Being a fan of Rohmer's Dr.Fu-Manchu
series, I decided to check out another of his pulp works. Brood of the Witch-Queen
seemed like a good candidate; its very name promised adventure and horror! In it, Robert Cairn and his celebrated father, medical genius Dr. Cairn, must fight against the unholy outrage that is Antony Ferrera, a vile and powerful sorcerer resurrected from the dead, and inexplicably adopted by Dr. Cairn's close friend and colleague, Michael Ferrera. There is even a damsel in distress, Myra Duquesne, adopted daughter of Michael, who Robert is hopelessly in love with, and Antony has dark designs on.
On the surface, it retains several qualities I enjoyed in Dr.Fu-Manchu
. From the very first page, the reader is instantly plunged into the adventure. Immediately we read about horrors, murders, and supernatural abominations. Rohmer knew what his audience wanted, and he doesn't disappoint. There is plenty of action throughout.
Like the books on the evil Chinese doctor, it all follows an episodic formula, where every few chapters are a new occult outrage by Ferrera, all loosely tied together by an overarching plot.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the specific details that made the Dr.Fu-Manchu
books so much fun, Brood of the Witch-Queen
is a failure.
A critical problem is that the antagonist, Antony Ferrera, relies on supernatural powers. Fu-Manchu, no matter how far-fetched, was limited to mortal implements. Thus, there was a genuine mystery to how Fu-Manchu accomplished his crimes, and Rohmer was often very clever with his explanations.
That is lacking in The Brood of the Witch-Queen
, since the answer each time is "magic!". This reduced my interest in the book a lot, since it effectively eliminates any mystery elements, and makes Rohmer's story, already predictable with its few characters and singular antagonist, even more straightforward. At times, it's even dull, despite all the action.
Moreover, the magic doesn't even possess any consistency or well-defined limits. In an early chapter, Antony Ferrera attempts to murder Robert Cairn in his apartment simply through his ghastly powers. Near the end of the work, despite supposedly growing continuously stronger, Antony now requires Robert to pick up an object he has left behind. Only through this is he able to "focus" his powers and make another attempt on Robert's life.
But even aside from that, the work is very sloppy, as if Sax Rohmer hastily wrote it for a quick buck, with no quality control.
For one, despite possessing supernatural powers, Ferrera is nowhere near as interesting or menacing as Dr. Fu-Manchu. When Rohmer informs us that Dr.Fu-Manchu is perhaps the most dangerous man in the world, we believe it.
After all, Dr.Fu-Manchu possess a small army of minions, huge sums of money, and many other seemingly limitless resources. Additionally, he is the head of a powerful Chinese secret society, and assassinates and tortures key British diplomats. He can kill remarkably easily, through a variety of means. His influence even seem faintly believable; after all, every nation has shadowy power brokers, and at a time when few Europeans knew much about China, who was to say that a figure like the evil doctor didn't exist?
Compare that to Antony Ferrera. He is a lone antagonist. He has no minions. His only resource is money, and not to a particularly large extent, either. Throughout the book, he murders only four people, none of them wielding any particular power. And to commit his killings, he requires time, equipment, and special circumstances! When Robert meets Antony later on in the book, the evil sorcerer is forced to flee, for he is no match against an average human being armed with a pistol in direct confrontation. Moreover, Ferrera is never remotely credible as a villain who could exist.
When Rohmer proclaims him to be the most dangerous man in all of Europe, I simply laughed.
The protagonists are similarly poor. Robert Cairn seems wholly ineffectual and incompetent, consistently requiring his father to rescue him. Compare that to Dr. Petrie, who saved Denis Nayland Smith almost as many times as Smith did him.
And Dr. Cairn is a gruff, amorphous hero with zero personality, a far cry from Smith.
The episodic nature is also strained, as events in one adventure are either contradicted or quietly ignored in a later one. I already mentioned one example above with Ferrera's power, but a particularly confusing event occurs with Myra. After Antony kills his adoptive father Michael through dark magic, Myra enters the room in a trance and proclaims him to be the killer, for which she will never forgive him.
This event is never
mentioned again in the story by anyone, and for many chapters afterwards, Myra continues to meet with Antony and loves him like a brother.
Similarly, Dr. Cairn, who witnessed this murder, and pointed out Antony as its perpetrator, is initially reluctant to consider Ferrera evil, or go after him aggressively.
This, despite Dr. Cairn mentioning later on in the book that he knew about Antony's evil origins, and that he "has passed from crime to crime"
since childhood. Yet, despite this, neither Michael Ferrera nor Dr. Cairn had thought to stop him earlier? And Dr. Cairn still isn't sure until Antony kills a few more people? It's shabby writing for the sake of plot convenience.
Of course, there are other plot holes. For instance, when Robert Cairn learns from his father that a silk cord Rob possesses is the means by which Antony is projecting his evil energy into his apartment, why doesn't he simply burn the bloody thing? Instead, he does nothing, calmly stays in that haunted apartment, and almost gets killed for his troubles! (Until being saved in the nick of time by his father, as usual)
The most galling is near the end, when, after 200-odd pages of juicy exclamations like scene of one gruesome outrage in Ferrara's unholy campaignthe drama of evilA menace, dreadful and unnatural,
Robert Cairn finally
manages to discover a likely trail to Antony Ferrera. In light of this unbelievable opportunity to finally put this terror to rest, what is his father's response? "I will leave the inquiry in your hands, Rob. Unfortunately other duties call me."
Yep, it's not important enough! Of course, the reason for this is so that once Rob tracks Antony to his hideout, he then has to report to his father, and they must survive another attack by Antony's magic that night.
Unfortunately, it's symptomatic of the shoddy manner in which the book is written.
While it bears Sax Rohmer's trademark lightning pace, non-stop action, and lurid events and imagery, The Brood of the Witch-Queen
is nevertheless predictable, occasionally boring, and hastily thrown together, with errors galore. I wouldn't even recommend this to Rohmer's fans, of which I consider myself a member.