In Part 1 of this article, I discussed some of the factors that built up the legend of this unique story. In a way, a perfect storm of literary weight had grown around it by the time it was discussed by Philip José Farmer in his 1973 book Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life. Literary weight which had no relationship to the ambition of the writer or publisher when creating and presenting it.
Not knowing that the 16-year run of tremendously successful pulp magazines would end with that Summer of 1949 issue, Lester Dent had written a story that upon examination, was a bit bizarre, but by no means extraordinary. In fact, as the Doc Savage researcher Jeff Deischer — author of The Adventures of the Man of Bronze: A Definitive Chronology — pointed out to me (quite correctly), it recycles elements from at least three older novels, Land of Always-Night, The Evil Gnome and The Vanisher. This was not uncommon in the later years of the series. The target audience for the Doc Savage magazine — though it had gone up slightly in the final years — was younger to mid-teen boys, with a new wave of readers expected to replace those boys as they grew older. It was a reasonable expectation that plot and story elements used five or ten years previously would be perceived as wholly new by the subsequent reader generation. So the plot recycling was a useful tool in preparing stories quickly, and utilized not only by Dent, but by many writers in the field.
Likewise, the somewhat apocalyptic concept of the adventurer Doc Savage fighting his final battle in Hell itself, though emotionally appealing in retrospect, was not bold new ground…in fact it was formulaic to the series to have mythic or mystical themes introduced in the form of villains and menaces, which were later debunked as clever criminal schemes.
The presence of Satan on the cover, grappling with Doc, was symbolic only. He does not wrestle with Satan in the story itself. Also, as the narrative progressed, Dent would make periodic reference to the underworld of the damned as “Tophet”…an odd choice, as it is a Middle English word much less familiar than “Hell”. To a younger reader (not versed in 14th Century Biblical vernacular), it probably sounded more like one of the many lost civilizations Doc encountered in his literary history. But then the name Hell is also used freely in the narrative. The result was certainly an odd set of confusing signals to that reader. Intentional, to build an atmosphere of portent and mystery? Or just quirky storytelling in a pulp tale written quickly under deadline?
The title of the story, from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (a poetic work from ancient Persia), adds more obscure cultural layering. Here is the full stanza the title words appear in:
Up from Earth’s Centre through the Seventh Gate rose, and on the Throne of Saturn sate; And many a Knot unravel’d by the Road; But not the Master-knot of Human Fate.
That stanza was printed fully in the pulp…also fascinating, but certainly obscure to most pulp readers. So why all this mix of cultural/literary references? It’s a question without an answer, but Dent was well read and enjoyed dropping erudite references into his works…perhaps with no more intent than to give the appearance of a little more gravitas to pulp writings that were, even by his own reckoning, often considered to be “junk”.
So, on to the story itself. Here is how Chapter 1 begins:
The hours became days, and the days grew into weeks, and
the weeks followed one another into a dull and terrible haze
of time in which nothing really changed. Gilmore had
scooped a shallow pit in the eroding chalk at the edge of a
cliff, roofed it with a crude thatched trapdoor which he could
close against the black things of night, and he spent the
majority of his time there.
For a time, during Indian summer, one day was like another.
It was then that Gilmore lost his shirt. He took off the shirt
and arranged it carefully and, he thought, safely on the
sandy beach, while he waded into the sea to stand
motionless in hopes of clubbing an unwary fish for food. A
huge and dour gray seagull, a typically thievish knave of a
seagull, carried the shirt away. It was a sports shirt, and its
gaudy plastic buttons fascinated the gull.
It was a small thing. The thin shirt was practically worthless
as a protective garment. But Gilmore took it hard.
He ran wildly after the seagull, and the bird flapped out to
sea, packing the shirt in its beak with gull-like greed.
Gilmore, unable to swim, ran, screaming, up and down the
beach, and when he was exhausted, he fell on his face and
During the ensuing few days of Indian summer, Gilmore
tried to teach himself to swim. He was unsuccessful,
probably because he had no real heart left to put into it. It
was pointless, anyway. A man could not swim the Atlantic.
The warm days ended. Winter came. The pools of rainwater
in the potholes in the island stone began to have thin crusts
of ice, and the rocks became bone-colored with coatings of
Gilmore made hardly a move to thwart the certainty of
freezing to death. It was too much of a certainty for him to
compete against. It was inevitable. His pants now were
frayed into shorts, and he stuffed them with dry seaweed,
and tied seaweed about himself with other seaweed for
binding until he resembled an ambulatory pile of the smelly
stuff. Actually, it did no good, and it soon became definitely
established in his mind that he would freeze to death. He
began to wait for death almost as one would await a friend.
Certainly a harrowing picture of a castaway, bordering on the feel of a lost soul — an impression enhanced by interior illustrator Paul Orban’s depiction of the unfortunate Gilmore.
Gilmore is rescued, but does not welcome those rescuers…instead he indicates he believes he’s been pursued by devils from Hell, and considers the men who found him to be enemies. Here is the rescue scene:
Gilmore was sitting on a stone, contemplating eternity,
when a pleasant voice hailed him. “Hello, there,” the voice
said. “Are you the proprietor of this heavenly spot?”
A glaze settled over Gilmore’s sore eyes, and for a long time
he did not turn around. In fact, he did not turn until he had
conducted quite an odd conversation, in a small choking
“So you finally got to me,” Gilmore said. His voice had the
hopelessness of a soul lost in interstellar space.
“Yeah. It took a little time to climb the cliff.” The voice
contained some pleasant surprise. “I didn’t think you had
seen us. You didn’t give any sign. We were rather puzzled.”
Gilmore shuddered and said, “I don’t always see you, do I?”
“Us?” Gilmore continued, selecting carefully from the words
the pleasant voice had said. “Us? We? Is there more than
one of you now?”
“There are eighteen of us,” the voice said. “Say, what’s the
matter with you, fellow?”
“So you went back for more experienced help!” Gilmore
went on. “Eighteen of you!” croaked Gilmore. “Good God! They must
have depleted the staff!”
“The executive personnel in hell!” said Gilmore bitterly.
“Who are you kidding?” the amiably friendly voice inquired.
If nothing else, an environment of distinct disorientation (not only for the characters, but the reader) had been introduced. And that would only grow as things went on…extending to the psychology of Doc Savage himself, which will prove to be one of the most unsettling (and interesting) aspects of the story.
to be continued…