Monday, March 13, 2006

Wafted to Mars on currents of Vicks

They say that the sense of smell is the sense most strongly tied to memory. I'm not sure who "they" are, but I'm willing to bet that they're people who grew up with Vicks Vap-O-Rub. When winter set in, Mom would emerge from her bedroom with a greasy jar of Vicks clutched in one hand, like a crone with a poisoned apple, and hunt us down with what I swear was glee. We'd have to unzip our sleepers to halfway down our torsos so that she could slather ridiculous quantities of menthol mucus over our thin, quaking chests. Why it was a good idea to unzip your warm jammies and have some demonstrably crazy woman smear cold grease on your chest was quite beyond me. Like many aspects of childhood there was no logic and no escape; there was only the suffering.

To keep the Vicks from sliming up our jammies, Mom would set us up with bank-robber style bandanas, tied from real red hankies. You'd go to bed looking like Jesse James and wake up looking like an auto mechanic who had been strangled with his grease rag.

God forbid that you get sick enough to stay home from school, because then you'd have to wear the Vicks rag all day. My sick day activities were about the same as my usual post-bedtime activities--crawl into bed and read science fiction paperbacks, preferably with lurid covers featuring scantily-clad Earth women being menaced by horny tentacled horrors. Only on sick days, I didn't have to bring a flashlight.

A constellation of factors aligned to make 1987 the ultimate winter of my contentment. Having turned twelve in June, I became the sole occupant, scout, lord, and defender of the upstairs bedroom (the only upstairs room, a realm unto itself), which I'd helped Dad make fit for human habitation in the months previous. I'd also gotten a clock radio for my birthday. This gave me access to the local alternative station (KOFM, long may her memory dwell in the firmament of radionic awesomeness) for background music, Casey Kasem's Top 40 Countdown on Saturdays, and--crucially--Dr. Demento on Sunday nights. Dr. Demento came on after my bedtime, so I spent many a late Sunday night in total darkness, sitting sideways up against my headboard, neck turned at a 90 degree angle to place my right ear over the stealthy, shocking, mind-bending, gut-splitting sounds of Dr. Demento's weekly show.

That was also the year that I discovered Edgar Rice Burroughs. He invented Tarzan and wrote loads of pulp adventures in the 1910s, 20s, and 30s. But his first book, probably his most influential, and in my mind his best, is A Princess of Mars, from 1912. I could try to paraphrase it for you, but I'd inevitably end up copying Richard Wolkomir, who eulogized the book in a back page humor bit for the May 1987 Smithsonian. That's how I discovered Barsoom, and that's how you should, too. So here's the whole bit.

-----------------------------------

'Wafted to Mars, he fights four-armed green Tharks'

by Richard Wolkomir (c) 1987 (reprinted with permission of the author).
"I used to take out seven books at a time from the library," S.J. Perelman once confessed, "and sit in the kitchen, with my feet in the oven, eating cookies and reading trash."

Right move, S.J. As a former junk-literature junkie myself, I know you can't kick the habit until you publicly admit you're hooked. Space operas, mysteries, oaters, fan-at-the-bodice romances--whatever has you in its clutches, own up. Recount the plots until you blush for shame and vow never again to abuse your mind with such swill.

My own addiction began at age 8, with Tarzan of the Apes. My mind fizzed with images of chatty primates swinging on lianas. I snorted heavy stuff, too, junk-lit classics like Robinson Crusoe ("Me die when you bid die, master," said Friday), Treasure Island ("Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!") and King Solomon's Mines ("'Koom! Koom!' he ejaculated"). I OD'd on Sherlockiana, greeting strangers with statements like "beyond the obvious facts that you are a bachelor, a solicitor, a Freemason and an asthmatic, I know nothing whatever about you."

Then I hit bottom: comic books. Memory blurs. I see gangsters tommy-gunning their way to the moral: CRIME DOES NOT PAY. Mesomorphic superheroes walk city streets in tights and capes without anyone pointing and giggling. A pathetic monster-hero rises from a city dump, the sad product of household chemicals and industrial wastes reacting with discarded cold cuts.

On under-the-covers-with-a-flashlight science-fiction expeditions, I met advanced Betelgeusean gnats speaking BBC English. I popped whodunits like amphetamines. But I'm off the stuff now. After joining a Great Books Discussion Group, I'm into Aristotle and Kant. It feels good to wake up clean.

I think back to those lost decades when I mainlined books like Tom Swift and His House on Wheels ("Bless my opera glasses! It's Tom Swift!" said Mr. Damon), while my poor mind orbited Alpha Centauri. I wonder, why?

Elvis Presley, accepting an award from the Jaycees, said that as a kid, he had been a dreamer and had read comic books. In every story, he said, "I was the hero." It's true. Trash-lit can waft you on currents of overwrought prose to lurid realms of derring-do.

In the land of Trash, villians are totally rancid, so that a hero like Tarzan can beat his chest guiltlessly after dispatching a foe, and howl the good howl. Trashland's moral accounting always balances, blackguards rebuked, laurels to the brave. The race is always to the Swift, Tom or otherwise.

Trashland is also soothingly predictable. When trouble bubbles, Clark Kent invariably pops into a phone booth to change into Superman, and he never bangs his elbows pulling off his pants. Why Clark needed phone booths to molt into Superman, or why Superman needed Clark, I never knew or cared. Batman, Spiderman, they all had secret identities, just as all private eyes talked tough and ironic, and good cowboys eschewed black haberdashery--except Hopalong Cassidy, who at least had white hair. And the heroines of Trashland were always stunning and chaste, although skimpy dressers.

