Friday, March 31, 2017

Forgotten Books: The Grand Cham - Harold Lamb

Several regular readers of this blog have been discussing Harold Lamb and his work, which prompted me to read something else by him. In the past I've read the novels DURANDEL and MARCHING SANDS and a few short stories, but it's been a while since I read anything else by Lamb. I started with one of his short novels, THE GRAND CHAM, which first appeared complete in the July 1, 1921 issue of the iconic pulp ADVENTURE.

This one opens in the year 1394, with Irish-French mariner Michael Bearn a prisoner of the Moslem potentate Bayezid, also known as the Thunderbolt, who is well on his way to conquering all of central Asia and parts of Europe. Although crippled by torture carried out at Bayezid's orders, Michael escapes and winds up back in Venice, where he joins a trade expedition to the fabled city of Cathay, which is ruled by a monarch known as the Grand Cham, or Khan. One of Michael's enemies is also part of the expedition, so treachery and danger ensue, and eventually they all wind up as prisoners of the Mongol warlord Tamerlane, who is actually the Grand Cham. There is no city of Cathay, only the great tent settlement of Tamerlane's horde. And as it turns out, an epic battle is shaping up between Tamerlane's forces and those of Bayezid, the man Michael Bearn seeks to destroy to avenge what was done to him.

If THE GRAND CHAM was a Fifties movie, it would be three hours long, have a cast of tens of thousands, and be directed by Cecil B. DeMille, that's how epic it is. As a novel, though, Lamb manages to pack a lot of story into a relatively short length. The characters are excellent. Michael Bearn is a dogged and stalwart protagonist, if a bit colorless. His sidekick, a former jester named Bembo, though, is great. Brave, funny, a little tragic, he really does a lot to liven up the story. The villains are properly despicable, and Lamb makes the historical character Tamerlane come alive.

I'll admit that I find Lamb's style a little dry at times, but there are still some fine scenes that make THE GRAND CHAM a good adventure yarn in the classic style. I definitely enjoyed it enough to read more by him, and next up is probably the short novel THE MAKING OF THE MORNING STAR, which is generally regarded as one of his best.


Walker Martin said...

I looked at my 1921 ADVENTURE containing this story and my notes say that I read it in 1975 and gave it my highest rating. By 1975 I had completed my set of ADVENTURE, all 753 pulp issues, 1910-1953. I still have the set though I recently upgraded the condition of most of the issues in the 1920's, thanks to Mike Chomko who decided to reluctantly let go his issues.

George said...

I'm a fan of Harold Lamb's work. Black Dog Press has reprinted some of his great work!

Adventuresfantastic said...

I've only read a little of Lamb, in the Bison collections Howard Andrew Jones edited a few years back. I really liked what I read and need to read more. I could see the influence on Robert E. Howard in the way some of the stories were structured.

S. Craig Zahler said...

I'm pleased to see that you checked this out.

I enjoy The Grand Cham but don't rate it amongst Lamb's best and expect much higher accolades from you for Making of the Mourning Star, which is as good as it gets. In older movie terms it's several David Leans put alongside some DW Griffiths.

I understand your comment that Lamb's style is "dry" but I would describe it as removed and authoritative in a manner that gives his tales a real historical authenticity and richness. The actions and plotting in his stories are so credible (but surprising), and his style helps make them read like the best histories that never happened.

James Reasoner said...

I agree, the pace and plotting of this story are very good.