Sunday, April 25, 2010

Blogging The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu by Sax Rohmer, Part Five – “The Green Mist”



“The Green Mist” was the fourth installment of Sax Rohmer’s serial, Fu-Manchu first published in THE STORY-TELLER in January 1913. The story would later comprise Chapters 10-12 of the novel, The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu [re-titled The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu for its U.S. publication]. When Rohmer incorporated the story into the novel, he added linking material intended to make the book appear timely and relevant. However, the true-life Yellow Peril news items that Rohmer has Petrie recount from actual British papers of the day strike a discordant note nearly a century on.
Freed from the exotic trappings of weird fiction, the straight journalism of the era seems dated, na├»ve, and offensive to modern sensibilities. This phenomenon is hardly unique to Sax Rohmer’s fiction and may also be experienced in the unenlightened views on display in the earliest of Herge’s Adventures of Tintin. Making matters worse is the current vogue for political correctness that believes in burying the past rather than learning from it. The combination of these factors stands as the most challenging obstacle facing a mainstream publisher if Fu-Manchu is ever to receive the exposure the series deserves whether from a new author continuing the series or a fresh printing of the classic originals.
A century ago, such views were secondary to the consideration of good storytelling and in “The Green Mist,” Sax Rohmer delivered the goods. The story introduces us to the blustering, bombastic figure of Sir Lionel Barton. The frequently infuriating Egyptologist is Rohmer’s take on Sir Richard Burton (one of Rohmer’s strongest influences) by way of a healthy dose of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s other immortal character, Professor Challenger. The dialogue crackles every time Sir Lionel takes center stage and the character easily is one the author enjoyed sharing with his readers. Little wonder that Rohmer would come to create so many return appearances for the character as the series progressed.

Sir Lionel has brought a death warrant upon himself for his planned second expedition to Tibet. Barton is described as having been the first Westerner to visit Lhasa and to have penetrated Mecca three times disguised as a pilgrim. His visits to Tibet are said to have political significance for Barton claims to have discovered a “new keyhole to the gate of the Indian Empire!” Barton’s estate, Rowan House is a true delight. The house is packed from ceiling to floor with exotic animals, curios, and a multicultural staff that in 1913 did not signify diversity, but thrills and danger.
Barton, it is obvious, is exactly the sort of man Sax Rohmer wished to become. Rohmer spent (some would say squandered) his wealth over the years on several expeditions to Egypt. He found the life of what was once called an Egyptologist to be one of endless fascination. The idea of surrounding himself with Oriental treasures and servants is a notion that made Rohmer’s heart race with excitement.

Even though the world is a much smaller place today and the internet, the public library, and television have peeled away the mysteries of Lhasa and Tibet, Rohmer successfully conveys the excitement of a hidden world of intrigue to the modern reader. The saving grace that repeatedly spares his work the damning indictment of racism (if one actually bothers to read him before passing judgment) is Rohmer’s evident delight in exploring foreign cultures. Despite the prejudices of the colonial era, Rohmer found the exotic East to be enticing and seductive and he infects his reader with his unbridled enthusiasm. This alone accounts for his infusing his Asian villain with an integrity and dignity that inspires sympathy in the reader. While film, radio, television, and comic strips made Fu-Manchu a racist caricature, Rohmer was busy creating a complex portrayal of the West’s political enemies as people worthy of respect and capable of open dialogue. This was heady stuff in an era where Britain was still considered the greatest empire since Rome.

The Green Mist of the title is as fiendish a means of disposing of his intended victim as Dr. Fu-Manchu’s earlier triumph, the Zayat Kiss. Mummies, treacherous man servants, mistaken identities, and red herrings abound in this delightful entry in the series. Yet, more than successfully working his established formula, Rohmer provides surprising character development along the way.

