Thoughts on ‘The Monster Men’

“Let those who will say that I have no soul, for I am satisfied with the soul I have found…And if the savage men who came tonight to kill have souls, then I am glad that my soul is after my own choosing—I would not care for one like theirs.”

I had started to read Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Monster Men some years ago, but one way or another I ended up putting it down about halfway through. But I went back, re-read it, and have now completed it.

Reading this book, it struck me that one of Burroughs’s key talents was his capacity to interweave big, striking philosophical ideas into his fast-paced, blood-and-thunder adventure stories. He isn’t a profound thinker, but he’s good enough to fake it and to at least give the concepts the scope and complexity they deserve. This gives his work a sense of depth and weight without slowing them down (which is an art in itself; weaving the themes into the story in such a way that they neither seem superficial nor create drag. King Kong is a classic example of this quality in film).

The plot centers around Professor Maxon, a brilliant scientist who has discovered the means to chemically create life, and this being classic sci-fi, the very first thing he tries to create is a human being. Reality ensues when the creature quickly dies and he realizes that he now has a dead body in his house that he can’t explain, so he hastily disposes of it and makes arrangements to relocate his work to a small island in the south seas. Accompanying him (and serving as the book’s protagonist) is his lovely daughter, Virginia, who is ignorant of the progress of his experiments, but sees his growing madness and emotional distance with alarm even as she dutifully sticks by him. In the south pacific they pick up a handsome young doctor named Van Horn, who for reasons left vague was discharged from the Navy and cannot return to the States.

Maxon continues his experiments, producing twelve grotesque, but living specimens of steadily increasing, but still sub-normal intelligence. Then, one night, he makes a breakthrough in the form of Number 13, a handsome, muscular young giant of apt intelligence…who very soon after his birth crosses paths with Virginia by rescuing her from one of the escaped experiments. But she’s kept carefully ignorant of his nature, because Maxon intends, as the culmination of his experiment, to compel her to marry the spawn of his own hands.

Meanwhile, a Malay pirate is stalking the island, looking for a chance to possess himself of the beautiful girl, and several characters – including Van Horn – covet a mysterious, heavily laden chest that was brought ashore and never opened, but whose weight testifies to its contents….

Once Number 13 makes his debut, the central question of the book becomes “what is a soul? How can you tell if a man has one?” Handsome, intelligent, and courageous as he is, Number 13 fears he may have no soul, as he is a mere chemical creation of another man’s hands, grown in a laboratory. Van Horn, for reasons of his own, encourages him (and the other monster men) in this idea that he is “nothing but a miserable THING.” The brutish One through Twelve of the group find it only too easy to accept that, but Number 13 wrestles with the question throughout, wondering just what is a soul and how can a man tell if he has one?

It’s particularly interesting as he comes to compare himself to other men: the greedy Van Horn, the cruel pirates, the savage head-hunters, the professor who committed such a crime upon them as to make them in human form, but without human souls. It works the other way as well; as Number 13 displays more and more nobility and compassion, Van Horn comes to hate him more and more, because he can’t help but see that this man, this thing born in a lab is a better man than he is.

Burroughs is very good at conveying nobility and moral excellence in his heroes (see also Tarzan and John Carter). He sets things up so as to challenge Number 13 again and again to do the right thing, even when he feels he has no soul and thus no obligation to humanity or morality. But, in a twist on chivalric devotion, he adopts Virginia as a kind of substitute soul and guiding light, trying to gauge each action by how well it measures up to his image of her.

“He made me without a soul,” he repeated over and over again to himself, “but I have found a soul—she shall be my soul. Von Horn could not explain to me what a soul is. He does not know. None of them knows. I am wiser than all the rest, for I have learned what a soul is. Eyes cannot see it—fingers cannot feel it, but he who possess it knows that it is there for it fills his whole breast with a great, wonderful love and worship for something infinitely finer than man’s dull senses can gauge—something that guides him into paths far above the plain of soulless beasts and bestial men…”

This knightly devotion on the part of her father’s creation serves as the engine for the second half of the book, which becomes a pretty-much non-stop adventure as he seeks to rescue her from the pirates who have kidnapped her and taken her into the jungles of Borneo.

So, pirates, a lovely damsel in distress, a seemingly-superhuman giant born of science with the heart of a Medieval knight, a wicked suitor, buried treasure, head hunters, savage orang utans, and grotesque sub-human monsters. Ticks all the right boxes here.

By the way, Virginia’s an excellent counter-example to claims that damsels in distress are always degrading or boring characters. Again, she carries most of the book herself and is a perfectly suitable pulp heroine, with guts and brains enough to make her endearing. The first time she crosses paths with the pirates, she gets spotted by them because she was manning a machine gun to try to drive them off. She also figures out most of what her father has been doing with only a few dropped hints, and during her capture makes several escape attempts (including punching the pirate lord off the boat and into the river at one point). She’s not a particularly unique character, but she is a worthy heroine as far as it goes.

