Sunday, March 28, 2010

Blogging The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu by Sax Rohmer, Part Three – “The Clue of the Pigtail”

“The Clue of the Pigtail” was the second installment of Sax Rohmer’s serial, Fu-Manchu. It was first published in The Story-Teller in November 1912. It would later comprise Chapters 4-6 of the novel, The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu [US title: The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu] published the following year. Rohmer makes a drastic switch from the weird menace of “The Zayat Kiss” to a more traditional Yellow Peril storyline. The influence of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries is much less pronounced the second time around. This episode and the one that immediately follows it (“Redmoat” which we will examine in greater detail next week) see Rohmer instead delve deeper into the background of his Yellow Peril mystery. This transition is a necessary one to provide Dr. Fu-Manchu with a plausible motive for the weird deaths he was directing against his political enemies in the first story.

Most critics cite the Boxer Uprising of 1900 as the beginning of Yellow Peril fiction. While that inaugural international conflict of the 20th Century certainly did much to incite reader interest, Yellow Peril stories had existed prior to the series of massacres of Western missionaries that would ultimately spell the end of the Manchu Dynasty and be responsible for much of the ideological and socio-political transformation of the globe in the last century. A brief overview of the most prominent Yellow Peril stories prior to Sax Rohmer’s introduction of Dr. Fu-Manchu may prove beneficial.

Robert W. Chambers’ 1896 story, “The Maker of Moons” turned Yue-Laou (Chinese folklore’s Man in the Moon who watches over lovers fated to be together) into a villainous sorcerer, leader of the secret society, the Kuen-Yuin. Yue-Laou became the first Yellow Peril villain to make an impact on Western readers. Interestingly, Chambers’ interpretation of Yue-Laou is not only ignorant of Chinese culture in its misrepresentation of their folklore, but also in its portrayal of Chinese people. As Yellow Peril fiction took root and began to thrive, it did so on the fear that Asians posed a threat unique among non-Christian peoples in that they could not be condescended to as aboriginal people from undeveloped cultures for they possessed knowledge, skills, habits, language, and customs foreign to the imperialist nations of the West who were at once in awe and intimidated by the same.

The role prophetic fiction played in the development of the Yellow Peril sub-genre is nearly forgotten today. M. P. Shiel’s The Yellow Danger (1898) and The Yellow Wave (1906) and Vladimir Solovyov’s “A Short History of the Anti-Christ” (despite the title, most assuredly a Yellow Peril story in the truest sense) are just a few excellent examples of how the threat of Eastern nations uniting to overwhelm the West seemed as if it could have been ripped from newspaper headlines of the day. By the time of the Boxer Uprising, Shiel and Solovyov seemed positively prescient. Rohmer himself would ultimately mine this same territory, albeit many years later and with a decidedly Middle Eastern flavor, in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932).

Albert Dorrington’s Yellow Peril thriller, The Radium Terrors (1910) with the fiendish, but brilliant Dr. Tsarka with his seductive daughter by his side provides as essential a link to Dr. Fu-Manchu (and, by extension, Alex Raymond’s Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon) as Guy Boothby’s Dr. Nikola and Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty. The gleaming omission from this survey of literary influences and the one most commonly associated with Dr. Fu-Manchu is Hanoi Shan. Purported to be a Chinese criminal mastermind who controlled the Apache street gangs in Paris in the first decade of the last century, the truth of the matter is that criminologist H. Ashton Wolfe who chronicled Hanoi Shan’s exploits in three short stories (“The Suicide Room” and “The Scented Death” appeared in Warped in the Making: Crimes of Love and Hate (1927) and “Kiki: A Tale of Hanoi Shan, the Spider” appeared in 1930’s The Thrill of Evil) was likely more influenced by Sax Rohmer’s fiction than the reverse. Rohmer’s insistence that Dr. Fu-Manchu had a real-life counterpart (who not coincidentally shared the name of Mr. King with the villains of two of Rohmer’s non-series novels, The Yellow Claw (1915) and 1932’s Yu’an Hee-See Laughs) is likely more an example of Rohmer penchant for storytelling than it is reflective of reality. The many variations in Rohmer’s first person accounts over the years of this alleged real-life brush with a Chinese crime lord are proof of this if nothing else.

