The Land that Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs
You gotta love Edgar Rice Burroughs. He underperformed in life until, as a pencil sharpener salesman who spent his free time reading pulp magazines, he figured he could be paid to write “rot” at least as good as the “rot” he read in the pulps. And thus started the illustrious career of the man who brought us Tarzan, John Carter, and David Innes… And who inspired a generation of fantasy and science fiction writers.
The Land that Time Forgot, a lost world story set during World War I, is the first in Burroughs’ CASPAK trilogy. It was originally serialized in Blue Book Magazine in the fall of 1918 and then published as a novel in 1924.
Bowen Tyler is on a boat that’s torpedoed and sunk by the Germans. He saves a beautiful drowning young woman who he immediately falls in love with (that’s always how it happens in these stories) and they end up on a submarine with several other Englishmen and several Germans. Eventually (half way through the novel) the story picks up when they land on a lost volcanic island that is inhabited by dinosaur-like animals and a few subhuman races that seem to be at different evolutionary stages.
Like many lost world stories, The Land that Time Forgot has beautiful scenery, scary animals, primitive humans, and lots of adventure. Also like many of these stories, the action is the focus of the story and the characters are only shallowly drawn. For example, the beautiful young woman who the protagonist falls in love with has almost no personality, yet Bowen knows immediately that he loves her and, as expected, he is called on to bravely save her life more than once (while her previously modest clothing is now in tatters). There are the usual issues with sexism, racism, and classism, but these are the things that fans of old lost world stories know to expect — I have never read one that didn’t contain these annoying elements. For readers who know what to expect, The Land that Time Forgot is fun pulpy adventure that’s sure to please.
I listened to the audio version of The Land that Time Forgot which was produced by Blackstone Audio and narrated by Raymond Todd. Todd’s voice is a bit mechanical sounding and he had a couple of mispronunciations (such as “gunwale” pronounced like it looks), but I sped him up a bit and was satisfied, though certainly not thrilled. I wouldn’t hesitate to suggest this title to audio readers, but I wouldn’t be recommending it for the performance. I should mention that The Land that Time Forgot is old enough to be in the public domain, so you can find a free print copy at Project Gutenberg or a free audio copy (read by a nonprofessional volunteer) at Librivox.
By the time Edgar Rice Burroughs came out with his classic CASPAK trilogy of short novels in 1918, the Chicago-born author was already 43 years old and had seen no fewer than two dozen of his novels in print. When it came to being a wordsmith, Burroughs, as has been often noted, was a late bloomer. Having previously been employed as a ranch hand, factory worker, gold miner, railroad laborer, and, uh, pencil-sharpener salesman, Burroughs decided, in 1911, to try his hand at writing; as he famously once said, “if people were paid for writing rot such as I read in some of those [pulp] magazines … I could write stories just as rotten”! His first work, A Princess of Mars (1912), was of course an enormous and seminal success, and by the time of the release of the CASPAK trilogy six years later, Burroughs had already given the world three more JOHN CARTER books – The Gods of Mars (1913), The Warlord of Mars (1914) and Thuvia, Maid of Mars (1916) – the first six TARZAN books – Tarzan of the Apes (1912), The Return of Tarzan (1913), The Beasts of Tarzan (1914), The Son of Tarzan (1915), Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar (1916) and Jungles Tales of Tarzan (1916 – 1917) – the first two of an eventual seven in the PELLUCIDAR series – At the Earth’s Core (1914) and Pellucidar (1915) – as well as the three MUCKER books and almost a dozen other titles! A prodigiously prolific output of high-quality product, especially for such a late beginner!
Now, this reader had previously experienced many of those earlier titles, but for some reason, the CASPAK series, despite being very highly regarded by ERB enthusiasts, had up till recently managed to elude me. Not that it has been overly difficult to procure. As a matter of fact, ever since its release as a three-part serial, in the August, October and December 1918 issues of The Blue Book Magazine (cover price: 15 cents … and that August issue, typically, being 192 pages long!), Burroughs’ famous series has seen dozens upon dozens of reprints, befitting its perennial classic status. Although The Blue Book released the series as three separate novellas – The Land That Time Forgot, The People That Time Forgot and Out of Time’s Abyss – and despite Ace Books releasing the three titles as separate paperbacks in a famous 1960s printing, Burroughs always envisioned the series as a single novel, entitled simply The Land That Time Forgot.
