Dead Men Do Tell Tales by Byron de Prorok
Reviewed by Justin Howe
21 September 2005
Travel books share many aspects of speculative fiction beyond the simple comparisons one might make to an adventure story. The travel genre situates itself in a particular time and place and, at times, may say more about the author's preconceptions and culture than whatever locale is being described. On some occasions, these books can be read as an act of Secondary World creation, with elements of First Contact thrown into the bargain. A great example of this can be found in the work of the archaeologist Byron de Prorok (1896-1954), whose work has recently been reprinted by the Narrative Press.
de Prorok, the author of four travelogues, was a popular lecturer in his day; the original tomb raider, loved by audiences and held in contempt by the scientific community. With books such as Digging for Lost African Gods (1926) and In Quest of Lost Worlds (1935), de Prorok had an eye for the sensational as opposed to the wholly scientific. He was unconcerned with understanding the observed cultures and more likely to tell stories that reinforced preconceived notions.
Dead Men Do Tell Tales (1942) is a perfect example of his style, and clearly shows his gifts as well as his faults. Starting in Egypt, de Prorok hopes to follow the ancient trans-Saharan caravan route into Ethiopia in search of King Solomon's Mines and ancient ruins. Along the way he relates the troubles of financing the expedition, encounters with slavers, and observations of cultists. He flees from the Mad Sultan Ghogoli and eventually meets with the Emperor Haile Selassie.
The book reads like a cross between Indiana Jones, Commander McBragg, and those lost-world explorers that litter the wings of HP Lovecraft's stories. Dismissive of the scientific method and impatient with the true spadework of actual archaeology, de Prorok's own method appears to have been to charge forward (necessary paperwork and passports be damned), take pictures, loot, and get out alive. It all makes for wonderful reading. His style is quick and easy to read, and Michael Tarabulski, in his biographical sketch of de Prorok at the end of the book, raises the possibility of a ghostwriter.
There are shortcomings to de Prorok's books, not the least of which is his disregard for the scientific method and a suspicion that he might just be making the whole thing up. He also appears oblivious to the war clouds brewing on the horizon (Mussolini's Ethiopian invasion was only two years away). But de Prorok's talents overshadow his faults. It is also interesting to read the work of someone who has become an archetype in speculative fiction. How many intrepid explorers show up in the speculative genre, plundering tombs and searching for lost civilizations? Lara Croft, Indiana Jones, and a host of classic Weird Tales characters, all of them share a bit of de Prorok's nature. Their creators should at least tip their hats in his direction.