A READERS' COMPANION TO THE BARSOOMIAN
The Seventeenth Runner-Up in the Seven
Wonders of Barsoom
THE EPIPHANIES OF JOHN CARTER
THE FAKE AUTOBIOGRAPHIES OF
Woodrow Edgar Nichols, Jr.
THE GRIDLEY WAVE
The more I think about it the more I am convinced that ERB placed himself
solidly in the Barsoomian Mythos tradition by having John Carter make special
appearances to him as a ploy to develop a fan-based pseudo-religion, like
Paul Twitchell (the pulp fiction writer who invented Eckankar) and L.
Ron Hubbard (the pulp fiction writer who invented Scientology). However,
unlike Twitchell and Hubbard, ERB was just having fun.
If ERB was taking flak because of the pseudo-religious nature of the
epiphanies of John Carter, he began using a new tact for receiving stories
from Mars: the Gridley Wave. The idea of the Gridley Wave had a swift evolution
vis-a-vis the Mythos – from a vague “higher power” method of transmission
to the more scientific feasible idea of the Gridley Wave, the frequency
that hides in the static. The official Gridley Wave was invented in the
Pellucidar series, and was used successfully as a cross-genre device to
link Tarzan, Barsoom, and Pellucidar personally to ERB as a necessary fictional
character. The incarnation of the author as a fictional character, while
not a novel idea, was one rarely used if an author wanted to be taken seriously.
ERB was not one of these authors, never taking himself seriously.
The evolution of the Gridley Wave as far as Mars is concerned can be
traced in the 6th and 7th installments of the Mythos: The Master Mind
of Mars, written in 1925, and A Fighting Man of Mars, written
in 1929 (see ERBzine #
0427 and #0735);
a 4 year evolution. The actual year Jason Gridley invented his famous wave
was 1928, first made known in ERB’s Tanar of Pellucidar, the hollow
world at the Earth's Core. A lengthy passage from the Prolog of that book
may help to explain the evolution of the Gridley Wave as a literary device
and ERB’s fun at becoming a central fictional character in his stories,
another stone in the edifice of his fake autobiography:
“Jason Gridley is a radio bug. Had he
not been, this story never would have been written. Jason is twenty-three
and scandalously good looking – too good looking to be a bug of any sort.
As a matter of fact, he does not seem buggish at all – just a normal, sane,
young American, who knows a great deal about many things in addition to
radio; aeronautics, for example, and golf, and tennis, and polo.
Did you catch ERB’s brazen advertizing of Tarzana
as a real estate investment? Good. We also get another insight into ERB’s
idealistic life at Rancho Tarzana during this period, which truly marked
the end of that period, for soon Rancho Tarzana would go into foreclosure.
“But this not Jason’s story – he is only an incident
– an important incident in my life that made this story possible, and so,
with a few more words of explanation, we shall leave Jason to his tubes
and waves and amplifiers, concerning which he knows everything and I nothing.
“Jason is an orphan with an income, and after
he graduated from Stanford, he came down and bought a couple of acres at
Tarzana, and that is how and when I met him.
“While he was building he made my office his
headquarters and was often in my study and afterward I returned the compliment
by visiting him in his new ‘lab,’ as he calls it – a quite large room at
the rear of his home, a quiet, restful room in a quiet, restful house of
the Spanish-American farm type – or we rode together in the Santa Monica
Mountains in the cool air of early morning.” (TP/Prolog.)
ERB always spent more money than he had, hoping that he would always
be able to write more stories to sell to Hollywood. Anyway, the financial
crisis obviously set his creative juices flowing, for the Gridley Wave
is an act of genius as a literary creation, years before static was discovered
to be an after echo of the Big Bang.
“Jason is experimenting with some new
principle of radio concerning which the less I say the better it will be
for my reputation, since I know nothing whatsoever about it and am likely
As to the reference to the Golden Gate, that’s to the strait in western
California connecting the Pacific Ocean to the San Franciso Bay – this
is 1928, nine years before the Golden Gate Bridge spanned the strait in
1937. Why these California geographical locations reminded ERB of Pelluicar
is anyone’s guess, but Pellucidar is full of large valleys, mountain ranges,
and coastal regions.
