Sunday, March 22, 2009

Exclusive: William Patrick Maynard's THE TERROR OF FU MANCHU!

Bill Maynard was kind enough to approach me about his new book (his first!), THE TERROR OF FU MANCHU, which is the first authorized Fu Manchu novel in 20 years, ever since Cay Van Ash's THE FIRES OF FU MANCHU. Not only is this a fun book, but it's exciting for yours truly to do his first exclusive pre-publication book review. (I've checked, there doesn't appear to be any other reviews out there yet, so this is the first!)

And who is Fu Manchu? If you don't know...well, he's a Chinese mastermind created by Sax Rohmer (real name: Arthur Sarsfield Ward), in a pulp series that began in 1912 with the short story "The Zayat Kiss" and continued in a series of stories and novels that lasted until 1973 in the posthumous collection THE WRATH OF FU MANCHU. (Rohmer passed on in 1959.) Rohmer reportedly based Fu Manchu on rumors he heard of a Chinese crimelord operating in London's Limehouse district, but went far beyond that by making Fu Manchu an operative of a secret organization, the Si-Fan. In the novels, the Si-Fan started off planning to drive all Europeans out of Asia, but gradually evolved into a desire for world domination. Despite the racial implications (as fond as I am of the series, I freely admit they can be a little racially insensitive), Fu Manchu became an extraordinarily popular character, appearing in movies, radio shows, and comic books, and influenced the creations of other characters, ranging from comic-book villains like the Mandarin or Ra's al Ghul to Ming the Merciless to James Bond's nemesis Dr. No.

Fu Manchu employed all sorts of bizarre weaponry. In the original Rohmer novels, it ranged from cats with poisoned claws, primates trained to strangle, and poisonous caterpillars to mutated fungi, custom-made diseases, and suspended-animation drugs. Later in the series he developed sci-fi gadgetry like a disintegration beam, force fields, and flying saucers!

The forces of Good in the novels were represented by Fu's inconquerable enemy, Sir Denis Nayland Smith, who was assisted by a series of "Watsons" who would narrate a book or two before retiring into married life with whatever exotic beauty they'd rescued. (And they generally had come-hither names like Karamaneh, Ardatha, Fleurette, Rima, etc.)


THE TERROR OF FU MANCHU takes place in December of 1913. Dr. Petrie, Smith's first "Watson", is visiting an old friend, Rev. Eltham, who had been featured earlier in the series. This time, however, Petrie is shocked to discover that Eltham has cast aside his sacred calling and joined a mysterious group called The Brotherhood of the Magi, and is consorting with a mysterious beauty named Ursula Trelawney...who is hinted to be the reincarnation of Madame Blavatsky.

Of course, soon the deaths start, and Smith and Petrie confront their enemy, Fu Manchu, who is aging but still capable and intelligent. (Rohmer had Fu Manchu discover a youth-revitalizing potion in the fifth novel, 1932's THE MASK OF FU MANCHU.) Petrie scrambles from London to Paris and back, and it soon becomes clear that it's not just Evil vs. Good but Evil vs. Evil vs. Good. And just trying to figure who's on what side is half the fun.

Naturally, those familiar with the Fu Manchu series may raise an eyebrow at some of the things I describe. Fu Manchu involved with esoteric sects and Theosophy? Actually, it's something I always half-expected to emerge in the series. Rohmer touched on psychic phenomena in the F-M books, but outside the series he was very obviously interested in the occult. Other works ranged from the non-fiction survey of the occult, THE ROMANCE OF SORCERY (1914), to various supernatural-horror short stories, and one of my favorites of his nonseries novels, BROOD OF THE WITCH QUEEN (1918), which reads as an attempt to create a series around a supernatural villain. So really, the introduction of occultism into a Rohmer pastiche is nothing shocking at all.

There's also lots of nods to Rohmer's other works, including Gaston Max, a French detective featured in a quartet of novels, and who crossed swords with an unnamed Fu Manchu in THE GOLDEN SCORPION (1918). There's a wink to knowing readers as Rohmer's psychic detective, Moris Klaw, is given an oblique reference (he appeared in 1920's THE DREAM DETECTIVE). And even non-Rohmer creations show up, with mentions of Fantomas and Les Vampires. (And if Bill hadn't sent me the manuscript before I wrote the Video Shelf article a few weeks ago, I'd have suspected something.) And there's probably any number of other references that slipped by me. And one character borrows a name from a mutual friend, no longer with us, and I can assume that wherever Richard is, he's having a good chuckle over his namesake.

Now, granted, this isn't great lit-ra-choor. At his best, Rohmer was pulp, so I don't expect much more from a pastiche. TERROR has a few faults that I found, mostly in the language (Petrie says "nice to see you again" at one point, which looks a little too modern to my eyes, and there's a few other moments like that; not major, though). TERROR is much more sexually frank than anything Rohmer wrote (but then again, this is supposedly a "suppressed" memoir of Petrie's), and some musings on religion and belief seem a bit obvious...but overall, TERROR is still a ripping fun read. Maynard manages to sidestep some of Rohmer's weaknesses (sometimes his plots could get muddled, and he was often frightfully snobbish and flat-out racist), which is much to his credit.

