Friday, April 17, 2009

The Evil in Pemberley House by Philip José Farmer and Win Scott Eckert

The great Grandmaster of science fiction, Philip José Farmer, was the consummate bibliophile. He was well read in classical English prose as well as the more popular literary works of modern times. His love for the broad sweep of English literature led him to create the Wold Newton Family, named after a place in England where a meteor had come to ground on 13 December 1795. Phil united all of his favorite literary characters and genres in one enormous scheme that spanned the entire length of human history even into the future.

Mr. Farmer first proposed his grand vision in his biography of the man whose life was fictionalized by Edgar Rice Burroughs in the Tarzan series. This book Tarzan, Alive! (1972) launched the Wold Newton Family. Farmer traced the family history of Tarzan, Lord Greystoke, through several centuries of English literary and historical characters. He continued this project in his next biographical work Doc Savage: An Apocalyptic Life (1973). Farmer had previously postulated a family link between Tarzan and Doc Savage in his controversial novel A Feast Unknown (1969). In his later biographical works, he documented the research to make the case for that relationship. Thus he was able to link Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice to Sherlock Holmes, Major Barbara, Fu Manchu, The Time Traveler, and Robert Harrison Blake from the Cthulhu mythos.

Phil Farmer was always a maverick and an innovator. It is no surprise that he decided in the mid 1970s to write his own version of the romantic English novel but with a modern erotic twist. In this he anticipated by over a decade the trend in Harlequin-style romance novels which have become even more graphic than he had imagined 30 years ago. The story would wed together the settings and characters from his favorite works of literature and the extended Wold Newton Family he had created to unite them. Thus was born the original outline for the novel The Evil in Pemberley House.

As often happens to men of literary genius, Phil Farmer's fertile imagination birthed many plot lines, some of which would never be brought to fruition. There are so many ideas yet there is so little time. As he completed work on his Riverworld series, started his Dayworld series, and finished the one work of which he was most proud (The Unreasoning Mask), The Evil in Pemberley House receded into the background and became an idea he had discussed with a few friends and colleagues decades earlier. But the written outline remained hidden in his file cabinet along with other tantalizing projects that never were developed. It was very much like that battered dispatch box of Dr. John Watson hidden in a bank vault on Charing Cross Road containing notes on the unwritten cases of Sherlock Holmes.

Eventually, the outline of Pemberley House came to the attention of Win Scott Eckert who has published widely on the web and in print on the Wold Newton Universe. He has helped to make the Wold Newton Universe an on-going world-wide phenomenon. Win realized the importance of this novel to the Wold Newton legacy especially since it came from Philip José Farmer himself who had conceived of Pemberley House at the height of his creative effort in creating the Wold Newton Universe. With permission from Phil and his wife Bette, Win collaborated with Phil in fleshing out the story and preparing it for publication. The final editing was completed in 2008 and Phil Farmer lived long enough to learn that his Pemberley House story was to be published by Subterranean Press in 2009. The master story teller Phil Farmer passed away on 25 February 2009 at the age of 91, but his legacy lives on.

The story of The Evil in Pemberley House is set in 1973. The heroine, Patricia Wildman, is the daughter of the great adventurer, Dr. James Clark "Doc" Wildman who had recently died along with her mother in a plane crash somewhere in the arctic. Their bodies were never found. After her parents' death, Patricia had married one of the physicians who had worked in the clinic with her father, but he dies tragically shortly after they are married and she is left alone and with no close family ties.

Patricia is a tall voluptuous woman with the same golden-flecked eyes, bronzed skin, and red-bronze hair as her father. She had been educated like her father from childhood to be a physical and mental marvel, though not with the same intensity with which her father had been trained. Even though she is a virtual superwoman, Pat is still a lonely young lady who is haunted by the loss of her father. He had been more than a mere parent to her. He was such a paragon of human perfection that he seemed more like a god. His memory still intrudes on her when she is with other men. None of these other men -- even her late husband -- could match up to her father in anything, and she burns with incestuous desire for him even though she knows he is dead.

As she struggles with her loneliness and confusion, she learns that through her father's lineage, she is next in line to inherit Pemberley House, the sprawling mansion in Derbyshire which is featured in Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice. It is also possible that she could receive the title of Baroness of Lambton. Pat decides to go to England and to see Pemberley House for herself and meet the 103 year old Duchess of Pemberley who currently owns the mansion. Based on what she will find, Pat will decide whether or not to accept the inheritance. She hopes that this adventure will take her mind off her recent personal tragedies.

