A Study of the Hollow Earth

Exploring forgotten realms of literature

“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.

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