The House on Stilts by R.H. Hazard
Good news for all fans of Haggardian-type fiction is the recent release of 12 more obscure titles, resurrected from oblivion by those fine folks at Armchair Fiction for their ongoing Lost World/Lost Race series, which now stands at 42 volumes. Spanning the period 1898 – 1951, these dozen books should surely be of interest to all enthusiasts of this wonderful genre, especially since most of them have been out of print for many decades. First up for this reader was the curiously titled affair The House on Stilts, by an author named R.H. Hazard. And if you have not yet run across the name of either this novel or its author, that is to be well understood and even expected, as will be seen.
The House on Stilts was originally released as a five-part serial in the April – August 1910 issues of People’s Ideal Fiction Magazine (cover price: 15 cents). That same year, it was also released as a hardcover book by the NYC-based firm G. W. Dillingham Company, and featured illustrations by one J. A. Lemon, which are, happily enough, reproduced in the Armchair edition. The book would then go OOPs (out of prints) for 108 years (!), until Forgotten Books saw fit to come out, in 2018, with the first reprint in over a century; the Armchair edition that I just experienced was released in the fall of 2021. As for Hazard, absolutely no firm biographical information is available anywhere regarding the author, and The House on Stilts would seem to be the only work he (at least, I am assuming Hazard is a “he;” there really is no way to be sure) ever wrote. I should add here that the editors of this Armchair volume postulate that Hazard was an English shopkeeper, and even include a photo, taken around 1900 in Charmouth, England, of what looks to be a candy store, with the words “R. H. Hazard” painted on the door. Of course, this is sheer speculation on the part of the Armchair editors (Hazarding a guess, as it were), but bolstering their claim is the fact that a few British expressions are employed in the novel, although People’s magazine being based in the U.S. and the hardcover being first published by a NYC firm would seem to argue for an American origin. Bottom line: We may never know if R.H. Hazard was from Britain or the U.S. – or Outer Mongolia, for that matter – or what the author’s gender may have been, but one thing that can be stated with absolute certainty is that the author’s sole work of fiction really is a doozy … a nonstop thrill ride combining lost-world tropes, the crime caper and the voodoo thriller into one truly jaw-dropping mélange. Simply stated, the novel is a hoot, and one that this reader could not read quickly enough.
The book is narrated by a Saint Louis newspaper reporter named Jack Smith, who had been given the assignment of accompanying tough Irish detective Larry Sullivan in his quest to apprehend a New Orleans bank embezzler named Varney. Our heroes had followed Varney from the Crescent City, by boat, across the Caribbean, where a storm had wrecked both ships, causing them to founder. Varney’s trail had thus been lost, and Smith and Sullivan and two others, as the story commences, somehow manage to get washed onto an island called Gabrielle. From the Lincoln-like U.S. consul there, one General Pierson, the men are told that the island is under the sway of a voodoo woman known as the Yellow Queen, while a little farther west resides a community of “Dumb Monks,” so named because the inmates there consent to having their tongues removed as part of their initiation. The volcano on the island, Mt. Lazare, has not erupted in modern history, although it is currently starting to rumble and smoke again, supposedly at the command of the Yellow Queen herself. Trouble is not long in coming to our shipwrecked men, as that very night, the voodoo priestess sends her hybrid Dog-Man to the consul’s home, to kidnap the young son of the family’s maid for use in a sacrificial ceremony. Smith and Sullivan, donning, uh, blackface, effect a daring rescue, in an early action sequence that demonstrates Hazard’s apparent understanding of the effectiveness of starting off these kinds of books with a bang, as H. Rider Haggard himself always managed to do. Later, our heroes, as well as the consul’s family – including daughter Norelle, with whom Smith had fallen pretty instantly in love – are compelled to depart for the island’s largest town, St. Croix, as wholesale war erupts between the “Voodoos” and the Spanish government in charge. Smith and Sullivan, following a run-in with Varney, are taken prisoner by the Yellow Queen, who just as quickly falls in love with Smith and decides to make the reporter her mate. But our heroes manage to escape from her cave retreat (whereas Haggard’s Ayesha, in the 1886 classic She, resided inside an extinct volcano, Joan of Lazare, the Yellow Queen, just happens to live at the base of an active one!) and fetch up at the domicile of those Dumb Monks, where the bulk of Hazard’s story takes place.
The monks, as it turns out, are the distant descendants of the Yucatan Aztecs, and have built a wooden home 200 feet high in the air. This building is supported by enormous wooden pillars (the “stilts” of the title) and rests against a cliff, inside of which the monks have, over the centuries, excavated a system of tunnels containing chambers, foundries, workrooms, mines, temples and so on. Our adventurers are surprised by Norelle’s arrival there as well, brought to the monks, by one of their own, for her personal safety. During their weeks spent with the monks, our hardy band helps fight off an attack by the Voodoos; receives messages from a secret benefactor; is put on trial for various offenses; and is sentenced to death via a most ingenious method. Ultimately, Smith, Sullivan and Norelle find themselves uncomfortably caught between the monks on one side, the Yellow Queen’s maniacs on another, and Varney on still another, while Mt. Lazare, of course, gets closer and closer to blowing its sulphurous top…
Surprisingly well written and unfailingly exciting, The House on Stilts reveals Hazard to be a very fine author indeed, and readers will most likely come away from this book feeling a sense of regret that its creator never tried his/her hand at the craft again. Actually, Smith and Sullivan make for a terrific team – Smith being the timorous yet actually quite capable everyman, with Sullivan supplying the more brazen derring-do – and they could very easily have been the featured stars in a lengthy series of lost-world adventures … if only. Another surprising aspect of the novel is the slow realization that both Varney and the Yellow Queen, characters whom we initially assume will be major players in the story, are ultimately relegated to lesser status, while those Dumb Monks (I can’t help thinking that The Dumb Monks would be a great name for a rock band!) are promoted to major participants. Hazard peppers the novel with glints of occasional humor (such as when Larry says, “Our hosts are early risers,” Jack replies, “Who, the monks?” and Larry comes back with, “Who do you suppose – the New York fire department?”) and touches of grisly horror (such as a Spanish colonel, found dead in his bed, “the cot swarming with centipedes”).
