Sunday, May 30, 2010

Frankenstein and R. J. Myers’ Domination Fantasies

A couple weeks ago I reviewed R. J. Myers’ The Cross of Frankenstein. It was the respected political commentator’s first foray into fiction. He followed it with a sequel, 1976’s The Slave of Frankenstein and despite the promise of a third book, his only other genre efforts were a late seventies soft-core vampire title and a privately-published guide to blood-drinking as an alternative lifestyle. I always feel a pang of guilt when I come down hard on a fellow pastiche writer. I’ve been on the receiving end of disappointed Sax Rohmer and Conan Doyle fans who felt I had no business continuing the adventures of characters they love. At the same time, I believe I have been fair and honest in my assessments when reviewing pastiches. I have the utmost respect for Joe Gores, Michael Hardwick, Cay Van Ash, and Freda Warrington as writers who tried hard to stay true to the original author in terms of style and spirit. I can still enjoy Peter Tremayne and Basil Copper who, despite falling short of the mark, can still spin an entertaining yarn. Consequently, I feel justified when I confine Myers to the lowest pit of literary Hell alongside Ian Holt and Richard Jaccoma for The Slave of Frankenstein, while a very different beast than Myers’ first effort, is equally contemptible.
The book begins thirty years after the events of The Cross of Frankenstein. Our dishonorable hero, Victor Saville found himself wanted for the murder of the detestable Mr. Greene shortly after the close of the first book. Wisely, Saville sought legal counsel and confessed a full account of the incredible events that transpired. Strangely, his legal counsel didn’t believe that self-defense when dealing with a murderous political revolutionary allied with the Frankenstein Monster would help his case so he advised his client to change his name and become an American citizen. The trick is that the new surname Victor chose was Frankenstein which rather defeats the purpose of going into hiding since any surviving members of the religious cult and private militia knew Saville to be Frankenstein’s son. Sure enough, over the next thirty years, the Monster (yes, the Monster) sends him a series of harassing letters to his new home. Victor chooses to ignore these and considers his father’s creation to be nothing more than an irritating crank. You know I can’t think of a worse portrayal of Mary Shelley’s dignified and awesome literary character than turning him into a nineteenth century prank caller. The years have passed and Victor married, fathered a son and daughter (Victor and Victoria, naturally), became a widower and finally gets pissed off that the Monster is now threatening to do nasty things to Victoria (now a student at Oberlin College) so he decides at the ripe old age of 60 to journey to Virginia and kill his father’s other son once and for all.
Victor pays a visit to his less than credible legal counsel to square things away since he fully expects to perish in killing the Monster. Wouldn’t you know it, his mouthpiece has another client, a U.S. Senator who is concerned that his past support of the imprisoned abolitionist John Brown will spell poison to his political career. The mouthpiece asks Victor to do a little espionage business while down in Virginia and make sure all evidence of the Senator’s unwise support of the abolitionist cause be (if you’ll excuse the expression) white-washed. Victor heartily agrees to do one last good deed before killing the Monster.
Upon his arrival in Virginia, Secret Agent Frankenstein keeps his rendezvous with his contact, Major Thomas Harrison. Harrison is a peculiar character, a slave owner who believes the real slaves are the working class for they are not guaranteed three square meals a day and safe lodging over their heads like the slaves he keeps. Myers devotes an entire chapter to this nice bit of Marxist philosophy about the evils of capitalism and how the slaves never recognized that they had it so good. Victor is swayed by the arguments to at least strongly sympathize with this unique spin on the Marxist cause.
Despite being 60 years old, Victor is no less randy than he was as a youth. He first sets his lustful gaze upon Harrison’s mulatto slave, Dolores (later revealed to be Harrison’s illegitimate daughter), but he also is attracted to Harrison’s “nubile” 16 year-old stepdaughter, Hope (later revealed to be carrying her stepfather’s baby), and during his first night under Harrison’s roof, he beds Mrs. Harrison for a marathon all-night session replete with hilariously comical descriptions that Myers obviously finds impressive such as “once the first fire had been smothered in her lathered loins” and “fondling my organ and kneading it slowly back to life, like yeast rising in bread.” One can consider it a small mercy that he never completed his third Frankenstein sequel as the book jacket promises.
I did note with some interest that Dolores is portrayed as attractive, intelligent, and articulate while the male slaves are all given insulting dialogue better suited to Stepin Fetchit such as “I’s cotched a cold” and “I’s heah to hep ‘lores.” Victor is barely able to control himself around Dolores the very next morning after sleeping with his host’s wife. Myers notes that Victor “cursed this searing lust that rose like lava from a long-dormant volcano. What searing damage it might yet do was beyond my immediate imagination.” Having read two of his books, I sincerely doubt much is beyond Myers’ imagination.
As the story unfolds, the reader learns that Major Harrison is in league with the Monster and they plan on liberating John Brown before his execution. Their grand scheme involves transporting Harrison’s slaves and over 200 recaptured runaway slaves from the Underground Railroad via train (apparently, Myers misses the irony here) to Harrison’s new plantation where their body parts will be harvested to make a slave army of Frankenstein monsters that will revolutionize society, free the working man from the yoke of capitalist slavery, and end slavery forever (once they’ve harvested enough body parts from the slaves, that is).
Of course, nothing goes according to plan as Victor is liberated in place of John Brown in a plot twist that would make even Alexandre Dumas cringe for Victor and Brown look exactly alike. The conspirators end up with Victor while Brown meets his fate. The ending gives us not one, but two final ends for the Monster. Poor Hope, pregnant with her stepfather’s baby and unwilling to let Victor abort her child, gets killed off by the Monster. Victor cowardly abandons Dolores and Mrs. Harrison to save his own hide when the Monster sets fire to Harrison’s house. Mrs. Harrison dies in the flames and Dolores rejects Victor’s subsequent marriage proposal leaving him alone with his daughter, his unreliable lawyer, and the fear that the Monster still lives.
Early in the book, Victor muses over the literary injustice that Uncle Tom’s Cabin (“a hastily-written newspaper serial”) is selling in the millions while Moby Dick, a work of seven years’ labor is only selling in the hundreds. Given that Myers notes that he spent six years writing The Cross of Frankenstein in that book’s foreword, it is perhaps telling that he finds less value in the abolitionist work than in an admittedly classic literary yarn rich in Biblical allusions and sexual metaphors for it is the same path he tries to walk with his second, more ambitious Frankenstein sequel. Myers' book is top heavy in Biblical quotes and Dantean allusions that sadly fail to lend any weight or credence to the author’s protracted and offensive view of sexual politics and race relations. William F. Buckley, Jr. hailed Myers’ Frankenstein sequels as “a tour de force of great skill and daring” on the back cover. I found both books to be risible at best and sickening at worst. “Here endeth the lesson.”

