“Dope War of the Black Tong” (1996) by Robert M. Price

[…] we present an original story by the estimable Price, which is dedicated to Lin Carter and Robert E. Howard, as it utilizes Carter’s Dr. Anton Zarnak and Howard’s Steve Harrison. Its style brings back memories of the weird mysteries which Howard was noted for.
—Edward P. Berglund, “Preface to the Revised Edition” Disciples of Cthulhu (2nd Rev. Ed.) vi

In the Spring of 1933, Robert E. Howard got himself a new agent. Otis Adelbert Kline was a pulp writer himself, and had been a reader for Weird Tales in the early days, ghost-editing a single issue to bridge the gap between the outgoing Edwin Baird and the incoming Farnsworth Wright. Kline’s agency handle the promotion and collection of Howard’s work, freeing the Texas pulpster to simply write, and the agent encouraged Howard to splash new markets—to spread his literary wings and try his hands at not just weird fiction but spicy stories and detective fiction.

It was the great period of hardboiled detective fiction, which would become so married to film noir; the pulp magazine Black Mask thrilled to Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op and Sam Spade, Raymond Chandler’s John Dalmas. Yet it was also the era of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels. Yellow Peril literature was still going strong in the interwar period; H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard exchanged letters discussing the danger threatened by Imperial Japan, on the rise since their victories in the Russo-Japanese War and the Great War, and worried over the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, and the looming probability of a great race war in the perhaps not too distant future.

This was the background against which Howard created Steve Harrison, star of nine weird detective stories, four of which sold and were published in magazines like Strange Detective Stories, Super-Detective Stories, and Thrilling Mystery between 1934 and 1936. Harrison’s beat was normally the local Chinatown, and the plots tend to be more oriented toward action than detection. Racism and racial conflict are part and parcel for the stories; Robert E. Howard, who had written quite a bit for Oriental Stories, obviously never heard Robert Knox’s rule that “No Chinaman must figure in the story.”

“Three unsolved murders in a week are not so unusual—for River Street,” grunted Steve Harrison, shifting his muscular bulk restlessly in his chair. […]

“It’s your business to solve murders,” she said.”

“Give me a little time. You can’t rush things, when you’re dealing with the people of the Oriental quarter.”

“You have less time than you think,” she answered cryptically. […] “Do you remember Erlik Khan?”

Involuntarily his hand sought his face, where a thin-scar ran from temple to jaw-rim.

“I’m not likely to forget him,” he grunted. “A Mongol who called himself Lord of the Dead. His idea was to combine all the Oriental criminal societies in America in one big organization, with himself at the head. He might have done it, too, if his own men hadn’t turned on him.”
—Robert E. Howard, “Names in the Black Book” (1934) in Steve Harrison’s Casebook 143

Occult detective Anton Zarnak was created by Lin Carter in the late 1980s, first as a minor character in “Curse of the Black Pharaoh,” and then star of his own adventures—sometimes written by Carter, others by Robert M. Price, Joseph S. Pulver, Sr; Pierre Comtois, and C. J. Henderson. Carter alongside L. Sprague de Camp had a hand in the legacies of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard; the two collaborated on many further adventures for Conan; revised, finished, or re-wrote Howard’s fiction; published highly-regarded fantasy anthologies and wrote articles promoting weird fiction and sword & sorcery. Lin Carter also created his own “Xothic Cycle” to expand on the work of Lovecraft and August Derleth.

Price in his introduction to Lin Carter’s Anton Zarnak: Supernatural Sleuth notes that Zarnak’s influences include Sherlock Holmes, the Weird Tales occult detective Jules de Grandin (created by Seabury Quinn), Sax Rohmer’s Sir Dennis Nayland Smith, August Derleth’s Dr. Laban Shrewsbury, Steve Ditko’s Dr. Strange, and Robert E. Howard’s own Steve Harrison. Zarnak had his abode in Chinatown, had an Sikh manservant (much as Wong to Dr. Strange, or Ram Singh to The Spider), and had a shelf full of Mythos tomes. The first proper Zarnak story opens:

Below Fourteenth Street, between Chinatown and the river, extends a disreputable region of cryptic, winding alleys, crumbling tenements, rotting wharves and abandoned warehouses slumping in decay. Here dwell the human dregs of a thousand Eastern ports: Hindus, Japanese, Arabs, Chinamen, Levantines, Turks, Portuguese. Once these dark and sinister side-streets and fetid alleyways were the battlefield of the Tong wars; that was in the days of the legendary detective Steve Harrison, who single-handedly dealt out the white man’s law and the white man’s justice along River Street.
—Lin Carter, “Dead of Night” (1988) in Lin Carter’s Anton Zarnak: Supernatural Sleuth 107

