Roy Krenkel (1918 – 1983): Cover Art for the Ace Edition of Escape on Venus
In Burroughs’ Amtor — A Satire of Ideologies, I remarked that in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Venus series, issued in four books from 1932 to 1944, the reader could discern the author’s theory of ideology or, at any rate, his notion (let us say) of ideology. I wrote that, for Burroughs, “Ideology pits itself against life as such”; and that, “Every ideology is [in Burroughs’ judgment] a nihilism that, standing against vitality, beckons the moribund.” The reader will find in the first three Amtor books (Pirates of Venus, Lost on Venus, and Carson of Venus) strong satirical rejections of Communism, Trans-Humanism, Eugenics, and National Socialism — all four of which strike Burroughs as unjust because they exercise violence to coerce a grotesque and arbitrary conformity.* In reference to Eugenics, the thesis is somewhat controversial. Burroughs supported certain aspects of Eugenics, but earlier in his life than the Amtor series, and in Lost on Venus he has his hero, Carson Napier, repudiate the doctrine because a council of eugenicists has condemned his true love, Duare, to death. Perhaps the association of Eugenics with the Nazis had changed Burroughs’ mind. Whatever the case, the pattern in the Eugenics plotline corresponds to those in the Communist, Trans-human, and National Socialist plotlines. It strikes me that Burroughs had seen the inexpugnable malevolence of any Eugenics-based polity and, through his hero, had turned his back on it. No reference to my notion of the “Paracletic Hero”– which I had treated extensively in Robert E. Howard’s Conan – occurs in Burroughs’ Amtor but I was thinking about it as I wrote. In brief, a Paracletic Hero is one who in his deeds conspicuously opposes the ancient ritual of sacrifice, on which a particular society founds itself, and seeks to free its pending victims. Conan, like C. L. Moore’s Northwest Smith, achieves this goal and thereby deserves the appellation. (See my Monstrous Theologies at The Orthosphere.)
Fantastic Adventures — July 1941
Whereas Conan and Northwest Smith often disestablish the sacrificial order, Carson Napier tends only to rescue a victim and then depart the locale where sacrifice reigns. Nor in Burroughs is the situation as clear and sacrifice so pointed a theme as in Howard and Moore. Even so — a second look might be worthwhile. A Satire of Ideologies never addressed the fourth book of the series, Escape on Venus, a compendium of four novelettes published in Fantastic Adventures during the war years. In Pirates of Venus and Lost on Venus, Burroughs honors the high level of his own best writing. In Carson of Venus and Escape on Venus, he obviously composes his tale improvisatorially, repetitiously, and without much attention to the stylistic niceties of his prose. This fault mars Escape even more glaringly than it does Carson. Nevertheless, Escape exhibits a number of features that make themselves interesting under the light of Paracletic Heroism and in the context of cultic activity as a stock theme in mid-Twentieth Century pulp fiction. In the second section of Escape, “The Goddess of Fire,” Burroughs furnishes a recognizable sacrificial cult, but one that worships a “goddess” who is in effect a captive of that cult and subject to ritual murder at any time. “The Goddess of Fire” brings out a motif of the Amtor-series that remains rather below notice elsewhere: Amtor, like Barsoom, has undergone several phases of cultural devolution, but more severely than Barsoom. Amtor finds itself, as René Guénon might say, deep in its Kali-Yuga. Most of the societies that Napier encounters show the marks of social decay: Technology has gone missing, largely; sanitation exits only at a Mesolithic level; and petty tyrants work their arbitrary and perverse will.
