Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Perils of Being a Nomadic Bibliophile

Yes, it's exactly as painful as you would imagine

I have had a very nomadic adulthood; since I’ve been out of my parents’ house, I have lived in 9 different places, one of those places was a stint of couch-surfing and there were two week-long periods (23 and before I moved to LA) where I was between homes. The hardest thing about my nomadic life is, of course, the moving of stuff. Especially books. During this last move, I finally had to really get rid of stuff. This was the hardest cut of all. I ended up cutting my book collection from 5 bookcases down to 2. I think this was one the hardest I’ve ever done to myself. Parting with all those books felt like I was slowly cutting off my arm with a rusty cheese grater.

This is what I've been reduced to 

They were not happy when they opened the boxes and found books
I had to part with a lot of things, but my books was the deepest cut. As it was, even with bringing my book collection down to a measly two bookcases, my friends still looked at me as though I was crazy and complained about having to carry them.

I have been in my current place for about 6 months now and I’m already thinking about the possibility of moving. I’ll have to pare down even further, perhaps to just one bookshelf. That will be a very difficult day and I may need some ice cream and a good cry.

I know a previous entry has extolled the evils of the Kindle and other such devices and, while I whole-heartedly agree, I can’t help but think they may be a necessary evil.
I am writing this though I know it may lead to my disownment
I love books. I love the feel of the pages, the feel of their spines as I run my fingers across them, the way the light from my desk-lamp reflects off the pages. I could go on, but it would get too long and adoring. The point is, there are so many things I love about books, but I can also be practical. I can be a very pragmatic nomad. I look over at my shelves and I realize that the most practical solution may be for me to start having a large portion of my book collection in electronic format. Now before people start telling me I’m evil and about to bring on the start of the apocalypse, I’m aware of that and I’m slightly okay with it.  
At least I'll have something to read
I’m not quite ready to make that plunge into the depths of evil yet, but I know it is coming. I wouldn’t be converting or getting rid of all my books, some are just too dear to me, but I don’t stay in one place long enough and I’m running out of friends who are willing to continually haul my books around. Is it evil? Yes, absolutely – but for a nomad, it is a necessary evil.

(Editorial Note to concerned Book Scribbles readers: Despite Arimintha's
apparent defection  to the Dark Side,
 she is neither disowned nor disinherited...and that
means 13,427 real books...heh-heh-heh)

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Eternal Wandrei

I read a dismaying statistic years ago when studying Egyptian, Greek and Roman literature: of the stories, poetry, histories, plays and essays written by the ancients, only a small fraction of one percent survived. Even more disturbing is that our culture's writings may suffer the same fate...destined to be neglected, then forgotten, then lost. But, what about the Internet, you cry, where everything lasts forever? Actually, the Internet is a fragile construct, easily be destroyed from within (nasty electronic worms) or from without (EMP, or a president with a kill-switch). And as far as your Kindles and Nooks, transitory storage until your batteries run out after the end of civilization. Paper remains the most enduring medium.

And, yet, paper does have its limitations, especially when it comes to the pulps which were named for the cheap paper upon which they were printed. I can scan the cover of this 1936 issue of Astounding Stories without damaging the magazine, but if I wanted to read "Finality Unlimited" by Donald Wandrei, the story depicted in an almost Byzantine manner on the cover, I would be...well, I would either be out of luck, or a fool for cracking it open, emphasis on "cracking." Though protected from further decay by polyethylene, the forces of air and moisture have already attacked the pages, leaving them brittle.

Who is Donald Wandrei? 

