The Thousand-Headed Man | Doc Savage #2

The Thousand-Headed Man | Doc Savage #2
Kenneth Robeson | Bantam Books | 1975 | 150 pages

Proto-superhero Doc Savage, Man of Bronze, and his crew–Johnny, Renny, Long Tom, Ham, and Monk–return for more two-fisted action, groan-inducing racial stereotyping, and no-apologies plundering of indigenous cultural treasures.

On a stopover in London, Doc Savage comes to the aid of Lucile Copeland, daughter of an explorer lost in the jungles of Southeast Asia. A single survivor of her father’s fateful expedition provides Doc with a strange black stick, allegedly the key to a mythological abandoned city that houses a vast treasure. Somewhere in the unmapped jungles of the region, the city is reputedly guarded by a single occupant—the legendary Thousand-Headed Man.

Doc, however, is not the only interested party in the elder Copeland’s fate, and the treasure that may be unearthed in discovering his whereabouts. Sen Gat, a mercenary crime boss, is also on the trail, and makes an attempt on the lives of Doc and his men in order to steal away the treasure key in their possession. Gunfights, kidnapping, and murder all ensue, leading to an air race across the globe to find the lost city in the jungle, and the riches that await its discovery.

Except for the notoriously long-winded Johnny, Doc’s companions fail to live up to their reputations as super-geniuses in their respective fields, generally barking monosyllabic replies to their situations. However, Monk the chemical genius does enact an unusually creative solution to hiding the black key (he melts it down and soaks the resulting liquid in his undershirt).

Sen Gat is depicted as a colorful villain, with his curling fingernails covered in gold, but Doc’s foil also suffers from the inherent racism against Asians so pervasive in the popular culture of the era in which the book was written. Virtually every description of Sen Gat and his gang make reference to their slant-eyed appearance, inscrutable ways, and singsong English; “Velly solly.” This baked-in obstacle to enjoying the pulp action is in no way exclusive to the Doc Savage series, but is certainly a potential warning signal for those readers understandably unable to contextualize the offensive content. Even an intended altruistic finale, with Doc declaring his portion of looted treasure going to the construction of local hospitals, reinforces the racist notion of a white man’s burden—or bronze man, perhaps, in this case. Monk even attempts to justify their theft by arguing, “Their ancestors probably swiped it from the original owners.

Once Doc and crew finally disembark their aircraft in the jungle, they are stalked by a strange entity and suffer inexplicable black-outs. Lucile Copeland even insists she gets a glimpse of a man with a thousand heads outside their camp. This enjoyable sense of suspense as they delve deeper into the jungle doesn’t last long enough, however, as explanations soon enough deflate the air of mystery. Seemingly recycling the finale of the first installment in the series, Doc and company eventually find themselves holed up in a temple, shooting it out with waves of incoming enemy fighters.

Still, there are enough menacing crocodiles, escapes from writhing snake pits, deadly encounters with cultists, and squealing escapades with Monk’s pet pig, Habeas Corpus, to keep turning the pages

The Man of Bronze | Doc Savage #1

The Man of Bronze | Doc Savage #1
Kenneth Robeson | Bantam Books | 1975 | 170 pages

There is not a thing he can’t do, I reckon.

Fisticuffs! Shootouts! Airplane dogfights! Proto-typical superhero Doc Savage and his band of adventure-seeking super scientists propel themselves through what amounts to an origin story, all told in a breathless style simply describing the action. With exclamation points! Lots of exclamation points!

After surviving an attempt on his life by an unknown, red-fingered assassin, Doc discovers a bequeath by his late father, granting him a significant land holding in the Central American country of Hidalgo. Doc’s father instilled an unmatched drive and sense of discipline in his young son, whose years of mental and physical training have developed his mind and body into an unprecedented paragon of human perfection. That very perfection also undermines almost all suspense, because Doc will surely pull upon his unlimited knowledge of chemistry, biology, archaeology, engineering, law, medicine, or surgery to overcome any obstacle in his way, not to mention his seemingly superhuman physical prowess.

Doc’s team of all-star scientific experts—Johnny, Renny, Long Tom, Ham and Monk—are rarely called upon to exert their (alleged) collective genius, reduced to providing support by punching walls, firing off pistol rounds, ribbing each other, or shouting exclamations.

We’re sitting pretty!

Knock on wood, you lunk!

Fooey–we’re lost!

