THE SEAMIER SIDE
David Bruce Bozarth
Copyright © 2000
Responding to a commentary at ERBList as regards the seamier, trashier, more violent side of Edgar Rice Burroughs. The following was from a long time admirer of ERB and REH:
Tangor of the tangy BBQ sauce. Tell me, have you read the REH stories I noted? They were all written around the same time as (ERB's) Pirate Blood. (They had to be, since he died 1936), and they all three found markets.
The stories were: Guns of Khartoum, Daughters of Feud, and Red Nails.
Yes. I have. Marginal tales as regards the seamier side of life. REH, and Conan in general, was blud-n-guts without a clue, None of his stories delved into ordinary human relationships among his principle characters, nor did he ever explore the outer-edges of traditional human fidelity. Howard never had lasting relationships between men and women, nor really explored the generalities of human social interaction as he presented his sometimes pithy tales of bludgeon and bashing to the 2 cents a word pulp market venue.
Additionally, REH tended to embrace the obscure mystical milieu of Clark Ashton Smith as a major wall decoration whenever he put pen to paper. The "dire" and "dark-side" presented by Howard in the early 1930's never truly explores the ordinary romance or real-world social topics found an every ERB tale.
Howard, a fellow Texican, was obviously bent from early childhood, until his death in 1936, as a momma's boy. A big, brawling bruiser of a man, the violence and romance found in his various tales of murder and mayhem stemmed from repressed feelings as regards his inadequacies as a man. Most fans of Conan (and I am one) are not willing to recognize this tragic facet in REH's writing; it is obvious that Conan was no more than an apron string pup's fanciful desire to be bigger and greater than the under-the-thumb role momma allowed.
Conan was a great success for the too-long-at-mother's-teat readers. He appeared to be a monolithic warrior and barbarian of immense stature and so soothed those of similar mind bent that they might also rise to the status of Atilla the Hun or, perhaps, Ivan the Terrible. What we got, while excellently written, was a primer or two of how to be rude and inconsiderate to mother. Conan the Barbarian is merely a pale shadow of Norse mythologies with a bit of gutter snipe ignoring-the-apron-strings thrown in to make it colorful.
As for ERB's market, the pulps weren't drying up in 1932, they were on an expansion. The dryup didn't occur until WWII and paper shortages.
Yes...and no. The pulps were blessed by a flood of authors, the vast majority unpublished (you and I can both sympathize in that regard) and at the same time these editors were having to deal with rising costs and distribution. Markets were shrinking as regards the fantastic, westerns were in vogue, and within months those were replaced by tales of touchie-feelie romance. You are 100% correct in stating that the death-knoll of the pulps was WWII. All those Hearst Papers had to print the news of combats overseas and the mags (Amazing, etc) had to beg or pay premium prices for paper. The latter suffered tremendously.
The reality is that by 1932-34 a new wave of authors, with a "modern" view of humans in extraordinary or other-worldly venues was making tremendous in-roads as regards the first giants of the genre. Burroughs, REH, Kline, Merritt...all of these past masters of the adventure (sometimes romance) had to compete with fellows with fresh ideas, new plot lines, and more up-to-date interpretations of the classic tales of men, women, and conflict which have been with us for centuries. Read Homer's Illiad or Odysseus, whatever translation, for a reminder there's damn little new under the sun.
By 1941 the number of tales told in the pulps dropped dramatically because of the paper shortage. The newspapers never seemed to have a problem, only the remaining publications that utilized paper pulp as their principle presentation seemed to suffer in the face of rising costs and scarcity.
However, ERB never had a market shortage, as long as he stuck to his subject, Tarzan, Mars, Pellucidar.
Speaking from the heart? What I read in Porges seems to give a different perspective. ERB's output while he was in Hawaii in the early 40s indicates he was scrambling for any market he could find...and was paid doodly for his efforts. His word output during that period was nearly as high as his creative heyday (1912-17). We have the final tales of Amtor, Pellucidar, the two Polodan tales (one not published until 14 years after his death), several Tarzans and a series of Barsoomian tales later collected to become Llana of Gathol.
To get a feel for the struggling, the triumphant, the later struggling again ERB, see Words and Wages for an over view of initial magazine payments tendered to Ed Burroughs. But to get this back on track, the discussion was REH v ERB and rape and seamy, nasty, and ugly side of life.
Conan the Barbarian did:
- Kill people
- Take women
But Conan never raped a lass, nor tortured a person or creature. The "Take women" subset requires an explanation: willing lass, though willing because she's in heat or merely desiring to better her present position is synonymous with romance. The reality is that the pillaging barbarian Conan never raped a woman. Personally, I have my doubts Conan would know what to do with a lady were she disrobed and eagerly anxious.
REH was a pulp whore without a clue who dumped great stuff for the shy closet barbarians onto to the pulp market at negligible dollars returned until mommy died. At that time Howard went nuts and off-ed himself most gruesomely, without consideration for his long time love or the world at large.
Comparing REH to ERB is less satisifying than Monday Morning Quarterbacking during Football season.
ERB was reading the Sunday funnies at a ripe old age in his bed when the angel of death collected his soul. PLEASE DO NOT GET ME WRONG when I say that REH was a pulp whore (the word meant in the original definition: services expected and provided at the rate determined) because REH was a working fellow who felt he had to please and produce as long as the johns were sniffing around his doorstep. ERB, on the other hand, even in his most desperate and declining years, had public stature and name recognition as well as clearly defined social presentations accepted by the rank and file of readers that ultimately raised the bottom dollar.
If, however, the discussion is who was "trashier" as regards human relations between a male and a female, the top honors have to go to ERB who not only had infidelity and out of wedlock childbearing, but prostitutes and, worse, socialites. REH, on his best day merely had a barbarian without a clue who never managed to really rape a lady. I will admit that the days have been long and my memory is shorter than I'd like to admit, but in the main I cannot recall REH's Conan actively raping a woman or impregnating her.
I am not suggesting that the above is a desirable trait among adventure heroes!
Burroughs, on the other hand, realistically dealt with prostitutes (Efficiency Expert, Girl From Farris's, Girl from Hollywood), rape (Pirate Blood specifically and the vast majority of his "fate worse than death" stories with most of the off-screen girls being raped), murder (Bandit from Hell's Bend, Deputy Sheriff of Comanche County), deceit (Mad King, Tarzan whatever novel), and infidelity. ERB explored the seamier side of fiction more adroitly than REH ever did, and moreso than many authors following in the two decades after his death in 1950. Ed Burroughs dealt with real world themes, real people interactions in a darker presentation than any author prior to his publications; and did so in a manner that was both illustrative and innocuous.
We do not remember ERB as a smut monger or an author writing to the lowest common denominator simply because he was an author who could put real life to paper and was more than willing to let the reader insert the putrid and more disgusting details without having to present them in black and white, pen to paper.
It wouldn't fly in his "established" market. Money, money, why does it always come down to money?
Until there is a more politically correct benchmark for success, I guess it will have to be "Money."
My comments were originally presented and expanded as responses to an email from Andy Nunez at ERBList. Andy is a Bard of Barsoom, an amateur ERB scholar, and all around good guy.