Writers are subject to the same forces as their creations. First they are neglected, then forgotten, and, finally, lost. Even though Donald Wandrei was a minor writer in the pantheon of science fiction and fantasy, he was yet an important one, if only because he wrote and interacted so early in the history of the genres. He knew and/or corresponded with all the writers now considered seminal: HP Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Howard, Howard Belknap Long and others less well known. With prolific writer August Derleth, Wandrei founded Arkham House, a quality small press intended to keep Lovecraft's work in print, but which also published such books as Witch House by Evangeline Walton, Dark Carnival by Ray Bradbury (his first collection), Night's Black Agents by Fritz Leiber, and The Mind Parasites by Colin Wilson. Wandrei received a World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement in 1984, just a few years before his death.

Fortunately for fans of early fantasy and science fiction tales, there are others who are even more devoted to lost causes than are we, those who actually put their money where their heart is, rescuing stories from pulpish purgatory and presenting them in more enduring formats. A collection of Wandrei's science fiction stories had been in the works for a long time, but an Arkham House 1964 edition just didn't happen, and it fell to fan Phil Rahman (who met Wandrei and befriended him at a convention) to publish it with his partner Dennis Weiler in 1989, the first book to carry the Fedogan & Bremer imprint. Colossus was published in a limited edition of 1,000 copies at what was then the whopping price of $28.00. My bookstore of choice in the 1980s was Dream-Quest Books, and Tam, the proprietress, urged me to buy it -- it would help the store, I really wanted it, and it was a good investment. Well, she was right about me wanting it, so what else could I do. Now, you can get it for $50-$100, so I suppose she was right about the third reason as well. It collects 21 of Wandrei's stories, including "Finality Unlimited." Wandrei's science fiction was unusual because it revolved about grand cosmic ideas rather than characters or action plots. His tales embodied that "sense of wonder" which. for the most part, has been lost in the genre. Although much of the science may have a dated feel to it, as does the writing style, the ideas that drive the stories are as enthralling now as they were 70 years ago.

Donald Wandrei's fiction output was mostly in the realm of the short story, but he did write the extraordinary novel The Web of Easter Island, which was published in 1948 by Arkham House. Given the innate mystery of the Pacific island, I'm not surprised Wandrei chose it for a setting, though I am surprised more writers have not followed suit -- of the hundreds of books about Easter Island (Rapa Nui to its inhabitants) less than a half-dozen are fiction. The Web of Easter Island is the sort of book Lovecraft had in mind when he sought to define a "cosmic literature." The protagonist investigates the mystery represented by a strange green stone, discovers a vast vault beneath a graveyard in England, falls into a time trap that carries him to Easter Island as the great statues are awakening...and then things get a little wild after that. It's a thought-provoking and fascinating novel, and I have no idea why it had to wait until 1948 to find a publisher (it was first penned in 1932 under the title Dead Titans, Waken!); but, then, I don't understand why it has not been reprinted since. Tracking down this book in pre-Internet days was not easy, but it's such a simple task now, with and, that I could ask my dog Skipper to fetch it.

About a year before Colossus was published by Fedogan & Bremer, Marc Michaud's Necronomicon Press published two booklets important to anyone interested in Don Wandrei's legacy. The first is Collected Poems, which collects poems from Ecstasy and Other Poems (1928), Dark Odyssey (1931) and Poems for Midnight (1964), plus uncollected poems from various magazines, resulting in a comprehensive anthology of all his known poems, accompanied by illustrations from his younger brother, Howard.

The cover price ($8.95) was a bit steep at the time, but one of the axioms of the world of small press publishing is that books will always be more expensive because of small press runs, specialized interests and narrow profit margins. The other half of the equation is that, with time, most of these small press booklets increase in value; what I paid $8.95 (+shipping) can now be had for about $50.

The second booklet of interest from Necronomicon Press is the third issue of Studies in Weird Fiction, a journal of occasional frequency. This publication in 1988 and contains several memoirs about the man, and some studies of an academic nature. To find this booklet now is not difficult, but the $4.50 price is a thing of the past -- dealers want a minimum of $100 for it these days. 

