A Review: Pt. III She by H. Rider Haggard

November 25, 2009

 

A Contribution To The

ERBzine  ERB Library Project

She

by

H. Rider Haggard

Review by R.E. Prindle

Part III

The Gruesome, The Morbid AndThe  Hideous

     Rider Haggard was criticized severely by certain of his contemporaries for employing so many gruesome, morbid and hideous details.  Indeed, ‘ She’ seems to be a study in the hideous, the gruesome and the morbid.  If one concentrates on those aspects of the story one might actually question Haggard’s mental health.

     Haggard himself calls attention to this morbidity.  In King Solomon’s Mines he pointed out  his humor with references to the Ingoldsby Legends; in She he makes a pointed reference to a Mark Tapley.  I had no idea who Mark Tapley might be but thought I’d consult that most magnificent of encyclopedias, the internet.  No problem.   Mark Tapley was a character from Charles Dickens’  Martin Chuzzlewit.  No matter how adverse the circumstances were Tapley was always cheerful and ebullient.  Haggard must have thought him ridiculous.  Thus he is devising a series of incidents that would bring even Mark Tapley down.  Hmm.  Interesting experiment.

     It would seem then that Haggard was suffering from a fairly deep depression.  In that sense She is sort of a horror story not too different in intent than, say, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  Indeed,  at one point Ayesha explains that she rules by terror.  That being the most effective way to control brutes like the Amahagger.

     Certainly the storm at sea prior to entering Kor was an example of terror on the part of nature, a portent of things to come.   Not least of these was the hot potting and projected cannibalism of the surviving member of the ship’s crew, Mohammed.  ‘She’ had only required the safety of the Whites; as Mohammed was apparently a negrified Arab the Amahagger excluded him from the ban on Whites.  An interesting example of White Skin privilege.

     Their custom of killing their victims was to heat a pot red hot and turn it over on the victim’s head.  There’s a gruesome and hideous enough example.  You can see where Burroughs picked up his fascination for the gruesome and hideous.

     The Caves of Kor are actually a city of the dead.  Kor was an active civilization before Egypt existed  in the fifth or sixth millennium BC.  As embalming was a known practice when the Dynasties began c. 3400 the practice must have developed long before.  Quite possibly it was practiced by the peoples of the Basin before the Mediterranean was flooded.  In The World’s Desire Haggard mentions that the ancient Egyptians possessed writings in a precedent language.  If so, how far back things like embalming go might be prodigious.

     Egyptian embalming was primitive compared to that of the Korians.   While Egyptian mummies became desicated the Korian process was such that the body was preserved forever in an apparent state of health.  Thus bodies perhaps ten thousand years old or older had the appearance of  freshness. 

     Now, this is positively creepy.  Holly’s Amahagger attendent Bilalli while discussing Korian embalming  told Holly that while he was a young man a particularly beautiful female corpse occupied the very slab on which Holly slept.  Bilalli used to enter the cell and sit looking admiringly on the beautiful corpse by the hour.  One day his mother caught him at it.  The embalming fluid used was extremely flammable.  Bilalli’s mother stood the body up and lit it.  Like a huge torch the body burned down to the feet.  The feet were still as good as new.  Bilalli wrapped them and stored them beneath Holly’s slab.  Groping around beneath the slab he brought out those ten thousand year old feet, still fresh, except for some charring at the ankles.

     Haggard doesn’t stop there but goes on to emphasize the beauty of one particular foot.  One wonders if perhaps George Du Maurier read She becoming entranced by the foot image thus reproducing the image in his novel Trilby when Little Billee draws Trilby’s beautiful foot on th wall.  It is a thing Du Maurier would do as he inserted his literary baggage as profusely as Burroughs.

     What effect this image had on Haggard’s contemporary readers may be guessed from the complaints about his gruesomeness.

     In fact Haggard projects a depressed brooding evil permeating the Caves of Kor very well.  This may have been caused by his and Lang’s theories of the Matriarchy.  Human sacrifice was an integral part of the Matriarchal world.  The sacrifices were invariably of men because women had greater economic value.  When men were no longer sacrificed bulls, rams, the males of the species were substituted, the female still having greater economic value.  Thus the story of Isaac and the Ram.  That would be a great advance in civilization.  About that time Isis ceased being the Egyptian symbol of the firmament being replaced by the female cow as the symbol of economics.  Something like the kings of England sitting on the woolsack.

     Depending on Haggard’s and Lang’s theories of the Matriarchy then Haggard may have been portraying a consciousness that has ceased to exist.  There is always an element of misogyny in Haggard’s stories that is no longer tolerated.  Then men were men and women were women instead of the attempted strange unisexuality of today.  Thus the tens of miles of swamp between the Amahagger quarters  and the citadel of Kor indicate the extent and quality of the Matriarchy.  Swamps are the symbol of the female and the Matriarchy or, in other words, this very primitive superstitious consciousness.

     The Korian swamp was haunted by mephitic vapors, evil smelling and oppressive.  The ground they walked on was of uncertain solidity; it might look firm but this was only illusory as one could break through the crust.  Often the litter bearers were walking through evil smelling muck up to their knees.

     At one point an accident occurs and Bilalli’s litter with him in it is dumped into the slimy water.  He would have drowned if Holly hadn’t leaped into the rank female waters to save him.  They emerge looking something like the creature from the Black Lagoon.

     It will be remembered that Holly was something of a misogynist.  One may be stretching a point but even though rejecting women and marriage Holly managed to inherit a son from a man who was also a womanless widower.  Haggard makes a strong contrasting point when he says that Leo was not averse to female company.  The manservant, Job, is absolutely terrified of the female.