Originally written in the thirties, the story displays the inherent racist and colonial attitudes characteristic of the day. Condescending views towards Latin America, lazy or corrupt local citizens and officials, and an endless stream of swarthy villains all contrast the perfection of our intrepid band of white explorers. Even the gold resources of a lost kingdom are all served up to these new conquistadores in their pursuit of global adventures. Lacking details regarding his heritage, Doc’s status of exemplar of his race is still curious, particularly given his dark (albeit metallic) complexion; Chalcolithic-American, perhaps?

After accepting Doc’s naturally bronze skin and golden eyes, perhaps the most difficult question to answer remains, “What’s the story with his waterproof hair?

The Hephaestus Plague

The Hephaestus Plague
Thomas Page | Bantam Books | 1975 | 217 pages

Once you crack the chitinous shell of disbelief, the Hephaestus Plague delivers a skittering, insectile variation on the animals-run-amok theme so prevalent in seventies ecological horror.

Following an anomalous earthquake in a small North Carolina town, a previously unknown type of beetle issues forth from a newly-created fissure in the earth. Completely blind and equipped with an impenetrable shell, this throwback species living underground since prehistoric times also possesses a unique anatomical feature — two flint-like back legs capable of sparking fire. As a series of fatal fires spreads along the east coast, reclusive entomologist James Parmiter leads the academic drive to find a way of stopping the insects and their apocalyptic threat to society.

The details of the beetle’s cross-country march (via the tailpipes of cars) and their fiery reign of destruction are delivered in an almost clinical, detached state of observation. This sense of removal from affairs starkly contrasts Parmiter’s growing obsession with the beetles and the mystery surrounding their reproductive process. Withdrawing into the dingy confines of his basement laboratory, Parmiter arguably descends into madness as he conducts breeding experiments, first to unlock any potential vulnerabilities, but later to unknown ends.

After Parmiter successfully cross breeds the fire beetles with a common domestic species, events unmoor from any pretense of clinical foundations and take a firm detour into the realm of weird science. Swarming over his experimental notes and listening to his voice, the beetles develop an understanding of language, communicating with Parmiter by assembling words through formations on the wall: “Parmiter”, “No”, and eventually, “Kill”.

Parminter’s relationship with his experimental beetle Goldback recalls the special animal bonding formed with the rat from Willard, with Goldback following Parmiter from his bowl and listening attentively from his perch on the windowsill. Parmiter’s fog of madness obscures his motivations to the degree that his goal is uncertain. Is he attempting to stop the plague of beetles, or facilitating it?

A brief flirtation with body horror, after Parmiter’s lab assistant develops odd symptoms following a bite on the hand, ultimately leads nowhere, although another transformation akin to an interspecies amalgamation is later hinted. The expected heebie-jeebies in a purported insect horror are also mostly absent until the finale, when a character pushes knee-deep through a swarm of beetles.

Dreadful Hollow

Dreadful Hollow
Irina Karlova | Paperback Library | 1968 | 221 pages

Young Jillian Dare accepts a position as a companion to the aging Countess Ana Czerner in her hulking Grange manor estate, only to discover herself trapped in a mysterious, secluded world of burgeoning horror. Obvious clues will dampen the mystery, however, as early descriptions of Eastern European heritage, blood-red lips, sharp teeth, and an aversion to garlic all but scream “VAMPIRE!” to Jillian, who seems stubbornly resistant to hearing it.

Chapters periodically alternate between those from Jillian’s perspective and journal entries from Larry Clyde, a young village doctor who becomes enamoured with Jillian and fixated on her continued well-being at Grange manor. “Miss Muffett”, Clyde’s arguably belittling and infuriatingly repeated pet name for Jillian, actually proves well chosen, since Jillian behaves as a total naif throughout the course of many sinister developments. Although she senses a general presence of enveloping danger, she remains nearly oblivious to the threat from the “spider who sat down beside her”.

Dreadful Hollow mostly succeeds in delivering a rich mood of decay and despair, heightened by a grotesque cast of supporting characters. Grange manor is initially populated by a withered household servant and a mentally defective gardener, but they are soon joined by a sinister Romanian doctor along with the voluptuous Vera Czerner, Ana’s young and magnetic niece. Her lips, like those of her aunt, are luxuriously red and reveal the occasional glimpse of stunning white teeth, posing two questions:

Why are they never in the same room together?

How does Jillian not know the answer?

