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.
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, in search of the ultimate arcane medical knowledge, travels to a Tibetan monastery with a new companion. They are disguised as a Chinese Abbot with his secretary, and of course are both excellent mountaineers and fluent in Mandarin. The approach is typically Gothic:
There it stood gaunt and lonely, on the edge of the ravine, a dark grey collection of roofs and towers, and surrounded by a lofty wall.
Following a silent procession of dwarfs, they climb a broad stone staircase which wound upwards in spiral form.
It was a weird performance, and had it not been for the reek of the torches, and the fluttering of bats’ wings as the brutes were disturbed by the flames and smoke, I should have been inclined to imagine it part of some extraordinary dream…
The suspense mounts – will their mission succeed, will their deception be found out?
Dr Nikola has been trying to get hold of a Chinese executioner’s symbol of office, a small stick covered in Chinese inscriptions, which has amazing power and value.
To this end he kidnaps the lovely young Phyllis, the daughter of Mr Wetherell, the Colonial Secretary of New South Wales. She is the ‘love interest’ for the narrator, the brave and bold Edward Braithwaite. After many thrills Phyllis is rescued but Nikola gains the stick. He announces:
‘Now, good-bye; in an hour I am off to effect a coup with this stick, the magnitude of which you would never dream. One last word of advice: pause a second time, I entreat, before you think of baulking Dr. Nikola.’
Guy Boothby (1867 – 1905), the Australian author of the ‘Dr Nikola’ series of stories combined tales of derring-do with the threat of a sinister power-crazed and mesmeric doctor.
In stature he was slightly above the ordinary, his shoulders were broad, his limbs perfectly shaped and plainly muscular, but very slim.
His head, which was magnificently set upon his shoulders, was adorned with a profusion of glossy black hair; his face was destitute of beard or moustache, and was of oval shape and handsome moulding.
His skin was of a dark olive hue, a colour which harmonized well with his piercing blackeyes and pearly teeth.
Needless to say, Dr Nikola appeared slightly foreign, and his gaze induced awe, love and fear. While his medical qualifications remained obscure, his powers both to heal and harm were great, and included occult as well as scientific arts…