Monday, October 25, 2010

Doc Savage - The Stone Man

Published date - October 1939.
Featured aides - Monk, Ham, Long Tom, Renny. Missing - Johnny, mentioned as investigating claims concerning claims of origins of man.

This is almost a perfect followup to reading Kuttner's Doc Savage-lite Thunder Jim Wade in "Waters of Death" and the Secret Agent "X" novel "Death's Frozen Formula" in that it shows a bit of the untapped potential in the concepts from both novels.

The novel starts off in typical Doc Savage fashion, in the middle of action and verbally painting memorable characters. In this case it's Spad Ames and Waldo Berlitz, two cold-hearted killers fleeing the Law in an aerial pursuit. Eluding their pursuers, they crash in the canyons of the Arizona Badlands and shortly stumble upon a secret that costs Berlitz his life in the form of being turned into a "stone man".

When we next see Ames, he's white-haired and trying to get together a crew to kidnap a pair of strange siblings and get back to Arizona to get the secrets of a land beyond the mists.
This isn't one of the best of the lost races of the Doc Savage novels nor the best of the incredible menaces. It takes a little long to get to the hidden land and build the tension. A lot of stuff seems set up that really goes nowhere. Spad Ames and his partner Mr. Locatella and their mutual distrust though they are both intriguingly characterized. The hidden land/lost race are only described in the most broad strokes and only a little part of the actual novel. The climactic action comes all too quick and speedily and conveniently wraps everything up. If ever a story needed an extra ten to twenty pages...

But, it does show off what the Doc novels did so well. The secret of the mysterious menace isn't all that mysterious other than it's sci-fi angle, at least not to the adult 21st Century me. However, to a kid from 1939, it would probably be fairly fantastical especially when done in connection with a hidden land of mysterious people in the American West. The main bad guys were interesting, the interaction between Ham and the other aides (he had played a practical joke on Monk and Renny) and Doc is fun and well-done, like visiting old friends. The action and locations are varied from New York to the Badlands and to the land beyond the mists. The supporting characters have conflicting goals and concerns, putting the lie to the idea that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" being automatically true.

It shows how even a mediocre Doc novel is often more readable and fun than the better ones of other series.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Who really wrote "The Octopus"

Went to the comic store yesterday, they were having a big sale on trades and miscellaneous items. I was actually looking to pick up a Spectrum3, a fantasy art magazine. Instead, found a spiral bound book titled Keys to Other Doors by John DeWalt, with a nice picture of the Spider taken from the interior art of one of his pulps. And, half off too.

The book is a handy collection of lists concerning pulp characters, mostly from the lines of Thrilling (known in comic circles as Standard, Better, Nedor, etc) and Popular (the Spider, G-8, Captain Satan), both original publications and reprints, as of the publishing of the book in 1995. Included is also publication histories of some of the work of Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs and the character Zorro. Over all, a very handy volume for easy reference.

Also nice, it lists the authors of the pulps as best can be determined. Many of the hero/character pulps were published under names such as Kenneth Robeson, Maxwell Grant, Brant House, Grant Stockbridge, etc. Robert Hogan may be about the only one to write a major character series, G-8 and his Battle Aces, under his own name.

When I reviewed the pulp The Octopus, I credited it to Norvell Page. The old reprint I have by Robert Weinberg lists him as the writer behind the house name of Randolph Craig. The most recent reprint of the story is in a nice volume of a couple of Spider tales credited to Norvell Page. Thus, I was surprised to see the list here to place the writers as being a duo named Edith and Eljer Jacobson. A quick web search revealed a famous psychoanalyst named Edith Jacobson but nothing of anyone named "Eljer" nor any collections of stories or books by them. I posted the question at the yahoo group Cover_Ups which focuses on the pulps and was pleased to get information directly from a couple of pulp scholars in short order.

Apparently, in researching the authorship of the pulp, the payment checks from the company were found concerning the story and it was signed by both the couple Edith and Eljer and Norvell Page. Edith and Eljer were a husband and wife team normally writing weird menace stories for the pulps. The school of thought seems to be that the Jacobsons wrote the original story and then it was re-tooled/re-written by Page to make the hero fit more of the Spider mold. This would explain why the story in places seems typical of Norvell Page's work and at times even more grotesque, and horrific, the prose more purple without quite the polish of his Spider work.

I'll have to be sure to keep a lookout for their name on other stories for comparison's sake in style. It's a shame that the most recent reprint doesn't credit their involvement implying Norvell Page was the sole author.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Octopus

The Octopus is an oddity on several levels. One, the title character is that of the bizarre villain featured in its pages. Several times during the pulp years, publishers tried putting out pulps that would contain recurring villains, several of them in the Fu Manchu mold. And, no doubt, the enduring popularity of Manchu as well as characters and books like Fantomas, Frankenstein, and Dracula all suggested that a series based on a recurring villain was feasible.

