Pulp giant Edgar Rice Burroughs has seemingly never been out of print, despite his earliest books being 100 years old. Thanks to the paperback reprint boom of the 60s and 70s, I grew up devouring his exciting tales of incredible adventures, lost worlds full of monsters, manly heroes, dastardly villains and proud, regal heroines. Burroughs saw enormous success in his career and influenced countless other writers who followed him. His most famous creation was of course Tarzan, orphaned son of British missionary parents who died in Africa, leaving him to be raised by apes, overcoming assorted deadly challenges to eventually become Lord of the Jungle, all chronicled in Burroughs' second-ever book, Tarzan of the Apes, in 1912.
While Tarzan became a wildly popular, iconic character, spawning 23 novels, a final story collection (Tarzan and the Castaways) and a collection of stories for young readers (Tarzan and the Tarzan Twins), I tended to gravitate to Burroughs' other, more fantastical works in my youth. Perhaps my relative disinterest was due to the sheer fame of the Tarzan brand, especially the proliferation of Tarzan movies (none of which, entertaining as many of them are, have ever truly captured the essence of the literary Ape Man; you'll find none of that monosyllabic Weissmuller "Me Tarzan, you Jane" tripe in the books, for starters). I liked the Tarzan books well enough, and read several, but generally preferred things like Burroughs' John Carter / Barsoom series; his trilogy about the Land that Time Forgot, Caprona; and such one-offs as the Prisoner of Zenda-inspired The Mad King or The Cave Girl. But most of all, I was taken by his series of novels about that strange world at the center of the Earth, evocatively named Pellucidar - that savage land of misty jungles, rolling savannah and mighty inner seas, teeming with prehistoric beasts, primitive men and all manner of weird, humanoid races. So it's no surprise that the one Tarzan novel that really fired my youthful imagination was the one where these two series cross over - Tarzan at the Earth's Core.
Originally published in serialized form in The Blue Book Magazine from September 1929 to March 1930, Tarzan at the Earth's Core, book #13, comes right smack in the middle of the character's lengthy run, one of a handful of inspired mid-series' gems that are among its most memorable and show off their author's inventiveness and storytelling verve to great effect. Book 8, Tarzan the Terrible, finds Tarzan in the lost world of Pal-U-Dan, where he first encounters dinosaurs, the carnivorous, triceratops-like Gryfs. The tenth book in the series, Tarzan and the Ant-Men, finds our protagonist in yet another lost world, Minunia, peopled by a miniature race of humans a quarter of normal size. This novel is followed by the less fantasty-oriented but still highly imaginative Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle, which finds the Ape Man contending with jousting tournaments and court intrigue alongside descendants of European Knights Templar in (you guessed it) another isolated lost region, this time a "forbidden valley" in the mountains. This burst of creative world building that flowered in these mid-pack Tarzan entries reaches its apex in the splendidly colorful and action-packed Tarzan at the Earth's Core.
Pellucidar was already a well-established world by the time Tarzan at the Earth's Core came out. Burroughs had already published three volumes in the 7-book series, starting with At the Earth's Core in 1914. A sequel, Pellucidar, immediately followed in 1915. Then, for some reason, Burroughs interest in his "inner world" playground flagged, and it wasn't until 1929 that he returned to it, with two books in quick succession, Tanar of Pellucidar and this Tarzan crossover. Pellucidar ends in a cliffhanger, with hero David Innes imprisoned by the piratical, seafaring Korsars, and Tarzan at the Earth's Core begins with Innes' American friend, Jason Gridley, leading a mostly German expedition to Pellucidar to rescue him. But first, Gridley travels to Africa to enlist the aid of Tarzan, and soon that worthy is on board the huge airship, the 0-220 (described in loving detail at the end of Chapter 1), captained by Herr Zuppner, as the massive dirigible descends slowly into a polar opening into the subterranean world.
No sooner does the 0-220 touch down upon the grassy plains of Pellucidar than Tarzan is off exploring, his finely-attuned senses exulting in a wilderness virtually untouched by modern man. From there on out, it's one wild escapade after another, as Tarzan gets separated from the rest of the crew, is captured by the ape-like humanoids, the Sagoths, befriends one of them, and escapes. Meanwhile, Jason Gridley also ends up on his own in this hostile land, and goes through a concurrent series of adventures, mostly in the company of a beautiful primitive maiden, Ja, the Red Flower of Zoram. The novel follows both Tarzan and Jason, as they struggle with the myriad creatures and warring races of Pellucidar, with only a few brief cutaways to the desperately-searching 0-220 crew.
While Burroughs' prose might not be of the caliber of that other pulp king, Robert E. Howard, he didn't achieve his lasting popularity without good reason. The man was a master storyteller with a prodigious, seemingly endless imagination, and Tarzan at the Earth's Core is great, escapist reading all the way. He even manages to pull off a fairly interesting romance between Jason and cave covergirl Ja, amidst all the peril, rampaging Snake Men, pterodactyl attacks and other mayhem. I suppose it should go without saying, but I'll go ahead and state it anyway: like most pulp novels, Tarzan at the Earth's Core reflects its times, and many readers may find some of the casual racism eyebrow-raising. While Burroughs treats his heroic German characters with respect (written as this was between the two world wars), he also tosses in a stereotypical Stepin Fetchit-style black cook for supposed comedic effect, complete with phonetically-rendered dialect ("Lawd! You all suah done overslep' yo'sef.") These moments are few, however, and mainly contained in the first few chapters, and Burroughs does contrast the Robert Jones character with Tarzan's handpicked squad of proud, courageous Waziri warriors. That said, those willing to look past these bits, and whose tastes run to old-fashioned pulp thrills and high adventure, will find much to savor here.
I first encountered and fell in love with this novel as an 11-year-old (the perfect age), in the 60's Ballantine Books paperback version with the Neal Adams cover (pictured above left), but there have been many other nice copies published over the years, including a Dell comics version. I still get a kick out of the book to this day, and every five years or so, pull it off the shelf and am instantly cast back to my teenage days, running alongside Tarzan and his friends, battling dinosaurs, beastmen and other terrible dangers in the hot, humid jungles and grassy plains of Pellucidar.
My Rating: A
Welcome to the Armchair...
Look out the window. It’s a dark, cold, rainy day. Too nasty to go outside.
Better stay inside, read a good book.
There’s a bookcase over to your left. Run your fingers over the spines. Books of all shapes, sizes and genres; hardbacks, paperbacks. Take your time browsing through the titles. No rush. Find something that feels just right.
Now turn around. Over in the corner is a beat-up, black leather armchair. The leather is faded and cracked in places, the cushions battered. This chair has seen better days. But boy, does it look inviting...
Next to the chair is a standing lamp and a small table. Plenty of room for a nice cup of tea, a plate of cookies, whatever’s your poison.
So switch on the light, settle down with your book, open to page one, put your feet up, and let the author whisk you away to another world.
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