Out of Time’s Abyss by Edgar Rice Burroughs
In Out of Time’s Abyss, the last volume of Edgar Rice Burrough’s CASPAK trilogy, we learn what happened to Bradley, one of the adventurers we met in the first novel, The Land that Time Forgot. As we expected, Bradley has frightening adventures on Caspak, is nearly killed by lions, bears, tigers, dinosaurs, etc, and he saves and falls in love with a beautiful young damsel in distress.
In this installment, we meet the Wieroo, the most highly evolved species on Caspak. Their form and society isn’t at all what the American and European adventurers would have expected. We also learn the rest of the mystery of the strange evolution that has happened on Caspak. Since this is Earth instead of a fantasy world, it’s all too far-fetched to believe, but that’s okay because we weren’t really expecting or demanding more from a lost world story.
The plot of Out of Time’s Abyss is exciting but, except for the episode with the Weiroo, it’s nearly identical to the previous two CASAPAK stories, The Land that Time Forgot and The People that Time Forgot: white man fights prehistoric creatures and falls in love with the adorable native girl he’s protecting. At this point, the formula which has worked well before has become a bit stale.
Blackstone Audio’s version of Out of Time’s Abyss was read by Brian Emerson who does a great job. The CASPAK trilogy was published in 1918 so you can find both a print and an audio version in the public domain.
In Book 1 of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ now-classic CASPAK trilogy, entitled The Land That Time Forgot, we learn of how the mixed American, English and German crew of a conquered U-boat had discovered the island of Caprona, in the extreme South Pacific, and encountered the Jurassic monstrosities and primitive men who dwelt therein. In Book 2, The People That Time Forgot, Thomas Billings, a close pal of Book 1’s leading man, Bowen Tyler, Jr., crash-landed on the island during a rescue mission, and encountered the island’s seven discrete human tribes, each one in its own evolutionary stage. That Book 2 had answered several of the reader’s questions remaining from Book 1, but many still remained outstanding. Thus, the reader was still left pondering about what had happened to the U-33 after its German crewmen had slipped off with her, leaving the Americans and Englishmen to their fate. Were Billings and his Galu wife, Ajor, really intending to stay behind on the island? (The Galus, by the way, are the most highly evolved of those seven island races.) Were Bowen Tyler and his bride, the American Lys La Rue, ever able to make it back to Billings’ yacht, the Toreador, on the other side of the island? And finally, what had happened to Tyler’s second-in-command, Bradley, as well as the other four Englishmen who had disappeared during an exploratory expedition at the end of Book 1? Well, happily, not only does Book 3, Out of Time’s Abyss, manage to answer all these questions, it does so in a manner that is every bit as thrilling as the first two installments had been.
Like those first two novellas, Out of Time’s Abyss initially appeared in the pages of The Blue Book Magazine. Book 1 had appeared in the August 1918 issue; Book 2 in the October 1918; and Book 3 in the December 1918, its front cover sporting the blurb “A complete novel by the author of ‘Tarzan’.” I’m not sure if ERB himself ever really approved of that tagline, however, as he had long envisioned all three novellas as mere separate components of a single novel, and in 1924 he got his wish, when the Chicago-based publisher A. C. McClurg released the trilogy, for the first time, as a single hardcover volume. Today, readers can either purchase the three installments separately or as one volume, entitled simply The Land That Time Forgot. Personally, my recommendation would be to go for the 1999 edition from Bison Books, featuring as it does all three novellas in one volume, a scholarly introduction by Mike Resnick, several useful glossaries, beautiful artwork by famed Burroughs illustrator J. Allen St. John, and a very helpful map of Caspak (the natives’ name for the interior of Caprona) drawn by ERB himself in 1917. Truly, the definitive edition of this timeless classic.
But getting back to Book 3 itself, this installment centers almost exclusively on Bradley and his lost expedition, and wastes little time whatsoever in getting started. On its very second page, we witness the five men during the start of their hazardous mission, being attacked by a giant cave-bear, in a bravura action set piece that really starts Burroughs’ book off with a bang. In perhaps the book’s most chilling and atmospheric section, the quintet is visited nightly by a flying, corpse-visaged, robed entity, that the more superstitious of the Englanders deem a death-foreboding harpy, but whom the reader, after the events of Book 2, knows to be a Wieroo … the mysterious winged race that is the bitter enemy of the Galus, and that abides on the island of Oo-oh in Caspak’s Great Inland Lake. Before long, the fears of the more fanciful of the men are realized, when one of them is killed by a T. rex and another by a saber-toothed tiger. Again, these events come as no surprise to the reader, who has already seen the graves of both Tippet and James, as discovered by Tyler at the end of Book 1. What does come as a surprising shock, however, is when Bradley himself is abducted by two of the Wieroos, and flown over to their City of Human Skulls on the island.