Dr. Clyde makes a nominal effort to uncover whether or not Jillian is simply crazy, traveling to London to question her family in regard to her mental history. His attention is momentarily piqued by Jillian’s younger sister—who appears to have mental issues—until she is revealed to only having been dropped on her head as a child!

When a village boy goes missing and the evidence ultimately points to the occupants of Grange manor, the combined pressure of the village constable and Dr. Clyde finally elevates the long-simmering suspicions about the countess(es) to a boiling point. Interestingly, the resolution to the child’s whereabouts and to Countess Czerner’s strange condition all unfold at a distance, with little explicit first-hand detail. Instead, a general hot-house environment of evil intentions permeates Grange manor, providing enough anticipation to overcome any inherent final lack of surprise.

Fog Island Horror

Fog Island Horror
Marilyn Ross | Popular Library | 1978 | 221 pages

Never remotely reaching the promised “horror’ in its title, this entry in the loose series of Fog Island novels has all the elements of a gothic potboiler—scheming relatives, an unsolved murder case, secrets buried in a closed-off cellar, mysterious monster sightings—but languishes in a mostly undeveloped state until a fatal struggle on the precipice of some storm-drenched cliffs triggers the final resolution.

A chance encounter with Charles Trent leads Rachel Blair to a position as a companion to his aunt, the ailing family matriarch on their estate on Fog Island. To help ease the elderly woman’s deteriorating mental condition, Charles convinces Rachel to assume the role of Lydia’s granddaughter, also named Rachel, who disappeared along with her father following the shocking (and unsolved) murder of her mother twenty years previously. Of course, Charles’ initial altruistic motive quickly becomes suspect as his potential gain in an inheritance ploy comes to light, and his friendly demeanor towards Rachel degenerates into open belligerence.

The decades-old murder mystery simmers in the background, with a number of possible suspects still in the picture at Trent Manor. The household gardener, the family doctor, and even the invalid neighbor all fall under suspicion. Rachel herself even glimpses the local legend, a monster haunting the desolate coves near the estate, whom she begins to believe is Lydia’s missing son, returned to the scene of the crime and hiding somewhere in the boarded up sections of the mansion.

However, Rachel never seems in any immediate danger, and events on Fog Island fail to deliver much in the way of any surprises. Charles remains a heel, the old neighbor’s dashing son becomes an obligatory love interest, and Rachel Blair slowly begins to suspect she is the lost Rachel Trent after all.

Although Rachel develops something akin to a family bond with Lydia—arguably committing her to seeing through the underlying mystery of Trent Manor—her perfunctory engagement undermines any budding suspense. If she so chooses, Rachel could escape with her betrothed, James Duncan, who is so tenaciously above reproach that it’s difficult to even pose the standard genre question asked of the heroine’s romantic partner, “Is he a secret villain?

The Fatal Flower

The Fatal Flower
Lynn Benedict | Avon Books | 1973 | 190 pages

After surviving a harrowing plane crash, Alice Whelan reunites with her estranged mother, Diana Hamilton, a former actress now living a reclusive life on a remote island off the Florida coast. On the way to visit the crumbling estate that Diana shares with her second husband, Leland Braddock, Alice sees a young girl chased down and abducted by a limousine driver. Later, she discovers the same car parked in the boathouse of her mother’s estate.

When she fails to convince the local sheriff of her story, Alice pursues her own investigation, determined to find the missing girl hidden somewhere on the island. Alice’s search ultimately leads to her discovery of Leland’s young daughter, Sarah, secretly locked in a solarium in a disused wing of the mansion. What follows veers unexpectedly off course from psychological mystery or family drama into the realm of … weird science.

In an effort to reverse the effects of aging, Leland and his son Justin, a university researcher in botany, have been conducting some unorthodox experiments with a variety of carnivorous plants in the estate’s greenhouse. The fallout from an early procedure involving a particularly deadly variety of flesh-eating plant species traps Alice in a surprisingly lethal encounter, while transforming a prospective victim into a potentially life-draining villain.

Alice wades through a fetid atmosphere of plant-based toxins, dangerous beds of tentacled flora, and some literal quicksand through to a final pungent whiff of full-on body horror, culminating in a rather unconventional, if not romantic, ending. The Fatal Flower first presents the trappings of a traditional mystery, only to send those expectations jumping off the rails.

However ridiculous, it’s all deadly earnest, even if Sarah can’t help unintentionally channeling a bit of Audrey, Jr. from Little Shop of Horrors. If only she sang out, “Feed me, Seymour!”

