Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril!

I realize I'm very late to this sumptuous novel by Paul Malmont, but better late than never. The evocative title of The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril, overlays a story featuring some of the most successful writers of the Pulp Era. These writers, men who have history with one another in many instances or are just meeting, are drawn into an ever-increasingly complex story involving mysterious toxins, secret international intrigues, zombies, and ancient Oriental curses. The title will pay off, believe me.

The story involves the now famous scribe of the Doc Savage adventures Lester Dent and his wife Norma, a couple who are sadly discovering their wish for a child is  not a possibility. They are a couple clearly in love and devoted to one another, and both are drawn into a mystery in Chinatown which calls upon Dent to show some of the grand skills which made his famous character so successful. Despite Lester's shirt-ripping heroic, Norma too comes across as daring and brave, and nearly steals the story from the broad cast of famous and infamous writers.

Also on board this trek is Walter Gibson, the man behind The Shadow. Both Gibson and Dent rankle that while they are immensely successful writers their names are relatively unknown because they have been forced by Street and Smith to use the house names "Maxwell Grant" and "Kenneth Robeson". Additionally the two writers are in a feud of sorts as Gibson's efforts to suppress an early story by Dent for The Shadow prove a point of contention, despite the enormous financial success of both men.  Gibson here is seen as a man isolated, seeking romance which he finds in a torrid affair with a sexy mentalist. He even begins to see "Shadows" in the darndest places.

Also on board is "Red", a young man who would one day found his own religion. L.Ron Hubbard is an upstart in this tale, a confident youngster who idolizes the two great pulp masters Gibson and Dent, but at the same time envies their success, while always certain of his own impending road to riches. Hubbard is the least sympathetic character in the story, a callow man who seems less sure than he appears. (On a different note, the Church of Scientology just opened up in a major way in the local community. They've really made an impression.)

Perhaps my favorite character in the story is Howard Phillips Lovecraft, the failed pulpster who holds the key to the mystery the others explore. And like in his stories, despite his demise the grave proves to be less of a stumbling block than might at first seem likely. Lovecraft is set up as a somewhat bitter man who never saw success he wanted in his lifetime, and frankly while regarded reasonably well in this story by his peers, few can see the broad and deep influence his work will have. Lovecraft gets many of the most memorable scenes in  this outlandish tale.

Other writers crop up, but it's best for the reader that they remain undisclosed as their identities are kept under wraps in many instances. The story by Malmont has depth and an uneven but often fantastic pace. Sometimes the sly cultural references get a bit out of hand, as more and more creators are wedged into a scene, but by and large this gimmick works most of the time. There is a raucous energy to the action. Once in the reading is brisk. I myself did get stopped by other matters about half way through, but two strong sessions did sufficed to absorb this  wonderfully vivid portrayal of a time which is gone and never existed at the same time.

In many respects this story is a bogus secret origin for The Avenger. Want to know why he looks like he does. Check out this tale.

If you've never chanced across this tale, then I heartily recommend it to one and all. Pulp fans will likely love it, but everyone can certainly enjoy it.

Currently I just started the sequel to this tale of pulp adventures, The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown.  I'm looking forward to it.

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  1. I tried to read it when it first came out and just couldn't get into it. Do't think I have ever been so disappointed about not being able to get into a book, though. It really looked good!

    1. I would not have enjoyed this book nearly so much when it first came out because my pulp knowledge was pretty minimal. After several years of reading Doc Savage reprints and more importantly Will Murray's essays on the history of Street and Smith, both in The Shadow in in Doc, I was in a much better position to appreciate the smaller touches.

      The stuff about the Chinese warrior seems out of place, but really pays off nicely. That was where I wondered if I was perhaps not going to finish the story and perhaps is one reason it got set down. But after that small rough patch it opened up nicely.

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