Saturday, April 17, 2021

These Good Things We Are Granted

Today on a cool day in April, with the perfume of crabapple blossoms in my window, I finished reading The Moonflower Vine by Jetta Carleton (1913-1999). It's a beautifully written book, full of love and warmth and affection, and very funny, too. Published in 1962, The Moonflower Vine is also underlain with darker things, with sin and guilt and transgression. As you approach its end, an awareness very suddenly arises within you that there is something hidden at the heart of the story and that the ending of it will be a surprise, just as in a genre story. Suspense builds. There is a kind of anxiety crying out for catharsis. And then it comes, and the whole experience of this book reverberates for long moments after you have turned the last page. The mood of The Moonflower Vine came into my dreams last night, and now that I have finished reading, it still echoes and vibrates within me.

Sometimes authors mention other authors in their books. Jetta Carleton did that in The Moonflower Vine. I have the Fawcett Crest paperback edition (no date). On page 185:

With their stockings rolled down and their skirts pulled up, they read aloud to each other and told naughty jokes and laughed. Sometimes they read Good Housekeeping--lush romantic stories by Temple Bailey, Emma Lindsay-Squier, and Queen Marie of Roumania. Now and then they horrified themselves with a tattered copy of True Story which Jessica had found on the train. [. . .]

These are names from the past, as remote from us now as the household task of washing and baking down feathers and stuffing them into new pillow ticking. (Something done in Jetta's novel, taken as most of it is from life.) But fans of genre fiction might recognize the name Emma-Lindsay Squier* (1892-1941), for she was a teller of weird tales. In addition to authoring a hardbound collection called The Bride of the Sacred Well and Other Tales of Ancient Mexico (1928), Emma-Lindsay wrote one story for Weird Tales, "The Door of Hell," from the August issue, 1926.

Jetta Carleton's mother died in March 1958. Jetta's novel came out four years later to great acclaim. She dedicated it to her father and sisters and in memory of her mother. Her fictionalized mother's story and her surprise and secret close the book. Callie Soames also speaks the last words spoken in The Moonflower Vine:

"Thank you," she says.

Thank you.

My own mother died sixteen years ago today, in the morning, and she went away into the morning.

* * *

"She was thinking that perhaps, after all, her God and Matthew's differed. She had made hers up in her head. But Matthew was smart, he could read; perhaps his God of wrath was the real one and every word of the Bible true, though some were as bitter as gall." (p. 301)

Even before I read that passage in The Moonflower Vine, I had a sense that this was true among its characters, and that it's a truth that might grow outside the pages of a book into whole ways of looking at the world. Callie loves the world and is happy: "Oh, if she never got to heaven, this was enough, this lovely earth with its sunlight and its mornings and something always to look forward to. (Earth had that over Heaven!)" (p. 303) But her ideas are not utopian, for she lives in the real world and is a believer in God. (Utopianism is for nonbelievers and people who live in their heads.) Instead, we might call them idyllic or arcadian or pastoral or whatever word or words we might use to describe things that are without words because they are things of the heart instead of those of the abstract and inward-turning mind.

Matthew, her husband, has his own sins, his own guilt. But his is a darker personality. His imagination seems almost apocalyptic . . .

And so we have these two responses to the world, arising perhaps from differing views of God--on one hand, the idyllic way, and on the other, the apocalyptic vision--and I realize that both might come from the same place: from Christianity itself. Or is it that Christianity addresses the opposition that is within each of us of the apocalyptic to the idyllic? The Bible itself is built upon an opposition: at the beginning, a pastoral, an idyll, a Garden of peace and repose; at the end, a dream, a vision--four riders are approaching: Apocalypse.

Are we to be happy? Will there be love and contentment in and among God's Creation? Or will there be rage and despair, buried in and too often erupting--exploding into hatred and violence--from the darkened human heart?


*Jetta Carleton put the hyphen in the wrong place.

I write on April 14 for publication on April 17, 2021.

Original text copyright 2021 Terence E. Hanley.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Ice & Icebergs on the Cover of Weird Tales

The first installment of "Under the Moons of Mars" was published in The All-Story in February 1912. By April, readers would have been halfway through Burroughs' first published work and the first of what would be eleven volumes recounting John Carter's adventures on Mars.