Again, the adventure is fun, but it’s the musings on the nature of the soul and the position of the monster men that make it engaging. The other creations are resigned to their fate, more or less, but Number 13 continually wrestles with it, veering back and forth in the question of how much his actions matter or count if he has no soul. As I say, Burroughs had a great skill for dealing with the questions in a way that gave proper respect to their complexity and importance. For instance, take this bit when Number 13, having been informed of his nature, resolves to murder his creator in revenge:

[H]e realized one thing most perfectly—that to be a soulless thing was to be damned in the estimation of Virginia Maxon, and it now occurred to him that to kill her father would be the act of a soulless being. It was this thought more than another that caused him to pause in the pursuit of his revenge, since he knew that the act he contemplated would brand him the very thing he was, yet wished not to be.

At length, however, he slowly comprehended that no act of his would change the hideous fact of his origin; that nothing would make him acceptable in her eyes, and with a shake of his head he arose and stepped toward the living room to continue his search for the professor.

To what extent do actions define nature? Certainly to some, but surely not completely. Yet if you are something you do not want to be, then ought to you act according to what you think you are or what you wish to be? Can a lower creature aspire to become something higher, and does not that very desire mark him as being more than he or anyone else thinks himself? Does the very fact that Number 13 wishes to have a soul not suggest that he already does? And whatever his origins, don’t his actions show that he is far the better man than either Maxon or Van Horn?

These are pretty heavy ideas, and I don’t know that Burroughs had the capacity to really delve into them on a philosophical level, but he certainly could recognize and understand them, and by applying them he gives the book a sense of depth and an extra layer of interest on top of the adventure.

By the way, in terms of pure writing, what a great opening sentence:

As he dropped the last grisly fragment of the dismembered and mutilated body into the small vat of nitric acid that was to devour every trace of the horrid evidence which might easily send him to the gallows, the man sank weakly into a chair and throwing his body forward upon his great, teak desk buried his face in his arms, breaking into dry, moaning sobs.

Now, I don’t want to spoil anything, but there is a revelation at the end that rather changes the whole picture of what has preceded, and I’m honestly not sure what I think of it. It doesn’t make the questions raised any less interesting, or really alter the plight of the characters in the course of the adventure that much, but it does change the context.

From a moral, philosophical perspective, I will say that I think it alters things for the better overall. From a storytelling perspective, it answers some questions while raising others. But from a purely audience point of view, it kind of feels…well, a little dissatisfying. I can’t really explain or even describe it more without spoiling it. It at least doesn’t take anything away from the nobility of the hero and heroine, I will say that.

I suppose a lot of contemporary audiences will be bothered by the racial content as well; Burroughs makes no bones about his notions of race and eugenics. Me, I didn’t really care because it’s so far removed from my own experience as to be all-but irrelevant (the racism of today doesn’t look like the racism of 1913). Besides which, it’s hardly a simplistic portrait: the main dividing line of the narrative is between human and soulless pseudo-human. Van Horn is as repulsive as anyone else, and Sing the loyal Chinaman is one of the more admirable characters of the book (in my experience the Chinese usually got the most positive portrayals among East Asians in this era). But certainly it’s something from another time and mentality.

Though in any case, Burroughs is frankly too intelligent and too skilled a writer to come across as in any way malicious. He presents his image of the world with a matter-of-fact and thoughtful touch that shows it to be grounded in the intellect rather than the spleen (modern racism, it seems to me, is mostly grounded in frustration and emotion rather than philosophy or science). Make of it what you will.

Overall, it’s a really good book. Classic sci-fi pulp; big ideas tastefully handled, fast pace, high adventure, noble hero, endangered heroine, vile villains, exotic locals. Definitely recommended!

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4 thoughts on “Thoughts on ‘The Monster Men’

  1. This must be one of (if not the) inspirations for the Batman: The Animated Series episode “Tyger, Tyger.” Catwoman is captured by a deranged scientist and mutated into a catperson so the scientist’s “son” – Tygrus, a humanoid panther – can have a mate. The writers must have been drawing on this story, among others. That’s good to know!

    Of course, there are also callbacks to “Beauty and the Beast” and the ever-present question in an era where science and technology continue to leap forward: “Will these devices and scientific breakthroughs allow mankind to become like God? Or will we end up like Prometheus, who stole the fire and paid the price?” I have to put this book on my reading list. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A Burroughs review in the wild!

    – The best defense against the assertion that the “damsel in distress” trope is degrading is to point directly to the source. Burroughs’ heroines are perpetually in distress and having to be rescued, but they are cool, clever, steady hands in a fight with a revolver or Martian long-sword, *HAVE THEIR OWN DISTINCT PERSONALITIES* and are always *WORTH* rescuing.
    – I thought the treatment of Sing in this novel was actually rather clever on Burroughs’ part: he allows the other characters to treat him with disdain and condescension, while also allowing the audience to see, on-page, without commentary, how intelligent, noble, and courageous this old man truly is.
    – Always interesting to see other people’s take on Great Philosophical Themes In Pulp Fiction. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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