33. The Literary Origins of John Sunlight

John Sunlight is unique in the Doc Savage series.  For 181 issues, from March 1933 until the last issue of Doc Savage Magazine in 1949, John Sunlight had the singular distinction of being the only villain ever to make a second appearance.  A considerable amount of speculation has been done about this character and his origins.

Who was John Sunlight?   Clues are few and far between concerning the mystery of his identity.  John Sunlight first appearances in Russia yet readers are told he is not a Russian and that John Sunlight is not his real name.  It seems likely readers will never know the true identity of this unique criminal of the Doc Savage series, but in the real world it is a different story.  The identity of John Sunlight or rather his literary pedigree may be a little easier to discern.  Doc Savage author Lester Dent, who wrote both of the John Sunlight stories, sprinkled the tales with clues and hints about John Sunlight’s literary origins.

John Sunlight first appeared in Russia, during the October 1938 adventure, Fortress of Solitude.  It should be no surprise that it is in that same country spanning Europe and Asia that we seek the initial part of the puzzle.  Before the creation of the Union of Soviet Socialistic Republics there was the Russian empire which had been ruled by a Russian caesar or “czar” for ten centuries.  Destined to be the last of the Romanovs, Czar Nicholas II ruled Russia in the years preceding the 1917 revolution,

In 1907, a fascinating and ominous figure entered the inner circle of the ruling family.   Intermarriage between the ruling families of Europe had made the Russian royal family genetically predisposed for hemophilia which at the time was an untreatable disease.  The malady manifested itself in the Romanov’s young son Alexei much to the chagrin of the royal physicians who were powerless in the face of this disease and unable to prescribe any kind of effective treatment.

This set the stage for the introduction of the “Mad Monk” to the royal court. The cleric Grigori Rasputin was a growing figure whose influence as a healer and spiritual leader were making him very popular in Moscow.  The young Alexei was reportedly dying when his mother, the Czarina Alexandra, turned to Rasputin in a desperate attempt to thwart the grim reaper.  Incredibly, under Rasputin’s ministrations, the dying child made a miraculous recovery.  After such a success, the royal family’s faith and confidence in Rasputin was unshakeable.

Not content with being in the good graces of the Czar and Czarina, Rasputin interjected himself into the political arena.  Fortunes and fates rose and fell upon his advice.  The monk’s influence in the royal court swelled until it became a serious concern amongst the nobility.  Ultimately, a small group of nobles drew together in a plan to assassinate the priest.

Mystery and notoriety surround the details of Rasputin’s demise.  He was reportedly poisoned, shot, and finally bludgeoned before his body was disposed of in a hole in the ice on the frozen Moika River. The monk’s body was recovered from the river and an autopsy ordered by the Czar.  Amazingly the evidence, at the time, seemed to indicate that the cause of death was drowning!

One final sensation added to the legend of the man who would not die.  In March 1917, the populace exploded in a spontaneous rebellion.  Czar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate ending the Romanov rule.  Rasputin was another focal point of the incensed masses even though he was dead and buried.  Rasputin’s moldering corpse was exhumed from the ground by an angry crowd and thrown onto a pile of wood to burn.  The heat from the cremation caused the cadaver’s abdominal tendons to contract giving the dead body the appearance of trying to rise up from the flames and escape death one last time.  The legend was complete.

Aside from the current literature of the time, one possible source of influence on Lester Dent may have been the movie, Rasputin and the Empress.  This was a much touted film featuring the three Barrymores — Ethel, Lionel and John.  Individually, each actor was enormously popular in his or her own right.  The appearance of all three together in a single motion picture was a major entertainment event.  In fact it was the only movie to ever feature all three together.  In a 1932 review, The New York Times described the film as an engrossing and exciting pictorial melodrama. The movie gained additional notoriety when Princess Irina Romanoff Yusupov sued MGM pictures over her portrayal in the movie and won.  She reportedly received a settlement of $250,000 from the motion picture company.  That was a tremendous sum of money in 1933 and the equivalent of $3.7 million in today’s market.  It was also an event that would forever influence movies.  To this day, motion pictures are still labeled with a disclaimer to make it clear that any resemblance to persons living or dead is a coincidence.

The fictional character John Sunlight seemed imbued with a powerful ability to sway people’s will much as that attributed to Rasputin.  The New York Times review further stated “it is not surprising that the picture producers have seen fit to make him [Rasputin] a sort of Svengali, a man who can hypnotize certain persons.”  Doc Savage comes to the same conclusion in The Devil Genghis, Doc Savage, watching him, knew that the man [John Sunlight] was a student of hypnotism.

