A Study of the Hollow Earth

Exploring forgotten realms of literature

Archive for the month “February, 2014”

“The Man Who Fell Through the Earth”, or, Not Quite What it Seems

Having won a Mullen Research Fellowship to the Eaton Science Fiction Archives at the University of California Riverside, the tackling of previously unearthed hollow world novels is my three week mission. The first I was excited about because its title had not previously appeared on any list of terra cava novels I’ve seen… and for good reason.

Carolyn Wells (1862-1842) was an American mystery writer, and The Man Who Fell Through the Earth (1919) is the second in her Pennington Wise (aka ‘Penny Wise’) psychic detective series. Of course, with a title like this, how could I refuse, thinking it must somehow relate to my research?

The narrative opens from the perspective of a New York City lawyer, who suspects that his neighbor, a prominent banker, has been murdered, yet he can find neither body or suspect. This looks like a case for the great psychic detective Pennington Wise and his plucky gypsy sidekick Zizi!

So where is the man who falls through the earth? Ah, he comes into our story out of nowhere, a psych patient at Bellevue hospital found floating (nearly naked) in the East River with apparent amnesia. As part of his own investigation into things, our lawyer narrator goes to visit the patient, in case he is related to the victim or the suspect, and he has quite an interesting tale to tell:

“You see,” he said, fixing me with his queer-looking eyes, “I fell through the earth.”

“You what?”

“I did. I fell through the earth, and it was a long, long fall.”

“Well, yes, eight thousand miles, I’m told.”

“Oh, no,” and he was almost pettish, “I didn’t fall through the middle of it.”

“Oh,” and I paused for further enlightenment.

“It was this way. I remember it perfectly, you know. I was somewhere – somewhere up North-“

“Canada?”

“I don’t know – I don’t know.” He shook his head uncertainly. “but I know it was up North where it’s always cold.”

Perhaps the man had been an Arctic explorer.

“Iceland?” I said. “Greenland?”

“Maybe,” and he looked uninterested. “But,” here he brightened a little, “anyway, I fell through the earth. I fell in there, wherever it was, and came on down, down through the earth till I came out at the other end.”

“You mean, you fell through a section or segment of the globe? As if, say, you fell in at London and came out at the Cape of Good Hope!”

“That’s the idea! Only I fell out here in New York.”

“And you fell in?”

“That’s what I can’t remember, only it was ‘way up North – somewhere.” (p. 113-4)

So far, it has some interesting hallmarks of a hollow earth novel, so I kept reading. The narrative moves back and forth between trying to the solver the murder of the banker, uncovering ‘The Link’ and figuring out the identity of our amnesiac patient who claims to have fallen through the earth. At least the tale is certainly better written than some others that I’ve read.

To make a long blog post shorter, I will get to the obvious conclusion: despite using ideas that have previously appeared in other American hollow earth novels, Wells has a far simpler explanation for our conundrum:

“I was in the middle of the street, but it seemed the middle of a howling blizzard, and as I took a step – I went down an open manhole into the sewer.

“This I distinctly remember – the street cleaners were working there, shoveling the snow into the sewer. They had no business to leave the manhole open and unguarded, but that black squall was so sudden and terrific, no one could see or know anything for the time being.

“However, I knew perfectly well, as I fell in, (250) what had happened, but then – and I remember this too – I fell and fell – down, down – it seemed for miles; I was whirled dizzily about – but still I fell – on and on – interminable. I felt my consciousness going – at first abnormally acute, my senses became dulled, and I had only a sensation of falling – ever falling – through the earth!”

Yep. No hollow earth, no holes in the poles or vast chasms, just an open sewer grate. Certainly nothing the Symmes or his followers ever proposed: The Sewer Grate Theory of Concentric Spheres.

