EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS
Edgar Rice Burroughs is the man who invented Mars. And in doing so,
set American pulp SF back decades into a Swords & Sorcery La-La-Land
of flashing blades, beautiful Princesses and monstrous Beast Foes. But with
John Carter on the red desert wilderness of dying Mars, Burroughs retains
the power to touch the dreams of Every-Reader....
“...and so, in silence, we walked the surface of a dying world...”
- ‘A PRINCESS OF MARS’
He was thirty-five. And a failure.
Edgar Rice Burroughs had tried his hand at pretty much everything, and failed in them all. He was a Storekeeper in Pocatello, Idaho, and a Railroad Cop in Salt Lake city evicting Bums from freight cars. In the days of the American Wild West he’d been a Cow-Puncher wearing inlaid Mexican spurs that clattered as he walked. But he flunked entrance exams to West Point, and instead enlisted in the Seventh U.S. Cavalry - famous for ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody and General Custer. He chased renegade Apache. But never caught any. He was the Gold Miner in Oregon who never made a worthwhile strike and wound up bankrupt. He volunteered for military service in the Cuba confrontation against Spain, and was rejected. Eventually he became a clerk in Chicago, a Department Manager for Sears & Rosebuck & Co.
And at thirty-five, with a wife and two infant sons to support, he was a failure.
The only thing he ever really excelled in was Day-Dreaming. But here he was in a league of his own. In dreams he is the white man brought up by African Jungle Apes. The noble savage forever stumbling across Hidden Empires and Cities of Gold in Forgotten Valleys, Lost Worlds, or even at the Earth’s Core, where beautiful scantily-clad priestesses inevitably fall in love with him, and there are vile adversaries who he always succeeds in vanquishing. Or he’s the lone Earthman “broad of shoulder and narrow of hip” marooned in the beautiful red wasteland of distant Mars. A Soldier of Fortune in an anachronistic world of futuristic science where the low gravity allows him to leap tall buildings at a single bound, and perform feats of strength he’d find impossible in his native world. Invariably there are also beautiful and scantily-clad Martian princesses who - although ovipariously egg-laying, inevitably fall in love with him as he repeatedly rescues them from monstrously hideous beast foes.
Edgar Rice Burroughs could Day-Dream Big-Time. Even the mode of travel ‘across the unthinkable void’ that his hero - John Carter, initially uses to reach dying Mars is purest wish-fulfilment. No spaceship. No matter-transmitter. Just a magical trick of the mind. But Burroughs (ERB) was also a practical dreamer. His approach to selling dream is a hard-edged one. The method he employs to market his first Martian story is in no way significantly different to the way he’d tried - and failed, to run his pencil sharpener dealership. It’s merely the latest in a long line of Get-Rich-Quick scams. He tells Thomas Newell Metcalf - editor of ‘All Story Magazine’, his debut fiction market, that “I wrote this story because I needed the money it might bring, and not from motives of sentiment”. ‘Under The Moons Of Mars’ was to be published under the punning pen-name Normal Bean, but was proof-‘corrected’ to Norman Bean. First serial rights bring less that a third of a cent per word, totalling a much-needed $400. It is February 1912. He works out the mathematics of it carefully. Decides ‘yes, this might just work’. And within two years - even before the first hardcover edition of ‘Tarzan Of The Apes’, he’s earning $20,000 a year from magazine sales alone!
Edgar Rice Burroughs was not a literary man. And his appeal is not literary. His plotting is often inept and repetitious. Day-Dreams, after all, are not subject to the rigours of literary discipline. His grasp on any kind of realism is tenuous. These are, after all, fantasies to escape into. His characters are single-dimensional representations. “Burroughs writes about as well as he can write, which is not well, but very serviceably” according to Brian Aldiss. Yet he touches the element of dream in those who read him.
