An old proverb for traveling between states is that no matter where you go, your baggage goes with you.
It is safe to say that Patricia Clarke Wildman has sufficient baggage before she ever sets foot in the Pemberly House of Jane Austen fame. Wildman, to be polite, has daddy issues. The daughter of the “real” Doc Savage, she continually wrestles with her incestous feelings for the newly deceased superman. It is whether she will find someone worthy enough to blot out the bronzed figure of her fantasies that keeps the pages turning in the late Philip Farmer’s version of gothic horror.
Fans of Farmer who complained of him falling off since the early 1970s never really noticed how much he owed that era, and vice versa. For in that decade, taboos were still tangible, and the most inviolable involved complicating the cherished heroes from the FDR era. To argue that Doc Savage and Flash Gordon could act realistically — read sexually and homicidally — could bring middle-aged men who did not even blink when Linda Blair sexually cavorted with a crucifix to angry editorial-writing life.
Today, revealing superheroes as perverts or worse is old hat; but in the ‘70s it was shocking, and to those less committed to the canon of Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Rice Burroughs, more realistic. In depicting sex in pulp hero adventures, Farmer has always been more James Dickey and Henry Miller than Ian Fleming. The coupling always occurred before or after the adventures, and not, as in Sean Connery’s exploits, during.
“Pemberly” also showcases Farmer’s other attempt at making pulp icons more complex: namely, by arguing that they were indeed real, and more interestingly, that they were all related due to meteorite exposure in the 1790s and subsequent calculated breeding to keep those irradiated genes in the same family pool.
Again, this was very much in sync with the early ‘70s, where documentaries on the existence of the Yeti were seriously dealt with, and everyone from H. Rap Brown to G. Gordon Liddy were arguing that the real history was being kept out of the books. Farmer did all of them one better by claiming to have interviewed the real Tarzan (more scarred and feral and sexually uninhibited than Burroughs’ version) and giving Doc Savage a repressed sex life due to his civilized upbringing. The outcries from those whose boyhoods were shaped by these adventurers reached crescendo level, and then leveled off amid fresh controversies from the Nixon administration.
Fans who have argued that Farmer had tamed himself since that era when he had the “real” Tarzan being homosexually raped by a villain will not be disappointed by “Pemberley.” The heroine is violated in every possible way. But as with other pulp treatments by Farmer, she does not lose her heroic stature as a result. “Pemberley” shows the golden age Farmer with all his virtues and flaws. “Pemberley” is horrific but not from any of the supernatural doings in Darcy’s old home; instead, it is how casually the author allows his pulp heroine to be raped and tortured that conjures up true shock value — quite a feat for a story originally written in 1973, when the Internet was a Pentagon project and pornography had to be sought out rather than ordered online.
As a horrror writer, Farmer is at his best when rattling readers’ taboos (why can’t immortal adventurers be bisexual he seems to be continually asking). He is at his worst, when trying to conjure up supernatural suspense. Farmer’s talents and interests lie in other directions than those of say, a William Peter Blatty or Stephen King.
“Pemberly” is clearly a love letter rescued from the grave by co-writer Win Scott Eckert to Farmer’s aged fans. It is replete with interrelated heroes and perverted sex scenes. For others, inunadated in today’s market of screwed-up Batmans and conflicted Spidermans, they may wonder what all the fuss is about.
• Ron Capshaw lives in Midlothian, Va., and is writing a biography of Alger Hiss.