Are the railings round the tomb to prevent body-snatchers and medical students getting in?
Or are they perhaps to prevent something Undead getting out?
In Algernon Blackwood’s ‘A Psychical Invasion’ Dr John Silence is consulted by a lady because ‘of his wonderful clairvoyant gift and his trained psychic knowledge of the processes by which a personality may be disintegrated and destroyed’.
He replies that if it’s only a case of multiple personality he is not interested to help – but no, she wants to help a friend restore a lost sense of humour.
Dr Silence visits Mr Pender, a humourist by profession, and by holding his hand diagnoses drug use – yes, Cannabis Indica. He was looking for the famous induction of greater laughter, but instead has found his thoughts invaded by an evil-looking one-eyed woman, and his writing become too macabre for sale.
With the help of his sensitive cat, Smoke, and his dog, Flame, Dr Silence visits the Pender house at night, and gradually the haunting effects begin to manifest…
Dr Silence overcomes the demon by absorbing its power (he is immune after much experience) and later discovers that a previous occupant of the house was
a woman of singularly atrocious life and character who finally suffered death by hanging, after a series of crimes that appalled the whole of England and only came to light by the merest chance.
To get the full effect you too must pass the night with Dr Silence, Smoke and Flame.
Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951) is famous for his ghostly tales, and his stories of the ‘psychic doctor’ John Silence (1908) were extremely successful.
This was in part due to the insights of his publisher, Nash, who both suggested that the previously various stories should have the same central character and intrigued the public with the poster above.
Blackwood later wrote:
Dared I, at the age of thirty-seven, throw up the security of a lucrative, yet uncongenial career? After a week’s careful reflection I left dried milk and went off to a mountain village abroad to try my hand at further books.
Of the stories he remarked that they were ‘the dramatised emotions of places I registered in certain places’.
Dr Jack Petrie is the narrator and side-kick, and thus a Dr Watson equivalent. He seems to have ordinary rather than startling medical skills, and lives in the suburbs, next to a common (probably Clapham).
Denis Naylor Smith is the Sherlock Holmes equivalent, but unmemorable and fairly ludicrous by modern standards. He is a ‘tall, lean man, with his square-cut, clean-shaven face sun-baked to the hue of coffee’. He announces:
“I have travelled from Burma not in the interests of the British Government merely, but in the interests of the entire white race, and I honestly believe–though I pray I may be wrong – that its survival depends largely upon the success of my mission.”
All police and others immediately grant him entry and support at his request, as he has a special government commission of authority.
The several loosely connected stories follow a pattern: some warning comes that an important British man connected with the Far East i.e. India, China or Burma, is about to be assassinated. Naylor Smith and Petrie rush to the scene, and are either just too late or just in time. Fu Manchu’s methods are hard for the British investigators to work out, but include mysterious poisons, horrid insects, green mists from a mummy, specially flexible ladders, a monkey and strangulating lassos. At various points Smith and Petrie are captured and about to die by torture, poison, fire or drowning but are rescued by the beautiful Karamaneh.
They encounter Dr Fu Manchu on several occasions but their attempts to capture him never succeed…
“Look at that bird!” Thuggees at work
Dacoits, Thuggees and Lascars appear frequently as denizens of an opium den in Limehouse, or as instruments of Dr Fu Manchu’s evil will. As they had appeared as stereotypes in fiction previously, people of the day had readier images to attach to these labels than we do.
Lascars were sailors from India or elsewhere in the East employed by the East India Company and other British ships, and commonly set up communities in British port towns. By the eve of World War I, there were over 50,000 Lascars in Britain.
The Dacoits were members of a class of robbers in India and Burma, who plundered in armed bands. The Thugs or Thuggees travelled in groups across India for several hundred years. They would join travelling groups, gain their confidence and then surprise and strangle their victims by pulling a handkerchief or noose tight around their necks. This garotte is called by a name which translates as ‘yellow scarf ‘, an idea which is picked up by the movies.
The East India company established the Thuggee and Dacoity Department in 1830, and the Thuggee and Dacoity Suppression Acts, 1836–1848 were enacted in British India under East India Company rule.
