David Bruce Bozarth
Copyright © 1998
Looking at our world today, it seems so small. Reports and images from around the globe, or from orbiting space shuttles and stations, have reduced geographical distances to nothing. When compared with the world Edgar Rice Burroughs knew, our planet seems infitessimal in the general scheme of things. We have explored the African continent, the tropical rainforests of South America, the poles, the highest and deepest elevations above the earth or below the ocean's surface, we have mapped the globe with satellites, surveying equipment, or photography so completely that there are few places on earth humans have not been or at least viewed. Such was not the case with the ancestors of Edgar Rice Burroughs or the generations immediately following him.
The islands of the South Pacific were mysterious enigmas at the beginning of the 20th Century. The coasts of the Asian sub-continent were unknown to Westerners, mythic places only suggested in book or legend. Into these vast, uncharted (really!) waters of the Pacific this American author wove several adventure stories. Chief among these is The Monster Men and nearly as important is The Mucker. The Cave Girl takes place on an island as well as the much later written Pirate Blood. These stories are of the contemporary world--contemporary to ERB's era. His most intriguing island story centers around Caprona, also known as Caspak by the inhabitants. Caprona has been covered in detail elsewhere, so this essay will concentrate on the other island stories of Ed Burroughs.
Early Tarzan novels contained islands, too, though these never contributed significantly to the Tarzan tales. There are islands in the Barsoomian tales, located in the Toonolian Marsh, but these, too, are inconsequential to the major stories of Mars. It is The Monster Men, The Mucker, The Cave Girl, and Pirate Blood, all set in contemporary Earth history, that we shall explore.
The Cave Girl (1913), is the first of the island stories penned by Ed Burroughs. Our hero, Waldo Emerson Smith-Jones, is washed from the deck of a steamer and deposited on the shore of a small tropical island. A weak Milquetoast and timid soul by upbringing, Waldo faces the terror of the beach for several days, certain some fearsome death awaits. Unhinged after a period of time, Waldo snaps and races into the interior, chasing a shadow in the darkness. Sometime later, spent, he falls to the ground and from that moment forward, his life takes a turn. The Cave Girl is a jungle primitive romance on an island. The island aspect bears little upon the basic tale, other than serving as a framing device to explain the presence of an unknown neolithic culture in a modern world setting. Being swept off a ship begins the tale, and a ship plays prominently in the finale.
The Monster Men was written shortly after The Cave Girl and once again the remote areas of the Pacific are key to the tale. Professor Maxon has been experimenting with the creation of life and finds his digs in America to be too public to conduct research that would be disapproved by scientists and society alike. He packs up and moves himself and daughter Virginia to a small island, after picking up a party of men under the command of Dr. Carl Von Horn in Singapore. The island is converted into a laboratory and residence, and is under threat of Malay pirates at all times. Maxon's work proceeds, producing 12 humanoid creatures, hideous in conformation, barely intelligent. Then one day the 13th monster comes out of the vat: well-formed and extremely bright. The story then dashes through a series of twists and turns that keep the reader on the edge of his seat. The American navy plays a significant part and a ship is essential to end the tale.
In a novel many consider to be one of Ed Burroughs' finest, Billy Burne is shanghaied in The Mucker. The first half of The Mucker takes place upon a ship and later an island were a lost group of samauri are at war with the native head hunters. Byrne, a Chicago hooligan, learns to survive in both venues--and finds love while protecting Barbara Harding. Malay pirates play a major role between the islands upon which the story takes place.
One of the last island tales written by Burroughs was a novelette-length gem published after his death. Pirate Blood is again in the Pacific where swarthy pirates in dhows and sailing ships prey upon yachts and lesser cargo vessels. It is a dark tale wherein choices must be made. Johnny Lafitte, a young man barely out of college, is thrust into this seamy life for which he is ill-prepared.
Of worthy mention is Tarzan and the Castaways which takes place on the Mayan island of Uxmal in the south Pacific. Burroughs again turns to the island venue to explain a lost civilization, but this time in a world where more is known than unknown. Castaways was published in 1941. Finding a place to put a primitive culture, believably, had become increasingly difficult.
As with the Tarzan tales crowding the African continent with lost races, Ed Burroughs mined the immensity of the Pacific Ocean for locations. Tales of the primitive or pirate adventure once commanded the attention of the reading public, but as the world grew smaller and our knowledge and ability to bring ocean-going criminals to justice expanded, the necessary willingness to suspend disbelief had diminished. Though our world no longer resembles the one when these tales were penned, it is a sign of Edgar Rice Burroughs' story telling ability that these stories are more believable, more than many of his others, even now.