In Part 1 and Part 2 of this article, numerous qualities about the story that have built it up into pulp-mythic status were explored — qualities which had very little to do with the story itself. The fact that it was the final issue in the iconic Doc Savage series undoubtedly gave it extra weight, as well as the fact that except for those with access to the original pulp magazine, there was no way to actually read the story — making it an object of mystery and curiosity for the more than forty years that passed between its original publication and its eventual reprint in the final volume of Bantam Books’ re-issue of the entire Doc Savage series.
The story itself (a sample of the beginning pages was presented in the previous article) was from the outset a strange combination of mixed cultural references, as well as confusing and disorienting behavior on the part of the supporting characters.
This would continue as the story progressed. Characters continue to do inexplicable things (for instance, one of the passengers on the boat that rescues the castaway Gilmore gets into a dinghy, throws away an oar, and sculls himself into a riptide and what would almost be certain death — he is rescued, but claims afterward he does not even remember the incident).
Doc Savage is brought into the story in a manner that relies on coincidence — one of the rescuers, a psychologist, is an acquaintance of Doc’s aide Renny Renwick, and has read that Renny is working on an engineering project in the area (Renny never actually appears in the tale). The doctor, named Linningen, presumes that Doc may be with Renny (something of a leap in logic in itself), and seeks out his rooming house in a small coastal town in Maine. On the way he is nearly run down by a car.
Hoping to get Doc’s assistance with the seeming madman they have rescued, Linningen, after some frustration, talks with the bronze man, and though the exchange is tense and irritable, Doc agrees to look into it. Linningen is relieved — he wants out of the whole strange business.
However, when Doc comes aboard Linningen’s yacht to speak with Gilmore, he finds the man has disappeared…replaced in his locked cabin by a cherubic-faced, sardonic personality named Mr. Wail.
Wail gives a very unconvincing account about how he got aboard without anyone seeing him, and basically provides contradictory information about everything. He asserts he is a private investigator hired to track down Gilmore. However, it turns out he was the one who tried to run down Linningen in the car.
After a good deal of frustrating conversation, they do learn one thing — Wail suffers from pyrophobia, a fear of fire.
The story proceeds in very haphazard fashion. Gilmore cannot be found, but Wail asserts that he may have fled to a lodge further inland run by Gilmore’s sister. Doc, Monk and Ham, along with Wail, Linningen (despite his assertion earlier that he wanted nothing more to do with the matter) and Williams (the man who almost committed unwitting suicide in the riptide), all drive to the lodge.
Not much of this, when looked at practically, makes much sense. Why did Linningen so radically change from his position of wanting to be free from the whole business? Why would Williams come along at all? Why would anyone believe Wail’s story about the sister and the lodge without even making the slightest effort to check on its veracity? How would Gilmore have gotten to the lodge at all? He was, after all, emaciated and behaving like a lunatic.
At this point, as a reader, I had decided not to try and make sense of it. Lester Dent, the author, had a long, long history of writing characters and events that sometimes careened through a tale as if he was making the events up as he went along, and would figure out how to piece it all together by the finish (to his credit, he often did exactly that). So I put my reasoning mind in check, and determined to just go along for the ride.
That ride would, in short order, go from odd, confusing and disorienting, to outright bizarre. Doc Savage stories had, for sixteen years, relied on a formula of supernatural-appearing elements being comfortably explained away in rational, scientific (or pseudo-scientific) terms. Doc generally remained calm and was many steps ahead of the game, usually having figured out the real situation well in advance. But all (or at least most) of that would go right out the window as this story hurtled through its latter chapters. Looming largest in the outcome that was soon to arrive was one question…was the Hell they would encounter real?
to be continued…