This post is my triple review of the three novels by Philip Jose’ Farmer featuring Lord Grandrith and Doc Caliban, his pastiches of Tarzan and Doc Savage respectively, as well as some related material that followed. These novels are, in order of publication: A Feast Unknown; The Lord of the Trees; and The Mad Goblin.
I. The Man, the Mythography, the (Flawed) Legends
The late Philip Jose’ Farmer (1916-2009; often respectfully abbreviated to ‘PJF’ by us lazy typists) is one of the breakout sci-fi/fantasy/pulp adventure writers of the 20th century. Never afraid to push the boundaries, PJF brought the world numerous interesting and sometimes discomfortingly intimate stories of human interactions with truly alien life forms in various speculative alternate futures. Whether you liked or hated PJF’s material, you weren’t likely to forget what you read, or the questions he forced his readers to ask about themselves and their place within the cosmos. The 2005 collection of some of his early sci-fi novellas by Baen Publishing – Strange Relations – provides a good sampling of this mind-boggling material.
However, PJF’s early sci-fi is not the focus of this review, since, to my knowledge, no major attempt to fit any of that material into the various alternate futures branching off from the “consensus” Wold Newton Universe (WNU) has been attempted to date (but stay tuned!). Instead, I’m going to focus on a trio of closely interrelated books penned by PJF at the close of the 1960s decade, which have the distinction of being considered by many creative mythographers to represent the beginning of both his great foray into pulp adventure; and his famous work on para-scholarship intended to tie disparate pulp adventure characters from classic (and sometimes not-so-classic) literature into a single shared universe – and often to a shared and complex genealogical lineage – all within the framework of a reality that is as close to the “real” world we know as one can expect of a universe with such inhabitants, and with physical laws that allow them to exist as they are.
The events recorded in this trilogy of books, interestingly enough, occur within an alternate time track diverging from the “consensus” WNU. However, a subsequent follow-up work of short fiction by PJF that was later augmented by a series of short stories composed by one of his main successors — chief curator of the WNU concept today, Win Scott Eckert — have made it clear that the story quite literally overlaps with the “mainstream” WNU continuity. This trilogy and its follow-up short story, “A Monster on Hold” (more on that later), combine to form an interesting might-have-been history on a world existing on the frontiers of the same megaverse (or, as Win Scott Eckert prefers to call it, pluriverse) that the “consensus” WNU exists in quantum alignment with. They specifically involve obvious pastiches of two of PJF’s favorite pulp adventure characters: Lord Greystoke, a.k.a., John Clayton Jr., a.k.a., Tarzan; and Dr. Clarke “Savage” Wildman, a.k.a., Doc Savage.
The pastiche iterations of the Tarzan and Doc Savage we know exist in an even closer genealogical relationship in this divergent world crafted by PJF than they do in the mainstream WNU: Here they are actually half-brothers whose shared parent, John Cloamby, was the notorious serial killer Jack the Ripper of this timeline, who stalked the decrepit Whitechapel section of London in the late 1880s, leaving the remains of several mutilated prostitutes in his wake. One of the many individuals across the span of many alternate timelines to carry the mantle of Jack the Ripper, this version became the horror that he did due to a bout of temporary insanity brought on by the side effects of a life-extending elixir that he was one of the few human beings in the world who were privileged to receive it. Mr. Cloamby’s victims during his bout of insanity would certainly beg to differ that this elixir constituted any sort of “privilege” to the greater world around him, no doubt. However, Cloamby would seek to give the world reparations for the horror he wreaked while “under the influence” upon his return to sanity (or at least a semblance thereof).
Who granted Cloamby and a handful of others such an amazing (if tainted) privilege, you might ask? That would be the Council of the Nine – or simply the Nine, for us lazy typists – who are a small but incredibly powerful cadre of truly ancient human beings who secretly control many aspects of the world through their international criminal and para-military organization. There are nine of them in number, in case that wasn’t clear by the name of their group, btw (just checking!). They separately control a vast degree of financial resources and heavily armed manpower across the breadth of the planet, and by collectively uniting their forces throughout the millennia, they can effectively be considered the secret rulers of the world (take that, Illuminati!). This was made possible by a discovery many ages ago of an extremely rare elixir that extends the human life span tremendously, and they have the sole knowledge of how to distill this incredibly precious formula. They, and they alone, choose a handful of human servitors that make up the upper echelons of their organization to partake of this elixir and gain a life span where they will but very slowly age, and can expect to die of the universal disease of elderliness only after 10-30,000 years have passed (depending on how old the individual recipient was when the elixir was first administered).
