Montage, by R. Paul Sardanas and Iason Ragnar Bellerophon
— review by Grace Ximenez
Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of penning a very short story for the Talos anthology collection Mona, and when author/publisher R. Paul Sardanas sent me a contributor’s copy of the book (which was lovely), he also included a review copy of the latest full Talos opus, Montage. As a long-time book reviewer quite enthralled with the Doc Talos series, I’d offered to review any new books as they appeared, thinking, after doing two reviews already (of the exciting anthology from last year, Rickie, and the almost outlandishly sophisticated Fortress, a re-telling of the Doc Savage classic Fortress of Solitude), that nothing R. Paul and Iason could create could knock me for a total loop.
So much for that vanity.
I have never seen a book that even vaguely resembles Montage. I’m not sure how to even begin to describe it. A prose-poem? A collection of eclectic screenplay fragments? A meditation on the power of both pulp-mythology and a century of film? It is, literally, dizzying…in form, a “double book”, with half of the story on one side, and the other half to be reached by physically flipping the book over and starting at the other side. One side focuses primarily on the character of James Talos Sr., in 1932…the other side being an elegant mirror-tale featuring his son, James Talos Jr., in 1964. It doesn’t really matter which side you start on…I predict it won’t take long, whichever side you choose, for you to begin flipping the book over and over to bounce between the two.
I struggle for cultural touchstones to compare it to. Icons of creativity I might invoke that have brought me similar levels of transport might include T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, or Alan Moore’s Watchmen…heady company indeed. And to be using those as experiential reference points while reviewing a pulp pastiche is quite a statement all its own. A quality of each is a relentless faith in the intelligence and perception of their audience…in each (as with Montage) I fully admit to not understanding everything that is going on in their narratives, but what I do perceive is that important, powerful insights are being presented.
That statement is made right on the cover of Montage. Or covers…like the story within, it’s both singular and dual. The cover painting (reproduced above…of course it doesn’t really move like the .gif image that represents it…that would really have freaked me out) is not of either Talos Sr. or Jr., it is a portrait of Damaris Emem — or in the framework of the Gnostic Archon organization that she is a dominant force within, Ruha. The positive/negative effects within the dual portrait actually feel more than a little hypnotic, and Iason has used a whirlpool of paint splatter effects to draw the eye toward the center (a theme which will repeat)…directly into her challenging gaze. Inside the book, a full page nude of this pose appears…this time with a black bar over her eyes (the way they used to show both criminals and victims in the old “true detective” magazines). More positive/negative character imagery appears on both sides of the book, and more black bars come and go over eyes…the inescapable harbingers of both perception and blindness among these characters.
Damaris is the prime mover of everything in this book, and if it is the story of a troubled father/son relationship, it is even more her story: a masterfully complex autobiography translated into the language of film. For those not yet well versed in Talos lore, Damaris/Ruha is a pastiche very loosely based on the character Anana from Philip José Farmer’s A Feast Unknown. Beyond that origin, Damaris bears almost no resemblance to Anana, the latter being an intriguing, if fairly straightforward (and incredibly ancient) villainess, whereas Damaris is more complex than an Escher painting fused with a Picasso Cubist fever dream.
The story revolves around thirty years of film (from the Thirties to the Sixties, a parallel to the ’32/’64 time scheme of the story), in which Damaris manipulates everyone from titanic figures in movie (and real) history, to obscure unknowns…in order to offer a parable of understanding to both Talos Sr. (her husband), and Talos Jr. (unbeknownst to him, her son). At the climax of the Senior side of the book, she will murder him — I don’t consider this a spoiler, as it is a re-creation of a famous never-before-seen part of Doc Savage history, in which Doc’s father is killed by Mayans using the poison called the Red Death — and in the Junior side of the book, she is apparently trying to redeem that act.
The means for that redemption is film. And this is where film itself becomes the engine powering the story. At one point in the narrative, Damaris tells James, “Film is quite capable of capturing the soul of the world”…and it’s clear she means it.
Woven into this are four movies…two real, two that never happened. The real ones, bracketing the ’32/’64 window of history, are Victor Halperin’s White Zombie, and Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace.
