Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Temple (1925) by H. P. Lovecraft

   The Temple is one of Lovecraft's most underrated stories. The great Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi wrote of it; "It is marred by somewhat clumsy and obvious satire against the German protagonist of the tale, and also by a plethora of supernatural details that do not seem to fuse into any unity; but its portrayal of the narrator's gradual descent into madness is powerful." Joshi was right about the portrayal of the protagonists' growing madness as well as the over-the-top satire. He was wrong about the supernatural details not fusing together. As far as I can tell, this seems to be one of the very rare times that Joshi just doesn't get whats going on in a Lovecraft story.
   Karl Heinrich Von Altberg-Ehrenstein is the lieutenant-commander in charge of the submarine U-29. After callously sinking the SS Victory, as well as its lifeboats, the U-29 surfaces with the dead body of one of the Victory's crew clinging to it. A small ivory head is found in the corpses pocket and is kept by one of the U-29's officers.
   Later, members of the crew become ill and some start to have delusions. They report seeing the dead corpses from the Victory staring in at them from the portholes. Karl Heinrich, being kind of a hard-ass, takes "drastic steps." Then there is an explosion in the engine room that cripples the submarine, leaving it only able to surface and dive. On sighting a U. S. ship, many members of the crew beg to be allowed to surrender. Sadly, they asked the wrong iron-willed German. Karl Heinrich has these traitors executed.
   Soon the ballast tanks bust and the submarine sinks to the bottom of the ocean. The remaining crewmen attempt mutiny. They damage some instruments but are killed by Heinrich. The only remaining crewman is Lieutenant Klenze, the officer with the small ivory head, and he is slowly going insane.
   At this time the U-29 is drifting while surrounded by dolphins. These dolphins should not be able to survive at such depths. The dolphins continue to press closely about the submarine, never going to the surface to breathe as they should.
   Soon Klenze is completely mad, claiming that "He is calling! He is calling!" Klenze desperately wants to leave the submarine, despite being at the bottom of the sea. Karl Heinrich agrees to operate the airlock for Klenze, sending him to his doom. Heinrich, alone now, drifts for a couple more days until the U-29 settles on the ocean floor. Through the porthole he is astounded to see the remains of an ancient city, perhaps Atlantis itself. Heinrich can see what seems to be an ornate building that he judges to be a temple. He even takes out a diving suit to examine the outside of the temple more closely.
   During the next couple days, as the battery power of the submarine slowly drains, he finds that he is suffering his own hallucinations. He seems to see flickering light coming from the temple and hear a beautiful choral hymn. He slips into his diving suit, leaves a record of events in a bottle (later found off the coast of Yucatan) and goes willingly into the temple.
   The supernatural events actually do make sense. The head found on the sailor probably was a likeness of the god of the temple, though that is just a guess. Perhaps the sailor was even a latter-day worshipper. Whatever force is in the temple seems to have the power to reanimate and control the dead. The crew of the U-29 actually did see those corpses peering in from the portholes, though I believe that the power in the temple also drove the crew insane. The dolphins were probably also dead and under the temple powers' control, that is why they never surfaced for air. They seem to have been guiding the U-29 to the sunken city, which is where the power of the temple wanted it to go. Finally, it lures Karl Heinrich inside, most assuredly to his well-deserved death.
   The best thing about the story is its truly haunting atmosphere and creeping suspense. Far from being a minor story, it is really one of Lovecraft's best early efforts. It can be found in The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories from Penguin and Dagon and Other Macabre Tales from Arkham House.


Wednesday, May 22, 2013

She (1887) by H. Rider Haggard

   H. Rider Haggard created one of the 19th century's most memorable characters with Ayesha, the horribly beautiful, tyrannical "She-who-must-be-obeyed" of this action classic. Ayesha was an immortal sorceress who ruled a degenerate lost civilization in Africa. With just a look at her face any man would be enslaved, and she had the ghastly power to kill with a glance. She had been waiting for hundreds of years for the reincarnation of her murdered lover to come back to her. This might seem a lot to ask, as She was the one who murdered him, but She knew he would come someday. That would be a dark day, for then She would leave with him for the outside world, and with her horrible power she could rule nations.
   The story begins with Horace Holly, a Cambridge College student who has the misfortune of looking like a neanderthal, receiving a visit from a dying friend, Vincey. This man asks Holly to take charge of his son Leo after he dies, and also follow some peculiar instruction's in his will. Holly, despite fearing for his friend's sanity, agrees. Soon Vincey is dead and Leo is growing up with Holly.
   When Leo is twenty-five, following the instructions of his dead friend, Holly gives Leo a mysterious casket to open. Leo unlocks it to discover ancient scrolls, a fragment of pottery called 'The Sherd of Amenartas' that is marked with many inscriptions and a letter from his dead father. It turns out that Leo is a descendant of Kallikrates, a greek priest of Isis who was murdered by a sorceress in a jealous rage. Kallikrates' wife escapes her wrath and lives to pass the story down to her son. The Sherd of Amentartus has been passed down from generation to generation of Leo's family, telling the story, and also revealing that the sorceress has the secret of eternal life. Leo decides to seek the truth of the story, and if possible, the secret of immortality. Holly thinks it is all nonsense but agrees to go along on the chance of shooting some animals in Africa. They are joined by Job, a rather typical example of the 19th century stock character of the loyal servant.
   After many trials and tribulations, including a shipwreck, they manage to encounter the Amahagger; savage natives that are under the rule of Ayesha. After some rather dangerous episodes with the Amahagger, including a viscous battle in which Leo is seriously injured, they are brought to Kor; the ancient ruins of a city where Ayesha dwells.
   Ayesha, appropriately enough considering her character, lives in a hollowed out mountain tomb filled with the corpses of a dead civilization. Here She has lived for hundreds of years, ruling the degenerate Amahagger. Swathed from head to foot in wrappings, her face covered with a veil, She is mysterious and terrible, her immortality and vast knowledge separating her from humanity. She uncovers her face for Holly, for whom She has grown fond, and he falls helplessly in love with her. Then she sees Leo, who has been recovering from his injuries, and is shocked to discover that he is the very man She has been waiting for. She plans on making him immortal too, and for them to leave for the outside world and eventually rule it. I will not mention the rest, as most people probably have not read it yet, and I have no wish to spoil it.
   The novel is a solid lost-world story as well as one of the greatest of Haggard's works. It is the character of Ayesha though that marks it as an immortal classic. There has been much debate on what inspired the Victorian Haggard to create such a powerful female character. The true genius of Ayesha is her complexity. She is not a complete villain despite the terrible things She has done, and by the end (and the ending is one of the most brilliantly ghastly ever written) one can sympathize with her.
   The novel is marred by some rather ugly anti-semitism on Holly's part, that sadly can be read as Haggard's own. It can be disconcerting how free the Victorians could express their bigotry. That said, it remains a great adventure novel that I highly recommend.


Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Shadow Kingdom (1929) by Robert E. Howard

   The Shadow Kingdom is considered by many to be the first modern Sword and Sorcery tale. It was the first published story about King Kull, an Atlantean renegade who became king of the prehistoric kingdom of Valusia. The Kull tales were Howard's first attempts to create a fully-realised fantasy world and it was from Kull's Pre-Cataclysmic Age that Conan's Hyborian age was born.
   Despite their similar occupations, Kull was a vastly different character than Conan. Kull was a brooder, constantly preoccupied by dark thoughts regarding the nature of reality. Having fought hard to win the kingship, he was rather uncomfortable and distrusting on the throne (with good reason as it turns out). In stark contrast to Conan, Kull did not have the least interest in women. Kull, perhaps mentally battered by a hard life, was a loner. His world was dark and shadowy, with a much murkier feel than the later Hyborian Age.
   The Shadow Kingdom begins with a finely written parade of Kull's army. It brilliantly introduces Kull's kingdom and his place in it. Later, Kull receives a message from Ka-nu, the Pictish ambassador, requesting that Kull meet him alone later that night. Kull, being a distrustful sort, taunts Brule, the bearer of the message. It seems that Atlanteans and Picts are tribal enemies, so the two share an immediate dislike. Despite that, Kull agrees to go.
   Kull finds Ka-nu feasting, hanging out with Pictish ladies and having a fine time. He gets right down to business though and warns Kull that his life and his very kingdom are in great jeopardy. He does not reveal what the danger is, but he promises to send a warrior later that night who will reveal the danger to him and provide definite proof.
   Of course the warrior is none other than Brule. Brule leads Kull into a secret passage that Kull was completely unaware of, and there shows Kull the unconscious bodies of guardsmen whom Kull had just seen moments before outside his door. Soon Kull learns the terrible truth, his palace has been infiltrated by evil Serpent Men; ghastly creatures that can magically take the form of anybody they wish. It seems that these Serpent Men have been hanging out in Valusia for years, often killing kings and taking their place. That is, of course, what they plan to do with Kull.
   Together, Kull and Brule fight to wreck the plot of the evil Serpent Men and expose them. During the course of the adventure Kull and Brule learn to trust each other and by the end are true friends. Kull comes to feel a sense of kinship with Brule, finding in him a fellow tribesman in an alien culture. Like Brule, Kull is a barbarian. Kull took the crown of Valusia by force and so is forever set apart from the decadently civilized people he rules. In Brule, Kull has at last found somebody he can rely on.
   The Serpent Men are a truly great creation. Ancient beings who can take the form of anybody they wish, they are the perfect villains to oppose the already paranoid Kull. Their existence validates all his fears. Indeed, they are such a great invention that the conspiracy-theory writer David Icke seems to have adopted them wholesale, renaming them Reptilians and claiming they are even now impersonating  just about avery political figure he can think of.
   With plenty of Howard's fast-paced action and dark atmosphere, The Shadow Kingdom is one of his finest stories. It can be found in Kull: Exile of Atlantis and The Best of Robert E. Howard, Volume 1: Crimson Shadows 


Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The House on the Borderland (1908) by William Hope Hodgson

   William Hope Hodgson, an almost legendary figure in weird fiction, died all too soon during the final year of the first world war. He left behind a handful of books that, while unappreciated by the larger reading public, have consistently maintained a loyal following. He was no master prose stylist, and I think it is fair to say that his occasional attempts at archaic language did not turn out well. That being said, any defects in his writing style were more than made up for by the pure power of his far-reaching imagination. In his books anything could happen.
   The House on the Borderland is Hodgson's finest work. It was greeted in 1908 with critical praise and poor sales. It remains one of the strangest novels ever written, one that shifts from tense, realistic scenes of horror to mind-bending cosmic explorations of time and space. The duality of the novel is surprising. It leaves the reader unsteady, never knowing what bizarre scene might come next. The most surprising thing about it is how well it works.
   The novel begins with two young men who are on a fishing vacation in the west of Ireland. They follow a river and find it ends in a vast abyss. Over the abyss hangs a giant rock, upon which they find the ruins of some kind of structure. Among the ruins they find a musty old book that contains our story. The manuscript was written by a nameless recluse that lived with his creepy sister and loyal dog in a sinister old house. The house had an evil reputation and for that reason the recluse got it cheap. For a number of years they lived there peacefully.
   Then one night the recluse experiences a kind of cosmic vision. He finds himself flying bodiless through the universe, eventually finding himself in a vast tableland surrounded by high mountains. Towering among the mountains are the shadowy figures of various gods that the recluse recognizes from mythology, and before him sits an exact replica of his sinister home. In the shadow of the house lurks a gigantic, swine-faced monster. Then, the vision ends and he finds himself back home.
   Days later he is startled to find a ghastly face peering in at him from a window, a face similar to the monster from his vision. Unfortunately it is not alone. A week later the house is attacked by a small army of the creatures. The recluse boards up the house, grabs a shotgun, and goes into battle.
   Here, in a story from 1908, we get an episode that could come, scene for scene, from a modern horror movie. It is a great departure from the cosmic opening of the novel, being a gritty, realistic siege narrative. The central portion of the novel is concerned with the recluse defending his home from the monsters and eventually trailing them into a dark chasm near the house.
   Then, in the later portion of the book, our narrator experiences another vision, one that is vast in scope. He literally transcends time and space in a kind of cosmic odyssey. I could try and describe it, but doubtless I would fall far short of doing it justice. It is a brilliant example of Hodgson's boundless imagination and really has to be read to be appreciated.
   For decades Hodgson's work has itself existed in a kind of borderland. In 1927, H. P. Lovecraft wrote, "Of rather uneven stylistic quality, but vast occasional power in its suggestion of lurking worlds and beings behind the ordinary surface of life, is the work of William Hope Hodgson, known today far less than it deserves to be." In 2013 it is still known far less than it deserves to be. It is a rare bookstore that stocks Hodgson. Fortunately, we live in the age of ebooks. Being in the public domain, all Hodgson's books are readily available online. For a reader interested in the weird, his work is well worth seeking out.