There was a far bigger story in April 1912, though. On April 15, after striking an iceberg in the North Atlantic Ocean, the RMS Titanic went to Davy Jones' locker. More than 1,500 people died in the disaster, including the American mystery writer Jacques Futrelle (1875-1912). Born in the same year as Edgar Rice Burroughs, Futrelle died as Burroughs was reaching the greatest success of his young life.

There are several covers of Weird Tales depicting snowy scenes and many with ships, but only two that I have found showing ice, and only the first of these also shows a ship.

Weird Tales, October 1923. Cover story: "The Amazing Adventure of Joe Scranton" by Effie W. Fifield. Cover art by R.M. Mally

Weird Tales, May 1939. Cover story: "The Hollow Moon" by Everil Worrell. Cover art by Harold S. De Lay. Note that "Almuric" (part one) by Robert E. Howard was also in this issue. Almuric, an uncharacteristic work by Howard, is more or less a pastiche of Burroughs' Mars novels.

May all who perished rest in peace.

Text copyright 2021 Terence E. Hanley

Monday, April 12, 2021

Utopia & Dystopia in Weird Tales-Part Nine

Mars, Red to Blue

For simplicity's sake, Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) and his works are thrown into a big bucket called "science fiction." We like to categorize and we want our categorizing to be easy. But Burroughs began writing before there was a well-formed thing called science fiction--"Under the Moons of Mars" was in The All-Story on this day 109 years ago--and by our standards and our current categories, stories of John Carter on Barsoom are more properly called science fantasy*, planetary romance, or swords and planets. I would say that, like Star Wars, Burroughs' Mars books are not science fiction.

And now I take it all back. (But maybe not really.)

By our current categories, Burroughs' Mars books may not be science fiction, but before the Great War and even early in the interwar period, there may not have been any more popular, influential, or pertinent example of the genre, at least on this side of the pond. (On that topic, there are still things to come.) They were the state of science fiction at the time, and they were so powerful in the imagination that they endured for decades, in their pure, original, science-fantasy form, perhaps more deeply and intensely in science fiction, space opera, and space fantasy. (There are swords and sabers--airships, too--on both Barsoom and Tatooine. See the images below.) Even into the Space Age, some people imagined Mars to be the way Burroughs had imagined it. Even some scientists still thought of Mars as a dry but habitable planet (and Venus as wet but also habitable). Canals still webbed the Red Planet's surface. Ruined or dying cities might still be found at their nodes. Decadent or moribund peoples might still haunt those cities and their engulfing, pitiless deserts. Maybe there were or once had been other people in our solar system. Maybe someday we would come upon their artifacts and ruins, like a forlorn and windswept City on the Edge of Forever.

That popular image of Mars persisted even after the mid-sixties Mariner 4 mission showed the planet to be not just mostly dead but all dead--persisted, that is, in the popular imagination if nowhere else. Even in the 1970s, there were artists' images of Mars showing a patchwork of green and red, the green parts tied to each other by ligamentous canals, the two colors waxing and waning, warring with each other within the wider cycle of the Martian year. We so wanted there to be life on Mars. We wanted the green to exist and for it to be plant-life, even if it was just simple moss or lichens. You might look at the Viking missions of a decade after Mariner as acts of quiet desperation, as a kind of grasping at the straws of the idea that the Red Planet was once alive and vibrant and that life might still be found there. The views from a space-borne Mariner weren't enough. We needed a close-up view of things. We needed to touch the surface: the arm of the Viking lander would extend like the forefinger of God, but instead of bestowing life upon Mars, it would detect it. Carl Sagan (1934-1996), an ardent childhood reader of Burroughs, was instrumental in the Viking missions. Although a scientist, Dr. Sagan seems to me to have been more than anything a hopeless romantic. I think he went to his grave believing in life on other planets.

But there would be no Barsoom.

There wasn't even a bacterium.

