Wednesday, December 28, 2011
Shelkagari, by Harold King
September, 1988 Lynx Books
Here's another forgotten novel I'd never heard of, until I came across it in a used bookstore. A big mass market paperback, nearly 600 pages of tiny print, and it seemed to promise an '80s update on the '30s adventure fiction of Robert E. Howard, Harold Lamb, even H. Rider Haggard. Harold King was also a name unfamiliar to me, though it appears his claim to fame was a slew of thriller and suspense novels.
Shelkagari was an experiment, it seems, King turning out a novel nothing like any of his others, and it was a grand failure. Critics destroyed it, reader reaction was tepid (zero reviews on Amazon.com even to this day), and Lynx Books took an unusual approach for this mass market paperback edition: the first few pages contain industry praise for other King novels, Shelkagari mysteriously going unmentioned.
But here's the thing -- the novel, for the most part, isn't that bad. The first third in particular, which concerns a 1929 trek by three individuals -- a Russian jewel cutter who lived in France before moving to India, a beautiful and red-haired American heiress, and a caustic British soldier -- into the Himalayas. This sequence provided the critics plenty of opportunity to make their own Raiders of the Lost Ark jokes, but King handles the adventure stuff very well.
Yurev is the main protagonist through this section (King, bless him, doesn't POV-hop once), and truth be told it takes a while for the ball to get rolling. First we must learn Yurev's backstory, escaping from the Russian revolution, eventually landing in India, marrying a girl there who later died, with Yurev's son, during a flu outbreak. Yurev's specialty is cutting stones, and when a redheaded beauty named Abby Abbaye (!) offers him the chance to journey with her into Nepal to find the legendary lost diamond of Alexander the Great, Yurev takes it, if only to get away from the misery of living. Along with them is Jack Barbaree, who acts as guide, hiring native coolies and seeing to their provisions and etc.
Shelkagari is the name of Alexander's long-fabled diamond, supposedly the size of a calf's head, one giant uncut stone. (King opens with a prologue from Alexander's point of view, which sets the tone for the psuedo-mystical aspect of the novel.) The journey up into the Himalayas is well handled, with all of the expected dangers, pitfalls, and setbacks. Barbaree is the sturdy Brit bastard expected of such novels, and Yurev and Abby soon find themselves uniting against his acidic barbs. The whole sequence comes off like a '30s travelogue, and when the trio finally come upon the legendary lamastery in which a piece of Shelkagari supposedly rests, it gets like James Hilton's Lost Horizon.
The material in the lamastery is also well done, with legions of monks and their loyal mastiffs which prowl about the temple. Yurev finds out more about the legend of Shelkagari, how someone was here years before, unwittingly stumbling upon the info, even leaving behind unintentional clues on where the jewel might be. But due to Barbaree's treachery the trio must escape from the lamastery, leaving behind a dead high lama and a few priests.
Further Barbaree treachery ensues, and soon Yurev and Abby are alone, trying to wend their way down into the jungle-ish interiors of Nepal. After eluding a pair of tigers, Yurev and Abby "make pleasure" together, culminating a long-simmer romance, despite the fact that they both have been tramping through the wilds for the past several days with no baths or anything.
The only problem with Shelkagari is that it continues on from here. The 1929 sequence lasts nearly 300 pages, and King would have been better served if he'd just have wrapped it up here. Instead he telescopes on through Yurev's life into the 1950s: separated by fate immediately after returning to India in 1929, Yurev and Abby went on to their own respective lives, Yurev eventually owning a diamond mine in Africa.
Still obsessed with finding Shelkagari, Yurev discovers that the man who was in the lamastery years before him was none other than President Herbert Hoover! After a meeting with Hoover's wife -- conducted shortly after Hoover's loss of re-election -- Yurev just sort of waits around for the next few decades to be called back by Mrs. Hoover, so he can look through her accumulated papers to find the notes Hoover took while he was in Nepal.
Now the narrative focuses upon Miller, the son of Abby and Yurev (protagonists in adventure fiction being quite potent, you see). Abby has raised the boy to think his father was another guy who died in WWII; even Yurev doesn't find out until late in the game that Miller is his son. Anyway the Miller section is pretty boring. He too is obsessed with finding Shelkagari, having heard stories of the trip into Nepal from his mother since he was a toddler.
Shot down during the Korean war, Miller spends the next decade or so in a Chinese prison. Here King works more Shelkagari mystery into the proceedings, but really the entire Miller section seems unnecessary. After being freed, Miller soon heads back to Asia where he takes his own journey to the Himalayas, going to the monastery Abby and Yurev visited. (Funnily enough, King skips over the entire trek, which had been presented as so dangerous in the preceeding section.) Miller finds the place empty and upon return to the US goes insane.
But there's a third narrative to come. Jumping ahead a few more decades, King takes us to 1985, where our protagonists are now the grandkids of Yurev and Abby (who are both still alive, and also together, due to Yurev's wife kicking the bucket). And the grandkids too are obsessed with finding Shelkagari! Two of the grandsons unite with a woman who claims to be descended from Jack Barbaree. Amid media interest this trio goes on their own journey into the Himalayas in search of Shelkagari...and damned if they don't find it.
But the issue is, King devotes so much time to the first sequence in 1929 that these later sequences lack the necessary punch. It's Yurev and Abby we want to discover Shelkagari, not their friggin' grandkids. As it is, our now-elderly duo must stand around, waiting to hear if the jewel has been discovered. It also seemed to me that King lost the thread of his generations-spanning tale, with some of the latter portions coming off like wheel-spinning so he could fill up the interim of years before Shelkagari was found in the "present day" of the late 1980s.
Why didn't King just set the entire tale in 1929? Had he done so, I'm certain he would've not only had a tighter, more entertaining novel, but he would've had another commercial success to boot. As it is, Shelkagari the novel is now as lost and forgotten as the diamond itself.