I used to be a big fan of the pulp hero Doc Savage, and collected many of the Bantam paperback reprints when I was a kid growing up in the 70s and 80s. Discovering other fans of the series online over the past several years (check out the wonderful website The Hidalgo Trading Company) has rekindled my interest and ever since, periodically, I find myself in the mood to run through a half-dozen or so of these short novels. Generally speaking, I've been able to enjoy them even through my more jaded and critical adult eyes, as examples of high-octane period adventure with often vividly-described action and spectacle. The best of them (usually by Lester Dent, who wrote the lion's share of 181 novels) are first-rate pulp thrillers that stand with the top work of the era.
However, the recent batch of "supersagas" (as entries in the series are fondly called by fans, a phrase that likely originated from famed SF writer and fan Phillip Jose Farmer, whose Doc Savage: An Apocalyptic Life is a very entertaining "bible" to the series) that I've been reading have been a decidedly average lot compared to last year's list.
The first in this year's Doc Savage binge was The Derrick Devil, originally published in Feb. 1937.
Bantam's paperback cover blurb reads:
A mysterious jellylike creature is terrorizing the Indian Dome Oil Field! The Man of Bronze and his five fantastic aides descend upon Oklahoma to do battle with dastardly Tomahawk Tant -- and uncover the infernal secret of the weird monster from the depths of the earth.
Despite a strong premise, this novel is pretty weak tea by writer Lester Dent's usual standards, with mundane villains, routine chases and escapes, and a less-effective performance by Doc this time out.
There is one great segment, though (pages 112-115), where some of the bad guys tie up the gaunt, big-word-spouting Johnny (one of Doc Savage's five pals that accompany him on his adventures) to a tank full of the weird, blob-like things that have apparently turned their many victims to piles of dissolved goo. Dent's writing comes alive here, describing Johnny's disgust and fear in atmospheric detail:
Johnny's hair stood on end. His eyes popped. Squirming, writhing hideously, translucent and ocherous in the light, was one of the fantastic monsters which had first been observed around the Sands-Carlaw-Hill wildcat oil well.
It's only a brief vignette, however, and the novel's resolution and explanation of the true nature of the creatures proves anti-climactic and somewhat lame, if in keeping with the series' rationalistic bent.
Overall, a lesser Doc Savage novel, but not without a few points of interest.
My Rating: C-
Welcome to the Armchair...
Look out the window. It’s a dark, cold, rainy day. Too nasty to go outside.
Better stay inside, read a good book.
There’s a bookcase over to your left. Run your fingers over the spines. Books of all shapes, sizes and genres; hardbacks, paperbacks. Take your time browsing through the titles. No rush. Find something that feels just right.
Now turn around. Over in the corner is a beat-up, black leather armchair. The leather is faded and cracked in places, the cushions battered. This chair has seen better days. But boy, does it look inviting...
Next to the chair is a standing lamp and a small table. Plenty of room for a nice cup of tea, a plate of cookies, whatever’s your poison.
So switch on the light, settle down with your book, open to page one, put your feet up, and let the author whisk you away to another world.
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