Like Rasputin, John Sunlight evades death and capture several times.  He dodges the firing squad with a prison sentence.  He escapes from the Soviet gulag only to face death by starvation in the frozen ice pack.  He slips away from a confrontation with Doc Savage on his island redoubt, and he avoids being shot by Giantia and Titania.  He circumvents the fate of his men who were gassed into insensibility inside Doc’s arctic laboratory.  Finally, at the very end of the story, John Sunlight, like Rasputin, appears to meet his end at a hole in the ice.  (But he was not dead.  One again he cheated death as he escaped by neither being eaten by a polar bear nor dying in the frozen wilderness.)

But Rasputin makes up only one small part of John Sunlight.  Just as Russia spans two continents uniting the occidental and the oriental, so does the character of the evil genius John Sunlight. The other portion of his personality derives from a fascinating character, another evil mastermind of superhuman proportions who is a much more prominent literary persona.  As they say, “the devil lies in the details.”  In this case, one could say the details lie with the devil, or to be more precise, the Devil Doctor.  For the other significant portion of John Sunlight’s makeup comes from Sax Rohmer’s master villain, Dr. Fu Manchu.

Fu Manchu made his first appearance in The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu in 1913.  British author Arthur Ward wrote thirteen Fu Manchu novels in his lifetime under the pen name of Sax Rohmer.  Ward’s last novel, Emperor Fu Manchu, was published in 1959.  A fourteenth book, an anthology, was published posthumously in 1973.  Additionally, Cay van Ash, a personal friend of Ward and his biographer, wrote two subsequent novels, Ten Years Beyond Baker Street (1984), and The Fires of Fu Manchu (1987) featuring Dr. Fu Manchu.

What is the evidence that John Sunlight’s persona is made up from that of Fu Manchu’s?  Dent lays out several clues to the real literary identity of his creation in The Fortress of Solitude.

He resembled a gentle poet, with his great shock of dark hair, his remarkably high forehead, his hollow burning eyes set in a starved face. His body was very long, very thin. His fingers, particularly, were so long and thin—the longest fingers being almost the length of an ordinary man’s whole hand.

John Sunlight’s fingers are hard to fix onto another character.  The description borders on the deformed or obscene.  One is reminded of the long fingers of the vampire Count Orlock from the 1922 silent horror film Nosferatu.  It is a hard thing to imagine these long fingers or find in another character with these qualities.  That is, unless we consider the exaggerated length as a way of describing the oriental custom of allowing fingernails to grow long as a sign of wealth and to use nail protectors to keep them from being broken such as we find in the 1917 publication of The Hand of Fu Manchu.

But, having crossed the threshold, a sudden awful doubt passed through my mind, arrow-like. The hand that held my arm was bony and clawish; I could detect the presence of incredibly long finger nails–nails long as those of some buried vampire of the black ages!

Dent gives Sunlight a poet’s brow.  Consider the description of Dr. Fu Manchu when readers first learn of him from Nayland Smith’s description in the 1916 edition of The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu.

“Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present, with all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government– which, however, already has denied all knowledge of his existence. Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man.”

Dent tells us that John Sunlight had a face like a poet.  Shakespeare was a poet.  Fu Manchu has a brow like Shakespeare.  Ergo, John Sunlight is Fu Manchu; quod erat demonstrandum.  That is how logic works but this is a bit weak as far as a convincing argument goes.  One has to delve deeper into the Fu Manchu stories for a complete picture.  John Sunlight returned for a second round against the man of bronze in The Devil Genghis.  In the sequel, John Sunlight assumes much more of the persona and characteristics of Dr. Fu Manchu than he did in Fortress of Solitude.  Much of that has to do with the actual composition of Dent’s second story.

The Mask of Fu Manchu was the fifth story by Sax Rohmer in the Fu Manchu saga.  That story debuted in Collier’s magazine as a twelve-part serial beginning with the May 7, 1932 issue.  Readers thrilled to the narrative of Shan Greville who unfolds the incidents revolving around a collection of religious artifacts recovered from the tomb of a disgraced prophet in south-western Asia. 