And no, I'm not saying that because I hope to get him to write for this blog at some point. I enjoyed TERROR thoroughly, and look forward to whatever Bill comes up with next. (If there's an absinthe-swilling red-headed aesthete of profound depravity in his next book...I'll have a good laugh.)

TERROR OF FU MANCHU is coming out next month from the good folks at Black Coat Press, so click on the link to the right there for more info about TERROR and other books they publish. And I'll add a link for The Page of Fu Manchu for those who want to learn more about Sax Rohmer's works.

Until next time, my friends...

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Happy St. Patrick's Day

I am totally unprepared for this holiday, totally. If I had been thinking, I'd have prepared some remarks about Lady Wilde, or Herminie Templeton, or some reviews stories by J. Sheridan Le Fanu or Rhoda Broughton....but I didn't.

Hell, I didn't even prepare any remarks about DARBY O'GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE, one of the handful of Disney films I can stand.

So anyway, have a beer, caterwaul "Danny Boy" at the top of your lungs, and enjoy the evening. And look out for leprechauns.

And if you're home and reading this (obviously, you are), click on the link to the Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies, there to the right. Go ahead, it's worth checking out. I mean it.

I'll be back later with more fun stuff.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

A Few Thoughts

Not very long ago I was lounging in the bath, reading Arthur Quiller-Couch's ON THE ART OF WRITING, and came across a great quote...

"What do I argue from this? I argue that until we can bring more intellectual freedom into our State, 'joy in the widest commonalty spread,' upon you, a few favoured ones, rest an obligation to see that the springs of English poetry do not fail. I put it to you that of this glory of our birth and state you are the temporary stewards. I put it to the University, considered as a dispenser of intellectual light, that to treat English poetry as though it had died with Tennyson and your lecturers had but to compose the features on a corpse, is to abnegate high hope for the sake of a barren convenience."

Now, I've got nothing against arranging the features on a corpse (especially if I can make him stick his tongue out at the next of kin), but this really stuck with me. Literature should be a living thing. I know I focus a lot on the works of authors of the past, but I know that I (and by extension, you) shouldn't be exclusive about it. The present has a lot to offer and even when we think about the past, we have to remember the old saying, "What is past is prologue." The past shouldn't be ignored, but it shouldn't be idolized as the pinnacle of achievement. Rather, it should function to inspire current generations to try their hand, to maybe do one better, to reach higher and farther.

Here's Q in his younger days:

Handsome devil, eh? Q (as he was known) was also quite the ghost-story writer; look up stories like "The Laird's Luck" and "Roll-Call of the Reef" to sample his work. He was also a prominent poet, editor of the famous OXFORD BOOK OF ENGLISH VERSE, and a prominent literary critic and educator. ON THE ART OF WRITING is a collection of lectures he delivered from 1913 to 1914, and while sometimes dense has its moments of light. He was a big influence on one my personal muses, Helene Hanff of 84 CHARING CROSS ROAD fame. So if you're of the creative kind, get out there and create something new!

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Video Shelf: Louis Feuillade

This will be the first in an ongoing series, featuring inspirational films to be found on video and DVD...although sometimes with a little effort.

Louis Feuillade will be the featured filmmaker this time around. Born in 1873, to a family of wine brokers in Lunel, France, Feuillade worked in the family business but wrote on the side, eventually becoming a full-time journalist, but found the work unrewarding financially. In 1905 he became a screenwriter for the Gaumont film company. Two years later he became a director. In his lifetime he wrote 800 screenplays and directed 700 of them (most of them shorts), and up until 1913 he made about 80 a year. He then started making feature-length films, and then became a pioneer of the serial format.

One of his earliest serials was not really one big project, but a series of five shorter chapter plays, but put together they're known as FANTOMAS (1913-14). Based on the series of novels by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, they chronicle the adventures of supercriminal Fantomas (Rene Navarre) as he's pursued by the somewhat-obsessed Inspector Juve (Edmond Breon) and feisty journalist Jerome Fandor (Georges Melchior). Fantomas is no sympathetic Robin Hood, Arsene Lupin, Raffles, or Simon Templar...he's a fiend. Fantomas lashes out against everything that normal society values and holds sacred. (I've read that in the novels he does things like sneak into a department store to put razor blades in the shoes and acid in the perfume atomizers...eeek!) He has a mistress, Lady Beltham (he murdered Lord Beltham), who is simultaneously drawn and repulsed by him. Fantomas is a force of nature.

