Edgar Rice Burroughs and making pulp fiction classic

Classic is a subjective term. Tarzan of the Apes is included in some classic libraries and excluded from others. None of the 100+ other Edgar Rice Burroughs novels is mentioned in any discussion of classics.

But they are classics to me. Even as a child, I recognized their flaws, but I didn’t care. Burroughs took me to Africa and Mars. Even more, he helped me learn to love to read. To me that makes him a classic writer.

ERB’s books followed common plot arcs: Hero meets Damsel. They are indifferent toward each other. Damsel, unmindful of what meeting the hero in the beginning of an adventure story portends, is careless in her personal security. She is kidnapped by slave traders, or some other impolite group.

Hero flies to Damsel’s aid, not out of any personal regard for her, but because a hero wants employment for his skills. Hero rescues Damsel. They talk a bit more and each comes to the unwilling conclusion that the other has cute dimples or some such endearing trait. Things seem to have turned in a good direction.

Edgar Rice Burroughs - the first author I couldn't put down.

Edgar Rice Burroughs – the first author I couldn’t put down.

Yet, there is trouble brewing. The villains have not yet been brought to justice (i.e. killed in self-defense) and we are only halfway through the book. Tragedy strikes when Hero says something innocuous that is misinterpreted as an insult by Damsel. She storms off, leading Hero to conclude such a mercurial woman isn’t worth his affections, her cute dimples notwithstanding.

This emotional rollercoastering causes Hero to lose focus, allowing the slave traders to capture both. The bad guys intend to croak Hero, while proceeding to auction Damsel to the highest bidder, if the rogue leader can keep his grotesque hands off of her until then. He’s noticed her dimples too, and realizing how mercurial she is, he’s really hot for her.

Hero and Damsel are taken in different directions — he to a gruesome death, she to be ogled by a horrid specimen of humanity, who somehow can’t actually bring himself to touch her, but is upon the point of doing so at every moment. Her torture is magnified by knowing Hero is probably dead by now, and realizing she didn’t actually hate him that much when he was alive. In fact, had it not been for his uncouth behavior . . .

Her hopeless eyes are a big turn-on to the villain. They give him the juice he needs to finally come at her with his filthy, greasy hands. His bulbous nose and his brown teeth, together with the smell of animal fat on his unwashed body, cause Damsel to scream exactly once before closing out the chapter by fainting dead away.

While all this foreplay is going on, Hero is brought to the apparatus necessary for the imaginative killing of heroes that is ever being conceived, yet never actually executed, by bad dudes in the arts. Hero quickly assesses and demonstrates the flaws of the lethal apparatus to his captors by killing them all with its safety defects.

Hero flies to the succor (again) of the insufferable Damsel. Though he may give a passing thought to her dimples, he races to her aid for reasons truly noble. It is, after all, more heroic to rescue somebody he doesn’t like, dimples or not.

Hero interrupts the impending outrage just as things are about to progress to where they cannot be allowed to go in the early 20th century. Though Hero takes no pleasure in dispensing death, the lust-crazed fiend will accept no resolution less than giving complete satisfaction to the incensed reader. But he will not die before advising Damsel that she has misinterpreted Hero’s words toward her.

Content at providing closure, the villain breathes his last. Hero and Damsel realize the foolishness of letting a misunderstanding come between them, and they kiss, with no tongues.

I eagerly followed this plot every time. Maybe I was just young and callow, but that doesn’t matter. I was entertained and my imagination was sparked. It kept me reading. That’s what matters.

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