Friday, January 17, 2020

Forgotten Books: Up From Earth's Center - Kenneth Robeson (Lester Dent)

Art by George Rozen

All things have to come to an end. A little more than 55 years ago, in the fall of 1964, I plucked a copy of a paperback called METEOR MENACE from the spinner rack at Tompkins’ Drugstore. I’d never heard of the character featured in it, Doc Savage, but the cover caught my eye and the back cover copy promised all sorts of thrills and excitement and danger. So I figured it was worth risking 45 cents.

I really enjoyed the book, and a week or so later I found a copy of another Doc Savage novel, THE THOUSAND-HEADED MAN, at Trammell’s Pak-a-Bag Grocery. I bought that one, and on the next Sunday afternoon, I sat down in my favorite reading chair after church and read the whole thing from start to finish. I was a lifelong Doc Savage fan after that, and I was soon reading THE MAN OF BRONZE (actually the first book in the series). Bantam Books had reprinted those three to launch the series, and they were successful enough that for decades after that, every month they reprinted another book from the original pulp . . . and I was there, at Tompkins’ or Trammell’s or Lester’s Pharmacy to buy them. Many of them I picked up at at Mott’s Five-and-Ten Store, which had a rack of just Bantam paperbacks. (I bought a lot of Louis L’Amour novels there, too.)

Eventually Bantam reprinted the entire series, including one book that was written but never published in the DOC SAVAGE pulp. I had them all, but there were a few I never got around to reading, and after a while I deliberately didn’t read them because I kind of liked the idea that I still had Doc Savages to read. Now, though, I’m getting to be old enough that I figured if I was ever going to finish off the series, I ought to go ahead and do it. So I’ve been reading that final handful, and now we come to the last of them, the last Doc Savage novel from the original pulp, UP FROM EARTH’S CENTER, published in the Summer 1949 issue of DOC SAVAGE MAGAZINE.

This one starts off with a man who’s stranded on a rocky island off the coast of Maine being rescued by a passing yacht. The man acts strangely, and when the yacht gets back to a fishing village not far from the rescued man’s home, one of his rescuers—who happens to be acquainted with Colonel John “Renny” Renwick, and who happens to know that Renny is in the area and Doc Savage might be, too—decides to dump the whole affair in Doc’s lap. Doc, Monk, and Ham are indeed in the area and are intrigued enough to investigate how the man got stranded on the island and why he now seems to be terrified. (Renny is mentioned but doesn’t appear in this novel, and there’s no sign of Johnny and Long Tom, Doc’s other two associates.)

The situation is complicated by the arrival of a strange little guy calling himself Mr. Wail. He’s capable of doing things that normal human beings shouldn’t be. So far, until a little past the halfway point in the story, this seems like just another oddball late entry in the Doc Savage series, more like the earlier stories from the late Forties rather than the deliberately throwback yarns, THE GREEN MASTER and RETURN FROM CORMORAL, in the previous two issues.

Then Doc and the others decide to explore a deep cave near the estate belonging to the man who was rescued from the island, and once they get underground, things take a wacky, even surreal, tone. I don’t think it’s revealing too much to say that the cave may—or may not—be an entrance to Hell, and the mysterious Mr. Wail may—or may not—be an actual demon. A minor flunkey of a demon, though, not the big guy himself. And if that’s true, then it’s his job to cover up the discovery of this back door to Hades.

The ending is a bit ambiguous, and it’s an odd note on which to end the entire series, no doubt about that. And yet it kind of works, too, as if Lester Dent saved the weirdest for the last, whether it was intentional or not. Dent’s writing is in top form in this book, fast and funny and definitely with a screwball slant. I was halfway expecting not to like UP FROM EARTH’S CENTER because I knew what it was about and the plot has always struck me as a little stupid, but danged if Dent didn’t make it work. I enjoyed this story, although I’m more than a little sad to say that now I’ve read all of the original Doc Savage novels. The end of an era in my life, that’s for sure.

But not completely, because now I plan to go on and read the Doc Savage novels by Will Murray that I haven’t gotten around to (there are more of them than I realized at first) and then, although I have a general rule about not rereading books, I’m going to set that aside and read again some of my favorites from all those years ago, which will probably wind up being most of them from the first five or six years of the series. I’m looking forward to it.


Scott D. Parker said...

As much as I enjoy your Doc Savage reviews, it's the stories of your youth and reading them from your porch that I enjoy most. Makes me think of my own early reading times.

I have the same mentality about Sherlock Holmes stories and Ian Fleming James Bond novels. I might not ever read the last ones because I like the idea of there always being one more out there.

Adventuresfantastic said...

What Scott said about the biographical elements of your posts.

Doc and the Shadow are two series I have never gotten around to reading. I need to correct that oversight.