Friday, July 25, 2014


                                                   by Fred Blosser   
If you’re a pulp fan, you’d buy a novel called “Tarzan vs. Frankenstein on the Island of Dr. Moreau” in a heartbeat, wouldn’t you?  If you’re not necessarily a pulp fan, you’re surely curious about the mash-up, at least.  If you’re an Edgar Rice Burroughs enthusiast, you probably know where this is going.  

One of seven magazine novels produced by Burroughs in a white-hot creative frenzy in 1913, “A Man without a Soul” is better known to later readers under its hardcover and paperback title, “The Monster Men.”  “Man, monster, or jungle god?” asks the blurb inside the 1963 Ace Books softcover.  This edition, cover art by Frazetta, cover price of 40 cents, was one of the torrent of Burroughs reprints that poured out of Ace, Ballantine, Canaveral Press, and Dover during the upswing of the ERB revival 50 years ago.

Dr. Arthur Maxon, a visionary scientist (Burroughs calls him a biologist, today he’d be termed a biochemist, I imagine), has discovered but not perfected the science of creating artificial human life in chemical vats.  Initially deciding to abandon his studies and seek rest after a grueling series of false starts, he books an ocean voyage with his virginal twenty-ish daughter Virginia.  Then his mania returns and he alights on a jungle island off Borneo.  There, setting up a laboratory and enlisting a new assistant, Von Horn, who has designs on Virginia, he resumes his experiments.

Frustratingly, he finds little more success than he achieved in the States.  He manufactures twelve specimens in crudely human form, physically powerful but misshapen and mentally deficient.  He keeps them hidden from Virginia, and Von Horn keeps them under control with a bullwhip, just as Dr. Moreau kept his own unholy creations in line in the H.G. Wells novel.  Undeterred by the new disappointments, Maxon prepares to formulate Number Thirteen. Next day, he and Von Horn find the chemical vat shattered, and a stranger turns up, a muscular, handsome young man in appearance, but inarticulate: who or what else could he be but Number Thirteen?

Von Horn decides to kidnap Virginia with the help of Malay henchmen who, in turn, plan to double cross him and sell her to a Malayan pirate chief, Muda Saffir.  To the rescue, plunging into a waiting gauntlet of pirates, headhunters, and orangutans, leading his crew of grotesque predecessors -- Number Thirteen, renamed Bulan by the awestruck headhunters “in view of his wonderful fighting ability.”

As even this brief summary suggests, the tale is constructed on a series of plot devices (I suppose hard-hearted critics would say “contrivances”) that Burroughs later used time and again in his fiction.  There’s the stalwart, nearly naked jungle hero; the brilliant but naive father, the devoted but spunky daughter, and their duplicitous associate with a shady past (the kind of character Arthur Kennedy played so convincingly in the movies); somebody with amnesia; a case of mistaken identity; an Edwardian-era class line (in this case, a more troublesome demarcation seemingly between human and non-human) that separates two lovers who obviously are meant for each other; and a rumored treasure that also incites the bad guys.  You can play endless rounds of Mad Libs by leaving the names blank and filling in with those from almost any later Tarzan novel.

Of course, in 1913, when only the first two Tarzan novels had been published, and the first Tarzan movie was still five years away, these elements would have been a little fresher for ERB’s pulp magazine audience, and if you love Burroughs as many of us do, who cares anyway?  This seemed to be a time of experimentation for ERB, much like Dr. Maxon’s own trial-and-error, when he realized that he had a hit with Tarzan and appeared to be investigating whether he could jumpstart other jungle heroes with equal success.  “The Cave Girl,” also set in the South China Sea, whose hero is called Thandar, was another product from 1913.  Maybe he decided he had greater potential for a series with Tarzan, or maybe having taken Bulan and Thandar to a natural stopping point, there wasn’t any farther to go with them.

I was one of those who read the Ace paperback as a kid, and after some 50 years, I vividly remembered the scene where Bulan and the Monster Men swarm onto a canoe crammed with headhunters:  

“For several minutes that long, hollowed log was a veritable floating hell of savage, screaming men locked in deadly battle. The sharp parangs of the head hunters were no match for the superhuman muscles of the creatures that battered them about; now lifting one high above his fellows and using the body as a club to beat down those nearby; again snapping an arm or leg as one might break a pipe stem; or hurling a living antagonist headlong above the heads of his fellows to the dark waters of the river. And above them all in the thickest of the fight, towering even above his own giants, rose the mighty figure of the terrible white man, whose very presence wrought havoc with the valor of the brown warriors.”  

