EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS:
GORE AND DREAMS
Fantastic landscapes exist 500 miles beneath
our feet, in the ‘eternal minute of timeless Pellucidar’.
With Edgar Rice Burroughs, the fictional amputation from
reality is absolute. But when he also provides access points
into his realms of extravagant dream…
where exactly does the dream end?
‘in the first place please bear in mind
that I do not expect you to believe this story...’ (1)
...excuse my self-indulgence.
But Burroughs – Edgar Rice rather that William S, frequently avails himself of a ‘framing narrative’ device along the lines I’ve attempted to replicate here, to create a threshold into his extravagant fictions. They provide an introductory pre-credit sequence explaining how the manuscript he invites you to evaluate came into his possession. He might do it through his own persona, or at least through an ersatz-Burroughs posed as a fabricated self-portrait, or perhaps through the guise of an academic or an acquaintance of the narrative’s protagonist. Through this baffle of masks he can add confirming detail designed to reinforce the illusion that at least some elements of the story you are about to read, are real.
In addition, they serve the extra purpose of velcroing Burroughs’ diverse worlds into some kind of attempted continuity, the framing details of ‘The Pirates Of Venus’ (1934), for example, name-drop David Innes and Pellucidar, as ‘The Moon Maid’ (1926) similarly links into the Martian story-cycle. The Edgar Rice Burroughs accredited on the book-jacket, the framing device says, is one of us. He’s a reader, a consumer, rather than a fantasist. He doesn’t construct these stories from the stuff of dreams. Nothing as simple as that. No – he is merely a ‘Middle Man’ in the fortunate position of acquiring this information on our behalf. He just opens the window onto these strange worlds, then passes the view on to us for our entertainment and edification.
Of course, readers of the early Twenty-First Century no longer need such elaborate preparation. We’re already pre-programmed to switch perspectives and immerse in fictional fantasias as easily as we hop TV channels from one unreality to another. So the framing device has largely fallen from favour among writers – unless used in the form of a deliberately archaic pastiche designed to create period ‘atmosphere’. But it was by no means unusual in Burroughs’ time. Used as an intermediate phase, a buffer zone, or an interface between the dull reality the reader is forced to inhabit, and the outrageously exotic worlds of deep subterranean Pellucidar, the arid plains of Barsoom lit by the pale moons of Mars, or the jungles that lie beneath the dense cloud layers of Venusian Amtor. A fictional departure lounge for flights into realms where the drag of rational morés no longer prevail. It’s a method of artful distancing by interposing the teasing concept that just possibly this is not mere fanciful fiction – but a retrieved document deserving at least some of our attention.
‘Pellucidar, as every schoolboy knows, is a world within a world, lying, as it does, upon the inner surface of the hollow sphere which is the Earth’ (4), and because its geography conforms to the inner contours of the planet, Pellucidar’s horizon rises panoramically ever-upwards, rather than vanishing below the curve of vision as we experience it here, upon the dull limitations of the ‘outer crust’. But this ‘inner world’ has its own sun, and even a moon, the ‘Pendent World’ which casts a permanent twilight over an area known as the Land of Awful Shadow.
Innes, a thirty-year old Connecticut-born adventurer, is a regular Burroughs’ hero, capable of modestly boasting of a physique that has always ‘been the envy and despair of my fellows’. On Barsoom, John Carter uses his similarly impressive physical endowments to protect his Martian Princess, Dejah Thoris. Within that Inner World, David Innes discovers Dian the Beautiful of the tribe of Amoz, who dwell in the cliffs above the Darel Az, or Shallow Sea. And his missions to attain, protect, or return to her take him through savage countries of monsters, part invention and part-prehistoric. Here there be Dinosaurs, Sagoths, Mastodons, Tarags (sabre-toothed tigers), bull-like Bos, Dyals, and Thipdars (pterodactyls), a mix of evolutionary fossils and primitives.
