Fantastic Elements in the Works of Sax Rohmer

This paper was delivered at the conference called “SFContario,” Saturday, 20 November 2010, 4: 00 p. m., Courtyard, Ramada Plaza Hotel, 300 Jarvis Street, Toronto.

Summary: Everyone knows about the insidious Fu Manchu, but not everyone knows about the audaciously imaginative author who served as the creator of “the Devil Doctor” or about his other imaginary characters and their schemes and hence his fantastic themes. Learn about the Anglo-Irish writer Sax Rohmer, the author of more than seventy novels and collections of stories. John Robert Colombo, a long-time collector of Rohmer’s books and the editor of Rohmer’s The Sumuru Omnibus, will talk about the SF&F elements in the mystery and detective fiction of this writer, now neglected, who was possibly the highest-paid slick magazine writer and popular book author during the interwar years. This talk will break new ground.


I have been a fan of fantastic literature since 1950, when I was a teenager in Kitchener. In those years this industrial city in Waterloo County was the senior brother of its junior neighbour, Waterloo. They were called “Kit-Wat” or the “Twin Cities.” They will be found about 100 km west of Toronto just off Highway 401. After my time, Douglas Light took the University of Waterloo and gave it its technological orientation as the world’s largest computer-science centre. One of its undergraduates, Michael Lazaridis, co-founded Research in Motion and was so successful that his earnings from RIM and the BlackBerry, the original “wrist-radio,” were directed to fund the Perimeter Institute, a world-class centre devoted to theoretical physics. Now Waterloo lords it over Kitchener and rightly does so.

In May 1950, I was fourteen years old and an unhappy high-school student, so I was greatly excited when I spotted a mass-market paperback titled Nude in Mink at the Walper House Cigar Shop. At the time I was beginning to read widely, borrowing books from the Kitchener Public Library, a Carnegie building, and buying out-of-print books from Kuhl’s Used Bookstore on King Street, opposite the Biltmore Theatre. But I had yet to encounter the author of this Gold Medal Edition, a novel which cost me thirty-five cents. The sum was well invested. The attractive blonde depicted on the cover was naked under the fur stole that was slipping from around her shoulders. The cover featured the author’s name. That was the first time I saw in print those two magic worlds: SAX ROHMER.
I rushed home to read Nude in Mink, and I so enjoyed it that I made the resolution to read each and every book by that incredible writer, Sax Rohmer. Indeed, I resolved to buy one copy of each of his books and read it … and “collect him,” as the saying goes. Now I have a collection some seventy-six of his books, most of them purchased in the 1950s and 1960s from used-book dealers, in person or through mail-order from mail-order dealers, some in Canada but the majority in the United States and Great Britain (as the United Kingdom was then commonly called). Rohmer is the only author whose works I have collected, and from time to time I take pleasure in reading or re-reading one of his novels or stories. I also have a selection of audio-tapes, video-tapes, and DVDs, but these seem interlopers, even if they offer incarnations of the arch-fiend, Dr. Fu Manchu.

The Author

Here are some basic facts about Rohmer, or should I say about Arthur Sarsfield Ward, the Anglo-Irish author who adopted this pseudonym. He was born in 1883 in Birmingham, England, into a middle-class family with some theatrical connections. Young Arthur liked to claim he was a graduate of “King’s College” (presumably King’s College, London), but the bald truth is that he had no education or training beyond private (that is, public) school. From an early age he was fascinated with Egyptology, and he haunted that wing of the British Museum where its famed curator, Flinders Petrie, held sway.
Young Arthur claimed to have met Petrie. He also had a love of music-hall and vaudeville, and as he had a way with words, so it was not long before he was handling publicity and writing skits and routines for some of the comic actors of the day. He also wrote interviews for the Fleet Street press. On one occasion he conducted an uneventful interview with Lord Strathcona of CPR fame.

