AUTHOR: Philip Jose Farmer, after J.H. Rosny Aine
175 pages, Daw Books, ISBN 9780879972257
1976 paperback edition, cover price $1.25 (I got my copy for $3.00 at a used bookstore)
PREMISE: (back cover copy) Somewhere in the unexplored heart of Africa a part of this Earth had been taken over by an intelligence from outer space. Such was the message that reached the explorer Hareton Ironcastle, member of the famous Baltimore Gun Club. In that hidden and transformed valley would now be found monsters and pre-humans not to be seen anywhere else.
Such a challenge could not be ignored, and the account of Ironcastle’s expedition of daring but inexperienced amateurs became one of the classic novels of the French writer J.H. Rosny, who was a contemporary of Verne, Wells, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Now Philip Jose Farmer, Hugo winner and chronicler of the adventures of Tarzan and Doc Savage, has translated and retold Rosny’s novel, making it a marvel adventure novel to stand alongside the works of Burroughs, Haggard and Farmer himself.
MY RATING: 4 out of 5 stars
MY THOUGHTS: In the early 1970’s, science fiction grandmaster and pulp adventure aficionado Philip Jose Farmer realized that French author J.H. Rosny Aine’s 1922 novel L’Etonnante Aventure de Hareton Ironcastle had never been translated into English, and so he set out to repair that oversight. What Farmer gave us, by all accounts, is more adaptation than direct translation (I’m pretty sure, for instance, that the Rosny original didn’t mention Doc Savage, as that august personage did not debut in print until 1933; I also wonder if Rosny mentioned Verne’s Baltimore Gun Club), but 40+ years later, Farmer’s long out-of-print version still seems to be the only account of Hareton’s adventure that we have in English. (EDIT TO ADD: After hitting "publish," I was made aware that Black Coat Press has a collection of three of Rosny's works translated into English by Brian Stableford entitled THE MYSTERIOUS FORCE, which includes Ironcastle. It can be purchased at the Black Coat Press website.
And what a fun adventure it is, for lovers of pulp adventure and “lost world” type stories. If you love Doyle’s The Lost World, the various Tarzan stories featuring Opar and such cities, or even more recent fare such as Marvel Comics’ Savage Land or DC Comics’ land of Skartaris (from Mike Grell’s Warlord series, which DC really needs to collect in nice trade or hardcover editions, but I digress…), then you’re bound to enjoy Ironcastle.
Unlike the Doyle, Marvel and DC hidden lands, the transformed piece of Africa Ironcastle explores with his inexperienced but intrepid team doesn’t heavily feature dinosaurs .Instead, we get mutated humans, great apes, animals, and plant life in a setting that becomes increasingly more dangerous and unfamiliar the deeper into the heart of it Ironcastle travels. The descriptions of the flora and fauna are so detailed the reader can’t help but feel right in the midst of things.
Characterization-wise, the book is classic pulp and classic Farmer. By that I mean, the characters hit all the expected tropes (intrepid and strong leader with a team that includes a huge brute of a man who seems invincible, a marksman, a smart (lawyer/scientific) guy and a willful, headstrong woman, but in Farmer’s hands they all get very introspective, analyzing in their heads (but rarely aloud) what has brought them on this journey. Farmer makes the headstrong woman, Muriel, Ironcastle’s daughter rather than cousin or girlfriend, which I think bucks the pulp stereotype a bit; she’s also, as so many of Farmer’s female characters are, very capable of taking care of herself and far from the fainting damsel-in-distress one might expect in stories like this. (Towards the end of the novel, I found myself wondering what a team-up between Muriel, Jane, Dejah Thoris, and Patricia Savage would look like. Muriel could stand equal to those more well-known women, without a doubt.) The dialogue can be a bit Melodrama/Pathos-inflected (especially when the young Frenchman/marksman Phillipe is pining over/concerned about Muriel).
Pacing-wise, the novel never really slows down. This is a tightly-packed 175 pages, and the characters have a lot of ground to cover after the initial two chapters in Baltimore set the stage for what’s to come. Farmer keeps things moving, and works the character-building moments into the action. And throughout most of the journey, the world-building is fantastic. If I have one complaint, it’s that once Ironcastle and company find the man they’re looking for at the heart of this strange hidden world, the novel ends abruptly. So abruptly that I thought perhaps my used bookstore paperback purchase was missing a chapter, but the other side of the last page has a house ad for other Daw adventure/sf novels. I’m not sure if Farmer just decided the part of the story that interested him was over and stopped, or if the publisher set a strict word-count that the author ran up against, or if perhaps there were behind-the-scenes issues with translating/adapting more of the book (if there was more). Regardless the reason, the story ends where it does and we’re left wondering if Hareton Ironcastle and Muriel and Phillipe and Guthrie and the rest had any other adventures to be consumed.
While I can’t say Ironcastle is my favorite Philip Jose Farmer work, it does have all of the hallmarks of the works by him that I do love: the interconnectedness with works by Burroughs, Dent and Verne (and an off-hand reference to the “fantasies” written by H. Rider Haggard), the deep world-building, the strong female characters. And Farmer’s sheer joy at writing this type of thing is evident on every page. Well worth seeking out in a used bookstore.
Also, for those interested, Farmer experts and protégés Win Scott Eckert and Christopher Paul Carey wrote a tale teaming Ironcastle with French pulp adventurer Doc Ardan (an obvious stand-in for Doc Savage) called “Iron and Bronze,” which is available in eBook form via Amazon. Carey's novella "Exiles of Kho" also ties closely to Farmer's version of Ironcastle.
Also of Note: Ironcastle was the first book I read this year towards the TO BE READ CHALLENGE hosted by RoofbeamReader. Click here to see my original post about the challenge and which books I chose for 2018.