THE SQUEAKING GOBLIN



From August 1934, this is a real treat and a lot of fun for Doc fans. 1934 was in my opinion the best year for the series-- Lester Dent had developed the characters and themes, he had real enthusiasm and attention to detail in his writing, and the larger-than-life melodrama of that time still works today. In this particular book, Dent keeps the story moving briskly and convincingly and he builds up to one of the most satisfying endings of any of the books-- everything is neatly explained and settled.

THE SQUEAKING GOBLIN is a bit diffferent from most of the early books, as the menace is not world-threatening but more localized and believable. The gadgets get used used pretty lightly (Doc only uses one anesthetic ball, and that on a dog) but the bronze man does get to show genuine investigative ability. All five aides appear and are shown as competent, skilled crimefighters in their own rights. It's very refereshing that, for the first half of the story, Doc works with just Renny and Long Tom (two aides who usually don't interact much).

The Squeaking Goblin himself is one of the great villains of the series. Allegedly the ghost of old Columbus Snow (shot between the eyes eighty years ago), he appears as a lurking, phantom figure dressed in a Daniel Boone-like outfit, completely with doeskin blouse and high coonskin cap. He has a dead, lifeless face with deep empty eye sockets (eek!). The Goblin has killed over twenty people as the story opens, firing his long rifle (which makes a loud squeaking noise instead of the usual report and the bullets he shoots mysteriously disappear right after they hit.
Skulking about and sniping at people, disappearing when pursued, the elusive spook is a real candidate for the gallery of top foes which includes the Mystic Mullah, John Sunlight, the Annihilist, Dan Thunden, and Mo-Gwei.

The Goblin has stirred up the dormant feud between the Kentucky mountain families of the Snows and the Raymonds, until a full scale state of war exists. The feuding hillbilly theme is almost forgotten today, but (while it may not have been historically that accurate), that type of story was enormously popular in movies and pulp stories for decades. Dent does a very good job of setting the scene, describing the action and making the bloodshed seem genuinely horrifying and tragic. Perhaps his dialect seems a bit overdone by today's standards, but then local accents were in general more extreme before the influence of television homogeneized the way people speak.

I have one word of caution for crooks captured by crimefighters. If the heroes are going to interrogate you, insist on being taken indoors and away from windows. TWICE in this story, just as a prisoner is going to spill the beans, a bullet plows through his head right in front of Doc and his men. The most dangerous spots to be in are first, being interrogated by the bronze man, and second, trying to reach the 86th floor and inform him of the villain's evil scheme. You are more likely to be killed in those situations than in any other way (well, at least in a Doc Savage story).

Doc himself is in good form this time out. He can check the trouser cuff of a victim and identify the leaves and debris as coming from the Kentucky mountains, and at the same time, he can punch a big thug so hard that the bottom of the man's moccassins show. That's our boy. Once again, he deduces the identity of the villain very early on but he refuses to tells his aides who the Goblin really is, even at the very end of the chase. You'd think that Long Tom or Renny would blow up at least once and shout, ""What IS it with you, Doc? Stop screwing around and just give me the guy's name!" but it's ultimately a way to keep the reader in suspense.

The cover to the Bantam paperback is one of James Bama's better efforts. Against a gray sky with the moon low over the mountains, Doc is confronting the title phantom. While Doc is painted a pale gold with lots of shadows, the Squeaking Goblin is gray, surrounded by fog. In his buckskin outfit and coonskin hat, clutching a long rifle in one bony hand, the Goblin's face is shown as an actual skull with a thin layer of skin. Whoa! How could you not be intrigued by a cover like that?

Original KING KONG not so great, after all?

I don't know how many times I've seen the 1933 KING KONG in my life. On broadcast TV (Channel 9 WOR from New York), once on the big screen at the Rhinebeck Art Cinema, on VHS and DVD. And I've always fallen under its spell. But now, I don't know why, something has changed. It just doesn't seem so convincing. Look at this scene and see if you agree.


Oh, all right. Seriously, this is from a Technicolor comedy short feature produced right after KING KONG was a smash. It's called THE LOST ISLAND and the gimmick was that the human characters were represented by puppets, while the dinosaurs and other giant beasts were played by live people in costumes. That's Charles Gemora in the ape suit.

Maybe Gerry Anderson should have tried this.

Surprise Package

This is the equivalent of opening a mysterious parcel that was left on a bench at Grand Central and unclaimed. You never know, could be something to cheer your heart and make you glad to be alive. Or it could be an atrocity to make you lose your appetite and walk with despair for days. Only one way to find out.

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He has the Fire of Ishtar! Looks like a flashlight, to be honest

THE MOLE PEOPLE (1956)



Here's a solid little 1950s Drive-In Classic. Somewhere in the middle of the genre as far as quality goes, it's not THEM! or THE THING but it's not THE CREEPING TERROR or KILLERS FROM SPACE either. John Agar, Hugh Beaumont and Nestor Paiva are an archaeological party who find a lost Sumerian civilization deep beneath a mountain in the Middle East. The Sumerians have mutated over thousands of years into a chalk-white scrawny bunch sort of like Edgar Winter (but some with black hair, so they're not really albinos). I missed the part that explains where light and heat come from, but the Sumies live mostly on mushrooms (makes sense). Helping them survive are the enslaved Mole People. Called "Beasts of the Dark," these goons are an iconic image of 1950s movie sci-fi, same as the Metaluna Mutant or the Saucermen.