But it was Egyptology and the Mysteries of the Orient that enchanted him. The Orient for him was mainly the Middle East, for he never did visit China or India. In later years, he lived for short periods in Cairo and Damascus as well as on the islands of Madeira and Manhattan. He became recognized as a writer of popular mystery novels, but for him the word “mystery” meant mainly “mysterious” with an Oriental touch or flavour.
The love of his life was his wife Elizabeth Knox, a lively blonde born into a theatrical family. When his books began to sell, the couple were able to lived in some comfort with servants in a mansion at 51 Herne Hill, Lambeth, London. The site is now plaqued. In later years they lived amid less splendour in a plain apartment in White Plains, N.Y., where Rohmer died in 1959 – of the Asiatic flu that was sweeping the continent, a neat touch! Elizabeth returned to London and outlived him by two decades. They had no children and apparently no close relatives. Their estate is managed by the Society of Authors, a point to which I will return.

It is sometimes stated that Rohmer was “the highest-paid author between the world wars,” and while such claims resist ready analysis, there is no question that he was one of the most popular writers of the interwar period, the two decades between 1918 and 1939, though he started publishing as early as 1910 and ended as late as 1959. It may be said that he succeeded E. Phillips Oppenheim and was, in turn, succeeded by Ian Fleming. His readers proved disloyal and defected in 1939 and failed to return after 1945 though his name and that of his famous creation remained  household names.

Rohmer’s Fiction

Rohmer was never a contributor to the pulp magazines of the day, though from time to time his fiction was reprinted in such pulps as Famous Fantastic Mysteries and Weird Tales and The Saint Mystery Magazine and The Saint Detective Magazine. Near the end of his life – slick magazines gone, his magic gone, his public gone – the best his agent could do with the latest and the leanest of the Fu Manchu novels, the serial novelette, the one called “The Green Devil Doll,” was to have it first appear in the columns of The Canadian Star Weekly, the widely read supplement to The Daily Star and other Canadian newspapers. I read it there and clipped it and added it to my collection.

Years earlier, his work had appeared in many of the slick magazines of the day, notably Collier’s and Liberty, and his books were, as his publishers liked to boast at the time, “simultaneously published” in London and New York. He had a few major book publishers (like Doubleday’s Crime Club and Dial Press) but most of his imprints were minor ones (like Grosset and Dunlap and Herbert Jenkins) which specialized in low-brow mystery fiction. His fiction was also widely serialized, reprinted, translated, and adapted for the early talkies, for serials, and for major motion pictures in the 1930s. Boris Karloff was a very credible Dr. Fu. The comic actor Peter Sellers could not resist playing the roles of both the diabolical doctor and that of his nemesis Sir Denis Nayland Smith). That was in The Fiendish Plot of Fu Manchu in 1980 which also starred actress Helen Mirren and comic actor Sid Caesar. There were forgettable radio serials in the 1940s, and the 1950s saw television serials that are regrettable. There were wide-screen dramatizations of the Sumuru novels beginning in the late 1960s, but these are best described as embarrassments.

Characteristics of His Fiction

How do you categorize his fiction? If you want to do so without really reading it, here are the key words: thriller, mystery, adventure, detection, exoticism.

Thriller: There are thrills and chills aplenty, the stakes are high, horror and terror hold the reader spell-bound, menace and mayhem abound.

Mystery: Something is amiss in London society and the madness is caused by sinister foreigners often from the Near, the Middle, or the Far East.

Adventure: There is a lot of coming and going, flying in and flying out, commandeering police cars and hailing taxi cabs, exotic interiors, far-distant locales, with chapters ending in cliff-hanging situations (attesting to their serial appearances prior to their appearances in book form).

Detection: Scotland Yard is represented by its knowledgeable and experienced “special agent” Sir Denis Nayland Smith from its Criminal Investigation Department; local police superintendents and constables uphold law and order by instantly responding to Sir Denis’s orders. As well, he tugs his left earlobe a lot. He is well played by stalky and wooden English character actor Lewis Stone in the early movies.

Exoticism: Menaces come from abroad and are accompanied by alluring women, poisonous spiders, mysterious powers and potions, and henchmen called “Burman” or Dacoits.

Other words that might be used to characterize his works are the following: chiller, crime, horror, mystery, occult, psychic, shock, supernatural, suspense, terror. Let me schematize this slightly. Rohmer’s novels offer unequal and often unmixed amounts of the following constituent elements:

  * thrills and chills (physical and psychological);
  * adventure and excitement (action and reaction);
  * mystery and detection (concealment and revelation);
  * theme and variation (world-dominion yet again thwarted);
  * evil versus good (conspirators vs. representatives of law and order);
  * banality versus exoticism (police inspectors aided by special CID agents);
  * the West versus the East (love and humanity vs. ruthless aggression).

