Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Mr. Farmer and Me
The death of Philip Jose Farmer two weeks ago has sent me over a waterfall of memory. I’ve been re-reading the Riverworld series and digging through thousands of books in an attempt to find all the Farmer I have. I’ve located the majority of the titles, and I know the Opar books can’t hide for long.
As to how I discovered Philip Jose Farmer, I have to give all the credit to my Uncle Bud. Sometime in 1969, when I was almost ten, Uncle Bud gave me three Doc Savage paperbacks. Though I had been reading since I was four or five – thanks to book-loving parents – those pulp reprints were a little tough for me to get through. It took me almost a month to read The Other World. Though after that, I was hooked. I devoured the remaining two, Dust of Death and The Flaming Falcons, all with those magnificent and hyper-realistic James Bama covers.
Soon, I was haunting Hill’s Department Store in Russell, KY for my monthly Doc fix. Back in the days of yore when folks actually read, most department stores had a great book section. Hill’s had a massive wall of paperbacks. I wore out a couple of pairs of Keds browsing up and down that aisle, searching for any Docs I might have missed.
I also spent a lot of time the public library in Flatwoods. One day in 1973 or ‘74, I saw something on the New Arrivals shelf that stopped me cold. It was a hardcover called Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life by someone named Philip Jose Farmer. But there was something wrong with the cover. It pictured a man in a suit riding on the running board of an old-fashioned car. The wind whipped through his normal hair, and his necktie stretched out behind him. The car was driven was a squat-looking, tremendously ugly dude. Where was the ripped shirt and metallic widow’s peak of the Doc Savage I knew? Who was this Farmer guy, and what had he done to my favorite hero?
There wasn’t even a minuscule possibility I was leaving the library without that book.
I remembering reading it over a weekend. And believe me when I tell you, friends: I was never the same.
This Farmer fellow had taken the entire Doc Savage saga and placed it in chronological order, in essence turning my monthly fixes of adventure into a biography of a real person.
That’s right. Farmer claimed Doc Savage was based on a real guy.
Every circuit breaker in my brain tripped simultaneously.
Could this be the truth? These fantastic stories I was devouring as quick as I bought them – the mummy brought back to life, the hidden cities and mystic mullahs and fantastic islands –were real. Moreover, It turned out Farmer had written a similar book about Tarzan, and he was real, too (okay, I can hear your snickers all the way across the World Wide Interwebs, but in my defense, I was young and uber-naive).
I must have walked around in a daze for a month. I know I checked that book out from the library a dozen times before the first paperback edition showed up on my beloved book wall at Hill’s
I also learned that the cover of the book was the actual cover to the April 1935 issue of Doc Savage magazine. That was the way America knew The Man of Bronze in the ‘30s and ‘40s. (When Bantam published the paperback edition of Farmer’s book, they used the Bama version of Doc on the cover, though drawn by a lesser talent. When Playboy Press reprinted it again in 1981, Ken Barr painted a Bama-inspired Doc without the widow’s peak and wearing a high-tech vest instead of a torn shirt.)
At some point I discovered that Farmer had written some fiction about Doc Savage and Tarzan (calling them Doc Caliban and Lord Grandrith). One was called A Feast Unknown, and proved difficult to find. The other two were halves of an Ace double novel: The Mad Goblin and Lord of the Trees. My memory fails me at this point but I somehow discovered Mr. Farmer’s address in those pre-Internet days and I wrote him a letter asking for an autographed book (I don’t have a copy of my letter, though I’m sure it was as embarrassingly fanboyish) That was in late ‘75. On December 22 of that year, I received an autographed copy of the Ace double, along with a letter from Farmer with instructions on how to order A Feast Unknown. My parents must have known what a Farmer fan I had become, because three days later, on Christmas day, they gave me several Farmer books. I’m sure of the date, since I had a habit of writing my name in every book I owned, along with the date. I wrote “12-25-75" in To Your Scattered Bodies Go, The Fabulous Riverboat, Inside Outside and Strange Relations. I still have all of those books.
Over the next couple of years I read everything I could find by Farmer: The Green Odyssey, Dare, The Lovers, Blown, Image of the Beast, The Gates of Time. I must have been particularly impressed by Lord Tyger and Time’s Last Gift, since I wrote to Farmer about those novels in late 1977. Lord Tyger involved an experiment to raise someone the way Tarzan had been raised. In Time’s Last Gift, scientists travel back in time, but their time machine has a limited range.
Again, I didn’t keep a copy of my letter, but I must have expressed my desire to become a writer, even proposing an idea for a Lord Tyger sequel to Farmer.
On November 28, 1977, he wrote:
Dear Mr. Justice: Thanks for your letter of November 23. I had thought about Gribardsun building a time machine in 12, 000 B.C. so he could go further into the past. But I have so many other things to write that I abandoned the idea.
I also thought about plagiarizing from myself and having a group of scientists raise a male infant to emulate the fictional Doc Savage. But it would be too much like Lord Tyger in some respects. However, if you want to write a novel based on this idea, you have my permission.
You seem to be full of ideas. Good luck with your writing. And if you get the book a la Savage published, send me a copy.
Best, Philip Jose Farmer.
As you could imagine, that had me smiling for days.
Until I found the letter an couple of hours ago, I had forgotten about the Savage book idea (as blatant a Lord Tyger rip-off as it was). If I wrote it now I would certainly approach it much differently in the 21st century. But the idea still has bite. Maybe, one day...
Here’s where I confess the geeky PJF fan’s dream I’ve had since my teens: to one day collaborate with Farmer on a Doc Caliban novel. Over the last two weeks, that dream has become an itch deep in my brain, one I’m going to have to scratch, even if I’m writing it for my eyes only. If I do, it will be a collaboration in spirit, I hope.
Also, I want to one day write a story set on Riverworld. Maybe someone will put together a Farmer tribute anthology, and I can make that happen.
Coming soon: my telephone interview with Farmer for my Doc Savage fanzine, during which PJF tires to convince me Doc and Tarzan were real.