Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Borderland: A B-Movie in the Making [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

"Borderland" by Arthur J Burks is a typical pulp adventure and yet somehow more interesting than many of his other tales in Gangster Stories or Weird Tales. The plot is familiar to anyone who watches old 1950s B-movies. A mad scientist creates giant lizards (though not by nuclear radiation, but with a glandular concoction), intent on extorting millions from the governments of the world. Dr. Frankenstein meets Captain Nemo. Scenes of gigantic iguanas devouring helpless villagers is not far from The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms or It Came From Beneath the Sea. And yet, Burks published this story in Thrilling Adventures, December 1934. Not Thrilling Wonder Stories, but Thrilling Adventures.

Let's back up a bit. The hero of the story is Cleve, a man who captures specimens for Dr. Keller, the Curator of Herpetology at the Museum of Natural History. Cleve plans to dynamite large crocodiles for the Doctor's collection when three enormous iguanas come out of the lake and attack the Haitian villagers nearby. Cleve finds an old dugout canoe and goes to Cabritos Island where he thinks the lizards came from. There he finds his employer, who shows him a secret hideout where the villains are injecting the iguanas with the super glandular mixture. Dr. Keller also reveals he is, in fact, the owner of the secret lab, as well as a giant stockpile of dynamite, enough to destroy the island if the authorities should discover the truth. Cleve must join the doctor or die. Cleve lies and says he will help him in his great plan. Cleve begins capturing more iguanas for Keller. He eventually makes a pretext of going to the other side of the island to get some bigger specimens, but retrieves his dynamite gear from the dugout and strings wires from the dynamite stockpile to the shore. In true non-science fiction adventure style, he wakes from a dream and the ending feels lame. Only after he pushes the plunger, expecting to capture his crocodiles does Capritos Island explode, actually destroying the giant iguanas and Dr. Keller.

What strikes me about this tale was, of course, that it appeared in Thrilling Adventures and not an SF pulp. (Leo Marguiles, the editor, might have felt it wasn't quite strong enough for Thrilling Wonder, requiring instead the silly, "it was a dream" business at the end for adventure readers.) But there are a few other things I wonder about and make more sense after a little research on Arthur J Burks. First off, I was impressed by his locale color at the beginning of the story. If it had been written by Hugh B Cave I would have naturally expected details about Haiti since Cave made a second career out of writing about this island nation in Colliers Weekly in the 1950s. It turns out that Burks had been a marine in World War I (and would return to active duty in WWII later) and had first hand knowledge of the jungle island which he used in several books.

Secondly, the use of the name "Dr. Keller" makes me wonder if the character was named after Dr. David H Keller, a pulp writer of SF. The two knew each other through Hugo Gernsback's early pulps, plus they also worked on the serial novel Cosmos in 1933-35. Their by-lines are often found together in the same magazines such as Weird Tales. I have no proof of any homage but it is possible Burks was having fun with an in-joke.

And finally, the title "Borderland" refers to the opening of the tale in which the narrator talks about the thin line between the real and the fantastic. "Where is the thin dividing line between waking and sleeping, knowing and dreaming?" This theme would become part of Burks' life after the pulps (during which he wrote over eight hundred stories, being one of the Fiction Factory's Million-Words-a Year men). Ryerson Johnson told Will Murray in an interview that he saw Burks later working as a psychic medium. His final phase as a writer was in occult studies with titles like En-Don: The Ageless Wisdom (1973).

So "Borderland" was not just your average pulp story. It predated the B-movie monsters, featured solid local color and detail, possibly included a tip of the hat to David H Keller, and lastly, showed Burks' growing interest in the occult. It's a fun ride even if it relies too heavily on mad scientist logic and huge piles of dynamite. It remains one of those odd little pulp gems that can still surprise us eighty years later.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.
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