Category Archives: Doc Savage

Doc Savage: The Speaking Stone of Pirate Island

It’s May and June of 1942, Doc Savage is having adventures in the Pacific but there’s not the slightest hint that the Pacific Theater of Operations is a thing.

PIRATE ISLE opens on a tramp steamer in the Pacific. Captain Hardgrove is the non-too-respectable captain, apparently saddled with a parrot that squawks out endearments to Mrs. Hardgrove’s lovers. Then he learns a man they recently rescued from the sea has apparently gone insane, run up the mast and pelting the crew with snowballs … despite the terrible tropic heat.

The man is actually Johnny Littlejohn, so before long Doc, Renny and Long Tom are flying to the ship (this is the rare book with no Monk or Ham, for reasons explained in the second yarn). Unfortunately so is Lord London, a ruthless pirate/mercenary whose presence on the scene fills the crew with terror. There’s a sequence where Lord London arbitrarily selects and shoots one of the passengers, just as a warning. It’s surprisingly shocking and effective. His men seize the ship, forcing Doc and his men to fight back without risking the passengers.

It turns out Lord London is after control of what he believes is a system for filtering gold from sea water (not the first time Johnny’s been entangled with one). He doesn’t realize it’s actually a system for making food out of plankton, an English project that could sustain Great Britain with North Sea plankton even if German u-boats shut down all shipping. That’s the only reference we get to the war. Johnny, who’s been faking insanity so nobody can interrogate him, was working on the system because … well, that doesn’t make much sense. “Greatest archeologist and geologist” is a skill set that has nothing to do with making food from plankton.

And the ending twist didn’t work for me. It turns out Hardgrove is the real Lord London. Before executing someone he starts talking about how sexy and handsome they are and this is what the parrot is er, parroting. While Lord London’s clearly ruthless, nothing indicated he was this loonie before. Still, the novel is an enjoyable, fast-moving story. It also leads directly into THE SPEAKING STONE.

At the opening of that one, Doc and Co. are still in the Pacific, dealing with the press ,when a man in a red vest shows up and gives Renny a small stone. It talks to him in Monk’s voice. Then the man keels over dead. So where are Monk and Ham? How did the stone speak? And why are the bad guys so hot to get hold of the stone?

It turns out this is a lost race story. Monk and Ham have wound up trapped in an Andean lost city (they don’t appear until two-thirds of the way in). After a lot of move and countermove with the bad guys — they do not want Doc reaching the city or figuring out what’s going on — we learn the stones are the city’s form of long-distance communication. The crystals pick up electromagnetic waves which allow them to transmit voice communication much further than radio (Monk suddenly displays enough physics knowledge to explain this), but after a while they degrade and repeat the last thing they heard on an endless loop. The lost city hopes to market the tech so they can grab some 20th century goodies, but their contacts in the outside world want to exploit it themselves. As it turns out, though, the stones don’t work except at very high altitudes so it’s all for naught.

The story is competent, not stellar. I did enjoy Dent riffing on the usual lost city cliches: instead of sitting in a volcanic crater or atop hot springs that keep it snug and warm, the snowbound Andean city is very, very cold. It’s a detail that gave me a chuckle.

#SFWApro. Cover by James Bama (from Men Who Smiled No More‘s cover) and Bob Larkin. All rights remain with current holder.

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This simple trick made me much more efficient!

Ever since I started writing for Screen Rant, I’ve been getting a lot more email from the SR Google Group. As a result I’ve been spending a lot more time reading email. If work’s going sluggishly, I just take a break, check email and wind up going even more sluggishly. I’ve been trying to resist that impulse, but I’ve had little luck.

Last week I tried something new: don’t read email until the afternoon. In the morning, which is my most productive time, I check my phone to see if there’s anything I actually need to answer (rare), everything else waits. This was a big improvement, but it occurred to me that my least creative period in the work day is the 90 minutes or so before I wrap up for the day at 5pm. What if I pushed email to that last sector of the work day?

Success! I’ve slashed my mail time, and not allowing it earlier in the day keeps me from “oh well, might as well check the mail” moments. It really has helped. Even Trixie and Plush Dog are over the moon about it!

Okay, they’re actually in ecstasy because they’re rolling on a dead shrew (I think). But why quibble?

