The Dream Vaults of Opar

The Mad King

    The first (and only previous) time I read The Mad King must have been about 1964, when the Ace paperback edition (with that wonderful Frazetta cover) first appeared. In those hectic days two titles were being issued each month, and I was devouring all the stories I had not previously been able to purchase from used book stores or borrow from friends. Amid that literary torrent, The Mad King struck me as . . . well, unmemorable.
    By extenuation, however, I should probably point out that, a good bit more recently, I finally got around to reading The Prisoner of Zenda (the granddaddy of the Graustarkian romance, the once thriving subgenre of which Mad King is one of the few surviving--i.e., in print--representatives), and I remember very little of this work as well. So my remarks may be colored by my own disinclination toward this particular type of story. If nothing else, it is remarkable that ERB's effort remains available today, when so many of its predecessors and contemporaries have long since vanished. Indeed, since the earth's population is so much larger today, it's possible that ERB's modest pulp potboiler has now been read by more people around the world than ever have read Anthony Hope or George Barr McCutcheon.
    In earlier ERB-APA symposiums, I've been pleasantly surprised to find that I enjoyed rereading ERB's minor works. Unfortunately I can't say the same this time. I'm left wondering why this book is less successful than those other minor works. Why do they succeed (for me at least) while The Mad King fails? It isn't simply the relatively prosaic material--for this would be true also of ERB's westerns. Certainly it isn't a lack of action, for Mad King boasts many exciting scenes. (The episodes involving automobiles, so little used elsewhere in Burroughs' work, are really quite excellent.) There is an abundance of fights and chases, and a good deal of blood spilled during the course of the story, but again and again I found my interest flagging.
    Any evaluation of the book must begin, I think, by looking at it in the context of Burroughs' life and other works of that period. The first part was written in 1913, during that incredible spurt of creativity that produced no fewer than seven long works of fiction--four full-length novels (I include the first part of The Mucker, which is book-length by itself) and three short novels. The writing in Mad King is hasty--there's no denying that. One glaring example is the disappearing wound that Barney receives on page 84 [of the McClurg and G&D editions], which is mentioned again on page 86, then forgotten. When ERB returned to Barney Custer late in 1914 (after the Great War had begun)--probably in part at the behest of his All-Story editor--it was as part of a marathon project to write conclusions to four of the stories written the previous year. Again, haste is evident. In Part I, Barney's resemblance to the King is clearly slight, and largely due to his red beard and the unfamiliarity of the people of Lutha with their king; in Part II, Barney and Leopold have become doubles. The secret passages get yet another use, and Barney's escape from the firing squad is far fetched (to be generous).
    The book, in many ways, must have been significant to ERB. He named the heroine after his wife Emma. Beatrice, Nebraska, Barney's home town, was chosen to honor ERB's lifelong friend Bert Weston, who lived there. In the opening chapter of Part II, Bert and his wife Margaret are prominently mentioned, along with their "awful-looking, unwashed Ford runabout."
    All ERB's natural storytelling genius couldn't save this one. I'll be very surprised, the next time I reread it, if I remember it any better than I did this time.

    Concerning the proposed amendment to our rules to increase from fifty to sixty the number of copies of our contributions we must submit to the apa, which would produce an additional ten mailings that could be sold to non-members: Please consider that many members contribute far more than the required two pages of "minac." To ask these generous people to bear this additional cost--which would fall most heavily on them, and which could be quite considerable in some cases--is a sure way of discouraging large contributions in the future, and thus is counterproductive. I am aware that there are more people willing to buy our extra mailings than there are extra mailings to go around. But we are not in the business of producing a fanzine for the general public. The extra copies are intended to introduce potential contributing members to our organization. If this organization needs funds, we have two better ways to raise money. One is to increase the (arbitrarily low) price charged for these extra mailings--perhaps to $7.50, which is close to their actual value (based on an average 150-page issue at a cost of five cents per page). The second is to increase our dues. Either solution, or both, is preferable to producing additional mailings for sale to non-members. The way this apa is supposed to work is, if you want to be assured of getting every mailing, you must become a member and contribute. Additional for-sale copies will mean less reason to become a member, and fewer members in the long run. John Guidry's original rules are carefully balanced and have worked quite well for nearly four years now, and I see no reason to tamper with anything substantial in them, such as this. I hope you feel the same way.

--September 14, 1987

Edgar Rice Burroughs' Non-Series Science Fiction/Fantasy/Adventure

#1. The Mucker (inc. "The Return of 
      the Mucker"), 1921
#2. The Land that Time Forgot (inc.
      "The People that Time Forgot,"
      "Out of Time's Abyss"), 1924
#3. The Cave Girl, 1925
#4. The Eternal Lover
      (aka The Eternal Savage), 1925
#5. The Mad King, 1926
#6. The Moon Maid (inc. "The Moon
       Men," "The Red Hawk"), 1926
#7. The Outlaw of Torn, 1927
#8. The Monster Men, 1929
#9. Jungle Girl (aka The Land of 
      Hidden Men), 1932
#10. The Oakdale Affair and the Rider,
#11. The Lad and the Lion, 1938
#12. Beyond Thirty and the
        Man-Eater, 1957
#13. Tales of Three Planets (inc.  
         "Beyond the Farthest Star,"
         "Tangor Returns," "The
         Resurrection of Jimber-Jaw,"
         "Wizard of Venus"), 1964
#14. I am a Barbarian, 1967
#15. The Wizard of Venus (inc. "Pirate
         Blood"), 1970
#16. Minidoka: 937th Earl of One Mile

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Copyright © 1999 Patrick H. Adkins. All rights reserved.