The past may indeed be an elusive goal, constantly eluding our grasp, but that does not mean our literary heritage is beyond rescue. A thousand copies of Colossus were printed, and my copy will endure, as will  The Web of Easter Island. Only about three hundred copies of Collected Poems and Studies in Weird Fiction were printed by Necronomicon Press, but I have a copy of each in my library. An idea I've toyed with from time to time is a scenario where civilization (as we know it) comes to an end, an impoverished civilization arises on the old, future archaeologists burrow into the ruins of my library and rebuild civilization according to what they find...not entirely impossible, but, admittedly, these future people might develop some strange ideas about the past. What can I say -- eclectic!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

F&SF's Special Author Issues

September 1962
When my mother broke her ankle many years ago, it fell to me to run errands for her, bring her glasses of water, make sandwiches, change channels (well, truth to tell, I had to do that anyway since children predate the invention of the remote), make meals, and a myriad of other services. My younger brother was always out running around with his ne'er-do-well cronies, so there never really was any thought of having him do any of the work...besides, it would have meant instilling a sense of responsibility. While taking care of my mother did not interfere with any outside activities it surely did cut into my reading. It seemed every time I picked up a book or magazine, my mother would ring her bell (how loud it was!) summoning me to bring or take away something. I prayed often for my mother's quick recuperation, and though my intentions were pure, I fear God would not have approved of my reasons.

Usually no good deed goes unpunished (or such was the axiom at my last place of employment), but this is not one of those instances. In a fit of gratitude, my mother said she would buy me any magazine I wanted from the rack at the local Thrifty Drug Store. I think she expected me to gravitate, as usual, to the comic books, which were only a dime. I probably would have -- Superman, Batman, Fantastic Four, Blackhawk, etc -- except I was suddenly distracted by a much smaller, though thicker publication, a digest-sized magazine entitled The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which cost a whopping 40 cents. Four times the cost of a comic, but she did say any magazine. She kept her word, but, then, she did not at the time know what I was getting myself into.

May 1963
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF, as it is ubiquitously known) began in 1949, but I did not know anything about it. To me, it was as new as tomorrow, and the stories amazed me. While I had read fantasy and science fiction stories in anthologies, the existence of magazines filled with such fiction was unknown to me, which is odd, actually, because some of the anthologies were collections from the magazines themselves --I led a sheltered life, and sometimes failed to make obvious connections. I later branched off into the other magazines of the time -- Galaxy, Analog, If, Amazing, etc. -- but F&SF holds a special place in my literary heart.

One of the things I liked about F&SF was its special author issues, which were published on an irregular basis. Each one contained one or more stories by the featured author, a biography, a checklist of works, a commemorative cover and, usually, tributes by other writers. The first author for the honor was Theodore Sturgeon, a writer more known for short fiction than novels, in the September 1962 issue. The next author, in May 1963, was Ray Bradbury, another writer more known for his short fiction; his novel Fahrenheit 451 will never be equaled, though its lessons seem destined to be forgotten, time after time. I have a story to tell about Ray Bradbury, but the tale of Ray Bradbury, me and the tsunami will have to wait for another blog.

October 1966
Now, of all the author issues, the Isaac Asimov special from 1966 was my favorite, for Asimov edged out Bradbury and even Arthur C. Clarke in my literary pantheon. I would not say I worshiped the man, but I probably did come a tad close to violating the first of the commandments brought down from the mountain by Moses. And this issue helped me get an "A+++" in an English class, the only such grade ever awarded by Mrs Wells.

We had to write an essay on our favorite writer, and my choice was Isaac Asimov, someone not known to Mrs Wells...but she qualified as an expert by the time she finished my entry. We had to write 8-10 pages, and that meant by hand -- back then, not every kid could afford a typewriter. We had only pens, pencils and our brains, and I think we outperformed the modern breed of gadget-addicted savants. While our teacher specified the number of pages, she failed to mention not to use legal-length paper and she had no idea a human could print so damned small. My paper was easily three times longer than the efforts of my fellow academicians. She was more careful when it came to future assignments.