Sunday, May 23, 2010

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

“Karamaneh” was the sixth installment of Sax Rohmer’s serial, Fu-Manchu first published in THE STORY-TELLER in March 1913. The story would later comprise Chapters 16 and 17 of the novel, The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu (re-titled The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu for U.S. publication). The story opens with Nayland Smith, Dr. Petrie, and Inspector Weymouth preparing a dragnet around the area where Dr. Fu-Manchu is known to have a base of operations. They have no illusion that they will capture the doctor himself, but hope to round up enough of his minions to deal a significant blow to the enemy.

Smith and Petrie are among a dozen Scotland Yard men combing the area. As they pass by a gypsy encampment, Smith recognizes one of the gypsies as a disguised dacoit who is wanted for murder in Burma (where Smith serves as police commissioner). While they fail to apprehend the man, they succeed in capturing the female gypsy before she can escape. The disguised gypsy woman turns out to be the mysterious slave girl who has repeatedly saved Petrie’s life since Smith first involved him in the affair. Rohmer does an excellent job in conveying Petrie’s mixed feelings of compulsion and revulsion when faced with this dangerous and exotic woman.

The reader shares Petrie’s ambivalence towards this complex character. She is beautiful and graced with a foreign otherness that defies precise identification and she has risked her own life several times in order to save Petrie, yet she has also willingly participated in the murder of countless other innocent men. Rohmer makes much of her unabashed stare that few men would be able to meet. Petrie is fascinated with her, but also feels ashamed that the object of his affection is opposed to all that defines a British subject at this point in time.

Much has been made of the power of sex appeal in Rohmer’s stories. It is certainly true that his fiction was more sexually-charged than many of his contemporaries, but it is not really what is at work here. The sexuality is part of the larger canvas that blankets Rohmer’s fiction. His characters defy the simple categorizations of Edwardian viewpoints. His protagonists are flawed and his villains frequently display honorable, even admirable qualities.