He was born in Chicago on the 1st September 1875. His first fiction not published until 1912. Yet - as ERB’s biographer Richard A Lupoff points out, “he’s never been out of print since”. And consider this, every week across that long century serious literary journals have acclaimed serious literary novels published by serious literary writers whose skill, depth and subtlety place them totally above and beyond anything attainable by ERB’s meagre grasp of technique. They all met with the brief applause of a bookish coterie of appreciators. And they’re all long forgotten. But Burroughs is still here. Still in print. Still read. Still discussed. Still influencing new, more knowing media contributions - from TV’s ‘Tarzan: The Epic Adventures’ to Michael Moorcock’s continuing fantasies, from John Jake’s ‘Gor’ cycle to the much-anticipated ‘Under The Moons Of Mars’ movie, announced as early as November 1990 with Tom Hanks scoring the lead role. Dark Horse Publications even produced a recent cross-over tie-in ‘Tarzan Versus Predator At The Earth’s Core’ comic-book illustrated by artist Lee Weeks, extending the mythos into realms undeamed-of by Burroughs.
Yet Burroughs did not have a monopoly on marketing pulp dreams. His stories appeared in a spread of down-market magazines strewn across the young decades of the century, ‘All Story’, ‘Argosy’, ‘Amazing Stories’, ‘Blue Book’. They were all dense with wordage and widely circulated. And ERB was writing in direct competition with other flamboyantly named fantasists - famous at the time, Otis Adelbert Kline, A Hyatt Verrill, Ralph Milne Farley (famous for his ‘The Radio Man’ stories), Ray Cummings (of ‘The Girl In The Golden Atom’ fame), and Homer Eon Flint. They all wrote of fantastic exploits on strange worlds of time and space. But beyond the enthusiastic support of diligent SF historians and academics, they’re now unread. And indeed - difficult to read for all but the most determined. While Burroughs remains ludicrously easy to read, despite the occasional anachronistic and clumsy phrasing - a character falls ‘for the dozenth time’ in Pellucidar, there are ‘What-meanest-thou?’s and even a “Thy tongue will yet pierce they heart, son of a slave”. Yet to Stephen King he is “no-one’s candidate for Great World Writer, but a man who understood story values completely”. With ERB you get hooked on formula.
Edgar Rice Burroughs is the man who invented Mars. And a six-part serial called ‘Under The Moons Of Mars’ is where it all begins...
“I opened my eyes upon a strange and weird landscape.
I knew that I was on Mars...” (1)
As a kid I devoured Burroughs’ Martian Romances voraciously, and in no particular order. It was a teenage phase like acne and mutual masturbation. It had all the ingredients I needed. Escape from the squirming pain of reality. Delicious implied sex with unreal idealised women who pout petulently and stamp their dainty little feet, but never menstruate. Deeds of Valour and Planetary Heroism blissfully untroubled by ethical equations or problematic moral complexities. Bestial horror. Landscapes of strange and dreadful beauty. And a vast desolate yearning melancholia. The eventual antidote did not come until ‘Swords Of Mars’ where, on a mission to destroy the Martian Guild of Assassins, John Carter first journeys beyond the Martian biosphere to the tiny moon Phobos. It’s his first trip into space, his first - that is, beyond his mystical astral projection to Mars in the first place. It’s his first real foray into potentially other-worldy environments. He uses a spaceship powered by an ‘artificial brain’ - possibly the first of its kind ever used in SF, operated through telepathic input from its inventor, the Zodangan scientist Fal Sivas. So far so good. And he had mentioned as early as ‘Chessmen Of Mars’ the claimed discovery of human life on the ‘furthest moon’ - Cluros (Diemos). But through the relativistic mumbo-jumbo of a sleight of hand even less convincing than astral projection, Burroughs creates an exact Mars facsimile on ‘Thuria’ (Phobos) - complete with atmosphere, cities and strange beasts, on that tiny sub-asteroidal moonlet! And that was a step more that I was prepared to take. I ditched ERB for decades. Returning now with a confused amusement and grudging enjoyment.