If Mars is Burroughs depiction of a cruel and decadent senility, antique and perverse, Pellucidar is his New World, untainted by the corruptions of experience, in which all future possibilities co-exist. He wrote seven books located there, from ‘At The Earth’ Core’ (1914) to the posthumously-published ‘Savage Pellucidar’ (1963). And they form what is probably his most beautifully outrageous and imaginatively ambitious story-cycle. Yet all seven happen in the same long Pellucidarian day, ‘the same day upon which I broke through the Earth’s crust from the outer world thirty-six years before... the same day and hour that this world was born, the same day and hour that would see its death, the eternal day, the eternal hour, the eternal minute of Pellucidar’ (6). For the sun does not move in the Pellucidar sky. Hence there is no succession of night and day. And because there’s no night and day, according to Burroughs’ rather dubious reasoning, there is no time. Although ‘time passed, as it must even in a timeless world’ time in its absolute sense is abolished, allowing all manner of odd temporal phenomena to occur. The least of which is David Innes’ immunity to the effects of ageing as he would have experienced it on the outer crust. Giving him virtual immortality.
But casual nudity is all part of Burroughs’ idealisation of simpler life-styles, values he sees as untainted by the corrupting influence of intellect or suspect ‘civilising morality’. He claims ‘the principal difference between the people of the Old Stage Age and those of modern-day civilisation seem to lie in the matter of inhibition.’ Implying that in Pellucidar they don’t bother with such stultifying affectations. And are better for it. ‘The human race of the Outer Crust had deteriorated rather than improved with the march of the ages.’ Burroughs, through the eyes of David Innes and Abner Perry, compares ‘the standards of effete Twentieth-Century civilisation’ (1) unfavourably with the primitive nobility of Tarzan’s quasi-religious awe of nature. We, of the then-Twentieth Century are enveloped by ‘the thin veneer with which civilisation conceals but does not eradicate primal instincts’ (4).
And in Pellucidar David Innes is allowed to ‘slough practically the entire veneer of civilisation that it had taken generations to develop, and slip back perhaps a hundred thousand years...’(5)
Now he springs ‘like the beast of prey that man really is’
‘read it yourself and see if you, too,
do not find food for frantic conjecture…’
There had been previous stories set in similar worlds underground. As a refuge for wild imaginings, the ground beneath our feet has unsurprisingly proved less enticing than what lies beyond the sky. And less so as the century has progressed. But there’s nevertheless a rich literary and pseudo-literary vein of ‘Chthonian’ fiction – that is, stories set within the Earth’s ‘bowels’. It’s possible to look back to Jules Verne’s ‘Voyage Au Centre De La Terre (Journey To The Centre Of The Earth)’ (1863), and to the fictional voyage of one Niels Klim for precedents. To sniff around suggestions made by Edgar Allen Poe about holes located at the Polar regions which give access to the Hollow Earth. Just as it’s possible to fast-forward into Barrington J Bayley’s mind-mulching novelette ‘The Radius Riders’ (in ‘SF Adventures no.27’, July 1962) resurrecting the long-neglected boring machine as well as Burroughs’ ideas about the time-distorting effects of subterranean travel. Or even Arthur C Clarke’s short story “The Fires Below” (1949) which imagines species and civilisations existing beneath the Earth’s crust. But it’s just as convenient to buy Brian Aldiss’ view of hard-pressed fantasists who, when ‘hard up for secret worlds... find them under the Earth, in a puddle, in an atom, up in the attic, down in the cellar, or in the left eyeball...’ Aldiss goes on to quote examples of each.
But tenacious adherents of the ‘Hollow Earth’ theory persist, surviving in obscure Fortean X-Files on the outer rim of extremist weirdness. Nineteenth Century American writer Captain John Cleves Symmes believed the Earth to be constructed of no less than five hollow concentric spheres with space between each, habitable on all of the resulting convex and concave surfaces. According to Symmes there are also countersunk holes at the top and bottom of the world amid ice-free polar seas, which allow access to these inner domains. Stranger still is the fact that Symmes’ petition to the US Congress to sanction a voyage testing out his theories received no less than twenty-five affirmative votes! Or that Adolf Hitler, fascinated by arcane Aryan mystic theories, mounted a Nazi expedition to also investigate its possibility.
Meanwhile, Captain Adam Seaborn (who may have been a Symmes alias) wrote ‘Symzonia: A Voyage Of Discovery’ in which he sails a ship through the South Polar opening in 1820 to discover a utilitarian utopia ruled by a ‘Best Man’ where poverty and greed are unknown. But even he’d been anticipated by Danish writer Baron Ludwig Holberg’s ‘The Subterranean Journey Of Niels Klim (The Journey Of Niels Klim To The World Underground)’ (1741) which out-fantasies Burroughs Pellucidar in depicting an entire planetary system – with a miniature sun orbited by miniature planets, located inside the hollow centre of the Earth. In this charming fantasy Holberg’s hero Nicholas Klimius is carried by a giant bird to the inner planet Nazar where he meets human-headed trees.