Feuillade's five Fantomas films (translated, they are Fantomas: In the Shadow of the Guillotine, Juve versus Fantomas, The Murderous Corpse, Fantomas versus Fantomas, and The False Magistrate) have Fantomas stealing jewels, murdering officials, blowing up houses in the midst of police raids, crashing trains to kill off a single witness, and doing other acts of flamboyant villainy that one usually associates with James Bond villains.

And it's stuffed with all sorts of great visuals. Feuillade loved tableaux that recalled artists ranging from Daumier to Vuillard, and he reined in the usual overdone histrionics of silent actors, with the acting ending up much more naturalistic than other films of the period.

Alas, FANTOMAS is not readily available in the US, unless you scrounge a copy from the "collector's" market, or at a convention. But it's worth finding. It's unbelievable fun.

In 1915, Feuillade brought out another serial....LES VAMPIRES!

LES VAMPIRES featured the struggles of crusading reporter Phillipe Guerande (Edouard Mathe) and his comical sidekick Mazamette (Marcel Levesque) to expose and end the activities of a criminal gang called The Vampires. They're not actual vampires, but they are ruthless and determined to not only line their own pockets but subvert society as a whole. They are forces of anarchy and disorder, corrupting even the highest levels of government. At first, the Vampires are just random thugs, but as time goes on, individuals, like the mysterious Father Silence, take center stage. But what really electrifies the serial is the introduction of vampirette Irma Vep (it's an anagram), personified by the slinky Musidora.

Musidora gave life to Irma Vep, bringing a unique combination of ferocity, sensuality, and vulnerability to the role. Irma could show up anywhere in disguise, and sometimes did. Her liberated eroticism simultaneously enticed and threatened. Musidora was a very physical actress who did all her own stunts, and her form, curvaceous yet athletic, encased in black tights, slinking down hallways, or in secret passages, or over a rooftop, became the film's top attraction.

LES VAMPIRES was filmed on the fly, with the director/screenwriter often seeming to make it up as they went along, tearing around the deserted streets of WWI Paris. This often lends a strange, surreal air to the goings-on, which helped make Feuillade's crime serials a big favorite of Surrealists like Bunuel and Andre Breton. And if one experiences a bit of deja vu while watching LES VAMPIRES, bear in mind that it was also an influence on Edward Gorey.

Available on an Image DVD, LES VAMPIRES starts off a bit slow (the first chapter, The Severed Head, is a bit of a clunker), but after seven fabulous hours, when reaching the climax in The Terrible Wedding, it's sheer Dust & Corruption bliss.

However, Feuillade's next project was a bit of a problem. LES VAMPIRES had encountered difficulties and was banned for a while because officials felt it glamorized crime. This was hard for a very moral man like Feuillade to take, and his next major serial was JUDEX (1916), which featured a mysterious crime-fighter.

Judex (Rene Creste) was a master of disguise, a brilliant inventor, and seemed to have hypnotic powers. He worked from his hi-tech lair inside a ruined castle. He went about in a signature cape. He was, in many ways, the great-grandpa of caped crusaders like Batman.

Judex, however, had a mission. Aided by his brother (Edouard Mathe again) and spurred on by his obsessed mother (Yvonne Dario), he was out to avenge his family's honor by capturing the unscrupulous banker whose machinations led to his father's suicide. But on the way he falls in love with the banker's beautiful daughter (Yvette Andreyor), deals with comically shifty private eye Cocantin (Marcel Levesque again), a mischievous orphan called the Licorice Kid (popular kid comic of the time Bout-de-Zan), and tangles with the banker's evil mistress Diana Monti (Musidora!), who's the real evil genius.

There's more plot and counterplot here, but it's less about protecting society from anarchistic criminals than it is about personal redemption. Judex and his mother learn along the way to lighten up, and some villains repent of their wicked ways.

The main weakness of JUDEX is the casting of the daughter's child; although we're told it's a boy, he's very obviously a little girl who's very taken with the Licorice Kid, and at every opportunity is throwing her arms around him and kissing him. Kinda weird, but you know those French.

All five hours of JUDEX are available in a set from Flicker Alley, beautifully restored and with a terrific musical score (including one motif I love, played during scenes of villainous plotting; it's simultaneously menacing and humorous). There's also a 60s remake by Georges Franju (LES YEUX SANS VISAGE) that I'm told is also quite good, but I haven't seen it yet.

Feuillade's work is great stuff; baroque crimes committed by bizarre criminals, who are often battled by crimefighters who are themselves fairly strange. There's no predicting what's going to happen next, and the visions of early 20th-Century Paris are seductive. The fourth wall is regularly broken; Fantomas will sometimes signal to viewers that he's aware the police are after him, and Mazamette sometimes winks to the camera as a joke comes off. These movie characters know they're in a movie, making the experience all the more wild. So run out and these flicks, dear readers. Lose yourself in Parisian delights, and dream of secret passages and daring criminals.

A video clip of LES VAMPIRES' famous ballet sequence...just before this, the dancer (who is the hero's fiancee) receives a gift of a poisonous ring from the head Vampire, who watches from the balcony.