This fantastical tale of time travel was a bit of a challenge for me to read and blog about. While I very much enjoy and appreciate tales with a strong spiritual message, I believe that this one could be interpreted as a touch heavy handed by some readers. In addition, not only does it present a unique interpretation of time travel, it also presents an interesting protagonist who is a “doubter” — a doubter both in time travel and in the comfort of faith.
Here we go.
“When the Graves Were Opened” by Arthur J. Burks first appeared in the December 1925 issue of Weird Tales magazine and again in 1935, as a reprint.
The story also was included in a collection of Burks’ tales entitled Black Medicine published in 1966 by Arkham House. To the very best of my knowledge, it has appeared nowhere else. On a side note, I find it noteworthy that this tale is not included in most lists of Burks most well-regarded tales. Nor have I been able to uncover any meaningful write-ups discussing “When the Graves Were Opened.” Interesting omissions...
Arthur Josephus Burks was not a typical writer of pulp tales, though he was an extremely prolific one. Born on 13 September 1898 in Washington State to a farm family, he married in 1918 and fathered four children. Following his service in the Marine Corps during World War I, Burks was stationed in the Dominican Republic where he was exposed to the practice of voodoo. This led to Burks writing supernatural tales that he would sell to Weird Tales in 1924. "Thus Spake the Prophetess," published in the November issue (under a pseudonym) was the first of many to follow.
His success in getting his stories published afforded him the freedom to pursue writing full-time. He resigned from the Marine Corps in 1927. By 1928, Burks had gained a following due to his tremendous writing output. Over the course of his career, he would publish over 800 short tales (or 1400 – sources differ) in a variety of genres.
Burks writing slowed down in the late 30s, most likely due to the pressure of having written so much in such a short time. Whether this decision had any effect on his decision to return to active duty, I cannot say. Burks returned to active duty as the US was drawn into World War II. He eventually retired with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
After the war, in 1948, Burks and his family moved to Paradise, Pennsylvania, where he would live until his death. In the 1960s, Burks shifted the focus of his writing to paranormal and metaphysical matters. Indeed, his involvement in this field grew such that he was giving lectures on the subjects.
On the 13th of May 1974, at the age of 75, Arthur Josephus Burks passed away.
“Jess,” he said, in a voice so low I could scarcely hear it, “my dearest friend, Jess! For years I have listened to your blasphemies—for years I have looked at you in wonder while you propounded your terrible and searching propositions—and always I have watched you spellbound, expecting that the wrath of the Lord would descend upon your head from the heavens, and wipe you off the face of the earth! Why it has not done so, He only knows! Jess, this machine, upon which I have gone a hundred times farther than did Edison on his ‘spirit’ machine, will do just as I have claimed for it. If you wish to go back to Golgotha you will do just that—when I press this little button. Think, Jess! If you believed that it would work would you still wish to go back?”
Before I get into the story itself, I would like to say a few words about the two principal characters in “When the Graves Were Opened.”
Harvey Hesford is a scientist who invents a time machine. He is also a man of deep Christian faith with a firm belief that science is a means to know the Divine. Harvey Hesford is also dearest friends with Jess Gibbons.
Jess Gibbons, the narrator of the tale, in his own words, is “…an atheist, a blasphemer, an iconoclast…” He is a doubter, both in faith and in the possibility of time travel.
This short story is made of four parts:
•a brief prefatory statement of foreboding,
•an opening section that lays out the instigating circumstances,
•a large middle section where all the action occurs, and finally,
•a small epilogue
As the story proper opens, the narrator, Jess, arrives at the home of his close friend, Harvey.
Jess arrived at his friend’s house, in response to Harvey’s invitation to see his latest invention. Jess laughed when Harvey explained that he had invented a time machine. Jess insisted that he be the first to try out the machine. And, since Jess was such an avowed and confrontational atheist, he boasted that he wanted to witness the actual crucifixion. In particular, Jess desired to know the fate of those who rose up when, “the graves gave up their dead.”
Before Harvey activated the machine, Jess asked for paper and pencil so that he could make a record of his experience if possible. Then Harvey pressed the button.
Harvey’s time machine kind of worked, indirectly. It had the effect of freeing Jess’ consciousness, leaving his body behind in the lab. Jess’ intent, his will, his desire, sent his “spirit” back to the time and place he wanted—Jerusalem, just prior to the crucifixion of Jesus. In addition, as a disembodied consciousness, Jess could only witness, and therefore not interfere in the events (thereby neatly sidestepping the Grandfather Paradox).
After observing Pontius Pilate wash his hands of Jesus’ fate, Jess then followed the procession to Golgotha and witnessed the scourging and crucifixion of Jesus. For the several long hours of Jesus’ death, what Jess sees agrees with events as recorded in the New Testament; including the final words of Jesus.
Returning to Jerusalem, through one of the city’s cemeteries, Jess comes across shattered graves, open and empty. However, there is no smell of death or corruption. While still on the path to the city, Jess found himself in a throng of people—the people who were the former occupants of the graves. The dead had risen, appearing whole and healthy, if not bewildered, as to what had happened.
Spurred on by his desire to know the fate of these risen people, Jess went with them. Local people ran in fright recognizing the formerly dead. Even a Roman centurion, confronting the crowd, trembled in fear of them. The centurion sent a messenger to inform Pilate. Curious himself, Jess followed the messenger.
