The King of the Dead by Frank Aubrey
As I have written elsewhere, Armchair Fiction’s current 24-book Lost World/Lost Race series is a godsend for all readers who enjoy this particular subgenre of fantastic literature, as jump-started and popularized by English author H. Rider Haggard in the mid-1880s. I’ve recently written about two of these 24, David Douglas’ The Silver God of the Orang Hutan and John Taine’s The Purple Sapphire, and now would like to offer some words about another of these terrifically entertaining outings, and one that predates them both: The King of the Dead, by English author Frank Aubrey. Aubrey, whose real name was Francis Henry Atkins, and who also released other pieces of fantasy and sci-fi under such pseudonyms as Frank Atkins, Fenton Ash and Fred Ashley, was already 56 when he released this, his third novel (out of an eventual 14), in 1903. The book made its initial appearance as a hardcover released by the British publisher John MacQueen; 75 years later, Arno Press released it as a $20 hardcover. And so, this current Armchair Fiction release is only the book’s third incarnation in 116 years … and a most welcome one, indeed. A highly pleasing amalgam of lost world/lost world tropes, jungle adventure, fantasy, superscience and horror, this page-turner practically busts a gut to guarantee a rousing good time … and succeeds marvelously, at that.
The book introduces us to two chums who are currently living on the Isle of Wight: 30-year-old Gordon Leslie and 25-year-old Arnold Neville. The two are both engineers, but whereas Leslie is a confirmed bachelor, Neville is currently engaged to the beautiful Beryl Atherton. Recently, Leslie had returned from a dangerous assignment in Brazil, where he’d been rescued from bloodthirsty Indians by a mysterious personage who called himself Don Lorenzo. Lorenzo had even given Leslie a lift “across the pond” on his magnificent yacht, whose propulsive power the engineer had never been able to discover. Once in England, the enormously wealthy Lorenzo had become the toast of London, and upon meeting Neville, had become instantly fascinated by the young man, to the point of insisting that he return with him to Brazil to work on an undisclosed project. But Beryl manages to convince her fiancé to reject the offer, saying that she both greatly fears and instinctively mistrusts the South American. Thus, when Arnold finally does decline Lorenzo’s offer, there ensues something of a scene, although the disappointed millionaire ultimately does seem to accept the young man’s rejection with some grace.
But the two Englishmen soon learn the way things really stand, when Lorenzo forcibly kidnaps Beryl and her matronly aunt, and takes them back to his homeland: the wholly unknown kingdom of Myrvonia, hidden atop a plateau that is surrounded by a wilderness of Brazilian swamp and forest. Lorenzo has left explicit directions so that the two men may follow, and thus, the game is afoot. Ultimately, our intrepid rescuers do indeed make their way to the hidden land, in a story that manages to conflate a self-exiled king (Manzoni, whom Leslie finds living in the Brazilian wilderness along with his lovely daughter Rhelma), a mad priestess (Alloyah, the betrothed of Lyostrah, which, as it turns out, is Lorenzo’s actual name), a wondrous, flowering plant with electrical properties … and an audacious plot to revive the mummified bodies that lie in the Myrvonian crypts, and so create an irresistible army of the living dead…
As for those five disparate genres that The King of the Dead manages to subsume into one pleasing stew, let’s take them one by one. The lost world/lost race element is nicely represented by the land of Myrvonia itself, an idyllic paradise of sorts that sits high above the primordial swamp beneath it, unsuspected by the outside world. It is a realm free of the terrible jungle heat and inimical animal and insect life below; a virtual heaven filled with friendly and peaceful people. The book’s jungle adventure aspect is well represented by Leslie and Neville’s hazardous and grueling trek to reach Myrvonia, during which author Aubrey regales the reader with convincing descriptions of flora and fauna, many of which are taken from verbatim quotes from books by such noted South American explorers as Sir Robert Schomburgk and W. H. Hudson.
As for fantasy, Aubrey gives us the character of Rhelma, a child of nature who is rarely seen without her enormous white puma, Myllio; the priestess Alloyah, the reclusive yet beauteous madwoman who plots and schemes in her Temple of Dornanda; and the fact that Manzoni and Lyostrah are able to summon what seem to be seraphim, of both good and evil bent, in times of dire necessity. As for superscience, Lyostrah, early on, impresses Neville with an advanced form of wireless telegraphy, a bulletproof garment, an early form of air conditioner (remember, this book was written in 1903), an “opera glass” device that allows the wearer to envision images sent from Lyostrah’s mind, and several demonstrations of hypnotism and long-distance mental control. And then there is the “Mylondos” plant itself, whose galvanic energies can stimulate the dead back to life, and which contain a property that Manzoni calls “red rays,” a concentrated form of which can endow a man with superhuman strength, and even serve as a Fountain of Youth of sorts!
