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
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 never to.
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,
“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.” (TP/Prolog.)
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 him.
“‘They help the girls to keep their
“figgers” and their school girl complexions,’ he said.
“‘How?’ I asked.
“‘The exercise they get from being
“‘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 to believe:
“‘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 the north.’
“‘I’d like to make a try for one
of those polar openings,’ mused Jason as he replaced the ear phones.’”
“Again there was a long
silence, broken at last by a sharp exclamation from Jason. He pushed an
extra headpiece toward me.
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,’ replied Jason.
“‘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.
“‘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 a radio.
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.” (TEC/Foreword.)
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., U.S. Army.
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
“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.
“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
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 his birth.
“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
“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
“They felt that at last they had
succeeded. Paxton had sent his message and they were eagerly awaiting an
“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.” (FMM/Foreword.)
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