Any time I see a book with Henry Kuttner‘s name on it, I pay attention — Kuttner was a masterful author who wrote some true classics of science fiction and fantasy, including one of my favorite stories of all time, the science fiction mystery story “Private Eye”, written jointly with C.L. Moore. Others are more familiar with his classic “Mimsy Were the Borogroves“.
Kuttner was a true literary chameleon: he could and would write in any pulp market which was paying for stories. I’ve written before about his excellent Elak of Atlantis stories, which were written to fill in a need for sword-and-sorcery after the untimely demise of Robert E. Howard. By the early 1940s, the pulps were in trouble: comic books had become immensely popular. Heroes with incredible powers and even more incredible outfits such as Superman, Batman and Captain Marvel were drawing readers and revenue from the pulps, and they wanted to introduce their own heroes to compete.
Henry Kuttner to the rescue! Writing under the pseudonym Charles Stoddard, Kuttner described the adventures of a new hero for the pulps, Thunder Jim Wade:
Five TJW stories appeared in the pages of Thrilling Adventures in 1941. Those stories were collected together in one nice volume last year by Altus Press. Let’s take a look…
Thunder Jim is very much a hero of the Doc Savage mold: he is a master scientist, engineer, linguist, pilot, marksman and brawler. His origins are initially a mystery in the stories, though he has an exotic background which explains many of the unusual skills he brings forth in his adventures.
Curiously, though he is depicted on the cover of Thrilling Adventures as a flamboyant cape-wearing hero, the stories themselves paint a different picture. From Wade’s introduction in The Poison People,for instance,
A casual eye might have seen nothing extraordinary in Wade as he moved lithely across the meadow toward the Thunderbug. He was tall, lean and rangy, looking rather like a college boy on a vacation, with his brown, almost youthful face and tousled dark hair, so deep-black that it was almost blue.
A closer inspection would have shown more significant details. There was an iron hardness underlying Wade’s face, like iron beneath velvet. His jet eyes were decidedly not those of a boy. There was a curious quality of soft depth to them, although sometimes that black deep could freeze over with deadly purpose.
As far as I can remember, there is no time in any of the novels when Jim is described as wearing a superhero outfit! It seems that Kuttner may have had a Doc Savage-type character in mind, and the editors of the magazine provided illustrations to capitalize on the superhero craze.
Thunder Jim does have one unique, superhero-esque item: his miraculous craft called the Thunderbug:
The taxi halted at the airport. Wade overpaid the native, who flashed betal-stained teeth in a grateful grin, and headed for the big black plane that stood on the tarmac ready to take off. The small-winged cabin ship was the famous Thunderbug, a super-convertible craft that had astounded a number of engineers who contended it wasn’t possible.
For, by retracting the wings and propeller and pumping out caterpillar treads, the Thunderbug could be almost instantly transformed into a light, fast, and maneuverable tank. It was airtight, and by using a powerful screw to propel the streamlined craft, it could be converted into a submarine as well. Scientists said the thing was incredible, but they had to admit that the Thunderbug existed — and worked.
It seems that we could give Henry Kuttner credit for inventing the idea of Transformers! (Though it couldn’t turn into a robot.) The Thunderbug often feels a bit like the Millenium Falcon, as well: like the ‘Falcon in The Empire Strikes Back, more often than not the Thunderbug seems to be suffering from engine trouble and barely holding together!
Thunder Jim pits his skills and miracle craft against the forces of evil around the world. Like many pulp heroes of that era, Thunder Jim was assisted in his mission by a pair of plucky sidekicks, “Dirk” Marat and “Red Argyle:
Red was a burly giant with gnarled hands like knotted oak roots, and incredibly deft fingers. And Dirk was a small, innocent-looking chap with blond hair and black eyebrows, and one great passion. That was for cold steel. He could handle guns, but preferred to work with knives.
Unlike the superheroes he was designed to compete with, Jim has no compunctions about dealing out death when faced with truly evil villains. His missions take place partly in exotic, sordid cities around the world, and partly in unexplored wilderness, more often than not in lost civilizations.
The stories are:
- Thunder Jim Wade. Wade and pals travel from Singapore to the depths of Africa in pursuit of a criminal mastermind who has kidnapped a prominent archaeologist. Along the way, they will discover a lost treasure, face an inhuman peril, and uncover secrets of Thunder Jim’s origins!
- The Hills of Gold. When one of his contacts is found murdered in the Middle East, Thunder Jim travels to Baghdad to investigate. He uncovers a conspiracy, a false prophet, and a holy war brewing underneath the Hills of Gold.
- The Poison People. Explorer and adventure writer Rupert Carnevan goes missing while making a solo flight across the jungles of South America. When TJW and friends investigate, they stumble across a deadly modern fortress in the jungle. If that isn’t enough, the fortress is surrounded by a tribe known as “The Poison People”, who can deal death with a scratch of a weapon!
- The Devil’s Glacier. When a prospector stumbles out of the Alaskan wilderness, delirious and shot, he rambles on about a lost city and an impending massacre. The locals don’t believe his ravings, but word gets to Thunder Jim. Beyond a cavern filled with poison gas, Jim and friends find a hidden valley containing not one but two lost tribes!
- Waters of Death. A man is found in the jungles of Burma who claims to be a refugee from a lost tribe. The tribe is suffering under its cruel queen, Kamanthi, a six-armed goddess, and the refugee has fled to seek help from the outside. TJW and his friends brave the waters of death which encircle the tribe’s land in order to help, but they find that things are much more complicated than they first appeared: the tribe can actually make gold!
It is worth noting that almost all the stories are darkened by the shadow of the Nazis! World War II, of course, had already begun, and it was natural for the adventure writers of the time to simultaneously unnerve and uplift their readers by “sticking it” to the Nazis.
I enjoyed the Thunder Jim stories; they’re a light, fast-paced read which served me well in keeping my mind busy the week before my wedding! Though there is nothing here which is truly unique or groundbreaking, the tales are well-written and stand up well to this day.