02 May 2019

The Things We Leave Behind


by Brian Thornton

"When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things."
                                                                                    – 1 Corinthians, 13:11

In this, the age when fantasy rules, when people tiptoe around discussion of TV shows (Game of Thrones) and movies (Avengers: Endgame) for fear of revealing "spoilers" about either of these juggernaut entertainment franchises, I've had a tangentially related subject on my mind.

The first ERB book I ever read
But never fear. No spoilers here.

And it has to do with books, not the visual arts.

Let's just pause for a bit, give my readers (BOTH of you!*rimshot*) a chance to heave a sigh of relief.

I don't have much room on my dance card these days for either science fiction or fantasy. Ironic, I suppose, because most of what I read while cutting my teeth on literature beyond picture books was science fiction and fantasy.

Specifically the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Now, as a kid, I read everything I could get my hands on: high adventure such as Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, C.S. Lewis' Narnia chronicles, The Hardy Boys, Encyclopedia Brown, lots and lots and lots of history. But it was Burroughs' stuff that really turned my crank.

I read every one of his ninety-one published novels (save the three or four, such as The Efficiency Expert, The Girl From Farris's, and Marcia of the Doorstep which had been out of print for decades when I was first delving into Burroughs' oeuvre during the mid-1970s): His Tarzan novels, his Barsoom series, his Venus novels, his Earth's Core series, and standalones such as The Mucker (and its sequel, The Return of the Mucker–even though I had no idea what a "mucker" even was!), The Land of Hidden Men, and posthumously published books such as Beyond the Farthest Star and  I Am A Barbarian.

Frank Frazetta's idea of a "mucker"
For me, discovering Burroughs was largely a matter of timing. His work had begun to go through something of a renaissance during the paperback revolution of the 1950s and 1960s. as was the case with the work of so many of his peers who wrote for the pulp magazines which churned out new stories, sometimes whole novels, at an astonishing rate during the first three decades of the twentieth century. And publishers such as Ace and Ballantine were eager to cash in, commissioning vivd, exciting cover art from such top notch fantasy artists as Frank Frazetta, and marketing his books in such a way that mall bookstore chains such as B. Dalton (remember them?) would place them right in front of the likes of me: kids out looking for lurid tales of derring do, lost civilizations, monster men, damsels in distress, and, of course, a seemingly inexhaustible parade of "noble savages."

Burroughs, a failure at many things in his adult life, found his moment at the age of thirty-seven when, in 1912, The All-Story Magazine serialized his first fiction under the title, "Under the Moons of Mars." When later published in book form the publisher changed the title to A Princess of Mars. This book introduced Captain John Carter, a Civil War veteran from Virginia, who found himself whisked away from a cave in the Arizona desert to the Red Planet.

Once there Carter's adventures ran true to what would become Burroughs' standard formula: endowed by Fate (in Carter's case, Fate took the form of the lesser gravity of the planet Mars) with Herculean strength, the hero would face a series of challenges, including, in no particular order, savage beasts, scheming villains, the elements, and, of course, a beautiful woman with whom he would fall hopelessly in love, usually at first sight, and through some silly misunderstanding, would not discover until somewhere near the end of the book that the lovely maiden requited his passionate feelings.

Let me tell you, as a ten-year-old, I ate it all up.

Later that same year Burroughs introduced his most famous character, John Clayton, an English peer of the realm, better known as Tarzan of the Apes. Orphaned at birth, raised by apes (and not, as Burroughs–who seems to have been largely ignorant of even the basics of zoology–insisted over and over, gorillas), Tarzan grew up to get the girl (An American preacher's daughter named Jane Porter), reclaim his birthright (that's "Lord Greystoke" to you, thank you very much.), and spend his time swinging through the jungle, finding (and fighting) lost civilization after lost civilization, and even being made chief of an African tribe.

And of course Tarzan was a sensation which quickly morphed into something beyond what Burroughs intended (the movies, the merchandise, Johnny Weismuller famously grunting, "Me Tarzan, you Jane"in film–and speaking of film, none of them were anything like the books. Go figure.). And he made Burroughs (and his heirs) trunkloads of money.

