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12 February 2010 @ 09:50 pm
Doc Caliban fights THE MAD GOBLIN  

This 1970 book has not aged well. It seems much less exciting and intriguing than I remembered from first reading it as a teenager ages ago, and I don't think it's just my own elderly perspective affecting things. Philip Jose Farmer tells a story with immense possibilities about a 30,000-year-old secret conspiracy of near-Immortals running the world, and how their reign is challenged by two of the greatest heroes in pulp fiction. The yarn has lots of violence and plot twists, and yet it falls strangely flat.

I never realized before how bland and colorless Farmer's writing style was in this book. He uses short, simple declarative sentences that make a running gun battle in an ancient castle read like a newspaper account. Even his choice of verbs and adjectives are uninspired and mundane. Pulp writers like Robert E. Howard and Lester Dent and Edgar Rice Burroughs may have been guilty of veering off into what is now called "purple prose", but that was a large part of their appeal. The flamboyant descriptions and exaggerated metaphors in their stories are what makes them still vivid and enjoyable. Farmer is writing this book in the dry, understated post-Hemingway mode, and it drains all the energy out of the story.

Farmer also seems to have little sense of pacing. He spends as much time on minute details during a frantic struggle to the death as he does for a person putting on a disguise, and it slows the action sequences down considerably. The big climactic battle in a fog-wrapped Stonehenge just goes on and on with no sense of structure or the combatants getting anywhere. It doesn't help that Farmer introduces a huge formidable rival out of nowhere with no foreshadowing at all, just to give Caliban a wrassling match while trying to stop a timebomb.

THE MAD GOBLIN was originally a sequel to Farmer's A FEAST UNKNOWN (reviewed in detail, click on the 'philip jose farmer' tag), a lurid and horrifying novel which pitted analogues of Doc Savage and Tarzan (called Doc Caliban and Lord Grandrith) against each other. That book had the characters suffering from a side effect of their longevity serum that linked sexual arousal with lethal violence, and the results were, well, a bit graphic. The story also featured bestiality and sodomized rape and voluntary cannibalism. It's quite an experience to read if you've just finished THE LOST OASIS or TARZAN AND THE ANT MEN and are expecting more of the same. He has dropped the explicit sex for the sequels but the violence remains a bit nastier and more brutal than usual.

A year later, Ace Books published THE MAD GOBLIN along with LORD OF THE TREES as one of their Doubles, with the front and back covers (as well as the text of each story) upside down in relation to each other. You would read one novel, turn the book over and upside down, and then begin the second one. This presents a problem here because LORD OF THE TREES and THE MAD GOBLIN are telling the same story simultaneously (from the differing heroes' viewpoints), and they both finish up at that nighttime battle at Stonehenge. By the time you get to the end of whichever book you've started second, there's not much possibility for suspense as you know where it's going.

The driving force of all three books is the existence of the Nine, the world's oldest and most powerful secret cabal. (Although I thought Talbot Mundy's THE NINE UNKNOWN were much creepier and more impressive). These ancients are literally thousands of years old thanks to a longevity elixir, and they have amassed such wealth and influence over the ages as to be above the laws of any nation. The beginning of their downfall cames when they decided to corrupt Lord Grandrith and Doc Caliban to become their servants and possibly candidates for full membership.

James Caliban is really Doc Savage from the classic pulp series in all but name and a few minor descriptive tags. Raised by his father in a scientific experiment to produce a superhuman genius skilled in every field, Caliban also gathered five adventurous friends in the 1930s and began fighting crime as a career. The difference is that he sold out to the Nine for the immortality serum and also acted as their agent when they called on him. Farmer's view is that any rational human being would compromise their values and commit any possible sin for the chance to live forever.

Well, I can see his point and maybe he's right. It's hard to think of a stronger temptation to offer anyone. Even though Caliban agrees to become a servant of the most vile conspiracy in history, he does eventually rebel and join forces with Grandrith to start taking the Nine down. (The real Doc Savage might have agreed to accept the serum so he could analyze and duplicate it, but begun fighting the Nine at once.)

