Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Edgar Rice Burroughs and Weird Tales

On the anniversary of Percival Lowell's birth, I write of Mars. (1)

One hundred years ago, in February 1912, The All-Story began serializing "Under the Moons of Mars" by an unknown writer, Norman Bean. Story and author are now known by other names, for A Princess of Mars (as the serial was called in its book form) by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) was the beginning of a very popular subgenre of fantasy fiction, the planetary romance. (2) As I write this, moviegoers across the globe are enjoying the latest incarnation of the planetary romance, a movie based on the story that started it all, called simply John Carter.

Theorists of fantasy fiction can split hairs as to the definition of the term planetary romance and its related subgenres, science fantasy, space opera, swords and planets, sword and sorcery, and heroic fantasy. Where one stops and the next begins is a question too large for a blog entry. (The term interplanetary romance may as well be considered a synonym of planetary romance.) Burroughs' stories of Barsoom--as Mars is known to its own inhabitants--might best be considered the model, and a definition drawn from therein. Science fiction critic Gary K. Wolfe defined the term as "broadly, an adventure tale set on another, usually primitive, planet." More simply and concretely, you might describe a planetary romance as a swashbuckling fantasy in the mode of Captain Blood, Robin Hood, or The Three Musketeers, only with monsters, aliens, and maybe even rayguns and spaceships.

Edgar Rice Burroughs' byline never appeared in Weird TalesBy the time the magazine came along in 1923, the Chicago-born author was busy juggling two very successful franchises, John Carter of Mars and Tarzan, and selling his work to leading story magazines. With the proceeds, he purchased a California ranch, naming it Tarzana, and established his own publishing company, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. Both are still in existence. It's worth noting, however, that Burroughs submitted a story to Weird Tales in 1929. Entitled simply "Beware"--a warning to editors as much as anything--it must have come from the bottom of his pile of manuscripts. In responding to Burroughs' submission of the tale, Robert H. Davis of The All-Story called it "the nearest approach to mediocrity that ever came from your pen." It's probably safe to assume that Burroughs saved his best work for magazines that paid a higher rate than that paid by "The Unique Magazine." In any case, Burroughs turned down Weird Tales' offer of $230 for "Beware." Instead, after making the rounds of editorial offices for close to two decades, "Beware" was rewritten by Raymond Palmer of all people and published in Fantastic Adventures in July 1939 as "The Scientists Revolt." Burroughs' take after all those years: $245.

Nonetheless, Burroughs appeared in Weird Tales in spirit if not in word, for a whole generation of science fiction and fantasy authors grew up reading his work. I would like to provide a complete list of planetary romance stories published in Weird Tales, but I'm not sure such a thing exists, and I'm afraid the primary source for compiling such a list--back issues of the magazine itself--are beyond my reach. Instead, I'll offer some highlights and suggestions for further research.

First comes Nictzin Dyalhis and his seminal work of science fantasy for Weird Tales, "When the Green Star Waned," from April 1925. Dyalhis' tale is noteworthy for a number of reasons, including the first known use of the term blastor (later blaster) for a science-fictional hand weapon. Also worth noting is the fact that--unlike every other early science fiction story you can think of--Earthmen are not the rescuers but the rescued in Dyalhis' story. It's up to people from Venus to save us from monsters from beyond earth. Incidentally, the story has nothing to do with Lin Carter's Green Star series of books. Finally, a sequel, "The Oath of Hul Jok," appeared in the September 1928 issue of Weird Tales.

Next, C.L. Moore, a star of the magazine during the 1930s, authored a series of science-fantasy stories with Northwest Smith as protagonist. An interplanetary adventurer and surely a model for Han Solo, Northwest Smith made his debut in "Shambleau" (Nov. 1933), a sensational story dripping with mood, color, and eroticism. Northwest of Earth returned in several more stories during the 1930s, the last being "Tree of Life" (Oct. 1936). Like "Shambleau," it was set on Mars. Burroughs inspired Catherine L. Moore (and her future husband, Henry Kuttner). Catherine in turn inspired Leigh Brackett, one of the more successful practitioners of the art of the planetary romance.

