Fans of Edgar Rice Burroughs are both legion and loyal, as evidenced by the long lasting popularity of his characters. Tarzan of course is his most famous character, and John Carter of Mars (and Virginia) was the main character of a recent poorly marketed (but I thought still well done) Disney film. But Burroughs was an extremely prolific author who wrote a lot more than just Tarzan and Martian stories. One of his earliest efforts was this adventure story set in the south Pacific near Borneo. In many ways it can be considered Burroughs’ take on both Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and H.G. Wells The Island of Dr. Moreau. Originally published as “A Man Without a Soul” in 1913 in the Pulp publication All-Story Magazine, The Monster Men was later published under the present title as a hardcover book in 1929.
At the beginning of the story, the reader is introduced to a man who is sadly dismembering corpses and then consigning the body parts to vats of acid. This is Arthur Maxon, Professor at Cornell, and father of Virginia Maxon, a beautiful young woman who is deeply concerned about her father’s recent strange and distant behavior. In the first few sentences of the tale, it’s revealed that Maxon had found the secret to the creation of artificial human beings in vats, but that all his creations are monstrously deformed both physically and mentally. Despairing of succeeding in his attempts at creating the “perfect man” Maxon takes his daughter and lab equipment on a vacation to the East Indies, along with a loyal Chinese cook named Sing Lee, an older but still spry and highly alert retainer.
Virginia thinks the “vacation” will get her father’s mind off of his worries, and help them renew what was once a close relationship, but in Singapore their party is joined by a Dr. Carl von Horn, who Maxon hires as an assistant for his continued work (Virginia knows nothing of the details of this) aimed at the creation of a perfect man, whom he envisions as a the only “fit mate” for his unsuspecting daughter. Finding a secluded jungle island, Maxon and von Horn set up camp, with a fenced in area for their work. In fairly typical fashion for Burroughs (as those readers who have read his other works can attest) the action in the story quickly develops as Virginia and the Professor are first menaced by Malay pirates, then Dyak head hunters, and later the first twelve of Maxon’s creations (known only as #1, #2, and so on in order of their creation up through # 12). In addition to each of these perils, the mysterious Dr. von Horn turns out to be not as trustworthy as the Professor had hoped. A series of crises ensues as Virginia is menaced by each of these dangerous groups in turn, only to be rescued repeatedly by the most recent of the Professor’s creations, the handsome and brave #13, whom Virginia names Jack, but the fearful Dyaks name Bulan.
The story is perhaps an ideal example of Burroughs at both his best and his worst. Burroughs racial prejudices and his overall interest in eugenics permeate the tale — the Malays and Dyaks are ferocious and treacherous; the Chinese retainer is loyal and wise, but is a caricature of the “good Oriental” archetype, complete with lisp, that appeared in many Pulp stories of the era. The artificial creatures are presented as soulless and hideous, and the best they can hope for is either to be destroyed or to find some refuge away from humanity with little sympathy thrown their way, otherwise eliciting only pity or horror and revulsion from the other characters. There is some moral discussion on the part of 13/Jack/Bulan about what it actually means to have a soul, and how such possession would manifest its self in one’s actions. I also wondered if Burroughs (who was notoriously anti-organized religion in some of his stories) was having some intentional fun with the symbolism of the heroic #13 being followed and assisted by twelve followers, or “disciples” if one preferred, all of whom had the same creator.
Still, once the action gets going, it’s fairly exciting stuff, as is usual with Burroughs, however much of the plot relies on coincidence and people wandering into the “right place at the right time” (or wrong place at the wrong time as well) which is also sort of “par for the course” with many of Burroughs‘ works. Also typical of Burroughs is the resolution at the end of the story, which ties up the many loose ends perhaps in a manner a little too pat for most modern readers.
After some consideration I gave The Monster Men a 3-star ranking. It is fairly exciting pulp adventure fare, and it does show a different side of Burroughs’ vast imagination, but the racial stereotypes and the ending are a little too neat for me, even though I still profess a kind of nostalgic love for the story which I first heard about in 1966 and then read about a decade later. If I were introducing a new reader to Burroughs, I would recommend the MARTIAN TRILOGY and Tarzan of the Apes, along with the underrated western The War Chief before I could recommend this one, and that would be simply for the fan that is desirous of sampling the complete Burroughs oeuvre.