Thursday 19 January 2012

Doc Savage - The Desert Demons

Savage Pulps!

Doc Savage - The Desert Demons
2011. By Kenneth Robeson (Will Murray)
Altus Press. ISBN: 9781618270016

Warning: No real spoilers... but this does get kind of rambly
while I place Doc Savage in context with the rest of my life!

1975 was a really great year for me in terms of movies.

My film education was slowly coming along and getting more focussed the older I got. I was barely one year old when my parents took me to see Hello Dolly at the cinema back in 1969 (these were the dark days before home video remember). I apparently slept through the majority of it but loved it when I saw it again, less than a decade later. I'm told I liked Dumbo a lot better, which I believe I saw at around the same age.

After that my diet of young teeny kid movies relied on Fred Astaire and John Wayne movies on TV, followed by James Bond re-release double bills at the cinema, mixed with the odd fantasy film like Battle For The Planet Of The Apes or The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad (my first exposure as a five year old to Caroline Munro on screen, although I’d often noticed her photograph on the Lambs Navy Rum posters which littered the tube stations I was already travelling through, often, from the age of around 18 months onwards - possibly a lot earlier... but that’s another story).

Then another thing happened which increased my craving for fantasy films... in 1973, or possibly 1974, the BBC showed the entire Flash Gordon (1934) serial on a Saturday or Sunday sliced into two big parts, sandwiching a screening of a Hoppalong Cassidy film... I think this was the first time that the BBC had showed the “Buster” Crabbe starring serial in any form and it most certainly wouldn’t be the last... over the years the three Flash Gordon serials and the Buck Rogers serial would be shown fairly regularly in their proper episodic format and would be a staple of early evening or early morning holiday time viewing in our household. I just ate those things up. Here, there really was a fast moving sci-fi adventure yarn which mirrored, in many ways, the old DC comics which had taught me how to read and get ahead of other kids way before I ever got to Nursery School. Yes, they were simplistic but then, so were the comics I was reading and the Flash Gordon serials blew me away. From that moment on, my love of film and the moving image really took off but... in 1975... there was one more thing that really cemented the deal for me and made sure that I payed no attention to anything else but movies, comics, books and TV shows for the rest of my life.

One afternoon, I was watching a lightweight film review programme presented by Chris Kelly called Clapperboard. On it they showed a clip from a new movie in which a blond haired man, who I instantly recognised as Ron Ely from the Tarzan TV show which aired on Saturday mornings, was doing battle in his study with what looked liked luminous green snakes made up out of laser light (I didn’t know they were green right then as we only had a black and white telly... for years I’d assumed Thunderbird 2 was red!). The green light-snakes had attacked him and were impervious to his wasted shotgun blast... they just reformed themselves before my amazed eyes. I was hooked... and begged my parents to take me to see it as a special family outing (knowing full well the cinema was a long trip for a carless family... all the way over to Enfield by bus or train... which is where I eventually made my home in later years... but again, that’s another story). I desperately needed to see this movie, which Chris Kelly had identified as Doc Savage: The Man Of Bronze.

It was a good call... Doc Savage was my hero from that day on. I didn’t know, or indeed care, that the movie was actually not taking itself very seriously and shot through with a rich vein of camp humour... I thought it was deadly serious (as deadly serious as I took those Adam West Batman shows on TV) and, frankly, the cliffhanger serial-style escapes and homages to the pulp adventure yarns which had inspired it was enough to sell me on that kind of movie for life. I’ll always love the “Doc Savages” of this world and, as it turned out, it was a really good choice for a family cinema trip because my mum and dad absolutely loved it too (yeah, we still watch it once in a while... possibly one of the most fun movies ever made).

Of course Star Wars was only just around the corner... which would leave it’s own rich, postmodernistic, eclectic legacy burned into my retina but, while I waited for “The Joy Of SFX” to whip me up in its droid-like arms and ride me off into the twin sunset, the biggest things in my life were Doc Savage... and the Marvel comics adaptation of Logan’s Run (a movie I wouldn’t have been allowed in a cinema to see at the time).