Of course, the few extraordinary human beings who are chosen to receive this gift cannot benefit from it without one hell of a price. And that price is complete compliance with the orders, interests, and directives of the Nine when called upon. Moreover, they are not given the means to distill the elixir themselves; that remains the most closely guarded secret of the Nine. In order to earn the right to receive the annual booster required to keep the benefits going for thousands of years, they must not only remain members in good standing with the Nine’s organization, but they must all participate in a truly grisly and sexually charged ritual which takes place annually in a hidden location. This involves, to put it mildly, the sacrifice of some of the most prized portions of their anatomy to both each other and to the Nine – which will thankfully grow back during a short period of post-ritual convalescence thanks to the regenerative properties bestowed upon them by the elixir. Despite being able to regenerate quickly from non-immediately-fatal injuries and being immune to all known disease (save for the very slow progression of the aging process), they are not truly immortal, as they can be injured as readily as normal humans, and can be killed by any phenomena that can instantly prove fatal to a normal human being (so yea, it’s not advisable for any of these guys or ladies to openly confront a group of Uzi-wielding gangbangers or starving pack of wolves while unarmed or alone).
This leads us to the formerly separate but soon to become intertwined histories of Lord Grandrith and Doc Caliban – the two main protagonists of this trilogy – whom, if you haven’t already guessed, are this reality’s version of Lord Greystoke and Doc Savage. They not only share an infamous father, as described above, but are the grandsons of XauXaz, the oldest and perhaps most powerful of the Nine. This is why their genetic potential was at such a high level at birth, and why their individual life styles and training led to the complete attainment of their amazing peak human physical and mental acumen. After establishing their respective legends as an adventuring lord of the jungle; and a master of technological innovation, medicine, & crime-busting, the two were obvious candidates for the Nine’s organization (and hey, look who their granddad was… nepotism rules!). The chance for such incredible life extension proved too tempting for either to question the nature of the organization they were offering fealty to in exchange, so both made this Faustian bargain, each becoming near-immortal in short order.
This led to the main crux of the storyline to follow, and one of the main points of focus that PJF brought to his interpretation of classic pulp heroes: Despite their greatness, they were encumbered with the same foibles as any other human being, and this inherent weakness added many uncomfortable shades of gray to the pure white that their uber-noble literary antecedents seemed to embody in their every recorded exploit. In fact, PJF was to make it clear that their official biographers largely romanticized and sometimes outright sanitized their written adventures to make them more palatable to the sensibilities of their early 20th century readers; and to the marketing & editorial requirements of their biographers’ publishers. This is because the readers and publishers of the time (usually) wanted larger-than-life heroes who were noble to the core. PJF the iconoclast would have none of that, however, and instead interpreted them as simply larger-than-life people who strove to overcome their human foibles and faults to accomplish heroic deeds, often succeeding but sometimes not, and occasionally falling short of their exalted principles in rather spectacular fashion. Just like, yanno, each and every one of us, and all the other people we know who genuinely strive to be good people; you can become a good person, but overcoming all of your human foibles is not something you can ever realistically expect to do.
The recent edition of A Feast Unknown published by Titan Books
In short, PJF gives us heroic people, rather than pure idealized heroes, a tradition followed quite successfully by the work of great creators like Alan Moore (think Miracleman, Watchmen, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen); and Joss Whedon (think Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly). This, of course, can lead to the debate as to whether we, as readers, prefer heroes we can relate to or heroes we can be inspired by. That is a worthy subject to ponder, and individual mileage amongst readers will vary on this point. I will leave this poignant topic for a future blog to tackle in depth in regards to my own preferences along these lines, and my thoughts regarding the merits of these two conflicting hero interpretations.