Amazingly, the medium for messages of deep psychological understanding between father and son are a Bela Lugosi horror film, and a stylish giallo. Or perhaps not so amazing…doesn’t it mirror what Sardanas and Bellerophon are doing with the Talos stories in their entirety? Taking genres that are considered “disposable fiction”, and infusing them with remarkable weight and power.
Within the archetypes of the two films are echoes of James Senior’s history as Jack the Ripper, along with subliminal messages about the reprehensibility of disempowering women…the addictive and dangerous nature of power dynamics of control within relationships…and much more.
And then there are the “fake films”. One, a horrifying plunge into what might have happened behind the scenes of Orson Welles’ never-filmed pre-Citizen Kane movie: a film adaptation of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Welles himself is behind the camera in this segment — it stars Damaris — and it is a terrifying descent into nightmare.
The other false film is a subversive Biblical epic called The Wife of Christ, also starring Damaris, alongside a guy who bears a distinct resemblance to Doc Talos co-creator Iason Ragnar Bellerophon. This segment is richly intellectual and in contrast to the Heart of Darkness piece, surprisingly gentle and tender.
Layered into this is a scene that takes place in 1945 in war-torn Berlin, where Damaris actually puts the film she made with Welles in Africa to use. The film itself is actually a lethal weapon — anyone who watches it dies (and after seeing the details of its creation, that is quite believable). In a reboot of history, it’s implied that Damaris uses the film to slaughter the Nazi high command in their Berlin bunker. Holy shit. Her goal? To rescue children from that hellhole of an ending place for that equally hellish war.
All the stories weave together in the end (or two ends). James Senior dies…James Junior lives, to continue with a career that in many ways embodies hope. The rest, as Damaris says at the conclusion of the Junior side, “is all in the movies”.
As if all this was not enough, there are more unique qualities to the book. At its physical center are two full-bleed flip sections of Bellerophon’s paintings, which have taken the photo-still/transformed-to-art visuals of the two stories to another level. After your mind has been blown by the stories, this section reminded me of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s “ultimate trip”. You’re swept into the whirlpool of images teased by the book cover…what Sardanas describes in one of his Forewords (yes, there are two) as “a place of nonlinear perceptions”.
As if all THIS was not enough, there are two Introductions to the book(s)…one by Atom Mudman Bezecny, the other by André Vathier. Both are quite brilliant younger authors, and each has written Doc Talos stories of their own, which appear in other books. Bezecny, a very erudite film scholar, discusses the unique qualities within the three-decade period between White Zombie and Blood and Black Lace. Vathier, on the other side, talks about qualities that can make storytelling powerfully iconic (the primary quality he cites being audacity). I found the presence of these two writers framing a book like this to be very inspiring. They are the generation of authors that will drive the future of not only pulp storytelling, but I suspect storytelling in a vastly broader sense as well.
I would not recommend this book as a starting point for experiencing the Talos universe. It does no pandering through exposition of what has come before in the Doc Talos canon (and a LOT has come before). Start with what Sardanas and Bellerophon call the “core” six novels of the saga. But when you’ve been through those and arrive at Montage, you’ll find yourself at a zenith of sorts. This book may ultimately be perceived as the crown jewel of the series, and a truly remarkable statement about what innovative storytelling can become.
MONTAGE, by R. Paul Sardanas and Iason Ragnar Bellerophon, 222 pages (a precisely crafted 111 on each side), 6 x 9 paperback, full color. Inquiries about the book can be sent to Gromagon Press at email@example.com
Grace Ximenez hosted a noir/story/roleplay/film site for almost a decade, and headlined three pulp-peril short-story collections called The Grace X Anthologies. She is the author of the Doc Talos stories Esperanza and Into the Deepest Gold, and was the primary inspiration for the character “Grace X” in The Talos Chronicle.
4 thoughts on “Review of Doc Talos “Montage””
Agreed…thank you Grace! You are one hell of an insightful reviewer.
What really impresses me about her reviews is her ability to get the heart of the matter.
Thank you gents! Having reviewed works by both of you, it makes me very happy that you enjoy them! Each of you in your own way is doing great work in redefining pulp storytelling for the 21st century, and I feel privileged to be in your audience.