Oh (spoilers here) and in a flurry of rapid mystery solving: the patient’s name is Amory Manning, he works for the Secret Service, and yes, he did kill the Banker but only because he was selling secrets to The Enemy (aka Germany) via information stolen by ‘The Link’ transmitted across telegraph lines. He also gets to marry the Banker’s niece despite killing her uncle because he was a traitor, so three cheers for truth, justice and the American way triumphing in the end. But there is no such thing as a hollow earth.

“Under Pike’s Peak”, or, Sex Can Destroy Civilisation

Written by Charles L. McKesson in 1898, Under Pike’s Peak; or, Mahalma, Child of the Fire Father offers several unique aspects to the terra cava genre, not least of which is its use of photographs instead of illustrations for visualisation of the book’s environment. McKesson provides both a humorous dedication and a very intriguing introduction. Firstly, the book is dedicated to his friend, Laura B., who apparently said to McKesson after reading the manuscript: ‘How did you dare write it? You don’t know a thing about woman – I hope your wife pulled every hair out of your head’ inspiring McKesson’s dedication ‘In the hope that she will be less severe in her criticisms in the future’ (p. 1).

As for the introduction, McKesson is providing an advertisement, setting the scene and events for the reader:

“PIKE’S PEAK, stately and solemn, stands guard over the eastern gateway to the Rocky Mountains. What this sentinel has seen during the centuries of lonely vigil is locked in his silent, rock-ribbed bosom. In the year 1896 a daring tourist entered that bosom and possessed himself of some of the greatest secrets of the age.

What he learned of the Cliff Dwellers who once inhabited the region lying at the base of Pike’s Peak; what he learned of the formation of the Cripple Creek gold fields… what he learned of the strange and mysterious character, Mahalma, Child of the Fire Father and of her peculiar sacrifice which has no parallel in literature, and what he learned of the philosophy of telepathy and kindred subjects, he tells in the story which follows.

If he tells truth, then truth is stranger than fiction; if what he tells is fiction, then fiction is stranger than truth.” (p. 3)

McKesson is blending the factual existence of Pike’s Peak and its location, with the fictional aspects of the narrative, and immediately laying the groundwork for readerly doubt about the novel’s veracity, while distancing himself from the story’s content; McKesson is now just the publisher/editor of someone else’s – a tourist’s – biography.

There is not actual in-narrative framing, with chapter one opening from ‘the tourist’s’ perspective – Thomas Larnard – of arriving in Colorado Springs, which happens to be McKesson’s home; but despite his disavow of origin for the story with himself in the introduction, there is no mention of a found manuscript or deathbed confession related to McKesson. It’s revealed that a Colorado Spring’s resident named Oliver Estiller disappeared on Pike’s Peak two years before while exploring it, and is presumed dead (p. 7). Following in Estiller’s footsteps, the narrator also goes exploring on the mountain and falls to unknown depths inside the earth (p. 11). Like The Coming Race there is no journey, just a sudden transition via accident from outside the earth to in, and a quick encounter with strange beings:

“There were a half-dozen creatures within the space illuminated by the match. The creatures… were about the size of a boy ten years of age. Their bodies… were covered with what appeared to be scales of various tints and colors. Their heads were unnaturally large, narrow and high in front… Their faces were as smooth as a child’s and the skin was clear and white. Their hair was light brown or auburn. Their hands and feet were white and shapely.” (p. 14)

Once more we read a uniformity of race, cast a pale and childlike to imply harmlessness (unlike the Vril-ya). This paleness, coupled with their apparently blindness (p. 19) is reminiscent of the guide in Etidorhpa, described as cavefish. The women are dressed in flowery bonnets, and the narrator thinks it like ‘living in a flower garden’, comparing them to ‘fairies’ (p. 20), and the children to ‘dolls in a toy store’ (p. 21), which serves to further remove them from a place of threat to one of Edenic peace. Larnard’s first glimpse of the vast flower creations constructed by the natives makes him think of his ‘descent’ as an ‘ascent’ that landed him in ‘a bouquet of flowers from heaven lodged in a radiant cluster of stars’ (p. 32). The Christian imagery employed by Larnard at the start of his tale represents the best metaphors he can construct for lack of knowledge about his surroundings.

