There are different reasons advanced through the centuries for why 13 is considered an unlucky number. The mystique surrounding the number 13 is no doubt why ERB chose it as the number of monsters that Professor Arthur Maxon was brewing up on his remote island near Borneo in ERB's The Monster Men, first published in All-Story Magazine in, appropriately enough, November of 1913.
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The Monster Men and the Magic Number
by John Martin
On that jungle island, the temporarily insane Professor Maxon was brewing those monsters in coffin-shaped vats, and the next part of his evil plan was to force his daughter, Virginia, to marry his latest creation: Number Thirteen.
But is Number Thirteen a little too perfect to just automatically go along with the professor's plan, or does his daughter have ideas of her own as well?
It's an action-packed story with a philosophical bent as well, revolving around the question of just what makes someone a real human, and what it is that blesses them with a soul.
If 13 bothers you, though, don't read The Monster Men, because the creature known as Number Thirteen isn't the only time that numeral shows up.
One of those instances is, obviously, the total number of monsters: Since Number Thirteen has the number he does, it's obvious that there must be a baker's dozen of these "creatures" altogether.
And if you want to stretch a point, you can count 13 letters in the book's title, The Monster Men, as well as in the name of the heroine, Virginia Maxon.
Going a bit further, an object of some mystery, "the heavy chest," is referred to a number of times and when it isn't called "heavy" it's called "the great chest." And both combinations have 13 letters.
This, of course, is similar to seeing a face on Mars. It's there if you want to look for it. It's unlikely that ERB intended all of the aforesaid 13s, because if he wanted to pepper the story with that number he missed a lot of other opportunities to do so in the names of other characters, locales, etc.
And of course there's absolutely no significance to the fact that the story first appeared in 1913.
Or is there?
The first few paragraphs of The Monster Men present a contrast between disgusting horror and carefree light heartedness.
ERB's opening sentence brings vividly before the reader the "the last grisly fragment of the dismembered and mutilated body" which is being devoured by nitric acid. There are words like "horrid" and "gallows."
This is followed by a paragraph about ague, and a convulsive shudder, fear, perspiration and pressure -- and most ominous of all... the approach of footsteps. What unnamed dreadful thing is now creeping toward the man's quarters, the reader wonders, his imagination already stirred by the title of the book and the cover on whatever edition he happens to have picked up.
Next we have the "madness of apprehension," followed by the inevitable knock.
And then, ERB changes the mood as the "sweet tones of a girl's voice" say, "Daddy!"
And for a little while, the mood is lightened by his "sweetheart," his caring and concerned daughter, who talks laughingly about dolls and mud pies.
But then the mood darkens again. For while the girl teases about making mud pies, the father himself has been brewing far dirtier concoctions, the most recent of which he chopped up, like a scene in an EC Comic Book of the future, and fed into flesh-eating acid.
This man, though he loved and cared for his daughter at the beginning of the story, and thankfully at the end as well, would become so gripped by his dark passions that he would actually plan to marry the girl off to one of his creations -- and that plan was in place even before he actually knew how his "Number Thirteen" creation would turn out.
Thanks to the Chinese cook Sing Lee, the only man among the small group on that remote island who had any brains, and the cunning to go with them, such a travesty was averted. But that the professor had actually become criminally insane for awhile there is no question, for Burroughs states as much.
Professor Arthur Maxon is at first said merely to be suffering the "haunting ghosts of the mental anguish that had left him an altered man," but by then he's already in such a state of mind that he would consider it murder to kill off any of the artificially human creatures he had brewed, but at the same time entertain a plan to marry off his daughter to one of them. For right after shrinking from the idea of getting rid of any of his monsters, he turns around a paragraph or two later to speak of "Number Thirteen," still being molded in the coffin-shaped vat, saying, "Be this one what he may he shall wed my daughter!"
