Snuggled up to a half-caff carafe of magic Jekyll juice, the mad wizard Arcane has found his petard and is busily hoisting himself. And then who should saunter by, but the incomparable Caramel Kane?
This bright young thing is listed in the credits as Arcane’s Secretary, but you and I and the other avid readers of the Swamp Thing novelization know her true identity. It’s Caramel Kane, the missing daughter of Senator Michael Kane, which is an intriguing bit of backstory that the novel mentions once, and then forgets about it completely.
Of course, it’s the prerogative of the author of a movie novelization to add some splashes of local color, giving the minor players a name and, if we’re lucky, something of an interior life. They generally do this pretty haphazardly, because they have to write fifteen pages a day, and going back to edit a previous passage cuts into their drinking time.
The Swamp Thing novelization was originally going to be written by Len Wein, the character’s co-creator, who by 1982 was an editor at DC Comics. Then Wein found out that he would only have three and a half weeks to write the thing, and he already had a full-time job trying to bang Marty Pasko’s Saga of the Swamp Thing comic into shape.
So Wein bowed out, and Tor Books gave the job to an author named Houston Force Lumpkin III, who wrote under the pseudonym David Houston. I swear on my life that this is true. Houston Force Lumpkin!
Lumpkin/Houston was an author with a brief but busy career; in five years, he wrote seven science-fiction novels, including Gods in a Vortex (1979), Invaders at Ground Zero (1981) and Ice From Space (1982). In 1982, he wrote three novelizations of films recently produced by AVCO Embassy — Swamp Thing, Paradise and Seduction — and then he stopped writing, and withdrew from public notice. Writing film novelizations does that to people, sometimes.
The Swamp Thing novelization stays close to the final cut of the movie, and really only expands in one area. There’s relatively little material added about the heroes of the film: a short three-page chapter from Alec’s point of view as he gets used to his new body, and an extra couple pages about how Cable and Jude found food and water during her night at the trapper’s cabin. You’d think the readers would want some additional love story material between Alec and Cable, but in the book, the dialogue in their big scene is basically repeated verbatim, plus a couple pages of exposition.
On the other hand, when it comes to Arcane and his lunacy, the book has nothing but time. All of the scenes in the mansion are significantly expanded, including a detailed nine-page description of Arcane interrogating, terrifying and murdering a government agent named Bill Darkow, who isn’t even in the film.
There are pages devoted to the life and loves of Bruno the henchman, and the dinner party includes a survey of the guests’ varied reactions to the formula-enhanced gardenias that Arcane gives to each of the women. Houston was clearly fascinated with and inspired by the criminal genius, and we get lots and lots of new Arcane material, none of it pleasant.
And there, like the frosting on the cake, is sweet Caramel Kane, the missing daughter.
Caramel Kane, Senator Michael Kane’s missing daughter, was twenty-four. She was an efficient secretary, an excellent listener, and one of the very few humans who could enter Arcane’s study without being summoned. She was also quite beautiful, though she wore too much makeup to suit Arcane; he particularly hated the blue streak she insisted on maintaining in her otherwise splendid blonde hair. But he loved her for wearing glasses — as he loved anything that symbolized intellectuality.
And that passage tells you quite a bit about the deathless prose contained between the covers of Swamp Thing by H.F. Lumpkin. That amounts to four sentences total, and any one of them would give the reader pause for thought. Imagine that, for two hundred and twenty-three pages; it strains the intellectuality.
When Arcane set his notebook down, stretched and turned to smile at Caramel, it was for her as if the shutters had suddenly swung open. “Is it morning?” he asked with a sigh. “Is that coffee I smell?”
“Yes, sir,” she said beaming; “yes to both. Coffee with cinnamon and chicory, the way you like it, and grapefruit juice, dry toast, and crayfish with mayonnaise.”
“Did you bring something for yourself? I’d like to have you join me.”
She said coyly, “There’s an extra coffee cup.” She set the jingling silver tray ever so carefully on his black-topped work table.
So that’s how we’re going to be spending our time in the novelization, obsessing over Arcane’s breakfast. The broad outlines of the scene are basically the same as in the film’s first mansion scene — he’s monologuing about notebooks and power, and how great it’ll be when other people starve — except in the book, Arcane is eating crayfish, and getting handsy with young Caramel.
He ran his fingers over the distinguished gray at his temples and then down, with a regretful frown, over his unshaven cheek. “I must look disheveled,” he muttered.
She snuggled close as if to say she loved him for it.
He rested a hand on her thigh, just under the edge of her light-lavender spring dress. “How magnificent it will be,” he repeated, dreamily. He held a crayfish by the tail and let it dangle halfway to his mouth.
Arcane’s got a lot to say, naturally, genius that he is, and he breaks his flow only to make remarks at Caramel’s expense.
“But in a cell comprised of elements both plant and animal — nothing is lost! The efficiency of it staggers the imagination! The strength of it! The regenerative power!”
