January 6th, 2011

"Honey, did you order a... tombstone?"

"Wait a minute, Grandpa's name was LOUIS not LEWIS. Sorry, I'm going to have to send this back. Yes, I know you carried it up two flights of stairs."

You don't have to make crazy ads up. From a 1949 WEIRD TALES, this is the perfect gift to send someone about to go in for surgery.

Say, I didn't know Bill Bailey was black

The sheet music from 1902. (I guess we can't say 'turn of the century' anymore, without being specific.)

I'll be darned, you learn something every day. This is one of thousands of songs most of us know by cultural osmosis. We may never have actually sat down and listened to the whole song, but we picked up the gist (usually just the beginning) from old movies and TV shows. Growing up watching Warner Brothers cartoons, I know I learned a lot of ragtime and Tin Pan Alley through Bugs bunny singing them. "Someone's Rocking My Dreamboat," "Beautiful Dreamer," "April Showers," "Pennies From Heaven"...

That's not even starting on all the classical music we know enough to recognize. Again, largely because of Bugs trying to play the piano with a mouse inside it.

The British Empire had better be on its toes tonight


From 1916 (first appearing serially in COLLIERS WEEKLY in 1914), this is classic pulp adventure, exactly what fans think of when 'Fu Manchu' is mentioned. Feverish, intense and lurid, this is one of the early books in the series that has inspired literally thousands of imitators in stories, comics, movies, serials, radio and TV shows.

RETURN was first published as a series of short stories in an English magazine, and this format is clearly evident when reading the book. Every twenty pages, the action reaches a climax, stops dead and starts over in a slightly different direction. The result is not really disjointed, since there is always the underlying central plot of Smith and Petrie dealing with Fu Manchu's second appearance in England, but there is a slight feeling that the narrative isn't getting anywhere. The plotting in the individual stories varies from sometime quite clever and inventive to a clumsy reliance on coincidence and hunches, but the pace is brisk and the book is still very readable ninety years later.

One thing that struck me is how vivid the personalities of the heroes were. Obviously based on Holmes and Watson, but exaggerated even further, they're an unlikely team. Sir Denis Nayland Smith is so hyperactive, jittery and tense that you wonder if he's not on some sort of amphetamine; he's constantly leaping to his feet, pacing back and forth, fiddling with his pipe and drumming his fingers. (Still, dealing with the Doctor would make even Nero Wolfe agitated.) On the plus side, he is incisive and competent when the violence starts.

Dr Petrie, who narrate the stories, is not much help in the action, tending to stare in dismay rather than pitch in, but he does his best. The most notable thing about him is that he's a completely lovesick puppy, so hopelessly smitten with the enigmatic Karameneh (an Egyptian slave of Fu Manchu) that he is constantly ranting about her beauty and speculating on what the expression in her eyes meant. We have all had to deal with a friend mooning about in this sort of infauation (and to be honest,most of us went through it in adolescence), but I expected the misogynistic Smith to slap Petrie hard and say, "Snap out it, man!" (He does in fact, give Petrie a stern lecture and calls him "an imbecile.")

There are a number of intriguing comments in the book about the Devil Doctor himself. We learn that "Fu Manchu" is not his real name but a code. One of the characters who has lived in China "would recognize him for whom he really is, and this, it seems, the Doctor is anxious to avoid." And we usually think of the Doctor as a supreme mastermind leading the Si-Fan cult, but this early in the series, he is one of their agents-- he has been sent to England to determine the identity of a Chinese noble who has betrayed them. In one scene, Fu Manchu is answering to his superior in the organization, but it's clear that our favorite villain is already planning on working his murderous way up the ladder.

The charisma of the Doctor, described in every book as being an overwhelming aura of power and dread, always seem to me just a dramatic effect. Here, however, there is a single reference to Fu Manchu's tremendous "vril". The mystic energy of Vril was part of occult thinking around the early twentieth century, popularized by Madame Blavatsy (also mentioned in this book), and it was credited with being behind many supernormal events. Could this vril which gives Fu Manchu his awesome presence actually be a developed form of chi?

Chi (or ki in the Japanese) is a spiritual energy which a martial arts master can harness, either for insight and healing, or for actual physical effect. The 'iron hand' which can shatter armor, the dim mak 'delayed death touch' which can cause death instantly or days later, are among the more dramatic uses of chi. If you don't care for martial arts flicks, you still may have seen the wonderful film CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, with its depiction of chi being used to reduce a fighter's body weight to almost nothing, allowing leaps which border on true flight. Fu Manchu is said a number of times to have mastered "obscure fighting arts' and it seems likely that he has studied combat in Shaolin temples and Tibetan lamasaries.

Perhaps the strange film or membrane which is described as falling over the Doctor's eyes as he concentrates is a sign of the chi being gathered.

Later in the series, Fu Manchu seems to deteriorate into just another criminal mastermind committing murders and kidnappings, but here he is depicted as thoroughly evil. Never relying on a rifle bullet or a knife in the dark, Fu Manchu uses elaborate and unlikely assassination techniques like a cat (with poison-dipped claws) dropped from a tree onto someone's face, a venomous adder hidden in a victim's cane, and even a trained baboon that reaches in bedrooom windows to strangle people (?!) These bizarre tactics are unnerving to someone being pursued because they are so unpredictable and impossible to guard against.

The horrifying use of torture in these early books also explains why everyone (including Smith and Petrie) is so terrified at the prospect of falling into Fu Manchu's hands. A medical genius (capable of instantly brainwashing servants like Karameneh) might be expected to use truth serum or hypnosis, but the fact that the Doctor employs such incredibly cruel devices as the wire-jacket and the Six Gates of Joyful Wisdom reveals his true sadistic nature. Fu Manchu may protest that he's working for a higher good and he may keep a stoic, detached expression as his victims scream in agony, but he's a twisted maniac just under the surface.