Ah, Kipling. I admit a certain fascination with the Victorian era, especially with the spread of the British Empire through its colonial holdings (a fascination aided and abetted, no doubt, by lingering family stories of an ancestor who, while serving with the British army in India, learned how to swallow live frogs - a talent he used to con people into buying him drinks every night at the pub once back in England), and as such, the writings of Kipling have always held some amount of fascination for me. I can recite "Gunga Din" from memory (and my love for the 1939 film adaptation always surprises people who know me only through my writings on horror films) and more than once in my life I've psyched myself up for a bad day at school or work with an inspirational morning reading of "If--". Today's story was quite memorably filmed in 1975 with Sir Sean Connery and Sir Michael Caine in the leading roles, and I was quite pleased at the opportunity to read it. I offer you the story via Project Gutenberg, to enjoy as well.
The next morning, the narrator sees Dravot and Carnehan off as they leave for Kafiristan.
Three years later, Carnehan crawls into the narrator's office, his hair stark white, his face haggard and drawn, his sanity shattered. Bolstered by a sip or three of whiskey, Carnehan tells the story of how they became kings in Kafiristan -- or at least, how Dravot became a king in Kafiristan -- and how it was all shot to hell in an instant...
I will be the first to admit this is hardly proper "pulp" in terms of time-period, but with its exotic locale and hare-brained winner-take-all scheme, and the horrific violence that breaks out when it all falls apart, it's a story that has the heart of pulp. Men shattered by their experiences and cruel tortures inflicted by strange foreigners were staples of pulp literature, and Kipling's take on them here is masterfully chilling.
More impressive is the story's basis in fact -- James "Rajah" Brooke accomplished exactly what Dravot and Carnehan set out to do, and was referenced in the story; Brooke had made himself ruler of the state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo and not only maintained his kingship, but cleared out nest after nest of Malay pirates, making the area safe for British commerce. One of my favorite pieces of "new pulp" is Paul Malmont's The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril, in which the question of where the line stands between what is "real" and what is "pulp" forms a major running debate threading through the action, and "The Man Who Would Be King," for my money, is a perfect example of that line. In a world of real-life Dravots like James Brooke, William Walker and Cecil Rhodes, who's to say what's real and what's pulp?