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WesternSFA


The Angry Ghost
Doc Savage #84
by Kenneth Robeson
Bantam, 128pp
Published: Original February 1940, Bantam January 1977

While every Doc Savage novel in the original pulp series (and almost all since) was credited to Kenneth Robeson, that was a house name. Kenneth Robeson only existed in the form of other authors who took the name when writing for either Doc Savage or the Avenger. Initially, Lester Dent was the only author, writing all ten Doc Savage novels in 1933 and all but one of the dozen in 1934. However, that pace is not an easy one to maintain and other authors gradually came in to help. In 1935, there were five of those, but Dent still wrote six novels and met that target or higher in every succeeding year. Until 1940.

He kicked off 1940 with 'The Other World', but he only wrote five of Doc's adventures that year and so did William G. Bogart—in case you care, the other two were by Harold A. Davis. The reason I mention it is because Dent was massively established in the series, the writer of the majority of the 84 novels thus far, and Bogart wasn't. He debuted with 'World's Fair Goblin' in April 1939, which was mostly a gimmick, and followed up with the underwhelming 'Hex' in November of that year, which felt like a 'Scooby-Doo' episode. This was Bogart's first opportunity to write two in a row and it has to be said that it wasn't an opportunity he lived up to.

It's a superscience story, which works for me, the MacGuffin of the piece being what the papers end up calling the angry ghost of the title. It's a mysterious weapon that turns immensely solid things to dust, things like the anti-aircraft gun installations at Fort Atlantic reported in chapter two. They're new and they're made of concrete and steel, but one shaky experience with the angry ghost later and they have no integrity left. Touch them—or kick them, as Doc does a supporting beam in the corner of his HQ that finds itself targeted by the angry ghost—and they crumble into nothing.

You will be shocked, I know, to find that there's also a beautiful girl. This time out, she's Annabel Lynn, the first character we meet, who encounters the angry ghost on Rockaway Beach. She tries to reach Doc by phone and then in person, but she's blocked at every effort. She's very capable though, as evidenced by her clever escape from a fake Ham. However, when she finally does meet the real Ham, with Monk in tow, of course, she only tells them that she wants to meet somewhere else. And we're off and running, almost literally, because this is such a restless novel that it just can't stay put for long.

Technically, that began in chapter one, because Annabel was in New York then but the two men chasing her then and the ones who kidnap her in chapter two prompt her to catch a train to Washington, DC, in which she tracks down Ham and Monk, who don't even get much of an opportunity to insult each other before she vanishes again. Doc shows up in chapter five, in New York, but he quickly flies to Washington and is brought down in Maryland. They're all back in New York in chapter eight but not for long because the story will take them to Connecticut, Massachusetts and eventually Maine, via a brief sojourn up to 30,000 feet in a stratosphere plane. It's a little dizzying.

What Bogart does well is to have his supporting characters play with our minds. Annabel Lynn may well be an innocent young thing caught up in a nightmare, but she seems too capable to be merely another feisty young thing for Ham and Monk to compete over. Her friend Warren Allen seems suspicious too, a nice guy with an uncanny habit of being in the right place at the right time. And there's Nanny Hanks, a homely middle-aged lady who constantly seems to be incredibly well-informed but who also has a talent for vanishing at the drop of a hat. What makes her most fun is how she manifests a crush on Monk, who wants nothing to do with her. Each of these characters could be a good guy or a bad guy and Bogart has enough red herrings littered throughout his story to keep us guessing.

What he doesn't do well is keep us focused, though I have a sneaking suspicion that shifting the action from city to city every ten minutes was his plan all along, just to disorient us. We certainly can't accuse him of skimping on fights or twists or revelations. He gets his fair share of destruction in too, knocking out military installations across the northeast, plus yet another one of Doc's planes. What's more, he has the angry ghost destroy a corner of the Treasury Building in New York and a corner of Doc's lab at HQ, including all the expensive equipment contained therein.

It's a neat weapon, especially when introduced at such an important moment in history. After all, this was 1940. World War II was already underway, though the United States wasn't yet part of the fight. I'd watched throughout to see how real life events in Europe throughout the thirties might have affected the series but started paying close attention during the 1939 novels to see if mention would be made. It took a while for the series to even acknowledge the existence of something going on in Europe. In fact, stories started to shift elsewhere so that they couldn't possibly be misinterpreted.

At this point, I'd say that there's an acknowledgement but it's cloaked so that, while the good guys are British, the villains are from a "little half-baked European country" without any mention of which one. What's most telling is that everything revolves around a threat to American military infrastructure, so the messages are that it exists and that it should be protected. There's even one very telling line about

"surprise weapons we're saving for anybody foolish enough to force this country into a war." Dent may not have gone there, but Bogart was flexing his chest and saying, don't try anything with America, you little half-baked European country, you.

Oddly, he didn't play the land of superheroes card, except as an implicit undercurrent. It's the surprise weapons that will save America, even though the only weapons we see here are disintegrated by little effort and the War Department doesn't trust Doc Savage enough to let him help them. Of course, Doc saves the day anyway and refuses to take any credit, but that's not the point, unless we're calling him a surprise weapon now. He certainly does an impressive job here, while everyone else plays second fiddle to a strong degree. Renny and Long Tom spend most of their time as prisoners. Monk and Ham have an unequal amount of success in fights but don't really make much difference in the grand scheme of it all.

What's more, the new little details we're told about here are Doc's work too. The stratosphere plane is an Army aircraft but it was built to Doc's specifications. When Ham and Monk are tied up and left to rot at one point, it's the cigar in Monk's pocket that enables them to escape. Crush it underfoot and it will secrete a chemical that rots ropes. That's an invention of Doc's not Monk's, even though he's a chemist and that would have been a great opportunity to bolster his scientific chops. Long Tom and Renny are in town because they've been working with Doc at the warehouse on a new diving bell he's perfecting, but it's clear that it's his project and they're just the help, even though Renny could have contributed some of his engineering skill.

The other new detail is handled by Doc, solo too. That's the hundred-foot mooring mast that sits on top of the famously unnamed building that features HQ as its 86th floor. Doc has that stuffed with gadgets to monitor their surroundings, right down to aircraft defense listening equipment. By the way, he gets up there via a narrow stairway that's concealed in the walls of his headquarters. There's plenty of stuff hidden in those walls, it seems, and we're still finding out about some of it.

What all this means is that there is progression here, from a series standpoint, but that's arguably its biggest draw. The story isn't particularly ambitious. The characters are few but worthy, because they're all drawn cryptically enough to matter. And, superscience MacGuffin aside, everything is acutely down to earth. What I took away most was how much of the novel was taken up by travel, with Doc and/or his aides—as well as many of the other characters—shift from here to there and back again with annoying frequency. If it's chapter six, this must be Washington, DC. And New York. And Maryland.

So it's about the progression for me. While the series wasn't yet ready to join the war, America wasn't either. However, there are hints here that the writers weren't unaware of the threat and the potential for their proudly neutral nation to end up involved. Of course, now we've got to this point, I'm eager to see when it escalates to the next level, because it has to. We're surely not going to be following Doc to lost worlds and hidden civilisations when American soldiers are dying overseas. But when will that shift happen? Inquiring minds want to know. Watch this space... ~~ Hal C F Astell

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