“The Clue of the Pigtail” is an entertaining yarn and certainly a cut above traditional Limehouse stories thanks to Rohmer’s skills as a writer. Rohmer closely adheres to the formula from “The Zayat Kiss” in opening with a domestic scene of Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie reading the evening paper when a call from Inspector Weymouth pulls them out of the normal and into the outré. A series of bizarre deaths in London’s Limehouse district leave a series of corpses with missing fingers. One of the Chinese victims turns out to be Cadby, an undercover Scotland Yard man. It is Cadby’s tragedy that sets the action in motion. Smith and Petrie pay a visit to Shen-Yan’s barber shop – a front for an opium den, of course disguised as Cockney sailors with a taste for the poppy. Shen-Yan’s is straight out of De Quincey’s fanciful Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (a classic work from 1821 that Rohmer will draw more heavily upon for his aforementioned novel, The Yellow Claw written two years later).

Rohmer’s depiction of Limehouse succeeds so masterfully because of the transition from clichéd Chinese speaking Pidgin English to our first glimpse of Dr. Fu-Manchu in all his glory. It is essential that Rohmer adhere to form in presenting the first Chinese in the story as stereotypical characters with little command of English language and customs that are only too willing to accept bullying and abuse (provided their clients’ money is good) before presenting us with Dr. Fu-Manchu. Instantly the reader knows that Smith and Petrie are outclassed. The Devil Doctor is more intelligent and cunning than they could ever hope to be. His age and physical infirmity in contrast with the heroes’ youth and relative inexperience make him an even more intimidating opponent. Rohmer continues the tradition he started in “The Zayat Kiss” by making Smith and Petrie’s survival dependent upon the willingness of Fu-Manchu’s servant to betray her master for her love of Dr. Petrie. Karamaneh is still nameless in this second adventure, but Rohmer goes to pains to make it as clear as possible given the strictures of his day, the nature of her relationship with poor unfortunate Cadby. The disapproval of the Scotland Yard man’s motherly landlady tells the reader all they need to know. The girl who loves Petrie, the girl the dull suburban doctor is quickly becoming infatuated with, the girl Nayland Smith sets free despite the knowledge of her crimes, is no English rose. Karamaneh is an exciting, exotic girl from the East. She is not free, but she offers the promise of pleasures that Petrie, like Rohmer and his readers cannot possibly resist. Karamaneh, like her master, repulses and attracts the reader in equal measure and soon the balance is tipped so that one merely wishes for Smith and Petrie to cheat death, but never end the threat of Fu-Manchu. The prospect of a world without these enticing, diverting foreign “devils” is one scarcely worth considering.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Robert E. Howard, Exile of Cross Plains

The transformation of literary genres in the early twentieth century was marked by a series of intriguing parallels and recurrences. When Raymond Chandler, displaced as much in England as California, started down the mean streets of writing pulp fiction, he used an Erle Stanley Gardner story as his template. Chandler prepared a detailed synopsis of Gardner’s story and then re-wrote the story himself, comparing the results to the original. Chandler’s first published pulp story, “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot” (1933) introduced the prototype for the hardboiled private eye who emerged six years later in Chandler’s landmark first novel, The Big Sleep in the form of Philip Marlowe. Likewise Chandler’s literary heir, Ross Macdonald, displaced as much in Canada as California, would use The Big Sleep as the template for his own first novel, The Moving Target (1949) and, in the process, introduced Marlowe’s successor, Lew Archer who would arguably represent the hardboiled detective realized to its full potential.
When Robert E. Howard, an outcast in his native Cross Plains, started down the path that would eventually give the world the genre now known as Sword & Sorcery, he used Paul L. Anderson’s story, “En-ro of the Ta-an” as the template for his various “Am-ra of the Ta-an” story drafts. Anderson would likely be a completely forgotten literary figure but for the efforts of Howard scholar, Rusty Burke. Even without Anderson as a reference point, Howard’s first attempts at creating a noble savage are instantly familiar to the modern reader as being works that are highly derivative of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan, Pellucidar and Caspak novels. Just as the seminal Black Mask writers took the western and successfully brought it to an urban setting creating modern detective fiction in the process, so Burroughs and those he influenced took Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli tales and laid the foundation for modern myth-making by cross-breeding jungle adventures with the lost worlds tales of Jules Verne, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and H. Rider Haggard.