In January 1980, a little over three years after the Viking landers set down, NBC-TV broadcast The Martian Chronicles, based on stories by Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) and with a screenplay by his friend, Richard Matheson (1926-2013). Both men had been young contributors to Weird Tales. Bradbury loved Burroughs' Mars books so much that as a child he wrote a sequel to The Warlord of Mars (1919). Even in 1980, we were holding on to romantic notions of Mars. But instead of being red, Mars in our imagination had turned blue, not only for the terrible sadness and melancholy of The Martian Chronicles, but also for the cyanotic lack of oxygen in its rarefied air. Red planet, blue mood.

By 1990, when Total Recall was released, Mars had become a kind of cyber-corporate-dystopia. In seven decades, the -topia of Red Planet had seemingly gone from Burroughs' U- to a Philip K. Dick-inspired Dys-. But in the climactic scenes of the movie, the hero Quaid reactivates the ancient Martian atmosphere factory, the vivifying plant in the original Mars books, and the blue of sadness and cyanosis gives way to a cyan sky: Mars is suddenly terraformed and Burroughs' vision is redeemed: Dystopia is banished and Utopia returned to Mars.

To be continued . . .


*I still want to hold on to there being a close connection between science fantasy and Lost Worlds: I think of Burroughs' Mars novels as science fantasy/Lost Worlds set not on a closed Earth but in an open--and limitless--universe. With that being the case, it's a short step from science fantasy to science fiction, and the doors of the universe are thrown open to every kind of storytelling.

The Gods of Mars & The Warlord of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs in the Nelson Doubleday edition of 1971. Frank Frazetta's cover illustration is a tour de force of action and painterly technique. I suspect he finished it in a day or less. The Thark's red cloak is reminiscent of the one worn by the ape-creature on Frazetta's cover for the Lancer edition of Conan.

A rear view of this wraparound cover will show a rear view of Dejah Thoris, too. Frazetta had his proclivities. But his choice in depicting the female figure in such a way wasn't just about showing a good shot of her fanny. Or at least I don't think it was. By turning her away from us and posing her the way that he did, I think he heightened the mystery and peril of the situation in which the lovers find themselves. She is firm in the grip of the ape-creatures and is rapidly being carried away by them. John Carter had better do something, and fast, before she disappears from this tableau. (Winslow Homer did the same kind of turning away in his picture-making. I think his purpose was to depersonalize, and thus universalize, his figures.) By the way, if you look quickly enough, you will see the same kind of rear view and split, gray-toned, feminine anatomy in the climactic scenes of Total Recall.

Frank Schoonover (1877-1972) was one of the original John Carter artists. Here is his cover for The Gods of Mars, from 1919. His protagonist is a little goofy-looking. My reason for showing this image is to point out the similarity between Burroughs' desert airships and those run by Jabba the Hutt's gang in Return of the Jedi (1983): George Lucas--just like seemingly everybody else in twentieth-century American fantasy and science fiction--was almost certainly influenced, directly or indirectly, by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Original text copyright 2021 Terence E. Hanley

Friday, April 9, 2021

Utopia & Dystopia in Weird Tales-Part Eight

Arcadian Utopias

Dejah Thoris upbraids and implores the Tharks of Barsoom:

"Why, oh, why will you not learn to live in amity with your fellows. Must you ever go on down the ages to your final extinction but little above the plane of the dumb brutes that serve you! A people without written language, without art, without homes, without love; the victims of eons of the horrible community idea. Owning everything in common, even to your women and children, has resulted in your owning nothing in common. You hate each other as you hate all else except yourselves. Come back to the ways of our common ancestors, come back to the light of kindliness and fellowship. The way is open to you, you will find the hands of the red men stretched out to aid you. Together we may do still more to regenerate our dying planet. The granddaughter of the greatest and mightiest of the red jeddaks has asked you. Will you come?" (A Princess of Mars, Nelson-Doubleday, 1970, pp. 52-53)

This passage is as clear and succinct as any in illustrating Edgar Rice Burroughs' conservatism. It seems to me, though, that his views were not reactionary so much as a uniquely Burkean/American version of conservatism. This version might not be easily portable except perhaps into the Lost Worlds of the imagination. Maybe fictional conservative utopias are possible after all.

