ERB'S EMBRYONIC JOURNEY:
THE TRIMESTERS OF CASPAK
Woodrow Edgar Nichols, Jr.
(Dedicated to George McWhorter)
OUT OF TIME’S ABYSS
I said that this book represents the “Expert” point of view,
for not only does Bradley have much of the experience that the others had
with the people and fauna of Caspak, but because of his captivity among
the Wieroo, he has the unique privilege of having the complete picture
of this strange island. (I erred in the last section by calling Bradley’s
point of view the “Educated” one, and I apologize for that.) I don’t know
if ERB was hinting that the Wieroo may be the next evolutionary development
of the human race on Earth, but if he were, he presents a truly horrifying
future. So, hold on to your seats and get ready for a thrill ride.
“When Bradley went on guard at midnight,
September 14th, his thoughts were largely occupied with rejoicing that
the night was almost spent without serious mishap and that the morrow would
doubtless see them all safely returned to Fort Dinosaur. The hopefulness
of his mood was tinged with sorrow by recollection of the two member of
his party who lay back there in the savage wilderness and for whom there
would never again be a homecoming.
Now we have the answer to how the most prepared man of the party was tricked,
but even then the plan of the Wieroos may still have failed if he would
have put a cap in the first flying ghoul. ERB’s humor here takes a rather
gruesome tone when the joke is no longer funny. “So great was the force
of the impact when the thing struck Bradley between the shoulders that
the man was half stunned. His rifle flew from his grasp; he felt clawlike
talons of great strength seize him beneath his arms and sweep him off his
feet; and then the thing rose swiftly with him, so swiftly that his cap
was blown from his head by the rush of air as he was borne rapidly upward
into the inky sky and the cry of warning to his companions was forced back
into his lungs.
“No premonition of impending ill cast gloom over
his anticipation for the coming day, for Bradley was a man who, while taking
every precaution against possible danger, permitted no gloomy forebodings
to weigh down his spirit. When danger threatened, he was prepared; but
he was not forever courting disaster, and so it was that when about one
o’clock in the morning of the fifteenth, he heard the the dismal flapping
of giant wings overhead, he was neither surprised nor frightened but fully
prepared for an attack he had known might reasonably be expected.
“The sound seemed to come from the south, and
presently, low above the trees in that direction, the man made out a dim,
shadowy form circling slowly about. Bradley was a brave man, yet so keen
was the feeling of revulsion engendered by the sight and sound of that
grim, uncanny shape that he distinctly felt the gooseflesh rise over the
surface of his body, and it was with difficulty that he refrained from
following an instinctive urge to fire upon the nocturnal intruder. Better,
far better would it have been had he given in to the insistent demand of
his subconscious mentor; but his almost fanatical obsession to save ammunition
proved now his undoing, for while his attention was riveted upon the thing
circling before him and while his ears were filled with the beating of
its wings, there swooped silently out of the black night behind him another
weird and ghostly shape. With its huge wings partly closed for the dive
and its white robe fluttering in its wake, the apparition swooped down
upon the Englishman.” (OTA/2.)
“The creature wheeled immediately toward
the east and was at once joined by its fellow, who circled them once and
then fell in behind them. Bradley now realized the strategy that the pair
had used to capture him and at once concluded that he was in the power
of reasoning beings closely related to the human race if not actually of
In this election year, we see radical views that once were disregarded
as too extreme for prime time presented as valid with a host of lies in
support. If people are so willing to be bamboozled, is it any wonder when
people are being reasonable the same fate may await them?
“Past experience suggested that the great wings
were a part of some ingenious mechanical device, for the limitations of
the human mind, which is always loathe to accept aught beyond its own little
experience, would not permit him to entertain the idea that the creatures
might be naturally winged and at the same time of human origin. From his
position Bradley could not see the wings of his captor, nor in the darkness
had he been able to examine those of the second creature closely when it
circled before him. He listened for the purr of a motor of some other telltale
sound that would prove the correctness of his theory. However, he was rewarded
with nothing more than the constant flap-flap.