I see his work as a combination of the strong narrative drive of John Buchan, his older and classier contemporary, and the exotic situations of Dennis Wheatley, his somewhat younger, less-than-classy contemporary. Rohmer was somewhere in the middle. He wrote well but without the style and sophistication of Buchan; he created characters more vivid than those of Wheatley. I think of Buchan’s The Powerhouse with its sense that civilization is paper-thin over anarchy, and of Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out with satanism being practised in every mansion. What Rohmer added were vivid cameos of the period when the English and the Americans took up residence in Cairo and Alexandria, and the Arabs of Old simply “stole away” in the night (to recall Longfellow). Ultimately, Rohmer saw himself as a storyteller and as an entertainer, not as an artist (like Graham Greene) or as the purveyor of an individualistic, moral message (like Ayn Rand).

Fantastic Elements of his Fiction

I will identify three fantastic elements in his life and works. If fantastic literature is three-fold, as I think it is – Science Fiction, Fantasy Fiction, Weird Fiction – Rohmer wrote only one SF novel (The Day the World Ended is at best borderline SF), but numerous stories of fantasy (“The Curse of the Thousand Kisses” is a classic contemporary fable), so the bulk of his work lies in the weird field, with larger-than-life menaces that threaten the well-being of mankind.

It would be a tedious undertaking to retell the cliff-hanging plots of his novels, so I will generalize when I look at these three elements: “Magic, Sorcery, Mysticism” followed by two versions of the “World Wide Conspiracy” which may be called “The Yellow Peril” and “The Muslim Menace.”

Magic, Sorcery, Mysticism

It is said that young Arthur was admitted, in the footsteps of W.B. Yeats and Algernon Blackwood, to the Hermetic Society of the Golden Dawn, but there is no evidence of such an affiliation in his life and writings. It is also said, with somewhat more evidence, that he was a member of a London-based “Rosicrucian Society,” yet it seems he never associated with any of its members. Certainly from early adulthood he was knowledgeable about what may loosely be called Occultism. By this I refer to the so-called Hermetic Tradition of Western Europe, Britain and America.

The Romance of Sorcery is the title of ‘s 100,000-word popular retelling of the history of what he calls “sorcery” but which today we would refer more broadly to as black magic and occultism. It was published by Methuen in 1914, and the following year by Dutton in New York. I called it a retelling, but it is really a rehash of anecdotes from popular books on these subjects. There are chapters devoted to Apollonius of Tyana, Nostradamus, Dr. Dee, Comte de Cagliostro, and Madame Blavatsky, plus a discussion of the legal plight of sorcerers in modern Britain along with some tentative conclusions. Here are two indicators of his style and his approach to his subject from the preface’s second-last chapter:

It is for each to judge for himself whether the seekers ought a true light or pursued a will-o’-the-wisp. But the endless task, begun by some primitive man of a younger world, proceeds, feverishly, to-day. There are sorcerers in London, in Paris, in New York, and in every important centre. I do not mean mere students of literature of the subject, but practical sorcerers. However, upon this point I shall say no more.

Notice the suggestion that “there is more.” A little more there is. Here is a sentence from the book’s last chapter:

We are promised a great Adept in the near future – a Buddha who shall pour the light of the East into the darkness of the West. The West is ripe for his coming, but one may speculate upon his greeting.

It would seem that Rohmer was dubious about this. The references to London, Paris, New York, etc., suggest a conspiracy or a cabal, and indeed such would-be messiahs or saviours were his stock-in-trade. The references to “a great Adept in the near future” suggests a world leader, and indeed we have such a leader in the person of Fu Manchu and in the guise of Sumuru.

Conspiracy and leadership. These require some form of power. Rohmer assumes this when writing about sorcery and science:

Certainly we are better equipped to-day, in some respects, for exploration, than were the ancients. Could we but establish links between the exact sciences – or the sciences thus far rendered exact – and those at present termed occult, great progress would shortly be recorded.

One such power is suggestion, mesmerism, or hypnotism. There are others.

