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18 October 2012 @ 05:41 pm
Doc Savage goes to Transylvania  


This is the fourth of the new Doc Savage novels by Will Murray (based on material from Lester Dent) and it's the first one I did not really enjoy. Not that this is the end of the world. The original stories by Lester Dent, even back in the early 1930s, had a few here and there that I finished glumly and thought, hope the next one is better. It's the nature of a series, whether books or movies or albums, that some don't work as well as the better ones. Certainly I am still looking forward to the next one, PHANTOM LAGOON, and expect that familiar little thrill when I settle back to open an unread Doc Savage book.

By this time, it is clear that I am never going to adjust to the length of the new books. Growing up on pulp novelettes that ran around 100 pages or so, I am used to a story I can finish on a single Sunday evening and get the full momentum. Publishing reality calls for longer books these days. and I understand that, but I just don't like long adventure stores. Reading a huge wrist-breaker by James Michener is one thing; those are epics you read over a period of time and they usually cover decades of events. An action thriller, no matter how briskly it moves (as this one does) suffers a bit by having too much time between the first page and the last. (My getting old and losing my attention span doesn't help, of course.)

Anyway, DEATH'S DARK DOMAIN has our heroes traveling to a place called Ultra-Stygia, a burned out no mans land between Freedonia and Sylviania errr Tazan and Egallah. They are trying to recover some of the advanced secret weapons that John Sunlight stole from the Fortress of Solitude. Doc and the boys bounce back and forth between the two warring nations, tangling with a variety of bizarre and seemingly supernatural monsters. Tagging along and mostly getting in the way are a female secret agent who seems to be doing a good impersonation of Vampira (before there was a Vampira) and a guy who has become invisible but also has grown a bristly coat of hair. There are a lot of chases and captures and escapes before everything gets resolved.

Plenty of ingredients in the stew this time around, but I thought they actually worked against each other. To the reader, it's clear that the stolen super-weapons are behind the occult shenanigans such as the clouds of impenetrable blackness or the invisible ogres with dozens of eyes. It should be obvious to the aides as well, after all they are explicitly on a mission to retrieve these weapons yet they seem puzzled and half-believing in the supernatural events.

Fiana Drost as a femme fatale fell flat. She drops hints in all directions that she is a genuine vampire, and the aides let it go without much challenge. (Although I do like Long Tom throwing a shoe at her when his patience reaches it limit.) After a few days, when she has had to eat and sleep and use the bathroom, her pose would be ruined but this isn't mentioned. She doesn't get much to do, except for murdering a few helpless victims with her bat-shaped medallion and the big revelation of her parentage doesn't go anywhere either. (Hint: her father was not up for sainthood.) I was hoping for her to start ranting about her own ambitions to rule the world and to make her escape with a crate of the stolen weapons, but nope.

As always, Will Murray nails every detail of the ongoing characters just right. Long Tom joins the usual team of Monk and Ham, and every bit of their characterization rings true. Pat turns up briefly but gets shuffled off to stay behind, despite her wishes. (Murray gets in one of the funniest bits of any Doc Savage story to date. In a hospital bed after possibly being exposed to anthrax, Pat asks her cousin "How long have I got?" Doc blandly tells her "About a week." He means a week of staying under observation but for that moment, Pat is understandably horrified. I can't help but think Doc knew the effect his answer would give and this was his deadpan way of pranking her.

We also get an interesting explanation of why Doc paints so many of his planes that distinctive bronze color. It's not sheer vanity (like having the Bantam logo painted on the side would be) but because having the planes so recognizable shows that they are unarmed civilian craft and no threat to the authorities. This is to reassure the military of any country that Doc finds himself entering the airspace without permission. I don't know if Will Murray came up with this or it was in Dent's notes but its a good idea.

It's also a neat touch that neither Egallah nor Tazan is friendly to Doc, both regarding him and his men as spies. Usually, one of the warring countries in stories like these is depicted as more democratic or just than the other, there is a good guy-nation and a bad guy-nation. Here they are both jerk-nations fighting over disputed territory between them.

I know I mention this with every review, but only fans understand the joy of seeing a new Doc Savage novel in your hands... not a pastiche set in modern times, nor a shoddy sex-up glitzy Philip Jose Farmer-type story but something that from start to finish has the ring of a genuine Doc story. And it is a faint but warm pleaure to look up and see spines of new Doc Savage books starting to line up on the shelf and reflect there are more to come.
Zathras IXzathras_ix on October 19th, 2012 02:37 am (UTC)
Technically speaking, it's Doc Savage in Ultra-Stygia and Long Tom on SS Transylvania
dochermesdochermes on October 19th, 2012 07:07 am (UTC)
In a literal sense, yes. I was thinking of Transylvania in its metaphoric way of standing for vampires, mad scientists, Universal horror movies, that sort of thing. It has little to do with the historical Transylvania, more of a cultural reference... kind of like Dodge City meaning the mythical Wild West.

