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WesternSFA


The Other World
Doc Savage #83
by Kenneth Robeson
Bantam, 119pp
Published: Original January 1940 Bantam October 1968

A pilot kills a raging bull with a seven-foot spear. In a farmer's field outside St. Louis. He's dressed in an odd combination of animal hides and metal clogs. He speaks English, but in a way that suggests that he hasn't used the language in a long time. He leaves his plane with the farmer and walks off to town. He's here to sell furs and highly unusual ones at that. At $5,000 a skin, which is a heck of a lot in 1940 money. I checked the inflation calculator and it's just over a hundred grand. And Decimo Tercio has twenty-seven of them. Now, this is a textbook opening for a Doc Savage novel!

The catch is that Gerald Evan Danton, better known as Two Wink, is there at the fur market and he has a standing offer of $500 from two different people to notify them whenever skins like these ones show up on the market. They're Arnold Columbus and Wilmer Fancife, both of New York. He quickly notifies both of them, which prompts a fistfight as the flight from Newark arrives in St. Louis. Fancife is the tough fat man who starts it by hitting the young yellow-haired man with his suitcase. That's Columbus, inevitably nicknamed Chris, who's built like a blacksmith and fights back.

The delay to the latter by having to talk to the police sets the whole novel in motion. Fancife gets to Two Wink first and, even though the latter pulls a gun on him, they become partners. Columbus tries to mail a letter to Doc but, while that's stopped by the bad guys, he sends a telegram too, just in case, and that gets through and piques the interest of Doc Savage, who's back to showing up as late as chapter five, of only eighteen.

He's set up really well here. Two Wink apparently hasn't heard of him, so Fancife explains with an intro that's as effective as Lester Dent tended to make it, but without retreading old ground. Then he adds a bit more by closing what I presume was being perceived in fan letters as a plot hole. If Doc Savage was famous for helping people without asking for payment, then he'd be deluged with scroungers, right?

In case that's a question we were asking, Dent explains that he is, but they're given understanding and help, but no money. Those truly in need get "jobs with hard work and possibilities for betterment", but "the out-and-out moochers caught hell at the hands of a staff of expert hell-dishers-out." He maintains a reception staff downstairs to handle that sort of thing. Few get past them and those few end up with Doc's aides as the next obstacle in their path, such as Monk, who reads Columbus's telegram and shows it to Doc.

Next thing we know, Doc and Monk, along with Ham and Renny, arrive in St. Louis and find themselves chasing the wind. They learn plenty, like the fact that Tercio is clearly planning to buy large calibre guns with the money he'd make from selling his unusual skins. They backtrack him to a taxi driver, who found himself paid in big bills. Not high value ones, I should add, literally large ones, as banknotes used to be. He asked about the news, unaware of who Hitler is or that Roosevelt was president. He asked the taxi driver about Stalin and Russia, perhaps because, as Doc discovers next, he was flying a Russian plane, a plane low on fuel that isn't even really fuel, just some distilled simulation. And he threw the spear with an atlatl, a tool that predates the bow and arrow.

Yes, Dent really builds the mystery in this one, though he gives us plenty of clues to solve it too. That is more important than we think because, when they inevitably hook up with Chris Columbus, that young man doesn't want to explain anything. His thinking is that Doc and his aides are in it all the way anyway but, if he spills the beans, they might just lock him up in a padded cell, so he keeps quiet, as they make the traditional mid-novel journey somewhere else, in this case due north until it gets very cold indeed.

I'm missing a lot out, of course, but the important thing I can't avoid mentioning is that Dent is keen on turning Doc's superhuman abilities down a notch here. He's still Doc, but things don't automatically go his way just because he's the one and only Man of Bronze. He doesn't lose to Chris in a fight, but the lad gets an excellent punch in that has Doc seeing constellations for a moment. When Tercio gets away into the woods on horseback, Doc tries to chase down a roan gelding but fails. Later on, when we inevitably arrive in the Other World of the title, he finds himself in serious danger.

In fact, Dent, who hasn't been particularly hyperbolic since his early novels wants us to understand how much danger this is and that's what chapter thirteen is all about. Doc finds himself marooned inside an interesting lost world up there in the icy north. He occupies his time theorising about what he sees and doing science, but a sabretooth tiger attacks him. "Doc was probably more frightened than at any time in his career," Dent points out. He ably shoots the sabretooth in the head but it's taken down by a tyrannosaurus that finally does for it. Doc gets away from that too, only to find himself being hunted by a pack of two-foot-long weasel-like creatures who don't tire as quickly as he does. It's refreshing for us to see Doc firmly out of control even if, as I'm sure you expect, he finds a way out.

Yes, the Other World is a lost world and it's told very much in Edgar Rice Burroughs terms, though John Carter never showed up on Barsoom in a plane fully supplied with gadgets. Many of the ensuing scenes feel highly remiscent of ERB, with the inevitable cave, the inevitable primitive men and the inevitable tribe of enslaved beautiful people. Once again, Doc's up against it, because Aulf, the primitives' leader, is a giant like him and he has him on strength and endurance. Fortunately, he has little brain and we all know what Doc's brain is like.

I don't need to go any further with my synopsis and I probably didn't need to go that far, because this is familiar territory indeed, not just for Doc but for us readers. The only things that are new are the vain attempts by Dent to explain how: how this world is warm when the canyon in which it exists is buried in the frozen wastes of the north; how it's lit so brightly that it has constant daylight; and how the gravity is a little lower than outside, meaning that, if Doc can't jump as high as John Carter could on Barsoom, he can at least jump higher than any human can back in our world. None of it stands up, of course, but it's fun to see Dent try. It's also fun to see "brontosaurus" be one of Johnny's impenetrably long words that Monk doesn't remotely understand. How times have changed!

The influences are pretty obvious. Clearly Dent had been reading his Burroughs, but he was also going back to the lost world stories that Doc started out with, back when he was a nascent superhero. In fact, the second Doc Savage novel, 'The Land of Terror' was a lost world novel, with both a pterodactyl and a T. Rex on the cover of that issue of 'Doc Savage Magazine'. That's one of my least favourite books in the series, so I was happy to see Dent revisit the concept but do it better. There are couple of conveniences that he shouldn't have stooped too, but I enjoyed this one a lot more than that one. The other nod that I'd call out is to 'King Kong', only seven-years-old at this point, because Lanta and her tribe live behind a pair of gates that seem borrowed directly from Skull Island.

But never mind those conveniences, this is a lot of fun. Everyone gets a moment, even Johnny and Long Tom who are initially left behind in New York, "to be called later, if needed". Nobody really screws up in stupid fashion, the few drops given being fair ones that are escaped from soon enough. The bad guys in this one are bad guys, Two Wink being a decent thug and Fancife, a heartless villain. And there are only two of them, which makes the inevitably karmic ending a pretty quick one, just as there's only one good guy beyond our regulars, or maybe two. Dent does keep Tercio a little mysterious.

The ending is telling too, especially for the time. This was first published in January 1940, as World War II was firmly in motion, even with a winter lull. Key Nazis like Hermann Göring were taking office, Jews were being massacred and U-boats were attacking merchant ships in the English Channel. The British were introducing rationing and, even in the U.S., the FBI arrested seventeen members of the Christian Front for planning to overthrow the government and establish a fascist dictatorship. Attorney General Robert Jackson described the charges as "a bit fantastic", which would have made them perfect for an imminent Doc Savage novel, but Street & Smith were keeping as far away from the war in these novels as possible, as far as lost world in a crescent canyon somewhere in the frozen wastes of Canada. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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