Subterranean Press Magazine: Spring 2007
Column: Me and Lucifer by Mike Resnick
Lucifer Jones was born one evening back in the late 1970s. I was trading videotapes with a number of other people—stores hadn’t started renting them yet, and this was the only way to increase your collection at anything above a snail’s pace—and one of my correspondents asked for a copy of She, with Ursula Andress, which happened to be playing on Cincinnati television.
I looked in my Maltin Guide and found that She ran 117 minutes. Now, this was back in the dear dead days when everyone knew that Beta was the better format, and it just so happened that the longest Beta tape in existence at the time was two hours. So I realized that I couldn’t just put the tape on and record the movie, commercials and all, because the tape wasn’t long enough. Therefore, like a good correspondent/trader, I sat down, controls in hand, to dub the movie (which I had never seen before) and edit out the commercials as they showed up.
About fifteen minutes into the film Carol entered the video room, absolutely certain from my peals of wild laughter that I was watching a Marx Brothers festival that I had neglected to tell her about. Wrong. I was simply watching one of the more inept films ever made.
And after it was over, I got to thinking: if they could be that funny by accident, what if somebody took those same tried-and-true pulp themes and tried to be funny on purpose?
So I went to my typewriter—this was back in the pre-computer days—and wrote down the most oft-abused African stories that one was likely to find in old pulp magazines and B movies: the elephants’ graveyard, Tarzan, lost races, mummies, white goddesses, slave-trading, what-have-you. When I got up to twelve, I figured I had enough for a book…but I needed a unifying factor.
Enter Lucifer Jones.
Africa today isn’t so much a dark and mysterious continent as it is an impoverished and hungry one, so I decided to set the book back in the 1920s, when things were wilder and most of the romantic legends of the pulps and B movies hadn’t been thoroughly disproved.
Who was the most likely kind of character to roam to all points of Africa’s compass? A missionary.
What was funny about a missionary? Nothing. So Lucifer became a con man who presented himself as a missionary. (As he is fond of explaining it, his religion is “a little something me and God whipped up betwixt ourselves of a Sunday afternoon”.)
Now, the stories themselves were easy enough to plot: just take a traditional pulp tale and stand it on its ear. But anyone could do that: I decided to add a little texture by having Lucifer narrate the book in the first person, and to make his language a cross between the almost-poetry of Trader Horn and the fractured English of Pogo Possum, and in truth I think there is more humor embedded in the language than in the plots.
Who but Lucifer, upon seeing Lord Carnavon’s caravan bringing the contents of King Tut’s 3,000-year-old-tomb to Cairo, could ask, “Just settling the estate now, are they?”
Who but Lucifer could lose a sporting wager in quite this manner: “My money held out just fine until I got to Durban, which had a mule track, horses being too expensive for that part of the country. I picked out a likely-looking one named Saint Andrew, placed my money down, and watched him go into the final turn leading by two lengths when a pride of lions raced out of the bush and attacked the field. The jockeys, most of whom were faster than their mounts anyway, jumped off and raced to safety, but none of the mules made it as far as the homestretch. The track, claiming that this was an act of God, refused to refund the bets, even though I, representing God, pointed out that what it mostly was was an act of lions.”
Who but Lucifer could describe the African wilderness thus: “Well, we walked and we walked and then we walked some more. I kept assuming that Cairo or Marrakech would pop into view any second, but she assured me that we were still in South Africa, and that we weren’t heading no farther than Nyasaland, which I hadn’t never heard of before, and which I now began picturing as a great huge field of grass with a bunch of baby nyasas hopping around on it.”
Because this was a labor of love, I also started putting in a bunch of references that would be clear only to a tiny segment of the audience. For example, in Adventures Tarzan is Lord Bloomstoke, the name Edgar Rice Burroughs originally chose for him before changing it to Lord Greystoke; every character in Casablanca is named after a car, in honor of Claude Rains (Lt. Renault) and Sydney Greenstreet (Signore Ferrari), and so on. A number of the details were historically accurate: Bousbir really was the biggest whorehouse in the world in 1925, there really was a nude painting of Nellie Willoughby hanging over the Long Bar in the New Stanley Hotel in the 1920s, the Mangbetu really were cannibals.
Then, since I had leaned rather heavily on the pulps for my plotlines, I started borrowing characters from the B movies: The Rodent is Peter Lorre, Major Dobbins is Sydney Greenstreet, the
Dutchman is Walter Slezak, and so on; every one of my favorite scoundrels made it intact from the screen to the page.
Finally, I needed a con man who was even better at his job than Lucifer, lest the book end too soon, and so I came up with Erich von Horst, who makes very few appearances—everyone else in a Lucifer Jones book keeps showing up time and again in the oddest places—but lays a number of economic time bombs across the continent that Lucifer keeps encountering at the least opportune moments.
The most fun I ever had in my life was the two months that I sat at the typewriter working on Adventures. I’ve done books of more lasting import, and I’ve created characters of far more depth and complexity, but during that period I fell, hopelessly and eternally, in love with Lucifer Jones.
I sold the book to Signet, which was publishing all my science fiction novels at the time. They didn’t quite know what to do with it, so they sat on it for a couple of years and finally released it in 1985, labeling it Science Fiction, which it most decidedly is not, and implying on the cover that Doctor Lucifer Jones (they left out the Honorable Right Reverend that comes before the Doctor) was just another adventurous version of Doctor Indiana Jones, which he most certainly is not.
The book came out, never found its audience, and died a silent death. Oh, a few mainstream newspapers found it—one New York reviewer called it the greatest parody of the adventure novel ever written—but for the most part it sank without a trace.