“The Goddess of Fire” takes place in the Stone-Age kingdom of Brokol** on a continent in Amtor’s northern hemisphere, where a super-hurricane has diverted the anotar or airplane that Napier has built in order to explore the planet with Duare. Running short of meat, Napier and Duare have landed the anotar to hunt for game. A Brokolian party seizes, separates, and enslaves them. When I write that Escape relies on repetition, I mean that in every one of the four parts, hostile forces, most of them primitive, disconnect Napier and Duare so that Napier’s need to reunite himself with his beloved drives the plot. This happens at least eight times in Escape. It is in “The Goddess of Fire” that Napier makes the remark that, “None of the various peoples of Amtor with whom I had come in contact had any religion.” No – but they have ideologies although that word resides not in Napier’s vocabulary. Utterances by his captor, Ka-at, provoke Napier’s reflection, particularly Ka-at’s references to “Loto-El-Ho-Ganja,” a title that means “most high more than woman.” Ka-at tells Napier that should he possess useful knowledge he “will probably not be sacrificed to Loto-El-Ho-Ganja.” This implies to Napier that the Brokolians, anomalously among the inhabitants of Amtor, invest in something that resembles religion. The Brokolians conform to another anomaly. Although they have evolved into the human form, they belong to the vegetable rather than the animal kingdom.
Napier wants to know whether Loto presides over Brokol as Duma the ruler’s vadjong or queen. Ka-at answers: “No… she is not a woman; she is more than a woman”; to which he adds that “she was not born of woman, nor did she ever hang from any plant.” When Napier wants to know, “Does she look like a woman,” Ka-at replies, “Yes… but her beauty is so transcendent that mortal women appear as beasts by comparison.” Few of the Brokolians have seen the rites of the goddess, but the rumor tells how “she either drinks the blood of the victim or bathes in it.” Burroughs uses the Ganja Cult in part to satirize social religion. When Napier sees ordinary Brokolians bringing offerings to the temple, he thinks that “it evidently paid well to head the church of Brokol.” He muses to himself that, “Even in our own Christian countries it has not always proved unprofitable to emulate the simple ways of Christ and spread his humble teachings.” When Napier meets Loto, who indeed proves attractive and is fully human, she immediately draws him into her private chambers. It turns out that Loto profits not from the pious largesse of the people; nor does she sate herself on blood. Napier learns from Loto that it was “Ro-tun, Duma, and a few of the favored priests who got the blood to drink” and who plundered their choice of gifts from the temple. Loto desires to hear more about Carson’s earthly origins. She mentions “the United States of America,” “New York,” and “Brooklyn” – words that would be unfamiliar to her if she hailed from Venus. She says to Napier that she needs “to call Betty.”
Interior Illustration by J. Allen St. John (1872 – 1957) for the Burroughs Edition of Escape on Venus
Loto-El-Ho-Ganja now vanishes – quite literally – from the storyline. The squabbling between Ro-tun, the head priest, and Duma as to which one shall assume godhead among the Brokolians in Loto’s absence creates an opportunity for Napier to sprint for freedom. Burroughs appends to the end of this section of Escape a news item: “Brooklyn, Sept. 24… The body of Betty Callwell, who disappeared twenty-five years ago, was found in the alley back of her former home here early this morning. The preservation of the body was remarkable, as Miss Callwell must have been dead for twenty-five years.” But she had not aged. What to make of it? Is the Ganja part of Loto-El-Ho-Ganja a joke? Burroughs might be imputing to the Ganja Cult, or to cultic activity in general, a kind of inebriating effect. That the worshippers of the goddess are vegetables would correspond to the destructive effect of intoxicants on the mind – not to mention that ganja itself is a vegetable. The earliest recorded use of that word in reference to a leafy narcotic dates to 1689, so Burroughs could have known it. The astral projection of Betty Callwell to Amtor replicates John Carter’s method of getting to Barsoom in A Princess of Mars (1910). This reintroduces the Theosophical element into the storyline. It reminds readers that Napier persuaded Burroughs to channel his extraterrestrial adventures through telepathy, and to commit them to writing, by causing a mysterious female figure to appear before him in his house on the Burroughs Ranch.