Readers should note that Rohmer borrowed from the history books for this story.  El Mokanna (al-Muqanna) staged a revolt against the caliph in Khorasan which was part of Persia.  The revolt lasted about five years until such time as the Caliph’s superior military forces were poised to finally defeat the rebels in 779AD.  Rather than surrender, the “veiled prophet” and his followers committed suicide by poisoning.  It is reported that al-Muqanna wore a mask to hide the fact that he was blind in one eye.  The legend was further romanticized by the famous Irish writer Thomas Moore (1779-1852) who wrote a very popular poem on the subject.  Published in 1817, Lalla Rookh, an Oriental Romance begins with The Story of the Veiled Prophet of Khorassan.

Rohmer’s story is set in Afghanistan where Sir Lionel Barton has excavated the tomb of the masked prophet El Mokanna and recovered several valuable artifacts from the grave – a golden mask, the prophet’s sword, and golden tablets engraved with the new creed.  Sir Lionel inadvertently creates a situation that leads modern followers of the El Mokanna sect to believe he has risen from the grave.  Seizing on these events, Dr. Fu Manchu plans to pose as the new Mokanna and unite all Moslems in the region in a revolt against the west as part of his lifelong goal of exiling the western powers from Asia and making China a world power.

The Mask of Fu Manchu was immensely successful and led to a feature length movie starring Boris Karloff as Dr. Fu Manchu.   Karloff was still enjoying the enormous success of his role as the Monster in, Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).  Dent tips his hat to Karloff twice in Fortress of Solitude where John Sunlight is compared to Frankenstein two different times.

Released in 1932 with the same title as the book, the movie version of The Mask of Fu Manchu followed the general plot of the novel.  However, one major difference between the novel and the movie was the owner of the grave and its relics.  In the novel, the tomb was that of the masked prophet El Mokanna but in the movie the tomb becomes that of Genghis Khan.  This appears to be the source of Dent’s use of “Genghis” for John Sunlight’s new nom de guerre.  The fact that Karloff played the Monster in the first two Frankenstein movies as well or Dr. Fu Manchu and that Dent mentions Frankenstein twice is not an accident. 

The movie also clearly shows Dr. Fu Manchu practicing the custom of wearing nail protectors in the scene where he is examining the sword of Genghis Khan.  This gives his fingers the appearance of being very long.

Dent extracts several elements from this story and uses them as the superstructure for The Devil Genghis.  John Sunlight poses as the new Genghis just as Fu Manchu masquerades as the new Mokanna.  Sunlight’s plan is to gather the war-like hill people into an army to conquer the world.  To achieve his goal, John Sunlight has established a base in Afghanistan where he has a fleet of modern planes and has trained his warriors in the techniques of modern combat.

One of the relics in The Mask of Fu Manchu is a finely crafted gold mask worn by the disfigured prophet.  Dent adopts this in “The Devil Genghis” when he has Ham Brooks portray “The All-Powerful One.”  Doc Savage uses a thin gauze material to hide Brooks’ face thus making him faceless.  Instead of a simple gold mask, Doc paints the lawyer’s entire body gold.  The masked prophet in Rohmer’s account wore the golden mask because he was disfigured.  Ham Brooks is playing the part of a god who has been mutilated by having his face stolen by an imposter.  Brooks has essentially been transformed into El Mokanna.

Fu Manchu chases Sir Lionel half-way across the world in his quest to obtain the artifacts taken from Al Mokanna’s tomb.  Barton pulls a switch on Fu Manchu and passes off a set of replicas as the originals.  The Devil Doctor’s scheme is thwarted but the story is not over.  Sir Lionel returns to London with the genuine artifacts where he plans to present his archeological treasures at a scientific gathering.  This new discovery will bring him additional prestige and academic honors.  Giving as good as he gets, Dr. Fu Manchu switches the replicas for the originals leaving Sir Lionel holding the bag thus robbing him of any scholarly honors for his archeological discovery.

Similarly, Doc Savage chases John Sunlight across the world in an attempt to regain the infernal devices stolen from his arctic hideaway.  The joke is on John Sunlight when he imprisons a supposedly demented Renny Renwick in the same room as the stolen devices.  Renny, who has recovered his mental abilities, picks his locks and destroys the operating mechanism on every single one of the machines.  Like Sir Lionel Barton, John Sunlight is left with something less than what he originally believed he had obtained.

When first introduced to the world, Dr. Fu Manchu was portrayed as an agent of the Si-Fan, a powerful organization whose goal was to change the balance of power in the world.  John Sunlight’s lieutenant is named Civan which bears a remarkable phonetic resemblance to the word “Si-Fan.”  That is to say, Si-Fan sounds much the same as Ci-Van.  The commonalities between the two stories are clear with too many similarities for this to be mere coincidence.  Dent is once again winking at the reader.