The book was thus released in that manner in 1924, as a single-volume hardcover, by the Chicago-based publisher A. C. McClurg, and, 75 years later, in 1999, by Bison Books … the edition that this reader was fortunate enough to acquire. This Bison edition is a particularly nice one, featuring as it does a scholarly introduction by Mike Resnick, a glossary of Caspakan words, a listing of the various peoples and tribes to be found in the three sections, and a detailed cast-of-characters listing. Plus, the volume features easily readable typography, very few typos in its 435-page length, and a map of Caspak, drawn by Burroughs himself in 1917. Truly, a handsome volume of a classic novel. But getting back to Burroughs’ actual work, I will deal with the three sections separately, for the sake of convenience.
So … the first entry in the CASPAK series, The Land That Time Forgot, takes the form of a manuscript that is, in essence, a message in a bottle. This MS, which had been thrust into a Thermos and cast adrift into the sea, is found by a man in southern Greenland, who has decided to release it to the world. The MS, it seems, was written by one Bowen Tyler, Jr., although we do not discover his name until the tail end of his story. Tyler had been working in his Dad’s submarine factory in California; however, he’d decided he wanted to enlist as a flyer in WW1 Europe. But during his trans-Atlantic passage, a German U-boat, the U-33, had torpedoed and sank the ship he was on. Tyler had spent a miserable night on the high sea aboard a lifeboat with his terrier, Nobs, and with a beautiful American woman named Lys La Rue, with whom he’d fallen pretty instantly in love. The three had been picked up by a British tugboat in the English Channel, which craft was itself soon sent to the bottom by that same pesky U-33 … but not before the tug’s crew and Tyler had managed to overpower the German crew in hand-to-hand combat. Thus, in the first half of Tyler’s thrilling tale, our narrator, with his great knowledge of subs, becomes commander, with the tug’s second-in-command, Bradley, acting as a loyal second again. The command of the sub switches back to the Germans and then back again, matters being made even more complicated by a saboteur aboard, who wrecks the navigational equipment and, more distressingly, poisons the sub’s water supply. Eventually, the U-33, distrusted by all ships that it approaches, somehow blunders into the South Pacific, ultimately arriving at the rampart-encircled island of Caprona – discovered in the 18th century by the (fictional) Italian explorer Caproni, who had been unable to land on it, Bradley recalls – and thus, at roughly its halfway point, and after some wonderful segments of high-seas adventure, Burroughs’ novella really begins to take off.
Using a subterranean tunnel entrance, the U-33 is able to penetrate some 40 miles into the giant island’s interior (according to Burroughs’ map, Caprona is roughly 180 miles long and 130 miles wide, its Great Inland Lake being no less than 120 miles long and 60 miles wide) and finds itself in some kind of prehistoric hellscape; a land where Jurassic monstrosities roam unchecked, and seven categories of primitive man, each in a different evolutionary stage, prowl the countryside. In this Book 1, the former English, American and German enemies effect a shaky truce, build a permanent compound called Fort Dinosaur, learn to hunt for food, make friends with some of the local brutes, and basically try to adapt to their new nightmare existence. But even more trouble arises when the Baron Friedrich von Schoenvorts, the German captain, resumes his villainous ways, and when Lys is abducted from the fort by one of the Caspakan brute men (“Caspak,” it seems, is the natives’ name for the interior of the island of Caprona), forcing Tyler to grab his firearms and head off into the unexplored regions, alone, to attempt a rescue…
All told, Burroughs’ first entry in the now-classic CASPAK series makes for a perfect introduction to this memorable lost world, leaving us wanting to know more – much more – about Caprona, and curious as to several unanswered questions. This first installment features breakneck action from start to finish, and – simply written as it is in ERB’s reader-friendly style – those pages really do seem to keep themselves turning. As noted in The Science Fiction Encyclopedia, Burroughs, despite his limitations, had an “ability to transport the reader to a glorious never-never land, exotic and dangerous,” and that ability is surely on full display here. Caprona, an island that was once a volcanic crater and its surroundings before a continental submergence took place eons ago, is a marvelous feat of the imagination; kind of like a precursor to King Kong’s Skull Island. When Tyler tells Schoenvorts, early on, “There is another place we can go … and we will before we’ll go to Germany. That place is hell,” little could he know how prophetic those words might be! And that Schoenvorts, by the way, nasty and disdainfully proud as he is (“disagreeable” is the word that Tyler uses repeatedly to describe him), makes for a wonderfully hissable villain; it is to be hoped that he reappears later on, to get his just deserts! The book’s setup of a disparate collection of former enemies being forced to cohabitate in a cramped sub and later on a dangerous island is a fairly brilliant one, I feel, and the author here does justice to the conceit.
