The basis of the past popularity of Lost Race novels were the novels of H. Rider Haggard, whose excellence in such classic novels as Allan Quatermain and She hundreds of lesser talents recognized as worthy of imitation.
Of course, Haggard didn’t invent the idea of lost races, which was abroad from antiquity, in cultural myths about submerged former inhabitants of conquered regions, in utopians and Swiftian satires of distant island cultures, in speculations on the whereabouts of Israel’s lost tribes, in the continuous and widespread expectation that Amazons and similar exotic societies thrived beyond the limits of the known world. Columbus, then the Conquistadors, watched soberly for Amazons described in romances of Amadis the Gaul; and the very state of California is named for a queen of one of these imputed nations, a woman no less thrilling than Haggard’s immortal She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed.
Haggard placed most of his sundry lost races in Africa, where also the majority of the lost races imagined by Edgar Rice Burroughs were located, especially the lingering Atlantean city of Opar ruled by Queen La, who is patently a copy of Haggard’s Queen Ayesha. The Ayesha-like queen recurs and recurs in “Haggardesque” novels, and Africa was one of the most popular locations for hidden cultures.
Lost Roman Legions founded static societies in Africa in Cecil Bullivant’s The Enchantress (1932) and Burroughs’ Tarzan and the Lost Empire (1931). They survive underneath the Sahara in William Chaplan’s The Pagan City (1938) and in the Atlas Mountains according to James McLaran Cobban’s An African Treasure (1899). But if not in Africa, then the Romans persist in a volcanically warmed valley of Antarctica as in Charles Romyn Doke’s A Strange Discovery (1899), or somewhere in the Pacific as in Charles Dudly Lampen’s Mirango the Man-eater (1900), or in a subterranean world beneath England as in Joseph O’Neill’s Land Under England (1935). These are just random citations. Dozens — scores — of other such novels plus pulp magazine serials reveal the whereabouts of Romans somewhere or another. And Romans aren’t even the most common choice for a Lost Race rediscovered.
Atlanteans seem to have scattered to every corner of the globe avoiding discovery until quite recently. They’re often in the Hollow Earth beneath the North Pole as in Emma Louise Olcott’s The Divine Seal (1909); beneath the Andes according to Roy Norton’s The Toll of the Sea (1909), under the Sahara in Pierre Benoit’s Haggard plagiarism L’Atlantida (1920), in Australia according to Rosa Praed’s Fugitive Anne (1902), on scores of uncharted islands, a typical example described in The Ultimate Island (1924) by L. de Giberne Sieveking. And, of course, many assume Atlantis survives at the bottom of the sea, as in David McLean Parry’s The Scarlet Empire (1906). A bibliography merely of novels about Atlantis surviving into the modern world would be extremely long. Nor is the theme too used up for new books to continue to find their way onto bestseller lists from time to time, as in Clive Cussler’s Atlantis Found (1999), or Disney’s animated version.
Scores of similar novels find Aztecs, Mayans, Toltecs and Incans surviving in the Americas (often assumed to be simultaneously survivals of Atlantis), or the Lost Tribes of Israel at any point of the globe, or Conquistador culture snared in the Sargasso Sea, and so on ad infinitum. Ancient Egyptian culture gets discovered here and there, not to mention ancient societies of unknown origin entirely imaginary. Many such books regard the survival of Neanderthals, often enough coexisting with dinosaurs in some out of the way location.
These books were not considered to be completely beyond the realm of possibility in the Victorian Era when so much of the world was as yet unmapped and unexplored. Lost Races held such scientific credibility that jungle-hidden cities in Cambodia were once believed, by Eurocentric writers, to have been built by a people descended of Alexander the Great. The Modoc Indians of the Pacific Northwest, because of their fine features and some tortuously arranged and wildly improbable language parallels, were regarded by Victorian ethnologists to be the remnant of a lost Roman legion. Even before that absurd theory gained favor, the Modocs had been named for a Welsh God because Lewis and Clark, on their westward expedition, had been convinced they would encounter a millennia-isolated Welsh outpost and decided the Modocs were as close as they were going to get.
