I spent most of the pandemic reading comics. For whatever reasons, my mind and mood preferred the comics medium during those years. They held my short and distracted attention span in a way “real” books did not.
I figured I’d return to reading fiction whenever it was time for me to do so. A biography of Arnold Bennett got me back to reading long-form prose via Kindle. Then I rummaged through my Kindle Oasis to re-read some fiction, as I have found that re-reading helps stoke the reading habit. And I found just the medicine I needed.
It was through a review in Steve Donoghue’s column on the old Open Letters Monthly site that I heard about the “The Old Man” stories by William Preston. As Donoghue explains, the stories are a homage to the pulp-age hero Doc Savage, whose reprinted adventures I read in junior high school. I was deep into comics and the pulps at that age, and even read Philip Jose Farmer’s Doc Savage: An Apocalyptic Life, a fictional biography of a fictional character, although I had no idea what “apocalyptic” meant. I’ve not read any Doc Savage books since then, but that character is deep inside my readerly DNA.
The “Old Man” is Preston’s Doc Savage figure, although he is not officially named in the stories. Preston’s device—used throughout the series—is to tell the story through a character close to or on the periphery of The Old Man. The reader is never privy to the Old Man’s thoughts; instead, the narrator observes the Old Man and describes his actions. The evocation of past times, and of a shadowy otherworld whose events affect our world, suffuse the stories like smoke.
Preston’s prose is as steady, measured, and even-handed as his protagonists. This deliberate pace affects the action in the stories to the point where the pulse never quickens with thrills, as I think he intends them to. What the prose lacks in action, it more than offsets by evoking darker, layered, richer flavors of regret, melancholy, wonder, and mystery. These stories stand up to multiple re-readings.
Preston also takes a leaf from the revisionist superhero comics of the last 20 years by bringing this pulp-era action figure into a world toppled over by 9/11. How would such a shadowy figure of myth operate in a world of constant surveillance where anyone can be locked up as a potential threat? It opens new themes for exploration in the stories, and Preston tackles them head-on.
Preston has so far written four intertwined stories (he’s been writing the fifth—and he says final—story for years) and he recommends they be read in the order they were published:
- “Helping Them Take the Old Man Down”—The first Old Man story and for me, the most memorable, as it marvelously hints at other untold stories and untold adventures. It juxtaposes that long-ago world of pulp with the modern world of surveillance and suspicion. A beautiful setup for the stories to come
- “Clockworks”—Set during the heyday of the Old Man’s adventuring, it wrestles with a disturbing trope from the Doc Savage stories in which Doc surgically altered his enemies’ brains to make them good citizens. The climax of this story I found very hard to visualize and follow.
- “Unearthed”—Set during the Old Man’s youth as he is starting out on his mission. Another story where I had difficulty visualizing the geography and landscape of the action sequences. But again, the pleasures of the prose and characterizations are stellar, and also the way it re-architects the series in a way that made me re-read the first story again.
- “Each in His Prison, Thinking of the Key”—the longest story and the most interior, where the protagonist broods on what he’s seen and done, and what he would prefer to see and do. Donoghue describes the story in his review so I won’t recap it here.
The Old Man stories are available as cheap cheap cheap ebooks on Preston’s Amazon Authors page.
Preston’s writing was done in the odd corners of his working day as a high-school English teacher. His personal blog had great notes and mini-reviews of the books and stories he was reading, but he has not updated it since 2017.