Friday, October 27, 2017

Guest Post | Manly Wade Wellman's Hok the Mighty

By GW Thomas

Prehistoric fiction began almost as soon as Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859. A lot of this early fiction seems silly in light of our current theories and archaeological discoveries, but some remains readable. HG Wells is one of these writers. He wasn't the first to pen a romance that included neanderthals, but he was certainly one of the most influential.

Wells' first try was called "A Story of the Stone Age" (1897). It doesn't feature any neanderthals, but is a tale of a rivalry between Uya and Ugh-lomi for the girl Eudena. This story was followed by the more important (if much shorter) "The Grisly Folk" (The Storyteller, April 1921). It is this one that I believe more likely inspired the pulp Stone Age tales such as Robert E Howard’s first sale, “Spear and Fang” and Manly Wade Wellman's Hok the Mighty series. Unlike "A Story of the Stone Age," "The Grisly Folk" is not expanded out in a full narrative, but reads more like an outline for a series of stories (an outline that Wellman gladly fills in). Wells postulates a small band of human hunters pressed north by competition and how they would survive against the grisly folk. He also tells how the neanderthals would become rarer and were the basis of the troll and ogre stories of childhood. Many of the elements in Wellman's first few Hok tales come right out of Wells's sketch. As with so much pulp SF, Wells is the wellspring.

Battle in the Dawn: The Complete Hok the Mighty from Paizo Press collects all of the Hok saga nicely. I love Manly Wade Wellman's Silver John and Kardios stories, as well as the horror tales he did for Weird Tales. I am also a huge fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs, so this book seemed a natural. Wellman attempts something different than the fantastic Stone Age inspired by Burroughs, trying to remain scientifically plausible and avoiding dinosaurs (at first anyway). The Hok tales don't really remind me of Pellucidar so much as another book written many years later: Jim Kjelgaard's Fire Hunter (1951) with a realistic (for the time) portrayal of primitive man. The conflict is humans versus neanderthals, and considering recent genetic evidence, Wellman's tale of war could be fairly accurate. I suppose I should have become a Jean Auel fan, but Wellman's style of adventure appeals more to me. (That, and he didn't write 600-pagers.)

The first Hok story is "Battle in the Dawn" (Amazing Stories, January 1939). The plot is pretty simple. Hok and his band come to a land rich in game, but encounter the local neanderthals (known as Gnorrls). After stealing one of their winter homes, Hok swells their ranks by venturing south and finding a bride. He also saves her brother who has been captured by the Gnorrls so they can steal the human secret of making and using javelins. In the end, the small human band must face an army of a thousand neanderthals, which they defeat at great cost. The story is savage, unforgiving, and realistically brutal. Only the wooing of Oloana reminded me a little of ERB, and that in a very truncated form. The romance element also reminded me of Howard Browne's "Warrior of the Dawn" (Amazing Stories, December 1942). Did Wellman as well as Burroughs inspire Browne?

Wellman continued his series with "Hok Goes to Atlantis" (Amazing Stories, December 1939) where the caveman sees many wonders. He also runs afoul of Cos, the perverse king, and has the beautiful Maie fall in love with him. But Hok doesn't abandon Oloana for the queen. As with all love triangles, this is bad news for somebody: Maie. She dies in a bloody battle; a warrior's death for a warrior queen. Of course, it all ends with Tlantis sinking into the ocean and the legend starting. Wellman would use the other end of things with his Kardios series; he being the last survivor of the disaster (which through implication, he was also responsible for on some level). Also, I see how the Tlaneans may have inspired Howard Browne's civilized characters in Warrior of the Dawn, which appeared in Amazing three years later. Finished with the adventure, but richer in knowledge, Hok turns his back on such modern ideas as riding horses, using gunpowder, bronze weaponry, and feudal society. He prefers his simple caveman ways. He does keep a club with a gigantic diamond head, though.

What drew me to this story in particular was the suggestion that the Hok stories were sword-and-sorcery. This tale is probably the closest with a bronze-age society in it, but I would disagree with anyone who calls it sword-and-sorcery. First off, there is no real magic. The Tlanteans have gunpowder, which destroys them along with a volcano. The god they worship is Ghirann the Many-Legged, a giant octopus that Hok kills in a good fight scene. This kraken battle would be co-opted into other sword-and-sorcery tales such as John Jakes' Hell-Arms in the Brak series (and numerous Marvel Conan and Kull comics), though Hok's octopus is by no means the first in adventure/fantasy fiction.

The Hok series - and this particular story - is the outsider-comes-to-a-lost civilization story that started likely with HR Haggard (Allan Quatermain in particular) and then got recycled through Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan. Tarzan did go to Opar (at least three times) as well as a city of gold, a city of ant men, a city of Romans, and another of Aztecs. The Korak comics from DC were also of this ilk, with Korak visiting a different lost city each issue. One was even the underwater remains of Atlantis. The noble outsider almost always starts a rebellion that ends with his friends taking over. Hok was no different except that only he survived the whole mess.