Of course Burroughs’ Mars - or Barsoom, never existed anywhere in time or space. It’s not necessary, or even remotely relevant that it should. He just takes elements and teasing suggestions from what was then-considered orthodox Martian science. He uses the buzz of speculation generated by Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli’s supposed mapping of Martian ‘canalli’ by criss-crossing his Barsoom with fertile Canal zones. He extracts from astronomer Percival Lowell’s ideas whatever bits he finds convenient. The chill dryness of ochre deserts. The creeping deadness of planetary senility. A world of ‘vast silences’. It’s likely he never actually read either Schiaparelli or Lowell first-hand, but picked up scraps of them from other sources. Because they are excuses. Nudges. He does manage occasional insights into science. Hadron of Hastor achieves invisibility by ‘bending light’. And Martian scientist Phor Tak explains that ‘the fundamental principles underlying time, matter and space are identical’ (6). Both are ideas now enjoying some currency value. But their presence in the stories is nothing to do with speculation or reasonable hypothesis. Mars is just a landscape for imagination. A Theme-Park for dream heroics. A Play-Station of fantastic yearnings. Science against Savagery. Beauty against Ugliness. Life against Death.
The mythology may start off by drawing on Burroughs’ real-life Geronimo-chasing exploits in the Arizona desert. But that realism lasts only until page eighteen. From there, John Carter of Virginia is wafted by mystical means, not unconnected with Madame Blavatsky’s then-prevalent Theosophical theories of Out-of-the-Body experiences, across the 48-million-mile gulf of interplanetary space. Mars, the god of war, ‘had always held the power of irresistible enchantment’ for Carter. Now he is attracted there ‘as the lodestone attracts a particle of iron’. Even the normally hyper-rational Patrick Moore admits “I have always admired the delightful simplicity” of this mode of transportation (in ‘Science And Fiction’ - 1957). On Mars Carter immediately finds himself menaced by a fifteen-foot green Martian, four-armed and sharp-tusked. This is Tars Tarkas, Jeddak of Thark.
Barsoom, he discovers, is a world of vast antiquity. Its seas are gone. The ruins of deserted cities are silted by encroaching dust and unending expanses of strange rust-coloured sand. Even the Martian atmosphere is so thin it has to be manufactured by the Red Men of Barsoom in their Atmosphere Factory. But in this world of savage landscapes a phantasmagoria of barbarous tribes with a preposterous menagerie of attendant creatures fight an endless war for survival. Across the Dead Sea Bottoms. Beneath the hurtling moons. Across its desiccated polar caps. Burroughs’ Martian history and natural history are vivid, and vividly described. The civilised Red Men live in the twin cities of Helium, or in Gathol and Ptarth. They have radium pistols and airships powered by the mysterious ‘Eighth Ray’, but prefer to fight with swords. Green Men roam the Dead Ocean Floors. In Okar there are Yellow Men who hunt wild Apts and Siths. Beyond the Golden Cliffs of the Otz Mountains there are the Black and White Elder races of Mars. Then there are Black Pirates on the underground sea of Omean, the Fair Race of Lothar protected by their phantom Bowmen, the cannibals of U-Gor, and even a race of headless humans ridden like steeds by a race of bodiless heads. The richly detailed decline of the sophisticated Martian civilisation of 100,000 years ago, into jewelled barbarism, and the exotic terrain in which it happens become luminous with only the slight addition of imagination.
On Mars ‘the sullen palaces of forgotten Aaanthor’ are ‘mystery-haunted’ and wistfully macabre, described in the language of full Gothic symbolism. One of the ‘deserted cities that fringe the sad ochre sea-bottoms’, a mute monument ‘of Mars dead and forgotten past’, it comes illuminated in Poe’s lavish diseased romanticism, “countless dismal windows, vacant and forlorn, stare sightless from their marble walls; the whole sad city taking on the semblance of scattered mounds of dead men’s sun-bleached skulls - the casements having the appearance of eye sockets, the portals, grinning jaws” (4). Shallow? - yes. Obvious? Sure. But it resonates.
