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Volume 7197

The Nightmarish Side of 
Edgar Rice Burroughs
by Alan Hanson

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The Nightmarish Side of 
Edgar Rice Burroughs
by Alan Hanson

In 1889, while working with his brothers dredging for gold on the Snake River, a 24-year-old Edgar Rice Burroughs got in the way of a constable’s billy club during a brawl in an Idaho saloon. Thirty years later, in a letter to the Boston Society of Psychic Research, he described the resulting injury. “I received a heavy blow on the head which, while it opened up the scalp, did not fracture the skull, nor did it render me unconscious.” While this injury caused no physical disability, it may have triggered a psychological affliction from which ERB suffered for the rest of his life. In the aforementioned letter, Burroughs went on to explain, “For six weeks or two months thereafter I was the victim of hallucinations, always after I had retired at night when I would see figures standing beside my bed, usually shrouded. I invariably sat up and reached for them, but my hands went through them. I knew they were hallucinations caused by my injury.”

While Burroughs experienced the “shrouded” figures dream for no more than two months after the Idaho saloon incident, he was to suffer from intense and terrifying nightmares periodically for the next 50 years. His later phenomenal success indicates that ERB learned to live with his nocturnal tortures. Ironically, his nightmares may have had a positive influence in his life. It has been suggested by some, even Burroughs himself, that his persistent nightmares provided a dark reservoir from which he conjured up some of his frightful characters and fantastic storylines. Did Edgar Rice Burroughs use his nightmares as a source for his fiction? And, if so, to what extent? Those are the questions to be considered here. The first step to answering them is to understand as clearly as possible the nature of ERB’s nightmares.

Fearful Creatures Menaced ERB in His Sleep

To begin with, even on the calmest of his nights, Burroughs was a fitful sleeper, as he explained in an interview for old friend Bob Davis’ column in “The New York Sun” of July 20, 1940. “Am I a good sleeper? One of the best. I start on the right side, turn over on the left side, back again to the right side, every fifteen minutes, until I have had enough of both. I then rise refreshed. Sleeping on my back gives me a nightmare.

With what regularity nightmares came to him is not known, but biographer John Taliaferro claims they were so frequent over the years that ERB’s children and both wives gave up counting them. Even while living in Hawaii after his second divorce, the nightmares continued. Biographer Irwin Porges reported that Brigadier General Thomas Green and two of ERB’s civilian friends, Sterling and Floye Adams, all residents of the Niumalu Hotel in Honolulu where Burroughs lived, recalled ERB’s frequent nightmares and how they disturbed other hotel guests staying in nearby rooms.

Common to the content of Burroughs’ countless nightmares was a recurring framework. Porges described the pattern as follows. “They occurred regularly and involved the kind of situation, familiar to many dreamers, where some fearful creature or undefined peril was approaching the room, and the individual, aware of his danger, tried desperately to move but found himself paralyzed.

Notice that this pattern fundamentally differs from the “shrouded figures” dream that Burroughs experienced for a couple months after the blow to his head in 1899. In those dreams, which ERB referred to as “hallucinations,” rather than nightmares, Burroughs was able to move in his dreams, reaching out for the shrouded figures but unable to grab them. The paralysis in the face of impending danger, which characterized his later dreams, was much more intense and resulted in Burroughs reacting physically to the obvious terror he experienced in his sleep.

As testimony to the realism of his nightmares, ERB twisted and turned and cried out in his sleep, waking his family and anyone else within hearing distance of his outbursts. Porges explained that at times ERB’s wife Emma would have to soothe her agitated husband until he became calm. His second wife Florence found it hard to sleep in the same room with ERB, so startling and frightening were his cries in the throes of a nightmare. Of the Hawaii years, General Green reported, “Those who resided close to Ed’s shack recall numerous occasions when Ed would have wild nightmares and emit sounds not unlike his ‘Tarzan of the Apes.’

Nightmares or Daydreams?

It is unclear if Burroughs could actually see the creatures that menaced him during those nightmares or whether he was terrified by the approach of some unseen danger. It was inevitable, however, considering the nature of frightful creatures that turned up in his fiction, that someone would bring up a possible connection between Burroughs’ nightmares and his fiction. That connection was first suggested by Alva Johnston in his 1939 article, “How to Become a Great Writer,” which appeared in “The Saturday Evening Post.” That article includes the following passage, which Johnston obviously culled from an interview with ERB.