Howard’s early efforts with Am-ra distinguish themselves from mere imitation by their vivid and, at times, poetic descriptions of primitive life in all its terrible beauty. The Ta-an fragments culminate in the posthumously published story, “Exile of Atlantis” in which Am-ra is supplanted by Kull, originally conceived as a supporting character. This subconscious usurping of the central role is foreshadowed by the introduction of the character of Gaur who dogs Am-ra’s footsteps in an early formation of the storyline as an epic poem. Just as Howard’s Am-ra followed Anderson’s En-ro so Gaur (as Kull) was destined to overtake Am-ra. Perhaps in recognition of this transference, Howard would contrive for Kull to usurp the throne of Valusia. More significantly, Howard later rewrote the Kull story, “By This Axe I Rule!” as “The Phoenix on the Sword.” It is this rewritten version that introduces the character who will successfully establish the new fantasy sub-genre as Conan usurps the throne of Aquilonia and fills Kull’s sandals (and thereby fulfills Kull’s promise) as the noble savage turned king.

The parallels do not begin and end with usurpers in these early works, there is also Howard’s recurring theme of mercy killings. By far the most vivid scene in “Exile of Atlantis” is the climactic moment that decides Kull’s fate. He spies a nubile young woman being prepared for execution for marrying outside her tribe. Knowing he cannot save her life and wishing to spare her a more painful death, Kull hurls a dagger through her heart in an act of mercy that the victim herself welcomes. This act seals Kull’s fate and makes him an outcast among his own people. Interestingly, it is Am-ra who now follows Kull’s example just as Kull’s predecessor, Gaur once followed Am-ra’s example in the early Ta-an fragments. A similar action on the part of the hero can be found in the early Conan story, “The Tower of the Elephant” where Conan will likewise mercifully take the life of Yag-kosha, the elephant man to release him from his unending misery. This recurring theme of mercy killing is one that Howard himself would embrace when he ended his own life in the face of his mother’s death.

Howard’s suicide seems inevitable in light of the world-view contained in his stories. His fiction, like Chandler and Macdonald, is the work of the eternal outsider. The tragedy in Howard’s case is that his exile was only temporal and not physical. Had he left Cross Plains behind as his idealized selves, Kull and Conan had done with Atlantis and Cimmeria, he might have recognized that the unbearable loss of his mother would heal by gradations and unlike the nameless victim of small-minded prejudice in “Exile of Atlantis” or poor crippled Yag-kosha trapped in a cruel, unforgiving world in “The Tower of the Elephant,” Howard could and should have escaped the pain of his childhood home and learned to live a richer, fuller life where his gift for depicting the world in all its splendor and wanton savagery might have given him the peace and acceptance that he hungered for, but was denied in the twelve short years he gave himself as a writer. Clinical depression and creativity often walk the same path. Howard’s talent outlived him, but his own hour of the dragon concluded not with a noble mercy killing, but rather a tired resignation from one who fought a solitary war against a world he feared to conquer.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Blogging The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu by Sax Rohmer – Part Two: “The Zayat Kiss”

It has often been noted that Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie are cut from the same cloth as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson and yet they display as many differences as they do similarities to their more famous progenitors. When Sax Rohmer incorporated “The Zayat Kiss” into the first three chapters of his first novel, British readers had a distinct advantage over their American counterparts in that the UK edition, The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu contains chapter titles that The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu is lacking. The first chapter is titled, in a direct reference to the opening chapter of the first Holmes novel, “Mr. Nayland Smith of Burma.”

Yet it is not Nayland Smith who conjures the most indelible image of Sherlock Holmes so much as it is the brilliant, but eccentric criminal pathologist, Chalmers Cleeve who we meet as he crawls beetle-like about the crime scene. Cleeve is stumped by the murder of Sir Crichton Davey as much as Scotland Yard’s Inspector Weymouth (who Smith and Petrie meet for the first time in this tale) for it requires more than deductive reasoning to successfully combat Dr. Fu-Manchu. The Devil Doctor can only be matched by an opponent destined to defeat him. Fate, in its distinctly Eastern concept, is the deciding factor in restoring order to the frenzied paranoiac world that Rohmer vividly creates for his readers in sharp contrast with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s prevailing belief that trained reasoning can solve any problem.

Dr. Petrie, our Watsonian narrator, is also an aspiring author like Conan Doyle’s prototype. The difference is that Petrie is not a heroic war veteran like Watson, but an Everyman never even granted a first name in any of Rohmer’s stories. Petrie is a dull, drab physician with an ailing suburban medical practice and an ambition to write weird mystery stories. Unlike Holmes and Watson who are introduced by way of a mutual friend aware that both men are looking for someone to share lodgings with, Nayland Smith is established at the outset an old friend of Petrie’s, a civil servant unexpectedly returned from Burma.

