What follows is a review/discussion by three diverse authors…all enthusiastic creators and readers of pulp adventure. The three of us met in 2021 and immediately enjoyed one another’s company and writings to the degree that we joined in the tradition of author circles like the 1930’s Kalem Club (a literary group whose last names all began with K, L or M, and included H.P. Lovecraft) and the Inklings, the Oxford circle made up of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams.
A brief introduction: Atom Mudman Bezecny is both an author and publisher, and created the Hero Saga, which has brought to life unique pastiches of classic — and some wonderfully obscure — pulp characters. R. Paul Sardanas is the co-creator (with artist Iason Ragnar Bellerophon) of the Doc Savage adult pastiche Talos Chronicle, and André Vathier is a French Canadian author who has written stories in both the Hero and Talos “universes”. Together we comprise the Conseil du Mal (or Council of Evil)…dedicated to wicked literary pleasures of all kinds!
SARDANAS: Hi Atom, hi André…so we are here to chat together about the newly-released novel by Philip José Farmer and Win Scott Eckert, The Monster on Hold, published in 2021 by Meteor House. This book has a very unique provenance…being a continuation of a story cycle begun by Farmer with his 1969 novel A Feast Unknown and continued in his 1970 mirror-books (the same story told from two points of view) The Mad Goblin/Lord of the Trees. Farmer teased the continuation of the series at the World Fantasy Convention 1983, with a sample chapter…but did not complete the book in his lifetime. But almost four decades later, accomplished pulp author and Farmer collaborator Eckert brought the book to fruition.
Eckert has quite a challenge here, one that requires a very rich connection to Farmer’s thoughts and unique style. Making the creation of this book doubly ambitious is the fact that Farmer took the series on some intense course-changes while he was solely at the helm, from a sprawling, hammering pulp-pornographic narrative in AFU, to hard-edged but more conventional adventure in TMG/LOTT, to an abrupt turn into planned Lovecraftian-style themes wedded to a storyline from the original Doc Savage pulp magazine — in fact the pulp’s final issue in 1949, Up From Earth’s Center. In the over half-century since AFU was published, Farmer’s creation of whole tiers of interlinked fictonal character history has also been greatly developed and expanded, as the Wold Newton constellation of stories. Without too much in the way of spoilers, Eckert will also tie in events from Farmer’s authorized Doc Savage novel, the 1991 Escape From Loki…and more.
That’s a lot to weave together, in a story that runs for about 150 pages. I’m an older reader — I encountered AFU in 1973, and TMG/LOTT in the following year — so for me, it’s been a wait of 47 years to pick up the tale where it left off at the end of TMG/LOTT. What were my expectations? Well, I enjoyed the pairing of Farmer and Eckert in an earlier take on another branch of pulp pastiche, the Pat Wildman story The Evil in Pemberley House, so I had confidence that it would be adept storytelling. I was a little wary of the grafting of Lovecraftian elements into the Caliban story fabric (I am a huge devotee of Lovecraft, but his work, very dependent on slowly-building mood, scene, and lush description, seemed to pose numerous conceptual difficulties in finding a balance with an adventure narrative). I didn’t expect an almost-insanely powerful experience like that of AFU — Farmer himself had throttled back in his sequels — but I hoped for a deeper exploration into the character of Doc Caliban, whose depiction in the original novels, to my mind, left open potentially broad and fascinating avenues for development beyond cliches of pulp characterization.
So I opened to the first page of The Monster on Hold with excitement, with some reservations, but overall an open mind. And it begins with a bang:
The things flapped their leathery wings all around Doc Caliban’s head, pointed beaks packed with cutting teeth snapping at his exposed, bronzed cheeks, talons clawing and ripping the upper sleeves of his parka.
BEZECNY: When I first read those opening lines, I had chills. It was a strange feeling just because I told myself that it would be really cliche to get chills. But it was hard not to be excited and I know I’m not the only person who had that reaction. I knew that there were a lot of mysteries to be tackled here, and at the same time I knew that with Win at the helm everything would go down splendidly. So it was only natural to get really pumped up.