He was too poverty-stricken to pay for any of the tired businessman’s relaxations, but he hit upon a free method of making himself feel better. When he went to bed, he would lie awake, telling himself stories. His dislike of civilization caused him frequently to pick localities in distant parts of the solar system. Every night he had his one crowded hour of glorious life. Creating noble characters and diabolical monsters, he made them fight in cockpits in the center of the earth or in distant astronomical regions. The duller the day at the office the weirder his nightly adventures. His waking nightmares became long-drawn-out action serials.

Notice that Johnson did not suggest that Burroughs’ story ideas and characters were born in actual nightmares, but rather in “waking nightmares,” essentially ERB’s evening daydreams. Still, Johnson’s use of the term “nightmare” may have been enough to set the idea in many a reader’s mind that Burroughs conjured up his stories and characters from his real nightmares.

In his Burroughs biography, Porges went out of his way to debunk this notion.

Statements or suppositions that these nightmares contained fantasy scenes of other worlds or dangerous encounters with creatures of the type created by Ed in his stories, and that he would draw upon these nocturnal adventures for his plots are unfounded. His nightmares should not be confused with his daydreams during which he might devise characters and situations in his stories.

Apparently, however, on at least one occasion, Burroughs’ himself encouraged the notion that he drew story material from his nightmares, although one person who heard ERB say as much obviously questioned the author’s sincerity. In the Porges biography, General Green recalled conversations with Burroughs in Hawaii.

Ed would tell us that he actually dreamed up some of the characters and plots for his stories and would arise in then night and jot down notes while the thoughts were fresh in his mind. We always wondered if he was being factual. However, he was writing about one novel a year at the time, and having read one of his works of that period which he autographed, I can believe that the characters were born out of one of his nightmares.

Tarzan’s Nightmare

Knowing what there is to know about the nightmares of Edgar Rice Burroughs, then, it is time to turn to his fiction to see if there is evidence that his nightmares were source material for his stories. ERB wrote only one story that had a plot based on a nightmare. In 1917 Burroughs was 41 years old and temporarily living in Los Angeles when he wrote a short story entitled, “The Nightmare,” which was destined to be the ninth of twelve chapters in Jungle Tales of Tarzan. By 1917 Burroughs had experienced periodic nightmares for nearly two decades, and so it is possible he used elements of his own bad dreams to construct Tarzan’s first nightmare.

In the story Tarzan’s nightmare resulted from eating spoiled elephant meat that the ape-man stole from a cooking pot in Mbonga’s native village. After falling asleep in the bole of a tree, Tarzan experienced a series of hallucinations, which, taken together, made up not only his first nightmare, but also his first dream, according to Burroughs. The first hallucination involved a lion climbing the tree to attack Tarzan. The paralysis in the face of danger that Burroughs experienced in his nightmares was mirrored in Tarzan’s sluggish movement.

As the lion climbed slowly toward him, Tarzan sought higher branches; but to his chagrin, he discovered that it was with the most utmost difficulty that he could climb at all.

Clawing desperately” to escape, Tarzan finally reached the tallest branch, some 200 feet above the jungle floor. When “devil-faced Numa” kept coming, however, the ape-man realized that death was near. He was saved from the tree-climbing lion, when a huge bird buried its talons in the dreamer’s back and carried him aloft. After stabbing the bird three times with his knife, Tarzan was dropped and fell perhaps a thousand feet to land in the same tree where he had fallen asleep. Tarzan awoke briefly, but when he fell asleep again, the hallucinations continued. First, a snake with the head and stomach of a native he had killed in Mbonga’s village came at Tarzan, but disappeared when the ape-man “struck furiously at the hideous face.” This was followed the rest of the night by other hallucinations that Burroughs did not detail. 

On the surface, Tarzan’s dream does not seem to fit the pattern of ERB’s own nightmares. Tarzan did face a menacing danger, as ERB did in his dreams, but while the ape-man moved sluggishly in his first hallucination with the lion, he later was able to vigorously defend himself in the encounters with the giant bird and the snake. Burroughs, as noted earlier, was unable to move at all when menaced in his own nightmares. Also, ERB gave Tarzan a series of hallucinations, while the author seemingly suffered but one terrifying encounter in his tortured sleep. Additionally, Tarzan’s nightmare was caused by something he ate, while Burroughs’ nightmares were chronic and the result of unknown causes.

There are a couple of elements, though, that Burroughs might have borrowed from his dreams and inserted in Tarzan’s. First, the ape-man’s dream seemed so real to him that he had trouble differentiating his sleep adventures from reality, this despite the fact that he realized while dreaming that lions could not climb trees and that no giant birds existed in his jungle. Perhaps ERB was recalling the terrifying reality of his own dreams and gave the same feeling to Tarzan. Second, Tarzan realized that he was not the same person in his dreams as he was during his waking hours. In thinking back to his nightmare, Tarzan saw his dream counterpart was a lesser man, “sluggish, helpless and timid — wishing to flee his enemies.” The pattern of ERB’s nightmares makes it clear that he felt similar inadequacies in his dreams.