There are, inevitably, other tales of subterranean derring-do – both before and after Burroughs. Examples would have to include Bulwer Lytton’s ‘The Coming Race’ (1871), and William R Bradshaw’s ‘Atvatabar: Being The History Of The Interior World And Conquest Of Atvatabar’ (1892), through to A Hyatt Verrill’s ‘The Voice From The Inner World’ (1927) and Edmond Hamilton’s ‘The Hidden World’ (1929) which envisages exploits on an inhabited 3000-mile diameter sphere within the Earth’s outer shell. And they all happened before the Cavern-Worlds of the Shaver Mysteries which became major cult material through post-war issues of ‘Amazing Stories’. Then there’s the prolific John Russell Fearn who not only uses a mechanical mole, but even calls his 1938 story “Through the Earth’s Core”.
Another ERB-ian story-cycle is set within a hollow world located inside Earth’s moon. That could possibly relate to HG Wells’ similarly sub-Lunarian Selenites of ‘First Men In The Moon’ (1901), but more likely it’s just Burroughs transposing his penchant for Lost Valleys and Forgotten Civilisations into fresh locales. As though he’s working through a roster of potential venues. How long before John Carter discovers the inhabited interior of Barsoom? Or Carson Napier adventures to hidden civilisations beneath the crust of Venus? Perhaps all the worlds of the Solar System are not solid planetary bodies at all, but thin-skinned bubbles of double-sided habitation?
“the more civilised people become, the more deadly
are the inventions with which they kill each other...” (7)
Burroughs garish tales always offered themselves up for easy visual adaptation. As early as January 1929 Tarzan had become not only a Movie star but a newspaper comic-strip serial too. And Pellucidar was also destined to cross over into both media. ‘Hi-Spot Comics no.2’ (November 1940) features a ‘David Innes of Pellucidar’ picture-strip illustrated by ERB’s own youngest son John Coleman Burroughs. The cover misleadingly displays an Earth impaled by a ‘borer’ like an arrow through an apple! Later ‘Tarzan At The Earth’s Core’ is fairly accurately serialised in the British ‘Tarzan Adventures’ (Vol.8 No.44 in January 1959), a weekly comic edited by the teenage Michael Moorcock whose job it was to adapt and re-ink dialogue continuity for the frames, which originated in American newspaper strips.
An unpretentious and rather poor 1976 movie followed, starring the two-fisted Doug McLure and absent-minded Professor Peter Cushing, aided and abetted by Cy Grant and Caroline Munroe. But although based on ‘At The Earth’s Core’, it totally misses out on the sheer scale of Burroughs’ creation. Innes’ party, as Burroughs depicts, use an out-of-control ‘Mechanical Subterranean Prospector’ – a hundred-foot long ‘land submarine’ boring machine to penetrate five-hundred miles through the stratum of the Earth’s crust. Here they find themselves in huge subterranean grottoes menaced by, and eventually defeating the Mahars, scientific winged reptiles in ancient underground cities with their slave race, the ape-ish Sagoths.
As with the Martian cycle, once Burroughs has established the characters and basic premise with the initial novels (‘At The Earth’s Core’ and ‘Pellucidar’), he then shifts the focus away to other plotlines following secondary heroes and heroines. After a thirteen-year pause he resumes the Inner World mythology with the adventures of Tanar and Stellara whose travels bring them into conflict with the Cid, leader of the Korsar pirates, originally ‘Corsairs’ from the Outer world. Tanar’s story is picked up (through the ‘framing sequence’) by Jason Gridley – inventor of the ‘Gridley Wave’ communication system, through which he also discovers that David Innes is being held prisoner by those same vile Korsars. Gridley then determines to escape the restrictions of being a mere name in the prologue (of both Martian and Pellucidar novels), to become a protagonist in his own right. But not before first enlisting the aid of the mighty Tarzan himself!
