What’s in a Name?

Oh, the joys of being tuckerized …


Early in October I attended Capclave, Washington, D.C.’s annual science fiction convention. Over the course of a long weekend I manfully served on five panels: “A Princess of Mars’ One-Hundred Year Reign” (2012 is the centennial of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s famous first novel); “Classics with Class” (about which I can remember nothing); “Unsung Author” (an ongoing category, this year’s focus being the sly, black-humored short-story writer Robert Sheckley); “The Heritage of Edgar Rice Burroughs” (a panel with several Burroughs fans from the National Capital Panthans), and finally “Who Are the Early Masters of Modern Science Fiction?” I was also interviewed for Fast Forward, a long-running series of video conversations with people involved in sf.

In short, I kept pretty busy over the weekend, though not so busy that I couldn’t spend some time in the dealers’ room, where I bought an Ace Double paperback, consisting of Ron Goulart’s Clockwork’s Pirates and Ghost Breaker. It was the latter title I wanted, a humorous collection of stories about the occult detective Max Kearny. The book’s come-on line—beneath an illustration featuring a green-tentacled blob, a shapely young woman in nothing but stiletto heels and A bikini bottom, and a Bogart-like figure wearing a slouch hat and trench coat—reads: “Having trouble with psi powers, spooks, or E-T visitations? Take it up with Max Kearney!” (As readers of this feature may recall from a previous column, books featuring occult or psychic detectives—like John Silence and Carnacki, the Ghost-Finder—are a little sideline of my collecting.)

I also bought eight little matchboxes, each imprinted with the first-edition cover of some fantasy or sf classic. Last spring I acquired a couple of these novelties at the Malice Domestic convention—Dashiell Hammett’s The Dain Curse and Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express—and these have now been joined by Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men, Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, L. Frank Baum’s The Marvelous Land of Oz, and several others. They look great, like a little row of miniature books, as they face me amid the pencils and postcards, the action figures (Poe, Sherlock Holmes),  the Betty Page tumbler and the photograph of Louise Brooks, the Edward Gorey bookmark, the “Don’t Panic” button, various small rocks, and all the other detritus that clutters my desk.

On the Saturday evening of Capclave I went out to dinner with the aforementioned Panthans. This group, affiliated with the national Burroughs Bibliophiles (whose meetings are called Dum-Dums), consists of ardent collectors of, and experts on, the books of ERB. A highlight of one local guy’s collection is the original $400 check paid by Munsey publications to Edgar Rice Burroughs for the 1912 magazine serialization of Under the Moons of Mars, the original title of A Princess of Mars. Another member collects Burroughs trading cards, often depicting scenes from Tarzan comics or reproductions of old paperback covers. Certainly no red-blooded American male of my generation can fail to remember Roy Krenkel and Frank Frazetta’s illustrations for the 1960s softcover reissues of the Tarzan and Mars books—if only for the delightfully underclad lovelies such as Dian of Pellucidar and Thuvia, Maid of Mars.

Saturday’s dinner was going along pleasantly enough when suddenly a tablemate gasped, laughed, looked up at me, dropped the issue of the National Capital Panthans Journal she had in her hand, and said, “You’ve been tuckerized.”

So, finally, I’d been tuckerized. My life was complete.

If you look up “tuckerization” on Wikipedia you will find it succinctly defined as “the act of using a person’s name in an original story as an in-joke.” (The word derives from Wilson Tucker, the sf writer and publisher who gave some of his characters the names of his friends.) These days charity events often feature an auction in which people bid to be “tuckerized” by a favorite author. In effect, this is the equivalent of winning a tiny walk-on part in a TV series or film.

My old Book World colleague Michele Slung was the first person I knew whose name was “borrowed” by an author. Michele had enthusiastically reviewed Jonathan Carroll’s eerie classic, The Land of Laughs, and in Carroll’s later book Bones of the Moon, a character encounters a mysterious tribe known as The Slung People. At about the same time, another friend, sf reviewer Greg Feeley, was also “tuckerized,” but not quite so pleasantly. A novelist, offended by a Feeley review, didn’t just shrug it off: in a subsequent book he featured a race of loathsome, subterranean creatures called the Feelies.

In my own case, a group of people—characters in an ongoing Burroughs’ pastiche called Invaders of the Inner World by Lee Strong—are said to inhabit the Utopian city of Dirda. While it was a kick to find my name in Strong’s serial, for a long while I have wondered if Jack Vance, now in his mid-90s and the dean of American fantasy and science fiction writers, didn’t somehow possess precognitive knowledge that a critic with my name would love and champion his books. After all, one of Vance’s novels bears the title The Dirdir, he has a series called The Durdane Trilogy, and throughout his vast oeuvre there are other names surprising close to Dirda.

Once upon a time, I started to write an “impossible crime” mystery and decided to give its characters punning names: I now only remember a gay guy named Perry Bathhouse and a young woman called Gloria Mundy, but there were at least a half dozen other examples of sophomoric wittiness. Since there were already famous detectives named Marlowe and Spenser, I dubbed my P. I. Dekker, after still another Renaissance writer. Alas, I don’t remember much about the story itself, except that the villain—or was it a villainess?—had to be absolutely naked to commit a murder and not leave any trace. The modus operandi was, I think even now, quite ingenious. Perhaps it’s time I unearthed that manuscript and gave it another look, or, maybe, even finished the story. Start watching the best-seller lists.


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Michael Dirda is a weekly book columnist for The Washington Post and the author, most recently, of Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books. Its essays originally appeared on the home page of The American Scholar.


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