Steve Harrison was a product of the 1930s; between the time Robert E. Howard drew his last breath and Lin Carter sat down at his typewriter a second World War had come and gone; together with the Korean War and the Vietnam War these conflicts changed the contours of Yellow Peril fiction—it is often forgotten that comic book characters such as Dr. Strange and Iron Man came to be in the 1960s, their pulp fiction roots showing in characterizations of Asian characters as mystical and exotic, such as the Ancient One who taught Strange his sorcery, and the Mandarin who served as a Chinese counter to the American Iron Man. Later, as such blatant Asianophobia waned, the characters would be re-imagined from their original contexts…so what was Carter up to, writing a story with 1930s racial tropes (and almost 1930s racial language) in the 1980s?

In part, it might be because Howard’s Steve Harrison stories had only rarely been published or republished; most of them only became available in the late 1970s and 80s, during the tail end of the “Howard Boom,” and those often spread out; there was no complete book of Steve Harrison stories at the time. Also in part, it could be that Carter did not see the problem; he avoided the outright vulgarities of Howard (the N-word was casually dropped in several stories), and the nature of the fiction was in keeping with the style of the original—which, for a pasticheur like Carter, was important. Some years before, African-American fantasy author Charles Saunders had specifically called out de Camp and Carter for this approach in their Conan stories:

Carter and de Camp, on the other hand, continue to practice good old-fashioned bigotry in their non-Conan endeavors. Though they have done a good job at ameliorating some of Howard’s more blatant racism, their own efforts at sword-and-sorcery are throwbacks. This is doubly shameful, because both of these men are scholars, and should know better. Their books sell well enough, so it may be that racism in fantasy matters little to fandom.

But it does matter to me.
—Charles Saunders, “Die, Black Dog! A Look At Racism in Fantasy Literature” (1975)

The Cthulhu Mythos is itself no stranger to Yellow Peril tropes, as seen in “Polaris” (1920) by H. P. Lovecraft & “The Lair of the Star-Spawn” (1932) by August Derleth and Mark Schorer. The question is not if such sentiments are present in the original material, but how a new author working with that material chooses to adapt it to the syntax of their own time. There is nothing wrong with presenting historical racism as a fact of life; To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) for example is set during the Great Depression, and the realistic racism in the novel is critical to the story.

The issue when creating fiction set in this period or in this style is how much the story plays into the inherent biases of racial tropes and stereotypes. Having a villain who is Asian does not necessarily make a Yellow Peril story, so long as the individual is not a villain because they are Asian. Presenting historical racism as it was is often necessary; writing a story as if from that period, with all the inherent approach that the racism is true and correct is neither necessary nor commendable. The point is often a fine one, and easily lost on writers trying to capture the spirit of pulp fiction without considering the ideas and messages inherent in the text, never mind the subtext.

Carter was not alone in trying to navigate these difficult waters. One of the more egregious examples might be “Yellow Peril”: The Adventures of Sir John Weymouth-Smythe (1978) by Richard Jaccoma, which is essentially Fu Manchu fanfiction with a very slight wink toward the Mythos (Jaccoma also holds the rather dubious honor of having written the script for Teenage Twins (1976), the first hardcore adult film to feature the Necronomicon—and an incantation from a Robert E. Howard story—but I digress.) Like Carter, he was essentially trying to write a 1930s style Yellow Peril story.

This is essentially where Robert M. Price’s “Dope War of the Black Tong” (1996) begins:

The one-man posse of River Street set his feet squarely, while the blue steel of twin automatics leaped into his fists and began to discharge a hail of white man’s justice into the knot of Oriental thugs. When his guns were empty he cast them aside and reached for the Gurkha knife had concealed in his belt Eastern style. It descended with the force of a guillotine, cleaving the skull of the first assassin to elude the rain of bullets and reach him. Himalayan blood spattered Harrison as he pulled the blade free of the sundered wreck of a head and managed to dodge a sword thrust aimed at himself.
—Robert M. Price, “Dope War of the Black Tong” (1996) in Disciples of Cthulhu (2nd Rev. Ed.) 140-141

Price is deliberately working the story as a throwback piece; a character that uses the term “chink” or “Chinaman” once or twice can be grimaced at as an acknowledgment of the casual historical use of racial pejoratives; but the text itself describes them as “Asiatics,” “Muhammadans,” and “slant-eyed devils.” Not strong language by Robert E. Howard’s standards in 1936…but in 1996?

