An Ongoing Exploration into the Many Worlds of Early 20th-Century Escapist Literature

An Ongoing Exploration into the Many Worlds of Early 20th-Century Escapist Literature -- Crime and Adventure, Fantasy and Science-Fiction, Horror and Weird

Monday, October 28, 2013

"The Man Who Would Be King" -- Rudyard Kipling (THE PHANTOM RICKSHAW AND OTHER EERIE TALES, 1988)

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 narrator of the story (or rather, the framing story), unnamed by clearly a stand-in for Kipling himself, is crossing through India, broke but with no loss of enthusiasm for life.  In this state, he encounters two men, Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnehan, two adventurers ("Loafers," they call themselves) whom he stops from blackmailing a minor rajah.  Some time thereafter, Dravot and Carnehan stop in to see him at the newspaper office he's found himself working at in India.  Dravot and Carnehan want a favor from the unnamed narrator; bearing him no ill will for having spoiled their earlier plans, they ask his help in researching the area of Kafiristan, an obscure corner of Afghanistan.  In so doing, they reveal a plan they've conceived: They intend to make themselves kings of Kafiristan.  Armed with Dravot's skill with languages and 20 Martini-Henry rifles (at the time, the best rifles in the world), they intend to befriend a chieftain, help him vanquish his enemies, and then overthrow him and forge a kingdom of their own.

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?

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