Every Friday I focus on a New Pulp work that I think merits your attention. Sometimes it will be something that’s brand new, other times I’ll look at something that’s a few years old. This week, I’m encouraging you to check out Doc Savage: Skull Island by Will Murray.
Let’s start by taking a look at how the publisher describes the book:
Doc Savage returns from his Fortress of Solitude to discover the cold corpse of King Kong lying on his doorstep. He stuns his men when he reveals that he knows this creature. The story of how Doc Savage first ventured to Skull Island back in 1920 comprises this epic adventure of how Doc Savage first became the Man of Bronze!
Now I’m not a fan of book descriptions that give everything away but I have to say that a book pairing Doc Savage with King Kong deserves more than a three sentence summary! Anyway, that does accurately describe what you’ll get here — it’s the titanic meeting between one of pulp’s greatest heroes and the famous giant from Skull Island.
Let me say that I grew up with Doc Savage and as a kid, I loved the characters and the concepts. But as I grew older, I felt that Lester Dent’s writing was far more juvenile than his pulp contemporaries and I’d put Walter Gibson, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Paul Ernst, Norvell Page and Robert E. Howard as being light years above and beyond anything that Lester Dent ever wrote. That’s just my personal opinion, of course! Now, Will Murray has been writing new Doc Savage novels for years, most of them based upon outlines or notes left behind by Dent — I’ve often wondered where Dent ended and Murray began, because Will is usually able to perfectly capture the tone and style of Dent’s work… which, considering my ambivalence for Dent’s writing, isn’t always a good thing.
This book, however, is wholly original to Murray — and if this is any indication of what he’s capable of when freed from the shackles of writing a pastiche, all I have to say is that I wish he’d cut loose more often! This is the best Doc Savage novel I have ever read and that’s coming from someone who’s read well over a hundred of the books, not even counting Murray’s pastiches. There’s honest-to-god characterization here! Most Doc novels replace true characterization with well-worn tropes (Monk & Ham are arguing! Johnny just said super-amalgamated! etc.) but this is the first time I felt like I was really being taken inside Doc’s screwed-up head. I say screwed-up because I’ve always thought he was an awkward man-child produced by an upbringing that at best could be described as cruel and unusual… and that upbringing is repeatedly brought to the fore in this novel, as even Doc himself wonders what kind of father would have done that to him.
Speaking of Doc’s father, the scenes between the two of them echo with restrained emotion. It’s a testimony to the skill of Murray that you can feel the tension between these two men, both of whom are too damned awkward to show true emotion 99% of the time. They obviously feel passion and concern for each other & others… but it’s so tightly restrained that they both border on the fringe of madness. I’m sure some Doc fans will bristle at that description but I’ve always felt that Doc was just a healthy push and shove away from having an emotional breakdown.
The pacing of the story is wonderful — I felt like it was providing forward momentum even when the characters are just hanging out on a boat. There are some scenes here — like the “test” on the beach where Doc tries to see if he can hold his breath longer than his opponent — that I think I’ll always remember. And while I wondered if I would enjoy a Doc story where the Fabulous Five are mostly absent, I actually found that I preferred it. Unlike The Shadow’s aides (many of whom I really, really like), most of the Fabulous Five have never been remotely as interesting to me as Doc himself… freeing him from their bickering presence allowed me to truly immerse myself in Doc’s mindset. Again, if Murray could do this on a regular basis, I’d be all over a ‘young Doc’ series that put the emphasis on Doc as the star attraction like this did.
I will say that I groaned inwardly every time ‘Stormalong’ Savage was mentioned. Doc’s grandfather is alternately referred to Stormalong and Stormy throughout and I absolutely loathe it. Makes me think of Poopdeck Pappy from Popeye every time. Their last name is ‘Savage’ — you don’t need to put anything ‘cool’ in front of it! Indiana Jones isn’t called Indiana Prometheus, for Pete’s sake. The rule should be ordinary name/cool name, not cool name/cool name. Though, let’s be frank here: Stormalong is so far into uncool that it’s just silly.
Aside from that relatively minor quibble, this novel is a tour de force that not only made Doc exciting for me for the first time in years, it actually made me feel like re-reading some of the older novels, which I’ve avoided for quite awhile.
Hands-down, a must-read for pulp fans. I truly, truly enjoyed it.
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