Barsoomian, Amtorian, and Pellucidarian Nightmares

While Burroughs may have included a few aspects of his own nightmares in “The Nightmare,” it appears quite unlikely that he based the story and its menacing creatures on anything specific he saw in his own dreams. Before moving on to look at other Burroughs fictional nightmares, it is worth noting at this point that ERB obviously did not think it was a sign of weakness for a man to have nightmares. In addition to Tarzan, other Burroughs heroes, including David Innes, Carson Napier, and Jason Gridley, experienced nightmares. The dreams of David Innes, for instance, never let him forget being carried through the treetops by ape-things soon after arriving in Pellucidar. “Never have I experienced such a journey before or since,” David recalled in At the Earth’s Core. "Even now I oftentimes awake from a deep sleep haunted by the horrid remembrance of that awful experience."

Porges characterized the danger that menaced Burroughs in his nightmares as “some fearful creature or unidentified peril.” When ERB’s fictional characters experienced nightmares, however, they often could identify who or what was threatening them. For example, in The Mucker, Barbara Hardings’ fear of Billy Byrne extended into her dreams. Burroughs wrote, “So vivid an impression had his brutality made on her that she would start from deep slumber, dreaming that she was menaced by him.” Again, early on in The Cave Girl, Waldo Emerson Smith-Jones had never seen the cavemen Flatfoot and Korth, but Nadara’s description of them was enough to give him nightmares about them. “Horrible visions of Flatfoot and Korth haunted his dreams,” ERB explained. “He saw the great, hairy beasts rushing upon him in all the ferocity of their primeval savagery — tearing him limb from limb in their bestial rage. With a shriek he awoke.

The Burroughs character who experienced a nightmare closest to the type ERB experienced, was Pan-at-lee, a Waz-don maiden of Pal-ul-don in Tarzan the Terrible. Her nightmare contained a menacing “fearful creature” and paralysis in the face of danger, both of which Burroughs experienced.

Pan-at-lee slept — the troubled sleep, of physical and nervous exhaustion, filled with weird dreamings. She dreamed she had slept beneath a great tree in the bottom of the Kor-ul-gryf and that one of the fearsome beasts was creeping upon her but she could not open her eyes nor move. She tried to scream but no sound issued from her lips. She felt the thing touch her throat, her breast, her arm, and then it closed and seemed to be dragging her toward it. With a super-human effort of will she opened her eyes. In the instant she knew that she was dreaming and that quickly the hallucination of the dream would fade — it had happened to her many times before. But it persisted. In the dim light that filtered into the dark chamber she saw a form beside her, she felt hairy fingers upon her and a hairy breast against which she was being drawn. Jad-ben-Oth! this was no dream.

Burroughs used this particular kind of nightmare, in which dream merges with reality as the dreamer awakes, a number of times in his fiction. In Pan-at-lee’s case, the horror of the nightmare was extended into reality, the fearsome creature of her dream continuing to menace her after she awoke. A variation of this dread-reality merger that ERB sometimes used could be called a “reverse nightmare.” In such cases, the victim has a pleasant dream, only to awaken into a nightmarish reality. Take, for example, Virginia Maxon’s experience in The Monster Men.

It was daylight when she awoke, dreaming that the tall young giant had rescued her from a band of demons and was lifting in her arms to carry her back to her father. Through half open lids she saw the sunlight filtering through the leafy canopy above her — she wondered at the realism of her dream; full consciousness returned and with it the conviction that she was in truth being held close by strong arms against a bosom that throbbed to the beating of a real heart. With a sudden start she opened her eyes wide to look up into the hideous face of a giant ourang-outang.”

It is doubtful that when ERB wrote one of these dream-reality merger scenes he was recreating his own experience. Certainly none of the fearsome creatures that menaced him in his nightmares were there to greet him when he awoke, and ERB several times wrote of the great relief he felt when awakening to realize his nightmare had no connection with reality.

When ERB was having a nightmare, what troubled those around him, of course, was his thrashing about and crying out in his sleep. Few of ERB’s fictional characters who had nightmares were thus animated during the experience, but one who mimicked Burroughs’ behavior was Jason Gridley in Tarzan at the Earth’s Core.