Pilate was only concerned with his position as governor. The messenger told Pilate that the dead only want to return to their homes. Pilate wanted to know why the dead had returned at all. An officer put forward that following the death of “he who called himself the ‘King of the Jews’” (page 750), an earthquake cracked open the graves at Golgotha.
It was decided that those newly alive be confined at a nearby leper colony, and thus hidden from public view. Pilate ordered the messenger to return and inform the recently risen of his will. Again, Jess went with the messenger. Upon hearing of Pilate’s decision, the formally-dead returned to the cemetery from which they rose. Once there, they all knelt to beseech God to take back his gift of life and return them to death. Their wish was granted and Jess was alone in the cemetery.
Curious, Jess willed himself forward in time to the moment of Pilate’s death to observe how Pilate would face the afterlife. Jess saw Pontius Pilate bound to Earth till the end of time. Washing his hands, vainly attempting to clean a stain which could never be cleansed. Jess had seen enough—but try as he might, he could not return to the present time!
Meanwhile, back at Harvey’s house, in trying to bring Jess’ consciousness back to his body, Harvey had accidentally broken the time machine. The police blamed Harvey for Jess’ death. Because of his machine, Harvey condemned his best friend to a near eternity standing next to Pilate as he washed his hands.
Despite being a novelette, “When the Graves Were Opened” is a complex tale and not at all easy to summarize. In addition, to have such a fundamental episode of Christianity serving as the background to this tale of time travel could well have turned some readers away. It almost did me. To fully appreciate the power of this tale (for those who wisely choose to read it)—it is necessary to mention the Biblical basis of this story. From the King James Bible, Matthew 27:50-54:
50 Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost.
51 And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent;
52 And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose,
53 And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.
54 Now when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God.
Early in the story, Jess mockingly states that he wants to use the time machine to “. . . stand on Golgotha during the Crucifixion.” And Jess goes on to add that he wants to solve the mystery of what happened after the graves gave up their dead.
All this seems rather profound for Weird Tales magazine. Addressing a core tenet of one of the world’s major religions as a major plot point in a sci-fi story is an easy way to offend a lot of readers. That is not to say that Weird Tales had not broached daring topics for its day, but, to my mind, not one quite so . . . sensitive.
The approach to time travel presented here is one I have not encountered before. It bears a strong resemblance to the idea of astral projection, which, together with Spiritualism, had gained in popularity following the end of World War I in 1918. However, here, the astral projection is achieved via technology rather than occult knowledge.
And, the purpose of this post is not to dissect aspects of Christian dogma, but to treat this tale as an exemplar of early time travel fiction. With that in mind, the means of time travel are actually explored more in “When the Graves Were Opened” than other time travel stories discussed on this blog to date.
There are two perspectives to consider in “When the Graves Were Opened;” that of Harvey, the inventor and Jess, the time traveler.
For Harvey, it is ironic, but it seems that he did not fully understand how his time machine actually worked... He thought that by attaching oneself to his machine, the constraints of time and place were removed. And, by making a wish, the traveler would be sent to when and where he desired.
Jess, the traveler, focuses on his experiences rather than the machine’s workings. After Harvey activated the machine, Jess felt an intense shock surge through his body. Ultimately, he came to realize that he had become a disembodied consciousness.
But I tell you now that I was the me of my corporeal body; that I was a soul that had been released! Perhaps Hesford himself can not explain to you just why this is so; but I, being a free spirit now, can do so. This, then, was what his machine did to me: It merely separated my soul from my body . . . It has no power to project a spirit into the past as Hesford claimed for it—of itself! But I, now, can project myself into the past as you understand the past! For over here there is no such thing as past, present, or future!
Jess realized what Harvey’s time machine actually did. It “separated my soul from my body” (page 744). According to Jess’ understanding, by separating the soul from the body, there was no past, nor present, nor future for his unattached consciousness—only an exertion of will mattered. Since Jess had jokingly expressed a desire to witness the Crucifixion, Harvey’s machine provided the means to manifest this desire.
To my knowledge, it is rare for one to be a Marine Corps veteran of both World Wars and be a successful writer of pulp fiction. Yet here is Arthur J. Burks and his “When the Graves Were Opened.” I valued reading his unique interpretation of time travel—as a form of astral projection. More, I appreciated the daring it took for the author to tackle this theme. This story takes the time travel tale to an oft-thought-about-but-rarely-implemented place.
~. “Arthur J Burks.” Newspapers.com. Ancestry. 14 May 1974. Web. 06 October 2020. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/55042167/arthur-josephus-burks
Contento, William G. & Phil Stephensen-Payne, Editors. “Burks, Arthur J.” The FictionMags Index. Galactic Central Publications. Web. 18 October 2020. http://www.philsp.com/homeville/FMI/d/d925.htm#A26894
Gallagher, Cullen. “Arthur J. Burks on Words and Writing.” Pulp Serenade. Blogger.com. 02 January 2010. Web. 17 October 2020. http://www.pulp-serenade.com/2010/01/arthur-j-burks-on-words-and-writing.html
Find a Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com : accessed 13 October 2020), memorial page for Arthur Josephus Burks (1898–1975), Find a Grave Memorial no. 55042167, citing Paradise Mennonite Cemetery, Paradise, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, USA.