The year 1933 was an important one for American pop culture. That was the year that saw the debut of not one but two of our country’s most popular and enduring fictional icons, characters who still live in the hearts of millions of fans nearly a century later.
One was Dr. Clark Savage Jr. - better known to his legion of admirers as Doc Savage, the intrepid adventurer, surgeon and crimefighter who was the lead character in 181 issues of his own pulp fiction magazine throughout the 1930s and ‘40s and later starred in comic books, radio dramas and the movies. The other icon was none other than the Eighth Wonder of the World himself: King Kong, the gigantic ape from an island that time forgot whose tragic tale remains an important legend in our popular culture.
In celebration of the 80th anniversary of both of these two colossal characters, Will Murray has penned a novel entitled Skull Island ($24.95; Altus Press, 410 pages), which tells the heretofore unknown story of Doc's voyage in the early days of his career to Kong's home while searching for a long-lost relative.
Books like these are generally regarded by fans of the genre as “happenings,” and the appellation certainly fits in the case of Skull Island. But its publication initially generated controversy among a great many Doc fans who are also aficionados of the late science fiction writer Philip José Farmer, whose “biography” of the hero (Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life) back in the 1970s created a background for the character which Murray has deliberately - even joyously, it seems – jettisoned.
As a lifelong fan of Farmer’s works myself I definitely have some thoughts on that subject, and I’ll get to them at the conclusion of this article. But for the moment let’s set the Farmer-Murray brouhaha aside and simply address Skull Island on its own merits.
The good news is that it is, indeed, a good book. That didn’t surprise me; I’ve been a fan of Murray’s Doc tales since his first one, Python Isle, was published back in 1991. (In the interest of full disclosure I should point out that I’ve not only had the pleasure of speaking with Murray when we both attended the annual PulpFest event in Columbus, Ohio, in 2011, but he and I both had stories published in last year’s anthology The Green Hornet: Still At Large, as well as in the upcoming anthology The Avenger: The Roaring Heart of the Crucible, both published by Moonstone Books.)
The bad news is that Skull Island could have been a great book, but it falls short of the mark in my opinion.
As the author of several previous Doc adventures (which, unlike Skull Island, carry the time-honored byline of “Kenneth Robeson” used by creator Lester Dent and other writers in the original pulp novels), Murray may well be the most qualified writer around today to have tackled this particular tale. He’s got the proper “pulpy” writing style down pat, and he certainly knows how to build the excitement and intrigue to the appropriate crescendo.
But there are a couple of things that just don’t work for me in this latest novel. Chief among them is the relationship between Savage and his father, who recruits Doc to help look for his own long-lost dad. The original Doc novel, The Man Of Bronze (which opens with Doc learning of the murder of his father), tells of a relationship that is obviously one of respect, but also affectionate and loving. But here we find two men who often appear as if they just don’t like one another all that much. By the end of the novel the respect is there, but it’s still a long way from anything resembling genuine affection.
Granted, this exploit takes place more than a decade before the events of The Man Of Bronze, and we all know that relationships can change greatly in that amount of time. But for this long-time reader it is hard imagine that the acerbic and often demeaning sea captain who appears in Skull Island and the philanthropic adventurer for whom Doc and his aides (not to mention the president of a small Central American country and an entire “lost colony” of ancient Mayans) mourn in The Man Of Bronze could be one and the same.
Murray has said he was trying to emulate the relationship between Harrison Ford and Sean Connery in the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but in my opinion the effort unfortunately falls flat.
Then there is the matter of Doc's grandfather, the object of the search undertaken by Doc and his father, who we are led to believe is every bit as legendary as his globetrotting grandson will be one day. This despite that fact that he had never been mentioned at all in any of the original Doc novels. I don’t fault Murray for introducing a new character into the mythos, but to build him up into a figure of near-mythological proportions seems rather pointless in light of his complete absence in the previously existing body of work.
And the grandfather’s name - Stormalong Savage, also known as “Old Stormy” - has got to be one of the silliest monikers I’ve ever come across, even in a genre known for its colorful and often bizzarely-named characters. It was next to impossible to keep from chuckling and thinking of Poopdeck Pappy from the “Popeye” cartoons every time Stormy’s name popped up...
Still, these are but minor quibbles for the casual reader who will find thrills aplenty in this latest adventure of America’s first superhero. Doc and Kong are both presented in all their glory: a strapping, brave young adventurer just launching a stellar career versus a primeval force of nature. When these titans clash it is the stuff of legend, and Murray relates the adventure in thrilling detail.
Murray obviously has great affection for both of these iconic characters, and it shows. Along the way Murray provides some additional information about Kong and his home that serves to greatly enhance both the original 1933 RKO motion picture and Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake. The story of Kong’s ultimate fate becomes all the more tragic in light of these new revelations; back-to-back readings of Delos W. Lovelace’s novelization of the original film, Skull Island and the 2005 illustrated novel Kong: King Of Skull Island by Joe DeVito and Brad Strickland (all available at Amazon.com) are heartily recommended.