Others might have been there before John Carter. The eponymous hero of Edwin Lester Arnold’s 1905 novel ‘Lieut Gulliver Jones: His Vacation’ travels a similarly decadent Mars threatened by look-alike brutish ape-oids called the Ar-Hap. But this Mars will forever belong to Burroughs. As the first-person narrative of the first novel closes, after John Carter has led a horde of 150,000 Green warriors to destroy and loot Zodanga to free Dejah Thoris from an unwelcome marriage commitment to Than Kosis, and liberate besieged Helium, the fate of Mars depends on his telepathic ability to use ‘nine thought waves’ to unseal the ‘frowning portals’ giving access to the Air Manufacturing Plant. A sequel, and a sequel to that sequel are already apparent. ‘The Gods Of Mars’ inevitably follows with Carter trashing the infernal Cult of the Holy Therns, a corrupt race descended from the once-dominant Orovars (from whom all Martian science is inherited), who are preyed upon, in turn, by their Living Goddess of Death, Issus. A young Michael Moorcock acknowledges his debt to E.R. Burroughs in a feature run in ‘Tarzan Adventures Vol.8 no.12’ (21st June 1958). Reviewing a reprint of ‘Gods Of Mars’ through an alias, he writes that “the action never faulters (sic), the plot never falls down - and John Carter is always in the thick of things - his trusty sword out as he battles plant-men, Therns, the handsome First Born and sundry other enemies who happen to get in his way. Tars Tarkas the Thark, John Carter’s greatest friend, is back, fighting savagely and chivalrously by his ally’s side” all the way from Helium to the ‘impregnable fastness’ of the South Polar Otz Mountains ringing the Valley Dor - domain of plantmen, and the genuinely chilling descent into the subterranean depths of the Buried Sea of Korus. Again there’s a cliff-hanger climax of ‘movie serial intensity’. After a huge air-borne battle Dejah Thoris is trapped in a revolving subterranean chamber with the murderous Phaidor, with Carter unable to learn the outcome for the full Martian year it will take for the chamber to complete its rotation, and re-open. The story resumes in ‘Warlord Of Mars’ - written in just thirty-one days. Now Carter pursues Matai Shang, renegade Father of Therns, and Thurid, Black Dator of the First Born - who have kidnapped Dejah Thoris, through the remote Kaolian jungle and the Carrion Caves to the North Polar domain of Okar, with its solar-powered city protected by its ‘Magnetic Shaft’. By the novel’s close John Carter has become Warlord of Barsoom. Jeddak of Jeddaks. By his side is ‘the incomparable’ Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium. And here lies all the dreaming certainty of heroic fantasy. Here lie the seeds that ignite dreams - and careers, for future generations of writers.
