While March 1934's Doc Savage novel, 'Meteor Menace', was the thirteenth published in the pulps, it was the third to be reprinted in paperback by Bantam, following only the origin story, 'The Man of Bronze', and the ever-popular 'The Thousand-Headed Man'. It seems that Bantam held this one in high regard and I can see why because it moves along well and gets freakier than the series had gotten up until this point.
As has become the trend, we begin in the location we left off last time. Here, that's Antafagasta, Chile, after Doc and his men helped defeat the Little White Brother and his threat to the local nitrate industry, and we don't move on to the next location for well over a third of the book.
We begin with Doc avoiding the limelight as a massive crowd of 200,000 throng to see the dedication ceremony for the free hospital that's serving as his reward. Unfortunately, the waiting and confusion remind of the opening of 'Life of Brian' but things settle down when the action kicks in, with Tibetans aiming to assassinate the man of bronze and with 'she-tiger Rae Stanley,' who is, of course, 'tall and exquisitely beautiful, with hair the hue of mahogany,' stirring up the mystery.
And mystery is an understatement here. With Tibetans on the attack in Antafagasta, it won't be much of a surprise to find that we soon end up in the remote reaches of the Himalayas, in a village called Tonyi, the name of which identifies their location to Doc as the Konkaling sector of eastern Tibet. What's weird here is that neither Doc nor the five men in his team were aware of the travel. They were rendered wild and insensible by the close passage of the Blue Meteor, a bizarre weapon indeed, and a full month passes before they recover, during which time they've been transported from South America to Asia.
This is freaky stuff indeed. I'll long remember the mindless Ham, impeccably dressed but gibbering and bouncing off boulders with no apparent sensibilities left. I'll also long remember Doc's 'sheepishness of expression' on being told what happened during their missing month, namely that he's become engaged to be married to 'entrancingly pretty Rae Stanley'. Writer Lester Dent apparently acquired the habit of prefacing his characters with adjectives early in 1934 and indulged it with abandon here.
For all the fun that arises from this odd situation, the freakishness stands out more. Doc and his men had never faced anything like this before. It's a rare occasion indeed when a villain gets the jump on Doc and has him, however briefly, under his thumb, but for a weapon that doesn't even touch its victims to steal a full month from their lives is downright terrifying to anyone who fears the loss of control. In fact, the Blue Meteor really trumps any of the superweapons that the various criminal masterminds have deployed against Doc and his men thus far. It's hard to beat the sheer power of the targeted earthquakes of 'The Man Who Shook the Earth' but this is far freakier, far nastier and far more personal.
The mastermind this time out is the inevitably mysterious Mo-Gwei, a name which didn't influence that of the gremlin or the Scottish post-rock band but merely shared the same derivation. Mogwai or mogui are Chinese demons, originally just the souls of the dead but later souls that wreak vengeance on those who wronged them in life. I got a kick out of Mo-Gwei, 'the devil-faced one', who initially appears to be much like the usual megalomaniacal mastermind but who turns out to be vastly different. He might not seem it initially, but he's a refreshing villain.
How the natives are treated is less refreshing, starting with the character of Saturday Loo. Dent did seem to have done some homework, littering his text with Tibetan words, like 'arabas' or two-wheeled cart; 'tashkin' or mountain sage; and 'buran' or violent Asian windstorm. He also introduces two different phrasings of native language: the respectful speech used by educated Tibetans, known as 'rje-sa', and the more profane 'p'al-skad', spoken by regular peasant folk. Yet, there's clear racism on display, not only in a selection of pseudo-Confucian quips such as, 'A wise man does not carry a musk deer which he has shot in the forbidden forest' or 'It is said that the wisest fox has the deepest den', but in truly outrageous paragraphs that seem shocking today.
At one point, a cockney named Shrops asks a crew of Tibetans to get a launch ready and the result is that 'Tibetans stumbled out to comply with this command. Like most Asiatics, they showed a marked lack of mechanical ability as they lowered the launch. The task took them some time.' At another point, Doc's hiding place inside a trunk is discovered in memorable fashion: 'The Tibetan who opened the trunk was a squat fellow who, thanks to a Tibetan national custom of consuming thirty to fifty cups of buttered tea a day, was extremely fat.' Time has certainly changed how novelists depict other races!
I've found the changes in literary style in over eighty years fascinating. There's more slang in this novel that stands out to 21st century eyes, as I've come to expect. Ham and Monk 'hammered heels' early on to leap into a fray, but that's rather self-explanatory. More obscure is a phrase uttered by that Cockney named Shrops: ''E's like the Irishman's flea: They can't put 'ands on 'im.' This simile crops up a lot in the 1920s, apparently sourced from an old story, even recounted in film in 1913. I'd never heard of it before, just as I'd never seen the mild English expletive, 'blimey', spelled as 'blimme'. That looks so wrong that I'd have pronounced it incorrectly, had I not grown up with the word!
There are notable changes beyond the literary style too. Doc's engagement is the most obvious, as Dent has explained many times that he's dedicated himself so single-mindedly to fighting injustice that he's unwilling to bring a woman into danger; best of luck dedicating two hours a day to the grueling routine that keeps his senses honed if he'd settled down into matrimony! Anyway, it's completely obvious that the engagement was a red herring. Those watching more carefully will notice that Doc's weird trilling sound, thus far a subconscious action that he may not even realise he's doing, is used here deliberately, as a wordless warning.
All in all, it's not difficult to see why Bantam rushed this one into print quickly as the third paperback in their reprint run, rather than wait for its natural place in the order of the series. The real third story was 'Quest of the Spider', a weaker novel with a notably weaker villain, which Bantam took their sweet time in reprinting; it eventually showed up as #68 in their line. In the paperbacks, 'Meteor Menace' surely helped to establish the series on a high note. In the pulps, it was a step up from the lesser pair of novels that began 1934: the important but problematic 'Brand of the Werewolf' and the routine 'The Man Who Shook the Earth'.
Next month, the Doc Savage novel with perhaps the most ruthlessly generic title of the entire series. Get ready for 'The Monsters'. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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