This is the best Fu Manchu story I’ve come across so far.
Oh, technically it’s not about Fu Manchu, but the core dynamic is there. Yun Shatu / Kaluthos is Fu Manchu; Zulieka is Kararamaneh, a henchman who covertly helps the heroes but who can never escape her master’s side; John Gordon is Nayland Smith, the heroic detective perpetually on the villain’s trail; and Steve Costigan is Dr Petrie, the narrator and the Watson to the hero’s Holmes. The Fu Manchu character even has a fondness for hallucinations and exotic creatures as weapons.
Not that it starts out like this. I feel the opening is the weakest, when Costigan is an opium addict, lost in illusions that outlive their welcome. Eventually the owner of the opium den offers him a cure to his addiction in exchange for services to Yun Shatu. He is given papers on an English commissioner, whom he resembles, and is ordered to memorize these until he can impersonate the man. While he’s doing this he spots an intruder in the hideout and reveals John Gordon’s presence. While Gordon escapes soon after, he inspires Costigan to break free from Yun Shatu’s hold, no matter that he is still dependent on the opium cure.
It is around the halfway point that Costigan is finally able to escape and team up with Gordon, and this is where the story steps up a gear. Robert E. Howard is often excellent at building up vast threats against the heroes, and this story is no exception. Yun Shatu is revealed to be Kaluthos, a resurrected mummy from a proto-Egyptian empire in the distant past, and the mystical powers he is consorting with are Lovecraftian in their grandeur. It culminates with Costigan and Gordon against an army of Kalthos’ followers, the fate of London in the balance; what more do you want?
I should also make note of the Yellow Peril aspect. ‘Skull-Face’ is less offensive to the modern reader than the Fu Manchu stories I’ve read; Kaluthos’ position as a free agent, rather than the vanguard of an invasion, makes this more palatable. The story only grows really uncomfortable around the middle, when Kaluthos is presented as the fulfilment of a messiah prophecy: there are lines like “he has banded together in one monstrous conspiracy the black, the brown and the yellow.” So be warned. (Although I find that line so over the top and disconnected from reality to be hilarious. It’s unlikely Howard intended this stuff to be a parody of Yellow Peril literature, but it’s a possible interpretation that makes reading more palatable.)
Skull-Face by Robert E. Howard
Availability: free online, print
Word count: 33,500
First published: Serialized in Weird Tales magazine, Oct – Dec 1929
Where to find it: It is out of copyright and may be found all over the internet, including Wikisource here
The Haunter of the Rings and other tales, collection, 2011, Read Books
Days of High Adventure: A Selection of the Works by Robert E. Howard, collection, 2012, Schlock! Publications
Skullcrusher: Selected Weird Fiction, volume 1, collection, 2012, Creation Oneiros