They Just Can’t Handle Edgar Rice Burroughs

Wednesday , 28, June 2017 37 Comments

There’s something about Edgar Rice Burroughs that just causes some peoples’ heads to explode. They short circuit. Their monocle pops off. They let slip the mask. Their skin peels off to reveal the scaly lizard flesh beneath.

It’s as bizarre as it is reliable. Here’s only the latest example:

The idea that pulp Sci-Fi was mainstream popular before the 1960’s is completely false. Sci-Fi was considered ham-fisted schlock for prepubescent boys in those days. Main stream literature during the time your talking about was John Steinbeck and F Scott Fitzgerald. People liked realism back in them days, and they considered Sci-Fi to be Fantasy drivel for children.

You cited Edger Rice Burroughs Tarzan books as an example of main stream literature, completely ignoring the fact that his stories where printed mostly in pulp magazines.They where hardly best selling hardbacks. You also cite Conan as “mainstream popular” which is not entirely true considering that Robert E Howard only ever saw his stories printed in pulp. And in fact his stories only got printed in paper back decades after his death as an obscure niche favorite. You also mention Batman which doesn’t really fit into an argument for Sci-Fi Books. I mean, If your going to use Bat Man as an example of a golden age gone by, then I could easily counter that by saying Spider Man and the X Men are examples of main stream popular Sci-Fi post “golden age”. Both of which were invented in the 1960’s and reached peak popularity in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Before there respective movies came out.

Also, if your going to mention classic Sci-Fi Literature as examples of old books that are still embedded in Main Stream popular culture, you could have at least said War of the Worlds, The Time Machine and 1984. I also Noted that there was an underlining sub text of bias towards left wing politics in your article. Now, I don’t subscribe to any left wing Ideologies, but if your going to try and slip your politics into your article, try not to be so transparent about it. You completely lost me when you started talking about manly men being manly. There’s lot’s of stuff that is of the literary caliber of Tarzan and Conan for “masculine men” to dig there teeth into in this day and age. Just read Tom Clancy or the like. Or maybe Bret Easton Ellis would be your cup of tea?

Your argument is completely straw man. Because the fact of the matter is, Si-Fi literature has never been “mainstream” in the truest sense of the word. Other than a few examples outside of literature such as Star Wars, E.T and the Twilight Zone. It’s not like the 20th century ever had long periods of success with huge Sci-Fi films and books like they did with Westerns or Action movies. I don’t recall a series of successful Sci-Fi books as popular as the likes of Stephen King. In fact, If you want the type of “manly” heroes that your so enamored with, look no further than the slew of Marvel Movies that are being produced now. And you still have the comics and Tom Clancy. I’m Struggling to see your point.

Fortunately Brian Renninger was on duty when this guy showed up. Here’s his response:

Well, first of all, you are apples and oranging it. If you are going to discuss “mainstream” in the context of the discussion presented in the article you’ll need to use the same definition used in the article. You start by redefining “mainstream” as “literary” whereas “mainstream” as used (the one time) in the article means read by the average person of the day. To say pulp was mainstream is to note that in aggregate pulp fiction was read by the average person in vastly greater amounts than “literary” fiction. You deride Burroughs due to being published in pulp magazines which is entirely beside the point. Besides, in that you are also factually incorrect; Tarzan of the Apes was published in Hardcover June 6, 1914 and the Burroughs books continued on from there. Tarzan did in fact result in many a Hollywood blockbuster (radio, serials, movies, and ultimately television) which you claim not to have existed. Though I don’t have the numbers I bet the hours devoted solely to Tarzan on non-print media outnumber all the hours of non-print media inspired by H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Ellis, Clancy, and even King combined. And, as to other SF, you are right, there were not long periods of SF film runs with say the popularity of the western back in the day. There are a number of reasons for this. Mostly because shooting a western is vastly cheaper than shooting SF. Plus, the necessary special effects just weren’t available in the early years. And, yet, even so, Gene Autry, who could have kept making pure westerns chose to make The Phantom Empire serial — that wasn’t because SF was unpopular.

As to Howard’s popularity. Well, he was no Burroughs but, he was pretty much the most popular writer for Weird Tales, and would also have had a novel published in Hardback if the publisher hadn’t gone under in early 1936. If Howard hadn’t blown his brains out a few months later, who knows how popular he might have gotten back then.

And, finally, King. You use King to say you “don’t recall a series of successful Sci-Fi books as popular as the likes of Stephen King.” This is laughable in it’s face. Firstly, you have to draw upon one of the most popular writers of all time in order to look down from lofty heights upon lowly SF. SF is doing pretty good if King is the big gun you need to draw to try to prove your point. And, in any case Rowling has given him a pretty good run for his money. Though I suppose if you are comparing popularity in the 30s to today, well, that’s apples and oranges again as populations and distribution was much different. But, most importantly, you forget that a huge portion (and arguably the majority) of King’s writing is fantastic. King writes fantasy, SF, weird fiction, and essentially all the genres of the pulps from back in the day. And, King became popular in the pulp format of his era — the paperback novel. King is a pulp writer and you are right he is as mainstream as it gets.

You want to pursue the tautology of defining mainstream as not pulp and then deriding pulp as not mainstream. Well, you have fun with that but, don’t expect to convince anyone.

  • Morgan says:

    F. Scott Fitzgerald has undergone recrudescence in more recent decades due to movie adaptations and the use of THE GREAT GATSBY in English classes. Fitzgerald was a darling of the early 1920s but was a has been by the 1930s. He had an incredible command of language while writing about very unlikeable people. Take home point- Fitzgerald is not a good example as Burroughs was probably the more popular writer a decade after Fitzgerald’s heyday.

  • deuce says:

    ERB was the first multi-media marketer. There was Tarzan bread and Tarzan ice cream during the height of it all. There have been about 85 films made featuring ERB’s creations. Tarzan and ERB were all-pervasive for quite awhile.

    Oh, and Harper Lee name-checks Tarzan in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.

    • John E. Boyle says:

      Tarzan was one of the big Sunday comic strips as well, for years.

      Forgot all about Tarzan being mentioned in To Kill a Mockingbird!

    • Rat~Bastard says:

      ERB was also the first author to successfully start his own publishing house to market his books.

  • NARoberts says:

    I enjoyed The Phantom Empire quite a bit as a teen.

    So…since it has been brought up, when is the pulprev going to expand to westerns?

    Louis Lamour, Max Brand, Zane Grey…anyone not reading them is missing out.

    • Hooc Ott says:

      Peter Grant writes westerns.
      Castilia just released one I think.

      Heard he was going to a fantasy novel.

      The PulpRev hive mind may have already assimilated him.

      • NARoberts says:

        I dunno, nobody talks about them here, nobody has reviewed Zane Grey or Louis Lamour even once for all the columns on Howard and Ashton Smith and Brackett, nor classic Western films like The Searchers or True Grit. Or, hell! The Virginian, which is one of the best novels of all time–the manliest romance ever written (that was not written by Rafael Sabatini).

        • I’ve reviewed both of Grant’s Westerns. And just because there isn’t a big discussion of the Genre doesn’t mean there can’t or shouldn’t be. I like Westerns, but they aren’t my overall focus. I’ll dip my toe in now and again.

          As to reviewing guys that still sell in new bookstores, I don’t see a lot of point to it. Gimme indie or oop.

          If you want to see the conversation start, get to writing. Get folks in the pulprev interested and talking.

        • Jeffro says:

          If you want to do some guest posts on westerns, you’re welcome to. I assume they’re underrated. I know Robert E. Howard’s westerns were good… but that’s all I’ve looked at!

          • NARoberts says:

            “If you want to do some guest posts on westerns, you’re welcome to. I assume they’re underrated.”

            I will take you up on that offer! I’m trying to get something to submit something for Storyhack before he closes on Monday, so all my writing time will be focused on that project, but next week I will be free to work on some western-related material for you guys.

            How should I get in touch with you?

          • I’ve read pretty much everything Louis L’amour wrote. While most of my writing is sci fi and mystery, I am teaming up with a western writer for what would be considered a pulp western. I’d love to write a guest post or two on Westerns as #PulpRev if possible?

        • deuce says:

          ERB wrote Westerns, though the more unconventional ones like RETURN OF THE MUCKER and APACHE DEVIL are better than his “straight” ones.

          Faust/Brand was buddies of a sort with Merritt and even wrote a Merrittesque fantasy. His “Firebrand” swashbucklers could pretty easily be converted into tales of the Hyborian Age. Faust/Brand comes out slightly superior to L’Amour in the Western category, IMO.

    • John E. Boyle says:

      I think the focus on SF and F kind of kept our attention, but anyone wants to talk Westerns, I’m game.

      My reading of Max Brand has been minimal but I’ve read most of Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey’s books. They were master storytellers.

  • Hooc Ott says:

    Spider Man and the X Men
    Star Wars, E.T and the Twilight Zone
    Stephen King
    Tom Clancy
    Bret Easton Ellis
    Marvel Movies

    All owned by huge Media Companies

    Edgar Rice Burroughs
    Robert E Howard

    Not so much

    Razorfist put out a video a few weeks back about comics and lead loss sales. Red letter media mentioned in a recent video that Hollywood buys scripts with the full intent of never making a movie out of them. They just want to make sure no one makes a movie out of them. It might be the Half in the Bag review of The Mummy. In that video they mention that the Mummy is meant for an international market and that the original was made for a an American Christian audience who because they are Christian would find a 3500 year old body all carefully wrapped in a sarcophagus horrifying.

    The actual horror and therefor story telling required the audience to have pre-set explicit culture in order for it to work at all.

    The new movie in contrast is made as a bland (their words I have not seen it) over explained action movie that will not offend any culture and not require specific cultural beats for the audience to be aware of.

    I don’t think I have all the pieces I have written together here to make a full coherent point.

    So lets add more!!

    Lots of talk about no politics in the SFF blogosphere. Recently Hoyt and Nathan went at in comments over her sad puppies post. Well Nathan made points and Hoyt whatever she wrote was near indecipherable.

    Except Hoyt said something along the lines of Non-politics beats marxism in the culture war!!

    Tell that to a Jackson Pollock painting.

    Anyway substitute the words politics with cultural and these things are starting to look different to me.

    The big boys in media from what I can see are pushing for culture-less entertainment: old properties they possess are re-purposed (hey look Wonder Woman is now just fighting Great War Germans not Nazis), acquire cultured new properties to file into the wastebin, and destroy in wide public opinion old properties which they do not control….ie Robert E Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs.

    • John E. Boyle says:

      Fascinating, and something I’ve suspected for a while now.

    • Eh, they can’t kill ERB or REH from movies, even with the ham fisted Conan, Kull, Solomon Kane, Tarzan, and John Carter films. Even the bad ones draw readers, and then they find superior books.

      • John E. Boyle says:

        Ham-fisted is too generous, but I have noticed younger members of my family taking an interest in the books after seeing the movies.

        My constant snarling that “the book is MUCH better” may have something to do with that, though.

      • Nathan says:

        I rather liked the Solomon Kane movie, but the main character was not Solomon Kane. But then Hollywood does not understand how scary a man of conviction is. (The Book of Eli was a rare exception.)

      • Hooc Ott says:

        Well there is try to destroy and succeed at destroy.

        The first Conan the Barbarian movie I am sure drew in readers, but fundamentally that movie was made in reaction to Conan’s new rise in popularity from the 70s. Comic was still going strong then and the Ace Conan books were selling like hotcakes. Resurgence in sword and sorcery style fantasy from DnD probably did not hurt either.

        The newest Conan movie in contrast…well I can’t even remember what the heck it was about. I have some doubts about how many readers it might have brought in.

        Game of Thrones has Conan in it with King Robert. King Robert who revenge kills the Poet Warrior Elrik stand-in who stole his true love, becomes king, gets fat, gets drunk bankrupts the kingdom, whores around making a dozen bastards, gets cucked by his queen and brother in law, then is slain by a boar (which may or may not be possessed by the dead soul of his true love) while drunk hunting. It is a deconstruction of Conan intended to destroy him.

        Funny thing is I saw a GoT “the making of” interview with the actor who played Drogo who also played Conan in the newest movie he basically said Conan was a wuss and Drogo was awesome…GRRM I am sure put a little Conan in his writing of Drogo…and then in the books as well as the show mortally cripples him with a staph infection with the actual kill being done by the lusty dame smothering him with a pillow.

        Yeah big media by its choices of what it makes and sells is trying to destroy REH. but also I agree they will not succeed.

        • John E. Boyle says:

          “then is slain by a boar (which may or may not be possessed by the dead soul of his true love)”

          What? Dang it, I missed that. What the heck was I drinking that night?

          • Hooc Ott says:

            Lyanna is a Stark who seemingly are all Worgs. Bran, Jon and Arya all explicitly mind meld or whatever you want to call it with animals.

            It was also a Boar that gored the mother wolf who gave birth to all the Stark kids wolf pups. That may have been Lyanna in that mama wolf and mind transferring into the boar makes sense.

            This is a very far out theory of mine so take with a good heaping of salt.


            Hey I just noticed Arya is spelled the same as Aryas….ie “Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Aryas there was an age undreamed of”

  • deuce says:

    Check out these three articles written during the ’60s “Burroughs Boom”:

    The boom occurred a full 50yrs after John Carter and Tarzan hit the stands. Reading through the articles, one can see just how pervasive ERB and Tarzan had been in American culture for a full half-century.

    The book sales totals are definitely off. Having talked to various ERB authorities, there is no doubt that — figuring in at least a few million “pirate” sales, of which there were plenty in numerous countries — world-wide ERB book sales over the last 100yrs are somewhere north of 100 million.

    • freddie says:

      The idea that pulp Sci-Fi was mainstream popular before the 1960’s is completely false.

      *boggles* The average person on the street has heard of Tarzan and Conan, even if they haven’t read any of the source material. There were newspaper comic strips, radio serials, movies (the first Tarzan movie was in 1918!), etc. so the idea that those two characters existed in the shadowy world of pulp …

  • M.C. Tuggle says:

    One concrete example of the mainstream popularity of SF-F pulp prior to the 1960s is the Armed Services Edition book program. The goal was to give WWII GIs quality reading material, which included Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and, yes, Lovecraft.

    Check out the examples and the letter in this post:

  • Andy says:

    Funnily enough, I’ve often seen Merritt described as “the Stephen King of the early 20th century” to try and put across how widely read he was at his peak. Then everyone always asks, “So what happened to make him so obscure?” And outside of this site no one ever bothers trying to answer the question.

  • A,B, says:

    Didn’t the Wonder Woman movie have a line about ERB? It’s where they are sitting around the campfire. As Trevor goes through the trading sacks he lists “Edgar Rice Burroughs books for the Germans(I think)”. Obviously the movie’s writers realized ERB was mainstream at one point.

    • deuce says:

      Yep, ERB is name-checked in the movie and at least one hardback is in there. BTW, there were even ERB books being sold underground in Stalinist Russia. Stalin banned them because Burroughs was so anti-Communist.

  • deuce says:

    Another example of ERB’s cultural hegemony? The Stockton Tarzans:

  • Robespierre says:

    To add to deuce’s comment about Harper Lee, James Jones also mentions Tarzan by name in one of his stories from The Ice-cream Headache (the story was originally published in 1958).

    In an interesting coincidence, the super famous Burroughs and the soon to be famous Jones were both on hand for the December 7th attack.

    Jones, a twenty year old infantryman was posted to Schofield Barracks and he actually saw the Japanese pilot grin and wave to them as the pilot hammered the quadrangle with his MGs.

    On a hotel beachfront across the water, Burroughs and his son watched the black smoke billowing up from the crippled American ships at Pearl Harbor.

    While Jones and his comrades built concrete pillboxes to repel an amphibious Japanese assault force, Burroughs (in his mid 60s) and his son volunteered for the civilian defense force and, armed with rifles, guarded various posts in Hawaii. Volunteering for further hardship, Burroughs became the oldest American war correspondent in the Pacific. Many (or most perhaps?)of the G.I.s he met certainly knew who Tarzan was. I’ve seen a photo of the Armed Forces Edition of Tarzan of the Apes.

    • deuce says:

      From what I’ve read, the service guys loved ERB. You can see him put some of that experience into his TARZAN AND THE FOREIGN LEGION novel.

      Oh, and though his own ship wasn’t targeted, Ed was within eyeshot of kamikaze attacks on neighboring naval vessels during his service. He didn’t stay in the rear with the gear. A hell of a man and a hell of an American, when all is said and done.

  • Karl2000 says:

    Okay, So you’ve all proved me wrong and given me examples of how Sci-Fi was popular and in fact, still is! With examples ranging from Tarzan Ice Cream to Conan themes in Game of Thrones.
    What I’m still struggling with though is that the over all tone of the original article I commented on was that Sci-Fi isn’t popular anymore, and hasn’t been since the 1950’s, because Sci-Fi went all pinko and left wing, making men feel emasculated. And the only way to make Sci-Fi ‘mainstream’ again is to bring back the hulking, mans man, John Wayne type hero’s from the pulp era of pre WW2 literature. I mean, one guy said I shouldn’t compare to Stephen King because he’s the most popular writer of the 20th century. However, another comment said I was wrong because Stephen King technically IS a Sci-Fi writer. In fact, another person went on to say Edger Rice Burroughs has comparatively sold more books than King. Another person said “The average person on the street has heard of Tarzan and Conan”. Which is true, and both characters have had main stream summer movies come out over the past 5 years. The Legend of Tarzan was produced by Warner Brothers on a budget of 180 million and Conan the Barbarian was released by LionsGate on a budget of 90 million! So, I guess I was wrong to call them ‘niche’.
    What I’m struggling with is the idea of “popular” and “Main Stream” as defined in the article and how Sci-Fi is not what it used to be? Also, I’m not too sure about the definition of Sci-Fi because I personally wouldn’t call Conan or Tarzan Sci-Fi, I would call them Fantasy. if we can call Tarzan Sci-Fi couldn’t you also say Harry Potter, Lord of The Rings and Game of Thrones are all Sci-Fi too? All of which have been hugely successful over the past 17 years.
    I mean, I don’t see how John Snow or Aragorn are any less ‘masculine’ or any less popular than Tarzan and Conan. I just feel that the article didn’t really have a clear point as to why Sci-Fi needs to go back to the way it was in the 40’s. And all the comment’s I’ve read just feel contradictory to the original point of the article.
    Look, you can make your jokes that I’m one of the Lizard people, liberal elite who just cant wrap his head around the genius of Edger Rice Burroughs. But At least I can admit that I made mistakes in my original comment and was rightly proven wrong by various commentators. All I’m asking is for a little bit of enlightenment on why Conan and Tarzan in the 40’s was acceptable but Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones aren’t acceptable today? Is it that Books specifically don’t sell? Or that the lack of traditional masculinity is off putting? If so then why isn’t John Snow enough for your taste? Game of Thrones books sell well don’t they? Where they not top of the best sellers list? And John Snow is a popular character. Why is he, for example, less worthy as a literary character than Conan or Tarzan?

    • Hooc Ott says:

      Jon Snow he gets the redheaded hottie for no reason what so ever, sleeps with her out of duty which is also a betrayal to his duty, licks her in her privates though, betrays her, she tries to kill him, then he warns the Black Brothers then helps set up their defense which kills her….

      That ain’t Conan or Tarzan.
      That is GRRM taking a giant pile of crap on heroism, romance, and duty.

      As to Aragorn I have a crazy theory that he is based on Conan.

      Both are descendants of Atlantis. Both wield a magic broken sword used to smite an unholy both are wanderers. I am interested in what coloring Aaragorn’s hair and eyes are. It is possible Tolkien never described it. Both lead an army to fight a growing evil that if you look at a maps of middle earth The Hyborian age and Europe in general vicinity of where the black sea/Turkey is today for what is ostensibly an ancient proto-Greece. Gondor and Koth respectably.

      Anyway pretty crazy. But lets pretend it is true. Would you call Aragorn an emasculated Conan?

      Probably not.

      “because Sci-Fi went all pinko and left wing, making men feel emasculated.”

      Now GRRM’s Drogo and King Robert…yeah those guys got their franks and berries gelded with a vengeance by GRRM. I didn’t mention in that actor interview where Jason Momo or whatever his name is calls Conan a wuss and Drogo the cool that GRRM was sitting right next to him when he said it.

      Gee I wonder where he got the idea that Conan was a wuss from…

      The mind ponders.

      Lord of the Rings was written between 1937 and 1949 by the way. Why are you inserting in with GRRM and The Potter kid’s books?

      Heck why are putting Potter and GRRM together? The latter can accurately be described as a long series of rapes!

      • Karl2000 says:

        I know when Lord of the Rings was written but the books did have a re surge in popularity after the Peter Jackson films came out and it has currently sold over 250 million copies. Also, I mentioned them in relation to Harry Potter and Game of Thrones because all three are examples of books and films from the fantasy genre that have been extremely popular since the turn of the century. I know that all three are different and are for different age groups but they are all “mainstream’ popular.
        I mean, the argument in the original post that I commented on was that Sci-Fi/Fantasy doesn’t sell any more and that the reason is because the classical ‘old fashioned’ idea of a masculine male has been destroyed by the left wing agenda. However, Harry Potter is extremely popular with children, Lord of the Rings is really popular with teenagers and Game of Thrones is extremely popular with adults. And all have sold exceptionally well in book stores and cinemas as well as having great T.V ratings.
        I mean, 1984 has sold over 28 million copies since its publication and Hitchhikers Guide and Dune have both sold over 15 million copies.
        The tone of the article was that Sci-Fi has been dragged into a swamp where people now hate it and won’t read it or go near it because they’ve completely given up on the pinko lefty bullshit but I’ve just gave 6 examples of books that are extremely popular and that don’t follow the old fashioned two fisted John Wayne tough guy story type. Not to mention some of the highest grossing movies of all time include; Star Wars, E.T, Avatar, the Avengers and Jurrasic Park. All Sci-Fi. Are you guys talking about all Sci-Fi and Fantasy falling in popularity? Or just the specific form of Sci-Fi and Fantasy that defines Conan and Tarzan which was popular between the 1920’s and 1950’s?
        I enjoy Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E Howard too, I just don’t understand why all of the more popular Sci-Fi/Fantasy books post 1950’s should be discounted.

        • Jeffro says:

          Do you really enjoy Robert E. Howard? That’s awesome! Please tell us about your favorite stories and why they are so great!

          • Karl2000 says:

            Well, the first story I read was The People of the Black Circle, I enjoyed the magic and sorcery of the story and enjoyed the dynamic between Conan and Yasmina. I also found the end fight with the Turanian army to be a satisfying end fight. I also enjoyed the Scarlet Citadel because it depicts a wiser and older ‘king’ version of Conan. But my favorite Howard work is probably the Kull story Exile of Atlantis because I just feel it has a more contemplative and philosophical feel to it compared to Conan. However, I’m not an avid reader of Robert E Howard. My main intrigue in his work came from hearing he was a correspondent of Lovecraft. And I am a huge Lovecraft fan.

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