Near the conclusion of his recent article about the unauthorized novel "Tarzan On Mars," Den Valdron asks the valid question: "Is It any good?"
In the very next sentence he provides his own response: "I have no idea." The reason for this, as Valdron explains elsewhere in the same article, is that he's never read the book.
Before I go any further, let me state for the record that it is not my intention here to denigrate Mr. Valdron. Granted, the journalist in me can't help feeling that both he and his readers would have been better served had he read "Tarzan On Mars" before writing such an article, simply for the sake of being able to share a more informed opinion; I couldn't help recalling the stories about all those librarians who banned ERB's original Tarzan novels from their shelves simply because the movies had never depicted a wedding ceremony between Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan.
On the other hand, and in all due fairness, Den's article was not intended to be a review of the book but rather a history of its origins - and in that respect, based on my own research over the years, he did a quite admirable job. Still, it occurred to me that those readers who had previously never heard of "Tarzan On Mars" and whose appetites were whetted by Den's explanation of how such a tale came to be might also appreciate the views of someone who has not only read the book, but actually owns a copy.
And therein lies a brief tale. (Cue the flashback sequence....)
More than three decades after the fact, I can still recall the exact date – the EXACT DATE – that I first heard of "Tarzan On Mars."
It was June 1, 1974 – my 11th birthday, and my present that year from my dad’s younger brother that year was paperback collection of short stories by A.E. Van Vogt entitled "Science Fiction Monsters."
I suppose that for most other fans of the genre, such a milestone would have been memorable as their introduction to the work of Van Vogt. Perhaps it would have been for me, as well, had the publisher not asked the illustrious Forrest J. Ackerman to pen the introduction to this particular volume.
Ackerman devoted a large portion of that introduction to discussing how a proposed sequel to Van Vogt's classic "Slan" was one of the three most dreamed-of sequels among genre fans – the other two being "Frankenstein Vs. Dracula" and "Tarzan On Mars." The difference being, of course, that both of the latter stories actually existed - the first in the form of an American-International film, the other in the form of the never-published manuscript penned by one John Bloodstone.
And there it was. Not much more than a casual mention, really. But to a lifelong ERB fan like myself (by the age of 11 I had already read my father's copies of the entire Tarzan and Pellucidar series, the Caspak trilogy and the first three "Mars" books, as well as "The Monster Men" and "Beyond The Farthest Star," and was preparing to read the first book in the Venus series), it was like suddenly learning of the existence of a Holy Grail. Somewhere out there was the story of Tarzan's adventures on Barsoom, and I was determined to find a copy one day.
Fast forward about 30 years... During that time, in bits and pieces, I learned more about the legend surrounding "Tarzan On Mars" - enough to have come to the conclusion that I would likely never lay my hands on one of the small handful of pirated copies reported to have been in circulation since ERB Inc. had pulled the plug on editor Ray Palmer's hopes of publishing the book legitimately so many years before. The number of those pirated copies were said to be very, very small indeed, and by all accounts harder than hard to find; life’s experiences to that point had led me to believe that I just didn’t have that kind of luck, and so in time I'd set aside my dreams of one day reading "Tarzan On Mars."
And then one day when I wasn't looking, some cosmic axis shifted. A colleague of mine (whose identity I have sworn to protect due to the nature of the research he was conducting at the time) was perusing the archives of the public library in his home town and was shocked to discover that one of the items contained in those archives was a mimeographed copy of "Tarzan On Mars." And knowing of my interest, he took advantage of the head librarian’s lengthy rest room break one afternoon (apparently she'd eaten something for lunch that day that didn't agree with her) to sneak into the Xerox room and make a copy of the manuscript for me. A week later the package arrived at my residence in Oklahoma and a lifelong dream was on the verge of finally coming true...
After that kind of a build-up – 30 years of hoping and dreaming, followed by six or seven days of the same kind of agony I'd experienced every year as a child during those final hours before it was time to open the Christmas presents, once I knew my friend's package was on its way – some degree of letdown was to be expected. I knew this, I accepted it, but knowing and accepting it somehow still was not enough to fully brace myself for the level of disappointment that was ultimately to come.