Fu-Manchu’s still nameless slave girl who has stolen Dr. Petrie’s heart moves from the scantily-clad fantasy harem girl that owes much to Sir Richard Burton’s translation of 1001 Arabian Nights to become a realistic and sympathetic portrayal of slavery in the modern world with a depiction of the cruelty and terror of such miserable lives. This was not typical British pulp fiction of 1913, but Rohmer would certainly still be expected to comply with type by having a chivalrous Petrie rescue the fair damsel in distress. Instead, he again breaks with tradition by having Petrie respond in a realistic fashion suggesting they notify the police and let the authorities handle the situation. Petrie stands by helplessly while the woman he loves returns to her master fearing a worse punishment or death if she does not obey. In this stirring instant, all of the exotic fairy tale fantasy melts and Rohmer leaves his reader with the reality of an unjust world. It is a sobering moment that makes “The Green Mist” all the more powerful for its inclusion.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Kull and the Quest for Identity



Robert E. Howard’s “The Shadow Kingdom” is a remarkable advancement upon “Exile of Atlantis” and the “Am-ra of the Ta’an” fragments. Howard’s first published story of what will later be known as the Pre-Cataclysmic Age leaves behind the derivative world of Edgar Rice Burroughs pastiches to mine new territory in terms of character and setting as well as genre. Kull, the barbarian who has recently seized the crown and now must struggle to keep it, marks a significant break from both Howard and the fantasy genre’s past while continuing to build upon the age-old theme of the outsider as noble savage. Howard was hardly the first young man who felt a sense of kinship with such characters. It is not hard to imagine the aspiring young writer, alienated in Cross Plains, pouring his feelings into the exiled Atlantean who remains an outcast even after rising to the throne of Valusia.

The story opens with Kull making a proper royal entrance. Unsurprisingly, the barbarian king’s empathy rests not with Valusia’s finest archers and trumpeters, but with the mercenaries paid to act as foot soldiers – men who show the king little respect, but who demonstrate integrity for all their brash honesty and disdain for pretence.

This sets the stage for the introduction of Brule, the noble Pict destined to become Kull’s most loyal companion. While Brule enters the series as a figure of suspicion, Kull soon modifies his opinion of his character. Brule, like Kull, is a man of integrity. It is not hard to imagine Howard crafting his story through the eyes of his protagonist starting out with a prejudice against Brule only to have the Pict prove his loyalty. Howard the writer literally became Kull the character. This intense and unique identification between creator and creation is part of what gives Howard’s best work its strength for the author imparts to the reader his genuine surprise at unforeseen developments. The world of Howard’s stories was real to its author and this is what separates him from perhaps every other fantasy writer with the exception of Tolkien.


Kull agrees to dine with Ka-nu, the Pictish envoy grown fat and debauched from his years in the Valusian capital. Kull’s initial assessment of Ka-nu, as with Brule, is negative but circumstances again prove Kull (and thereby Howard) to be a rash judge of character for Ka-nu does behave with honor.

Tales of court intrigue were common at the time Howard wrote “The Shadow Kingdom.” The adventure stories of Alexandre Dumas, Anthony Hope, and Henry Bedford-Jones were among the staple diet of many young men and women. Howard broke with convention once again with this tale by having the duplicitous members of Kull’s court not only be likened to serpents, but actually be unmasked as serpents disguised as men. This wrinkle in the plot would be ridiculous in the hands of most writers. The difference is that Howard passionately believes in his fiction and consequently, the reader is willing to suspend their disbelief.

“The Shadow Kingdom” still inspires excitement in readers over eighty years since its publication when the story concludes with Kull vowing to hunt the Serpent-Men all over the world to destroy them once and for all. The tale which first introduced Kull to readers in 1929 was a long time coming for Howard who had taken Kull from supporting player in tribal dramas to a principled exile to an unlikely king on his arduous path to publication.

The quest to destroy the Serpent-Men is a conceit that would later inspire L. Sprague de Camp to expand the role of the Stygian sorcerer, Thoth-Amon and the cult of Set into a comparable recurring plot device in his revised and expanded Conan stories of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. That particular version of Howard’s more famous barbarian hero is one that rankles many purists today, but it is a vision de Camp borrowed from Conan’s predecessor and Howard’s original noble savage. The 1929 publication of “The Shadow Kingdom” ushered in the new era of Kull, exile of Atlantis and his alter-ego, Robert E. Howard, exile of Cross Plains.