Saturday, May 11, 2013

Tarzan of the Apes (1912) by Edgar Rice Burroughs

   In 1965 Richard A. Lupoff made a bad prediction. In Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master of Adventure, Lupoff wrote that of the three great supermen of modern fiction (Sherlock Holmes, Superman and Tarzan), Tarzan perhaps had the best chance to live forever. As of 2013, Sherlock Holmes and Superman are as popular as they ever have been. Both are thriving on TV, in the movies, books and comics. Tarzan...not so much. His last successful movie was a Disney cartoon in 1999. The first Tarzan book is easy to find in most bookstores, but not so the over twenty sequels. The only monthly comic is the unauthorized Lord of the Jungle, and that not exactly a bestseller. Tarzan is certainly a name that people still immediately recognize, but I suspect his future as a "literary superman" is in doubt.
   I'm not sure why his popularity has declined so much this century. He certainly is not "politically correct." The racism apparent in the depiction of African natives, in both the books and films, is a big part of it. Perhaps Tarzan slaughtering all those lions and alligators doesn't help. I suspect the biggest reason is that the only memory most people have of Tarzan is as a barely legible muscleman in very old movies.
   That is a shame, because Tarzan is the most complex and intelligent character that Edgar Rice Burroughs ever created. In the novels, Tarzan is a brilliant literary creation, one that deserves to live forever. True, the series did decline in quality as time went on. Burroughs wrote novels about Tarzan long after he had said everything he had to say about him. The first dozen or so, however, were very good.
   Tarzan of the Apes begins in 1888, with Lord and Lady Greystoke being abandoned on the coast of Africa. The crew had mutinied aboard the ship upon which they had been passengers. The Greystoke's situation is made worse because Lady Greystoke is pregnant. John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, builds a small cabin and does his best to ensure the safety and survival of his wife and child. Sadly, a year after the birth of their child, Lady Greystoke dies in her sleep and John Clayton is killed by apes.
   Kala, one of the apes, has recently lost her own baby. She takes the Greystoke's baby and raises it as her own. He is given the name Tarzan (it means "white skin" in ape language) and he must somehow survive and grow up in a savage African Jungle. Luckily, Tarzan is both brilliant and strong, so he thrives. He finds some old books in his father's cabin and after a number of years even teaches himself to read. He also finds his father's hunting knife, a weapon that helps him tremendously through several jungle battles.
   His first exposure to human beings is when a native African murders Kala, his ape foster mother. Tarzan hunts him down, kills him, and discovers a village of Natives (cannibals as it turns out). Later a party of Europeans and Americans are dumped off on the coast near Tarzan's cabin. They are more victims of mutineers. Among them is, of course, Jane. The rest of the novel tells of Tarzan helping the castaways and falling in love with Jane. Eventually, he follows her back to America.
   This bare outline can't capture the breakneck speed of the narrative or the brilliant development of Tarzan's character. This is, at heart, a novel about Tarzan's noble nature overcoming the circumstances of his childhood. The other characters are also finely drawn; from the brave young Jane, to the loyal friend, D'Arnot, to the good man, William Cecil Clayton, who is torn by petty jealousy.
   Sadly, the dated racism in the book is pretty hard on modern readers. The noble Waziri do not show up until the second book, so the only native Africans in this one are all savage, brutish cannibals. The one American black woman in the book is presented even worse. Poor Esmeralda, Jane's maid, is played for comedy relief and sounds like she just walked out of an old copy of Uncle Remus.
   Edgar Rice Burroughs, like almost all white men of his generation, did hold racist attitudes. Henry James did too, but then he didn't set his stories in Africa. It is a good thing the antiquated racism shocks us so. It reminds us that, even though racism is still all-to-prevalent in our society, we have come a long way.
   Regardless, this novel is a classic of adventure that deserves to live on.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) by H. G. Wells

   The Island of Dr. Moreau is one of those novels that, once read, stay with you all your life. This book will creep into your soul and haunt you years after you have read it. What Wells, in his later years, called "a youthful exorcise in blasphemy" is of course so much more than that. It is one of the most disturbing novels of the nineteenth century. The book is a dark meditation on the moral worth of human beings, one in which we do not come out well. While The Time Machine, dark as it was, at least showcased the wonders science might produce, The Island of Dr. Moreau focused solely on its potential for cruel misuse. With this book Wells wrote an early science fiction classic to be sure, but really, at heart this is a horror novel.
   The story begins as a shipwreck survivor, Edward Prendick, is rescued and brought aboard a wretchedly dirty boat filled with caged wild animals. He is nursed to health by an odd man named Montgomery, an outcast with a shady past. While convalescing Pendick encounters Montgomery's creepy, hairy servant who fills Pendick with dread. Later Pendick offends the ship's drunken captain and is marooned on the boat's destination, a small island under the control of the mysterious Dr. Moreau. The island is peopled by frighteningly malformed people who all seem terrified of Moreau. Moreau is not thrilled by Pendick's presence but Mongomery, who works for Moreau, talks him into tolerating the castaway. Pendick is brought to their compound.
   In a locked laboratory Moreau, who has identified himself as a biologist, begins to experiment upon a captive puma. The poor creature seems to be undergoing torture, and its horrific screams are too much for Pendick. He leaves and takes a walk through the woods, where he encounters one of the animal-like inhabitants. This creature stalks Pendick and he barely gets away with his life.
   The mysteries of what these creatures are and Dr. Moreau's identity, are rapidly revealed. Dr. Moreau is a disgraced scientist who has isolated himself on the island to further his own ghastly research. He has used his uncanny skill of vivisection to transform various animals into the semblance of human beings. These sad creatures live in their own ramshackle settlement and are kept under control through "the law." Any creature who breaks the law is brought to "the house of pain," and tortured by Moreau. Eventually Moreau is killed by one of his own experimental monsters and everything goes to hell. After further disaster, Pendick is left alone to somehow survive on an island full of beast-men.
   The Island of Dr. Moreau was written at a time when Britain's scientific community were grappling with the moral implications of animal vivisection. The loathsome Dr. Moreau cares nothing about the suffering he causes, all he cares about is furthering his own twisted research. Sadly, this problem of abusing animals for our own purposes is still with us over a hundred years later. We still look past the suffering we cause animals and perhaps that is part of why this novel is so disturbing even now, as it reminds us of something we would rather not think about. We go about our daily business while everyday animals are tortured and killed on an nightmarishly epic scale, all the time ignoring their suffering and emotionally distancing ourselves from their pain.
   The last chapter of this novel is its most haunting. Pendick has been rescued and is back in Britain, but he can't stand to be around people. After his experience he can only see the beast in them;

   "I see faces keen and bright, others dull or dangerous, others unsteady, insincere; none that have the calm authority of a reasonable soul. I feel as though the animal was surging up through them; that presently the degradation of the Islanders will be played over again on a larger scale."

