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STANTON A. COBLENTZ: An Author Maligned

By Peter M. Renfro

The Blue Barbarians (Amazing Stories Quarterly Summer 1931) vs. Avalon Books (1958)

I do not know what it is about Stanton A. Coblentz (1896-1982) that appeals to me.  Since I grew up in the ‘80s my first exposure to Coblentz must have been through a cheap paperback reprint of Hidden World.  Admittedly, being a fan of E.R. Burroughs Inner Earth series, I was a sucker for anything hollow-earth.

Even so, this one book (poorly written as I recall) would hardly explain my interest.  Perhaps it was the FPCI’s editions of After 12,000 Years and The Sunken World , and Avon’s wonderfully garish cover for Into Plutonian Depths which added respectability?  Actually, it wasn’t.  What sparked and then nearly destroyed my interest in Stanton Coblentz was the plethora of Avalon titles available at the local library.  Outlandish titles like Lord of Tranerica, The Lost Comet, The Lizard Lords, and The Blue Barbarians all testified to wonderful adventures within.

As a teenager, I remember reading one of these Avalon titles and I remember thinking it was utter trash; poorly written and poorly plotted!  For 15 years I assumed Coblentz had written one or two acceptable novels, and cranked out a series of marginal sci-fi juvenilia.  Two years ago this belief was reinforced when I read the Avalon edition of The Blue Barbarians.

Within the past year I have been quickly re-assessing the work of Stanton Coblentz, thanks largely to Everett F. Bleiler’s Science Fiction: The Gernsback Years (1998).  Reading the various entries for Coblentz it became clear that a number of his novels underwent revisions and abridgements for their reprints in later years.

By happy accident I was able to track down a reading copy of the Summer 1931 copy of Amazing Stories Quarterly containing The Blue Barbarians.  What an epiphany as I began reading this original version!

Granted, the characters in The Blue Barbarians are rather stilted, some of the plot devices are quite outlandish, and the social commentary a bit pedestrian…but this is, after all, pulp fiction we’re talking about – these ‘shortcomings’ are part of the charm!  So I’m not here to criticize the actual novel…but here to put on trial the travesty of Avalon’s reprint.

The Avalon edition starts in medias-race – dialogue with just bare-bones description of the scene:  Our narrator arrives on a lofty mountaintop just minutes before his spaceship is to leave for Venus.  The AMZQ version begins with a prelude explaining how Coblentz received this story of 800,000 years hence via a séance.  This followed by a lengthy “Outline of Future History” setting the stage for the ‘opening’ scene on the mountaintop.

Nowhere on the dustjacket or interior copyright page is any indication given that Avalon’s edition has been altered in any way from the original pulp publication.  Given that pulp writers were paid by the word, some ‘pruning’ would arguably have been justified.  Take for example:

“When I had recovered from my first dazed surprise, my chief sensation was a numb dread, a shuddery premonition as of approaching catastrophe.  I really do not know how to explain this feeling; but no sooner had my vague and luminous hopes solidified into imminent possibility than they were somehow tarnished; and while I was being publicly commended for my fine spirit and my bravery, privately I felt like the braggart who has verbally slain countless bears, when, much to his alarm, an actual beast looms in sight.”  [AMZQ p. 295]

Here is a wordsmith plying his trade!  Just a few sentences later:

“Every clod of this battered old earth now endeared itself to me strangely; there was a new significance, almost a beauty about the very clouds of dust, where blew the sole material remains of lost generations; I would linger in revery over a blade of grass, a pebble, an ear of corn, bidding a mental farewell and wondering when next I should view their like; and in the habitations of man I found a new magnificence and meaning.”  [AMZQ p. 295]

Stanton Coblentz was a poet with a college degree in English literature.  Even so, I am sure even he would agree the above two samples argue more he was padding the verbiage for pennies, than for the love of the language…but to cut this out entirely???  Avalon Books deleted these and nearly every other descriptive passage – the very soul of the novel gone!  [They even changed the name of the dog from Yap-Yap to Tippy!]

Compare this passage as it appears in Avalon:

“I, too, was making observations.  How I cried out in disgust when I stepped on some mushroom-like creepers that gave out a sound like a child complaining, and scattered a nauseous odor!  And how startled I was at the white, hairy shrubs reminding me of upturned beards!  And the little flowering bush half hidden by tiny blue-throated birds, which sang and sang in clear notes like the tinkling of elves!”  [Avalon p. 31]

Nothing very remarkable, nothing very memorable, and quite pedestrian in style.  Now, compare to the original version from 1931:

“Scarcely less remarkable was the luxuriant undergrowth.  Clinging to some of the trunks was a white, fungus-like creeper, with long silky stems and fragile pale yellow blossoms that seemed of tissue paper; about other trunks a sort of gigantic lichen had woven itself, standing out vividly green against a background of reddish brown; and upon the ground were a multitude of vines and bushes, most of them gray and colorless and many apparently parasitic.  Here would surely have been a life’s work for any naturalist! – had I myself not had more compelling pursuits I should have liked nothing better than to study these plants: the long snaky ones with spidery black stems and tendrils devoid of leaf and bud; the gorgeous, spiny ones, whose orchid-like blossoms were encircled by javelin thorns half a foot long; the soft, mushroom-like variety, which, when trodden upon, emitted a nauseating odor; the white, hairy species, reminding me of upturned beards sprouting upon the earth’s surface; and, above all, the little flowering shrub whose symmetrical limbs were half hidden by tiny blue-throated birds, which sang and sang in clear liquid tones that the poet likened to the unearthly music of the elves.”  [AMZQ p. 305]

Ironically, the Avalon edition continues with “I could go on for pages, to tell of the other wood creatures…”  Coblentz did go on for pages!  From the above comparison, it appears that as much as 60% of the original novel was jettisoned!  While I would certainly agree that Coblentz had a penchant for over-descriptiveness, there’s no denying he was a serious writer with a gift of words…a talent that is grossly misrepresented by Avalon Books.

      I am curious whether Coblentz re-wrote his books for Avalon, or whether an editor is responsible for these atrocities.  He was still active in the science fiction field when these Avalon editions were coming out, and yet there is little information available.  Even in Bleiler the only reference to the Avalon edition is:  “The text may be altered or abridged.”  Quite an understatement as I have come to discover!

 --Storybook Farm, March 31, 2001

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