30 January 2021

Erring on The Terror of the Tar Sands

A 1968 children's book, one of the most obscure novels I've read since beginning the Dusty Bookcase, The Terror of the Tar Sands came under fire at the 2012 International Symposium on the History of the Oil and Gas Industry.

I was not invited.

The criticism originated with oil historian Joyce Hunt, who took issue with the use of "tar sands" in its title:
Contemporary rhetoric creates fear in the minds of those unfamiliar with today’s vital energy industry as it puts on hold construction jobs and the economic hopes of thousands. The media and those opposing oil sands development constantly refer to Alberta’s oil sands as tar sands, a technically incorrect term.
Does that not seem a bit unfair? After all, "oil sands" is also technically incorrect. And let's not forget that "tar sands" was used for decades by the industry itself. Still is:

Hell, I grew up with ads for the tar sands, like his one, which featured in the 31 October 1977 issue of Maclean's:

cliquez pour agrandir

(Am I alone in thinking that a sitting MLA shouldn't be on Syncrude's payroll, never mind serve on its Management Committee?)

I'm not a fan of The Terror of the Tar Sands either, but my criticism has nothing to do with the title. You can read all about it in the new issue of Canadian Notes & Queries. My copy arrived today. You're a subscriber, right? If not, here's some of what you're missing, beginning with this cover by Seth:

Dan Wells' Publisher's Note introduces a new series, Shelf Talkers, bringing together recommendations from independent booksellers (among them, my old friend Ben McNally).

Rod Moody-Corbett writes on Percy Janes, whose House of Hate is both one of this country's most controversial and most neglected novels. Only in Canada is such a thing possible.

We have a fable from Pauline Holdstock and a short story by Shaena Lambert.

Bruce Whiteman contributes a memoir.

Other contributors include:
Ho Che Anderson
Michel Basilières
Steven W Beattie
Juliane Okot Bitek
Andreae Callanan
Laura Cameron
Sally Cooper
Steacy Easton
André Forget
Alex Good
Brett Josef Grubisic
Tom Halford
Jeremy Luke Hill
Mikka Jacobsen
River Kozhar
Allison LaSorda
David Mason
John Metcalf
James Grainger Morgan
Nick Mount
Shane Neilson
Rudrapriya Rathore
Patricia Robertson
Mark Sampson
Richard Sanger
Souvankham Thammavongsa
Phoebe Wang 
It all ends on page 88 with Stephen Fowler's remarks on this book:

But wait, what's this?

The same envelope containing the latest CNQ brought the very first issue of Bibliophile, which features the latest news from CNQ mothership Biblioasis. 

Subscriptions to Canadian Notes & Queries can be got through this link.

One last thing: It was through reading The Terror of the Tar Sands that I first learned of Project Cauldron, a 1958 proposal which would have seen nuclear bombs used to separate bitumen from the sands. Why were we not taught this in school? After reading up on it all, this illustration from The Terror of the Tar Sands doesn't seem so insane.


  1. Jeeze that looks like something I would have collected in past years. As the halls fill up I'm trying to be more discerning, but still, it looks fun.

    The cover reminds me of 'Chibougamau Adventure' by Larry Wilson "The story of a Quebec Mining Field" I think my book is better than yours for actual reading.

    Prospecting - Manslaugher - Cannibalism - Drilling - Bootlegging -Half Man-Half Bear

    1. Chibougamau Venture! I haven't thought of that book in years! I once found two copies at London's Attic Books, bought them both, then sent them off to my sister, who lives in Chibougamau (one for her, the other for the town library).