I’ve been reading the Barsoom series (John Carter of Mars) as I’ve been branching out my reading into pulp over the last few years (already have torn through Robert E Howard’s Conan, read a number of Loftcraft stories, Dashell Hammett’s Red Harvest, and a number of Raymond Chandler Philip Marlowe stories). The stuff is quite fascinating. Edgar Rice Burrows (also of Tarzan fame) first penned the series back in 1911, and the first few novels read like wild serials. Action, action, action. Twist, twist, twist. One-dimensional characters, point-a to point-b plots, set in exotic worlds with strange creatures and simplified morality. I’m now reading the fifth book in the series, The Chessmen of Mars, written in 1922, and it has been very interesting watching Burrows’ style develop, mature, and change. This, so far, is the most elegant of the novels. Much better thought out then the willy-nilly nature the original three stories (basically swashbuckling 101), with more detailed descriptions, better developed characters, and more mature philosophical overtones.
And also, clearly a book from 1922. Women are beautiful objects to battle over and often exist solely for the hero to defend the honor of. Virginity and purity being prized within Martian culture. The heroine of Chessmen is the daughter of John Carter (a “human” transplanted to Mars sometime after the Civil War–he is a southerner and fought for the Confederacy), Tara Carter, and despite being the most strong-willed female character yet in the series, is incapable of physically defending herself as valiant men rise to protect her “sex” so that she can stay a strong, Martian woman. Or something.
Robert E Howard was also misogynistic in his Conan stories (written about 10 years later), but at least he managed to create several women who were more than capable of defending themselves against aggressive men, and several of his heroines were sexually empowered (I’m thinking of the Queen of the Black Coast).
That aside, I am fascinated with the style. These are exciting stories that feel casual and breezy and when done well, aren’t simply just candy. Pulp can do something that a lot of other fiction cannot, that being the ability to probe the depths of the wilder, darker aspects of human behavior and desire. Violence. Sex. Adventure. All out there naked and willing for the reader to discover. A lot of modern-day “pulp” writings (I am thinking of thrillers and mysteries) often have a sterile polish (I thin of you, DiVinci Code), even when there is romance or action. Pulp Fiction, while often juvenile, has a purity that I’d at times be willing to defend from this months’ maundering mad warlord.