“You see it? You see it? No, I suspect not; you see only that I see it. Isn’t that so? That was an empathetic gasp, n’est-ce pas?“
“Nest what? No sir, I’m sure that, compared to you, I don’t see anything at all.”
So much for the symbolic intellectuality, I guess. You get the sense that Houston Force Lumpkin wasn’t super attuned to the contemporary cultural conversation around women’s rights, and that situation is not going to improve.
For example: the other female who appears in this scene. In the credits, she’s listed as Arcane’s Messenger, although a scene late in the film identifies her as Karen.
In the novel, her name is Marsha, and this is how she’s treated:
At that moment there was a hasty knock at the door, and Marsha — a dark-haired young woman with a lusty voice — hurried in.
“Sir,” she began breathlessly, “I’ve come from the communications center —”
“One moment, Marsha,” Arcane interrupted curtly. Something in notebook fourteen had caught his attention, something he seemed not to like. He closed it slowly. “What is it?” he asked the messenger distractedly.
“Ferret has just radioed, sir.”
“He wants to speak to you personally, sir.”
Arcane nodded. “Very well. Call him back and patch him through to me here.” She turned to do as he asked. He stopped her. “Marsha, my dear, why don’t you wear glasses?”
“Glasses? But, well, I have perfect vision.”
“But not much of an imagination, evidently. That’s all, Marsha. Thank you.”
The door clicked shut behind the beautiful brunette.
So that is Arcane shaming his employee for not pretending to have vision problems, in order to pander to her boss’ fetish for women wearing glasses. This is 100% not the worst thing that happens to women in Arcane’s organization, as we’ll see.
After Ferret and Bruno return to the mansion with news of the swamp monster, there’s another scene that takes place in the lobby area at the foot of the stairs, which the film pretends is Arcane’s private study. In the movie, it’s just the three guys, but the novel adds Caramel to the mix, serving everyone drinks.
This is where Houston adds a lengthy passage about Arcane interrogating a confused federal agent named Bill Darkow. It’s a drawn-out, sadistic scene, with Arcane firing occasional questions at Darkow, observing his response, and then talking calmly with Ferret and Bruno as if the agent isn’t in the room.
“Drink up,” Arcane said, in Ritter’s voice. “Puts hair on your chest.”
Darkow said, “No, thanks. Are you going to let me go?”
Arcane ignored the question and said, back to his own voice again, “Now, let’s see, who was at the gate this evening? Alicia, wasn’t it? Pretty brunette with a cruel mouth?”
“Did she search you for weapons?”
Darkow licked his lips. He had no idea how to answer the question, so he told the truth. “She asked me to leave my pistol with her as a courtesy.”
“And you did, of course. Fine. Fine. You must have imagined you were under the protective wing of the great American Eagle.”
Alicia’s a new addition to the mythos. In the novel, there are a bunch of extra girls running around the compound, and here’s where Bill Darkow finds out what they’re being used for.
The last door was in a corner not far from the conversation alcove. It had a handle rather than a knob, and in the split second before he opened it, Bill realized that no one was bothering to stop him.
A fluorescent light flickered on in a long refrigeration chamber. Strong odors of preservatives and decay assailed him as Bill gaped into the metal tunnel. There were animal and human corpses, in various stages of autopsy, and shelves of limbs and containers of organs.
There was a row of human babies — misshapen, contorted — and something that looked as if it might have been Siamese triplets all massed in a single hideous lump.
Arcane saw the subject of Darkow’s horror and said pleasantly, “Marsha had that one for me. Like it?”
I mean! Jesus wept.
The amazing thing about this new revelation of utterly depraved villainous conduct is that it connects to literally nothing in the entire rest of the book, except for the following passage two pages later:
“Why don’t you trundle off to bed?” Arcane suggested to Bruno. “You’ve had a busy day, little man.”
“Can I have a girl?” Bruno asked Arcane hopefully.
“Certainly, Bruno, almost any one you want. Marsha? Celia? Dawn?”
“Terry,” said the big man.
“We’ll see if she’s available,” Arcane said, draping his arm over the top of Bruno’s thick back and leading him to the door.
“Do I have to have a shot?”
“I think not, Bruno. No more experimenting for a while, till we have Holland’s formula. I suggest you and Terry go so far as to take steps against pregnancy.”
“Okay. ‘Night, Mr. Arcane. Are we starting out early in the morning?”
So what in the many hells is that all about? Arcane has been doing some kind of bizarre reproductive experiments, in which he’s giving himself and his henchmen some kind of shot, so that they can get one of the many nearby women pregnant, and give birth to misshapen monsters. That’s what Houston Force Lumpkin was sitting around dreaming up during the three weeks when he wrote this book, instead of paying attention to Alec and Cable. We are learning quite a lot today about what goes on in H.F.’s imagination, aren’t we?
After a lengthy absence, Caramel returns to the book for act 3, in a chapter about Arcane using the recovered notebook to mix up the Holland formula.