DeVito, for those who may not know, is the artist responsible for the wonderful cover art that graces not only Skull Island but all of Murray’s recent additions to the Savage saga. Murray wisely ties his novel into the events of the DeVito-Strickland book, creating a marvelous tapestry that I’m sure would have greatly pleased Kong’s creator, filmmaker Merian C. Cooper. (DeVito and Strickland later teamed up again for their own illustrated novelization of the original film, entitled Merian C. Cooper’s King Kong, as a tie-in with King Of Skull Island. But it comes across as a rush job - not surprisingly, I suppose - and lacks the quality and charm of their earlier book. My advice is to stick with Lovelace’s original novelization, which is far superior to the DeVito-Strickland rewrite.)
Murray proves once again that he is a worthy successor to the mantle of Lester Dent, and in many ways superior to some of the ghostwriters Dent employed during the original Street and Smith days. While I’ll admit that Skull Island is not my favorite among his additions to the mythos (Flight Into Fear, Death's Dark Domain and The Forgotten Realm currently vie for that title), it is a grand adventure that brought me back to when I first discovered the character and which Dent no doubt would have greatly approved of. If nothing else, it proves that - in a literary world top-heavy with pretty-boy vampires, 50 Shades of Eeeewwww and more brain-sucking zombies than one can shake their George Romero film collection at - there is still a place for the sort of good old-fashioned adventure yarns that so many of us (not to mention our fathers and grandfathers) grew up reading and wish that there were more of.
The fact that a new generation of readers - like my two sons, Joshua and William, for instance - are seeking out both Murray's new Doc tales and the originals by Dent and his team of Savage Scribes is heartening for rapidly aging dinosaurs like me. As long as this continues to be the case - as long as boys and girls of all ages still dream of setting out on great adventures, battling evil and helping those in need with no regard for anything but justice - Will Murray (and hopefully others after him) will continue to bring us the exploits of this greatest of all adventure heroes. And I for one am looking forward to reading them.
In short, Skull Island is a fun, well-told, rip-roaring story in the grand tradition of the pulps, one that is sure to excite readers of all ages. Personal quibbles aside, it is definitely worth seeking out.
All right, now that that’s out of the way, let us turn our attention for just a moment back to the Great Phil Farmer-Will Murray Debate.
It is no great secret that I have long been a fan of Phil’s “Wold Newton” concepts which he introduced in Tarzan Alive and the aforementioned Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life. I had already met both of these fictional heroes before well before learning of the existence of either of Phil’s books, but as a young reader these biographies opened up a whole new world of possibility for me and set me on a path that I’m still walking four decades later. (A path that, among other things, has led to the formation of a number of friendships that have become quite important in my life, as well as the opportunity to have on two separate occasions joined some of those friends at the home of Phil and Bette Farmer.)
I’ve even had the great privilege of being among a handful of writers who have been invited to contribute to the Wold Newton mythology in recent years. I was a contributor to the LOCUS Award-nominated anthology Myths For The Modern Age; Philip José Farmer’s Wold Newton Universe, as well as to Worlds Of Philip José Farmer Vol. 2: Of Dust And Souls. Two collections of my own short fiction - Days Gone By: Legends and Tales of Sipokni West and Something In The Air - both contain stories which are linked in some fashion or another to Phil’s universe. My Green Hornet and Avenger stories mentioned earlier also contain Wold Newton connections - particularly the Avenger tale, “Ghost Of Thunder Isle,” whose cast includes the grandson of a character introduced in Days Gone By.
So, yeah, when it comes to what some of my fellow fans have come to call “Wold Newtonry” I am a card-carrying member and not one darn bit ashamed to admit it.
Having said that...
I also realize that, when it comes to Phil Farmer, fans of Doc Savage and Tarzan and Sherlock Holmes and the other characters he wove into his Wold Newton tapestry seem to have one of two reactions to the man and his contributions. They either love him or hate him. In four decades I’ve yet to meet anyone who falls somewhere in between.
I don't have a problem with that. Everyone has their own tastes, after all. That's what makes life interesting. I not only do not expect everyone to like the same things that I do, I wouldn’t necessarily want them to. Variety is the spice of life, after all, and if you prefer salsa on your scrambled eggs instead of the ham and cheese I like on mine, who am I to put you down for that?
Which I why I guess I’m always so disappointed whenever I encounter hateful, vitriolic commentary by those who for whatever reason feel they have some kind of sacred duty to spew trash talk about the fans and/or creators of movies, books, TV shows, music, et. al., that they as individuals don’t happen to care for. It’s okay that they don’t like these works, and to say that they don’t like them, but why can’t they leave it at that? Why do they feel so compelled to make those who DO like them look and/or feel like some unfortunate variety of subhuman for feeling that way? If I had a nickel for every time I've come across comments on the Internet by vainglorious know-it-all “fanboys” (a term I’ve come to loathe, by the way, but that’s a discussion for another time) who think they know more about Star Wars than the man who created it, have accused George Lucas of “ruining” the series and claim they could write a better stroy themselves, in spite of their rather obvious inability in many cases to string even two intelligent sentences together while engaging in their juvenile rants, I probably could have outbid Disney on the Lucasfilm purchase...