So naturally I gravitated to the source novels for the movie I’d just been to. I’d seen them around as a kid with all the John Carter and Conan collections in places like the dedicated sci-fi novel and comic shop Dark They Were And Golden Eyed (my favourite shop which closed in the late 70s/early 80s and one which seems to have left a memorable mark on a lot of kids my age at the time). The UK Corgi editions of just three of the novels in the series, The Man Of Bronze, The Thousand Headed Man and Meteor Menace were what I started on first (they were expensive items at 35p each in the mid seventies)... before I discovered that Lester Dent (writing under the house pen name of Kenneth Robeson) had written almost all of around 180 of them in the 30s and 40s which had been slowly bleeding out in reprint form from Bantam in the US since the 60s. In those days, these things were just starting to get quite hard to find but you could often discover hidden treasure in the odd second hand bookshop and, to this day, I still occasionally find one peeking out at me from a dusty wall... although they are extremely hard to come by now. I’ve put together a little library of between 80 or 90 of them so far I think... always on the lookout.

Last year, and I didn’t find out about this until a couple of months ago, there was a brand new written Doc Savage novel by longtime fan and professional writer Will Murray.. again writing under the series’ pseudonym Kenneth Robeson. As soon as I found that little gem out, I immediately leapt into action and asked someone to get it for me as a Christmas present (hey... who wants socks?). I was pretty sure this would be a pretty good homage to the original pulps as Murray had written a small series of seven Doc Savage novels (again, under the original author’s pseudonym Kenneth Robeson) in the 90s and I remember thinking just how good they were and almost indistinguishable in style from the original novels.

So when Christmas came and I found the said literary tome was delivered up to my eager hands, I knew it was going to be the second book I read this holiday (after the latest Patricia Cornwell masterpiece of course). So, after a gap of almost two decades since he’d penned the last one, the question I was asking myself was... would Will Murray be able to fashion a genuinely Robeson-like Doc Savage experience as he had done in the early 90s or not?

Well, I have to say that the answer to that is... yes and no.

There’s no doubt that the language and general flavour of this particular Doc Savage adventure is pitch perfect... it IS a Doc Savage adventure and definitely belongs alongside anything the late Lester Dent created. It’s not particularly philosophical writing. It’s clever in its use of both sticking with while occasionally pulling a surprise out of the standard, adventuresome formula of the original works... but it doesn’t necessarily let on in any way that it’s actually self aware of that... if you understand what I mean. It’s clear that Murray is an absolute expert on the Doc Savage franchise and the writing style... the kind of words Doc and his crew would use, the general language of the time it is set in and the deceptively simpler attitudes to their times that the various characters express are all woven from the exact same cloth as those original pulp magazines from the 30s and 40s.

Above all, the story is high on action and adventure and very strong on the mystery element to keep the reader enthralled at every page turn. Of course, if you’ve read as many of the Doc Savage novels as I have then there will certainly be less surprises in this for you as the cookie-cutter plot and details are all sketched-in exactly as you would expect them to be... but for this kind of nvoel that’s a compliment and is not to its detriment. And it has the same “based-on-science”, “Scooby Doo” revelatory ending as all the earlier novels in the series (although I was a little uncomfortable as to the leap of faith I had to make concerning the geographical origins of the books titular characters, it should be pointed out). However, having said all that, there are some things about it which made me like it a lot less than Murray’s earlier efforts.

It’s too long for starters. Now that would normally not be anything to complain about but, it seems to me, that Murray has packed all the action of a genuine Doc Savage plotline into a much longer page count... which means that, although by modern standards of writing, it’s a blisteringly paced action adventure... the pacing is a little more luxurious than in an original Doc Savage adventure. Stupefying cliffhangers or startling (and, honestly, some not so startling) revelations are there at the end of each and every chapter... but in the old days the chapters were only the equivalent length of a few of these pages long, while here they are 9 to 10 pages long... which slows them down a little in comparison. It’s almost like reading a Doc Savage adventure which was written for a slightly slower venue, like a movie or a TV show... and then transcribed into a novel. That’s just the one and only very weak criticism I have with the writing though... so I’m not getting, in any way, bent out of shape on that one.