Of course, whether one prefers unequivocally noble heroes that you can look up to; or amazing people who have to fight internal as well as external demons to achieve greatness that we can relate to on an inner psychological and metaphorical level, probably determines which interpretation of the characters any given reader would prefer: The originals as written by their creators/official biographers, or as interpreted by PJF and subsequent writers who followed his lead (e.g., Alan Moore; Neil Gaiman; Mark Millar; Joss Whedon; Stephanie Myers). If you happen to prefer the latter interpretation, or can find a place in your psyche for both interpretations (like me), then you will likely find much to offer in PFJ’s work. If you prefer the former interpretation, then likely you will find yourself complaining that PJF “desecrated” what those heroes were “supposed to be all about” as written by their creators in any review you may compose of these works. You will note that the customer reviews on Amazon display both opinions, as one might expect.
II. Sibling Rivalry
The main storyline of the trilogy involves a vacuum left in the ranks of the Nine when the incredibly ancient XauXaz finally bites the bullet (or so they all thought) by succumbing to old age. One of the upper echelons of their worldwide secret organization was now up for a huge promotion, and who better than one of XauXaz’s amazing grandchildren? (John Cloamby himself was since done in by his masters and benefactors for going against their best interests, though Doc Caliban would not find out until the course of this storyline.) Since both were deemed equally worthy, but only one could be given the promotion, the Nine utilized their answer to affirmative action policies by determining that whichever of the two was capable of killing the other in combat would prove themselves more worthy. As you can see, the concept of political appointment, let alone democratic election, was not a consideration for a group of all-powerful, warrior-oriented oligarchs like the Nine; they had to do things the hard (more like hardcore) way.
As you have probably already surmised, the Nine were capable of adding “taints” to the elixir that would have unfortunate side-effects. This compromised version of the elixir resulted in extreme changes in behavior that directly affected the sexual drive. In Cloamby’s case, it resulted in a form of insanity that caused him to be overwhelmed with a compulsion to commit horrific sex crimes. In the case of Grandrith and Caliban, they both found that they suddenly could only gain sexual satisfaction – and to a profound degree, it should be mentioned – by committing acts of extreme violence. This, of course, encouraged the propensity for violence that both had, something Grandrith ordinarily indulged in whenever he deemed necessary but which Caliban tried to keep under mental lock and key after contemplating the effects of his unleashed temper during his earliest cases as a crime fighter. And we all know what repression of one’s natural urges leads to, hmm?
To get the two unwitting half-siblings to participate in such a brutal contest, the Nine did one of the things they did best – manipulation (but with a little help from their other talent for kidnapping) – to provide false “evidence” to convince Caliban that Grandrith killed his beloved cousin, secret lover, and staunch ally, the voluptuous amazon Trish Wilde. Trish would play an important role later in the first novel once it was discovered that reports of her murder were greatly exaggerated (in the expected way upon meeting Grandrith, for one), and later elsewhere in the trilogy, this time in a manner befitting the incredible action hero PJF used her as a pastiche for, Doc Savage’s equally extraordinary daughter Patricia Wildman (the main protagonist of the recent novels The Evil in Pemberley House, co-written by PJF and Win Scott Eckert – this being the last published work of the former – and Win Scott Eckert’s The Scarlet Jaguar, an audio review of which you can check out here courtesy of Jason Aiken’s terrific YouTube channel Pulp Crazy).
This led to an extraordinary and vicious cat-and-mouse game that spanned the globe as Doc Caliban relentlessly hunted down Lord Grandrith, with the latter doing his impressive best to fend off the attempts at misplaced retribution by his long lost half sibling. As the reader happily expected, Caliban proved to be the most formidable foe the great jungle lord ever had to contend with; and Grandrith proved the most difficult target that the ersatz man of bronze ever attempted to put paid to. This led to an ultimate mano-a-mano unarmed battle between the two in the headquarters of the Nine, as the bronze warrior wasn’t inclined to listen to reason even after the jungle master discovered and revealed their actual relationship (and honestly, what fun would that have been for the readers if the bronze guy had taken the reasonable route?).
The battle was as graphically brutal and way cool as one would expect at this point, featuring two largely equally matched peak human titans struggling to inflict maximum damage on the other. And what damage was inflicted! Let’s just say that one of the two was particularly thankful for the regenerative properties of the elixir following the battle, otherwise even had he survived after what he had torn off of him, he would have forever lost the will to live.
