(Not long ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing over 75 vintage science fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 57.)
All fiction expects readers to engage in at least a little suspension of disbelief. Some requires readers to send belief off to summer camp for an extended stay. If Edgar Rice Burroughs had had his ability to craft absurd coincidences removed when creating The Mad King—there’s a procedure for that, right?—he wouldn’t have been able to write word one. Well maybe word one. “All Lustadt was in an uproar,” Burroughs opens the book. Fair enough. But why the uproar? Well, it turns out that it’s in an uproar because its infamous mad King Leopold has escaped. A young man deemed unfit to rule, Leopold had been kept imprisoned by Lustadt’s Regent Peter of Blentz, who’d ruled the tiny European country for 10 years with… well, not an iron fist. But he hasn’t been a good ruler either. (High taxes, tyrannical judges, the usual petty dictator stuff.)
As it happens, Leopold’s escape coincides with a visit from young Barney Custer of Beatrice, Nebraska (a real place,) unlike Lustadt), who’s traveled to Lustadt to see his late mother’s homeland. Barney’s sporting a full beard thanks to an election-year bet that found him promising to keep a beard for a year or wear a “green wastebasket bonnet trimmed with red roses for six months.” While the beard seems like the better choice, it’s about to get him in a lot of trouble thanks to the first of many amazing coincidences. Turns out Barney looks just like the escaped mad king. He quickly finds this out, and gets a sense of the problems it could cause him, but decides to keep the beard even though it may mean losing his life. Election year bets are not to be taken lightly. (Since the first half of The Mad King was first published in All-Star Weekly in 1914, we might assume that Barney was a Theodore Roosevelt man with a bet on the wrong side of the 1912 election that brought Woodrow Wilson to office.)
That turns out to be okay because the resemblance quickly sweeps Barney off on the path to adventure. He finds himself opposing the evil Peter Of Blentz and romancing the beauteous Princess Emma. But their romance would seem to have an expiration date. For one, she thinks he’s Mad King Leopold. For another, she’s been promised to mad King Leopold since childhood. Also, everyone wants to kill them.
But this being an Edgar Rice Burroughs adventure, there’s little chance of that. I’ve now read two Burroughs books over the course of this project and I get the feeling that I’m not reading the best of them. That said, everything I’ve read about Burroughs suggests that he stays close to a pretty simple formula: Ordinary guy has extraordinary adventures with a beautiful woman. Absolute good prevails over absolute evil. The end. Not to spoil it for anyone, but that’s more or less what happens here as well, albeit complicated by a series of plausibility-straining developments, a lot of them having to deal with people happening to be in the same place at once when there’s little reason for them to be. Lustadt’s a small country, but no country’s that small.
About Lustadt: Burroughs made it up and placed it between Austria and Serbia, a placement that doesn’t have too much to do with the first half of The Mad King (published as the novella The Mad King) but a lot to do with the second half (first published, also in All-Star Weekly, in 1915 as Barney Custer Of Beatrice.) Lustadt is one of a long line of fictional European countries like Latveria and the Duchy Of Grand Fenwick that, until researching this book, I didn’t know had a common origin in Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel The Prisoner Of Zenda. Set in Ruritania, it lent its name to the genre of “Ruritanian romances” that share a similar setting. The Mad King even shares a similar plot since both involve royal succession and convenient look-alikes and finding that out made writers who borrowed shamelessly from Burroughs seem less like rip-off artists than players in the same game as their inspiration.
I’ve never read The Prisoner Of Zenda, but I can only imagine it’s a little less tedious than The Mad King. Where the plot and flat characters didn’t exhaust me, Burroughs’ and-then-this-happened-there-you-go prose style provided a constant temptation to go read something else. (The book’s available free through Project Gutenberg if you want to look for yourself ). But it’s not without interest. The whole second half uses Lustadt to take sides in World War One (Austria = Boo. Serbia = Yay!), providing a window into the times.
More interesting still is the way Burroughs contrasts Europeans with his American hero. While it’s eventually revealed that SPOILER Barney Custer of Beatrice, Nebraska is actually lost royalty, allowing him to marry Princess Emma after the death of the Mad King (who, it turns out, is not so much mad as cowardly and dickish), he’s still American to the core. Where the Europeans remain deferential at all times to royalty, Barney uses gumption and sticktotiveness, elbow grease, and whatever cliché you want to stay alive. "You seem to have found a way, Leopold," Emma tells him while still under the false impression he’s the king. "Kings usually do." She earns this retort:
"It is not because I am a king that I found a way, Emma," he replied. "It is because I am an American."
God bless it. But there’s something to be said for being royalty since, with the exception the villains out to kill him, Barney can play the king card to get anyone to do what he wants. It reminds me of that scene in Unforgiven when Richard Harris’ English Bob talks about how America would be better off with a king or a queen than a president since, “One isn’t that quick to shoot a king or a queen. The majesty of royalty, you see.” Later a gunfighter will find himself unable to shoot Clint Eastwood’s William Munny, overwhelmed by a horrific majesty of another kind. We invest different icons with that sort of awe over here, it would seem.
Our Barney doesn’t end up with quite as much blood on his hands as Munny and none of Munny’s guilt on his conscience. Burroughs seldom questions that a combination of persistence and violence ought to be enough to pull his hero out of one scrape after another. Or sometimes just dumb luck. In one chapter—spoiler, I guess—Barney somehow survives two rounds of a firing squad then lays beneath a protective shield of corpses. It’s another unbelievable moment in a book filled with them, but the action leading up to it allows Barney, and Burroughs, a rare reflective moment:
He noticed now that these others evinced no inclination to contest their fates. Why should he, then? Doubtless many of them were as innocent as he, and all loved life as well. He saw that several were weeping silently. Others stood with bowed heads gazing at the hard-packed earth of the factory yard. Ah, what visions were their eyes beholding for the last time! What memories of happy firesides! What dear, loved faces were limned upon that sordid clay!
In war and elsewhere not everyone has an indulgent author guiding his or her every move. Only pulp heroes have a guarantee of coming home alive.
I found this footage of a never-to-be-realized Bob Clampett adaptation of Burroughs' John Carter stories. It's not directly relevant to this book but it's still pretty neat. Enjoy.
"The visitor, making his way unobserved through the crowded main laboratory of The Hill, stepped up to within six feet of the back of a big Norwegian seated at an electrono-optical bench."
“The stranger came early in February, one wintry day, through a biting wind and a driving snow, the last snowfall of the year, over the down, walking from Bramblehurst railway station, and carrying a little black portmanteau in his thickly gloved hand.”