ERB'S EMBRYONIC JOURNEY:
THE TRIMESTERS OF CASPAK
Woodrow Edgar Nichols, Jr.
(Dedicated to George McWhorter)
OUT OF TIME'S ABYSS
(Chapter 3 )
I wrote previously about the obvious influences on ERB as he wrote the
Trilogy, speculating that there were many more of which he may not
have been aware, which R.E Prindle so adequately has been analyzing in
his “Memory Accretion” series in ERBzine. When I began to read Chapter
3 of Out of Time’s Abyss, one character that takes center
place in this
chapter is a character I knew I had read about before: Ben Gunn in
Robert Louis Stevenson's, Treasure Island. Prindle has written
largely about Stevenson’s influence on ERB in Stevenson's masterpiece,
Strange Case of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde. Thus, it is not a stretch
to see the influence of Ben Gunn in this chapter.
You will recall that Ben Gunn was part of Captain Flint’s original crew
and had returned to the island with Long John Silver and the remainder
of Flint’s crew to find his buried treasure, which Gunn has assured them
he could find. The crew grew frustrated with Gunn when he couldn’t find
the treasure and gave up the hunt, leaving Gunn marooned on the island
for three years before Jim Hawkins and his team returned. In the meantime,
he had grown mentally feeble and religious, but he had a secret: he knew
where the treasure was.
Bradley is about to meet his Ben Gunn as he awakens inside the Blue
Place of Seven Skulls in the very strange Wieroo village in the land of
“Half-stunned Bradley lay for a minute
as he had fallen and then slowly and painfully wriggled into a less uncomfortable
position. He could see nothing of his surroundings in the gloom about him
until after a few minutes his eyes became accustomed to the dark interior
when he rolled them from side to side in survey of his prison.
How is that for creepy? If ERB were writing today, I am sure he would have
tried his hand at what is all the modern rage: a good, rousing Vampire
story. As it was, that was a genre the King of Pulp Fiction never touched.
“He discovered himself to be in a bare room which
was windowless, nor could he see any other opening than that through which
he had been lowered. In one corner was a huddled mass that might have been
almost anything from a bundle of rags to a dead body.
“Almost immediately he had taken his bearings
Bradley commenced working with his bonds. He was a man of powerful physique,
and as from the first he had been imbued with a belief that the fiber ropes
were too weak to hold him, he worked on with a firm conviction that sooner
or later they would part to his strainings. After a matter of five minutes
he was positive that the strands about his wrists were beginning to give;
but he was compelled to rest then from exhaustion.
“As he lay, his eyes rested upon the bundle in
the corner, and presently he could have sworn that the thing moved. With
eyes straining through the gloom the man lay watching the grim and sinister
thing in the corner. Perhaps his overwrought nerves were playing a sorry
joke upon him. He thought of this and also that his condition of utter
helplessness might still further have stimulated his imagination. He closed
his eyes and sought to relax his muscles and his nerves; but when he looked
again, he knew that he had not been mistaken – the thing had moved; now
it lay in a slightly altered form and farther from the wall. It was nearer
“With renewed strength Bradley strained at his
bonds, his fascinated gaze still glued upon the shapeless bundle. No longer
was there any doubt that it moved – he saw it rise in the center several
inches and then creep closer to him. It sank and arose again – a headless,
hideous, monstrous thing of menace. Its very silence rendered it the more
“Bradley was a brave man; ordinarily his nerves
were of steel; but to be at the mercy of some unknown and nameless horror,
to be unable to defend himself – it was these things that almost unstrung
him, for at best he was only human. To stand in the open, even with the
odds all against him; to be able to use his fists, to put up some sort
of defense, to inflict punishment upon his adversary – then he could face
death with a smile. It was not death that he feared now – it was that horror
of the unknown that is part of the fiber of every son of woman.
“Closer and closer came the shapeless mass. Bradley
lay motionless and listened. What was that he heard! Breathing? He could
not be mistaken – and then from out of the bundle of rags issued a hollow
groan. Bradley felt his hair rise upon his head. He struggled with the
slowly parting strands that held him. The thing beside him rose up
higher than before and the Englishman could have sworn that he saw a single
eye peerring at him from among the tumbled cloth. For a moment the bundle
remained motionless – only the sound of breathing issued from it, then
there broke from it a maniacal laugh.
