Sunday, June 9, 2024

The Haunting of Low Fennel/Tales of Secret Egypt, by Sax Rohmer


Stark House Press, 2024
292 pp


(read earlier in May)

I have to confess that I have never read a book by Sax Rohmer before although I own a copy of his Tales of Secret Egypt, one of the two books included in this double-feature edition from Stark House.  I remember buying that one along with a bunch of books after reading Riccardo Stephens' 1912 novel The Mummy, reprinted byValancourt in 2016, but it evidently got shelved and forgotten about, the fate of way too many books at my house.   Once again, like many Stark House books,  this one contains two different short-story collections.  The Haunting of Low Fennel was published in 1918, with Tales of Secret Egypt following in 1920.  

Sax Rohmer came into the world as Arthur Henry Ward in 1883.  Born in Birmingham, he came from an Irish family; his mother (née Furey, another name he would use in his writing) had often told her son that she was descended from a seventeenth-century general and the first Lord Lucan by the name of Patrick Sarsfield, and later after her death in 1901, he changed his middle name to Sarsfield.  His first story, "The Mysterious Mummy" was published under the name A. Sarsfield Ward in 1903 in that year's Christmas edition of Pearson's Weekly, followed by "The Leopard Couch" in January of 1904, appearing in Chambers's Journal. According to the introduction by Mike Ashley, the name Sax (according to Rohmer himself) came from "the Anglo-Saxon word for a knife or blade, and 'roamer' (with an 'a' which he changed to 'h') as the idea of a mercentary, or 'freelance' blade-for-hire."  The first appearance of the name was actually on a piece of sheet music in May of 1908, with a song called "Bang Went the Chance of a Lifetime."  But his wife Elizabeth, according to Ashley, later recalled that when the two first met in 1905, he had introduced himself as Sax Rohmer at that time.  There is much more information on the name "Sax Rohmer" here for anyone who might be interested.  Rohmer and his wife first went to Egypt in 1913 for the honeymoon they never had, and he fell in love with the place, as Ashley says, "soaking up the atmosphere, the history, the culture and the deeper mysteries," resulting in his novel The Brood of the Witch Queen, serialized beginning in 1914. The stories in this volume also reflect how "the power of Egyptian magic" inspired Rohmer.  

first edition, from Abebooks

The Haunting of Low Fennel opens with the titular story in which our narrator, a certain Mr. Addison, has arrived at the house called Low Fennel belonging to Major Dale and his wife Marjorie. After tea in a "delightful little drawing-room," he and the Major retire to the Major's study, where they begin talking about the "real business afoot."  It seems that due to some financial misdealings, Major Dale had to sell the family home, Fennel Hall,  "where a Dale has been since the time of Elizabeth!"  The buyer of the Hall had leased Low Fennel, part of the original estate, to the Dales, who have spent time and money on renovating the place. The story goes that prior to Dale selling the hall, a strange and unexplained death had left no one wanting to occupy Low Fennel, except for the head gardener at the hall.  He and his wife eventually moved out though after his wife had seen "a horrible-looking man with a contorted face" looking at her through the bedroom window.  Since then, the place had become "unlettable," and old stories about the place resurfaced. People were so frightened of Low Fennel that they'd actually go "two miles out of their way" so as not pass by the place at night.  Now, after about two months of living in the place,  it seems that the strangeness is starting up again, with the housekeeper encountering "an almost naked man" ... on the stairs, with "the face of a demon, a contorted devilish face, the eyes crossed and glaring like the eyes of a mad dog!"   As Dale says to Addison, "I've always been a sceptic.... but if Low Fennel is not haunted, I'm a Dutchman, by the Lord Harry!"  So far he's been able to keep it all from his wife, and has called in Addison, a psychic researcher, to figure out what's going on. It doesn't take Addison too long to become embroiled in the otherworldly events that are happening there, which proceed to take their toll on everyone at Low Fennel.  As fun as that story was, for me the gem of this particular collection is "In the Valley of the Just: A Story of the Shan Hills."  Moreen Fayne is on a hell of a "dreadful march" in a caravan organized by her husband, Major Fayne.  Hers was a terrible marriage -- she'd become disillusioned after realizing that the Major had been hiding "the dark, saturnine" side of his character prior to their marriage; her husband hadn't spoken to her in six months except in public, and he'd been "drinking heavily." After he accuses her of having cheated on him, in the middle of the night she is forced by her husband to begin this horrific trek.  The Burmese heat is unbearable and "deathly," she is barely able to keep herself upright in her horse and in immense pain. This march had been going on for days, and as the story begins,  as the group stops to camp, Moreen realized that "collapse was imment," but she refused to show any "sign of weakness" in front of her husband.   When the march stops the next day, the Major takes off leaving the others behind, and as darkness falls, one of her father's trusted servants on this expedition tells her that the men refused to stay in this place because "a spell lies upon all of this valley," and that "no man would come here after dark."  Why that is I'll leave for others to discover, but this is a hell of a good story.  The remainder of the stories in this book are also good -- "The Blue Monkey" is just plain creepy and weird, while in "The Riddle of Ragstaff" a riddle holds the key to a strange mystery, and a "ghoul in human shape" holds the destiny of a young woman in his hands in "The Master of Hollow Grange." The final two stories, "The Curse of a Thousand Kisses" and "The Turquoise Necklace" move the action from British shores to Egypt, where the first of these begins with a man who is given a parchment written by another man who had seemingly disappeared from the face of the earth one night in Cairo.  The second opens with an act of kindness which leads to the kidnapping of a woman and the subsequent, impossible search for her across the "four hundred miles of sand" across the desert. 

