Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

It’s Wold Newton Day!

Well, it is as I write this, anyway. December 13th.

What’s Wold Newton Day, you ask? Well, it’s the day a meteorite struck outside the village of Wold Newton, England, in 1795.

But it’s so much more than that!

Here’s the rundown: the Wold Newton Family is a group of heroic and villainous literary figures that science fiction author Philip José Farmer postulated belonged to the same genetic family. Some of these characters are adventurers, some are detectives, some explorers and scientists, some espionage agents, and some are evil geniuses.

According to Mr. Farmer, the Wold Newton family originated when a radioactive meteor landed in Wold Newton, England, in the year 1795.

The radiation caused a genetic mutation in those present, which endowed many of their descendants with extremely high intelligence and strength, as well as an exceptional capacity and drive to perform good, or, as the case may be, evil deeds.

I was introduced to the Wold Newton concept when I ran across Farmer’s Doc Savage biography in late 1975. I soon sought out the companion volume Tarzan Alive! and I was off and running.

Now, the biographies themselves are great fun, and Farmer wrote with such conviction that I actually believed Tarzan and Doc Savage were real people for the first few chapters of each book. (Look, I was thirteen, okay? In my defense, Farmer really sells it, especially in Tarzan Alive.)

But even when I realized it HAD to be fictional, I was already in love with the idea. Growing up on comics like the Justice League and the Avengers and The Brave and the Bold, I was already a fan of the idea of the ‘team-up.’ And here was the greatest team-up idea EVER.

Moreover, I already loved Sherlock Holmes and James Bond and Tarzan and Doc Savage, and clearly Farmer did too. So I approached the Wold Newton Family Tree that was printed in the Doc biography as a shopping list, basically.

My reasoning was, if the characters I didn’t know were included in the same family as so many of my other favorites, I’d be interested. And it was largely true. I found my way to all sorts of wonderful books just from poring over this one diagram. It is impossible to list them all, but here are a few of the various books and series I discovered and cherished because of the Wold Newton connection.

The Travis McGee books by John D. MacDonald.

Never would have given these a second look without the Wold Newton shout-out in the Doc Savage biography, but when I happened across one on a miserable family vacation (some day I should figure out how many miserable vacation trips led me to amazing books, just in my desperation for something to distract me from being trapped with my family) I remembered that Farmer had said “Travis McGee’s autobiography is currently being edited by John D. MacDonald,” and that was enough to get me to pick it up. I found it impossible to put down– MacDonald knew how to keep it moving– and McGee’s footloose bachelor lifestyle is pretty much designed to be the fantasy ideal of every teenage boy. No job, works when he feels like it, surrounded by beautiful women, lives on a luxury houseboat he won in a poker game…. and yet MacDonald makes McGee something of a puritan and a crusader so it never comes off as douchey. Plus he writes some of the scariest villains ever seen in adventure fiction. I spent the rest of the ten-day trip hunting down as many others as I could find. (Since The Empty Copper Sea had just come out in hardcover, the whole series was back in print again.) The omnibus pictured above is a great starting place and you can find it fairly cheap. Treat yourself.

The UNCLE novels of David McDaniel.

Technically, these are included in the Wold Newton crossover universe not by Mr. Farmer himself but rather by those that came after, Win Scott Eckert and others. But they are very worthy books just as books, and probably more evocative of the fun of The Man From UNCLE than any of the other tie-in novels or comics. Plus, McDaniel loved weaving in other characters from mystery fiction. He had Solo and Illya meeting Father Brown, the Saint, Steed and Mrs. Peel, and even a centenarian Sherlock Holmes. Moreover, I find McDaniel’s concept of THRUSH beginning in 1891, rising from the ashes of Professor Moriarty’s organization, to be an idea that delights me right down to the tips of my toes. (So much so, in fact, that I have even added to the literature of the subject myself– my first Sherlock Holmes story for the Consulting Detective series pitted Holmes against Colonel Sebastian Moran and the proto-THRUSH, and I have another confrontation between Holmes and the Technological Hierarchy due out some time next year.)

Speaking of Win Eckert, his own Wold Newton books are nothing but fun. I am particularly fond of his Pat Wildman novels, chronicling the adventures of the daughter of a certain bronze adventurer.

The Scarlet Jaguar is a bit pulpier and more of a straight-up adventure story but they are both good.

