Forgotten Worlds by Howard Browne
I’ve always thought that if I were ever fortunate enough to get a novel written, and then even more fortunate to actually get it published, then that hard-created piece of work would most certainly – and proudly – appear under my own name. But there are any number of reasons why authors today choose to use pseudonyms for their work, and more reasons still for the creators of pulp fiction material 70 to 100 years ago. For example, an author might have used a pen name for fiction and reserved his given name for his main occupation (such as mathematician Eric Temple Bell, who wrote sci-fi under the name John Taine). In another case, a publication’s collective/house name was used when multiple writers contributed novels about one long-running character (such as the house name Kenneth Robeson, used by Lester Dent and others on the Doc Savage novels). Female authors in the ‘30s and ‘40s often used masculine or ambiguous names in the hopes of selling their products to a largely male audience (as did Andre Norton, nee Alice Mary Norton, at the behest of her publisher), or, in the case of C.L. (Catherine Lucille) Moore, to avoid being fired from her day job. And then there were the authors who were so very prolific (such as Henry Kuttner, aka Lewis Padgett and Lawrence O’Donnell) that they needed more than one name so as to be able to place more than one story in any given publication. New to me, however, was the case in which an author needed an alias because he just happened to place a piece of work into a magazine for which he himself was an editor! All of which is my long-winded way of introducing the novel in question, Forgotten Worlds, by Howard Browne.
Omaha-born Browne had, since 1942, been the managing editor of two pulp publications, Amazing Stories and Fantastic Adventures, sister magazines of the Ziff-Davis Company. (And incidentally, as someone who has worked on several magazines himself, I have observed that the position of managing editor can be a lot more hectic than that of the editor.) He’d also been writing fiction almost from the start of his joint tenure, ultimately coming out with five novels and a dozen short stories, many of them written using no fewer than five pseudonyms. Forgotten Worlds, thus, first appeared in the pages of his Fantastic Adventures magazine, in the May 1948 issue. For just 25 cents, readers got Browne’s complete novel (appearing under the pen name of Lawrence Chandler), plus three short stories and 13 assorted essays by various others; quite a bargain for their two bits! Browne had just turned 40 when this wonderful novel appeared, after which it fell it almost complete obscurity for 67 years … until the fine folks at Armchair Fiction chose to resurrect it for a new generation, in 2015. This Armchair edition was of course the volume that I recently read; it is part of their current Lost World/Lost Race series of 25 books, and comes complete with both the beautiful cover and interior artwork (by Robert Gibson Jones and James B. Settles) that had graced the original 5/48 release. And, as it turns out, it is a most worthy addition indeed to this terrific series; an exciting, pulpy, fast-moving, often violent thrill ride – with a surprisingly high body count – that should surely satisfy all but the grumpiest of readers.
The novel wastes little time in getting going. On its very first page, the reader meets 22-year-old Reed McGurn from Winnetka, IL; the only American member of his RAF squadron and who, when we first encounter him, is in a pitched dogfight with five German Messerschmitts at the outset of WW2. His Spitfire is shot down and plummets to the ground and certain destruction, passing through a mysterious gray cloud en route. When Reed regains consciousness, he discovers that although his plane is a complete wreck, he is miraculously in one piece. What is even more mystifying, however, is the fact that he has crash-landed in a tropical jungle, teeming with lions and panthers, snakes and other wildlife not to be found in southern Germany.