As for actual work accomplished this week —

I got in my next Screen Rant, on comic book relationships that would never fly today (adults banging teenagers, mind-controlled sex, rape played for laughs). At least I hope they wouldn’t. I’ll post a link when it’s up. Below, one example drawn by John Buscema, from when the Wasp married Hank Pym knowing perfectly well he was clinically insane at the time, because it was the only way she could get him to tie the knot.

I submitted one article (to Writer’s Digest) and one column pitch (to The Guardian), and two short stories to new magazines.

I finally started my next-to-last-draft revision of The Impossible Takes a Little Longer. I think I have the problems analyzed and fixed; we’ll see how it goes as I rewrite it. Unanticipated problems usually show up. I also I got about halfway through another draft of No One Can Slay Her. I think it’s showing much improvement.

I posted a blog entry at Atomic Junk Shop about Doc Savage as a creation of the Depression.

And I began work on my taxes. It goes much smoother if I start well in advance and do a little bit every time. I completed most of Schedule C (self-employment income) but I have yet to complete the related forms (business use of my home, self-employment tax).

I think it helped that as TYG was snowbound for Wednesday through Friday, she sits down on the couch with the dogs. And I had two scheduled events (car maintenance and dentist) that had to be postponed because of the weather. But I’ll be glad to have clear roads again next week.

Photo is mine, credit me if you use. Avengers panel rights remain with current holder.

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Doc Savage again: The Too-Wise Owl in the Magic Forest (#SFWApro)

I figured by now Doc Savage Magazine would have caught up with Pearl Harbor but no, March and April 1942 still show no signs of the U.S. at war.

THE TOO-WISE OWL starts when a disgruntled delivery boy drops off an owl at Doc’s HQ. The owl is pretty disgruntled at this too, as witness it grabs a gun in its talons, shoots out the window, and flies away (this ignores, of course, that the windows are bulletproof). Monk and Ham go looking for the owl and find him sitting with Jasper, a tween who seems incapable of saying a word without giving its full dictionary definition, and knows even bigger words than Johnny Littlejohn (whose reaction to being out-polysyllabicized is a hot). Plus of course we have various factions and a pretty girl chasing around after the owl and insisting they’re the injured party in all this.

As Doc says, it’s actually a fairly simple McGuffin hunt, but the owl makes it look as if it’s a lot stranger than that. It turns out that one of the factions, wealthy Jonathan Shair, has developed a miracle treatment, “vitamin M” (for mental) that enhances intelligence. Some of the recipients, unfortunately, are crooked, and use their new intelligence for evil (Shair ultimately realizes M’s inability to impart wisdom is a serious weakness in his dream of uplifting humanity). Their big goal is to get the vitamin M supply and Shair’s supply of its opposite, a chemical that induces stupidity.

Overall it’s a minor story, but fun. However Dent throws in a very awkward bit of added pathos: a murder victim early in the story turns out to be Oliver Brooks, the half-brother we never knew Ham had. Ham is knocked for a loop to learn his brother’s dead, but I couldn’t share his reaction — it might as well have been a stranger for all the emotional impact it has.

William Bogart’s THE MAGIC FOREST is a much weaker story. It starts out with Renny boarding a plane; unfortunately the crew and passengers are crooks, plotting to ambush Renny’s companion, so the big engineer winds up caught too. The two men are drugged and taken to “the magic forest” which appears to be a pine forest in Alaska. And someone keeps leaving tiny wooden totem poles around.

Doc, of course, steps in to investigate. Unfortunately after the lively opening things just plod along. It turns out The Magic Forest is just the name of a boat. Its owner is out to get revenge on the swindlers who ruined him by kidnapping them until he gets his money back (like The Sea Angel, but much less interesting). The totem poles are simply something the guy carves for his own amusement. Like Too-Wise Owl the plot is much less zany than the trappings, but unlike the earlier book this is boring.

Both covers by Emery Clark, all rights to images remain with current holder.