It is quite absurd to suppose, in this age of discoveries, that we understand all Nature’s laws. But the difficulty of demonstrating the existence of occult phenomena to the general public can only be likened to that of demonstrating the perfume of a rose to a person who has never possessed the sense of smell, the beauty of an autumn sunset to a blind man, or the distinction in flavour between Astrakhan and American caviare to one of defective palate.

It seems not everyone is fit to sense the subtlies; it seems, as well, that not all is ever likely to be known.

Why is The Romance of Sorcery important? It shows that the author in his late twenties was knowledgeable about diabolism and occult phenomena, was ambiguous about its effectiveness, but was intrigued with the casting of spells, what has been called its “glamour.”

World Wide Conspiracy

I have used the word “conspiracy” in the singular, but I might equally well use it in the plural, for there were at least two sets of conspiracies that have threatened the peace of the world and the well-being of Western society in the early Twentieth Century. There was the Yellow Peril and there was the Muslim Menace. The first comes from China, the second from the Middle East. (I will avoid digressing on how these “menaces” remain with us to this day!)

Conspiracy theories are as old as the hills and The Yellow Peril has had a long, dishonourable, and disreputable lineage well before Chinese mandarins allowed their coolies to immigrate to the West. Rohmer entered the field rather later, but to his credit, there is no evidence in his life or books that he was a xenophobe or racist. He loved the fogs of London’s Limehouse on the northern bank of the Thames, and he cherished the sights and sounds of Manhattan’s Chinatown (at the intersection of Peel and Mott Streets). He used words like “Chinaman” and “Chink,” often dismissively, but let me hasten to note that there appear both good and bad Chinks in his novels, good and bad Chinamen. As for his novels’ Chinawomen, the Dragon Ladies counter-balance the Tiger Lilies, though the Ladies are unladylike and the Lilies pale in comparison with “their sisters under the skin” (to misapply Kipling’s phrase).

If he has a theory of the Chinese menace, it is embodied in the mysterious clique known as the Celestial Order of the Si-Fan, which is probably a Chinese version of the Indian, Nepalese, and Tibetan notion (popularized by the Theosophical Society) of the Great White Brotherood or Lodge of Mahatmas, with its spiritual centre in the Himalayas near to Shamballah. The Si-Fan’s long-serving president and ever-active emissary to the West, charged with disrupting Western leadership, is Dr. Fu Manchu.

I am not going to dwell on him because all of us have a pretty good picture of the man and his menace. What floods the mind is the image of the mandarin as interpreted by Boris Karloff in a series of Hollywood movies. It is said that Karloff modelled his performance on that of Ming the Merciless (as does the contemporary stage magician Max Maven) who in turn was recreated by the fine actor Max von Sydow. The movies were and remain amazingly influential. The famous “Fu Manchu moustache” – a downward version of Salvador Dali’s upward version – originated in the movies, not the novels. (In the same vein, Lugosi’s Dracula lacks fangs and offers hardly more than a tincture of blood.) In print, Fu Manchu is clean-shaven.

There are fourteen Fu Manchu novels, from The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu (1913) to Emperor Fu Manchu (published posthumously), not to mention the short stories, serials, fan-fiction, and rip-offs. Plans on world domination are thwarted by good old English common sense as embodied in the high ideals, decency, and unflagging patriotism of Sir Denis as well in as the goodness and commitment of his beloved sidekick, Dr. Petrie. (Petrie bears the name of the well-loved Flinders Petrie, the leading Egyptologist at the British Museum whom Rohmer said he once met.)

There are detectives aplenty in Rohmer’s fiction. In addition to Sir Denis, we have Gaston Max (with a droll French accent); Moris Klaw (aka “The Dream Detective” who sprays his bald head with verbanum and sleeps and dreams at the scene of the crime); Paul Harley (as stuffy as a Harley Street physician); and the unlikely but gentlemanly Bimbashi Baruk of Egypt. Entirely overlooked today is Bernard De Treville, an English detective also known as “The Crime Magnet,” whose sixteen adventures have gone unread since their original appearance in the Chicago weekly supplement called This Week between 1937 and 1945, which I am helping to prepare for reprint. Rohmer’s detectives are always aided by friendly local police inspectors and their helpful constables. How foreign these gentlemen seem these days!

