From Pellucidar to prep school: books

When I first read AT THE EARTH’S CORE years ago, I hadn’t yet read Edgar Rice Burrough’s earlier Princess of Mars and didn’t realize how much they resembled each other. Like John Carter, David Innes enters an alien world — Pellucidar, the land inside the hollow Earth — and becomes enslaved by an alien race. Just as John Carter alienated Dejah Thoris at first by defending her without claiming her as his wife (on Barsoom, that implies he sees her as a whore), David Innes does exactly the same thing when fighting for Dian the Beautiful.

That said, this is a fun book to reread. Innes finances an experimental mechanical mole designed by inventor Abner Perry, but it locks up on its maiden voyage and doesn’t stop drilling until the pass through the Earth’s crust and enters Pellucidar. The perils here include dinosaurs, prehistoric mammals, various types of man-apes (in one of Burroughs’ racist moments Innes compares one trace of monkey man to black Africans) and the Mahars, a race of telepathic reptile women (they eliminated their menfolk after developing the secret of parthenogenesis) that preys upon humans. In one scene Innes watches them engage in a ritual feast and seeing their hypnotized prey stand there, letting the mahars rip them apart, is chilling.

Another unique feature of Pellucidar is that with no day and night — the inner-Earth “sun” is a gaseous ball at the Earth’s center that provides constant, unchanging illumination — time ceases to exist. It turns out it’s a purely mental construct; while Innes escapes the Mahars and has multiple adventures, Perry has dinner, sleeps and wakes up, thinking less than a day has passed. There are other nice touches, such as a reclusive culture where your manhood is measured partly by the number of secret routes out of the village you can memorize.

The story does have a better framing sequence than Princess had. It opens with Burroughs meeting Innes after he’s returned from Pellucidar. ERB helps equip him for the journey home, but it’s unclear whether David made it before the neighboring Arabs attacked. Although Burroughs set up a telegraph relay for Innes to communicate with the outer world, we learn in the ending that a sandstorm has wiped out the landmarks in the area; he has no way to find the telegraph and learn if Innes made it back to Pellucidar or not (something resolved in the sequel, of course).

Edited by Kevin McCarthy, “THEY’RE HERE …” Invasion of the Body Snatchers: A Tribute proved just as useful for Alien Visitors as it was when I was writing about the film for Screen Enemies of the American Way. One article, for example, points out that no matter what interpretation you put on the ’56 film — anti-communist, anti-conformity, anti-consumerism — it’s success isn’t because of the underlying message but because aliens replacing everyone around you (and you’re next!) is an inherently creepy concept. The assorted essays cover Jack Finney’s career (they paint his nostalgia for the 19th century with affection I don’t share) and interview with Kevin McCarthy (remarkably entertaining), backstage stories on the first three films (this came out right after the 1993 Body Snatchers) and pondering about what the various films mean. Good, though it has its share of dud entries as well.

As a kid, Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings books — about J.C.T. Jennings and his best friend Darbishire and their experiences at Linbury Court Preparatory School — were among my very favorites, reread endlessly. So for Christmas I asked TYG to buy me an omnibus edition of the first four novels, then I spent Boxing Day reading Jennings Goes to School. Here the two protagonists arrive at school, meet the rest of the future cast, learn school slang, play soccer, run away from school, write a mystery novel (“All you have to do is think up some characters and a plot.”) and unintentionally send in a false fire alarm. Buckeridge’s flair for comedy, Wodehouse-style writing and incomprehensible kid conversations (“Isn’t it lucky I’m not him, sir?”) is as much fun as I remember. I was surprised, looking Buckeridge up online, to learn that this was actually written in the 1950s as I assumed them to be contemporary when I read them 15 or so years later. But from the point of view of a pre-teen boy, I guess the world hadn’t changed that much.

#SFWApro. Cover by Roy Krenkel, all rights remain with current holder.

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