Previously I’ve looked at the Doc Savage pastiches The Mad Goblin and Doc Sidhe to take a break from the real series. This month, it’s the first of Lin Carter’s books about Zarkon, Lord of the Unknown: THE NEMESIS OF EVIL from 1975.
We open on a meeting of the Lemurian Wisdom cult, which is using its apparent occultism, mixed with murder, to drain money from wealthy suckers and intimidate anyone who snoops. One snooping reporter has infiltrated the upper levels of the cult, but he’s been made: after the meeting he dies in “invisible flames” (which just means he writhes on the ground and cries out in pain). His publisher calls in Omega, a secret crimefighting NGO led by Prince Zarkon, former monarch of European Novenia. They soon identify Lucifer, the cult leader, as Zandor Sinestro, a scientist who supposedly died in prison after their last battle. His long-range plan is to create a shadow government with wealth and influence enough to run the country. Sinestro’s occult wisdom is fake, of course; the invisible flames are just an obscure, untraceable poison.
While Lin Carter was an amazing editor for Ballantine Books’ fantasy line, his own work tended to second rate imitations of better writers (Burroughs and Howard primarily). I enjoyed Zarkon when I first read it (pulp pastiches weren’t common in the 1970s) and even when I reread it a few years ago; now that I’m reading with a more critical eye, and with a lot of Doc Savage fresh in my memory, not so much.
For one thing, the cast is way too derivative. Zarkon has black eyes instead of gold, and dresses in gun-metal grey as an imitation of the Man of Bronze. His five-man team includes Scorchy, a two-fisted bantam redhead who constantly squabbles with his elegantly dressed buddy Nick, and a tough but frail looking electrical expert; the woman in the adventure packs a big six-shooter just like Pat Savage and insists on horning in on the action.
Carter’s also a much weaker writer than Lester Dent. After the initial murder, the next few chapters are exposition and talk, with no action and little suspense. Dent never lets things go quiet for that long. Zarkon’s aide Scorchy spouts Irish dialogue right out of a 1930s B-movie. Zarkon’s really not doing very much evil at this point, despite the murder. And the timescale is wonky: it appears to be set in the 1970s or close to it, but Nick talks about performing with Houdini which would put him in his seventies (a later book has a woman in her twenties hanging out with Pat Savage and other pulp women, raising the same problem). And Lucifer’s final defeat is just a freak accident. However a few details do make the book stand out”
- Zarkon’s origin: he’s a genetically engineered time traveler from the future, sent back to stop criminals like Sinestro from bringing about WW III and the dark age that follows it.
- Easter eggs: Appearances by pulp and comics characters became a staple of the series; Ace Harrigan, one of Zarkon’s team, is related to Golden Age comics character “Hop” Harrigan for instance. It’s relatively light here — the only one I spotted was a reference to the radio/TV series Big Town.
- The intro, in which Carter asserts the events in this story are real, only all of the names and a lot of the details have been changed. He explains his intent was to write a nonfiction novel a la In Cold Blood (as someone in Capote’s book references Doc Savage, I suspect that’s another Easter egg); I’m guessing the real reason was Philip José Farmer’s Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life which came out two years earlier and claimed Doc had been real. Alas, claiming a popular fictional character was real is one thing; introducing a made-up character and pretending he’s real doesn’t have the same punch. Especially when you claim a lot of the book is made up anyway.
I don’t anticipate reading the later Zarkon books again.
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