And Farmer himself followed up his two biographies with some original team-up stories of his own. Probably my favorites are these two: The Adventure of The Peerless Peer documents Sherlock Holmes meeting not only Tarzan, but also G-8 and the Shadow, during the course of his final confrontation with the German spy Von Bork (from Doyle’s His Last Bow.) It’s back in print in a new edition but you should try to find the one with the magnificent Victor Gadino cover painting seen here.

The Other Log of Phileas Fogg details what really happened during the race around the world in eighty days, and how Fogg was actually an agent for an alien civilization, fighting a secret war with Captain Nemo. This, along with several other Farmer classics, were reprinted in nice new editions from Titan Books a couple of years ago.

And let’s not forget the comics. Robert E. Howard’s Solomon Kane was a Farmer pick for Wold Newton inclusion, and that was what got me to pick up the Marvel Premiere adaptation of Red Shadows, back in the day. Which in turn led me to the prose collections.

Which was enough by itself, but my inner Wold Newton geek let out a little squeal of delight when I saw that Kane had actually fought Dracula himself.

Twice, actually. You can find those epic confrontations reprinted in The Saga of Solomon Kane.

I could go on and on. The Shadow. The Spider. Venus on the Half-Shell and from there to Kurt Vonnegut and Slaughterhouse-Five. Greatheart Silver and Cordwainer Bird.

All because of a meteor in 1795 and a science-fiction writer’s goof on the idea a couple of centuries later.

And it’s still going on. I got to consult on Adam Lance Garcia’s new Sherlock Holmes-Green Lama crossover, The Heir Apparent, a few weeks ago, and it’s terrific. (Adam was careful not to talk just to Holmesians but also ran the manuscript by noted Wold Newton expert Sean Levin.)

If you haven’t checked out Adam’s Green Lama books, they are one of the coolest things going in the New Pulp movement. Seriously.

And of course there is the wonderful Wold Newton Universe web site itself, a place where you can easily lose hours of time reading all the articles and chronologies. I often do. Maintained by the aforementioned Win Eckert and other like-minded folks. Check it out if you haven’t before, but only if you’ve got hours to spare. There’s always new interesting things to look at.

Anyway. That’s what we celebrate around here in December. You can have Christmas. Me, I’d much rather be nerding out over the greatest crossover story ever.

Back next week with something cool.


  1. OK, whenever you’ve got the time, please explain the link from Venus on the Half-Shell to Vonnegut, if you would.

    Heck, though, Vonnegut’s got a lot of his characters “cross over” among different books. That’s always fun.

    It’s essentially what Zappa called “conceptual continuity”, right?

    1. Venus on the Half-shell is purportedly written by “Kilgore Trout,” the hack science fiction writer described in several of Vonnegut’s books. There is a sexy excerpt from this (non-existent) crappy SF novel quoted in Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Farmer took the excerpt, wrote the book around it as a Vonnegut parody of sorts, and published it as Kilgore Trout. Vonnegut was not amused and spent years explaining that no, it wasn’t HIS book, it was some nut named Farmer. I went backwards, from the parody to the real thing. More here.

      Also, here is the quote from God Bless you Mr. Rosewater that Farmer wrote trhe book around…

      Queen Margaret of the planet Shaltoon let her gown fall to the floor. She was wearing nothing underneath. Her high, firm, uncowled bosom was proud and rosy. Her hips and thighs were like an inviting lyre of pure alabaster. They shone so whitely they might have had a light inside. “Your travels are over, Space Wanderer,” she whispered, her voice husky with lust. “Seek no more, for you have found. The answer is in my arms.”
      “It’s a glorious answer, Queen Margaret, God knows,” the Space Wanderer replied. His palms were perspiring profusely. “I am going to accept it gratefully. But I have to tell you, if I’m going to be perfectly honest with you, that I will have to be on my way again tomorrow.”
      “But you have found your answer, you have found your answer,” she cried, and she forced his head between her fragrant young breasts.
      He said something she did not hear. She thrust him out at arm’s length. “What was that you said?”
      “I said, Queen Margaret, that what you offer is an awfully good answer. It just doesn’t happen to be the one I’m primarily looking for.”

  2. Jeff Nettleton

    Farmer got me with Tarzan Alive. My town didn’t have its own library; but, we got a weekly visit from the Decatur, IL bookmobile. i found that book there and read it. It had me convinced that Edgar Rice Burroughs based Tarzan on a real person; for a little bit, until my dad dispelled that (and our World Book Encyclopedia).