Nayland Smith seems representative of all that is considered proper in the British Empire: a colonial administrator who knows right from wrong and never wavers in his mission. Yet, strangely it is Smith’s re-entrance into a simple suburban doctor’s world that turns it upside down not in bringing excitement to what was routine (as is the case with Sherlock Holmes’ introduction to Watson with his previously dull and ordinary existence), but in coloring Petrie’s worldview in shades of gray where once everything appeared to be black and white. Rohmer’s great strength as an author lies in upsetting his reader’s perceptions of morality and loyalty. His characters end up following their hearts and finding their own moral compass for the world they know is an illusion compared with the larger, more complex world outside Britain’s dreams of a global empire.

Karamaneh, as we learn she is called in this story, appears at first to be the classic femme fatale. One can detect the prototype of Bond girls yet to come in these stories that a youthful and impressionable Ian Fleming devoured. What sets Rohmer’s work apart from most pulp fiction is that his Bad Girls can also be Good Girls and that their seeming immorality can be a direct result of their past or ongoing victimization. This is the case in Karamaneh, the girl of apparent dual Egyptian and European parentage who is alternately merciful and merciless as she sees best. She is the sex slave who is also the willing victim.

Rohmer has previously shown us that the life of the exotic Arabian Nights slave girl is also one of cruelty and abuse. He now complicates matters by showing us that as a tool of her master; Karamaneh is very effective provided her emotions remain detached. This was heady stuff in 1913. Rohmer gives us mature themes that he handles with surprising taste and deftness that allowed it to breeze by the heads of those readers who were less worldly.

Karamaneh is openly critical of Smith and Scotland Yard’s effectiveness, pointing to those they have failed to save over the course of the previous five stories as justification of why she refuses to place her fate in their hands and cooperate fully with the authorities. Of course, Petrie and the reader also learn it is the life of her brother that keeps her bound to Dr. Fu-Manchu. She speaks again of their older sister who died when they were children being transported by Arab slavers across the desert. Petrie considers the thought of a flourishing slave trade in 1913 to be fantastic, but Rohmer clearly wants his readers to accept the reality of such situations no matter how removed it appeared to the average English or American at the time.

Rohmer has taken the stuff of fantasy and injected heavy doses of reality, but not at the expense of his reader’s enjoyment. That is walking a tight rope for even an experienced author, it was quite an achievement considering this was to be Rohmer’s first published novel. Despite the episodic nature of the first three Fu-Manchu mysteries, Rohmer set the bar high with complex characterizations that challenged his readers to think outside the conventional parameters their society was built upon. Without the racist stereotyping and cardboard characters of the many adaptations in other media weighing it down, the series might rival Sherlock Holmes today in terms of both popularity and critical assessment if its strength were measured on Rohmer’s literary accomplishments alone.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

R. J. Myers and the Crucifixion of Mary Shelley

Robert J. Myers is a study in contradictions. A veteran CIA operative, he became the publisher of The New Republic. In the mid-1970s, Myers authored two sequels to Mary Shelley’s classic, Frankenstein. Having a longstanding interest in literary pastiches, I tracked down these two long out-of-print titles and recently read the first, The Cross of Frankenstein (1975). The prolific nature of the Universal and Hammer Frankenstein movies was understandable, but the original novel has always seemed more challenging to extend – even more so than Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Neither story demands literary sequels, nor did their authors choose to pursue them – a fact that makes the ambitions of prospective continuation authors all the more difficult to realize with any degree of success.

Mary Shelley’s original reads like a modern fable. The scientist who transgresses nature’s laws is destroyed by the abomination he brought into existence with his own hand. It is the same fable Michael Crichton fashioned nearly 200 years later into Jurassic Park. Shelley’s alternate title for the book, The Modern Prometheus is frequently forgotten, but it is critical to an understanding of how the novel differs from the 1931 Universal horror classic that imbued itself in the public consciousness. The monster of Shelley’s novel may be lacking a flat head and neck bolts, but he makes up for it in spades with his philosophical yearning for his own place in the universe and with the father/creator who abandoned him.