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Doc Savage’s Other Apocalyptic Life: The Mad Goblin by Philip José Farmer (#SFWApro)

Taking a break from the regular Doc Savage series once again —

In 1973, Philip José Farmer published Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, the biography of the real person Farmer pretended Doc Savage was based on. It turns out this was his second try at that concept. In 1969, Farmer pitted the “real” Doc Savage and Tarzan — Doc Caliban and Lord Grandrith — against each other in the soft-core erotica A Feast Unknown (given my distaste for Farmer’s erotica, the odds are against me reading it). He then followed up with two sequels published in the Ace double-book format (flip book, one novel on either side), LORD OF THE TREES and THE MAD GOBLIN (cover by Gray Morrow, all image rights remain with current holder).

The premise, introduced in Feast, is that Doc and Grandrith are both agents of the Nine, an immortal conspiracy that has manipulated the world for millennia. Both rose high enough in the ranks to taste the Nine’s gift of immortality, but then they turned against them. Oh, and both of them are related, descended from one of the older immortals on the council.

THE MAD GOBLIN is definitely the stronger story. Doc and the sons of Monk and Ham penetrate the lair of Iwaldi, one of the Nine who’s turned against the others. He wants to let humanity wipe itself out with pollution, after which the Earth will regrow — they’re immortal, they can wait — and train the few survivors to accept them as gods, never developing science or democracy or any of those other ideas that crippled the Nine’s powers. The other Eight aren’t so sure they’ll survive, so they’re determined to stop him. Doc and his team must fight through Iwaldi’s endless deathtraps while ducking the strike force the rest of the council has sent against the shriveled, bearded goblin.

Lord of the Trees never makes it beyond pedestrian. It’s talky and introspective and often clunky. In the opening page, Grandrith informs us it’s easy to survive a thousand foot fall, then does so (one of the better scenes); later, one of the mercenaries hunting him repeats the same arguments. I didn’t need to read them twice. Mad Goblin gets talky and slow in spots (it’s easy to see why Farmer didn’t make his name as a writer of slam-bang pulp action), but it’s balanced out by scenes like Doc battling an enraged prehistoric bear. Both books climax with the heroes teaming up, but the fourth installment, showing their final battle against the Nine, never came out.

Rereading this so soon after Apocalyptic Life it’s easy to see the double-book as a dry run for the biography. Both present the “real” Doc and Tarzan (Farmer also did a Tarzan biopic, Tarzan Alive!); both show them as related to each other, part of a superhuman lineage. They are, however, separate characters: the Doc and Tarzan of the later books are much closer to the originals, and their relationship, part of the Wold Newton lineage (explained at the link above) is different (one Wold Newton fan writer has treated the Mad Goblin world as a kind of Earth-2 to Wold Newton).

The book also shows the trait that seemed to dominate Farmer’s 1970s and later work, playing with pop-culture characters and figures from history. Along with Wold Newton there’s his dreadful A Barnstormer in Oz; his Greatheart Silver and Savage Shadow (another version of the “real” Doc Savage) stories in the Weird Heroes anthologies; and his short stories Skinburn (about the Shadow’s son by Margo Lane) and After King Kong Fell (which is very good). For history, we have the entire Riverworld series, foreshadowed in Mad Goblin by giving one of Charles II’s mistresses (immortal too) a supporting role. And an awkward one — he infodumps enough about her history when we meet her to leave me confused and looking things up online. “Put down the book mid-read and look up what he’s talking about” is not a good response to fiction.

Overall The Mad Goblin isn’t as good as I remembered it, but it’s not horrible either.

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Don’t you know there’s a war on, Doc Savage? Rustling Death and Men of Fear (#SFWApro)

This month’s two novels came out in January and February of 1942, which makes for weird reading. Understandably due to the time lag between writing and publication there’s not a single reference to Pearl Harbor. At the same time, they’re quite openly anti-Axis. Unlike the various stories the past couple of years hinting at A Sinister European Power behind everything (e.g., Devil on the Moon), THE RUSTLING DEATH and MEN OF FEAR make it thoroughly obvious which power we’re talking a about (spoiler: it’s Germany!!!).

Alan Hathaway’s THE RUSTLING DEATH (cover by Emery Clark)has a lot in common with his Headless Men, inasmuch as the villain as a cackling mad scientist (Krag) using a death ray for extortion. Instead of the heat ray of the earlier book, this one is a combination of heat with ultrasonics (causing panic in everyone in the vicinity). To Doc’s puzzlement, the price one senator has to pay for not being zapped is a string of minor bills. It turns out the bills include a dam that will benefit the bad guys.