‘Tarzan At The Earth’s Core’ is the consequence, originally available in Britain through Methuen’s ‘Sixpenny’ paperback series (no.22), with no cover illustration – just title, author, and blue-and-white Kingfisher logo. And it’s the first Burroughs’ novel to make use of Symmes idea, already alluded to by Poe, of Polar openings to the inner world. Burroughs gives more exact dimensions. The opening is 85 North latitude, 170 East longitude. And his fictional crew ‘fly out across the frozen polar wastes to the opening to Pellucidar’ using the 0.220, a 75 ton cigar-shaped airship, 997ft long and 150ft in diameter, buoyed up by vacuum-chambers made from Harbenite from the Wiramwazi Mountains. Burroughs ducks further explanation with a convenient ‘it is not my intention to weary you with a recital of the details of the organisation and equipment of the Pellucidarian expedition.’
While Gridley’s aeroplane flight is abruptly ended by a predatory pteranodon, after which he meets Jana, the Red Flower of Zoram with full use of Classical allusion – ‘Odysseus never met a more potent Circe’. The novel’s basic structure is typical of Burroughs’ simple plotting with regular encounters with Snake-men riding lizard mounts, a flying stegosaurus gliding on its spiny armour, and passage through the Forest of Death. But it is more fully and reflectively developed. Jana and Jason have the routine romantic misunderstanding, but Burroughs’ illustrates their social differences with wryly satiric sequences attacking the manners and pretensions of American womanhood. While Tarzan, eating raw meat, recalls a ‘fussy old nobleman with whom he had once dined at a London Club who almost suffered a stroke of apoplexy because his bird had been slightly underdone.’
‘Land Of Terror’ – which uniquely appeared only in book form, and is consequently one of the rarest Burroughs novels, is narrated in the first person by David Innes. The Emperor of Pellucidar is now travelling home from Lo-Har, straight into a new series of strange encounters. He’s captured by Jukans – an odd race prone to unpredictable madness and equally sporadic memory lapses, an element that ERB captures well. However, Burroughs is himself perhaps afflicted by their qualities as his portrayal of their society grows and develops inconsistently, as though it expands to encompass the vagaries of Innes’ predicament. The Jukan settlement is first ‘a crudely palisaded village that stood in a small clearing’. He’s taken to the palace of King Meeza – ‘a low rambling crazy-looking structure’. Later, as Innes escapes and looks for a secret passage to the exterior the village has become ‘a city’, while the Palace is now ‘a village to itself’ which ‘must have covered several acres of ground’. While fictional unlikelihoods multiply all around him. Recaptured, Innes is locked into what he at first assumes to be a cell, but no, feeling around in the darkness he discovers... not only a corridor that first leads him to where Dian the Beautiful is held, but also the elusive secret exit to the exterior!
‘There is no world within a world. Pellucidar is
but a realm of your imagination. Nothing more’ (2)
Jason Gridley begins as the passive recipient of messages from Barsoom and Pellucidar. But, learning of David Innes’ predicament, he crosses over to become an active protagonist in his rescue. Just as Ulysses Paxton first reads Edgar Rice Burroughs pulp novel ‘A Princess Of Mars’ (1912) as an ordinary consumer, just like you and I. ‘The story made a profound impression upon me, and while my better judgement assured me that it was but a highly imaginative piece of fiction, a suggestion of the veracity of it pervades my inner consciousness’ (framing narrative to ‘Master Mind Of Mars’, 1928). Paxton becomes fascinated by the book. Obsessed. So that later he’s able to travel to Mars by mystical means in conscious imitation of John Carter, and be subsumed into that same cascade of wonderful adventure. The subtext is obvious. Gridley and Paxton did it. So can you. Dream – if it’s done intensely enough, can be a powerful force. Burroughs even provides the fictional departure lounge…
But dream is also irrational. And sometimes dangerous. It’s unreasonable to expect such lavish confections to conform to current social etiquette, any more than – say, Burroughs Mars should relate to the real scientific Mars you can see through the telescope. Unfortunately, when Burroughs was writing, Political Correctness was a long long way in the future. He could hardly be expected to be guided its principles. And, as not only an unintellectual – but a relentlessly anti-intellectual writer, it would equally be highly unrealistic to expect him to anticipate modern social sensitivities. Anyway, things were different then, weren’t they? At least they seemed to be. And as a result, some of his racial caricatures now seem offensively distasteful.
Robert Jones is the black cook aboard the 0.220 airship who exclaims ‘Lawd niggah! you all suah done overslep yo’sef’ and ‘Dem niggahs is sho nuf hot babies’. Yet it could be argued that this black-face Negro patois is objectively no more offensive that Burroughs’ equally crude attempt at imitating Cockney speech-patterns in his Caprona trilogy. And, unless you argue that Tarzan himself is a White Supremacist symbol, then Burroughs treats his Waziri warriors as a noble and admirable people. Indeed it is the purity of their culture that is threatened by ‘the atrocities with which (white) man scars the face of nature.’