But things are never that simple in a Phil Farmer story!

Pat meets an odd cast of characters: some grotesque, some nasty, some hostile, and virtually all of them lascivious. On the trip from the airport to the mansion, Pat must prove her mettle when she is brutally assaulted. But she shows that she is indeed her Father's daughter and routs her attackers. Pat also discovers that Pemberley House comes with its own ghost and family curse. Early on, Pat finds that many of the occupants of the mansion don't want her there and seemingly will do anything to discourage her from becoming the heir.

The book is filled with conflicts of various kinds including some incidents that would definitely have made the prim Ms. Austen blush. This is after all a Phil Farmer story set in the sexually turbulent 1970s and the erotic content is an integral part of the story. But the sexual content is very tame compared to similar modern stories and is not merely gratuitous.

The colorful cast of characters includes the dowager Duchess and her very personal physician multiple servants with mysterious pasts and those hangers on who gravitate into the lives of wealthy people when there are no relatives to prevent it. There are also the usual bedroom-farce antics and cases of mistaken identity that abound in romantic novels.

Pat is faced with several mysteries that need to be solved. The motives and identities of several characters need to be discovered. She has to understand why odd events in the house keep occurring. And most importantly, she actually confronts the apparent ghostly apparition and needs to determine whether it is truly supernatural or just another scheme to scare her away from the house and her inheritance.

During the main body of the story we are introduced to the history of Pat's family which included her grandfather who was the illegitimate love child of the Duchess's husband and who committed a great crime which sent him into exile to America. There was also a lost scion of the family -- actually the duchess's nephew -- who had been marooned in Africa as a child and who eventually returned to assume the identity of the Duchess's own son. There are also a host of other flamboyant characters that will be quite familiar to fans of Phil Farmer's biographical works. Wold Newton fans will be treated to numerous clarifications and extensions of the Wold Newton Family. Included in the final production form of the novel will be an updated Wold Newton family tree so that fans may keep track.

The denouement of the story is an extended action sequence in which Pat Wildman confronts the real villains and triumphs over them. She is depicted as fighting virtually nude in clothing that has been shredded during the action. It very much reminded me of the iconic image of Doc Savage and his torn shirt made famous by the art work of James Bama from the Bantam reprints of the Super Sagas. This is where the solutions to all the mysteries are revealed. I must comment that the flow of the battle sequences went very smoothly which clearly was the work of Mr. Eckert. Similar sequences by Phil Farmer in other works were often choppy and chaotic. Nevertheless, the content of these sequences was pure Farmer with editorial polish.

Overall, this was a fun book to read. It had action, adventure, mystery, sex, violence, and a large dose of Wold Newton connections. I think the collaboration between Eckert and Farmer was excellent. They made their own contributions to the plot and the final editing gave a satisfying flow to the narrative. The story also left open the possibility of a sequel or two. Or more. If there are any other outlines in Phil Farmer's filing cabinet, I for one would like to see Win Eckert be permitted to flesh them out into full fledged novels.

The Evil in Pemberley House stands on its own as an entertaining story, but in my opinion, one can better appreciate it if one has read the genealogical portions of Tarzan, Alive! and Doc Savage: An Apocalyptic Life. This is not strictly necessary but the reader will be rewarded with a better grasp of the underlying storyline. I think it is also highly recommended that one read Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes story The Adventure of the Priory School which is also quite important to the background of the story

I am so pleased that this classic Philip José Farmer story was rescued from oblivion by the collaboration of Win Eckert and Phil Farmer. Wold Newton fanatics such as myself will find a gold mine of new canonical material from the master himself and bold writers will be able to use this to extend the Farmerian legacy to future generations.

The Evil in Pemberley House by Philip José Farmer and Win Scott Eckert will be published by Subterranean Press on September 30, 2009 in two editions

The trade hardcover edition is current listed here on at a substantial discount.

The Limited Edition of The Evil in Pemberley House is available directly from Subterranean Press. There will be only 200 copies printed each signed by Win Scot Eckert. It will come with an exclusive chapbook of bonus materials that includes Philip Jose Farmer’s original outline for the novel, as well as an extended family tree for the Wold Newton Universe.