The original cover to A Feast Unknown by Essex House. Yes, the two fought each other naked. Did you expect otherwise?
Needless to say, when Trish’s survival was made clear to the Doc; the secret of the Nine’s tampering with the elixir to encourage this battle was likewise made known; and the side effects of the tainted formulae had run their course, the siblings’ shifted their mad-on for each other – not to mention losing the literal hard-ons they acquired by committing acts of extreme violence against others – to the real perpetrators of this mess, the Nine. They then resolved to join forces and undertake the most difficult task they ever undertook: The take-down of the Nine. This would prove just as difficult and outright grueling as it sounded, and it led into the plots of the two sequel novels, The Lord of the Trees and The Mad Goblin, which occurred mostly concurrently with each other, and which dealt with the separate but interconnected efforts of Lord Grandrith and Doc Caliban, respectively, against the individual members of the Nine.
III. Sex, Lies, and Violence… and Lots of All Three Together
The first novel interspersed these aforementioned fantastic pulp adventure exploits with raw, graphic, and outright controversial sex scenes, which included homosexuality (not overly controversial today, but certainly so during at the time of publication) and the homosexual rape of Grandrith himself (PJF wasn’t known for pulling his punches). These scenes were both gratuitous and connected to various plot points in the story. PJF stopped short of dealing with pedophilia and its political “cousin” hebephilia, both encompassing the Great Taboo of the modern era (most traditional and indie publishers won’t even consider stories that deal with intergenerational liaisons in a thoughtful manner these days), but he didn’t shy away from bestiality, including a grotesque scene of truly violent bestiality rape and direct allusions to a passionate love affair that Lord Grandrith once had with a female big cat companion. No, I’m not making any of this up for cheap shock value, so bear with me.
As you may expect, those controversial and graphic sex scenes in A Feast Unknown (which would not be repeated in the two sequel novels; see below) have subjected this book to much criticism by readers and reviewers who did not understand PJF’s mischievous ways, or the fact that they served as a crude parody of what he felt was the ridiculous over-abundance of violent sexcapades that were then appearing in the adventure and sci-fi literature of the time, i.e., circa mid-to-late 1960s. As famous genre author Theodore Sturgeon noted in a postscript for the first edition of this novel, “ultimate sex combined with ultimate violence is ultimate absurdity.” Also important to note is that this first novel was published by Essex House, who specialized in erotica, and didn’t shy away from the more controversial aspects of it. A novel with such elements was not likely to be accepted by any other publishing house of the time, at least none that would give it a quality release.
Of course, not only was this first novel in the trilogy only really noticed and read by niche audiences – specifically readers of exotic erotica or long-time fans of PJF – but it received the expected derisive reviews from critics who didn’t “get” the satirical intentions of the author. Moreover, publisher Essex House likewise didn’t “get” the true intent of PJF, which is why they published the book as pure erotica, not caring to notice the point made by the author. These harsh and often misguided reviews have continued right up to the latest edition of the novel, a quality release by Titan Books.
Granted, these elements make this novel one best avoided by the squeamish and overly PC out there, and is understandably not everyone’s cup of tea. This is to be expected by all authors and fans of any authors, as there is no writer whose oeuvre or writing style is suitable for all sensibilities; that is simply the nature of human nature in regards to our diversity of preferences in every which way. This is especially true for authors who push the boundaries of “acceptability,” and are not averse to tackling topics and asking questions that the prevailing culture are not comfortable with. PJF was an author who was inclined to confront such questions and transgress boundaries if need be, so those who are considering reading his work do need to take this into consideration. That said, this author believes that PJF did a great service to our culture by asking such questions and opening the many minds who were willing to listen as a result, and he is considered a great inspiration for many modern authors in the fields of speculative and pulp fiction for good reason.
