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Gods, Warlords and Chessmen

January 23, 2013

I hold a special place in my heart for that brave band of writers that made a living in the 1920s and 1930s by supplying the huge number of pulp magazines that existed during the period like Weird Tales, Oriental Stories, Argosy and Marvel Tales, (and not forgetting the wonderfully named Spicy Detective) with a constant stream of imaginative, exciting adventure stories. Guys like Lester Dent, Robert E Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch, HP Lovecraft and – the main subject of this blog – Edgar Rice Burroughs laid down so many of the foundations of modern science fiction and fantasy that I’d think it difficult to not have some kind of affection for them even if you don’t really enjoy their work. These fellows produced short stories and serials by the bucket load, relying on a staggering output to make the venture profitable. adaptability was key as well, as to limit the genres you wrote would only limit your market – Howard was a particularly fine example of this kind of versatility as he wrote fantasy, horror, western, comedy, historical, adventure and boxing themed stories in his quest to make his living as a professional writer. Of course I’m sure there was a lot of dross in these magazines too – the magazines contents have been through the filter of time, and these days we only remember the finest works that they featured. But as far as I’m concerned those works are true literary gems.

‘Literary gems?’ I hear you cry in horror. ‘But surely these stories were just formulaic tosh with cardboard cut-out characters?’ you might add. And maybe you’d be right to an extent. But whatever faults the stories had they were also quite frequently jolly good fun. Action, adventure, mystery and incredible flights of imagination were all featured in spades, and I’d say even the most jaded and cynical reader would find something that entertained them – if only briefly – in many of the works of that period. I was talking to a friend about this kind of literature over Christmas as he is also a big fan, and he made an interesting point that these days we read these stories wrong. We might complain that Robert E Howard has described Conan’s movements as ‘Pantherish’ five times in the last twenty pages, and we might complain that all of the Conan stories seem to include the same things (evil wizards, giant snakes, big fights, scantily clad ladies and so on) but we forget that we are not reading them in the way the author intended them to be read. These days we’re usually reading a novel-sized collection of short stories for example, and might read two or three stories in a single sitting. We forget that when they were first written readers would have got no more than one story a month in the magazine. It would have often been one every few months, and some longer stories might be split into two or more parts each published a month apart. When you bear that in mind the use of repeated phrases and descriptions is quite a good idea for helping the reader form a strong image of a character that make getting back into the stories after a period of absence easier – a motif if you like. Think also that the formulaic adventures might not seem quite so repetitive if it’s been a full six to twelve months since you last read about Conan wrestling with a giant snake. And we might read two different stories and find them to have quite similar plots but not take into account that they were written for two different magazines with different readerships. All in all if one doesn’t over analyse them but just takes them for what they are (and puts one’s cynicism to one side for a little while) then the reading pulp adventure stories can be great fun.

I should address a certain sore point before I rabbit on much more though – A few of the writers of this period cop a lot of flak for racism in their work, including my two favourites – the aforementioned Burroughs and Howard. I don’t think these accusations are particularly fair, to be honest. Both were certainly guilty of some clumsy stereotyping at times when dealing with coloured characters but I think there was very little malice in it, unlike the vile nonsense that Mr Lovecraft could come out with on occasion. Howard, for example, featured a mutiny by black slaves in his Conan Novella The Hour of the Dragon. Reading that sequence these days you may see it as implying the poor black savages were too stupid to do anything for themselves untill the great white hope Conan comes along, frees them and leads them in bloody revolt. I think if you bear in mind Howard was living and writing in rural Texas in the 1920s the idea of black slaves overthrowing their evil masters becomes pretty darn liberal. similarly, Howard wrote a boxing story featuring a black world champion called Ace Jessop if I recall correctly and by todays standards Ace’s ‘Yes massa, no massa’ dialogue is pretty horrific. But again we must consider that Howard had chosen to write a story (living in rural Texas in the 1920s, don’t forget) in which a black man was the tough, all-action hero and also the World Heavyweight Champion. Similarly, Burroughs cops a lot of flak for his portrayal of black characters, particularly in the Tarzan books. Again I don’t think characters like the faithful Mugambi from Beasts of Tarzan are malicious caricatures – just a touch naive. Burroughs himself later in life admitted this was the case after experiencing a more cosmopolitan lifestyle in Los Angeles that challenged some of the prejudices he’d picked up in his suburban Chicago upbringing. So, guilty of stereotyping character and speech? Yep. Guilty of Hate Crimes? I really don’t think so.

Like I say Burroughs and Howard are my two favoured pulp authors, and I think it’s an interesting debate as to which of the two has had the greater impact. Howard of course gave us Conan the Barbarian, who has truly become a vital steel-thewed foundation of the fantasy genre. But beyond Conan I’d say Howard has not had that much of an impact on popular culture. Sure, the likes of King Kull and Solomon Kane have had their own movies and are well-known and loved by my geeky brethren, but they’re nowhere near as recognisable as the mighty Cimmerian are much less well known outside of the fanboy community. Burroughs of course leads with his most famous creation Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. The original Tarzan book is considered (in the US at least) something of a classic, and the heroic jungle warrior has appeared in countless films, comics, cartoons and TV shows over the last eighty or so years (with the oddest spin-off that I’ve seen being the Dark Horse comic Tarzan Vs Predator at the Earths Core). I’d say Tarzan actually is bigger and more significant in the publics consciousness than even Conan, and Burroughs doesn’t stop there. He also gave us the book series At The Earths Core, set in the dinosaur filled land of Pellucidar that was made into a popular movie starring Peter Cushing and Doug McClure, and followed that up with The Land That Time Forgot that spawned another classic creature feature adaptation. I’d say that overall Burroughs is the more significant of the two (though that may have been helped by him having a longer writing career as he didn’t blow his brains out age 30), something that will only be compounded by last years big-budget and mildly successful adaptation of my personal favourite Burroughs stories – John Carter.

