Rediscovered: More Musings on Haggard

Every week or three the noted book and pulp collector Kevin Cook starts mulling over some bookish matter, and often enough it leads him to H. Rider Haggard:

It’s weird sometimes how references to one book or author show up multiple times in a short space of time. Arthur Machen wrote of his enjoyment of reading Sir Walter Scott in Far Off Things and then Robin H. Smiley wrote about Ivanhoe in his “Books into Films” column in the current issue of Firsts.

I had not given a single thought to Scott or Ivanhoe probably in decades, and then the subject comes up twice within one week. Just odd coincidence I guess.

I saw the movie, but still have no desire to struggle through the book. I recognize the importance of Scott and Alexander Dumas in the development of the adventure novel, but it is really hard to read through their 1,000+ page novels that move so slowly.

I am not a big H. Rider Haggard fan, but what Haggard did with King Solomon’s Mines was write an adventure novel that moved along at a faster pace with more action and less background detail piling up and slowing down the story, and his imitators followed suit.

I recall reading just a year or two ago how Tim Willocks stated that he eliminated about 1,500 pages from his first draft of The Twelve Children of Paris because it was all background information that he had researched about sixteenth century Paris that just bogged down the story he wanted to tell. In the mid-nineteenth century all those pages would have seen print!

In re: Haggard, neither I nor anyone else can underestimate the importance of She in lost race fiction or King Solomon’s Mines in adventure fiction.

Being important, however, does not always mean being good or even readable.

Look at all the pulp fanboys who gush over Carroll John Daly as the “creator” of hardboiled detective fiction — and equate him with Hammett. In terms of writing ability, that’s a joke of course. But he may have been first.

The truth of the matter with lost race fiction is that DeMille’s A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder was written before She but published shortly afterward. He too may have been first, but thus is such fame rewarded 140 years later. Hammett. Haggard. Most haven’t heard of Daly or DeMille.

Back to the original point, a number of Haggard’s imitators wrote better and far more vividly than he did, and eventually the genre moved over to America where Edgar Rice Burroughs took over and really made it exciting.

I will give you the classic case. Haggard wrote a novel titled People of the Mist. I have tried to read it twice, but it bores me less than a third of the way in.

Arthur A. Nelson took one slice of the plot and wrote Wings of Danger, an incredibly brilliant and exciting page-turning lost race extravaganza that is easily one of the two or three best lost race novels ever written. It’s a great favorite among Robert E. Howard fans, so you know with comparison to REH it can’t be boring!

There are numerous other examples of books where authors borrowed Haggard plot germs and wrote far, far better books than he did. I acknowledge his place in history, but please don’t try to make me read his books. The usually more-perceptive Deuce Richardson is a big Haggard fan. Curiously, others still find him readable as well.

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