Mad Mesa (January 1939) begins the slow slide to mediocrity. The next two years mark an era in which twelve of the twenty-four stories are by Dent’s contemporaries. To make matters worse, many of Dent’s stories use ideas recycled from prior adventures. The first comes from The Red Skull. A criminal gang wishes to sabotage construction of a damn. Their goal is to obtain control of mineral deposits that the dam’s lake will flood. In the original story a large gas deposit lay beneath the lakebed. Now it is a gold vein. Secondly, Mad Mesa uses the idea of poisoning the water supply so as to discredit the dam. The idea is to create the impression that a naturally occurring mineral deposit has been dissolved by the rising waters thus poisoning it. A similar idea was used only six months earlier in The Giggling Ghosts, whereby a gang devised a scheme to make everyone believe poison gas was naturally leaking from the ground on some very desirable real estate. Once the gang had bought up the land they would conveniently solve the problem.
The Flaming Falcons (June 1939) also recycles devices used in prior plots. The first is the idea of a new rubber plant. This gimmick first appeared in The Land of Fear. Next is the idea of air-born killing machines embodied in the strange birds that burst into flames once their dastardly work is accomplished. Readers first saw this trick in The Seven Agate Devils. The infernal machines used in this story zeroed in on a victim. Instead of the poison gas used in The Flaming Falcons, the machines carried a stabbing device. In both stories, once their work was done, the death instrument burst into flames, thus destroying the evidence. Even with its bastardized origins this is really an excellent story.
Criminals are hard at work again to prevent construction of a dam in The Crimson Serpent (August 1939). The proposed dam would flood their secret hideout which is a storehouse for stolen goods. It is a variation of the same theme used in The Red Skull and Mad Mesa.
The Other World (January 1940) is an excellent adventure. It also replays many of the same basic elements originally used in The Land of Terror. There is a lost world full populated with dinosaurs. A criminal gang seeks to gain control of ab exotic resource.
Elements from The Sea Angel are recycled in the June 1940 adventure, The Awful Egg. And of course, there is the dinosaur connection.
William G. Bogart makes his debut during this period. My overall impression is that Bogart is a bit dry and his stories tend to drag. At one point in the period, beginning with the July 1940 issue, readers are subjected to five ghosted stories in a row. This “reign of terror” is only broken by Dent’s story titled The Men Vanished even though it is not one of his best.
To make matters worse, half the adventures from this period – January 1939 through December 1940 are not authored by Dent.
Marilyn Cannady in Bigger Than Life writes that in December 1940 Dent received a letter from John Nanovic. The Doc Savage editor wrote that Dent’s pay was being cut by one hundred dollars due to a sales slump. It was a severe blow to Dent.
I don’t know the mechanics behind the slump but from July 1940 through November of that year all the stories were by William G. Bogart or Harold A. Davis. Unfortunately, neither of these guys could exactly duplicate the type of yarn Dent produced and most readers undoubtedly came to expect. Try reading them one after another. It will put a slump in anyone’s enthusiasm.
Then again, Dent was basically acting as a contractor, paying other authors to write many of his stories, which he then cleaned up and sent in to the magazine. Street & Smith may have decided there was no point in paying extra money to Dent simply to have him act as a clearinghouse for other authors. Hence, the pay cut.
Across the Atlantic, The Battle of Britain was being fought in the skies over the beleaguered island nation. Churchill described the RAF effort as their finest hour. The same cannot be said for the stories appearing in Doc Savage Magazine during this same time.
THE CANNIBAL KING
The Devil’s Playground (January 1941) follows The Men Vanished. It is the first novel by ghost author Alan Hathway. It reuses an idea first seen in The Crimson Serpent. Ludicrous ideas begin appearing with the “telepathic” exchange between Monk and Ham in part of the story.
Reuse of old plots and devices increases. Poisonous insects reappear. A sonic device that deranges its victims shows up again. Invisibility is revisited along with pirates
Dent starts recycling bits and pieces of old plots and devices like crazy over the next couple of years. It’s a wretched cannibal feast if you get down and really examine the stories. Many contain all kinds of things that are not new. Given human nature it is very easy to visualize the logic motivating this adaptation.
The Man Who Shook the Earth is reincarnated in Mystery Island (August 1941). The list goes on and one until it seems like every other story has some part or idea that has already been used once before. This story was submitted on December 26, 1940. Exactly what was done before Nanovic’s letter and afterward is debatable. What is not in question is the basic plot in the story. It is all about electrically induced earthquakes just as was portrayed in The Man Who Shook the Earth.
The Mindless Monsters from September 1941 was one of the four ghosted by Alan Hathaway. It follows a chemically induced mind control them similar to that in The Men Who Smiled No More. It also bears similarities to The Monsters in that the super-strong men are used to commit robberies.
