These days, Ken Follett is a successful thriller writer, but in the mid-1970s, he was just starting out, and wrote a handful of pulp crime and espionage novels – some under his own name, but most under pseudonyms after his agent advised him that it might be a good idea to keep these trashy novels separate from the (hopefully) better novels that he would write as his career progressed.
In 1976, Futura Books – like most publishers – had been sniffing around the forthcoming remake of King Kong, which everyone assumed would be a huge box office hit (in the end, the film made money, but nowhere near as much as everyone expected). There had been a couple of novelisations of the original 1933 film – sometimes credited to Edgar Wallace, though he had actually only written a rough draft of the film at most before his death – and despite the film remake, there seemed to be some confusion over the ownership of the story. Certainly, it wasn’t possible to copyright the idea of a giant ape, despite Dino De Laurentiis’ best efforts to keep Kong imitators (Queen Kong, The Mighty Peking Man, A*P*E*) out of cinemas.
With this in mind, Futura contracted Follett to write a giant ape novel, which was shamelessly promoted as a Kong-alike, complete with cover image by legendary fantasy artist Chris Achilleos that showed the giant ape atop a building battling helicopters – just as King Kong would do in the new film.
Credited to ‘Bernard L. Ross’ (a pseudonym Follett would also use for the novelisation of Capricorn One a few years later), Amok is actually a rather different beast from Kong, being a genetically-altered chimp, the result of mad-scientist experiments in the African jungles. Biologist Harry Kaminsky, filmmaker Warren Macalpine, love interest Purity Lane (yes, really) and a supporting cast of shallow, egocentric and corrupt characters head off in search of the mythical beast called The Amok by local natives, and have assorted scrapes with pygmies, guerillas and each other en route to finding the giant monster. Along the way, we get stuff like this:
The doctor was not perturbed. “It’s a common thing for young girls to fall in love with someone completely unattainable, like a film star.”
“She’s not as young as she looks”, Warren said. She’s twenty-two or -three. And a giant ape is not a pop star.”
Follett was paid £1500 for the novel, which took him four weeks to write – not a bad deal in 1976. The book was, I recall, everywhere in the winter of 1976.
Essentially, Amok King of Legend is entertaining pulp fiction – not as grubby or perversely readable as the best New English Library titles, but good fun nonetheless.
Interestingly, the 1976 King Kong was never novelised, though Lorenzo Semple Jr’s screenplay was published in the US.
Also worth seeking out: Michel Parry’s short story collection The Rivals of King Kong.