Thursday, June 26, 2014

Book Review: Image of the Beast and Blown

Book Review: 'Image of the Beast' and 'Blown' by Philip Jose Farmer

3 / 5 Stars

In 1968, Philip Jose Farmer contracted with Essex House, a California-based publisher of pornographic novels, to write three books: Image of the Beast (1968); its sequel, Blown (1969); and A Feast Unknown (1969). This decision drew much attention and admiration in sci-fi circles, because while traditionally many sf authors (Robert Silverberg most notably) had written for the porno fiction market, this usually was done using pseudonyms.

Farmer’s decision to write under his own name instantly bestowed upon him the maverick, ‘rebel’ aura that engendered considerable envy from other writers jostling for the cutting-edge, avant-garde hipster status that so defined coolness in sf’s New Wave Era. Indeed, a number of other sf authors wrote for Essex House, including Samuel R. Delaney.

Essex House’s paperbacks were cheaply made and sold through a rather limited distribution network, and thus, today, those copies that still exist of any Essex books can fetch high prices.

Playboy Press issued this omnibus edition (336 pp.) of Image of the Beast and Blown in October, 1979; the cover illustration is by Enric.

The book does not demarcate between the two novels, with Blown appearing unannounced, as chapter 21 (out of 45 total); however, because Blown is a sequel to Image, this is only a minor drawback to the two novels’ continuity.

Image is set in Los Angeles, ca. the late 60s; the city is in the grip of an eco-disaster, due to the advent of a massive smog storm that has triggered a mass, panicked exodus from the city. Anyone hoping to negotiate the greenish pall of smog must wear a gas mask, and drive with their headlights on, even in mid-day.

As Image opens the hero, private eye Herald Childe, joins his former LAPD squadmates in the department’s film room, there to view a ‘snuff’ film sent to the police. The film purportedly has something to do with the recent disappearance of Matthew Colben, Childe’s partner in their detective agency.

As Childe and the police watch, the film pans to show a nude, drugged Colben strapped to a table in an unidentified room. An exotic-looking women is avidly performing certain erotic activities on the panting and gasping Colben.

As the film proceeds, the woman steps away from the table and carefully inserts a pair of false teeth into her mouth. Teeth that are shiny and sharp, and made from metal. Then she turns once again to the bound and helpless Colben…..

As the police and Childe recover from witnessing an atrocity on film, they struggle to understand why Colben has been kidnapped and singled out as a victim. Determined to find out who mutilated and murdered his partner, Herald Childe finds himself obliged to consort with a crew of Southern California eccentrics, including a mysterious European ‘Count’ living in a gated mansion in Beverly Hills.

As Childe pursues his investigation, he becomes entangled with a cult devoted to perversion, depravity, and death….and not all of its members are truly human…….

As with A Feast Unknown, which I reviewed here, Image and Blown are written with a tongue-in-cheek style (probably not what the Essex House editorial staff were necessarily expecting) that pays homage to Farmer’s habit of working all manner of sci-fi tropes and personalities into his narrative. 

For example, in Blown a major supporting character is none other than Forrest J Ackerman (pictured above), the ‘Forry’ of Famous Monsters of Filmland. Farmer depicts him as a fussy neurotic who falls asleep after staying up late to edit the latest issue of Vampirella

The scenes of sex and violence that appear in both novels are written with a deadpan, even droll attitude which makes these two novels more of sci-fi 'insider' comedies than genuine porn. The novels’ comedic aspects are reinforced by Farmer’s decision to include some plot developments that are so over-the-top and so contrived (I won’t disclose any spoilers, but I will say that the snakelike creature clinging to the leg of the woman depicted on Blown's covers lives in a Very Special Place) that it’s quite clear he was treating these two Essex House assignments as an exercise in facetiousness. 

Are Image and Blown for everyone ? Not really, particularly if you're not inclined towards splatterpunk. I found the books entertaining, although not as fun as A Feast Unknown. Hence, a 3 of 5 Stars rating.


MPorcius said...

Did you have a chance to read the postscript by Theodore Sturgeon? I'm wondering if Ted says something substantial and particular about this particular work, or just general stuff about how Farmer is a trail blazer and it is important to challenge taboos and all that.

tarbandu said...

In the Playboy Press edition, Sturgeon's postscript is moved to the beginning of the novel and serves as the Forward..."So, I hear you're writing pornography, now". As you guessed, Sturgeon rhapsodizes over Farmer's status as a trail blazer who challenges and upsets the 'Labellers'....blah, blah, blah.....

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