Another incident occurs on the island redoubt of John Sunlight as Doc, Monk, and Ham prepare to raid his lair.  Doc sets fire to a bit of wedge as a distraction.  At first glance, it appears Dent is giving readers his own version of the biblical “burning bush.” But there is more to it than that.  The historical figure El Mokanna was reputed to have certain magic powers, one of which is associated with a magical light emanating from a pit.  Doc Savage is producing his own “magical” light.

Who was John Sunlight?  We still don’t know in the context of the stories but his literary lineage should be much clearer at this point. Was Dent actually influenced by Rohmer’s stories of the Mandarin Fu Manchu?  Skeptical readers will surely say this is all coincidence or happenstance.  To paraphrase Nayland Smith, “Not bloody likely, I should say!”  Readers of The Devil Genghis would do well to note that Monte Carlo on the Mediterranean Sea figures prominently in the story.  The May 6, 1933 issue of Collier’s magazine saw the publication of Rohmer’s next installment in the series with Fu Manchu’s Bride.  That story’s local is situated around Villefranche-sur-Mer on the French Mediterranean coast and less than ten miles from Monte Carlo which also figures in the story.

Another fact in Fu Manchu’s Bride is the facility Dr. Fu Manchu maintains at Ste. Claire de la Roche.  It is nothing less than an amazing collection of research laboratories serving the Si-Fan.  Doc Savage has his Fortress of Solitude but Fu Manchu seems to have outdone him in spades.  Through the use of mind control drugs, the doctor has extended himself through the use of some of the finest minds in the world.  Doc Savage has a parallel though the use of surgical techniques at his Crime College.

This story has much in common with Dent’s two stories.  A genius has a secret laboratory filled with death devices.  The fortress is invaded by his enemy. Dent simply transposed the characters and put a twist on events.  Where Alan Sterling and Nayland Smith invade Fu Manchu’s secret laboratories, Dent has John Sunlight doing the same to Doc Savage’s fortress of solitude.  Alan Sterling’s love for Fleurette is thwarted by Fu Manchu.  Toni Lash loves Park Crater but is thwarted by John Sunlight.  Both novels include scenes at a hospital.  Individually, the similarities in Fu Manchu’s Bride are unassuming but when examined as a whole while including The Mask of Fu Manchu they present an impressive body of evidence that these stories were used by Dent in his two Doc Savage stories.

There are other pieces of the puzzle that should be mentioned.  The Trail of Fu Manchu is next in the saga.  Like its predecessors, it too was published in Collier’s with the first installment beginning April 24, 1934.  In the course of this story we learn that Dr. Fu Manchu has the amazing ability to hypnotize a person to the extent that they are under his complete control until such time as he chooses to relinquish it.  This is exactly the type of hypnotic power John Sunlight imposes on Park Crater, Renny, and other victims in The Devil Genghis.

One last trick of note is seen in The Mask of Fu Manchu.  Shan Greville is being held prisoner by the doctor. 

There were three doors to the salon, perfectly plan white teak doors.  And in the very moment that I recognized a peculiar fact – viz.: that they possessed neither bolts, handles, nor heyholes – one of these doors opened and slid noiselessly to the left.

I found myself alone with Dr. Fu Manchu. 

This a nice enough gimmick that Doc Savage picks it up in his February 1934 adventure, The Man Who Shook the Earth and uses it in several subsequent stories.  A similar argument could be made concerning Dr. Fu Manchu’s almost ever present use of mimosa-scented anesthetic to stupefy his victims.  Doc Savage utilizes a similar technique although his gas is odorless.

Are there more?  If you wade out too far into this pond you can start wondering about all kinds of things.  The fact that the English pilot in The Devil Genghis is named Fogarty-Smith tends to make you raise your eyebrow and wonder if this has anything to do with Nayland Smith. (i.e. Nayland become “no land” and Fogarty becomes fog, a place where there is no land…) Then there is the reference to Eli Camel in Fortress of Solitude.”  Is this a pun on “El Camel” and does it have anything to do with The Mask of Fu Manchu since that story involved the middle east and camels tend to be part of the landscape in that region?  John Sunlight is sent from civilization to the wilderness of Siberia.  Rasputin, who was born in Siberia, traveled from there to civilization.  To be sure, these waters can get very deep.