It Could Happen Here: ‘Pharos the Egyptian’ and Invasion Literature

Cian Gill
Portrait of an elder arab isolated on black. – Image from

Does every nation that calls the tunes in international affairs experience guilt – and fear -- through literary ‘invasions’ for years to come?

Being English in the late-Victorian period must have been about as terrifying as being a breakfast roll in a corner-shop next-door to a building site. To judge from the literature of the time at least, the country was in constant peril of invasion. The average Briton looking for a schlocky read down at the railway station had a wealth of choice in the sub-genre we now call ‘invasion literature’. Essentially, this is early military fiction in which Blighty is invaded by enemies, usually written by right-wing reactionaries, the point of which is to ‘shock’ the country into waking up and recognising the threats posed by the other European powers. In short, late-Victorian England was trembling in its red-white-and-blues over the possibility of invasion by somebody.

And why shouldn’t it have been? Not just because of the real-life threats of a newly-unified and belligerent Germany under Bismarck, or the possible resurgence of war-mongering France under some new Napoleon, or even the un-named Germanic nation that invades southern England in The Battle of Dorking (the novel that really kicked off the genre in 1871, with epic fighting taking place in safe, settled Surrey), but also from a host of imagined invaders such as the all-conquering Martians in War of the Worlds (who also merrily burned and maimed their way through Surrey in 1898). These books show that the average Victorian Joe Sixpack positively expected airship-equipped Jerries and heatray-wielding skywogs to drop from the clouds and into Piccadilly Circus at a moment’s notice any time they popped out to get some milk and a copy of Punch.

But there was a subtler strain of these literary invaders, too: novels in which powerful supernatural creatures arrived from more distant shores, showcasing the British unease with their supposed superiority over Johnny Foreigners from the colonies. Invariably, these invaders come from the ‘mysterious east’, as the Victorians termed anywhere east of the main industrialised European countries. These were lands that had become weak and backward and ripe for exploitation, despite once boasting great civilisations and occult knowledge.

The archetype, of course, is Dracula (1897). A single creature invades England, intending to cause its destruction. He comes from the East- in this case a ridiculously orientalised and under-researched Transylvania (the book almost single-handedly cemented the region’s reputation as a mysterious and superstitious place for centuries to come). He manifests himself as an urbane and refined gentleman from an ancient family, from a culture that has centuries of good breeding and ancient knowledge, but in truth he is a hedonistic creature with many animal-like tendencies and characteristics. The subtext is clear: Easterners are clever, but evil. They may seem civilised, but below the surface, they are animals, and can’t be trusted.

A similar novel is The Beetle by Richard Marsh. Again, a single supernatural being comes to England to wreak havoc; this time he’s from Egypt, another ‘eastern’ land of ancient civilisations and brooding power that had more lately become, to European eyes, decadent and weak. The Beetle is often paired with Dracula -- they were released within months of each other and deal with similar topics -- but to my mind The Beetle hits a lot closer to home.

Certain sources of unease that might have been niggling at the back of the Victorian psyche are called into play in this novel, for by its year of publication, 1898, Britain had become the de facto occupier of Egypt. I guess you don’t conquer a quarter of the world’s population without acquiring a few hang-ups. Even after decades of convincing themselves that they were ‘better’ than the races they subdued, it must have been extremely strange for the Victorian English psyche to find themselves ruling Egypt, the home of one of the most revered inspirations for Western civilisation.

So while our hypothetical Victorian reader is waiting anxiously for the next instalment of his favourite pulp to be published in The Strand magazine, it’s possible that he gets a certain illicit thrill from the notion that, just perhaps, the vanquished nations lucky enough to have fallen under the protective blanket of the Pax Britannica might somehow yet get their revenge on their aggressor: it could happen here.

In Guy Boothby’s Pharos the Egyptian (1923), this subtext takes centre stage much like a fat woman dressed as a Viking does in a Victorian opera. Boothby seems to be mostly remembered today for his Dr Nikola books, which were about a Moriarty-like international criminal (who was later the inspiration for James Bond’s many nemeses). But Boothby was also a well-travelled Australian whose just-below-the-surface unease with colonialism consistently crept into his books. In Pharos the Egyptian, he created a character who is the living (sort of) embodiment of the notion of the downtrodden Eastern nations wreaking a terrible revenge upon the colonial powers.

The book’s narrator is one Cyril Forrester, a well-off artist. Through him, we get a fascinating glimpse into the day-to-day life and rituals of an upper class Victorian. His life is a revolving door of parties, dances and ‘home concerts’. Old Cyril has barely to leave his flat for ten minutes and his ‘letter-bowl’ is practically overflowing with invites to social events (up to five a night, too -- this man has options!)

Alas, Cyril Forrester’s carefree dandy-days come to an end when he meets a creepy, wizened old man cackling at a suicide drowning in the river below Cleopatra’s Needle in London. Like any good Englishman, Forrester is outraged at this beastly behaviour, but the man doesn’t stick around to be berated for his inappropriate chortling. Over the following weeks Forrester becomes inexorably drawn to this strange old man, largely because he keeps turning up at the same social functions that Forrester attends, but also because he always appears with a knockout brunette in tow.

This woman is a half-Hungarian named Valerie, and she is a typical late-Victorian heroine: that is to say, she is bland, boring and beautiful. She has virtually no characteristics except that she is beautiful and plays the violin extraordinarily well, and Forrester (sigh) falls in love with her. As usual in these novels, it’s the kind of love that seems entirely based on her looks, since we get virtually no insight into anything else about her personality that might attract her to him. She plays a key role in binding Forrester to Pharos, which is the name of the old man.

Illustration by John H. Bacon found on Forgotten

One night, Pharos turns up at Forrester’s apartment and, through mysterious means, steals a mummy from him (like any Victorian gentleman, Forrester has a mania for ancient Egypt, and wouldn’t you know it, 20 years ago his father dug up this mummy and left it to him). Pharos also manages to implicate him in a murder, so Forrester, by now sensing that Pharos is a thoroughly rum cove, tries to track him down, only to find out that he’s moved to Naples.

In fairness to Boothby, his characters get around, and from here on the novel spans a variety of colourful locales. Outside Naples, Pharos meets our hero at the ruins of Pompeii, where he comes over a tad strange at what was once the house of a former acquaintance… and by ‘former’ of course, I mean back in Roman times. He waxes lyrical, in fascinating detail, about life in Roman Pompeii. Forrester, however, has obviously never read The Ring of Thoth by Arthur Conan Doyle, so despite this howler, he doesn’t cop it that Pharos is obviously some kind of immortal Egyptian creep who has obviously lived through the times he’s yammering about. Instead, he proves strangely susceptible to the old man’s silver tongue and his claims that their previous dodgy encounters involved serious misunderstandings.

Next Page

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.