That Betty Callwell is not a living idol that thirsts for the blood of victims, but a female innocent from 1920s Brooklyn, affirms as false within Burroughs’ story the cultic assumption that a supernatural volition makes sacrifices necessary; such a practical requisite comes from the celebrants, not from the putative beneficiary – who is in any case, and in several ways, a mere projection. That Callwell is a victim, however, reinforces the reality of sacrifice, which Twentieth Century anthropology, under the prolonged influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, liked to dismiss as mythic, even in an age of murderous totalitarianism. Thus – Abhor Hitler but heap admiration on the Iroquois, Mayas, and Aztecs. The frequent Burroughsian depiction of primitive societies as brutal incites ire in critical accounts of his work to this day. Burroughs adds architectural detail to the inner sanctum of the Ganja Temple that underscores its brutality: “Its wall decorations were gruesome – rows of human skulls with crossed bones beneath them; doubtless the skulls and bones of human sacrifices.” Ah, the nobility of the savage! In the Amtor series, the classifications of sacrificial religion and ideology overlap or perhaps take place in a temporal continuum. When the sacrificial habit, deeply ingrained in human nature, passes over the calendar bar-line into modernity, it assumes the outward form of an ideology while remaining inwardly the same. To disguise its true nature, it dresses itself up in polysyllabic rhetoric, the modern equivalent of displaying the tribal totem and reiterating the tribal taboos.
The reader of Burroughs will find any number of critiques and satires of modernity in his authorship. In other respects, and where it concerns religion especially, Burroughs lived and thought like the usual modern person of talent and intelligence. He participated not at all in organized religious activity, which he typically mistrusted. This attitude emerges early in the second installment of the Barsoom series, The Gods of Mars (1913), when John Carter makes like a Paracletic Hero and overthrows the only organized religion on the planet, the Order of the Holy Therns. The Therns exploit a Barsoomian superstition that, when one reaches the age of one thousand years, one undertakes a solitary journey down the River Iss to pass over into the afterlife in the Realm of Issus at the South Pole. John Flint Roy, in his Guide to Barsoom (1976), conveniently identifies Issus and summarizes her fate and that of the Therns when Carter intervenes: Issus is “the ruler of the First Born, the black-skinned race of Barsoom,” and an object of veneration by the Therns; she is “hailed as the Goddess of Death and Eternal Life for all Barsoomians.” “In truth,” nevertheless, “she was a wrinkled old hag – toothless, bald, and cannibalistic”; and “she went mad when she was thwarted by… Carter, and was torn to pieces by her own followers.” In her cannibalistic propensity Issus anticipates the Brokolians and reflects the Iroquois, Mayans, and Aztecs. Naturally in a book entitled The Gods of Mars, the word god appears many times – fifty-eight times, to be accurate. Its instances overwhelmingly support the falsehood theme, with characters invoking the deity or deities in ignorance of the truth and therefore superstitiously. Occasionally, however, Carter will utter the phrase, “Thank God,” which is honest, even if it be purely rhetorical. Carter, a warrior, also invokes the Roman God of War. This too is honest.
Interior Illustration by J. Allen St. John (1872 – 1957) for the Burroughs Edition of Escape on Venus
The word god appears thirty-six times in Escape, with its instances being different in their context from the instances in Gods. Flying in the anotar through a cloud-bank, Napier and Duare break into clear air to find a rocky palisade right in their path; they manage to raise enough altitude to clear the cliff top, but it is a close call. During the moment of danger Napier imagines the both of them dead and mangled, lying at the foot of the precipice among the wreckage. Napier says, “The thing that appalled me most in the split second that I had to think, was the thought of [Duare] being broken and crushed against that insensate cliff.” He adds, “I thanked God that [if it happened] I would not live to see it.” In another incident, escaping from hostiles, Napier and Duare find the anotar with some difficulty because they have hidden it so effectively. Napier says, “I shall never forget with what a sense of gratitude to God and with what relief we felt the ship rise above the menaces of this inhospitable land.” In the Brokol episode, Duma, the low-IQ chief of the tribe, the captor of Napier, and a partaker in the cannibalistic rites of Loto-El-Ho-Ganja says, “Now I declare that she [Loto] is no goddess, but that I, Duma, am a god.” The third of the quoted instances belongs to the sacrificial-ideological category; the first and the second to the category of sincerely held background-belief. Having survived contingency Napier expresses gratitude for the saving grace. In Pirates of Venus, the same grace saved him from perishing in the solar corona when, after miscalculating his flight to Mars, the moon flung him sunward but the gravity of Venus pulled him down to Vepaja and thus to Duare, his destined beloved.
