Friday, March 6, 2015

Polaris - of the Snows

Charles B. Stilson’s lost world tale Polaris - of the Snows was originally published in three installments in All-Story Weekly in December 1915 and January 1916. It was followed by two more short novels, also serialised in the same pulp magazine, featuring the same hero.

American pulp writer Charles B. Stilson (1880-1932) is usually regarded as an imitator of Edgar Rice Burroughs and on the basis of Polaris - of the Snows that seems a fairly accurate assessment. Tarzan of the Apes had appeared in All-Story Weekly in 1912. It has to be said however that Stilson was a competent imitator and this is an entertaining short novel.

Polaris - of the Snows does in fact have many similarities to the Burroughs Tarzan stories. Polaris is a young giant of a man who has been brought up by his father in a cabin in Antarctica. The cabin was built from the wreckage that brought his father and his mother (now deceased) to the frozen continent many years earlier. They were presumably engaged on a voyage of exploration although we will not learn the whole story until the end of the book.

Polaris’s father has now died and in accordance with the old man’s dying wishes Polaris sets out for the north to find the wider world he has never seen. Polaris knows little about his own origins except that he is an American gentleman. Like Tarzan (at least the Tarzan of the books rather than the Tarzan of most of the movies) Polaris possesses a wide if somewhat spotty education. He is fluent in classical Greek and Latin. He knows much of history and of the outside world although having had no experience of that world his ideas of it are a trifle eccentric.

Polaris, armed with a spear, a rifle and two revolvers (athough with a very limited ammunition supply) is accompanied by his faithful dog team. It seems likely to be a lonely journey but that is about to change. Suddenly he encounters two men, one of whom is clearly trying to kill the other. Polaris has high moral principles and he knows that murder is unacceptable so he unhesitatingly slays the would-be murderer. He then discovers that there was a third member of this party, a beautiful young American woman named Rose. These three were members of a polar expedition and their ship is awaiting their return. Polaris, being naturally chivalrous, offers to conduct Rose back to her ship. The trouble is that Rose is hopelessly lost so this may be a rather difficult undertaking.

It is also a very dangerous undertaking. Apart from being marooned on drifting ice floes they face the constant menace of attack from polar bears (yes I know there are no polar bears in Antarctica but this is an adventure story so the hero has to face dangerous wild animals and polar bears are more convincing adversaries than angry penguins).

For various reasons our adventurers find themselves driven southward again and they notice something rather odd. The further southward they go the warmer it gets. Even odder they find themselves showered with ashes. The sight of a mountain belching smoke provides the explanation. What they have found turns out not to be one volcano, but a whole range of volcanoes enclosing a hidden valley. The valley itself is green and temperate. It is also inhabited. Inhabited by people who speak classical Greek. 

This lost world turns out to be not quite the paradise it seemed at first. The people of Sardanes suffer from the usual human weaknesses - jealousy, suspicion, fear, ambition, avarice. Polaris and Rose soon find themselves in a rather tricky situation, and their adventures have only just begun.

The secret to writing good pulp fiction is to keep the action moving along as briskly as possible and Stilson certainly knows how to do that. His world-building is less impressive than that of Burroughs (who was a master of that particular art) but it’s competent enough. Polaris is pretty much an Antarctic version of Tarzan but without the complexity and without the tragic sense of being a man caught between two worlds. The other characters are pretty stock-standard adventure story types. Rose is the equivalent of Tarzan’s Jane but again rather less complex and interesting.

It’s worth pointing out that Burroughs was a very fine writer indeed, one of the grand masters of pulp fiction. Stilson is not in the same league but he’s still a competent story-teller and he handles his action scenes quite adroitly. Polaris - of the Snows is an enjoyable and well-crafted tale of adventure. Recommended.

All three Polaris novels were published in paperback by Altus Press in 2008.

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