What’s funny to me is that I don’t think my anticipation about this book was the same as everyone else’s. I think that most fans of Secrets of the Nine are in it for Caliban and Grandrith and their battle against the titular cabal. I’ve always been hungry for The Monster on Hold because I wanted to see more of what Christopher Paul Carey has deemed the Farmerian monomyth. Both Carey and Eckert have exposed the threads that link together many of Farmer’s pulp adventures, and in doing so have exposed much about the slippery Baron whom Doc Savage first faced in Escape from Loki. The Baron has become one of my favorite pulp villains of all time, in all his guises, and I wanted to know everything about him. Then there are the connections made between certain happenings at the Earth’s polar wastes and a specimen of worm unknown to science…but I should stop there, much as I don’t want to. The wait has been on since 1983, but I’ve personally been waiting since 2007, when I first read Chris’ excellent article about the Farmerian monomyth, “The Green Eyes Have It–Or Are They Blue?”, which explores the many faces of Baron von Hessel.
In a lot of ways, The Monster in Hold is a tribute to Farmer’s long and varied career, containing shoutouts to stories from all throughout his life. I think it’s probably one of the best celebrations of Farmer that’s ever been. It’s a great Farmer story and it’s a great Win Eckert story. Both are astounding spinners of webs, and to get a web this intricate is a really great thing.
Even though I’m usually keen on the Nine books for the villains, I do care a lot about Caliban and Grandrith. This story really helped cement that, and it’s a testament to the power of both the storytellers that Caliban gets as humanized as he does here. This is especially important when considering the complexity of the source material. Both literally and non-literally, Doc Caliban and Lord Grandrith are also Doc Savage and Lord Greystoke, and their minds are so similar that the psychological portraits of the pair seen in the Nine books that we gain knowledge of the original pulp characters through their pastiches. A Feast Unknown expresses Farmer’s deep considerations about Tarzan’s psychology as defined by both reality and Burroughs’ books, and The Monster on Hold does the same thing for Doc Savage. This is about as close as we’ll ever get to looking into the mind of someone who was trained from birth to be a superman. The emotional heart of this book is, in my mind, one of the best things about it. Doc Caliban lives!
VATHIER: I’m pretty new here. What I mean is I read the original Secrets of the Nine trilogy back in 2016. I only had to wait 5 short years for The Monster on Hold release. The wait must have felt like an eternity for some fans. Also unlike my two friends here I have not read every Doc Savage and Tarzan novel. (I’m working on it.) Furthermore, I have not read the entirety of Wold Newton core books since most of them did not receive a French translation (personally it is more convenient to read in the language I dream in). I have read some of the articles on the Wold Newton Universe website. Those old HTML webpages are still accessible. Nevertheless, my knowledge is not as vast as that of Atom or R. Paul. My only apprehension when I opened the book is that it would contain references and winks at other books that I have not read, thus diminishing my experience of the book. Therefore, my perspective is as close as we are going to get to a new reader picking up The Monster on Hold without any prior knowledge. Without spoiling anything. Win Scott Eckert is very much a new-reader-friendly author. The way he weaves other stories or references made me want to read the other stories in a way that it will not feel like I am doing homework. Escape from Loki, The Evil in Pemberley House and some Lovecraft are on my reading list.
What I anticipated the most was Caliban meeting The Other! I’m a sucker for doppelgangers in fiction. Like a mirror, doppelgangers reveal. I was excited to see what the “other” would reveal about Caliban on a deeper level.
For me the book started with the prologue What Has Gone Before by Philip José Farmer. This is perfect for new readers. It tells you all you need to know. In addition, it is perfect for those of us who have not read or re-read the books recently.
Like The Mad Goblin it does not fool around…it starts right with a bang. The beautiful province of Alberta gets represented here. Most authors use the vague “Canadian north’’ But to know that the Nine does have bases in my backyard (from a Canadian perspective) is always exciting.
SARDANAS: Both of you bring up points that I’d like riff from, as they echo my experience in reading this book. André, like you I was really fascinated to see how Doc Caliban’s inter-relationship with “The Other” would take shape. As you point out, the literary use of a doppelganger can open up very intense and compelling character insights, which was exactly what I hoped for most in this story. Given that Farmer, through his use of both Doc Caliban and James Wildman (across differing “alternate universe” structures) had already set the stage for some intriguing degrees of illuminating schizophrenia, the interplay between the two characters in a single story could get very interesting indeed.
It could also get extremely confusing if not handled adeptly. Thankfully, Eckert does handle it with a deft hand. The “Two Docs” experience periodic shifts in their perceptions (explained by the characters’ juxtaposition at a crossroads of dimensions) to where they see through one another’s eyes. To me this produced the effect of a very deeply layered gestalt character, who could embody multiple aspects of Farmer’s pastiche Docs. Much more on this later, as the story uses this device to very powerful effect during the descent into and conflicts within its version of “Hell”.