Once the artificial man resolves to destroy his creator, his unrelenting thirst for vengeance leads us to the dire ending where the monster watches his creator expire on his death-bed and resolves to commit suicide thereafter. No matter how many times I’ve read the story, I never doubt the monster’s resolution to end his miserable existence. His purpose has been exhausted. God creates man. Man creates Artificial Man in an attempt to become God. Artificial Man destroys his Creator and then ceases to have a reason to exist. This is more than a re-statement of Michael Crichton at his most didactic; it is also an accurate summation of the theological, moral, philosophical, and bioethical issues the nineteen year-old Mary Shelley wrestled with in her amazing novel.

It is with some sense of discomfort that I found when reading the author’s preface to The Cross of Frankenstein that it was this very conclusion that Myers found so unsatisfying that he felt a sequel was not only possible, but necessary. Myers writes that “it seemed out of character for such a monster, however, to have simply finished himself off. There were still worlds to conquer, and his most determined antagonist was dead.” I was intrigued by this simply because Shelley’s ending seemed so complete. What story did Myers believe still had to be told for the Monster? Knowing the author to be a man of intelligence and learning, my interest was piqued to learn where he would take the story. Sadly, the results make Universal’s 1939 potboiler, Son of Frankenstein seem positively inspired in comparison.

The Cross of Frankenstein is narrated by young Dr. Victor Saville, the illegitimate son conceived by Victor Frankenstein with an anonymous wench during his final pursuit of the monster near the climax of Shelley’s novel. Right there, I was stopped in my tracks. Had Myers contrived to have Frankenstein father the child earlier in the narrative, it might have been plausible. Shelley goes to great pains to show how both creator and creation sublimate their desires in their all-consuming quest to destroy one another in the story’s third and final act. Additionally, Frankenstein had recently seen his wife and best friend murdered by the monster and yet Myers asks the reader to believe Frankenstein set aside his single-minded obsession that led to his death from physical and mental exhaustion for a quickie with a barmaid. Of course, Myers also later tells us the Monster was out sodomizing animals in the woods so perhaps they both agreed to a break from trying to kill one another for a couple hours to help relieve the tension.

Victor Saville grows up ignorant of his heritage. He shares many traits and interests with his infamous father and so the reader is not startled to learn he is, in fact, the latest of the numerous Frankenstein heirs fated to walk in their ancestor’s unhallowed footsteps. The Saville household is made up of Victor’s doting Aunt Margaret, their creepy butler William, and his aunt’s beautiful and innocent ward, Felicia. All appears set for a traditional Frankenstein tale, albeit one that seems to owe more to Frankenstein movies than Shelley’s book. The sinister Mr. Greene shows up unexpectedly just after Young Saville has learned of his parentage. Greene sets the tale in motion by tasking Dr. Saville with finding a fluid that can function as an alternative to blood to complete a mysterious experiment. This is where the story begins to fall apart as Saville is immediately convinced that this strange request must mean that his father’s creation still lives and is behind the mysterious scientific cabal Greene is said to represent. I was left scratching my head at the logic of this conclusion and sadly, not for the last time.

In short order, Victor has sex with Felicia on the front lawn in broad daylight, gets reprimanded by his prim and proper Aunt (so much is made of her hypocritical Bible-thumping opinions that one wonders what sort of lawn games the neighbors observed at the Myers household), snickers through Sunday services with his new girlfriend (even though they should be heartbroken that their actions have led to her being kicked out of the house), and then promptly gets himself shanghaied to America by Greene while seeing Felicia off at the wharf. Victor, gagged and bound in the cargo hold of a ship with Greene’s fierce German Shepherd, Prince, guarding him; fears his sphincter will not hold and he will “beshat” himself. If the reader’s mind isn’t left reeling with that jewel of a phrase, Victor then is convinced for no apparent reason that Greene must have abducted Felicia as well. As before, Victor’s peculiar conclusions are later proven correct. As the narrator, Victor never questions his own logic, so why should the reader carp?

Once in America, who do you suppose turns up as a member of the scientific cabal? Yes, it’s Aunt Margaret’s creepy butler, William. Now at last the plot begins to make sense. William obviously learned of Victor’s parentage and contacted Greene and the others that Frankenstein’s son would be useful to their mysterious experiments. A bit far-fetched maybe, but at least it’s basically sound, right? No such luck. It is a matter of sheer coincidence that William ends up among their rank and the reader never learns how Greene discovered Victor’s identity as a Frankenstein.