Along with Krag, there’s the German villain. Not named as such (the Definitely Not Portuguese strategy), but he speaks a guttural mother language, has a somewhat Germanic speech pattern in English and wears a monocle. And he makes it quite clear the US is on the target list once the war in Europe is won.

There’s also a plethora of new gadgets including a throat-mike in Ham’s tie pin, a television unit for transmitting fingerprints to the government and ejection seats in Doc’s planes. It’s not a stand0out, but I enjoyed it.

MEN OF FEAR (cover by Clark again) has a great opening, when Monk, Ham and Johnny inform Doc his latest project is too risky, so they’re sitting it out. Which for anyone who knows Doc’s team is very, very weird. And their friend “Henry” has also convinced them that Doc shouldn’t risk his genius by so much adventure, so before long, they’ve kidnapped Doc. Hmm, is it possible their minds are somehow altered?

Well, of course. The culprit this time is “Vitamin F-E-A-R,” a treatment Doc worked on in conjunction with a European scientist, Prof. Jellant. After a Sinister European Power overran his country, said power’s agents came sniffing around the lab. Jellant fled to the US, but now the agents have him, and they want Doc to make large quantities of the fear-inducing formula. The leader of the enemy agents says thinks like “Sehr gut!” and there’s a reference to Jellant’s sister dying in a concentration camp.

It’s a fast-moving, entertaining yarn, and Pat gets a fair amount of action (she’s been practicing her juijitsu). Unfortunately there’s a throwaway line about how she craves action the way “a pickaninny likes watermelon.” That was painful.

I’m not sure when the magazine actually acknowledges we’re in the war, but it can’t be long.

All rights to cover images remain with current holder.

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Doc Savage’s birthday present is an invisible box (#SFWApro)

We wrap up 1941 with the war still offstage. I guess we’ll see a response to Pearl Harbor in January or February of next year.  Be warned, spoilers below.

Like Birds of Terror, November’s THE INVISIBLE BOX MURDERS (cover by Emery Clarke) reads like an old-school mystery. Men receive transparent boxes in the mail, then die mysteriously once the boxes were opened. The boxes vanish afterwards. The clues to the solution include a radium miner, someone who’s slept for three weeks straight and people buying monkeys.

As all the victims by the story’s start are associates of JP Morgan — not the famous one, a small-time financier named Joe P. Morgan — Doc exposes him to a duplicate of the boxes to see if he can get any information out of him. He doesn’t get much.

When Doc tries to stop the next murder, he fails, and then the cops lock him up. He points out he’s a deputized police officer; doesn’t help. And the facts soon stack up: his fingerprint is on a key piece of evidence; the underlings in the mob genuinely believe he’s the top boss.

While this has happened often enough in the series (Red Snow and Devils of the Deep, for instance), it’s relatively realistic here: rather than go on the run, Doc goes to jail, confident he’ll get out soon enough. Then his aides get captured and the cops refuse to investigate — obviously the capture is just part of Doc’s scheme. Doc, of course, won’t stand for that, so he busts out.

It turns out the scheme is extortion: pay up, or get an invisible box delivered to your door. The box holds mosquitoes whose probosces contain poison; the box is made of a chemical that dissolves when it warms up to room temperature.

It’s a good, nicely done mystery. Doc’s cousin Pat has a supporting part, spying on one of the suspects and reading his lips. The book includes an interesting statement that awesome though Doc is, the training regimen he underwent could easily have turned him into a villain or a madman; only the facts he actually likes danger and retains a sense of humor kept him sane. So in his eyes, it’s an experiment that should never be repeated.

PERIL IN THE NORTH (cover by Bob Larkin) has another reveal: it opens the night of Doc’s birthday. Doc has a big presentation to some high-powered officials so his aides plan to surprise him (easy to do — he doesn’t even remember it’s his day). Unfortunately Doc is distracted by another quirky mystery opening: a scientist asks him to investigate a blue dog that’s interfering with the man’s research. Doc effortlessly spots this is a scam, but he’s curious enough to go along with it.