from Abebooks

Moving on to the second section of this book, Part I consists of Tales of Secret Egypt as narrated by the somewhat unscrupulous Neville Kernaby, an English man who is just as at home at Shepherd's as he is in native attire in the souks of Cairo. Kernaby acts as representative of "Messrs. Moses, Murphy & Co. of Birmingham" in Cairo, a company that deals in fake antiquities of various sorts, and Kernaby is always on the lookout for interesting items either for his company or, in some cases, for himself.   All of these stories feature the mysterious Imám Abû Tabâh, who is sort of a combination of magician, enforcer of laws and an upholder of righteousness, and sometimes secret agent of the Egyptian government.    Let me just say that while it's true that I found several stereotypical references to Egyptians and Arabic-speaking peoples from a white colonizer/imperialist point of view,  it is  actually Abû Tabâh who is the hero of these tales,  saving Kernaby's bacon more than once when Kernaby gets in too deep during his adventures.    The "Tales of Abû Tabâh" are "The Yashmak of Pearls," "The Death-Ring of Snerefu," "The Lady of the Lattice," "Omar of Ispahan," "Breath of Allah," which I might add is laugh-out-loud funny toward the end, and "The Whispering Mummy.  Part II is simply entitled "Other Tales," and I have to say that the first of these, "Lord of the Jackals," is beyond cringeworthy, with a passionate love affair between a young man and a twelve year-old girl.  I don't care how Rohmer spun that one, it's just plain upsetting.  My favorite in this section is "In The Valley of the Sorceress," which not only edges the supernatural but crosses the line right into the thick of it.   The narrator of this tale has an archaeologist friend by the name of Condor who is working on a dig hoping to find the mummy of Queen Hatasu, who during her time, was believed to have practiced "black magic."  Her statues had all been "dishonored," and any mention of her name on monuments had all been erased.  Condor's  troubles, as he describes in a letter to the narrator, began with the arrival of a young woman "claiming protection."  A month later, his entire crew has simply deserted the excavation and were nowhere to be found. Eventually word is received that Condor was taken to hospital, "bitten by a cat" and "died the night of his arrival, raving mad..."  The narrator then decides to take up Condor's work, and not too long after he gets to the site, he is visited by a young woman, asking for his protection.  Who is this "siren of the wilderness," and what does she want?  There are four other tales rounding out this section, "Lure of Souls,"The Secret of Ismail,"  "Harun Pasha," and "Pomegranate Flower," but none (in my opinion) have the creep factor of "In the Valley of the Sorceress," which was just outstanding. 

This is not at all great literature, but it's good fun pulp that ranges from mystery to the supernatural and makes for many hours of laid-back reading.  As I said earlier, you can definitely expect some racial  stereotypes in these stories, but just be mindful that they're there and try to move along to the heart of these tales.  I mean, acknowledge it and don't ignore it, but don't let it be the only thing you see in here because there's so much more.    I've had a thing for mysterious/supernatural/mystical stories set in Egypt since I was a kid, and I'm not sure why I've not read any of Rohmer's work before now.   I still think I'll give Fu-Manchu a big pass, but I have ordered two more volumes of Rohmer's Egypt-based tales from Stark House now that I've discovered him.  My many thanks for my copy along with my apologies for taking me nearly a month to get my thoughts down.  Definitely recommended for serious readers of old pulp. 

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