December 1935's issue of 'Doc Savage Magazine', credited, as always, to Kenneth Robeson, was the fifth novel in a row to be written by a different author. Lester Dent had finished a run of five books in August, then handed over to a relay team comprised of J. Allan Dunn, Harold A. Davis, Lawrence Donovan and, finally, W. Ryerson Johnson, who had previously contributed 'Land of Always-Night' back in March.
'The Fantastic Island' has something of a poor reputation with fans, many of whom truly loathe the mechanism that lies behind a number of mysterious deaths in the book, but I find that it's a real mixed bag. It's consistently inconsistent, from the first few pages to the last few. It begins, for instance, with some clumsy language, which is odd given the vibrant prose of 'Land of Always-Night', but Johnny is kidnapped in the very first line. In other words, it starts horribly and wonderfully all at the same time.
He disappeared while on an archaeological expedition to the Galapagos Islands, prompting Doc to ask a couple of his other assistants to investigate. Fortunately, Monk and Ham aren't far away, vacationing on a yacht called the Seven Seas somewhere off Panama; with Pat Savage. Now, why Monk and Ham are sharing a boat in the middle of nowhere with Pat, I have no idea. Even if we put all our dirty thoughts aside, Monk and Ham spend their time annoying everyone around them with the constant bickering that constitutes the vast majority of their dialogue. Yeah, we know they're secretly best friends but they're not best friends that anyone else ever wants to be around, so I don't buy into Pat volunteering to spend a holiday in between these two perennial opponents.
Anyway, they head over to the Galapagos and find themselves suckered into a graveyard of ships, red lightning flaring all around them as they become the latest wreck of over two dozen. At least the prose quickly improves, as they survive the wreck and escape inland, and so does the imagery. If the red lightning wasn't hellish enough, they discover a volcanic landscape honeycombed with pits, the stench of sulphur pervading the atmosphere as a small army of slaves dig within the pits, under the thirsty whips of their guards. Johnson had us visit some wild locations in 'Land of Always-Night' and this one is worthy of the same praise.
But then he turns it into a gothic. Here, on a remote volcanic island, they find a mediaeval Slavic castle, lorded over by Count Alexander Ramadanoff, a very polite, if clearly insane and wildly dangerous, Russian noble. He is completely in charge of his domain, as any villainous noble worth his salt must be, not only over his men and his slaves, which include Johnny and his crew, but everyone else who's been shipwrecked in the vicinity, such as Monk, Ham and Pat, who promptly become 'guests' of the Count, or in other words, prisoners without bars. At least until they piss him off, anyway, and then it's the pits. Or the thumbnail death.
Johnson builds the story well, gradually introducing Doc and his men as needed. Long Tom arrives in chapter 4, witnessing a 'grayish-blue streak' of a tiny creature attacking the boy who operates Doc's special elevator. Doc's not far behind him, showing up later than he has perhaps showed up at any point in the series thus far. Naturally he figures out that the boy was bitten by a venomous centipede indigenous only to the Galapagos islands, as the Count has both a surprisingly long reach and the arrogance to be so frickin' obvious. And, finally, Renny joins the fray, calling Doc and Long Tom back to headquarters after the centipede strikes again, killing a two-hundred-pound cop before Renny could kill it. And so we have the whole gang involved, including Pat, for the first time since 'Fear Cay' fifteen books earlier.
A few things become quickly obvious, the first being that Johnson hadn't done his homework. Only two books earlier, in 'Dust of Death' we'd learned about the simple trick that Doc and his men use when sending telegrams to ensure authenticity: each line begins with a five letter word. Johnson didn't notice and ignored that here, with Doc and Renny trusting an important cable from Monk even though their code would have proven it obviously untrustworthy.
Another is that he wanted an overt villain. Most of Lester Dent's novels thus far involve a villain doing all the villainous things that villains do, but at a distance and usually behind a mask or a fake name to which even his own men aren't privy. Count Alexander Ramadanoff is probably the most obvious bad guy the series had seen thus far. We know he's the villain from his first appearance and he only gets more villainous from there. He's a worthy opponent for Doc but he knows it too and he relishes it. When the man of bronze fails to hypnotise him, he simply ignores him and carries on with his villainy.