Jason gradually drifted off into deep slumber, which was troubled by hideous dreams in which he saw Jana in the clutches of a Horib. The creature was attempting to devour the Red Flower of Zoram, while Jason struggled with the bonds that secured him. He was awakened by a sharp pain in his shoulder and in opening his eyes he saw one of the monosaurians, as he had mentally dubbed them, standing over him, prodding him with the point of his sharp lance. ‘Make less noise,’ said the creature, and Jason realized he must have been raving in his sleep.

Burroughs’ tossing and turning and ranting and raving during his nightmares attests to the genuine horror he felt during those nocturnal episodes. It could be that when he wrote the following passage in I Am a Barbarian, he was remembering the real suffering he was experienced in his own bad dreams. In the story, the slave hero Britannicus feared Roman justice for having killed a Roman citizen. “I spent sleepless nights,” explained Britannicus, “and when I did sleep my dreams were horrid dreams. From thinking of the tortured creatures along the Via Flaminia, I dreamed of them. Only it was I upon a cross in my dreams. Had it been the reality, I could not have suffered more. I awoke bathed in cold sweat.” If ERB ever awoke in a “cold sweat,” it’s possible that the relief he felt at realizing the nightmare was over could not completely assuage the suffering he had endured during the dream.

In Escape on Venus, written in 1940 in Hawaii during a period when ERB was particularly savaged by nightmares, Burroughs had his hero Carson Napier experience a nightmare. “I saw the anotar crash,” Napier recalled, “and I saw Duare’s broken body lying dead beside it. I don’t believe in dreams, but why did I have to dream such a thing as that?” It would be interesting to know if ERB wondered, as did Carson, about the psychological significance of nightmares. Porges did not touch upon the issue, but Taliaferro did. In his Burroughs biography he mentions a letter which ERB wrote to his son Jack in late 1931. In the letter, ERB described a recent dream. “Last night I dreamed that Mama and I were in a bedroom that was unfamiliar to me.” Taliaferro then paraphrased, “The rest of the reverie concerned an intruder, Burroughs’s paralysis in the presence of danger, a mysterious key, and a vague but pressing sense of entanglement.” Taliaferro speculated that ERB saw some connection between this dream and the marital problems he and Emma were having at the time. They separated two years later.

“Nighmarish Creatures” — Tharks, Number One, Coripies, Wieroos

Porges mentioned that “fearful creatures” menaced Burroughs in some of his nightmares, and we have General Thomas Green’s testimony that ERB claimed some of his fictional monsters were based on what he had seen in his dreams. If true, (and Burroughs may have been pulling General Green’s leg about it), it would be interesting to know just which of his fictional creatures were born in his nightmares. Burroughs did not directly associate the Green Martians, the very first non-human race he created in his fiction, with a nightmare. When John Carter first saw the approaching Tharks in A Princess of Mars, he referred to them as a “materialized nightmare.” One can understand Carter’s initial judgment, considering charging down upon him was a fifteen-foot high, four hundred pound, six-limbed, sword wielding creature, a “huge and terrific incarnation of hate, of vengeance and of death.”

However, by the end of A Princess of Mars, Burroughs had transformed this band of Tharks into John Carter’s trusted allies. The capacity for loyalty, courage, and friendship that ERB embodied in the Tharks took away their initial frightful and caused the reader to like, and perhaps even feel affection, for them. If something that looked like a Thark was one of the “fearful creatures” ERB saw in his nightmares, he was certainly forgiving when he made them such admirable creatures in his fiction.

There are a number of other creatures in ERB’s stories, however, that could have been born, if not directly in his nightmares, than certainly in the nightmarish side of ERB’s imagination. As examples, consider the three following ghoulish creatures conceived by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

The first is Number One, one of Professor Maxon’s soulless creatures in The Monster Men. Virginia Maxon might very well have thought she was having a nightmare when she saw Number One approaching her. 

The thing thrust so unexpectedly before her eyes was hideous in the extreme. A great mountain of deformed flesh clothed in dirty, white cotton pajamas! Its face was of the ashen hue of a fresh corpse, while the white hair and pink eyes donated the absence of pigment; a characteristic of Albinos. One eye was fully twice the diameter of the other, and an inch above the horizon plane of its tiny mate. The nose was but a gaping orifice above a deformed and twisted mouth. The thing was chinless, and its small, foreheadless head surrounded its colossal body like a cannon ball on a hill top. One arm was at least 12 inches longer than its mate, which was itself long in proportion to the torso, while the legs, similarly mismatched and terminating in huge, flat feet that protruded laterally, caused the thing to lurch fearfully from side to side as it lumbered toward the girl.

