Wednesday, July 25, 2012


The Adventures of Captain Hatteras: Verne Lays the Foundation for Fictional Pulp Adventures to Foreign Lands

by Duane Spurlock

Awhile back, I posted about Jules Verne as the pre-pulp pioneer for pulp fiction. Let's look at this idea a bit more closely.

The Adventures of Captain Hatteras by Jules Verne, translated by William Butcher (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

William Butcher, who translated this volume and provided its introduction and notes, is on a quest to restore Verne’s reputation in the United States as worthy of inclusion in the literary canon — not as a writer for children, but as a serious author for adults, deserving university recognition and academic study.

Most translations into English have not served Verne well, particularly those contemporaneous with the author: besides wooden or stilted prose, in some cases the translators didn’t have a sufficient grasp of French to put into English what Verne actually wrote; many books were actually cut by a third or more; one translation had at least one sentence added by the translator to nearly every paragraph in the story; and more than one novel had the names of its primary characters changed! (The website of the North American Jules Verne Society [] has links to a number of online essays by its members, several of which address the state of English Verne translations -- which continue to be reprinted more than a hundred years after their first appearance.) Butcher and others blame these less-than-accurate (and, in some cases, downright bad) translations for Verne’s reputation in the U.S. as a bad stylist, a promoter of bad science, and as simply a writer for children.

But Butcher and others — among them Walter James Miller, Edward Baxter, Frederick Paul Walter—have been translating some of Verne’s most famous works anew and bringing into English several works that hadn’t been translated before, all of which helps to repair the Frenchman’s literary reputation in Britain and the U.S. These new translations have been appearing from Oxford University Press (in affordable paperbacks), Wesleyan University Press, Universityof Nebraska Press, and other publishers.

Verne is of interest to pulp readers because, first, as one of the most translated novelists in the world, his novels take the readers to many of the locations that would later be the exotic settings for many, many pulp adventure stories. (The UNESCO “Most frequently translated authors” resource ranks Verne at # 4 in 1980 [behind V.I. Lenin, The Bible, and Agatha Christie]. In 1994 Verne moved down the list to # 7 [after Christie, Danielle Steele, The Bible, Victoria Holt, P. Vandenberg, and Stephen King]. As of 2012, he's Number Two. The reference is at this site -- click here.)

Typically, Verne’s characters were the first whose fictional feet stepped in a particular locale that maybe Doc Savage or some other pulp adventurer would later visit. This trait for exploring “strange, new worlds” gave birth to the umbrella name for Verne’s series of novels, Voyages Extraordinaires.

Second, he’s also sometimes called the grandfather of modern science fiction. That's not exactly accurate. Verne’s novels typically don’t extrapolate into scientific technology beyond what was actually available at the time he wrote them. (Okay, traveling to the moon inside a capsule fired from a giant cannon may be pushing that argument a tad.) Instead, Verne is more of an adventure writer, whose novels are grounded in the world of science.

Verne was very concerned with basing his extrapolations on existing knowledge. For instance, when someone described his work as similar to that of H.G. Wells, Verne "openly criticized Wells' novels as lacking in scientific verisimilitude:"

We do not proceed in the same manner. It occurs to me that his stories do not repose on very scientific bases. . . I make use of physics. He invents. I go to the moon in a cannonball discharged from a cannon. Here there is no invention. He goes to the Mars [sic] in an airship which he constructs of a metal which does away with the law of gravitation. . . But show me this metal. Let him produce it. (Robert H. Sherard, "Jules Verne Revisited," T.P.'s Weekly [Oct. 9, 1903]: 589; quoted in Jules Verne, Invasion of the Sea [Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2001]: 209)

Still, the SF pulp writer who wasn’t influenced in some fashion by Verne’s works was probably rare.

Further, or third, many of Verne’s novels originally saw print as serial publications in a magazine published by his book publisher, Jules Hetzel, and titled Magasin d’Éducation et de Récréation. So, Verne is linked to the pulp writers of the 20th Century by the medium his work first appeared before the public. (Ah, imagine Nemo and the Nautilus painted by DeSoto! The lighter-than-air craft Resolute from Five Weeks in a Balloon painted by Blakeslee!)

On, then, to Captain Hatteras. This novel, the second by Verne to be published (first serialized in Hetzel’s magazine from March 20, 1864 [vol. 1, no. 1] to December 5, 1865 [vol. 4, no. 42]; first book publication in 1866), relates the reaching of the North Pole by the eponymous hero. Using the word hero might prompt a few quibbles, however; Hatteras’ monomania to reach the Pole recalls Captain Ahab’s obsession with finding and destroying Moby Dick. (Melville’s novel was published in 1851.) Most of Hatteras’ crew mutinies during the course of the novel, and Hatteras himself meets a less-than-happy fate.

