Ever since M.P. Shiel published his novel of the sinister Dr. Yen How (The Empress of the Earth or The Yellow Danger) in 1898, authors have been utilizing the Asian mastermind as the lead villain in their thrillers. Obviously, the best-known is Sax Rohmers’ Dr. Fu Manchu, but there are dozens of examples of this type of novel, usually labeled derisively as “Yellow Peril”.
When done poorly, (as was often the case) the result is racist drivel; when done well, some truly memorable characters and stories have been the result. We’ve actually come up with over a dozen volumes that we feel merit your attention and that will be added to the mix of weird menace, supernatural thrillers, and fantastic mysteries that you’ve come to expect from Dancing Tuatara Press.
Shiel considered both versions of his novel (the magazine serial is a full third longer than the book version!) to be mediocre hackwork, and I’d have to agree. Despite being formulaic, the Fu Manchu tales by Rohmer were vastly superior and hold up quite well today, nearly one hundred years after their initial publication. In fact, the main criticism of the Fu Manchu series has always been that Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie (his opponents), are pretty colorless by comparison and completely overshadowed by “the Devil Doctor”.
The first really noteworthy character to follow Fu Manchu was A.E. Apple’s Mr. Chang. Mr. Chang’s adventures comprised seven novels in the pages of Detective Fiction Weekly and make for an interesting counterpoint to the Fu Manchu tales. Whereas Fu Manchu is the mastermind orchestrating events behind the scenes with hundreds of henchmen to do his bidding, Mr. Chang is all too happy to carry out most of the dirty work himself.
By the mid-1920s, the genre was in full swing, with a veritable host of Asiatic fiends stalking the streets of Western cities, usually London or New York. San Francisco, with its huge Chinese population, is pretty much ignored.
By the 1930s, the genre had exploded to the point that characters such as Wu Fang and Dr. Yen Sin were given their own magazines, and Operator #5 featured the most massive Asian invasion since Shiel’s day with the long-running saga of “The Purple Invasion”, which contained thirteen novel-length installments.
It’s in the midst of this boom period that Eugene Thomas came to the fore with his novels of the deaf-mute villain, Chu-Sheng. Thomas is best remembered today for an entertaining bit of Theosophist nonsense, The Brotherhood of Mt. Shasta. This is unfortunate, as not only the present two novels, but also Death Rides the Dragon and The Dancing Dead, are truly excellent books that deserve to be much better known today.
A good part of the reason for the obscurity of Thomas’ work is that while his publisher (Sears) was very good at selling home goods via catalog, marketing a line of fiction was not really their strong suit. We have no way of knowing what the print-runs were on Eugene Thomas’ thrillers, but I suspect that the numbers were not large and none of the four titles were reprinted.
What sets Eugene Thomas apart from many of his contemporaries is not plotting, though he is an exceptional plotter, nor is it pacing, though you’ll find that both novels are compelling page-turners; no, rather it is the ability to make the character of Chu-Sheng come to life. It’s difficult enough to make a villain believable since thousands of writers forget the cardinal rule of creating a believable villain, and that is that the character must not consider him/herself to be a villain! The fact remains that every evildoer, no matter how crazed, believes that their course of action is not only justified, but that any other course would be impossible. Thomas pulls this off with Chu-Sheng, making him far more than the sort of cardboard caricature that so often features in pulp-era thrillers. What’s more, he gives us a fully three-dimensional character who doesn’t get to speak a single word of dialogue!
Gallup, New Mexico