All the Azonians – that is their name – are blind and deaf, evolved to work with each other via telepathy. Only Mahalama, the local leader and daughter of their deity, can vocalise to communicate with Larnard and Estiller. The Azonians are revealed to be technologically and spiritually superior to all other humans, but were driven by barbarians first into the mountains, and then underground for safety. It implies that the Anasazi cliff dwellings of the American southwest were constructed by the Azonians, who abandoned them in favour of a subterranean existence, where evolution once again took hold and transformed them into the pale, blind cavefish-like beings they are now. It also means that McKesson is not using Symmesian geography, but Vernian, the population existing within a system of large, vaulted caverns.

Mahalma – like many other female rules of terra cava narratives before her – becomes the key to the protagonist’s success. She is no object of desire for Estiller because he has a finance still waiting in Colorado Springs; for Larnard she is the superior creature to be turned to love for the base-born white American of honesty and bravery. From the outset Larnard is curious about her marital status, but does not inquire because Mahalma is ‘a person of good breeding’ and ‘a lady in the best sense of that word’ (p. 47). Not until chapter VIII does Mahalma make a physical appearance, presiding over a ceremony; seen from a distance she is described in terms of ‘dignity’ and ‘majesty’ (p. 80), ‘beautifully white and perfect in shape and form’ (p. 81), and ‘symmetrical in outline as if carved in marble for a model of a perfect face’ (p. 82). Larnard wonders if she is a ‘messenger’ from heaven, noting that she is not blind like the others, and is taller (p. 83), in addition to the fact that she also possesses the power of speech. Up close Larnard believes that she can ‘read [his] thoughts as an open book’ – once more hinting at telepathy – which he must guard as much as his words; her face is ‘small, round, delicate, sensitive… perfectly chiseled’ and spiritually beautiful for the ‘sweet, wise, and noble soul’ it emenated’ (p. 89). Mahalma is crafted a separate being from the other Azonians, emphasising her physical and spiritual superiority. This same technique is seen in A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder and Under the Auroras, inserting a female spiritual leader that is physically distinct from everyone else in the population, making her more attractive to reader and male protagonist.

After a desperate and ill Estiller kidnaps Mahalma in an effort to escape the realm of the Azonians, Larnard decides the only way to rescue her is to train his mind in the ways of telepathy. Every day, sitting in a dark room, he relaxes his mind and tries to ‘see’ an object on which he has fixed his mind (p. 195), as well as ‘listening’ to mental words (p. 196). Months of mental exercise finally pay dividends, and Larnard knows where to find her, even losing his ‘natural vision’ (p. 220) and seeing with his eyes closed like the Azonians. In mental communication with Mahalma, she tells Larnard that he is ‘standing on the borderland of soul life’, at the cusp of spiritual life (p. 223). Larnard reveals a ‘dual’ Mahalma, inner and outer, joy and suffering (p. 224), which brings to mind the duality of Christ, the physical and the divine. Is Mahalma, then, intended to be a saviour figure? But Larnard also moves onto a place of both physical and spiritual existence, with the implication that any mortal can achieve this, thus removing the uniqueness of spiritual divinity.

During this spiritual quest to rescue the physical body of Mahalma, their souls are ‘wed in the temple of the soul by the High Priest, Love’ (p. 229). There is no physical expression of this union, only mental. But this level of spiritual attainment comes at the price of suppressing all negative feelings, and when Larnard ‘sees’ that Mahalma has become Estiller’s lover, he loses the power of ‘mental vision’ forever (p. 242). But he does not give up his quest to find Mahalma, finally succeeding after several more months of exploring. When they finally meet again in person, Mahalma compares Larnard’s mental journey to climbing the ‘ladder of development’, that his present incarnation is more advanced that all previous (p. 265). Evolution is not just of the body, but of the mind and soul. The creation of each soul and body is explained in the same way as the nebula theory of the earth’s creation:

“At some time in the history of the past, a part of the infinite intelligence was individuated or separated and place in a crude mass of force and matter. This spark of intelligence gathered around itself all that it could use from that mass of force and matter, and when it had done this its progress was stopped until it could have other material upon which to work.” (p. 266)

A spirit, then, is a separate entity that moves from physical body to physical body, always in search of improvement.