Thus, after just 30 pages, Burroughs has set up for us what will comprise the bulk of his novella, as Bradley, quite alone, on a hellacious island set upon another even more hellacious island, must figure out a way to escape from his captors. The Wieroos, who are only capable of begetting the male of their species, have been forced to raid the Galus for their few women who are capable of natural reproduction, kidnapping them, raping them, and holding them as slaves to function as mothers and nursemaids. Now, they have captured Bradley to learn “the birds and the bees” of natural male reproduction. But Bradley, tough English seaman that he is, is not so easily made amenable. On his second day of captivity in the bizarre Wieroo city – in which thousands of skulls decorate the buildings and form the very cobblestones of the streets – he manages to kill his abductor and take off into the mazelike metropolis. He soon befriends a young captive Galu woman named Co-tan (actually, we never learn the lass’ name until the book’s final pages, for some strange reason), who turns out to be of invaluable assistance to him. Bradley is soon recaptured, placed into a seemingly inescapable dungeon, escapes once again via a corpse-strewn sewer system, enters the city’s holiest of temples, and deals very effectively with the Wieroo leader, a being only known as He Who Speaks for Luata. Along with Co-tan, Bradley later flees into the countryside of Oo-oh and hides out there for many months, until a means of crossing over to the mainland presents itself. But even after this lengthy ordeal, there is still the “minor matter” of those pesky Germans to contend with, and the seemingly impossible task of locating Tyler and Lys. Truly, Book 3 gives Burroughs’ readers a lot of bang for their buck (or, in the case of The Blue Book Magazine customers, their 20 cents), and even manages to improbably end on a happy note to leave us grinning from ear to ear.
So yes, Out of Time’s Abyss is quite the action-heavy affair, from its second page onward, and once Bradley kills his Wieroo abductor, in a tense little melee, the book really kicks into relentless high gear and rarely lets up. Unlike the first two installments, which had been narrated to us by Tyler and Billings respectively, Book 3 features an omniscient narrator (Burroughs, natch) who manages to answer all our niggling leftover questions and tie up all three volumes’ loose ends with a neat bow. By the end of Book 3, the reader comes away feeling that he/she knows and understands Caspak a lot more now; that all its corners have been explored (all, that is, except for the dinosaur-infested southwest corner, which Billings avoided assiduously in Book 2). And we come away finally (sorta) understanding the complex evolutionary rules that govern life on the island, in a manner unlike anywhere else on the planet. (To be perfectly honest, I’m still a little unclear about some of the finer points regarding such, but that’s just me.) As for those Wieroos, they make for fascinating, nasty, repugnant (wait till you witness their table manners!) and downright eerie villains, and Burroughs gleefully puts them on full display for most of his novella here.
As to the story’s nonstop action sequences, ERB does indeed manage to squeeze in any number of doozies. Among them: Bradley and his men fighting off that giant cave-bear and enormous T. rex; the attempted nighttime kidnappings of Bradley’s men by the Wieroos; the dilemma of Bradley being trapped in a dark prison with a starving and demented cell mate who’s been driven to the brink of cannibalism, and who dares Bradley to fall asleep, all the while chanting “Food! Food! There is a way out!”; Bradley’s prison escape down a river of multitudinous floating corpses; his audience with the Wieroo leader; the eventual escape off the island of Oo-oh; the marvelous battle with the Germans, featuring the ultimate fate of their nefarious leader, the Baron von Schoenvorts; and that marvelous happy ending. Burroughs also adds pleasing little touches here and there, such as that Wieroo dining hall, the byzantine architecture of the City of Skulls, and the maniacal paranoia of He Who Speaks for Luata. It’s all tremendously exciting and fantastical stuff, and this reader happily gobbled it all up.
Of course, as in most Burroughs novels, some minor problems invariably do crop up, but there are fewer here than in most. For one thing, Bradley mentions at one point that the T. rex should have gone extinct 6 million years ago. Shouldn’t that be more like 65 million? Toward the end of the novel, it’s mentioned that two of the recently slain Germans would have to be buried … although three of them had just been killed! What were Bradley & Co. going to do with the third? And most egregiously, Co-tan, at the end of the book, is somehow aware that it was her brother who had been sharing a cell with Bradley … even though Bradley had twice decided not to mention the fact to her! Something odd there. And speaking of Co-tan, this reader could not help wondering why the author forbore to reveal her name to us until the very end. Ajor’s, after all, had been revealed almost as soon as she met Billings in Book 2. And it also struck me as odd that Bradley here, despite traveling with the girl and even living with her in the wild for many months, should regard her like he would one of his male companions, only becoming aware of her femininity at the book’s conclusion. But these are all mere quibbles that most readers might not even notice as they breathlessly keep flipping those pages.
And once that final page of Book 3 is turned over, those readers, I have a feeling, will be left wishing that Burroughs had given us a fourth installment, as well; perhaps one in which the existing state of affairs between the Galus and the Wieroos would have been resolved once and for all. As it is, we have this tripartite novel, and as a century of readers have learned long before me, it really is some pretty dynamite stuff. “Perhaps the most imaginative single novel Burroughs ever wrote,” Mike Resnick tells us in his introduction, and this reader is very much inclined to believe it…