We soon quickly learn that there is no scientific cabal and Greene the flunky is actually the ringleader of this group who were only posing as scientists to dupe Saville. Having lost the dotty old religious fanatic, Aunt Margaret, we quickly meet the dotty old religious fanatic Reverend Ritter (who’s also a comic drunk, for good measure). Ritter is the spiritual leader of what now turns out to be an odd mish-mash of socialist revolutionaries and a religious cult. Greene and William (one of only four members of this supposed army to be given names and dialogue) plot to use the Monster to overthrow America’s fledgling government in the early nineteenth century while Ritter and his followers believe the Monster’s promise of a Resurrection Day in which their Savior (once Victor makes more of the blood-substitute fluid) will be able to restore their departed loved ones to life. Myers has an inspired bit here where the corpses of the congregation’s deceased family members are used as raw materials for further Frankenstein experiments in reanimating bodies that have been stitched together patchwork-style. This has the potential for genuine ghoulish chills when one imagines what the Resurrection Day will look like to the congregation. Sadly, Myers squanders this opportunity as well by only having Victor discover the truth. After building up Ritter as a major supporting player, Myers has him turn up crucified by either Greene (his political rival) or the Monster – the author never explains which one is guilty of Ritter’s murder.

There’s also a nice juicy role for Jenny, Greene’s attractive young wife (never mind the fact that they’ve been married for years and yet she is still described as young while her husband is now middle-aged). Jenny is the congregation’s nurse. She grew up in poverty and graduated from barmaid to wife to nurse and yet is Victor’s equal in understanding the scientific genius of his father’s notebooks. Of course, Jenny knows a good thing when she sees it and wanting a better biological father for her child, she jumps Victor’s bones as fast as you can say “Nineteenth century morals, my ass!” Victor is quite the lucky guy in that a preacher’s daughter like Felicia and the wife of a jealous and abusive man like Greene require no seduction whatsoever from our hero. These women are willing and eager and Myers, it must be said, exercises surprising restraint in detailing their couplings. Of course, that’s because he’s saving it up for the Big Bang later on in the narrative.

Victor considers his infidelity to Felicia and in the span of a single paragraph rationalizes that the love of his life would understand the casual sex with Jenny that he believes has produced his own illegitimate heir meant nothing and so concludes there is no reason to even tell her. What happens to Frankenstein stays in Frankenstein, apparently (or words to that effect). However, Jenny’s scheming of parental selection is all for naught since she ends up murdered the next morning — how convenient for Victor, casual sex with no strings attached. Of course, a short time later Victor witnesses the congregation follow Reverend Ritter’s drunken homily with an all-out Rite of Spring orgy with Benediction of the most base nature imaginable granted by the monster’s monstrous member which Myers describes in such awe and with such loving detail that it reads more risible than Richard Jaccoma at his worst. Who is the Monster’s mate for the orgy? You guessed it – Felicia herself.

Naturally, the reader expects a sexually-liberated-before-his-time character like Victor not to harbor any petty jealousy, right? It’s not like he hasn’t enjoyed his own on the side, too. Nope, deep down Victor is as much a traditional nineteenth century guy as the next. For the entire remainder of the book, he is tortured by Felicia’s callous betrayal and the image of her ecstasy while mounting the Monster stays in his mind and the reader’s (although evoking a considerably different reaction than the author evidently intended). Shortly before this book was published, Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder wrung puerile anatomical humor about the Monster out of Young Frankenstein, but Myers takes it to a level that approaches Kurt Vonnegut without the knowing satire to salvage it’s dignity. Witness the climactic description of a thunderstorm: “the autumn rain released every fluid ounce, like a primitive orgasm.”

There’s also plenty more lapses in logic along the way, too as Victor poisons Prince’s dinner and then has the German Shepherd turn up later in the story inexplicably alive (no suggestion of any Frankenstein resurrection for the pooch, either). Felicia gets what’s coming to her though and ends up with Greene bashing her skull in with a rock on the final pages of the book. See, boys and girls, the lesson is guys are allowed to cheat, but bad girls always get killed – Ian Fleming was right. The 1970s seemed to bring the porn out in pulp fiction in a misguided and juvenile attempt to achieve literary sophistication with the genre. Once the reader gets past the shock value, you’re left with the fact that authors like R. J. Myers end up looking pathetic as if the world just caught them playing with themselves. The Monster is almost an oversight in the story since what Myers does to poor Mary Shelley’s classic is the real horror story.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Robert E. Howard: Peering Behind the Veil of Life

“The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune” is Robert E. Howard at his most poetic. His writing had made a quantum leap forward in quality compared with his earlier Kull stories as he transitions from working in familiar genres to blazing a trail none had attempted before him. More than his gift for well-turned phrases and imagery so powerful, it literally sears itself in the reader’s mind; Howard reaches for a depth of character and achieves a work that is both psychologically and philosophically rewarding. Sadly, as the author would later tell his friend, Clyde Smith that he was disappointed in the result and had resolved to never attempt anything so deep again.