“beneath the glorious effulgence of the two moons the scene
was one of indescribable loveliness, tinged with the weirdness
of strange enchantment...” (4)
I was a fucked-up socially dysfunctional adolescent, with terminally life-threatening acne and an attitude problem when I picked up a battered copy of ‘Thuvia, Maid Of Mars’, from a junk-piled outdoor jumble sale at Sandsend-on-Sea. It was probably 1965. Summer holidays, tarmac-melting hot. And Thuvia was a rich narcotic. Burroughs fourth Martian excursion switches its focal point from John Carter, to Carthoris. The son that Dejah Thoris had, presumably ‘laid’ (she’s oviparous, remember?), in the second Martian novel. I didn’t know that then. I read them out-of-sequence. But Thuvia is a former slave of the Therns, who turns out to be a lost Princess of Ptarth. Carthoris is framed for Thuvia’s abduction, bringing the Red Nations to the brink of war, but he tracks her down and rescues her - twice, from Lothar, a city of ghosts where Phantom Bowmen kill ‘by the power of suggestion’, and the all-male Etherialists debate what does and does not constitute reality. After which Carthoris naturally wins her hand. It is not exceptional Burroughs. It’s not even great Burroughs. But it is a Mars that aches with desolation. A Mars precisely attuned to fucked-up socially dysfunctional adolescents out-of-step with reality. Critic Sam Moskowitz acknowledges Lit-crit attacks that Burroughs’ “plots are repetitious, his prose construction often hasty, with an overwhelming emphasis on action and violence, and the fact that some of his novels seem to be a pointless procession of incident rather than a completely co-ordinated whole.” Well - yes, yes, and yes. But in Burroughs’ dreamful confabulations of flashing blades and radium pistols, dark airships in alien skies, and beautiful princesses in love-feud triangles, lie the seeds of the poorly visualised ‘Flash Gordon’ serials, and eventually, by causal reactions, to the ‘Star Wars’ movies - by way of imitator Edmond Hamilton (who introduces a ‘light-sword’ into his 1933 ERB-ian ‘Kaldar, World of Antares’) and Leigh Brackett, whose own Martian fantasies lead to direct screenplay work on the first part of the George Lucas trilogy. And that’s just one Family Tree. There are others. Moorcock. Ray Bradbury. Frederick Pohl...
Burroughs started writing ‘The Master Mind Of Mars’ on 8th June 1925 as the result of a specific commission from Hugo Gernsback of ‘Amazing Stories’. It was intended to launch Gernsback’s new ‘Amazing Stories Annual’ project, the first (and only) issue of which subsequently came emblazoned with Burroughs’ name in huge yellow inch-high letters, bigger than the magazine logo. It was also luminously dressed in a garish scene from the story which artist Frank R Paul sets in the vile laboratory of Ras Thaval of Toonol, where he’s seen transplanting the brain of the hideous Xaxa, Jeddera of Phundahl, into the beautiful and minimally draped young body of Princess Valla Dia. Frederick Pohl was ten years old when he first came across an issue, and “the cover enslaved me before I turned a page. I couldn’t wait to read it; having read it, at once read it again; having all but memorised it, attained the wisdom to go looking for more. I found more” (‘The Way The Future Was’ - 1979). Phudahl’s reigion offers Burroughs the opportunity for some neat Creationist satire. But the young Pohl would have been more intrigued to read how the thousand-year-old scientist’s sinister schemes are thwarted by Vad Varo. How Varo turns out to be a reincarnated American called Ulysses Paxton, who’d died in the trenches of World War I France before joining Carter’s exploits of other-worldly derring-do on the Red Planet. And how Valla Dia began as Case No. 4296-E-2631-H, but wound up as Mrs Ulysses Paxton.
As befits Gernsback’s greater SF-orientation ‘Master Mind’ is full of super-science, yet is also more thoughtful than its predecessors, with analysis verging on philosophy. Yet while Burroughs’ final novels moderate his philosophical enthusiasm for heroic warfare and ‘Nature red in tooth and claw’, ‘Master Mind Of Mars’ finds its purest expression. Martian Mu Tol rationalises that “War is nature’s natural state”, it curtails overpopulation and is infinitely preferable to death through disease or senility. “Peace” he explains “should be considered only as a time for preparation for the principle business of man’s existence.” Which is War. Burroughs even nudges such attitudes out of his fictional fantasia-worlds into that most wretched of conflicts in the muddy trenches of World War I when Paxton eulogises how “I loved the bursting shells, the mad, wild chaos of the thundering guns.” It’s an adolescent concept of chivalrous valour in which - as with the Hormad ‘Synthetic Men’ of the later novel, limbs get lopped off and there’s even decapitation, but the severed heads merely continue arguing grouchily. No-one gets hurt. It’s merely a glorious game. A play-war.