For a third, as the logical counter to Ramadanoff's villainy, Johnson wants Doc to be the epitome of the hero. Simply saving the day, rescuing the girl and defeating the villain just isn't enough for him; he has Savage dive into shark infested waters to save Renny, setting up an overtly heroic repeat of the alligator incident in 'Quest of the Spider', albeit without the ensuing idiotic disguise. I believe that the shark scene was written for a couple of reasons: Johnson is clearly a cliffhanger serial sort of guy, ending each chapter like it's setting up next week's thrilling instalment, and he really doesn't like Renny.
I have no idea what our favourite big engineer ever did to W. Ryerson Johnson, but the author treats him poorly throughout. It's one thing to face him off against Count Ramadanoff in a bare knuckle fight, in which the Count plays with his opponent and, becoming bored with his pitiful challenge, knocks Renny out, proclaiming that, 'It appears that I must live all my life without meeting a foe worthy of my efforts.' That's embarrassing, to be sure, but Johnson even has him fail to punch his way through a wooden door panel, his signature move, even wailing to Doc afterwards. That's mortifying. Having a bullet throw a high torch thistle, some sort of Galapagos cactus, onto Renny's shoulders a couple of chapters from the end, prompting him to spend the next three weeks pulling barbs out of his skin, is adding insult to injury for absolutely no valid reason.
The cliffhangers work much better, though they do get progressively wilder until they make no sense outside of the cliffhanger concept. I appreciate the army of starved iguanas'scabrous monsters, with frenzied grunts and a blood-chilling grate of serrated teeth'though they really ought to have been given more to do, and the horde of wild pigs is a fantastic addition, giving Habeas Corpus something to do in the process, but the tidal wave of carnivorous crabs makes no sense at all. How did the Count's men capture them again after each use? At least it all happens quickly. For all that the first chapter started so clumsily, boy, does it get moving! The action comes fast and furious and it doesn't quit.
Sadly, it means that Johnson runs out of space to finish things up properly. He's too busy setting armies of wild animals into motion as living weapons to pay attention to his word count and that means that the book finishes in annoyingly rapid fashion. We can almost hear his mind realise his predicament and mutter directions to him, like a second rate Cecil B. DeMille. Cue the volcano! Blow up the house! Ah, crap! We're supposed to find the treasure! Just look over there! Oh, and we need explanations. Throw out some explanations! That'll do. Now, I want lava flowing over there to wipe out everything! And... cut! That's a wrap! Where's my lunch?
As outlandish as some of this got, I was with Johnson after a couple of chapters and I was with him all the way until a couple of chapters from the end, when he lost me completely. Yes, part of that is the revelation about the mechanism behind the thumbnail death, which is underwhelming and frankly unbelievable. Most of it, though, is the speed with which it all wraps up. We're supposed to believe that the Count has used an army of slaves to search for the McGuffin for twenty years, without distraction because he's on an island with nothing except his mediaeval Slavic mansion, but Doc Savage can track it down in three hours? No. we don't buy into that at all.
The other thing we wouldn't buy into except for the date is Robbie the Robot. No, not the one we all know and love from 1956's 'Forbidden Planet'. This is the first in a surprising number of precursors; after Johnson created a Robbie the Robot here in 1935, Isaac Asimov followed suit in a short story and even Tom Swift designs one in a children's book right before the film. Here, Robbie is used in conjunction with neatly designed landscaping outside the Hidalgo Trading Company, Doc's hangar on the Hudson waterfront. It's all set up to make attackers feel like they can perform a successful ambush, but instead of Doc popping his head out to be shot to death, it's, 'A mechanical likeness of Doc. Robbie, the Robot.' Cool, huh?
Well, as cool as it is, it's about the only element anywhere in the book to add to the Doc Savage mythos, other than Pat's holidaying habits, and the only word that stands out for attention is 'knout', a heavy and vicious whip from Russia that resembles a cat-o-nine tails. Really, this isn't a book of particular interest to the series, except as a second outing for W. Ryerson Johnson which both succeeds admirably and fails dismally to echo the work of Lester Dent that preceded it. Mostly, it's an argument point for fans. Put four of them on a convention panel, kick them off with, ''The Fantastic Island': good or bad?' and let them at it for an hour. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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