Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Top of the World: The Fiction of Ian Cameron [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

A bad movie can scar the reputation of a good book for many years. One such is The Lost Ones (1960), better known as Island at the Top of the World by Ian Cameron. Forget the Disney movie, forget David Hartman, forget the dirigible. Island is a great adventure book. This is a bold statement when you consider the last true classics of this genre date back to H Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs. The true adventure novel has long since disappeared. Or has it?

Cameron's book is a real treat. Well-paced, a page-turner, and not much like the silly Disney movie. It is the most fun you can have for so cheap a price too. Go to any used book store and you'll find a dozen copies in the cheapie bin. Unjustly forgotten. Island, like so many other books used by Hollywood, suffered from quick-buck merchandising. The 1974 cover features the movie poster and looks like a bad movie tie-in. People have forgotten the original along with the movie.

The basic storyline involves a group of rescuers in search of a pilot, the son of the expedition's leader, who has disappeared in the Arctic, into a place where the native Inuit will not go. The rescue party ventures to this mysterious volcanic island, but not in an airship. (That idea was stolen from Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan at the Earth's Core (1929) where a dirigible enters the fantastic land of Pellucidar through a polar opening.) Cameron's original team travel by ship and then on dog-sleds.

The strange land they find is populated by a mixed race: half Norwegian Viking, half Inuit. The rescuers flee a power-crazy shaman only to become trapped in the whale's graveyard, the original goal of the lost son. There they find him with the help of his future bride, Freyja, a local girl. The party's escape is slowed by a swarm of killer whales who guard the sea in a scene that may be controversial but very exciting. The book never indulges in gross unbelievability since the author knows he needs a delicate touch to win our willing suspension of disbelief. Like Jules Verne before him, Cameron blends facts with the imaginary in a delicate net that draws you in.

Ian Cameron was a bit of a mystery since the name is a pseudonym. The author is actually Donald Gordon Payne, an English writer who had his first hit with Walkabout (1959) as James Vance Marshall. He wrote other books, but none under his real name. The Lost Ones was the first of three novels he would pen between 1960 and 1976 in a Jules Verne mode.

The second book was titled The Mountains at the Bottom of the World (1972), an obvious connection to the Disney movie, but was later released as Devil Country. This novel has a team of explorers going to the Andes to dispute a border between countries, but find a race of sasquatch-like creatures who are the survivors of a prehistoric race. The journey is difficult, as the Andes are some of the toughest mountains in the world, but the cavemen are worse, being man-eaters. The captives are held prisoner for a while, the cavemen saving them to be eaten later. Cameron does some of his best writing in this book, but the plotting sadly is very familiar to anyone who has read The Lost Ones. Despite this, and yet more volcanic escapes and chases, the story never lags and the characters are enjoyable.

The last of the trio is The White Ship (1976), which takes place on Candlemas Island in the South Sandwich Islands, probably the most remote and dangerous place in the world. A scientist gets hooked into a trip to the Antarctic by a strange but beautiful woman. She suffers from mediumistic spells in which she spouts archaic Spanish and has visions of gold-colored seals. The expedition suffers bad luck from the beginning when their helicopter crashes, killing half the crew and stranding them on the island for the winter.

We get to experience a number of fantastic scenes involving volcanoes (again!) as well as a giant squid, a snow petrel that is somehow linked to the mystery of the San Delmar (a Spanish ship that foundered on the island in 1820), and the ghost of a dead girl. In the end you find out what happened and how Susan exorcises her spirits. The plot is not as active as the preceding novels, for the scientists are stranded on an island, but Cameron does work in plenty of fumaroles and 1970s-style interest in the supernatural. Of his three books, I think it is the most grounded in reality, but consequently the least interesting. It was "Ian Cameron's" last Vernian adventure novel. Payne continued to write military novels and non-fiction under this name.

Was Ian Cameron the last of the old-style adventure writers, mixing fact and fancy in a restrained blend that skirted the edge of unbelievably? I think not. The three novels by Michael Crichton: Congo (1980) Sphere (1987), and Jurassic Park (1990) effectively spring-boarded from three classic adventure novels by HR Haggard, Jules Verne, and A Conan Doyle. Crichton doesn't rewrite them so much as take inspiration from them, mix in plenty of present-day technology, and see what happens. It's a much hipper way of doing what Cameron did and they all ended up as movies that didn't ruin the author. In the case of Jurassic Park, a movie franchise that is still going today. And Crichton is not the last either, with good writers like James Rollins taking us all over the world for daring-do in Subterranean (1999), Excavation (2000), Deep Fathom (2001), Amazonia (2002), Ice Hunt (2003) and the Sigma Force franchise. Adventure is not dead, merely the best-selling genre it was back in H. R. Haggard's day..

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.
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