Thursday, January 12, 2017

"This John Sunlight was a weird, terrible being."

Watch/Read 'em In Order #75

Unlike their comic book counterparts, arch-villains in the pulp magazines rarely made return appearances. The Pulp Universe is a violent one and few bad guys survived their encounters with the good guys.

I think Shiwan Khan and the Voodoo Master each fought the Shadow three times, but most of the other cloaked vigilante's opponents didn't live past the denouement. --

Doc Savage--Street and Smith's other popular hero--was a lot less prone to use deadly force, but his villains had a habit of dying as well. But there was one guy--John Sunlight--who gave Doc a very disconcerting time and managed a return appearance.

Fortress of Solitude, by Lester Dent (writing under the usual pen name of Kenneth Robeson) appeared in the October 1938 issue of Doc's magazine. This is the story in which we meet the brilliant by downright creepy John Sunlight.

By the way, I would guess that many readers of this blog already know this, but Doc had a Fortress of Solitude five years before Superman set up shop in the Arctic. Doc needed an isolated spot to lose himself in occasional research without being disturbed. He also needed a place to store some of the more dangerous super-weapons he regularly took away from mad scientists and would-be conquerors. So,with the help of some Eskimos, he built a "strange blue dome" in an unexplored Arctic wilderness.

But then John Sunlight breaks out of a Siberian prison camp, hijacks an ice-breaker while using other convicts as crew and--during his getaway--stumbles across the Fortress. He takes the Eskimos prisoner and spots one of them using the secret entrance into the otherwise impenetrable dome.

Not long afterwards, in New York City, the Soviet ambassador, who had put Sunlight in that prison camp, is suddenly disintegrated. This draws the interest of Doc Savage. Along with Ham, Monk and Long Tom, Doc is soon running down clues and avoiding several assassination attempts. But as Doc gains information, the usually imperturbable hero is disconcerted. He gradually realizes that someone has gotten into the Fortress and is using some of the nastier stuff stored away there. He realizes he might be up against an opponent he cannot beat and who just might be able to conquer the world.

Lester Dent is at the top of his game with this one. The twists and turns in the plot come at lightning speed as the story follows the peculiar but consistent logic of a Doc Savage yarn. Doc runs several successive cons on Sunlight and the other villains that would make a Mission Impossible team feel like witless amateurs. The action sequences, particularly the climatic battle, are superbly written.

John Sunlight is a downright frightening villain. He's arguably as smart as Doc, but he's a complete sociopath--a man who is driven to dominate others and who is so skilled at generating fear that he can bring the toughest men in the world to their knees by just talking to them.

Dent drops other fun characters into the story. Two circus strong women named Titania and Giantia work first for Sunlight, then help Doc, then rejoin Sunlight, then try to kill Sunlight--always motivated by their desire to protect their petite little sister Fifi.

Monk and Ham, as usual, spend a lot of time insulting each other or competing for Fifi's attention. In other novels, their antics are usually amusing. Occasionally, Dent missed his mark and its a little tiresome. But in Fortress of Solitude, Dent's sense of humor was running at high speed along with his sense of adventure. Monk and Ham's scenes are hilarious.

The novel ends with the Fortress back in Doc's hands. Sunlight has apparently been killed by a polar bear, but this can't be confirmed. And a number of super-weapons are missing. It's not hard to guess that John Sunlight will return.

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