April 1971
July 1969
I also enjoyed the F&SF issues honoring Fritz Leiber (l) and Poul Anderson (r). I had the great pleasure of meeting Leiber at a World Fantasy Convention in the 90s; and Anderson had the misfortune of having his house invaded by myself and my cousin during a school vacation. Both writers are no longer with us, but one thing about being a writer is that you never really depart this world, not while people still read your stories and think of you. My memories of Leiber and Anderson are still as vivid as they were in my youth, perhaps even more so because fondness for departed friends always seems to grow even as the sadness at their passing seems to ebb. 

F&SF continued publishing special author issues through the 1970s, honoring James Blish (April 1972), Frederick Pohl (September 1973), Robert Silverberg (April 1974), Damon Knight (November 1976) and Harlan Ellison (July 1977), most of whom I had the chance to meet at one time or another at various events

I always associate James Blish with flying cities, an epic series of novels which first appeared in Astounding during the war years, which were given a new level of popularity by another generation in the 1960s, then again in the 1980s. Over the years, I've read a bunch of Frederick Pohl's novels (as well as his collaborations with C.M. Kornbluth), but none of them really stand out as having affected me or changed my outlook; he is a "series writer," is that his novels generally fall into one of his many highly popular literary universes. Reading Robert Silverberg's tales is to be immersed in a world of mythic proportions, and he's one of the first writers to assault readers with the club of social conscience. Time travel, drugs, religion, sex, race and social turmoil -- all are grist for the grindstones of his cosmic mill.

Damon Knight was a prolific writer, but if he is known for one thing, it will be for a story called "To Serve Man." Even those who never read it are familiar with it thanks to it being adapted as a episode of the original Twilight Zone. Despite the story being simplified almost to the point of butchery, no one will ever forget the last line about the book (To Serve Man) left by the aliens -- "It's a cook book!" The ironic twist was Knight's signature and why his short fiction is more powerful than it would be just for its themes and concepts.

Harlan Ellison was an attendee at the same fantasy convention at which I met Leiber, Silverberg and others, and he was the hardest working person there, attending panel after panel, often leaving one panel halfway through so he could make it to another, or showing up late. He brought it on himself because he asked the organizers to schedule him for as many panels as humanly it turned out, they scheduled him for as many as was inhumanly possible, but, unbelievably, he coped with the demand on his time and intellect. None of it really surprised me because he writes the same way -- breakneck speed, meteor-impact intensity and knowledgeable of subjects as far apart as life and death. Most fans, writers, editors and publishers (and James Cameron) have horror stories to tell about the "enfant terrible of science fiction," but I saw him at his best and most gracious, unshaken by the demands of that wonderful week.

After a long hiatus F&SF published five more special author issues, beginning with Stephen King in December 1990 and ending with Gene Wolf in April 2007, but they are not in my collection. I had changed by then, developing other interests, pursuing other activities; and economic realities had also changed for me. Money that I might have otherwise spent on necessities like books and magazines was diverted to such luxuries as a mortgage, children's education and food on the table. The world is an eminently unfair place, especially to those whose life is an open book.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Unattended Children Will... Go On Adventures

Quick – I have a challenge for you: Go to your bookcase and pull out one of the children’s books. More than likely, the book you have chosen does not have parents in a strong and positive role.

Recently I was forwarded an email asking about children’s books that had parents as role models and I realized that, like in a Disney film, there aren’t many. This got me thinking as to why they are strangely absent from the pages when most people do, in fact, have parents. 

Three book series I love: Sisters Grimm - Parents are missing, 
Chronicles of Narnia - Adults are rarely seen,
Harry Potter - He's an orphan and his Aunt and Uncle are not great examples of humanity.

Parents don’t belong in this literary universe. If parents were there, the story would be very short and most of the adventures would not occur. Parents take on two functions to children: Protector and nonbeliever.

