Opium dens, seedy bars, and exotic jungles – all tropes associated with pulp fiction, specifically the yellow peril subgenre, which writer Richard Jaccoma uses in his appropriately named 1978 novel, Yellow Peril – The Adventures of Sir John Weymouth-Smythe.
As the cover suggests, this is more of a satire of the yellow peril trope as a whole and a deconstruction of the entire attitude that the West had toward the East. It’s no coincidence that Yellow Peril was written in the 1970s, given the shift in social sciences and thinking throughout the decade, many of which are still cemented in academic circles. Also published in 1978 was Edward Said’s influential tome Orientalism which – for better or for worse – still impacts academic thinking to this day.
The 1970s seemed to be a time of overturning conventional thinking and myths, thanks in large part to the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. Naturally, these went to fiction as well. The hardboiled PI was deconstructed in films like The Long Goodbye and Night Moves. The whole concept of the yellow peril, which had been prevalent in the form of “Red China” and the Viet Cong in the early 1970s, was, by the latter half of the decade, viewed as ridiculous, at least by a large segment of the population.
Enter Richard Jaccoma and his satirical novel. I couldn’t find much info about him, but apparently, he has a fairly long career as a screenwriter, with three novels to his name – Yellow Peril, The Werewolf’s Tale, and The Werewolf’s Revenge, forming the so-called “Occult Trilogy.” Jaccoma seems to be a fan of “trash” literature, and gives his all for a disrespected genre, in prose and plot.
Yellow Peril’s protagonist is Sir John Weymouth-Smythe, an officer in the British Foreign Service, stationed in Bangkok. He is every inch an English adventurer, a devout servant of the Empire and the white race. Opposing him is Chou en Shu, the fiendish yellow emperor of the sinister organization, the Dak Fang, determined to rule the world.
In case nobody has read Sax Rohmer, these are all thinly veiled stand-ins for his characters. Sir John is a mix of Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie, Chou en Shu is obviously Fu Manchu, and the Dak Fang is the diabolical Si Fan group. Although the cover claims that the novel is in the “outrageous style of the original ‘pulps,’ it is quite obvious that Jaccoma’s style is heavily influenced by Sax Rohmer’s writing in particular, full of verbose prose and flowery descriptions. The American pulp writers of the time were much more direct and to the point. It should also be noted that Sax Rohmer wasn’t technically a pulp writer, since the Fu Manchu novels were serialized in more respectable magazines than the pulp rags like Black Mask and Detective Fiction Weekly.
At the beginning of the novel, Smythe is tasked by his superior – Charles Laight, the British Ambassador – with investigating the growing threat of the Dak Fang. There’s no exact date given, but let’s say 1933, since there are references to the “New Germany” and Hitler attending an election rally.
Smythe’s investigation leads him to a dank opium den, where his informant his killed by Chou en Shu’s agents. Meanwhile, he also strikes up a romance with the daughter of Charles Laight – the Eurasian beauty Beth-li. Fairly early on, we see the Dak Fang kidnap Laight, his wife, and Beth-li (or maybe they go voluntarily?) and take them to an eerie temple, presided by none other than Chou en Shu himself.
Observing from a hidden vantage point, Smythe witnesses a hedonistic orgy where Chou en Shu mounts and rapes (or maybe she’s willing?) Beth-li, disgusting our British adventurer. While the scene is something out of a horror film, full of dark-cloaked figures, torchlights, and a manacled Beth-li, who eventually screams for Chou en Shu to give her more.
That’s the other thing of note about this novel. There’s a lot of sex. The cover advertises it as a “porno-fairytale-occult-thriller” with some truth. There’s definitely a lot of plot, and I don’t feel it’s just an excuse to hang a collection of disjointed sex scenes together. But there are a lot of them. Smythe is something of a James Bond lothario, sleeping with almost every woman he meets, white or Asian. However, the sex seems to highlight a sort of “colonialist” attitude, where the white adventurer is a conquering force, and all women, white or Asian, submit eventually. At one point, he muses about white and Asian men’s “penile” sizes, as if it were just an accepted scientific fact.
After the horrific orgy, Smythe is in a state of shock. Charles Laight returns to the British Embassy where, overcome by shame, he blows his brains out. Adding to the horror, Smythe receives Beth-li’s severed head in a box with a note from Chou en Shu.
Waging a one-man war against the Dak Fang, Smythe searches for any trace of Chou en Shu, going so far as to threaten an entire Thai family with disembowelment. He eventually learns of the legendary Spear of Destiny, which pierced the side of Jesus while he hung on the cross. Apparently, Chou en Shu wants it for his own nefarious purposes. Smythe travels to Assam in India, where he meets a contingent of Germans, led by the borderline incestuous Hans and Clara Schicksal. These occultists are also searching for the Spear of Destiny, determined to snatch it from Chou en Shu and save the white race.
It goes without saying that these are pretty shady characters, going so far as to sacrifice a Jewish boy in some bizarre pagan ritual. Nevertheless, they recruit Smythe in the war against Chou en Shu, partly by his thirst to avenge Beth-li and partly to save his beloved white race, a la Nayland Smith. In his attempt to destroy the “yellow Satan,” Smythe makes a deal with the devil.
Or is Chou en Shu really as evil as he is made out to be? We are given hints that Smythe might not be a reliable narrator. This is made evident when Beth-li turns up alive and a servant of the Dak Fang. Then, whose head was in that box? We never find out, which is a shortcoming of the novel. Perhaps Charles Laight killed himself, not because of what happened in that temple, but because Smythe witnessed it, offending his prudish British sensibilities which made him unable to live with the shame? Perhaps, but we are never really given any concrete answers as to why Beth-li serves him (she’s not brainwashed) or why Chou en Shu’s past crimes are suddenly okay now.
A very common theme is characters berating Smythe for his stupidity, unable to see the truth before him. That is, he and his German allies are the true villains of the story, and Chou en Shu and the Dak Fang – in their own way – are trying to make the world a better place.
Unfortunately, Jaccoma doesn’t do a good job at conveying this. Smythe is a product of his time, certainly racist by today’s standards, but in line with mainstream thought of the 1930s. What’s more, one can sympathize with his anger at Beth-li’s alleged death, and he never shares the Schicksals’ repulsive beliefs – although he does screw Clara many times in the book. He even befriends and somewhat sympathizes with the Jewish characters, who are in league with Chou en Shu. In short, Smythe is not repulsive enough to be a true villain. Perhaps that was Jaccoma’s intention, to present us with a sympathetic but seriously flawed character, through which we could then critically examine our own attitudes about the “exotic Orient.”
Toward the end, it’s revealed that this mystical Jewish sect and Chou en Shu are using the Spear of Destiny to plot the assassination of Adolf Hitler, leading to a final showdown in Berlin.
The idea of Fu Manchu being the true hero is an interesting concept, but it isn’t handled very effectively here. The ending in particular is quite strange and a bit of a letdown. But overall, the novel is too scatterbrained, pulling in too many ideas from yetis, to telepathy, to Luciferianism, and blending it in one, all-encompassing smoothie. It sounds like insane, beautiful trash, but unfortunately, it tastes very mediocre going down. Jaccoma’s prose isn’t the problem, just his execution. However, if you are interested in the yellow peril subgenre as I am, I think it’s worth a read, just for a critical analysis.
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