Because the sad fact – as much as I hate to say it, given the number of years I’d waited to read it – is that "Tarzan On Mars" is not a very good book.
The basic plot – a rescue mission to Mars to save Jane and La, and the discovery that La is actually a long-lost incarnation of the Barsoomian goddess Issus – is, as they used to say in my great-grandpa's day, a cracker jack of an idea. It's easy to see why news of even the possible existence of such a tale would have touched off the "ripples of fascination and excitement" among fans that Mr. Valdron spoke of; even today the mere mention of the title can create similar feelings among younger fans of Burroughs. As recently as the 2006 San Diego Comic-Con, in speaking with a group of about seven young ERB fans around the same age as my son following my participation in a panel discussion on the book "Myths For The Modern Age," I happened to mention "Tarzan On Mars" and saw 14 eyebrows go up in joyous surprise. "Wow, would I love to get my hands on a copy of that," one of them exclaimed as the rest nodded and murmured in agreement. There's something about the mere title "T arzan On Mars" that stirs that sense of wonder....
The problem with "Tarzan On Mars" is that it's a grand idea poorly executed. Even before finally obtaining and reading my copy of the book, I had long been of the opinion that if Burroughs himself lived long enough to have devised a storyline bringing Tarzan and John Carter together for a shared adventure, it probably would have ranked as one of the most exciting, most memorable entries in either series. (I'll be the first to admit that this opinion is influenced by the fact that "Tarzan At The Earth's Core" has always been my favorite among the Pellucidar series.) There are fans who would argue (and, in fact, have argued) the opposite - that such a book would have probably fallen into the same predictable rut that many of ERB's later books in both series suffered from. Perhaps they're right, but I think the evidence suggests otherwise, particularly where Tarzan was concerned; after years of grinding out the Ape-Man's adventures simply to keep the editors and fans happy, ther e seems to have been a renewed appreciation for and interest in the character on ERB's part by the time he got around to writing "Tarzan And The 'Foreign Legion.'" I'd like to think that an ERB-penned "Tarzan On Mars" (or whatever the Master would have chosen to title his version of the story) would have benefitted from this renewal of spirit, and perhaps might even have attained the same heights of creativity and wonder as the earlier "Tarzan And The Ant Men" (still a favorite among many fans I've met).
The point is that, even if ERB's take on such a story did not attain those particular heights, it still would have been a Burroughs book - and as I’ve stated in the past, I firmly believe that bad Burroughs is better than the best of certain other writers.
And Stuart J. Byrne – the man who wrote "Tarzan On Mars" under the somewhat ludicrous pseudonym of "John Bloodstone" – was no Edgar Rice Burroughs, no matter how much he might have fancied otherwise. Valdron refers to Byrne as “a now obscure pulp writer"; the obscurity is almost certainly deserved, as Byrne's writing (based on the evidence presented in "Tarzan On Mars") is almost entirely devoid of the one element that defined the best pulp fiction of the era - excitement. There's plenty of action to be had in the story, but it is described in fairly plodding terms by Burroughsian standards, with none of the breathtaking pace or savage imagery that made ERB the bane of mild-mannered librarians whose idea of exciting reading was limited to The Bobbsey Twins. (The fact that several years are said to have gone by between the time Jane disappears and the time Tarzan finally gets around to doing something about it should give some idea of the story's pacing problems; Burroughs' Tarzan never would have waited so long to set out after his beloved mate, war or no war.)
While it is well known that the real Tarzan was hardly the illiterate oaf of the Weissmuller films, neither was he the overly verbose bore that Byrne presents us with; more than once during the course of reading the story I found myself wishing – out loud, mind you – that Tarzan would just shut up and get on with it already! To make matters worse, "Bloodstone" as narrator takes up so much time and effort with extraneous information that several of what should have been the most exciting scenes in the book grind to an almost total halt.
