As I said today on my Facebook page, I’ve been reading a lot of old pulp adventure novels lately – and I do mean a lot: I’ve read six in the last week.

I’ve always had the bad habit of buying a lot of books “on spec”, meaning I buy them and ‘spec’ to read them someday. While reading through the rules of the Hideouts and Hoodlums RPG (which, although based on c.1940 comic books, really straddles the line nicely between 1930’s prose pulp adventures and 1940’s comic books), I was suddenly struck by the mood to go back and dig around through my extensive collection of pulp novel reprints (a collection which includes over 80% of the Doc Savage books, a generous selection of The Avenger, The Shadow, and G-8 and his Battle Aces, and even some esoterica like the ghost-written Flash Gordon novels attributed to Alex Raymond).

After my panting and drooling over Myrna Loy in a recent blog post, the seventeen Sax Rohmer Fu Manchu novels in my collection seemed to be a good starting point. I never paid a lick of attention to Mr. Rohmer’s work until the novels were re-released in a Zebra Books paperback series in the mid-1980’s. I bought several of the reprints at the time, plus I found a few older editions in used book stores. I was a full-time radio announcer at the time, plus a working musician on the side; this meant I had more money than I had time (you seldom have both simultaneously) and I bought the books with the intent of reading them sometime later.

Here we are, it’s a quarter-century later, and I’ve finally taken the first book in the series (The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu) from the shelf and read it. And I found it to be a truly dreadful book.

The mid-1980's Zebra Books edition

Now, to be fair, it (and the rest of Rohmer’s books in the Fu Manchu series) are incredibly influential. The books have spawned numerous film adaptations, comic books (Marvel’s Master of Kung Fu, Shang-Chi, was Fu Manchu’s son), and a couple of television series. Numerous comic book and pulp tropes were more or less invented by Sax Rohmer (including the now stereotypical “Asian mastermind villain”, a trope which was further refined by Alex Raymond in the classic Flash Gordon comic strip and, arguably, reached its ultimate expression in Dr. No, the first of the long-running James Bond movie franchise).

So why didn’t I much care for the book? It’s not the writing style, as I’m perfectly comfortable with literature from the later Victorian Era. It’s not the “horrible racism” of the book, which (by the way) isn’t all that bad. I’m not one of those people who gets all self-righteously butthurt when someone uses the phrase “Asian devil” in a book; Fu Manchu is Asian and he is a pretty bad character. He’s admitted that his goal is the fall of Western Caucasian civilization, so it’s only natural that Nayland-Smith would respond in kind. And I’ll admit that I crack up every time somebody starts wailing about how Fu Manchu is a “bad Chinese caricature”; first of all, these books invented that stereotype and, second, Fu Manchu is said in the book to be Tibetan, not Chinese. So let’s just can the overwrought weeping over “stereotypes” and move right along to the real reason I wasn’t crazy about the book.

For all of its originality in creating tropes which became pop-lit standards for at least a half-century afterward, The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu is, in reality, derivative as hell. It’s a ripoff of A. Conan-Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” stories, substituting Nayland-Smith for Holmes, Dr. Petrie for Dr. Watson, and Dr. Fu Manchu for Professor Moriarty. As far as the general pattern of the tale, it’s a direct cop from Conan-Doyle. Somebody (usually named Sir Nigel Somethingorother or Lord Buttworthy) gets murdered in Conan-Doyle “locked room, ‘Speckled Band’” fashion. Nayland-Smith arrives and, at a glance, he sees what the regular police miss: that the weird purple mark on the neck of the victim could only have been caused by the rare Sumatran fire lizard, which has only been seen in the wild twice, and only one specimen has ever been captured: by Lord Ian Smythe-Fartknocker, and – “Good Lord, Petrie! I know who the next victim will be!” and the pair quickly haul ass across London to the home of the Lord, arriving two minutes too late to save him, but in time to see a strange ochre-colored mist settling in the room, which Nayland-Smith identifies as a mixture of mustard gas and the pollen of the Guatemalan yellow orchid, which – “Good Lord, Petrie! Only one chemist has ever worked with that pollen – we must hurry to save Dr. Quentin James!”

Lather, rinse, repeat, for 330 loooooong pages in the 1985 paperback edition. It’s not remotely “exciting”, it’s just plain tiresome.

Sure, Rohmer occasionally tries livening things up by having the heroes arrive ahead of the murder attempt, or by dropping the heroes through a trap door into a deathtrap (this happens twice in the book , by the way) the moment they come face-to-face with Dr. Fu Manchu, or by locking them in a dungeon. But Nayland-Smith and Petrie are invariably saved at the last second, usually by the beautiful and exotic Karamanéh, a Middle Eastern slave girl who, on first sight, becomes hopelessly smitten with Dr. Petrie for some reason and thereafter betrays her master Fu Manchu every chance she gets.

But somewhere around page fifty you start wondering why, if Dennis Nayland-Smith is so damned smart, how come he’s always a step behind Fu Manchu? Why doesn’t he ever get the jump on that “Asian devil”? Worst of all, the book doesn’t really end. After 300+ pages of the characters tearassing more or less pointlessly back and forth across London the book just kind of stops cold, with some kind of half-baked promise of more adventures to come (e.g. “Buy the next book to see what happens”). It’s not even a proper cliffhanger ending – the book just peters out, as if Rohmer got tired and needed a breather. There’s no real plot here; just a series of vignettes and deathtraps which just sort of trail off…

Bleh. It’s totally up in the air right now as to whether or not I’m going to bother with the other sixteen volumes. My lovely bride has read them all and is quite fond of them, but I just didn’t really have a good time reading the first book. If you’re a hardcore fan of pulps and Golden Age comics, The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu is worth one read, however, just for the laundry list of standard pulp/comic tropes which made their debut in that book.