My other criticisms are reserved for the marketing on this one. The logotype of the words Doc Savage is not what I wanted to see on a Doc Savage novel. It’s not the original pulp cover logo... although to be fair to the designers on this one, you can see how it could certainly be interpreted as a modernisation or variation on those original logos if you wanted to be kind. Nor is it the more well known logo which was used on the Bantam novel reprints and the movie version of the character... which is really what I needed to be seeing on the front of “a Doc Savage novel”. This new logo really annoyed me.

It didn’t annoy me half as much as the new series’ tag line, however. Apparently, this is the first novel in the series of “THE ALL-NEW WILD ADVENTURES OF...” Doc Savage... and frankly that’s a copy line which betrays absolutely no knowledge or familiarity of the character and his long history at all. In fact, the last thing Clerk Savage Jr is... and I’m sure his cousin Pat, who returns in this novel also, would agree with me... is wild. In fact, he’s one of the least feral or “savage” characters I’ve ever read. Don’t get me wrong... the books are all damn good fun to read... but Doc is not really that fun a person in terms of his boy scout personality. He doesn’t need to be, though. He has his five aids around to supply the comic relief when it’s called for and... yes... long time Doc readers will be pleased to hear that Monk and Ham are arguing incessantly all the way through the novel. Good show, Murray!

So, yeah... didn’t like the design or marketing tag line on the front of this novel one little bit. What I did love though, is the style of the cover painting which perfectly evokes one of those old James Bama covers from the Bantam reprints. It’s funny how those original cover images seem to have been chasing me my whole life since 1975. I remember when I finally managed to get hold of some of those West German/French/American co-produced 1950s TV shows of Flash Gordon (the ones which look way cheaper than the 1930s serials and were genuinely not that great?), I got the strongest feeling like I really recognised Steve Holland, the actor playing Flash Gordon in these shows, from somewhere before, but I couldn’t remember where from. Then the revelation I had a decade or so ago, when the penny dropped and I found out that Steve Holland went on to become James Bama’s model for the cover paintings to those Doc Savage paperbacks and, sure enough, when I looked at my books... there was a painted Flash Gordon dressed as Doc Savage looking back at me... funny old world. While artist Joe DeVito’s cover painting doesn’t look anything like Steve Holland, to be sure, it still manages to retain the essence of those classic covers... and so I’m really pleased about that.

Another thing I’m really pleased about is Will Murray’s foreshadowing the next adventure in his novel just like Lester Dent used to do in the pulps. Here’s an example lifted from the last page of The Desert Demons...

“Little did they dream that awaiting them back in New York was a new challenge just as baffling and deadly as the deadly desert demons had been.

Two men would be strolling down Seventh Avenue, unknown to one another: one of high station, the other a lowly tramp. As they passed, not many feet apart, weird death would strike them down.

Thus would begin Horror In Gold!”

Now this little teaser worked into somewhere on the last page of the story would more often than not be edited out on the original Bantam paperback reprints because, for reasons unknown to me, the reprints were not released in the original order of their first publication... nothing like, in fact. That Will Murray now continues this tradition started by Lester Dent, the original Kenneth Robeson, pleases me no end. He’s really got a handle on this.

All in all I’d have to say that, asides from my slight gripes, I’m really pleased that the Doc Savage series is starting up again (at least in book terms... when can we have a proper 1930s set movie version of Death In Silver or Brand Of The Werewolf please?) and there’s nobody I’d want writing these things other than Will Murray... because he’s one of those writers who doesn’t mind bending his style to fit in with the person he’s evoking and he plain just “gets it”. If you were ever a fan of Doc Savage then you can rest assured that this series is in very good hands. Can’t wait to get the “just published” next Doc Savage adventure - Horror In Gold - so I can put it on the pile marked up for summer holiday reading...

If you like pulps... buy this book and support this character before he disappears again!


Doc Savage and his band of trusty assistants, The Amazing Five, had an oath that I have tried my best to abide by over the years. This is how it goes...

“Let me strive every moment of my life to make myself better and better, to the best of my ability, that all may profit by it.

Let me think of the right and lend all my assistance to those who need it, with no regard for anything but justice.

Let me take what comes with a smile, without loss of courage. Let me be considerate of my country, of my fellow citizens and my associates in everything I say and do.

Let me do right to all, and wrong no man.”

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