Thursday, July 17, 2014

Eternal Lover or Eternal Savage?

I read once that the proliferation of e-readers led to a resurgence of women reading romance novels--it meant they could read one without someone seeing Fabio on the cover and snickering at them.

Well, though another genre was involved, this sort of logic applies to me as well. Because in 1914 and 1915, Edgar Rice Burroughs serialized an adventure tale in All-Story Weekly that was originally titled The Eternal Lover.

It's a great story--stuffed with a number of exciting set-pieces. But I'm not sure I would be willing to be seen in public reading something with the title The Eternal Lover screaming out at anyone who might walk by. Never mind that it might have an awesome J.Allen St. John cover of a caveman fighting a whopping big saber-tooth tiger. That title would just be embarrassing.

When Ace reprinted the book in 1963, they renamed it The Eternal Savage and gave it a Roy Krenkel cover featuring a
caveman once again battling to the death against a saber tooth tiger.
I would have been perfectly happy reading that, but I did end up reading an electronic edition.

(By the way, I have no problem reading books on a Kindle--the e-ink screen is no different than looking at a paper page. But I do lament that ebooks probably make it that much more likely that we will never return to the mind-numbingly cool paperback covers that used to be so common.)

So how can a book be called either The Eternal Lover or the Eternal Savage? Because the Lover and the Savage are the same guy.

That's really not that unusual for an ERB novel--his heroes spent an inordinate amount of time rescuing their lady loves from a succession of deadly dangers and a lot of those heroes can be pretty savage when the situation requires it of them. But Savage (yes, I'm going with the manly title, by golly) has an unusual structure that gives it a unique feel.

Nu is a cave man living 100,000 years ago. He goes out hunting a saber-tooth tiger to lay its head at the feet of the beautiful Nat-ul, to prove his love to her. This makes sense, since taking her out to a nice restaurant isn't a viable option.

An earthquake traps him in a cave and puts him in suspended animation. He wakes up in modern times, where he soon meets Victoria Custer--the apparent reincarnation of Nat-ul. Victoria is visiting the Greystoke estate in Africa, so we get a Tarzan cameo.

There's some shenanigans involving Victoria being kidnapped by Arab slave traders. Nu rescues her, but then another earthquake somehow sends Nu back to his own time, where he dismisses his time-travel adventure as a dream.

Oddly, Nat-ul, though miles away, had the same dream. But before the two can re-unite, she gets kidnapped by a rejected suitor. This leads to a whole series of adventures, with Nat-ul and Nu stumbling into one adventure after another as they try to find one another.

At the end, the book switches back to Victoria, with Nu's original visit and his prehistoric adventures being part of a dream she had. Before leaving Africa, though, she finds skeletons that indicate Nu and Nat-ul did really exist.

This last part may sound contrived, but Burroughs structures the plot well and generates the right emotions to make it satisfying. And the action set pieces are superb. Burroughs was always a master of pacing and he
tosses Nu and Nat-ul from one danger to another in just the right doses to keep up a high level of excitement.

I especially like a roller-coaster sequence in which Nat-ul is snatched up by a pterodactyl, flown to an island, dropped into a nest with three hungry baby pterodactyls, escapes from this, gets chased by a half-dozen hairy "man apes," gets captured by one of them, escapes when they start fighting over her, then gets captured by a villain who had been chasing her when the pterodactyl first caught her. It's fun stuff.

Because of the presence of pterodactyls and vaguely described sea monsters (which I pictured as plesiosaurs while reading the story) co-existing with cavemen, I think of this story taking place in the same universe as the movie One Million Years BC or the novella "The Lost Warship," though taking place a few hundred thousands years after the events of those stories.

By the way, we know this story because Edgar Rice Burroughs was a guest at the Greystoke estate at the same time as Victoria and listens when she recounts her dream of the past. Remember, Burroughs wasn't actually a writer of fiction. He was simply fortunate enough to know people (John Carter, David Innes, Jason Gridley, etc) who could recount their wild adventures to him.

So ERB is actually an historian. Which is a good thing. If he wrote fiction, then that would mean Tarzan isn't real, Mars and Venus would be lifeless, and there would be no lost continents populated with dinosaurs stuck away in remote corners of the world. And who would possibly want to live in a world that mundane?

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