The Valley of Eyes Unseen: A very fine novel in a sloppy presentation

The Valley of Eyes Unseen by Gilbert CollinsThe Valley of Eyes Unseen by Gilbert Collins

The Valley of Eyes Unseen by Gilbert CollinsIn 1933, English author James Hilton, at age 33, released his 13th novel, entitled Lost Horizon, in which a British diplomat named Conway, along with a few others, crash-lands in Tibet and discovers the lost people of Shangri-La. In the lamasery there, the process of aging had slowed down considerably, and indeed, the High Lama was ultimately revealed to be well over 200 years old! Hilton’s book was a tremendous success, was famously brought to the screen in 1937 with Ronald Colman starring as Conway, and has rarely – if ever – been out of print since its initial publication. But this famous best seller was hardly the first time that an English author had given the public a tale of a lost people being discovered in the trackless wastes of Tibet! Just 10 years earlier, Gilbert Collins, also 33 at the time, had released his second novel, The Valley of Eyes Unseen, in which a quintet of men discovers a hidden valley in that same land, populated by a race of similarly long-lived folk. But whereas Lost Horizon would go on to become one of the most beloved books of the 20th century, Collins’ novel would languish in obscurity for many decades, despite its abundant fine qualities, as will be seen.

The Valley of Eyes Unseen was originally released as a hardcover edition in 1923 by the British publisher Gerald Duckworth & Co.; the following year, another hardcover was released by the American house Robert M. McBride & Co. Twenty-eight years later, in the February ‘52 issue of Famous Fantastic Mysteries, the novel was reprinted once more, after which it would sadly go OOPs (out of prints) for almost seven decades, until the fine folks at Armchair Fiction opted to resurrect it for their ongoing Lost World/Lost Race series, in the fall of 2021. So yes, the book has been anything but a perennial best seller. As for the author, Gilbert Henry Collins was born in 1890 in Southampton, U.K., and, from 1919 – 1922, served in the British consulate in China. As a result, he became widely traveled throughout both that country and Japan, and put his firsthand knowledge to good use in his debut novel, 1922’s Flower of Asia: A Novel of Nihon (a thriller set in Japan), as well as in his second novel, the book in question. Collins would go on to pen at least 17 books, most of them adventures and mysteries, but several being on the subject of swimming, an activity at which the author was apparently highly proficient. Collins ultimately passed away in 1960.

His second novel, for the most part, takes the form of a manuscript written by a 36-year-old widower, Ronald Mirlees, an Orientalist who had hastily scribbled down the history of his last great adventure. Mirlees had subsequently been found dead in his hotel room in Shanghai, a look of terror contorting his face, and the cause of his death unknown. His manuscript had later been delivered to an old exploring buddy of his, Hugh Jevons, who tells us in his preface that he has finally decided to release it to the public, after a hiatus of more than 13 years. In that manuscript, Mirlees reveals that he had been bumming around the streets of Shanghai sometime before, and had chanced to enter a combination cabaret/opium den, where he had rescued a handsome Asian gent who was about to be attacked by some homicidal thugs. After escaping from the murderous fray, the Asian had brought Mirlees back to his home, where he had taken off his disguise, revealing himself to be a Westerner named Saunders Philipson. The two had decided to flee the city to escape from both the police and the Chinese secret society that was trying to eliminate Saunders. Thus, they had zipped down the city’s Whangpu River in Philipson’s motorboat, pursued and shot at by those thugs all the way to the East China Sea. But they had successfully eluded them, and proceeded up the Yangtze River to Nanking. At a small inn there, the pair had met a dandified Oxford chap named Stephen Poyning, a 21-year-old who was down on his luck and looking for adventure. And did Philipson ever have a doozy in mind!