Holy cow, it doesn’t get much better than that.  No wonder it made such an impression on me as a 12-year-old.  This is the same immediacy, violence, and sensory immersion that today’s moviemakers achieve with the help of modern CGI and kinetic editing -- and it’s in a pulp novel written a hundred years ago.  You might snidely fault Burroughs for describing his hero as a “white man,” but surveying modern action movies, where the hero might be played by Denzel Washington or Idris Elba, but the villains are more likely than not to be Middle Eastern, Hispanic, Asian, or Slavic, can we say that popular entertainment is much more enlightened in 2014?  Only a little more subtle about pandering to xenophobia.

It was instructive to go back recently and re-read the book with an adult perspective.  It’s apparent that ERB was still honing his craft in his second hectic year as a professional writer.  The build-up through the first two chapters is rather slow -- not dull, but there isn’t much in the way of action as characters are introduced and conflicts are foreshadowed.  The middle portion moves at a good pace as the chase begins and ERB employs his frequent structure of cutting back and forth between different groups of characters.  He leaves one group at the mercy of a cliffhanger as he suddenly transitions to parallel action by another group.  Then, putting the next set of characters in danger from a different threat, he goes back to resolve the earlier cliffhanger.  

The final three chapters downshift gears again as Burroughs resolves -- mostly through dialogue and exposition -- the two main characters’ romantic dilemma: although Virginia falls in love with Bulan, can they establish a relationship when he’s not only uncivilized by conventional standards, he’s not even human?  The problem may still seem surprisingly compelling for today’s readers of romantic fantasy fiction, who worry that the teenage human girl will never get together with the teenage vampire boy.  But today’s reader is likely to expect that the resolution will be better paced.  Burroughs himself improved his story construction as he gained more experience and practice, so that the beginning, middle, and end all had plenty of action.  The tradeoff was that, even if his later novels technically are more proficient, they largely lack the energy that charges “The Monster Men.” 

Some readers believe that Burroughs cheated with the resolution he devised, but for me, not a problem.  He plants a clue early on, and unlike today’s romantic readers who don’t care whether Edward is a vampire or Jacob is a werewolf, Burroughs surely knew what his 1913 escapist audience would accept and what they wouldn’t.

One of the characters is an excitable Chinese cook, Sing Lee, who talks in patois.  ("Him live. Gettem lilee flesh wounds. Las all.")  He turns out to be brave, resourceful, and shrewder than the white guys realize.  Even at face value, he isn’t much more outrageous a caricature than the comic relief characters written by Chinese scriptwriters and broadly played by Chinese actors in Jackie Chan’s and Stephen Chow’s Hong Kong action comedies today.

Like Frankenstein’s monster, Maxon’s creations pathetically realize that they are outcasts.  Instead of being enraged about their situation, like the creation in Mary Shelley’s allegorical novel, they are resigned to it: “it would be better were we to keep forever from the sight of men.”  Here ERB anticipates Boris Karloff’s and James Whale’s sympathetic treatment in “The Bride of Frankenstein” (1935), in which the creature moans, “We belong dead” after he is spurned by his intended mate.  In a weirdly kinky scene, the Monster Men decide they’re better off finding sexual partners among female orangutans (“I see a beautiful one yonder now.  I am going after her”),  provoking a bloody fight with the male apes.  Burroughs lifted ideas from other writers, but they were usually the greats (Twain, Swift, Verne, Anthony Hope), and he rarely did so without giving them his own thoughtful inflection.

Burroughs apparently liked the basic premise of artificial life and used it again 25 years later in the ninth book in the John Carter series, “Synthetic Men of Mars.”  That novel doesn’t get a lot of love from ERB fans like Richard Lupoff, but I think it’s one of Burroughs’ more inspired efforts.  Going “The Monster Men” one better, the dashing hero undergoes a brain transplant so that he can infiltrate an enemy city and save his sweetheart; he spends most of the novel in the body of a lumbering, Quasimodo-ugly synthetic man, and wonders whether he’ll ever get back into his own body.

There are reports of a new Tarzan movie in the works.  I wish they’d tackle “The Monster Men” instead.  I suppose the failure of “John Carter” makes it unlikely that Hollywood will ever try an untested Burroughs character again, but maybe they could call it “Tarzan  vs. Frankenstein on the Island of Dr. Moreau.”

1 comment:

Dan said...

I think I was 14 or 15 when I rad a review of this book in CASTLE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Anyway, I took the dollar that was my capital at the time, rode the bus downtown to the local paperback store, got my copy for a quarter, loaded up on some candy bars & went back home to settle down for a pleasant time that (as you can see) I remember some 50 years later.

And by the way, I revisited THE MONSTER MEN recently and had just as much fun!