“Perhaps I am too old, perhaps I am too dumb,
perhaps I am just not interested – I prefer to ascribe my abysmal and persistent
ignorance of all things pertaining to radio to the last state; that of
disinterestedness; it salves my pride.
“I do know this, however, because Jason had told
me, that the idea he is playing with suggests an entirely new and unsuspected
– well, let us call it a wave.
“He says the idea was suggested to him by the
vagaries of static and in groping around in search of some device to eliminate
this he discovered in the ether n undercurrent that operated according
to no previously known scientific laws.
“At his Tarzana home he erected a station and
a few miles away, at the back of my ranch, another. Between these stations
we talk to one another through some strange ethereal medium that seems
to pass through all other waves and all other stations, unsuspected and
entirely harmless – so harmless is it that it has not the slightest effect
upon Jason’s regular set, standing in the same room and receiving over
the same aerial.
“But this, which is not very interesting to any
one except Jason, is all by the way of getting to the beginning of the
amazing narrative of the adventures of Tanar of Pellucidar.
“Jason and I were sitting in his ‘lab’ one evening
discussing, as we often did, innumerable subjects from ‘cabbages to kings,’
and coming back, as Jason usually did, to the Gridley Wave, which is what
we have named it.
“Much of the time Jason kept on his ear phones,
than which there is no greater discourager of conversation. But this does
not irk me as much as most of the conversations one has to listen to through
life. I like long silences and my own thoughts.
“Presently, Jason removed the headpiece. ‘It
is enough to drive a fellow to drink!’ he exclaimed.
“‘What?’ I asked.
“I am getting that same stuff again,’ he said.
‘I can hear voices, very faintly, but, unmistakably, human voices. They
are speaking a language unknown to man. It is maddening.’
“‘Mars, perhaps,’ I suggested, ‘or Venus.’
“He knitted his brows and then suddenly smiled
one of his quick smiles.
“‘Do you know, Admiral,’ he said (he calls me
Admiral because of a yachting cap I wear at the beach), ‘that when I was
a kid I used to believe every word of those crazy stories of yours about
Mars and Pellucidar. The inner world at the earth’s core was as real to
me as the High Sierras, the San Joaquin Valley, or the Golden Gate, and
I felt that I knew the Twin Cities of Helium better than I did Los Angeles.”
Pay attention now. ERB is about to give us some keen insight into his
role as an author vis-a-vis his reading audience, another purpose perhaps
as to why he felt the need to create a fake autobiography. Jason, a true
believer and one of the Chosen Ones, continues:
“I saw nothing improbable at all in that
trip of David Innes and old man Perry through the earth’s crust to Pellucidar.
Yes, sir, that was all gospel to me when I was a kid.’
This seems like an absurd conversation nowadays, but in 1928 many occultists
still believed in a hollow earth. The Nazi head of the S.S., Heinrich Himmler,
allegedly sent out expeditions to find it. There is still an urban legend
today that Admiral Byrd flew into a hole at the North Pole into the interior
of the Earth’s core. So, it may have been idle table talk in 1928, but
not crazy talk. The fake ERB keeps his mind on what is important:
“‘And now you are twenty-three and know that
it can’t be true,’ I said, with a smile.
“‘You are not trying to tell me it is true, are
you?’ he demanded.
“‘I never have told any one that it is true,’
I replied; ‘I let people think what they think, but I reserve the right
to do likewise.’
“‘Why, you know perfectly well that it would
be impossible for that iron mole of Perry’s to have penetrated five hundred
miles of the earth’s crust, you know there is no inner world peopled by
strange reptiles, and men of the stone age, you know there is no Emperor
of Pellucidar.’ Jason was becoming excited, but his sense of humor came
to our rescue and he laughed.” (TP/Prolog.)
“‘I like to believe that there is a Dian
the Beautiful,’ I said.
Note how ERB got away with suggesting the non-university term “bullshit!”
into the 1928 reader’s mind, thus thumbing his nose at censorship. This
is truly the King of Pulp Fiction hard at work.
“‘Yes,’ he agreed, ‘but I am sorry you killed
off Hooja the Sly One. He was a corking villain.’
“‘There are always plenty of villains,’ I reminded
“‘They help the girls to keep their “figgers”
and their school girl complexions,’ he said.
