From 1933 to 1949, Doc Savage strode tall through the pages of pulp fiction and cemented himself as one of the “greats” of the genre. Not as much of a household name as, say, The Shadow, Doc can claim a passel of passionate admirers, and a new Man of Bronze novel is cause for celebration. Thank Altus Press for that.
Doc’s publishing history is a fascinating one. After his pulp heyday, the character found new life in reprints in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, owing something to the “camp” craze. In other words, “modern” audiences found the Bronze Giant’s original adventures could be read with an entirely new mindset. As the Bantam reprints wound down, Doc fan and author Will Murray pushed forward with the idea of new adventures. What elevated him above others of the same bent was that Murray was armed with the keenest of weaponry: original Doc Savage writer/creator Lester Dent’s notes and unpublished fragments.
So, in 1991, Murray wrote, and had published through Bantam, seven new Savage sagas, all, in one way or another, springing from Dent material that had never seen the light of day back in the roaring 1930s and 40s. Alas, after those seven novels, Bantam shut down the Bronze foundry and Murray put his plans for more new books on hold.
Flash-forward to right-freakin-now and the return of the all-new Doc Savage adventures, beginning with The Desert Demons, from Altus Press.
True confessions: the very first Doc Savage novel I ever read was one of Will Murray’s, not Dent’s. Yes, let the stoning begin.
You see, I had the love of all things pulp instilled in me by my father, who, as a kid, ate that stuff up off the newsstands and radio. I knew about Doc, of course, but had always gravitated towards my dad’s favorite, The Shadow — but a 1991 edition of Comic Buyer’s Guide featuring a huge interview with Murray about the Man of Bronze set me on the track of destiny and I decided to try a Doc on for size. I reached for what was at hand: one of the new ones by Will Murray. That was White Eyes and that led me to the “real” stuff and several dozen reprint paperbacks later I’m a Doc and Dent fanboy.
So, what’s this Desert Demons like, you ask? Well, it’s pretty damn pulpy — and pretty damn good.
This is the Doc Savage of pulp legend. This is the character at his mid-1930s greatness, a “superman” with a heart of gold and a drive to right wrongs wherever he finds them. Murray intros Doc with all the Dentian verbiage and weight it deserves and he very quickly informs — or reminds — you that there was something about the era that made heroes seem bigger and bolder. Murray throws back the curtain and puts the “Man of Mystery” through his paces as if several decades had never slipped by and the world is still a rougher place caught in the shadow of an onrushing world war.
The Desert Demons, in grand Savage tradition, tells of a baffling phenomenon that kills men and disintegrates objects. Seemingly insect-like, the “demons” swarm through the air like a cloud of rust, both mindless and with purpose, but altogether sinister. Every Doc adventure is a mystery, and this one is no shirker of that solemn duty. I’ve read a submarine-load of Doc Savage stories and I was guessing up till almost the end exactly “whatwasit” and “whodunit.”
In case you’re concerned that this Doc may be too superhuman and boring as a protagonist, not to worry; Murray remembers to paint the Bronze Giant with a multi-faceted brush, endowing him with the traits of the gods, but also allowing him to admit when he’s baffled by the mystery and flustered when those who’re close to him fall into harm’s way. He’s even deafened by a grenade in the course of the story, and that too reminds us that our hero is merely flesh and blood.
And speaking of the gang; they’re all here. Doc Savage has five individuals, aides, who are almost as interesting characters as their chief himself. Murray includes them all and, pleasing longtime Doc fans I’m sure, focuses on the duo of “Monk” Mayfair and “Ham” Brooks. Monk and Ham aficionados are in for quite a treat in Desert Demons.
The other “bits” are present, too: Doc’s incredible devices, the pets, the guest-cast’s eccentricities, the wanted-by-the-police tradition… and, yes, Pat Savage. The beautiful cousin of Doc is here, and in all her glory, too.
Murray’s use of language — one might say it’s Dent’s — is also a joy to consume in The Desert Demons. It’s pulpy, sure, but the best pulp prose can be like a good beer or a quality steak to those who appreciate such stringing together of words… like:
…although the contrast between their unlighted panes and the bone-white structure brought to mind a square skull with many empty eyes, as if an otherworldly skeleton had been buried in the dunes up to its bleached jawbone.
Or in the simple wisdom of our hero himself:
“Profanity,“ Doc told him, ”never did anyone any good.”
I also want to give Murray and Altus credit for their use of an American Indian herein. The original pulps were no paragons of portraying minorities, but far too often modern takes on the genre tend to go overboard on the political correctness. Murray uses an Indian theme and a character that, while not exactly stereotypes, aren’t exactly noble and lofty. This makes The Desert Demons ring truer as an ode to the era, without devolving into the uglier aspects of its time period.
If I have any caveats to the praise I’m placing on The Desert Demons, it would be my disappointment that this first of the new era of Doc books wasn’t of the globe-trotting variety. Savage sagas can occur anywhere at all, but in my opinion they’re at their best in exotic locales outside the United States. Desert Demons takes place in the wilds of California, with a fascinating look at early moviemaking, but I couldn’t help but wonder why this inaugural tome didn’t fly me to somewhere I’d never been or couldn’t hope to ever visit. Another minor caveat is that the book delves a bit too often into the comedic, with some very over-the-top cast members — a little of their shenanigans goes a long way.
In all, The Desert Demons could prove to be either a fix for your ongoing pulp cravings, or a fine little introduction to the riches of the form. Bottom line: Will Murray is adept at what he does and has obvious love for the material and the characters. He doesn’t so much ape Lester Dent as he honors him. Honors him with echoes of his voice and styling and in carrying on the tradition of this truly unique American fictional figure.
But wait! What is the “Double Doc” I mention in the title? Glad you asked: that would be the brand-new unabridged audiobook of Murray’s 1991 Doc Savage adventure, Python Isle. We are currently subject to a multitude of Doc gems here, folks.
Now, I’m not the greatest spokesperson for audiobooks, being a tried-and-true devotee of, you know, actual books, but I can boil this down to just a few words: I got a kick out of this.
The narrator is a guy named Michael McConnohie and he brings this funky kind of bombasticity to the work that makes it both fun and a little bit goofy. McConnohie does different voices for all the characters and I give him a lot of credit for the way he goes back and forth between them and his “narrator voice” throughout the audiobook. This is eight total CDs here, a monster of a product and well worth the price of admission. I’d recommend plunking this into your car’s CD player for a long drive and pretend you’re on a mission with Doc Savage. It makes it the actual novel a trifle more “campy,” in a way, especially when you have someone doing voices but also all the “he said” and “she said” in-between, but again, its very fun. Give it a try.
Jim Beard, among many other stately writing pursuits, is the editor of Gotham City 14 Miles, a new book examining the 1966-68 Batman TV series. Get more info and read a sample chapter from the book, join its official Facebook page, or order a copy.