Eventually, Reed learns the truth: He has somehow fetched up in the Africa of some 22,000 years in the past, when the land was called Afrota, and erelong, becomes embroiled in a prehistoric love triangle of sorts, as well as the events that are hurling two island nations into war. The reader is introduced to the cavegirl Lua, a blonde beauty whom Reed rescues from the clutches of the brutish Cro-Magnon Bitog; Avar-Ak, an elderly, minor priest who has stolen the Golden God idol from its temple in Atland’s capital city of Atlantis (for once, Atlantis is the name of a city, not the name of the island continent itself!), and hides out with it in Afrota, preparatory to handing it over to the island nation of Clyrus; Ashtoth, the king of Atland, who must regain his nation’s treasured idol or else be forced to allow his beautiful daughter Athora to wed Clyrus’ king, the 500-pound madman Mentanek; Fargolt, a lieutenant in Atland’s air forces, who travels with Athora and her handmaiden Rhodia to Afrota so that the princess might hide herself, even though he himself is a spy for the Clyrusians; and the high priests Sar-Gath and Clat-Ron, of Clyrus and Atland respectively, who must use all their cunning and wiles to both avert war and bend the other country to his own nation’s will. It is a fairly complex situation that Reed McGurn finds himself in, especially when he and Lua bump into Athora and her retinue, with the two women both taking a hot-blooded fancy for him, and Fargolt falling in lust with the lovely Lua. Author Browne really keeps things percolating in his novel, the jungle adventures of its first 2/3 growing even wilder when our disparate band lands in the Clyrusian capital of Clya. Never a dull moment, and all that…
While flipping through Forgotten Worlds, this reader was most forcibly reminded of the movie serials of the 1940s, such as those featuring Flash Gordon. Like those wonderful entertainments of yore, Browne’s book is relentlessly action packed, with one cliff-hanger after another popping up every few pages. Characters are depicted with a broad pen, most being either heartwarmingly good or hissably evil, and with Reed turning out to be a true hero’s hero. During Browne’s book, Reed battles several large jungle cats, engages Bitog in a fight to the death, and rescues both Athora and Lua from their locked cells in Clyrusian palace and temple. Browne throws some elements of superscience into what is in essence some pretty hard-core fantasy, and thus we are treated to the dyarks and the petrix (an airship and a boat that operate without engines … only two small adjacent minerals supplying the power), as well as the huars and the xorths (the first being a handgun that fires a deadly heat ray, the latter being another hand weapon that instantaneously disintegrates its target into nothingness). Like many of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ tales, Forgotten Worlds boasts any number of foreign words and terms, besides the four just mentioned. This reader counted 32 such, so if you were ever wondering what the word for “wristwatch” used to be in Atlantis, this is the place to find it. (It was leton, by the way.)
Browne’s work here is enormously likeable, pulpy as heck as it is, and the author demonstrates that he could easily have enjoyed a lengthy career as a writer, had his editing work not taken precedence. He adds pleasing humor to his imaginative mix (how funny it is when Reed, forced to give a name to a Clyrusian guard, replies “Hitler”); writes in a simple, clean and highly readable style; and manages to wind things up on an audience-pleasing note. What a film this could make … given the requisite $200 million, of course. So yes, Forgotten Worlds really is something of a blast … enormous fun for younger readers as well as old-timers, like me.
And yet, it would seem inevitably, there are problems to be found here. For me, the biggest bone of contention is the fact that we never learn how Reed McGurn got transported back in time and through space to begin with; what the nature of that mysterious cloud was, exactly. Neither the author nor Reed himself bothers to even speculate on the phenomenon. Browne needed some method of sending his hero back, obviously, and opted for a cloud; it might as well have been a lightning bolt, or magic crystal, or alien manipulation. The author simply tells us “What caused the miracle … McGurn was never destined to know…” Okay, but some cogitation on the matter by our hero might have been nice, no? Another major problem for this reader was the story line’s overdependence on multiple coincidences. I mean, what are the odds that Reed and the elderly priest Avar-Ak should chance to bump into each other in all of Africa … and then that Athora and her party should bump into Reed and Lua, too? I’d say the odds of either one happening are incalculably small. Then, there is the matter of Reed being taught the language of the cavefolk (and Atlanda and Clyrus), by Lua, in a few short hours … enough for him to communicate with everyone for the duration of the book. I don’t know about you, but it would take me more time than that just to memorize those 32 foreign words I just mentioned! (This kind of almost instantaneous language acquisition has always bothered me in books of this type.)
Browne is also guilty of some mistakes of fact here and there, such as when he mentions that south Germany is at 40 degrees latitude (it’s more like 48), and, even worse, of not keeping the descriptions of all his characters straight. Thus, Fargolt, on page 87, is said to have a “round, rather heavy-featured face,” while on page 115, Browne tells us that he has a “thin face.” Oy. To continue, the land that we now call America is said to be “east of Atland,” whereas that should obviously be west. And oh, I’m not sure what modern-day women will make of this rumination by Reed: “One thing about the cavemen: they really knew how to train their women. Taught them to be – ah – submissive. That was the word…” To Browne’s credit, however, Lua, the one cavegirl who we encounter here, turns out to be nobody’s idea of submissive! And, for that matter, the pampered and refined Princess Athora ultimately reveals herself to be no shrinking violet, either, when thrown into the wild.
All told, though, and despite its inherent problems, Forgotten Worlds remains a most satisfying read, and a very fine addition to Armchair Fiction’s Lost World/Lost Race lineup. It is surely ripe for discovery by a new generation of readers. True to the magazine in which it first appeared 72 years ago, as of this writing, it really is a “fantastic adventure”…