It's all come back to me because I found a boxful of old books in our attic. I pulled out A Princess of Mars, the first in Edgar Rice Burroughs' Martian series. Again I was on the Red Planet, locally known as "Barsoom." What a plot! John Carter, an ex-Confederate officer, battles Apaches in Arizona, inhales vapors in a cave and sees a red star. "...it was Mars, the god of war, and for me, the fighting man, it had always held the power of irresistible enchantment," he says.

Wafted to Mars, he fights huge four-armed green "Tharks." But their rifles that shoot "radium" bullets 300 miles are of little threat to Carter, who can jump 60 feet because his "earth muscles" are overwhelming in Mars' weak gravity. Says he, "I have never regretted that cowardice is not optional with me." He becomes a Thark warrior, riding eight-legged "thoats." Meanwhile the Tharks capture Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium.

Naturally, she is gorgeous. And, like all Burroughs heroines, she haughtily disdains the hero. But he vows to save her, for the Thark idea of fun is torture. Pondering their noisome ways, he gloomily notes, "In one respect at least the Martians are a happy people; they have no lawyers."

Carter fights King Kong-size white apes, wrestles bellicose Tharks, is put in a dungeon. "...cold, sinuous bodies passed over me when I lay down, and in the darkness I occasionally caught glimpses of gleaming fiery eyes, fixed in horrible intentness upon me," he says. He broods over Dejah Thoris, "a woman who was hatched from an egg." But Cupid wins: Carter becomes a Prince of Helium and a doting husband to the oviparous lady. "In a golden incubator upon the roof of our palace," he reverently explains, "lay a snow-white egg."

I'm clean now, ready to plunge into The Mill on the Floss. First, though, for the sake of scholarship, I may just scan The Warlord of Mars, in which John Carter battles his way into the Temple of the Sun, where Dejah Thoris is a captive. It's nip and tuck from the Valley Dor to the dread Carrion Caves, John fighting triumphantly beside his hatched son Carthoris.

P.S. Cancel my appointments. And tell the folks at Great Books that something's come up. It looks like I'll be missing the next meeting.

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Putting that article in the path of a bibliophilic 12-year-old was like dropping a match into a powderkeg. A Princess of Mars was easily the coolest book I'd ever heard of, and I hadn't even seen a copy yet. But reality intruded: this was rural Oklahoma, in the eighties. There was no Amazon.com, no local Barnes & Noble superstore. I had to wait for the next trip into town, so I could go to Waldenbooks and place an order and wait two weeks for the book to come to the store, at which point I'd have to cajole another ride into town to pick it up. Two weeks! When you're twelve, that might as well be eternity.

I remember that particular eternity quite well. I read and reread that Richard Wolkomir article so many times that I lost track. At one point, I had the entire thing committed to memory, and could rattle it off flawlessly. Even now phrases like "blackguards rebuked, laurels to the brave" or "the race is always to the Swift, Tom or otherwise" flit through my brain like butterflies. When I got to Berkeley and actually got around to reading Aristotle and Kant, I wondered if it should feel good to wake up clean.

Eventually, after the sun had become a cold cinder, the universe had collapsed into a monobloc and a new Big Bang had produced a new universe, complete with a new me--i.e., after the requisite two weeks--my books arrived. I knew that there was a Mars series, and that it included A Princess of Mars and The Warlord of Mars, so I'd ordered them both. They were $1.95 or $2.95 apiece. I believe it was still $1.95, because most sci-fi paperbacks were$2.95 at the time and the really pricey ones were $3.95.

BUT, to my horror, The Warlord of Mars is the third book in the Barsoom series. That vile deceiver, Wolkomir, had neglected to mention Book 2, The Gods of Mars, wherein John Carter must face the blue-skinned cyclops people, with tentacles for arms and mouths for hands, and escape the Holy Therns (I later learned).

Catastrophe! I immediately ordered Book 2, knowing that another cycle of the universe would have to come and go before I could find out what happened between Books 1 and 3. The only question was, would I have the moral fortitude to wait it out? Could I leave Book 3 untouched for two whole weeks while I waited for Book 2 to arrive?

I honestly can't remember if I gave in or not. I think not. The important thing, the thing that ties this all together, is that right after the first books arrived I got sick, and I spent a few happy days up in my lair, swathed in Vicks, listening to Phil Collins's "Another Day in Paradise" and Tears For Fears's "Sowing the Seeds of Love" in regular rotation on KOFM, following John Carter across the ochre plains of Mars.

It all ties together. The wistful, bittersweet strains of "Another Day in Paradise" take me back to dying Barsoom, with its empty cities crumbling on the shores of dry oceans. The smell of menthol takes me back to that little room at the top of the stairs, where I climbed the stairs of Cirith Ungol with Frodo and Sam, plotted the overthrow of the Harkonnens with Stilgar and Paul Atreides, and, most of all, stood by John Carter and Tars Tarkas as they saved the twin cities of Helium from the hordes of Tal Hajus.

I'm sick, it's cold, and the humidifier in London's room is pumping menthol into the atmosphere at an alarming rate. All of the conditions are set. I think it's time to go on vacation.

2 Comments:

Blogger Mike Taylor said...

"... and, most of all, stood by John Carter and Tars Tarkas as they saved the twin cities of Helium from the hordes of Tal Hajus."

Dude, what are you talking about? Tars Tarkas killed Tal Hajus long before he and John Carter made it to Helium.

9:06 AM  
Blogger Dr. Vector said...

Yeah, I know. I wrote that when I hadn't read the books in a while and had forgotten the exact sequence of events. Sue me.

1:23 PM  

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