Karamaneh is a beautiful eastern-looking girl with fair skin, and not Chinese but Bedouin. Dr Fu Manchu’s opponent, Dr Petrie, says of her:
” I thought that I never had seen a face so seductively lovely nor of so unusual a type. With the skin of a perfect blonde, she had eyes and lashes as black as a Creole’s, which, together with her full red lips, told me that this beautiful stranger, whose touch had so startled me, was not a child of our northern shores.”
She says she is Dr Fu Manchu’s ‘slave’ and must do his bidding – on the other hand if only Dr Petrie and his friend (the white men) would forcibly kidnap her she would be freed. They seem to demur about this, wishing she would leave of her own will, so she confines herself largely to secretly undoing Fu Manchu’s plots by rescuing the British pair.
Sax Rohmer, author of the Fu Manchu stories, suitably dressed above, was born Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward in 1883 in Birmingham. Before his literary success he was a civil servant and then a comedy sketch writer. The Dr Nikola stories were clearly a forerunner, while Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe were also major literary influences.
Rohmer ensured that, like other powerful and popular villains, Dr Fu Manchu had exceptional eyes:
“But their unique horror lay in a certain filminess (it made me think of the membrana nictitans in a bird) which, obscuring them as I threw wide the door, seemed to lift as I actually passed the threshold, revealing the eyes in all their brilliant iridescence.”
The Mystery of (or The Insidious) Dr Fu Manchu, by Sax Rohmer, was published in 1913, at first in episodic form. What it owed to Dr Nikola is evident.
“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.”
“He is the advance-agent of a movement so epoch-making that not one Britisher, and not one American, in fifty thousand has ever dreamed of it.”
The character became so popular that there were many successive stories and films – the most recent series had Christopher Lee playing Fu Manchu. There were understandable objections from China.
In Guy Boothby’s Dr Nikola’s Experiment (1899), a Dr Ingleby is engaged in London by Dr Nikola. He is to take care of an aged and sick Spanish gentleman, Don Moreno, who is accompanied by his lovely young great-granddaughter Dona Consuelo. The group travel to a remote castle in Northumberland but are followed by a threatening Chinaman with half an ear missing. Dr Nikola shows Ingleby his laboratory where he hopes to restore youth to the Don.
The experimental treatment is a combination of modern electricity and an ancient remedy found in the book Dr Nikola had stolen from the Tibetan monastery. Unfortunately it works only partially, leaving the Don youthful in body but infantile and aggressive in mind. The story ends in a death struggle between Don Moreno and the Chinaman when both fall over the cliff.
Dr Ingleby and Dona Consuela are happily united and Dr Nikola will no doubt continue his researches.
Just as Dr Nikola is about to be installed as one of the Triumvirate of the Monastery, the real Chief Priest of the Temple of Hankow arrives. Dr Nikola and his friend Bruce are taken under guard by the monks, to be hurled from the battlements. But, in his scientific way, Nikola suggests:
“Since we must die, is it not a waste of good material to cast us over that cliff? I have heard it said that my skull is an extraordinary one, while my companion here boasts such a body as I would give worlds to anatomise. I have no desire to die, as you may suppose; but if nothing will satisfy you save to kill us, pray let us die in the interests of science.”
They are temporarily reprieved, but in the night they raid the secret medical treasures of the monastery, especially ‘a small book written in Sanscrit and most quaintly bound’, and make a daring escape…
Dr Nikola and his companion Bruce in their Chinese disguise are accepted into the monastery and start to be shown some of the astonishing results of medical and occult wisdom accumulated over many ages. First, the monks cure a man of complete paralysis through a mysterious potion and massage. Then a dead body is brought in, and the monk in charge says:
“Gaze upon this person, my son; his earthly pilgrimage is over; he died of old age to-day. He was one of our lay brethren, and a devout and holy man. It is meet that he should conduct thee, of whose piety we have heard so much, into our great inner land of knowledge.“
The monk attaches connects himself to the body via a large electric battery and performs some prayerful manoeuvres. He points at the dead man’s face, and the eyes open. Then he points at the arms and they each lift. The monk calls out:
“Ye who are dead, arise!”
And then… that man who had been ten hours dead, rose little by little from his bier and at last stood before us… and then the corpse fell in a heap upon the floor.
Finally Dr Nikola is shown a vision which penetrates into ‘The Land of Shadows’ and there appear before him ghostly figures of the past leaders of the sect.
The next day will be the installation of Dr Nikola as one of the Trumvirates of the Order, when more secrets will be revealed…