Sunday, August 26, 2012

Theodore Roscoe's The Emperor of Doom

The Emperor of Doom is a collection of short stories by Theodore Roscoe, published in various pulp magazines between 1927 and 1933. They are mostly tales of adventure in the Foreign Legion or in the Mysterious Orient. And they’re a great example of pulp fiction at its most characteristic.

The Foreign Legion stories are interesting, presenting a very unheroic and non-romanticised view of that famous military organisation. Roscoe’s stories focus on the savage discipline and the brutalising effects of that discipline combined with poor pay and miserable conditions, constant danger, and the effects of gathering together such a collection of violent and desperate men.

In Foley of the Foreign Legion one of the officers betrays his men, and two soldiers choose desertion as the only option for survival. Blood and Ice shows us the sorts of men who were attracted to the Foreign Legion - vicious cut-throats who would murder their own mothers.

This is a long way from the rather romanticised world of Beau Geste.

There are three Foreign Legion stories. The remaining nine stories take place in the East, and again they are a world away from the usual romantic tales of adventure. Scum of the East tells us what the East can do to a man, how it can destroy him completely and leave behind nothing but a ruined shell.

Whispering Rubies and The Phantom Castle of Genghiz Khan are more traditional adventure tales, but they’re also very clever and original stories. Roscoe has a particular liking for stories involving sudden geological changes - lakes that appear and disappear, or islands that appear and then sink again.

Roscoe’s villains are extremely devilish. Borgan in Devil Dance and Captain Rachmaninoff in Yankee Beware are not merely vicious and corrupt - they are almost inhumanly so. They are devils in human form. There are no supernatural elements in any of these stories. Roscoe’s interest is in purely human evil and malevolent supernatural entities would simply be redundant.

Quite a few of the stories take place party of wholly at sea, and while the sea can be a cruel mistress it’s always other people that you really to fear. Greed is a major motivating force although for many of his villains the sheer joy of having power over their fellow humans is more important than mere greed.

Even Roscoe’s heroes are not conventionally heroic. They are often broken men who are offered one last of redemption, as in Scum of the East and Devil Dance. Or they’re criminal themselves, as in Penang Pearls. If they play the hero they do so reluctantly.

Roscoe’s view of the world is a dark and cynical one. Good often prevails, but it does so in unexpected and ironic ways, and it’s always a near-run thing.

The style is pulpy in the extreme. These are two-fisted tales of action and adventure and that’s what they deliver. Highly recommended.

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