“‘How?’ I asked.
“‘The exercise they get from being pursued.’
“‘You are making fun of me,’ I reproached him,
‘but remember, please, that I am but a simple historian. If damsels flee
and villains pursue I must truthfully record the fact.’
“‘Baloney!’ he exclaimed in the pure university
English of America.” (TP/Prolog.)
“Jason replaced his headpiece and I returned
to the perusal of the narrative of an ancient liar, who should have made
a fortune out of the credulity of book readers, but seems not to have.
Thus we sat for some time.” (TP/Prolog.)
Gee, do you think ERB made a fortune off the credulity of his readers?
It is hard to put oneself into the mind set of the readers of the second
decade of the 20th Century, but ERB seems to suggest that the effect upon
the imagination that many of his early works generated worked on some sense
of a need to believe, as apparent as a need to believe in aliens is today,
as in The X6 Files, or the Bermuda Triangle.
“Presently Jason removed his ear phones
and turned toward me. ‘I was getting music,’ he said; ‘strange, weird music,
and then suddenly there came loud shouts and it seemed that I could hear
blows struck and there were screams and the sounds of shots.’
Note ERB’s genius of creating a false reality for this scene. Jason Gridley
is a totally made up person, and ERB argues with him, is annoyed by him,
in such a way that he takes on a credibililty he would not otherwise have,
thus reinforcing the “belief system” and encouraging the reader’s need
“‘Perry, you know, was experimenting with gunpowder
down there below, in Pellucidar,’ I reminded Jason, with a grin; but he
was inclined to be serious and did not respond in kind.
“‘You know, of course,’ he said, ‘that there
really has been a theory of an inner world for many years.’
“‘And it is substantiated by many seemingly irrefutable
scientific facts,’ I reminded him – ‘open polar sea, warmer water farthest
north, tropical vegetation floating southward from the polar regions, the
northern lights, the magnetic pole, the persistent stories of the Eskimos
that they are descended from a race that came from a warm country far to
“‘I’d like to make a try for one of those polar
openings,’ mused Jason as he replaced the ear phones.’” (TP/Prolog.)
“Again there was a long silence, broken
at last by a sharp exclamation from Jason. He pushed an extra headpiece
As the narrative progresses, they decode a message from Abner Perry, who
has a story to tell from the Imperial Observatory at Greenwich, Pellucidar.
Jason answers him back, stating that he is Jason Gridley speaking from
the experimental laboratory in Tarzana, California. Perry responds:
“‘Listen!’ he exclaimed.
“As I adjusted the ear phones I heard that which
we had never before received on the Gridley wave – code! No wonder that
Jason Gridley was excited, since there was no station on earth, other than
his own, attuned to the Gridley wave.
“Code! What could it mean? I was torn by conflicting
emotions – to tear off the ear phones and discuss this amazing thing with
Jason, and to keep them on and listen.” (TP/Prolog.)
“‘I want to get into communication with
Edgar Rice Burroughs; do you know him?’
And then Perry tells ERB the story of Tanar of Pellucidar. But,
of course, that is off our track. We next hear of ERB’s use of the Gridley
Wave in the next story he wrote in 1928, Tarzan at the Earth’s Core,
where in the Foreword we learn:
“‘He is sitting here, listening in with me,’
“‘Thank God, if that is true, but how am I to
know that it is true?’ demanded Perry.
“I hastily scribbled a note to Jason: ‘Ask him
if he recalls the fire in his first gunpowder factory and that the building
would have been destroyed had they not extinguished the fire by shoveling
his gunpowder into it?’
“Jason grinned as he read the note, and sent
“‘It was unkind of David to tell of that,’ came
back the reply, ‘but now I know that Burroughs is indeed there, as only
he could have known of that incident. I have a long message for him. Are
you ready?’” (TP/Prolog.)
“Thrice in the past have we of the outer
world received communication from Pellucidar. We know that Perry’s first
great gift to civilization to the stone age was gunpowder. We know that
he followed this with repeating rifles, small ships of war upon which were
mounted guns of no great caliber, and finally we know that he perfected
Jason Gridley, having a fortune to finance his expedition, hires Germans
to construct for him a dirigible, the 0-220 (ERB’s real office telephone
number at the time), and Tarzan to lead it.
