March 1934's Doc Savage novel, 'Meteor Menace', was a notable step up after a underwhelming beginning to the year and I was hoping that 'The Monsters' would continue that. In some ways it does but, in others, it's a missed opportunity and the latter wins out in the end.
The most obvious success is the continuation of freakiness. The amnesiac effects of the Blue Meteor the previous month prompted the freakiest scenes in the series thus far and it would be hard indeed to out-do them. However, writer Lester Dent does give it a solid shot here, introducing a grotesque fat man, a snivelling coward called Griswold Rock, as a captive within a house that's freaky indeed. It's a sprawling mansion surrounded by a forty foot wall; its iron gate is fifteen feet tall and fifteen wide and it protects a courtyard that's packed with 'a huge, crisscrossed net of copper cables' carrying high voltage electricity.
What's more, when Doc and his men attempt to rescue him, they're hindered by some sort of giant who destroys half the house from within. 'The Monsters' may be an annoyingly generic title to us today but it's hardly an inappropriate definition of what can be found inside the book.
It takes a while to get to Griswold Rock's weird mansion. In fact, it takes a while to get to Doc Savage this time out. Instead, we introduce the capability for devastation of the monsters of the title.
We start out in northern Michigan, outside a town called Trapper Lake. A half-breed called Bruno Hen gives all his money to his neighbour, Carl MacBride, just in case something happens to him; if it does, as he expects, then MacBride should travel to New York City and secure the services of Doc Savage to investigate. Only a single page later, Bruno Hen is dead, his shrieks ending in a 'piercing, bleating sound, remindful of a mouse which had been stepped upon,' and his shack turned into 'little more than a great shapeless wad of timber and planks.' So MacBride, being an honest man, brings the story to Doc Savage, only to fall dead upon the floor of his office after speaking only Doc's name, shot by a weapon secreted within a banjo.
These novels only ran to 140 pages or so when reprinted by Bantam in paperback, so dedicating 20 of them to an introduction means that a good chunk of the novel this time out is over by the time we even meet the Man of Bronze. Instead, we accompany Bruno Hen through the Atlas Congress of Wonders, whose barkers freely reference Doc as the only man with more strength or mental acuity than their exhibits, and the backwoods which he calls his home. Then we accompany Carl MacBride on his first plane trip, on which he unwittingly meets the man who will soon shoot him dead, and his bright-eyed journey into New York City.
While many might complain at how long it takes to reach the star of the show, I'm willing to praise Dent for setting the scene with such care. I'll reserve my complaints for other things, some of which have been getting more and more annoying with each book.
I've already called out Renny's exclamations of 'Holy Cow!' but I wonder if they are more or less frequent than the use of 'simian' to describe Monk Mayfair. While the structure of these novels is gradually improving, there are still far too many stubbornly short sentences; Dent still hasn't found a semi-colon that he likes and he has an odd aversion to conjunctions too.
There are plenty of new complaints as well, though most are minor. There's a real cheat of a paragraph, in which Dent speaks to his readers to acknowledge that he's having Doc do something utterly different to what he knows we expect; there's an inappropriate use of pinheads as retarded African cannibals; and the overdone cowardice of Griswold Rock is a sure-fire gimme that there's more to that character than initially meets the eye. I laughed aloud at Rock's suggestion that, once rescued, his overt cowardice will prompt him to leave the country and flee to Europe. In 1934. He clearly hasn't been reading the papers! There's a hilarious understatement from Doc: as the monsters of the title start ripping their plane apart with their bare hands, he stops Monk from investigating. ''Wait!' Doc admonished sharply. 'Those things may be dangerous.'' The words, 'no', 'shit' and 'Sherlock' spring rapidly to mind. There's even a strange use of a line, 'It was a peaceful scene,' on two consecutive pages, right before the chapter entitled 'Night Terror', which is about as peaceful as you might imagine.
Most of those are small enough errors that they should have been caught by an editor; the only large one is the mismanagement of the leading lady. Here, she's Jean Morris, a steel-haired lion-tamer at the Atlas Congress of Wonders, and she keeps showing up in the story without ever really finding a purpose. Sure, she knows the pinheads, who do find a purpose, and she has vast potential as a character, but it feels like Dent simply forgot what he was going to use her for and just left her in anyway.
None of this is to say that 'The Monsters' isn't enjoyable. The vast sweep of the story is well handled and I got a kick out of the Michigan backwoods. Of course, Doc and his men travel to Trapper Lake to look into the mysterious death of Bruno Hen, which the papers suggest was due to a freak tornado. Of course, they figure out what's going on, but they have to work hard to stop the villain of the piece from achieving his megalomaniacal goals. He's an underwhelming villain, with an underwhelming name, Pere Teston, and a propensity for being outshone by his creations, the monsters of the title, but there's nothing wrong with his diabolical plans which are suitably enjoyable and impactful.
As always, there are moments that stand out to me, over eighty years on, either for linguistic or historical reasons.
The former tend to manifest in the use of slang. A carnival barker doesn't merely bully or rag Bruno Hen, for instance, he bullyrags him, a portmanteau word I haven't heard before. Similarly, I've never heard of a plane being described as a 'sky lizzie', but presumably it simply refers to a 'tin lizzie' that flies. I had no idea what 'pac-type shoes' were, but they're waterproof moccasins. Usually, like these examples, it's the words or phrases of which I've never heard that stand out, but sometimes they're ones I know but don't expect. For instance, Doc uses the term 'half an hour', a standard English phrase that only stands out to me because Americans tend to use 'a half hour' instead. Maybe that's a recent linguistic change.
The most telling historical moment is one where Dent describes a backwoods town built out of logs as having 'an aspect somewhat out of place in this modern age.' This novel is over eighty years old but it serves well to remind us that 'modern' is a relative term. Another odd historical note comes when Doc hurtles along in his roadster so quickly that Griswold Rock utters 'a terrified choking sound' and grasps the door. He's doing all of seventy miles an hour, something most cars on our freeways do today, but it was not so expected in the mid-thirties.
There's little here to progress the mythology of Doc Savage forward. Early in the story, he escapes death from the bullets that take down Carl MacBride because he's prudently placed a wall of bulletproof glass between his 86th floor office and the corridor outside. Also, Monk has now trained Habeas Corpus, his pet pig, to do more than just appear to sass Ham through the magic of ventriloquism; here, he uses him as a sort of bloodhound.
As always, I enjoyed 'The Monsters' but, some agreeable freakiness aside, it's a missed opportunity. The monsters of the title are glorious creations who deserved more opportunities than they were given. At least the ending, in which they play a large part, isn't quite the usual one for Doc Savage novels; there isn't a single explosion, even if the villain is ultimately hoisted by his own petard. I know that Dent did bring back at least one antagonist for a second adventure but this marks the first time I've actually wanted that to happen; I'd love to see the monsters again, but put to better use. Let's see how often that feeling arises as I continue through the series! ~~ Hal C F Astell
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