Some years earlier, while trekking in Tibet, explorer Philipson had found an obo (that is, a monument mound of rock) that had been inscribed by a lost and dying lama. This inscription told of a nearby valley filled with “beings of ghostly face,” birds “bigger than the children of men,” and a river of white gems. Philipson had proposed that the men, accompanied by his manservants Ah Sing and Lo Eng, make the hazardous journey to find the hidden valley, with its possible fortune of jewels to be had. And so, after many travails, more run-ins with that pesky secret society, storms, attacks of altitude sickness, and punishing cold, the men had indeed discovered the lost land, a semitropical paradise completely surrounded by vertiginous mountains. The lost city there was called Hellas by its inhabitants, who, flabbergastingly enough, turned out to be the descendants of Alexander the Great! The handsome Philipson had been warmly welcomed by the enormously statured and well-favored inhabitants, and indeed had been hailed as the reincarnation of Alexander himself! (In another lost world/lost race book that I’d recently experienced, Patrick and Terence Casey’s The Strange Story of William Hyde, from 1916, the protagonist was greeted by another newly discovered people as the son of Genghis Khan!) The other men, apparently, had been merely tolerated, although they had, after some time, been shown the manifold wonders of superscience that the folks of Hellas had contrived over the centuries. But trouble had arisen when Poyning was charged with a cardinal crime, and he and Mirlees held as prisoners awaiting trial. Thus, Mirlees had decided to make a solo escape attempt from the valley (after Poyning’s decision to remain), despite the odds in that Himalayan wilderness being very much against him…

The Valley of Eyes Unseen by Gilbert CollinsThe Valley of Eyes Unseen is a novel that cleaves into two fairly discrete halves, the first dealing with the men coming together and arriving at Hellas, and the second detailing the marvels that they find therein. Both halves, however, are fast moving, exciting, fascinating and highly picturesque. Collins, as it turns out, was a very fine writer, supplying the reader with passages of well-rendered dialogue and much realistic detail (such as the tea and melon pips that Mirlees is served in that opium den, and the lorchas and wupans that he observes on the Yangtze). Our three leading men are all likeable and nicely differentiated; the revelations concerning two of them, and the secret agendas that they are harboring, come as nice surprises, and their backstories should prove to be of great interest. Surprisingly, this is a lost-race novel in which a priesthood is completely absent, and with the exception of two females in Hellas who play very minor roles, there are no women to be found in the book either. I must say that these two exclusions from a genre novel of this sort proved very refreshing. But Collins does give his readers a captivating historical background story concerning the founding of the city 2,300 years ago, and, for the lovers of sci-fi back in the Radium Age, any number of fascinating wonders of superscience. Thus, we witness a device that the lost people have developed that can bring the seemingly dead back to life; both nonmechanical and power-driven slip-on wings that enable the people to soar and swoop like birds; the use of advanced hypnosis; the ability to project one’s astral self, enabling the folk to observe other parts of the world while laying supine in their Hall of Wandering Souls (the “eyes unseen” of the title, I take it); a miraculous bathing water for instantly healing aches and pains (I could use some of that stuff myself right now!); light sources that can somehow pass through solid walls; balcony parapets designed to function as telescopes; the ability to cure a broken ankle in three days; and the ability to slay using the power of the mind alone.

For those fans of fast-moving action sequences, Collins dishes out some marvelous ones, such as that wild brawl in the Shanghai opium den; the high-speed chase down the Whangpu River; Poyning’s description of his adventures back in Shanghai, to which Philipson sends him on a mission to prove his mettle; the attack of an enemy junk on our heroes as they make their way up the Yangtze; the hazardous Himalayan trek to the hidden valley, including a monstrous and bizarre storm; a terrible avalanche that comes close to killing three of the men; and finally, Mirlees’ winged escape from Hellas, through another killer storm, while being pursued by a group of similarly winged – and very angry – men from the hidden valley. And Collins even manages to sneak in a nice bit of social commentary, when Kalliboas, their nonagenarian guide (very old, but not nearly as ancient as the High Lama in Hilton’s book) and one of the city’s most important citizens, tells them:

“…Well we know how your peoples have lived and died in a squalid turmoil of cruelty and hatred and intolerance; how you have spurned and persecuted your wise and noble, and exalted your knaves; how jealousy and suspicion are rife among your races, how far you yet stand below the ideals our great founder held. But not wholly profitless are the soul-wanderings of our wise ones. Through them we learn of the few discoveries made by your few philosophers – though in truth there is little you discover which was not already known to us many centuries ago…”

All told, this is a virtually flawless performance from Gilbert Collins, and his book is a rock-solid contribution to the lost-race canon. As Jevons writes of Mirlees’ manuscript, “…never before in the history of written words could so strange, so incredible, yet withal so convincing a record of events have been placed on paper … the most remarkable record of human experience ever set down in black and white…” A bit of hyperbole, perhaps, but still, this remains a very fine book, indeed.

Actually, there are only two very minor quibbles that I would lodge against Mr. Collins’ work here. First, I’m not sure that Jevons’ decision to finally publish the manuscript of his dead friend, after a period of 13 years, is ever adequately explained to us. And second, if the city of Chinkiang lies on the southern bank of the Yangtze, shouldn’t it lie off the men’s port bow, not starboard, as they sail upstream? But what do I know? Unlike the author, I’ve never even set foot in China before. And oh … one more thing. Although at first glance this Armchair edition is a very handsome one, featuring beautifully faithful cover art and interior illustrations by the great Virgil Finlay (all of which had appeared in the 1952 reissue), be forewarned that the volume is another hopelessly sloppy one, typographywise, from this often slipshod company. To be succinct, typos are legion in the book, especially as regards punctuation and the indiscriminate substitutions of commas for periods and vice versa. And OMG, how many excess commas have been thrown in here, for no good reason? Or is this really the way author Collins punctuated the following sentence: “But the really astonishing, thing about it was the speed with, which, it was approaching.”? When will the folks at Armchair hire a good proofreader already?!?! After almost 70 years of neglect, a very fine novel such as The Valley of Eyes Unseen surely deserves a much more respectful presentation! Anyway, even reading this messy edition was a pleasure for me, and I have thus become an instant fan of Mr. Gilbert Collins. I see that two years after this book’s initial release, he came out with another lost-world affair, the 1925 novel entitled The Starkenden Quest. Wish me luck as I endeavor to find a nice, unabridged copy of this one at a decent price…

Published in 1923. Armchair fiction presents extra-large paperback editions of the best in classic science fiction novels. “The Valley of Eyes Unseen” by Gilbert Collins is the 34th installment of our “Lost World-Lost Race Classics” series. Beyond the caravan trails that wind through the most treacherous desolation of Northern China, and past the mountain ranges that formed a vast frozen sea of snowy waves, lay the valley home of an ancient race, hidden from the world—or at least, that is what Sanders Philipson had hoped. Upon learning of the legends of devils with ghostly faces, flying beast birds that were larger than man, and white glittering gems that filled the rivers, Philipson knew that he would risk everything to discover the secrets of this forbidden valley. But he would soon encounter a secret society that would rather send him to his doom than have their secrets revealed. But he was not alone in his efforts as he would find trustworthy and valued friends in Orientalist Ronald Mirlees and academic Stephen Poyning. Together these three men would risk their lives and sanity in a wild trek for prestige, truth, and riches beyond their wildest dreams!

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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8 comments

  1. I want a set of the wings!

  2. Starting with the phrase “Philipson had proposed,” shouldn’t the rest of that paragraph be in simple past tense rather than past perfect, since it’s no longer talking about his original discovery years before, but about the rest of the plot of the book?

    • Sandy Ferber /

      If that’s all you’ve taken away from this review, Mike, I have failed at my mission. Anyway, I’ve read the paragraph over and can see nothing wrong with it.

    • Sandy Ferber /

      And don’t forget, all the action in the book takes the form of a 13-year-old MS; the past perfect is surely an acceptable form for its description….

    • Sandy Ferber /

      And everything is CONSISTENTLY in the same tense, something I always have to go back to check on myself. No, it all looks fine to me. But as a fellow copy editor and proofreader of some 40+ years standing, I appreciate your concern….

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