   Perhaps Pendick was not far wrong.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Great God Pan (1890) by Arthur Machen

   The Great God Pan is easily Arthur Machen's most famous story. It shocked and fascinated the readers of his time and it has continued to horrify since. Small wonder that it is one of the most anthologized horror stories ever written. "No one could begin to describe the cumulative suspense and ultimate horror with which every paragraph abounds..," wrote H. P. Lovecraft, and he should know. In it Machen created the mysterious Helen Vaughan, one of the most memorable characters in horror ( being a Vaughan of Welsh descent myself, I like to think she was a relation...it would explain a few things). Even though she is kept ever in the shadows of the story, Machen infuses her with the taint of cosmic evil.
   The tale begins with a sociopath scientist who conducts a brain operation on a poor girl who has the misfortune to be in his charge. Through the operation he hopes that she might gain the ability to see a world beyond our own, one forever hidden from us, limited as we are by our five senses. As he puts it, she will see the god Pan. Sadly for her, she does. The experience drives her insane.
   Years later an odd little girl named Helen Vaughan is placed to board with a family in the Welsh countryside. She spends every day wandering through the woods and being generally creepy. Soon a young boy is driven insane when he sees her frolicking in the grass with...something. Later, a young girl is also driven mad after going into the woods with Helen.
   Many years after this a young woman of exotic beauty appears in society (guess who) and drives her poor husband mad. She has ruined him "body and soul." Not satisfied with destroying her husband, Helen takes on a new identity and causes an epidemic of suicide among the men of her acquaintance. Eventually she is confronted by one of the tale's protagonists and he attempts to get her to commit suicide herself. The story contains one of the most ghastly and grotesque endings in all of Machen's fiction.
   Of course, the relationship between Helen Vaughan and the unfortunate victim of the experiment is not long in doubt. As far as how Helen corrupts all those men and drives them to suicide, Machen only hints. Illicit sex is certainly implied to be a big part of it and was one of the reasons his readers were so shocked.
   What Machen would view to be unnatural sex is certainly a constant theme of the story. Interestingly, a horror of the power of nature is also a major part of the tale. Unlike Algernon Blackwood, who held nature in awe and reverence, the religious conservative Machen shows a great distrust of the natural world. He seems to have found it beautiful, fascinating and not to be trifled with. For him we are only protected from the dangers of nature by the strict, repressive rules of society.
   A streak of misogyny is also ever present in the story. The girl who is experimented upon is nothing more than a tool for the doctor. He rescued her from poverty so he considers her his property. And of course Helen Vaughan is responsible for corrupting all those poor defenseless men. I sense a fear of strong, independent women in this story.
   Regardless, this is a masterpiece of horror. Machen was an extremely talented writer and he builds the horror brilliantly in this story. It truly is one of the greatest horror tales ever written. If you have not read it, do yourself a favor and hunt it down. It is in many horror anthologies, including Modern Library's Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural. It is also available as a free ebook.


Saturday, May 4, 2013

Dagon (1917) by H. P. Lovecraft

   Dagon is one of H. P. Lovecraft's earliest and creepiest stories. It was inspired by a dream and contains in its few pages many elements that seemed to fascinate and disturb Lovecraft, elements that he returned to later in his greatest tales. We have a vast island that rises from the ocean floor and contains a great horror as in The Call of Cthulhu. We have the unspeakable knowledge of things better not known that permeates Lovecraft's fiction. And of course we later encounter the "Esoteric Order of Dagon" in The Shadow Over Innsmouth, another story that deals with unsavory underwater life. It is interesting to see Lovecraft already working  on these themes and ideas that became so important in his fiction much later on.
   The story begins early in the first world war, when our narrator's ship has been captured by the Germans. This is before the sinking of the Lusitania and the Germans having "sunk to their later degradation." The Germans' discipline was so inexplicably lax that our narrator manages to somehow escape on a well provisioned boat. He ends up drifting aimlessly on the Pacific for days.
   One day he wakes to find himself on muck-encrusted land, his boat lying a few feet away. The space is "putrid with the carcasses of decaying fish." Apparently, while he was sleeping, a vast area from the ocean floor had risen due to some unprecedented volcanic upheaval. He is stuck there, sheltering from the sun under his boat, for three days before the ground is dry enough to walk on.
   Lovecraft does a splendid job describing this scene. One can practically smell the rotting fish and feel the muck sucking at one's shoes. His dream must have been a vivid one because this does feel as if it is a description of a real experience.
   The narrator decides to explore and starts walking. Eventually, one night under a "gibbous" moon, he encounters a huge stone monolith. He is separated from it by a large body of water, but he is close enough to see that it is covered by strange hieroglyphics and odd pictorial carvings. The carvings seem to represent some kind of giant mermen, with webbed hands and feet, bulging eyes and flabby lips (a true Lovecraftian horror to be sure). The narrator just decides that they must depict some kind of gods once worshipped by primitive men when, out of the water, rises just such a monster. Our narrator then does what a Lovecraft character does best in such a situation and immediately goes mad.
   He makes his way back to the boat, somehow ends up back on the ocean, and wakes up in a San Francisco hospital where he has been brought after being rescued by an American ship.
   Was his experience just a dream? If only he could believe so, but he knows better. What seems to be the driving force of his madness is the knowledge that a whole race and civilization of those sea-creatures are living on the bottom of the ocean and can arise at any time. With this knowledge comes the realization that human beings are really not all that special after all. Our narrator has caught a glimpse of the real scale of human beings in the cosmos. It is too much for him, and sadly, his end is a bad one.
   This story is a brilliant introduction to the themes that are so important in Lovecraft's fiction. It also reveals the depth of his great talent even at this early stage. The story can be found in The Call of Cthulhu and other Weird Stories from Penguin, and also Dagon and other Macabre Tales from Arkham House.


Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1869) by Jules Verne

   Jules Verne's greatest creation was not a story or novel. His masterpiece was the brilliant, mysterious Captain Nemo, one of the greatest fictional characters of the 19th century. We might forget some of the details of plot in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, but we never forget Nemo or the amazing submarine of his design, The Nautilus. He was a genius and lover of personal freedom who made himself master of the oceans. In him burned a hatred for the world above the waves and he swore never to set foot on dry land again. Who was this mysterious man and what drove him on his never-ending journey across the oceans? That mystery is the heart of this timeless novel.
   In the year 1866 ships had been encountering "an enormous thing," that was larger than any whale and had a mysterious glow. Professor Aronnax, who believes this thing to be some deep sea monster, has been invited on board a ship out to hunt the beast. They encounter it and the Professor is thrown overboard. His faithful servant Conseil attempts to rescue him and the two are both lost at sea. Not for long though, for soon they encounter the floating monster itself, and sitting on top of it is the harpooner from their ship, Ned Land. Of course the "monster" is really a submarine.
   Ned, Conseil and the Professor are brought inside and meet the mysterious Captain Nemo, lord of The Nautilus. He commands a crew that seem to be from all over the globe and who speak a strange language of their own. Nemo believes the castaways are a danger to him now that they know the secret of The Nautilus. He lets them live but they are his prisoners. He decides that they must never return to their world so he condemns them to live in his. He tolerates them, and as far as he is concerned they are lucky he does.
   And so begins their strange adventures. Twenty Thousand Leagues is an episodic book that often reads like a bizarre travelogue. Every step of their journey is detailed down to their exact coordinates. Verne delighted in scientific detail, and we get a load of it in this novel. The descriptions of the sea life they encounter cover whole pages at a time. All this works to give the story a sense of reality, as if this fantastic journey actually happened and Professor Aronnax is merely giving his bland chronicle of everyday events.
   While the Professor seems to be having a fine time, Ned Land just wants to escape. The tension between Land and Nemo grows throughout the story. Eventually the castaways together decide they must escape at all costs and they await their opportunity. Of course, Nemo has made it clear he will never let them off The Nautilus alive.
   Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea remains one of the greatest adventure novels ever written and Captain Nemo is one of literature's immortals. He stands alongside Sherlock Holmes and Dracula as a 19th century character who will never die. Jules Verne, unfairly considered a writer for children, has never been given the credit he is due for creating such a complex character.
   I should note that the first English translation, in addition to making several strange blunders with the language, also cut out a good chunk of the text. Many good translations are now available. I would recommend the text available from Oxford classics.


Monday, April 29, 2013

Red Shadows (1928) by Robert E. Howard

    Solomon Kane was one of Howard's first adventure heroes. He certainly was one of his most unique. He was a sixteenth century English puritan driven to wander the Earth righting wrongs and battling evil. A religious fanatic, he himself believed that it was his god that drove him on, while Howard suggested that it was in fact his own wanderlust and insatiable desire for adventure. He was a tall, rangy man who dressed entirely in black and was an expert with both rapier and musket. He would track down an enemy relentlessly for years to exact vengeance, yet he also had a soft spot for all innocents and was described by Howard as a "kindly" man.
   Red Shadows was Howard's first published story about Solomon Kane, and it has some of the defects found in many of Howard's early tales from the 1920s. He had not yet mastered his style at this point, and the writing does not have the swift, smooth narrative flow that his later stories have. In fact, it seems a bit clunky in spots. What it has going for it is a brilliant plot, Howard's usual sense of dark atmosphere, and fully developed characters. The evil Le Loup, The Wolf, is in fact one of Howard's most memorable villains.
   The story begins when Kane encounters an injured girl lying in the shadows beneath some trees. She has been ravaged and stabbed by the evil Le Loup, who along with his bandits has sacked her small village. She dies in Kane's arms. Kane says simply, "Men shall die for this." He proceeds to hunt down and kill Le Loup's men one by one. He finally confronts The Wolf himself in a cave, but the villain escapes him.
   Eventually Kane tracks down Le Loup to Africa, a local that Kane will frequently return to in future stories. As one would expect, Robert E. Howard's Africa has very little relation to the real place. Most of what Howard knew of Africa seems to be what he read in H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Howard's Africa was a true "dark continent", a lost world as fantastic as Conan's Hyborian Age. It was filled not only with savage men and animals, but also monsters and magic.
   Le Loup has managed to insinuate himself among a native African tribe, where he has become second only to the king himself. Solomon Kane is captured and as a prisoner he meets the magician N'Longa, who becomes an important character later in the series. N'Longa is upset that Le Loup has taken some of his own prestige in the tribe and he offers to help Kane escape. Later Kane is, of course, tied to a stake to be burned alive. I shall not describe how N'Longa ends up helping Kane or how the story ends, so as not to spoil it for those unfortunate enough not to have read it. It is enough to say that it involves the raising of the dead, a vengeful Gorilla, and the brilliant final battle between Kane and the fiendish Le Loup. Yes, this story really does have a grand payoff at the end.
   In the Kane series one can really see how Robert E. Howard progressed as a writer. By his later Kane stories he had mastered his talent. Tales like The Hills of the Dead and Wings in the Night are pulp masterpieces. Howard was not there yet with Red Shadows, but he was getting close. Solomon Kane was already fully developed as a character at this point. Howard's plotting and sense of pace were excellent. It was only his writing style that he had yet to master, for at that point it still felt overly garish and a bit clumsy. Later he would take the best of pulp language and craft a unique narrative style that could create action, scenery and atmosphere beyond compare.
   Red Shadows can be found in The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane. And, just to show how highly regarded the tale is, it is also included in The Best of Robert E. Howard Volume One: Crimson Shadows.


Friday, April 26, 2013

Best Ghost Stories of Algernon Blackwood (stories 1906-1917)