The back-story that Rohmer establishes for Smith is that he stumbled upon the existence of an Eastern secret society sworn to stem the tide of British colonialism. Smith was shot with an arrow dipped in the poison of a hamadryad. He suffered for days in a malaria-infested jungle and survived only by his own ingenuity and fortitude in affecting his own painful cure. The wound he shows Petrie on his arm is clearly inspired by Watson’s war wound in Afghanistan, yet given a more lurid and melodramatic origin and story purpose. Watson’s injury is used to demonstrate Holmes’ intellectual and physical superiority whereas Smith’s injury is the threat of strange deaths that Petrie (and by extension, the reader) will face as they leave the safe, comfortable world of the writer’s study and enter the crazed secret war being fought under cover of darkness.

It is interesting to note that Smith intended his stay in England to be a brief one. He specifically asks Petrie to put him up and serve as his constant companion for a few days at most. In return, he promises to give Petrie plenty of material to jump-start his career as a writer of weird fiction. Smith’s intent is that only Petrie knows that he is in England. All of this changes once Smith learns that he is too late to save Sir Crichton Davey from assassination. Petrie, the innocent bystander, is now involved and there is precious little to be done save to persevere for to turn back now would surely mean the end of his life. Dr. Fu-Manchu is determined to limit the number of people who know of his existence and the threat posed by the secret society he serves.

Sir Crichton Davey is the third of Fu-Manchu’s victims of assassination since coming to Europe. Nayland Smith tells Petrie of the fates shared by Jules Furneaux and the Grand Duke Stanislaus. All three victims would appear to have died of natural causes. Smith literally describes himself to Petrie as the West’s only hope for survival against their mysterious unseen Eastern foes and Rohmer sets out to make such a hysterical claim seem credible over the course of the story.

Rohmer’s chief means of successfully creating this atmosphere is by making the first victim of Dr. Fu-Manchu unprepossessing. Sir Crichton Davey is a cocaine addict, not a bored dilettante like Holmes, but a cad as underlined by his womanizing as much as his drug addiction. The description of Davey’s study matches Rohmer’s own study where he wrote his stories with its green-shaded writing lamp and Oriental curios. The clues at the crime scene — a perfumed envelope and what appears to be lipstick stains on the back of the corpse’s hand – are as much a sign of the womanizing bachelor as it is a sign of the first of Fu-Manchu’s strange deaths.

At the time of his murder, Sir Crichton was engaged in writing a book on the secrets of Tibet. Time and again, Rohmer’s British characters display an odd fascination with the East which imperils their lives. On a larger level, Rohmer the Edwardian author was generating an interest in the East in the minds of his British and American readers by sharing his own real-life obsessions by way of his fiction. Britain is portrayed as ordinary and staid in contrast to the mysterious East with its promise of intrigue, excitement, danger, and sex – in other words, everything foreign to Edwardian Britain.

Apart from the bizarre murder weapon of the title, “The Zayat Kiss” chiefly portrays the East through the person of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the criminal genius operating behind the scenes who never actually appears in the story and whom Nayland Smith has only glimpsed in passing (as Rohmer will later claim was the case with his real-life counterpart, Mr. King). It is interesting to note that Smith’s description of Fu-Manchu with his “brow like Shakespeare” and “face like Satan” mark a study in contrasts. He is both a figure to admire and repulse the reader in equal parts. Most notably, Smith views him not as his equal (as Holmes does with his mentor turned enemy, Professor Moriarty), but as his better. Rohmer will never abandon this duality as he develops the character, but will continue to strive to entice and revolt his reader in equal measure. More than the embodiment of the Yellow Peril, Fu-Manchu is the British colonialist’s embodiment of Foreign Other – at once both enticing and fearful.