When I was a kid, I was kind of a scaredy-cat (still am, but I’m better at faking it now) due to an overactive imagination. Even the Happiest Place on Earth, Disneyland, did not escape my visions of danger: I wouldn’t go on the Matterhorn because I just knew the Abominable Snowman was going to unthaw and go on a rampage. 

Still manages to terrify me

A lot of adults don’t understand how things look to a kid. There are some important things to remember that adults seem to forget once they reach a certain age:
  • Height – kids are short, everything seems bigger to them. Ever go back to your old jungle gym or stand next to relatives you used to think were tall? Notice how much shorter they are now? They didn’t shrink, you grew.
  • Experience – you learned as you went how things worked. You were not imbued with this knowledge when you were born, neither are they. Children don’t always know what is possible and what isn’t because they have no frame of reference.

At Disneyland, I would often sit between my parents because I knew my parents would be able to protect me from anything. I knew they could take on the witch in “Snow White’s Scary Adventure” if she tried to stuff a poison apple in my mouth. On the submarine ride, if the octopus punched through the hull and tried to drag me away, I knew my parents would wrestle the octopus and we’d all have sushi. I kept my feet off the floor as a precaution but I knew, without a doubt, that they could handle him. And that’s the thing – parents are protectors. They can diffuse situations before they even happen; they practically have superpowers. Every kid knows this. If parents were in the story, there would be no reason for the kid to go on any adventures and the kid would not be in peril.

For the most part, parents are non-believers. When I was a kid I saw a ghost and I told my mom about it. She said: “I believe you believe you saw a ghost.” This I-believe-you-believe type sentence is the same as telling someone, “I’m going to humor you, but I think you’re crazy.” Parents are often poking holes in the reports of things that children see; and every kid knows that adults can’t see monsters under the bed or in the closet. They open the door to prove there’s no monster, but we know better. Every kid knows monsters are chameleon-like and can blend into their surroundings whenever an adult looks at them.

In a horror movie, there is an archetype of the seemingly crazy person who tries to warn everyone that there is danger ahead and no one believes them. And they end up being absolutely correct. Same thing, except parents have the power to actually make the danger not exist, making kids not “seemingly crazy” but just plain crazy.

Exactly how we end up feeling when parents insist there is no monster in our closet. We know better.

Parents don’t belong in the children’s literary world, but they do belong in our regular one. The best way to provide a good role model to your kids is to read with them and tell them stories. Trust me on this, it works. I would not have turned out as fantastically awesome (and modest) as I did if my parents hadn’t sat with me and read with me.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Never Lost in long as Queen Victoria reigns (or maybe Eddie)

It's all Gary Lovisi's fault...or so I tell myself.

Gary Lovisi is the publisher of Gryphon Books of Brooklyn, N.Y., avid collector of paperback books, and Sherlock Holmes expert. When it comes to paperback collecting, he wrote the, really, he did write the book: the Antique Traders Collectible Paperback Price Guide. And when it comes to Sherlock Holmes, his knowledge is inexhaustible. And the books published by his own small press house are worth collecting themselves. If you have never visited his website, please do yourself a favor:

But back to Gary Lovisi's culpability. After Gryphon Books published Sherlock Holmes: Adventure of the Ancient Gods, Gary suggested that, were I to write a sequel, he'd be interested in "first refusal." A sequel was far from my mind, but Gary had planted the seed, and eventually I wrote Sherlock Holmes and the Terror Out of Time and Sherlock Holmes: The Coils of Time. So, am I blaming Gary Lovisi for those books? No, not at all; I blame him for my fondness ("addiction" is such an ugly word) for London guidebooks.

Before ever I write a single line, I delve deep into a region's lore and history. Nothing unique about that. Many writers' yarns could be used as walkabout guides. Personally, I love stories with a strong sense of place. Sir Arthur's own tales document London with the accuracy of a camera; one of my favorite books pairs quotes from his stories with period photos. Other writers who have married fiction and geography include Raymond Chandler, HP Lovecraft, Steven Saylor and William Faulkner. I also read books about time periods, but I favor books from from those periods, particularly guidebooks.

