The Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult
Sax Rohmer
Sphere, 1976

In the period between the wars Sax Rohmer was one of our leading thriller writers and his books sold by the million. He was best known for his Fu Manchu stories and I recall how thrilled I was to meet him once, although only casually, as that was many years before I became an author myself.

Although it was the Chinese Villain who brought him fame, his greatest interest was ancient Egypt. From his schoolboy days he read everything he could lay his hands on about the land of the Pharaohs and later collected a fine library on the subject; so this story, being about Egypt, is not only one of his best but its background can be accepted as authentic.

The author’s real name was Arthur S. Ward. He was born of Irish parents in 1883 and adopted his pseudonym only when be went into journalism after a brief career in the City. As his first writings were early in this century it doubtless accounts for his style of story telling in which the principal investigator will never give away his own line of thought until the dénouement – as was the case of Sherlock Holmes with poor Doctor Watson. This at times seems distinctly unfair on the Number Two of the partnership, but it has the advantage of maintaining the suspense for the reader.

The opening of the tale concerns two archaeologists, Sir Michael Ferrara and Doctor Cairn, great friends who have worked together for many years in Egypt. Sir Michael has a son, Antony – whom one later learns was adopted by him in very strange circumstances – and a pretty niece, Myra Duquesne, who keeps house for him. The Doctor has a son, Robert.

Both the young men are about to terminate their studies at Oxford when one night Robert draws his friend Sime’s attention to Antony Ferrara’s rooms on the other side of the quadrangle. They are often lit up all night. Curiosity impels him to visit Ferrara. That day he has chanced to see a king swan die of a broken neck without apparent cause. He finds Ferrara absorbed in his collection of Egyptian curios; the room stinks of an unpleasant type of incense and on the table is a miniature model of a swan.

A few weeks later Sime has joined a London hospital. Robert looks in on him and is taken down to the morgue to see the body of a girl mysteriously strangled. Her photograph was in Ferrara’s room at Oxford.

Sir Michael Ferrara is very ill. Myra is looking after him and tells Robert when he calls that her uncle has twice sent for his solicitor to alter his will, then sent him away again. Next day when Robert calls Sir Michael is dead and Myra in a state of acute shock. Sir Michael was strangled. While in his room the previous night she saw two ghostly hands reach out and grasp his throat. On one there was a ring with a green stone. Antony always wears such a ring, but Myra cannot believe any ill of him because she has been brought up to look on him as a brother.

Doctor Cairn arrives in haste from Paris. Antony, a sinisterly handsome young man with slightly Asiatic features, has taken a luxurious flat in the West End. Dr. Cairn and his son Robert are convinced that he practises Black Magic and endeavour to find out the truth about him.

He leaves for Egypt. The doctor, Robert and Sime follow. The trail leads from Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo to the Pyramid of Méydûm in the Fayûm. In 1893 Sir Michael and Dr. Cairn had spent three months exploring there. They had penetrated to the King’s Chamber in the pyramid, but failed to locate another that they had learned of through their researches. The Doctor is convinced that the evil Antony is occupying it and, with intent to destroy him, he and Sime wriggle through the endless, narrow, stifling tunnels that riddle the man-made mountain of stone.

The long description of that fearsome crawl is splendidly done, and could be achieved only by a master of suspense who had personal experience of such a nightmare progress through the interior of a vast tomb.

I can state that because I have done it myself – in the Egyptian Pyramid of Cheops. Moreover, I went down into the deepest tomb in the Valley of Kings, three hundred feet underground; that of Thotmes III, the Napoleon of Ancient Egypt, rarely visited except by professional archaeologists. In it are broken stairways and cracked ceilings, the only light a candle; and bats, stench, frightful claustrophobia.

I was young then. I wouldn’t do it again for a fortune. And in the pyramid, while breathless and sweating from the awful heat as I wormed my way through passages no roomier than large drainpipes, I did not have to fear that at the end I would be slaughtered by a murderous enemy.