An Ongoing Exploration into the Many Worlds of Early 20th-Century Escapist Literature

An Ongoing Exploration into the Many Worlds of Early 20th-Century Escapist Literature -- Crime and Adventure, Fantasy and Science-Fiction, Horror and Weird

Sunday, November 24, 2013

"After King Kong Fell" -- Philip Jose Farmer (OMEGA, 1973)

There isn't a whole lot out there that I hold to be sacred.  My relationship with the woman I love, that's sacred to me.  And strange as it might be to say, King Kong is sacred to me.  The original 1933 film is, I would argue, one of the finest films ever made and one that I never cease to want to watch.  The 1976 remake is better left undiscussed, and Peter Jackson's 2005 remake could have been edited much more tightly, but the 1933 film remains an undeniable masterpiece.  And to tell the truth, it's the only movie I've ever cried during.  When King Kong dies, I break down crying like a baby.  I have a soft spot for self-sacrificing heroes, and that's exactly what Kong is.  Watch it some time -- he puts Ann (Fay Wray) down, makes a slight, sorrowful face at her, and then shifts position to draw the fire of the airplanes away from her.  He knows he's going to die, but he'll be damned if he'll let her go out with him.  And that sends me all weepy.  Which brings me to tonight's story, by Philip Jose Farmer.  I've kind of got a love-hate relationship with Farmer; I like some of his work, but the Wold Newton Universe thing kind of leaves me cold.  I don't feel the need for all these fictional characters I love to inhabit the same world and cross over into each other's adventures, but I digress.

"After King Kong Fell" follows Timothy Howller, a witness to the events of 1931, as he watches the 1933 film with his six year old granddaughter and regales her with having been there when it really happened, two years before the film was made, forty years after the fact.  Along the way, Howller gets lost in his memories of that fateful night -- reflecting on how beautiful his Aunt Thea was, recalling having wet his pants in terror as Kong broke the chrome steel shackles, of encountering both Doc Savage and the Shadow in his rush to the Empire State Building, though neither figure is referred to by name or title, just by iconic description.  His reflections flow into the aftermath of Kong's fall -- the lawsuits face by Denham and others, the breaking off of the engagement between Ann and Jack (on the insinuation that Ann had been raped by Kong during that night, and Jack wanting nothing to do with her after that), and the notion that as a culture we need a Kong.

This has been the first story so far in The Big Book of Adventure Stories that I didn't really care for.  I think part of it is the aforementioned sacredness in which I hold Kong.  And part of it is that I just don't think it's that well-written a story.  It proceeds from an interesting premise and parts of it are excellent, but large chunks of the prose just don't work for me.

Farmer takes a hard left turn in the middle of the story for a long rumination on whether it would be physically possible for a 20-foot gorilla to rape a 5-foot human woman, ultimately deciding that, as a six-foot gorilla's erection is only two inches long, Kong's member would be an erect 21 inches, and that even if he didn't succeed, he probably at least tried.  This digression just doesn't fit into the narrative well at all in my opinion, and with its references to zoologists and biologists by name, it comes across as if Howller has researched in depth the question of how big Kong's wedding tackle was, as perhaps Farmer did.  And to suddenly fixate on "did Kong rape her?" for a couple paragraphs like that just struck me as disquieting.

Kong's an animal, a fact that Farmer states explicitly.  And while I can see where his justification comes from (the scene in the film where Kong rips off part of Ann's dress and sniffs it), ultimately I have a hard time seeing Kong as viewing Ann as anything but a curiosity and perhaps a pet, the way Koko the sign-language gorilla kept a cat as a pet.

OK, getting off that because it's grossing me the hell out...

My other big issue with this story is how easily and readily Kong slips into the background and is forgotten, or at least, becomes forgettable.  Kong is, to use Farmer's own words, a myth for the modern age; he was a god on Skull Island, and as a 20-foot gorilla, at least deserves to be paid attention to.  But Howller's mind wanders too readily to how sexy and desirable he, at 13, thought his Aunt Thea was, how embarrassed he was about wetting his pants, his memories of seeing Doc and the Shadow up close, and of course his horror and shock upon discovering that his Aunt Thea was the woman Kong picked up and dropped upon recognizing her as "not-Ann."  Kong isn't the focus of the story; Howller is.  And Kong's a god whom I feel deserves better than that.

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