* * * 

In this blog, I have made distinctions and emphasized dichotomies:

  • Progressive vs. conservative
  • High culture vs. low or folk culture
  • Science fiction vs. fantasy and weird fiction
  • Utopia vs. Dystopia
  • The intellectual-elite vs. the popular

These distinctions don't always hold up very well. They are, after all, attempts to impose an architecture upon things that are wholly natural and organic. Science fiction author Jack Williamson (1908-2006) made distinctions, too. He considered the dystopian tradition older than the utopian. He found the origins of Dystopia in the ancient, G_d- or gods-centered, Egyptian/Hebraic past. Utopia, on the other hand, is from Greek humanism, still ancient, but more derived, and in our age more prevalent.

There are more distinctions to make. Here is an important one I think, from Utopian Fantasy: A Study of English Utopian Fiction Since the End of the Nineteenth Century by Richard Gerber (McGraw-Hill, 1973):

In a sense every utopia is scientific. [. . .] All the same, though most utopias show signs of scientific detachment, it is well to distinguish between scientific and arcadian utopias. For in the arcadian utopia the scientific method, the thought applied to the building of utopia, is used to abolish every kind of scientifically rigid construction within utopia. Anarchy and a sublimated state of nature are proclaimed. [. . .] Both myths are significant, but the scientific clockwork utopia possesses a higher degree of reality, embodying modern man’s real hopes and fears. The arcadian Utopia nowadays has hardly any other function than reactionary wish-fulfillment [. . .]. (pp. 46-48)

It's clear that Mr. Gerber is coming at things from the left, but his point is a good one: that in the genre of Utopia, there is a distinction to be made between the scientific (and progressive) type versus the arcadian (and conservative, or as he calls it "reactionary") type. If there is such a distinction, then a seeming contradiction--Edgar Rice Burroughs as a conservative utopian--becomes instead a possibility. You might boil it down this way:

Scientific Utopia vs. Arcadian Utopia (or the Utopia of Escape)
Science Fiction, Dystopia, and Apocalypse vs. Science Fantasy and Lost Worlds
H.G. Wells vs. H. Rider Haggard, Rudyard Kipling, and Edgar Rice Burroughs

So where does that leave weird fiction, the catchall category that filled the pages of Weird Tales? Well, I think a little falls on one side and a little on the other. I'm kind of surprised at how this is turning out . . .

* * *

Here is another paper hidden behind a paywall, "The Lost World as Laboratory: The Politics of Evolution between Science and Fiction in the Early Decades of Twentieth-Century America" by Marianne Sommer (2009). Only the abstract appears on the Internet at no cost:

The essay focuses on the writer Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950)--the creator of Tarzan--and his contemporary and president of the American Museum of Natural History, Henry Fairfield Osborn (1857-1935). These historical figures are of interest as multimedia-versed shapers of collective fantasies of human evolution. [. . .] Osborn and Burroughs engaged in "interesting experiment[s] in the mental laboratory which we call imagination" when they made different races, sexes, and national types compete in prehistoric struggles for existence. The laboratory setups were to reveal natural hierarchies, but they were also intended to transform the reader/viewer. The verbal and visual reconstructions of lost worlds served Burroughs's and Osborn's conservatism: the true American/Anglo-Saxon type had to be preserved, if not recovered.

Again, the drift of the paper seems towards emphasizing Burroughs' conservatism except that now there appear to be elements of social Darwinism and racial theory thrown into the mix. But this leads to another important point, and it's in regards to the utopian/science-fictional/science-fantasy hero versus his dystopian/weird-fictional counterpart . . .

To be continued . . .

Thuvia, Maid of Mars & The Chessmen of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (Nelson-Doubleday, 1972), with cover art by Frank Frazetta. What you can't see is a banth on the back cover, a multi-legged lion-creature that threatens John Carter but doesn't seem to bother very much his pink princess. I guess we have all seen this proud and haughty look on the face of a real-life woman.

A Barsoomian city looms large in the background. One distinction I haven't made yet is that Dystopia and the scientific Utopia would seem strictly urban phenomena: the perfectly orderly society--good or bad--requires mass living, urban density, urbanized order. Has anyone ever written a rural Dystopia? Is such a thing even possible? If Richard Gerber is right, then an arcadian Utopia is a possibility, and I guess the Mars novels might fall into that category. But do Tharks inhabit Dystopia? I sense that they don't. Their society is simply primitive, too primitive to reach the level of development needed for a perfectly orderly, perfectly controlled, and perfectly awful dystopian society.

