BOOK REVIEW: Doc Savage: Skull Island by Will Murray
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Called upon to take care of King Kong’s body after his fall from the Empire State Building, Doc Savage recounts to his aides the story of his first meeting with Kong, shortly after World War I when he and his father were searching the southern seas for Doc’s grandfather.
PROS: Adds to the origins and background of Doc Savage and features a younger, still maturing, more complex Doc; and it has Kong! And DeVito art of Kong!
CONS: Would have enjoyed seeing more of Kong; and more DeVito art of Kong!
BOTTOM LINE: Near the 80th anniversary of both King Kong and Doc Savage, this novel is a well-paced look at a younger Doc Savage, uncertain of his future, uncomfortable in his relationship with his father, and searching for a grandfather he barely knows. This “origin” story provides a more complex Doc Savage than other novels, and can be enjoyed by Savage zealots (guilty!) and neophytes alike. Kong’s portrayal is true to DeVito’s Kong: King of Skull Island, and more Kong is the main thing I would ask of this novel.
In 1933, King Kong escaped his captors and climbed to the top of the Empire State Building, where warplanes repeatedly attacked him and ultimately toppled him to his death on the ground below.
In the same time period, Doc Savage was making his name, traveling the world with his five aides, battling evil and doing good. His headquarters was in a high floor of a never-named office building, which could have been the Empire State Building.
This review could have been titled When Two Pulp Legends Collide, but I wasn’t sure if readers would think the title referred to Doc Savage and King Kong or Will Murray and Joe DeVito. Murray is the most recent incarnation of Kenneth Robeson, the “house name” for the authors of Doc Savage starting with Lester Dent. He penned the last seven books of the Bantam series of Doc Savage novels in the early 90s and has most recently resuscitated Doc Savage with his “Wild Adventures of Doc Savage” series. Joe DeVito has illustrated many books and magazine covers in the worlds of science fiction, fantasy and pop culture, and is the creator of KONG: King of Skull Island.
Together they have created not only a legend-meets-legend novel, but added more to the origin story and canon of Doc Savage, enough of a departure from the original Doc Savage series that instead of the normal “Kenneth Robeson” by-line, Murray’s name is on the cover.
The novel is a post-World War I story wrapped around events just after Kong falls from the Empire State Building. Doc is tasked by officials with the disposal of Kong’s body, during which time he reveals to his aides (three of the five – Monk, Ham and Renny, as was the norm with many of the later Doc Savage novels) that he has known King Kong before.
The main story is told in three parts:
- Doc and his father, Clark, Sr., as they sail the seas in search of Doc’s grandfather, the legendary Stormalong Savage;
- finding and exploring Skull Island; and
- Doc and the others encountering King Kong.
The “origin” facts alone (including the existence of Stormalong Savage) veer sharply from those set forth in the Philip Jose’ Farmer “Wold-Newton Universe” (which strives to link many fictional characters in a lineage started when a radioactive meteor landed in Wold Newton, England and caused mutations that affected a large cross-section of many fictional universes). If interested, see the Doc Savage Wold-Newton chronology here. There has been some interesting (and some less-than-interesting) banter in the various Doc Savage and Wold Newton Universe forums on which version of Doc is correct or should be considered “canon” (isn’t this like arguing which fiction is more…non-fiction?) Both are great world building, and, c’mon, there’s been so many Marvel and DC Universe’s that only uber-geeks can keep track (or want to). If push came to shove, I’ll listen to Murray, who has written as Kenneth Robeson and represents Lester Dent’s (the original Kenneth Robeson) heirs. Farmer also contributed to the Doc Savage world by writing Escape from Loki, (the original Doc Savage “origins” novel showing Doc in World War I, meeting his five aides for the first time) and Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, a fictional biography of a fictional character.
And now, back to our story…
Doc and his father set sail for Doc’s grandfather’s last known whereabouts, in the seas south of Asia. Doc has just returned from the Great War (where he first meets his five aides) and has not seen much of his father due to the training regime his father has put him through. Their relationship on the boat is strained:
Doc stared off into the stars. “He was seeking a new fortune. I wonder if he ever found it?”
“If so, that fortune might still be there for the taking.”
“My thought exactly.”