Atom, you touched on an aspect of The Monster on Hold that I agree with totally: a huge landscape of concepts from Farmer’s literary works are woven together here, and that to me became a strong part of the signature vibe of the book. Its action often feels kaleidoscopic, with intense scenes (like the book’s opening lines) tumbling around one another in a very dense storm of combined visceral action, esoteric digression, and shifting detail and mood. It offers up enough material for a thousand more pages of literary exploration as it careens through its own relatively short length.
Again, avoiding spoilers (as it is a strong opening sequence, and should be experienced raw), the first scene of the fight in Tilatoc of the Nine’s stronghold is a relentless trip into pulp action, with distinctly dizzying moments. It also, for fans (like me) of Trish Wilde, offers some of her best moments in the book. At the end of that sequence, which unfolds in a breathless rush, I had a distinct “What the hell just happened?” moment of epiphany – because it made me want to read on, read faster, read it all in a landslide. It raised a hundred deeply intriguing questions and did not make the mistake of offering convenient answers. Scene after scene in the book would do this, as I obsessively spun the kaleidoscope for another stained-glass view of its tantalizing facets.
BEZECNY: It definitely can’t be considered an empty book. Rather, it’s one of the most full books I’ve read in a while, but never in a way that’s overdone. It’s a very gracious serving of a novel.
Of these kaleidoscopic details, I really enjoyed what we learned about the underground world into which Doc Caliban descends; while a lot of the story is derived from preexisting fiction, including the Cthulhu Mythos, the unique environs of this horrific abyss come almost entirely from Farmer and Eckert’s imaginations. Farmer was of course a genius at imagining alien ecosystems, as seen in Ironcastle, The Wind Whales of Ishmael, and his various space adventure tales, and this world is one of his most grotesque. In many ways, this is a world where the most disturbing and forbidden things known to the human psyche are the facts of life. Creatures sustain themselves on excrement and slime, breeding joylessly in the stygian dark. Each of these beings has a form repellent to human senses. What we saw back in ’49 in Up from Earth’s Center was only the beginning. Hell goes far deeper than Doc ever knew, and it grows more hideously alien the farther one descends.
It is among these foul, semi-sentient abominations that we briefly run back into the psychosexual atmosphere of A Feast Unknown. The scene touches on the inherent psychosexuality of Lovecraft’s works as well. It’s through this briefly sexual encounter that we rub against Doc Caliban’s vulnerability in a very specific way–one which has personal resonance to me as a survivor of sexual assault. It’s a moment that would collapse in the hands of a lesser writer, as it deals with some of the most sensitive topics in the world. But instead of falling apart there’s an astonishing delicacy to things. It’s really impressive–New Pulp is a genre that is, in my opinion, frankly quite bad at handling the subject of sexual assault, which I will unrepentantly blame on cis male privilege. But it’s clear that this was written from a place of compassion and understanding, and I deeply appreciate that.
It’s not just that this book connects all these different Farmerian threads, it’s that everything is connected in service of the plot and the point. I’m sorry, I’ve been praising this book without restraint, but it really is one of those books that pleases me not only as a reader but as a writer as well.
Oh, and regarding Trish Wilde…she deserves her own book. She deserves her own series!
VATHIER: R. Paul, I agree with you. The opening scene is exhilarating. Eckert and Farmer do something very unique with the Tilatoc fortress. It could have easily been your generic snowy hideout with soldiers from the Nine on skis and Ski-doo (French Canadian word for snowmobile). Or lean on Tilatoc’s Native American origin for the depiction of the fortress. But since they do something different (I won’t say what ) I was at the edge of my seat. As a reader it’s fun to not know what’s around the next corner. After the opening sequence, I had to catch my breath.
Part II: The Guardian at the Threshold. Honestly, this part could have been an entire novel by itself. There is a lot in it. However, like Atom said it never feels overdone. I always wanted more. I think it’s best when the author leaves their readers wanting more instead of feeling stuffed or wanting less. Part II touches on Caliban’s trauma and his personal life on a level that we really have not seen since Feast. The introspective part is welcome after the opening. I know I sound vague but I just want new readers to experience it themselves. Also another reason why this is my favorite part is that we get to see Caliban’s relationship to the ‘’Other’. Not just from a narrative point of view but also because of its intertextuality. I like the message it says about pastiche work and its relationship to the “original”. Movie critic Ramona Curry said it best: “Parody deconstructs, pastiche reconstructs”. The essence of Doc and what made him great is alive and well in Caliban.