He’s on less sure footing with his regard to the treatment of women. Burroughs displays a typically pre-Feminist dualism in that he idealises them, yet simultaneously places them within a strictly defined social context. His are gender relationships that echo images of a more innocent age. In ‘Tarzan And The Ant Men’ (1924) the jungle-lord encounters the ape-like Alali, a matriarchal tribe where males are subjugated. Tarzan’s example provokes violent social change, after which the females not only become submissive and obedient to their mates, but prefer it that way! But Burroughs’ women, perhaps atypically of the time, can be warriors and active participants in the action. On Mars ‘when the necessity arises (women) fight with even greater intelligence and ferocity than the men.’ And Burroughs is capable of operating on a number of different levels where gender politics are debated.
But ‘they do not (run away) where I come from. Sometimes they run AFTER them’ replies Innes, shifting the issue into another perspective of predatory marriage-hungry women (1). An attitude he provocatively satirises later in a comment on women, and marriage customs on the Outer Crust – ‘marriage to them meant a struggle for supremacy. It was a 50-50 proposition of their own devising – they took fifty and demanded the other fifty’ (5). Then Innes is captured by the Terrible Bearded Warrior-Women of Oog. In ERB’s tradition of appropriate nomenclature, one of them is called Rhump! But this reversal of traditional gender-roles allows Burroughs to muse that ‘one of the sexes must rule; and man seems temperamentally better fitted for the job than women.’ The brutality of the Oog he sees as proof that ‘we should see that they (women) remain always subservient to men, whose overlordship is, more often than not, tempered by gentleness and sympathy’ (5).
In his defence – if defence is needed, Burroughs does write with savage eloquence castigating the rapacious environmental damage done by modern technological society, its part in the genocidal extermination of species, and eventually to global ecological disaster (particularly in ‘Tarzan At The Earth’s Core’). But that’s largely part of his romantic illusion of primitive virtue contrasted with the ‘weaknesses, vices, hypocrisies and little vanities’ of the civilised world. For in truth, with Edgar Rice Burroughs the reader is never seriously called upon to think. With Burroughs, the amputation from reality is absolute. His stories are fabulous. In the exact sense of that overworked word. To Sam Moskowitz, writing in ‘Science Fantasy no.41’, fantastic worlds such as Pellucidar are ‘literally a transcription on paper of daydreams engaged in by the author to divorce himself from the cold failures of his everyday life. Coupled with his born gift of story-telling, the same fantasies were to act as an opiate, to make more bearable the problems of others.’
Excuse my self-indulgence, but I’m inclined to agree.
‘That which has never come within the scope of our really pitifully
meagre world-experience cannot be – our finite minds cannot
grasp that which may not exist in accordance with the conditions
which obtain about us upon the outside of the insignificant grain
of dust which wends its tiny way among the boulders of the
universe – the speck of moist dirt we so proudly call the world…’
EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS:
PELLUCIDAR, GORE AND DREAMS
(3) ‘TANAR OF PELLUCIDAR’ (‘Blue Book’ March to August 1929, first hardback edition 1930, UK edition 19 January 1939)
(4) ‘TARZAN AT THE EARTH’S CORE’ (‘Blue Book’ Sept 1929 to March 1930, first hardback edition 1930)
(5) ‘BACK TO THE STONE AGE, A ROMANCE OF THE INNER WORLD’ (formerly ‘SEVEN WORLDS TO CONQUER) (‘Argosy’ 9 Jan to 13 Feb 1937, first hardback edition 1937)
(6) ‘LAND OF TERROR’ (First hardback edition 1944)
Two subsequent novels were authorised by the Burroughs Estate and written by John Eric Holmes, ‘Mahars Of Pellucidar’ published in 1976, the second – ‘Red Axe Of Pellucidar’ was disputed, and independently published in 1993
Other sources used while researching this feature include ‘EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS: THE MAN WHO CREATED TARZAN’ by IRWIN PORGES (Ballantine Books - 1975), ‘EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS: MASTER OF ADVENTURE’ by RICHARD A LUPOFF (Ace Books - 1965)