"Me..Tarzan..you...bankable movie star..."
And Burroughs has never really left us. In the past decade, Hollywood invested vast sums of money into two film reinterpretations of his two most famous characters: 2012's much-maligned John Carter, which killed more careers at Disney than a Thark with a radium rifle, and 2016's awful The Legend of Tarzan, which also tanked, although not as badly (I credit the incredible Margot Robie, who played Jane.).
"So WHAT is this movie actually ABOUT?"

In another fitting irony it was John Carter which brought me back to the Burroughs books. The movie is, in a word: terrific. The first live action film directed by Andrew Stanton (of Wall-E fame), and a screenplay credited to (among others), one of my favorite novelists, Michael Chabon. It starred the underrated (and relatively unknown) Taylor Kitsch as the title character and the unforgettable Lynn Collins as the aforementioned"princess." But John Carter never really had a chance. The film ran afoul of a marketing department leery of a film with the word "Mars" in the title (Blame Mars Needs Moms. I do.), and whose upper echelon decision makers had never worked on selling science fiction before.

So it tanked, the Oscar-nominated score (courtesy of Michael Giacchino) and a superb supporting cast which included Mark Strong, Willem Dafoe, James Purefoy and Ciaran Hinds notwithstanding.

I saw it in the theatre, and loved it. I came away from the experience thinking of what a love letter the film was to Burroughs' work: how Stanton had worked so hard to bring so many aspects of Burroughs' Martian books to life: the look, the feel, the red skin of the Martians, the four-armed, green-skinned Tharks, the fliers which served as air "navies" in Mars' thin air. Great characters like Tars Tarkas and a much more fleshed out princess Dejah Thoris. He really nailed it.

Lynn Collins, making Dejah Thoris so much more than the damsel-in-distress of Burroughs' novels
It inspired me to delve back into Burroughs' canon: books I had not re-read in decades.


I was maybe twenty pages into A Princess of Mars, when it hit me. Edgar Rice Burroughs was an imaginative guy, and a pretty decent storyteller, but he was a lousy writer. As it turns out, Chabon and Stanton not only paid homage to Burroughs' work, they vastly improved on it.


What's more, his stuff is dated. Burroughs was a man very much of his time. And his time bespeaks the sort of casual racism that was entirely lost on a pre-teen and early teen-ager from whitebread (no pun intended) eastern Washington, and is terribly glaring to my more cosmopolitan fifty-four year-old eye nowadays.

Put simply,  I now find Burroughs' portraits of blacks, Asians, Arabs, Latinos, and so many other non-white peoples downright painful to read. I'm not saying he was anything like, say, Richard Wagner. But Burroughs carried all manner of received, unconscious biases around with him. Born in 1875, he made his first protagonist a Confederate soldier, and would have been forty when D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation–racist ending and all–hit the theatres in 1915.

This, more than the paper-thin characters and the repetitious plots, pretty much overpowers the charms–the often sly humor, his occasionally insightful meditations on the ruinous nature of the two world wars through which he lived (the second as a war correspondent in the Pacific) and the sheer inventiveness–his works still possess. Fifty-four year-old me wants something more sophisticated, more aware of the humanity (including the failings) of the author's characters.

But I still feel I owe the guy something. His work took me on flights of fancy I'll savor for the rest of my days. And it was Burroughs, and another pulp-era author whose works I've "outgrown"–Conan creator Robert E. Howard–who taught me how to write fight scenes.

So I'll honor the memories, and I'll enjoy repeated viewings of the unfairly maligned (and poorly titled) John Carter. Especially for the sword-wielding Lynn Collins.


But I won't be cracking the books themselves again.

How about you? Feel free to weigh in in the comment section, and tell us which books from your childhood have or have not stood the test of time for you, and why?

See you in two weeks!


11 comments:

O'Neil De Noux said...

