Saturday, March 25, 2017

Appendix N Madness Day 25: Lovecraft vs Burroughs

Round 2 of Appendix N Madness has ended with the top of the bracket in high style. Round 3 has shaped up as a clash of titans.

Weird Region Final: H.P. Lovecraft vs Edgar Rice Burroughs

Edgar Rice Burroughs was a phenomenal success in his lifetime, although the popularity of his stories has waned somewhat. H.P. Lovecraft wasn't; he had some success in Weird Tales magazine, but it took decades for his writing to catch a mass audience. Now it has.

Both Lovecraft and Burroughs looked at our solar system, but what they took away was infinitely different. Burroughs saw in Mars and later Venus places to set some rip-roaring adventures, full of strange civilizations. His Barsoom is a place rife with ruined cities and secretive enclaves, letting him build strange new creatures and customs into each adventure he wrote. It was a place where John Carter, his morality based on a long-past code of honor, could carve out an empire.

When Lovecraft looked up he saw the "black seas of infinity" between the stars.The discovery of Pluto in 1930 was not cause for wonder but a sign related to bizarre cosmic entities, in this case the fungi from Yuggoth. Being transported beyond the cozy confines of modern Earth in Lovecraft is not an adventure but a cause for horror and madness.

Burroughs wrote in a picaresque fashion, adventures fine tuned for pulp magazines. His writing style is adapted to this, using occasional flourishes but focusing on the relentless pace of action. This is the direct opposite of Lovecraft, who wrote with a dense, obscure vocabulary to evoke the strange and unfathomable nature of the beings he had contemplated. His style had been widely derided for some time, but scholars such as S.T. Joshi have rehabilitated it to a significant degree.

Burroughs preceded dozens of authors of sword and planet adventures; there was, after all, a magazine called Planet Stories. Many other Appendix N authors are considered to have written major sword & planet works - Robert E. Howard's Almuric, Leigh Brackett's Mars and Skaith novels, Gardner F. Fox's Llarn novels, Michael Moorcock's Kane of Old Mars, Lin Carter's Callisto novels, Jack Vance's Planet of Adventure series, even Manly Wade Wellman's Sojarr of Titan. He had a supposed rivalry with Otis Adelbert Kline, whose Venus stories are among the best known sword & planet rivals to Burroughs. (Kline was Robert E. Howard's agent and put forward Almuric; it has been widely speculated as to whether he had some hand in its writing.)

If Burroughs was imitated in print in his day, it took years for Lovecraft. In his life, he had a close "circle" of authors around him: Robert Bloch, August Derleth, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and Frank Belknap Long were the "core" authors. We know, of course, that Derleth made a great deal of hay out of this, and while he did yeoman's work in popularizing Lovecraft, he also put out an anthology (The Watcher out of Time) with attribution to Lovecraft that stretches the definition of "collaboration" to the breaking point. CAS, of course, is the author whose omission from Appendix N is most egregious.

D&D purposefully evokes a great deal of Burroughs. Picaresque adventure, strange locales, and bizarre creatures are naturals, even though D&D isn't set on Barsoom. Philosophically it is much further from Lovecraft; it puts forward an optimistic metaphysics that seems incompatible with the nihilistic Cthulhu Mythos, even though they were in the early printings of AD&D. Certainly Lovecraft's monsters can be used as enemies in the game, although this bears with it none of the spirit of his mature stories. Some of his "dream cycle" is ripe for inspiration, although this is not his finest work as literature.

Choosing between Lovecraft and Burroughs is fundamentally a question of what you want in literature. Lovecraft was one of the most original thinkers in horror writing of the 20th century. Burroughs crafted pitch-perfect adventures in thrilling worlds.

You can vote in the poll here.

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