Was the transgressive sexual elements of this book over the top? Of course they were. Were they in “bad taste”? Yes, they were, though I will gladly support Picasso’s famous saying that “the greatest enemy of creativity is ‘good taste’.” Culture and society cannot progress unless artists of all stripes push against existing boundaries, and insist on confronting questions that mainstream culture strives hard to avoid dealing with. These questions tend to be of extreme importance, and the frontiers of knowledge, understanding, and growth as a society are curtailed as a result of denial of any important facet of the world that is difficult to face. Denial has ever been the easy way out of things, and as I’ve often noted, the right thing to do is most often the harder of any two choices (or the hardest of any available choices). So personally, I’m thankful for what PJF and other authors before him and those whom he would inspire have given to the world, particularly as a writer who works with the same genres PJF did.
Nevertheless, no one should expect everyone to look favorably upon any given author’s work, and there are many available avenues for growth and progress, not all of them suitable for everyone. One person’s detritus is the treasure of another, and vice versa. With that point acknowledged, I certainly believe that PJF’s boundary-pushing way can be of immense value, interest, and inspiration to many readers and prospective authors who do not mind having their comfort zone violated and possibly shattered, and look upon such a thing as the path to enlightenment rather than the proverbial road to perdition.
III. A Lord Takes to the Trees, as His Brother Takes on a Mad Goblin
This brings us to the concurrently occurring sequels, published a year after the first: The Lord of the Trees and The Mad Goblin. These sequels, however, were initially published by Ace Books, at the time being the premiere publisher of straight sci-fi, fantasy, and pulp fiction (which has since been absorbed into Penguin Books, which in turn has since merged with fellow publishing giant Random House to become – what else? – Penguin Random House). This change in publisher is highly important, because it greatly affected the tone and thematic elements of these two sequels.
Specifically and significantly, PJF wrote these two sequels as straight pulp adventure, focusing nearly exclusively on action and characterization, and keeping the sexual elements within “reasonable” bounds. Having seemingly gotten the desire for satire out of his system, and wanting to pen a serious pastiche of his two favorite pulp heroes under the aegis of a much better known publisher which would afford him access to a considerably larger audience, he wrote these two sequels accordingly. Any reviewer or non-reviewing reader who has a harsh reaction to A Feast Unknown for its graphic sexual aspects shouldn’t judge the two sequels on the same criteria, or based upon mere association. Those who prefer standard pulp adventure of high quality with good characters that continue to explore the philosophical nuances of the heroic ideal as few authors other than PJF can or are willing to try, should be encouraged to give these sequels a whirl and judge them entirely separately from the novel which spawned them both.
The sequels take place within months of the ending of A Feast Unknown, and directly reference its events. The Lord of the Trees focuses on Lord Grandrith’s battles against the Nine on one particular front, while also further exploring his origin, giving us a non-sanitized re-telling of the origin of Tarzan begun in A Feast Unknown, seeking to explain and/or discount many of the anomalies and less logical aspects of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ tales. In other words, this novel can be seen as a precursor to PJF’s effort at doing the same for the real deal with his ground-breaking para-biography of a few years later, Tarzan Alive: A Definitive Biography of Lord Greystoke. That tome, in fact, is considered the one that jump-started the para-scholarship sub-genre of pulp fiction that is such an integral part of creative mythography, which this author is heavily involved in (yup, you can blame PJF for much of my own work!).
The Lord of the Trees delivers an adventure of Lord Grandrith that paints a heavy picture of PJF’s propensity for very in-depth research of any subject he tackles, in this case military conflict and strategies. He never glosses over any detail, such as what weapons are often used and what they are capable of, and this can be daunting for some readers while utterly fascinating for others. Again, your mileage will vary. What you basically get here is a grand adventure of Tarzan as interpreted by PJF, and what a grand adventure it is. The general plot revolves around the Jungle Lord taking on one member of the near-immortal Nine, Mubaniga.
This novel would also serve as a worthy predecessor to PJF taking on the real deal in his classic novel Time’s Last Gift, one of the best pulp adventure/sci-fi novels in his oeuvre IMO. Many of the elements of The Lord of the Trees would find their way into this other novel, and have since become some of the most pertinent elements in the Tarzan mythos as championed by creative mythographers.
