Before I even start reading the next story for this series of posts looking back at a ninety-three year old issue of Weird Tales, which is available for all of us to read online, I’m getting nervous about what sort of retrograde colonialist ideology is going to launch itself at us from this very short story by E. Hoffman Price—but then, let’s try not to pre-judge, and just dive into “An Oriental Story” from 1925. Ready or not, here we go!
A quick look back at the author first and here we find one of the few in this issue of Weird Tales that had a significant career and is still being read today. The E stands for Edgar and his Wikipedia page identifies him as “an amateur Orientalist,” which certainly shows in this story. “The Rajah’s Gift” was actually Price’s second published short story, so we’re seeing an early example of a career that stretched well into the 1980s. He was a friend and collaborator of fellow Weird Tales author H.P. Lovecraft and received the World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1984. Not too shabby.
Then a note on the word “Oriental” in this context: My mother is of the generation that used that word in place of the currently preferred Asian, in the same way that my mother-in-law stuck with “Colored” into the first decade of the 21st century. You can take the people out of the times but you can’t always dislodge the times from the people. We also don’t refer to Asia itself as “the Orient” anymore because… it’s a continent named Asia? From what I can find it took until 2016, ninety-one years after this story was published, for the word “Oriental” to taken out of federal law so change sometimes creeps along. Let’s just let this story be in 1925, I guess, but then… hmm… How do we unpack that first paragraph?
It’s hard not to see this for what it is: E. Hoffman Price establishing the rajah as better than the average example of his kind since he’s managed to adopt “a thick veneer of European culture.” God knows you can’t get very far until you’ve got that locked in. So, yeah, it’s 1925 and non-white people might be able to sort of sometimes take care of themselves as long as they get with the colonial program. Gotcha.
As we go into the second page of the story, note this example of telling rather than showing. Maybe in a very short story you have to fall back on this a little, not having the word count necessary to cover this backstory more organically, but even then, I’ll ping Mr. Price on this. He starts off telling us about the rajah and his friend Zaid, then they have a short “inciting incident” conversation then it’s telling us (not showing us) how Zaid met the rajah. If I were his editor I’d ask E. Hoffman to go ahead and give himself the word count necessary to break this up.
But we do learn that Zaid, as a young peasant boy, was awed by “the pomp and splendor” of the rajah’s parade, which gave him the motivation to go out and make something of himself. This I find interesting in the abstract. Is there a moment in your story where we learn—hopefully sharing that experience rather than being told about it like this—in what moment a significant character was set off on the trajectory that puts that person into this story? Not everyone has a moment like this. A lot of people sort of fall into jobs and things like that, but I think many of us can still look back to the moment we decided, the moment we realized, the moment we knew that… What? I’ve said in the past—and it’s still true, of course—that the moment I read the story “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison I knew I would tell stories for the rest of my life, that the pursuit of the possibility of putting the feeling I had reading that story into some distant person with a story of my own locked me into this, for good or ill.
Our characters deserve moments like that, don’t they? Is there a character in your work in progress who can honestly say, like Zaid does here: “For twenty years that vision has haunted me. Much has happened since then; much have I seen and experienced, but through it all, this mad desire has persisted.”
Then here, in true pulp fashion, we have a statement of purpose from one character that is immediately batted back in his face by the other—an obstacle has been put in Zaid’s way, a threat of extreme danger, and a reversal of a promise. E. Hoffman Price drops that fast, hard, and without the slightest hesitation. I love that Zaid stays firm on this, though—sort of like I did in my determination to be the next Harlan Ellison. Still, working on that, by the way, but the journey’s the thing!
An aside here regarding the occasionally weird scene breaks in these old pulps. There is no change in time, place, and/or POV between “…you know the result.” and “Suddenly the rajah arose.” So then why the line space and the drop cap? I don’t get it. I wonder if editor Farnsworth Wright just thought we needed a pause there—a pause after so many words, or some number of pages? No idea!