Two, the first and only issue of the pulp is given as being Vol. 1, #4, suggesting three earlier issues featuring the character is out there. This is not the case. According to Robert Weinberg, it is believed that probably the book is a continuation of Dr. Yen Sin, another failed villain pulp put out by Popular.

Three, the villain's next appearance doesn't happen. Apparently he didn't set the world on fire so the story that was to follow this one, had the name of the villain and pulp changed to The Scorpion. The Scorpion failed to catch on as a villain as well. However, both names would prove popular for villains over the years. There's easily a half dozen Scorpion villains in the comics and movie serials of the time. Fewer Octopi, but his latter day namesake Doctor Octopus is far more popular than all combined.

When I first read the story, I knew it was supposed to be by Norvell Page, the writer behind many of The Spider pulps. Stylistically and thematically it is very similar to the more famous series with much of the same beats and rhythm. The Octopus is wilder though, it's The Spider with the dials cranked up to eleven. There's a rawness to it, that I thought it came first before Page had refined his style and plotting.

However, that's not the case. The Spider was started in 1933 with Page coming on board soon after. The Octopus was published in 1939. Instead of a progression, the Octopus character and story suggests some kind of regression. It's an explosive release of unbridled creativity and writing, piling improbability upon improbability, delivering it to the reader through purple prose and force of will, defying credible disbelief and logical plot progression and extrapolation.

Take the hero, Jeffrey Fairchild. Rich and trained to be a doctor, he runs and operates a clinic under the guise of a kindly old doctor improbably named Dr. Skull. He is also the lethal vigilante known as the Skull Killer due to his marking his victims much like the Spider. He also has secret tunnels between the hospital he helped fund as Fairchild and Skull's clinic. In an unusual twist, he has a pampered crippled brother who is overly critical of Jeffrey but whom Jeffrey bends over backwards to help and is trying to cure as Dr. Skull. Also a bit different from the usual is the would-be love interest Carol Endicott. Instead of coming from the best families, she's from the slums and was persuaded by Jeffrey to trust Dr. Skull who'd give her a job and security. This is a woman who is a bit cynical due to a hard life. When she tries to use her father's gun which blows up in her hands she ruefully thinks, "Poor old Pop! He'd come back from over there with an army gun and a lot of faith in nothing at all. Other men gave their lives, and Pop had given his soul... She might have known he'd never leave her anything useful!" In a roller-coaster story, it's a throwaway bit of deft humanizing characterization.

The villain is one of the most bizarre humanoid villains to grace any pulp. His description is often vague, describing more of the horror than his actual form, leaving it to the imagination. The end result is of some kind of Lovecraftian being in almost human form. What bit of visual description tells us that he has six octopus like limbs instead of a pair of arms. The text implies that the eyes of his mask glow, but the artwork shows it to be lights on part of his bulbous mask. The story at times almost suggests that somehow a Dr. Borden is the Octopus, but it never implicitly states it or how he managed such transformations. However, by the end of the story Borden has disappeared from the pages, no reference of his final fate.

Using ultra-violet light treatments, the Octopus has discovered a way to devolve people but not to bestial, ape-like beings. Instead, their blood is broken down to being like sea-water, their bodies and tissue also breaking down to more gelid matter. Their minds become more primal and violent and coupled with the changes to their blood, they become vampiric. Even though they need and crave the blood, they need regular treatments of the ultra-violet light even more. It is with this that the Octopus begins his reign of terror over the city, all for purposes of blackmail. Though the themes of torture, mutilation and monster-making occurs a couple of times in Page's Spider novels, the resulting creatures and their creator is never as creepily horrific and unearthly as here.

The improbabilities, outlandishness, and sheer audacity of characters and plot would probably deter most readers from this story, though I find it oddly compelling and worthy of re-reading every couple of years to just remind me of the experience. Sadly, while I own two reprints of this novel thanks to a recent reprinting, I've yet to come across a reprinting of the followup, The Scorpion.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Thunder Jim Wade: Waters of Death

On the heels of the success of the Shadow and Doc Savage, publishers tried to duplicate the magic with other characters. Despite the pedigree and talents of the Shadow's scribe Walt Gibson as a magician and writer that lent much to the atmosphere and mysteriousness of the character, he proved the easiest to duplicate. A big part of that is that the character's motivations as a crime fighter are easier to understand and write about. Whether he had mysterious background and secrets such as Secret Agent "X" or they were just masked men with guns and cloaked in darkness and disguises such as Phantom Detective, the Spider, and the Black Bat, the novels when boiled down to it were those of enterprising criminals often with very basic motives of theft and robbery.