Caliban uses all the wild gadgets and unlikely inventions that made Doc Savage so colorful back in the 1930s - the tiny anesthetic glass bombs, the ultra-violet light goggles, the superfirers - but by 1970, these gimmicks are not futuristic anymore. The new devices introduced (including little aggression-stimulators implanted in attack dogs and birds of prey) are fine but not as amazing as the ones Lester Dent came up with thirty years earlier. Farmer also keeps bringing the original series down to earth with a hard thud quite a bit. He mentions that the infamous Crime College, where crooks had brain surgery and re-education to make them honest citizens, eventually was closed as a failure as the graduates kept going in for different (and usually worse) offenses. "It was just too discouraging to implant a repulsion against one form of criminality only to have the man take up another."

The "mad goblin" of the title is one of the Nine, an ancient dwarf named Iwaldi, the only survivor of a sub-race of Caucasians, "the little people who gave rise to the tales of gnomes, kabolds and even trolls." He's an okay villain, but even a super-cunning mastermind 30,000 years old can't resist leaving his arch-enemy in a death trap that has a possible loophole (you have to get past a bloodthirsty grizzly bear and activate a door lock, which then won't open for five minutes while the bear shreds you) instead of just shooting the hero in the back of the head and tossing the body in a hole in the ground.

Farmer does use one of Lester Dent's better trick from the Doc Savage series, having a pair of innocent bystanders tag along for the ride, only to having one of them turn out to not be what he (or she) seems. The sons of Ham Brooks and Monk Mayfair (or their equivalents in this universe) team up with Caliban just as their fathers did. They might as well be their fathers also kept young by the serum, and Farmer doesn't really give them any new personalities. His version of their teasing banter is even less appealing than the constant ragging Dent had the originals carry on (something I never cared much for).

You know, THE MAD GOBLIN might have been a lot more fun and more satisfying if Philip Jose Farmer had started by creating his protagonists from scratch. If Caliban had been, say, a top CIA secret agent and Grandrith a big game hunter and explorer who had been corrupted by the immortality offer, then having them revolt against the Nine could have produced a very satisfying pair of adventures. But his aim was to darken and deglorify Tarzan and Doc Savage, to make them more realistic in a pessimistic way, and this leaves the books with an empty feel.
smeghead2068 on February 13th, 2010 03:07 am (UTC)
Along with the prequel, one of my favorite books of all time. I liked the ACE double's simultaneous action from differing views.
dr_hermes on February 13th, 2010 04:27 am (UTC)
Aside from THE MAD GOBLIN and LORD OF THE TREES, the Ace Double format was a great idea. You'd buy a book for one author, then figure you'd flip the book upside down and try the other novel (since you already owned it). A good way to discover writers you hadn't sampled before.
doc_mystery on February 13th, 2010 04:07 am (UTC)
At least these two were more memorable than "Escape from Loki".

dr_hermes on February 13th, 2010 04:28 am (UTC)
That was quite a disappointment. I saw it in a bookstore without any advanced notice and was all excited, only to be let down.
bibliorex on February 13th, 2010 05:45 am (UTC)
Great review, thanks! I have had this one sitting in my "to be read" pile for a while now. The premise has such potential, it's a shame that it fails to deliver.

Have you reviewed Talbot Mundy's THE NINE UNKNOWN previously? I'd like to hear more about it! I have his Tros of Samothrace novels, but that's it. I see that Wildside Press has an edition of THE NINE UNKNOWN in print currently.
dr_hermes on February 13th, 2010 09:29 am (UTC)
Yes, I'll post the review of THE NINE UNKNOWN later today. Talbot Mundy was way above nearly every other pulp writer.
bibliorex on February 13th, 2010 02:49 pm (UTC)
That would be terrific, thank you!