All three (including a seemingly dying Estiller) return to the city of the Azonians, where Estiller regains his health, though in his sickness, he taken from Mahalma ‘the brightest jewel of womanhood’ (p. 273), a metaphor that leaves little doubt to its implications about virginity. Mahalma agreed to play the role of Estiller’s lost fiancé in order to preserve the lives of everyone else he threatened to kill. Estiller is to be forgiven his sins as well because of striking his head in his fall into Azonia, and claims memory of nothing until waking up on page 280. Because of his amnesia, Mahalma agrees to return Estiller to the surface, confident that he will not (or cannot) betray the existence of the rich Azonian civilisation. But Mahalma is haunted by the thought that she was wrong to so indulge Estiller (p. 293), chastity being more sacred than life itself for a woman (in McKesson’s mind). Without warning or explanation – except perhaps that sex is the undoing of an entire civilisation, and they are being cast out of the Garden – the vast underground realm begins to collapse, and only Estiller, Larnard, and Mahalma escape to the surface, where Mahalma promptly dies, begging Larnard to write the story of her people, and asking “Did I do wrong?” (p. 298).

Reconsidering William Amos Miller, the Blind Writer

William Amos Miller at TypewriterIn a previous post I accused William Amos Miller, author of The Sovereign Guide: A Tale of Eden, of being disingenuous about his disabilities (both blindness and deafness) in order to drum up sale for his novel. A reader was kind enough to point me in the direction of some contemporary articles verifying Miller’s story, and proving me wrong:

The Remarkable Achievement of William Miller, Blind and Deaf

Autobiographical Sketch of William Amos Miller

What is very interesting is that the first article, published in the Los Angeles Herald (20 September 1903) got a few things wrong, which prompted Miller to write a correction of his life for The Silent Worker which appeared in April of 1904. Miller managed to attain some minor celebrity for himself, not as a writer of any particular work, but by virtue of being a blind and deaf man labouring in the field of letters, as well as engineering and craftwork. Appearing in The Sunday Supplement of the Los Angeles Herald, Miller is recorded as being a ‘devout Catholic’ and writer of a book of poetry,[1] which is, unfortunately, not true on either count. In the piece Miller wrote of himself, he asserts that his first published novel ‘A Tale of Eden’ (rather than The Sovereign Guide) ‘has had an extensive sale’ and that the mistaken impression of poetic Catholicness comes from Miller using some epigraphs from another blind poet (and school fellow of his) Richard T. O’Malley: ‘I am not a poet, and rarely ever sham verses even for my own use… I have published no works on Catholicity, though, on a scale, I may have assisted such publications.’[2] Miller never mentions the Los Angeles Herald or its mistakes. The Sovereign Guide itself is a story of pilgrimage by an unnamed narrator through the interior of the earth, which is the source of the biblical Eden. Miller’s treatment of Eden and church history strays wildly from contemporary Catholic beliefs, and had the author of the Herald column actually read The Sovereign Guide, he would not have mistaken Miller for aught else but a Protestant with strong connections to Spiritualism.


[1] J. Freeman Cook, ‘Remarkable Achievements of William Miller, Blind and Deaf’, Los Angeles Herald Sunday Supplement (20 September 1903), p. 2

[2] William Amos Miller, ‘Autobiographical Sketch of William Amos Miller; The Deaf-Blind Story Writer of Los Angeles’, The Silent Worker (vol. 16, no. 7), p. 107.

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