Sunday, 3 September 2017

Sax and Violence: Writing Pulp

My grandparents owned New York editions of Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu and Yellow Peril novels, and when I was young I read them when I waited at their house for my parents to finish work. The last in the series is The Hand of Fu Manchu, which I think must be the New York printer's name for The Si-Fan Mysteries, first published in 1917 and intended to be the last adventure featuring sinister doctor and polymath Fu Manchu. Not that it was; Rohmer's bank balance couldn't stand the loss of his most famous character, and Fu Manchu material kept getting published even after Rohmer's death.

I couldn't call his work good writing. In fact, it's bloody awful, and that's before you consider the racism. However reading them makes me realize the strength of pulp fiction, so now I'm going to talk about pulp, and how Rohmer works his magic.

Because it is magic, let's face it. Nobody has his output - his successful output - without a little magic. It's very much of it's time and there's no chance in hell you could get away with exactly the same thing today. However there are writers who've come close. Why? Well, let's see.

The Yellow Claw opens in a writer's garret. He's busily working on his latest epic, and he's all alone in the apartment. Without warning, a woman clad in civet furs - and nothing else - bursts in on his reverie. She faints. He rushes off for help, and by the time he returns with a doctor the woman is dead - strangled.

We're 11 pages in.


She's not just afraid, she's naked and afraid. She's not just dead, she's dead in his flat, and strangled. Moment piles on moment like a freight train crashing into a tunnel, crushing cars and bodies in hell's own bonfire. Every new scene should be a fresh horror.

Also from The Yellow Claw: the menace in this novel is, you guessed it, a sinister Chinese known only as The Yellow Claw, aka Mister King. The reader never sees his face, knows his identity, guesses his plans. Whenever he intrudes into the action we see his sinewy hands, but never the man himself. Even in the final moments, when his ship sinks with all aboard, the last we see of him is his terrible hands clawing at the hair of a poor unfortunate, to drag her down to drown with him.

So, lesson #2: never reveal.

If you can get the same effect with just a brief glimpse, then do that. A Nosferatu, when seen straight on, has nothing left to offer by way of shock, horror, or effect. By the time the players see it, they're already calculating its stats and possible ways of killing it. Whereas if they never see it at all, if they just see the effect it has and the damage it does, the effect is much greater.

Val Lewton did exactly the same thing in his films, and he was right to do it.
Cat People is a prime example, but there are plenty of others. Never reveal if you can avoid it.

This one's from Dope. "Sin Sin Wa is a marked man," says Seton Pasha, secret agent. "He has the longest and thickest pigtail I ever saw on a human scalp. I take it he is a Southerner of the old school; therefore, he won't cut it off. He has also only one eye, and while there are many one-eyed Chinamen, there are few one-eyed Chinamen with a pigtail like a battleship's hawser."

This pigtail is a huge part of Sin Sin Wa's character. It gets a mention in every scene he's in. He strangles at least one person with it. Yet ...

[Sin Sin Wa] raised his hands and began to unplait his long pigtail, which, like his 'blind' eye, was camouflage - a false queue attached to his own hair, which he wore but slightly longer than some Europeans and many Americans. With a small pair of scissors he clipped off his long, snake-like moustaches ...

Lesson #3: confound expectations.

Villains are smart. They know the value of a good disguise. More importantly, they know how to get the heroes to underestimate them. The day will come when that will cost the heroes dear.

From The Hand of Fu Manchu comes Lesson #4: Never can I forget that nightmare apartment, that efreet's hall!

The closing chapters take place in the home of Sir Lionel Barton, the world-famous explorer. He recently took possession of Graywater Park, formerly a fortress, a monastery, and a manor-house. Sir Lionel keeps a menagerie of big animals - leopards, lionesses, a couple Hyenas - in the extensive crypt beneath the chapel, because of course he does. And the house is supposed to be haunted, because of course it is. Yes, there are secret rooms walled up and forgotten since the Middle Ages. In fact the Spanish churchman who now haunts the place is supposed to have died in that mysterious chamber, which is, of course, a torture room with still-functioning equipment. And yes, to complete the picture, there is a secret tunnel that leads out of the Park to a hidden coastal cove, where Fu Manchu's yacht waits to whisk the Devil Doctor away.

In short, it's never just a house. Pack the place full of whatever you can think of. If there's even the slightest excuse for something mad, bad and dangerous to know hidden away in a back room, by all means put it in. If you need there to be a tunnel, then there's a tunnel. Maybe mobsters built it during Prohibition, or maybe it's part of an abandoned mine, or maybe ghouls have been digging under the walls of this place since time immemorial. Find a reason, however contrived, and use it.

Somewhat related to #4 is Lesson #5: double down on everything, especially the squick.

In Tales of Chinatown: The Daughter of Huang Chow, the hero discovers the hidden jewel hoard of Huang Chow, guarded by the most gigantic spider which he had ever seen in his life! It had a body as big as a man’s fist, jet black, with hairy legs like the legs of a crab and a span of a foot or more! Naturally one bite from this thing is instant death, and of course it lives in a lacquered Chinese coffin and is fed birds to eat, so that the stench of decayed flesh wafts from its nest.

Make sure every aspect of the thing screams for attention. It's not just a venomous spider. It's a spider whose body is as big as a man's fist, and which lives in an ornate coffin stinking of rotten flesh. That way, when it skitters across the room towards its prey, the prey is absolutely certain this thing is bad, bad news. There's no 'I might make my saving throw' with this creature. The only possible outcome is death - if it gets close enough to bite.

Finally there is Lesson #6, and this time I'm not going to quote from any one story, because this is present in every single story: pile the corpses high.

If someone isn't dead every other chapter, it isn't pulp. Preferably dead in some awful, soul-destroying way, so you know that the victim suffered before they died. Moreover death is no respecter of persons: anyone can die, at any time. Especially women, in Sax's case, but really, anyone's fair game.

The only possible exception to this is the villain, who can die, but preferably in such a way that there's still a chance the villain may return. In games where being undead is a thing, or brains are kept in jars, there's an obvious route. However the typical method is to have the villain die in such a way that the body's never found, or found in such a state as to be unrecognizable, leaving open the possibility of a body double.

This trope can get annoying if overused, so best to save it for the real, honest-to-Satan Villains. Henchmen, even the very important ones, only live once. Moreover there are ways to make the Villain's return intriguing, in such a way that the return is forgivable.

For example, in The Hand of Fu Manchu, the Devil Doctor returns as The Man With The Limp, even though the heroes know for a fact he was shot in the head the last time they saw him. Indeed he was. That's why he walks with a limp; he has permanent brain damage, because the bullet's still there. Which is why he kidnaps Doctor Petrie halfway through the novel - he needs someone to help him remove the bullet, and he knows he can rely on Petrie because he also captured Petrie's lover Kâramanèh. Unless the good Doctor cooperates, Kâramanèh's goose is cooked.

If Fu Manchu had just come back to life, it would have been boring. This way, not only does he return, he does so in such a way that the hero has to become involved, and an entire scene is devoted to what happens as a consequence of Fu Manchu's survival.

That's it for this week. Enjoy!

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