Both Carter and Vad Varo are alluded to in ‘Synthetic Men Of Mars’, a novel narrated by Martian Vor Daj, who gets his brain switched by crazy old organ transplanter Ras Thavas, as does his companion Hovan Du, a Barsoomian Great White Ape with a transplanted half-human brain! It also adapts a plot hook recycled from Burroughs 1913 novel ‘The Moster Men’ (serialised as ‘Man Without A Soul’), and although often dismissed as minor Burroughs, the chapter “The End Of Two Worlds” - greatly affected me on first reading. “The desolate wastes of the Great Toonolian Marshes over which we passed that night took on a strange, weird beauty and added mystery in the darkness. Their waters reflected the myriad stars which the thin air of Mars reveals, and the passing moons were reflected back from the still lagoons or touched the rocky islets with a soft radiance that transformed them into isles of enchantment.” In this mood of melancholia Carter muses how Earth will one day also be a dying world of dead oceans, when Earth, like Mars, will “hurtle on through all eternity peopled by not even a memory of its past grandeur”. I eagerly went on to read ‘A Fighting Man Of Mars’ which describes Tan Hadron of Hastor’s quest to find Sanoma Tora, kidnapped by tyrant Tul Axtar of Jahar who is breeding a vast army and devising secret disintegrating ray weapons for the conquest of all Barsoom. Hadron faces a giant underground lizard, an attack by twelve-legged spiders, and the Human Spider of Ghasta in his city of deliberate deformity, after which Hadron gets to use a ‘Cloak of Invisibility’ before rejecting the hand of a princess, in favour of Tavia, a slave. She turns out to be a princess anyway.
And on... until ‘Swords Of Mars’.
Burroughs is the man who invented Mars. He began with Mars. And he returned there with precise regularity throughout his writing career. He wrote ‘The Chessmen Of Mars’ over ten months during 1921. The longest span of time he ever allotted to a single work. By then he’d complexified the mythology and genealogy of Mars further. Carthoris has a sister, the strong-willed Tara, whose song mesmerises the Kaldane and whose beauty can charm the savage Banth. When she becomes lost in a storm she’s rescued by Gahan of Gathol and Ghek the Kaldane, who together face the perils of Manator, a city of ghoulish taxidermy where ‘Jetan’ - Martian Chess, is played to the death with living pieces on a board of 100 alternating black and orange squares (and where Ghek’s conveniently detachable head allows him to independently explore the subterranean rat-warrens). Burroughs develops the rules and characters of Jetan obsessively, extending it into a long detailed appendix. Then, by the time of ‘Llana Of Gathol’ the ageless John Carter has a grand-daughter. He encounters the ancient mariners of Mars on the Lost Sea of Korus. Then he briefly returns to Earth to visit ‘Burroughs’, who has been chronicling his exploits for terrestrial readers. Burroughs is depicted as now old and ill. Carter, by implication, will continue. He will outlive his creator. In that, at least, Burroughs prediction is unerringly accurate.
“gently they drifted beneath the hurtling moons
above the mad shadows of a Martian night...” (5)
Tom Hanks as John Carter? Well - with reservations, perhaps. For Carter is no mere muscle-bound Schwarzeneggar superman. True, he’s the mightiest swordsman on Mars. But just as important is his unswerving loyalty, his implacable sense of fairness, and his gift for friendship. All Burroughs’ heroes share these characteristics. But none more so than John Carter. His is an uncomplicated honesty which inspires love in beautiful women, and dedication in his followers. He has the ability to see elements of humanity ‘far above racial distinctions, creed or religion’ beyond even the most hideous of exteriors, turning ferocious foes into the firmest of allies. He’s able to forge bonds of comradeship in the bleakest and most hopeless of situations. No matter how dire the predicament he can always finds someone with whom to share common cause, be it Woola his faithful Martian hound, Tars Tarkus, Xodar the First Born, or Talu of the Yellow Men. He triumphs “by the might of my sword, and the loyalty of the friends my sword has made for me” (3). Just possibly Tom Hanks has the qualities to capture something of this naive heroism.
