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David Hines [userpic]

the devil doctor!

April 15th, 2009 (07:09 pm)

Y'know what I've been reading lately?

"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 INSIDIOUS DR. FU-MANCHU. Yeah, that's the one. Brilliant racist pulp adventure, the kind of thing that makes every Asian actor in Hollywood grit his teeth and look around for a baseball bat -- not only did it roll with the stereotype of the cunning, cruel, torture-happy Chinese, but in the movies Fu Manchu was inevitably played by a white guy! Talk about no way to win.

We tend to focus on the social aspect of the stories, the racial and political stuff, but one thing that's not often mentioned is the extent to which the Fu Manchu stories (the ones I've read, anyway) are driven by gruesome, horrible death. They're really quite a lot like slasher movies: you're supposed to identify with the valiant heroes defending the white race, but the audience is there for Fu Manchu, because he keeps making really great kills. Example: in the first book, bodies -- one a detective investigating Fu-Manchu, one a Fu Manchu henchman -- are turning up in the river, drowned, with mutilated hands. Nobody knows what's up till later, when Dr. Petrie, the Watson figure in the stories, gets dumped into the river through a trapdoor in Fu Manchu's headquarters. He sees a ladder leading up, but the ladder is broken, and the remaining rungs are out of reach. There's a beam in just the right spot to get him onto the ladder, so he goes to lunge for it -- and Nayland Smith, the hero, screams at him to stop. Because Fu Manchu has planned for just such a reaction. You hit the drink, you look for a way out, this beam offers a way to a ladder, so you jump up and grab the beam -- WHICH HAS RAZOR-SHARP SWORD BLADES EMBEDDED IN THE TOP SIDE TO SLICE YOUR FINGERS OFF.

And the stories are full of stuff like that. Ostensibly, Fu Manchu is about laying groundwork for the Chinese awakening, but he doesn't actually do much of that because he's really all about brilliant and horrifying ways to kill and maim people. The series essentially resembles a really racist version of SAW.

Another interesting thing is the contrast between the villain and the hero. Fu Manchu is gloating and cackling on occasion, but a lot of the time he's basically just the smartest motherfucker on the planet, especially when it comes to poisons. He's brilliant, competent, urbane, and a very mellow conversationalist when you catch him out of "demonic supervillain" mode. By contrast, this is our hero, Nayland Smith:

"As to his mission among men. Why did M. Jules Furneaux fall dead in a Paris opera house? Because of heart failure? No! Because his last speech had shown that he held the key to the secret of Tongking. What became of the Grand Duke Stanislaus? Elopement? Suicide? Nothing of the kind. He alone was fully alive to Russia's growing peril. He alone knew the truth about Mongolia. Why was Sir Crichton Davey murdered? Because, had the work he was engaged upon ever seen the light it would have shown him to be the only living Englishman who understood the importance of the Tibetan frontiers. I say to you solemnly, Petrie, that these are but a few. Is there a man who would arouse the West to a sense of the awakening of the East, who would teach the deaf to hear, the blind to see, that the millions only await their leader? He will die. And this is only one phase of the devilish campaign. The others I can merely surmise."

Nayland Smith is *batshit insane.* He's an obsessive, paranoid conspiracy theorist, seeing Fu Manchu everywhere and in everything. Smith speaks in rambling sentences, uses lots of exclamation points, connects everything to Fu Manchu, is highly manic -- he really comes off like a guy out of his gourd on cocaine. One of Fu Manchu's early victims is mentioned in passing to be addicted to cocaine; if I were making a movie adaptation, I'd put in a bit of business where Smith swipes the dude's stash.

He and Fu Manchu make a very interesting pair. I don't think anybody would make a film adaptation today, simply because of the nature of the property, but you could do some interesting stuff with that dynamic. If it were me, I'd make heavy use of the gimmick that Nayland Smith is batshit insane, and possibly is so successful at countering Fu Manchu *because* he is batshit insane. Meanwhile, Fu Manchu is ruthless, diabolical, and driven in his goals -- but he definitely is not batshit insane. They're driven, on opposite sides; but Fu Manchu knows *exactly* what he's doing at all times, while Nayland Smith is the crazy bulldog of the British Empire.

...you know, it could actually work as a comedy, or a satire of itself.


Posted by: mymatedave (mymatedave)
Posted at: April 15th, 2009 11:18 pm (UTC)

That's sounds pretty cool actually, if you manage to ignore the racism.

Posted by: David Hines (hradzka)
Posted at: April 15th, 2009 11:26 pm (UTC)
wonder woman 2

I don't think you can ignore the racism! It would be like reading LORD OF THE RINGS and ignoring the existence of hobbits. IT JUST DOES NOT HAPPEN.

The rampant xenophobia coupled with exotification does make for a heady brew, but you pretty much have to roll with it.

Posted by: PROBE UNIVERSE (liviapenn)
Posted at: April 15th, 2009 11:24 pm (UTC)

one thing that's not often mentioned is the extent to which the Fu Manchu stories (the ones I've read, anyway) are driven by gruesome, horrible death.