The recent edition of The Lord of the Trees published by Titan Books
The real treat of this duo of sequels by this author’s estimation is, hands down, The Mad Goblin. This novel dealt with the battle against the Nine on a different front, this one fought by Doc Caliban and his two allies Pauncho and Barney, who are the near-identical offspring of the two main members of his previous crew, who were themselves pastiches of the two most popular members of Doc Savage’s Fabulous Five, the brilliant but simian-like Monk Mayfair (a template for the character Henry P. McCoy, a.k.a., the Beast of X-Men fame) and the debonair, sword cane-wielding master attorney Ham Brooks. The characterization in this novel as captured by PJF was superlative, and affectionately loyal to the originals as classically written by Lester Dent. This is especially the case regarding the banter between Pauncho and Barney, who – like Monk and Ham – were the best of friends that were always amusingly at each other’s’ throats, the same type of relationship you saw between the Human Torch and the Thing of Fantastic Four fame. Of course, as noted before, Trish Wilde is also present, this time really getting to strut her stuff (and not in the same way she did in A Feast Unknown!).
The recent edition of The Mad Goblin published by Titan Books
Very well highlighted in this novel is the myriad of technological gadgets, weapons, and pharmaceuticals carried by Doc Caliban and associates, displaying PJF’s great fondness for these products of Doc Savage’s inventive and scientific genius. They put anything in Bruce Wayne’s or James Bond’s repertoire to total shame. We also have a well-crafted mystery, as Caliban’s crew picks up some unexpected allies, a bickering English couple, whose true identities and purpose are not made clear until later in the novel.
The basic gist of the plot concerns Doc Caliban and crew’s conflict with the dwarfish though ultra-cunning member of the Nine, Iwaldi, whose nickname was the titular basis for the book’s title. Iwaldi was easily the most interesting and dangerous of the Nine, and that’s saying something. His presence as the main antagonist of this book provides a major work-out for Doc and the crew throughout the book.
As it turned out, Iwaldi had also gone rogue from the Nine (though certainly not for noble reasons!), and some of the most interesting elements of the plot dealt with the “Mad Goblin” fending off and initiating assaults against his former comrades in the Nine, culminating in a shoot-out with the forces of former Council member Jiinfan at Stonehenge. Iwaldi was as much the hunted as he was the hunter, and his legendary ingenuity was taxed to the limit here.
The major highlight of this book, however, is when Doc and his two allies are given perhaps their greatest challenge ever courtesy of Iwaldi’s machinations: Having to go bare-handed against a Kodiak bear, the largest existing ursine in the world. This provides a truly grueling battle sequence that is nothing less than epic, and one that pushes the great strength and battle prowess of Doc Caliban and his crew of two to their limits and beyond. They weren’t to emerge completely unscathed, but emerge they did, showing what stern stuff they were made of like never before, albeit under the most difficult conditions imaginable.
Also highlighted is more of the de-romanticized re-telling of Doc Savage’s backstory, as told by PJF in a way that character creator Dent never would have been allowed by his publishers. As with Lord Grandrith and the real deal he was based on, Lord Greystoke/Tarzan, this re-told backstory of Doc Caliban would serve as the basis for the second of PJF’s great para-biography, this one on the “real” Man of Bronze, Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life. Taken together, the Wold Newton family tree provided by PJF in both Tarzan Alive and Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life would serve as the (sometimes tweaked) blueprint for the Wold Newton Family genealogy followed with consummate authority by pulp fiction authors and fans of creative mythography. Moreover, also as before, it would serve as the basis for PJF’s later tackling of the “true” Doc Savage with his novel Escape From Loki, which told the tale of Doc’s first meeting with the individuals who would become his Fab Five crew during his youth circa World War I.
The end of this novel brought the separate but related adventures depicted in The Lord of the Trees and The Mad Goblin together. This, of course, caused both Lord Grandrith and Doc Caliban to realize that the latter would have to find a way to synthesize the life-extending elixir on his own, which was a major task even for his bio-chemical genius. Naturally, the Doc had been feverishly at work on this very project for decades, as a crime fighter like him was never comfortable with the price he had to pay for access to this life-prolonging elixir.
IV. A Monster Held Up, and More
Reading the above novels, many readers will lament the fact that PJF had never written a whole series of novels based on the exploits of the “real” Tarzan and Doc Savage, as opposed to just a few isolated examples. Others will lament the fact that he didn’t simply write many more novels featuring Lord Grandrith and – perhaps especially – Doc Caliban, as these two alternate reality pastiches are pretty awesome in their own rights. I have heard it said that the reason we didn’t see more of the pastiches is that PJF didn’t want to risk alienating the estates of Burroughs and Dent, who could well have balked at his alternative depictions of their prized iconic characters. He wanted opportunities to write these real deals (and I’m not talking about Evander Holyfield here… any boxing fan remember him?), and though only a few materialized, his fans are quite thankful for these few.
