January 24th, 2013

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Considering Stories Installment 2: "Yellow Peril" Stories: Then and Now

"Yellow Peril" Stories: Then and Now
Considered By: Daniel R. Robichaud

For the second installment of the Considering Stories column, I will be tackling two works, one from 1913 and one from 2011. They are thematically linked, yet independent tales, which each offer special challenges to modern reader's sensibilities and sensitivities.

The first work is a world famous detective novel. See if you can guess it:

A brilliant British consulting detective faces off against the greatest criminal mastermind the world has ever known. Their story is related by a humble doctor, who is the detective's best friend and a participant in the adventures.

Of course, this summation draws the reader to suspect the detective to be Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, one of the finest characters ever rendered in detective fiction. Unfortunately, the work under consideration has nothing more to do with Holmes than archetypal borrowing. The novel in question is by legendary Sax Rohmer, it stars super detective Nayland Smith, his chum Dr. Petrie, and their nemesis, a diabolical Chinaman who goes by the name

The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu

First, we had best get our definitions straight. When I say "yellow peril" what do I mean? It's a term that has (thankfully) fallen out of favor. The term was coined during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and it connotes the European fear of Asia and Asians. At the time, mass immigration by Asians sent many Caucasians into a tizzy, fearing the loss of wages and jobs and the ultimate destruction of their own culture. The term itself takes the worst from two worlds, clearly identifying antagonists by their skin color and their potential for causing terror and destruction. This is racism and paranoia at their worst. To a certain mindset (such as mine), the term is about as cringe-inducing as blackface. A whole school of fiction has been identified by the moniker, which includes works by authors both remembered (Robert A. Heinlein's Sixth Column, anyone?) and long forgotten.

Though The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu is not the original "yellow peril" story, it is certainly one of the most famous. Released in 1913, Sax Rohmer's novel is the first of a series about the titular character's attempts to rule the world. It combines many of pulp fiction's best loved and most reprehensible aspects.

The novel's primary intention seems to be a delivery vehicle for a thrilling adventure story. It gives us high stakes and incorporates exotic elements from far flung corners of the world. It pits ordinary characters against an extraordinary plot, wherein these folks face perils to body, mind and soul.

Rohmer's story is actually well plotted. Strange murders and gothic touches combine to create an intriguing mystery, where certain important British people are being harassed or murdered by person or persons unknown. They are all tied to Imperial interests in distant China, and only one man holds enough of the threads to unravel their motivator. Through much of the book, Dr. Fu Manchu remains an enigma, possibly nothing more than a figment of investigator Nayland Smith's brilliant imagination. In an odd touch, the doctor is quite a cosmopolitan figure, multilingual and clever, employing underworld figures numerous nationalities, including Chinese troublemakers and Thugee murderers. He is clearly a recreation of Doyle's Dr. Moriarty with epicanthic folds, but he also incorporates a quasi-supernatural quality, which is reminiscent of Stoker's Dracula. Taken at surface value, these qualities are rather admirable. The author pens a yarn that moves along and involves its readers in the narrative. It is no wonder that on these strengths alone, the book remains in various stages of print. And yet . . .

And yet The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu is an incredibly difficult book to read for reasons that have little to do with the writing style. The prose is occasionally purple, the language is often decidedly archaic, and ALL CAPITAL LETTERS ARE USED FOR DRAMATIC EFFECT! The writing is sometimes banal, the inspired passages occur often enough to draw the reader forward. The casual racism is what stings my modern sensibilities the hardest.

As with the Holmes stories, the novel is presented in first person. Dr. Petrie plays Watson, recounting his adventures with Smith well after they are done. Moving past the immediate shock value, the reader discovers an interesting progression. Almost more interesting than the novel itself. Here is the classic unreliable narrator. As in Hawthorne and Poe, this fellow starts out on questionable legs and degenerates over time. The racism starts off somewhat subdued; by the end, Petrie becomes a proselytizer, trying to convince the reader of China's desire to crush western civilization. His mental journey is one of a man being indoctrinated into hate-thought. If Petrie is the unknowing student of darkness, then Smith is his devil, playing upon the socially acceptable racism while constantly escalating it to heights (or perhaps depths) that the character himself would never have gone on his own. In fact, Petrie often pauses his narration to remind his readers that these events have taken place amongst an unaware, perhaps even tolerant, population.

However, there is a far cry difference between endurable and ignorable. These elements cannot be glossed over or ignored.

In this novel, it is not enough to have a brilliant antagonist, more than a match for almost every other character in the book. Dr. Fu Manchu has to represent the pinnacle of the most scornful, devious and decadent traits assigned to a race of people. This wicked doctor is not simply cut from the template of the perfect pulp adversary, he is a symbol of an unquestionably evil Other. The object of this novel is to pound that uppity Other back into his subhuman role and deliver a message to any who would aspire to be like him.

