Lester Dent, Doc Savage, and the Marquis DeSade’s Lobotomy
Today is Lester Dent’s birthday. Pulp fiction author Lester Dent, born October 12, 1904, died 1959, was better known by his pseudonym of Kenneth Robeson. Under this pseudonym Dent wrote 170-ish novels featuring his most popular character, the “Man of Bronze,” Doc Savage — a character he didn’t actually create, but adopted from the publisher and an editor at Street & Smith, one of the big pulp publishing enterprises from the time.
Doc was a two-fisted adventurer and brilliant scientist who was the model for a zillion later heroes — most notable among them, to modern readers at least, being Indiana Jones. Doc became the star of radio, movies and comic books.
Born in Missouri, Dent became a telegraph operator in 1924 and later, while working as a telegrapher for the Associated Press, found out one of his coworkers had sold a story to a pulp magazine. It paid $450 — a strong incentive for Dent, who already read a lot of pulp fiction, to try his hand.
After a small number of sales, Dent found himself solicited by Dell Publishing for a $500 a month job writing exclusively for Dell publications. He and his wife Norma moved to New York. But it was Street and Smith who later poached Dent to write a novel series, a gadget-driven take-off on The Shadow, for $500 per novel. The resulting character was Doc Savage, who became the lead character in a series that would run from March, 1933′s The Man of Bronze to July, 1949′s Up from Earth’s Center, and beyond.
Dent also wrote for Black Mask, the legendary pulp magazine where the hard-boiled style was all but invented. His book Honey In His Mouth, is a grifter-thriller available from Hard Case Crime. Dent’s also one of the characters in Paul Malmont’s pulp meta-novel The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril.
Though I love the idea of Doc Savage and many of the influences he wrought, every early Doc Savage novel I’ve read is a gooey, pulpy, affable enough but ultimately bewildering mess — like first season Buffy, writ lantern-jawed and steel-thewed. Dent was really cranking them out in those years, and I understand the later books have a certain charm that’s missing from the early ones I’ve read.
My very favorite Doc Savage book is not a Doc Savage book at all — it’s the fictional biography, Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, in which Philip Jose Farmer both reminisces about his experiences reading the series as a youth, and treats it as if it’s all bloody real. It’s a wonderful pulp study, and the most fun I’ve ever had with Doc Savage.
The best thing about Doc Savage is that he appears throughout the 20th century’s pulp works, in various disguised form. You can find him in Roger Zelazny’s 1978 time travel novel Roadmarks. As I recall, Doc is chasing down The Marquis De Sade in hopes of performing surgery on him and making him a productive member of society. One of Zelazny’s characters describes this as “performing a lobotomy on you with an icepick.”
This is Zelazny’s way of reflecting one of the recurring and most bizarre elements of the Savage mythology; in later entries in the series, I am given to understand that Doc invents kinds of treatments that allow him to “rehabilitate” his enemies. It amounts to a kind of surgical mind control that makes the series’s villains into “productive members of society,” aka (in today’s nomenclature) helpless consumer slaves.
Mind control? Surgery? The Marquis de Sade being reprogrammed to be a compliant member of society?
I’m sorry, is anyone else getting warm in here, or am I the only one who’s ever visited the Erotic Mind Control Story Archive?
With the Savage mythology, Doc’s hand-waving explanations for his “rehabilitation” techniques were worthy of flapper-era Edward Stratemeyer novels. Are they creepy? There’s not much creepier. Is the famously non-pervy Francophile Zelazny’s pairing of Savage and De Sade in a nonconsensual mind-control scene far creepier if you watch Geoffrey Rush in Quills after reading, say, Philosophy in the Bedroom? No, no in fact, nothing could make Doc Savage with an icepick or De Sade any creepier. They’re just…creepy, and Roadmarks is a mildly underdeveloped but at-times hilarious novel.
I’m really not a fan of him stylistically, but Dent was still one of the originals. He didn’t invent the pulp-adventurer-scientist genre, but his 170 or so Doc Savage novels were a profound influence on a generation of science fiction writers who were boys when Doc was big (Zelazny and Farmer among them). Lester Dent is an architect of the pulp landscape, so I remember him with reverence.
Or is that reference?
Doc Savage #1 reprint cover from the amazing Galactic Central.