by Edgar Rice Burroughs
256 pages, SF Gateway
Review by Pat Black
Stephen King said two things I suspect he wishes he hadn’t. The first was when he compared himself to a Big Mac and fries. The second is when he said that Edgar Rice Burroughs was “nobody’s choice of great world writer”.
Maybe he isn’t a great writer, but Burroughs is certainly a great pleasure – and I’d bet that lots of great writers were influenced by him. He’s not as well-read these days as contemporaries such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or John Buchan, but he certainly made his mark.
Tarzan cemented Burroughs’ place in literary history as much as Sherlock Holmes did for Conan Doyle, but away from the king of the swingers the American had an immense impact on popular culture.
Burroughs’ tales of monsters, stiff-upper-lipped heroes, fighting, ape men, alien beings and good old-fashioned adventure continue to inform our stories into the 21st century. As a little boy, I was obsessed by the British-made Burroughs movie adaptations of the 1970s, all of which starred Doug McClure as a pugnacious and occasionally shirtless American hero, menaced by glove-puppet dinosaurs and dinnerplate-browed cavemen. If you’d asked me back then who my favourite actor was, deadly Doug was the man.
Perhaps my favourite was the Burroughs-in-all-but-name Warlords of Atlantis, which features a scene where a giant octopus attacks a boat, drags its crew overboard, takes them all the way to Atlantis at the bottom of the sea, then drops them off on dry land, without any suggestion of, you know… drowning.
These films (all directed by Kevin Connor) might not have been Oscar-worthy, but I cannot over-estimate how much they influenced my daydreams and fantasies – even now, as I stare the big 4-0 in its monobrowed, double-chinned, broken-red-veined face. Alongside Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion marvels, it’s hard to know where my own stories of monsters, adventure and derring-do end and Burroughs’ begin. The Land That Time Forgot, from 1975, is arguably the most technically accomplished of these movies – certainly it had the highest budget - and it’s surprisingly faithful to its source material.
The Land That Time Forgot sees Burroughs mixing men with prehistoric animals, and alongside Tarzan and the Barsoom series (we saw the latter recently on the big screen – or rather, we didn’t – as John Carter), it’s his best-known work.
To get it out of the way, The Land That Time Forgot – the first in this Caspak Trilogy – is a rip-off of Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, which debuted a couple of years earlier. Conan Doyle’s characters and travelling scenes are superior, but I’d argue that Burroughs edges Conan Doyle when it comes to action and adventure.
Our narrator, Bowen Tyler, an American engineer, is on board a passenger ship that is torpedoed by the Germans during the Great War. Tyler and his dog Nobs clamber onto a lifeboat, before he picks up his love interest, Lys. They then hook up with another boatload of shipwrecked British squaddies, and from there they manage to commandeer the German submarine that sunk them.
The first unlikely coincidence to note is that Tyler is the engineer who built the German sub – so he knows how to pilot it. The second is that the German sub’s commander, von Schoenworts, is Lys’ former love interest. This may be a coincidence too far, but it’s forgivable as it puts a bit of suspicion on the fair lady during those tense scenes in the tin-can, especially when equipment gets sabotaged. Is she with the boche?
Quite a lot of the book is dedicated to the compelling struggle between the Germans and the U-boat invaders, as control swings back and forth. This includes plenty of treachery and subterfuge, as well as hand-to-hand fighting and shoot-outs.
After the navigation equipment is sabotaged, the U-boat heads into strange territory. With the water supply poisoned and food and fuel running out, they are forced to make land on a strange, uncharted island, hinted at by the Italian explorer “Caprona” (or “Maple White”, as Conan Doyle called him), an ancient caldera surrounded by jagged cliffs. They know that flora and fauna exists within these natural walls, and they work out that there must be an underground tunnel pumping fresh water out into the sea. Tyler takes a gamble, and pilots the U-boat into the tunnel to investigate.
The crew emerge out of the depths into a spectacular prehistoric world, teeming with man-eating dinosaurs, savage ape-men and other ancient creatures, totally out of whack with what is known about the passing eons. Not that we care. Plesiosaurs, pterodactyls and allosauruses are encountered, eat the men and are eaten by them, while tribes of ape-men are there to be wrestled with – or rather unsportingly shot in the head by Tyler.
Burroughs’ hero is a stock type which does not work well in fiction today. We don’t take kindly to straight shooters, these days. In two of this year’s biggest films, Mad Max: Fury Road and Jurassic World, we saw attempts to reintroduce this kind of chewy, Meaty O’Forearms male into the wild. I reckon Tom Hardy and Chris Pratt had the most badly-written parts of these films; their characters often seemed badly at odds with the stories they were part of. This was particularly true of Chris Pratt’s dinosaur wrangler, who got over some glaring contradictions in his behaviour and his comments by squinting, folding his arms and occasionally punching people in the face (and I say that as someone who loved Jurassic World). Even in the pulp heroes’ modern-day equivalent, the comic book titans such as the Avengers, we need a slice of irony to temper the chiselled jaws and squinty eyes, and the sheer lack of human-compatible dialogue.
Tyler’s straight as a die, and certainly not much of a wisecracker. He enjoys a tame romance with Lys, but it’s to Burroughs’ credit that he essays the tension between Tyler as a stiff-backed man-o-war and as a prospective lover. Burroughs even has a little will-they won’t-they drama play out with his couple. Von Schoenworts the love rival – a simple dastard here, whereas in the movie adaptation he was a more nuanced character – exists solely to cheese off the prickly, paranoid Tyler.
