Gorbuses of Inner World: A Rare ERB Flirtation with the Supernatural

John "Brdige" Martin



Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote of some terrifying and loathsome creatures, but usually there was a naturalistic explanation—however farfetched—for the existence of the many and varied beings which lived inside and outside the worlds his characters explored.

However, in the adventures of Frederich Wilhelm Eric Von Mendeldorf und Von Horst in Back to the Stone Age, ERB makes a rare excursion into the supernatural.

Over the space of four chapters, Von Horst encounters the Gorbuses, a fleshly yet mystical people which dwell in the "somber and gloomy" atmosphere of Pellucidar's Forest of Death.

One Gorbus is described thusly:

"His skin was a dead white, without life or beauty; and his hair was white. Two great canine tusks curved downward to his chin, the pink irises of his eyes surrounded blood-red pupils to make an already repellant countenance still further hideous."

Descriptions of other Gorbuses credit them with having "bestial, brutal faces," "yellowed teeth" and "flabby lips."

For food, these creatures indulge one of mankind's most abhorred practices: cannibalism. But they out-gross the average man-eater, letting their food "age" after it is killed, before partaking.

Everything about them speaks of death. When a Gorbus speaks aloud, his tones are called "suggestive of the grave because of their loudness." When a Gorbus laughs quietly, his mirth is called "as silent as the tomb."

All of these characteristics, unsettling though they are, might be explained as natural deviations. But the supernatural element surfaces in the fact that these people did not simply "evolve" in Pellucidar, but were "sent away" from their former, happy world, "because of what we did."

What did they do? Murder. One Gorbus admits to killing seven women; another to four men.

From what world were these people "sent away"? It appears to be the outer surface of the Earth, since Durg, a Gorbus, in recounting his crimes, refers to the use of a "cleaver" and a "dagger," two English terms he injects into his Pellucidarian sentence. All of them killed because their victims had something they wanted.

"Whatever it was," said Durg, "we didn't get it; for we have nothing here.

"I murdered them," (he adds). "Now I am a naked Gorbus feeding on human bodies. Some of us think that thus we are punished.

"There is no happiness in the Forest of Death," (he tells Von and La-Ja). "There are cold and hopelessness and nausea and fear. Oh yes, there is hate. We hate one another. Perhaps we get some satisfaction from that, but not a great deal...."

There appears to be no way out for the Gorbuses; they appear to be in an eternal state of punishment. While they may have gotten to the Forest of Death in a supernatural way, their continued means of existence is natural enough. They must kill to eat, in order to live. They are afraid not to go on "living," because:

"We believe that we would die and go to a worse place than this. We are afraid of that."

A mental anguish festers on top of everything else. Although the Gorbuses can clearly remember their crimes, they cannot remember much of anything else about their former lives.

"We all see those we have murdered; those are the only memories that we retain permanently," Durg said.

"To some the memories are more distinct than to others, but they are never wholly clear. We get fleeting glimpses that are blurred and dim and that fade quickly before we can decipher them or fix them definitely in our memories.... It drives us almost to madness—never quite to see, never quite to recall."

In a way, ERB does the same thing to the reader. In describing the world and condition of the Gorbuses, he presents fleeting glimpses, tantalizing us with blurred bits and dim snippets of the Gorbuses, but not giving us enough to put a finger on.

For instance, is ERB presenting this Forest of Death as a kind of Hell—a place of afterlife punishment? Is so, then it doesn't seem to be very heavily populated. In a cavern Von Horst and La-Ja see "a few hundred" Gorbuses. Of course, there may be other caverns. But it seems as if the world has had a lot more murderers than could fit in this Pellucidarian forest.

Another thought is reincarnation. Was ERB attempting to play with the notion that one dies, then comes back in another life, and that this is the life which must be lived by those who murder? Or perhaps he is thinking of zombies, those brought back from the grave to walk the earth with a mind focused on not much more than eating the flesh of the living? Too, there is the question of what prompted ERB to write of such of these at all? In a world which is otherwise natural, why a group of beings with such a supernatural quality?

Irwin Porges, in Edgar Rice Burroughs: The Man Who Created Tarzan, records that Back to the Stone Age was written by Edgar Rice Burroughs from Jan. 26 to Sept. 11, 1935.

"Eight months is indeed a long time for a novel of this type," (wrote Porges). "...the story may owe its faulty development* to the turmoil of Ed's personal life in these months, his guilt and mental conflict after the divorce, and the pressures and changes that accompanied his remarriage."

From the summer of 1933 to the spring of 1934, ERB, in his personal life, was "nearing a crisis," said Porges.

"The early days when he and Emma had shared the hardships, facing poverty and adversity together, had united them in love and understanding. But the sharing of affluence and success had brought insoluble problems...The strained home life, hidden from outsiders...."

"Naturally, we are being presented with a one-sided version of the marriage," (Porges cautioned).

ERB wrote to his son Jack:

"I never wished to make your mother unhappy; I do not now. Yet I cannot forget that she knew how horribly unhappy she was making me....Love makes many sacrifices; and it dies hard, but it can be killed." (Porges, page 560).

Editor note: Edgar Rice Burroughs left his wife mid-February 1934 and entered into a serious relationship with Florence Dearholt, which had been brewing for a year or more. Hulbert Burroughs wrote the following to his brother John:

However hard it is to tell you I think it best that you know before you come home. Mamma and Papa have separated. I have seen for years, as I suppose you have too, that they have been far from happy together. What they propose doing I cannot say, but Mama will probably stay here. Naturally, things are quite confused but I think eventually they will both be happier apart than they were together the past year or so.

ERB, during this same time period, suffered a relapse of a bladder condition which did not respond favorably to treatment, which condition continued to plague him the remainder of his life.

Love can be killed. Sad words. The Burroughs divorce was final December 6, 1934. About two months later, as ERB struggled through Back to the Stone Age, he had another occasion to write of love being killed. He may not have been connecting this passage to any real events, or to any real people. But this transitional time of his life may have been an influencing factor when he wrote:

"We have each killed something. Do you see that old woman sitting over there with her face in her hands? She killed the happiness of two people. She remembers it quite clearly. A man and a woman. They loved each other very much. All that they asked was to be left alone and allowed to be happy. And that man standing just beyond her. He killed something more beautiful than life. Love. He killed his wife's love....Yes, each of us has killed something; but I am glad that it was men that I killed and not happiness or love."

"Perhaps you are right," said Von Horst. "There are too many men in the world but not half enough happiness or love."


*When Porges referred to the "faulty development" of Back to the Stone Age (page 577 of his ERB biography) he was not referring to the flow of the story itself so much as he was referring to the fact that the story "starts in the middle of things, with no attempt to explain Pellucidar or his characters' presence there, or to win sympathy for his hero." (Those remarks came from an editor at Blue Book.) Back to the Stone Age has been a panned ERB book, however. The New York Times Book Review of the time called the story "Flapdoodle...utterly preposterous, utterly meaningless and humorless...sheer bumblepuppy...longwinded and repetitious."

On the plus side, Bob O'Malley, who reprinted that review in ERBapa 27, Autumn 1990, pointed out that 40 other books, most of them fiction, were also reviewed in that same issue of the Times and, of that number, only three—Steinbeck's The Red Pony, Joyce's Collected Poems, and Burroughs' Back to the Stone Age—are still in print and easily accessible to anyone today.

Some people at the time may have laughed at Edgar Rice Burroughs' efforts, but ERB and his heirs have the last laugh.