In two of my recent book reviews here, for David V. Reed’s Empire of Jegga (1943) and for Nelson S. Bond’s That Worlds May Live (also 1943), I mentioned that both novels, in their current Armchair Fiction incarnations, feature copious, vintage footnotes from Raymond A. Palmer, the editor of Amazing Stories, the pulp magazine in which those tales first appeared. But what had not been sufficiently borne in upon me at the time was the fact that Palmer, besides being something of a notorious pulp editor, was also a fairly prolific author in his own right, and quite an interesting character, to boot. Although most of Palmer’s substantial body of work as a writer remains hard to find, there is one novel of his, King of the Dinosaurs, that is readily available today, and that nicely demonstrates what a distinctive — and perhaps oddball — talent he was.
King of the Dinosaurs initially saw the light of day in the October 1945 issue of Fantastic Adventures magazine, in which its editor (Raymond Palmer again, who had started the publication as a sister outlet to Amazing in 1939, and remained its editor till 1949, four years before it folded) gave it the front-cover treatment, featuring some beautifully faithful artwork by J. Allen St. John. The novel would then go OOPs (out of prints) for 54 years, until the fine folks at Pulp Tales Press opted to resurrect it for a new generation in 2009. The current Armchair edition, from 2015, sports not only the original St. John artwork on its own front cover, but the 1945 original interior artwork by an artist only credited as “Seward,” and is the one that I was fortunate enough to pick up. And it is a book, as it turns out, that is as unusual as its author.
Palmer, it seems, was born in Milwaukee in 1910, and was thus 35 at the time of this novel’s release. As the story goes, at the age of 7, Palmer was gravely injured after having been hit by a truck. A spinal operation on his broken back was not successful, resulting in Palmer’s growth being stunted. As an adult, he was thus a 4-foot-tall hunchback, by all reports, although I must say that photographs of the man show him standing perfectly erect. Palmer would go on to become an avid reader of sci-fi, and even served as co-editor when sci-fi’s first fanzine, The Comet, got going in 1930. As an author, Palmer would come out with two stand-alone novels — Doorway to Hell (1942) and I Flew in a Flying Saucer (1951) — over 40 short stories, and two series, one featuring a character named Martin Brand, and one featuring the prehistoric Toka, the hero of the novel in question here. In the mid-‘40s, while serving as dual editor for both Amazing and Fantastic Adventures, Palmer became embroiled in controversy when he presented the outrageous sci-fi/fantasy adventures of author Richard Shaver — the so-called Shaver Mysteries, also available from Armchair in seven volumes — as solid fact, although it is unclear whether he actually believed that, or was just attempting to build up Amazing’s circulation. Palmer stirred up even more controversy when he started two publications dealing with the occult, UFOs and other such out-there topics, namely Fate and Mystic magazines. He passed away in his native Wisconsin in 1977, at the age of 67. As I say, an interesting character, it would seem. And, I am happy to report, his currently in-print King of the Dinosaurs reveals him to be a most unusual authorial voice, as well.
The book details two event-filled days in the life of a prehistoric community that dwells in an enormous cliff settlement, appropriately called Sandcliff. Two years prior to the beginning of the story here, Sandcliff’s benevolent ruler, the Great Tokay, had been deposed, and the cruel and barbaric Kola had taken over. And so, as we see, the thousands of common folk who currently live in the caves of Sandcliff’s lower 23 levels are now a miserable lot, starving and horribly treated by Kola and his minions, who dwell in luxury on the topmost, 25th, level. But the people have one slim hope for their future … Toka, the son of Tokay, who has been planning a rebellion for many months now, secretly hoarding away weapons, as well as the wondrous berries that confer almost miraculous strength to their consumers. Toka has as his mentor one Old Walloo, an infirm but sagacious ancient, who is also the grandfather of his best friend, Rok, and his beautiful blonde lady love, Roya. As we soon learn, though, there is, in addition, a complicated bit of political skulduggery going on, with Kola’s rat-faced second-in-command, Kagi, angling for the top-dog spot, and with Kola constantly sending out spies to learn of any upcoming insurrections from the commoners and of trouble from within his own ranks. And there is also a pesky four-way love triangle (or would that be a square?) in progress: While Toka and Roya love one another, the brutish Kola will do anything to make Roya his queen, while his dusky and lusty sister, the Princess Rissa, will stoop to anything to possess Toka.
