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Sunday 5 October 2014

Qhe: Superhero of the Seventies

His very name, evocative of Che Guevara, suggests a cultural rebel and style icon. The back cover blurbs portray him as some kind of spaced-out mystical version of James Bond. Qhe is both these things, and much more. He is a master of martial arts, yoga, kamasutra and ESP. He has a degree in Philosophy from the Sorbonne University in Paris. He is the absolute monarch of a small Himalayan kingdom on the borders of India and Tibet. And he fights bad guys.

“If Qhe is so cool,” you may be wondering at this point, “how come I’ve never heard of him?” That’s a good question.

Qhe is the hero of four novels published between 1974 and 1976, under the mystical-looking pseudonym of W∴W∴ (I hope that renders correctly – the dotted triangles are evocative of Fortean favourite Aleister Crowley and the Order of the A∴A∴). In fact, W∴W∴ was the pseudonym of William Bloom, better known today as a non-fiction writer and teacher of New Age subjects.

As far as I know, the Qhe books only ever appeared as paperback originals here in the UK – they were never reprinted in America, which is a shame. In last week’s post I was complaining that very few of Ron Goulart’s novels were published on this side of the Atlantic – now it’s the reverse situation!

The other connection with last week’s post is that the third of the Qhe novels – The Riches (1975) – was another of my purchases in the dealers’ hall at the science fiction Worldcon in August (although the books aren’t science fiction – they’re set firmly in the nostalgic world of the mid-seventies). I bought the first two books 8 years ago, and had been looking for the third and fourth ever since – I’m still missing the final book, The Prophets of Evil (1976).

I bought the first book in the series, The Taming Power (1974), when I saw it in a used bookstore in 2006. I’d never heard of Qhe at the time, although it was obvious from the blurb the character was right up my street. I managed to get the second book, White Fire (1974), from an online retailer a few weeks later.

You might be forgiven for assuming (as I did at first) that the entire novelty of the Qhe books lies in their way-out hero, while the plotlines themselves are hackneyed and hastily written adventure stories. That would explain why they were only ever printed once, and why so few people have heard of them. But that’s not the case at all. It’s true the stories deal with fairly standard-type international crises – but the plotlines are far from formulaic, and the quality of the writing is excellent. If the series flopped, my guess is that was because the material was over the head of the readership the packaging was targeted at, while more sophisticated readers were put off by the lowbrow packaging!

The second novel, White Fire, is the most Fortean of the three I’ve read, with its irresistible mix of sadistic scientists and ancient Mayan temples. The first book, The Taming Power, is a real Cold War nostalgia trip, complete with spies, communists and nuclear missiles. The one I just read, The Riches, is the most overtly Bond-like, with a powerful industrialist holding the world’s mineral resources to ransom.

There are differences, though. James Bond wouldn’t have dealt with a deadly scorpion by radiating waves of unconditional love at the creature, until he’d convinced it he was its best friend. He wouldn’t have taken time out to teach a baby elephant to sit cross-legged and meditate. If a sadistic interrogator stuck an acupuncture needle into Bond’s skull, he might respond by hurling said interrogator across the room – but he wouldn’t do it by suddenly releasing a built-up charge of static electricity inside his brain. And – insatiable sexual athlete though he is – James Bond would probably draw the line at a gang-bang involving a witch doctor, an overweight African monarch, a 70-year-old Hindu sage and twenty-two nubile young females belonging to the Tanzanyaka National Folklore Troop of Dancers and Singers!

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