Friday, March 29, 2013

FFB: The Starkenden Quest - Gilbert Collins

My write-up a few weeks ago of Dennis Wheatley's The Man Who Missed the War mentioned in passing that it shares something with books of the "lost race" subgenre of adventure stories, but it happens to be one of the more outrageous examples. This week's book, The Starkenden Quest (1925), is instead an anthropological treatment of the subgenre. There is a chapter entitled "The Mystery of the Ages" in which one of the more mysterious characters reveals his professorial background in a long lecture that manages to epitomize all of the philosophies of the lost race theme. It is a near desperate attempt to link all humans via religion, culture, mythology and race to one origin. The lecture almost convinces me that Collins was the Joseph Campbell of his day.

Down on his luck and down to his last few shillings, our narrator John Crayton finds himself marooned in Yokohama at the Four Winds Hotel. A financial disaster has nearly wiped out his bank account back home in England and he needs a job quickly in order to pay his hotel bill or risk jail in Japan. A fortuitous encounter with the shady and morose Abel Starkenden in a local bar changes his luck.

Starkenden has just single-handedly fought off a group of carousing and offensive sailors. Crayton is impressed by the fighting -- a combination of verbal assault and agile fisticuffs -- and he sidles up to Starkenden for a chat.  The conversation soon turns to Crayton's sorry state of affairs, his pathetic scouring of the want ads, and Starkenden's very strange job offer.  He asks Crayton to join him as a member of his team of explorers and will pay him £300 plus expenses throughout the journey. If Crayton accepts the position, Starkenden will also pay the outstanding hotel bill and release him from that obligation. What choice does he have really? He agrees and later at Starkenden's hilltop home in a British settlement in Yokohama he meets Gregory Hope who was similarly recruited as part of the team. The two listen to a series of legends and anecdotes about the Starkenden family and their ties to ancient mysteries and relics first discovered by his Norse ancestors.  Crayton and Hope find their lives almost immediately transformed from the lackluster to the astonishing.

The three set off in search of Starkenden's brother Felix who was abducted by a savage race known as the "devil men of the hills."  Armed only with an old map from Felix' one time exploring partner Starkenden is determined to find not only his brother, but the source of a hidden treasure trove of odd gems that emanate a powerful blue light that he calls "eyestones."  They are harder than diamonds and extremely rare which he believes make them the most valuable jewel on Earth.  Should they locate the source of the eyestones all three of them will be rich for the rest of their lives.

Initially, Gilbert Collins' third novel appears to be just another in a long line of quest adventures similar to the work of Haggard, Bedford-Jones and all the Indiana Jones movies.  Among the many set pieces Starkenden and his two explorers-for-hire encounter are a run-in with Chinese pirates, crossing a raging river of white rapids in a most unusual fashion, and travelling through an ancient cavern equipped with a lantern made from a human skull. But it is their encounter with Starkenden's arch enemy Coningham that changes the team's intended plans. Coningham is seen in the company of Marah Starkenden, daughter of the explorer, and the trio believe she has been kidnapped. The object of the quest then immediately turns to rescuing Marah from the clutches of a man described as treacherous and evil. When they finally meet face to face in a cavern that is home to the lost race (ah, there it is!) of the Ktawrh, fearsome and dwarfish ape-like creatures, there will be multiple surprises in store for the explorers and the reader.  No one is who they say they are, assumed identities are unmasked, roles are reversed, and the novel becomes both a crime story and a fantasy adventure all at once.

For me what raises this above your standard She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed style of lost race tale (yes, there is a white goddess-like character) is the setting of Southeast Asia and Collins' painstaking detail to the geography, culture, superstitions and religions of that part of the world. Nothing is wholly made up here, much of it is based on facts circa 1925. In many lost race novels we mostly get imaginative fancies, absurd leaps in logic, monsters and weird creatures. While there is still an element of imaginative fantasy much of the story owes its success to Collins' insightful inclusion of anthropological discoveries and Darwinian theory.  I wouldn't recommend the book to a Creationist, that's for sure.

While E.F. Bleiler finds too much similarity to Haggard in The Starkenden Quest and criticizes its verbose length and complex plot (faults I am willing to forgive more easily) he praises Collin's other lost race novel Valley of the Eyes Unseen which he touts as "a convincing story of geographical adventure with adult detail, and an excellently imagined fantastic situation in Hellas."  I think the same can be said of The Starkenden Quest with the mere substitution of Indochina as the last word. Collins is well worth investigating for readers who like intelligent rousing adventures.

The Starkenden Quest was popular enough in its day to merit being reprinted in the pulp magazine Famous Fantastic Mysteries in the October 1949 issue. Several illustrations by the phenomenally talented Virgil Finlay are used from that issue for this post. Valley of the Eyes Unseen was also reprinted in a 1952 issue of the same magazine.  I suspect they both underwent extensive abridgement.

In 1930 after publication of three adventure novels Collins turned his writing to crime and detective fiction. He was born in 1900, but I could only trace his bibliography from 1922 to 1937.  I have no idea if he abandoned writing in the 1940s or if he died extremely young, perhaps one of the many casualities of World War 2. Any other info on Collins is greatly appreciated. I plan on reviewing one more lost race book and a few of his detective novels in the coming months.

Gilbert Collins Bibliography
Flower of Asia (1922)
Valley of the Eyes Unseen (1923)
The Starkenden Quest (1925)
Post-Mortem (1930)
Horror Comes to Thripplands (1930)
The Phantom Tourer (1931)
     US title: Murder at Brambles
The Channel Million (1932)
Chinese Red (1932)
      US title: Red Death
The Dead Walk (1933)
Death Meets the King's Messenger (1934)
The Poison Pool (1935)
The Haven of Unrest (1936)
The Mongolian Mystery (1937)
Mystery in St. James Square (1937)


  1. A writer I'm definitely going to have to check out!

  2. Another new author for me John bu certainly sounds appetising - and the illustrations are wonderfully good. I read a lot of stuff liek this in my teens but it's probably been 30 years since I really read an honest-to-goodness lost world novel (I bought Crichton's CONGO but never got round to reading it). Cheers mate.

  3. For those interested, the two issues of Famous Fantastic Mysteries are online here:

    1. I figured those were somewhere out there in cyberspace. Thanks for the link, Jerry.

  4. Virgil Finley is a wonder. You might be interested in these illustrations he did for Arthur Stringer's The Woman Who Wouldn't Die - another "lost race" novel - published in Famous Fantastic Mysteries twelve months later.

    1. I used to have that issue of FFM, but I sold it. Sometimes I can kick myself for the things I got rid of just because I wanted money for a vacation. I still have three Stringer books in my TBR pile. Hope to get to writing about him soon.

    2. I shudder when I think of what was left behind in my moves between Montreal and Vancouver, Vancouver and Toronto, Toronto and Vancouver, Vancouver and Ottawa, and Ottawa and little St Marys, Ont. They charge for these things by weight, you know.

      I have a couple of Stringers - Manhandled and Empty Hands - on my own TBR pile. I'm sure to get to at least one this year... so I tell myself.

  5. Another one for the "To Read" pile.


  6. Fantastic post, John! I love a good "lost world/race" adventure tale and yet have never heard of Collins before your piece. Will be seeking this sucker out ASAP - thanks!