Another story, Birds of Death (October 1941) uses an idea from The Green Death with an ending very mindful of The Thousand-Headed Man.
Deadly insects similar to those first seen in Quest of the Spider appear in The Invisible-Box Murders (November 1941).
The guided rocket idea first used in The King Maker shows up in two more stories after having been reused in The Flying Goblin.
Four stories blatantly reuse large parts of old plots — The Time Terror, The Devil’s Black Rock, and The Mental Monster.
I believe a minor part of this is symptomatic of Dent’s anger over his December 1940 pay cut. That cut was a big blow to Dent. As shown in Canniday’s book, Norma Dent wrote some terse words about the letter. It was a big letdown both financially and professionally. After this it looks like Dent was not paying as much attention to the series as he had done in the past. Sloppiness on the part of the Street & Smith editorial staff is also a contributing factor here.
Strange developments surface in The Laugh of Death (October 1942). Doc Savage seeks refuge in a bank vault and is inadvertently trapped. He cannot be released until the time lock on the vault opens it. Uncharacteristically, Doc has a temper tantrum while thusly trapped. Yes, Doc Savage has a fit of temper, but I suspect the person who was really gnashing his teeth was Lester Dent. This may have been one way he expressed his displeasure with the pay cut.
TREPIDATION AND ANGST
Aside from all this reuse, the stories begin weaving a feeling of fear into the adventures. Literally. It is to be found in The Rustling Death (January 1942). Next comes Men of Fear (February 1942).
Fear plays a big part in The Three Wild Men along with The Laugh of Death (August 1942). Hordes of people in The Fiery Menace (September 1942) are scared witless. Doc Savage experiences fear in The Laugh of Death (October 1942) and eventually experiences real fear just like any normal man.
If you think about it, Doc Savage has been through the wringer. He has done a lot for the folks in his world; all the while bringing to us the pleasures we readers have had at his expense. If some of the stories aren’t everything you expected, then just take it with a smile and keep on reading.
There is a fundamental problem wrong with many of these reincarnated stories. It is the fact that earlier events are completely overlooked and presented as if they had never occurred. The dinosaurs, the mental telepathy machine, and invisibility are all presented as if these concepts had never before appeared in a Doc Savage adventure. The story is the same for force fields and unknown plants with remarkable healing powers. This all takes place in The Time Terror, The Running Skeletons, The Mental Monster, and The Spook of Grandpa Eban to name names.
Then a different version arises concerning Ham’s nickname arises in The Secret of the Su. Instead of the story about the theft of hams and a court-martial we are simply told that he detests pork in any form. Monk simply calls him Ham in order to harass him.
In and of itself this is of little consequence. Some of the recycled stories are as good or maybe even better than the originals. The Flaming Falcons is a great example of a story that was better the second time around. Certainly, Dent’s writing skill is superior in many ways. However, for those enthusiasts who wish to maintain a certain dignity and continuity within the series this presents something of a conundrum, or insolvable problem.
A series represents a continuous function. This means there is never a point, not even for an instant, that that particular universe doesn’t connect with prior events. These cannibalized stories are problem areas within that universe.
All the while Doc Savage and his crew are being reinvented. The Monk-Ham feud origin drops references to The Great War which is now simply World War I since World War II is in full swing. Many of the gadgets disappear. Doc becomes physically weaker. He has to hit a man several times to take him down.
This was all part of editorial decisions by Street & Smith to make Doc a more normal person. However, long time readers were not privy to that information and may have wondered just what was happening.
In a literary sense there are a couple of explanations.
The new Doc Savage was simply a different character from the first one even though they shared the same name.
There could be a couple of different explanations for the change in the stories and abilities. The decline in Doc’s ability could be simply part of the wartime censorship. The military authorities had repeatedly refused to allow Doc and his men to enlist in the army. They were simply too valuable in their current positions. Reporting a “diminished” Doc would lower the chances of him becoming a target for axis assassins.
Alternatively, the decline in Doc’s abilities could be genuine. This can be explained by looking back at a few of the past adventures. The substance Doc was affected by in The Mindless Monsters. In The Whisker of Hercules there is some discussion about that particular compound and how it shortens the lifespan. The stress on his mental system in The Rustling Death from the exposure to the beam weapon could be an agent of change. There is also the blow to the head in The Derelict of Skull Shoal. Going back earlier Doc’s encounter with the mind drug in The Men Who Smiled No More could also have some impact. Doc took a lot of hits over his career.
There are those who strive to build a continuity from The Man of Bronze to Up From Earth’s Center. There nothing even closely resembling an explanation for the discontinuity in the series. Alternatively, one could argue that Doc and his men were exposed to some agent that blocked their memories of their earlier adventures. That is a bit of a stretch, but this is pulp fiction. Basically, the easiest way to explain this is to delineate the series into two distinct and separate characters both of whom are named Doc Savage.