The story Before Egypt by E. K. Jarvis is a classic Science Fiction story but there is a mystery surrounding the author.
Because E. K. Jarvis never really existed.
E. K. Jarvis was a house name used by publisher Ziff-Davis. House names are “floating pseudonyms invented by a publishing company and regularly made available to or imposed upon its authors.” Ziff- Davis, and other publishers, usually did not like to publish more than one story by an author in any single magazine issue. Publishers also sometimes had a series under a particular name but used a variety of different ghost writers to actually write the stories.
In the case of E. K. Jarvis, publisher Ziff-Davis used the house name between 1942 – 1958 for over 45 stories published in its magazines Amazing, Fantastic Adventures, and Fantastic.
The house name E. K. Jarvis was used, for the most part, by author Robert Moore Williams. Williams (1907 – 1977) was an “American writer, primarily of Science Fiction.” He earned a journalism degree from the University of Missouri, Columbia but had a full time writing career from 1937 to 1972. Besides the house name of E. K. Jarvis, Robert Moore Williams also used at least three other pseudonyms. Most of his Science Fiction is pretty unremarkable space opera although he is noted for a pair of post- holocaust novels (Doomsday Eve, 1957, and The Day They H-Bombed Los Angeles, 1961) and for two series both centering on the adventures of heroic musclemen, one fighting dinosaurs and one fighting mutants (the Jongor series and the Zanthar series).
Robert Moore Williams apparently used the house name E. K. Jarvis as his personal pseudonym until the 1950s. After that, authors Paul W. Fairman, Harlan Ellison, and Sci Fi great Robert Silverberg each used the name E. K. Jarvis for “one identified story each”.
But wait, the tale gets more tangled, because the story, Before Egypt, is not listed in any Robert Moore Williams bibliography that I could find. Instead, I found one source who listed the author of Before Egypt as author Robert Bloch.
Robert Bloch (1917 – 1994) was an “American crime and suspense writer who acquired fame with his portrayals of psychopaths”. Robert Bloch began writing fiction, and also doing stand up comedy at night clubs, during the Depression when he could not find other work. Bloch corresponded with legendary author H. P. Lovecraft and wrote a number of stories within the Lovecraftian mythos. Robert Bloch is “better known for his work in Fantasy and Horror …. than his relatively small amount of SF”. In fact, Robert Bloch is best known for his classic novel Psycho, the basis for the Alfred Hitchcock classic movie Psycho.
So could the Science Fiction story, Before Egypt, be the creation of author Robert Bloch? Well, it is listed in at least one Bloch bibliography.
But then I stumbled across yet another source, and this time author Henry Slesar was listed as the E. K. Jarvis who wrote Before Egypt.
Author Henry Slesar (originally Henry Schlosser, 1927 – 2002) began his career in advertising and is credited with the invention of the phrase “coffee break”. Henry Slesar began publishing genre fiction in 1955. He wrote under the house name E. K. Jarvis as well as seven other pseudonyms and published several hundred stories at least a third of which where SF or Fantasy. He also wrote hundreds of television scripts.
But our story, Before Egypt, does not appear in any Henry Slesar bibliography I found. However, the only other E. K. Jarvis story in the Public Domain, Get Out Of Our Skies! (1957), does appear in his bibliography. And both stories were published the same year and in the same magazine:
- “Before Egypt” was published by E. K. Jarvis in Amazing Stories in January 1957.
- “Get Out Of Our Skies!” was published by E. K. Jarvis in Amazing Stories in December 1957.
Also, remember that publishing houses used house names to disguise the fact that one author had several different stories in the same issue of a magazine? Well, Henry Slesar published the story “Heart” in the same magazine issue as “Before Egypt”. Yep, maybe Henry Slesar had two stories in the January 1957 issue of Amazing Stories. Could the publisher have used their house name of E. K. Jarvis to disguise that fact?
So, exactly who is the author of Before Egypt? Is it ….
- Author Robert Moore Williams who was the primary user of the house name of E. K. Jarvis and even seems to have used the name as his own personal pseudonym. But Before Egypt is not listed in his bibliography. Williams wrote several other stories in 1957, some for Amazing Stories, although most seem to be under his real name of Williams and not the house name of Jarvis.
- Author Robert Bloch who occasionally used the house name of Jarvis (at least three times, once in 1956) but mostly wrote horror and stories about murderers and psychopaths. Before Egypt is listed in his bibliography. Bloch wrote several other stories in 1957, some of them SF, but most seem to be under his real name of Bloch and not the house name of Jarvis.
- Author Henry Slesar used the house name E. K. Jarvis at least once. He had another story, “Heart”, in the same issue of Amazing Stories that published “Before Egypt” and “Heart” is also in the Public Domain. Slesar is also credited as the real author of the only other E. K. Jarvis story in the Public Domain, “Get Out Of our Skies!” But “Before Egypt” is not listed in his bibliography.
As one source said, most of the authors who used the house name E. K. Jarvis are now dead so we can’t ask them to be sure. And untangling the publisher’s records seems to have resulted in three different candidates as the true author of our story.
We just may never know who really wrote Before Egypt.
After all the mystery surrounding our story, what is it actually about?
Before Egypt, available FREE in the Public Domain as an individual title, was originally published in the January 1957 issue of Amazing Stories. Before Egypt is a short tale, only about 52 pages long, and is a sturdy, but not spectacular, Science Fiction story.
