The Ghost Kings was H. Rider Haggard’s 32nd novel, out of an eventual 58. Written during the years 1906 and 1907, it first saw book publication in September 1908. This novel was penned immediately before Haggard set to work on another African adventure tale, The Yellow God, but of the two, The Ghost Kings is the superior creation. It is more exciting and more detailed, with a greater emphasis on fantasy elements and the supernatural. Indeed, with the exception of its South African setting and the inclusion of such real-life characters as the Zulu chief Dingaan (brother of Chaka) and councilor Mopo (both of whom also featured prominently in Haggard’s 1892 masterpiece Nada the Lily), the tale could almost be a novel of hard fantasy.
The book cleaves fairly well into two parts. In the first, we meet Rachel Dove, a British missionary’s daughter who has been trekked almost all her young life around the wilds of Africa, while her father preaches the Good Word to the natives and her mother suffers silently. Her life is turned around when fellow teenager Richard Darrien rescues her from a flash flood; their common initials alone may clue the reader in that these two are another pair of Haggard’s predestined lovers. Some years later, however, Rachel, not having seen Richard during all that intervening time, runs afoul of one of the author’s patented lustful villains, Ishmael, a renegade Englishman who plots with the Zulu king to have Rachel for his own. This task is made complicated for the rogue when the Zulus come to view Rachel as their “Inkosazana y Zoola,” or Great Lady of the Heavens; the embodiment and incarnation of their goddess.
After almost 300 pages of fairly intricate plotting, Haggard’s work settles into its second section, in which Rachel, accompanied by Noie, her faithful half Zulu attendant, discovers one of Haggard’s “lost civilizations,” the Ghost Kings: a dwarflike tribe of tree worshippers who are able to peer into the future with their bowls of dew. Haggard, of course, was the great popularizer of the “lost world” tale, and his Ghost Kings here are an interesting addition to dozens of others in the author’s pantheon.
Similarly, the Ishmael character, who practically goes insane with lust over the beautiful Rachel, is a fine addition to the pantheon of similar Haggardian wretches, such as Frank Muller in Jess (1887), Owen Davies in Beatrice (1890), Samuel Rock in Joan Haste (1895), Swart Piet in Swallow (1899) and Hernando Pereira in the Allan Quatermain adventure Marie (1912). For that matter, Noie must be placed in the pantheon of exotic Haggardian women who dare much for love and sacrifice more, a pantheon that includes Maiwa in Maiwa’s Revenge (1888), Mameena in Child of Storm (1913) and, of course, Ayesha, from the author’s seminal She (1887) and its three sequels.
The Ghost Kings was supposedly plotted by Haggard with the aid of his old friend Rudyard Kipling, although by the time Rider sat down to write the story out, he had grown dissatisfied with what the pair had outlined, and retained only the Ghost Kings segment from Kipling’s input. And although this section is the most heavily fantasy oriented, it is by no means exclusively so. Rachel’s mother and, to a lesser degree, Rachel herself are endowed throughout the tale with the gift of “second sight,” a foreseeing ability that aids our heroine on several crucial occasions. And while the Zulu “umtakatis” (wizards) do not play a role in this novel, as in so many of Haggard’s others, the magic of the Ghost Kings is shown to be very real and not a little eerie.
The Ghost Kings is fascinating for several other reasons, besides its tremendous action, mystical plot and interesting characters. It shows clearly the sympathy and esteem that Haggard felt for the native races (“they are not hypocrites, and they are not vulgar; that is the privilege of civilised nations”). And, thanks to a journey that Rachel takes into the realm of the dead with the aid of the Mother of the Trees, we get to see what Haggard’s conception of the afterlife is (or, at least, one of his conceptions; it varies greatly from the descriptions given in his short story “Barbara Who Came Back”). The book even shows Haggard, who was once an avid hunter, beginning to take an antihunting stance, a position that would find its greatest expression three years later in the author’s short novel The Mahatma and the Hare. The Ghost Kings is simply written but complexly plotted, with the exception of that afterlife sequence, which is written like prose poetry. In all, The Ghost Kings is a very fine novel from Haggard’s middle period, and one that is well worth seeking out.
The Ghost Kings is in the public domain and available for free on Kindle.