a trapped chest

Here’s a classic D&D-ism from the 1917 pulp novel The Hand of Fu Manchu:

All conversation had ceased, when, just as the muted booming of London’s clocks reached my ears again and Weymouth pulled out his watch, there came a faint click – and I saw that Smith had raised the lid of the coffer! Weymouth and I sprang forward with one accord, and over Smith’s shoulders peered into the interior. There was a second lid of some dull, black wood, apparently of great age, and fastened to it so as to form knobs or handles was an exquisitely carved pair of golden pomegranates!

“They are to raise the wooden lid, Mr. Smith!” cried Weymouth eagerly. “Look! there is a hollow in each to accommodate the fingers!”

“Aren’t you going to open it?” I demanded excitedly – “aren’t you going to open it?”

This is not Nayland Smith’s first time at the rodeo. Smith, who is a sort of racist anti-Chinese version of Sherlock Holmes, notes a subtle clue: a dead man next to the chest.

I examined the peculiarity to which Smith had drawn my attention. The dead man’s fingers were swollen extraordinarily, the index finger of either hand especially being oddly discolored, as though bruised from the nail upward.

“Look into these two cavities where one is expected to thrust one’s fingers!” Weymouth and I craned forward so that our heads came into contact.

“My God!” whispered the Inspector, “we know now what killed him!” Visible, in either little cavity against the edge of the steel handcuff, was the point of a needle, which evidently worked in an exquisitely made socket through which the action of raising the lid caused it to protrude. Underneath the lid, midway between the two pomegranates, as I saw by slowly moving the lamp, was a little receptacle of metal communicating with the base of the hollow needles. The action of lifting the lid not only protruded the points but also operated the hypodermic syringe!

I wouldn’t be too surprised if this passage inspired the ubiquitous poison-needle chest in D&D. I’d be even less surprised if this passage inspired a poison-needle chest in some 1960s pulp sci-fi/fantasy, and that inspired the D&D version.


One Response to “a trapped chest”

  1. […] Last week I mentioned a bizarre trapped chest from a Sax Rohmer novel. Here's another weird chest, from The Star Venturers by pulp-sci-fi author Kenneth Bulmer: A door slid aside in the far wall. Through this opening walked two young girls, each clad in a bikini and boots, each carrying the ornate silver hands of an ebony box swung between them, the hands a left and a right, making a pair. […]

Leave a Reply