Brood of the Witch Queen by Sax Rohmer and the train wreck that is early pulp
Can you enjoy books you know are on the wrong side of history? Recently I enjoyed the first of the Bony mysteries, even though it’s steeped so deep in 1920s Australian racism. I’ve just tried another book I knew was going to have all kinds of problems, and it’s defeated me. I’m listening to it, now, mostly in the hope of the sort of train wreck I, as a writer, can learn something from.
Recently I was driving to work and listening to my music when Sax Rohmer #1 by the Mountain Goats came on. Rohmer is a notorious racist: he invented the fiendish Doctor Fu Manchu as an example, but as John Darnelle noted in his liner notes for this song, Rohmer was a master of claustrophobic atmosphere. By chance, a new recording of The Brood of the Witch Queen came out on Librivox, so I decided to give it a try.
It’s really remarkable how concisely Rohmer manages to boil homophobia, racism and misogyny together. I mean, I was expecting some, but his talent for hating people is just limitless. His villain Ferrara, is “effeminate” in appearance, dress and motion. He is “eastern” in his tastes. He looks like “an evil woman”. Later we discover that a banshee is the ghost of a Polish Jewish vampiress…
The plot hinges on the sort of old time manners which said that even if a man is an evil necromancer trying to kill your son with spells, you can’t say things about him in society if you were a friend of his father’s. Modern solutions, like taking him out from a distance with a sniper’s rifle, don’t seem to occur to anyone. Fortunately in this universe there a vague, evokable power of Good which can protect people from magic, because otherwise, to quote Dark Helmet “Evil will always triumph, because good is dumb.”
So…at this point I generally say “recommended for…” and pick an audience. This book’s good for showing what you could get away with in early pulp. Finding stuff you like and flinging it in the general direction of the wall and hoping it glues together doesn’t really work anymore, because readers aren’t shocked as easily. I could see it, with some of the tropes taken out, as a campaign for a steampunk roleplaying game. It has the sort of strung-together combat feel of some RPGs.