Byrne’s writing style might almost be called “anti-Asimovian." Many have rightfully observed that one of Isaac Asimov's greatest gifts as a science writer was that he was able to take the most mundane subjects and make it seem interesting; Byrne, on the other hand, takes what should have been one of the great science fantasy epics (pastiche or no) in the history of the genre and turns it into a dull, lifeless affair. It's a pity Byrne's prose here was nowhere near as purple as that found in the autobiographical sketch cited by Den Valdron; then we might have really had something.
There are other problems with the book as well – some of them particularly unforgivable from a writer as familiar with Burroughs and his works as Byrne was said to have been.
Chief among these is Byrne's depiction of La herself, especially with regards to the history of her relationship with Tarzan. Byrne would have us believe that their encounter here is the first time they have seen one another since the events of "Tarzan And The Jewels Of Opar" - hardly the case, as anyone familiar with "Tarzan And The Golden Lion" or "Tarzan The Invincible" will quickly point out.
There is also the problem of too large a cast. Bloodstone seems so intent to include as many of ERB's original characters from both series that a number of characters come and go having played no apparent function other than simply being there. It's almost as if Byrne merely wanted to see just how many characters he could squeeze in - the literary equivalent of the famed "stateroom scene" from the Marx Brothers' film "A Night At The Opera."
Byrne's effort to include as many familiar names as possible even results in the inexplicable resurrection of two characters which Burroughs himself had previously dispatched in earlier novels - the Oparian brute Cadj, whom Jad-Bal-Ja made into an appetizer in "Tarzan And The Golden Lion"; and Zithad, the Dator of the First Born, who lost his life upon the blade of none other than John Carter in "Llana Of Gathol." (Burroughs' final story in the Martian series, "Skeleton Men Of Jupiter," is also ignored completely by Byrne.)
Jason Gridley also makes an appearance early in the book, although he seems a far different character than that first introduced by Burroughs. The man who once traveled to Africa to convince Tarzan to mount an expedition to Pellucidar to rescue a man neither had ever met now seems hell-bent on persuading the hero from making a similar voyage to save the single most important human being in Tarzan's life - his wife Jane. And his comments concerning how cosmic rays had not interfered with the Gridley Wave transmitter/receiver until he had invited government officials to listen in on a broadcast from Mars almost makes Gridley seem an early prototype for a certain FBI agent on "The X-Files."
The one noteworthy character of Byrne's own creation is also the most pointless: one Jules Ainwright Carter of Virginia, said to be the favorite nephew of John Carter, Warlord of Mars. It's bad enough that the author has this character usurp the role played by Burroughs himself throughout the Mars series (thus destroying the delicately woven web of reality and fantasy first presented so memorably in the prologue to "A Princess Of Mars"); Byrne then compounds this literary crime by spending so much time and effort introducing this character, then relegating him to a strictly off-stage role. This heretofore unknown Carter's meeting with Tarzan, suggested by Gridley to the jungle hero in the closing paragraphs of Chapter 4, is described only briefly by Tarzan as having already taken place during a subsequent discussion with Gridley at the start of Chapter 5!
Why go to such pains to introduce the man Byrne would have us believe is the real person responsible for sharing John Carter's exploits if we don't get to actually meet the character, even if only for a few pages? Instead Byrne relegates this scene to virtual unimportance while engagaing in a needlessly bit of dialogue in which Tarzan repeatedly has to remind Gridley about the virtues of using Harbenite to construct the rocket that takes Tarzan to the Red Planet.
Speaking of which: the actual construction of that rocket is also glossed over entirely too quickly, so much so that one can't help but wonder why Byrne spent so much time setting the situation up in the first place, rather than simply utilizing Kar Komak's method of mental teleportation across space as John Carter had on several occasions. Byrne also introduces pseudoreligious aspects to the story which are not in keeping with Barsoomian culture as previously described by Burroughs. And then there's the little matter of the evolution of the Barsoomian reproduction cycle from viviparian to oviparian (or is it the other way round?), which is terribly confusing and never explained to the reader's satisfaction – a far cry from the depiction of Burroughs' own pseudoscientific evolutionary premise in the "Land That Time Forgot" trilogy. (Years later, of course, John Flint Roy would present a more detailed explanation for this business in his book "A Guide To Barsoom"; whether h e arrived at his thesis independently or was somehow inspired by Byrne is a question I cannot answer, but the latter seems unlikely in my opinion.)
