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Black Light/The Caves of Terror
Talbot Mundy
Ariel Press, 296 pp. and 188 pages

Black Light
The Caves of Terror
Talbot Mundy
William Lancaster Gribbon was born near London, England, in 1867. Expelled from school at 16 he ran off to Germany to join a travelling circus. After returning home in 1897, he spent time in India doing relief work and as a newspaper corespondent. Back in England in 1903, broke and under suspicion of shady stock deals, he married, escaped arrest, and joined his new wife in South Africa. She returned to England, while he claimed to have worked his way to Australia on a series of steamers to avoid arrest. Back in South Africa in 1904 under the alias Tom Hartley he led a life of an ivory poacher, cattle rustler, grifter and womanizer, some of which he retold in his early novel The Ivory Trail (1919). Besides being intimate with a number of native women, he also began a torrid affair with a hard-drinking and married woman of the British aristocracy. Upon being divorced by their spouses, Inez and William, now using the alias Talbot Chetwynd Miller Mundy, married. Mundy was to marry thrice more, under similar circumstances. In 1909 Inez and Talbot moved to New York City, where, after recovering from a beating at the hands of some seamy poker players, Mundy spent some time homeless before being taken in by a reporter who loaned him a typewriter.

He sold his first story, "A Transaction in Diamonds," to The Scrap Book in 1911, but soon began publishing regularly in Adventure where most of his major works were to appear. The classic short story "The Soul of the Regiment" in the February 1912 issue of Adventure established Talbot Mundy as one of the preeminent adventure writers of all time. His first novel, Rung Ho! was published in 1914. His works include the classics King of the Khyber Rifles (1916), Guns of the Gods (1921), Om: The Secret of Abhor Valley (1924), The Devil's Guard (1926), and Tros of Samothrace (1934). His last novel, Old Ugly Face, was published in 1940, shortly before his death from the complications of diabetes.

Mundy was frequently compared to Rudyard Kipling and H. Rider Haggard, but over his career his writing had increasingly strong elements of Eastern mysticism largely absent from theirs. Like Haggard's tales of Africa, Mundy's tales of Africa, India and the Middle East all bore the evidence of his first-hand knowledge of the sites, and customs of the people he wrote of. His heroes were equally capable of fighting or, unlike Conan and his ilk, bluffing or waiting out their way out of a dicey situation. Mundy's heroes were, as his biographer Brian Taves put it, "philosopher-adventurers", frequently pondering the meaning of life and destiny. Talbot Mundy became involved in Theosophy in the early 20s and wrote many articles in The Theosophical Path, and a posthumously published book outlining his philosophy of life: I Say Sunrise.

Recently renewed interest in Mundy has led to the publication of scholarly works on his life and writings: Talbot Mundy: Messenger of Destiny edited by Donald M. Grant (1983); The Last Adventurer: The Life of Talbot Mundy (1984) by Peter Beresford Ellis and the upcoming Talbot Mundy, Philosopher of Adventure by Brian Taves.

ISFDB Bibliography
Jimgrim Website
Talbot Mundy E-Text: The Theosophical Path
E-TEXT: King -- of the Khyber Rifles
E_TEXT: "The Soul of a Regiment"
Film Commentary: King -- of the Khyber Rifles (1953)
REVIEW: Jimgrim and the Devil at Ludd
Ariel Press

A review by Georges T. Dodds

In my review of a Talbot Mundy reprint last year (Jimgrim and the Devil at Ludd) I made the claim for Talbot Mundy being the best adventure writer of the 20th century, and it is not a claim I made lightly. I also pointed out that Mundy used Eastern wisdom and mysticism as an important element of his stories, having many of his adventurous heroes develop emotionally and spiritually as a consequence of their adventures. While in Caves of Terror the extremely fast-paced adventure tends to obscure the mysticism, in Black Light the adventure element is extremely minimal, but the novel is deeply steeped in Oriental mysticism. While perhaps not Mundy's best novels, the first is a turning point in his writing, and the other a clear attempt to take his novels beyond pulp magazines audiences.

