During the late 19th and early 20th Centuries H. Rider Haggard was one of the premiere action-adventure writers (and a close friend of Rudyard Kipling, one of the others). To many readers SHE is Haggard’s most enduring work, containing all that made his thrilling, picturesque books (like KING SOLOMON’S MINES, ALLAN QUARTERMAIN and PEOPLE OF THE MIST) popular, but with an added supernatural dimension.
The novel remains thrilling in its way, but also quite lugubrious by today’s standards. The prose is bunched into description-heavy paragraphs and extensive footnotes, the pacing is quite slow, and there’s a long-winded introduction involving a mysterious manuscript the author alleges came into his possession that forms the ensuing narrative (the “finding of the manuscript” was a popular way to begin pre-WWI genre fiction).
The set-up within the set-up is even more involved, being the tale of Horace Holly, a scholar, and Leo, a boy bequeathed to Mr. Holly when his father dies. According to Leo’s father’s will, at age 25 the boy will be given the key to an iron box that when opened will provide instructions on a quest the boy is to undertake into a remote region of Africa, where a monument called the “rolling pillar of life” is said to reside.
To make a long opening short, Leo reaches the designated age, opens the box and heads for Africa with Holly in tow. After several picturesque adventures and hardships (among them an attack by giant mosquitoes) they arrive in the region of “She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed,” where women are venerated in a manner our conservative protagonists find baffling and everyone lives in fear of the mysterious She. Before long Holly and Leo are brought face-to-face with She, a hypnotically beautiful 2000-year-old woman named Ayesha who staves off old age by bathing in a blue flame.
Ayesha develops an immediate infatuation with Leo, who she believes is the reincarnation of her ancient lover Kalikrates. She invites Leo to bathe in the immortal blue flame, but, in the novel’s most famous passage, Ayesha somehow screws up the process and hideously reverts to her natural age (I guess this would be what Anne Rice termed a “stupid immortals” tale, as Ayesha manages to get the immortality process correct for 2000 years but inexplicably fumbles it when the heroes turn up).
SHE’S historical value is undeniable, it being a precursor to the popular Lost Race tales of the early 1900s, as well as the springboard for quite a few sequels--AYESHA, SHE AND ALLAN, WISDOM’S DAUGHTER--and just as many film adaptations. And all these years later, SHE continues to enthrall; archaic it may be in many respects, but it’s also a fine piece of writing by any standard.
The version of SHE under review is a trade paperback from Dragon’s Dream, who in 1981 launched a series of illustrated novels that included a popular edition of J.G. Ballard’s DROWNED WORLD. The Dragon’s Dream edition of SHE is a sumptuous one, with impressive illustrations by Mike Embden and Tim Gill--although Embden and Gill chose to primarily depict the scenery of the novel (mountains, stormy seas, caverns, etc.) and largely ignored the odd and grotesque elements (such as Ayesha’s climactic reversion), which I for one would have liked to see.