The Devil Wives of Li Fong by E. Hoffman Price, Del Rey(Ballantine Books), 1979.
E. Hoffman Price (1898-1988) was an old-school pulp fiction writer (“fictioneer” was his term for it) who, long after the pulp era ended, renewed his career by becoming a novelist in the emerging sf/fantasy field of the 1970’s and remained active right up until his death. He had a great and abiding interest in Asian mythology and religion, and both sides of that coin are evident in The Devil Wives of Li Fong.
The premise is that two female snake-spirits take on mortal form in a quest to become fully human. Why they do this and why they would want to be human in the first place is closely tied to Buddhist beliefs. In short, being human is a step or two above spirit/devil-serpent on the great wheel of Death and Rebirth, a sort of spiritual boost on the way to eventual Transcendence. The two snake-women, Mei Ling and Meilan, become wealthy by discovering an abandoned villa with a buried treasure, and soon after meet an apothecary’s apprentice named Li Fong, who they think is an agreeable young man and they decide to marry him, again as a further step in their quest to become fully human. Li Fong, charmed by their beauty and not exactly reluctant to part ways with his current master, agrees. Things are going swimmingly, until…
Enter Chang Lu and Tai Ching, Taoist priests and complete scoundrels. With the rise of Buddhist influence, the Taoist priests were expelled from the Emperor’s court and Taoism fell into something of disrepute, so much so that the figure of the evil Taoist magician was something of a stock figure in old Chinese stories. But just because they’re corrupt doesn’t mean they don’t control powerful magic. Worse, Chang Lu and Tai Ching know the snake-women’s secret, and more to the point, they know about the treasure. The fact that the women are really snakes, and in theory, a danger to Li Fong, hardly enters their minds, which are too full of schemes on how to acquire the treasure, with which they plan to bribe officials of the Emperor’s court and buy their way back into favor. To make matters even worse, they manipulate the local Buddhist abbot, Shen Hui, into lending them his power. The abbot’s intentions are pure, and they are to save Li Fong from the snake-women’s influence. After many moves and counter-moves, the Taoists and the abbot succeed in kidnapping Mei Ling.
Fortunately for Mei Ling—and totally unknown to the abbot—all the kidnappers are not working toward the same goal. The abbot’s sole motivation (other than a little pride) is Li Fong’s salvation and for this he sees no alternative but to remove Mei Ling(as one of the devil-wives points out, the Buddhist abbot in his sincere fanaticism was far more dangerous than the Taoists), while Chang Lu and Tai Ching just want the money. The priests, for their own selfish reasons, manage to prevent the abbot from destroying Mei Ling long enough to attempt extorting ransom, which in turn gives Li Fong and Meilan time to attempt a daring rescue.
Some people may find elements of this story somewhat familiar, at least in its broad strokes. That’s because, at heart, it’s a retelling of an old Chinese legend, “Madame White Snake,” which is also about two serpent-women attempting to become human (see Ching Se aka “White Snake, Green Snake”) for another modern retelling). I say that solely to point out this book’s lineage, since I think understanding this antecedent can enhance the reader’s appreciation of this story, which is both poignant and a lot of fun at the same time.
Not that there aren’t flaws. A big one to me was the editing, or seemingly lack of it, at times. I only found one or two actual typos, but there were places where the language gave me trouble. For instance, while in the story there was an allusion to the fact that there are a lot of different dialects among the people of China and some native speakers would sound odd even to other native speakers, it still made no sense that, for instance, a ferryboat captain would be speaking in a very broad pidgin accent on one page and yet would have perfect diction two pages later. That’s the kind of thing an editor should have caught, if the author didn’t. Minor quibble, yes, but it did detract from the story at points.
So do Mei Ling and Meilan become fully human? Does Li Fong get crushed and eaten by one of his snake-wives as the abbot predicts? Do the Taoists get the money? Does the abbot ever get a clue? Sorry, no spoilers here. I will say it’s not an entirely happy ending. But, all in all, maybe the right one. And any reader with a desire for a little old-school storytelling could do a lot worse.