A Feast Unknown: 52 years later – climax and aftermath

Nobody moved. They could not accept what they had seen. And when their senses thawed, they began to realize what they faced.

That line from A Feast Unknown could well summarize the experience of reading the novel. It was, in essence, one hammer-blow after another, leaving the reader stunned. This was not just because of the intense, explicit content of the story. I believe it was because the novel achieved that rarest of literary accomplishments: it was about something.

What, exactly? I’m sure the question would raise lively debate even a half century later.

What was A Feast Unknown? Essex House wanted to add a prestigious name to their author list, and they wanted a speculative pornographic novel of the highest quality. Certainly they got it. Farmer, from his statement in the interview back in Part 2 of this essay, wanted to explore the sexual component that had been essentially ignored in the canons of Doc Savage and Tarzan. He wanted to satirize pornography. Certainly he achieved that. But what happened ultimately was more. The story did not merely satirize and entertain, it elevated the much maligned and dismissed genre of erotically explicit creativity. It took icons of the 20th century and unleashed in them — in greatly exaggerated form — some of the most primal behaviors in the human condition: sexual need and violent expressions of power. It linked the two, in a narrative of unrelenting intensity.

In 1981, the critic John Simon wrote (not in reference to Feast, but to all literature), “There is no point in saying less than your predecessors said.” These are words I passionately believe. All literature is linked to a huge tree that we are just the most recent branch of. As creators, we have a unique opportunity (and responsibility) to go fearlessly as far out on a limb as we can. Farmer did that, using sheer literary muscle and audacity to dig deep, and in a bloody welter, rip secrets of the human soul out for us to see and feel.

What happened after that? Well, Farmer throttled back. The two books that followed, The Mad Goblin and Lord of the Trees, were a very different experience.

The Mad Goblin, Ace Double book, 1970, cover art by Gray Morrow

In his essay on Farmer in the 2013 Sanctum Books reprinting of the Doc Savage novels Murder Mirage and The Other World, Will Murray states (referring to the Ace Double first printing of The Mad Goblin/Lord of the Trees) that “…editor Don Wollheim had censored all frank sexual content.” And that was true. The two stories were engaging adventure fiction, a little rougher than standard Doc Savage/Tarzan fare, but in film terms, the NC-17 content had been dropped to PG-13.

In so doing, the mesmerizing look at human sexuality through a bold lens of the extreme was gone.

Had Farmer even wanted to go back to that fierce, exacting place through his writings? Possibly not. Even if Wollheim, managing the mainstream Ace Books, would not have allowed it, Farmer’s own description of his plans for Caliban and Grandrith seem to indicate neither wish nor intent to return to laying bare raw essences of violence and nobility in the human soul…it would instead finish as a tough and clever adventure series, eventually even veering into Lovecraftian psuedo-science/supernatural themes.

Well and good in its own right, and here in 2021 Win Scott Eckert has finally completed that last intended novel in the series, The Monster on Hold. I always enjoy reading Goblin/Trees, and I have no doubt I will enjoy the final posthumous collaboration.

But to my mind that direction was a loss of something truly remarkable. In an interesting parallel, 1969 (the year Feast was published) was also the year Midnight Cowboy, then an X-rated film, won the Academy Award for Best Picture. It has since been deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. It too elevated sexual themes out of the critical wasteland of the label “pornographic”, giving the weight of intelligence, emotion, and countless nuances of troubled, messy humanity. Think of that film being followed by a PG-13 sequel tailored to fit a 1970 TV Movie of the Week.

That does not dismiss the aftermath of A Feast Unknown. I love adventure fiction, am a devoted reader of the original Doc Savage canon, which I think is deserving of far more literary recognition than it receives. I take great pleasure in the works of those talented people who have explored the more playful of Farmer’s concepts, like his literate mashups and cross-connections. But to quote another author/critic, Harlan Ellison (again, not talking specifically about Feast, but about the phenomenon of human creativity)…”There was only one Machiavelli, only one Shaka Zulu, only one Alexander of Macedon. Name the highest and brightest and most accomplished until you get to Fellini or Billie Holiday or George Bernard Shaw and compare; and recognize how much higher thereafter is the high water mark. Suddenly, there is more sunlight in the world.”

A Feast Unknown went to a pinnacle…it burns, and pounds, and stuns you even all these decades later. And only when our senses thaw, can we begin to realize what we face.

Phil Farmer – over his right shoulder, a painting by Richard Corben of Doc Caliban

2 thoughts on “A Feast Unknown: 52 years later – climax and aftermath

    1. Thanks Daryl, and welcome to the site! Since we share an age and time for our first encounter with Feast, I can well understand how mind-blowing it was for you. It sure was for me! And for my partner-in-crime Iason Bellerophon too. All these years later it still retains its power to me, which prompts me to inspired wonder and appreciation for what Farmer achieved.

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