They sipped in silence for a time. Conversation was difficult. Father and son, yet comparative strangers. The elder Savage was not profligate with his words. The son took after him in many ways—but in his own unique fashion.
“I have many questions for you, Father. Questions that I have pondered my entire life.”
Finishing his coffee, Clark Savage, Senior, looked his son square in the eye and said, “I fear that I have few answers I care to share with you. Good night.”
With that, he walked off.
Some origin mysteries remain mysteries. Doc’s mother is discussed only in passing (her name is given, pg. 303), her origin remaining unrevealed. Other facts, like the origin of Doc’s trilling sound, are revealed (but not here!).
Doc, having finished his training and his enlistment in World War I, has still not set upon the path for which the world will know him. In this first chapter, he is portrayed as young, somewhat aggressive, and still questioning:
There was also the undeniable fact that the father had relinquished his parental duties to a host of surrogates, leaving the son to learn a difficult emotional self-sufficiency while mastering manly skills ranging from hunting and trapping to going without sleep for days at a time.
It was, Doc reflected, an amazing youth and early manhood. An Apache taught him how to survive in a desert. A Zulu warrior how to track through jungle. He wintered with Eskimos and ate whale blubber and seal, as they did. A summer working roundup on a Wyoming cattle ranch was not enough for the cowboy in him, but the skills developed for the man would last a lifetime.
Was it all worth it?
Time would tell. The future, as his father had said, was a blank slate. All that mattered now was finding the Courser, and picking up whatever strange sea trail it might provide.
As father and son slowly discover Kong’s existence, their banter is mixed with logic, pulp references and confrontation:
The elder Savage fingered one splintery stub, removing a tendril of wood for closer examination.
“Sails caught in a gale would not create this,” he murmured. “The canvas would be sundered before the masts began turning in their collars.”
“We have already established that,” said Doc. “Each mast was individually torn loose and carried away.”
Challenge burned in the old man’s eyes. “By what? I await your explanatory theory.”
Doc considered this for a long period.
“Occam’s Razor suggests one possibility,” he mused. “Something wrenched the masts loose and flung them in such a way so as not to damage the rest of the Courser.”
“Yes, yes, I comprehend your drift,” said the elder Savage impatiently. “But by what miraculous agency?”
Doc pondered this question. “Were we living in the days of Ulysses, I would have suggested a Cyclops. But it would appear that only a giant approximately the size of Alfred Bulltop Stormalong could have accomplished this easily. He was said to stand thirty feet tall.”
“Myth and legend are not acceptable to the scientific mind,” snapped Captain Savage. “You are jumping at conclusions, sir.”
“Sir, my conclusions appear sound. I see no other alternative.”
Captain Savage stared at his son with reserved incredulity.
“Next, you will be leaping from tree to tree like Tarzan of the Apes,” he grumbled.
“Or mast to mast,” said Doc, suppressing a smile. He was pleasantly surprised to learn that his father had read that book.
Other hints and foreshadowings are dropped concerning Doc’s submarine, his Mayan connections, where the Hidalgo Trading Company hanger came from and what may have prompted his father to run Doc through his legendary training regime.
Eventually, Doc meets Kong, and both are true to form: Kong, rampaging like a beast but with a curious intellect; Doc Savage, accepting the facts that his senses show him, adapting to a strange world, and evolving himself, from the young, still maturing Doc, slowly but surely into the Man of Bronze of Lester Dent’s portrayal.
My only desire for improvement would be to see more Kong (he doesn’t make an appearance alive until page 277 out of 385 pages), as Kong as his world are complex characters. A few more details of that world are provided (including the Keeper, Penjaga, who could have novels all her own). But in the end this is a Doc Savage novel, even if it is one that is a departure from the norm. Some of the previous Murray Doc Savage efforts, while always enjoyable, have at times read un-evenly, as if two authors were at work (a chapter by Dent, a chapter by Murray, etc.). I’ve always assumed that was Murray’s zealous effort to remain true to Lester Dent’s notes, from which he writes many of the newer Doc Savage novels. Skull Island does not suffer from that malady; it is an evenly written, well-paced, thoroughly enjoyable novel that is a credit to its two pulp legends.
Filed under: Book Review
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