Thursday, February 13, 2014
Old Bestsellers: Brood of the Witch Queen, by Sax Rohmer
Brood of the Witch Queen, by Sax Rohmer
Sax Rohmer was an Englishman, real name Arthur Henry Ward (1883-1959). He was famous almost entirely for his series of novels about a Chinese master criminal named Fu Manchu. It doesn't take much in the way of "politically correct" feeling to detect an unpleasant racist tone to the depiction of Fu Manchu, and indeed to the plots of some of the novels, which concerned the Yellow Peril. I am however not terribly familiar with Rohmer's work, so when I ran across an A. L. Burt edition of his 1918 novel Brood of the Witch Queen, I figured I'd give it a try. (A. L. Burt, by the way, did cheap hardcover reprint editions of popular novels -- they filled, seems to me, a similar marketplace function in the early 20th Century that the mass market paperback did after WWII.)
Brood of the Witch Queen is not a Fu Manchu book. Instead it concerns an Englishman named Robert Cairn, and his unpleasant acquaintance Antony Ferrera. We quickly learn that Ferrera is thought to be excessively effeminate in dress and manner, yet still fatally attractive to certain women. Moreover his is suspected of dark magics, at least by those in the know, like Robert's father, Dr. Bruce Cairn, an old friend of Antony Ferrera's adopted father, Sir Michael Ferrera. Soon Sir Michael Ferrera dies mysteriously. This puts Antony in line to inherit a lot of money, particularly if he can deal with his cousin, Sir Michael's ward, the beautiful Myra Duquesne. Of course, Miss Duquesne is of particular interest to Robert Cairn as well.
Bruce tells Robert a story of Sir Michael's investigations in Egypt, which undercovered evidence of an ancient immortal being, the Witch Queen. Apparently Antony must somehow be the current incarnation of this Witch Queen. And soon the older husband of one of the young women ensnared by Antony dies, also mysteriously. Robert is also threatened by magical means. Before long the action shifts to Egypt, where ancient pyramids, mysterious evil winds, hidden rooms, and so on come into play.
All that is pretty much what I expected in the way of a plot outline. Fair enough. The problem is the execution. The novel, even at the relatively short length of some 65,000 words, seems padded. The characters are not just thin -- that we expect -- but uninteresting. Robert Cairn's love affair, such as it is, with Myra Duquesne is bloodless and uninvolving -- partly because Myra has so little agency of her own. Indeed Robert himself is a weak individual, relying mainly on his father's guidance. It is, to be honest, the sort of book that gives "pulp fiction" a bad name -- it is just as bad as detractors always say, without the good parts (fun parts) that we fans of trashy old stuff hold up as the reason to put up with the bad writing and silly plotting and thin characterization.
To be fair, it doesn't seem to me, discussing this with others who have an interest in old pulpish fiction, that Rohmer's reputation has survived at all well with much of anyone.