The Green Man by Harold M. Sherman
A short while back, I had some words to say about Festus Pragnell’s 1935 novel The Green Man of Graypec, which had originally appeared in the pages of Wonder Stories magazine and had given us the tale of a green-furred caveman living in a subatomic world. Now I am here to report on another green man, but one of a wholly different nature; one who hails not from the infinitesimally small microverse, but rather from a planet over a trillion miles away. The book in question is fittingly called The Green Man, was released over a decade after Pragnell’s novel and is very much lighter in tone. Most importantly, though, the book has revealed itself to be a delight to read.
The Green Man was the product of Michigan-born author Harold M. Sherman and initially appeared in the October ’46 issue of Amazing Stories (cover price: 25 cents), featuring a beautiful painting of the novel’s central character on its front cover by one Robert Gibson Jones. The novel would then go OOPs (out of prints) for almost 65 years, till the fine folks at Armchair Fiction chose to resurrect it for a new generation in 2010 (I believe that this was the very first sci-fi novel that Armchair came out with, in a catalog that is currently impressively huge) and featuring that same Gibson Jones artwork on its own front cover. So today, the book is easily obtainable, and I hear that the publisher Jerry Schneider Enterprises even came out with a more recent edition, in 2016.
As for the author of The Green Man, Sherman had been born in Traverse City in 1898 and was thus 48 at the time of this work’s release. During the course of a varied career, Sherman was alternately a newspaper reporter, an author, an ESP researcher, and a TV screenwriter. He would ultimately come out with several dozen books of nonfiction (including books on the afterlife, the power of prayer, and, as mentioned, psychical matters), nine adventure novels (four of them featuring a character named Tahara), 12 sports novels, and four sci-fi/fantasy titles: The Green Man and its sequel, All Aboard for the Moon (’47) and This Way to Heaven (’48). Sherman passed away in 1987, at the age of 89.
His first sci-fi novel introduces us to Prof. William Roscoe Bailey, an old-fashioned, mild-mannered, kindly astronomer who lives with his wife Nellie in LaCanada, a suburb of L.A., and works at the Mt. Wilson Observatory nearby. When we first encounter the professor, he has just delivered an address propounding his belief in the likelihood of there being life on other planets, and that very evening, his theories are proven in a very big way. Prof. Bailey is forced to look for a gas station on a lonely mountain road after his car mysteriously conks out, and what should he then behold but the landing of a cigar-shaped spacecraft, and the emergence of its single occupant. That space visitor, as it turns out, is named Numar, who had traveled here from his planet, Talamaya, had deliberately caused the professor’s engine to fail, who knows all about Bailey’s work, and now desires the astronomer to be his guide while here on Earth. Prof. Bailey, after some initial (and perfectly understandable) disbelief, manages to convince Mrs. Bailey to accept Numar as a houseguest, setting the stage for a week of upheaval in the Baileys’ quiet existence. Numar, as it develops, is quite an imposing personage. Green skinned and green nailed, he professes to have no stomach and to subsist on nothing but air and water; has no need for sleep; and, as events later reveal, leaves no fingerprints. During the course of the story, we learn that Numar is something on the order of 2 million years old (!), is capable of reading minds and foreseeing the future, and is saturated with electrical energy, which he can use shockingly at will, from close by or to affect objects many miles away. He is able to heal the handicapped with the laying on of hands, and, almost vampirelike, is not capable of being photographed (a phenomenon that is never explained to the reader, unfortunately).
During the course of the book’s increasingly hectic – and borderline wacky – week, Numar causes a near riot in LaCanada and is thus arrested by the town’s police. The Baileys’ scatterbrained niece, the blonde Betty Bracken, arrives from NYC, hoping for a Hollywood screen test. Two talent agents, Sid Alex and Sam Schwartz – from MGM and Warner Brothers, respectively – arrive to woo Numar and later Betty to their ranks. And soon, all of the above engage in a cross-country expedition of sorts. Numar first makes an appearance in NYC, after a tour of which he appears on the popular (real-life) radio quiz show Information, Please. Then, the party travels to D.C., and during their stay tour the sights, witness Numar’s speech to a joint session of Congress, meet the (unnamed) U.S. president at the White House, and get pulled in by a suspicious J. Edgar Hoover. And then, it’s on to Chicago, where Numar has declared a desire to make an address to the world, during the halftime break at a University of Chicago/Notre Dame football game at Soldier Field. And if all this weren’t enough, Sherman also gives us the spectacle of Betty’s boyfriend, Harry Hopper, a lieutenant in the Air Force, who flies all over the country trying to catch up with his “girl” and give what he believes is a green-skinned faker a sock right smack on the nose!
Oddly enough, The Green Man is both one of the most dated as well as one of the funniest sci-fi novels that this reader has ever experienced. As for the dated aspects, which perhaps your parents or grandparents might appreciate, our party flies on a TWA jet, for one thing; great stress is placed on a radio station’s “Hooper ratings”; and Eleanor Roosevelt’s “My Day” newspaper column is mentioned. Several real-life celebrities of the ‘40s are featured as characters in the story, other than J. Edgar Hoover; luminaries such as Clifton Fadiman, Walter Winchell, H.V. Kaltenborn, Dorothy Thompson, Al Smith, F. P. Adams, John Kieran, Oscar Levant and Fiorello La Guardia. Meanwhile, other real-life celebs are quoted as regards their reactions to Earth’s first celestial visitor; personalities such as Fred Allen, Louella Parsons, Henry J. Kaiser, Eddie Rickenbacker, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., Eddie Cantor, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Philip Murray, Bob Hope, Greta Garbo, W.C. Fields, Ed Wynn, Waldemar Kaempffert and Walter Hampden. Other celebs are briefly alluded to, such as Gypsy Rose Lee, Rudolph Valentino, Wendell Willkie, Guy Ballard, Clare Booth Luce, John L. Lewis, Thomas Dewey, and the Dionne quintuplets. The inclusion of these real-life personalities (and by the way, if you are unfamiliar with any of these names just listed, looking them up might prove to be a fun and easy history lesson on mid-20th century culture for you) must have given Sherman’s story a patina of topicality back when, but ¾ of a century later, it only reinforces the notion that this story is the product of a bygone age. The book is anything but timeless. The Baileys are a very old-fashioned couple, as I mentioned, easily scandalized by the mildest of Betty’s antics; the Hollywood studio system is very much to the fore; the songs that the goggling crowds sing (“East Side, West Side,” “Beer Barrel Polka,” “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight”) are of the hoariest vintage; and … well, let’s just say that The Green Man probably would have felt dated even a decade after its release … if there had been a rerelease of the book in the 1950s.
But again, if the novel is hopelessly dated, at least it is quite often laff-out-loud funny. Are you by any chance familiar with some of those wonderfully zany films of the ‘30s and early ‘40s, of the genre known as the screwball comedy? I’m talking about such classic entertainments as My Man Godfrey (’36), Easy Living (’37), Bringing Up Baby (’38) and His Girl Friday (’40), in which the madcap antics keep piling up, to the consternation of our leading man or lady. Well, that is precisely what The Green Man feels like at times: a screwball comedy laced with a healthy dose of social commentary. Allow me to play casting director for a moment: I can almost see Betty Hutton or Joyce Compton essaying the role of the ditzy Betty, who tells the TWA personnel not to fly through any clouds, so that she might wave to the passing Harry (“She may be slightly screwy, but she’s not such a bad sort after all,” Sid rightfully says to Sam at one point). The Baileys might be portrayed by, say, Charlie Ruggles and Spring Byington; Harry (who gets into one fix after another during his cross-country pursuit) by Jimmy Stewart; and those Hollywood agents by Dan Duryea and Jack Carson. And Numar? Offhand, I cannot think of a Hollywood actor of the ‘40s who could have brought to the fore the quiet dignity and aura of cosmic mystery that Numar radiates; perhaps a Tom Conway (sans mustache), or Stewart Granger, or the obvious choice, a pre-Klaatu Michael Rennie. Admittedly, some of the humor in Sherman’s story comes off as forced (that waggish Oscar Levant keeps the horrible punning groaners coming relentlessly in his segment), and some of the humor is inadvertent (such as when Hoover declares, in response to Harry wondering if the G-man had ever been in love, “My romantic life is my own affair”), but for the most part, the laffs are there to be had in abundance. (I love when Betty says to Clifton Fadiman, “I just love brainy men – they’re so intelligent.”) Sherman’s critiques of modern-day society (our politics, religion, social interactions) are subtle, never heavy-handed, and again, often quite amusing. (His comments on the NYC subway system will surely resonate with every New Yorker.)
Thus, we have here a hopelessly dated but often very funny piece of social commentary. But howzabout that Numar, I can almost hear you asking me? How is he as a central character? Well, I am compelled to admit that the man remains something of a mystery by the conclusion of Sherman’s novel, although, what with his soulful mannerisms, near-miraculous abilities, and the power to heal with the merest touch, he practically comes off like some kind of Christ figure toward the end. And that notion is only reinforced by his big speech in Chicago, which in essence boils down to an exhortation for mankind to anticipate a kind of spiritual enlightenment and “a new harmony of being with all things” … following a great light in the Eastern heavens! Kinda makes one want to read that Numar sequel, doesn’t it?
Now, The Green Man has some minor problems that are only just barely worthy of mention here. Sherman is guilty of an occasional use of bad grammar (such as when he writes “A new record of Numar’s fingerprints were made”). He tells us that the population of NYC in the fall of ’43, when this story transpires, was “twenty-five thousand,” whereas 12 million would have been closer to the mark! And speaking of numbers that are way way off, astronomer Bailey at one point infers that the speed at which our solar system zips through the void is 42,000 mph, whereas 448,000 mph would have been more accurate. And then there is that absolutely dreadful final page, which, if I’m reading it correctly, suggests that all of the preceding was … just a dream?!?! C’mon, now! I must add that this Armchair volume does not make the reading experience easier, with dozens upon dozens of typographical errors to be had, most of them of the punctuational variety. But still, even with all of my minor quibbles, I did find The Green Man to be a fun experience … even for a 21st century reader. And yes, I would surely like to read that sequel now. The second Numar novel was titled, fittingly enough, The Green Man Returns, and initially appeared in the December ’47 issue of Amazing Stories. This book is also available from Armchair Fiction, and that is where this reader will be headed next. Stay tuned…