Caramel Kane assisted him. Her luscious blonde hair was tight in a bun; her horn-rimmed glasses hung on a convenient chain around her neck; and she wore a pale green lab smock. She had scrubbed up like a surgeon’s assistant and stood at attention, letting water drip down her hands and forearms into the elbows of her smock — as she had seen doctors do on television.
“We needn’t be quite that sterile,” Arcane said, tossing her a towel. “At least,” he amended, “I don’t think so.”
This is a brand-new scene; in the movie, Arcane just shows up with a beaker of the fluorescent green Hi-C. The book delves deep into the mad science equipment, which includes a small thermometric titration device, a hydrocarbon analyzer, and an alkylation device that combines organic molecules. You don’t write seven sci-fi books in five years without picking up some helpful technobabble along the way.
The scene goes on for seven pages of technical detail and flirty hijinks.
Caramel lost interest in the subtly changing formula and lifted up the tail of Arcane’s lab-coat. She slipped one of her cool hands into his midnight-blue linen trousers and let it rest against his gluteus maximus.
When it became clear that he did not even notice, she withdrew and tiptoed to the conversation alcove where she found a technical journal to turn the pages of.
“Caramel — where are you?” he demanded. “Distilled water, quick!”
Finally, Arcane manages to replicate the formula, which he uses to blow up a tree in the yard, grow a bunch of potted plants, and putrefy the refrigerated severed arm of poor Bill Darkow. Then it’s playtime with Caramel.
Arcane turned to face her so she could begin to unbutton his shirt. “I’ll bet you’ve already run our bath water.”
“I asked Marsha to do it.” She tugged his shirttail out of his trousers.
“Caramel… don’t you have a thin white gown, something Ophelia-like and innocent and sexy?” He stuck out a shoe for her to untie.
“I guess so; want me to wear it to the party?”
“I want you to lend it to Cable for the evening. You mind?”
She unfastened his belt. “I don’t mind.” And unzipped him and let the pants fall.
As she led him naked from the room, he said, “You, Caramel, will be my queen tonight. Wear ermine, and black polyester.”
And then Caramel disappears.
She gets one more mention in the book — “He wore a black suede tuxedo, and exquisite bespectacled Caramel, in a stretchy black gown with ermine collar, stood with him” — and then she vanishes from the narrative completely, and replaced by another girl with no explanation.
In the film, Caramel is last seen on the porch, approaching her boss as he polishes off his glass of ecto cooler. He touches her face, calls her “darling”, and asks her to tell Karen to bring him a glass of brandy.
A minute later, Karen arrives with Arcane’s beverage order, which she drops on the floor when she notices the beginning of his hideous transformation. And that’s all we see of the women, who presumably have to go and get jobs at the next top-secret criminal mansion down the street.
But the novel does something much stranger: it introduces a whole new spectacled girl, who slides frictionlessly into Caramel’s place.
By the time there was a knock at the door, Arcane had returned to the window to look out at the everlightening sky.
“Hi,” said a lovely young woman at the door, rubbing her eyes. “What can I do for you?”
“Come here,” he requested. “I’m distracted. I’ve forgotten your name.”
“Nola,” she said kittenishly, stepping full into a spotlight. She had long blonde hair, an exquisite mouth, an unbelievable shape, and she wore glasses. She had been a guest of a guest at dinner, and due to a most generous offer had elected to join the estate. “This your lab? It’s kinky. I like it.”
“Would you bring me a brandy, please, Nola?”
“Sure. Be right back.” She made a gliding turn that flounced her transparent night shift.
Nola is the one to witness Arcane’s big change, instead of Caramel, who I thought was supposed to be his queen. After that moment at the party, Caramel just isn’t mentioned again. She’s not fired, or killed, or forced to give birth to a monster baby; she simply disappears. As Nietzsche said, “What is best for you is not to be born; not to be, to be nothing.” This seems to have happened to Caramel, all of a sudden.
It’s baffling. At least, I’m baffled by it, and I may be the only person who’s read the book in the last ten years. Why build up missing daughter Caramel Kane, clearly signalling that her relationship with Arcane is important, and then shove her aside at the very last minute as if she never existed? It would be just as easy for Caramel to be in that role; it’s not like she’s a human actress that maybe got sick that day. She’s really taking that “missing daughter” thing seriously.
What happens to the unconcluded, when the writer moves on? Stray threads of story left to flap in the night breeze, like a misshapen baby in a jar tucked in a back corner and forgotten. We’re invited to believe in these misty patches of air — their motives, their habits, their incredibly strong workplace harassment allegations — and then Houston Force Lumpkin simply turns his attention elsewhere, cranking out another twenty-three pages before the deadline.
And there is Caramel, growing older and lonelier, just waiting for the next Swamp Thing adaptation to make her unexpected and triumphant return. Who knows what she’s been up to, all this time?
The first part of an epic adventure with Marvel’s Inhumans!
70b.1: Welcome to the Family Madrigal
— Danny Horn