Come to Castlemoor

Come to Castlemoor
Beatrice Parker | Dell Books | 1970 | 205 pages

A dubious historical assertion on the purpose of neolithic stone circles underpins this gothic tale of a city girl stumbling towards uncovering a deadly secret in a small English village.

After the accidental death of her brother, Kathy Hunt packs up her belongings and moves from London to the evocatively named village of Darkmead to continue his research on the Stonehenge-like circle of standing stones dominating the moors outside of town. Accompanied by her maid Stella, a sassy girl with a seemingly singular fixation on strapping young farm lads, Kathy occupies her brother’s former house, a small cottage not far from the stone circles and under the malevolent watch of the village’s medieval castle.

Although Kathy considers herself a forward-thinking young woman, the character of Darkmead’s stone circle initially tests her Victorian-era sensibilities. The standing stones she encounters at Darkmead, unlike the purely architectural post-and-lintel forms at Stonehenge, overtly resemble phalluses. While searching for her brother’s missing manuscript, Kathy also discovers a similarly-shaped small stone necklace in his study.

Against the background mystery of her brother’s death, a familiar romantic melodrama unfolds, with Kathy at one corner of a potential love triangle. Cousins and Castlemoor residents Burton Rodd and Edward Clark both jockey for Kathy’s attention in their own fashion. The brooding Burton masks his attraction with a seemingly antagonistic attitude toward Kathy, whom he insists leave Darkmead at once. The ingratiating Edward charms on the surface, but perhaps hides a less sincere motivation. Meanwhile, Bella’s beribboned and corseted seduction of a hunky farm hand plays almost as a bickering comic relief.

Glimpses of figures in white drifting across the moors, possible sightings of lost loves in the gloom of the castle dungeons, and hints of a secret network at work in Darkmead all permeate the romantic shenanigans with some atmosphere of mystery and foreboding—although one character’s attempt at a secret handshake with Kathy comes off as unintentionally humorous.

The lessons learned: small towns harbor dark secrets, and misplaced trust ultimately leads to an unholy ritual on a sacrificial altar.

The Seth Papers

The Seth Papers
Frank Lauria | Ballantine Books | 1979 | 168 pages

It seems onions change color when exposed to hostile energy.

Fleeing from the pursuit of a governmental agency that would corrupt his scientific research into the occult for use in developing military projects, psychic investigator Dr. Owen Orient goes into hiding in Morocco. However, he soon becomes embroiled in an international conspiracy to harness the supernatural powers of the Hand of Seth, an Egyptian artifact that offers a nearly unlimited pool of occult energy to those who possess it.

Broken into two distinct stylistic halves, The Seth Papers begins with Orient’s account of being recruited by Dr. Maya Rand to assist in the opening of a previously unknown tomb outside Marrakech. Duplicity and double-crosses abound after Orient discovers the mystical Hand of Seth, a mummified hand that functions as a talisman of enormous psychic energy, with bureaucrats, secret police, ambassadors, and the clergy scrambling for control. Infatuated by Maya’s alluring beauty, Orient suffers a tragedy and loses possession of the hand. He ultimately follows her trail to Rome, vowing to recover the occult artifact and settle their personal score.

Once in Rome, the story implements a jarring shift in point of view. Switching to a format of field reports from secret agent Jody Hensen to Control, Orient and his activities become the subject of her ongoing operation to extract and debrief him. Initially intending to capture the results of his psychic experiments for the government, Jody’s motivations change after becoming personally involved with Orient. As she slowly becomes aware of the growing danger posed by the Hand of Seth, and the scheme to elevate an elite occultist cabal to the highest levels of international power, she takes psychic training from Orient to develop her own latent abilities, preparing herself for the true battle to come.

Jody’s undercover work draws her into a subterranean world of drug-fueled orgies, ritual sacrifice, and right-wing military coups, while Orient prepares a psychic defense composed of pentagrams within circles drawn on the floor in chalk, glasses of saltwater for telepathic defense, and pieces of energy absorbing onions placed at the cardinal points of the compass. The arbitrary structure ultimately doesn’t advance the story in any meaningful way, and the Jody-as-Watson to Orient-as-Holmes relationship seemingly set up a potential sequel that never materialized.

It all amounts to enjoyable hokum up to a point, but instead of delivering a finale composed of astral projection and telepathic mind battles, the action disappointingly devolves into car chases and gun play.