Doc, on the other hand, was known for adventures that spanned the globe, full of lost civilizations, and odd technology and devices. And, while he used disguises, his identity and profession was public, he didn't slink about the shadows except when he was being framed and hunted by the police. Then there was the bit of Doc being both a physical and mental marvel. All the super-detectives had their specialties in disguises, hypnotism, being crack shots and a little bit of scientific knowledge in the realm of forensics but Doc was an expert in all areas, inventing most of the gadgets that he used. Doc was a superman among supermen. It didn't stop companies from trying with the likes of Jim Anthony, Captain Hazard, the Skipper, and Thunder Jim Wade. The most successful of the lot was probably Street and Smith's own Avenger and Justice, Inc., who managed to embody a bit of both the Shadow and Doc.

While Lester Dent didn't create Doc Savage, it is probably due to his talent that the series succeeded and became so influential on so many comicbook superheroes that followed and so many of the pulp wannabes never really found ground. Dent was a master at creating memorable characters with broad brush strokes and individual shallow surface ticks. Characterization was never especially deep, just enough to paint a good picture of the character in the mind's eye and motivate all actions that followed. Nor was plotting very complex, but he varied the action, locales and mixed the principle actors involved to keep the story moving and hold reader interest. While there were often gadgets and locales that seemed patently impossible, he and his ghosts grounded much of the science with plausible sounding reasoning and extrapolation. Thus, the reader discovers that Doc had things we'd recognize as an answering machine, automatic doors and that Long Tom was working on perfecting something akin to the bug zapper. Likewise, many of the locales (most often seeming to be the American Southwest) were painted in a clarity and with enough detail to transmit the reader there. This clarity of people and places, the plausibility of so much the science and motivations of the characters, grounded the stories so that you bought everything fantastical that followed. It made a daunting task for those that followed, especially for writers that seemed more suited to the purple prose and overwrought histrionics of the pulps.

Thunder Jim Wade was one of those characters that were built along the lines of Doc Savage. His upbringing was just a tad more civilized than Tarzan's. He was the son of an explorer who died in Africa and raised by natives of a lost Cretan city called Minos. The exotic upbringing made him a master of hypnosis, fighting, and diverse skills such as sleight-of-hand and escape artist. Here he discovered a fantastic metal of incredible strength and lightness that made possible the construction of the Thunderbug (a black vehicle that could be converted from airplane to a tank to submarine due to retractable wings and treads). When joining the outside world, he develops a hatred of greed and crime and builds an organization for fighting it. The core of the organization though is him and his two quarreling aides, red-headed giant "Red" Argyle and slight knife throwing "Dirk" Marat (their relative descriptions remind faithful pulp readers a bit more of G-8's Bull Martin and Nippy Weston than of Doc's Ham and Monk). While Jim wasn't necessarily adverse to killing he and his pals carried guns that would fire a burst of flame meant more to scare and cause a little pain than killing or permanently disabling an opponent.

In a bizarre move, on the covers of the pulps that his stories appeared, Thunder Jim Wade was portrayed looking much like Flash Gordon. The description in the stories themselves do not suggest such an appearance.

Written by Henry Kuttner, the final Thunder Jim Wade story "Waters of Death" stands as a typical Doc story with many of the same elements and structure. A pair of explorers are trying to get out of the jungles with news of a mysterious hidden land called Palinwa and great scientific discovery (turning lead into gold) to turn over to the good governments of the world. To this end, they hope to enlist Thunder Jim Wade to help as the native Tabin Naung they are traveling with claims to be the rightful ruler of this land whose throne was taken over by the beautiful but evil Kamanthi who has set herself up as high priestess of a goddess. Things go badly as all but Naung are killed by headhunters but he meets up with Wade and his crew who travel to the isolated land to set things right. Added for good measure are dinosaurs, a battle of "magic" and the woman Kamanthi made even more exotic by being done up in green body paint and artificial arms to make her a six armed representation of the goddess Tama that the natives worship.

The story is partially under-served by the relative shortness compared to a standard Doc novel. The main characters don't really get a chance to shine, the story is about the equivalent of about the last quarter of one of Doc's standard adventures. Likewise, there is a paucity of characters so the twists in the story come as being about the only twists the story could possibly take to keep it from being even shorter.

Despite being similar to Doc Savage, Thunder Jim Wade fails to come off quite as "super" especially in the physical aspects. He's a capable fighter, but he does not seem to have the edge that you expect of many of the pulp heroes. In fact, he seems to do little better than his aides in that regard. Thus, his personal battles seem to lack in the epic quality somewhat. As a superhero, he needs just a touch more seasoning to make him and the story truly sizzle. In that respect, the shortness may hurt in that it doesn't give him and his aides real time to shine and stand out against a variety of threats and death-traps. However, the story may be served by the shortness in that they don't wear out their welcome with their relative mundaneness. You get the story completely distilled down to the basic plot and everything moves quickly before you can really notice the shortcomings. I've not read enough of Kuttner's work to discover whether he'd have been better suited if given more space to develop the story. But, this is short enough that I wouldn't mind reading the other Thunder Jim Wade stories, to see if there was more to recommend the character.