I had plotted out four more Lucifer Jones books, one on each continent (each, like Adventures, would end with the various national governments acting in concert to kick him off the continent). Exploits would take place in Asia from 1926 to 1931, and would include an Insidious Oriental Dentist, a Chinese detective with too many sons, a hidden kingdom where no one grows old, an abominable snowman, a poker game for the ownership of the Great Wall, and the like; Encounters would take place in Europe from 1931 to 1934, and would boast vampires, werewolves, the theft of the Crown Jewels, the discovery of Atlantis, the Clubfoot of Notre Dame, and similar incidents; Hazards would take place in South America from 1934 to 1938, amid all its lost cities, tropical jungles, and strange religious rites; and Intrigues would take place in the South Pacific and Australia just before—and possibly a few months after—Pearl Harbor (for which I imagine Lucifer was probably inadvertently responsible). If I needed still more, Lucifer’s grandfather, Nicodemus Jones, could have willed him a manuscript, describing his adventures in our own Wild West; and after 15 years of roaming the world, Lucifer could be forgiven for taking a second shot at making his fortune in Africa.
Oh, I had it all planned out, all right—except that Signet didn’t want anything but true-blue science fiction, and at the time I had no other publishers. Over the next few years I moved over to Tor and Ace, and while I still longed to get back to Lucifer Jones, I was turning out serious, prestigious, award-winning stuff at all lengths, and it never occurred to me to ask if anyone was interested in him. In point of fact, I thought I was the only person who even remembered Lucifer Jones.
Until 1991, when Brian Thomsen of Warners asked me to write a book for him. I explained that I would love to—Brian and I had been friends for years, and I’d always wanted to work with him—but I was under contract to both Tor and Ace, and between them they held options for all my science fiction.
Then I paused. “Well, I’m free to sell Lucifer Jones,” I added, half expecting him to ask who the hell Lucifer Jones was.
“I loved Adventures!” exclaimed Brian, and we were in business.
First, Warners decreed that for the price they were paying me, they needed more than a dozen of Lucifer’s adventures. So I suggested to Brian that I give them a super-thick book: I would
(minimally) revise and polish the original Adventures, add Exploits and Encounters, hand in 225,000 words, and call it The Chronicles of Lucifer Jones. He cleared it with his higher-ups and the response was positive.
Then I contacted Signet, which had reverted all twelve of my serious science fiction novels to me, and asked them to revert Adventures. They refused, declaring that they planned to reprint it.
So I told Brian, okay, we’ll just go with 140,000 words of all-new stuff. He went back to the contract department, explained the new scheme, and got me a contract a week later.
And on the day he delivered the contract, Signet decided to revert Adventures after all.
Okay, I said, let’s go back to our original concept.
I can’t, said Brian. I just spent a week telling them why going with all-new material was better than going with the original idea; I can’t walk right back in and tell them I’ve changed my mind.
And by the way, he added, we need a dragon.
A dragon, I asked.
You and I may know that Lucifer is in the spirit of the old Pulps and B-movies, explained Brian, but the publisher wants something fantastic on the cover. The deal only goes down if we can run an illo of a dragon.
I had my doubts, but I took a shot at it, and gave my Oriental dentist a block-long fire-breathing dragon named Cuddles. And you know what? It didn’t make a bit of difference to the book; Lucifer is such a liar anyway that one more lie just adds flavor to the story. And if you want to believe in the dragon, more power to you.
So now I had Exploits and Encounters coming out in one volume from Warners, which would be entitled Lucifer Jones. But when we still thought that the book would include Adventures, I had sold Brian a few other reverted titles, and now he was bought up for the year, and it looked like my spruced-up, revised Adventures would never see print—or at least, not anytime soon.
John Betancourt and Dean Wesley Smith to the rescue.
John, one of Lucifer’s most fervent admirers, said his Wildside Press would love to publish Adventures in hardcover, and before the dust had cleared he had agreed to publish matching signed, numbered, luxury hardcover editions of Exploits and Encounters as well. The revised Adventures came out in June of 1992, Exploits in February of 1993, and Encounters in October of 1994.
As for Dean, he had asked to serialize The Oracle Trilogy when he began Pulphouse Weekly…but as time dragged on and it became Pulphouse Monthly, he missed one deadline after another for beating the book versions out. Finally he asked if I had anything I could substitute for them. I suggested that every one of Lucifer’s chapters would make a stand-alone short story, found that Dean was another die-hard Lucifer fan, and we were in business: he agreed to run a Lucifer Jones story every month until all three books’ worth of them—33 stories in all—were used up. When all of them have been published, I’ll be writing a new Lucifer Jones tale for each issue, Dean will print them, and John will put them out in a limited edition that matches the first three before they go to mass market.
So there you have it: thanks to some editorial friends I never knew he had, Lucifer lives again. And this time he’s going to stick around awhile.
The above was written about 13 years ago, for Pulphouse. And it didn’t quite come to pass. Pulphouse did manage to print most of the stories from Adventures before going belly-up. At the time I was contracted six or seven books ahead, and I stayed contracted years ahead, and though he was far and away my favorite of my creations, Lucifer went onto the back burner and stayed there for ten long years.
Then in 2004, Lou Anders began editing the reborn Argosy and agreed to run a Lucifer story every other issue. So though it took him a decade to cross the Atlantic, Lucifer Jones finally set foot on the South American continent. Then, like Pulphouse before it, Argosy folded.
But another Lucifer fan, Chris Roberson, offered to run the second story I had sold to Argosy, “The Island of Annoyed Souls”, in his anthology Adventure. Finally Bill Schafer got in touch with me and offered to start running Lucifer regularly in Subterranean. He published “Chartreuse Mansions” a couple of issues back, and now Lucifer’s appearing in the same venue twice in a row for the first time in 13 years.
With a little luck, he’ll stick around long enough to get thrown off still another continent.