A long time ago, I had a book called The Intellectual Versus the City by Morton Gabriel White and Lucia White. I never read this book, but the title is intriguing. You would think that the intellectual would favor the city. Intellectuals certainly do today. At some point, though, there must have been a flip, but I don't know when or why that would have been. Anyway, characters in dystopian stories often seek to escape from the city and into nature. It happens in THX 1138 (1971) and Logan's Run (1976). In We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1924) and The World Outside by Robert Silverberg (1971), a green and natural world surrounds the dystopian city. These seem to me examples of the divide between the scientific Utopia (aka Dystopia) and the arcadian Utopia, which might as well be called by a different name.

Original text copyright 2021 Terence E. Hanley

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Utopia & Dystopia in Weird Tales-Part Seven

The Red Utopia in the Sky

Gentleman John Carter journeyed to Mars, there to fight and befriend Tharks, all before Tarzan swung on his vine. Like James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) a century before him, Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) got his start by believing that he could pen something better than what he was reading in the popular press. He set out in 1911 to write his story. The first place his imagination went was not to the jungles of Africa but to the red planet Mars. John Carter was projected bodily from a mystical Arizona cave. Burroughs made the journey in his mind.

We might think of Utopia as a socialist or progressive genre, perhaps as a sub within the larger genre of science fiction. Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward: 2000 to 1887 (1888) would seem an exemplar of the socialist Utopia. In their book The Politics of Utopia: A Study in Theory and Practice (1982) Barbara Goodwin and Keith Taylor used the passive voice to pose a sideways question:
It may well be asked why so many 'modern' utopias are socialist--indeed, the two categories almost became coextensive during the nineteenth century.

The authors went on to suggest some answers. The point is that in the nineteenth century, utopianism and socialism were seemingly joined, perhaps with other elements into a nascent science fiction. (Perhaps into a progressive Scientism, too.) We might still think of them that way. The Lost Worlds fantasy, about which I have been writing, might be the conservative's answer to the progressive/socialist Utopia, an exploration into new lands but without all of the abstruse and ultimately murderous theorizing. Instead of going into the glorious future, the Lost Worlds hero ventures into the nostalgic past.

In "Utopias Beyond Our Ideals: The Dilemma of the Right-Wing Utopia" (1991), Peter Fitting, in an epigraph, quotes from Ms. Goodwin and Mr. Taylor's work--

Since the revival of utopianism and utopian scholarship in the 1970s, there has been a growing realization that there are also utopias which eschew and even reject socialist ideals.

--before setting off on his own discussion. Mr. Fitting posits the existence of what he calls "right-wing utopias" (I believe him) and promises to look at some of them. Unfortunately, all but the first page of his paper is hidden behind a paywall. Darned capitalists!

Ditto for Michael Orth's paper "Utopia in the Pulps: The Apocalyptic Pastoralism of Edgar Rice Burroughs" (from Extrapolation, Vol. 27, No. 3, 1986). We might not think of Burroughs as having been a utopian thinker or writer, but the late Mr. Orth made a good start to his case in his opening sentence:

Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote more than seventy books, and at least fifty of them contain elements of utopian thinking--that is, they offer more or less detailed presentations of imaginary cities, peoples, or nations which the author clearly wishes his readers either to admire or detest; and they express a conservative vision of history and possibility.

(Mr. Orth's citation here is to a previous work by Mr. Orth.) And he went on from there, writing: "The conservative vision has always been strong in utopias"--and placing Thomas More's original Utopia, as well as Looking Backward, in the category of conservative utopias. Interesting. Unfortunately again, you can't read very much more before reaching the end of the free part. Double-darn them!

I might agree with Mr. Orth. I have already written that the utopian/progressive/socialist program is essentially conservative in orientation, though of a fiercely reactionary type: it dreams and strives and yearns for a return to the Middle Ages, in which the Progressive/Socialist imagines the monarchy, aristocracy, and clerisy to be few and powerful; the masses of serfs to be static and powerless; and the middle classes, whom he or she derisively calls the bourgeoisie--"bougies" to two-bit Marxists like the Great Bronx Dingbat--to be non-existent.

