I was recently reading Edmond Hamilton's "Star Kings," a pulpy novel that is easily one of ol' Planet Smasher's best, when I realized that this story pretty much had the same exact plot as "Prisoner of Zenda."
"Star Kings" made me want to go back and read "Prisoner." What startled me about "Prisoner of Zenda" is that this book was the starting point of cliches, but cliches that are no longer referenced or used today. As surprisingly humorous and complex a book as "Prisoner of Zenda" was, it was oddly melancholic to read now...perhaps because the idea of something as crucial and influential to adventure novels, that spawned so many imitators, has mostly evaporated from the pop culture stage. It goes to show the short lifespan of adventure and escapist fiction.
For every adventure writer like Jules Verne that is constantly discovered by new fans, there are others that have been forgotten: J.H. Rosny, for instance, the pen name of a pair of brothers that were once considered in their native France to be the equal of Verne in the development of science fiction, best known for three books: "The Xipehuz" (which featured some of the most frightening, non-anthropomorphic, incomprehensible and otherworldly aliens ever), "The Death of the Earth" (mostly worth reading only for the moving last three pages, which describe the last being on earth winking out of existence) and "Quest for Fire" (best known for becoming a truly awesome film by a visionary genius director like Jean-Jacques Annaud).
There are other examples of cliches that were once exasperatingly universal but now are nowhere to be seen:
The Small European Country Adventure Story
In this story, typically identified with "Prisoner of Zenda," a tiny postage stamp sized central European country is under threat, and there is usually a problem with succession to the throne, a position that is offered to a foreign adventurer (who usually looks like one of the royals). There are lots of picturesque Disney castles and gallant fencing duels. One of the best such "Zenda" imitators is "The King Maker," one of the greatest of the Doc Savage novels, where Doc is offered the biggest bribe of his entire career: the throne of a tiny country. One can even argue that Doctor Doom's tiny nation of Latveria owes a lot to this now-forgotten subgenre.
It's not particularly hard to understand why this genre isn't seen much anymore. There aren't any more tiny European nations with royalty.
The Evil Chinaman
The mystery and crime novel market was once so utterly and totally choked with Fu Manchu imitators that by 1929, a prominent mystery guide wrote that "in a mystery, no Chinaman should be involved." It's not hard to understand why this cliche went by the wayside: it was mean-spirited and racist, paranoid about an immigrant ethnic group. It's hard to understand how hysterically paranoid white people were in the early 20th Century about an impotent non-power like the Chinese, surrounded on all sides by colonial rulers. Typically, the evil Fu Manchu character was such a genius, with such great planning ability and Oriental style, that he totally dominated the books that were written about them. Typically, the Fu Manchu genius had a sexy daughter, who was usually implied as promiscuous and sexually perverse, as warped and evil as Dad himself. One can even see Ming the Merciless as a sort of Evil Chinaman, in a sense: he certainly had the facial hair for it.
Like Fu Manchu, an entire library could be filled with nothing but books that are inferior imitators of She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, the title character that was the beautiful, brainy and hypnotic sorceress of H. Rider Haggard's jungle adventure novel She (incidentally, Sigmund Freud's favorite novel). The beautiful, immortal, intelligent Ayesha was a white queen that ruled over an African tribe. She inspired a diversity of characters including Tarzan's archnemesis, La, High Priestess of Opar.
Startlingly, the evil, forbidding native queen has mostly vanished off the radar of pop culture. Perhaps she went offstage, hand in hand, along with the only man truly worthy of her: Fu Manchu.
The Stone Age Regression Novel
The best known example to modern audiences may be Jack London's "Before Adam. " The essence of this sort of book is one where a modern person, typically through the dubious mechanism of past-life regression or the collective unconscious, re-experiences the experiences and memories of a person alive in the Stone Age. Professor Challenger did this as well in one of the more ugh-inducing of the Lost World sequels - a series that jumped the shark pretty laughably when Arthur Conan Doyle converted to spiritualism. A better known example may be "Allan and the Ice Gods," featuring Allan Quartermain...incidentally, it was this book''s use of the past-life regressive hallucinogen Tanduki that suggested to Allan Moore that Quartermain might become a drug addict, a big plot point in "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen."
This one took quite a bit to die out, but the Lost Race Yarn typically featured protagonists that discovered a hidden or secret society or civilization that is long thought extinct in a distant, unexplored region of the world: the Himalayas, the African Congo, the Antarctic, etc. The civilization that is most commonly found in Lost World yarns are almost always Ancient Roman, to the point that a lost city of Ancient Romans that survive to modern times is practically a sub-sub-genre in and of itself.
The best written book of this type, though not the most famous, is easily A. Merritt's "The Moon Pool," which I wholeheartedly recommended for its horror and humor.
Sometimes, though, the Lost Races aren't even human. Inspired by crackpot beliefs in cosmic evolution like Theosophy, many stories feature a hidden or underground cavern world. The most famous of these is Edward Bulwer-Lytton's "The Coming Race," about a blond race of superpowerful giants. Edward Bulwer-Lytton, incidentally, is best known as the writer who actually invented the cliche opening line, "It was a dark and stormy night."
What happened to the Lost Race Yarn? Well, the world became so well explored that the belief in a lost race or two became downright implausible to people in the later years of the 20th Century. So much is the pity. Of all the reasons for a story to go out of style, this troubles me the most: a story type that died because our world is mapped, explored and understood totally and completely.