Doctor Carl Von Horn, Maxon's assistant who is planning to turn some events to his own advantage, is nonetheless a noble character at times. He's not criminally insane; he's just a criminal. But at this point in the story he has more common decency than Maxon. When Maxon weeps over the death of monster Number One, saying, "...you were my first born son and I loved you most, dear child," even the duplicitous Von Horn at least has the indignation to ask the professor, "Are you mad?"
Yes, he's mad. Almost 20 pages later, the professor is talking about his plan to keep Number Thirteen's origin a secret until after "mutual affection has gained a sure foothold between them." And when Von Horn asks what the professor will do if that doesn't happen, the evil genius responds that he, in effect, is contemplating the rape of his own daughter. " 'I should prefer that they mated voluntarily,' replied the professor, the strange gleam leaping to his eyes at the suggestion of possible antagonism to his cherished plan, 'but if not, then they shall be compelled by the force of my authority -- they both belong to me, body and soul.' "
If there was any doubt about the state of Maxon's mind, ERB confirms it in straightforward language in Chapter VI: "In the latter [Maxon] shone a strange gleam-- it was the wild light of insanity that the sudden nervous shock of the attack had brought to a premature culmination."
Fortunately, the therapy of a sharp rap on the head, administered by an enemy, is just the tonic to bring Maxon back to his right mind. In Chapter VII, we read: "The blow of the parang upon the professor's skull had shocked his overwrought mind back into the path of sanity.... and it had given him a clearer perspective of the plans he had been entertaining for so long relative to this soulless creature."
A clearer perspective? Well that's nice! Indeed, the professor returns to his right mind and from then on his actions and attitude are for the good of his daughter.
Yes, it's only fiction. But Professor Arthur Maxon doesn't come across as a particularly noble ERB protagonist. It may be possible to forgive this man's wild ideas because of his state of mind, but it sure doesn't call for forgetting them, nor disregarding what his unstable mind might be capable of should he get another rap on the head someday!
Virginia's future husband better keep a careful eye on the professor from now on!
ERB's The Monster Men has more than 13 monsters roaming around.
It was obviously ERB's intention, though, that the real monsters were just about everyone but those who were called monsters.
The 13 monsters came out of the secret island laboratory of Professor Arthur Maxon. Just what raw materials he used, or where he got those materials, is never specified, but it was some type of liquid concoction stirred up in his lab which solidified inside a coffin-like vat to resemble a bipedal, man-shaped creature which had a lot of the attributes of man, though lacking in the "looks" department.
The only clues as to the content of the raw material was a statement by the professor that he was making his monsters out of chemicals, and to a description that comes in Chapter III, which says, "Vat Number Thirteen lay dashed to the floor -- the glass cover was broken to a million pieces -- a sticky, brownish substance covered the matting."
Thinking his production of the 13th living creature had been ruined, the professor then revealed how much longer it would have taken for that "sticky, brownish substance" to be transformed into something that would at least be recognizable: "It is all ruined," he said. "Three more days would have ----."
He was interrupted because it was at that moment that Von Horn spotted "a handsome giant, physically perfect" seated in a far corner of the room.
The first description of one of these monsters was of the being called Number One, who was said to have hideous features. It lumbered awkwardly like a great grizzly, paced like a wild beast in captivity, but moved like a huge sloth.
His brain was described as malformed, but it was sharp enough to figure out how to pull enough saplings off the roof of a building to build a "bridge" from the structure to the fence, and -- after making the wall -- was smart enough to haul the saplings after him and deposit them in the surrounding jungle to delay any notice of his departure.
A bit later in the same chapter is a more complete description, and most of the different book illustrators over the years have done a faithful job of recreating this creature, although their imaginations and painting styles differ: "One eye was fully twice the diameter of the other, and an inch above the horizontal plane of its tiny mate. The nose was but a gaping orifice above a deformed and twisted mouth. The thing was chinless, and its small, foreheadless head surmounted its colossal body like a cannon ball on a hill top. One arm was at least twelve inches longer than its mate, which was itself long in proportion to the torso, while the legs, similarly mismated and terminating in huge, flat feet that protruded laterally, caused the thing to lurch fearfully from side to side as it lumbered toward the girl."
