Richard A. Lupoff
There’s considerable controversy over who was the most prolific author of all time. Alexandre Dumas of Three Musketeers fame is a candidate, but he has been accused of running a fiction workshop where employees wrote books based on Dumas’ ideas and suggestions, which Dumas then published under his own name. In the pulp era, Lester Dent, writing as Kenneth Robeson, wrote most if not all of the 181 classic-era Doc Savage novels—and a slew of other pulp yarns too boot. Walter Gibson, writing as Maxwell Grant, topped Dent, allegedly creating no fewer than 282 novels about The Shadow, plus comic book and radio scripts and books on magic. And still more recently, Isaac Asimov claimed a huge number of books—500, was it?—but Isaac tended to include anthologies in which short stories of his were reprinted from pulp magazines and other somewhat dubious credits.
Here’s a dark horse candidate for you. British editor and scholar Philip Harbottle has specialized in the works of the late John Russel Fearn with the following results:
“Fearn’s first science fiction pulp story appeared in 1933, but 90% of his enormous output was actually written in just the last 15 years of his life (1945-60). Speaking purely off the top of my head (but pretty accurately!) his output consisted of 140 science fiction magazine stories, 212 books, made up of 120 science fiction novels, 8 science fiction and crime short story collections, 30 detective novels, 40 western novels, two historical novels and 12 romance novels. and a another dozen romance pamphlets, plus lots of miscellaneous shorts and ephemera.”
In any case, one seldom hears the name Andrew Lang mentioned in this scriveners’ derby, and yet Lang is a serious contender. One of the most famous, popular, and versatile literary men of his time, Lang is almost totally forgotten today except in the context of his color-coded “Fairy Books,” the product of his longtime obsession with native cultures and his tireless efforts to collect and document folklore from around the world.
Born in the Scottish border town of Selkirk in 1844, Lang died in Aberdeenshire, Scotland in 1912, aged sixty-eight. He first appeared in print while still in his teens, as the editor of a college magazine, and once started he never stopped. Even death was seemingly unable to end Lang’s career. Posthumous works continued to appear as late as 1935, some twenty three years after Lang’s demise.
He was a journalist, a poet, a translator, an editor, a critic, an author of children’s books, and a novelist. He collaborated with a number of his contemporaries including H. Rider Haggard, another remarkably prolific author. Their collaborative novel, The World’s Desire, is a sequel to Homer’s Odyssey; a marvelous adventure story, ghost story, and murder mystery all in one. Its protagonist is no less than Odysseus himself who stops in Egypt on his way back to Greece after the Trojan war, and becomes involved in a criminal investigation. A second collaboration with Haggard, Montezuma’s Daughter, was a rip-roaring adventure yarn featuring an English protagonist who joins a Spanish expedition to the Western Hemisphere and winds up marrying—oh, you figured that out for yourself, did you?
It would be impossible to detail Andrew Lang’s life and literary career in this brief introduction. I highly recommend Andrew Lang: A critical biography with a short-title bibliography, by my late friend Roger Lancelyn Green (1918-1987).
The Disentanglers was first published in England in 1902. It is a remarkable book, heavily loaded with social satire. In it Lang takes repeated sharp jabs at the falsities and pretenses of British society at start of the Twentieth Century.
The modern world had not yet been born, but the labor pains that would erupt into widespread agony and bloodshed a dozen years later were beginning to make themselves felt. Railroads were common transportation. The telephone was in use. Wireless telephony—radio!—had come into being, and plays a part in the book, but it was as yet used only for direct communication, not for broadcast and certainly not for entertainment.
The automobile had made its appearance on the scene, but was not a common sight on London streets or British country roads. In America the Wright Brothers were studying the theories of flight developed by the German Otto Lilienthal, who had died tragically in a test of one of his gliders six years earlier.
Yes, the modern world was about to be born, and The Disentanglers, with its leisurely pacing, its attitudes toward class, race, and gender, was a last, lingering look at a world that was fading from existence. It was a look of mixed fondness and condemnation. Lang, for all his immersion in that disappearing culture, was able to see its shallowness and hypocrisy.
His chief protagonists, the “disentanglers” of the title, are a pair of upper-class ne’er-do-wells. They would be perfectly happy to spend their lives lazing away at their clubs, gambling, drinking fine beverages and consuming delicate viands, visiting their tailors, and engaging in occasional, highly discreet dalliances.
Trouble is, they don’t have enough funds to support them in the proverbial “style to which they are accustomed.” What to do? Oh, what to do?
There is probably an available supply of American heiresses eager to marry into the British upper classes, but an alliance with the unsophisticated daughter of a wealthy American industrialist or a rough-mannered cattleman is hardly to be contemplated. And as for getting an honest job, why, the very idea is unthinkable!
So they start a business, offering their services to fellow members of their own social caste in undoing improper romantic entanglements before things reach an irreversible state. The clients may be the unfortunately entangled young persons themselves, or more often—their fretful progenitors.
From this comedy of social manners—one might well label it a farce—the situations evolve into sensational cases involving strange species, disappearing corpses, and kidnapping by submarine.
For the modern reader, the world of The Disentanglers is alien as the Japan of The Tale of the Genji, the Troy of The Iliad, the Barsoom of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, or even the Egypt of Lang and Haggard’s The World’s Desire.
Richard A. Lupoff