This edition had a full-sized fold-out map of all London in the back.

I told myself I was tracking down various editions of Baedekers, Muirhead's, ABC Rail Guides and many others just so I could accurately trace my way through London and provide readers with a memorable and accurate visit to Baghdad on the Thames. Of course, after about a dozen acquisitions through EBay, estate sales and various booksellers, here and abroad, that excuse began to wear thin, even to me.

When a passing cab picked up India Jack Neville near the East India Docks it was equally important to me that all the streets and buildings were correct as it was that poor India Jack not get rooked by the driver. However, since the British tar did not live long enough to pay a fare, the amount was actually something of a moot point. Still, knowing how much it would cost for a hansom cab ride from Charing Cross to the Zoological Gardens, for example, is a nice thing to know. Like it might come in handy some day. Well, it might! All right, maybe not, but still nice to know.

Guidebooks of London from the Victorian and Edwardian eras are not really that difficult to find, nor need they be expensive. A great many came to me via the EBay auction site, which used to function like a global car boot sale or a million garage sales; unfortunately, the once-friendly site has been overrun by corporate entities, grifters and swindlers from the Far East. ABE Books was another good source, but, caution is always advised when buying a book online, even if a photo is supplied, and sellers found themselves peppered with queries. My favorite method of purchase was in person, and it really is surprising how often antique guidebooks show up at estate sales and charity shops. Regardless of how I came across them, I still had more books (Victorian, Edwardian, the VI Georgian and the II Elizabethan) than I could ever justify with any number of books and stories I could write set in London.

This was the cultural/economic heart of London; another book I have, The London of Oscar Wilde, discounts
entirely London's East End, averring there was no need for a gentleman to ever set foot there.

It's a little difficult to see in this scan, but some 19th Century London tourist annotated the map in pencil.

Despite its small size, the Zoological Gardens was a marvel of its time;
when an antiques dealer is killed nearby in the unpublished The Quest of the Copper Scrolls Scotland
Yard conveniently blames it on an escaped lion...that somehow found its way back in.

The previous owner of this copy of The Streets of London decided
to keep his book updated through tipped-in articles from and
letters to the London Times.
I love used books!

Augustus Hare's two-volume opus is strictly not a "guidebook",  but it one of my favorites; It is just
what the title claims...street by street...step by by house...profusely illustrated.
One interesting thing about guidebooks of the past was they were often rife with advertisements. While most of the ads concerned hotels in London (none in the East End, of course) and in popular spots along the many rail lines, others were for charitable associations, house agents and purveyors of "personal" products. Here are a few examples:

"Temperance Hotel" -- Don't expect it to have a bar, American or otherwise.

Mystery writer Agatha Christie was born in Torquay in 1890, and it continued to play a part in her life
and fiction; when she and husband Max Mallowan bought a home there they would have used house agents
such as those who advertised in the various guidebooks of the times.

Rowland's Kalydor might protect and promote soft, delicate skin, but a little arsenic
will give the cultured lady of society that peaches-and-cream complexion so appealing to dukes and earls.
(Hint: Don't go overboard with the arsenic)

So, you see, I would not have any of these dozens of books had Gary Lovisi not asked for "first refusal" of books I had no intention of writing. Acquiring so many was just an outgrowth of my desire to provide readers with literary excursions that were as accurate as possible, a sense of verisimilitude that they could "take to the bank," so to speak; I'm sure I was just trying to follow the guidance of the great Isaac Asimov, who once said: "No one reads a story for scientific facts, but certainly no one reads it for errors." And I think the stories I wrote were the better for the cultural immersion of their author.

