The Whispering Gorilla by Don Wilcox & Return of the Whispering Gorilla by David V. Reed
By my rough count, the publisher known as Armchair Fiction currently has, in its constantly expanding catalog, something on the order of 317 “double-novel” volumes for sale, not to mention its “single-novel” and short-story volumes. But of all those many two-novel volumes, which usually incorporate an unrelated pair of shortish but full-length pieces under one cover, the potential buyer would have to look long and hard to find a wackier pairing than is to be found in the publisher’s D-119: The Whispering Gorilla and Return of the Whispering Gorilla. Long out of print yet arriving on the scene boasting some considerable renown, both these titles proved irresistible for me as a customer to ignore, and now that I have finally experienced these Golden Age sci-fi wonders, I can only marvel at how very different each is from the other. But more on that in a moment. Let’s take a look at the two books contained in this Armchair offering in turn, shall we?
The Whispering Gorilla first saw the light of day in the May 1940 issue of Fantastic Adventures magazine, with a beautifully faithful cover for the story done by the artist Stockton Mulford (reproduced as the cover for this Armchair edition). Its author, Don Wilcox, had been born in Lucas, Kansas in 1905, and was thus 34 at the time that this, his very first story, appeared in print. The author would ultimately be responsible for another dozen titles, most of which appeared in either Fantastic Adventures or editor Roy Palmer’s sister magazine, Amazing Stories. Wilcox, who I was pleased to encounter for the first time here, happily lived to the ripe old age of 94, passing away in 2000.
Coming in at a brief 72 large-print pages, The Whispering Gorilla barely qualifies as a novel; a novella would be closer to the mark, I suppose. But man oh man, does it ever pack a lot of story into those 72 pages! The book introduces us to a crusading newspaper reporter named Steve Carpenter, who is in the middle of a series of exposes detailing the dastardly doings of a syndicate of arms manufacturers, crooks and politicians who are trying to start a world war for their own monetary gain. After an attempt is made on Carpenter’s life, his editor sends him into hiding, in a remote corner of Africa where no one should be able to find him (Angola, as we discover in the second book). Carpenter continues to send in his reports from abroad, at the same time befriending a scientist named Dr. Dartworth Devoli, whose work entails surgically altering the voice boxes of gorillas and patiently training them to speak. But disaster strikes when an assassin does indeed catch up with Carpenter and sends three bullets into his heart, killing him instantly. And so, what can Dr. Devoli possibly do, but the inevitable? Namely, enlarging the cranium of his already modified gorilla, Plumbutter, and transplanting Carpenter’s brain into it! Remarkably, the operation is successful, and after several weeks, Carpenter, with his memories intact, is able to once again walk and talk, using the formidable body of the gorilla! But what to do with the rest of his unnatural life?
Well, Carpenter soon escapes from Devoli’s compound and, pretending to be a vaudeville entertainer in a gorilla suit (!), purchases passage on a transatlantic ship. On board, he makes the acquaintance of a theatrical manager named, uh, Roland Fuzziman (folks, I couldn’t be making this up if I tried!), who is instantly taken by the supposed gorilla impersonator and agrees to put him on Broadway in a production called The Whispering Gorilla. The show is a smash, as is its star, who can’t help but arouse public curiosity due to his insistence on never taking off his “gorilla suit.” But Carpenter is far from content at being merely a star on the Great White Way. He continues to send in his exposes anonymously, as written by “W.G.,” as well as muckrake on his radio show, further antagonizing the syndicate and its operatives. And just when the reader begins to wonder if Carpenter’s life could possibly get any more involved, along comes Alan Bradford, his old fellow-reporter buddy, to see if he can help out. And with him comes Roselle Carpenter, our hero’s widow, to act as a secretary of sorts! Both of these naturally believe Carpenter to be dead, of course, leading to all kinds of emotional issues for our befuddled man-ape…
Now, The Whispering Gorilla is a simply written tale but a unique and immensely likeable one. And as I inferred earlier, the story really is startlingly fast moving. Carpenter is killed on page 6 and his brain transplanted on page 9, and from there the tale plunges relentlessly on. The novella is a compulsively readable one, and most people, I have a feeling, will devour it in a sitting or two. It offers the reader any number of surprisingly gripping scenes, such as when “Plumbutter Carpenter” first sees Roselle enter his office, and when the Whispering Gorilla goes berserk after spotting “Sure” Peetson, the thug who had killed him, leading to that scene atop the theater marquee as depicted on Mulford’s cover. It is the type of story that makes the reader curious to experience more of the author in question, and happily enough, Armchair Fiction does have many other Wilcox titles available in its current catalog. Despite the loopiness of this story’s central conceit (and really, it doesn’t get much loopier than a man in a supposed gorilla suit appearing in court for a criminal proceeding, and also being urged to run for Congress!), this is a nicely executed job by the author; pure pulpish entertainment, and all that. My only beef: What are the odds of Carpenter having Stateroom 44 assigned to him during his steamer trip to Africa, and then Stateroom 44 assigned to him on his voyage on another ship on his way back to the U.S.? Hmm…
And if you are thinking that the events depicted in The Whispering Gorilla sound pretty wacky, just wait until you hear about its sequel, Return of the Whispering Gorilla, which first appeared in the February 1943 Fantastic Adventures (with wonderfully faithful cover art by Robert Gibson Jones, reproduced as this Armchair edition’s back cover), almost three years later! For reasons that I remain unclear about, this sequel was written by another author in Ray Palmer’s stable, namely David V. Reed. Offhand, I cannot recall an instance of a story whose sequel was penned by another hand, although I feel certain that there must be many such. Unlike Wilcox, Reed is an author with whom I was slightly familiar; his 1943 novel Empire of Jegga remains one of the most complexly plotted Golden Age sci-fi tales that I have ever come across, and so I was ready for more of the same here. And before I continue, let me add that these two Whispering Gorilla novels were cobbled together in 1950 to create the fix-up volume entitled The Whispering Gorilla; a British hardcover that was attributed to Reed alone. The book would then go OOPs (out of prints) for a full 64 years, until Armchair revived the paired novels in 2014. The NYC-born Reed was just 28 years old at the time of this sequel novel’s release, and at 133 small-print pages, Return… surely does qualify as a novel, indeed.
The sequel picks up a few years after the original had left off. Plumbutter Carpenter, following his brutal treatment at the tail end of Book 1, had returned to Africa in the care of Dr. Devoli, and is now finding it necessary to take regular injections of the scientist’s drugs in order to keep his ape blood from submerging his human memories. Sadly, though, due to the world war, Devoli is finding it harder and harder to procure the chemicals necessary for his preparation, and so the Carpenter segment of the man-ape hybrid is slowly being dwarfed. Meanwhile, Carpenter’s old buddy Bradford and another of the old newspaper gang, Joe Abbott, are in Dakar, Senegal, investigating supposed Nazi activities, and when the two get shot up and separated, they each endeavor to rendezvous at Devoli’s new base of operations, located in what is now southeastern Mali. But Abbott’s arrival there is soon followed by that of an English major named Brooks, who, we quickly learn, is in actuality a Nazi major named Von Bruckner. Those nasty Nazis, it seems, have gotten wind of Devoli’s experiments in the field of simian intelligence, and Von Bruckner has hatched a brilliant scheme of his own.
Thus, very shortly, he returns with dozens of soldiers and tons of materiel, including the mock-up one-man subs that Abbott and Bradford had seen in a Dakar rail yard. Von Bruckner’s scheme, in a nutshell, is to train Devoli’s apes to operate the miniature subs and have them assist in destroying the U.S. and British fleets in the North Atlantic! (Yes, you read that right, and it is surely open for debate which of these two books has the wackier plot: the one in which a man-ape battles criminals in NYC, or the one in which Plumbutter is shown how to operate a minisub by Nazis in the African wilderness!) Of course, what the Nazi major does not realize is that there is only one intelligent ape in Devoli’s compound. And so, before long, we have Plumbutter, desperately trying to hold on to his human intelligence, leading a band of jungle gorillas against dozens of Nazis, while Abbott, having escaped from the Germans’ clutches, leads a large group of Free French underground fighters in a massive battle against same. But what is the deal with the beautiful blonde Frenchwoman Jeanne Chaumont, who seems to be Von Bruckner’s mistress but who gives Abbott assistance in his escape? Where does she fit into all this? As I said, it is another marvelously complex story line that Reed comes up with here, and he dishes it out for his audience with considerable aplomb.
Return of the Whispering Gorilla is a much more detailed novel than Wilcox’ original had been, and Reed was obviously the superior wordsmith, if I may form a judgment based on these two books alone. Wilcox seems to “paint” in very broad strokes, whereas Reed takes the time to add color and employ descriptive prose. Despite the inherent wackiness of the sequel’s central idea, the execution by Reed is a lot more intelligent and levelheaded than you might be expecting. Any number of exciting sequences are interspersed throughout this tale, including Abbott’s escape from the compound, during which he brutally kills three Nazis and injures two more; the exciting Free French attack on the area; and the book’s conclusion, in which Plumbutter – now called Olowga, or “The Strange One,” by his fellow apes – goes berserk and slays the German soldiers left and right. And let me tell you, there’s something oddly satisfying in watching a half-human gorilla kick tuchus on a horde of evil Nazis! To his credit, Reed depicts these Nazis quite realistically. They are not cartoonish thugs, like the bad guys in Wilcox’ book had been, but rather intelligent and calculating soldiers at war. And Von Bruckner, especially, makes for a marvelously hissable villain, at once brilliant, clever and ruthless. The reader almost – but not quite – feels sorry for him, when he promises his superiors more than he is capable of ever delivering here. Reed allows us to get into his head, as well as into the mind of the increasingly befuddled Olowga, and they are both fascinating personages to examine. My only quibble regarding Reed’s follow-up book here is that some of his descriptions of Devoli’s compound and the surrounding area are a bit difficult to visualize, and ditto for his depictions of the battle sequences. But other than that, this is a memorable continuation of a memorable original, resulting in a highly satisfying one-two double punch!
It strikes me as somewhat remarkable now that these two books were not adapted for the big screen back in the 1940s to make for some perfect “B movie” matinee fodder. How the young audiences back when might have gobbled them up! But hey, you know what? Even 80 years later, these two books might still make for one whopper of a theatrical entertainment. Are you listening, Hollywood? Go on, Mr. Spielberg, I dare you! Or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say “I double dare you!”