Saturday, October 28, 2023

Snake-Bite and Other Mystery Tales of the Sahara

Robert Smythe Hichens (1864-1959) was a journalist, music critic, playwright, lyricist and novelist. He saw his first novel published in 1886 when he was just 17 years of age. His most popular works include An Imaginative Man (1895), Flames (1897), and The Slave (1899). Many of his novels were adapted into film or plays, including The Paradine Case, which was directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1947. Stark House Press has published a collection of the author's short-stories that include mystery and intrigue set in North Africa. The book is called Snake-Bite and Other Mystery Tales of the Sahara and features an introduction by literary critic S.T. Joshi.

In the story “Desert Air”, an astute worldly traveler recounts his trip to Beni-Kouidar, a windswept city in the Sahara Desert. It is here that the narrator and his companion stumble upon a young exotic dancer that has ties to a powerful Sheik. After being warned to stay away from the young woman, and to leave town, the two overstay their welcome and misfortune falls on the companion. 

“The Desert Drum” is a first-person account of a traveler riding through the tiny hovels called Sidi-Massarli in the Sahara. His reason for explaining his travels is the examination of the “desert drum”, a local superstition that these mysterious drum sounds beckon death. In town, the narrator finds a lawman who has a prisoner tied to his saddle. The lawman explains that the prisoner murdered someone, served prison time, and is now being returned to his hometown to go free. Later that night, the trio of men hear the ominous sounds of the “desert drum”, a sign that one of these men will surely be murdered.

In Joshi's introduction, he points out that Hichens was fascinated by the “eternal feminine”, highlighting the voided space both physically and emotionally between man and woman. The stories in this collection share a location setting – the Sahara Desert – but also a general theme of man lusting for woman. Often, these are performers that have a resound effect on the travelers and businessmen they entertain. In “The Charmer of Snakes”, the stage actress Claire enters the life of Renfrew, creating a life disruption. The same can be said for “The Desert Drum”, where the young prisoner commits murder just to return to prison to see the dancer he's smitten with. 

These stories are entertaining, and showcase Hichens storytelling talents as both a mystery and adventure writer. His writing borders on the cusp of dark fiction, like several of his contemporaries like Arthur Machen and Clark Ashton Smith. If you are new to Robert Hichens, this collection may be a great place to discover his work. Stark House Press have also released more Hichens collections, including The Black Spaniel & Other Strange Stories and How Love Came to Professor Guildea and Other Uncanny Tales

Buy a copy of the book HERE.

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