The other chief portrayal of the East in the story comes in the form of Fu-Manchu’s unnamed slave girl. The character will gain a name and personality in later stories and it is noteworthy that even at this early stage, Rohmer was considering giving Fu-Manchu a daughter. The beautiful slave girl of the East is both a figure of fantasy from 1001 Arabian Nights and a reminder of the real-life treatment of women in some Eastern cultures. While this is only hinted at in “The Zayat Kiss,” Rohmer will develop this theme to greater effect in later stories. Exotic Eastern women promise pleasures and beauty their Western counterparts cannot hope to measure against, but they also function as damsels in distress to be liberated from their “savage” captors and brought to the safety of the West. Of course, as we shall see in due course, nothing with Rohmer is ever quite that simple. While Petrie will win the heart and freedom of his Egyptian slave girl, it is he who will convert to her way of life – choosing to live with her in Cairo rather than remain in England. Rohmer’s own heart, as always, belonged to the East.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Blogging The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu by Sax Rohmer – Part One: “The Zayat Kiss”

Arthur Henry Ward was born in England in 1883. His father hoped his son would make his way through life as a respectable businessman, but young Arthur was determined to make a name for himself as an author. He discovered immortality with the invention of two unlikely monikers that conjured an air of exotic intrigue when they debuted in print a century ago. The first was his chosen pen name, Sax Rohmer and the second was the name of the character at the heart of his first published novel, Dr. Fu-Manchu.

Over the years, the name lost its hyphen and became synonymous with the moustache artists and actors always depicted the character as wearing despite the fact that he was always described in print as clean-shaven. Dr. Fu-Manchu is a brilliant and honourable scientist who is opposed to British colonial interference in the East. Using a variety of fiendish inventions, insects, and assassins, he sets out to remove Western influence and silence those who know too much about the East. Most intriguing in our post-9/11 world, the Devil Doctor chooses to fight his battles not in China, but on British soil using terror as his weapon. He is opposed in his efforts by stalwart British colonialist Nayland Smith and Smith’s bodyguard and Fu-Manchu’s biographer, Dr. Petrie. Rohmer’s stories spanned five decades moving in real time with his characters aging alongside their author. For much of the first half of the last century, Dr. Fu-Manchu was the villain readers loved to hate.

Born out of imperialist Britain’s fear of a Yellow Peril emerging from the East, Rohmer ingeniously imbued his fictional villain with greater intelligence and integrity than his Western protagonists. Dr. Fu-Manchu was introduced in October 1912 in the pages of “The Zayat Kiss,” a thrilling tale borrowing heavily from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Speckled Band” complete with the Holmesian duo of Burmese Police Commissioner Nayland Smith and his loyal friend and assistant, Dr. Petrie. Readers of Britain’s The Story-Teller were delighted with the results and the story became the first of a collection its author titled simply, Fu-Manchu.

The unflappable duo of Smith and Petrie repeatedly strive to save Men Who Know Too Much about China from assassination at the hands of Dr. Fu-Manchu’s dacoit servants or the various poisonous reptiles, insects, and biological agents at his disposal. These colourful intended victims begin with cocaine-addicted Sir Crichton Davey who dies with a mysterious imprint of a woman’s lips on the back of his hand mumbling the words, “the red hand” in his delirium.

The title of the collection was amended to The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu when it was published in book form by Cassell in June 1913 while American publisher, McBride & Nast preferred The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu as a variant title for its US publication in October of that same year. Whatever the title, the storied collection was a smashing success and readers clamoured for more. For a time, Sax Rohmer was quite happy to deliver.

Fu-Manchu’s foremost literary antecedents were Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis, Professor Moriarty and Guy Boothby’s now forgotten criminal mastermind, Dr. Nikola (inspired, in no small part, by Aleister Crowley). Rohmer’s initial description of the character in “The Zayat Kiss” is unforgettable and one that Rohmer would strive to re-create over the years without ever falling into direct imitation:

‘Imagine a person, tall, lean, and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true-cat green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present, with all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government – which, however, already has denied all knowledge of his existence. Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man.”

Dr. Fu-Manchu does not even make a physical appearance in the story, yet his presence pervades the atmosphere and hysteria of “The Zayat Kiss” from the first moment when Burmese Police Commissioner Nayland Smith turns up unannounced and unexpected at the residence of his childhood friend, Dr. Petrie – a staid suburban medical practitioner with aspirations to write weird fiction – and leads him into a mad world filled with conspiracy theories, bizarre assassinations, and a lovesick half-caste Egyptian slave girl who forms an immediate attachment on Petrie and ends up saving his and, by association, Nayland Smith’s life for the first of many times in this story. There was no way the story could not have been a smashing success when it debuted in print in October 1912. All of the ingredients were there to build a winning formula. How Rohmer did just that without growing tired and repetitious will be the subject of future instalments in this blog.