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Sunday 9 November 2014

Mad Scientists, Zombies and the Loch Ness Monster

Earlier this year Nick Redfern wrote a piece for Mysterious Universe entitled The Convenient Monster, about an intriguing-sounding episode of the 1960s TV series, The Saint, based around the legend of the Loch Ness Monster. I discovered later that “The Convenient Monster” started life as a short story by the Saint’s creator, Leslie Charteris, so I started to look round for a printed version of it. I eventually managed to get hold of the book pictured here – The Fantastic Saint, containing “The Convenient Monster” along with five other Saint stories having a horror and/or science fiction element to them.

Leslie Charteris wrote his first Saint story in 1928, when he was just 21 – while the Saint, alias Simon Templar, was portrayed as being not much older. His last Saint stories were written early in the 1960s, by which time the TV series starring Roger Moore was already underway, and Charteris (and presumably the Saint too) was the wrong side of 50. Charteris had retired from writing by the time The Fantastic Saint was published in 1982, although he did produce an afterword for it.

The six stories in the collection span virtually the entire career of the Saint, from the early 1930s to the early sixties. In his afterword, Charteris says he wanted “to avoid the perpetual repetition of a recognizable formula”. That’s just the sort of thing you’d expect the creator of a long-running series character to say... but in Charteris’s case it’s absolutely true. The six stories are all completely different from each other – and at least a few of them are really outstanding.

The earliest story in the book, “The Gold Standard” from 1932, is also the longest of them – and probably the weakest, too. It’s essentially a Mad Scientist story, about a modern-day alchemist – but it can’t really be called science fiction, because Charteris makes no attempt at a technical (or even pseudo-technical) explanation for the gold-making process. That’s only a minor quibble, but it’s worth mentioning because the other five stories are all particularly strong on technical background. In this story, however, the “technical details” border on tongue-in-cheek metafiction – the scientist’s lair is likened to “one of those nightmare laboratories of the future which appear in every magazine of pseudo-scientific fiction”!

I’m glad I read the stories in chronological order, because “The Gold Standard” is the only one that goes into much detail about the background of the characters. At this point in his career the Saint was a kind of English version of the pulp hero the Spider, who made his debut the following year – an independently wealthy, upper-class playboy who fights against evil while being viewed as a dangerously anti-social psychopath by the blunderingly ineffective police force. As the stories progress, the Saint slowly inches his way toward acceptance by the establishment.

The villain of the second story – “The Newdick Helicopter”, from 1933 – is not so much a Mad Scientist as an inventor-turned-conman. It’s a highly amusing tale, but I was puzzled at first as to just what the “fantastic” element was supposed to be. Then I realized that the first true helicopter, capable of vertical take-off and landing, didn’t come on the market until several years after the story was written!

The third piece, called “The Man Who Liked Ants” and dating from 1937, is about as archetypal a Mad Scientist story as they come. As far as the plot goes, it would have been right at home in a B-movie theatre or pulp science fiction magazine of the time. However it’s lifted up somewhat by the fact that, as Charteris says in his afterword: “Before writing ‘The Man Who Liked Ants’, I read three or four serious books about them. Which doesn’t make me an entomologist, but at least gives the story some scientific support.”

Keeping to chronological order (which is not quite the order the stories are printed in the book), the next one is “The Darker Drink” from 1949. Just as “The Man Who Liked Ants” was typical of the naively simplistic science fiction of the 1930s, this one is closer to the sophisticated mind-benders the masters of the genre was turning out just a decade later. “The Darker Drink” reminded me particularly of Fredric Brown, whose novel What Mad Universe?, also from 1949, has a similar tone – as do several of his short stories. But hardly anyone has heard of Frederic Brown today – so a less obscure (if slightly less accurate) comparison would be with the early work of Philip K. Dick a few years later.

I can’t think how to describe “The Darker Drink” without spoiling it, so I’ll just quote the introduction by Martin H. Greenberg: “Simon Templar’s hideout in the High Sierras is invaded by a man called Big Bill Holbrook who claims to be the dream-world creation of a sleeping bank clerk in Glendale, California. It is perhaps the Saint’s strangest adventure, beginning as a screwball send-up of The Maltese Falcon and ending as a nightmare.”

