Monday, August 24, 2009

Pulp Fantasy Library: Mahars of Pellucidar

Take a good look at the name on the book cover to the left and you'll know immediately why I decided to devote this week's Pulp Fantasy Library to the Burroughs pastiche, Mahars of Pellucidar. In addition to being a neurologist and roleplaying enthusiast, Dr J. Eric Holmes was a fantasy novelist, albeit a not particularly successful one. The bulk of his literary output consisted of books based on the works of earlier authors, such as Burroughs, Philip Nowlan (of Buck Rogers fame), and R.E. Howard (Holmes wrote an unpublished Conan novel).

Of these pastiches, 1976's Mahars of Pellucidar was perhaps the most successful, in that a sequel to it was eventually published in 1980, although a widely-held rumor claims that the Burroughs estate tried to block the sequel's appearance for unspecified reasons. Mahars of Pellucidar tells the story of Christopher West, a friend of Dr Kinsley, a brilliant scientist who has (conveniently) developed a device that can both function as a teleporter and see locations up to 200 miles beneath the surface of the Earth. West sees a beautiful woman about to be sacrificed and, armed with only a penknife and a fire axe, jumps into the teleporter to save her. He succeeds in his immediate goal, finding himself in the subterranean realm of Pellucidar, whose Stone Age natives dub him "Red Axe" because of the strange weapon he wields. From them, he learns that the reptilian Mahars lord it over the humans and West vows to aid them in ending their tyranny.

Mahars of Pellucidar, even by the standards of pastiche, isn't a great book. It's certainly fun, in a Saturday afternoon cliffhanger kind of way, but it lacks most of what made Burroughs's original tales so enjoyable. It's also an odd story in that, while set in Pellucidar and including the Mahars first mentioned in At the Earth's Core, it's otherwise largely divorced from the original story. In addition, there are some subtle differences and errors -- Burroughs stated that Pellucidar was 500 miles beneath the Earth's surface, not 200, as Holmes has it -- that make the book feel off, as if it were not merely a pastiche but a knock-off, if one can understand the distinction. That feeling probably isn't helped by the fact that its cover was illustrated by Boris Vallejo, who's made a good living by frequently being confused with Frank Frazetta.

If you can find a copy, Mahars of Pellucidar is still worth a read. It's not great literature by any means, but there's an uncomplicated enthusiasm to the text that should serve as a tonic to the overwrought seriousness of too many fantasy series published in the last 20 years -- and unlike them, it's a quick read too.


  1. I often find that knock-offs & pastiches often provide richer RPG material than the brilliant originals. I think it's the "I can do this!" feel you get with the pastiches. Plus they often demonstrate how an average talent can take the source material and turn it into something simple, comprehensible and gameable. A classic example of this process would be Washbourne's Barbarians of Lemuria RPG, making use of the Thongor pastiches to do Conanesque swords & sorcery.

  2. I was lucky enough to find a copy of this over the summer. Its slowly working its way closer to the top of my "to read" pile...:)

  3. You can really mix up Frazetta with Vallejo!? How on earth do you do that?

  4. James, since we're on the topic of Burroughs pastiches, what did you think of Leiber's Tarzan novel?

    I have yet to check it out myself, but it's on the list.

  5. You know, I've never read Leiber's Tarzan pastiches. In fact, I didn't even know they existed till now.