I came to Burroughs late. His books are OK but some are hard to get through. JOHN CARTER was excellent. Loved it. WIsh they would have made a HBOish miniseries out of it. I liked the early Tarzan books. By the time I discovered Burroughs I was already a Ray Bradbury, Heinlein, Clarke fans and when I came across the New Wave SF – Harlan Ellison, Roger Zelazny, Delaney, Herbert and others well, I was on my way to wanting to be an SF writer.

Eve Fisher said...

I read Burroughs about the same age as you, and left him when I finally found Robert Heinlein, who had his own problems but at least (1) had much more active, empowered women and (2) was a much better writer. The John Carter books never did much for me, though God knows I tried. But I did read the Tarzan books. And then I fell in love with Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan, and jungle life, especially because of the surprisingly racy "Tarzan and His Mate", where Tarzan definitely knows who's Tarzan and who's Jane. The tree house, the nude swimming... and that was made in 1934!

John Floyd said...

Great column. This brings back good memories--I still have some of the old Tarzan books.

I can see I need to watch John Carter again!

R.T. Lawton said...

Brian, for me it was Robert E. Howard and all of his swashbuckling characters, not just Conan. The books were much better than the movies. I recently went through some of my old paperbacks and was surprised to see how many I had of Howard's. And yes, I have been to his old house in Cross Plains, Texas.

Robert Lopresti said...

Never read Mr. B. I do recall that horror when you reread a favorite book and discover what your younger self did not. As a kid I was bowled over by a story by John Russell called "The Price of the Head." I reread it a few years ago and discovered it was racist trash, with a brilliant ending. Apparently my memory had attached a completely different story on front.

My wife and I had never read the Little House on the Prairie books until we read them to our daughter (age six to eight maybe?). After a few chapters I told her "Now we're going to discuss what 'anti-New Deal propaganda' means." And we did.

Eve Fisher said...

R.T., there's a lot of literature around the Little House Books, and most of them note that Laura left out a lot - like the people who actually boarded with them during the Long Winter and helped pay for supplies - in her (and Rose's) determination to present themselves as totally independent self-sufficient homesteaders.

Leigh Lundin said...

Wow. Like you, Brian, I read all the Pellucidar books, all the Mars books, and all quadzillion Tarzan books. I don't recall the Mucker, so I likely missed that.

My dad read adventure stories to us including Burroughs, Jack London, and H. Rider Haggard. Has ever there lived a more despicable baddie than Gagool?

In my 30s, I tried reading Haaggard on my own, but it didn't work for me. Perhaps it was the lack of my father's voice, but the writing didn't seem to flow as I remembered it. Haggard didn't seem to have as much of the thoughtless racism you mention. Perhaps one day I'll try Burroughs or Haggard again.

Besides Franzetta, a number of other artists turned their hand to voluptuous and violent fantasy art. Topping that list is Boris Vallejo, who also drew a number of Tarzan covers.

David Edgerley Gates said...

Not that this hasn't been remarked on before, but somebody once asked Isaac Asimov when the Golden Age of Science Fiction was, exactly? And he said, "Thirteen."

Lawrence Maddox said...

Great read, Brian. Burroughs was huge, the first real superstar of the pulps. If he hadn’t helped establish that format as a popular medium, we may never had all that great hardboiled crime fiction that came out of pulps like Black Mask.

Jeff Baker said...

Nice! I have to admit, the scenes on Earth in "John Carter of M**s" impressed me more than the Martian ones (and the Martian scenes were spectacular!). I guess I usually like my fantasies set on Earth, and a Mars-hopping superman popping down to Earth of 100+ years ago hit me as cool! (I'll make a go at slogging my way through the original "Tarzan" novel some day!)

Lance said...

Yay John Carter! I loved the film! I’m with Brian as although I lived the Martian series when I was a kid! I’m not surprised to hear that this is yet another author that was more story teller for the pulps than a writer of literature.

Brian, could I interest you in coming onto the SciFi Thoughts podcast and talk about this article? We could do a thirty minute interview. https://lancerkind.com/series/scifi-thoughts/