Talbot Mundy (born William Lancaster Gribbon, 23 April 1879 – 5 August 1940) was an English-born American writer of adventure fiction. Based for most of his life in the United States, he also wrote under the pseudonym of Walter Galt. Best known as the author of King of the Khyber Rifles and the Jimgrim series, much of his work was published in pulp magazines.
Mundy was born to a conservative middle-class family in Hammersmith, London. Educated at Rugby College, he left with no qualifications and moved to British India, where he worked in administration and then journalism. He relocated to East Africa, where he worked as an ivory poacher and then as the town clerk of Kisumu. In 1909 he moved to New York City in the U.S., where he found himself living in poverty. A friend encouraged him to start writing about his life experiences, and he sold his first short story to Frank Munsey's magazine, The Scrap Book, in 1911. He soon began selling short stories and non-fiction articles to a variety of pulp magazines, such as Argosy, Cavalier, and Adventure. In 1914 Mundy published his first novel, Rung Ho!, soon followed by The Winds of the World and King of the Khyber Rifles, all of which were set in British India and drew upon his own experiences. Critically acclaimed, they were published in both the U.S. and U.K.
Becoming a U.S. citizen, in 1918 he joined the Christian Sciencenew religious movement, and with them moved to Jerusalem to establish the city's first English-language newspaper. Returning to the U.S. in 1920, he began writing the Jimgrim series and saw the first film adaptations of his stories. Spending time at the Theosophical community of Lomaland in San Diego, California, he became a friend of Katherine Tingley and embraced Theosophy. Many of his novels produced in the coming years, most notably Om: The Secret of Ahbor Valley and The Devil's Guard, reflected his Theosophical beliefs. He also involved himself in various failed business ventures, including an oil drilling operation in Tijuana, Mexico. During the Great Depression he supplemented his career writing novels and short stories by authoring scripts for the radio series Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy. In later life he suffered from diabetes, eventually dying of complications arising from the disease.
During Mundy's career his work was often compared with that of his more commercially successful contemporaries, H. Rider Haggard and Rudyard Kipling, although unlike their work his adopted an anti-colonialist stance and expressed a positive interest in Asian religion and philosophy. His work has been cited as an influence on a variety of later science-fiction and fantasy writers, and he has been the subject of two biographies.
Mundy was born as William Lancaster Gribbon on 23 April 1879 at his parental home of 59 Milson Road, Hammersmith in West London. The following month he was baptised into the Anglican denomination of Christianity at the local St. Matthews Church. His father, Walter Galt Gribbon (1845–95), had been born in Leeds, Yorkshire as the son of a porcelain and glass merchant. Gribbon had studied at Oxford University's St. John's College and then trained as a barrister before relocating to Swansea, where he first worked as a school teacher and then an accountant. After his first wife's death, he married Mundy's mother, Margaret Lancaster, in Nantyglo in July 1878. A member of an English family based in Wales, she was the sister of the politician John Lancaster. After a honeymoon in Ilfracombe, Devon, the newly married couple moved to Hammersmith, where Mundy was their first child. They would have three further children: Walter Harold (b. 1881), Agnes Margaret (b. 1882), and Florence Mary (c.1883), although the latter died in infancy. In 1883 the family moved to nearby Norbiton, although within a few years had moved out of London to Kingston Hill, Surrey.
In 1895 his father died of a brain hemorrhage, and Mundy henceforth became increasingly rebellious. He left Rugby School without any qualifications in December 1895; in later years he recalled bad memories of the institution, comparing it to "prisons run by sadists". With Mundy unable to go to university, his mother hoped that he might enter the Anglican clergy. He worked briefly for a newspaper in London, although the firm closed shortly after. He left England and moved to Quedlinburg in northern Germany with his pet fox terrier. He didn't speak German but secured work as an assistant driver towing vans for a circus; after a colleague drunkenly killed his dog he left the job. Back in England, he worked in farming and estate management for his uncle in Lincolnshire, describing this lifestyle as "'High Farming,' high church and old port and all that went with that life – pheasant shooting, fox-hunting and so on."
