John Carter of Mars: Edgar Rice Burroughs – Book Review

jcblbmar4John Carter of Mars is the eleventh and final book in the Barsoom series and collects the two stories titled “John Carter and the Giant of Mars,” published in 1941 within the pages of Amazing Stories, and “The Skeleton Men of Jupiter,” published in 1943 also in Amazing Stories. The first story came under a little bit of fire as many readers could easily tell that “John Carter and the Giant of Mars” was not written by the Master himself but by a Ghost Writer. Years later it was revealed that in fact this was true and that the story was a collaboration between Edgar Rice Burroughs and his youngest son, John “Jack” Coleman Burroughs, who also provided the illustrations for the story. The second story in the collection “Skeleton Men of Jupiter” was clearly intended to springboard off into a longer series of stories, but unfortunately it was left unfinished by Burroughs, and though several authors have written their own pastiches, in what direction they thought the story would go, we will never know exactly what Burroughs had in mind.

John Carter and the Giant of Mars opens with the abduction of Dejah Thoris, and by this point in the series we must wonder if there is some kind of Starbucks promotion going on here, “A free coffee after every ten kidnappings.” We later learn that she had been snatched as hostage by the villainous Pew Mogul, a synthetic man and pupil of The Master Mind of Mars Ras Thavas. Pew Mogul, like many of his kind, is a horrifying sight to behold and his ugliness is only matched by his hatred of all other Barsoomians. His ransom demand for the return of Dejah Thoris is that the iron works of Helium be turned over to him; this would allow him to amass a great many ships to aid in his conquest of all Barsoom. John Carter, Kantos Kan, and Tars Tarkas all lead expeditionary forces to locate their missing princess.

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Carter is led into a trap by a false radio message he thought came from Kantos Kan, and soon he finds himself battling a trio of Barsoomian white apes, a horde of giant rats, and a hundred and thirty foot tall giant. Once seized by the massive hand of Joog the giant our hero is brought to face to face with the repulsive Pew Mogul where he not only sees a chained up Dejah Thoris but also a severely manacled Tars Tarkas. Carter learns that Pew Morgul has transplanted the brains of criminals into the bodies of the giant Barsoomian white apes and with them, along with his indestructible giant, he plans to attack Helium while the bulk of its navy is off searching for Dejah Thoris.

Carter, Dejah Thoris and Tars Tarkas are left in a standard Bond villain trap, a slowly lowering set of cages over a pool of man-eating reptiles, while Pew Mogul takes his army of white apes, that are mounted upon a fleet of once presumed extinct and very large Barsoomian birds, to sack Helium. Of course Carter will escape this deathtrap, and soon he and his friends will face off against this terrible army that dare lay siege to their home.

Overall John Carter and the Giant of Mars isn’t terrible, the big battle at the climax is fun, and Carter’s brilliant plan to defeat the enemy is quite ingenious, but a lot of it does tends to be rehashed plot elements from other books and John Burroughs does not have his father’s flair for humor or prose.

am4302Skeleton Men of Jupiter opens with the abduction of John Carter…wait, what was that you say? After countless adventures rescuing his wife, or other family members, someone finally has to rescue John Carter? Sadly that is not the case, and Dejah Thoris is abducted shortly after Carter. The basic premise to this story is that a warlike race from Jupiter kidnaps John Carter so that they can interrogate him for Helium’s military secrets (they had deduced that Helium was the key power to Barsoom and if once taken the rest of the planet would fall), but of course Carter would never betray his people.

And just how did these interplanetary invaders managed to capture the legendary fighter John Carter? Well the Morgors of Sasoom, a race of skeletal looking men from Jupiter/Sasoom, had managed to capture a beautiful Barsoomian woman and used her as leverage over U-Dan, formerly a padwar in the guard of Zu Tith, the Jed of Zor. If he didn’t aid in the capture of John Carter his love would be tortured and raped. So U-Dan is forced to lead Carter into an ambush and then they are all whisked off to Jupiter, where the ruler becomes pissed when Carter refuses to comply with their demands for information. They then throw Carter into a prison cell, with U-Dan, and send another mission party back to Mars to retrieve Dejah Thoris so that they can hold the threat of torture and rape over her to get Carter to work with them. Now we are told that these Morgors are military geniuses, and that their entire society focuses on warfare, but they didn’t think to grab Dejah Thoris along with John Carter in the first place? They had already used this form of coercion to make U-Dan work for them, so why and the hell would they think this tactic wouldn’t be needed for the Warlord of fucking Mars?

Though the plot structure isn’t the best, and as mentioned it’s also never finished, Burroughs does create a pretty cool new society for his adventures to take place in, and once again John Carter is shown to be the coolest cat, and best fighter, on now three worlds. My favorite moment in the book is when Carter is thrown into a cell with a bunch of slaves and dissidents of the Morgors; a bully by the name of Pho Lar tries to play the dominance card over John Carter and our hero slaps him down and beats the dude unconscious, but that’s not the cool thing, what is great is that when the other prisoners decide to pick on the now dethroned bully Carter intervenes and saves Pho Lar from a savage beating. That’s a true hero. We later learn that Pho Lar is possible the best swordsman John Carter has ever seen, next to himself of course, and they become fast friends. It’s these kinds of character moments that make the heroes of Burroughs’ books so amazing, and is why these stories continue to inspire and influence writers of fantasy and science fiction to this very day.

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It’s truly a shame that Skeleton Men of Mars was the last book Burroughs was to write for the Barsoom series, an epic interplanetary war would certainly have been interesting, but alas the book ends with Carter having escaped the prison/arena of the Morgors but he hadn’t yet been reunited with Dejah Thoris. I’d love to know why this storyline wasn’t continued, had Burroughs become bored with tales of Barsoom?  Regardless of that we can at least look back across the eleven books, and multiple thrilling adventures, and thank Burroughs for giving us such a fun ride, even if it stopped a little short.

Mike Brooks

Mike Brooks

Film grad who spends most his time trying to catch up on his "To Watch" pile of movies.