When word leaked out prior to the publication of Skull Island that Murray was positing a different background and history for Doc Savage than the one set forth by Farmer, I’ll admit I was disappointed. At the same time, however, I understood that Farmer’s was but one take on the character; obviously his version resonated with me when I first encountered it at the age of 12, and still does so today, but not everybody can be (or should be) expected to share that feeling. (For the uninitiated, Farmer’s mythos includes both a short story entitled “After King Kong Fell,” in which both Doc and The Shadow make a brief appearance; and the statement in Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life that it was in fact Doc who provided Carl Denham with the gas bombs that allowed Denham’s expedition to capture Kong and bring him to New York in the first place.)
Unfortunately, some Doc fans who fall squarely on the “Hate Farmer” side of the ledger used the news of Skull Island’s publication as an excuse to publicly denigrate Phil, his concepts, and people like me for whom they have provided so many years of entertainment. It was unfortunate, unseemly and unnecessary. Other than helping to foster the illusion that they and their views might be a little more important than they actually are (and yes I’m pointing at you, Mr. “Wordsmith Extraordinaire”), what exactly did such ravings accomplish?
Nothing, that’s what.
Murray himself addressed the topic by admitting in an Internet article that Skull Island takes place outside the “regular” Doc Savage continuity. (In other words, it didn’t “really” happen. You know, like all those so-called “Imaginary Stories” about Superman that DC Comics published back in the 1950s and ’60s. Or the entire 1985-86 season of TV’s Dallas. Or most of what you see on Fox News...)
As an individual reader, that for me pretty much settled the question. Farmer’s fans and detractors can each accept the novel on their own terms, and enjoy it as they see fit, and more power to both sides. For those who prefer their Savage straight, without a twist of Farmer, the book stands on its own as the latest in a long-running series of well-crafted adventure tales. There’s plenty to like about it in that regard, as I’ve already stated. Any discrepancies one might encounter should have no more impact on your overall enjoyment of the story than, say, the differing descriptions of Doc’s height and weight or of Monk Mayfair and Ham Brooks’ pets in various of the original stories.
At the same time, for fans of Farmer who accept his notion that the original Savage stories were either fictionalized accounts of a real man’s exploits or, in some cases, wholly fictional accounts built around the fictional version of that individual (sometimes written at the request of that individual or his representatives), Skull Island can be seen as a fun and exciting example of the latter. Just like (according to Farmer) The World’s Fair Goblin or The Monsters.
As the author of a Farmeresque article about Kong from a few years entitled “The Beast” (for those who are interested it can be viewed here: http://www.bookemon.com/read-book/30672), I’ve made my own personal determination as to how Skull Island fits within the confines of the Wold Newton Universe. It won’t please everyone, I know, but that’s okay. It pleases me, and that’s good enough. And I fully intend to revise my Kong article accordingly should it ever be reprinted at some point in the future.
Using Murray’s own description of the novel as being “non-canonical,” my view is that Skull Island is a purely fictional book written by Murray at the behest of certain members of the family of James Clarke Wildman Jr. - a.k.a. the “real” Doc Savage - for reasons much like those attributed by Farmer to Lord Greystoke and Edgar Rice Burroughs regarding several of the Tarzan novels. (In this case the idea is that since – as was revealed in The Evil In Pemberly House, by Farmer and Win Scott Eckert – Wildman faked his death, perhaps his daughter Patricia or some other member of the family requested such a fictionalized tale designed in part to keep certain people from getting any closer to certain truths they don’t yet wish to be revealed...)
That’s what works for me. If it works for you, great. And thank you. If not, that’s okay too. You’re just as entitled to your point of view as I am. But, please, there’s no point in being snotty about it.
You see, here is the thing: The concepts that Phil introduced in Tarzan Alive and Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, and which he and others (including Yours Truly) added to later, are simply built upon a foundation which had already been set in place years earlier by fans of the Great Detective, Sherlock Holmes. The Sherlockians like to call it “The Game.” That’s what many of us in the Wold Newton fan community like to call it, too, and with good reason. At the end of the day, we’re really just having fun.
Farmer played his game; Murray chose to play another. There’s nothing wrong with that. In my mind it’s really no different than having a couple of brothers, one of whom likes to play baseball while the other prefers basketball. To each his own. Some may see this as being overly simplistic, but what’s wrong with that? Why do we always have to make things so blasted hard in this life?
(Copyright 2013 by John Allen Small)
In : Pop Culture
Tags: books reviews doc savage