Monday, April 12, 2010

DOWN THESE MEAN STREETS A PASTICHE-WRITER GOES

We are united by an uncommon passion for literary authors and their creations. We read and re-read their works time and again savoring each thrill as if for the first time. We read one another’s thoughts on these works in the hope of gaining a greater appreciation or, at the very least, having the intensity of our obsessions confirmed by those better able to express and justify their existence. We remain ever hopeful that we will awaken one day to a world where even more of these stories exist.
A small number of us set out on the precipitous path of making that dream a reality by adding to the existing canon of our favorite characters. Many of those who do so choose to work in the relative safety of fan fiction, content in the knowledge that none will judge their efforts too harshly. Fan fiction, however, is a double-edged sword for while it allows us to work free from criticism, we do so in the knowledge that none will treat our work as a legitimate continuation and that, at the end of the day, is what we all strive to achieve.
Established writers such as Joe R. Lansdale and Robert B. Parker have sought to finish incomplete manuscripts by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Raymond Chandler, respectively. They are not alone in having accepted such assignments and while they do us all a favor by completing that which mortality left unfinished, they do so in the knowledge that many among us will burn them in effigy for having dared tamper with the Sacred Writings of our Faith.
Less defensibly, L. Sprague de Camp re-wrote numerous Robert E. Howard stories in an effort to extend the chronicles of Conan in the apparent belief that Howard’s characters were interchangeable. An act of hubris that now renders much of the first generation of Conan pastiche writers’ work unmarketable. Lost seemingly forever are numerous stories that filled the Lancer/Ace paperback series that introduced many of us to Howard’s work in the 1960s and 1970s.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories undoubtedly have spawned the closest thing to an organized religion among its followers and yet Holmes devotees remain surprisingly open to allowing other hands breathe new life into Holmes and Watson. Holmes continuation writers have presented the great detective as a liar, a madman, a married man, a gay man, and even Jack the Ripper without ever shaking the faith of the devoted in the dogmatic truth of the canonical cases. Yet those who have taken up the pen of Ian Fleming, Raymond Chandler, Bram Stoker, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and (from my own experience) Sax Rohmer frequently find they are greeted with jeers and catcalls for doing nothing worse than giving fans what they most want – more of their favorite character.
The simple explanation is that no matter how hard any writer tries to stay faithful to the spirit and letter of the original in reviving a dormant property, they will never be the original author. Truth be told, authors who churned out numerous adventures of a popular character over the course of many years usually reached a point where the writing became formulaic and the creator’s cynicism replaced their ingenuity and enthusiasm.
The average reader (a phrase that applies to none of us who can quote their favorite book as Holy Writ) is the continuation author’s best hope for acceptance for we the faithful are too fanatical to ever accept a continuation author as anything but a heretic. Partly this reaction is one based firmly out of reverence and nostalgia for how enjoyable the originals were at our particular age of discovery and partly it is borne of the belief that there is no one among us worthy to carry on the Master’s work and anyone doing so must be a pretender to the throne.
The real truth that lies at the heart of our world is that the authors we revere so much are those that we fervently wish that we were. Their past is the reality we wish we could trade to live. For most of us, we are not monogamous in our literary loves, but highly promiscuous – even polytheistic. For those reasons alone, the continuation writer must be deemed a false prophet and worthy of our condemnation for they dare to attempt that which we only aspire to in our dreams.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Blogging The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu by Sax Rohmer, Part Four – “Redmoat”