Homme fatal: Fu Manchu

There is the designation, femme fatale. There ought to be a complementary one, homme fatal. The bogeyman is Dr. Fu Manchu, “The Devil Doctor,” “evil incarnate in one man,” “the Yellow Peril incarnate in one man.” This “sinister Chinaman” has passed into cultural memory. There is the drooping moustache and also the once-popular pun: “Many men smoke cigars … but few men chew.” The character is particularly popular in Germany where there is a vivid tradition of romanticized super-gangsters like the great crime boss, Dr. Mabuse. Fu Manchu was never “done in” by Sir Denis or Scotland Yard; it was reality that did him in, in the person of Chairman Mao Tse-tung.

Here is the classic description of the man and menace:

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.

The celebrated description comes from the first novel, The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu. It is close to one century old. (The hyphen from the sinister Chinaman’s name was dropped after the third of the thirteen novels devoted to his exploits.) In the movies the role of the so-called “devil-doctor” was realized in turn by Warner Oland, Boris Karloff, Henry Brandon, Christopher Lee, and Peter Sellers who pokes fun at him in The Fiendish Plot of Fu Manchu (1980).

     Sir Lionel Barton (sneering): You’re Fu Manchu, aren’t you?
     Fu Manchu: I’m a doctor of philosophy from Edinburgh. I’m a doctor of laws from Christ’s College. I’m a doctor of medicine from Harvard. My friends, out of courtesy, call me Doctor!

This exchange always reminds me of the Mel Brooks movie in which he plays Frankenstein – that is, “Fanken-steen” –  and then there is Igor – that is, “Eye-gor.” The movies ended with his schemes thwarted, his plans in disarray, barely escaping with his life, threatening everyone within earshot who can hear him addressing mankind from some unearthly throne (over the screen credits, pounding drums) with these menacing words (from the five Hammer movies):

The world shall hear from me again … !

Femme Fatale: Sumuru

In the novels and movies Fu Manchu has a daughter named Fah Lo Suee, who sometimes stands at his side but now and then defects to the other side, as she has fallen in love with Dr. Petrie. Forget about Fah Lo Suee. Symbolically, his daughter is Sumuru.

I mentioned earlier that the first work of Rohmer’s that I read was Nude in Mink. It is also known Sins of Sumuru. I am more partial to her as an original creation than I am to the Devil Doctor, who strikes me as a bogeyman plain and simple, whereas Sumuru as a bogeywoman packs rather more appeal. There is nothing repellant about her. She does not speak in sibilants, but in clear, bell-like tones. She is alluring, a dreamy femme fatale. It would be rewarding to review all of Rohmer’s fiction from the vantage-point of dangerous, alluring women. For instance, there is a preconfiguration of Sumuru a quarter-century before the latter’s debut in the person of the mysterious, irresistible Madame Sabinov. The description of the Madame is richer in detail than any descriptions of Sumuru. The passage here comes from Chapter IV of the novel Grey Face (1924) which opens like this:

Madame Sabinov lay prone upon a divan, white elbows buried in the cushions, chin resting in upturned palms. Her glance strayed idly about the singular apartment, and she smiled as if in mockery of her exotic surroundings.
     Certainly it was a fantastic, an extravagant room. The floor was of mosaic, reconstructed from Carthaginian fragments, from those fragments which, in unskillful hands, crumble to dust as soon as their beauty is revealed, and almost in the moment when the protecting mantle of the desert is stripped from them. In the depths of a marble pond shimmering golden fishes passed like streaks of fire; above its placid surface leapt a faun clutching a straining nymph. She held to her bosom a lotus flower, and from its petals slender threads of water fountained out, descending in streams of diamonds to the pool of the golden carp.

