In his tribute essay “Caliban,” one of the several items of supplemental material included in the 2013 deluxe hardcover reissue of Philip José Farmer’s classic fictional biography Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life (Meteor House), author and pulp historian Will Murray twice makes statements to the effect that no other writer was as qualified as Farmer to step into the shoes of Edgar Rice Burroughs with regard to the task of telling new tales of Tarzan of the Apes.
Those comments of Murray's came to mind a number of times as I was reading Murray’s own addition to the Jungle Lord’s legend, the recently released Tarzan: Return To Pal-ul-don (Altus Press).
Because, if nothing else, Murray’s book proves that there was more than just a little truth to his earlier assessment regarding Farmer.
Murray and Farmer share the distinction of being the only two authors granted permission by the owners of the Tarzan and Doc Savage characters to write authorized adventures of both of these famed pulp fiction heroes: Farmer wrote the Doc adventure Escape From Loki and the Tarzan novel The Dark Heart Of Time, while Murray has written over a dozen Doc books in addition to Return To Pal-ul-don.
And in both instances, despite his obvious affection for and familiarity with both characters, Murray’s efforts do not measure up to Farmer’s.
For the record, Return To Pal-ul-don is NOT a terrible book. It’s really not. If I thought it was, I would say so.
Unfortunately, it is also not a great book. It is, at times, a good one - but those times were few and far between for this reader, and I must admit that I ultimately came away mostly disappointed by Murray’s tale.
The book’s greatest fault is one that is shared by most if not all of Murray’s additions to the Doc Savage series. It is, quite simply, too bloody long!
Return To Pal-ul-don weighs in at a hefty 68 chapters and 366 pages. By comparison, the two longest books in Burroughs’ original series - Tarzan And The Lion Man and Tarzan and the Madman - each contain only 33 chapters, and the Ballentine Books editions I own of each both have significantly lower pages counts (192 and 156 pages, respectively). The hardback edition of Tarzan: The Lost Adventure, the unfinished ERB fragment that was later completed by Joe Lansdale, has 23 chapters and is 211 pages in length. The single longest novel of any kind ever written by Burroughs - the romantic adventure Marcia Of The Doorstep - is 40 chapters long and, when finally released in a 1999 hardback edition by Donald M. Grant, measured in at 351 pages.
Of the two remaining non-ERB Tarzan novels authorized by Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc. and considered more or less “canonical” by many fans: Fritz Leiber’s novelization of the film Tarzan And The Valley Of Gold was 26 chapters and 317 pages long, Farmer’s entry in the series, Tarzan: The Dark Heart Of Time, had been the longest Tarzan novel to date prior to the release of Murray’s novel... but even it came in at only 35 chapters - roughly half of Murray’s book – and 278 pages
(Let me pause here just long enough to admit that I have never taken the time to count individual words in any of the books discussed above; I do have a day job, after all! But taking into account the differences between hardback, paperback and trade paperback formatting, and comparing the number of chapters and pages as I have done here, even a perfunctory examination of the above titles would seem to demonstrate that Return To Pal-ul-don is by far the single longest Tarzan novel since ERB launched the series in 1912.)
The greater length of Murray’s tale would not be an issue if - IF - it contained the same kind of slam-bang, no-holds-barred action that had made Burroughs and his jungle hero so popular with readers in the first place. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The action pretty much plods along, with Murray often taking paragraphs, pages and sometimes entire chapters to relate bits of business that Burroughs would have described in only a few sentences. There were times that I got the impression that I was actually reading a Tarzan novel written by the likes of Martin Caidin or Tom Clancy.
One sequence in particular stands out as an example where the action would have benefitted from tighter editing on somebody’s part. Chapter Twenty, Page 130, contains a scene in which, while escaping from a tribe of “spider pygmies” that have held him captive inside a hollowed-out tree, Tarzan realizes that there is only one way in which to make good that escape. Near the bottom of the page we read the following paragraph:
“You or I might have known terror at that sobering realization, but you and I are creatures of comfortable civilization, whereas Tarzan of the Apes is the Lord of the Jungle. Where you or I might quail at the daunting task before us, and consider throwing ourselves to our doom rather than face the prospect of being marooned to starve to death one hundred feet above the ground, the ape-man reasned that if men had carried his panther-muscled frame upward, then there must be a safe way downward. And if he were to discover it, he must do so at once before his great strength ebbed due to lack of sustenance.”