Burroughs’ hero is resourceful and brave, and handy in a ruck. If you’re here to read fight scenes, be at peace. Gender politics are out the window, though; you’d probably be better served reading about Tarzan and Jane. Lys is there to be fought over, rescued and made love to, nothing more.
Curiously, Burroughs also has Tyler forming a bond with a more evolved type of cave babe late on in the book after he is separated from Lys. Tyler suggests that he’s about to get lucky a second time, never once wondering what Lys might make of this. It reminded me a little bit of James Bond’s average scorecard – usually he has a main love interest and a “spare” (the latter usually ending up dead). Nice work if you can get it. I wonder how Tyler might have reacted had he found Lys in the arms of one of the hang-jawed natives?
The First World War setting and the submarine scenes in particular are arguably the best elements of TLTTF. This type of warfare was new to Burroughs’ readers; torpedoes were a novel seagoing menace. It feels like you’ve wandered into a different book, a prototype Alistair MacLean thriller. This is when the narrative is most coherent. After that, this book breaks down to: fight scene; monster encounter; fight scene; monster encounter; ape men; fight scene. I was cheered by the brute simplicity. I mean no faint praise by saying that Burroughs could write action very well. In these and other works, he was realising his boyhood fantasies, and fostering those of many others.
“Read page one and I will be forgotten”, Tyler says, at the start of his narrative. Well, guess what? We do remember.
John Carter bombed at the box office, but Burroughs has a phenomenal body of work. As Jurassic World proves, people are still crazy about dinosaurs. It stuns me that The Land That Time Forgot movie hasn’t been remade for the cinema (I’m ignoring a 2009 straight-to-TV effort… everyone else did). Until someone takes a crack, you could do worse than check out the original books. I’d been looking for them for years. Thanks to SF Gateway, they’re all collected in one place.
The Caspak trilogy also takes in The People That Time Forgot and Out of Time’s Abyss. People sees Tom Billings, an old friend of Tyler’s, sailing to the lost island to find his mate. He flies over Caspak, only for his plane to be brought down by pterodactyls (the book’s best scene). Billings must survive Caspak’s dangers alone. Although there’s a fair amount of monster-mashing here (there’s a fight scene involving a sabre-tooth tiger and a cave bear), this story is mainly concerned with Billings’ interaction with the various tribes of cavemen, rather than his hunt for Tyler.
Burroughs reveals a curious conceit, which I suppose helps explain how so many different examples of prehistoric life have survived on Caspak: that evolution isn’t a matter of thousands of years of progress, but a series of personal breakthroughs. This can take the cave people from Neanderthal-level existence through to becoming tool-making, house-building humans. In theory this could take a single lifetime.
Billings falls in love with a cave girl, Ajor. He is powerfully attracted to her, and she clearly adores him… but he holds himself back because she’s clearly not in his class.
This is one of several uncomfortable racial echoes in Burroughs’ work. Although Billings does right by his cave babe in the end, there are several references to some people being of inferior genetic stock, or of “a lower order” – an uncomfortable categorisation to modern eyes, but arguably less so in the 1930s. We know where that kind of thinking led us.
Finally, there’s Out of Time’s Abyss, which backtracks to the story of what happened to Bradley and his companions after Tyler was separated from them at Fort Dinosaur in The Land That Time Forgot.
Bradley is British and, like Tyler and Billings before him, he’s handy with his fists and quite liberal about using them. Rather than clobbering dinosaurs or cavemen, this time our hero is punching flying monsters called the Weiroos… tantalisingly close to Weirdos. Burroughs was just one letter away from having invented the term. Such disappointments are the fabric of life.
The Weiroos represent a higher level of evolution in Burroughs’ strange anthropological and biological treatise. They might be able to fly, but they can’t fight, and Bradley paggers his way through a phalanx of these beasties during various forgettable adventures in the Weiroo city, which is (rather brilliantly) made out of skulls. There’s also another fierce but perfectly-formed cave babe for Bradley to look out for, triggering an outburst of hackneyed, but still quaint British manners.
We also have an early monster moment involving a tyrannosaurus rex. This beast is so familiar to us from modern-day entertainment that it’s fun to see it rendered here as looking nothing like its popular depiction – a horned, spiky, armoured beast, though no less adept at devouring unfortunates. It’s a kind of alt-universe T-Rex, like the Red Son Superman, or Batman set in a tech-noir Tokyo.
It reminded me of the Victorian dinosaur diggers, who fit their unearthed fossils together the wrong way and came up with odd, though fascinating reconstructions of what they thought the terrible lizards actually looked like.
Bradley’s story wraps the trilogy up nicely – you find out what became of Tyler and Billings, as well as the surviving personnel of Fort Dinosaur and the more dastardly Germans. Scores are definitively settled. Out of Time’s Abyss is not the best book of the three, but it does bring the tale to a satisfying conclusion.
You won’t come away from Burroughs’ work feeling particularly enriched, and after three volumes of constant fighting and monstering you may feel somewhat punch-drunk. But a little bit of what you fancy does you good, and it’s nice every now and then to escape into worlds of fantasy and heroism where all you have to worry about are scary monsters.