“Knowing Perry as something of an empiric, we
were not surprised to learn that his radio could not be tuned in upon any
known wave or wave length of the outer world, and it remained for young
Jason Gridley of Tarzana, experimenting with his newly discovered Gridley
Wave, to pick up the first message from Pellucidar.
“The last word that we received from Perry before
his messages faltered and died out was to the effect that David Innes,
the Emperor of Pellucidar, was languishing in a dark dungeon in the land
of the Korsars, far across continent and ocean from his beloved land of
Sari, which lies upon a great plateau not far inland from the Lural Az.”
You should read this book; it is one of ERB’s best. But let us return
to the Barsoomian Mythos. The Master Mind of Mars does not begin
with a Foreword or Prelude, but “A Letter,” addressed to Edgar Rice Burroughs,
dated June 8th, 1925, and sent from Helium. The date is obviously the date
ERB began writing the story. The method of transmission is shady at best,
and will not be cleared up until Fighting Man, when the Gridley
Wave is introduced to his Barsoomian audience. But we must remember that
this is 4 years before it was invented. The author of the letter, a true
believer and Chosen one, is a man who died on the field of battle during
WWI, who signs it at the end as Ulysses Paxton, Late Captain, -----th Inf.,
He tells ERB that he first became acquainted with John Carter, Warlord
of Barsoom, by reading ERB’s A Princess of Mars while attending
officer’s training camp in the Fall of 1917. In other words, at the same
time ERB had invented himself into the Mythos via the epiphanies, beginning
in the Foreword to the hardback edition of Princess, which if you
will remember, came out in September of 1917.
The Martian novel messes with Paxton’s mind: he spends hours dreaming
about Mars, wishing that he was there with John Carter. In his real life,
Paxton gets blown to hell by German artillery while in France and as he
lies dying in a shell crater, he has a John Carter moment, which is decidedly
more religious than scientific.
“Then my eyes suddenly focused upon the
bright red eye of Mars and there surged through me a sudden wave of hope.
I stretched out my arms towards Mars, I did not seem to question or to
doubt for an instant as I prayed to the god of my vocation to reach forth
and succour me. I knew that he would do it, my faith was complete, and
yet so great was the mental effort that I made to throw off the hideous
bonds of my mutilated flesh that I felt a momentary qualm of nausea and
then a sharp click as of the snapping of a steel wire, and suddenly I stood
One can see that ERB’s readers may have been concerned about the religious
overtones of this letter. Paul Twitchell and L. Ron Hubbard were rivals
in coming up with the easiest method of teaching astral traveling to their
members. Perhaps ERB is having fun at their expense. One could say that
Ras Thavas, the mad genius inventor, was the one greater than both Paxton
or ERB, or one could easily surmise some kind of Pagan believe in Roman
gods, to wit, the God of War. Whatever, ERB would make the communication
much more scientific with the Gridley Wave, first introduced into the Barsoomian
Mythos in the Foreword to A Fighting Man of Mars. After relating
the details found in the Prolog to Tanar of Pellucidar, ERB goes
on, with the knowledge of what occurred in Tarzan at the Earth’s Core,
to wit, that Jason Gridley decided to remain behind in Pellucidar to pursue
the Red Flower of Zoram:
upon two good legs looking down upon the bloody,
distorted thing that had been I. Just for an instant did I stand thus before
I turned my eyes aloft again to my star of destiny and with outstretched
arms stand there in the cold of that French night – waiting.
“Suddenly I felt myself drawn with the speed
of thought through the trackless wastes of interplanetary space. There
was an instant of extreme cold and utter darkness, then –
“But the rest is in the manuscript that, with
the aid of one greater than either of us, I have found the means to transmit
to you with this letter. You and a few others of the chosen will believe
in it – for the rest it matters not as yet. The time will come – but why
tell you what you already know?
“My salutations and my congratulations – the
latter on your good fortune in having been chosen as the medium through
which Earthmen shall become better acquainted with the manners and customs
of Barsoom, against the time that they shall pass through space as easily
as John Carter, and visit the scenes that he has described to them through
you, as have I.
“Your sincere friend,
“Late Captain, -----th Inf., U.S. Army.”