And oh my goodness, how many exciting and well-depicted sequences the author (it’s just struck me that R.H. Hazard even has a name that’s suggestive of H.R. Haggard; could it be a pseudonym homage?) dishes out for his readers! Among the best: Smith stands on sentry duty, alone at night, in a remarkably suspenseful scene, waiting for the Yellow Queen’s forces to attack; that previously mentioned rescue of the maid’s young son; a daring rescue that Jack makes to save Larry from kidnappers; the escape from the voodoo priestess’ cavern; a tour of the monks’ labyrinth; the epic battle between the Voodoos and the monks, utilizing rocks, guns, fire, and molten copper; the battle to the death between Jack and Pietro, a lusty monk who’s set his sights on Norelle; and the capital punishment of Jack, Larry and Norelle, as they are tied to stakes with kindling all around them, set to be ignited by a crystal globe and the slowly advancing rays of the sun. And as if that weren’t enough, Hazard then treats us to four back-to-back-to-back-to back climaxes, featuring the ultimate fate of the monks, Varney’s capture, the final confrontation with the Yellow Queen and the monstrous Dog-Man, and that volcanic eruption, not to mention the revelation of Jack’s mysterious benefactor! It’s all tremendously entertaining stuff, and, had this novel been released around 20 years later, might have made perfect source material for a big-screen adaptation. Again, if only.
Now, writing in The San Francisco Call back in 1910, a critic noted that the book “is crowded to suffocation with incidents none of which has a mark of probability,” and it must be conceded that this is a fair statement, to a degree. The manner in which Varney disguises himself on the island, the revelation of that anonymous benefactor, and the manner of escape that Smith & Co. employ to leave the monks’ clifftop locale are all rather far-fetched, although, to be quite honest, the book is just so much fun that these details did not bother me. More problematic for this reader was the fact that we never definitively learn whether Joan’s voodoo powers are real or not (did she actually cause the storm that sank Varney’s and our heroes’ boats, and can she truly control Mt. Lazare’s eruptions?), just as we never learn the derivation of her title (we can only assume that it comes from her “light tan skin”). And especially problematic for a modern-day reader will be the book’s abundant instances of casual racism. Mrs. Pierson, thus, a proper Southern belle, early on says “…the Negroes nowadays are such an incompetent, trifling set – not at all to be compared with those we used to have before the [Civil] war.” Ouch! And then we have Norelle herself, who describes the queen’s followers as “…Voodoos – blacks – savages – cannibals … They are as low on the human scale as the aboriginal African stock from which they sprang…” H. Rider Haggard would never have written a line like that, and was always respectful of his many African characters. (In all fairness, Norelle also repeatedly grieves over all the native lives that are lost during the course of the book, which, incidentally, has a very high, practically universal, body count.) And, as Larry says to Jack in regard to his Spanish kidnappers, “I don’t see, for the life of me, how you ever got as far as you did with those three dagoes pumping lead into you…” Yes, I think you get the idea. Still, as I say, implausibilities and throwaway racist slurs aside, The House on Stilts remains a rollicking fine entertainment. I would love to be able to report that I now look forward to reading more of R.H. Hazard eventually; such a shame that this author was a case of “one and done.” But what a one it is! Eh, bien … guess I’ll just have to dive into another recent Armchair Lost World/Lost Race release, which will be, in this instance, Victor Rousseau’s The Sea Demons (1916). Stay tuned…
I am happy to report that R. H. Hazard is not only a male, but my great-grandfather, Robert Holmes Hazard (1869-1912).
He was born in Missouri and died in Washington, D. C.
He wrote more than just “the House on Stilts”…
He was (along with two other newspaper correspondants) the first newspapermen to be assigned the White House beat in 1895.
I have more, but I’ll leave that for later.
Thanks, Gary. I wish I’d had access to your personal store of knowledge about this talented author before I wrote this review. Information about him is virtually impossible to come by otherwise. Could you share the titles of some of his other works?
R. H. Hazard wrote “the Flickerscope” in 1897; “the Red Fez” in 1895; and with Arthur Grubb co-wrote “Theo” (not sure the year).
He was a personal friend and influence on Theodore Dreiser.
He plays a prominent role in the U. S. Senate investigation into lobbying practices in a 1913 investigation. Unfortunately, R. H. committed suicide on 1912.
His sister was the (at the time) famous vaudeville actress Grace Hazard (1875-1957). She was briefly married to film star Fred Duprez.
Thanks very much for this info, Gary! It would be nice to read more by this undervalued author!
Thanks for this information, Gary!
We’d love to know more!