But for the valiant reader who takes these and the book's other faults in stride, the greatest disappoint is saved for the very end: the tale is left unfinished. Jane has not been rescued, and her captors have not been brought to justice. At least one critique of the book I have read has suggested that this was Byrne's effort to end the story with the same kind of cliffhanging sequel hook so often employed by ERB himself. And I suppose this may well be the case - but it seems far more likely that it was ERB Incorporated's "cease and desist" actions against Byrne and editor Ray Palmer that prevented "Bloodstone" from concluding his would-be epic.
Ironically, evidence for both arguments can actually be found in a postscript that appears at the conclusion of my photocopy of "Tarzan On Mars." This consists of a transcript of a letter from Byrne to Palmer in which the author briefly discusses his plans for how the story would progress following Chapter 31. In that letter Byrne explains that he has two options for continuing the story; the first would be to write a final chapter or chapters in which Jane is rescued, the villains defeated and (in Byrne's words) "Carthoris coming up with a Martian spaceship to take them home, after contact is once more made with Gridley."
The second option is probably the one Palmer would have preferred to pursue had his plans to publish "Tarzan On Mars" come to fruition. Again quoting Byrne's letter: "Or I could expand the treachery of Zithad or Sardon Dhur into a long stretch of adventures for continued serialization, taking Tarzan to Venus, not to Earth." The evidence wold seem to suggest that Byrne had the goal of eventually bringing in a third ERB hero, Carson Napier, but was hedging his bets by devising a quicker resolution to the story, and then was prevented from following either path as the result of legal action by the Burroughs' estate.
Byrne's letter also indicates that, whichever resolution he eventually planned to use, the resolution of La's part of the story would be consist of her showing Tarzan and Jane "her new pride and joy, in an incubator atop the Temple of the Sun beyond the Sea of Korus. It is an egg." (This proposed ending sets the stage for a thoroughly enjoyable essay by my friends Dennis Power, Win Eckert and Chuck Loridans - entitled "La: Immortal Priestess of issus," and posted at Win's Wold Newton Universe website - that manages to tie together the events of Byrne's novel with the adventures of Modesty Blaise! It's a lot more fun that Byrne's novel.)
Up to this point one might come away with the idea that this particular reader found nothing whatsoever to like about "Tarzan On Mars." That's not exactly the case.
There are several rather cute scenes which are reminiscent of the brand of offbeat humor ERB brought to some of his stories – and which is so lacking in the rest of Byrne's effort. The most memorable is an exchange between John Carter's son, Carthoris, and Vad Varo after they come to the mistaken conclusion that Tarzan has been killed in an encounter with Barsoomian white apes. (Carthoris expresses the hope that Tarzan fainted first, suggesting that such a death would have been more merciful. Maybe it's just me, but there's something funny about that...)
Another occurs earlier in the book, as Tarzan translates the chattering of his small monkey friend, Nkima, for the benefit of some guests to his African estate. Tarzan seems to take some sense of pleasure in deliberately mistranslates the message, and for just the briefest of instances the reader is left feeling that Byrne might be about to get it right, after all.
The feeling, unfortunately, doesn't last. What we are left with instead is the unmistakable impression that while it might have been worthwhile for ERB Inc. at the time to select an author to continue spinning tales featuring Burroughs' heroes, Byrne was clearly not the writer for the job.
Which leaves us with the question: where does "Tarzan On Mars" ultimately stand among all the other Tarzan pastiches – authorized or unauthorized – that have appeared in the years since ERB's death? Like Den Valdron I have heard a number of answers to this question over the years, each containing some nugget of validity (depending, of course, upon one's willingness to accept the answerer's point of view). Since such answers are ultimately a matter of opinion and nothing more, I do not feel qualified to pass judgment upon them; all I can do is offer my own opinion for whatever it is worth, and let the reader make up his or her own mind.
