A few weeks back, I had some words to say about a book that was supposedly a major inspiration for Edgar Rice Burroughs’ JOHN CARTER OF MARS series, particularly the first two of the 11: A Princess of Mars (1912) and The Gods of Mars (1913). The book was Edwin L. Arnold’s Gulliver of Mars (1905), and anyone who’s read it must be forcibly struck by the similarities between the two authors’ conceptions of the distant Red Planet. Anyway, today I am here to tell you of an author who was not an influence on Burroughs, but who was rather heavily influenced by him. The author is Otis Adelbert Kline, who has long been considered one of the few serious competitors of the ERB style. Indeed, so closely did Kline’s style hew to Burroughs’ that the two were said to be in a competition bordering on actual enmity, although those reports of antagonism between the two have since been proven to be apocryphal.
This reader had read lots of Burroughs before but never any Kline, so when I happened to see the 1960 Ace paperback of the author’s The Swordsman of Mars at a used bookstore, and selling for a mere four bucks, I bought it on the spot. This novel was originally released as a six-part serial in the pages of Argosy magazine, from January 7, 1933 (it copped the cover illustration for that first installment; a beautiful piece of art by Robert A. Graef) to February 11. (Argosy, I should perhaps mention, was a weekly periodical from 1920 to ’41. It is considered the very first American pulp magazine, and published from 1882 – 1978. Burroughs himself had previously seen some of his Tarzan and John Carter novels debut in its pages.) Kline, 42 when the novel debuted, would soon ease back on his writing, and from his assistant editor duties at Weird Tales magazine, to concentrate on a new career as a literary agent (most notably, for Robert E. Howard, from 1933 – ’36), and if The Swordsman of Mars is a good example of his writing, that easing back was a pity, as the book is a colorful, at times thrilling swashbuckler that demonstrates very well how adept a study Kline had been of the ERB style. In short, the novel is a blast.
In it, the reader is introduced to a man named Harry Thorne. Typical for this book, which doles out heavy details in some aspects yet is woefully sketchy in others, we never learn much about Harry’s past life, other than that he had lost both his business and his girl to his own business partner, and had subsequently attempted suicide. Thorne is rescued from this attempt by one Dr. Morgan, who makes the miserable man a remarkable offer. It seems that Morgan had been conducting experiments in the area of telepathy, and had discovered that mind-to-mind communication is not hampered by space … or by time! As a matter of fact, Morgan had recently been in communication with a Martian scientist named Lal Vak, who had lived millions of years ago. Lal Vak had suggested an experiment, in which the mind of an Earthman from today might be placed in the body of an ancient Martian, and vice versa. The experiment had been performed, but with unfortunate results.
Morgan had found a suitable volunteer, an unscrupulous Alaskan miner named Frank Boyd, and his consciousness had been sent back to occupy the body of a Martian named Sel Han; meanwhile, Han’s consciousness was brought forward, where it took over Boyd’s body here on Earth. Sel Han had adapted well to his Terran home, and indeed was Morgan’s servant today. But Boyd, once on Mars, had gone a little berserk, and indeed was now plotting with an alien race, the Ma Gongi, to usurp power from the depraved emperor Irintz Tel, who himself had usurped the throne 19 (Earth) years earlier from the good and beloved emperor Miradon Vil, of the nation of Xancibar. Thorne’s mission, “should he choose to accept it,” would be to have his consciousness put into the body of Martian Sheb Takkor, and stop Boyd/Han in his quest for power. Got all that? Good, because that’s just the first eight pages of what turns out to be a very wild ride indeed…
The Swordsman of Mars is something of a misnomer title, as it turns out, with its implication that there is only one swordsman on the entire planet. Actually, Kline’s Mars is pretty much a medieval society (with the benefits of some surprising bits of super-science), and swords, javelins, maces, knives and arrows are the weapons of choice sported by just about every single character. Fortunately for Thorne, he had been a master fencer back on Earth, we later find out, a skill that helps him immeasurably as the book proceeds. The author uses an accumulation of detail to make his Mars an interesting world, although his writing, as mentioned, can be frustratingly sketchy at times. Thus, he gives us gawrs, flying creatures that the Martians travel on like horses of the sky; a fairly detailed Martian history; jembal, an unctuous adhesive used to heal wounds; steaks made from the hind legs of monstrous anuba beetles; 20-foot-high, stilt-like “desert legs,” for attaching to the lower body when traveling across thick sands; water shoes, for zipping across lakes; the dalfs, humongous, otter-like creatures that can be made into loyal and powerful pets; the “fire powder” that can start a blaze when sprinkled with water; the fact that all Martian chairs, beds and divans are suspended on cables from the ceiling; and the Ulfi, a race of yard-high, winged, elfin creatures who come to Thorne’s assistance (and practically turn this sci-fi tale into one of hard-core fantasy whenever they are present).
Kline, knowing his readers’ tastes, has Thorne fight off several Martian monstrosities (a furred yet reptilian lake creature, as well as the 30-foot-high koree bird of the desert regions) and offers his audience some instances of whizbang super-science (that initial mind transfer, as well as the disintegrator beams of those alien Ma Gongi). He also peppers The Swordsman of Mars with any number of thrilling sequences, including Thorne’s escape from a slave mine and into the desert; the battle at Takkor Castle, between Thorne’s followers on one side and Sel Han’s army and Ma Gongi allies on the other; and the climactic duel between Thorne and Boyd, on the edge of a chasm deep within a mountain. And for the ladies, there is some romance, too … actually, a double romance, as Thorne is torn between Miradon Vil’s kindly brunette daughter Thaine, and the blonde, scheming, but nevertheless bewitching Neva, daughter of Irintz Tel. It is all wild, exciting, colorful and improbable fare, yet undeniably entertaining withal.
And yet, there are any number of problems that crop up. Besides the frequent fuzzy writing, Kline’s novel, though ironically not lacking in detail and color, is yet rather loosely plotted, and the book often seems as if it’s jerking Thorne back and forth across the planet, willy-nilly, from one set piece to the next; “one damned thing after another,” and all that. There is one character, Yirl Du, the captain of Thorne’s “Free Swordsmen,” who coincidentally pops up so often during Thorne’s journeys that I began to be suspicious of him, and thought it would be an interesting plot development if there were something more to this supposedly trustworthy henchman than met the eye. But nope … just a series of unlikely coincidences, I’m afraid. In one early chapter, Yirl Du mentions that he knows of Miradon Vil’s disappearance because Thorne had mentioned it earlier; the only problem is, Thorne never had. And, oh … the Martians are shown to possess metallic flying craft, besides those gawrs, but we never learn what powers them and keeps them aloft. That’s part of what I mean by “sketchy writing.” And while I’m carping, this reader did not appreciate the repeated references to the Ma Gongi’s yellow skin color, a factor that almost places this sci-fi/fantasy novel into the realm of the “yellow menace” genre, as typified by Sax Rohmer’s FU MANCHU books.
Still, these are quibbles, and ones that most readers will not mind very much as they breathlessly flip those pages. And make no mistake about it, The Swordsman of Mars is most definitely a page-turner, and one in which every character, from minor villain to major ally, gets precisely what he/she deserves. OAK may not have been as talented or original a writer as ERB, but he sure was an entertaining one. As a matter of fact, I enjoyed my first Kline book so much that I am now looking forward to reading its sequel, 1933’s The Outlaws of Mars. Stay tuned…