In my opinion, John Carter the movie came out too late, in the sense that many of Burroughs biggest fans were already dead. People like Carl Sagan, for instance, who credited the Barsoom series as inspiration for pursuing a career in astronomy. Burroughs generational influence is gone, except for old gits like me. And even I came late, being thrilled by the 1960’s reprint paperback explosion of Burroughs books to do with Mars, Venus, Pellucidar and Tarzan. Burroughs’ last gasp, really. How many young fans today have read any of those books, I wonder? Not many.
Burroughs was a pulp fiction writer, and like most such, a formulaic writer, albeit a brilliant one. Brilliant at being formulaic that is. He knew he wasn’t a “real” writer, like, say, Hemingway, whom he avoided being introduced to on one memorable occasion. (It’s entirely possible “Papa” would have been delighted to meet him. Both were fantasists, each in their own way.) But he was darn proud of what he accomplished. Not many writers ever became both wealthy AND a household name. Darn proud. And maybe a little bored. I mean, come on, how many Tarzan novels could he write? Every now and then he tried something different. Thought I’d mention a few of them.
THE LOST CONTINENT
This is one of Burroughs rare forays into future history SF. The hero, Jefferson Turck, serves in the great Pan-American Navy (the entire hemisphere united) in the 22nd century. The rest of the world is under quarantine to enable the West to avoid foreign entanglements, namely the World War smiting the Eastern Hemisphere. The last foreign ship had been sighted in 1972. Nothing since. At least, no sightings publically reported.
Jeff serves aboard the Aero-submarine ‘Coldwater,’ one of “the first air and under-water craft which have since been so greatly improved since its launching.” One hopes with the addition of a capacity to float ON the surface and not just above and below. A pesky storm shows up, and survival chances are not improved by Jeff turning the ship “broadside to the wind.” The engines break down. The storm abates. Jeff decides to go fishing from a small boat while the engines are repaired. He’s somewhat miffed when the ‘Coldwater’ suddenly takes to the air and abandons him. Seems the crew are not fond of his command skills. Nothing for it but to sail east to the nearest land, “the forgotten lands of the Eastern Hemisphere.” Oddly enough, the boat has a detailed map of the forgotten English Channel on board. Very handy that.
“It has been two hundred years,’ I told him, ‘since a Pan-American visited England.’
‘England?’ he asked. ‘What is England?’
‘Why, this is part of England!’ I exclaimed.
‘This is Grubitten,’ he assured me. ‘I know nothing about England, and I have lived here all my life.’
It was not till long after that the derivation of Grubitten occurred to me. Unquestionably it is a corruption of Great Britain…”
Ah, Burroughs trademark heady futurism. You’ll be pleased to know the novel ends with Pan-America and a revived Chinese Empire happily dividing the world into spheres of influence.
THE CAVE GIRL
Not quite Tarzan, Waldo Emerson Smith-Jones, a man of vast intellect and puny fighting skills, is shipwrecked on a Pacific island inhabited by Ape-men, with emphasis on the “Ape.” Fortunately the women are comely. Waldo not exactly stoic in nature.
“While he was able to control his tears for a moment he took the opportunity to scan the deepening shadows once more.
The first glance brought a piercing shriek from his white lips.
The thing was there!
The young man did not fall grovelling to the sand this time – instead, he stood staring with protruding eyes at the vague form, while shriek after shriek broke from his grinning lips.”
Not even Hemingway could write like this. Burroughs definitely a master of the pulp form. Entirely different league if you ask me. Burroughs approach to gender differences a trifle different from Hemingway too.
“As his eyes wandered along the lines of her young body his Puritanical training brought a hot flush of embarrassment to his face… It was frightful – what would his mother say when she heard of it?
…she with only a scanty garment of skin above her waist – a garment which reached scarcely below her knees at any point, and at others terminated far above?”
I do believe Burroughs is being a trifle risqué here. Having a lot of fun spoofing the traditional pulp manly virtues actually. Never fear. Waldo rescues both his reputation and the girl despite the best efforts of numerous skulking, hairy brutes.
THE WAR CHIEF
“The son of a white man becomes an Apache Warrior.”
This is actually pretty cool. Burroughs genuinely knew quite a bit about the Apaches. As he once wrote: “After leaving Orchard Lake (Michigan Military Academy), I enlisted in the 7th U.S. Cavalry and was sent to Fort Grant, Arizona, where I chased Apaches, but never caught up with them.” Consequently he put more effort into this book than most. For instance, the opening paragraph:
“Naked but for a G-string, rough sandals, a bit of hide and a buffalo headdress, a savage warrior leaped and danced to the beating of drums. Encircling fires, woman-tended, sent up curling tongues of flame, lighting, fitfully, sweat-glistening shoulders, naked arms and legs.”
Big deal you say? Standard “red Indian” description in the pulps?
But it isn’t. Burroughs is opening with a depiction of a prehistoric Caledonian ancestor of the protagonist, Andy MacDuff. Making a point you see. Western civilization had its origins in a culture identical to that of the much derided “injuns,” a culture more virile than that of pampered modern man, the unspoken implication being that Native American culture was in some ways superior to that of citified folk. Burroughs could be quite subversive of “the natural order” at times.
Perhaps in a laughable manner to modern sophisticates, Burroughs insisted on portraying the “savages” as possessing an inherent grace and dignity of their own, as per example:
“Dusk deepened into a moonless night canopied by a star-shot heaven so clear and close that the stars seemed friends that one might reach out and touch. The Apaches, lovers of Nature, sensed beauties that many a dull frontier clod of the usurping superior race lacked the soul to see. Even on the verge of battle they felt and acknowledged the wonders and beauties of the night, casting hoddentin to the heavens and the winds as they prayed to their amulets and phylacterics.”
I’m tempted to say I had no idea the Apaches were Jewish, but I think here Burroughs is employing the secondary meaning of “amulet or charm” which makes the end of the sentence a bit redundant but, hey, full marks for trying. Have no idea what “hoddentin” means. Probably explained in the book.
Anyway, I think Burroughs really was trying, because of his respect for the Apaches, to write a “serious” novel, taking extra care with his description which is vivid and far better than his usual effort. A labour of love, I think.
I AM A BARBARIAN
This really is fascinating. Some critics consider this Burroughs’ best work. Certainly he made significant efforts to research like crazy, listing thirteen books he consulted, including ‘The Twelve Caesars’ by Suetonius and ‘Caesar’s Commentaries,’ along with assorted tomes with titles like ‘The Tragedy of the Caesars’, ‘Travel Among the Ancient Romans,’ and ‘The Private Life of the Romans.’
All about the Roman Emperor Caligula you see, and the people he interacted with like Tiberius, Germanicus, Sejanus, and Claudius, not to mention his lovely sisters.
Caligula the Barbarian?
No, silly. The main character is Britannicus Caligulae Servus, the grandson of Cingetorix, the King of Kent, but despite his illustrious ancestor winds up a four year old slave assigned to a four year old “Little Boots” as Caligula was called. In fact that’s what “Caligula” means, a nickname assigned by Roman soldiers who loved the fact he ran around in a miniature soldier’s uniform as a kid. Anyway, the lucky slave gets to grow up as Caligula’s personal servant.
Quite a brilliant concept. Enables a fly-on-the-wall approach to all the imperial shenanigans right up to the popular Emperor’s Assassination.
“This Agrippina was a bitch.”
I think it is safe to say this book wasn’t aimed at his usual target audience of brass-bra enthusiasts. Possibly this book was even more heartfelt and serious as ‘The War Chief,’ though not on as personal a level mind you. I think Burroughs was trying for a “respectable” historical novel, one that would elevate his reputation. The occasional use of adult language supports this interpretation.
In any case the book is a hoot. I mean, come on, how could you possibly write a boring novel about Caligula? You can’t. A character of characters was “Little Boots.” Burroughs has a lot of fun with him.
One problem Burroughs faced, not normally a huge problem in his dozens of fantasy books, was how to integrate his research as smoothly as possible without risking an info dump. Every writer faces this problem sooner or later. Here is an example of how Burroughs handled it, describing the eleven year old slave being given a tour of Rome by another slave:
“Never been here before, sonny?’ he asked.
‘Never. It’s Wonderful.’
‘Well, that building on your left,’ he said ‘is the Theatre of Marcellus. Augustus built it about forty years ago in memory of his nephew who had died about ten years before, when he was twenty years old.’
‘It is beautiful,’ I said. ‘Augustus must have been very fond of him. Did you know him, Tibur?’
Tibur swore a great oath, but he laughed. ‘How old do you think I am, to have known a fellow who died fifty years ago?”
This is good, this splits “Rome” into an evolving era rather than a simple “place.” To kids in Caligula’s time the civil wars of the early Augustan period were no more relevant than WW II is to modern kids. Strictly granddad stuff. A lot has changed in the meantime, and continues to change as both Servus and Caligula get older. Suffice to say that Servus begins to fear for his life, but manages to do Caligula one last favour.
If the book has a fault it reads very much like a biography of Caligula without much insight into what drove him apart from paranoia, lust for power, jealousy, greed and insanity. Aside from that Burroughs barely touches on motivation…
If you love ancient history, or palace intrigue, this is a ripping good yarn. Good job, Burroughs!
According to the preface by Kevin B. Hancer, “‘The Mucker’ was the tenth story written by Edgar Rice Burroughs and it contained elements of every kind of popular action fiction. It had street gang crime, sea life, piracy, a lost race, a desert island, romance, boxing, courtroom drama, hobo wanderlust, revolution and western adventure. The author felt that this would be his most popular novel, but it failed to catch on…”
A novel on any one of these themes, or two or three, might have done well, but it’s hard to do justice to any of them when there are so many.
Or maybe the problem lay with the main character, Billy Byrne, the Mucker, which I gather is street slang for a mindless thug. He’s a little bit too much of a tough guy, hard to identify with. Consider Burroughs’ description of him:
“Billy was a mucker, a hoodlum, a gangster, a thug, a tough. When he fought, his methods would have brought a flush of shame to the face of his Satanic Majesty. He had hit oftener from behind than from before. He had always taken every advantage of size and weight and numbers that he could call to his assistance. He was an insulter of girls and women. He was a bar-room brawler, and a saloon-corner loafer. He was all that was dirty, and mean, and contemptible…”
Such people exist, but I wouldn’t call them role models, the very opposite of the gallant and courtly John Carter of Mars.
Even worse, Billy talks like this: “Fer half a cent I’d soak youse a wallop to de solar plexus dat would put youse to sleep fer de long count…”
Full marks for guts, but definitely a failed experiment. And that’s the thing, Burroughs DID experiment whenever moved to do so. Not limited to his formulaic tendencies by any means.
THE GIRL FROM HOLLYWOOD
Never read it, but I sure would like to. I’ve heard it is one of his worst novels, but it does feature a kind of self-parody of Burroughs as Colonel Custer Pennington and is probably worth reading for that reason alone.
And the above are just SOME of the non-canon works by Burroughs. Seek them out. Great fun.