Of course, Burroughs, natural-born storyteller that he was, keeps his story moving at a relentless pace and dishes out any number of exciting set pieces. Among them: the sinking of Tyler and Lys’ ship in the Channel; the storming of the U-33; the attack on a German cruiser; Tyler trapped upon the outer deck of the U-boat, while the unknown saboteur causes the ship to submerge (for me, the most exciting and harrowing scene in the entire book!); the subterranean tunnel entry into Caspak; the first attack of the reptilian fauna; and Tyler’s rescue of Lys following her abduction, during which he battles Tsa of the hatchet-men and sojourns among the more highly evolved spear-men. And then, to top things off, Burroughs concludes his tale with eight words that are just simply wonderful. I cannot imagine any reader not champing at the bit to proceed on to Book 2, The People That Time Forgot, after breathlessly flipping over the final page of this Book 1.
To be perfectly honest, The Land That Time Forgot is hardly a perfect affair, and some minor problems do inevitably arise. As Kat has pointed out, characterizations here are sketchy and minimal, but that fault can be easily pardoned, as this is, after all, only Book 1 of three, and especially in light of the fact that Tyler here has a history to tell, in a manuscript written under trying conditions, to put it mildly. Some minor instances of racism crop up a few times, but, to quote from The Science Fiction Encyclopedia once again, Burroughs’ “efficient narrative style helps to compensate for the prudery and touches of racism.” More serious, for this reader, is the book’s use of not just coincidence, but double coincidence to set the stage for its story. I mean, is it likely that the sub that manages to sink Tyler twice should be one that his father’s factory constructed, and whose captain, Schoenvorts, just happens to be engaged (via a forced, socially convenient arrangement) to Lys? This reader was also bothered when Bradly mentions that Caproni “followed [Captain James] Cook about 1721.” But since Cook didn’t even enter the Royal Navy until the 1750s, and engage in his first of three famous exploratory voyages until 1768, this bit just doesn’t ring true. Still, these are minor matters, in such a relentlessly exciting book as this.
The Land That Time Forgot concludes with several cliff-hanging matters left up in the air. What happened to the U-33, after Schoenvorts and the other Germans made off with it? What happened to Nobs, a wonderfully brave and spirited animal, who mysteriously disappears toward the end of Book 1? What happened to Bradley and his exploring party, the graves of two of which Tyler discovers as he endeavors to rescue Lys? Will Bowen and Lys be seen or heard from again? Who are the mysterious, supposedly highly evolved Galus, whom the brutish hatchet- and spear-men make reference to and aspire to become? As shown on Burroughs’ map, this first volume has only revealed around 1/3 of the island of Caprona, and this reader cannot wait to dive into Book 2 now, to hopefully get those questions answered and explore the other 2/3 of this Mesozoic hellhole. Stay tuned…
~Sandy Ferber (2022)
I loved the 70’s movies of this classic ERB series; The Land that Time Forgot and The People that Time Forgot.