“Presently, far below and ahead, he saw the waters
of the inland sea, and a moment later he was borne over them. Then his
captor did that which proved beyond doubt to Bradley that he was in the
hands of human beings who had devised an almost perfect scheme of duplicating
, mechanically, the wings of a bird – the thing spoke to its companion
and in a language that Bradley partially understood, since he recognized
words that he had learned from the savage races of Caspak. From this he
judged that they were human, and being human, he knew that they could have
no natural wings – for who had ever seen a human being so adorned! Therefore
their wings must be mechanical. Thus Bradley reasoned – thus most of us
reason; not by what might be possible; but by what has fallen within the
range of our experience.” (OTA/2.)
ERB’s vast experience in so many different fields gave him a deep insight
into the average person’s psychology.
“What he heard them say was to the effect
that having covered half the distance the burden would now be transferred
from one to the other. Bradley wondered how the exchange was to be accomplished.
He knew that those giant wings would not permit the creatures to approach
one another closely enough to effect the transfer in this manner; but he
was soon to discover that they had other means of doing it.
Did you get that? Almost all of us have a fear of falling, and ERB cunningly
taps into that fear when describing this scene. Of course, I don’t believe
that Bradley would have appreciated being compared to a songbird, but what
“He felt the thing that carried him rise to a
greater altitude, and below he glimpsed momentarily the second white-robed
figure; then the creature above sounded a low call, it was answered from
below, and instantly Bradley felt the clutching talons release him; gasping
for breath, he hurtled downward through space.
“For a terrifying instant, pregnant with horror,
Bradley fell; then something swooped for him from behind, another pair
of talons clutched him beneath the arms, his downward rush was checked
within another hundred feet, and close to the surface of the sea he was
again borne upward. As a hawk dives for a songbird on the wing, so this
great, human bird dived for Bradley. It was a harrowing experience, but
soon over, and once again the captive was being carried swiftly toward
the east and what fate he could not even guess.” (OTA/2.)
“It was immediately following his transfer
in midair that Bradley made out the shadowy form of a large island far
ahead, and not long after, he realized that this must be the intended destination
of his captors. Nor was he mistaken. Three quarters of an hour from the
time of his seizure his captors dropped gently to earth in the strangest
city that human eye had ever rested upon. Just a brief glimpse of his immediate
surroundings vouchsafed Bradley before he was whisked into the interior
of one of the buildings; but in that momentary glance he saw strange piles
of stone and wood and mud fashioned into buildings of all conceivable sizes
and shapes, sometimes piled high on top of one another, sometimes standing
alone in an open courtway, but usually crowded and jammed together, so
that there were no streets or alleys between them other than a few which
ended almost as soon as they began. The principal doorways appeared to
be in the roofs, and it was through one of these that Bradley was inducted
into the dark interior of a low-ceiled room. Here he was pushed roughly
into a corner where he tripped over a thick mat, and there his captors
left him. He heard them moving about in the darkness for a moment, and
several times he saw their large luminous eyes
Those of you who have seen enough vampire movies should be able to relate
to this excellent, cinematic description. But wait, there’s still more.
glowing in the dark. Finally, these disappeared
and silence reigned, broken only by the breathing of the creatures which
indicated to the Englishman that they were sleeping somewhere in the same
“It was now evident that the mat upon the floor
was intended for sleeping purposes and that the rough shove that had sent
him to it had been a rude invitation to repose. After taking stock of himself
and finding that he still had his pistol and ammunition, some matches,
a little tobacco, a canteen full of water and a razor, Bradley made himself
comfortable upon the mat and was soon asleep, knowing that an attempted
escape in the darkness without knowledge of his surroundings would be predoomed
“When he awoke, it was broad daylight, and the
sight that met his eyes made him rub them again and again to assure himself
that they were really open and that he was not dreaming. A broad shaft
of morning light poured through the open doorway in the ceiling of the
room which was about thirty feet square, or roughly square, being irregular
in shape, one side curving outward, another being indented by what might
have been the corner of another building juttinig into it, another alcoved
by three sides of an octagon, while the fourth was serpentine in contour.
Two windows let in more daylight, while two doors evidently gave ingress
to other rooms. The walls were partially ceiled with thin strips of wood,
nicely fitted and finished, partially plastered and the rest covered with
a fine, woven cloth. Figures of reptiles and beasts were painted without
regard to any uniform scheme here and there upon the walls. A striking
feature of the decorations consisted of several engaged columns set in
the walls at no regular intervals, the capitals of each supporting a human
skull, the cranium of which touched the ceiling, as though the latter was
supported by these grim reminders either of departed relatives or of some
hideous tribal rite – Bradley could not but wonder which.
“Yet it was none of these things that filled
him with the greatest wonder – no, it was the figures of the two creatures
that had captured him and brought him hither. At one end of the room a
stout pole about two inches in diameter ran horizontally from wall to wall
some six or seven feet from the floor, its ends securely set in two of
the columns. Hanging by their knees from this perch, their heads downward
and their bodies wrapped in their huge wings, slept the creatures of the
night before – like two great, horrid bats they hung, asleep.” (OTA/2.)
“As Bradley gazed upon them in wide-eyed
amazement, he saw plainly that all his intelligence, all his acquired knowledge
through years of observation and experience were set at naught by the simple
evidence of the fat that stood out glaringly before his eyes – the creatures’
wings were not mechanical devices but as natural appendages, growing from
their shouldersblades, as were their arms and legs. He saw, too, that except
for their wings the pair bore a strong resemblance to human beings, though
fashioned in a most grotesque mold.
I just saw Underworld again on some cable movie channel, and it amazes
me how this description is almost identical to one of the elder vampires
being awakened from a centuries old slumber, or it maybe even closer to
the vampire in the 1922 silent classic, Nosferatu; but neither can be said
to have influenced ERB, since his story was written years before either
“As he sat gazing at them, one of the two awoke,
separated his wings to release his arms that had been folded across his
breast, placed his hands upon the floor, dropped his feet and stood erect.
For a moment he stretched his great wings slowly, solemnly blinking his
large round eyes. Then his gaze fell upon Bradley. The thin lips drew back
tightly against yellow teeth in a grimace that was nothing but hideous.
It could not have been termed a smile, and what emotion it registered the
Englishman was at a loss to guess. No expression whatever altered the steady
gaze of those large, round eyes; there was no color upon the pasty, sunken
cheeks. A death’s head grimaced as though a man long dead raised his parchment-covered
skull from an old grave.” (OTA/2.)
“The creature stood about the height
of an average man but appeared much taller from the fact that the joints
of his long wings rose fully a foot above his hairless head. The bare arms
were long and sinewy, ending in strong, bony hands with clawlike fingers
– almost talonlike in their suggestiveness. The white robe was separated
in front, revealing skinny legs and the further fact that the thing wore
but the single garment, which was of fine, woven cloth. From crown to sole
the portions of the body exposed were entirely hairless, and as he noted
this, Bradley also noted for the first time the cause of much of the seeming
expressionlessness of the creature’s countenance – it had neither eyebrows
nor lashes. The ears were small and rested flat against the skull, which
was noticeably round, though the face was quite flat. The creature had
small feet, beautifully arched and plump, but so out of keeping with every
other physical attribute it possessed as to appear ridiculous.” (OTA/2.)
This is one of the first times that I can recall that ERB didn’t come right
out and say that the creature was naked beneath the white robe, which,
separated in front, did nothing to conceal his hairless genitalia. But
in case the reader missed this point, I have emphasized it so that the
reader may accurately picture the strange winged ghoul.
“After eyeing Bradley for a moment the
thing approached him. ‘Where from?’ it asked.
I took a trip to Cancun at the beginning of June, 2000 (the start of hurricane
season), and visited the ancient Mayan city of Chichen Itza in the Yucatan
interior. I was amazed at how much into human skulls these people were.
They were everywhere. I must admit that I had one of the worst tequila
hangovers in my life and I hurled after I climbed to the top of the Great
Pyramid of the Castillo and reached the temple. Fortunately I had an empty
stomach. During the climb, it was stormy and overcast and I worried as
I held on to the steel cable ascending the stairway about being electrocuted
by lightning, but I had come this far to climb the damn thing and a few
clouds were not going to stop me. When I had to change my film inside the
temple, I inadvertently did it on top of the altar where hundreds of thousands
of people had had their hearts cut out, their bodies then flung down the
very steep steps. A real Kodak moment. Oh, the irony.
“‘England,’ replied Bradley, as briefly.
“‘Where is England and what?’ pursued the questioner.
“‘It is a country far from here,’ answered the
“‘Are your people cor-sva-jo or cos-ata-lu?’
“‘I do not understand you,’ said Bradley; ‘and
now suppose you answer a few questions. Who are you? What country is this?
Why did you bring me here?’
“Again the spectral grimace. ‘We are Wieroos.
Luata is our father. Caspak is ours. This, our country, is called Oo-oh.
We brought you here for (literally) Him Who Speaks for Luata to gaze upon
and question. He would know from whence you came and why; but principally
if you be cos-ata-lu.’
“‘And if I am not cos – whatever you call the
bloomin’ beast – what of it?’
“The Wieroo motioned him to one of the doors
which he threw open and waved his bony claws toward the human skulls supporting
the ceiling. His gesture was eloquent; but he embellished it by remarking,
‘And possibly if you are.’
“‘I’m hungry,’ snapped Bradley.
“The Wieroo motioned him to one of the doors
which he threw open, permitting Bradley to pass out onto another roof on
a level lower than that upon which they had landed earlier in the morning.
By daylight the city appeared even more remarkable than in the moonlight,
though less weird and unreal. The houses of all shapes and sizes were piled
about as a child might pile blocks of various forms and colors. He saw
now that there were what might be called streets or alleys, but they ran
in baffling turns and twists, nor ever reached a destination, always ending
in a dead wall where some Wieroo had built a house across them.
“Upon each house was a slender column supporting
a human skull. Sometimes the columns were at one corner of the roof, sometimes
at another, or again they rose from the center or near the center, and
the columns were of varying heights, from that of a man to those which
rose twenty feet above their roofs. The skulls were, as a rule, painted
– blue or white, or in combinations of both colors. The most effective
were painted blue with the teeth white and the eye-sockets rimmed with
“There were other skulls – thousands of them
– tens, hundred of thousands. They rimmed the eaves of every house, they
were set in the plaster of the outer walls and at no great distance from
where Bradley stood rose a round tower built entirely of human skulls.
And the city extended in every direction as far as the Englishman could
“All about him Wieroos were moving across
the roofs or winging through the air. The sad sound of their flapping wings
rose and fell like a solemn dirge. Most of them were appareled all in white,
like his captors; but others had markings of red or yellow slashed across
the front of their robes.
As I read this last part I immediately thought of Anthony Bourdain and
his cable TV show on the Travel Channel, No Reservations. I would have
loved to have his take on Wieroo cuisine.
“His guide pointed toward a doorway in an allley
below them. ‘Go there and eat,’ he commanded, ‘and then come back. You
cannot escape. If any question you, say that you belong to Fosh-bal-soj.
There is the way.’ And this time he pointed to the top of a ladder which
protruded above the eaves of the roof nearby. Then he turned and reentered
“Bradley looked about him. No, he could not escape
– that seemed evident. The city appeared interminable, and beyond the city,
if not a savage wilderness filled with wild beasts, there was the broad
inland sea infested with horrid monsters. No wonder his captor felt safe
in turning him loose in Oo-oh – he wondered if that was the name of the
country or the city and if there were other cities like this upon the island.
“Slowly he descended the ladder to the seemingly
deserted alley which was paved with what appeared to be large, round cobblestones.
He looked again at the smooth, worn pavement, and a rueful grin crossed
his features – the alley was paved with skulls. ‘The City of Human Skulls,’
mused Bradley. ‘They must have been collectin’ ‘em since Adam,’ he thought,
and then he crossed and entered the building through the doorway that had
been pointed out to him.
“Inside he found a large room in which were many
Wieroos seated before pedestals the tops of which were hollowed out so
that they resembled ordinary bird drinking – and bathing – fonts so commonly
seen on suburban lawns. A seat protruded from each of the four sides of
the pedestals – just a flat board with a support running from its outer
end diagonally to the base of the pedestal.
“As Bradley entered, some of the Wieroos espied
him, and a dismal wail arose. Whether it was a greeting or a threat, Bradley
did not know. Suddenly from a dark alcove another Wieroo rushed out toward
him. ‘Who are you?’ he cried. ‘What do you want?’
“‘Fosh-bal-soj sent me here to eat,’ replied
“‘Do you belong to Fosh-bal-soj?’ asked the other.
“‘That appears to be what he thinks,’ answered
“‘Are you cos-ata-lu?’ demanded the Wieroo.
“‘Give me something to eat or I’ll be all of
that,’ replied Bradley.
“The Wieroo looked puzzled. ‘Sit here, jaal-lu,’
he snapped, and Bradley sat down unconscious of the fact that he had been
insulted by being called a hyena-man, an appellation of contempt in Caspak.
“The Wieroo had seated him at a pedestal by himself,
and as he sat waiting for what was next to transpire, he looked about him
at the Wieroo in his immediate vicinity. He saw that in each font was a
quantity of food, and that each Wieroo was armed with a wooden skewer,
sharpened at one end, with which they carried solid portions of food to
their mouths. At the other end of the skewer was fastened a small clam-shell.
This was used to scoop the smaller and softer portions of the repast into
which all four of the occupants of each table dipped impartially. The Wieroo
leaned far over their food, scooping it up rapidly and with much noise,
and so great was their haste that a part of each mouthful always fell back
into the common dish; and when they choked, by reason of the rapidity with
which they attempted to bolt their food, they often lost it all. Bradley
was glad that he had a pedestal all to himself.
“Soon the keeper of the place returned with a
wooden bowl filled with food. This he dumped into Bradley’s ‘trough,’ as
he already thought of it. The Englishman was glad that he could not see
into the dark alcove or know what were all the ingredients that constituted
the mess before him, for he was very hungry.
“After the first mouthful he cared even less
to investigate the antecedents of the dish, for he found it peculiarly
palatable. It seemed to consist of a combination of meat, fruits, vegetables,
small fish and other undistinguishable articles of food all seasoned to
produce a gastronomic effect that was at once baffling and delicious.”
“When he had finished, his trough was
empty, and he commenced to wonder who was to settle for his meal. As he
waited for the proprietor to return, he fell to examining the dish from
which he had eaten and the pedestal upon which it rested. The font was
of stone worn smooth by long-continued use, the four outer edges hollowed
and polished by the contact of the countless Wieroo bodies that had leaned
against them for how long a period of time Bradley could not even guess.
Everything about the place carried the impression of hoary age. The carved
pedestals were black with use, the wooden seats were worn hollow, the floor
of stone slabs was polished by the contact of possibly millions of naked
feet and worn away in the aisles between the pedestals so that the latter
rested upon little mounds of stone several inches above the general level
of the floor.
We don’t have any direct evidence that ERB experimented with drugs such
as cocaine, even though he gives a vivid description of its use in The
Girl from Hollywood. After all, it was a main ingredient in Coca-Cola
for years, and it wasn’t really stigmatized until after WWI. It does seem
though that ERB understood what insane imaginings were like.
“Finally, seeing that no one came to collect,
Bradley arose and started for the doorway. He had covered half the distance
when he heard the voice of mine host calling to him, ‘Come back, jaal-lu,’
screamed the Wieroo; and Bradley did as he was bid. As he approached the
creature which stood now behind a large, flat-topped pedestal beside the
alcove, he saw lying upon the smooth surface something that almost elicited
a gasp of astonishment from him – a simple, common thing it was, or would
have been almost anywhere in the world but Caspak – a square bit of paper!
“And on it, a fine hand, written compactly, were
many strange hieroglyphics! These remarkable creatures, then, had a written
as well as a spoken language and besides the art of weaving cloth possessed
that of papermaking. Could it be that such grotesque beings represented
the high culture of the human race within the boundaries of Caspak? Had
natural selection produced during the countless ages of Caspakian life
a winged monstrosity that represented the earthly pinnacle of man’s evolution?
“Bradley had noted something of the obvious indications
of a gradual evolution from ape to spear-man as exemplified by the several
overlapping races of Alalus, club-men and hatchet-men that formed the connecting
links between the two extremes with which he had come in contact. He had
heard of the Kro-lus and the Galus – reputed to be still higher in the
plane of evolution – and now he had indisputable evidence of a race possessing
refinements of civilization eons in advance of the spear-men. The conjectures
awakened by even a momentary consideration of the possibilities involved
became at once as wildly bizarre as the insane imaginings of a drug addict.”
We will conclude Chapter 2 in our next installment. Bon Appetit!
(Continued in Part Twenty-One)