Whatever the case, it should be noted that PJF did eventually begin working on a fourth novel in the series, this one another solo Doc Caliban book (yay!). It was to be entitled A Monster on Hold, which was to deal with Caliban encountering bizarre subterranean creatures that would have represented a monstrous otherdimensional intelligence called Shrassk, whose power the Nine had attempted to utilize but had since simply entrapped due to it being too dangerous even for them to mess with. He penned a single chapter for this projected novel, and one of its major highlights was the rather extraordinary depiction of Doc Caliban looking through a dimensional veil and seeing the “real” Doc Savage on the other side looking back at him!
This was clearly intended to bridge any gap between the two iterations of this single archetype, with the dimensional veil representing the red tape barriers of the real world that normally keep different characters owned by different companies and/or individuals in separate fictionalized universes (each one being fictional to anyone not actually living in it, if you want to get really technical). This represented PJF’s high-concept thinking and patented sense of mischief taking a most spectacular turn, and it’s a shame this fourth novel wasn’t brought to full fruition.
Nevertheless, this chapter has been published three times to date, first in the World Fantasy Convention 1983; second, in Myths for the Modern Age: Philip Jose’ Farmer’s Wold Newton Universe, published by Monkey Brain Books in 2005; and third, in Pearls From Peoria (Peoria, Illinois being PJF’s home town!), published by Subterranean Press in 2006.
… and third. Three times is the charm!
Of further note is how this chapter directly deals with PJF’s interpretation of the only Doc Savage story that actually caused the Man of Bronze to experience extreme fear – to the point of trauma, in fact. This was a 1948 tale depicting his encounter with nightmarish supernatural forces that completely devastated his rationalistic, agnostic worldview. The exploration of a hero facing his greatest fears and overcoming them can serve as a metaphorical inspiration to each of us having to do the same with matters usually mundane but often no less overwhelming. In fact, to me this represents the very essence of the heroic ideal: Not being stoically immune to fear, but finding the inner strength and determination to overcome it for the benefit of both your own good, and the greater good.
This final section should close with the acknowledgement of two important short stories written by PJF’s most prominent successor and chief curator of the Wold Newton concept, Win Scott Eckert. These stories build upon the alternate universe created by PJF in his pulp trilogy and subsequent follow-up chapter, and solidify their connection to the “mainstream”-“consensus” Wold Newton Universe. The first of these, “Is He in Hell?” was published in The Worlds of Philip Jose Farmer 1: Protean Dimensions; the second, “The Wild Huntsman,” was published in The Worlds of Philip Jose Farmer 3: Portraits of a Trickster. This publication is the great PJF-centric anthology released annually by Meteor House.
Of further note is that “Is He in Hell?” was previously published in the annual French pulp fiction anthology Tales of the Shadowmen 6: Grand Guignol from Black Coat Press, this anthology being one that I’m proud to have stories of my own published in (beginning in Volume 8; plug, plug, shameless plug!). For a synopsis on “The Wild Huntsman,” you can check out this post on Win’s blog.
In summation, the Lord Grandrith/Doc Caliban trilogy is a very worthy addition to the library of any fan of pulp fiction and hero-driven literature in general, and essential for any fan of PJF and the Wold Newton Universe concept. They represent the beginning of PJF’s foray into pulp fiction, which would have a major influence on many writers who followed in his stead, as well as the great pulp revival of the previous decade that led to today’s New Pulp movement. Despite the controversies surrounding the elements of the first novel, it’s still worth picking up by non-overly sensitive readers who can get behind PJF’s intentions, and whatever one may think of the book, it does hold an important place in the history of the post-Golden Age pulps. As for the entire trilogy assessed as a whole, it should come highly recommended to anyone who can appreciate heroes who dress in shades of gray, and who are closer to the people you know than you may be comfortable with.
The man himself… thank you for everything, Phil!