The Monster on Hold by Philip José Farmer and Win Scott Eckert
(Meteor House, 2021)
Reviewed by Dev Agarwal
The Monster on Hold grabs the reader up and hurls them bodily through a wild genre ride. Included are Philip José Farmer’s series works, the wider world of pulp fiction, Win Scott Eckert’s mission to carry on Farmer’s legacy, and the ecosystem of a novel that exuberantly melds and mixes its references.
The novel continues the adventures around Farmer’s covert society, the Nine. A warning, therefore, would be that The Monster on Hold is not the right starting point. The series began with A Feast Unknown, in 1969. Farmer (1918-2009), like many other writers, had a number of preoccupations that he returned to regularly. However, readers should bear in mind that Feast is the most extreme of this series. It explores what Theodore Sturgeon described as “ultimate sex combined with ultimate violence is ultimate absurdity.”
Turning to The Monster, it comes decades after the start of the series, and also after Farmer’s death. Its origins lie in Farmer’s plot outline and initial finished chapters. His work accounts for 10,000 words of the novel that Win Scott Eckert now completes. Eckert has faithfully expanded on Farmer’s start to create a story in keeping with the spirit of the original.
The Nine is a secret society of near-immortals who regularly interfere with our history and gene lines. The ideas came fast and thick in the original three novels (written between 1969 and 1980). The premise is that the Nine grant immortality to their acolytes in exchange for total obedience. This immediately sets up a moral conundrum for the characters or their agreement indicates their lack of ethical reasoning.
This premise gives us near-immortals, changing epochs, a secret history and a big pulpy backdrop of a hidden war.
Two characters currently lead the most successful resistance in the Nine’s history. These are Farmer’s Tarzan analogue, John Cloamby, and his Doc Savage surrogate, Doc Caliban.
Each of the four novels features the death of one or more of the Nine as the resistance battles them across the decades.
While the story is rooted in pulp territory, Farmer was also a ground-breaking literary writer as well. He won the Hugo Award for Best New SF Author in 1953 (with the novella, The Lovers). We can therefore find, worked in among the novels’ action, the perennial genre question, what does it mean to be human? The Nine have sacrificed their humanity for longevity. Farmer posits what that means for them, and for those acolytes who opt for similar long life at the expense of our shared humanity.
In The Monster, Eckert introduces even more fantastical elements to the story. These include references to Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, which the cognoscenti will know referenced Edgar Allen Poe (“Tekeli-li!”)
Eckert pulls off the tricky feat of expanding the source material, moving the narrative on, remaining faithful to the series’ established characters, and travelling to other parts of the Farmer universe while adopting the tone of the earlier novels. All of which is woven into a non-stop story of fistfights, flamethrowers, gun battles and pan-dimensional monsters.
Eckert also brings to bear his encyclopaedic knowledge of Farmer lore to deliver a rich pantheon of related ideas. In an earlier short story, he combined The Nine with Farmer’s Time’s Last Gift (1972), to unite the story with another Tarzan surrogate, Gribardsun. The Monster embraces Farmer’s separate World of Tiers series and Eckert proposes that characters have crossed between these established series, in a plot device that might develop further in a future novel.
The Monster is a fun book that prompted me to revisit Farmer’s works. Importantly for fans of the subgenre, who have waited decades for new work in this series, Eckert has been a faithful and diligent adherent to Farmer’s vision.