I wonder if anyone else doesn`t like the length of current fiction in general? Maybe I am an old fogey pining for the days of Bantam 120~pagers and most readers today like the longer books and feel they are getting more for their money?

dozy81 on October 19th, 2012 05:11 pm (UTC)
Doc, you may or may not be an old fogey (you should ask for Lajka's opinion on that), but it isn't because of your disdain for the bloated whales that pass for novels in the 21st century. I think the best length for a story of adventure or action should be around 40,000 to 60,000 words. Anything longer often involves padding, which usually leads to a slackening of suspense and intensity. (Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, but not many.)
dochermesdochermes on October 19th, 2012 06:30 pm (UTC)
I'm glad someone else feels that way. Big sprawling epic like books by James Michener or James Clavell are fine; even the longer Flashman books work well because they cover a lengthy period of time (often a person's entire life). But adventure stories and other pulpish stuff seem best at a shorter length.

As I understand it, publishers not only want long novels, they prefer novels to collections of stories. I personally would love to see Will Murray do a book of three related 100 page novellettes. Maybe one of Pat and Tiny just before BRAND OF THE WEREWOLF, or all five aides handling an entire adventure without Doc appearing once. You know, something different.
Derrick Fergusondferguson on October 19th, 2012 11:36 pm (UTC)
Ideally, pulp novels should be long enough to read in a single sitting or two at most. That's why I keep my Dillon novels between 40,000 and 60,000 words. Not every book has to be a Stephen King sized monolith.
full_metal_oxfull_metal_ox on October 19th, 2012 07:49 pm (UTC)
In a literal sense, yes. I was thinking of Transylvania in its metaphoric way of standing for vampires, mad scientists, Universal horror movies, that sort of thing. It has little to do with the historical Transylvania, more of a cultural reference... kind of like Dodge City meaning the mythical Wild West.

The TV Tropes term for Universal Pictures/Gothic Horror/Vaguely Former Soviet-Bloc-Land (search at your own risk) is "Überwald".

Zathras IXzathras_ix on October 19th, 2012 08:04 pm (UTC)
Although the pulp stories were will billed as "full length novels" (later amended to "80-page novel"), they are more accurately described as "novelettes" or "novellas", the difference between the two being more a matter of word count than content.

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Nebula awards for science fiction define the novelette as having a word count of between 7,500 and 17,500, inclusive, and the novella as having a word count between 17,500 and 40,000. Other definitions of the novella start as low as 10,000 words and run as high as 70,000 words.

In any case, the pulps sold for between 10¢ and 25¢ amd contained the central "novel" and several short stories and features, in much the same way that the price of a night at the movies covered of an A movie, a B movie, a newsreel, cartoon and other selected short subjects.

The Bantam paperbacks repackaged the Doc Savage novella/novelette as a standalone volume for 45¢ from 1964 to 1967 and increased to 50¢ ("A Bantam Fifty") from 1967 to 1969, 60¢ from 1969 to 1971, 75¢ from 1971 to 1975, 95¢ from 1975 to 1976, $1.25 from 1976 to 1980, $1.95 from 1980 to 1986 (albeit now each volume contained two stories) and so on. These were the same stories that originally sold for 25¢ as only half of the content of a pulp magazine.

The last time I looked, mass-market paperbacks sold for $7.95 and all of them looked like what we used to call "doorstop" books. This is not only due to the need to justify increasing costs for the product by providing sufficient content to satisfy the value-for-cost urges of the consumers (which viewpoint ignores the fact that some content is inherently more valuable that other content, warranting some price differentiation between the dross and the gold) but also because of the trend to market books as "bestsellers" in the same way that movies are marketed as "blockbusters", again with little or no regard for the actual content or its relative quality.

When Will Murray started writing Doc Savage novels, he was coming to the heels of the Omnibus edition and Philip José Farmer's ESCAPE FROM LOKI, when paperback were going for $2.25 or more (which was once the price for a HARDCOVER) and a "novel" is considered to be 70,000 words or more. That's an order of magnitude greater than the word count of the novellas or novelettes of the pulp magazines.

You write for the market or you don't get published and the market demands that "novel-length" story have a certain minimum word count. The unofficial NASA motto was "No bucks, no Buck Rogers!" In today's book market, the equivalent would be "Insufficient wordcount, no Doc Savage!"
dochermesdochermes on October 19th, 2012 08:47 pm (UTC)
Wasn`t there also something about printing costs for a big book being not that much more than for a slimmer book, but the extra customers drawn in made for profit? Or am I remembering that wrong?
dozy81 on October 19th, 2012 09:09 pm (UTC)
1. Doc, I've heard that explanation as well. It seems plausible.

2. There is a theory that the widespread adoption of the personal computer back in the 80's made it easier for authors (who are often a gassy, long-winded breed) to write lengthier and more complicated books. Thus, the doorstop novel became much more common.
full_metal_oxfull_metal_ox on October 19th, 2012 09:38 pm (UTC)
That, and I imagine that the enormous success of LORD OF THE RINGS may have led publishers to encourage trilogies (and further) over one-shots or tidy episodic series.
dochermesdochermes on October 20th, 2012 01:33 am (UTC)
All this makes sense, and all reasons why we are not likely to see slim little 120 pages paperbacks anytime soon. Too bad from my point of view, but then the world is not set up to please my taste.

I wonder if shelf space might be still another factor. If you have two or three big old clunkers from Robert Jordan on a shelf, there is less room for something by another author that might siphon off some possible sales. Just an idea. I have read that Pepsi and Coke keep some varieties going, not because they are big sellers, but because they crowd soda by other companies off the shelf. If a store wants Pepsi, they have to take some Pepsi Durian Mango Lite as well, which means RC Cola gets ditched.