Does that make sense or I’m just sounding pretentious? hahahaha.
The scene set in Maine brought me back to when I first read Up from Earth’s Center. Little did we know Doc had just scratched the surface.
Yes more Trish Wilde stories! Also Lord Grandrith…there’s just so much that I want to read.
SARDANAS: Atom, I want to second your thoughts on the handling of sexual assault themes in pulp fiction – it’s important, I think, for pulp fiction to work with such themes, but as you say, all too often it is done in an exploitative manner, or in a cavalier style that ignores its intense psychological repercussions. There is a balance that can be struck within works of entertainment that allows a fast-paced pulp story to proceed, but also recognizes human dignity and vulnerability…it’s rarely attempted in a conscious and aware way, which permits the reader a sense of empathy with the fictional character, but empowers that reader to experience sensations of empathy from a place of safety and strength. Fitting, I think, for a heroic narrative to strive for that balance, and in the case of this book, I believe it strives successfully.
The Monster on Hold goes to very complex places psychologically, which I count among its greatest strengths. One of the factors that made the original novel in the series, A Feast Unknown, so compelling was not only its focus on intense themes of violence and sexuality, but its strong presentation of Lord Grandrith’s psyche. This was to a great degree missing from the next two stories in the series…so in essence, a nuanced look at the psyche of Doc Caliban had never been done. In an article I wrote exploring the characterization of Caliban, I felt that he was in many ways a cipher within the very series he was co-headlining. That is finally corrected with this story, which deepens and enriches his character greatly.
As you note in your last comment André, the second section of The Monster on Hold has enough material to be a novel (or multiple novels) in and of itself, and its primary strength is in the deepening of the joint perceptions of the “Two Docs”. They are similar but not identical, which, as the narrative shifts from one to the other, begins to present a unique depth of thought for a pulp character. The second Doc, “The Other”, is also referred to as “Lacewing”, which I admit I found distracting at first (though the origin of the name is clever).
This second section also involves a complex cast of secondary characters, including the gangster moll “Big-Eyes” (who plays a pivotal role in the development of Caliban’s darker sexuality); a villainess named Victoria; a pastiche of the odd villain, Mr. Wail, from the pulp story Up From Earth’s Center (here named Scott Free), and there are also nods to characters from Farmer’s WWI Doc novel Escape from Loki, and flashes of Jack the Ripper. Again, this is a lot to absorb, with each of those elements fascinating to a degree that would support multiple novels. To its credit the flow of the story does not lag (or go off the rails) as it presents all of this. As a reader I looked at this portion of the book as a map which offered a tour of strong components of the Caliban mythography, but not with the intent of digging too deep into them. The “digging deep”, almost literally, would follow as this story-map points the way toward a descent into Hell.
That journey down into the caverns (the outer chambers of which were experienced by Doc in Up From Earth’s Center), provide some of the strongest and most harrowing parts of The Monster on Hold’s narrative. This section includes the teaser from 1983 that Farmer had written, and Eckert in fleshing out the landscape of the underworld stays true to the tone of Farmer’s vision. Rather than a strictly Lovecraftian series of scenes and events, the monstrous entities encountered evoked, to my mind, a closer kinship to another early 20th century epic of horror and heroism, William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land. In that story the protagonist (a far more heroic figure than any character from Lovecraft) crosses a dark land filled with monsters, and many of them remain total mysteries even after they are encountered. The same is true here, and it has a profound effect when balanced against the continued deeper unfolding of Doc’s psyche. He is, by the latter part of the descent, alone and isolated except for his connection to “The Other”, and as a reader I felt more and more connected emotionally to both Docs, as they offered a joint island of courage and resolve in circumstances all warped out of human understanding. There is a distinct feeling of immensity to the story at this point.
BEZECNY: Again, I think that’s one of my favorite things about crossover fiction–you can bring together so many different threads and bind them together to obtain a sense of scale that non-crossover stories need thousands of pages to build. I mean, you still need a lot of buildup, but that buildup is often already part of the accreted mass of fiction that is the basis of your “limit” text. Marvelously, none of that is a shortcut to storytelling–you still need strong characterization, descriptions, pacing, etc. to make all of the disparate elements work together. And Monster on Hold of course has all of that in great quantities.