To cleanse my mental palate, I next picked up the “Caspak” trilogy by Edgar Rice Burroughs: The Land That Time Forgot, The People That Time Forgot, and Out of Time’s Abyss. It’s another set of books I bought “back in the day” and set aside for another time.

I don’t care what anybody says, Edgar Rice Burroughs was one rip-roaring good writer. I will freely admit that plot was not his strong suit (face it, most of his books follow the formula plot of “boy meets girl, boy loses girl to villain, boy rescues girl, villain kidnaps girl again, boy rescues girl, dunderhead boy finally realizes girl loves him, villain kidnaps girl again, boy rescues girl, boy and girl live happily ever after”), but the breadth and depth of ERB’s imagination were absolutely staggering. Lost continents, prehistoric creatures, primitive ape-men, winged ultra-men, German submarines, half-naked native women, caves, dungeons, buttes, cliffs, mountains, jungles, underground tunnels, and a theory of Caspakian evolution which would have left even Charles Darwin in the dust scratching his head in bewilderment – these are a few of my favorite things. ERB’s strengths lie in the details: the descriptions of the weird landscapes and creatures which populate his works. And he could sure spin a great yarn regardless – his stories move along at a lightning clip, leaving the reader breathless. And ERB understood the old adage of “always leave the customer wanting more”; at about 135 pages each, the Caspak books can be devoured in under two hours apiece and, when you’re finished, you wish there were more of them to read.

The Caspak trilogy is classic ERB: a crazy roller-coaster ride of two-fisted adventures, last-minute rescues, hair-raising escapes, and just plain good fun. I highly recommend them to pulp, sci-fi, and fantasy RPGers alike, as well as to anyone who appreciates a tale well-told.

Another set of books which has been sort of hanging around waiting for me for a couple of decades is The Spider series. When Carroll & Graf reprinted some of them in a series of eight volumes in the early 1990’s, I eagerly snapped them up but didn’t have time to read them immediately. I also snagged a few older editions as well in used book stores. Here again, my lovely bride has read all of them ahead of me and has been prodding me to read them for myself.

The Spider’s adventures were originally published in pulp magazine form in the 1930’s and 1940’s and, as such, are a direct influence on Golden Age comics’ costumed “mystery men”. The Spider is a knock-off of The Shadow (the character was created specifically as a direct competitor to the more popular Shadow series), complete with the obligatory girlfriend partner/sidekick. The stories also crib a bit from the Doc Savage series, in that The Spider has a couple of male teammates who are secretly the best of friends but who are constantly bickering (much like Monk and Ham from the Doc Savage tales).

Although The Spider never quite reached the popular heights of The Shadow, he did enjoy a good long run: between 1933 and 1943, one hundred eighteen of his adventures were published in magazine form. The Spider was actually very successful in his day but, like other wildly popular 1930’s characters such as The Green Lama, he’s largely forgotten today. Over the years several publishing companies have launched reprints of The Spider’s adventures but, unlike the extremely popular Bantam Books Doc Savage reprints from the 1960’s through the 1980’s, none of these efforts lasted very long. The early 1990’s Carroll and Graf reprint series lasted just eight volumes (although each book was a “twofer” which reprinted two of the character’s novel-length adventures).

Volume One of the Carroll & Graf reprints

It’s difficult to make a blanket assessment of the stories in the series, since at least six separate writers spun The Spider’s yarns over the years (usually under the “house name” of Grant Stockbridge). In the first volume of the Carroll & Graf reprints, the two novels were obviously written by different authors. In the first tale, Secret City of Crime, the author can’t describe a room or other surroundings to save his butt; the reader often has to backtrack to re-read a passage to try to visualize the setting, and often has to just shrug it off and forget about it anyway just to get on with the story. The author of the second tale, The Spider and the Pain Master, does a great job of describing settings. He also does a great job of describing breasts – the guy is really hung up on boobs, describing the upper anatomy of several female characters in breathless detail on at least four separate occasions in the novel.

Both authors also describe violence in extremely graphic, and sometimes disturbing, detail. In a memorable passage from Secret City of Crime, a subway train accident is told from the point of view of one of the passengers who heroically saves the lives of many of his fellow train riders before being trampled and paralyzed by a panicked stampede; his painful injury is described in harrowing detail. The author of the second story seems to have just a little too much fun describing the torture (and, in one case, subsequent murder) of a couple of the tale’s characters.

And the body count! In Secret City of Crime, The Spider is responsible for the deaths of three separate villains in just the first thirty pages of the novel. Needless to say, this ain’t no Doc Savage book, and The Spider is definitely not a series intended for the kiddies; I’d even go so far to say that a few present-day readers might find some aspects of the stories pretty disturbing.

I will, however, unreservedly recommend the first of the Carroll and Graf reprints to all players of the Hideouts and Hoodlums RPG. The plot of Secret City of Crime revolves around a mammoth subterranean hideout in which criminals are organized and trained in a sort of “crime college”. In fact, the plot of Secret City of Crime could easily be lifted and presented as an H&H adventure scenario wholesale. As I read the novel I was struck by the similarity between it and many of the individual elements I’d seen in the Hideouts and Hoodlums rulebooks.

As for the writing style of The Spider stories, it varies from book to book. The authors were no competition for Edgar Rice Burroughs, but I’d definitely place them (at least the two whose work I’ve read) ahead of Sax Rohmer – at least the chroniclers of The Spider know how to keep a story moving along at a rapid clip.

Have fun! – Steve

Copyright 2011, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.