Allow me to skip the next four paragraphs, which go on about the room itself, its decorations, its incense “once sacred to Isis,” and its ambience, so like a harem, in order to focus on its inhabitant:

Only a woman of unusual beauty could have triumphed in such a setting; yet the ultimate note of this sensuous scheme was struck by the figure of Madame Sabinov. The cushions on which she lay were set in a low divan. This was panelled with sandalwood curiously carved. It possessed four posts, each crowded with a miniature peacock fashioned of semi-previous stones. Madame was wrapped in a single garment of some fleecy material resembling swansdown which completely concealed her shape. Her hair, which was dressed in the fashion of the dancing girls who pose for  ever upon the Egyptian monuments, and which is preserved in life to this day by the ghawâzi of Kenah, rendered her conspicuous wherever she appeared; for she was as white as virgin snow. This singularity was reputed to be due not to nature, but to the art of a famous Parisian beauty specialist. Sans doute, it was vastly becoming, and in Paris had created a vogue. It lent an effect of dazzling youth to Madame’s piquant beauty for the reason that it so palpably was not due to age. Her eyes appeared even my lustrous, her delicate colouring assumed an added delicacy because of it.
     Now she stirred languidly, and finally sat upright, raising her slender arms over her head and seeming to resent some duty which must be performed. The fleecy garment extended nearly to her feet, upon which she wore sandals clasped about her ankles by emerald buckles. She looked round her and laughed contemptuously, as a clever actress weary of a farcical part. Then she became silent; a haunted expression stole into those beautiful eyes in which some men had found rapture, others sadness, and others again a ravenous cruelty. In this moment of awakening another woman looked out almost timidly, surely a stranger to every one of the many who had courted the lovely Madame Sabinov.

That was “the woman” in 1924, but she is recognizably the same woman as the Sumuru of 1950. Rohmer created her for a BBC radio serial when no one was interested in race-based threats from Honan, Mainland China. Sumuru is of no known ancestry and it seems she speaks many languages and is a master of disguises. She is the originator of the feminist Order of Our Lady (not the sexless, male-dominated Si-Fan) which recruits beautiful young women (often the daughters of leading scientists who are kidnapped and forced to work in her secret laboratories) into a world-wide sorority which trains them to lure men who are handsome or possessed of  wealth or brilliance to work for her ends. She represents unbridled immodesty:

You may consider it remarkable that a woman so desirable as myself (oh, I am free from false modesty) should possess any brains, much less the scientific knowledge which is mine.
     I do not propose to assassinate; I propose to remove the ungracious, as by the surgeon’s knife, before it can spread and corrupt whole nations. But while greed, lust of power, big business, sway the destinies of men, there can be no peace. Only perfect minds in perfect bodies are fit for leadership. When beauty rules, serenity will return.

Here is the description of the woman from Nude in Mink.

At about the time that Mark Donovan echoed that peculiar name, a strange scene was taking place in a room even more strange. On entering it one might have supposed that he had journeyed by time-machine from democratic London back to Imperial Rome. There were pillars of varied characters, pillars from Egypt, Syria and Greece, supporting a painted ceiling. Oriental rugs and skins of animals were strewn about the marble floor. Beside a square pool guarded by figure of Pan, banks of mimosa flowered and filled the air with their heavy swooning perfume.
     Her eyes were superb, except that they seemed to be too large for that small, delicate. The woman addressed lay curled up comfortably on a low divan.

Who could resist her? Magazine editors did, but she was ideal for readers of Gold Medal pocket books in the United States and hardcover editions from Herbert Jenkins in Great Britain took to her from 1950 to 1959. Five books appeared. Three motion pictures were released, one worse than the next, though Sumuru herself was played by Shirley Easton (who later played the gold-plated woman in the Bond movie Goldfinger).

In the Fu Manchu and Sumuru novels, torture takes the form of unimaginable terrors: the Runsen Beam, the Erickson Ray, the Black Stigmata, the rapidly multiplying fungus, the Green Mist, the Gold Mist, something called Kaapi, the Zayat Kiss (a centipede), Giant Spiders, Scarlet Brides, hypnosis, and the Elixir Vitae (which prolongs life). Above all is … hypnosis. Those green eyes of Fu and Su.

The Sumuru Omnibus

As I mentioned I have been collecting Rohmer’s books since 1950. My collection can boast a letter that the author addressed and sent to me in the last year of his life. He died fifty-one years ago, which means his writings are in the public domain in Canada, where copyright protection is life plus fifty years, though they are still in copyright elsewhere in the English-speaking world where protection extends seventy years “beyond the grave.”