Perhaps the next most terrifying-looking creatures in The Monster Men were the Dyak pirates.
ERB describes them from the point of view of when Virginia Maxon first saw them: "The dark skin was creased in fierce wrinkles about the eyes and mouth. Gleaming tiger cat's teeth curved upward from holes pierced to receive them in the upper half of each ear. The slit ear lobes supported heavy rings whose weight had stretched the skin until the long loop rested upon the brown shoulders. The filed and blackened teeth behind the loose lips added the last touch of hideousness to this terrible countenance." Chapter VIII.
And, again, in Chapter IX: "The Dyak warriors presented an awe inspiring spectacle in the fitful lights of the nearby camp fire. The ferocity of their fierce faces was accentuated by the upturned, bristling tigercat's teeth which protruded from every ear; while the long feathers of the Argus pheasant waving from their war-caps, the brilliant colors of their war-coats trimmed with the black and white feathers of the hornbill, and the strange devices upon their gaudy shields but added to the savagery of their appearance as they danced and howled, menacing and intimidating, in the path of the charging foe."
The monsters were hideous creatures and the Dyaks were hideous humans. But in many ways the Dyaks were more hideous than the monsters. They, unlike the monsters, had the ability to reason, but deliberately chose a lawless and terrorist lifestyle.
No less monsters were the Malay pirates and the lascars who sought Virginia Maxon and "the heavy chest".
ERB wasn't so trite as to write that "There is no honor among thieves," but he made the same point in another way in Chapter VI: "There was murder in the cowardly hearts of several of them, and cupidity and lust in the hearts of all. There was no single one who would not betray his best friend for a handful of silver, nor any but was inwardly hoping and scheming to the end that he might alone possess both the chest and the girl." And altogether, there were more than 500 such enemies of the little party from the island.
Dr. Carl Von Horn, Professor Maxon's assistant, was a monster. Not only was he a criminal wanted by the U.S. Navy, but he was plotting to make Virginia his bride, whether she willed it or not, not merely to possess her body but also to possess any inheritance to come to her from her father. And if that called for expediting the old man's death, that was fine with Von Horn, too.
Even Von Horn had to admit to himself, very reluctantly, that he was a worse creature than the Number Thirteen he despised: "A sudden wave of jealous rage swept through the man's vicious brain. He saw that the soulless thing within was endowed with a kindlier and more noble nature than he himself possessed. He had planted the seed of hatred and revenge within his untutored heart without avail, for he read in the dead bodies of Bududreen's men and the two Dyaks the story of Number Thirteen's defence of the man Von Horn had hoped he would kill." Chapter VII
The professor himself was a monster. He was carried away by his insane desire to play God and produce human life in a lab when he had already succeeded in producing a beautiful daughter under, one may presume, much more pleasant circumstances. His insanity excused some of his actions, and it was good for him that his sanity returned eventually. But he was certainly a monster of the worst kind for much of the book.
As for the thirteen "monsters," they acted only out of the scant knowledge gained in their short life and had no moral code to guide them. Number Thirteen was able to harness their abilities in the service of Virginia Maxon and, as he told her eventually:
"Poor, hideous, unloved, unloving monsters -- they gave up their lives for the daughter of the man who made them the awful, repulsive creatures that they were."
"What do you mean?" cried the girl.
"I mean that all have been killed searching for you, and battling with your enemies. They were soulless creatures, but they loved the mean lives they gave up so bravely for you whose father was the author of their misery -- you owe a great deal to them, Virginia."
So the monsters who are the title character of this book, the monsters who are depicted as grotesque, maniacal creatures, the monsters who ended up living their lives only to end the lives of others and sacrifice their own lives in the process -- they were the noble ones in this book. And the humans, from the primitive to the one who had earned a high teaching position at Cornell University, were the real monsters.
You don't have to be ugly to be a monster.
Ironic ERB in one of his best outings!
in Part II
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