The story opens with our hero, manly adventurer, Mike Mallison, and his trusty but ugly Martian assistant, Nicko, accepting a strange assignment. Mike owns a space ship, the Space Queen, and is a member of the Interplanetary Guild of Space Guides. In other words, he hires out to take tourists to strange worlds:
“Mike Mallison was a big game guide – a life he loved. He was a man of action and asked nothing better than the perils of his calling; the stalking of the great Plutonian ice bears; crouching in a Venusian swamp waiting for the tenton lizards to blow slime a hundred feet in the air and rise from their lava-hot beds; matching wits with the telepathic Uranian rock wolves, the most elusive beast in the universe; setting his sights on a Martian jet-bat so some Terran millionaire could have a new trophy for his game room.”
Mike’s assistant Nicko is a smooth talking alien with tusks, four arms, and steel like green scales. He’s considered so ugly that Mike’s new potential client screams at the sight of Nicko:
“Nicko wasn’t offended. He was used to women reacting that way at first sight of him. In fact, the hideous little Martian misfit had caused even strong men to turn pale.”
Professor Arnold Brandon, chair of Ancient Cultures at Casa Blanca University, and his “grey-eyed, slim, and damned pretty” daughter Doree want to hire Mike to take then to a mysterious location “out toward Orion”.
Almost immediately the trip goes awry. They are attacked, the professor is kidnapped, the Space Queen is left for dead but manages to crash land on an unknown planet, and our intrepid trio, Mike, Nicko, and Doree, continually run into unfriendly and downright hostile groups of characters.
This is classic Science Fiction stuff: space ships, strange planets, menacing aliens. I’ve read it a thousand times. And that actually is the problem – I’ve read it a thousand times.
There really isn’t anything new or uber-imaginative in Before Egypt. The idea that Ancient Egypt was founded or interacted with non-Terran peoples is nothing new. Mike is a ho-hum hero who doesn’t think much of women yet manages to fall for Doree (a totally blah and helpless damsel) and spends most of his time worried that some nasty aliens will carry her off and do…well, nasty things to her. The professor is barely in the story so there’s really nothing about what has driven his search plus he and his daughter are so ridiculously naïve that the human villains make complete fools of them before they even meet Mike.
The proto-Egyptian aliens fall into stereotypical roles:
- primitive looking but ultimately noble savages who are (surprise!) black men
- handsome but overly ornamented and contemptuous villains (and – again surprise! – white men)
- other white men (Surprise! Surprise!) who eschew ornamentation but are strong and stoic rebels.
There are even two human villains thrown in for good measure who are apparently able to completely fool the dumb proto-Egyptian aliens in, like, ten minutes and convince them that they are the good guys and Mike and team are bad guys all while filling their space ship literally to the brim with stolen jewels. They even plan on kidnapping the mean and arrogant Princess Katal’halee and spacing away to do nasty things to her.
Mike’s assistant Nicko is the only character I thought was half way interesting. The author gives a bit of Nicko’s tragic back story, the supposed ugliness is a little silly, but Nicko’s steel hard and sharp scales do get some clever use.
Now, I know when you read stories written in different times and places that sometimes you come across things that you might consider offensive. So I can sort of shrug off Mike’s obvious sexism as a product of the author’s times but Mike’s racism is a bit more of a problem. When Mike, Doree, and Nicko are attacked by “a mass of savagery. Several hundred tall, screaming black men clad sketchily in brilliantly colored feathers and paint”, two of the attackers capture Doree and move her away from the fight. They do nothing more than hold her and watch their friends fight with Mike and Nicko but Mike is immediately positive that the aliens have fallen into instant lust with Doree:
“His heart was sick at what would surely be Doree’s fate. He saw her just beyond the perimeter of battle still held by her two captors who were viewing the fight with rapt interest. If he could only reach her. One swing of his gun butt and she would serve no vile purpose in the hands of these raiders.”
Hmmm. So the black skinned proto-Egyptian aliens must, of course, be planning to do nasty things to Doree so Mike must kill her to spare her a fate worse than death? Why? Because she’s an uber-irresistible but helpless white-skinned off-worlder that has overwhelmed them with her alien uber-beauty? Or because they are nasty minded aliens? Or because they are black skinned?
I really wanted to slap Mike -and the author – upside the head. This racism just seemed too blatant to ignore, especially in such a short story.
Overall, despite the racism, Before Egypt, is a pretty ordinary Science Fiction story of the kind often found in the 1940s and 1950s. Space ships, a strange world, aliens both friendly and not, plus a derring-do hero and a damsel to be rescued. The story maintains a pretty sharp momentum throughout its short length. And there are a couple of clever ideas floating around, especially in the ugly Martian, Nicko. There’s even some humor involving Nicko thrown into the mix. But most of the characters are complete stereotypes with nothing to distinguish them from a thousand other such characters.
- Just who was E. K. Jarvis?
- Will Mike manage to rescue Doree?
- Will the proto-Egyptian aliens ever figure out who the real villains are?
- Will Mike, Doree, and Nicko find a way to escape the alien planet and get back home?
Book fans will have to read Before Egypt by E. K. Jarvis to find out. Fortunately, the very best thing about Before Egypt is that it is available FREE in the Public Domain.
Please click this link and go to the Internet Archive to download a FREE copy of Before Egypt.
Or click this link to go to Project Gutenberg to read online or download a FREE copy of Before Egypt.
You can also click this link and go to Feedbooks to download a FREE copy of Before Egypt.
Unfortunately, there is no free Librivox audio book available.