He sounds kinda like Fantômas there. (I guess there really is nothing new under the sun.)

Posted by: David Hines (hradzka)
Posted at: April 15th, 2009 11:46 pm (UTC)
catwoman and holly

I have not read Fantômas! Might have to give a look.

Posted by: __marcelo (__marcelo)
Posted at: April 16th, 2009 02:10 am (UTC)

*nods* It's hard not to root for the good Doctor while reading those books.

Posted by: David Hines (hradzka)
Posted at: April 16th, 2009 02:27 am (UTC)

I found myself feeling surprisingly sorry for Petrie. I mean, Nayland Smith just shows up on *his* doorstep the first night back in London, and after that everything goes completely bonkers.

Caught between Nayland Smith and Fu Manchu. That's *gotta* be rough. Of course, Karamaneh is there for compensation...

Posted by: Also into cats (jamethiel_bane)
Posted at: April 16th, 2009 04:48 am (UTC)

I love the Fu Manchu books.

Er. Ignoring the racism. But I figure because I wanted to marry either Fu Manchu or his daughter, I was doing that pretty well

Posted by: David Hines (hradzka)
Posted at: April 17th, 2009 07:51 pm (UTC)
unfair to batgirl

I think Rohmer does a fabulous job making Fu Manchu's slave girl Karamaneh intoxicating as hell. It's always great to see Petrie completely lose his shit around her. I was surprised that the stories originally ran in COLLIER'S; the way Karamaneh begs Petrie to kidnap her away from Fu Manchu and beat her so her slavery-addled brain will accept him as her new master, enabling her to betray Fu Manchu (for she is a creature of the East, and so must cleave faithfully to her slavemaster, 'cause that's totally how it works there!) is something that I'd expect to come across in SPICY ADVENTURE STORIES.

Posted by: beamjockey (beamjockey)
Posted at: April 16th, 2009 12:37 pm (UTC)

Take a look at S.J. Perelman's, um, review of Fu Manchu. It's in The Most of S. J. Perelman, and maybe elsewhere, but probably not online.

Posted by: David Hines (hradzka)
Posted at: April 17th, 2009 07:52 pm (UTC)

I will have to look it up. Thanks for the rec!

Posted by: zackstentz (zackstentz)
Posted at: April 17th, 2009 12:36 am (UTC)
The "yellow peril" genre

What I don't understand is why the yellow peril genre was so popular and widespread in the early 20th Century, given how the real China was pretty much flat on its back and the plaything of the western powers and Japan during that entire period. 1910 China seemed more pitiable than scary, and yet you had books like these and even a good socialist (albeit of the Nietzschean racist variety) like Jack London wrote things like "The Unparalleled Invasion," a science fiction story that ends with the complete extermination of the Chinese race through germ warfare waged by a coalition of Europe, Japan, and the U.S. Any insights, David?

Posted by: Aaron (justicevoles)
Posted at: April 17th, 2009 09:12 am (UTC)
Re: The "yellow peril" genre

Off the top of my head, I'd say it had something to do with the Boxer Rebellion, (which is one of those really neat little incidents in history that you learn nothing about in school besides what year it happened) awaking the west to the idea that maybe, just maybe, a bajillion Chinese people might be very dangerous indeed if properly armed and organized.

Posted by: David Hines (hradzka)
Posted at: April 17th, 2009 08:06 pm (UTC)
Re: The "yellow peril" genre
unfair to batgirl

Dr. Hermes had some interesting thoughts on that. Part of it, too, is that the Chinese immigrant was very much on the mind of the West; a city's Chinatown was seen as a place of exotic mystery and as a place riddled with filth and crime. (Harper's Weekly ran a piece in 1903 that argued that Chinatowns should be burned to the ground and the inhabitants resettled in better places -- early urban renewal!) Rohmer played heavily on that when he wrote several Chinatown stories -- Limehouse stories, really, I suppose -- that didn't involve Fu Manchu.

The thought process was probably something like: "hey, our local Chinatown is an exotic, mysterious place seething with crime. Imagine what their home country must be like!" If the Chinese immigrants are A Threat To Our Precious Bodily Fluids at home, their native country might well be a threat to our way of life.

Posted by: Elleria (elleria)
Posted at: April 17th, 2009 04:39 am (UTC)
Yellow Dragon

I'm going to have to stop reading your journal. You keep talking about books and/or movies that I find interesting and have never heard of so I have to look them up so I can read/watch them. drat you!

Posted by: David Hines (hradzka)
Posted at: April 17th, 2009 08:06 pm (UTC)

Sorry! At least this one's on Gutenberg!

Posted by: Elleria (elleria)
Posted at: April 18th, 2009 03:27 am (UTC)

That's good. I'll have to look it up then for sure.

Posted by: cmar_wingnut (cmar_wingnut)
Posted at: April 17th, 2009 10:19 pm (UTC)

It would be interesting to do an interpretation in which all the conspiracies, gruesome murders, and master criminal stuff turns out to be in Smith's tortured and paranoid imagination, and Fu Manchu is only an innocent Chinese businessman being persecuted by a batshit insane maniac. (OR IS HE???!!!)

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