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The Monster Men and the Magic Number
Continued from Part I: ERBzine 5360
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by John Martin
If a movie were to be made of ERB's The Monster Men, a few comic relief scenes would help to ease the intensity of the repeated screen portrayal of brute force and grotesque flesh.
One of those scenes could come from Chapter VIII, where Number Thirteen and his misshapen and mentally deficient followers commandeer an enemy prahu and attempt to learn the ropes of navigation in order to follow the other canoes across the China Sea to the island of Borneo in an attempt to rescue the captive Virginia Maxon.
Because the monsters were created in Professor Maxon's lab just a few weeks earlier, they had a lot to learn, and that included the proper technique for propelling a boat.
After the human-like beasts attacked and drove off the Dyaks who were aboard the wrecked Ithaca, Number Thirteen tried to instantly train his cumbersome crew to operate the prahu that had been abandoned by the rest of the fleeing pirates. And Number Thirteen had only just figured the technique out himself:
"Neither Number Thirteen nor any of his crew had ever before seen a boat, and outside of the leader there was scarcely enough brains in the entire party to render it at all likely that they could ever navigate it, but the young man saw that the other prahus were being propelled by the long sticks which protruded from their sides, and he also saw the sails bellying with wind, though he had but a vague conception of their purpose.
"For a moment he stood watching the actions of the men in the nearest boat, and then he set himself to the task of placing his own men at the oars and instructing them in the manner of wielding the unfamiliar implements. For an hour he worked with the brainless things that constituted his party. They could not seem to learn what was required of them. The paddles were continually fouling one another, or being merely dipped into the water and withdrawn without the faintest semblance of a stroke made.
"The tiresome maneuvering had carried them about in circles back and forth across the harbor, but by it Number Thirteen had himself learned something of the proper method of propelling and steering his craft. At last, more through accident than intent, they came opposite the mouth of the basin, and then chance did for them what days of arduous endeavor upon their part might have failed to accomplish."
That happenstance came when "...a vagrant land breeze suddenly bellyed the flapping sail...."
The scene was, in a way, a trial run for ERB's imagination as he prepared to write his next Tarzan outing, The Beasts of Tarzan, which would be published about a year later in All-Story Cavalier Weekly. Tarzan had been marooned on an island by the evil Nikolas Rokoff but you can't keep a good ape-man down. After making friends with Sheeta the Panther, the native Mugambi and an ape named Akut and his furry friends, Tarzan fits a small craft for service to sail to the African mainland.
Tarzan had the advantage on Number Thirteen, the latter having no memory of anything other than what he had learned since becoming self-aware in Professor Maxon's lab.
So Tarzan at least knew what he was doing from the start, but teaching apes to man oars proved to be about as easy as teaching faux-human monsters. ERB wrote:
"The next few days Tarzan devoted to the weaving of a bark-cloth sail with which to equip the canoe, for he despaired of being able to teach the apes to wield the paddles, though he did manage to get several of them to embark in the frail craft which he and Mugambi paddled about inside the reef where the water was quite smooth.
"During those trips he had placed paddles in their hands, when they attempted to imitate the movements of him and Mugambi, but so difficult is it for them long to concentrate upon a thing that he soon saw that it would require weeks of patient training before they would be able to make any effective use of these new implements, if, in fact, they should ever do so.
"There was one exception, however, and he was Akut. Almost from the first he showed an interest in this new sport that revealed a much higher plane of intelligence than that attained by any of his tribe. He seemed to grasp the purpose of the paddles, and when Tarzan saw that this was so he took much pains to explain in the meager language of the anthropoid how they might be used to the best advantage."
Tarzan, too, was aided by the wind in making it back to Africa. "And so it was that when the first fair wind rose he embarked upon his cruise, and with him he took as strange and fearsome a crew as ever sailed under a savage master.
"Mugambi and Akut went with him, and Sheeta, the panther, and a dozen great males of the tribe of Akut."
As is usual with his writings, ERB has his especially memorable phrases and passages in The Monster Men. There is a ship that is "wallowing drunkenly," "the lynx-eyed Sing," "savage happiness" and "frightful freight."
It is an eyebrow-raiser in Chapter II when Professor Maxon says, "The future of the world will be assured when once we have demonstrated the possibility of the chemical production of a perfect race." No precise spoiler alerts from me, other than that, near the end of the story, one gets the final evidence that the learned one is anxious to "forget forever" that particular subject!
When Number Thirteen is moving through the jungle alone, he decides to check out some nearby noises. "His experience with men had taught him to be wary, for it was evident that every man's hand was against him, so he determined to learn at once whether the noise he heard came from some human enemy lurking along his trail ready to spring upon him with naked parang...." Chapter XI
That line about every man's hand being against him brings to mind a passage in Genesis, and ERB was wont to directly quote the Bible at times, and allude to passages from it at other times. Was he doing so in this case, with a reflection on Genesis 16:12 regarding Ishmael, father of the Arabs? "And he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man's hand against him, and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren."
Number Thirteen is known by some other names. Von Horn calls him "Jack" in Chapter V: " 'You are getting along nicely, Jack,' he said kindly, looking over the other's shoulder and using the name which had been adopted at his suggestion to lend a more human tone to their relations with the nameless man." Later, Number Thirteen adopts the name of "Bulan," which is what the natives call him. "Bulan" means "moon" in Malaysia and refers to a moon goddess in the Philippine language. Chapter IX states "Number Thirteen noticed that when they addressed him it was always as Bulan, and upon questioning them he discovered that they had given him this title of honor partly in view of his wonderful fighting ability and partly because the sight of his white face emerging from out of the darkness of the river into the firelight of their blazing camp fire had carried to their impressionable minds a suggestion of the tropic moon which they admired and reverenced." And the reader will discover one other name by which Number Thirteen is known.
"The heavy chest," sometimes called "the great chest" and sometimes just "the chest" is a much-sought prize in The Monster Men and many possess it briefly but none ever seem to have it quite long enough to open it up and look inside.
So what are its contents? Perhaps if ERB fans were after this container, they would hope it contained 29 McClurg ERB books in pristine jackets. But it's more logical to assume that it is full of gold, or another kind of negotiable treasure.
One man, besides Professor Maxon, is said to know what is in the heavy chest. It is Sing Lee, the camp cook. In Chapter II we read: "But he muttered much to himself the balance of the day, for Sing knew that a chest that strained four men in the carrying could contain but one thing, and he knew that Bududreen was as wise in such matters as he."
Well, did Sing really guess what was in the chest? And did he and Bududreen, another villain who is onstage for awhile, both have the same idea about what was in the chest? We don't get the reactions of either when the contents of the chest are finally disclosed, so we'll just have to imagine what their reactions were, or might have been, to its contents.
ERB writes of the magic of a woman's smile: "Virginia Maxon sent back an answering smile -- a smile that filled the young giant's heart with pride and happiness -- such a smile as brave men have been content to fight and die for since woman first learned the art of smiling." Chapter VIII
In describing the different levels of human-like development which the diverse monsters had reached, ERB provided a definition for what makes one a human: "These were by far the most dangerous, for as the power of comparison is the fundamental principle of reasoning, so they were able to compare their lot with that of the few other men they had seen, and with the help of Von Horn to partially appreciate the horrible wrong that had been done them." Chapter VII
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