    Along the lines of this is Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula series, where he weaves in and out characters from literature, comics, film, and television. He starts with Dracula and Victorian London, then moves to World War I, 1950s Italy and its cinema and, recently, 1970s/80s America (with both Studio 54 and Hollywood in the center). He also has The Secret of Drearcliff Grange School, a pastiche of English public school stories, with a girl’s school for extraordinary women. The main character, Amy Thomsett, will go on to become the superheroine Kentish Glory, while her friends will be police detectives, criminal empire rulers, great athletes, pioneering scientists, and dastardly villains. His new Angels of Music is a mash-up of Charlies Angels, Phantom of the Opera and several great female literary characters, like Christine Danae (Phantom OTO), Irene Adler (Holmes) Trilby O’Farrell (eponymous novel), Gigi, Eliza Doolittle, and Rima the Jungle Girl. They meet up with Josephine Balsamo (Arsene Lupin) and Charles Foster Kane. he debuted them in the excellent Tales of the Shadowmen anthologies, which explores the French Wold Newton Universe. There, they take great french literary and cinematic characters and mix them up. You can find Arsene Lupin running into Fantomas, or Judex tracing the theft of the Gotham Girasol, from Martha Wayne; or Barbarella having a one-night stand with Captain Kirk, then dumping him; or Jeeves matching wits with Hercule Poirot. Excellent stuff.

  3. frasersherman

    Loved Tarzan Alive, and like you, seriously wondered if it could be true.
    Hated Peerless Peer with a passion. It was Farmer at his most self-indulgent.
    Reread His Apocalyptic Life recently and discovered Wold Newton as a whole doesn’t hook me the way it used to, but I’ve no idea why. The book itself was still good, though.

  4. Edo Bosnar

    Heh, just like that genealogy became your shopping list, any number of your columns (including the first time you wrote about Wold Newton Day at CSBG) became, or still are, shopping lists for me…

    Also funny that others here were initially fooled by Farmer’s Tarzan biography – I actually never read the book, but recall the first time I saw it, aged 12 or 13, on a book rack. I read the description on the back and started flipping through it, and started thinking Tarzan was real as well – I actually checked in the Encyclopedia Britannica when I got home (checking not just Tarzan, but also John Clayton and Greystoke, just to make sure).

    By the way, you got me interested in MacDonald’s Travis McGee books, but so far I’ve only read The Deep Blue Good-by (which I *really* liked). Are there any omnibuses like that one you pictured, but that collect his earlier novels , preferably in chunks of five like that one? Maybe I’m not typing in the right key words at Amazon or Bookfinder, but the only other one I’ve come across is Shades of Travis McGee, that has three random novels from the later ’60s.

      1. Edo Bosnar

        Thanks! I see what I was doing wrong now when searching. And yeah, there’s definitely a lot of overlap. Still it’s good to know these exist.

        By the way, I just learned today that there’s a new comic that features Wonder Woman ’77 teaming up with the Bionic Woman. What a great idea – can Batman meets the 6 Million Dollar Man be far behind? Maybe with Jaime Sommers and the Green Hornet & Kato thrown in for good measure…

  5. Alaric

    I’ve always had very mixed feeling about the whole Wold Newton thing. I love the idea of all those stories and characters coexisting in the same universe, and the various timelines people have created are a lot of fun, but I hate the idea that all those characters are part of a single family (or small group of families), and I also hate the idea that radiation-caused mutation is responsible for all of those wonderful fictional characters. I’d rather think of the, uh, “pan-fictional universe”, for want of a better term, as a big, wild, nearly-unlimited place where all sorts of unrelated things can happen (with the occasional link, of course), where different heroes arise independently of each other. The “radioactive meteor caused mutations which created most of the major fictional heroes” part ruins the whole thing for me.

    1. John Trumbull

      I’ve always had very mixed feeling about the whole Wold Newton thing. I love the idea of all those stories and characters coexisting in the same universe, and the various timelines people have created are a lot of fun, but I hate the idea that all those characters are part of a single family (or small group of families), and I also hate the idea that radiation-caused mutation is responsible for all of those wonderful fictional characters.

      I feel the same way. While I love the idea of most of these fictional characters sharing a universe, I’ve always disliked the contrivance of them all being related by blood. I’ve felt that way since I first read about TARZAN ALIVE in the back of the DC Comics Treasury Edition of THE RETURN OF TARZAN. I still appreciate Farmer’s efforts, but I like the idea that a hero can arise from anywhere, not just a single bloodline.

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