Much has certainly been written about the literary and publishing decisions that resulted in the creation of Philip José Farmer’s character Doc Caliban. The character, who first appeared in 1969’s A Feast Unknown, has certainly endured. For a character that for all intents and purposes has appeared in two books (if you consider the double book Mad Goblin/Lord of the Trees, which have a mirror-narrative, to actually be a single story from two points of view) in over fifty years, Caliban retains reader interest to this day, with a new story (The Monster on Hold, written by Win Scott Eckert from Farmer’s notes and fragments), due to appear this year.
When the topic of Doc Savage pastiches is discussed, there are a great many of them, but unquestionably first on most lists would be Caliban. But is he just a pastiche/parody, or a unique character in his own right?
Arguments could be made either way. Caliban would certainly not exist without Doc Savage, and his physical characteristics are identical to the pulp Man of Bronze. But his character is elusive.
The novel A Feast Unknown is written as a first person memoir of Lord Grandrith, Farmer’s Tarzan pastiche. Thus Caliban is seen only through Grandrith’s eyes. In their first encounter, Caliban throws a grenade at Grandrith simply for the purposes of testing his speed and strength (the grenade, unknown to Grandrith, is a dummy). Not too strange in a violent action story, but Caliban’s manner as he does so is wildly out of character if he is representing Doc Savage. It is mocking, sarcastic, and punctuated by dismissive laughter. Afterward, this is Grandrith’s description of his impression of the man:
Usually, I don’t think in the human categories of good and evil. Those who would kill me are enemies. Just that and nothing more. I kill them without having to justify the deed by classifying them as evil.
But seeing this very handsome man, I experienced a feeling of genuine evil, of the anti-good. The hairs rose on the back of my neck as if a demon of the native African religion had pulled them up with his cold hands of wind.
It was a feeling I did not like.
My own experience, reading that for the first time, was that I didn’t like it either. But as I continued to read, that antipathy toward the Caliban character transformed into a distinct fascination. The extremes of the story are explained as the narrative progresses…both men having been driven into a unique violent/erotic psychosis by a life-extending elixir they use. And Caliban is further driven out on a behavioral edge through his belief that Grandrith has murdered his lover, Trish Wilde. However, Grandrith, throughout the story’s narration, has not become a completely dark version of himself. His thoughts are often reasoned and measured…as one would expect a mirror of Doc Savage’s to be.
The “evil doc” paradigm is shown relentlessly throughout the story (until the end, when it begins to soften). Caliban has his reasons and they are compelling ones, but he is nonetheless relentlessly cruel. Why? The psychology of his warped behavior is not adequately explained, given that Grandrith, under the same conditions, has not turned “evil”.
The novel is explicit in its depictions of sex and violence — the explicit erotic content being a requirement of its publisher, Essex House — and that opens the door for Farmer to drop psychological clues. Grandrith could by no measure be considered a repressed personality. He is what he is and doesn’t question his natural behaviors, even when they are outwardly destructive. His primitive childhood in the company of apes has pretty much erased any capacity for self-judgment.
Caliban, on the other hand, is an extrapolation of the qualities of Doc Savage, whose upbringing was distinctly repressed. Raised and trained exclusively by male tutors, with no mother present and an authoritarian father, the early Doc Savage had learned to hide virtually all of his emotional responses. Caliban is described the same way, and the reticence and repression is heightened by some extreme details concerning intimacy in his life.
Physically he is a paragon, except for his genitals, which are disproportionately (even for a very large man) huge. For a shy man, one who has crafted every other aspect of his physicality into a state near to symmetrical perfection, and who was also painfully shy around women, this must have produced extreme feelings of physical shame, awkwardness, and even self-loathing. In addition, a youthful experience is described in which he encountered a brutal gang moll, Big-Eyes Llewellyn — he is captured, rendered helpless, and sexually humiliated by the woman. He ultimately kills her in a fit of visceral, uncontrolled violence.
This act sends Caliban into a personal crisis, prompting him to withdraw from the world, and re-emerge with an even greater dedication and ferocity to his “fight against evil”.
Presumably, this includes the “evil” he feels is inside of himself — of a man capable of such shocking violence.
This (and other incidents and details mentioned in the course of Farmer’s narrative) could predispose him to surrender to what he might perceive as his “evil self” in the aftermath of the supposed murder of his cousin and lover Trish, with whom he had achieved a somewhat uneasy but nonetheless loving and passionate intimate relationship.
This is where the explicit nature of the novel opens up unique psychological territory for an “action hero”, much more so than what would be present in a shallow, sexualized parody. Most of us can understand the feeling of being driven a bit crazy by the drives of desire and sexual hunger in our lives. Not to the extent of a Doc Caliban of course, but that is a subtle point within the presentation of an X-rated Doc: writ large in parallel to the extremes of experience with heroic adventure narratives, the topic of drives buried within human sexuality can be explored in unique depth.
And this is where Doc Caliban can show us aspects of the human condition unique from those of the more adolescently-portayed pulp Doc Savage. A remarkable literary opportunity…but was it fulfilled?
To be continued…