By Hannes Bok (Black Cat Press; 1946/2008)
This 1946 novel, one of two A. Merritt novels “completed” by Hannes Bok, has intrigued me for some time. Unlike the other Merritt/Bok collaboration, 1948’s THE BLACK WHEEL, which was reprinted in the seventies, THE BLUE PAGODA has remained quite obscure (at least until the 2008 reprint under discussion). I’ve long wondered why that was, and after finally reading the thing I understand: quite simply, it just isn’t very good.
Hannes Bok was a prolific illustrator and sometime fantasy novelist who had a fecund imagination worthy of the aforementioned A. Merritt, but lacked Merritt’s storytelling prowess. That’s all-too-evident in THE BLUE PAGODA, which scores high in colorful invention but is never very compelling.
The story it completes, Merritt’s “The Fox Woman,” told of a pregnant lady encountering a race of fox women in an Oriental temple; the lady makes a deal with the Fox Women to avenge the death of her husband at the hands of bandits, with her unborn child set to be the instrument of that vengeance. THE BLUE PAGODA begins a couple decades later with Paul, a young man who–as related in a VERY lengthy and involved introduction–is entreated by his rascally father Pandejo to seduce Yin Hu, the offspring of the vengeance-seeking woman, and make her fall in love with him. Love, Pandejo believes, will neutralize Yin Hu’s fox nature, and so spare Pandejo’s life–as he happens to be partially responsible for Yin Hu’s father’s murder, and so is among the targets of her vengeance.
The ensuing story involves plenty of breakneck action, and some bizarre hallucinatory segues, including a feverishly inventive sequence set inside a painting stocked with Greek gods, but the novel is mainly concerned with Yin Hu’s warring human-fox natures (I wouldn’t dream of revealing which one of them wins out), thus making this the first (and only) were-fox novel. It’s interesting, but only in parts, as the overall narrative is far too cluttered and uneven to fully, or even partially, satisfy.