Monday, November 14, 2011

Doc Savage: Satan Black

The bronze man finally found a piece of rope. He had a worse time locating one than he had expected and toward the last he searched with a haste that was near frenzy.

The rope was three-quarter-inch stuff about fifteen feet long, and it smelled of the anti-rust off the tools and the pipe. He found it on the fourth pipe-truck which he searched, although he had supposed there would be rope on every truck. Rope and chain were necessities on the big multi-ton pipe-trucks, one would think.

He clutched the rope, and he ran for the loaded pipe-truck that had broken an axle that afternoon. He ran desperately.

Early summer darkness lay over Arkansas, warm and amiable, and there was enough breeze to bring a slight odor, but not an unpleasant one, of the slough to the south.

The river was farther east. One couldn't say the river was a sound, but it was distinctly a presence and a fierce power. It wasn't a fierce-looking river. It was referred to more often as a ribbon of mud. Yet it was no ribbon, because a ribbon is something soft, something for a lady. This river was something for garfish that tasted of carrion, mud-cats, water-dogs; it was a repelling river, unlovely to look at and heart-breaking to deal with. It was a nasty, muddy, sulking presence in the eastern darkness.

The bronze man with his rope reached the pipe-truck with the snapped axle. He crawled under it. He knew exactly the spot he wanted, not under the truck itself, but under the pipe-trailer, beneath the mighty lengths of twenty-four-inch oil pipeline river-casing.

The bronze man made himself a sling under the pipe. A hammock, a tight, smug little place to lie supported by the rope he'd been in such a wild haste to find. When he was done, and hauled up snug in the sling-hammock, one could look under the truck and not see him.

But if one happened to crawl under the truck, even partly under it, and poke around with a flashlight beam, he was sure to be seen. And once found, for a moment or two he would be helpless there. It was a good place to hide, but it wasn't a good place to be caught hiding. Not if one took into consideration the kind of a thing that was happening.

The bronze man lay very still. He coiled the end of the rope on his stomach. He wouldn't, he thought, care for more than half an hour of hanging like this. But it shouldn't take that long.

He listened to the night sounds, the crickets and the frogs and the owls, the rumbling of trucks in the distance, the heavy iron animal noises of bulldozers, the grinding of tripod-winches. The noises that go with the laying of a twenty-four-inch petroleum pipeline.

The noises sounded sharp and hearty enough. There was nothing sick-sounding about them, nothing at all.

There should have been.

This is the opening pages of the 1944 Doc Savage novel Satan Black. I think it encapsulates why of the many pulp heroes Doc Savage not only ran as long as it did, but until recently was really the only successful series to be reprinted. None of the Doc Savage imitators of the time were successful. The Shadow by dint of his radio show and catch phrases is more ingrained in pop culture, but Doc's stories survived and still thrived.

The secret ingredient is Lester Dent's writing. As noted, it's late 1944 when this was published. The Doc novels were less fantastic, less science-fiction. When people think of Doc Savage it's generally the earlier novels they look at with rose-colored glasses. However, by this point in time, Dent was not only a seasoned writer, his style had evolved and matured. The plots and characterizations may be a little dated and hokey by today's standards. But Dent's prose is slick and as thoroughly evocative of the American landscape and experience as any poet's. There's no reason for there to be the little excursion on the nature of the river and comparing/contrasting it to a ribbon for a woman's hair other to give the story a sense of place. His populating his opening paragraphs with little wry ironies of life draws you in, sets the story into a real location. Whatever fantastic thing that follows, the reader is hooked, convinced of the reality of the story.

When and whatever Dent wrote, there is that feeling of authenticity to it, that it's all drawn from real experiences and observations. It may be why that despite Doc living and head-quartered in New York City, many of his stories took place in smaller towns and wide-open expanses of nature that still resisted modern man's push. And while Doc and his men were larger than life with grandiose jobs and military ranks, the stories are peopled with individuals with smaller lives and every-day concerns. Just like the little ironies and contrasts that Dent peppered his stories with.

Despite the little details that seem extraneous, Dent's writing has moved past the purple prose of earlier pulps. His stories don't seem to be padded, action often seem filled with frantic activity and immediate urgency.  He knows when to be descriptive and when to deliver sentences in short quick frequency. The compression and decompression of the storytelling undulates fluidly, keeping you turning the pages.

Great stuff. Fun reading.


Tim Mayer said...

I've read some of Dent's final SAVAGES. They're impressive to say the least. Any one of them could pass as a contemporary adventure or detective novel.

cash_gorman said...

Agreed. Stylistically, I like the later Docs very much. Two of my favorites "The Terrible Stork" and "Terror Wore No Shoes." If you can find them try his non-Doc novels "Dead at the Take-off" and "Lady Afraid"

Joel Jenkins said...

I distinctly remember some of those passages because they were the first I ever read of Doc Savage. I picked up Satan Black and Cargo Unknown off a grocery store rack in 1980 read the first page and ended up buying it.

cash_gorman said...

I found this one on a recent trip to a used book store. I couldn't remember if I had it or not. I recognized the titles but not necessarily the stories. I know I am mainly missing just a couple of the omnibuses but a double or two may have slipped through. Since it was for only two bucks, I decided to get it anyway. If a dupe, my brother can have the other copy.