“Cold sweat stood upon Bradley’s brow as he tugged
for his liberation. He saw the rags rise higher and higher above him until
at last they tumbled upon the floor from the body of a naked man – a thin,
a bony, a hideous caricature of man, that mouthed and mummed and, wabbling
upon its weak and shaking legs, crumpled to the floor again, still laughing
– laughing horribly.
“It crawled toward Bradley. ‘Food! Food!’ it
screamed. ‘There is a way out! There is a way out!’
“Dragging itself to his side the creature slumped
upon the Englishman’s breast. ‘Food!’ it shrilled as with its bony fingers
and its teeth, it sought for the man’s bare throat.
“‘Food! There is a way out!’ Bradley felt teeth
upon his jugular. He turned and twisted, shaking himself free for an instant;
but once more with hideous persistence the thing fastened itself upon him.
The weak jaws were unable to send the dull teeth through the victim’s flesh;
but Bradley felt it gnawing, gnawing, gnawing, like a monstrous rat, seeking
his life’s blood.
“The skinny arms now embraced his neck, holding
the teeth to his throat against all his efforts to dislodge the thing.
Weak as it was it had strength enough for this in its mad effort to eat.
Mumbling as it worked, it repeated again and again, ‘Food! Food! There
is a way out!’ until Bradley thought these two expressions alone would
drive him mad.
“And all but mad he was as with a final effort
backed by almost manical strength he tore his wrists from the confining
bonds and grasping the repulsive thing upon his breast hurled it halfway
across the room. Panting like a spent hound Bradley worked at the thongs
about his ankles while the maniac lay quivering and mumbling where it had
fallen. Presently the Englishman leaped to his feet – freer than he had
ever before felt in all his life, though he was still hopelessly a prisoner
in the Blue Place of Seven Skulls.” (OTA/3.)
“With his back against the wall for support,
so weak the reaction left him, Bradley stood watching the creature upon
the floor. He saw it move and slowly raise itself to its hands and knees,
where it swayed to and fro as its eyes roved about in search of him; and
when at last they found him, there broke from the drawn lips the mumbled
words: ‘Food! Food! There is a way out!’ The pitiful supplication in the
tones touched the Englishman’s heart. He knew that this could be no Wieroo,
but possibly once a man like himself who had been cast into this pit of
solitary confinement with this hideous result that might in time be his
Some of you may already have guessed, but ERB is finally getting to the
big secret of Caspakian evolution, learning the truth from his Ben Gunn,
An-Tak, the cos-ata-lu Galu.
“And then, too, there was the suggestion of hope
held out by the constant reiteration of the phrase, ‘There is a way out.’
Was there a way out? What did this poor thing know?
“‘Who are you and how long have you been here?’
Bradley suddenly demanded.
“For a moment the man upon the floor made no
response, then mumblingly came the words: ‘Food! Food!’
“‘Stop!’ commanded the Englishman – the injunction
might have been barked from the muzzle of a pistol. It brought the man
to a sitting posture, his hands on the ground. He stopped swaying to and
fro and appeared to be startled into an attempt to master his faculties
of concentration and thought.
“Bradley repeated his questions sharply.
“‘I am An-Tak, the Galu,’ replied the man. ‘Luata
alone knows how long I have been here – maybe ten moons, maybe ten moons
three times” – it was the Caspakian equivalent of thirty. ‘I was young
and strong when they brought me here. Now I am old and very weak. I am
cos-ata-lu – that is why they have not killed me. If I tell them the secret
of becoming cos-ata-lu they will take me out; but how can I tell them that
which Luata alone knows?’
“‘What is cos-ata-lu?’ demanded Bradley.
“‘Food! Food! There is a way out!’ mumbled the
“Bradley strode across the floor, seized the
man by his shoulders and shook him.
“‘Tell me,’ he cried, ‘what is cos-ata-lu?’
“‘Food!’ whimpered An-Tak.
“Bradley bethought himself. His haversack had
not been taken from him. In it besides his razor and knife were odds and
ends of equipment and a small quantity of dried meat. He tossed a small
strip of the latter to the starving Galu. An-Tak seized upon it and devoured
it ravenously. It instilled new life in the man. “‘What is cos-ata-lu?’
insisted Bradley again.
“An-Tak tried to explain. His narrative was often
broken by lapses of concentration during which he reverted to his plaintiff
mumbling for food and recurrence to the statement that there was a way
out; but by firmness and patience the Englishman drew out piece-meal a
more or less lucid exposition of the remarkable scheme of evolution that
rules in Caspak. In it he found explanations of the hitherto inexplicable.
He discovered why he had seen no babes of children among the Caspakians
tribes with which he had come into contact; why each more northerly tribe
evinced a higher state of development than those south of them; why each
tribe included individuals ranging in physical and mental characteristics
from the highest of the next lower race to the lowest of the next higher,
and why the women of each tribe immersed themselves mornings for an hour
or more in warm pools near which the habitations of their people always
were located; and, too, he discovered why those pools were almost immune
from the attacks of
carnivorous animals and reptiles.” (OTA/3.)
“He learned that all but those who were
cos-ata-lu came up cor-sva-jo, or from the beginning. The egg from which
they first developed into tadpole form was deposited, with millions of
others, in one of the warm pools and with it a poisonous serum that the
carnivora instinctively shunned. Down the warm stream from the pool floated
the countless billions of eggs and tadpoles, developing as they drifted
slowly toward the sea. Some became tadpoles in the pool, some in the sluggish
stream and some not until they reached the great inland sea. In the next
stage they became fishes or reptiles. An-Tak was not positive which, and
in this form, always developing, they swam far to the south, where, amid
the rank and teeming jungles, some of them evolved into amphibians. Always
there were those whose development stopped at the fish stage, others whose
development ceased when they became reptiles, while by far the greater
proportion formed the food supply of the ravenous creatures of the deep.
Did you get all that? There will be a pop quiz in the morning. Just kidding.
If you think about it a few times, it gradually sinks in. Just think about
the odds against yourself being conceived in the first place. Your personal
spermatozoon had to compete with billions of others
“Few indeed were those that eventually developed
into baboons and then apes, which was considered by Caspakians the real
beginning of evolution. From the egg, then, the individual developed slowly
into a higher form, just as the frog’s egg develops through various stages
from a fish with gills to a frog with lungs. With that thought in mind
Bradley discovered that it was not difficult to believe in the possibility
of such a scheme – there was nothing new in it.
“From the ape the individual, if it survived,
slowly developed into the lowest order of man – the Alu – and then by degrees
to Bo-lu, Sto-lu, Band-lu, Kro-lu, and finally to Galu. And in each stage
countless millions of other eggs were deposited in the warm pools of the
various races and floated down to the great sea to go through a similar
process of evolution outside the womb as develops our own young within;
but in Caspak the scheme is much more inclusive, for it combines not only
individual development but the evolution of species and genera. If an egg
survives it goes through all the stages of development that man has passed
through during the unthinkable eons since life first moved upon the earth’s
“The final stage – that which the Galus have
almost attained and for which all hope – is cos-ata-lu, which, literally,
means no-egg man, or one who is born directly as are the young of the outer
world of mammals. Some of the Galus produce cos-ata-lu and cos-ata-lo both;
the Wieroos only cos-ata-lu – in other words all Wieroos are born male,
and as they prey upon the Galus for their women and sometimes capture and
torture the Galu men who are cos-ata-lu in an endeavor to learn the secret
which they believe will give them unlimited power over all other denizens
“No Wieroos come up from the beginning – all
are born of Wieroo fathers and Galu mothers who are cos-ata-lo, and there
are very few of the latter owing to the long and precarious stages of development.
Seven generations of the same ancestor must come up from the beginning
before a cos-ata-lu child may be born; and when one considers the frightful
dangers that surround the vital spark from the moment it leaves the warm
pool where it has been deposited to float down to the sea amid the voracious
creatures that swarm the surface and the deeps and the almost equally unthinkable
trials of its efforts to survive after it once becomes a land animal and
starts northward through the horrors of the Caspakian jungles and forests,
it is plainly a wonder that even a single babe has ever been born to a
“Seven cycles it requires before the seventh
Galu can complete the seventh danger-infested circle since its first Galu
ancestors of this first Galu may have developed from a Band-lu or Bo-lu
egg without ever once completing the whole circle – that is from a Galu
egg, back to a fully developed Galu.
“Bradley’s head was whirling before he even commenced
to grasp the complexities of Caspakian evolution; but as the truth slowly
filtered into his understanding – as gradually it became possible for him
to visualize the scheme, it appeared simpler. In fact, it seemed even less
difficult of comprehension than that which he was familiar.” (OTA/3.)
to get to the egg in order to fertilize it, with the toxic juices of
the vagina trying to kill you every inch of the way to the goal. Winning
a national lottery is chump change against the odds of yourself ever being
born. Life is indeed a privilege and should be enjoyed to the max every
day you can wake up and get out of bed.
“For several minutes after An-Tak ceased
speaking, his voice having trailed off weakly into silence, neither spoke
again. Then the Galu commenced his, ‘Food! Food! There is a way out!’ Bradley
tossed him another piece of dried meat, waiting patiently until he had
eaten it, this time more slowly.
We will leave Bradley groping through the darkness with unseen danger all
“‘What do you mean by saying there is a way out?’
“‘He who died here just after I came, told me,’
replied An-Tak. ‘He said there was a way out, and that he had discovered
it but was too weak to use his knowledge. He was trying to tell me how
to find it when he died. Oh, Luata, if he had lived but a moment more!’
“‘They do not feed you here?’ asked Bradley.
“‘No, they give me water once a day – that is
“‘But how have you lived, then?’
“‘The lizards and the rats,’ replied An-Tak.
‘The lizards are not so bad; but the rats are foul to taste. However, I
must eat them or they would eat me, and they are better than nothing; but
of late they do not come so often, and I have not had a lizard for a long
time. I shall eat though,’ he mumbled. ‘I shall eat now, for you cannot
remain awake forever.’ He laughed, a cackling, dry laugh. ‘When you sleep,
An-Tak will eat.’
“It was horrible. Bradley shuddered. For a long
time each sat in silence. The Englishman could guess why the other made
no sound – he awaited the moment that sleep should overcome his victim.
In the long silence there was born upon Bradley’s ears a faint, monotonous
sound as of running water. He listened intently. It seemed to come from
far beneath the floor.
“‘What is that noise?’ he asked. ‘That sounds
like water running through a narrow channel.’
“‘It is the river,’ replied An-Tak. ‘Why do you
not go to sleep? It passes directly beneath the Place of Seven Skulls.
It runs through the temple grounds, beneath the temple and under the city.
When we die, they will cut off our heads and throw our bodies into the
river. At the mouth of the river await many large reptiles. Thus do they
feed. The Wieroos do likewise with their own dead, keeping only the skulls
and wings. Come, let us sleep.’
“‘Do the reptiles come up the river into the
city?’ asked Bradley.
“‘The water is too cold – they never leave the
warm water of the great pool,’ replied An-Tak.
“‘Let us search for the way out,’ suggested Bradley.
“An-Tak shook his head. ‘I have searched for
it all these moons,’ he said. ‘If I could not find it, how would you?’
“Bradley made no reply but commenced a diligent
examination of the walls and floor of the room, pressing over each square
foot and tapping with his knuckles. About six feet from the floor he discovered
a sleeping-perch near one end of the apartment. He asked An-Tak about it,
but the Galu said that no Wieroo had occupied the place since he had been
incarcerated here. Again and again Bradley went over the floor and walls
as high up as he could reach. Finally he swung himself to the perch, that
he might examine at least one end of the room all the way to the ceiling.
“In the center of the wall close to the top,
an area about three feet square gave forth a hollow sound when he rapped
upon it. Bradley felt over every square inch of that area with the tips
of his fingers. Near the top he found a small round hole a trifle larger
in diameter that his forefinger, which he immediately stuck into it. The
panel, if such it was, seemed about an inch thick, and beyond it his finger
encountered nothing. Bradley crooked his finger upon the opposite side
of the panel and pulled toward him, steadily but with considerable force.
Suddenly the panel flew inward, nearly precipating the man to the floor.
It was hinged on the bottom, and when lowered the outer edge rested upon
the perch, making a little platform parallel with the floor of the room.
“Beyond the opening was an utterly dark void.
The Englishman leaned through it and reached his arm as far as possible
into the blackness but touched nothing. Then he fumbled in his haversack
for a match, a few of which remained to him. When he struck it, An-Tak
gave a cry of terror. Bradley held the light far into the opening before
him and in its flickering rays saw the top of a ladder descending into
a black abyss below. How far down it extended he could not guess; but that
he should soon know definitely he was positive.
“‘You have found it! You have found the way out!’
screamed An-Tak. ‘Oh, Luata! And now I am too weak to go. Take me with
you! Take me with you!’
“‘Shut up!’ admonished Bradley. ‘You will have
the whole flock of birds around our heads in a minute, and neither of us
will escape. Be quiet, and I’ll go ahead. If I find a way out, I’ll come
back and help you, if you’ll promise not to try to eat me up again.’
“‘I promise,’ cried An-Tak. ‘Oh, Luata! How could
you blame me? I am half crazed of hunger and long confinement and the horror
of the lizards and the rats and the constant waiting for death.’
“‘I know,’ said Bradley simply. ‘I’m sorry for
you, old top. Keep a stiff upper lip.’ And he slipped through the opening,
found the ladder with his feet, closed the panel behind him, and started
downward into the darkness.
“Below him rose more and more distinctly the
sound of running water. The air felt damp and cool. He could see nothing
of his surroundings and felt nothing but the smooth, worn sides and rungs
of the ladder down which he felt his way cautiously lest a broken rung
or misstep should hurl him downward.
“As he descended thus slowly, the ladder seemed
interminable and the pit bottomless, yet he realized when at last he reached
the bottom that he could not have descended more than fifty feet. The bottom
of the ladder rested on a narrow ledge paved with what felt like large
round stones, but what he knew from experience to be human skulls. He could
not but marvel as to where so many countless thousand of the things had
come from, until he paused to consider that the infancy of Caspak dated
doubtlessly back into remote ages, far beyond what the outer world considered
the beginning of earthly time. For all these eons the Wieroos might have
been collecting human skulls from their enemies and their own dead – enough
to have built an entire city of them.
“Feeling his way along the narrow ledge, Bradley
came presently to a blank wall that stretched out over the water swirling
beneath him, as far as he could reach. Stooping, he groped about with one
hand, reaching down toward the surface of the water, and discovered that
the bottom of the wall arched above the stream. How much space there was
between the water and the arch he could not tell, nor how deep the former.
There was only one way in which he might learn these things, and that was
to lower himself into the stream. For only an instant he hesitated, weighing
his chances. Behind him lay almost certain the horrid fate of An-Tak; before
him nothing worse than a comparatively painless death by drowning. Holding
the haversack above his head with one hand he lowered his feet slowly over
the edge of the narrow platform. Almost immediately he felt the swirling
of cold water about his ankles, and then with a silent prayer he let himself
drop gently into the stream.
“Great was Bradley’s relief when he found the
water no more than waist deep and beneath his feet a firm, gravel bottom.
Feeling his way cautiously he moved downward with the current, which was
not so strong as he had imagined from the noise of the running water.
“Beneath the first arch he made his way, following
the winding curvatures of the right-hand wall. After a few yards of progress
his hand came suddenly in contact with a slimy thing clinging to the wall
– a thing that hissed and scuttled out of reach. What it was, the man could
not know; but almost instantly there was a splash in the water just ahead
of him and then another.
“On he went, passing beneath other arches at
varying distances, and always in utter darkness. Unseen denizens of this
great sewer, disturbed by the intruder, splashed into the water ahead of
him and wriggled away. Time and again his hand touched them and never for
an instant could he be sure that at the next step some gruesome thing might
not attack him. He had strapped his haversack about his neck, well above
the surface of the water, and in his left hand he carried his knife. Other
precautions there were none to take.” (OTA/3.)
What will be his fate? Until the next installment, then.
(Continued in Part Twenty-Three)