The John Carter books chronicle the exploits of the eponymous veteran of the American Civil war on Mars (or Barsoom as the locals call it). Mars as imagined by Burroughs is an arid desert land populated by all sorts of strange cultures and creatures and it’s the sheer breadth of invention on show that makes these stories such good fun. Wether it’s the descriptions of the vast underground ocean of the Black Martians, the polar domes of the Yellow Martians or the advanced cities of Helium and Zodanga, the setting is a retro-sci fi fans wet dream. Add in the inhabitants, ranging from fifteen foot tall four armed Green Martians to the mindless tentacle-fingered plant men and it just gets better and better. The general premise is that somehow John Carter magically finds himself on Mars and becomes a kind of mythical hero to the natives, uniting the various different colour of Martians and kicking a lot of arses along the way. Carter is certainly a full-on red-blooded manly man of a hero – brave, tough, dashing, and full of swagger – though he’s not likely to win any Genius of the Year competitions. In fact it might be fair to say that his savage multi-legged Martian lion/dog sidekick Woola is probably the brains of the operation. But in these early space operas brains aren’t too important as you’re much more likely to impress that beautiful semi-naked alien princess with a swift blade and a charming smile – an approach shared by many of those that followed in Carter’s footsteps like Flash Gordon and Burroughs own Carson Napier (who ended up on Amtor, better known on Earth as Venus). Those of a sensitive disposition can rest easier here as well, as there really aren’t any of the racial issues I mentioned earlier that might upset some readers of the Tarzan or Caspak books. While there are a wide variety of different species of sentient Martian whose various clashing cultures are a central theme of the stories, these cultures are not (in my opinion) any kind of allegory for our own world. The Green Martians are savage barbarians, but there is no attempt to portray them as analogous to, say, African tribes for example. The Yellow Martians ain’t the Chinese and the Red Martians ain’t the communists. The cultures are sufficiently… well sufficiently Alien that we can stop worrying about metaphors and just get on with the adventure. Sure, you could decry the laughable science and really rather questionable gender politics, or you could comment on the off-hand way an entire city gets put the sword in A Princess of Mars,… or you could just sit back and enjoy the ride. Like some of Burroughs other sequences of books the Barsoom stories get a bit tired towards the end (Tarzan suffered even more so from the same problem) but the first three – Princess of Mars, Gods of Mars and Warlords of Mars – are something that I’d recommend any fan of science fiction pick up and try. But if you can’t be bothered to do that, maybe you could watch the Disney produced John Carter movie that came out last year. It wasn’t exactly a hit at the box office, but as we all know that doesn’t necessarily mean it was a bad film. So is it worth watching? And does it capture the spirit and sense of aventure of the books?.

(awkward pause…)

Now this is where I was meant to neatly segue into discussing said John Carter movie. As per last weeks blog my plan was to finally watch it last weekend – after all, I’ve had it in the house since last November – but I’d forgotten the big family visit that rendered be too busy to do so. At this point all I know about it is what I’ve seen in the trailer – the red Martians aren’t red enough, the green Martians look at bit rubbish, the white apes look excellent and Mark Strong (yay!) is in it. And that’s about it. Hopefully I’ll get to watch it in the near future, and when I do I’ll stick a proper review on here. It might well turn out to be poor, but I’m sure if it is I’ll cope without feeling the need to Howl the Howl of Geek Rage. After all, it won’t be the first terrible John Carter movie, what with The Asylum’s 2009 effort. The simple fact is – and it’s a fact that fans of The Hobbit, Conan The Lord of the Rings etc should come to terms with – that no matter how bad a film is it doesn’t mean we still can’t enjoy the original books. No shitty adaptation can take those away from us – if they are truly classics then they can endure a heck of a lot worse than that and still be around for future generations to enjoy.


From → Musings

  1. I really, really enjoyed the John Carter movie, I have to admit. The reviews were an attempted hatchet job in my book.
    Anachron Press are doing a modern line of books with a view to the old pick-up-and-read quickly style of pulp novels. They are in fact called ‘Pulp Line’ and the illustrations really work with the concepts. Might be of interest to you.

  2. I had a look through Anachron press’s stuff and was very much intrigued. They only do electronic stuff don’t they? If that’s the case I’ll have to wait till I join the 21st century and get an e-reader before I sample their wares.

  3. An excellent point about considering the format for which stories were written.

    I read an interview with Alan Moore where he recommended reading no more than one section of the collected Watchmen a day. Trying it added enough tension to a collection I had already read several times that I try to avoid reading any collection in a single sitting.

    • True, Graphic Novels / Collected comics are something else that can suffer in the same way given they were originally written to be read monthly. Unfortunately the discipline required to restrict myself to reading just one bit at a time is something I haven’t got the hang of yet.

  4. Great article. firstly I have to say that I love the short story format and style; I read more short story collections than full novels. Secondly, most of what I like to read is from the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s. I pick up a lot of modern novels and just loose interest after a few chapters. I’m currently reading Horror Stories of Robert Howard and Moby Dick. You should check out my Horror Art – Pulp magazines post and my recent post on Lovecraft.

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  1. The Art of Picking Nits (And Judging John Carter) « Earth Monsters Versus Space Monsters

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