I have embarked on an exploration of old Pulp, with designs of writing some pulp stories myself. Where better to start than with Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs?
Having recently finished ERB’s “A Princess of Mars”, and the library term having run out on “The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian” by REH, I decided I should read some more Burroughs. However, I didn’t want to limit myself to Barsoom stories at this time, so I picked up The Monster Men.
The Monster Men is an intriguing mix of different ideas: the hubris of science, the nature of souls, love and loyalty. At times, it seems as if ERB was writing in response to Shelley’s “Frankenstein”; at other times, I wondered if he was trying to establish his protagonist as a Christ figure.
In the end, it is none of those, although those elements certainly do play a role.
Lately, I’ve been consumed with the notion of Willing Suspension of Disbelief: it is a prerequisite to enjoying a story. For instance, I can’t get into Star Trek because my expectations for The Next Generation were so high that when they lost me, they ruined my ability to accept any premise from that universe. Likewise, I enjoyed “Orcs!” because the verisimilitude of the GS rank battle, combined with what struck me as a precisely-correct shift of tone from farce to seriousness, convinced me to buy into the premise.
But I hadn’t seen The Two Towers film. As such, when the scenes that parodied that movie played, I wasn’t jarred from the story as anyone who had seen that other film would be.
I could delve into this more deeply with other examples, but the point is: obtaining and maintaining Willing Suspension of Disbelief isn’t something the writer should take for granted.
I very nearly choked on the premise of this story: that man could create life from scratch. Modern Science has only recently mapped the human genome; I don’t care what texts Professor Maxon had available to him, there was no way he was growing humans from scratch. But I finally decided to swallow the premise (key word: “Willing”) and take the premise at face value.
Before I had completely accepted the premise, however, the book started getting really good. This occurred at approximately 20% of the way in (according to my Kindle; page numbers are meaningless when you are reading Kindle e-Book publications). At that point, multiple actors began to reveal their competing goals and techniques for reaching those goals. What was a relatively simple story suddenly became extremely complex.
From that point on, I had to finish the book to see what would happen. My Disbelief was fully Suspended. There were points were the pacing slowed, but I was already committed to the story and to reading the fates of the various characters.
And I wasn’t disappointed. Burroughs ends this story extremely well, with a somewhat surprise ending that, at the risk of ruining it for you, he actually fully telegraphed earlier in the book. Fortunately, he did it in a way you will either not notice, or forget in the ensuing pages of action. Masterfully done, in fact.
Moreover, Burroughs drops some challenging ideas into the story, particularly regarding the nature of humanity, souls, and morality. When I say “challenging”, I don’t mean the ideas are complex, novel, or controversial. I just mean that he raises questions and has the characters consider them; this process compels the reader to actually consider these issues in the hypothetical context. Perhaps the reader is already clear what they think, perhaps it is an entirely new idea; either way, I have to believe the reader is forced to think on the concept.
The novel doesn’t really get preachy, however. It isn’t a Message story, although it has some Messages in it. This is how I like my books: don’t beat me over the head with what you think is the Right Way to Think About a Moral Issue. Just raise the issue and then show me the consequences of people’s decisions and actions. Make your case.
ERB did, and did it well. 12 hours later, I’m still thinking, “Huh. What if this other character had followed through with that action? It would have been horrible!” To me, thinking about the ramifications of different characters doing different things is the sign of a good story: it means I’ve begun to think about the characters as people, with agency and options. It means I found their decisions and actions to be realistic.
There is some stereotyping that most Social Justice Warriors would probably now denounce as racism. I wouldn’t, because they are stereotypes that serve the story. Burroughs needed people to act a certain way, and the setting made the racial choices obvious. But I don’t think he reduced the humanity and agency of anyone, and the choices they made were based on realistic cultural influences. Giving a Chinese character a “Your Raundly is Leddy” accent throughout the whole damn book is annoying, but the character itself is treated with the utmost respect. I see nothing racist about this book at all, although there are indubitably racial elements. Noticing race isn’t racist in and of itself. This more firmly establishes in my mind the opinion that charges of racism leveled at ERB are undeserved. My mind can still be changed, but that window is closing.
However, the novel had some other problems. Mechanically, his writing is sometimes poor: there are run-on sentences, confusing clauses, loss of clarity in who is speaking or acting.
One of the more interesting weaknesses, however, is ERB’s Show-Don’t-Tell problems. He “tells” way too often. This would be a much better novel if he showed the reader what he wanted to tell us. Motivations should be revealed more in dialogue and descriptions of actions, rather than just telling us what someone wanted or meant by their words. And yet, taking it to another level, his telling the reader about motivations and actions served as showing a deeper level of moral character and integrity of the characters in the story. So I can’t give him a failing grade in that area the way I do mechanics.
Finally, in this book, ERB’s descriptions are rather muted and plain, much like they are in “A Princess of Mars”. I find myself comparing him to REH with ERB coming out the loser, badly. But to be fair, REH is a master at vivid description, at making you feel you are actually present in a 3D world, so anyone would pale in comparison. ERB’s descriptions were adequate, so he barely passes here, too.
From now on, I’ll be including a chart that captures my rating of the story based on several aspects. Here is the chart for ERB’s “The Monster Men”:
The book is public domain and can be downloaded from various online locations. I recommend you do so. This is a book worth reading!