And finally, as for horror, the army of the living dead that Lyostrah and Alloyah have created is quite horrific indeed, and described in great and gruesome detail by the author. And this army becomes even more horrendous when its members are shown to have a new propensity for hunting down innocent Myrvonians and biting their throats out! The King of the Dead is indeed often quite nightmarish in quality, perhaps never more so than in the nighttime scene in which Leslie and a friendly Myrvonian spy on the priestess’ temple, and see her issuing forth in a canoe rowed by a crew of the dead…
So yes, Aubrey’s book manages to succeed on all five fronts, blending its elements skillfully into a unified whole. The novel is a longish one, but never dull, and Aubrey himself turns out to be a fine, stylish writer, with a tendency to overwriting and a marked proclivity toward unnatural — but nevertheless, delightful to read — dialogue. (More on this in a moment.) At one point, early in the novel, Lorenzo tells Arnold “… ‘the novel of adventure’ is ‘about played out,’ because … the blank spaces on the map of Africa having been pretty well filled in, writers have no longer any land wherein their characters can discover an unknown city with any air of plausibility…” And perhaps this is why Aubrey decided to set his third novel in the wilds of South America, rather than Africa. Whatever the case, this is indeed a significant contribution to the lost world/lost race genre, and one that all fans should surely enjoy.
Still, as usual, there are some sticking points that prevent me from giving The King of the Dead a perfect grade. Those highly unnatural conversations, fun as they are, can be a problem. Take, for instance, Beryl telling Arnold of her suspicions regarding Don Lorenzo:
It is a mystery; a most strange, most inexplicable mystery. And for that reason it has caused me misgivings, and imbued my mind with vague apprehensions of which I am very conscious, but which I am altogether unable to define in words to my own satisfaction…
I wish everybody was able to converse with such well-worded verbiage; perhaps this is still another fantasy aspect of Aubrey’s book! And really, when was the last time that you used the word “viz” (short for “videlicet,” or “that is to say”) in conversation? I know that I never have, and yet here we have no fewer than two characters doing so! Very strange. And while I’m carping, I may as well point out how unlikely it is that nightfall should arrive before suppertime, in July, in England. I also had a tough time picturing Gordon and Neville’s river trip to the top of the 12,000-foot-high plateau on which Myrvonia rests (!), and could not understand how a journey to Rio from Myrvonia could possibly be “easier and shorter” than the route that our adventurers took when arriving (through British Guiana; Myrvonia seemed to be pretty close to the Guyanese border). But these, I suppose, are mere quibbles.
Finally, I would like to say a word about this Armchair Fiction edition itself. Whereas the two other books that I’d read from this Oregon-based publisher had contained a good many typos, this book, my favorite of the three, was, unfortunately, the worst in that respect. I corrected all the typos as I went along, in ink, for any potential future readers, and looking back, see that practically every single page contains at least a few. Many of these are of the punctuational variety, with dozens of extraneous commas occurring where they shouldn’t be (for example, “As they, entered this Hall of Light…”), missing periods and commas, single quotes instead of double, and so on. Simple typos are also rampant, and there must be well over 100 instances of the word “of” being spelled “or.” Thus, “rendezvous” is spelled “rendevoua,” “making” becomes “malting,” “throng” becomes “throne,” “hushed” becomes “bushed,” “latter” becomes “better,” “engendered” becomes “endangered,” “long” becomes “Ions,” “blotting” becomes “abutting,” and, in one place, “Rhelma” becomes “Beryl”! But perhaps this edition’s worst typo of all sits right on the very front cover, in the line “A Forgotten Lost Race Classic From 1907.” Oy, gevalt … it should be 1903! So yes, the typography of the book is a mess, requiring the reader to very often use his or her best judgment as regards the author’s intent. It is obvious to me that this book was never proofread after it was typeset, constituting an insult of sorts to Armchair’s paying customers. I have a great respect for what this publisher is trying to do, and applaud its efforts to bring back into print these forgotten wonders of decades ago, but do so wish that it would exercise a bit more care and attention before bringing its products to market.
I have already purchased a number of those other Lost World/Lost Race novels in Armchair’s current series, and am hoping that the others are more reader friendly than this one. Frank Aubrey’s The King of the Dead deserves so much better. My next book to be read is actually Frank Aubrey’s The Temple of Fire (1905), and I do have high hopes for it … and its typography, as well. Stay tuned…
Could the single quotes be the publisher using British style instead of American? (I’m trying to buy them an “out” somewhere!)
No, nothing like that, Marion. This is a hash of a whole different order….
Oh, well. I tried to help them out.
Volunteer to be their proofreader. That would be the biggest help you could possibly offer! 😂
Ha! That’s funny, but Sandy, you’ve read my column. Me being their proof-reader would not be much help at all!