Book 37: Challengers of the Unknown by Ron Goulart, isbn 9780440113377, 155 pages, Dell, $1.50 (1977 cover price)
The Premise: (from the back cover) Deep in the South American jungle, a real and sinister menace lurks in the shadows of the supernatural... In a remote lake, a legendary monster, incredibly vicious, surfaces after a sleep of centuries. Acting to protect its oil stake, the U.S. Government calls in... The Challengers! Men with young faces and old memories move mysteriously in the area, speak in low tones about the capital city. The country's president alerts... The Challengers! A dying man names a desert fort, many miles away... bizarre mechanisms keep the curious away... Unseen enemies... Strange accidents... Strong-arm assailants... A hair-raising test of the celebrated ingenuity of the Challengers of the Unknown."
My Rating: 3 stars
My Thoughts: Anyone who knows me knows I have a soft spot for pulp adventure, and just about any pulp adventure I read is going to end up with around 3 stars: they're not always great literature, but rarely are they disappointing either.
Anyone who knows me knows I also have a soft spot for secondary (and tertiary) DC comics characters like the Challengers of the Unknown. I loved collecting the out-of-print original run of comics from the 60s, I loved the revival in the late 70s. I remember reading this novel (the only one written featuring the Challs) back in high school. I lost that copy, but found another not long ago in a Half-Price Books somewhere (probably Pittsburgh, but might have been Dallas).
Sadly, I cannot say it was as good as my teenage self thought it was. But it was still a rollickin' good pulp adventure.
What I didn't like about the book can be summed up with two words: Characterization. Dialogue. Aside from Ace Morgan and Red Ryan, the Challs feel "off" somehow. Prof. Haley in this version is a rabid womanizer, sort of a brainiac young Hugh Hefner. Rocky Davis is a wrestler rather than a boxer (I seem to recall in the comics he was ret-conned to have been trained by the great Ted Grant), a health-food nut (that I can accept). June Robbins comes across far ditzier than she should (and if it's meant to be an act for her reporter cover story, that's never stated in the book). And the dialogue -- I'm not saying the Challs have to have stereotypical speech patterns that fit their roles (Ace as gruff ex-AF, Red shouting "hey rube," Prof sounding like a thesaurus, Rocky sounding addled from too many blows to the head), but they should at least sound consistent throughout the book. There were points where I was jarred out of the book because something Rocky said was written in Prof's style, etc. Ron Goulart is a good writer with a strong sense of pulp history -- I was disappointed that he seemed to drop the ball on dialogue.
Now, for what I did like: pretty much everything else. The plot is classic pulp adventure: Challs get sent to South America to deal with a supernatural menace and end up encountering a human menace that is as bad or worse. Straight-forward action segues into trippy 70s supernaturalness with just a dollop of Lovecraftian mythos. The Challs, like their peer Doc Savage, overcome sometimes ridiculous odds to beat both menaces. Extra bonus: Wold-Newton Universe fans don't have to dig very far to make connections to Farmer's works and world.
Three stars for pulpy goodness -- grab this for a light, fun read (I read it on one short plane flight). Maybe someday someone will write more Challs novels with these original five characters. If any secondary DC characters could carry a tv series (SyFy at least, preferably HBO) or movie series, it'd be the Challs.