If Number One doesn’t seem menacing enough to you, how would you like to see a Coripi enter your bedroom at night? When one threatened Tanar and Stellara in Pellucidar, the sight made the hair rise on the scalp of the caveman. Tanar was incapable of imagining “a more fearsome or repulsive thing than that which advancing upon them.” ERB described the Coripi in great detail, as if he had actually seen one.

In conformation it was primarily human, but there the similarity ended … Its arms were short and in lieu of fingers is hands were armed with three heavy claws. It stood somewhere in the neighborhood of five feet in height and there was not a vestige of hair upon its entire naked body, the skin of which was a sickly pallor of a corpse. But these attributes lent to it but a fraction of its repulsiveness — it was its head and face that were appalling. It had no external ears, there being only two small orifices on either side of its head where these organs are ordinarily located. Its mouth was large with loose, flabby lips that were drawn back now into a snarl that exposed two rows of heavy fangs. Two small openings above the center of the mouth marked the spot where a nose should have been and, to add further to the hideousness of its appearance, it was eyeless, unless bulging protuberances forcing out the skin where the eyes should have been might be called eyes. Here the skin upon the face moved as though great, round eyes were rolling beneath. The hideousness of that blank face without eyelids, lashes or eyebrows shocked even the calm and steady nerves of Tanar … Beneath its pallid skin surged great muscles that attested its great strength and upon its otherwise blank face the mouth alone was sufficient to suggest its diabolical ferocity.

By the way, the Coripies (aka The Buried People) ate human flesh.

As fright-inducing as Number One and Coripies were, however, the most nightmarish all creatures ERB created would have to be the Wieroos in The Land That Time Forgot. Bradley and his companions were searching for a place to scale Caspak’s barrier cliffs, when a Weiroo first appeared hovering in the air above them. It was not particularly monstrous looking thing. Bradley described it as a “winged human being clothed in a flowing white robe.” Another one of the men, Sinclair, added, “It had big round eyes that looked all cold and dead, and its cheeks were sunken it deep, and I could see its yellow teeth and thin, tight-drawn lips — like a man who had been dead a long time.” 

Although its appearance was shocking, it was the Weiroo’s gloomy and foreboding psychological effect on the men that produced its nightmarish quality. Brady, the first man to see it, wailed, “Holy mother protect us — it’s a banshee!” The reference was to the spirit in Gaelic folklore whose wailing foretold the death of a family member. And indeed the Weiroo did emit a piercing wail that, along with the dismal flapping of its wings, was said to have “frozen the marrow” of these otherwise brave men. It was even more frightful when it came after dark, like an apparition in a nightmare. As its “shadowy form passed across the diffused light of the flaring camp-fire … an eerie wail floated down from above.”

Psychological Aspects of ERB’s Nightmares

Was the Weiroo patterned after the “shrouded” figure ERB saw in his dreams after the blow to the head in 1899? There is no way of knowing for sure, nor whether or not Burroughs fashioned any other of his ghastly fictional creatures after what terrorized him in his sleep. It does appear, however, that Burroughs did use in his fiction some of the psychological aspects of his own nightmares — the menacing danger, the heightened fear, the inability to move, the sense of inadequacy felt, and the dreamer’s illogical sense of reality. The use of some aspects of his nightmares is just one of many examples of how Edgar Rice Burroughs merged his own life experiences with his fiction. Clearly, if ERB had not lived such an interesting life, with all its ups and downs, his fiction would not have been as interesting either.

In closing this investigation, which admittedly has contained much speculation about ERB’s nightmares, it is only fair to give him the last word. Certainly, his nightmares must have been irksome to him, to say the least, but as the following passage shows, Edgar Rice Burroughs had the ability to see humor in even this frightening aspect of his life. This nightmare, related by ERB in a 1943 letter to his daughter Joan, was an atypical one, quite unlike his standard nightmare, but it apparently still frightened him, just in a different way.

Last night I dreamed that I was married again. To whom, I didn’t find out, but I knew I was married because I was sitting at a desk with a pile of bills, making out checks. I woke up with a headache. But what a relief when I realized that it had been only a dream.



From Our ERB Online Bibliography
A Collector's Hypertexted and Annotated Storehouse of Encyclopedic Resources
 Jungle Tales of Tarzan
At the Earth's Core
The Mucker
The Cave Girl
Tarzan the Terrible
The Monster Men
Tarzan at the Earth’s Core
I Am a Barbarian
Escape on Venus
A Princess of Mars
The Land That Time Forgot

Guide to the Alan Hanson Appearances in ERBzine

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