Florid and scientifically inexact to a ludicrous degree, but effortlessly entertaining, Burroughs intellectually undemanding but fiercely plot-driven tales have always been ideal source matter for cross-media exploitation, and he was astute enough to take full advantage of whatever newspaper syndication, radio, cartoon, Movie opportunities or indeed - Bubblegum card editions, came his way, seldom quibbling over the minutia of interpretation. He’d have had no problems with video-game or Virtual Reality programs based on his tales, and ‘Tarzan’ made instant transition into every marketable form then available. One very important access point to the juvenile mind lay through the seductive lure of comic-books. And in 1941 ERB’s son John Coleman Burroughs turned John Carter into a newspaper picture-strip. A little later Dell published a series of three comic-book adaptations of the first three Martian novels (January 1952 to August 1953), while Marvel went one better. From June 1977 script-writer Marvin Wolfman and artist Gil Kane collaborated to fabricate exploits into a nine-year gap that occurs in Chapter 27 of ‘A Princess Of Mars’. Inevitably there have been other visualisations. As a kid I read a fairly accurate picture-strip serial in a modest little British comic called ‘Sun’ based on Carter’s first exploits on Barsoom. It prepared me quite adequately for my first encounter with Thuvia, Maid of Mars, all those years later in Sandsend-on-Sea...
“then the moons come, the mysterious magic moons of Mars,
hurtling like monster meteors low across the face of the planet...” (2)
Mars is dead. We know that. No-one even draws ‘chanelli’ - let alone canals on its surface anymore. Meteoric fossil ALH 84002 may, or may not indicate that microscopic bacterial spores of life existed there briefly. And that millions of years ago. Long before even the height of the Orovan civilisation. “I’d rather have a strange planet, with Warlords riding Thoats. Or is it Zitidars?” says Hugh, in Robert A Heinlein’s ‘Farnham’s Freehold’. But there are no Green Men. No twin cities. No eight-legged footprints left in that ochre sand by - yes, Hugh was right first time, telepathically-controlled Thoats.
Not that it matters. Like John Carter, like Ulysses Paxton, it’s still possible to gaze with strange yearning at ‘the red eye of the great star’ Mars, and be imaginatively drawn there ‘as a lodestone attracts a particle of iron’. Drawn across distances greater than the 48-million-mile gulfs of space, but also no distance at all. Just across the event horizon into your skull. All that’s required in the strength to dream.
Edgar Rice Burroughs is the man who invented Mars. ‘The Skeleton Men Of Jupiter’ was intended as the basis for his eleventh Barsoomian novel. For even as late as 1943 he was not done with what Ulysses Paxton calls ‘those marvellous and as yet unappreciated contributions to the scientific literature of the world’. Barsoom was still an on-going project. Stylistically departing from the normal first-person narrative it relates John Carter’s more successful foray beyond the Martian biosphere. It was eventually published posthumously - as part of the compilation volume ‘John Carter Of Mars’. A last volume which also includes ‘The Giants Of Mars’ predominantly written by John Coleman Burroughs, further extending the mythos by fleshing out his father’s original plot idea.
The first three Mars novels form an interconnected internally consistent cycle. A precise trilogy. The third of them - ‘The Warlord Of Mars’, was completed on the 8th July 1913. Perhaps it would be better for posterity, and for his reputation as a writer if Burroughs had left it there. But of course, he didn’t. He was a romantic fantasist. He wrote. And sometimes he over-wrote. And his was his own unique vision. The constellation of imitators dragged along by his slipstream have less justification. While Europe took the scientific and technological rationalism of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne as models, ERB’s unfortunate effect was to jolt the evolution of American SF off into an intellectually impoverished La-la-land that would feed the pulp magazines Swords, Scantily-Clad Princesses and Lost Worlds for a decade, and beyond, stunting its growth, regressing it off into a long-delayed adolescence located back before the onset of those first downy wisps of pubic hair. Critic Sam J Lundwall protests that “he (Burroughs) never should have seen print at all and his books should be banned in every library ever frequented by people under the age of fifteen years”. Which is precisely the target audience best suited to ERB. The pulps Burroughs wrote for were the kind of disreputable trash that parents and teachers disapproved of. They made mush of your brains and putty of your intellect. ‘Why not read PROPER books?’ they’d protest. But Men bought them at Dime-Stores and shoved them in their truck-cabs to read at lunch-break. Kids bought them furtively and hid them under the bed. In England you found them in slightly squalid back-street novelty shops that smelled of musty decay. They were not read by the literate, or the literary. But Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Science Fantasies touched the pulse of everyday dream.