India and East Africa: 1899–1909
Talbot's accounts of the following years are unreliable, tainted by his own fictionalised claims about his activities. In March 1899 he sailed aboard the Caledonia to Bombay in British India, where he had secured an administrative job in a famine relief program based in the native state of Baroda. There he purchased a horse and became a fan of pig-sticking, a form of boar hunting.
After suffering a bout of malaria he returned to Britain in April 1900. In later years he claimed that during this period he had fought for the British Army in the Second Boer War, although this was untrue, for chronologically it conflicted with his documented activities in Britain; he did however have relatives who fought in the conflict. Another of his later claims was that while visiting Brighton in summer 1900 he ran into his favourite writer, Rudyard Kipling, while walking in the street, and that they had a conversation about India.
Securing a job as a reporter for the Daily Mail, in March 1901 he returned to India aboard the Caledonia. His assignment was to report on the Mahsud uprising against the British administration led by
Mulla Pawindah. On this assignment, he accompanied British troops although only reached as far as Peshawar, not entering the Khyber Pass which he would use as a setting for later stories. While in Rajputana he had his first experience with an Indian guru, and after his assignment he went tiger hunting. In Bombay in 1901 he met Englishwoman Kathleen Steele, and they had returned to Britain by late 1902, where he gained work for the Walton and Company merchant firm in Holborn. The couple married in Westminster in January 1903. By this point he had amassed large debts, and with his wife fled to Cape Town, South Africa to evade his debtors; in his absence he was declared bankrupt. He wife returned to London, and they never saw each other again. From there, he claimed to have boarded a merchant sailing vessel to Australia, where he spent time in Sydney and Brisbane before sailing back to Africa and disembarking in Laurenço Marques, Portuguese East Africa.
Mundy was active in the East African ivory trade
In February 1904 he arrived in Mombasa, British East Africa, later claiming that he initially worked as a hunter. He also claimed that while near Shirati, he was shot in the leg with a poison spear by a Masai who was stealing his cattle. He travelled to Muanza in German East Africa, where he was afflicted with blackwater fever. Mundy then worked as an elephant hunter, collecting and selling ivory. His later novel, The Ivory Trail, was inspired largely by his own experiences at this time. In later years he alleged that he met Frederick Selous at this juncture, although Mundy's biographer has pointed out that Selous was not in East Africa at this time.
Mundy secured employment as the town clerk of Kisumu, a frontier town where he was stationed during a number of indigenous tribal insurgencies against British imperial rule; the Kisii rebelled in the winter of 1904–05, followed by the
Sotik and the Nandi in summer 1905. On each occasion the rebels were defeated by the British Army. Christian missionaries pressured Mundy into overseeing a program of providing clothes for the native population, who often went naked; he thought this unnecessary, although designed a goat-skin apron for them to wear. He made the acquaintance of a magico-religious specialist, Oketch, of the KakamegaKavirondo tribe, who healed him after a hunting accident. He had sexual relationships with a variety of indigenous women, and was dismissed from his job as a result. He informed his wife of these activities, thus suggesting that she sue him for divorce; the divorce was granted in May 1908.
Unemployed, he moved to Nairobi, where he met a married woman, Inez Craven (née Broom). Together they eloped, and she divorced her husband in November 1908. The couple moved to an island on Lake Victoria, where they lived from February to June, although were subsequently arrested under the
Distressed British Subjects Act; under this, they faced imprisoned for six months in Mombasa before deportation to Bombay, although this eventuality did not occur. In November, the couple married at Mombasa Registry Office; here, he first used the name of "Talbot Mundy", erroneously claiming to the son of Charles Chetwynd-Talbot, 20th Earl of Shrewsbury. That month, they left Mombasa aboard the SS Natal, stopping in Djibouti and Port Said on their way to Marseilles, from where they made their way to England. There they visited Mundy's mother in Lee-on-Solent, Hampshire, and she agreed to give Mundy a substantial sum of money; it would be the last time Mundy saw her. Mundy and his wife spent most of the money while staying in London, before leaving from Southampton aboard the SS Teutonic in September 1909, headed for the United States.
