TARZAN ON FRANKENSTEIN'S ISLAND OF FREAKS
Review by Dr.
Hermes ~ May 6, 2010 ~ Dr.
This was one of Edgar Rice Burroughs' earliest books, written
just after his initial explosion of intense creativity in which he created
Tarzan, John Carter and Pellucidar in a little over a year. THE MONSTER
MEN has some interesting ideas and wild images, but it also features a
lot of crude and uninspired prose. What really ruins it for me is that
it sets up a fascinating dilemma for its two central characters and then
undermines it with an abrupt twist ending which is not only disappointing
but a real cheat. In fact, I have to wonder if the conclusion wasn't a
last minute revision because the ending seems to contradict most of the
story I had just read.
We're dealing here with what is essentially TARZAN ON
FRANKENSTEIN'S ISLAND OF FREAKS. It's pretty lurid and over the top stuff.
"A Man Without a Soul" was first run in ALL-STORY for November 1913 but
not published in book form as THE MONSTER MEN until 1929. This is old-fashioned
melodrama at its outrageous and blatant best, the way I like it. A research
scientist named Professor Arthur Maxon (formerly on Cornell University)
has figured out how to grow nearly human life forms in vats of chemicals.
This was long before DNA was discovered, and there's no mention that Maxon
might be using human tissue samples to start a cloning process or anything
like that. Nope, he just brews together an assortment of chemicals in coffin-shaped
vats and lets them ferment and darned if they don't assemble into living
creatures. You might ask a biologist how likely this is.
Maxon is rapidly losing his mind from the overwork and
world-shaking signicance of his discovery. He sails off to an isolated
island not far from Borneo where he can carry on his experiments in peace
without the pesky police asking about these freaky corpses produced in
the course of his work. Maxon drags his luscious young daughter Virginia
along with him for no good reason that I can see; he certainly doesn't
pay any attention to her, and she has nothing useful to do on the island.
Virginia may be good-looking but she meekly goes along to live with her
father and his crew on a jungle island halfway around with the world, not
once even asking what he's up to. Later on, Maxon promises her hand in
marriage (no matter what she might think of it) to his partner, the scoundrel
Von Horn, as casually as if he was selling a used car. 1913 seems like
a different planet sometimes.
Well, the experiments run about as smoothly as you might
expect, that is to say, like a double train wreck. Maxon produces twelve
horribly disfigured and unattractive monsters of limited intelligence.
We're only given a description of the first (and most gruesome) of them,
the appropriately named Number One, as "a great mountain of deformed flesh
clothed in dirty, white cotton pajamas. Its face was of the ashen hue of
a fresh corpse, while the white hair and pink eyes denoted the absence
of pigment; a characteristic of Albinos." Its eyes are out of whack, one
twice as big as the other and an inch higher; it has one arm twelve inches
longer than the other, its feet stick out sideways, and in general, it
doesn't make a good first impression.
Each of the monsters, though, seems to be constructed
a little bit better than the one before it, and Maxon keeps tinkering with
the formula, hoping he will eventually turn out one that meets FDA standards
and can pass as human. In the meantime, he has brewed up twelve of these
unruly superstrong brutes that his assistant Von Horn keeps in line with
the free use of a big bull whip. (And Virginia, living in the same compound
they built on the island, has no idea what's going on. That girl is not
MENSA material, if you ask me.)
Luckily, experiment Number Thirteen turns out to be a
success. This is a buff young man who is both good-looking and sharp enough
to be quickly taught conversational English. (These creatures don't emerge
from the vats as embryos or anything, they pop out fully grown.) Thirteen
is the hero of the book, the one who really raises all the disturbing questions
about what is a soul, what makes something truly human, all that sort of
After Number Thirteen is on the scene, the story rapidly
turns into a typically energetic Edgar Rice Burroughs carnival. Everyone
for a hundred miles around is after either Virginia's nubile young body
or the mysterious treasure chest Maxon brought along, or both. The twelve
monsters, Dyak headhunters, Malay pirates, Dr Von Horn, even a tribe of
aggressive orang-utans... Virginia and the chest are pursued and captured
and rescued and caught again by someone else for the rest of the book.
Coming to her aid is Number Thirteen (who has tumbled completely for her
in a chaste Galahad sort of way), leading his brethren of horrifying misshapen
freaks. It's all slaughter and chases and agita until the last page.
Much of the story, though, frets over whether or not Number
Thirteen (who has picked up the handle Bulan from the natives) has a soul.
Maxon and Von Horn take it for granted that he doesn't. Since he and the
other lab spawn were formed out of a chemical recipe in vats, they are
by definition not human and cannot have souls. Bulan spends a lot of time
agonizing over this, as he has a serious crush on Virginia but cannot see
her marrying "a man without a soul". Your own religious convictions might
lead you to either dismiss all this as irrelevant or else to agree that
Moxon's experiments as blasphemous and doomed. Since Virginia is starting
to think that this guy is the one for her (he looks like Buster Crabbe,
has risked his life rescuing her a dozen times, and is the perfect gentleman
even when they're lost deep in the jungles of Borneo for days), this could
be a real problem.
Okay. Virginia learns the truth, that her beloved Bulan
is actually Number Thirteen of her father's goon assembly line, and she
doesn't care. She loves him anyway and will stick with him, no matter what
the rest of the world says. Good for you, Virginia! That's the spirit.
Bulan himself has decided that, regardless of what Maxon's doctrine says,
he does have a soul because he knows right from wrong. Great, these two
have suffered a lot and they've earned some happiness; they should tell
her father to go climb in one of his vats himself and set it to 'Boil'.
But then Burroughs does a severe cop-out. Here it comes.
It seems Bulan is actually a wealthy upper-class twit named Townsend J.
Harper, Jr. He got one glimpse of Virginia back in Ithaca NY in Chapter
One and followed her to Borneo in the family yacht because he was so smitten
with her, (thus winning the "Oh, Come On!" Award for 1913). Somehow, he
ended up washing ashore with severe amnesia in a small boat. The Chinese
cook Sing Lee* took him in and substituted him for the real Number Thirteen
(who had not congealed at the time). Boo! Hiss! What a gyp.
Aside from the way I felt cheated by this development
after watching Bulan wrestle with his existential puzzle, the story itself
contradicts this explanation. The narrative keeps referring to Number Thirteen
as soulless and one of the monsters. Sing Lee (who rescued this newcomer)
thinks and reacts as if Number Thirteen were in fact a vat boy. And if
Bulan was actually just some preppy guy named Townsend, how in the world
was he strong enough to tangle with all eleven superhuman lab monsters
at a time? How could he wrestle with three adult orang-utans in a brawl,
breaking the neck of one and thrashing the other two?