C.L. Moore's stories for Weird Tales gained her entry to H.P. Lovecraft's circle of correspondents. Halfway across the continent, Robert E. Howard was also part of that circle. Catherine broke the news to Lovecraft that Howard--a friend he had never met--had killed himself. Three years later, Weird Tales published Howard's own planetary romance, "Almuric," in a three-part serial in May/June and July/August 1939. An uncharacteristic story from the creator of Conan, "Almuric" could almost have been one of the John Carter series.

There were of course others: Clark Ashton Smith, Otis Adelbert Kline, and Edmond Hamilton come to mind. I hope that readers can offer their own examples of the planetary romance, inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs and printed in the pages of Weird Tales.

(1) Astronomer Percival Lowell was born on March 13, 1855, in Boston, Massachusetts. From an observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, Lowell studied Mars and its perceived surface features. His books, Mars (1895), Mars and Its Canals (1906), and Mars As the Abode of Life (1908), helped fuel the popular notion that the red planet was inhabited by intelligent life forms. It's probably no coincidence that three works of science fiction, The War of the Worlds (1898), Lieutenant Gullivar Jones: His Vacation (1905), and "Under the Moons of Mars" (1912), followed the publication of Lowell's findings. Unfortunately, Lowell's observations of Mars proved illusory.
(2) There were precedents, Edwin L. Arnold's Lieutenant Gullivar Jones: His Vacation (1905), for example. The situation is kind of like the European discovery of America, though: the Vikings may have been here first, but once Columbus discovered America, it stayed discovered.

"When the Green Star Waned" was Nictzin Dyalhis' first story for Weird Tales. It landed his name on the cover and proved the most popular story in the issue in which it appeared (April 1925) and of the year in which it appeared. "When the Green Star Waned" was also the fifth most popular story printed in Weird Tales between 1924 and 1940. The cover art was by Andrew Brosnatch.
C.L. Moore's Northwest Smith stories for Weird Tales were collected in this hardbound edition, entitled Northwest of Earth, in 1954. The cover art was by Ric Binkley.
Almuric, by Robert E. Howard, originally published in Weird Tales in 1939 and reprinted in this Ace paperback edition in 1964 with cover art by Jack Gaughan. 
Finally, the cover of Weird Tales for January 1933. The cover story is "Buccaneers of Venus" by Otis Adelbert Kline. The cover art was by J. Allen St. John, the artist who perhaps more than any other is associated with the fiction of Edgar Rice Burroughs. St. John (1872-1957) was a near contemporary of Burroughs, and like the author, hailed from Chicago. He also created nine covers and numerous interior illustrations for Weird Tales.

Text and captions copyright 2012 Terence E. Hanley


  1. Nice article. I'd love to see a completish list of Burroughs' literary influences

  2. Thanks M-K,

    I'd love to see the same thing. I would start the list with Otis Adelbert Kline, Robert E. Howard's Almuric, and Lin Carter's Green Star series and Callisto series. You might also add a couple of stories by Nictzin Dyalhis, "When the Green Star Waned" and "The Sapphire Goddess" or "The Sapphire Siren," but I'm not sure of the influence of Burroughs on Dyalhis.

    Thanks for writing.


  3. Excellent piece. Great info. I knew some, not all. Much of my work is definitely descended from ERB's Barsooom series. I call that kind of stuff Sword and Planet. I have a trilogy set on a planet called Talera, which sort of combines sword and planet with sword and sorcery. Swords of Talera, Wings Over Talera, Witch of Talera. Ken Bulmer's Dray Prescot series is another series definitely influenced by ERB. The list would be a long one.

  4. Thanks, Charles,

    Interested readers can check out Mr. Gramlich's web presence by clicking on his Google profile or by a simple Internet search.