When Haggard wrote his stories, many clung to the pre-Darwinian, Deist belief that every part of creation required every other part to continue ticking; therefore nothing ever becomes extinct. If it did, creation would cease to function, like a watch missing a gear. That creation persisted was of itself proof that prehistoric valleys thrived somewhere, with former races of man and beast living as they had in past epochs. Such locations were sincerely sought during the great era of Victorian exploration.
The source of the Nile was not yet known and many expected a remnant of ancient Egypt really would be discovered still flourishing there. The last unmapped place in the United States was the Grand Canyon, so when James Patrick Kelly wrote Prince Izon (1910) readers were willing to believe classical Aztecs hid therein. The interior of South America was a blank on the maps; malaria was an invisible barrier that made the interior of Central America inaccessible; the North and South Poles were as yet unseen and certain to have volcanic hot spring valleys of green paradises; new Pacific islands (surely inhabited by descendants of Phoenician explorers if not Lemurians) awaited discovery; the Gobi desert and the Himalayas were but marginally explored. Victorian discoveries of ecologically distinct high plateau environments in the New World inspired Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World, which in turn inspired a plethora of prehistoric survival tales with Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon peoples untouched by the modern world.
There were simply scores of places where Lost Races not only might but surely must linger. If the novels were read as escapist fantasies, there was nevertheless a tension of credibility for Victorians that as the 20th Century progressed was whittled away by cartographers.
Even at that, there would never be a complete end to uncharted locations for lost races. There remained the Hollow Earth and domed Atlantis under the sea. There were dimensional worlds-within-worlds. There are New Age occult crackpots who still believe in such things quite devoutly, but you might be surprised by current “scientific” speculations of archeologists still eager to believe the Lost Race argument. Biblical Archeology not long ago recapped evidence from professional archeological journals that North American Mound Builders were Jews (the Lost Tribe factor still at work in the minds of scientists) when all they have to go on is an iron-age blade recovered from one of these mounds with scratches on it, very unconvincingly compared to a proto-Hebrew script.
For the most part, even before our era of world-spying satellites, it became increasingly evident that explorers were not going to find descendants of Prester John or Roman legions deep in China, nor any advanced theosophic adepts in mountain-kingdoms more inaccessible than Forbidden Llasa, no mesa of cave men and dawn horses in Honduras, no Northwest Passage to a mammoth-haunted Arctic’s isolated Viking colony, no Pharoaic estates in the interior of darkest Africa, no thriving Aztec cities with Atlantean technologies hidden by Peruvian jungle vines and mountain mist.
By the 1920s, the Lost Race theme began slowly to die out as adult literature in book form, though it puttered along another thirty years in pulp magazines at the hands of decadent nostalgists such as A. Merritt, and in juvenile series books about Golden Cities visited by white feral lads, stumbled upon by scout troops camping out in the Yucatan, or young inventors in rocket-powered dirigibles blown off course to some remnant of Atlantis.
But even now in comic books, genre science fiction paperbacks, cinema, and the occasional best selling novel, the theme is recycled again and again. It may never again be credible as it was for Victorians, but the human need for the fantasy of it seems never wholly to die out. At the cusp of our new millennium we had a movie about an Indian tribe cut off from the modern world in the Rockies, a revisit of Haggard’s Solomonic Mines and cannibal apes in a Michael Crichton book and film, even a hack hireling’s Lost Horizon sequel entitled Return to Shangri-la.
So the theme survives, though not as broadly explored as formerly. Yet with a handful of exceptions, most of those among my chums who are avidly pursuing lost race novels are Seniors who remember when they (or at least their parents who assisted in formulating life-long tastes) regarded these books as contemporary, lending an immediate nostalgic power not as easily felt by young collectors.
Many of the vintage authors wrote only one book of this type, in some cases only wrote the one book period, and very few are well known today even among collectors of antiquarian books. Many of these books are still exciting reading, though not many are even close to the timeless quality of Haggard, and quite a lot of them are so bad that only the novelty of the thematic material makes them collectible even if unreadable.
It would be sad if the fondness for vintage lost race novels became mislaid by younger generations of fantasy lovers. To insure these books are forever cherished, it is essential that those of us aware of Haggard’s actual greatness express this vehemently to new readers: for it is alongside Haggard that the merits of all other lost race novels will always be measured, and for as long as Haggard is read his imitators retain comparative interest.
copyright © 2002 Jessica Amanda Salmonson
A checklist of Lost Race Literature can be accessed here: