Sunday, September 01, 2013

138 Years Ago...

...Edgar Rice Burroughs was born.

And my life was much more enjoyable as a result.

I knew about Tarzan ever since I was old enough to sit through an entire movie, it seems, but I didn't actually read Edgar Rice Burroughs' fiction until 1965. Once again, it was the art of Frank Frazetta that initially caught my attention; Frazetta and Roy G. Krenkel were the two artists tapped by Don Wollheim to supply the cover art for the Ace F editions (so called because their ID number began with an F, indicating that the cover price of these books was 40¢--later increased to 45¢) of ERB's fiction. I recognized Frazetta's distinctive style when I saw one of the Ace F editions at a used bookstore, Coosa Valley Bookshop, back when they were located on Tribune Street, across the street from the Rome News-Tribune. While waiting for Dad to finish up some last-minute newspaper work, I wandered across the street with no expectations that I'd find anything of interest. What I found, however, was a dozen Ace F editions--more than I could afford--so I picked out the Frazetta covers that intrigued me the most. Tarzan at the Earth's Core. Son of Tarzan. Tarzan and the Lost Empire. Out of Time's Abyss. Carson of Venus. And one Roy Krenkel cover also made the cut that day--but it was one that Frazetta assisted on, Mastermind of Mars.

Obviously I wasn't concerned about reading Burroughs' books in order of publication. In fact, I really wasn't that concerned about reading Burroughs at all. After all, several of the books I bought were Tarzan books, and I knew what Tarzan was like, right?

How wrong I was!

Two weeks or so later, looking for a quick read, I picked up one of those slim Tarzan novels—Tarzan at the Earth's Core. And I was hooked. Not only did I read all the other books that I had bought, I made a point of going back to Coosa Valley Bookshop to buy the rest of the Burroughs books she had.

Alas, the Frazetta and Krenkel art that so impressed me must have been less impressive to whomever had traded in some more Ace F editions since I had last visited. The owner of these books had attempted to transform Ace paperbacks into miniature hardcovers by using some sort of fake-leatherette adhesive vinyl to cover the covers of the book. Those stunning covers were now lost under brown plastic and glue. I soon learned, though, that with great care I could peel that plastic off--although it left the gummy glue behind. No problem--one carefully placed layer of saran wrap later and I could enjoy the cover art that led me to Burroughs to start with.

Burroughs may have been the first author whose storytelling structure made an impression on me. I envisioned each Burroughs tale as a rope consisting of several interwoven strands--each strand was a separate plotline, but as the book progressed, the plotlines intertwined and became a single novel, just as the strands of fiber intertwine and become a rope. Even as I was reading a Burroughs novel, I looked forward the point where those separate plot strands came together to form that narrative rope; it always impressed me that he made each plotline so engaging, but together they became much stronger than they were as separate stories.  Thanks to him, I learned that a novel was more than just a long short story, and thus came to appreciate the importance of narrative structure.

As much as I loved Tarzan, it was Pellucidar that really appealed to me (lucky I had chosen Tarzan at the Earth's Core to begin my Burroughs reading, wasn't it?). I devoured the Pellucidar novels, and then was sad to learn that there were no more. From there, I went on to the remaining Tarzan books, the Venus novels, the Mars books (at least those few that were published by Ace), then the other fiction.  Even straight historical adventures like The Outlaw of Torn were absolutely fascinating.

I was so addicted to Burroughs, in fact, that I eventually bought the remaining books in his oeuvre in Ballantine editions, even though those books had what I considered to be the most singularly unattractive cover art I had ever seen on fantasy/SF/adventure novels. (Still have the books, still hate the art...)

To this day, I can think of no writer who made storytelling look easier or more fun than Burroughs. I regret that so little of his fiction is in print today; as far as I'm concerned, it all should be. I remember talking to Steve Saffel about it at one point; Steve had hoped to put out definitive editions of ERB at Random House, but he said he just coudn't convince the publisher that there was a sufficient market for it nowadays. Certainly, Burroughs' Africa is set in a world that no longer exists—but as period pieces, each book is still a masterpiece of story craft.

In his honor, I re-read Tarzan at the Earth's Core this afternoon--and it's every bit as good today as it was back in the 1960s when I first discovered it.

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