploration, its unusual Srinagar and Karakorum locales making for fascinating backdrops to the action. As for the mystery quotient, we have the following conundrums: Why are all these diverse parties so very interested in James Brassey’s seeds? Who are these mysterious Liberators? Who are the spies in the ranks of Brassey House? Without giving anything away, let me just say here that every single major character in this book has a secret agenda of his or her own. All the characters are suspicious of one another, and for good reason. One of the characters, remarkably enough, is even guilty of assuming two false identities, to cloak his/her intentions. Thus, no single character is free from the reader’s suspicions, making this guessing game even more interesting. (And by the way, a repeat perusal of The Forbidden Garden might prove even more pleasing, with a foreknowledge of all the characters’ beliefs, inner thoughts, and intentions.) As for the lost-world elements that Taine gives us here, his hidden valley is a doozy, replete as it is with any number of biological freaks and sports. The book’s espionage aspects are also handled nicely, with its mix of not only industrial spies, but also undercover operatives from Scotland Yard. And the origin story of those darn Liberators is a gripping one, indeed. Finally, as to the sci-fi elements, they are almost completely absent in the book’s first half, only coming to the fore when Vartan & Co. arrive in that valley. But Taine, with his scientific background, makes these elements both highly credible and clear to the reader’s understanding. He had obviously done his homework on genetics and heredity before penning this book.
The Forbidden Garden touches on several pet ideas that Taine had broached in his previous 12 novels. The subject of prehistoric spores blossoming into new life had been visited in The Greatest Adventure (1929). Prehistoric life-forms had also been discussed in that earlier novel, and had been given an in-depth examination in Before the Dawn. The subject of mutations/evolution/devolution due to X-rays or radiation had been areas of concern in both Seeds of Life (1931) and, from what I hear, The Iron Star (1930), a Taine novel that I have not read … yet. Finally, the business rivalries between two scientific companies were also spotlighted in Seeds of Life and Green Fire (1928), another Taine novel that I need to get my hands on one day. But in The Forbidden Garden, the author takes all those pet themes, and all those literary genres, and oh-so skillfully blends them into a coherent whole. It is a bravura piece of work from Mr. Taine! Apparently, his eight-year break from fiction writing resulted in his 13th novel not only being a superior work, but possibly the finest and most completely satisfying book that I’ve yet read by this author. His writing style is fully evolved at this point; a wonderfully readable style, chock full of pleasing detail, and boasting a facility with well-rendered dialogue. Taine’s descriptions of the gorgeous mountain scenery are economical yet evocative, and he manages to maintain a firm grip on his novel’s endlessly recomplicated storyline. And oh … to my great surprise, the romance elements that one might automatically assume to be forthcoming – a triangle of sorts between Vartan, Shane and Marjorie – never get off the ground, actually. Indeed, to the end, Marjorie and Vartan continue to address each other as “Mr. Vartan” and “Miss Driscott.” (Another reason why we are never able to learn Vartan’s first name!)
As far as I could discern, John Taine makes no major missteps in his 13th novel; only very minor ones. For example, one of the Brassey House spies is called William Arbold on page 13 and John Arbold on page 129. The company that buys the film rights to Brassey’s expedition is called Northfields on page 45 and Northcliffs on page 116. But these are more faults of the Fantasy Press editors than Taine himself. More troubling for this reader was Vartan, Marjorie and Ali’s descent of that 14,000-foot-high, ice-covered mountain, much of which was accomplished in the dark of night. Does that seem practicable to you? Still, this is another minor matter. The Forbidden Garden remains a wonderfully entertaining, beautifully written, complexly plotted novel that I just loved to bits. My highest recommendation for this one! And again, it’s a darn shame that it has remained out of print for almost three-quarters of a century.
As for me, up next will be John Taine’s 1949 offering The Cosmic Geoids and One Other, which combines two short novels/long novellas into one volume. This book has also never been reprinted since its initial release; again, I was fortunate to get my hands on a copy. Can Taine’s 14th piece of fiction possibly be as good as his 13th? I’m about to find out. Stay tuned…
Clambering down a 14K high mountain in the dark doesn’t seem very smart.
Hey, no risks, no gains! :)
BTW, I don’t know why the publisher’s blurb above gives the site of this book as the Himalayas, rather than the Karakorums, or why the character of William Shane is listed as “Frank Shane.” Who ya gonna believe, FanLit readers: me or some anonymous hack?
Oh, you, clearly.
Thanks, Marion! 😘
Oops…I meant to write that Taine created 16 works of fiction. Not 14. Maybe I’m not to be trusted after all…. 😁
Absolutely Loving these reviews!
These John Taine reviews, Bill? If so, I’ve been loving writing them….