056. Origins of Thunder Island

The second Doc Savage story, “The Land of Terror” revolves around a destructive force known as the “smoke of eternity.” It is a substance that would literally disintegrate almost all known substances.  The story locale moves from New York City and its environs to Thunder Island in the remote south seas. The island is the peak of an extinct volcano rising from the seabed. It develops that the crater is a prehistoric world frozen in time, populated by dinosaurs and other terrible creatures. It makes for a very enjoyable story. But at the same time, the reader may ask why dinosaurs? There are any number of terrible situations that could be envisioned without prehistoric monsters. Was there some outside factor that influenced Lester Dent when he was drafting this story to insert such a fantastical place into his story? At the time he was writing “The Land of Terror” a new and exciting movie was the talk of the newspapers.

“King Kong” was the product of noted author Edgar Wallace (1875-1932) based on concepts created by Hollywood movie director Meriam Cooper. “King Kong” raises some interesting questions about the movie and the Doc Savage story, “The Land of Fear.” The movie was in production from January 1932 through early February 1933. Advance publicity for the film may have led Lester Dent to adapt some of the movie’s elements into his own story with the creation of Thunder Island in “The Land of Terror.” There were plenty of clues in the newspapers. A November 27, 1932, newspaper articles on the movie mentions several dinosaur types including tyrannosaurus rex, triceratops, and the pterodactyl.

1932 King Kong movie poster

Before the debut of the “King Kong” movie on March 2, 1933, in New York City, there was a novel by the same name. “King Kong” appeared in novel form as an advertising tool to promote the upcoming film. The story is credited to Edgar Wallace and Merian Cooper. The story was actually written by Delos W. Lovelace based on a screenplay by James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose. The novelized version of the movie debuted on December 27, 1932.

The Western Historical Manuscript Collection at the University of Missouri in Columbia has the papers of Lester Dent. The collection includes manuscripts, correspondence, and many other materials. One of the items in the collection is a set of index cards with a synopsis of the first sixteen stories. The card for “The Man of Bronze” notes that it was “Written December 23, 1932” and payment was received on December 24, 1932. Incidentally, Dent received $500 for that story. Dent had started work on “The Man of Bronze” on December 10, 1932, using a short story “Doc Savage, Supreme Adventurer” written by John Nanovic and Henry Ralston. It is plainly evident that Dent could turn out a story is a very short time. The card for “The Land of Terror” notes that it was finished on January 9, 1932. Given the short amount of time Dent used to write “The Man of Bronze” it seems unlikely he started work on “The Land of Terror” before December 25. Certainly, Lester Dent had an opportunity to read the “King Kong novel before submitting his story to Street & Smith. Are there any clues that he did read the Kong story?

In the novelized version of “King Kong” a couple of interesting items appear. The crew of the Wanderer chased Kong through the jungle with seamen dying along the way. A tyrannosaurus rex plucks one sailor out of a tree for a tasty morsel. Another crew member is gored to death by a triceratops. A pterodactyl makes a minor appearance. There is nothing here that could not have originated in the 1925 movie version of “The Lost World.” This was a silent film adaptation of A. Conan Doyle’s story of the same name first published in 1912. Any of these could be the inspiration for Thunder Island.

However, there is a singular item that is noteworthy in “King Kong.” As the crew flees from the triceratops, they encounter an area described as a vast quagmire. It turns out to be a vast pool of asphalt with a hardened crust on various sections. The men make their way carefully across the crust.

It is interesting to note that a similar appearing feature appeared on Thunder Island in “The Land of Terror.”

A mud lake, narrow, but spreading for thousands of rods along the crater side, was below. A crust, resembling asphalt and apparently very hard, covered the lake. This must be nearly red-hot, judging from the heat of the moist air which rushed upward.

Is this a simple coincidence or an indication of motivation coming from the Kong novel? It is impossible to know with certainty. Over the years as Dent wrote various Doc Savage stories, it became apparent that he frequently used another author’s story as a springboard. The fourth novel, “The Polar Treasure” is an adaptation of Robert L. Stevenson’s story “Treasure Island.” He frequently included hints in his stories that appear to be an homage to the original story from which he drew inspiration.

“The Land of Terror” was published on Friday, March 17, 1933.