I’m sure future stories will emerge as a result of this book’s creative and critical success. It’s obviously not the last book of the series, and with the additional release of Frank Schildiner’s It’s Always Darkest, it’s clear that there is more to see of the Caliban/Grandrith universe beyond Caliban/Grandrith. Really, one the best things about crossover fiction is that there’s pretty much always room for some form of continuation, due to the webby connections binding together all of fictional history. Like I’ve said, in many ways I knew what to expect from this book. But that naturally meant that my favorite parts were the ones I completely failed to anticipate, which furthered the bigger story along. That’s not to say that when this book decides to throw us one from left field, it’s wild and nonsensical–if nothing else because I have to ask, what is nonsense in a world where all those different stories lean on and shadow over each other? If you let yourself become a spider on the web, you can anticipate any movement. Also, the paranoid patients are the calmest when the hospital’s burning. And she who flinches at shadows never gets hit. Or…something to that effect.
VATHIER: Well said Atom. What did you two think of the conclusion? Spoilers ahead YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED [Not the kind of spoiler that will give away the full conclusion, just one character’s presence in it]. I am very happy with the ending. It ended the XauXaz mythography nicely. Also The Wild Huntsman novella was a nice addition.
I will admit I did not get all the hints and references. I had to call Atom once or twice hahaha. That being said it did not take away from the reading experience. Now I need to read World of Tiers. Hunt the Avenger, Honey West, Image of the Beast, Blown and more.
I really loved the extra material. All the notes and letters by Phillip José Farmer. It’s a rare glimpse into the creative process of a writer we all admire. Also the original prose. In that regard I think it’s the most complete book when it comes to content. It’s like reading a criterion DVD. You have the foreword, main book, extra short story that adds to the experience and some behind the scenes.
This next bit I might be reading too much into it. But I like the subtext that every Doc Savage pastiche is valid in their own way because they all come from the source. They might be different from one another, but all retain that same spark.
BEZECNY: See, I feel like XauXaz is the ultimate villain of the Wold Newton saga, so I was pleased with this wrapup. Slowly, we’ve learned that XauXaz manipulated the Wold Newton event itself, on top of engineering the lives of Doc Savage, Tarzan, and others, and this book contains additional revelations about the Trickster God’s impact on history. In a sense every major event in the Wold Newton Universe, and the Grandrith/Caliban Universe, can be blamed on XauXaz. Of all the Nine, he is one of the few who actually comes close to being a god, and that fact is executed in a way that delighted me to no end.
The bonus features were marvelous. I really wish that more books had those sort of “making-of” sections. I love learning about drafting processes and so getting to see Farmer’s notes was splendid.
SARDANAS: I was at first of two minds about the appearance of XauXaz, but ultimately I feel it was the right choice. My concern was with the tonal shift it brought to the climactic scenes, but on reflection the book presented a number of such shifts, and they were all important to the bigger picture of which The Monster on Hold is just a part. The many bonus features (as well as some strong, evocative illustrations) do definitely deepen the experience of this book. There’s also a great introduction by Chuck Welch, editor of the iconic Bronze Gazette. Perhaps the book’s major achievement is the full transition of the Secrets of the Nine characters and plot threads into the complex tapestry that has been built from foundations laid down by Farmer of cross-connected heroic fiction. It walks a unique tightrope between that form of scholarly/literary work, some rousing action sequences, and psychological power. It’s ambitious storytelling, fascinating in and of itself, and also provides a pivot-point which can take this story continuity from its half-century old roots into a most intriguing future.
The Monster on Hold by Philip José Farmer and Win Scott Eckert.
Foreword by Chuck Welch
What Has Gone Before by Philip José Farmer
Part I – Some Unspeakable Dweller (1977)
Part II – The Guardian at the Threshold (1984)
Part III – Down to Earth’s Centre (1984)
Epilogue – After the Fire (1993)
The Wild Huntsman (bonus novella) by Win Scott Eckert
A Tale of Two Universes by Win Scott Eckert
Chronology of the Nine Universe by Win Scott Eckert
Original Prose, Outline, and Notes by Philip José Farmer
A Note from the Coauthor by Win Scott Eckert
Visit the Meteor House website for more information about this book and all of their publications.
Visit the Win Scott Eckert website.
Visit the Philip José Farmer website.