Mythmaster, by Leo P. Kelley
June, 1973 Dell Books
I love pulp sci-fi paperback originals, preferably ones from the ‘60s and ‘70s, and especially those that tap into the then-current psychedelic scene, casting their cosmic futures in a hallucenogenic glow. Usually it’s just the covers, but sometimes the novels themselves live up to this lysergic promise, and Mythmaster is a case in point. And just as surprisingly, the awesome Robert Foster cover (sort of) illustrates an actual scene in the novel!
Leo P. Kelley, who passed away in 2002, churned out a variety of genre novels, particularly Westerns; Mike Madonna informs me that he also created the Cimarron series. Starting in the mid-1960s Kelley published a handful of sci-fi novels, and if Mythmaster is any indication, they all might be worth checking out sometime. This is a slim book, a little over 200 pages, but engrossing in its storytelling and psychedelicized future setting. The novel is more of a character study than a space opera or adventure story, but the incidental details Kelley sprinkles throughout the narrative are fascinating.
Our hero is John Shannon, the titular “Mythmaster.” The way he got this title is pretty unusual to say the least. He clusterbombs populaces with pellets containing a hallucinogenic of his own manufacture; the hallucinogen drives everyone who breathes it "Mythmad" -- a euphoric, delusional state, one where they are incapable of controlling themselves. Then Shannon and his team of fellow pirates float down to the planet on their little ships and zap the fertilized eggs from the bodies of recently-impregnated women!!
Obviously Shannon is an anti-hero, and in fact the thrust of the novel is his eventual rediscovery of his own humanity. The novel plays out on a smallscale, personal level, even though it has intergalactic trips and action scenes. Shannon, an orphan who was raised by a robotic “mother surrogate,” once was a captain in the Space Patrol with a promising career, one he ruined in an attempt to save the lives of prisoners who were in an orbiting prison that was in the path of his ship.
Drummed out of the Patrol, Shannon eventually became a self-centered pirate with a variety of money-making schemes. This egg-stealing gambit is only the latest, if also the most disgusting; Shannon steals the eggs and delivers them without a care to their fate. In one case we learn that the buyers intend to eat the eventual humans that will grow from the eggs. (These buyers, the Epicureanites, are another of Kelley’s interesting creations which are only hinted at in the novel – obese lechers who live only to satiate themselves.)
One thing Shannon does get excited about is his infrequent visits to Seventh Heaven, a space station cathouse. Each level features a different erotic delight, and Shannon rewards his all-male crew with visits to the place after successful jobs. On this latest visit Shannon discovers the Star Wars-esque named Reba Charlo, a courtesan who has the entirety of the seventh level to herself, such is her fame and beauty. Reba instantly sets off Shannon’s alarms, as she knows who he is, despite the cover name he’s given (which is “Ackerman,” surely an in-joke reference to Forrest Ackerman?).
Reba knows that Shannon is really the Mythmaker; she knows this through Starson, Shannon’s “astronavigator,” a good-looking dude who happens to be gay, and who also happens to be in love with Shannon. This sets up the strange love triangle which brews through the tale: Shannon tries to subdue the feelings he has for Reba, who once was married to Starson, who himself keeps trying to get Shannon to fall in love with him! Weird scenes inside the goldmine.
Then there’s Oxon Kaedler (another great name!), a fellow space pirate who has been declared dead by the Space Patrol but who really survived; rumor is he is coming after Shannon to cut in on his profits. Kaedler is another of those great little touches of the bizarre that Kelley sprinkles through the book; his body burned beyond repair, Kaedler floats, nude and surrounded by a blue haze, overtop a hovering life-support device, and since his voice is destroyed he communicates through a lizard-like alien with telepathic powers. All of it seems like something that could’ve come out of David Lynch’s wonderfully weird Dune.
To me the novel’s greatest strength is the incidental detail Kelley puts in here and there, showing the alien influences upon this future. There’s Andromedan curtains that play “polyphonic” music when brushed open, and even a device of Reba’s that actually let’s people “taste the colors.” Also on the psychedelic tip is a later scene where Reba covers her naked body with alien “fireworms” which sparkle about her, obscuring her nudity in kaleidoscopic colors.
Kelley follows his love triangle storyline all the way through; during a brief return visit to Earth, Shannon visits Denver with Starson and Reba. The city has been split into UpperDenver and UnderDenver, the former a closed off haven for the rich, the latter a criminal metropolis. The wealthy can buy tickets which allow them to slum with the transients in UnderDenver, and this is where the trio go, checking out the nightlife, the weird wonders on display.
But over dinner Starson spikes Shannon with those Mythmadness pellets – everyone is susceptible to them, unless they have antitode pills – and then he takes the drugged and hallucinating Shannon to a seedy hotel and has his way with him. Surprisingly enough, Shannon comes to the next day without any anger; turns out he’s bisexual (!), and indeed is more upset that Starson thought he could make Shannon fall in love with him through the fog of Mythmadness.
The Shannon-Reba love story however bears the brunt of the narrative, and Kelley provides plenty of sex scenes. But for a novel focused on hallucinogenic drugs and interstellar whorehouses, Mythmaster isn’t very graphic or explict. The sex scenes are more along the lines of “he lost himself within her” and such, and other than a late utterance of “fuck,” the book is devoid even of cursing. However Kelley makes up for it with a general feeling of decadence. For example, the bizarre scene where Shannon, awaiting his appointment with Reba in Seventh Heaven, swims in a pool filled with alien fish – alien fish which like to congregate around particular areas of human bodies, with erotic effects – and ends up “dallying” with them!
Kelley builds up the rivalry with Kaedler in the climax, with Shannon and his crew in a desperate space battle with Kaedler’s superior ship. The last portion of the book sees Shannon, Reba, Starson, and a few crew members stranded on a barren, swamp-like planet, one filled with a strange alien life. Here Kelley delivers another psychedelic scene, when Kaedler drops Mythmadness pellets on Shannon and his crew, who then stumble about in a chemical fog. (This is the scene Robert Foster apparently illustrated for his cover – that is, if his cover was actually based on the novel in the first place.) All of this leads into an unusual ending in which Shannon and Reba are cast as a sort of new Adam and Eve.
Writing wise, Kelley plays it straight, usually just giving the necessary details and moving on. But as stated, it’s those details that I found so fascinating. He also attempts to get lyrical and literary at spots, with his characters prone to delivering soul-plumbing confessions or pronouncements. I don’t think Mythmaster will be to everyone’s liking, but something about it struck a chord with me – the focus on character, the psychedelic vibe, and the incidental and bizarre details.