The story itself is the kind that weaves together disparate elements of Mythos (and non-Mythos) fiction, one of Price’s major interests. So the story references not just Steve Harrison and Anton Zardak, but the Unaussprechlichen Kulten created by Robert E. Howard in “The Black Stone” (1932) and given a German name through the help of Lovecraft, for more on which see “Unspeakable! The Secret History of Nameless Cults; the minor Mythos story “Dig Me No Grave” (1937) published after Howard’s death; the Black Lotus from the Conan stories, for more on which see “Robert E. Howard’s Reefer Madness”; Gol-Goroth from Howard’s “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth” (1931); the cat-headed staff of Howard’s Solomon Kane; a passing reference to Frank Belknap Long’s Chaugnar-Faugn from The Horror from the Hills (1931), which includes an Asian Mythos cult; Lloigor, Zhar, and the Tcho-Tcho from August Derleth and Marc Schorer’s “The Lair of the Star Spawn” (1932)…and those latter especially deserve further consideration:

And the Tcho-Tchos! Every cop in the area knows them only too well: the latest wave of Oriental immigrants to clutter the docks. Damn near every single one of them connected with the criminal underground in one way or another. There are only a few, but even at that, there’s too damn many of them if you ask me!
—Robert M. Price, “Dope War of the Black Tong” (1996) in Disciples of Cthulhu (2nd Rev. Ed.) 155

Derleth & Schorer introduced—and exterminated—the Tcho-Tcho in their story; but the idea of a small alien race in Asia had appeal to Lovecraft, who made reference to them, and were revived by devoted fans like Robert M. Price, who here inserts them into the context of the Asian diaspora to the United States, very unlike their original appearance. The language used against the Tcho-Tcho, who were initially presented as inhuman, is essentially the same as used for any Asian ethnicity in the age of the Asiatic Barred Zone Act (1917). Price doesn’t mention the events of Derleth & Schorer’s story, and glosses over their depiction of the Tcho-Tcho by noting:

You should be aware that these dwarf-like figures belong to a warrior caste specially bred. Not all the Tcho-Tchos are like them, nor have I expressly claimed to be of their nation. (ibid.)

Price’s mingling and confusion of real-world prejudice against Asian immigration with the fantasy racism of Derleth & Schorer’s confusion is a literary sin; whatever his intent, the result is that the real-world fear and hatred is given a justification within the context of story. Price has perhaps exposited too much; the Tcho-Tcho never appear on the page before the revelation is made, so the reader is exposed to their Mythos aspect and the anti-Asian prejudice in virtually the same breath.

Then it gets weirder:

The swelling chorus of guttural voices gave Steve a hint of his earlier dread. Deep down he knew that his Celtic forbears had driven the reptilian kindred of these dusky trolls away from the open spaces of human habitation. His knife thirsted for their stinking blood. He seemed to know that his statuesque cmpanion shared his own primal hate for the Little People. Askbar Singh’s ancestral mythology would know them as the Asuras, eternal enemies of the Aryan gods. (ibid., 163)

For anyone not hip-deep in Mythos lore this probably seems like racist gibberish. It is in fact a very nerdy reference where Price attempts to tie the dwarfish Tcho-Tcho with the Little People in Robert E. Howard’s stories such as “The Children of the Night” (1931) and “The People of the Dark” (1932) which in turn drew inspiration from Arthur Machen’s Little People stories such as “The Novel of the Black Seal” (1895), “The Red Hand” (1895), and “The Shining Pyramid” (1906); those interested in the gritty details can read about it in “Conan and the Little People: Robert E. Howard & Lovecraft’s Theory.”

The Little People as initially conceived by Machen and Howard derive from racialist anthropological theories that posited a “Mongoloid” race that inhabited Europe before being driven out by the arrival of the Causcasoid race that were the ancestors of contemporary (and implicitly white) Europeans. Both Machen and Howard attributed powers and non-humanoid characteristics to the Little People, and it’s easy to see how Price might have been drawn to the idea of conflating the Tcho-Tcho and Little People who both shared short stature, non-human nature or attributes, ignorant of modern technology, worship of Mythos agencies (in at least some cases)…but also an at least implicit connection to Asian peoples.

