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

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 Futures.co.uk

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.

Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown

Here Boothby gets in his first overt digs at the colonial mindset. When Forrester gets on his high horse about property rights and the theft of the mummy, Pharos claims that he had as much right to take it as Forrester’s old man had to take it from Egypt originally. Knowing what was going on in Egypt for real at this time, i.e., wholesale rape and pillage of its cultural and historical treasures to enrich the British Museum, not to mention the military occupation of the country, makes one understand how Forrester has a hard time coming up with a decent riposte.

Partly because he’s under the spell of Pharos (disappointingly, the word ‘mesmerism’ isn’t used) and partly because he’s (cough) in love with Valerie, Forrester follows the two on a cruise to Egypt. Like Dracula, Pharos commands fear and respect among the rabble who surround him, and so has no problem in acquiring a bunch of poor souls to crew his private yacht. Indeed, Boothby has a Dennis Wheatley-esque tendency to shuttle his characters around the world at a moment’s notice, which does keep the narrative moving along at a fair clip.

Forrester has always dreamt of visiting Egypt, though admittedly not in the company of a living mummy and its attractive ward. Thrillingly, he finds it to be just as mysterious and exotic as many other Victorian heroes have done before him. The local Arabs aren’t portrayed in a particularly offensive way (which is more than I can say for the Jews, for the book is littered with occasional moments of casual anti-Semitism), though the level of orientalism here would definitely be enough to make Edward Said brandish his scimitar in anger. As in many other Victorian works of fiction, the ‘East’, and Egypt in particular, is an alien, otherworldly place. A few throwaway lines mentioning the occupying British army are included, perhaps unconsciously referencing the true theme of the novel.

Our hero follows Pharos to the pyramids of Giza, and it is here that strange things occur that set up the plot for the rest of the novel. I don’t want to spoil much more, but rest assured that Pharos is planning a revenge on the Western world that is nothing short of horrific, and has more wide-ranging repercussions than is usual for novels of this type. And while he never directly cites colonialism as the reason for his anger, it is but a small extension of his stated grievances, i.e. that the English plunder remains and artefacts from Egypt without a care for the country’s culture or religion- his own remains in particular. It’s worth mentioning that while Pharos carries out his terrible revenge all across Europe, he doesn’t consider the job done until he has destroyed England in particular.

Pharos the Egyptian is far, far more enjoyable than many other books of its type, in particular Dracula and The Jewel of Seven Stars, which is another vengeful-mummy novel also written by Bram Stoker. As mentioned earlier, the narrative of Pharos the Egyptian moves quickly and seldom drags, and its locations are fascinating, from fin-de-siecle London to the Egyptian cities and deserts and all across Europe.

Forrester is kind of a typical stodgy Victorian hero, but he’s such a privileged upper-class twit that I kind of found him to be a likeable asshole rather than a goody two-shoes. Valerie, on the other hand, is a dead loss, with Boothby neglecting to provide her with even a modicum of character. As for Pharos, he’s probably more interesting for what he represents than what he does, but he’s certainly not without his moments. His best scene is undoubtedly the one in which he reminisces at Pompeii, when we get a feel for the true horrors of being an immortal who has outlived all his contemporaries.

Unlike Stoker, Boothby has a light touch with the actual Egyptology and research. I didn’t really learn much about Ancient Egypt from this book, and to be honest I thought the story was better for it. One of the few precise historical touches involves Pharos’ backstory, in which we learn he was the chief magician for a particular Pharoah who is assumed to be the Pharoah from the Exodus story. I can’t find any evidence that Victorian historians actually believed this, but I still quite like the idea that Pharos once squared up to old Moses (he came a cropper, of course).

Aside from the colonial interpretation, Pharos the Egyptian also plays an important role in the evolution of the classic ‘vengeful mummy’ narrative. Previous works had already linked Ancient Egypt with mystical powers and characters of spectacular longevity, but the figure of the resurrected mummy had yet to be linked directly with the curse or revenge narrative. In Pharos the EgyptianThe Mummy, a film which knowingly draws on every classic or cliché trope associated with the genre since the start of the 20th century.

With the continued rise of political correctness, the kind of xenophobic scaremongering that was commonplace in Victorian literature has taken something of a backseat in recent decades. It still exists in popular movies and books, but it’s rarely as overt as it used to be. The exceptions are probably the American Reagan-era ‘80s action movies such as Red Dawn (1984) and Invasion USA (1985) in which the US is invaded by Soviet troops. But while the Russians are handy villains for a scriptwriter to use, they’re more like cartoon villains without depth, and don’t explore any anxieties that Americans may have with their current ‘empire.’

Disappointingly, there are thus far very few examples of texts that portray the fruits of American foreign policy coming back home to gain revenge. A movie about undead Afghan prisoners, ghostly Panamanian canal-builders or Cuban voodoo priestesses attacking New York would be a treat.

Illustration by John H. Bacon found on Forgotten Futures.co.uk

And what about England today, the land that once bred the Invasion Literature genre? In 1980 John Gardner warned us of the possibility of a surreptitious Soviet takeover of Britain in the thriller Golgotha. And wouldn’t you know it, they got in the back door, using (sigh) the trade unions and the Labour party to infiltrate parliament. Those lefties — one minute you think you’re voting for a welfare state, the next you’ve got Soviet tanks in Piccadilly. And with increasing Euro-skepticism among the British public as economies are crumbling and Germany once again displays its might by attempting to bind the European powers more tightly together, British movies about ‘infection’ and ‘invasion’ such as 28 Days Later can be interpreted in a different light too.

Britain’s colonial past, too, comes back to invade it when British nationals of Pakistani origin — a country ‘created’ by the British in 1947 in what could charitably be described as their ‘bungled’ exit from India — plot equally bungled anti-western terrorist attacks on the London marathon in the hilarious and sad Four Lions (2010). Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, and it seems that whatever nation currently calls the tunes in international affairs will experience guilt through literary ‘invasions’ for years to come.

Pharos the Egyptian has long been out of copyright, and can easily be found as an etext online. I recommend tracking down a version with the original magazine illustrations by the fantastically-named John H. Bacon (see: Forgotten Futures.co.uk). It provides a rattlingly good story, as well as a fascination window into the Victorian fascination with Egyptology, and their unease with their colonial ‘superiority’.

Cian Gill is a writer, biologist and outdoor educator currently located in sunny Surrey. Being Irish, he’s a bit hung up on 19th century colonial history, but this never stops him from donning his pith helmet whenever he’s on expeditions in remote climes. Find his main site at Ciangill.blogspot.com.
Call for Music Writers, Reviewers, and Essayists
Call for Music Writers
APPLY APPLY