     After traversing this desolate swamp of the female for days they arrive at the citadel or temple of Kor.  Now, the citadel of Kor was built on an ancient lake bed that had been drained ten thousand years before.  In that sense Ayesha is the same as Nimue or the Lady Of The Lake of King Arthur.  Nemue lived at the bottom of a lake where she raised Lanclot who consequently was called Lancelot of the Lake.

     Compare this also with Haggard’s postumously published Treasure of the Lake in which the Anima figure lives on an island in the middle of  a lake in the middle of a volcanic crater.  The lake of Kor was also in the middle of a crater.

     When the Korian civilization was extinguished it wasn’t by invasion or other external reasons but by a  monster plague something like the fourteenth century european Black Death that wiped out nearly everyone.  At the resulting rate of death it wasn’t possible to embalm everyone so that tens of thousands of bodies were dumped into a huge subterranean pit.

     In conducting Holly and Leo on a guided tour of Kor which was one gigantic necropolis, talk about depressing, Ayesha brings them to this pit.  I quote:

     Accordingly I followed (She) to a side passage opening out of the main cave, then down a great number of steps, and along an underground shaft that cannot have been less than sixty feet beneath the surface of the rock, and was ventilated by curious borings that ran upward, I do not know where.  Suddenly this passage ended, and Ayesha halted, bidding the mutes return, and, as she prophesied, I saw a scene such as I was not likely to behold again.  We were standing in an enormous pit, or rather on the brink of it, for it went down deeper- I do not know how much- than the level on which we stood, and was edged in with a low wall of rock.  So far as I could judge, this was about the size of the space beneath the dome of St. Paul’s in London, and when the lamps were held up I saw that it was nothing but one vast charnel-house, being literally fullof thousands of human skeletons, which lay piled up in an enormous gleaming pyramid, formed by the slipping down of the bodies at the apex as others were dropped in from above.  Anything more appalling than this mass of human remains of a departed race I  cannot imagine, and what made it even more dreadful was that in this dry air a considerable number of bodies had become dessicated with the skin still on them, and now, fixed in every conceivable position, stared at us out of a mountain of white bones, grotesquely horrible caricatures of humanity.  In my astonishment I uttered an ejaculation, and the echoes of my voice, ringing in that vaulted space, disturbed a skull which hd been accurately balanced for many thousands of years near the apex of the pile.  Down it came with a run, bounding along merrily towards us, and of course bringing an avalanche of other bones after it, till at last the whole pit rattled with their movement, even as though the skeletons were rising up to greet us.

          Talk about a holocaust!  Imagine standing in that dimly lit space far beneath ground, in the grave itself so to speak,and viewing that.  Holly was overcome and perhap Mark Tapley himself would have lost a little of his cheeriness.  If that didn’t do it the ball Ayesha threw would have.

    Before I move on to that though let’s take a penultimate example that might actually unsettle Mark Tapley.  This is truly unsettling with truly macabre and voyeuristic soft porn details that are quite remarkable.    Let me say that it is only with the fourth reading that the horrific nature of these details really began to sink in.  I hope to really make this clear in the next section in which I intend to do an in depth analysis of Ayesha.

     In his cell at the citadel of Kor Holly notices a cleft in the wall he hadn’t noticed before.  This cleft is going to lead him to Ayesha’s sleeping room.  This is not unlike King Solomon’s Mines in which upon  entering the symbolic vagina  they were led to the womb or treasure box.  As I say Holly entered this cleft, let your imagination dwell on that,  and followed a dark, dank, narrow corridor until he perceived a light.

     He is looking into Ayesha’s sleeping room where in a certain deshabille, very erotic, she is addressing a covered form on a bier next to hers.  This is the embalmed body of Kallicrates who she murdered twenty-two hundred years before.  So she has been sleeping with this corpse for twenty-two centuries.  Now, dwell on that for moment, let the horror of it sink in.

     She addresses the corpse in a fairly demented way.  Twenty-two hundred years of this would drive anybody nuts.  Finally to the dismay of Holly she animates the body by telekinetic powers actually causing it to stand zombie like so she can kiss and caress it.  A lot of necrophilia in this novel.  Haggard must have been half dotty when he wrote this.  Of course Kallicrates is a double of Leo so Holly has all he can do to keep from crying out.  Causing the dead man to lay himself down Ayesha covers him and blows out the light.

     Holly has to find his way back in the dark reminding one of innumerable passages in Burroughs where his characters have to find their way in the dark.  Holly gets only so far and collapses in the tunnel.  Waking he sees a light coming in from his cell allowing him to find his way back.

     And then Ayesha throws her ball.  If you’ve read carefully and really ingested these macabre, gruesome, and as Burroughs’ would say, hideous details they’re beginning to oppress your mind, perhaps even a mind like Mark Tapley’s.

     Now Haggard trundles out the frosting.  To illuminate her ball Ayesha brings out piles of ten thousand year old corpses placing them around the perimeter as human torches.  Laying out a large bonfire the corpses are stacked alternately like so much cordwood and replaced as they were consumed.  Remember these are as fresh looking as you or I.  The Roman emperor Nero actually used live humans in the same manner.  Haggard notes this in the text which I thought weakened the effect.

     Ayesha seems to be aware of the effect, indeed, intended it and appears to relish the reaction.

     These are the high points of these horrfic details.  Minor ones are constant so that the cumulative effect leading up to the terrific images of the demise of Ayesha, temporary though it might be, is overwhelming.  But about She, Ayesha, in the next part.

 

 

 

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