Pulp Fiction

I was talking to Buddy Wilds this afternoon while I was getting my hair cut and we got to talking about Edgar Rice Burroughs and his fictional creation, John Carter. Now, despite the fact that I pride myself on being comparatively 'media free' I do occasionally move about in urban environments and I sometimes come in visual contact with billboards. John Carter has been taking up a lot of said billboard space lately. As it happens, Buddy is a big John Carter fan. By which I mean that he has read all the books. By Edgar Rice Burroughs.

I asked Buddy to tell me his story. I was after the ERB story ( we had already checked in on the Tarzana connection) and Buddy began to spin the yarn. He was a Civil War vet, he tells me, who ended up in California prospecting for gold. O.K. thinks I, this sounds plausible - a kind of Jack London scenario. Then he (and in my mind this was ERB) stumbles into a cave while prospecting and is overcame by a noxious gas. Mmmmm....I muse, what kind of gas could that have been? But I am too polite to interrupt and, in any case, the clippers are mighty close to an arterial vein. Buddy continues...and the gas paralyzes him, he tells me. Alright, I temporize, a man of action is cut down in his prime and, paralyzed, turns to a life of churning out pulp fiction. I think I am ahead of the game. But no. Buddy's tale takes a twist. The paralyzed man's buddy (small b) goes for help, but despite his limited range of movement, said brand-spanking-new quadraplegic manages to watch as his friend is set upon by Native Americans and killed.

I am still caught up in the narrative, still imagining this as a great nineteenth century tale of a career changer. But then things get weird. Edgar, as I think of him, left totally helpless, has an out-of-body experience. He looks down on his naked paralyzed body. Now I have lived in Ojai long enough to consider this water off a duck's back. I am there. Ok, thinks I, another god damn out-of body experience and he hears the call to write fiction - could happen to anyone! After all, paralyzed in a cave by poisonous gas and being summoned to scribble pulp fiction is no more difficult to swallow than our friend Krishnamurti, sitting under a Peruvian pepper tree in a loin-cloth, suffering an epileptic fit (as intimated by Mary Lutyens) and deciding to turn down the job offer of god (Black Magic).

Pan for gold, write fiction, which activity best suits a paralyzed man? The narrative is hanging together. So, I am imagining Edgar floating above his useless body and hearing the stentorian command, echoing in the cave: go write, young man; but Buddy throws a curve ball: then, he says, he wakes up on Mars. It is at this point that I realize that perhaps we are talking about the fictional creation, JC, rather than his creator ERB. Buddy then sketches the natural history of Mars (according to Burroughs) and my mind flashes to those billboards; a tiny, well muscled and handsome man being threatened by gigantic beasts towering above him. Kind of an extra-terrestrial Tarzan. In these few minutes, as my locks are shorn, we have learnt nothing about Edgar Rice Burroughs except that he was, perhaps, a literary one-trick-pony.

ERB, born in 1875, was well educated on the east coast (Phillips Academy, Andover), failed the West Point entry examination and then drifted west. He began selling mechanical pencil sharpeners in Chicago and in his spare time, or so the story goes, began reading pulp fiction. He had the revelation that, " ...if people were paid for writing rot such as I read in some of those magazines, that I could write stories just as rotten". He sold his first story in 1912 and then proceeded to make good on his threat, producing more than seventy novels, including the hugely successful Tarzan and John Carter series. He ended his days on his Encino Ranch, which he named Tarzana. He died in 1950.

His early life paralleled Jack London's - both were born to civil war veterans, just a year apart, but London's early life was more flamboyant and his literary star waxed brighter. London died of kidney failure or an accidental morphine overdose, on his Sonoma ranch in 1916. Burroughs continued writing until the mid 1940's when his final book, Tarzan and the Foreign Legion appeared in 1944. London's early demise was, as we might say now, the wiser career move.

Both London and Burroughs were in the business of spinning tales, and both cut their story-telling teeth in the west. Now I came across the makings of a yarn just last week, in the back country beyond Koenigstein. I might wonder what ERB or Jack might have made of it, but at this point it's mostly down to me.

ERB begins his first novel thus,

"I had this story from one who had no business to tell it to me, or to any other. I may credit the seductive influence of an old vintage upon the narrator for the beginning of it, and my own skeptical incredulity during the days that followed for the balance of the strange tale. "

My introduction to the strange tale of a forgotten ten acre rectangle of land that lies within a larger 160 acre in-holding and backs up, on its northern side, to the Sespe Wilderness, was from one Jonas McPhail, an arborist of Scottish and Scandinavian ancestry. He rode up to our property on his Honda XR650; he was dressed in his leather jacket, black singlet, jeans and riding boots, looking like the rock band roadie that he once was. Sartorially, he remains stuck in a dark, post-punk nether-world. But he greeted us cheerfully enough and he, Lorrie and I got into our white Land Rover LR3 and headed up Koenigstein.

We were already far beyond the realm of mail deliveries and Harrison's garbage pick up when we drove towards an open oil pipe gate that in all my years of running in that neck of the woods had stood resolutely pad-locked. The gate is festooned with rusted, 1/8" metal plates upon which a welding torch has been used to write imprecations intended to rain down on all those who attempt to gain access. Now, I had once had the temerity to broach this portal on one of my exploratory bike rides in search of trail running routes, and rode for several miles along the canyon rim beyond it, but in failing to find a continuous route down to Thomas Aquinas I have never since hopped the gate. This morning, it was swung wide open, and as we approached, a jolly rancher sailed by in a late-model pick-up truck, having presumably both opened and exited it, and, with a cheery wave gave us instructions to just leave it open.....

Off to our right, as we drove through the gate, was a free standing steel sign with a skull ideogram burnt through it and a curious grouping of silhouetted steel ravens artfully designed to appear as though they were sitting atop the plate.

We drove along the canyon rim on a rough dirt road cut into the side of the hill, through a couple of washes (dry at this moment) and past rocks that precariously studded the slopes above the road. We traveled on, past a turnoff that threaded down the canyon and was marked, at the junction with the high road, by a gas flare shooting its flame into the sky bravely competing with the candle power of a brightly risen sun.

When I approach the gates of heaven or hell, I fully expect to be greeted by a real estate agent. And so it was this morning, in a ghastly pre-echo of that fated meeting. Around one final bend we saw before us a little oasis of palms, an ancient windmill and a dilapidated house from the 1920's. Beside this tableaux, at the side of the driveway, stood a real estate agent.

This devil, wearing Prada knock-offs - trim coal-black pants and a deep red satin top - appeared before us with her jet eyes beaming in a preternaturally young, milky complexioned face. A slash of red beneath her pert nose opened to reveal the excellence of her orthodonture and to signify a welcome........ (To be Continued)