The third installment of Hok the Mighty may be my favorite: "Hok Draws The Bow" (Amazing Stories, May 1940). The plot involves the coming of Romm, an evil-doer in the tradition of Hoojah the Slay-One from Edgar Rice Burroughs' Pellucidar series. Like Hoojah, Romm can speak the language of Hok's enemies and sets himself up as a god of the Gnorrls. He has invented the spear-thrower and also understands military strategy. He takes on Hok in a spear-throwing contest and makes it obvious he wants Hok's wife, Oloana. The Gnorrls kill many of Hok's people and drive the survivors away. In desperation, Hok takes his bow and goes after Romm with only his wife beside him. The ending is exciting and pure pulp.

The invention of the bow is part of Jim Kjelgaard's Fire Hunter too. Both stories try to imagine how new weapons and tools are invented. The invention of the bow predates history, so anybody could be right. Arrowheads from 64,000 years ago have been discovered, so Wellman is certainly well within the right range. If neanderthals died out about 30,000 years ago, that would set these stories just before then, because I don't see the Gnorrls being around for much longer in the Hok sequels.

A little extra with this issue of Amazing was Manly Wade Wellman's bio. The Paizo book includes it as well. What makes this so special is that it appeared before the Silver John stories and is the Wellman who was largely known as an SF writer.

A shorter and less impressive tale, "Hok and the Gift of Heaven" (Amazing Stories, March 1941) is still a pretty good read. Hok and his tribesmen are in the middle of a battle with the fisher folk when a meteorite falls on the battlefield. Hok is knocked unconscious and wakes to discover molten metal from the space rock. He uses this to create the first sword, which he names Widow-Maker. After the battle, Djoma and his fisher folk take Oloana and Ptao, Hok's wife and son. Hok follows the band back to the ocean and their village, which is built on stilts out in the water. Hok must face sharks and fight a battle against great odds that ends with him and his loved ones about to be sacrificed. Only a sudden surprise for the sword-wielding Djoma saves them. In the end, Hok gives up his sword and goes back to stone-age weapons. Wellman does a nice job of pitting Hok's Shining One (the Sun) against Djoma's sea-god in their arguments, perhaps the first theological disagreement of prehistory?

The final entry in the Hok saga is the longest, "Hok Visits the Land of Legend." Unlike the earlier installments, this one appeared not in Amazing Stories, but in Fantastic Adventures, April 1942. In this last tale, Hok is bored with the challenges of a hunter and decides to go after a mammoth on his own. He builds a giant bow and shoots a giant arrow into Gragru's chest, but the mammoth does not die. Hok follows his prey to a secret valley where the mammoths go to die. Here he is attacked by pterodactyls (at last! dinosaurs!) and fights and kills one in a fight reminiscent of Tarzan's visit to Pellucidar in 1929.

Then he discovers what he calls an elephant-pig (Dinoceras ingens) or Rmanth. The beast is devouring his dead mammoth. Hok shoots two arrows into the beast, but must flee into the trees. There he is saved by a voice from inside the tree. He enters a hole to find the tree hollow and inhabited by a man-like creature of slender build with prehensile feet. His name is Soko. He takes Hok to the village in the trees. (Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs may have inspired this, but Wellman's own upbringing in Africa is more likely.) The village is ruled by a tyrant named Krol who keeps the people under sway by allowing the pterodactyls (or Stymphs) to rule the tops of the trees, and the Rmanth to hold the ground. Hok fights the beasts and defeats the tyrant, leading to the legends of Hercules.

What struck me most about this tale was, first off, how far Wellman wandered from Wells' original, inspiring "The Grisly Folk," and how he made the series his own. Also, the basic plot set-up of this story is a dry-run for his classic John the Balladeer tale "O, Ugly Bird!" (F&SF, December 1951) in which a sorcerer uses a flying familiar to terrorize a rural community. Wellman liked stories in which a wandering hero (be he John or Kardios or Hok) comes to a troubled place and prevails. It is also a dry-run for The Last Mammoth (1953), a juvenile adventure novel about a friend of Davy Crockett's who goes to a far Indian village to kill a mammoth that is terrorizing them.

Thus ends the Hok series, with Hok keeping the hidden valley a secret; returning to his people to live out his days in more fantastic adventures that would come down to us as the tales of heroes from Hercules to Beowulf.

There is one other story that lies close to the Hok series, "The Day of the Conquerers" (Thrilling Wonder Stories, January 1940), appearing after the first two Hok stories. In this science fiction tale, Martians armed with death rays and robots come to Earth to take over the planet. They are faced with an able opponent in Naku (or Lone Hunt), one of the Flint People. Since he is armed with a bow, the story must take place chronologically after Hok's life, for Hok invented the weapon and he makes no reference to alien invaders. So, Naku is one of Hok's descendants and a worthy warrior and cunning fighter.

The Paizo volume includes this story along with a one-page fragment of an unfinished Hok story and an unpublished tale called "The Love of Oloana." Most of this story was incorporated into "Battle in the Dawn." The introduction by David Drake adds a nice explanation of Wellman's youth in Africa. All-in-all, Battle in the Dawn: The Complete Hok the Mighty is a Wellman or pulp fan's dream and a completist's treasure.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

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