The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1918)

3 September 2012

While the world watched the Great War shudder to a halt in September, October and November 1918, American pulp novelist Edgar Rice Burroughs was publishing three short novels in the Blue Book magazine – The Land That Time Forgot, The People that Time Forgot, and Out of Time’s Abyss, eventually published together in 1924. Altogether the three are known as the Caspak Trilogy because Caspak is what the natives call their island, the land that time forgot.

These are odd books. More or less the same thing happens three times ie a lone hero is thrown into jeopardy among the dinosaurs and violent ape people of the lost world situated on an island in the Antarctic and in each he is helped – and repeatedly has to save – a beautiful damsel in distress. Where Conan Doyle was very much about chaps, Rice Burroughs is very much about screaming gorgeous young women, preferably with all their clothes about to fall off.

The Land That Time Forgot sets up the story of a German U-boat sinking an American merchant ship. The hero, Bowen Tyler, a passenger on the ship, survives and rescues the first damsel, Lys. They are picked up by a British ship which is then itself attacked by U-33 but rams and damages it, and the British crew capture it. They set sail back for America but a malevolent crew member destroys the compass and radio etc and they end up steaming south into the Antarctic where they eventually sight a mysterious island and are able to access it by steering the submarine into an underwater cavern and from there upstream along the river which drains the island’s big central lake.

Once this preamble is over, and the scene is set the novels all follow the same pattern: in The Land That Time Forgot the all-American hero Bowen Tyler has to go and rescue the plucky and increasingly naked Lys who is kidnapped by ape-men. Abandoned on the island when the Germans steam off with their U-boat, he writes the entire narrative of his adventures, seals it in a bottle and throws it in the sea. It is miraculously found and it is this narrative which forms book one.

In The People that Time Forgot the all-American hero who found the message in a bottle, Tom Billing, leads a rescue mission to the island but, before he can rescue anyone, crashes his airplane (under attack from pterodactyls) and spends the entire book fleeing ape men and dinosaurs with the help of the fetching native girl, Ajor. On the last page he is rescued by the party he’d left back on the rescue boat, who have scaled the sheer cliffs to the island, and who have also rescued Bowen, hero of the first book. Pretty laughable.

In Out of Time’s Abyss Bradley, who had left the British survivors at so-called Fort Dinosaur before Bowen went off to rescue Lys, is out on an explore when he is ambushed by ape men and subjected to pretty much the same kind of thrilling adventures as the other heroes, but this time amid the eerie and unpleasant Wieroo, the winged men who feed off the other humans on the island, but need their women to reproduce with. No surprises that he hooks up with a fetching native, Co-Tan, whose skimpy leather tunic is at permanent risk of falling off until, on the last page, he also is reunited with Bowen and Tom and with the U-boat which had been forced back to the island. Thus all three men and their womenfolk, along with the surviving crew, can finally make their escape back to California, which almost immediately starts making films about them.

Edgar Rice Burroughs and pulp There is no attempt at realism, plausibility, mood, setting, character depth or development. Instead all the men are young, brave and virile. All the women are young, curvaceous and available. Both are thrown into extreme and outlandish situations whose only purpose is to provide a steady stream of thrills. There is jeapardy on every page. The affect is like the stereotypical Chinese takeaway, full of bright colours and powerful tastes which leave you feeling empty an hour later.

And yet, and yet… there is a weird aftertaste. For Burroughs introduces a weird and strange sci-fi element into all three novels – namely that the humans on the island have their own evolutionary system. They are born as lower forms of life and then evolve during their life times, passing through grades of hominid evolution, from semi-apes, through neanderthals etc, to stone age man, and then to the very weird, winged ‘angel-men’, the Wieroos. The third novel describes Bradley’s imprisonment in and escape from the Wieroos and their city made of skulls, and I found these parts genuinely weird, uncanny and haunting. There is a Wellsian sci-fi flavour to the narrative, all the more nagging because the heroes never really understand how the Caspakian system works, and neither do we…

Movie The 1974 movie starring Doug McClure and Susan Penhaligon is truly dreadful.

Poster for the 1975 movie version of ‘The Land That Time Forgot’

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