There’s been a lot of back & forth about H.P. Lovecraft being racist. There was a kerfuffle a while back about getting his bust removed from the World Fantasy Award. Was Lovecraft racist? Yeah. Read his letters. He says some awful stuff. Stuff that was fairly in keeping with guys like him, from his background and geography, at his particular point in history. And that racism leaked into his fiction, mostly in the guise of sinister, swarthy foreigners. You could read a lot of his work and unless you’re looking for it, miss those dashes of racism. The same can not be said for other writers. Robert W. Chambers, who wrote the fantastically haunting collection of short stories “The King in Yellow,” for example, also wrote the terribly racist (not to mention goofy and overwrought) “The Slayer of Souls.” And then there’s John Taine’s “The Purple Sapphire.” Wow. Lovecraft’s racism seems to me to have been the product of a sheltered upbringing, a dreadful time in American race relations, and general ignorance. John Taine’s racism seems similar to that classically British, condescending contempt for all people not “like us.”
In this particular book, the racism is directed primarily, and persistently against Asians, particularly Tibetans. There is so much talk of them being “filthy,” “dirty,” “covered in filth,” etc. that I thought there might have been some kind of cultural reference (Taine’s culture) that I was missing. But I don’t think so. In the author’s eyes, as seen through his characters’ eyes, Tibetans are dirty, ugly, filth covered sub-humans. And I’ll tell you, that gets mighty old, mighty quick. I’m used to swallowing a bit of old timey bigotry. It’s unfortunately part of the package when you’re a fan of the pulps and movie serials of the early 20th century. But this book goes beyond the usual levels. It reminded me of when I tried to read “Heart of Darkness,” but was defeated by the rampant hatred of non-whites that was clearly coming from the author, and not just a character. At the end of the day, the racism was enough to spoil this book. But it didn’t stop there.
Getting past the chauvinism, it’s also a pretty terrible book. At nearly two hundred pages, there’s almost no story. There are long, tedious sequences of characters talking in a strange, stilted way that feels like a mid-level melodrama from the dawn of sound in motion pictures. You can tell the author thinks he’s writing clever dialog. But unless it’s packed with amazingly witty references that went over my head, it’s not clever. It’s just stilted and lame.
The only saving grace this novel has, if it has one, is that the female lead is surprisingly useful and competent. I was struck on numerous occasions by how unlike many contemporary female characters she was. None of the characters were especially interesting or well realized. But she was on an even level with the two male leads. So, there was that. And that alone.
To sum up; this book sucked.
-Matthew J. Constantine