A Study of the Hollow Earth

Exploring forgotten realms of literature

“Swallowed by an Earthquake”

What makes E.D. Fawcett’s “Swallowed by an Earthquake” interesting in the realm of hollow earth literature is that it is *not* by an American, which leads to several aspects of it being different from the traditional Symmes-based tale, while at the same time embracing many of the same tropes of the British lost world novel.

Beginning with a quartet of travelers in Italy, Charlie (our narrator), his friend Jack, his uncle Professor Morton (a prominent scientist), and family friend Dr. Ruggieri (Director of the Vesuvius Observatory and the only non-Brit), al of whom, by page 15, are dropped into a chasm by an earthquake that swallows the entire Italian village they were visiting. In the midst of this the author offers a footnote about geology from no less an eminent source that Alexander Humboldt: ‘Where an earth-wave proceeds in a regular course along a coast, or at the foot of and parallel to the direction of a mountain-chain, interruptions at certain points have sometimes been remarked and continue for centuries. The undulations passes onward in the depth below, but is never felt a those points on the surface. The Peruvians say of these upper strata that they form a bridge’ (Humboldt) (p. 12-3). Science is still to be confirmed even in the course of adventurous storytelling.

What follows from here is a series of very familiar Nineteenth century tropes.

1) We have the imitation of Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth in the casting of a young protagonist and his scientist-Uncle exploring the underground.

2) Like Journey this is not a Symmesian hollow world with holes-at-the-Poles, but a series of large caverns, the semi-porous earth.

3) This is a journey backwards in evolutionary time, replete with long (and excoriating) details about the plant and animals of the ‘Carboniferous Age’:

It was clearly nothing other than a forest of the Carboniferous Period that shot up from the march. Gigantic jointed reeds of the height and bulk of elms fringed the streams, club-mosses over forty feet high, colossal ‘horse-tails,’ tree ferns, with might palm-like fronds, towering conifers, cast a black gloom over masses of rotting trunks, and vegetation steaming up through the undergrowth. One recognized at a glance the strangely ‘eyes’ trunk of Sigillaria oculata, the graceful Lepidodendron, the clusters of knotted Calamites, and various kinds of coniferous trees and arborescent ferns familiar to geologists… Some snails, spiders, large May-flies, and a large scorpion caught our eye, but there were no other signs of animal life on land… We had been transported into the reality, of which geologists know only the echoes! (p. 52-3)

4) Dinosaurs. Lots of them.

5) Savages. And this is an important distinction from most American hollow earth stories, which usually find an advanced race inside the earth. Here, instead, the author takes the opportunity to regale readers with a multitude of racist statements about non-white races.

Now, there are also several parts that take on unique features, perhaps drawn from other hollow earth stories, or simply Fawcett’s imagination.

1) Because there are no holes-in-the-poles to let in light, the interior of the earth is illuminated by a variant on the aurora borealis: ‘We were evidently confronted with a brilliant subterranean phase of what is popularly known as the ‘northern light,’ the aurora borealis of geographers…
owing, no doubt, to some magnetic conditions peculiar to this recess, the glow here was unexampled, being no mean substitute for sunshine itself, and revealing a noble picture’ (p. 51)

2) This was not a naturally occurring underground realm: ‘Probably by some frightful cataclysm which hurled a huge fragment of the archaic surface of the earth into a cavity over which the crust closed immediately.’ (p. 58)

3) Whereas other hollow earth novels only imply their imperial ambitions, usually in terms of trade, Fawcett’s characters are a little more blatant: ‘Look ahead, Charlie: our savage co-heirs of this underworld at last!… Now’s the opportunity for founding our empire. I shall take the raft right into the first creek I see on that island, and we will then step out of cover and beard the
primæval savage – a terribly superstitious fellow at any time. Cheek, revolvers, and our strange coming and looks will possibly win us divine honours in an hour or two.’ (p. 77)

It is this empire-building ambition that allows for the bulk of the narrative from here, with Charlie and company interacting with the natives, while at the same time rescuing a pair of sisters of their father who were also swallowed by the earthquake. (I will go ahead and ruin the ending here: Yes, Charlie and Jack each marry one of the sisters. How could it be anything but thus?)

Escaping from the savages, Charlie and Company continue to raft down the river that stretches through this entire underground world, looking for a way to return to the surface. Instead, they are saved by a subsequent second earthquake, one which opens a fissure near the coast, and at the same time destroys the underground civilization.

Besides the Professor and the Doctor returning to the world to win scientific acclaim, Charlie and Jack also stole the diamonds that belonged to the natives, making them rich men as they set about starting their families. Because exploration is never disinterested, and there must be reward, both in reputation and in riches, for undertaking such a venture (whether it was intentional or otherwise).

 

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2 thoughts on ““Swallowed by an Earthquake”

  1. davidd on said:

    I am very curious as to where you found a copy of “Swallowed by an Earthquake” by E. D. Fawcett to read, whether as an original printing or a reprint. I would very much like to read this book. Thanks!

    • M.K. Yost on said:

      I was only able to find “Swallowed by an Earthquake” in the Eaton Collection archives at the University of California Riverside. I don’t believe it’s ever been republished.

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