Shadow of Evil

Shadow of Evil
Greye La Spina | Paperback Library | 1966 | 160 pages

Framing the narrative as a lost manuscript delivered to a supernatural-aware author for publication, Shadow of Evil (originally published in 1925 as Invaders from the Dark) delves into a world of occultism and magic, but its second-hand structural perspective ultimately  instills a curious sense of detachment from the series of strange events detailed in the story.

Sophie Delorme recounts how her young niece, Portia, traveled to a small town in upstate New York to accept a position as a live-in assistant to Howard Differdale, a reclusive man who is engaged in some secretive experiments behind the high walls of his estate. Over the course of many letters from Portia, Sophie learns of Portia’s surprising marriage to Howard Differdale, and of his sudden death. Accepting Portia’s invitation to come live with her in the Differdale mansion, Sophie ultimately plays chaperone in an unexpected, and quite unusual, love triangle.

Portia’s marriage was simply a sham to allow her to live and work with Howard Differdale, whose secretive research into the occult and magic Portia has vowed to continue. She longs for romance with Owen Edwardes, a cheerful young real estate broker, but feels too constricted by her status as mourning widow in the small community to act upon her feelings. Complicating matters is the arrival of Irma Andreyevna Tchernova, a strangely magnetic Russian princess who seems determined to capture the romantic attention of her “Ow-een”.

Since we share Aunt Sophie’s perspective in this documented manuscript format, we never come to understand just what weird occult science Portia devotes all her waking hours studying. The remains of some strange cabalistic markings on the ground in the courtyard offer the only first-hand evidence of magic rituals being performed. Even an episode of astral projection plays as an anecdote told to Sophie.

Still, uncanny occurrences are afoot in the small town. Owen is mesmerized by the evil olfactory influences of flowers pinned to his lapel, children are abducted on the street, and policeman are attacked by wild animals.

Beyond some general pontificating on the nature of incarnate good and evil, Portia’s internal process largely remains a mystery, leading to some whiplash-inducing conclusions. The unusual length of a third finger, a large meat  order from the town butcher, and an overheard word (“volkodlak”) result in a rapid pronouncement of lycanthropy. Not that Portia is wrong, but lacking her first hand viewpoint makes the story seem to be unfolding at some distance, with Aunt Sophie just having to take her word for everything.

The final confrontation actually occurs at a double remove, with Portia recounting the Princess Tchernova’s mute assistant Agathya’s observation of events while peeking through a window.

House of Dark Laughter

House of Dark Laughter
Melissa Napier | Avon Books | 1972 | 176 pages

“There were what was called a woman’s wiles, and she was prepared to use them as much as necessary in order to get the man that she knew she wanted.”

Young art appraiser Betsy Vaughn accepts a position in opulent Dalton Manor to assess a dying man’s estate, and following the well-worn traditions of the inheritance thriller, finds mystery, intrigue, and a possible romance. She is also knocked unconscious several more times than the average heroine.

Employed by Carter Willard, the ailing Mr. Dalton’s personal secretary, Betsy finds herself among a host of antagonistic and scheming relatives, each positioning themselves for an anticipated piece of the estate. The young and beautiful Alice Dalton has assumed the role of caretaker for her stricken older husband, and immediately treats Betsy as an unwelcome outsider. Derek and Lorna, Dalton’s feckless niece and nephew, are less overtly hostile, but clearly impatient to begin spending the family fortune.

Mildly diverting but lacking any distinctive elements to elevate it from a multitude of similar genre entries, House of Dark Laughter delivers enough modest thrills to sustain its short page count: thumping noises from the closed-off wing of the mansion, hazy spectres in the night, the mysterious disappearance of the first Mrs. Dalton and her young infant daughter, and a rash of threats and actual attacks against Betsy.

Even with a slight twist in the final act, after a semi-incapacitated Betsy is dragged through the grounds to a waiting shallow grave, the identity of her antagonists comes without much surprise. Apart from placing herself in enough perilous situations to receive an inordinate number of blows to the back of her head during a few weeks at Dalton Manor, Betsy mostly lacks the crippling meekness and poor decision making so often characterized by the heroines in these women-in-danger tales.

House of Dark Laughter* occupies an easily familiar and comfortable space, while somehow allowing a certain curmudgeonly resistance to rise against its preordained conclusion of hard life lessons learned, the importance of biological family, and the need of a young woman to land her dream man.

*Editor’s Note: No trace of “dark laughter” exists in the entire text.