Rediscovered: An Aside on John Carter of Mars

In 2008, under my occasional nom de guerre George Knight, I collaborated with Morgan “The Morgman” Holmes on “Conan the Argonaut” for the August issue of The Cimmerian, V5n4 — covering the idea that if he had lived Robert E. Howard could have taken his popular character Conan with him as he moved from the pulp pages of Weird Tales over to Argosy. Morgan and I had been discussing this radical issue at length, exploring counter-arguments and how to flatten them. He did the heavy lifting on pulp history (which is not to say that I’m not conversant with the subject), I did my usual juggling of the polemics and smoothing out of the prose to get the flow I prefer.

The essay got edited around before it saw print, and in particular a bit I tossed in about Edgar Rice Burroughs dropped to the cutting room floor. I regretted seeing it go, but knew I could always use it again later — for example, right here, right now.

With the Disney film John Carter scheduled for widespread release in only three days, the time seems ripe to toss some commentary I made in “Argonaut” four years ago out into the blogosphere. In this selection you’ll also get some nice background on the pulp magazine marketplace which Burroughs stormed, first with John Carter of Mars, then with Tarzan, of the Apes.

I’m copying the entire first part of the essay, but if you’re in a hurry, skip to the end. This appearance is straight from the word doc, and differs in various ways from the print version, but I’m only using slightly less than 1700 words, which is nothing — the final essay ran almost 14300 words.

AND NOW, a little bit of:

Conan the Argonaut

By Morgan Holmes and George Knight

 I. Argosy

As the last year of his life dawned, Robert E. Howard of Cross Plains, Texas, stood poised to become a general wood pulp fictioneer of the highest level. Sales to the Fiction House magazines Fight Stories and Action Stories vied with continued appearances in his first marketplace, the niche publication Weird Tales. Howard had cracked the pages of Spicy Adventure from Trojan Publications as well as Dime Sports and Star Western from Popular Publications. Street & Smith featured his yarns in Top-Notch, Cowboy Stories and Complete Stories. Most promising of all, his editor at Fiction House, Jack Byrne, had just taken the helm of the prestigious pulp Argosy, flagship of the Munsey line.

Among the many questions that have haunted the long decades since the thirty-year-old writer put the gun to his head on June 11, 1936, one remains perhaps the most answerable, and yet most contested: Would Robert E. Howard have taken his most famous character, Conan the Cimmerian, with him from Weird Tales to a new home in Argosy?

Some seven years before his suicide, Howard mentioned in a letter quoted in the “Argonotes” section of Argosy for July 20, 1929, “I have been a reader of Argosy for years — since before the combining of Argosy with All-Story. I suppose I have every Argosy
I ever bought, for I have a stack of back numbers about four feet high.” The first pulp the creator of Conan recalled buying was an issue of Adventure, and history records that in
1921 the fifteen-year-old would-be writer submitted the early story “Bill Smalley and the Power of the Human Eye” to Adventure and to Western Story Magazine. In 1922 he tried “The Feminine of the Species” on Argosy, and in 1925 “Windigo! Windigo!” Between the writing of those two tales a new pulp appeared in the vanguard of newly specialized magazines racked on newsstands across America. Weird Tales, devoted to fiction of
the uncanny, appeared in March 1923 — Amazing Stories, the first magazine devoted exclusively to tales of science fiction, would not come along until 1926.

Howard’s first professional sale, “Spear and Fang,” saw print in Weird Tales for July 1925. But the Texan always wanted to be more than just a writer for Weird Tales, and his indelible association with that publication was not totally by Howard’s choice. As he noted in an often cited July 1933 letter to H. P. Lovecraft — an author even more grafted to the myth of Weird Tales than Howard — “I wrote my first story when I was fifteen, and sent it — to Adventure, I believe. Three years later I managed to break into Weird Tales. Three years of writing without selling a blasted line. (I never have been able to sell to Adventure; guess my first attempt cooked me with them forever!)” Of his initial sales to Weird Tales, he also told Lovecraft: “I was eighteen when I wrote ‘Spear and Fang,’ ‘The Lost Race,’ ‘The Hyena’; nineteen when I wrote ‘In the Forest of Villefère’ and ‘Wolfshead.’ And after that it was two solid years before I sold another line of fiction. I don’t like to think about those two years.”

By the end of 1928 the young writer had seen eight stories and seven poems appear between the covers of Weird Tales, including the five listed above. Most notably, “Red Shadows” appeared in the August issue for that year — a story that introduced to print the first of Howard’s many series heroes, Solomon Kane. Yet Weird Tales only got the chance to feature the Puritan sword slinger because Argosy rejected the tale after Howard
submitted it in January 1927. In 1928 Argosy was also his target for the King Kull vignette “The Striking of the Gong” — in 1930 his first submission of “By This Axe, I Rule!” featuring the beleaguered Valusian monarch went to Argosy, and as all Howardians know the bones of this tale became the frame on which the aspiring author hung the muscular flesh of Conan in a rewrite titled “The Phoenix on the Sword,” as the shadow of the Cimmerian suddenly swept over Cross Plains in 1932.

