August 22nd, 2010

Rohmer, Farnol

Books Considered: Brood of the Witch Queen, by Sax Rohmer; Guyfford of Weare, by Jeffery Farnol

Two more entries in my "ancient bestseller" reading. (Almost the only reading I seem to do these days that's not for review ...)

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 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 uncovered 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.

A different sort of trashy old bestseller writer is Jeffery Farnol. Farnol (1878-1952) was a writer of historical adventures and romances, in the first half of the 20th Century. He was born in England, and spent most of his life there, though he spent some time in the U.S. His first novel appeared in 1907. His most famous books are probably The Amateur Gentleman (1913) and The Broad Highway (1910). He often set his novels in or near the Regency period, and indeed he is regarded as a significant influence on Georgette Heyer, who began her career a dozen or so years after Farnol. I've previously read the two novels mentioned above, with a fair amount of enjoyment, and one other novel, The Money Moon (1911) with rather less enjoyment -- The Money Moon is set contemporaneously to its writing, which may be why it fails.

Guyfford of Weare is from later in Farnol's career -- it was published in 1928. I also read an A. L. Burt edition of this book -- those editions are pretty easy to find these days, real cheap. It's set in the 18th Century, in England. It opens with a young woman, Helen D'Arcy, trying to retrieve a certain letter from the roguish Sir Richard Guyfford, rumored to be both a murderer and a debaucher of young women -- including Helen's friend Angela. Quickly we gather that Sir Richard has long been falsely accused of various crimes, and the real villian is his cousin Julian, who hopes to gain his estate by assuring Sir Richard's death.

Thus begins a slightly tangled story, involving several rivals for the beautiful Helen's hand, and involving Sir Richard being once again accused of murder, and involving lots of mistaken identity, and gypsies, and highwaymen -- good highwaymen, mostly. The end is never in doubt -- of course Sir Richard will eventually be redeemed, and he and Helen will fall in love. But the plot isn't really the point of the book -- it's rather twisty, as I said, and certainly very busy, but it's not really all that well constructed. But for all that the book is fun to read, and mostly because of Farnol's writing. His writing, particularly his dialogue, is very artificial (the which I don't think he ever doubted). But it works for me. The touch is mostly quite light. It's pleasant to read, often quite funny is a feather light manner. Farnol essays country dialect, and Romany dialect, and exaggerated upper class posturing -- I couldn't say if any of this is much in the way of accurate, but it works OK. The characters are not particularly deep, but they're well enough done. Helen is perhaps a cliche version of the "spitfire", but she does have her own mind, and courage, and "agency". I also liked her older guardian, Madame La Duchesse. This isn't even close to a great novel, or even a good one. But it's a fun read.