The fact that the Canadian government has been remiss in protecting authors’ rights has worked in my favour in this instance, and also in the favour of George A. Vanderburgh, publisher of Battered Silicon Dispatch Box. Together, earlier this year, we compiled and published The Sumuru Omnibus and Tears of Our Lady. The omnibus includes the texts of the English editions of the five novels featuring this world dominatrix. The latter publication is much more difficult to describe. Tears of Our Lady is a short work that purports to recreate the handbook of that name written by Sumuru and distributed by her to her postulants. References to it appear in all five novels, and the volume itself is described by various characters in those novels, but no passages from its text are ever quoted. Assuming that Sumuru’s conversations are consonant with the handbook’s message, Tears of Our Lady takes the form of a “quote book” with alphabetically arranged subject-headings and short quotations plus an introductory note about the supposed provenance of the work. As an attempted “recreation” of a work of the imagination that has never existed, it fits into the world of  Wold Newton. It belongs to the genre dominated by the fabulous Necronomicon of H.P. Lovecraft.

One of my motivations in undertaking all this work was to see my name beneath Rohmer’s on the title page of a book. I share this fellow-feeling with science-fiction novelist Spider Robinson who earned title-page honours with the late Robert A. Heinlein.

The Muslim Menace

In our times the Yellow Peril has morphed into the economic challenge of the People’s Republic of China. In our day the Muslim Menace may no longer involve Saracens or Barbary Pirates, but it has never been more destructive than it is today. Here Genghis Khan is a key figure.

V.I. Pudovkin’s film, known in Russia as Heir to Genghis Khan, is strategically situated between two other movies with similarly indicative titles: Mother and The End of St. Petersburg. The theme of the grand uprising finds many echoes, one of these being Sax Rohmer’s The Mask of Fu Manchu.

The theme finds vivid expression in a surprisingly nuanced feature-length film known in the West as Storm over Asia (black and white, silent, 1929) directed by V.I. Pudovkin based on the script of futurist writer Osip Brik which in turn is said to be based on an unpublished novel. The action is set a decade earlier than the production among Mongol herdsmen of Central Asia who are Buddhist and Shamanistic in background and belief.

It is succinctly expressed in the speech of the Grand Imam of Khorassan to the Faithful of Kermanshah. This address is recalled in the short story titled “Pool-o’the Moon Sees Bimbashi Baruk” in the author’s collection of stories called Bimbashi Baruk of Egypt (N.Y.: Robert M. McBride & Company, 1944). It features Nazis, Germans, Muslims, Englishmen and English women, etc., in the Libyan desert. It presages an uprising in the Middle East which takes the form of a Pan-Arab movement against the encroachments of the West. It is a reprise of the action of both the novel and the movie The Mask of Fu Manchu. It is led by a sort of Lawrence of Arabia in reverse. Here is the key passage. Its cadence gives a good idea of the pace of Rohmer’s fiction, especially the compression of his short fiction:

The imâm said that Kermanshah had formerly produced the most famous carpets in the East, grown the best opium poppies, and in return had received by Baghdad rare merchandise and so acquired much wealth. He asked what had become of the looms of Kermanshah and where now were the poppyfields. Since he had selected declining industries, the answers were not clear to his congregation; but, as the imam proceeded to state, to him they were plainly revealed. European interference accounted for everything. The former prosperity of their Eastern world, from the frontiers of India to Damascus, could be restored in one way, and in one way only. Western ways, Western machinery and Western politics must go; railways be demolished. Once again the camel must be seen in the land.


I began with a prologue so I should end with an epilogue. The time is convenient for a reappraisal of the accomplishment and appeal of Sax Rohmer, despite the fact that he has receded into the past far quicker than many of his contemporaries of the interwar years.

Yet some of his concerns are our concerns, including world-altering conspiracies, led by small groups of ruthless and nameless men and women motivated by ideologies and loyalties that most of us do not comprehend. For all the menace, his world seems “homey” to us though it must have seemed mind-boggling and expansive to his readers before the era of transatlantic jet travel. In his day it was the decline of the British Empire and the rise of Pax Americana; in our day it is Globalization. Menace for him is personal, full of duels and vendettas and mind control. Menace for us today is more the clash of cultures or civilizations. For these and other reasons there will never be another Fu Manchu or a second Sumuru. Whether this is a blessing or a bane is a matter that could be discussed at great length some other time.

                                                             November 2010 — September 2012

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