The tale starts off with Kull, plagued with ennui and yearning for something more substantive than riches, power, and transient beauty. The brooding king rejects the company of loyal Brule, the Pict who won the king’s respect and friendship in “The Shadow Kingdom,” but foolishly takes the advice of an alluring Eastern female. In Howard’s world view (and in truth, a pulp convention of the day), the exotic female generally proves untrustworthy and the nameless beauty who appears at the beginning and the conclusion of “The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune” proves no exception.

The girl appeals to Kull’s desire for spiritual sustenance. She promises him that the wizard, Tuzun Thune possesses hidden knowledge of what was and will be and is able to converse with the dead. The allure of the occult is enough to send Kull, whose pagan faith in Valka is apparently as unfulfilling as his earthly riches, in search of the hidden knowledge promised by the Eastern wizard. Yet when Kull visits the house of Tuzun Thune, he finds the wizard interested in little more than verbally sparring with the barbarian king.

Just as Kull appears to tire of the wizard’s bantering, Tuzun Thune tempts him into gazing into his mirrors with the promise of wisdom for “mirrors are the world.” Kull gazes and is bewitched by his own reflection and is immediately confronted by the thought that his reflection might in fact be the real him and that he is only the reflection. This is more than just a passing primeval fear, but the recurring thought that keeps Kull mesmerized day after day even at the exclusion of viewing the distant prehistoric past or the far-flung future.

Kull is momentarily distracted to see the world map of the present radically altered in centuries to come. The wizard responds with what might be the author’s own code of existence,

“Time strides onward, we live today, what care we for tomorrow or yesterday? The Wheel turns and nations rise and fall; the world changes, and times return to savagery to rise again through the long ages….The nations pass and are forgotten, for that is the destiny of man….I brood not over the lost glories of my race, nor do I labor for races to come. Live now….The dead are dead, the unborn are not. What matters men’s forgetfulness of you when you have forgotten yourself in the silent worlds of death?”

Recognizing the barbarian’s fears, Tuzun Thune asks him the very thought Kull fears to voice, “…is it in truth you?” Kull expresses his deepest fear when he replies, “Which of us is the ghost of the other? Mayhap these mirrors are but windows through which we look into another world.” This is indeed the truth of fiction rendered in terms of pure poetry. As much as Kull may be Howard’s alter ego, so too is Tuzun Thune for it is the wizard that, like the author, draws readers into other worlds of both dream and nightmare and dares to make us question who we are and what is real.

Kull asks the question that man asks today as much as in centuries past, “Tell me, wizard who are wiser than most men, tell me, are there worlds beyond our worlds?” The wizard’s enigmatic reply links us back to the spiritual yearning that gripped Kull’s consciousness at the story’s outset, “A man has eyes, let him see, who would see must first believe.”

Howard’s father was intrigued by the writings of Madame Blavatsky and the author shared his father’s interest in Theosophy. Howard expresses this here by having Kull on the verge of astral travel when Tuzun Thune tells him (sounding exactly like a student of Theosophy, himself), “See and believe, man must believe to accomplish. Form is shadow, substance is illusion, materiality is dream; man is because he believes he is; what is man but a dream of the gods? Yet man can be that he wishes to be; form and substance, they are but shadows. The mind, the ego, the essence of the god-dream – that is real, that is immortal. See and believe, if you would accomplish, Kull.”

