Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Golden Snake - a Dr Fu Man-Chu pastiche

In my anthology of occult detective stories for Wordsworth, The Black Veil, I included a story, ‘The Necromancer’, by Donald Campbell, which some readers have thought might be a spoof. I describe its hero, Leslie Vane, perhaps a bit exaggeratedly, as “the James Bond of the Jazz Age”. In fact, the tale is authentic vintage hokum, included in a volume entitled The Golden Snake, a sub-Sax Rohmer thriller, featuring Kse Chao Ting, leader of a Tong brotherhood, whose order venerates and takes it name from the aforesaid gilded serpent. From the opening: “ ‘Leave me in peace, fool’ said the Chinaman in perfect English…’And so I shall have the plucking of an English flower,’ he said aloud…’: and somehow you just know he doesn’t mean he’s going to purloin one of Mrs Arbuthnot’s prized nasturtiums.

Fifteen breathless episodes take our hero, Vane, from England to the USA to the Far East to France, and back to Blighty in the wink of an eye, via ‘The Temple of Evil’, ‘The Feast of Love’, ‘In the Grip of the Apaches’ (that’s the Parisian underworld, not the native Americans - still a nasty business, though) and so to the conclusion, ‘England, Home And Beauty’ - yes, truly . As if that were not excitement enough, tacked on the end is ‘The Necromancer’, a three chapter filler, in which a lineal descendant of Genghiz Khan incites the hordes to contemplate the down fall of the British Empire in the East, aided and abetted by dark magician Tristram Parr, who, clad in strange-symboled dressing gown (the cad!), proclaims: “And this is the Law. Do thine own will!”, an intriguing nod in the direction of Aleister Crowley ? Parr ends as an imbecile in hospital, safe from the law but possibly poised for a sequel: if so, I haven’t seen it.

There does not seem to be a copy of this pulp volume in the British Library - no great loss to the nation’s literary heritage, perhaps - but there are 40-odd titles by the same publisher, Federation Press Ltd of 61-62 Chancery Lane, WC2. These, to judge by their titles, include mostly popular fiction of the romance, horse racing and crime variety, all from the period 1925-8: The Devil’s Plaything and Ghost Hall being the most tempting-sounding titles. And though there are various Donald Campbells in the catalogue, the only likely titles by him are The Mask of Murder (1934) and The Murder Trap (1942), assuming that he is not the Donald Campbell who edited C. Plini Secundi Naturalis Historiae liber secundus [A critical appreciation and commentary.] (Aberdeen, 1936) or A Short Course of Differential Equations (New York, 1906).

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