The problem with this passage is not that it is poorly written (although I can think of a couple of writing professors I had in college who would have gladly unleashed their red ink pens all over it). The problem is that it is totally unnecessary. By reading the paragraphs directly before and after it, while skipping this paragraph altogether, the action goes must faster and so ultimately is far more exciting for the reader. And this is but one example of many places where the book could have been made so much better by cutting back on the verbiage; all too often Murray comes across as the literary equivalent of the speaker who adores the sound of his own voice.
There is also way too much pointless repetition in Murray’s book. How many times do we need to be reminded that Tarzan’s knife once belonged to his human father? Or that Tarzan prefers to roam the jungle unencumbered by “civilized” clothing? Or that Tarzan has had previous encounters with the Ho-don and the Waz-don? Or, for that matter, that Tarzan and John Clayton are one and the same?
To be fair, Burroughs was occasionally guilty of this particular sin as well in his storytelling - but not, to the best of my recollection (and I’ve been reading and re-reading Burroughs since 1971, when I was a mere eight years old), to the same extent at Murray.
Even these missteps might almost be forgivable were it not for Murray’s boast, in his biographical note at the book’s conclusion, of having “pulled out all the stops to faithfully replicate the storytelling style of the great Edgar Rice Burroughs.” I have no doubt whatsoever that this was Murray’s intent, and there are places where he comes close to the mark, but overall the effort has fallen far short in the eyes of this life-long ERB reader. Frankly, Whitman Books’ 1957 children’s book adaptation of the Gordon Scott film Tarzan And The Lost Safari does a much better job of capturing ERB’s style - and it features Cheetah the chimpanzee!
Let me make one thing abundantly clear before I continue: It is NOT my intent to unfairly attack Will Murray. I’ve had the opportunity to meet him a couple of times, and both encounters were pleasant and friendly. Our work has appeared together in several books in recent years: the Moonstone anthologies The Avenger: Dark Heart of the Crucible and The Green Hornet: Still At Large!, as well as the aforementioned 2013 reissue of Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life. Like most Doc Savage fans I feel I owe Murray a considerable debt of gratitude for having revealed the existence of Lester Dent’s “lost” Doc novel, The Red Spider, and arranged for its publication. And two of Murray’s own Doc novels, Flight Into Fear and The Forgotten Realm, are among my very favorites in the entire series.
We DO have fundamental differences of opinion regarding the manner in which he has presented Doc and his aides in some of his additions to that supersaga. (In some of Murray’s books, for example, Doc and his team seem to spend far more time talking and running around in circles than they do actually accomplishing anything - yet another argument in favor of tighter editing.) And like many Farmer fans I strongly feel that certain comments Murray made prior to the release of his Doc-Kong novel Skull Island, regarding Phil’s Wold Newton Mythos, were unnecessarily hateful and disrespectful both to Phil and to Phil’s fans. (Thankfully there is no continuation of the attempted dismantling of the Wold Newton Mythos in Return To Pal-ul-don.) But I bear no personal grudge against the man, and would welcome the chance to sit down and talk with him again should the opportunity ever present itself, even if only long enough to ask him what the heck he was thinking when he made those aforementioned derogatory comments.
Having said that, as a professional journalist and reviewer I feel I owe the reader an honest assessment of my reaction to any writer’s work. That’s the job, and one that I have always taken quite seriously. Even my favorite writers will not be immune to criticism when I feel it is warranted. (Don’t even get me started, for example, on ERB’s Tarzan And The Leopard Men, without a doubt the nadir of the original series.) By the same token, writers whose work I generally may not care for will be positively recognized when I feel they deserve it.
With that in mind, let me now to turn my attention to what I did like about Return To Pal-ul-don.
First of all, there is the fact that Tarzan revisits what is, for me at least, one of the most fondly remembered of all the lost lands he encountered in the original novels. Tarzan The Terrible - and its immediate predecessor, Tarzan The Untamed, which begins the two-part story in which Tarzan is seeking vengeance for the wife he believes has been murdered by German soldiers during World War I - both remain high on the list of my favorite entries in the series. But the second book made a special impression on me the first time I read it as a child, due in no small part to its prehistoric setting and Burroughs’ creation of the Ho-don and the Waz-don, humanoid races with prehensile tails.