This is also a book wherein the narrator is comfortable telling us that East must never "mingle" with West, and then it presents us with a woman of Eastern origin and treats her as a profane lust object. Through a good third of the narrative, this character has no identity. Later in the novel, she takes the word Karamaneh as her name. Karamaneh, the ever resourceful Smith informs us, means Slave. Karamaneh, then, plays the role of femme fatale, a typically capable and perhaps even threatening figure who is loyal only until she is beaten into submission. As if that wasn't bad enough, the narrator assures us this Dragon Lady (a clear analogue to the Magical Negro) is ultimately yearning to be subjugated by a man. She is clearly stronger than these British fellows, saving them at several key points in the text. However, after these downright heroic deeds, she falls into a submissive role to her white, masculine allies.

In a word: Eww . . .

The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu is a story that is stuck firmly in the time and place of its creation. While it spawned sequels, series and imitations, that part of history is perhaps best left alone.

Or is it?

"Yellow Peril . . . how can a phrase that reeks so of racism and paranoia yield a body of fiction so . . . cool?" Thus begins the introduction to the second work under consideration in this column, a trio of tales from F. Paul Wilson, which is called:

Sex Slaves of the Dragon Tong (A Yellow Peril Triptych)

If anyone can write a classy spin on pulpy adventure fiction, it is F. Paul Wilson. He has made a career of entertaining, genre-spanning reads, and his series character (Repairman Jack) is one of the most interesting pulp-inspired heroes gracing contemporary fiction.

Sex Slaves of the Dragon Tong is a 2011 direct-to-eBook collection of three interlinked short stories. One of these pieces saw previous publication, the title story appeared in Retro Pulp Tales, an anthology of pulp inspired pieces edited by Joe R. Lansdale. The others are original to this volume. In addition to the stories, this eBook includes a brief but illuminating introduction about the author's experience with this particular genre and his outlook on the casual racism therein.

Though brief, Wilson's introduction touches upon both the challenges of writing a story that comes from racist origins. The difficulty is found in being true to the period, while striving to avoid writing from a hateful perspective. This is not really the first time this author has trod this line, since he wrote Black Wind, a dark fantasy novel set during World War Two that tackles a plot that circles around the rather horrifying activities of a splinter group of Japanese patriots. The line is a difficult one to walk, one that will never be universally accepted. Wilson remains unapologetic about his choices though, which is somewhat refreshing. He lets his fiction stand on its own.

The stories themselves are all period pieces, set in 1938 San Francisco. The three protagonists are all white folks, cops or PIs, who encounter the Chinese as part of criminal investigations, which all touch upon a mysterious figure known only as The Mandarin.

The first piece, "Sex Slaves of the Dragon Tong," details inexperienced police detective Brannigan's efforts to find a kidnapped woman. This woman has fallen prey to a Chinese tong (gang) who make their living as slave traders. The tong itself owes allegiance to that shadowy figure known only as The Mandarin, who has granted them limited permission to pursue their business. Here we have a setup that is classic pulp, and yet it is not content to blindly follow Rohmer's footsteps.

In one fifth of the length of Rohmer's novel, Wilson's "Sex Slaves of the Dragon Tong" does something no other Yellow Peril inspired story does. Not content to only deliver an earnest white protagonist who uses the insulting jargon like a workman talking about his business, the story also gives us several thinking, empathetic Chinese characters instead of Rohmer's caricatures. Here we find rival outlooks and factions in a Tong. When The Mandarin finally shows up, his character has depth. He retains Dr. Fu Manchu's enigmatic quality but he is a more believable force of nature who could unleash widespread destruction at a whim but who chooses not to (yet). He lacks the cartoon quality of Rohmer's Fu Manchu, who loses all menace by degenerating into a cackling caricature.

Wilson's second story, "Part of the Game" tells the tale of a side character from the first piece. In "Sex Slaves . . .," Detective Sorenson was presented as the detective with Chinatown as his beat who was laid up with a malady, and this presents his story. Over the course of it, he will be bitten by overconfidence and then succumb to greed. His story intersects the first and ventures onward, coming to a nice conclusion with an EC Comics' style sting. It answers some questions left by "Sex Slaves" and opens up still more. Here we get a different view of The Mandarin and his criminal allies. They continue to develop as characters with understandable goals and motivations.

The final piece, a lengthier tale called "Dragon's Tongue" takes still another side character from the first story, a private dick, and uses him to tell the ultimate pulp fiction yarn. Here we follow a stolen ancient artifact, meet a female character who uses sex as a weapon (but is not defined by this quality), learn still more humanizing qualities about The Mandarin, and end the series. The world these stories create remains an entertaining place to visit. Challenging to current sensibilities, but never spitting in our faces.

F. Paul Wilson's collection is over too soon, but it is a satisfying read, building something rather remarkable from underwhelming sources. The pacing is fast, the writing is good, the characterizations are interesting. This slim volume is certainly not for everyone, but Sex Slaves of the Dragon Tong is worth reading and considering.

The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu
By Sax Rohmer
Free eBook At Amazon
Buy a paper copy

Sex Slaves of the Dragon Tong (a Yellow Peril Trytich)
By F. Paul Wilson
Author's Website
Buy an eBook copy

This review/article is copyright 2013 by Daniel R. Robichaud.

This entry was originally posted at dreamwidth.org. Comment there or here as you choose!
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