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Book Review: The Leopard Couch by Sax Rohmer

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As a teen, I went through a heavy Sax Rohmer period, eagerly plowing through anything I could by the British thriller writer. The mid- to late-sixties was a good time for his fans. Spurred, in part, by the success of Ian Fleming (whose Dr. No itself owed a considerable debt to Rohmer), his books saw a paperback revival in the states. Read every one of the Pyramid reprints that showed up on the paperback racks and was so taken with ‘em that I even wrote a play parodying Rohmer’s most famous creation for a high school English class.

His biggest series character was Dr. Fu Manchu, who first appeared in 1912 and reappeared in 12 more novels up to Rohmer’s death in 1959. Back in the sixties, the books made for crackling inventive entertainments, though their racist underpinnings–Rohmer’s villain embodied Anglo culture’s fears of the Yellow Peril–prove somewhat of a hindrance today. Rohmer wasn’t the only thriller writer of this early twentieth century to pander to xenophobia, of course, though his foremost creation is arguably one of the best-known personifications of white reader paranoia.

Fortunately for those of us who retain a nostalgic fondness for the writers of our youth, the prolific Rohmer produced a slew of other genre pieces that didn’t key into Fear of a Yellow Planet. The pulp revivalists at Black Dog Books have just released their second collection of the man’s short stories, The Leopard Couch: and Other Stories of the Fantastic and Supernatural that collects some of these lesser-known works, several of which have not seen prior printing in the U.S. Gathering twelve independent tales, plus a self-contained section of Rohmer’s supernatural novel Brood of the Witch Queen, the book provides a pleasurably moody selection of period fantasy along with the occasional traditional old school murder mystery.

The set opens with its title tale, a fantasy of an Egyptian couch that takes its narrator on a Lovecraftian dream trip to witness the punishment of an Egyptian priestess and her lover. Egypt and other exotic locales like Burma figure prominently in many of the stories here, and Rohmer effectively plays his settings for all their atmospheric different-ness. Even those London bound fictions, like the Morris Klaw mystery “The Tragedies in the Greek Room,” typically connect to other lands and earlier times–in this case, a poisoned harp with ties to Lucretia Borgia. In “The Red Eye of Vishnu,” the ruthless and alluring seductress Madame di Medici (who also appears in the Egypt set “The Haunted Temple”) appears in London to retrieve a ruby eye stolen from a temple statue. Who needs Oriental masterminds when you’ve got sexy femme fatales?

In his intro to the collection, genre writer F. Paul Wilson provides a small warning to those approaching Rohmer for the first time: “if you like lengthy, adjective-strewn sentences, well, you’re in for a treat,” he notes. While not as over-the-top as some of the Weird Tales writers could get, Rohmer was definitely writing in the voice of his era. To this reader, that style definitely adds to their period feel: well-suited to tales that center on curses, mesmerism, sleep-walking damsels, Satanic visitors, criminal geniuses and the stalwart Britishers charged with foiling their dire deeds. If a few tales fall flat during their explanatory denouements, that’s not uncommon in stories of this ilk.

The Leopard Couch also includes one of Rohmer’s most reprinted-short stories, “The Curse of a Thousand Kisses.” The tale of an Egyptian beauty cursed to wander the Earth in the guise of an aged hag until she receives a thousand unsolicited kisses from “a thousand compassionate men,” the flagrantly romantic tale stands out amidst all of the writer’s more ominous fantasies. Rohmer may have been a masterful caster of blood-and-thunder, but he also proved a solid craftsman when it came to lighter fare.

Reading this diverting set of yarns from my onetime boyish addiction has me also thinking about checking out Black Dog’s first collection of Rohmer yarns, The Green Spider: and Other Forgotten Tales of Mystery and Suspense. With Leopard Couch labeled the second volume in “The Sax Rohmer Library,” there’s also the promise of further Black Dog Books in the future. For lovers of old-fashioned tales of mystery and imagination, this is good news indeed.

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About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.