Croatian edition:  Coils of Time

German edition: Coils of Time

The new incarnation of "The Coils of
Time" a few friends

On the other hand, while I might be able to pass off responsibility to another for my collection of London  guidebooks, street histories and books about the lore of London, it is, I admit, difficult to explain my affinity for Victorian novels, especially those of the sub-genre known as London shop girl stories...will the poor lass discover the truth about her inheritance...will she marry the duke who does not realize her lowly status in society...will she find happiness? I just have to know.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Under the Moons of Barsoom

I first traveled to Barsoom by way of Amtor. It was a deep cold night and I sat close to the campfire, feeling the heat against my face, the frigid night's breath against my back. The skies were cloudless, the stars glimmering above the mountains such as they are never seen above the habitations of man. The Milky Way (the Via Lactea of the Romans) was indeed a royal road through the heavens that night, and the wandering planets shone with the glory of unfallen angels. I was not yet a teen, and by the leaping light of the campfire, while others slept the untroubled sleep of the weary or the innocent, I read the following:

When Carson Napier left my office to fly to Guadalupe Island and take off for Mars in the giant rocket that he had constructed there for that purpose, I was positive that I should never see him again in the flesh. That his highly developed telepathic powers, through the medium of which he hoped to communicate with me, might permit me to envisage him and communicate with him I had no doubts; but I expected no messages after he had detonated the first rocket. I thought that Carson Napier would die within a few seconds of the initiation of his mad scheme.
But my fears were not realized. I followed him through his mad, month-long journey through space, trembling with him as the gravitation of the Moon drew the great rocket from its course and sent it hurtling toward the Sun, holding my breath as he was gripped by the power of Venus, and thrilling to his initial adventures upon that mysterious, cloud-enwrapped planet--Amtor, as it is known to its human inhabitants.
His love for the unattainable Duare, daughter of a king, their capture by the cruel Thorians, his self-sacrificing rescue of the girl, held me enthralled. I saw the strange, unearthly bird-man bearing Duare from the rockbound shore of Noobol to the ship that was to bear her back to her native land just as Carson Napier was overwhelmed and made prisoner by a strong band of Thorians.
I saw--but now let Carson Napier tell his own story in his own words while I retire again to the impersonality of my role of scribe.
Such were the opening words of Edgar Rice Burroughs in introducing adventurer Carson Napier, an Earthman marooned upon Venus. I knew Burroughs from his Tarzan books, which I had started reading when I was about six (thanks, Uncle Bob), but these stories set on Venus were new to me, and I devoured them avidly. The most important thing about these Ace Books editions of the Venus tales, however, was that they led me to an even greater series by Burroughs -- the Martian Stories, set on a wonderful and savage Mars, which the inhabitants called Barsoom.

It all began in 1911, when Edgar Rice Burroughs was 35 years old and still wanting to make his mark on the world. He had always been something of a scribbler, but had never been published. In fact, he was somewhat in the dark about how the publishing world worked, what rights were involved, a naivety that was to cost him dearly before he became the consummate self-publicist. He was an avid reader of All-Story Magazine, and decided to go for it. He wrote several thousand words of a novel that had been rattling in his head, and promised he could supply the rest of the story. Editors were a bit more human then, and publishing not yet a soulless business, so the editor responded with suggestions about pacing and content, and gave him an invitation to submit. So Burroughs sent in Dejah Thoris, Martian Princess under the pen-name "Normal Bean" -- the story was so wild (science fiction had yet to become a recognized genre) that he did not want people to think him a lunatic; the editor decided on Under the Moons of Mars as the title and a typesetter decided "Normal" was just a typo to be changed to "Norman," and the first adventure of Captain John Carter of Virginia on Barsoom exploded upon the world in 1912.

