World War One in Fantastic Fiction: The Devil Genghis

Fortress of Solitude Devil Genghis

The Devil Genghis, by Lester Dent writing as Kenneth Robeson, 1938.

The Devil Genghis is a novel in the long running Doc Savage pulp magazine series that ran from March 1933 to July 1947.

Doc Savage, aka Clark Savage, Jr., and his five aides, all of them with military rank going back to the Great War, go “from one end of the world to the other, looking for excitement and adventure, striving to help those who needed help, punishing those who deserved it” as stated in the very first installment of the series, The Man of Bronze.

While Doc’s “Fantastic Five” all fought in the Great War, direct references to the war are rare in the series. We hear about how the nicknames of Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Blodgett “Monk” Mayfair and Brigadier General Theodore Marley “Ham” Brooks go back to practical jokes they played on each other during the war. Major Thomas J. “Long Tom” Roberts got his nickname, at least in one version, after repelling an enemy attack by loading an old “Long Tom” cannon in a French village square with broken bottles and cutlery.

In the several novels I’ve read in the series, Doc’s wartime experience is not really covered. In his mock biography, Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, Philip Jose Farmer created a backstory of Doc and his aides being POWs in Germany during World War One. He even wrote a 1991 Doc Savage novel, Escape from Loki, about the incident.

A minor influence of the war on the series may be the extensive use of gas by various villains and, in benign anesthetic versions, Doc himself.

But the main point of interest regarding Doc Savage and World War One is what isn’t there.

As H. W. Crocker III, an historian of the war, says in “What Doc Savage Can Teach Us About World War One”:

While our view of the Great War has been shaped by its melancholy poets, it is well to remember that Bulldog Drummond and Doc Savage were far more popular and represented a far different take on the war. It was a more matter-of-fact view: that the war had to be fought; it had to be won; and the skills and comradeship and excitement of war could find a constructive outlet in peacetime — including, most especially, preserving the peace.

If Crocker means that Doc and his aides don’t wake up with night sweats after nightmares return them to the war or suffer bouts of depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, he’s quite right. From what I’ve seen of the series, we get very few glimpses of their interior lives at all, much less of their war experiences.

Those melancholy poets are, of course, the UK’s Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, and Robert Graves (though more for his 1929 autobiography Good-bye to All That than his poetry). Canadian Frank McRae’s “In Flanders Field” is no celebration of making the world safe from the Kaiser either. American Alan Seeger’s “I Have a Rendezvous with Death” is hardly cheerful either.

As I recall, Hew Strachan’s The First World War: Volume 1: To Arms notes it was only starting in the 1960s that these poets’ impression of the war dominated public thought about it. So, Crocker is right that in England and, I maintain, America, there was not a general feeling that the war had been a horrible waste of treasure and lives for nothing.

However, at least in the Doc Savage novels I’ve read, there is no sense that World War One “had to be fought” however much it instilled in Doc’s aides a need for the constant excitement of war on a large or small scale. Perhaps Crocker has read different Doc Savages novels than me. Or, perhaps, he’s projecting his own opinion on the necessity of American combat involvement in World War One. I base that on hearing him on the Dennis Prager radio show talking about his book The Yanks Are Coming!: A Military History of the United States in World War I.  (Subscriber link to the episode here.)

I can tell you that in The Devil Genghis is a rare, explicit comment on World War One.

Doc Savage has tracked his most dangerous adversary, John Sunlight, to an area north of Afghanistan. (Sunlight is the only villain to appear in two Doc Savage novels. The publisher of Doc Savage Magazine, Street & Smith, had an aversion to anything smacking of serialized plots.) In the previous novel with Sunlight, Fortress of Solitude, Sunlight has stolen very advanced weapons developed by Doc Savage and attempted to auction them off to belligerent nations.

In The Devil Genghis, when the two confront each other again, Sunlight proposes Doc Savage join him in a fanatical plan to unite the world, disarm all men, wipe out all nations, and impose English as a global language. It’s all possible with the technology Doc has invented.

Doc replies:

Your plan is unworkable. Millions would die, and violence is not the way to accomplish anything lasting. Look, for example, at the World War. Did it settle anything? No. The nations fought until they were exhausted, then were quiet only while they rested. Now they are getting their strength back — and the same hatreds.

Like 150 of the 180 Doc Savage adventures published in the original pulp run, both Fortress of Solitude and The Devil Genghis were written by Lester Dent. Born in 1904, neither he nor any member of his family fought in World War One.

According to Doc Savage scholar Will Murray, Dent wrote the first draft of The Devil Genghis aboard the HMS Queen Mary between April 6 and April 11, 1938.

On his first visit to Europe, sights in Germany reminded Dent of his youth:

My impression of Berlin was — soldiers. Hard jaws and grim eyes under iron helmets. The kind of thing I can just remember seeing on the Liberty Loan posters during the World War.

But Doc spoke for Dent in his opinion on the futility of World War One.

It was also his opinion after World War Two started.

In the Dent-penned Doc adventure The Evil Gnome, written from an outline done in October 1939, is one Prince Axel Gustav “something-or-other of a neutral nation in war-torn Europe”.

The Prince is on a tour of America. Dent describes its purpose:

The real idea, of course, was to dupe your Uncle Sam and make him the goat by getting him to intervene in the coming crisis in which Axel’s country was fairly certain, unless Uncle interfered, to get gobbled up.

World War One Content

  • Living Memory: Yes.
  • On-Stage War: No.
  • Belligerent Area: No.
  • Home Front: No.
  • Veteran: No.

More World War One in Fantastic Fiction.

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