Whereas Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Mad King was a delightful rift on The Prisoner of Zenda we look today at The Monster Men which owes greatly to The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells. It was published in 1913 in All-Story Magazine under the title “A Man Without a Soul” and though not one of his greater successes it is still a rousing good read.
As in The Island of Doctor Moreau the story of The Monster Men deals with a “mad” scientist bent on creating life only in the case of Professor Arthur Maxon he isn’t turning animals into men or even stitching pieces of corpses together as Doctor Frankenstein did, chemical vats is the methodology of Professor Maxon, and like in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein you don’t get much of more of explanation on the how exactly life is achieved. This is not a science fiction novel it is an adventure story full of nefarious villains, a crazed doctor, horrifying creatures, a noble hero and the requisite damsel in distress.
The story begins with Professor Maxon deciding to continue his experiments in creating artificial life far from the scrutiny of academia and in the deepest jungles of the East Indies. Accompanied by his beautiful daughter Virginia, lab assistant Carl Von Horn and their Chinese cook Sing Lee they set up shop on one of the remote Pamarung Islands. The experiments don’t start off all that promising as one by one out of the vats step horrible monstrosities, things born of nightmares, that is until one night when Maxon and Von Horn find the vat that held the thirteenth attempt overturned and smashed, its contents found slumped in the corner. At first Maxon is in utter dispair thinking his latest attempt has been destroyed but soon he discovers that not only is Experiment Thirteen alive and well but appears to be an Adonis, a flawless specimen of male physicality. This fits in perfectly with Maxon’s plan which is to have his daughter marry one of his creations. Did I mention he was a mad scientist? He certainly not going to win father of the year; not only did he drag her halfway round the world then stick her in a compound where she is the only female around but he also plans to mate her to a science experiment. Yikes.
One of the more interesting elements of this Burroughs books is in the character of Virginia, in most of his books the central character is the male protagonist but in The Monster Men we don’t really get the hero until about halfway through, up till then the story is mostly told through Maxon’s daughter. The story does shift points of view among many secondary characters, and there are a lot of them, but it’s through Virginia that we feel most connected with. She does fulfill the duties of the stories damsel in distress element as she tends to get abducted a fair amount of times, but she is written as a very strong character; intelligent, brave and resourceful. She even manages to escape a couple of times without the aid of the hero.
Now about that hero. The Monster Men has your standard issue Burroughs hero; incredibly handsome, strong as an ox, insanely courageous and of course he has a noble heart, one that has fallen heavily for the beautiful Virginia. What makes him stand apart from the other protagonists of Edgar Rice Burroughs is his introspection. He is told by almost everyone that he is a soulless being, that his appearance means nothing and that he is just as much a monster as the previous twelve creations, but Thirteen doesn’t quite believe that as he’s seen the evil done by men that apparently have souls and he knows in his heart if he doesn’t have a soul he can at least create one better than most.
This is certainly not one of the better outings of Edgar Rice Burroughs; the running around in the jungle trying to rescue Virginia tends to drag on a bit, the collection of rogues who constantly betray and backstab each other all tend to blend together without much distinction. The character of the unscrupulous Van Horn who wishes to marry Virginia with or without her consent so as to get her father’s money is one who appears in various forms throughout Burroughs’ books. One of the most difficult elements in the book is the dialog from Sing Lee the cook, Burroughs is not at his best when writing accents whether they be Africanise, Mexican or Chinese i.e. “Then you make bad talkee with Lajah Saffir at longhouse, Sing hear you all time, You tly to getee tleasure away from Dylaks for yourself.” This is of course something of the time and Burroughs is far from the only one guilty of such ethnic depictions, it just a bit of a strain for a modern reader.
Though this may not be one of the better examples of his work The Monster Men is still a fairly fun read, and at 150 pages it’s a quick one, both the hero and heroine are well written, the heroic deeds of the hero are suitable herculean, and if the ending is a bit of a cop out (sorry no spoilers here you’ll just have to read it and find out what that is) it’s only a minor thing. The Monster Men is certainly a worth a trip to the local library.
Note: The 1932 movie The Island of Lost Souls is a cinematic version of The Island of Doctor Moreau but the element of Moreau hoping to get his jaguar girl to mate with a human is not in the book and one must wonder if the filmmakers lifted that element from The Monster Men.