Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Red Road to Shamballah

The Red Road to Shamballah was originally serialised in the pulp magazine Thrilling Adventures in 1932 and 1933. The author, Perley Poore Sheehan (1875-1943), was an American who wrote screenplays as wells as novels and short stories.

The Red Road to Shamballah is a fine and fairly typical example of the pulp adventure story. It is not quite a lost civilisation tale although it has very strong affinities with that genre. 

The book was serialised in eight parts. It’s an episodic novel rather than a collection of linked short stories.

Pelham Rutledge Shattuck is a young adventurer. Although he is an American he was born in China, has lived most of his life in the East and speaks a variety of Asiatic languages fluently. His thirst for adventure has taken him to Tibet, and to a strange encounter with some Tibetan monks. As a result of this encounter he has become known as Shadaq Khan, which means (very roughly) Captain Trouble. He has also acquired the sword of Kublai Khan, and more importantly he has acquired a destiny - to restore the empire of the Mongols (an empire that at its peak was so vast it was simultaneously fighting European knights and Japanese samurai).

His subsequent adventures take him to the Gobi Desert and to various other parts of western China. This was the latter part of the warlord period in China, with not just rival warlords but the chinese communists and the Japanese all contending for mastery of that country. Tibet and Afghanistan are enduring similarly unsettled conditions.

Shadaq Khan acquires a number of allies, including a half-American Tibetan monk and a fierce but brave and loyal Afghan hill chieftain. Shadaq Khan finds himself battling gun-runners, corrupt warlords, the Tongs and an evil sect of Tibetan monks. 

Shadaq Khan is a typical square-jawed American pulp fiction hero but with a much greater sense of destiny, and much grander ambitions, than most such adventurers. This story clearly owes a certain debt to Kipling’s superb tale The Man Who Would Be King.

There’s plenty of action and a great deal of betrayal and perfidiousness. There are poisonings, there are plots, kidnappings, torture and murder. There are hidden fortresses, mysterious caves and isolated lamaseries. Our hero also encounters two lost subterranean races and a fabled lost city which he intends to rebuild as his capital. He will also encounter the Dalai Lama, under very unexpected circumstances.

There are also definite hints of magic. The supernatural elements are mostly downplayed but they’re all the more effective for that - Sheehan relies on the suggestion of subtle magical powers rather than making the mistake of allowing such elements to overwhelm his story.

One interesting feature is that Tibetan monks in this story can be wise and gentle sages or they can be murderous ruffians. In fact that’s true of all the races the hero comes into contact with - some are good, some are evil.

And there’s an abundance of villains, some of them very nasty indeed. Pulp fiction of this era often has hints of sadism and such hints are certainly present here.

This is one of many splendid pulp titles rescued from obscurity and made available to us by Black Dog Books.

The Red Road to Shamballah is a fairly short book but it’s fast-paced and packed with adventure and thrills and Shadaq Khan’s plan to revive the empire of Kublai Khan certainly gives it an epic scope. Sheehan’s style is pure pulp fiction but it’s effective. Shadaq Khan is a fine hero with a hint of ambiguity - he’s brave and noble but he’s ambitious and he can be ruthless. It all adds up to great pulp entertainment. Highly recommended.

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