Pre-publication orders are currently being accepted at both sites.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Philip José Farmer: A Tribute

I want to give a personal tribute to Philip José Farmer the renowned author who passed on to his reward on 25 February 2009. He has been a major influence on my life and thought for 40 years. His work brought me many years of entertainment and thoughtful reflection. From his imagination sprang The Lovers, The Riverworld, the Wold Newton family, The World of Tiers, The Dungeon, The Night of Light, A Feast Unknown, and far too many thoughtful stories for me to catalogue here.

I first came to know Phil through his novel "A Feast Unknown" which was a parody loosely based on the pulp characters Tarzan, Lord Greystroke and Doc Savage. Phil's pastiche characters -- Lord Grandrith and Doc Caliban -- were his take on what a true feral human and Übermensch might be like. These characters were very different from the Pulp heroes upon which they were based. They were heroes for sure, but more human and apt to have flaws and foibles that made them more distant and frightening than their Pulp models.

This was a theme that went through all of Phil's work. He saw the hypocrisy in American society with its racism and prejudices. In his life he had been the victim of scams by powerful men who outwardly praised virtues of fairness and generosity but who stole his ideas and peddled them as their own. Phil was especially sensitive to propaganda that demonized "the other" whether in political, sexual, racial, cultural, or religious terms. He opposed such things openly and wrote some very controversial material which is somewhat tame by modern standards but in its day pushed the envelope of literary propriety.

But Phil never lost a sense of what was right and good. In a time when anti-heroes were popular, Phil Farmer wrote about REAL heroes who had values and standards and fought for them. Phil in fact was obsessed with the idea of the hero and in what that actually meant in the real world.

In his literary biographies Tarzan Alive! and Doc Savage: an Apocalyptic Life he took heroic icons from his own childhood and fleshed them out as real people. It was almost a religion to him. Phil once remarked to an interviewer that while some people believed in Jesus, he believed in Doc Savage.

This comment reveals to me that Phil Farmer was on a quest to find meaning in life and something in which to believe. He wrote several stories that were critical of the Fundamentalist Christianity which was so prevalent around him. In reaction against this, there was a time when he flirted with Catholicism. During that time he wrote the Fr. John Carmody stories which are personal favorites of mine. (It is one of my great regrets that Phil died before he could tell the story of what happened at Johns Hopkins to convert the master criminal John Carmody and move him to become a priest.) As a devout Catholic myself, it is obvious that Phil read widely in theology and understood the Catholic faith. In many ways, I can see remnants of that in his later works as well. But Phil could not reconcile the Catholic Church's teachings on sexuality with his own perceptions. I think this in large part inhibited him from converting.

One of my favorite stories by Phil is "St. Francis Kisses his Ass Goodbye." In it, Phil showed an in-depth understanding of St. Francis of Assisi which surprised me. This was projected on to a back drop of the dehumanizing aspects of poverty in the modern world when Il Poverello is projected forward into the 20th Century by a time-machine experiment gone haywire. To save the world from destruction St. Francis must be sent back to his own time. I think this story showed that Phil was not sure the piety of St. Francis really had a place in our day. Yet it was obvious that he appreciated and admired what St. Francis had accomplished in his own time.

Similarly, there was an episode in the Riverworld series where a Catholic Prince established a kingdom along the river which embodied all the virtues of the Catholic faith. Phil described is as a wholesome and good place.

I don't think that Phil ever gave up on God or on the Church. He just could not find a way to believe in perennial values. What Phil could believe in was personal integrity and the heroic spirit. This is what he found in Tarzan and Doc Savage. Good men who made virtuous choices and who persevered against evil even when against the odds.

Phil took this love of the hero to a greater length and created the Wold Newton Family to bring together his favorite heroes from all fiction into one literary universe where goodness and justice would in the end prevail. This was a religious vision of faith and hope in the heroic spirit as something working in history in the hearts and minds of people who projected their values into the stories which entertained and sustained them.

Phil Farmer has moved on now and our prayers and thanks go with him. I hope he finds in eternity what he was searching for in the world's longing for literary heroes. He has left us a great legacy which I will cherish and which I hope to help pass on to posterity. We will likely not see his like again for quite sometime.

Rest in peace, Phil. Thanks for everything. We will miss you. I hope to see you again soon.

Art Sippo MD, MPH

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