Certainly Verne was influenced by the source materials he drew upon, which were the accounts of actual voyages to find the Northwest Passage and to reach the Pole; perhaps the most famous of these at the time of writing was the expedition led by Sir John Franklin, which ended badly for Franklin and most of his men. The explorers in Verne’s novel refer frequently to Franklin and other, similarly doomed expeditions. (Dan Simmons’ recent horror novel, The Terror, also focuses on the Franklin expedition.)

Hatteras is a remarkable character who could easily have walked onstage in a larger-than-life pulp novel. He enters the story as a mystery — an order and funds arrive anonymously for a ship to be built according to certain specifications, but its use is not expressed. A crew is assembled, although their destination is not named, nor is the name of their captain — they are told only that he will join them at some point on the journey. The first mate receives a final letter telling which direction to go once the ship leaves port. The crew begins to place supernatural significance on the presence of the apparently absent-but-all-knowing captain. Finally, Hatteras reveals himself as a disguised member of the crew.

Of interest to pulp fans is what Hatteras finds marking the North Pole — an active volcano. (Volcanoes also play an important role in Verne’s subsequent novel, Journey to the Center of the Earth.) Here we see a reference to many pulp-era SF/fantasy works that place a temperate zone heated by volcanic activity (or other geological reasons) and surrounded by the cold polar regions. This relates to the theory put forth in 1818 by an American infantry captain named John Cleves Symmes that launched numerous hollow-earth stories. Symmes claimed:

To All the World! I declare the Earth is hollow, and habitable within; containing a number of concentrick [sic] spheres, one within the other, and that is it open at the poles 12 or 16 degrees; I pledge my life in support of this truth, and am ready to explore the hollow if the world will support and aid me in this undertaking. (Reproduced in Jacques Van Herp, Panorama de la science-fiction (Verviers, Belgique: Marabout, 1975), 100. Shared here thanks to Arthur B. Evans’ article, “Literary Intertexts in Jules Verne’s Voyages Extraordinaires” at this URL,

Later, Symmes published his theory in a book (John Cleves Symmes and James McBride, Symmes’s Theory of Concentric Spheres: demonstrating that the earth is hollow, habitable within, and widely open at the poles. Cincinnati: Morgan, Lodge & Fischer, 1826). Perhaps today’s best-known stories about underground worlds are Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels set in the prehistoric land of Pellucidar.

There is much too-ing and fro-ing through the sea, around icebergs and closing icefields that would crush Hatteras' vessel, and this very accurate recounting of an arctic voyage may be perceived by today's readers -- particularly those accustomed to the constant action and thrills that mark most pulp fiction -- as needless padding or evading the heart of the narrative. But Verne's adventure takes place in a time during which "the shortest distance between two points" is undertood but not always possible to accomplish. This so-called padding actually heightens tension and makes more realistic the events that follow.

Verne’s novel may not have all the action and thrills of a pulp novel, but it offers entertaining reading and a launch pad for many pulp-era tales that would follow it.

You can purchase
The Adventures of Captain Hatteras (and other Verne novels mentioned in this article) at Amazon. Click here to learn more.

Visit the website of the North American Jules Verne Society [] to check out links to a number of online essays by its members.

You can learn more about Verne scholar and translator William Butcher at his home page by clicking here.

Learn more about Walter James Miller, one of the first Verne scholars to undertake correcting Verne's reputation in English, by visiting his site -- click here.

You'll find an online listing of Verne's Les Voyages Extraordinaires by clicking here. And for a look at scans of all the maps that were included in the original editions of Jules Verne’s novels, click here to visit the site of Verne collector Garmt de Vries.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2012


Jungle Tales back on New Pulp Best Seller list

Jungle Tales Volume 1 is back on the New Pulp Best Seller list this week, as compiled by Barry Reese:

Many thanks to you who are celebrating the Tarzan Centennial by reading new jungle action stories!

You can find out more about Jungle Tales at Amazon by clicking here.

Monday, July 2, 2012


Jungle Tales Vol. 1 climbs on Amazon sales rankings

According to Barry Reese's New Pulp Best Seller List last week, the print edition of Jungle Tales Volume 1 debuted on the New Pulp Best Seller List at # 5. Barry's newest compilation for this week shows Jungle Tales Vol. 1 still at the # 5 position, but the book's sales rank at has climbed from  200,775 to 162,939.

Jungle Tales Volume 1 includes my Ki-Gor story, "The Devil's Nest," Aaron Smith's "The Path of Life and Death," and Peter Miller's "Ki-Gor and the Secret of the Vikings." The print edition is now available at Amazon . . .Just click here to learn more.

It's nice to know that jungle action still has fans in this Tarzan Centennial year!

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