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...