The fact that Price gives Steve Harrison a racial—and almost explicitly Aryan—hatred for the Little People/Tcho-Tcho makes the already bizarre mashup of fantasy and real-world racism uglier. Robert E. Howard, with his strong grounding in racialist ideas of history and narrative, had no difficulty writing such stories in the 1930s; Price in putting those thoughts into Steve Harrison’s head was perhaps doing no different than Howard might have done, and certainly was not writing anything worse than Howard had written in “The Children of the Night.”

Yet this was written in the 1990s, not the 1930s.

The fundamental issue here is not so much the use of the Tcho-Tcho as villains; Derleth and Schorer had already done that. If anything, giving the Tcho-Tcho some greater depth and making them something other than an “evil” race of faceless mooks would be praiseworthy. Attempting to accurately portray the historical racism of the period is certainly understandable given the context of the setting, where Anton Zarnak (who lives in Chinatown) and Steve Harrison (who works the Chinatown beat) meet to deal with a mutual threat. Combining the real-world prejudice and the fantasy racism however…this is where the story really gets problematic.

Price himself was a long-time editor of Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu Fiction line, and as part of his notes for Howard’s “The Children of the Night” he wrote:

Can you spot similarities between this tale and three by Lovecraft? I am thinking of “Polaris,” where the narrator recalls an ancient life in which he fell asleep on guard duty when he should have been watching for the advance of his people’s subhuman foes; “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” where the narrator’s opening gives nary a sign of the atavistic identity-change he has undergone by the end; and “Pickman’s Model,” where one member of a Kalem-like club is ostracized as a hideous sub-human changeling.
—Robert M. Price, Nameless Cults: The Cthulhu Mythos Fiction of Robert E. Howard 66

Not all the parallels are pleasant: “Polaris” is explicitly a “Yellow Peril” story, albeit one set in a mythical past, for example. Early on “The Shadow over Innsmouth” has more than a trace of it:

But the real thing behind the way folks feel is simply race prejudice—and I don’t say I’m blaming those that hold it. I hate those Innsmouth folks myself, and I wouldn’t care to go to their town. I s’pose you know—though I can see you’re a Westerner by your talk—what a lot our New England ships used to have to do with queer ports in Africa, Asia, the South Seas, and everywhere else, and what queer kinds of people they sometimes brought back with ’em. You’ve probably heard about the Salem man that came home with a Chinese wife, and maybe you know there’s still a bunch of Fiji Islanders somewhere around Cape Cod.

“Well, there must be something like that back of the Innsmouth people.[“]
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Shadow over Innsmouth”

With Lovecraft, the prejudice is a red herring. The real-world fears of miscegenation and “foreignness” held by other Massachusetts locals towards the folkd of Innsmouth is a mask for the much weirder and more horrific truth. The locals are correct in that the “Innsmouth look” is the result of Innsmouth being a mixed-race community, they are wrong and ignorant in assuming they know what the “races” involved are. Blinded by their prejudice, they don’t see the terrible reality.

That could have been the case with “Dope War of the Black Tong”—but we never get a sense of the Tcho-Tcho before the Mythos connection is revealed. They have no sympathetic character, no demonstration of the prejudices they must suffer, no real explanation for what they’re doing in Chinatown instead of the Plateau of Sung. In this sense, the Howardian action-adventure approach that Price adopted is partially to blame; he starts off with Harrison in the thick of it, rather than ruminating on what brought the Tcho-Tcho diaspora to the United States, or why they would form a tong.

Price’s story essentially sees Harrison confirm the prejudices he held instinctively against the Tcho-Tcho just for looking Asian.

The racialism in the early Mythos stories from the 1930s can have a very long tail, impacting stories today. It is difficult to say how much influence “Dope War of the Black Tong” has had on the depiction of the Tcho-Tcho as, essentially, default Yellow Peril villains in contemporary Mythos fiction. For example, in the roleplaying game Delta Green, the Tcho-Tcho diaspora and association with drugs and other criminal activities are explicitly part of the setting; however, the explicit association between the Little People and the Tcho-Tcho is not.

“Dope War of the Black Tong” was first published in Disciples of Cthulhu (2nd rev. ed., 1996), it has been republished in Lin Carter’s Anton Zarnak: Supernatural Sleuth (2002), and Robert M. Price’s own collection Blasphemies & Revelations (2008/2019).


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

One thought on ““Dope War of the Black Tong” (1996) by Robert M. Price

  1. I’ve tackled trying to get all the way through this story several times, & at some point it’s always too painful to continue. It doesn’t help that it was written in 1996, not 1926. Thanks for covering this one so we won’t forget that other people besides white guys need their voices heard, too. Thank you as well for your series of Asian writer Deep Cuts..

    Like

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