A Feast Unknown, by Philip Jose Farmer
Book 1 of the Secrets of the Nine.
Published by Titan Books, October 2012. Originally published in 1969.
Review by Mark Yon
Think I’ve said this before, but just in case I haven’t, a disclosure. I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Philip Jose Farmer’s work. Some I really like (Riverworld, World of Tiers series), some I really don’t (Riders of the Purple Wage). Whatever I think personally, there’s a lot of people out there who think a great deal about his work: Robert Heinlein dedicated Stranger in a Strange Land to him, Isaac Asimov called him a more skilful writer than himself, Joe R. Lansdale calls him ‘The most underrated SF writer of all time.’ Reflecting this, Subterranean Press recently re-published a set of collected work, and Titan Press here in the UK are in the process of republishing much of his long-out-of-date work.
Hugo and Nebula Award winning Farmer was known for his breaking of taboos in the genre, such as sex and religion, and he was also a big fan of pulp fiction, including Tarzan, Doc Savage and the like.
A Feast Unknown, first published in 1969, mixes up his love for pulp heroes but adds to them a decidedly adult tone.
In the Afterword to this edition from Titan Press by Farmer expert Arthur C. Sippo, it is noted that the book was originally published by Essex House, a publisher better known for its pornographic material. This may have swayed the tone of the novel somewhat.
The story, as you might expect from its pulp foundations, is fairly simple and straightforward. Told as if from Volume Nine of the journal of Lord Grandrith (a surrogate Lord Greystoke), it tells of the conflict between Grandrith aka ‘the Apeman’, and the Lord of the Jungle, and Doc Caliban, Man of Bronze. They are clearly two opposites – the Lord of the Jungle is the epitome of man based on Nature, whilst Doc Caliban is a man of Science – although with the same father, Jack the Ripper. Both have been given an elixir that makes them near-immortal through the secret society known as The Nine.
At the start of this novel we find Lord Grandrith fighting against Kenyan soldiers, a fight with gruesome and unexpected consequences. Further battles with Enver Noli and his mercenary soldiers, barefisted with a lion (in true Tarzan style) and then against Doc Caliban show that, as a result of the elixir, Grandrith is sexually impotent unless engaged in violence, and the brutality of the act leads to some strange results. Caliban believes Grandrith killed Trish Wilde, his cousin and his lover, so that they cross swords (and, bizarrely, other parts of their anatomy) in battle.
At the end of one encounter in A Feast Unknown, both Caliban and Grandrith are summoned by the Nine and told that the death of one of the Nine has meant that Caliban and Grandrith have to fight to the death in order to take up the position. They have a month to bring back the other’s head and genitals to the Nine.
So far, so typically pulp. What Farmer does here differently with his pulp is that he makes the adult aspects of his tale explicit, by ramping up the sexual aspects of these heroes lives. They find as a consequence of the elixir (although it could be argued that it is really a condition of their own psychosexual history) that the violence has a direct link to their sexual behaviour.
Farmer doesn’t stint on the details of this. There’s explicit sex, homosexual rape, bestiality, lots of talk about men’s genitalia, ejaculation, blood-drinking and cannibalism, castration, and throughout some quite odd sexual habits. Farmer’s clearly having a lot of fun with this. Through the Man of Bronze and He-of-the-Apes, we see a difference between rational Science and more emotional irrationality. Part of this is claimed to be because of the longevity elixir, though really perhaps what Farmer is emphasising is that often unspoken societal link between sex and violence, and that the two can be related.
On one hand this is just pulp-ish hyperbole, but alternatively it can be said that A Feast Unknown is an attempt to create more realistic super-heroes, to make the characters more complex than their traditional two-dimensional versions. In his Afterword, Theodore Sturgeon points out that it is Farmer’s own version of pulp fiction – how he would like it to be. They’re certainly both a long way from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ and Lester Dent’s original creations, and perhaps why the names of the main characters have been changed.
The issue for me with the novel is that whilst these new superheroes are more realistic, they have been ramped up too much as super-superheroes with a violent, sexual aspect, so that they become less understandable and less relatable as a result. Rather than something which is to be admired and respected, Caliban and Grandrith for most of the book are not.
More than thirty years on from its original publication, it is still quite shocking, rather hyperventilated and still not for everyone’s tastes. I do like aspects of Farmer’s writing, but having read A Feast Unknown, I’m not quite sure where I stand with it, other than to say that this is one which I dislike more than I like. Written at about the same time as Riders of the Purple Wage, it’s more straightforward than that award-winning novella but, I still can’t get over the idea that it’s meant more to shock than actually entertain. Whilst I have read it, I don’t think I’d care for that experience again. I suspect that such confusion is Farmer’s real aim, and that he’s laughing at me from the Riverworld…
Recommended for those with broad minds and diverse tastes.
Mark Yon, October/November 2012