Thursday, June 14, 2012

"You're the man I've crossed a world to kill."

Read/Watch ‘em in order #18

Boy, Jason Gridley is certainly capricious. At the end of Tarzan at the Earth’s Core (1930), Jason’s attitude was: “I am NOT leaving Pellucidar until I find my lost friend—Wilhelm von Horst!”

By the time the action picks up again in Back to the Stone Age, Jason had apparently changed his point-of-view to: “Ah, the heck with it. I’m goin’ home!”

I suspect Burroughs had tentatively planned to use Jason as the hero or co-hero in the eventual sequel as he (Jason) searched for his missing friend. But, though Stone Age picks up right where its predecessor left off, it was seven real-life years before Burroughs got around to writing it. By that time, he had opted to center the story entirely around von Horst, leaving Jason with nothing to do but go home.

The story first appeared as a serial in Argosy Weekly in early 1937.  Its original title was “Seven Worlds to Conquer,” because von Horst runs into that many tribes (or—in one case—the nest of a very large animal) before his adventures are resolved. 

By the way, in case you’ve forgotten—von Horst was a member of the crew of the zeppelin O-220, which had entered Pellucidar through the opening near the North Pole on a rescue mission. He had become separated from the others fairly early in the previous novel and was still unaccounted for when the main plot of that novel was resolved.

Well, von Horst might have missed out on the action in Tarzan at the Earth’s Core, but he certainly wasn’t bored. The loosely structured sequel tosses him from one adventure into another as he escapes captivity in one location only to be captured by someone else.

This is an ERB novel, so along the way he meets the beauteous La-Ja, who is a fellow slave during one of his frequent periods of captivity. Their relationship runs the usual course—he takes a while to realize he’s in love, while she treats him like garbage due to a cultural misunderstanding. Even when she gets to like him, she continues to treat him like garbage, because there’s a big brute of a guy named Gaz back at her tribe who wants La-Ja for his mate. La-Ja is afraid Gaz will kill von Horst when the German insists on escorting her safely home.

It’s a variation of the same sort of situation that Burroughs used in many of his other novels. You’d think it would get old, but I’m never bothered by it. Burroughs always manages to generate a fair amount of humor and even charm in his romantic shenanigans, predictable as they might be. Also, Burroughs gives von Horst (perhaps my favorite of Burroughs’ one-shot heroes) a snarky sense of humor that adds to the overall fun.

What makes this entry in the Pellucidar series notable is the cool civilizations and animals that von Horst runs into. He’s captured by a weird flying reptile/kangaroo thing that injects him with a paralyzing poison and leaves him for newly hatched babies to eat. Later, he has to organize a mass escape of slaves while simultaneously holding off the slave-holders AND fighting a stubborn slave who refuses to accept his leadership.

Not long after that, he, La-Ja and a couple of other companions get captured by a race of fanged albino cannibals called the Gorbus. There’s an unusual metaphysical twist here, as the perpetually cruel and miserable Gorbus are implied to have once been humans on the surface world who had become what they are now after having committed murder. Odd theological implications aside, I’m just happy that Burroughs gives me the opportunity to link words “fanged,” “albino,” and “cannibals” together in the same sentence. How often does one get to do that?

Burroughs manages to get in a nice variety of action scenes throughout the book. Most notable, perhaps, is an escape from the mammoth men (a tribe who have trained mammoths to be riding beasts). This involves a sequence in which von Horst and several other prisoners are tossed into a narrow cavern, then given knives and spears. Large, untrained mammoths are released from one end of the cavern, while a number of saber tooth tigers enter from the other end. The ensuing free-for-all is a lot of fun (for us readers, I mean—not so much for the participants).

Along the way, Burroughs borrows a plot twist from “Androcles and the Lion” to give von Horst a large mammoth as a loyal companion. This is another element that’s completely predictable, but once again I’m not at all bothered by it. Having a mammoth as a loyal companion is simply too cool to allow for any objections.

In fact, it occurs to me that visitors to Pellucidar end up with some pretty cool pets. David Innes had his pet hyenadon in the second novel in the series and now von Horst ends up with a mammoth. Why anyone would ever be satisfied with a mere cat or hamster after reading these novels is beyond me.

Anyway, von Horst and La-Ja eventually make it back to her tribe, which leads to the von Horst vs. Gaz fight that poor La-Ja had been dreading. Von Horst gets a great line here just before the fight to the death begins: “You’re the man I’ve crossed a world to kill!” he snarls at Gaz. When you think about it, there’s really no sense in falling in love if it doesn’t give you a chance to use dialogue like that, is there?

David Innes gets a cameo at the end, which is where we find out that Jason Gridley and the O-220 had already gone home. Von Horst doesn’t mind, though. Like David Innes, he’s found a home at the Earth’s Core. And perhaps it’s just as well—considering who was running von Horst’s home country of Germany by this time, he was much better off where he was.

That brings us to Land of Terror, in which David Innes takes over as protagonist once again. This book and Savage Pellucidar will, sadly, begin a decline in the quality of the stories in this series, but the Earth’s Core will remain an interesting place to visit regardless.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...