Friday, September 26

The Evil in Pemberley House (An Original Pat Wildman Adventure, 2009/2014)

By Philip José Farmer and Win Scott Eckert

This is a book I knew going in I would have mixed feelings about coming out.  They are pretty much the same mixed feelings I have about Philip José Farmer as an author.  And this review is mostly going to be about that, as well as the larger context in which this novel resides.

On the one hand, Farmer is indisputably one of the grand masters of 20th-century science fiction, with a special place in my heart for his creation of the “Wold Newton Universe” in which this novel resides – the context I mentioned.  In case you don’t know, the Wold Newton Universe is a literary construct by Farmer which ties together most of the big names in literature, especially those in the genre of fantastic and heroic adventure fiction, via intricate webs of relationship that ultimately go back to a documented historical event, the fall of a meteor near the northern English village of Wold Newton in the 1790s [LINK] – according to Farmer, in close proximity to a number of members of the English upper class who happened to be riding by in a carriage at just that moment and who were affected by ionizing radiation from the meteor which caused a series of beneficial mutations among their descendants, literally creating an extended family of geniuses and supermen.  These include the “historical prototypes” of such literary characters as Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, and Doc Savage – as well as Professor Moriarty and Captain Nemo (who may or may not be the same person) – and many, many more, both heroes and villains.  Farmer’s thesis first found expression, I believe, in two extended essays and genealogical charts appended to his faux biographies Tarzan Alive: A Definitive Biography of Lord Greystoke (1972) and Doc Savage:  His Apocalyptic Life (1973).  At least that’s where I first encountered it.  Those two essays are truly tours des forces of literary-historical synthetic rationalization and are well worth reading on their own.  Both have been reprinted in newly edited, by Win Scott Eckert, expanded editions within the past few years (2006 and 2013).  I devoured the paperback volume on Tarzan when I couldn’t have been more than ten or eleven (and for a brief time, bought the thesis – hook, line, and sinker!), and the Doc Savage book within just a few years afterward (age thirteen?), and would not hesitate to hand either of them over to any young reader interested in those specific characters and a fantastic introduction to a world of great literature and a lifetime of great reading.

I cannot make the same statement about not hesitat[ing] to hand [it] over to any young reader about this book, however, as much as it exemplifies the Wold Newton Universe.  Which brings me to the other side of Philip José Farmer.  Putting it bluntly, much of his writing, including this book, can only be described as pornographic.  Returning to my youth for a moment, after reading Tarzan Alive and Doc Savage:  His Apocalyptic Life, I sought out another book by Farmer in which he has thinly disguised versions of those two heroes meet – the infamous novel A Feast Unknown.  It was the first thing I ever read by Farmer outside of those two faux biographies – and I was dumbstruck at the rawly explicit neopulp sadomasochistic homoerotic clash of titans.   Of course, I was about thirteen – I couldn’t put it down!  I thank God it didn’t warp me forever!  I went on to read other things by Farmer over the years, but nothing left quite the indelible scar in my memory that book did, although I found similar themes to run through much of his writing.  Ultimately, I would assess his writing to be an odd and disturbing mix of genius and perversion – almost always sporting engaging characters, brilliant plotting and world-building (or –adapting/-synthesizing?), and driving neopulp prose that sweeps the reader along in a ride that leaves him feeling downright dirty at the end.  Or at least it did this reader – because that’s exactly how I would assess this book and how it did make me feel.  Of course, I knew what I was getting going in….

As much as I liked it – and intend to take a deep breath and plunge right into the already-published second adventure of Pat Wildman before too long – I don’t know who in the world I could ever actually recommend this book to.  Heck, the fact that I read this stuff could arguably be a cause for scandal in the sense of Matthew 18:6-9 – which means I hesitate to publish this review.  Readers with rather loosely woven moral fiber could well find The Evil in Pemberley House a dangerous occasion for mortal sin.  And yet, this “rawly explicit … sadomasochistic homoerotic” (yep, here once again) neopulp narrative tells an engaging story pulling together strands from every corner of the Wold Newton Universe and setting up what looks to be a treat of a continuing series.  That’s what the balance of this review is going to focus on, and simply advise that potential readers should approach this book with caution.  It’s great stuff – but….

‘Way back in the original Wold Newton essays, Farmer postulated that Dr. Clark Savage, Sr., pulp hero “Doc” Savage’s father, was a different pseudonym for the character called James Wilder from the Sherlock Holmes story, “The Adventure of the Priory School,” which tale also involved – under pseudonyms – the family that had sired John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, and involved the estate known in Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice as Pemberley House.  James Wilder’s real name was James Clarke Wildman, and Patricia Clarke Lupin Wildman is his granddaughter – therefore the daughter of Doc Savage.  Who, in 1972, recently orphaned by the tragic death of her parents and even more recently widowed by the tragic murder of her husband, is an emotionally crushed 22-year-old girl when she inherits Pemberley House by another set of tragic deaths.  Having to get away from her upstate New York home which holds too many painful memories, Pat travels to England and is immediately thrust into the midst of a bizarre web of perversion, conspiracy, and gothic horror spanning centuries.  The Wold Newton Universe connections mentioned above are only the main ones – there are others, doubtless many I didn’t even pick up on, but that’s part of the fun.  Through it all, Pat proves herself every bit her father’s daughter (with a heaping dose of Elektra complex to work through) and a prime specimen of the Wold Newton genetic heritage, persevering over all adversaries while exorcising the demons of her own recent past.  Whereupon she gets an unexpected phone call – and hears the last voice in the world she ever expected to hear.

Besides the story itself, there are various supporting appendages in the spirit of Philip José Farmer’s introduction to Tarzan Alive, detailing how he – and more recently, Win Scott Eckert – met Lady Pat Wildman and came to publish her story.  Exactly what the role of Eckert is in the final product is unclear, at least to me, other than that the basic story was an unpublished manuscript found among Farmer’s papers.  This volume does include a dozen-or-so-pages long plot outline – is that what was actually found in Farmer’s files?  If so, and if the fully written narrative is mostly Eckert’s based on that outline, all I can say is that he masterfully duplicates Farmer’s style … in every respect.  There are also two genealogies extending the originals, one “spoiler-free” at the beginning of the book and the other giving more details crucial to the plot but placed afterward so as not to give anything away, discussions of how the various characters and the story fit into the wider Wold Newton Universe, a time-line of events pertinent to the plot, and so forth.  All in all, it’s a brilliant extension of the mythos...

... that I nonetheless hesitate to recommend to the unwary reader.

Cheers, and Thanks for reading!

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