He was a conjuror of fantastic dreams and magnificent heroes. Richard A Lupoff calls Burroughs a ‘legitimate folk-author’, and that gets him to rights. He survived “for half a century not only without the support of the critical or academic community, but in the face of these communities’ adamant condemnation”. To Donald A Wollheim “he was not a very grand philosopher. He did not venture into deep science or propose grandiose schemes for social development. He sought to entertain, and in so doing created marvels that caught the mind of the world and still do. It counts.”
It does. To me, these are lessons worth the learning.
Eight years after selling his first story Edgar Rice Burroughs was able to buy the rolling acres of a former Press Baron’s palace near Los Angeles. An area now the hub of a suburb named ‘Tarzana’ after his most famous creation. He’d swung with Tarzan, high above the world to fame and fortune. It was ERB’s final and ultimate escape from the world of lousy jobs and failed Get-Rich-Quick schemes.
EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS’ MARTIAN BOOKS
(1) ‘A PRINCESS OF MARS’ (‘All-Story Magazine’ Feb to July 1912,
first book publication 1917)
(2) ‘THE GODS OF MARS’ (‘All-Story Magazine’ Jan to May 1913,
first book publication 1918)
(3) ‘THE WARLORD OF MARS’ (‘All-Story Magazine’ Dec 1913 to March 1914,
first book publication 1919)
(4) ‘THUVIA, MAID OF MARS’ (with ‘A Glossary of Names and Terms used in the Martian Books’) (‘All-Story Cavalier’ April 8th to 22nd 1916, first book publication 1920)
(5) ‘THE CHESSMEN OF MARS’ (‘All Story’ 18th Feb to 2nd April 1922,
first book publication 1922)
(6) ‘THE MASTER MIND OF MARS’ (‘Amazing Stories’ July 1927,
first book publication 1928)
(7) ‘A FIGHTING MAN OF MARS’ (‘Blue Book’ April to Sept 1930,
first hardback edition 1931)
(8) ‘SWORDS OF MARS’ (‘Blue Book’ Nov 1934 to April 1935,
first hardback edition 1936)
(9) ‘SYNTHETIC MEN OF MARS’ (‘Argosy’ 7th Jan to 11th Feb 1939,
first hardback edition 1940 / UK May 1941)
(10) ‘LLANA OF GATHOL’ (consists of:-
‘THE FROZEN MEN OF MARS’ ‘Amazing Stories’ March 1941
‘BLACK PIRATES OF BARSOOM’ ‘Amazing Stories’ June 1941
‘ESCAPE ON MARS’ ‘Amazing Stories’ August 1941
‘INVISIBLE MEN OF MARS’ ‘Amazing Stories’ October 1941
First hardback edition 1948)
(11) ‘JOHN CARTER OF MARS’ (consists of ‘JOHN CARTER AND THE GIANTS OF
MARS’ ‘Amazing Stories’ January 1941
‘SKELETON MEN OF JUPITER’ ‘Amazing Stories’ February 1943
First hardback edition 1964)
Other texts used in researching this feature include ‘EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS: THE MAN WHO CREATED TARZAN’ by IRWIN PORGES (Ballantine Books - 1975) and ‘EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS: MASTER OF ADVENTURE’ by RICHARD A LUPOFF (Ace Books - 1965)
‘FANTASY COMMENTATOR no.53 / 54: Double Issue’
(USA - Winter 2001 / 2002)