There are a couple of distinctions to be made here, though. First, if it's a detestable place, then I would call it Dystopia rather than Utopia. Second, conservatives--being essentially non-intellectual or even anti-intellectual--are more likely to write non-intellectual stories of adventure rather than dry, intellectual utopias or even drier and overly intellectualized scholarly works. If it's an adventure story, it was probably written by a conservative, and if it's a Utopia, it was probably written by somebody else. But if Mr. Orth is correct and many utopian stories are essentially conservative, then maybe that distinction falls apart.

One more distinction: the people tend to read popular fictions and forms. If you want them to read it, you've got to make it interesting. There has to be love and car chases. Utopias and scholarly works are more for the intellectual √©lite. People like that don't mind being bored by prose as long as their little ideas are turning in their heads. Or, as another of Peter Fitting's epigraphs reads:

. . . the freedom of writing implies the freedom of the citizen. One does not write for slaves. The art of prose is bound up with the only regime in which prose has meaning, democracy.

That quote is from Jean-Paul Sartre--and he was a Marxist and an intellectual. (So maybe we don't trust it after all.)

So is Utopia essentially a conservative genre? And did Edgar Rice Burroughs write of conservative or "right-wing" utopias? Maybe so. I'd like to read the papers by Mr. Fitting and Mr. Orth in order to learn more. But here we are. Anyway, maybe my line of inquiry has been wrong. But these things might actually fit together pretty well: That the original Utopia and stories like it led to the Lost Worlds fantasy. That the Lost Worlds fantasy, once it could no longer be set on a fully mapped and explored Earth-of-the-present, had to take place somewhere else--or sometime else. And that some of the resulting genres would find a warm and natural home in the pages of Weird Tales.

To be continued . . .


Note: My title, "The Red Utopia in the Sky," is a paraphrase of an expression in Stephen Baxter's sequel to The War of the Worlds, called The Massacre of Mankind (2017). His original phrase is "their arid utopia in the sky" (p. 148), "their" meaning the Martians'. Thanks to Mr. Baxter.

A Princess of Mars was originally entitled "Under the Moons of Mars." If you were reading The All-Story one hundred and nine years ago this month, you would have found yourself halfway through it. You would also have encountered Dejah Thoris' takedown of her Thark captors' primitive socialistic society:

"Why, oh, why will you not learn to live in amity with your fellows. Must you ever go on down the ages to your final extinction but little above the plane of the dumb brutes that serve you! A people without written language, without art, without homes, without love; the victims of eons of the horrible community idea. Owning everything in common, even to your women and children, has resulted in your owning nothing in common. You hate each other as you hate all else except yourselves. Come back to the ways of our common ancestors, come back to the light of kindliness and fellowship. The way is open to you, you will find the hands of the red men stretched out to aid you. Together we may do still more to regenerate our dying planet. The granddaughter of the greatest and mightiest of the red jeddaks has asked you. Will you come?" (pp. 52-53)

The illustration is of course by Frank Frazetta, who was a great fan of Burroughs in his youth. In contrast, Conan and Robert E. Howard were mostly or wholly unknown to him before he landed assignments for which he is so well remembered, his covers for the Conan series published by Lancer Books in the 1960s and '70s.

Original text and caption copyright 2021 Terence E. Hanley

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Happy Easter!

Happy Easter from Tellers of Weird Tales!

(The only Easter-themed pulp cover I could find.)

Terence E. Hanley, 2021

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Another Swipe

. . . or maybe this belongs in the category of reduce, reuse, and recycle. After all, both Amazing Stories and Fantastic were published by Ziff-Davis Publishing Company. Maybe Leo Summers (1925-1985) was just handed a five-year-old magazine and told to recycle the damsel in distress on its cover. The original artist was Harris Levey (1921-1984), who had previously drawn comic book stories under the names Lee Harris, Leland Harris, and Harris Levy. His technique and his handling of color, texture, and the human figure are superior in this case. His villains are more interesting, too. Even in 1958, the Little Green Man was a clich√© in science fiction.

Amazing Stories, March 1953, with cover art by Harris Levey.

Fantastic, July 1958, with cover art Leo Summers.

Text copyright 2021 Terence E. Hanley