1921 serialization, w/o ERB's consent
All-Story Magazine

Under the Moons of Mars saw book publication in 1917, after Burroughs had gained worldwide fame through the Tarzan tales, as A Princess of Mars, the title under which it is now known. There are eleven tales in the series and I read them all. I had caught the Barsoom bug, which forced me to go beyond the novels published by Ace, later by Ballantine. One natural format, both for the Barsoom stories and to grab my attention, was the comic book. Say what you want about comic books and the seduction of the innocent, but they helped me learn to read, so when I saw the Gold Key adaptation of A Princess of Mars (though they titled it John Carter of Mars, the eleventh book) I could not resist.

The world of Barsoom was based a bit on the Mars theories of astronomer Percival Lowell, portraying it as a dying desert planet. Burroughs populated it with savage green men with four arms, holy white priests, black pirates and scientific red people...then got really wild, creating entire societies, artificial languages, histories, animals and a unique ecology, even before environmental concerns became ubiquitous; he even created a Martian version of chess, which took central stage in the aptly titled The Chessmen of Mars. One of the most astounding aspects of the Mars series is how well everything holds together.

One of my favorite books about Barsoom is written not by Edgar Rice Burroughs, but by fan John Flint Roy. The copiously illustrated tome A Guide to Barsoom delves into every detail of the imagined world, its people, geography, history, culture, even its weapons and wrist-watches. A magnificent literary achievement which is unfortunately and undeservedly out of print. However, I hope that will soon change as a whole new generation is exposed to Burroughs' Barsoom.

Like other Burroughs fans, I've always looked forward to (and dreaded) a film version of the book. Yes and no -- every avid reader has a love-hate relationship with Hollywood. We look forward to seeing our favorite books brought to the big screen, then walk out the theater muttering (or yelling), "The book was better!" With A Princess of Mars, however, there was something of a general consensus that a faithful film version was not possible. While stop-motion photography (state of the art then) could probably have handled the special effects with efficiency (look at what was accomplished in 1963's Jason and the Argonauts), what to do about a human who is supposed to hop in the lighter Barsoomian gravity like a super-kangaroo and characters who were clothed in...well, they were garbed in their virtue and not much else? The human form is more perfect in its idealization than its realization, and the old adage of it looked good on paper is no truer than in the costumes (or lack thereof) of Barsoom. Still, we have always yearned...despite Hollywood's rather wretched reputation.

But time moves on -- we have computers now, and society has new mores. A film adaptation of A Princess of Mars has been in the works so long that most people gave up on it ever coming to fruition. Those who kept the faith, however, will be rewarded on 9 March 2012.

The initial title was the same as the book, but for reasons unknown the studio changed it to John Carter of Mars; then, for even more obscure and unfathomable reasons, the title was changed to John Carter, not a good idea as far as I'm concerned. The decision not to use A Princess of Mars might have been an attempt to distance the Disney production from the 2009 Asylum-produced straight-to-DVD mockbuster film Princess of Mars, which starred male model Antonio Sabato Jr as Afghanistan-stationed sniper John Carter and heartthrob Traci Lords as a not-quite-so-young blonde Dejah Thoris; but the decision to take "Mars" out of the title...they're on their own to explain that bone-headed move. I've seen the trailer for John Carter, and it's easily searchable on YouTube if you so desire, but you really can't decide anything from a trailer -- given good editing, dynamic music and smoldering close-ups, even Congress could be made to look interesting.


I guess what fascinates me most about A Princess of Mars is that it's never really been out of print, even after nearly 100 years; despite the best efforts of academia it's the popularity of the book that keeps it in print, not its position on a list of "required reading." Though it's been decades since I discovered the worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs, not just Amtor and Barsoom, but Pellucidar, Caprona and Lunaria, I find they have remained fresh to me. Hopefully, even if the Disney film is a dog, the film will bring new readers to the books; and boys and girls will once again gaze at the night sky, at a shimmering ruddy light bright in the welkin, and dream of riding their thoats across the deserts of Barsoom.

And, now, a quick look at some interpretations of A Princess of Mars,
Barsoom, John Carter, Dejah Thoris & Tars Tarkas: