The Paranormal of Pellucidar?
By John Martin
Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote of some terrifying and
loathsome creatures, but usually there was a naturalistic explanation—however
farfetched—for the existence of the many and varied beings which lived
inside and outside the worlds his characters explored.
However, in the adventures of Frederich Wilhelm
Eric Von Mendeldorf und Von Horst in "Back to the Stone Age," ERB makes
a rare excursion into the supernatural.
Over the space of four chapters, Von Horst encounters
the Gorbuses, a fleshly yet mystical people which dwell in the "somber
and gloomy" atmosphere of Pellucidar's Forest of Death.
One Gorbus is described thusly:
"His skin was a dead white, without life or beauty;
and his hair was white. Two great canine tusks curved downward to his chin,
the pink irises of his eyes surrounded blood-red pupils to make an already
repellant countenance still further hideous."
Descriptions of other Gorbuses credit them with
having "bestial, brutal faces," "yellowed teeth" and "flabby lips."
For food, these creatures indulge one of mankind's
most abhorred practices: cannibalism. But they out-gross the average man-eater,
letting their food "age" after it is killed, before partaking.
Everything about them speaks of death. When a Gorbus
speaks aloud, his tones are called "suggestive of the grave because of
their loudness." When a Gorbus laughs quietly, his mirth is called "as
silent as the tomb."
All of these characteristics, unsettling though
they are, might be explained as natural deviations. But the supernatural
element surfaces in the fact that these people did not simply "evolve"
in Pellucidar, but were "sent away" from their former, happy world, "because
of what we did."
What did they do? Murder. One Gorbus admits to
killing seven women; another to four men.
From what world were these people "sent away"?
It appears to be the outer surface of the Earth, since Durg, a Gorbus,
in recounting his crimes, refers to the use of a "cleaver" and a "dagger,"
two English terms he injects into his Pellucidarian sentence. All of them
killed because their victims had something they wanted.
"Whatever it was," said Durg, "we didn't get it;
for we have nothing here.
"I murdered them," (he adds). "Now I am a naked
Gorbus feeding on human bodies. Some of us think that thus we are punished.
"There is no happiness in the Forest of Death,"
(he tells Von Horst and La-Ja). "There are cold and hopelessness and nausea
and fear. Oh yes, there is hate. We hate one another. Perhaps we get some
satisfaction from that, but not a great deal...."
There appears to be no way out for the Gorbuses;
they seem to be in an eternal state of punishment. While they may have
gotten to the Forest of Death in a supernatural way, their continued means
of existence is natural enough. They must kill to eat, in order to live.
They are afraid not to go on "living," because:
"We believe that we would die and go to a worse
place than this. We are afraid of that."
A mental anguish festers on top of everything else.
Although the Gorbuses can clearly remember their crimes, they cannot remember
much of anything else about their former lives.
"We all see those we have murdered; those are the
only memories that we retain permanently," Durg said.
"To some the memories are more distinct than to
others, but they are never wholly clear. We get fleeting glimpses that
are blurred and dim and that fade quickly before we can decipher them or
fix them definitely in our memories.... It drives us almost to madness—never
quite to see, never quite to recall."
In a way, ERB does the same thing to the reader.
In describing the world and condition of the Gorbuses, he presents fleeting
glimpses, tantalizing us with blurred bits and dim snippets of the Gorbuses,
but not giving us enough to put a finger on.
For instance, is ERB presenting this Forest of
Death as a kind of Hell — a place of afterlife punishment? If so, then
it doesn't seem to be very heavily populated. In a cavern, Von Horst and
La-Ja see "a few hundred" Gorbuses. Of course, there may be other caverns.
But it seems as if the upper crust of our Earth has had a lot more murderers
than could fit in this Pellucidarian forest.
Another thought is reincarnation. Was ERB attempting
to play with the notion that one dies, then comes back in another life,
and that this is the life which must be lived by those who murder? Or perhaps
he is thinking of zombies, those brought back from the grave to walk the
earth with a mind focused on not much more than eating the flesh of the
living? Too, there is the question of what prompted ERB to write of such
of these at all? In a world which is otherwise natural, why a group of
beings with such a supernatural quality?
Irwin Porges, in "Edgar Rice Burroughs: The
Man Who Created Tarzan," records that "Back to the Stone Age" was written
by Edgar Rice Burroughs from Jan. 26 to Sept. 11, 1935.
"Eight months is indeed a long time for a novel
of this type," (wrote Porges). "...the story may owe its faulty development*
to the turmoil of Ed's personal life in these months, his guilt and mental
conflict after the divorce, and the pressures and changes that accompanied
From the summer of 1933 to the spring of 1934,
ERB, in his personal life, was "nearing a crisis," said Porges.
"The early days when he and Emma had shared the
hardships, facing poverty and adversity together, had united them in love
and understanding. But the sharing of affluence and success had brought
insoluble problems...The strained home life, hidden from outsiders...."
"Naturally, we are being presented with a one-sided
version of the marriage," (Porges cautioned).
ERB wrote to his son Jack:
"I never wished to make your mother unhappy; I
do not now. Yet I cannot forget that she knew how horribly unhappy she
was making me.... Love makes many sacrifices; and it dies hard, but it
can be killed." (Porges, page 560).
“Love can be killed.” Sad words. The Burroughs
divorce was final December 6, 1934. About two months later, as ERB struggled
through "Back to the Stone Age," he had another occasion to write of love
being killed. He may not have been connecting this passage to any real
events, or to any real people. But this transitional time of his life may
have been an influencing factor when he quoted one of the Gorbuses:
"We have each killed something. Do you see that
old woman sitting over there with her face in her hands? She killed the
happiness of two people. She remembers it quite clearly. A man and a woman.
They loved each other very much. All that they asked was to be left alone
and allowed to be happy. And that man standing just beyond her. He killed
something more beautiful than life. Love. He killed his wife's love....Yes,
each of us has killed something; but I am glad that it was men that I killed
and not happiness or love."
"Perhaps you are right," said Von Horst. "There
are too many men in the world but not half enough happiness or love."
*When Porges referred to the "faulty development"
of Back to the Stone Age (page 577 of his ERB biography) he was not referring
to the flow of the story itself so much as he was referring to the fact
that the story ”starts in the middle of things with no attempt to explain
Pellucidar or his characters’ presence there, or to win sympathy for his
hero.” (Those remarks came from an editor at “Blue Book.” “Back to
the Stone Age” has been a panned ERB book, however. “The New York
Times” book review of the time called the story "Flapdoodle... utterly
preposterous, utterly meaningless and humorless... sheer bumblepuppy...
longwinded and repetitious."
On the plus side, Bob O'Malley, who reprinted that
review in ERBapa 27, Autumn 1990, pointed out that 40 other books, most
of them fiction, were also reviewed in that same issue of the “Times” and,
of that number, only three—Steinbeck's “The Red Pony,” Joyce's “Collected
Poems,” and Burroughs' “Back to the Stone Age” -- are still in print
and easily accessible to anyone today.
Some people at the time may have laughed at Edgar
Rice Burroughs' efforts, but ERB and his heirs have the last laugh.