In returning Tarzan to this lost land Murray introduces at least one new race, the turtle-men he encounters early in the story, that I think would have particularly met with ERB’s approval. In fact, at the risk of contradicting my earlier comments regarding the book’s length, there’s a part of me that wishes that Murray would have devoted more space to this part of the story; an entire novel devoted to adventures among this particular tribe could be, if done correctly, every bit as much fun as ERB’s Tarzan And The Ant Men.
I also like the fact that Murray sets the story during World War II, a period in the hero’s career which was only briefly touched upon by Burroughs. Chronologically the book appears to take place prior to ERB’s Tarzan And The “Foreign Legion,” depicting as it does an early assignment during John Clayton’s military service with Britain’s Royal Air Force. (This chronological placement may have been confirmed in some of the promotional material prior to the book’s release; if so I haven’t seen it, but if not this seems the most logical placement to me.) The opening chapter of Murray’s tale, in which the newly commissioned Flight Officer Clayton is receiving his first assignment from his commanding officer, is both humorous and - in its depiction of the jungle hero’s behavior in this particular situation - utterly believable in terms of what we know about the character.
Throughout the tale Murray makes references to tales from the original canon - such as the return late in the tale of a character first seen in Tarzan The Untamed, and the jungle lord’s age-defying treatments that Burroughs introduced in his tales (and which are an important aspect of Farmer’s Wold Newton Mythos, which makes Murray’s inclusion of it somewhat ironic in light of the brouhaha that surrounded Skull Island). Touches like this demonstrate a welcome fealty to the canon, despite Murray’s missteps in duplicating ERB’s style.
And yes, I’ll go ahead and say it: as an animal lover, I couldn’t help but be entertained and at times even touched by the relationship between Tarzan and “Torn Ear,” the injured elephant he rescues from a crocodile early in the adventure. Although he comes off a couple of times as little more than a more realistic version of the elephant Shep in the old George Of The Jungle cartoons, Torn Ear proves a stalwart companion and is a worthy addition to the legion of animal friends that has included Akut, Jad-Bal-Ja and Nkima.
In the end, however, these positive aspects are not enough to fully detract from the book’s excessive length and Murray's inability to truly capture the Burroughs style. As has long been the case with several of the later original ERB Tarzan novels, Return To Pal-ul-don will have its defenders and there will be those who disagree violently with my assessment of the book. Which is perfectly fine; as I have stated many times in the past, everyone has their own tastes, and I would never want to denigrate someone because their personal reaction to this or any other creative work differs from my own.
To those whose response to Return To Pal-ul-don is more positive than mine, I gladly say: Good! Even if it did not have the impact upon me as a fan of the character that I might have hoped for, I’m truly glad that you liked it. It means that Murray's work has had the desired effect on at least some readers, and that's all any writer can really hope for.
And in this case that’s an especially good thing, because if nothing else it increases the likelihood that Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc. will at some point again allow a writer - whether it be Murray or someone - to add a new story to the canon. As a life-long fan, I have long been of the opinion that even lackluster Tarzan tales are ultimately better than no new Tarzan tales at all. (I’ll be the first one to admit that some stories have sorely tested this belief - Tarzan On Mars comes most immediately to mind - but in general I think it remains a valid point of view.)
Return To Pal-ul-don may be at best only a fair-to-middling addition to the mythos, but even that puts it on a more-or-less even footing with at least a few of Burroughs’ own lesser entries in the series. As much as the book failed to grab me personally, I can honesyly say that I liked it far better than such pastiches as the infamous “New Tarzan Series” by the pseudonymous “Barton Werper” (a.k.a. Peter and Peggy Scott); the legendary (and wholly unauthorized) mess that is Tarzan On Mars; or Robin Maxwell’s Jane, which I had really looked forward to when I first heard about it but which ultimately left me cold. (I was expecting what was advertised - a retelling of the original story from Jane's point of view - not the completely reimagined “reboot” that Maxwell actually churned out.)
While I cannot in all good conscience call Return To Pal-ul-don a success, I can (and do) recommend that curious fans read it for themselves and make up their own minds. And I can (and do) express my appreciation to Will Murray for at least having tried.
I think even Phil Farmer would have given him a pat on the back for that much.
(Copyright 2015 by John Allen Small)
Posted by John Allen Small. Posted In : Opinion