     Algernon Blackwood spent his whole life under the spell of nature. For him nature was not only an escape from the cruelties of urban life, it was a gateway to a larger world that existed just beyond our own. The trees, the rocks and the sky were all alive to him and harbored a consciousness. He felt that communication with this life was possible if only he could find a way. These feelings were behind all his work and it was a sense of awe rather than pure fear that he hoped to instill in his readers.
   All that being said, he wrote some of the most terrifying stories of the twentieth century. Most of his best are indeed found in this "best of" volume. I can't think of a better introduction to this great writer than this book.
   The best story is the first, The Willows. H. P. Lovecraft felt that this was the greatest weird tale ever written, and if Lovecraft had never written any stories himself it still would be. It tells the story of two friends who are traveling by canoe on the Danube river and camp on a small, sandy island surrounded by willows. Here they encounter strange elemental beings that seem to exist just outside our own world. No summary can to justice to this story. The building of suspense and horror are brilliantly presented and Blackwood succeeded in instilling a sense of cosmic awe. It is unlike anything that came before and it is small wonder that Lovecraft was so impressed.
   For pure horror The Wendigo is probably the stand-out story. A hunting party encounters the legendary Wendigo of Native-American legend. The encounter is uniquely different from anything one would expect, and really delivers the chills. Take this one on your next camping trip to the deep woods.
   The Glamour of the Snow is particularly interesting. It tells the story of a man's meeting with a woman who just might be a nature elemental. However, the story is truly about Blackwood's own feelings of conflict between urban life and living in the larger natural world. The main character is torn between them and he must choose between the two. A very dangerous choice as it turns out.
   For a classic ghost story, The Listener is one of the best. It is a creepy tale of  haunting and possession. The ending is probably more sad than shocking for today's readers but that seems to work to its advantage.
   I also must give special mention to the final story, Max Hensig. This is so unlike any other story in the book that it gives a great sense of Blackwood's range as a writer. It takes place in New York City with all its urban grime and it is not a supernatural story at all. It is a brilliant suspense story about an alcoholic reporter who becomes the target of a fiendish serial killer. Max Hensig, the killer, is a truly vile and menacing character that one would expect to find in more modern fiction. Blackwood spent time as a New York reporter himself, a bitterly unhappy period for him, and his experience gives this story a grim sense of reality.
   Nearly all the stories in this book are good. The Empty House, a typical haunted house story, is the only one that really falls short. This was one of Blackwood's earliest tales, and it shows. There really isn't an ounce of fear in the whole thing, and frankly the comic-relief characters are so annoying that one can't help but hope for their demise. That said, it is more than made up for by the other stories in the book. The rest are top-notch. 
   Blackwood is one of the most important writers of the early twentieth century. It is a real shame that he isn't better known today by general readers. For fans of horror fiction however, he remains a giant. If you are unfamiliar with him do yourself a favor and pick up this book. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Gods Of Mars (1913) by Edgar Rice Burroughs

   Edgar Rice Burroughs was not a fan of organized religion. He recognized it for what it all too often is: a tool by those in power to manipulate others. He knew that those in charge were just men, men with no more knowledge of the divine than he had himself. False religions were common in his fiction, but never more so than in The Gods of Mars.
   It was only a matter of time before John Carter returned to Mars. A Princess of Mars was a great success and Burroughs' readers demanded more. Fortunately Burroughs had a lot more to say about Carter and the red planet. Unlike some of his other series, the Martian tales never declined in quality and The Gods of Mars is the best of the series. Here John Carter faced his greatest challenges and faced  the deadliest dangers of his career. By this point Burroughs had mastered his profession and with Gods he delivered one of his most inventive and action-packed novels.
   The story begins with John Carter stranded on Earth in 1886. For ten years he had longed to return to his beloved Barsoom. Now, standing before the Hudson River, he again felt the pull of the red planet. Just as before he experienced a moment of cold and darkness as his soul is pulled mysteriously to Mars. He wakes to find himself in the very last place he would want to be on Barsoom: the Valley Dor.
   The Martians had a very peculiar religion. Eventually, if they managed to live long enough, every Martian took a voluntary pilgrimage along the River Iss, to the lost Sea of Korus in the Valley Dor. The Martians believed that the Valley Dor was heaven, a paradise where they would be reunited with loved ones and enjoy everlasting peace. John Carter discovered the ghastly reality. The Valley Dor was a deathtrap where pilgrims were torn apart and devoured by weird plant-men and the great white apes of Barsoom. Any survivors were enslaved by the Holy Therns, priests who also just happened to be cannibals.
   Here Carter encounters a group of pilgrims who are being attacked by the plant men. Among them is the green Martian Tars Tarkas, John Carter's best friend. Carter and Tars Tarkas survive and together they fight their way through the valley and into the domain of the Therns. They encounter the mysterious beauty Thuvia, who becomes a very important character in the series, and together they plan to escape and expose the false religion for the terrible lie that it is. The problem is that to return from the Valley Dor is heresy in itself, one punishable by death anywhere on the planet. John Carter not only has to fight men and monsters, he also has to try and defeat a deeply-rooted cultural superstition. A hard task, even for the superhuman John Carter. Once he manages to escape the Valley Dor his troubles are only beginning.
   Along the way Burroughs invents some of his most interesting Martian cultures yet. The Holy Therns are both menacing and repulsive. The Therns' enemies are the Black Pirates of Barsoom. The Black Pirates inhabit  a subterranean world by an underground sea and are particularly fascinating.
   Burroughs wrote many extremely entertaining books, but The Gods of Mars is something more than that. While it succeeds brilliantly as escapist adventure, it is also a story about the crippling power of cultural superstition. Fighting monsters is one thing. Fighting a whole world's ancient religion is something else again. It is here, in this book, that Burroughs takes John Carter to his greatest level as a hero.
   This is Burroughs at his best. Well worth checking out.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

King Solomon's Mines (1885) by H. Rider Haggard

   King Solomon's Mines was the first English adventure novel to be set in Africa. Fortunately, it was written by a man who had spent  considerable time in Africa and had extensive contact with native Africans. Because of this his Africa has the realistic feel of an actual place, unlike the fantasy Africa later presented by Edgar Rice Burroughs and so many others. While Haggard's colonialist attitudes are obvious, he presented the natives as actual human beings as opposed to the stereotypes so common in later literature of the period.
   The hero of the novel is big game hunter Allan Quatermain, who became very popular and returned to star in a whole series of stories. He is remembered now, if at all, mostly through film adaptations. Allan did not fare well in the movies. The Quatermain from the movies is a far cry from the novel's short, grizzled, fifty-five year old with false teeth.  As a matter of fact, Quatermain from the novel is a humble, plain-spoken man who is not even particularly heroic. One can't help but like Allan, despite his unfortunate habit of slaughtering whole herds of elephants.
   Quatermain is hired by Sir Henry Curtis to find his missing brother, who was last seen searching for the legendary King Solomon's Mines. As it turns out, Allan Quatermain was the last to have word of this brother. He also happened to own a map to the mysterious Kukuanaland, where the mines were said to be. Allan was not very eager to set out on this adventure, since he didn't think any of them would live through it, but since Curtis promised to leave money to Allan's only son he agreed. They were accompanied by Captain Good, a likable fellow who functions as comedy relief, and the noble African Umbopa. After a series of harrowing adventures they make it (barely) to Kukuanaland where they become involved in a bloody revolution among the natives. They encounter dastardly villains, harrowing dangers and loyal allies.
   Probably the most interesting thing about this book is Haggard's presentation of English colonialism. He seemed to view it as natural and desirable that England should rule over the native African cultures. At the same time, having known natives personally, he recognized that they were as human as he was and he presented them as such. His Africans were complex individuals who were sometimes heroic and sometimes villainous. Umbopa, a character as important as any other in this story, is a perfect example of this. While Quatermain is constantly annoyed by Umbopa's attitude toward the white men, this is only because Umbopa has no doubt that he is their equal. We are lucky that Haggard did not have the hateful racist attitudes of so many of his many imitators.
   Of course, while it is much more than mere escapist fiction, King Solomon's Mines does work wonderfully as a pure adventure novel. It has a tremendous sense of pace and deftly-written action scenes. The characters in the novel are all finely drawn and come across as actual people. The style is straightforward and unadorned. Most of the dialogue is realistic, though the natives tend to speak as if they just walked out of the King James Bible.
   This book spawned a whole genre of "lost world" novels. Authors such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard were all deeply influenced by Haggard. Haggard himself continued in this vein and wrote dozens of adventure novels. Many were very good, though eventually he started to repeat himself somewhat. King Solomon's Mines is the great original and is well worth the time of any adventure fan.