I would pin the badge of Paracletic Heroism on John Carter for what he accomplishes in the trilogy of Princess of Mars – Gods of Mars – and Warlord of Mars, in his disestablishment of an atavistic pseudo-religion. He whose initials are JC frees the globe from an ancient and mendacious superstition. I would exercise caution in the case of Carson Napier and would probably award him a bronze medal only, second order. As I wrote in Burroughs’ Amtor – Pirates of Venus and Lost on Venus occupy the mean of Burroughsian stylistic merit. Carson of Venus and Escape on Venus stand literarily rather below that mean; the plots in both rely on repetition that becomes tedious, especially in Escape, and there is little sense of a diegetic telos. Even when Burroughs wrote hastily, the details of his narrative, such as the ones that I have gathered in this addendum, can justify a second look. Although I have conducted no sweeping or systematic survey, but draw only on my random reading in the pulps over the decades, I have the sense that, between 1900 and 1950, planetary romance regularly reproduced literary motifs that emerge from a loosely defined Christian narrative. Kim Paffenroth and I discovered the same phenomenon when we studied classic TV science fiction in our book The Truth Is Out There (2006). Rod Serling was hardly a Christian and neither is J. Michael Straczynski, but Kim found Christian motifs in The Twilight Zone and I found them in Babylon 5.
“Loosely defined Christian narrative” shows up in unexpected places. Richard Cocks and I admire a Japanese TV series called Midnight Diner, made in the twenty-teens, that streams on Netflix. We often discuss it over our drinks. The makers of the series take as their premise that a man known only, and always in English, as “the Master” runs an eatery in an obscure and rather louche alleyway near the brazenly bright and depressingly inhuman heart of neon-bedazzled Tokyo. The Master’s diner is open from midnight until seven in the morning. A group of eccentric regulars frequents the place including Ryu, a yakuza, and Marilyn, a stripper. The Master shows ritual piety by occasionally dedicating an omelet from his kitchen on the altar of the alleyway’s Shinto shrine. He demonstrates his moral wisdom – and wisdom is the only word for it – by his infrequent and minimal verbal interventions in the difficulties caused or incurred by his customers, all of whom he values. Some episodes rise to a level of moral-emotional intensity that one finds elsewhere only in short stories by Anton Chekov or Guy de Maupassant; some episodes are subtly comedic. Forgiveness is often a theme; so is contrition. Death sometimes enters the plotline. The seasons, each of ten episodes, usually end with a reference to Christmas. It is a real Christmas, with the regulars joining in profound, happy communion with one another, as though they constituted a genuine parish. Elements of the characterology, such as the cross-dressing homosexuals, would be obnoxious and unwatchable in an American sitcom. Midnight Diner is not an American sitcom. The regulars know that when they enter the premises they must conform themselves to the largely unspoken ethos of the Master.
*Trans-Humanism was, of course, a denominator unknown to Burroughs, but it seems appropriate to the mad ideologue’s plan in Lost on Venus to create from human material a superior race of what can only be called the living dead.
**I am fairly sure that Burroughs bases Brokol on the word for my least favorite vegetable — broccoli. I can only imagine that it was Burroughs’ least favorite vegetable, too.