Doc Savage’s Other Apocalyptic Life: The Mad Goblin by Philip José Farmer (#SFWApro)

Taking a break from the regular Doc Savage series once again —

In 1973, Philip José Farmer published Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, the biography of the real person Farmer pretended Doc Savage was based on. It turns out this was his second try at that concept. In 1969, Farmer pitted the “real” Doc Savage and Tarzan — Doc Caliban and Lord Grandrith — against each other in the soft-core erotica A Feast Unknown (given my distaste for Farmer’s erotica, the odds are against me reading it). He then followed up with two sequels published in the Ace double-book format (flip book, one novel on either side), LORD OF THE TREES and THE MAD GOBLIN (cover by Gray Morrow, all image rights remain with current holder).

The premise, introduced in Feast, is that Doc and Grandrith are both agents of the Nine, an immortal conspiracy that has manipulated the world for millennia. Both rose high enough in the ranks to taste the Nine’s gift of immortality, but then they turned against them. Oh, and both of them are related, descended from one of the older immortals on the council.

THE MAD GOBLIN is definitely the stronger story. Doc and the sons of Monk and Ham penetrate the lair of Iwaldi, one of the Nine who’s turned against the others. He wants to let humanity wipe itself out with pollution, after which the Earth will regrow — they’re immortal, they can wait — and train the few survivors to accept them as gods, never developing science or democracy or any of those other ideas that crippled the Nine’s powers. The other Eight aren’t so sure they’ll survive, so they’re determined to stop him. Doc and his team must fight through Iwaldi’s endless deathtraps while ducking the strike force the rest of the council has sent against the shriveled, bearded goblin.

Lord of the Trees never makes it beyond pedestrian. It’s talky and introspective and often clunky. In the opening page, Grandrith informs us it’s easy to survive a thousand foot fall, then does so (one of the better scenes); later, one of the mercenaries hunting him repeats the same arguments. I didn’t need to read them twice. Mad Goblin gets talky and slow in spots (it’s easy to see why Farmer didn’t make his name as a writer of slam-bang pulp action), but it’s balanced out by scenes like Doc battling an enraged prehistoric bear. Both books climax with the heroes teaming up, but the fourth installment, showing their final battle against the Nine, never came out.

Rereading this so soon after Apocalyptic Life it’s easy to see the double-book as a dry run for the biography. Both present the “real” Doc and Tarzan (Farmer also did a Tarzan biopic, Tarzan Alive!); both show them as related to each other, part of a superhuman lineage. They are, however, separate characters: the Doc and Tarzan of the later books are much closer to the originals, and their relationship, part of the Wold Newton lineage (explained at the link above) is different (one Wold Newton fan writer has treated the Mad Goblin world as a kind of Earth-2 to Wold Newton).

The book also shows the trait that seemed to dominate Farmer’s 1970s and later work, playing with pop-culture characters and figures from history. Along with Wold Newton there’s his dreadful A Barnstormer in Oz; his Greatheart Silver and Savage Shadow (another version of the “real” Doc Savage) stories in the Weird Heroes anthologies; and his short stories Skinburn (about the Shadow’s son by Margo Lane) and After King Kong Fell (which is very good). For history, we have the entire Riverworld series, foreshadowed in Mad Goblin by giving one of Charles II’s mistresses (immortal too) a supporting role. And an awkward one — he infodumps enough about her history when we meet her to leave me confused and looking things up online. “Put down the book mid-read and look up what he’s talking about” is not a good response to fiction.

Overall The Mad Goblin isn’t as good as I remembered it, but it’s not horrible either.

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