Doctor Orient, by Frank Lauria
September, 1970 Bantam Books
I first learned about this series several years ago, thanks to Curt Purcell’s glowing reviews on The Groovy Age Of Horror. (Anyone know what happened to Curt?) I picked up most of the books afterward but just never got around to reading this first installment…until now! Very much along the lines of The Mind Masters, Doctor Orient handles occult, ESP, and related environs in a serious manner. There might be a little more action in The Mind Masters, but the characters in this one are more likable and, more importantly, there’s more of a period flavor, with even a “psychedelic discotheque” acting as the headquarters of a group of Satanists.
I went in assuming series protagonist Dr. Owen Orient would be a Doctor Strange type, a master of the mystic arts and all that. Rather, while he’s studied all manner of arcana, familiar with spirits and spells and casually talking about his past lives, he’s really more focused on ESP. In this capacity he’s put together a small group of “pilgrims” who meet in his three-story pad on Riverside Drive in New York and work on their psychic skills, the goal to eventually reach out to the rest of the world. Lauria seems to have been inspired by the pulps of the ‘30s, with Orient having a very pulpy flair: he’s always dressed in white, and his “long” black hair has a skunk-like streak of white running through it. He’s got a mansion, a vintage auto, a butler, and a retinue of helpers, all just like some hero of a ‘30s pulp. The only thing he lacks is a true love-type, though in this first installment we get a muddled backstory about a girl he was in love with in one of those previous lives. That’s about on the level of “my girlfriend lives in Canada,” though.
At 200+ pages of small, dense print, Doctor Orient is one of those novels that takes a little longer to read than you might first suspect. And as is typical with such books, a lot of it could’ve been whittled out. There’s a bit too much repetition, and Orient doesn’t prove himself to be the most capable of protagonists this first time out. I read somewhere that Lauria’s intent was to deliver a “nonviolent hero,” or something to that effect, but unfortunately this gives us a hero who spends most of the narrative sitting around in his pad and meditating, chanting, or staring at the lit end of his cigarette while in deep thought (something he does so much you could make a drinking game out of it…or I guess a smoking game would be more apt). Even the climax is handled with chanting and visionary trips through the astral plane, and this is another thing The Mind Masters did better, with the hero using his mental powers to wreak physical havoc.
The action of this first installment ceters around a Satanic cult led by a black mage called Susej (Jesus backwards, though I don’t think any of the characters make this connection); as mentioned the cult operates out of a cheap-looking psychedelic club in New York called the Seventh Door. There’s a great part that’s borderline rock novel territory where a haughty and hotstuff sixteen year-old babe with mental powers (which she uses to always get her way) ventures inside and watches the house band play; their psychedelic rock, as Lauria describes it, sounds along the lines of Syd-era Pink Floyd. Unfortunately this rock stuff doesn’t take up much of the narrative space, but we do eventually learn that the girl, Addison Tracey, begins singing with the group, even recording albums in the club’s studio booth – plus there’s the cool period detail of the psychedelic lights in the club flashing in time with the music. Sadly no bodypainted go-go dancers are mentioned.
The lead singer is a silver-eyed guy named Seth, who turns out to be a sort of headhunter for the cult, seeking out people with similar mental powers. He initiates Addison into the cult, which entails a black mass – again, much more sleazily and pulpily demonstrated in The Mind Masters #2 – culminating with Addison having sex with a demon. And speaking of which, Lauria’s never too graphic with the exploitative material, more concerned with the occult power Addison will be provided with in exchange for her soul. The back cover has it that Addison will go on to act as a seductress in the Seventh Door, luring wealthy and influential men into the cult’s snare, but sadly the book leaves this as more of a minor detail, and worse yet Addison is pretty much dropped from the narrative. Same goes for Seth, who seems to be built up as Susej’s henchman, but doesn’t even appear in the climactic confrontation. I was actually into this psychedelic club/rock group stuff more than anything else in the novel, but sadly Lauria spends much more time with Owen and his comrades meditating, venturing onto the astral plane, and staring at the burning ends of their cigarettes.
Orient’s circle is relatively small, and surprisingly doesn’t have the “strong female character” demanded in modern entertainment/engineering. There’s Hap, a baseball player who left the group three months ago because he couldn’t handle the vibes, Argyle, a famous black actor who sports a big Afro, and Levi, a hirsute dentist. There’s also Sordi, Orient’s butler, who asks to be brought into the group’s fold so he can help them in their ESP struggles, and finally a bishop named Redson, who despite not being comfortable with reincarnation and all that jazz still has a pretty firm grasp of occult spells and demon-casting. He actually plays a more central role in the fight with Susej than any of the others; Levi is lost in the narrative fold, and Argyle’s big sequence has him venturing solo to the Seventh Door…and easily getting caught by Susej. Humorously, our hero Dr. Orient is unable to even save Argyle, being made a fool of on national TV by Susej, and Argyle has to free himself. As I say, Orient isn’t the most heroic of protagonists.
Orient comes into the action through Hap, who returns to the group with a big problem – three months ago he hooked up with a lovely brunette named Malta, and they went around doing ESP readings and the like. But now Malta’s fallen into a mysterious, almost supernatural coma. Orient ventures into “hyper-space,” not to be confused with the astral plane, and there detects a massive evil force which has ensnared Malta’s soul. Here he also learns – via too-long flashback sequences – that he and Malta were lovers in a past life. Frustratingly, Malta never even really appears in the book; she’s comatose the entire time, then her slumbering form has been stolen from Orient’s pad, and then we find out she’s dead, and then Orient and his comrades are fighting to save her soul from being consumed.
Lauria has clearly read up on the occult subjects – and he informs us of this fact in the “about the author” bio at the end – so we do get a lot of chanting and prayer circles and people flashing on a gold swastika in blue light for protection, the latter which sort of upsets Redson until he’s informed the swastika symbolized holy power long before the cross. Meanwhile Susej, who turns out to be a former religious schoolmate of Redson’s named D’Te, plots to take over the world for “the Clear One.” Thanks to some modern thinking by Seth, Susej begins appearing on TV to heal people; in particular he becomes a regular on Joe Kirk’s late night TV talk show – a clear take on Johnny Carson (back when he was still in New York), with the difference being that we’re informed Kirk uses his show to make fun of people. Johnny was nothing if not respectful to his guests, except when he was jamming egg yolks in Burt Reynolds’s face.
And see that’s one of the problems with Doctor Orient. The third quarter features lots of scenes of our heroes sitting around and watching TV, complaining about how quickly Susej is attaining power; people now flock to him as a guru with supernatural healing powers, which is all part of Susej’s plan of domination. There’s no action, per se, save for when Susej sends a couple poltergeists over to Orient’s place to tear it up. Our heroes run away and stay in Redson’s rectory. Also as mentioned Argyle tries to take matters into his own hands toward the end, but gets caught, which entails lots of WTF? bits on the astral plane where animals chase him and whatnot; there’s also a part earlier on where Orient ventures into the astral plane and is lured into a sort of venus flytrap section which almost kills him.
The finale builds toward a big confrontation, but it lacks much verve. Susej, who has already magickally bitch-slapped Orient on TV at Joe Kirk’s show, plans a big event, and Orient and team converge on the scene to chant and pray away. Instead of physical confrontation it plays off on the metaphysical tip, with a resolution to Orient and Malta’s eternal love. Lauria ends the novel almost abruptly, which is odd given the preceding pages of too much repetition and stalling; Susej, defeated on the astral plane, collapses, his worldly following crushed, and Orient just stands there looking. At any rate he was to return soon enough; I have most of the books that followed, and here’s hoping they are a bit more spirited (no pun intended).