“Redmoat” was the third installment of Sax Rohmer’s serial Fu-Manchu, first published in THE STORY-TELLER in December 1912. The story would later comprise Chapters 7-9 of the novel The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu (re-titled The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu for U.S. publication) in 1913. “Redmoat” is significant for delving into the aftermath of the Boxer Uprising. As we discussed in Part Three, this conflict leant credence to the Yellow Peril fiction that had been steadily gaining in popularity over the preceding fifty years. More importantly for our purpose, the Boxer Uprising provided a motive for Dr. Fu-Manchu’s actions.
There are two principal supporting players to the story who are worthy of greater consideration. The first is the Reverend J. D. Eltham. Reverend Eltham had earned a name for himself during his missionary days in China as “Parson Dan.” Nayland Smith tells Dr. Petrie that Eltham held off two hundred Boxers at a hospital in Nan-Yang with only a garrison of a dozen cripples and a German doctor for support. The heroic clergyman’s evangelical zeal had resulted, according to Smith, in the Boxer Uprising. While ascribing the blame for that conflict on a single missionary is more than a bit implausible, it is interesting that Rohmer, an Edwardian author, took a critical view of the British Empire and recognized that intolerance to Chinese culture not only hindered the goal of religious conversion, but sparked China’s decision to drive the foreigners out of their country by whatever means necessary.
The other supporting character of import is Eltham’s daughter, Greba. It has long been a convention of pulp fiction that supporting players who do not fit the mould of the virile hero instead play the part of the absentminded scientist or the irascible elder statesman. These characters are usually brilliant, but require the hero to defend or rescue them. Such characters are usually widowers or confirmed bachelors whose all-consuming passion is their vocation. They frequently have nubile daughters, granddaughters, or nieces in tow to soften them and play damsel in distress and, ultimately, serve as the reward for the hero upon completion of his trials. Greba Eltham fits this mould in one sense, but in another marks a definite departure for the genre.

The female supporting player in the first two Fu-Manchu stories (“The Zayat Kiss” and “The Clue of the Pigtail”) was Fu-Manchu’s as yet unnamed slave girl who has twice risked her life to save Petrie from the fate ordained by her master. Greba Eltham takes this role in “Redmoat” and for that purpose must be distinguished from her father. Rohmer accomplishes this by having Petrie note Greba’s classical beauty upon her first appearance in the story. There is no greater compliment paid in Rohmer’s fictional universe than having one’s likeness compared to a noble personage. Nayland Smith describes Fu-Manchu, the object of his obsession, as having a “brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan,” so Petrie describes Greba Eltham, the object of his attraction, as resembling “a young Diana” and notes her “clear complexion…sun-kissed arms” and her round and firm shape. Additionally, the aligning of Greba Eltham with classical beauty is necessary to delineate the essential difference in her character from her father.

Reverend Eltham’s estate, Redmoat is tellingly a former Roman outpost on British soil. Greba’s father has fortified the estate with an elaborate security system after having previously transformed its drained moat into a garden. The typical Edwardian as represented by Reverend Eltham has little appreciation for the beauty of the past. This is what separates Smith and Petrie from their fellow men and binds them as friends. It is the quality that enables them to appreciate the uncorrupted beauty of the East. They are, like their creator, men out of time. Old souls trapped in the twentieth century but wishing for a simpler world more suited to their temperaments.

Reverend Eltham makes, as Smith wryly notes, a poor evangelist. He does not understand human nature. He lacks an appreciation of foreign cultures as much as his own nation’s history. Men like Eltham can only destroy for they lack the sensitivity and empathy to preserve or respect that which exists outside their limited scope. Interestingly, Eltham is a hero in the eyes of the British Empire and yet, he is hardly portrayed as a sympathetic character. Petrie is surprised when he learns of Eltham’s role in the Boxer Uprising for he viewed the clergyman as soft-spoken and meek, yet Petrie will come to detect a fire in Eltham’s eyes at odd moments. Eltham is a man with a storied past far removed from the respectability a Man of God was expected to command at the turn of the last century.

The fact that Eltham survives his encounter with Dr. Fu-Manchu is only because he agrees to abandon his plans to return to China. Once again, Dr. Fu-Manchu acts with honor and shows himself superior to the imperialist British heroes. Fu-Manchu, like Smith and Petrie, is able to reconcile the Old World with the New. More importantly, like China during the Boxer Uprising – Dr. Fu-Manchu wants only to remove the threat to his nation, not overrun the West. The strength of the Yellow Peril myth is it appeals to fear rather than fact. It is Reverend Eltham who most clearly represents the proponents of the Yellow Peril even more than the colonialist Nayland Smith for it is Eltham who lacks the empathy that is essential to bridging cultures. It is deeply ironic that Sax Rohmer’s Fu-Manchu stories, long-derided as racist and jingoistic, actually represent a more enlightened view of the East and beneath the exotic mystery and thrills, their author repeatedly demonstrates that the differences between East and West are reconcilable.