It is fitting that it is the noble Pict, Brule who rescues Kull from dissipating into astral nothingness and passing forever into the world hidden behind the mirrors. Brule rejects belief in the occult and shuns any sign of its reality. Kull recognizes the wisdom of this, but is haunted by having come so close to answering one of man’s eternal questions. There remains a lingering regret that he did not complete the experiment. It is also fitting that Howard, who would explore similar territory in “The Tower of the Elephant,” initially determined to avoid returning to theosophical stories in the future and yet as the later Conan adventure demonstrates, like Kull, Howard longed to peer behind the veil of this life and into the next.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Blogging The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu by Sax Rohmer, Part Six – “The Call of Siva”

“The Call of Siva” was the fifth installment of Sax Rohmer’s serial, Fu-Manchu first published in THE STORY-TELLER in February 1913. The story would later comprise Chapters 13-15 of the novel, The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu (re-titled The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu for its U.S. publication). Rohmer had built several of his Fu-Manchu stories on protracted paranoia and had previously made good use of a Limehouse opium den as a setting, but “The Call of Siva” sees him letting his plotline be dictated by the altered state of the waking dreamer for the first time and to great effect.
The story opens with our narrator, Dr. Petrie relating a strange dream which begins with him writhing on the floor in agony. Rohmer makes good use of Stygian darkness, Oriental tapestries, and Mohammedan paradise as suggestive imagery that Petrie’s queer dream, at once both mystifying and terrifying, is uniquely Eastern in its origin. This point is confirmed as Petrie awakens with Nayland Smith as his cell mate. Only at this point does Rohmer resume something approaching a conventional narrative with Petrie’s murky recollection of Smith and him rushing to warn Graham Guthrie that he has been marked for assassination when they are abducted by unseen assailants from a passing limousine.
Dr. Fu-Manchu makes his first major appearance in this story. His confrontation with Petrie and Smith in their cells is one of the highlights of the initial series of stories. While the previous month’s story gave the reader every reason to place Fu-Manchu in the context of the contemporaneous fears of a Yellow Peril, when the Devil Doctor finally takes center stage, Rohmer has him invoke a god of Chinese antiquity and compares him to an Aztec priest. Rohmer seems to have enjoyed pandering to the political rhetoric of the day before confounding his readers’ expectations by removing Fu-Manchu from any temporal or geographic constraints. This conceit makes the character even more menacing as he mixes Arabian Nights fantasy with real-life torture devices such as the wire jacket.

Rohmer draws a direct connection with one of his strongest influences in giving Fu-Manchu a pet marmoset to perch on his shoulder just as Guy Boothby’s Dr. Nikola (and later Ian Fleming’s Ernst Stavro Blofeld) had his ever-present pet cat to stroke while plotting some new atrocity. The chosen method of eliminating Graham Guthrie is the Call of Siva of the story’s title. Fu-Manchu knowingly references Rangoon 1908 to Nayland Smith, aware that he will recall the ghastly particulars of this cryptic remark. Once again, Fu-Manchu’s anonymous Egyptian slave girl liberates our heroes and, in doing so, helps prevent the assassination of Graham Guthrie.
Rohmer makes much of the Call of Siva, the Mark of Kali, and the presence of phansigars and thuggees in contemporary London in this story. This is where he begins to expand the secret society that Dr. Fu-Manchu serves from not merely a Chinese organization, but a conglomeration of Eastern groups banded together to serve a common purpose in dismantling the British Empire. In fairness to Rohmer, this is exactly what Nayland Smith tells Petrie at the start of “The Zayat Kiss,” but it has taken the author several installments in the series before he fully demonstrates the concept.

It is tempting to view this as yet unnamed secret society in a positive light, for they are only defending themselves against Western imperialism run amok. Given Rohmer’s penchant for the exotic and foreign, it is likely that he did feel the British Empire had stretched too far. There is often a mocking quality in Nayland Smith’s jingoistic dialogue. What strikes the modern reader as politically incorrect invariably springs from Smith’s mouth and not Petrie for it is Smith who is the colonial administrator for the Crown in Burma. Upon reflection, “The Call of Siva” was already heeded many years before by Rohmer, then by his characters, and finally by his now loyal readers who eagerly awaited each month’s installment of the serial.

Events are beginning to move to ahead as Smith and Petrie draw ever closer to Fu-Manchu’s path. One side must win with the reader unable to determine at this stage if the author has invested enough sympathy in the nameless slave girl to spare her falling victim to her master’s wrath or if she will help tip the scales in our heroes’ favor. The wheels are now set irrevocably in motion. Rohmer had already proven himself a master of alternately following and defying tradition, the reader would be kept guessing to the outcome as the suspense builds toward a fiery climax.