United States and early literary career: 1909–15
"Why did I start writing? The price of pork and beans made it necessary. I just got hungry enough, which is always a good thing for beginners. I was in New York and I knew Jeff Hanley, a red haired reporter on a paper there. I would pound out stuff on the typewriter and Jeff would come home, look my stuff over, say it was rotten, which it was, and make me go ahead doing more of it. Finally, under the stint of his irony I wrote a story and sold it to Frank Munsey."
Arriving in New York City, the couple moved into a hotel room in the Gashouse District. Soon after arrival, Mundy was mugged and suffered a fractured skull, being hospitalised in Bellevue Hospital. Doctors feared that he might not survive the injury, while the perpetrator, Joseph Cavill, was indicted with first degree robbery and sentenced to six months imprisonment. Throughout 1910, Mundy worked in a series of menial jobs, being fired from several of them. His hospitalisation and poverty put great strain on his marriage, as did legal charges filed by the United States Department of Commerce and Labor accusing the couple of entering the country using false information; the charges were soon dismissed.
In 1910, he ran into Jeff Hanley, a reporter who had covered his mugging incident; Hanley was impressed by Mundy's tales of India and Africa, and lent him a typewriter, suggesting that he write some of his stories down for potential publication. Mundy did so, and published his first short story, "A Transaction in Diamonds", in the February 1911 issue of Frank Munsey's magazine,
The Scrap Book. His second publication was a non-fiction article, "Pig-sticking in India", which appeared in the April issue of a new pulp magazine, Adventure, which specialised in adventure fiction. Although he and Adventure's editor Arthur Sullivant Hoffman did not initially like each other, Mundy continued writing for the magazine, as well as for The Scrap Book, Argosy, and Cavalier. In 1912, Mundy published sixteen short stories and four articles in Adventure, seven of which were under the name "Walter Galt". Biographer Brian Taves suggested that these early short stories are notable "not so much for themselves as for how much they diverged from his later oeuvre", for instance dealing with subjects like boxing that are absent from his later work. In 1912, Adventure had also established The Adventurer's Club, of which Mundy became a chartered member.
The February 1912 issue of Adventure, where Mundy's "The Soul of a Regiment" first appeared. According to Taves, it was Mundy's first magazine story "to mark him as a writer to watch and to merit a cover illustration."
Mundy's story "The Soul of a Regiment" attracted particular praise and critical attention. Revolving around an Egyptian regiment who are taught to play music by their English Sergeant-Instructor in the buildup to the Somaliland Campaign, it was initially published by Adventure in February 1912, before becoming the first of Mundy's publications to be republished in Britain, appearing in the March 1912 issue of George Newnes' The Grand Magazine. Soon he would see his short stories published in a range of British publications, including The Strand Magazine, London Magazine, and
Cassell's Magazine of Fiction as well as The Grand. 1912 also saw two cinematic adaptations of his short stories, For Valour and The Fire Cop – produced by the Edison Company and Selig Polyscope Company respectively – with both being fairly faithful to his original stories.
In June 1912, Inez sued for divorce on the grounds of Mundy's adultery; he did not challenge the accusation and the divorce was confirmed in October. As part of the divorce settlement, Mundy was forced to pay $20 a week alimony to Inez for the rest of her life. Mundy moved into an apartment in Greenwich Village, which for a short time he shared with Hoffman's assistant Sinclair Lewis. At this point he met the Kentucky-born portrait painter Harriette Rosemary Strafer, and after she agreed to marry him they wed in Stamford, Connecticut in August 1913. Strafer had been a practitioner of a Christian new religious movement, Christian Science, since 1904, and encouraged her new husband to take an interest in the faith; studying the writings of its founder, Mary Baker Eddy, he converted to it in 1914. The couple then moved to the town of Norway in Maine, where Mundy's friend Hugh Pendexter was already resident. He involved himself in the activities of his new home, becoming chairman of the local agricultural committee and joining the Norway Committee on Public Safety. Following the outbreak of World War I, in which Britain went to war against Germany, Mundy sought to attain U.S. citizenship; applying in November 1914, his request was approved in March 1917.