It turns out to involve 250 people trapped somewhere in imminent danger of death. Thomas Eleanor, a fat millionaire reminiscent of Sidney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon is involved; so is Bench Logan, a Bogart-type tough guy working against his fellow tough guys to save the 250. As he assumes Doc’s heroism has to be the cover for some dirty business, he’s working against Doc too.

The secret is a riff on recent upheavals in Yugoslavia (according to Bobb Cotter) which is why one of the footnotes specifies that Mungen, former dictator of Monrovia, is an imaginary man from an imaginary country. Mungen supposedly commited suicide before being overthrown, but in reality it was just his double — the real Mungen escaped and used his ill-gotten wealth to set up as Eleanor. The 250 were on a Monrovian passenger ship with Eleanor and figured out the truth; Eleanor wants them dead to avoid his former nation’s vengeance.  It’s oddly similar to the kind of Hitler Lives! stories we’d see in pop culture after the war, including the dictator’s suicide.

In its own right, it’s a solid adventure with some great bits by Pat Savage again (she admits she likes to sneak into Doc’s headquarters with a stolen key every so often). There’s also a great speech by Monk making it clear that Doc & Co. have always known and accepted the risk of death. If they have to risk or accept it to save 250 lives, they will. And if any one of them made that call, the other five would back it to the hilt. It’s very moving, and very much the sort of thing we’d hear at the movies in the coming war years.

All rights to covers remain with current holders.

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The Mindless Monsters vs. The Birds of Death: Doc Savage again (#SFWApro)

Alan Hathway contributes THE MINDLESS MONSTERS which has a lot in common with his Headless Men as an army of monsters runs wild in New York. Unlike the early book, however, these horrors are real — men transformed into zombie-like warriors with superhuman strength, mindless obedience and an unfortunate tendency to age instantly when their usefulness is done.

While this probably owes something to zombie films, it also resembles THE MONSTERS in that the villain doesn’t want to use his creations to loot but to intimidate: a few high profile, destructive capers and people will cough up the dough when he threatens to unleash his creations. Which are explained by mad science accelerating their metabolisms so that they’re using up years of their strength in short bursts (which also explains the aging).

It’s a concept that ought to work, particularly after Doc gets taken and almost enslaved, but it just never caught fire with me. I’m not sure why. It does add several new gadgets to Doc’s repertoire, such as an electric field used for security at his HQ.

THE BIRDS OF DEATH by Lester Dent worked a lot better for me, reminding of the kind of daffy mysteries the era sometimes popped out. It opens with two hoods trapping Boots Baxter, a wealthy but ugly man, by setting his pet canary loose. Fortunately Doc catches them before they catch Boots. Who admits to his servant in passing that when a woman he’d fallen for mocked his face, he ruined her father in a business deal and she’s now slinging hash in a greasy spoon. It’s a clear sign that even if he’s not the big bad, he’s probably guilty of something.

More weirdness accumulates. Lots of people have heavily calloused feet like they’d get walking barefoot in the tropics. Lots of people own canaries. Several people appear medically dead, which Doc deduces is a form of suspended animation. It turns out the answer lies in Africa so we get an overseas trip that like The Flying Goblin ignores there’s a war on. What lies at the end of the trail is a lost race that considers canaries sacred symbols (the canaries earlier in the book were just a red herring though) and has the suspended animation drug. Unlike The Green Death, though, they plan to use it as a revolutionary food preservation treatment. Instead of shipping meat, ship animals in suspended animation, then kill them on arrival. That way the meat is fresher and better tasting (oops. the treatment turns out to give meat a horrible taste).

Pat Savage shows up and gets more action than she sometimes does. First Doc asks her to stash the female lead in the case; then Pat shows up in the middle of the adventure later. She reveals that she stole one of Doc’s radio transmitters and uses it to keep track of what cases Doc is working on (which makes it surprising she doesn’t horn in more often).

Like The Flaming Falcons, this has a footnote that the chemicals Monk mixes up in one scene are real, but to avoid accidents, the publisher can’t divulge the formula. Other footnotes reference the uses of ultraviolet light for identifying minerals and the use of Native American languages as a method of encrypting Great War communications.

Overall, it’s a fun book.

Both covers by Emery Clark, all rights to covers remain with current holder.

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