Even as Howard emerged as a featured author in Weird Tales, he still sought publication in Argosy, submitting the Cormac MacArt story “The Night of the Wolf” in 1930. In 1931 we know that “Riders of the Sunset,” the Lovecraftian horror tale “The Thing on the Roof,” and “Spears of Clontarf” featuring Turlogh Dubh went first to Argosy. All were rejected. Howard’s continual efforts to crack this prestige market met with a solitary triumph in this period, when he placed the boxing yarn “Crowd-Horror” in the issue of Argosy for July 20, 1929.

Originally titled The Golden Argosy, the magazine Howard had set his sights on had a history going back to 1882. At first a weekly publication of merely eight pages targeting an audience of juvenile boys with a mix of articles and fiction, the name was shortened to The Argosy in 1888 alongside an increase to thirty-two pages. But as Tony Goodstone noted in
his 1970 tribute The Pulps: Fifty Years of American Pop Culture, the defining moment came in 1896 when the publisher “Frank Munsey, believing that a story was more important than the paper it was printed on, changed The Argosy from a boy’s magazine to an all-fiction magazine with untrimmed, rough wood-pulp pages and measuring approximately 7 by 10 inches and half-an-inch thick. He had created the first ‘Pulp’”. Goodstone reported that “In converting Argosy to a Pulp, he pumped it up to 192 pages of adult-adventure fiction. Each issue reeled out 135,000 words, unrelieved by illustrations, with 60 pages of ads (on coated stock), its thick yellow covers indicating the contents. By 1907 Argosy had 500,000 readers.”

Circulation for Argosy is said to have been 80,000 copies shortly after the changeover to an all-fiction format, so obviously the title was hugely successful under editor Matthew White, Jr., who remained until 1928. Realizing the potential, in 1905 Munsey added another pulp title to his lineup with The All-Story Magazine, under editor Robert H. Davis, assisted by Thomas Newell Metcalf. In The Pulps Goodstone praised Davis as “an editorial giant” who had “held top positions at some of the leading newspapers, and is
generally credited with being among the first to recognize the talent of such writers as Joseph Conrad and O. Henry. This made him a natural choice in 1905 for the position of editorial director of the Munsey Pulps, and Argosy and, especially, All-Story flourished under his leadership.”

“Of all the new Pulps,” Goodstone elaborated, “it was Munsey’s All-Story Magazine that had the most electric effect not only on its readers, but also on other magazines which were to emulate it. All-Story followed the same format as Argosy, with one notable exception: its three-color covers hinted at class and sophistication. The new writers it published became household names practically overnight, and immediately were fair game for the higher-paying Slicks. And so the relentless drive for exciting new talent was always on.”

That was the dream Howard lived on as he sat for hours at the typewriter in his small room: to crack the pages of Argosy or Adventure, Blue Book or Short Stories, to move on to the slick, coated-stock pages of magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post, to see books with his byline reach print. . . .

II. All-Story

The young Texan was by no means the first to feel such ambition as popular fiction roared into the twentieth century. Edgar Rice Burroughs made one of the definitive statements which sums up the idea of the avid fiction reader suddenly deciding he too could become a writer, because Burroughs knew from his diet of pulp fiction that “…if people were paid for writing rot such as I read in some of those magazines that I could write stories just as rotten. As a matter of fact, although I had never written a story, I knew absolutely that I could write stories just as entertaining and probably a whole lot more so than any I chanced to read in those magazines.” Thomas Newell Metcalf accepted his first novel “Under the Moons of Mars,” introducing the daring swordsman John Carter, for
serialization in The All-Story from February through July 1912 — mere months before Burroughs reached his thirty-seventh birthday on September 1 of that year.

The next appearance by Burroughs in The All-Story came the next month, when the novel Tarzan of the Apes saw print complete in the October 1912 issue, creating a sensation
that made the author, in the opinion of Tony Goodstone, “the major influence on
adventure-fiction, science-fiction, and related forms for at least twenty years.”
In 1970 Goodstone could hail the first Tarzan novel as “one of the best-sellers of all time. . . translated into every major language and dialect. Sequel after sequel was to follow. In addition, it was to become the longest-running adventure comic strip, a radio program, and the top money-making film series to come out of Hollywood.” Pop culture high points for the Jungle Lord after 1970 include the 1984 film Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes and the 1999 top-grossing animated film from Disney, but it seems no
coincidence that Tarzan exited the century reduced to a cartoon. The geo-political reality of the African settings for the novels and attendant charges of racism leveled at the series obviously handicap Tarzan’s odds of remaining a viable commercial property outside of toned down kiddie venues, and more recent heroes such as James Bond and Harry Potter have taken over the box office.

Still, if Tarzan is fated to become a dated icon from another century, who could doubt that a major new movie which successfully portrays John Carter swashbuckling his way across the Martian deserts would place Burroughs, yet again, at the top of the mass culture heap?

 

AS FOR THE REST, pull your copy of The Cimmerian out of the files or track it down somewhere — I figure anyone interested in the pulps would enjoy reading it. The selection didn’t even get into the parts about H.P. Lovecraft, and so on.

I figure I’ll go see John Carter soon after it opens, maybe even render an opinion. Even if the movie isn’t as great as it looks in the previews, nonetheless I am incredibly impressed that they managed to pull off the release on the centennial of the first appearance of John Carter in the pulps. One hundred years. Wow. I think I’m doing great if I can celebrate a twenty year anniversary.

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