“My considerable association with Gridley
had given a fair working knowledge of his devices and sufficient knowledge
of the Morse Code to enable me to receive with moderate accuracy and speed.
Sounds kind of the like the life of the scientists monitoring the search
for intelligent life in the universe by means of radio telescopes (SETI),
the work Carl Sagan
started. I believe since its inception they have received but one signal
that may have indicated intelligence, but they could never pick it up again
to be sure.
“Months passed; dust accumulated thickly upon
everything the working parts of Gridley’s device, and the white ribbon
of ticker tape that was to receive an answering signal retaining its virgin
purity; then I went away for a short trip into Arizona.
“I was absent for about ten days, and upon my
return one of the first things with which I concerned myself was an inspection
of Gridley’s laboratory and the instruments he had left in my care. As
I entered the familiar room and switched on the lights it was with the
expectation of meeting with the same blank unresponsivenes to which I was
by now quite accustomed.” (FMM/Foreword.)
“As a matter of fact, hope for success
had never been raised to any considerable degree in my breast, nor had
Gridley been over sanguine – his was merely an experiment. He considered
it well worth while to make it, and I considered it equally worth while
to lend him what small assistance I might.
Note how ERB kept his options open by delaying news of discovery until
his imaginary character returned from the imaginary realms of Pellucidar,
which if captured correctly on camera, would make one of the most stunning
visual sights in a 3-D movie (I’ve been a fan of 3-D movies ever since
I saw John Wayne in Hondo while my father attended an Army officer’s
convention in Topeka, Kansas, when I was about six years old.) In fact,
one of the most accurate paintings I have ever seen depicting the reverse
curvature of Pellucidar is the cover illustration painted by Neal
Adams, for the Ballantine edition of Tarzan at the Earth’s Core.
You have to stare at the painting to really see it in the background. That
is not a stormy sky above Tarzan and the thipdar, it is the reverse curvature
of the inner world. (See
a picture of the cover.) Anyway, back to Barsoom.
“It was therefore with feelings of astonishment
that assumed the magnitude of a distinct shock that I saw upon the ticker
tape the familiar tracings which stand for the dots and dashes of code.
“Of course I realized that some other researcher
might have duplicated Jason’s discovery of the Gridley Wave and that the
message might have originated upon earth, or, again, it might be a message
from Jason himself in Pellucidar, but when I had deciphered it, all doubts
were quickly put to rest. It was from Ulysses Paxton, one time captain,
----th U.S. Infantry, who, miraculously transported from a battle-field
in France to the bosom of the great Red Planet, had become the right-hand
man of Ras Thavas, the master mind of Mars, and later the husband of Valla
Dia, daughter of Kor San, Jeddak of Duhor.
“In brief, the message explained that for months
mysterious signals had been received at Helium, and while they were unable
to interpret them, they felt that they came from Jasoom, the name by which
the planet Earth is known upon Mars.
“John Carter being absent from Helium, a fast
flier had been dispatched to Duhor bearing an urgent request to Paxton
to come at once to the twin cities and endeavor to determine if in truth
the signals they were receiving actually originated upon the planet of
“Upon his arrival at Helium, Paxton immediately
recognized the Morse Code signals, and no doubt was left in the minds of
the Martian scientists that at last something tangible had been accomplished
towards the solution of intercommunication between Jasoom and Barsoom.
“Repeated attempts to transmit answering signals
to Earth proved fruitless and then the best minds of Helium settled down
to the task of analyzing and reproducing the Gridley Wave.
“They felt that at last they had succeeded. Paxton
had sent his message and they were eagerly awaiting an acknowledgment.
“I have since been in almost constant communication
with Mars, but out of loyalty to Jason Gridley, to whom all the credit
and honor are due, I have made no official announcement, nor shall I give
out any important information, leaving all for his return to the outer
world; but I believe I am betraying no confidence if I narrate to you the
interesting story of Hadron of Hastor, which Paxton told me one evening
not long since.
“I hope that you will enjoy it as much as I did.”
Having solved scientifically, to wit, pseudo-scientifically, his transmission
problem, ERB was ready for his next epiphany of John Carter. That came
with a vengeance in Swords of Mars (see ERBzine