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The White People and Other Weird Stories (1894-1916) by Arthur Machen

   Arthur Machen believed deeply in a very personal form of mystic Christianity. For Machen, powerful forces lurked behind the material world, forces that were dangerous to disturb. He deeply resented the growing secularism of his time and had a bitter hostility toward the results of scientific thought in society. For him the world was, and needed to stay, full of awe-inspiring mystery. Because he was an immensely talented writer he was able to infuse his fiction with this unique view of the world. The results were some of the weirdest and most unsettling stories in all of horror fiction.
   For the past few decades most of Machen's fiction was pretty hard to find outside a couple often-reprinted stories in anthologies. It was good news for horror and fantasy fans when Penguin published this edition of his stories. We can thank the editor, S. T. Joshi, for pushing for its publication. Nobody knows weird fiction of this era like Joshi and he understands Machen's importance. Machen, after all, was a major influence on H. P. Lovecraft and figures prominently in his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature.
   The title story, The White People, is the book's stand-out. It is by far his weirdest and most disturbing work. It is a "found diary" story creepier than any of the "found footage" horror films that have been churned out during the past few years. The diary belonged to a fourteen year old girl whose ignorance of the true meaning of her experiences amplify their horror. I hesitate to give any details for fear of spoiling the story for those who have not read it. It is enough to say that it is one of the most powerful and disorienting stories in all of horror literature.
   Another very good story is The Novel of the Black Seal, one of Machen's many meditations on the consequences of seeking knowledge best left unknown. It is one of the stories to feature his "little people"; a race of ghastly creatures that live in the wild hills of Wales. These creatures have survived from ancient times and are the dark basis for the lighter legends of elves and fairies. They have control of evil forces long forgotten by human beings. A Professor Greg goes looking for conclusive proof of the existence of these creatures. That turns out to be a very bad idea.
   I also must mention The Novel of the White Powder, if only because it is so gloriously revolting. An unfortunate man gets the wrong medicine from the druggist with nightmarish results. His mental and physical transformation is particularly ghastly.
   If there is any failing to this volume it is that Machen's best known story, The Great God Pan, is inexplicably not included. For the life of me I cannot understand why this is so. Not only was it Machen's first critical success, it is also one of his best stories. It can't be because of space, as it is a better story by far than some that were included. The Terror, for example, is a decent enough story but it is not close to being as good as Pan. Perhaps Joshi was looking to make this more of a well-rounded book, including works where the supernatural is only touched upon such as A Fragment of Life, than a book of his "best" work. To make its exclusion even more frustrating we have that beautiful painting of Pan right on the cover.
   If Machen had a major fault in his work, it was his reliance on coincidence. The coincidences in his stories were a crutch that he often relied on to get his plots where he wanted them to go. Sadly, they often stretched credulity to the breaking point. However, this fault is a forgivable one when balanced out against the atmosphere and uniqueness of his work.
   If you have any interest in weird fiction this book is very rewarding.


Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Time Machine (1895) by H. G. Wells

     I first read The Time Machine when I was twelve years old. I had seen the 1960 movie on television and was entranced by it (it remains one of my favorite films). Luckily for me, my step-father had impeccable taste in literature and had an old copy of Seven Science Fiction Novels of H. G. Wells that included The Time Machine. It is a very short novel and I managed to read it through in a couple days. It was a transforming reading experience. I suspect my taste in fiction is in a large part due to Wells and this story.
     While it was Jules Verne who created the "scientific romance", Wells took this type of story to a whole new level. Verne's books often read more like travel-adventure stories with fantastic vehicles than science-fiction fantasies. Wells would take a completely fantastic element and give it a rational explanation. This was groundbreaking for a time when the fantastic was usually only represented as supernatural in fiction.
     Wells' Time Traveler (we never learn his name) builds his machine and uses it to travel eight hundred thousand years in the future. He expects to find an advanced culture that has solved all the problems of human society. What he finds instead are the Eloi, doll-like people of limited intellect who inhabit a world of wild-growing gardens and massive buildings crumbling from neglect. He has a lunch of futuristic fruit with a group of Eloi and afterwards finds that his Time Machine has disappeared. Then things get really bad when he discovers the dreadful Morlocks; albino ape-men who live in a series of underground tunnels. It is the ghastly relationship of the Morlocks with the Eloi that drives the plot.
     Wells had the good fortune to study under T. H. Huxley and he taught biology before he became a professional writer. The idea of the possible end-result of natural selection on human beings haunted him. What would become of human beings who live in a protected society where all natural predators are no longer a danger? Add to that the changes medical advances and technology just might make to the human species. These speculations fuel The Time Machine.
     The Time Traveler himself is tough and smart but very fallible. As the story progresses he speculates on the mysteries of the Eloi. They seem like lazy children who do no work at all. Where does their clothing come from? Or their food? Why are they all so young? Most of his speculations turn out to be horribly wrong. Unlike most heroes from adventure novels he begins dangerously unprepared for what he finds and makes a series of tragic mistakes. No Jules Verne hero would be caught so unaware or make such blunders! Unfortunately for the Time Traveler, he seems just as human as we are.
     The Morlocks deserve special mention as a particularly ghastly menace. Their threat builds throughout the story. I find them just as creepy now as I did when I was twelve. The scene where the Time Traveler makes his way through their pitch-black tunnels armed only with a handful of matches is an unforgettable piece of horror writing.
     The Time Machine is a very dark story and that is one of the things that makes it so satisfying. Wells pulls no punches here. Perhaps he is a bit heavy handed with his message, but I tend to doubt it. I find his telling of the story extremely well crafted. This book has earned its fame and it is not surprising that it has remained in print for over a century.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian (stories 1932-1934) by Robert E. Howard


    I think the best way to read this book is to try and forget everything you know about Conan before you start it. If you are like most people you probably only know Conan from the movies. Or maybe the comics. The guy you saw on film or read about in the comics isn't really Conan. The real Conan only existed  in the fiction of Robert E. Howard, and it is small wonder most people have not read his Conan stories. For years they have been very hard to find, at least in their original versions. I have no wish to go into the long, tortured publishing history of Conan. It is enough to say that until this book was published ten years ago the Conan stories had never been presented as Howard wrote them in the order he wrote them.
   Robert E. Howard was a pulp writer. There were better writers who wrote for the pulps, H. P. Lovecraft and Dashiell Hammett for example, but they were not purely pulp writers. Robert E. Howard was and he was the greatest who ever lived. He towered over the rest like a great mountain over low hills. He used the language of the pulps and turned it into poetry. One does not so much read a Robert E. Howard story as experience it. He lived those tales as he wrote them and that is why they have such power. That is why they will live forever.
   By the time Howard created Conan he had been writing for a few years and had gained valuable experience in the craft of telling stories. He had already created Solomon Kane, King Kull and Bran Mak Morn. By the time he wrote the stories in this book he was at the top of his game. Not all the Conan stories are his best, but most of his best were Conan tales. With Conan he had created a fully rounded character and a believable human being. Howard made him so much more than the loincloth wearing brute most people think they know. He was violent and dangerous but he felt a great sense of responsibility for those who depended on him and could be moved to great pity by the suffering of others. He raised himself up from a teenage thief to the greatest King of his world; the Hyborian Age. It was a world that existed before the dawn of our history, with a vast landscape of dangerous and fabulous kingdoms. He fought terrible monsters and evil sorcerers who wielded dark magic (the magic in the Conan tales was always dark). His saga was a hugely epic one. When Howard dreamed, he dreamed big.
   This volume has some of the best of the Conan stories, starting with his first; The Phoenix on the Sword. The Tower of the Elephant and The Scarlet Citadel are the real standouts in my opinion but there are many more great ones here. There are a couple not-so-great ones also but thats OK. Howard was writing as much as he could during the depression so he can be forgiven a few flops, especially when his flops are so entertaining. These are tales of Conan as a teenage thief, a pirate, a mercenary captain, an outlaw and the King of Aquilonia. After reading them you will feel like you have been to the Hyborian Age yourself.
   I should mention that the art in this book by Mark Schultz is fantastic. He really did a wonderful job interpreting these stories. The illustrations alone make this edition of Conan the one to get.
   This book was followed by two others; The Bloody Crown of Conan and The Conquering Sword of Conan. The three books include everything Howard ever wrote about the Cimmerian.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A Princess of Mars (1912) by Edgar Rice Burroughs

   Welcome to my first blog. In the blogs ahead I will be looking at the fiction of legends like H. Rider Haggard, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, H. P. Lovecraft and many others. But where to start? I figured where else but Edgar Rice Burroughs and John Carter. 
   After all, A Princess of Mars changed fantasy and science fiction forever. Just look at John Carter's decendents: Flash Gordon (a direct John Carter rip-off...awesome though it was), Buck Rogers, Star Wars, Avatar...the list goes on and on. Sadly, the plots, situations and characters of Burroughs' Mars books have been so often recycled that when the John Carter film was at long last released, it often felt like we had seen it all before. 
   Edgar Rice Burroughs is of course known best as the creator of Tarzan of the Apes. A Princess of Mars was written first however, and I wouldn't be surprised if it ends up being his most influential work. I wonder about the eventual fate of Tarzan. He just might end up an interesting relic from the 20th century, one that makes many of us just a bit uncomfortable now. I have no doubt that John Carter will live forever on the brilliant fictional landscape of Barsoom (the martian's own word for Mars). A Princess of Mars is a book that has aged remarkably well, its fast-moving and impossible plot as engrossing now as it was a hundred years ago.
   It tells the story of ex-Confederate Captain John Carter of Virginia, who just happens to be an immortal warrior who never ages past thirty and has no memory of childhood. He is trapped in a cave by Apaches, where he is somehow transported to the Planet Mars. He wakes up there naked, the planets lesser gravity giving him super-strength. Carter is captured by fifteen foot tall, four armed Green martian nomad warriors. He learns the language and earns a high place among them thanks to his fighting ability (he is now the greatest swordsman of two worlds, as he never gets tired of telling us). The green martians also later capture Dejah Thoris, the title's Princess, a naked beauty who looks entirely human save for the fact that she is a copper red color. John Carter helps her escape and later becomes embroiled in a civil war between two great Martian cities. Needless to say, he wins out at the end, though tragically he is transported back to Earth while saving the whole planet from extinction.
   A pretty wild plot to be sure and one peppered throughout with ghastly monsters, airships, daring escapes and violent battles. The genius is in the telling. Something about Burroughs style could often make the most outrageous happenings seem believable enough, at least while you are reading the book. He had plenty of failings, all plenty apparent in Princess. He never mastered the ability to reproduce human speech in dialogue for one. Whatever his failings he had a towering imagination and instinctually understood how to tell a story. He also had the rare ability to write action extremely well indeed. 
   It is remarkable just how easily most readers can get past the fact that John Carter so casually mentions that he is immortal ( Edgar Rice Burroughs hated aging and found a way to make most of his heroes ageless). The human inhabitants of Barsoom are also easily accepted. If anything seems to bother fans of the book it is how John Carter is transported to Mars in the first place. He is paralyzed and then finds himself looking down at his own body. Looking outside the cave he sees the red planet, a red star in the sky. He closes his eyes, stretches out his arms and feels himself drawn through the "trackless immensity of space". Before he knows it he is on Mars. For some reason this never bothered me at all. 
   One criticism that is often leveled at Burroughs is how he handles the issue of race. Burroughs, like many white men of his time, grew up believing that his particular race was the highest type of human being. This becomes a real issue in Tarzan, as I will bring up in the future. So it is very interesting to read how John Carter falls in love with a red woman from another world and how his best friend ends up being a four-armed green martian. One gets the sense that his view of race was a bit complicated.
   The real magic of A Princess of Mars is just how well Burroughs tells the story. It is the ultimate in escapist fiction. His readers loved it and he ended up writing what amounted to eleven books set on Mars, and through them he created an intricate portrait of a dying world. For anybody interested in fantasy or adventure, they are must reads.