When it comes to Burroughs pastiches, there is one book that I have always used as the "gold standard" against which all others are measured: "Tarzan And The Valley Of Gold," Fritz Leiber's novelization of the 1966 Mike Henry film. The reasons for this are simple; not only was it the first novel featuring one of Burroughs’ heroes or settings to be authorized following Burroughs’ death in 1950, but it was written by an author whose credentials in the genre were already established and quite impeccable. Leiber did such a grand job of taking middling entry in the Tarzan film series and reworking it into the character's literary mythos that when Ballantine published it as “Volume 25 in the series,” the book was readily accepted as canon in the minds of many readers.
At the far opposite end of the spectrum are the five unauthorized and hastily produced Tarzan novels written by the team of Peter and Peggy Scott (using the pen name "Barton Werper") and published in 1964 and '65 by the New International Library of Derby, Connecticut. These books are so blatently bad that they seem to have developed an odd sort of mystique all their own; at the 2006 Comic-Con I saw a fellow buy a copy of "Tarzan And The Abominable Snowman" – a book that originally sold for 40 cents and was barely worth that – for a staggering $300! (The one good side to this was that my wife was not quick to complain about the $25 I spent a couple of months later on a long-sought-for copy of ERB's "The Deputy Sheriff Of Commanche County.")
Everything else - ranging from the ERB-related works of Philip Jose Farmer to the vast number of unauthorized "fan fics" that have cropped up on the Internet in recent years - falls somewhere in between. For my money, "Tarzan On Mars" falls somewhere in the middle of the lower end of that spectrum; it is far superior to the "Barton Werper" novels and on a par with the majority of "fan fics," but not quite as good as most of Farmer's books or J.T. Edson's "Bunduki" and nowhere near the quality of Lieber's "Valley Of Gold" or what I feel were Farmer's best contributions to the mythos, his novels of Hadon of Ancient Opar.
Again, this is just one person's opinion and should be treated as such. The reader is free to make up his own mind - provided, of course, that you can get your hands on a copy. Mine, for the moment anyway, is safely secured under lock and key – sort of like that ugly old family heirloom one doesn't much like keeping around but can't quite bring themselves to get rid of, either...
At the end of his article on the history of "Tarzan On Mars," Den Valdron makes the following – quite valid – observation: "Sometimes it's enough that something like that is out there."
Sometimes it's enough; quite often it is not. Stuart J. Byrne's "Tarzan On Mars," in my humble opinion, falls just over the line into the "not" category. The book is not entirely without merit, but as the much ballyhooed "successor to ERB" that Byrne or Ray Palmer intended it falls far short of the mark. For the ERB completist it is worth seeking out and reading once, just for the sake of finally being able to do so if nothing else.
But for the fan thirsty for action and adventure in the genuine Burroughs tradition, the experience will be a little like going down to the wine cellar and settling for an old bottle of ginger ale. You're bound to come away disappointed.
For the record, I will say that I liked the book "Tarzan On Mars" far more than I did the film "Frankenstein Vs. Dracula." But that, I suppose, is a story for another day...
(NOTE: The author of two previous articles published by ERBzine, Mr. Small is an award-winning journalist and columnist and was a contributor to the 2005 anthology "Myths For The Modern Age: Philip Jose Farmer's Wold Newton Universe." His recent collection of Western short stories, "Days Gone By: Legends And Tales Of Sipokni West," is available at Amazon.com and features a cameo appearance by Buck Mason from ERB's "The Bandit Of Hell's Bend." This article is copyright 2007 by John Allen Small)
BURROUGHS BIBLIO-PRO-PHILES SERIES
Stuart Byrne aka John Bloodstone
The Story Behind
Tarzan On Mars
Den Valdron's Ganymede or Bust: Pt. 1 - Tarzan On Mars
Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master Storyteller by John Allen Small
Den Valdron's Fantasy Worlds of ERB
ERB C.H.A.S.E.R.: Illustrated Bibliography of the Works of ERB
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