Personally I’d rate “The Darker Drink” as the second best story in the book, after the one that comes next in chronological order: “The Questing Tycoon” from 1954. This is a zombie story – but it’s not THAT kind of zombie story. It’s as thoughtful and well-researched a zombie story as I’ve ever come across, with a discussion of Voodoo in terms of comparative religion which must have seemed quite radical in the 1950s. Again quoting from Leslie Charteris’s afterword: “‘The Questing Tycoon’ was inspired by a visit to Haiti, where I was fortunate enough to be able to witness a couple of genuine voodoo ceremonies – not the kind that are laid on for the tourists. I was also lucky enough to meet a local resident, a lifelong student of the cult and the author of important monographs on the subject: thanks to him, I can vouch that the details and the actual incantation and the song quoted are literally exact.”

This brings us to “The Convenient Monster”, the last of the stories to be published – in 1962, only four years before the TV adaptation described in Nick Redfern’s article. I hardly need to say anything about this one, because Nick’s (spoiler-free) account of the small-screen adaptation is pretty close to the printed version. The order of events at the start of the story is slightly different, and a few scenes and at least one character seem to have been added to the TV version, but otherwise it sounds like a pretty faithful adaptation. I’ll have to look out for it in the schedules now!

Although I’ve known the name Leslie Charteris since childhood – my grandfather had a couple of Saint paperbacks on his bookshelf in the sixties – The Fantastic Saint is the first book I’ve ever read by him. I’ll certainly be looking out for more now – and I’ll have to catch some Saint reruns on TV, too. I used to watch it regularly as a child, and I really liked the Simon Templar character as portrayed by Roger Moore. Probably for that reason, I’m the only person I know (and possibly the only person in the world) who thinks that Roger Moore was far and away the best actor ever to play James Bond!


Kid said...

I used to read The Saint paperbacks in the '70s and thoroughly enjoyed them. It seems to me that there was a kind of formula to them 'though, what with Chief Inspector Teal popping up all the time (or so it seemed) and his 'feud' with Templar.

However, if there was a 'formula', it probably changed over time. I also loved the TV series and some of the episodes based on Leslie Charteris' stories were recognisable, although he apparently wasn't entirely happy (to put it mildly) with the way they were adapted for TV.

As for James Bond - I enjoyed Roger's Bond movies every bit as much as Sean Connery's. Considering that Sean had established the part, Roger had a much harder job to do in filling his shoes, which he did brilliantly.

Andrew May said...

Thanks Kid. You may be right about the Charteris formula as regards the great bulk of Saint stories. Simply by the "fantastic" nature of these six stories they are going to depart from the formula, and maybe they were deliberate exercises in different ways to do that.

TV adaptations always tend to exaggerate a formula. Partly I guess this is because it makes it easier in terms of things like casting and fitting into a 60 minute slot, but also it's a case of giving TV audiences (which are much wider than book-reading audiences) what they want. The result is often the opposite of what the author intended. Agatha Christie's Poirot is a perfect example - the TV adaptations are all cosily formulaic and predictable -- just the opposite of the novels, which get their lasting appeal from the fact that they are so complex and UNpredicatable.

Anonymous said...

Andrew, you might well be the only person who thinks Roger Moore is the best Bond (I notice Kid is only saying that Moore is AS GOOD AS Connery) but probably most people would say that Moore is a very close second. I've often thought that Moore is probably much closer to what Ian Fleming himself imagined because Moore is "posher" - I always find it hard to believe that Connery's Bond went to Eton and Oxbridge (I haven't read any Bond books but I believe he's meant to be upper class and privileged). By coincidence my father was only 2 days older than Roger Moore - he died in 1999 but Sir Rog is still going strong as far as I know and has just passed 87.

Andrew May said...

Thanks Colin. I don't think Bond is meant to be quite as aristocratic as Simon Templar, but he's definitely a former English public schoolboy and Navy officer, which would give rise to a certain bearing and demeanour that I think Moore portrays far more convincingly than his predecessor.

I'm slowly working my way through the Bond books. I've read Casino Royale, Live and Let Die, Moonraker, Dr No and For Your Eyes Only (the last being a collection of short stories which also includes A View to a Kill, Quantum of Solace and a couple of others). The debut novel, Casino Royale, is the odd one out because it's meant as a realistic portrayal of a spy's work rather than an escapist adventure, but the others are all really excellent.