When Mundy published the short novel The Gray Mahatma (retitled Caves of Terror in book form) in the Nov. 10, 1922 issue of Adventure, it was the first time the supernatural and mystical elements of Eastern religion and philosophy took the forefront in his work. Mundy would return to the white man's quest for esoteric knowledge in many of his later classics such as Om - The Secret of Abhor Valley and The Nine Unknown. In Caves of Terror, the gray mahatma, a high-level Indian mystic wishing to draw Athelstan King [hero of Mundy's early classic King -- of the Khyber Rifles] into an allegiance to use Indian mystic "super-science" to bring India from under the yoke of British colonialism, has been doomed to death for leaking secrets to the dangerous and cunning, but ever so seductive Yasmini, who wishes to use these same powers to dominate the World. Jeff Ramsden, a burly and down-to-earth American is sent to help out the more cerebral King. King and Ramsden are led, like Dante by Virgil (in The Inferno), through a series of caves beneath an ancient temple by the mahatma, revealing different levels of wisdom and the limitations and tortures of those stranded at any one level. It is also a trial by fire to establish whether King, in particular, is worthy to share the ancient knowledge which would make world conquest child's play. The episodes where the usually unflappable hero King must rely on the intellectually inferior but gutsy and loyal Ramsden to make it through are particularly well done. Then, defeated by King, the mahatma, doomed from the start, selflessly sacrifices himself as a tool to expand his superiors' knowledge. While the breathtaking pace of the story tends to marginalize Mundy's underlying message of Eastern wisdom's insights into many things unexplained by Western science, it is this same pace which likely earned it its "best novel of the year" accolade from the readers of Adventure.

Some seven years later, Mundy wrote perhaps one of his most personal novels in terms of expounding his beliefs in theosophy and Eastern wisdom in general. In brief, the novel, set in India, details how Joe Beddington, heir to an industrial fortune but his mother's footstool, develops mentally and spiritually under the influence of a yogi and others, to eventually overcome his mother and claim Amrita, the lovely and wise orphan of British parentage raised in seclusion by temple priests. Mundy worked and reworked the story, giving it a much more polished and literary feel than his action-packed Adventure offerings, hoping to see it produced as a play, then as movie. But, the novel, deemed too long and too full of Eastern mysticism (a topic largely unheard of in the conventional literature of the time), was rejected by the magazines. Mundy had to cut it by 20 percent to satisfy his American publisher Bobbs-Merrill, and even then received mixed reviews. Bobbs-Merrill's cuts resulted in the discourses of the yogi, which prefaced and introduced the "message" of each chapter, being entirely omitted from the American edition, though they were maintained in the British edition. Oddly enough, Ariel Press, which primarily publishes works on mysticism and related topics, opted to reprint the American edition. Having read a number of other Mundy titles where such sayings preface chapters, it is clear that without these passages the novel is much weakened. Nonetheless, for all it's flaws Black Light is a fine, if a bit simplistic, psychological novel with some well-presented mysticism and interesting characters. While the character of strong willed schoolteacher Annie Weems and Amitra, the young woman born of the West but raised in the East, have parallels in other Mundy works, the ruthlessly controlling Mrs. Beddington, a personification of evil is an interesting anomaly.

I read Black Light when I was about 20 and found it exceedingly tedious, however, I'm sure that I would have found Caves of Terror wonderfully exciting back then. Now some 20-odd years later, upon rereading Black Light, I found much substance and thought-provoking matter, whereas Caves of Terror seemed more a pyrotechnic display of super-science gadgets, without a great deal of supporting plot. In the same sense as my maturing has altered my view of the books, I tend to think that Caves of Terror reflects a Mundy, still at the gee-whiz stage, only just beginning to delve into subjects that would bring him to espouse theosophy, whereas in Black Light he has matured and could enunciate in a more rigourous and structured manner his understanding of Eastern philosophy. Whether you read Mundy for the Adventure or the Mysticism, you would be hard pressed to find a better writer, or to not find some enjoyment in these two titles.

The author is endebted to Mr. Brian Taves (U.S. Library of Congress) and author of the upcoming Talbot Mundy biography Talbot Mundy, Philosopher of Adventure, for sharing some of his research and insights on Talbot Mundy with him

Copyright © 2002 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association and maintains a site reflecting his tastes in imaginative literature.

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