Beginning in the middle of the 19th century, explorations began in the ancient Mayan city complex known as Tikal, in a remote and inaccessible area of northern Guatemala. In the 1880s, a systematic clearing of the area commenced, as well as a recording of the manifold marvels that were being discovered in this centuries-old site. (And when I say “centuries,” that is perhaps an understatement, as it has since been established that Tikal’s heyday was from A.D. 200 – 900.) Perhaps stimulated by news reports of this Central American wonder, Kewanee, Illinois-born author Roy Norton sat down to write the lost-world novel entitled The Glyphs, which dealt with a modern-day discovery of another Mayan city, also in northern Guatemala, a fairly unusual setting for this type of tale. Norton had been born in 1869 and so was almost 50 years old when The Glyphs first appeared as the cover story of the 9/20/19 issue of The Popular Magazine, which, from 1903 – ’31, and over the course of 612 issues, printed all manner of literary fiction on a bimonthly basis. Norton had already come out with several novels with decidedly fantastic content, including The Vanishing Fleets (1908), The Land of the Lost (1909) and The Flame: A Story of What Might Have Been (1916), as well as Western novels and dozens of short stories, and The Glyphs bears all the marks of a writer already comfortable with both his style and talents.
Following this short novel’s initial publication, it would see another incarnation as a 1925 Hodder & Stoughton hardcover, its dust jacket proudly proclaiming “If it is a Roy Norton you want it,” and with the book’s title strangely changed to The Caves of Treasure. And then … the novel would go OOPs (out of prints) for 95 years, until the fine folks at Armchair Fiction chose to resurrect it in Autumn 2020 as part of its ongoing Lost World/Lost Race series, of which The Glyphs is #29. As has been the case with many of the other titles in this terrific bunch of books, it is quite probable that this reader would never have heard of Roy Norton, or The Glyphs, without Armchair’s assistance, and that would have been a shame, as this lost-world novel has proven itself to be a compact, fast-moving, streamlined jungle-adventure tale, well supplied with interesting characters, humor, and some genuine thrills.
In it, we are introduced to our narrator, a Frenchman (at least, I am assuming that he is a Frenchman) named Henri Hallewell, an outdoorsman/safari guide currently living in Paris. Hallewell is approached one day by the eccentric Italian archeologist Paolo Morgano, who tells him that he has recently stolen the key to deciphering the ancient Mayan hieroglyphics; a Rosetta Stone of sorts that will allow Morgano to delve into the unknown history of this ancient race. The egocentric professor wishes to hire Hallewell to lead an expedition into the unexplored jungles in northern Guatemala, hoping to discover lost Mayan ruins. Hallewell conditionally agrees, and soon after chances to befriend a wealthy, 6’ 6” Englishman named James Dalrymple Wardrop (later known as Wardy), a big-game hunter who agrees to bear the brunt of the expedition’s costs. Thus, the three men set out, the professor looking for ruins and knowledge and fame, Wardy seeking some exciting hunting, and our narrator, the irresistible lure of possible lost treasure. The trio is accompanied by Wardy’s Arabian manservant, Beni Hassan Azdul (aka Benny), and once arrived in Guatemala, after an uneventful steamer passage, hires two more men to make up their final number: Juan, who will be their muleteer, and Ixtual, a mysterious and taciturn man of Mayan ancestry, who will serve as their guide. And so the sextet departs, moving by slow stages from the coast and into the steaming jungles and mountainous highlands. In the ruins of ancient Quirigua, Morgano had found a stone covered with ancient glyphs, and giving the rough location of the Mayans’ Sacred Temple City, which itself lies hidden in a valley beyond two towering mountains. And eventually, our hardy band does indeed discern those peaks, makes its way through an underground, chasm-riddled labyrinth, and emerges on the rim of the lost valley. From this point, our heroes find the way fairly easy going, traversing down a remarkably well-preserved Mayan roadway and to the shore of a lake, in the midst of which sits the lost Temple City atop a largely man-made island…
Similar to another book that I recently read in this Armchair series, Eden Phillpotts’ 1903 novel The Golden Fetich, which transpires in central Africa, The Glyphs is an absolutely realistic lost-world novel with no Haggardian fantasy elements whatsoever. Norton takes pains to add convincing details to bring a layer of realism to his story, and so we get to read of the ceiba trees that are prevalent in the Guatemalan jungle, of the black jaguar that Wardy so triumphantly slays, of the Mayan method of breaking time into “Katuns” (7,200 days, or about 20 years), of the 16th century Spanish friar and historian Bartolome de las Casas and the 19th century French historian/archeologist Brasseur de Bourbourg. Adding further verisimilitude to the conceit is the fact that many of the places in Guatemala that our heroes visit are findable in your atlas, and so we can follow their progress from Barrios, on the coast, to Livingston, and inland to the Sierra Cuchumatane Mountains. We get to learn firsthand about the numerous ingenious feats of mechanical wizardry that the Mayans were capable of employing ages ago: from the hiding of treasure, to the means of making the eyes of their Icopan god statuary come to life with devastating effect, to their methods of concealing hidden stairways. Call me gullible, but had this book been presented as a factual travelogue, rather than as a novel, this reader might indeed have swallowed it.
Norton has been called “a vivid writer with a strong narrative imagination” by the online Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, and The Glyphs surely does bear out that statement. His novel wastes no time at all getting us to the Guatemalan action, and whereas Phillpotts’ book did not even arrive at Africa until it was one-third done, Norton’s gets us to where we want to be after just 30+ pages. The novel’s three main characters are all likeable men, despite their eccentricities (Morgano can be a bit of a braggart, as well as obsessive and occasionally absentminded, while Wardy insists on bringing his huge bass viol along with him into the heart of the jungle!), while our narrator, Hallewell, is pleasingly modest and honest to a fault. He is a wholly reliable storyteller, even though he calls his tale “a singular if not particularly interesting adventure.” He is absolutely incorrect about that last part; his tale is a fascinating one, actually, and perfect fare for all lovers of lost-world fiction.
Almost unavoidably, however, minor problems do present themselves here. For example, some of the sections in which our intrepid band tries to traverse its underground way can be challenging to visualize, and the characters of Benny, Juan and Ixtual might have been portrayed with more depth. Norton is even guilty of an inconsistency at one point, when he mentions that Morgano’s Parisian garret is reachable after climbing five flights of stairs (on page 23) and, later, six flights of stairs (on page 30). But these are minor matters. As for this Armchair edition itself, it is a pleasing enough volume, with easy-to-read large print, colorful art on the cover, and a reproduction of that 9/20/19 Popular Magazine front cover on its own back cover. Typical for Armchair, more typos are present than I would deem justifiable (although some other Armchair volumes have been worse), and thus, “over” becomes “fiver,” “me” becomes “mg,” “shrine” becomes “shrink,” “and” becomes “arid,” “bricks” becomes “brides” and on and on. As I’ve pleaded before, c’mon, Armchair … hire a decent proofreader already!!! Still, these minor gaffes by the author and typographical errors from the publisher should in no wise put any potential readers off. I was more than happy with my first experience with Roy Norton, so much so that my very next book will be another one from this same author, and happily included as a recent Armchair release. That book will be his aforementioned 1909 novel The Land of the Lost, and it looks to be a lot longer and more detailed than The Glyphs. Stay tuned…
I can recommend an excellent copyeditor to them.
Actually I started laughing when I imagined the sentences where “shrink” replaces shrine and “brides” replaces bricks.
It really CAN get a little comical sometimes; annoying, but comical….