Monday, October 25, 2010

Slayer of Souls

New York: George Doran, c1920.
301 p.

My book has a simple red cloth cover, without a dust jacket, so I have a different image of the characters than this dust jacket presents. Although it was written in the 1910s sometime, this book has a irrefutable feel of the Roaring Twenties to me. I've had my copy for ages and ages, since childhood really, and it has an inscription in antique penmanship stating that it belonged to Const. Phil. J. Power. I picked it up again during the Readathon, as I knew it was a fast, light read.

I've read it numerous times over the years and always enjoy its rather over-the-top, sensational plot: evil Yezidee sorcerers from "the east" are trying to take over the minds of good Americans and convert the world to a socialist nightmare. There are Bolshevik plots in there somewhere as well. The main characters are three young professional men (an architect, a banker, and a professor) who have volunteered to work for the intelligence service, and three young women, all formerly captive temple girls in the Yezidee stronghold who are now the only hope for humanity. The primary focus is on Tressa Norne; she is a Westerner whose parents were diplomats to the region in question, and were killed in an uprising, at which time the very young and beautiful Tressa was taken to the Temple of Erlik. She is now free (another uprising) and is returning to the United States, bringing with her the uncanny sorcery she learned in her years as a temple girl. Thus, she is the only person able to defeat the enemy on their own ground.

There is a strong romantic plot, mainly between Tressa and the professor assigned to protect her, but also involving the other Americans and the other girls, who are Chinese (but carefully described as almost white, only 'almond shaped eyes' indicating otherwise.) As I read it through this time I was struck by how much the casual racism of the 1920s comes through. There is a rather shocking reference to black Americans; the evil sorcerers are defined as Asiatic; Jewish New Yorkers are dismissed in a line or two; and of course, the romantic interests must not be really Chinese. The story doesn't go out of its way to point these things out, and it doesn't dwell on them. But it is the assumption that its contemporary readers will understand and agree with (or at least not really notice or be bothered by) these kind of throwaway comments that is almost worse than being blatant about it. It really makes one realize how deeply society has changed -- not saying that there isn't racism today, but that making these kind of 'obvious' statements today would be provocative and shocking to the reader. Rather interesting to think about -- unfortunately it does make it impossible to love this book, though I still enjoy the plot overall.

The two main characters are great; lots of melodrama and wit, and a creative romantic situation for the four supporting characters. The descriptions of the landscapes of both the United States and of China are quite dreamlike and engaging. The strength, I think, is in the complex magic and culture of the Yezidee cult -- Chambers has created a logical organization with the sorcery following certain rules, where symbols play a large role. It hints at a very foreign, very ancient culture with its own rules and expectations. Some of the scenes are quite bloodthirsty, but at the same time give you a thrill of horror despite the general melodramatic nature.

There are of course, touches of sexism -- the men are all square jawed and sensible American capitalists, who find it hard to believe in the reality of sorcery. Tressa is a lovely 1920s woman, slim, blue-eyed, fashionable, who does a lot of trembling, blinking, and gesturing, yet is the most powerful mind in the book. One of my favourite lines comes when Tressa is explaining to one of the other men, Benton, that her friend, still in China, has seen him on a visit she made on the astral plane, and essentially thinks he is hot. Benton can't believe this, and when Tressa asks why, he stammers, "I'm an Episcopalian!".

Despite the flaws in this book, I do like the creativity and action of it, and each time I read it I think that with a bit of tweaking this would make a great movie. I would love to see some of the settings brought to life visually, like the Florida country cottage they retreat to at one point, or the Lake of Ghosts in Tressa's Yezidee years. Also, the romance is sweet, while the horrible bits are quite visual (for example, as Tressa saves them from someone trying to throw a tube of poison gas as them, the tube melts into the villain's hand and his whole face slides off as his body disintegrates - pretty disgusting stuff!) It has a touch of the supernatural, clever women who laugh at the seriousness of men, and a strong sense of threat and the necessity to fight evil. Very much of its time, but still enjoyable for its creative plot.

You can read it online in full text thanks to Miskatonic University Press, if you so wish.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, that's so not the book that I would have imagined from the title alone. (And "trembling, blinking, and gesturing": heheh. Perfectly said.)


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