In Norway, Mundy authored his first novel, For the Peace of India, which was set during the Indian Rebellion of 1857. It was serialised in Adventure under the altered title of Rung Ho! before being published by Charles Scribner in the U.S., and Cassells in the U.K. Critically well received, the book sold well. In August 1914, Adventure published "The Sword of Iskander", the first of Mundy's eight novelettes revolving around the character of Dick Anthony of Arran, a Scotsman battling the Russians in Iran, which ran until March 1915. It was in his January 1914 short story "A Soldier and a Gentleman" that he introduced the character of Yasmini, a young Hindu woman who would reappear in many of his later stories. He then began work on a second novel, The Winds of the World, which told the story of a Sikh officer, Risaldar-Major Ranjoor Singh, who sets out to expose a German spy who is attempting to foment an uprising in British India; during the course of the story he introduced Yasmini as a character. Serialised in Adventure from July to September 1915, it was then published in Britain by Cassell; when Scribner declined to publish it, Mundy acquired a literary agent, Paul Reynolds. Upon publication, it received good reviews.
King of the Khyber Rifles: 1916–18
"I remember sitting in the dark and seeing the throat of the Khyber Pass at sunset - gloomy, ominous, mysterious, lonely, haunted by the ghosts of murdered men and by the prowling outlaws who live by the rifle and shun the daylight. As if the word were almost spoken in my ear I heard "Death roosts in the Khyber while he preens his wings." It seemed like a good line, so I made a note of it."
— Talbot Mundy, on how he started King of the Khyber Rifles.
Mundy authored comparatively few short stories in 1916 as he focused on his third novel, King of the Khyber Rifles, which told the story of Captain Athelstan King of the British India Secret Service and his attempt to prevent a German-backed jihad break out against the British administration in the North-West Frontier. Again, it featured Yasmini as a core character. The novel was serialised in Everybody's from May 1916 to January 1917, accompanied by illustrations by Joseph Clement Coll, a man whom Mundy praised, declaring that "there never was a better illustrator in the history of the world!". The novel was then published by U.S.-based Bobbs-Merrill in November 1916 and by U.K.-based Constable in January 1917; it received critical acclaimed, with critics comparing it to the work of Kipling and H. Rider Haggard.
In 1917 only two of Mundy's short stories appeared in Adventure; the first was a reprint of "The Soul of a Regiment", while the second was a sequel, "The Damned Old Nigger"; in a 1918 readership survey, these were rated as the first and third most popular stories in Adventure, respectively. From October to December 1917 he serialised his fourth novel, Hira Singh's Tale, in Adventure, which was partly based upon real events. The story revolves around a regiment of Sikhs fighting on the Western Front for the British Empire who are then captured by the Germans; transferred to a Turkish prisoner of war camp, they attempt to escape and return overland to India. Casells published a British edition in June 1918, although for American publication in book form it was renamed Hira Singh. Talbot devoted the latter to his friend Elmer Davis, and gifted a copy to the British monarch George V, who was Commander-in-Chief of the 14th Ferozepore Sikhs. The book received largely positive reviews in the U.S., although was criticised in the Times Literary Supplement. Mundy felt that many reviewers had failed to understand the main reason for the book; he had meant it to represent a tribute to the Indian soldiers who had died fighting in Europe during World War I.
In autumn 1918, Mundy and his wife moved to Fifth Avenue in New York City. That year he serialised On the Trail of Tippoo Tib, part of a series of novelettes which he termed "The Up and Down the Earth Tales". Set in British East Africa prior to the First World War, it dealt with an expedition of three Englishmen and an American who search for a hidden cache of ivory. When published in book form in June, Bobbs-Merrill renamed the story The Ivory Trail.The Ivory Trail was Mundy's most widely reviewed work, receiving a largely positive reception, and resulting in him being interviewed for the New York Evening World.