And, oh … as if all of this weren’t enough for the demoralized residents of prehistoric Sandcliff, the local dinosaurs in the area (did I neglect to mention that humans and dinosaurs do indeed coexist in Palmer’s story?) have begun to act up as of late. Fond of playing a form of baseball (yes, you read that right), these dinosaurs have lately started using the bodies of slain Sandcliffians as their “balls” of choice, pitching them over the plate and whacking them with their tails before running around the bases! But things become even more dire when Kola, for reasons of his own, slays one of the dinosaurs in its sleep, and so causes hundreds of the so-called “Big Snakes” to attempt to climb to the lowest level of Sandcliff, and then go on a murderous spree of vengeance. And all of the above comes to a head during the two days thus detailed, in Palmer’s truly wackadoodle, prehistoric thrill ride…
Now, despite my best efforts, I have not been able to ascertain just when scientists initially became aware of the fact that the dinosaurs went extinct some 65 million years ago; in other words, 65 million years before humans arrived on the scene. I know that in 1956, Russian astronomer Joseph Shklovsky was the first to promulgate the theory of extinction due to a cataclysmic event, and that it wasn’t until as late as 1991 that the Chicxulub Crater — a 110-mile-wide affair thought to have been created by the impact of a 6-mile-wide, Earth-devastating meteorite — was discovered in the Yucatan Peninsula. So I’m just not certain whether Palmer knew of the impossibility of dinosaurs and human beings coexisting or not. In any case, such a fictional setup for the modern-day reader automatically places the book into the genre of pure fantasy. And this coexistence, as well as the baseball-loving dinosaurs, is hardly the only fantastical element of Palmer’s work. Said dinosaurs are also shown to be holding a funeral service for their fallen comrade; to be singing a dirge at that ceremony; and to be able to use tools (such as palm trees for battering rams) and to construct ramps! The people of Sandcliff are a lot more advanced than your typical cave dwellers, although metalworking does not seem to have been thought of yet. Still, the folks have primitive lighters of a sort, stone parquet floors in their cave apartments, swinging stone doors with intricate locking mechanisms, secret stone compartments, and lavish goatskin awnings over the 25th level terraces.
To add to the strangeness, the Sandcliffians have a written language, and, flabbergastingly, the word “Sandcliff” has been chiseled in 35-foot-high letters at the base of their domain! (To alert other peoples that yes, this is the place, perhaps?) And Palmer presents the speech of this people not in the expected grunting protospeak (such as “Me Kola. Kola kill!”), but rather, in a ‘40s-style gangster slang of sorts! Thus, one of Kola’s underlings is seen saying to Kagi, “You guys get dames to play around with, and I get a smart aleck rat”; Old Walloo tells someone to “shut your blabbering trap”; and Toka’s buddy Nicky (!) proclaims, “Gettin’ so’s a guy hardly dares stick his dome out the door anymore”! And then there is the matter of those well-nigh-magical berries, which confer not only superhuman strength to their consumer, but also enable wounds to heal with miraculous rapidity. Oh, it is all strange, very strange, and come to think of it, there’s really no reason to be sure that this entire scenario has not taken place on another planet, or perhaps on an Earth with an alternate timeline. Whatever the case may be, prospective readers of King of the Dinosaurs would be well advised to prepare themselves for strangeness when going in.
That aside, Palmer’s book is a generally pleasing and fast-moving affair, both colorful and nicely detailed, and, patently, with abundant imagination to spare. The author treats the reader to several wonderfully handled sequences, including Toka and Rok’s battle royal with an enraged dinosaur early on; an exciting catfight that Roya and Rissa engage in; the ultimate fate of Kagi; and that bravura final segment, during which a monstrous storm, the people’s rebellion, and a titanic battle between the berry-fueled Toka and Kola all occur simultaneously. Yes, Palmer’s indebtedness to Edgar Rice Burroughs is certainly apparent, but I cannot imagine any lover of such fantasy concoctions not being entertained to a certain degree.
All of which is not to say that Palmer’s book is devoid of some minor problems. The man seems to have had an unusual writing style that can be initially off-putting. He makes words up (such as “crescendant”) and uses others in peculiar ways (such as using the words “spectator” and “coquette” as verbs). Sentences such as “…Rok cupped hand to mouth and gave the fluttering bird call, one long” are fairly common, and it took this reader a few dozen pages to acclimate. Still, Palmer ultimately reveals himself to be a fine writer, with a sure hand at pacing, visual detail, and action scenes, although his descriptions of the mazelike interior of Sandcliff are often difficult to follow. Still, his first Toka novel does get a hearty recommendation from this reader; it is pretty much a sui generis book that I was very happy to experience.
As for those three other Toka tales, I am again hard put to ascertain whether they are novels, such as this one, or perhaps novellas or short stories. Wikipedia lists them all as being short stories, but in this Armchair edition, King of the Dinosaurs runs to almost 200 small-print pages. In my book, that’s a novel, and if the other three are of similar length, then so are they. Those three tales comprise the intriguingly titled Toka and the Man Bats (from the February ’46 Fantastic Adventures), Toka Fights the Big Cats (from the December ’47 Fantastic Adventures), and In the Sphere of Time (which initially appeared in the Summer ’48 issue of Planet Stories). Hopefully, Armchair will someday see fit to release those titles as well, or better yet, perhaps some enterprising publisher such as Haffner Press might collect all four of those titles into one mammoth megatome. I, for one, do look forward to discovering what other pastimes those vicious yet wacky dinos are fond of engaging in. Tennis, anyone?