Well, things go about as well as you can expect. The Sumerians are intimidated because the surface men carry a big ol' flashlight and it's glare is too much for them to handle. ("He has the Fire of Ishtar!") Making the situation touchy is that the Sumerians are religious fundamentalists without much tolerance for new ideas. The thought that there is a bigger civilization above them just rubs them the wrong way ("There is no world beyond ours"), and the typical scheming sneaky High Priest (Alan Napier, oh Alfred how could you?) is immediately suspicious and plots to snuff these intruders and claim that flashlight for himself. Our heroes meanwhile are offended and angered at the way the Sumies treat the Mole People... they beat the speechless critters heartlessly, keep them half-starved and cowed and in general act how a ruling class abuses the serfs everywhere in history.

You could certainly regard the way the white-white Sumerians enslave the dark Mole People as a comment on American history, and I suppose the screenwriters may have had that in mind. But they don't belabor the point, and the parallels are not close. I'm also reminded of HG Well's THE TIME MACHINE with the tables turned... this is what would happen if the Eloi got the upper hand on the Morlocks.

One more ingredient in the stew is Cynthia Patrick as Adal. (The credits list her as "Adad", but that's not what everyone pronounces). She is a throwback and has normal coloring. Well, if you consider being a peachy blonde "normal." So the other Sumerians treat her like the way a kid born with a projecting brow ledge and arms that reach the ground would be treated.


There's a lot to like about THE MOLE PEOPLE. It's competent, for one thing. Okay, the writing and directing and production values are not top-notch but they are professional. The acting is okay. If you've sat through some drive-in flicks where it sounds like the actors are reading an article out of a newspaper, you know what I mean. And I like the score, it's that bombastic full-bore epic sort of music that adds to the feel.

SPOILERS Ahead




One bit that a lot of people find unsettling is the abrupt ending. The Mole Men are freed by the surface dudes and stage a rebellion that involves a big smackdown on the Sumerians. (Those claws are useful for more than digging, eh?) In the massteria (mass hysteria), Adal and the two surviving archeologists make their way back up to the surface. It looks like everything turned out okay. But there's a small earthquake and Adal freaks the freak out. She runs back and forth like a chicken with its head cut off and seems to deliberately get under some falling rubble as if committing suicide.

As I understand it, this final scene was shot after the movie was completed. The story goes that the studio was worried about audiences objecting to a regular American citizen bringing a foreigner home as a bride. This seems way bizarre today, especially when you take a look at Cynthia Patrick.. she'd be a hit at the PTA meetings. But 1956 was a different planet. Misgenation laws existed and were enforced, and mixed couples faced everything from snubs to violence. So Adal had to die tragically. It's too bad. I think the film would play a lot better if the movie ended before she gets squished.

Oh, and I have to mention the ten minute prologue! Dr Frank C Baxter, professor of English at the University of Southern California gets up from his desk and fills us in on various theories of how the Earth might be hollow and inhabited. He seems to have done a little brushing up before hand-- the charts and references show a little preparation-- but I think he improvised most of the speech as he went along, and he looks relieved when it's over. More 1950s sci-fi flicks would benefit from having Frank introduce them ("Can a tree walk around and kill people...?")



Bogus Reviews: The lost Avenger novel

THE BILIOUS BEETLE

*

From September 1943, this is the oddest of the Avenger books, and it's significantly the only one that Warner did not reprint before starting the new books by Ron Goulart. Reportedly, wartime paper shortages meant this issue had very limited circulation. I would swear that Harold A Davis (who ghosted for Lester Dent on some of the Doc Savage adventures) had a hand in writing this -- well, he had already seen print as "Kenneth Robeson". The story has a lot of his whimsical, anything-goes style.

The Bilious Beetle himself is a typical masked supervillain with a convoluted plot to take over America's soft drink industry (the irony is that soda gives him heartburn, hence 'biliious'). We know that he's one of the members of the board of SuperSweet Cola, but none of them are given much motivation for the crimes and the fact that they all have names like Clovis Winterbottom, Leeson Van Biesel, and Obadiah Polkinghorn make it hard to keep them straight in the reader's mind. In fact, Polkinghorn is brutally killed in the first chapter but is then mentioned as being at the final meeting of the board with no further explanation.

Benson himself is in good form this case, keeping one step ahead of the mastermind, catching a thrown dagger in his teeth, stopping to rescue babies in carriages and even help change the flat tire on an old farmer's truck. But one reason to suspect Paul Ernst didn't write this story is that The Avenger's face-molding ability has been restored without explanation . Even stranger is that The Avenger can extend his arms and legs 'more than half again their normal length' in emergencies, allowing him to reach a switch eight feet off the floor. I don't recall him ever doing this before.

I did like the fact that the Bilious Beetle has been studying Benson's career and prepares for their meeting by gluing a inch-thick pad of rubber on his head, with a wig over it. When The Avenger tries his creasing trick, the unharmed Beetle laughs maniacally and knocks him out with a convenient shovel. The fact that the Bilious Beetle has a Greek henchman and chaffeur named 'Plato' hints the writer was trying to poke fun at a certain green-masked radio hero.

There is also a wonderful scene where Smitty inadvertantly comes upon Nellie Gray skinny-dipping (she's been covered in soot and is trying to get clean). As the cute blonde stands up and sees him, Smitty's remark that he's "a little disappointed" infuriates her and she doesn't talk to him the rest of the book.

While the actual plot is nothing but chases and captures and escapes, the inventive details make it fun to read. Benson uses disguises almost nonstep, confusing the crooks no end. At one point he knocks out two gunmen with gas and makes them both up to look like himself. When they wake up simultaneously and shoot each other, Benson snaps his fingers and says, "Palookas." And as much as I enjoy the use of subterfuge and misdirection, it's a little hard to accept the ending where we find out Josh Newton has been posing as Benson for most of the story-- Josh is much taller than The Avenger.

___
*Promotional art for an upcoming Moonstone collectionof new Avenger stories.