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WesternSFA


Hex
Doc Savage #81
by Kenneth Robeson
Bantam, 120pp
Published: Original November 1939 Bantam June 1969

William Bogart would soon become a prolific writer of Doc Savage novels, turning out five of the twelve in 1940, but he was new in 1939 and this was only his second shot at the series, not to forget to mention that it was also the first without gimmicks getting in the way, because his debut effort was 'World's Fair Goblin' which was tied to its setting. It seems fair to say that this is a better novel but perhaps not as memorable, because all the opportunities I felt Bogart was given to play up the terror in a spooky novel that probably hit the streets just in time for Halloween are opportunities he didn't seem to want to take.

What he did do was set things up really well. On the very first page, Miles Billings picks some lilac and gets cursed. That's a good start and it gets quickly bolstered. He's an engineer surveying land for a new super-highway project that's being planned south of Salem. Oh yes, that Salem. He finds himself in a ghost town that closed with its mill, all twenty or so houses sagging with neglect, and it goes by Witches' Hollow. It's a fair suggestion that Bogart is really rocking at this point and the locals, from Salem Corners two miles up the road, back him up.

The first is unnamed but he says the place is hexed and he won't go near it. Cotton Mather Brown, named for the puritan clergyman who was involved in the Salem witch trials, says that the Witches' Church is also hexed. Well, it would be! His half-witted bindlestiff assistant Hyacinth says that there are still witches in a deserted Witches' Hollow. And, just to nail the point home, a kid steal a steel spike from Miles to kill one of Hannah's dead dogs that's chasing his chickens. If Miles thinks he can ignore all this, he's proven wrong at the point he presents his finding to the board and all that comes is gibberish. He's cracked, he's wacky and he's bewitched, a description that keeps on showing up in this book.

At least he suggests before he loses his marbles that they should call in Col. John Renwick, which they do, but chapter two just repeats chapter one, with only one slight deviation. Renny finds that the ramshackle doors back onto steel walls at the point he tries to put his first through one. The windows too and so he's unable to find the person he thought he saw running around in Witches' Hollow. Hyacinth says it's Hannah, a witch who died a hundred years earlier but still hangs around the place. And yes, Renny is bewitched too.

At least he battles the bewitchment and manages to get back downstairs to radio HQ and bring Monk and Ham into play. The cycle stops repeating at that point but, at various points in the story, Monk and Habeas and even Doc are bewitched, as is the inevitably gorgeous young lady who shows up at HQ looking for Doc. It's about the witches, she says, who got Billings, and then leaves because Doc is conducting a touchy brain operation at the Medical Center. Monk and Ham follow and we learn that she's June Knight, daughter of a Boston millionaire, Mortimer Knight, before they're diverted away from Boston and lose her in the fog at, you'll never guess, Witches' Hollow.

Everything here is set up well, just like a 'Scooby-Doo' episode, though this predates them by thirty years. Every turn leads to another spooky occurrence, enough that we can understand Monk starting to get a bit superstitious, but nothing gets too horrific. All these scares are family friendly Halloween scares until, as you might expect, we see through them to the reality beyond. Yes, Hannah shows up, in classic style. Doc's received a mysterious telephone call asking that he "listen for the rattling of the skeleton's bones tonight in the old belfry" and, on arrival in the church, the century dead witch stands up in a pew, showing herself to be an old crone with an evil face and a black cat. Like she was going to look any other way!

But, from here, it's traps and warnings and more traps and revelations and still more traps. After Monk is ticketed by the local constable because his low flying into Witches' Hollow prompted the Screeching Lady of the Marsh to holler all night, he becomes bewitched and we're only in chapter five. Doc's blown up only three chapters later, along with the entire town hall, after he's bewitched too and locked up in a jail cell to avoiding risking the neighbourhood. You will be shocked, I'm sure, to discover that he gets away from that certain death, only to be tied and chained and dumped into the Forest River in Boston in chapter eleven. I bet you can't guess if he survives that one too, even with Renny dumped in alongside him.

All the capable setup isn't quite backed up by how the story builds but it's not a bad novel on that front. It features a number of characters and, even though Bogart telegraphs capably, we still may not all identify either who's dressed up as Hannah—and no, there are no old lighthouse keepers in this novel—or who his ultimate big boss is. I appreciated that. I liked the reasons behind these spooky shenanigans too, because there have to be some. Clearly there's something going on that would be interrupted by a super-highway, but what isn't immediately obvious and it's revealed slowly and well.

Also, while 'Hex' does some of the good things that we tend to appreciate when they happen in this series, it also avoids doing some of the bad one that we tend not to. There isn't any deus ex machina gadgetry in play, just a few more believable devices: anaesthetic globes, smoke bombs, a magnesium flash. We surely can't complain about radios in planes and phone calls from cigar stores. And, beyond Hannah obviously an imposter, the use of disguises is entirely appropriate. Yes, Doc uses one at a crucial point in the story, but he's not expected to make it work in ten seconds flat and he's not using blackface. What's more, the most obvious use of disguise isn't even him.

If there are dubious moments here, they mostly revolve around the finalé, which wraps up so quickly that it isn't really there. We're all ready for the final battle and, oh, it's over in between paragraphs. There is a little karma in that, but it's not a traditional karmic Doc Savage ending and it feels acutely disappointing after such a setup and build. Also, while Bogart introduces Renny first, to make up for not including him in 'World's Fair Goblin', he doesn't get a huge part. At least he doesn't bring in Pat just to be kidnapped, like he did last time, but he doesn't give her enough opportunity either.

And it's that sense of being underwhelmed that stays with us as we leave this one. It promised to be much more than it ended up being, whether we're talking about Renny or Pat or the whole spooky angle, not to forget the big boss battle at the end, which is kind of what Bogart did back in 1939. I wonder if he reached a word count limit and had to wrap it up without time to edit some earlier material out to make it balance better. While 'Hex' is far from being the highlight even of 1939's stories, he did well enough here for me to look forward to his next novel, 'The Angry Ghost' after a couple of Lester Dent entries in the series.

Oh, and I should mention that he added a couple of details to the Doc Savage mythos that feel a little odd, given what's gone before. Apparently Doc has studied escapology and, at one, point had replicated every one of Houdini's escape routines. That's convenient. And one memorable scene in a vault deliberately has the Man in Bronze standing still, his hair brushing the ceiling that's identified as being 6' 8" high. That's a little taller than we've been led to believe Doc to be thus far.

And he introduced me to a new word too. Ham, we are told, is "frequently the cynosure of female eyes", a sentiment that's easy to grasp from context but means someone or something that is the centre of attention. I should use that more often.

Next month, a Lester Dent double bill because I need to catch up a month so should both wrap up 1939 with 'The Dagger in the Sky' and kick off 1940 in 'The Other World'. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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