Let’s cleanse our minds of that question with the pure pulp adventure story imagery here:
And Zaid was led through subterranean vaults, treasure vaults full of gilded arms and armor, trays of flaming jewels, great chests of gold, the secreted plunder of a hundred generations.
Okay—I’m back in the story! (Even if Zaid is unimpressed.)
Oh, look, the first (and, it turns out, only) female character to appear in the story is some kind of sex slave. Two things a contemporary story might have done different is to make her an actual character but then still go into more detail on what follows than this:
What allurements, what sorceries, what fascinations Nilofal used to entice the fancy of Zaid during those three days, we shall never know. Suffice it to say that she failed in her efforts to separate the Persian from his madness.
Not exactly Fifty Shades of Grey. But going back over the whole sordid subject of sexism in the pulps, and the cover art that often showed women in bondage, etc., here’s an example of how the content of the magazines sometimes did match the lurid covers (though not the case with this particular issue, which has a rather less than lurid cover) with women portrayed as playthings, victims, or villains, but not too often as, y’know… humans. Deep breaths, people. It’s been a long ninety-three years where feminism is concerned.
So anyway, the rajah has attempted to distract Zaid from his desire for a parade in his honor with threats to his life, treasure, and prostitutes. I’d have relented on the first one, been disappointed to find out I missed my chance to be bought off with the secreted plunder of a hundred generations, and would have proceeded to step three only if my wife told me it was okay. Which means I’d never know what Nilofal had up her sleeve. And let’s be honest: three days? There ain’t enough Cialis in the Orient!
And… moving on…
Despite her best efforts, Nilofal couldn’t seal the deal so now there is a proper scene break, cutting to the next day and Zaid is up on an elephant and ready for his big moment. I like that the rajah gets on his friend’s side at this moment. It shows a certain largesse we don’t tend to see in this kind of colonial fiction, wherein the “natives” are rarely so “woke.” Though as the scene goes on and the rajah makes clear the distinction in his head between people of his own rarified class and ordinary men—suffering over the changes that Zaid has in store for him, changes that can never be properly realized so he’ll be a peasant with a quick trip into the aristocracy. To the rajah, then, it’s better for Zaid not to know what it’s like to be a rajah—it can only make the peasantry feel bad about themselves.
Get over yourself, Rajah.
But then the rajah is a character living his life, cultural baggage and all. On a similar note, in “How Postmodernism Undermines the Left and Facilitates Fascism,” Benjamin Studebaker wrote:
Some people stray outside of left wing frameworks by insisting that we can overcome capitalism, racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression by demanding that individuals not affirm these ideologies. But this is not idealism because it does not recognize these ideologies as systems of belief—instead, it blames and targets individuals for having these beliefs. This doesn’t treat these individuals as part of ideological systems—instead it treats them as if they were independent of these systems. That would deny the core left wing premise. Blaming individuals who participate in systems of oppression for the oppressive ideologies they’ve acquired is no different from blaming the victims of oppression for the oppressive conditions to which they are subject—it treats individuals as if they were outside social systems when no one can be outside the social system.
Does this cover “amateur Orientalist” E. Hoffman Price as well? But in any case, his two characters are locked into a rigidly class based culture, and Zaid is disrupting the status quo by asking the rajah to do the same, though circumstance and tradition have other ideas:
“When indeed they do grant to a man the realization of his dream, they straightaway reach forth to snatch from him his prize, lest in his triumph he become godlike and gaily toss them from their lofty thrones.”
See? And you thought all this pulp fantasy was just about guys fighting monsters with magic.
This, by the way, is how you kill a character:
And the god, who but half an hour before had been Zaid, the Persian, toppled forward in the gilded howdah. The last roll of the gong had masked the smacking report of a high-powered rifle.
And then that final twist to reveal the villain of the story immediately followed by what Lester Dent called “The snapper, the punch line to end it.” Nailed it, E. Hoffman.