A Study of the Hollow Earth

Exploring forgotten realms of literature

Archive for the tag “nineteenth century literature”

A Brief Lecture on Mark Twain: “Cannibalism in the Cars”

There is not a great deal that we can say about Mark Twain (born Samuel Clemens) that he did not say about himself. The first volume of his autobiography is 743 pages. There are two more to follow. Per his wishes, and in classic Twain style, he ordered that his complete work on himself not be published until a century after his death. So I hope you have some idea by what I mean when I say it is utterly impossible to cover even an iota of Twain’s life, accomplishments and philosophy here in 20 minutes.

It is funny that we find ourselves sitting here today to discuss classics by the likes of Mark Twain. As he put it: ‘’Classic.’ A book which people praise and don’t read’. But we do still read him, at every level, and continue to enjoy him, because what Twain wrote, his observations of man, religion, politics and society, even over a century later still rings true with us.

But, to start at the beginning, to ensure you leave here with enough information to possibly win a themed pub quiz, Samuel Clemens was born on November 30, 1835 under the glow of Halley’s Comet, in the state of Missouri along the Mississippi river, which would play such a pivotal role in his life, even after he settled in New York. He was the sixth of seven children, only four of whom survived into adulthood, and when his father died of pneumonia when he was only 11, young Sam became a printer’s apprentice. In 1851 he went to work for his brother Orion’s newspaper, the Hannibal Journal, as a typesetter and contributor of articles and humorous sketches. At the age of 18, Sam left Missouri, travelling around the eastern United States and working in Cincinnati, Philadelphia, New York City and Saint Louis. In the evenings he would sit in public libraries, educating himself. ‘Don’t let schooling interfere with your education’ is one of his oft remembered parables.

While travelling to New Orleans on a steamboat, Sam became enthralled with the idea of being a steamboat pilot. He spent more than two years learning two thousand miles of the Mississippi river, its currents and banks and inlets, before earning his license in 1859. This is where we finally get to start calling Sam by the name he is best known by: Mark Twain, ‘mark twain’ being old steamboat slang for a river depth of two fathoms, or 12 feet. This is also the time when Twain confronts one of his first great tragedies, the death of his little brother Henry, whom he had convinced to join him on the river, in 1858 on the steamboat Pennsylvania when it exploded. Twain claims to have foreseen his brother’s death a month earlier in a dream, and this spurred a lifelong interest in parapsychology. Though guilt-ridden, Twain carried on as a steamboat pilot until the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1862, when travel along the Mississippi river was greatly hampered.

Though rumoured to have spent two weeks as a Confederate soldier (although Twain would later claim to be a staunch abolitionist) he had little interest in dying for anyone and Twain took off for the unsettled Western frontier, joining his brother Orion in the Nevada territory. Failing as miner of silver, Twain took up work at the Territorial Enterprise newspaper, where he started to write humorous accounts of his travels to the West, and signing them with the nom de plume by which we know him so well.

He moved on to San Francisco, California in 1864 and a year later wrote his first nationally successful story, ‘The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County’. In 1866 he was sent o Hawaii as a travel report, and in 1867 to the Mediterranean. Initially, Mark Twain’s fame came not from his fiction, but from his comedic accounts of his travels, which were consumed by the American public. When he returned to the United States, the Scroll and Key Society of Yale University made him an honorary member. Twain was not yet 33, but already a nationally renowned writer.

By February of 1870, Twain married Olivia Langdon (from a wealthy, liberal family) and settled down in Buffalo, New York, then Hartford, Connecticut, after the couple’s only son, Langdon, died of diphtheria at 19 months. Twain would go on to outlive two of his three daughters, and his wife Olivia, which probably what prompted him to one say: ‘The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.’ And for all of his humour, Mark Twain was indeed a sad man, who knew a lifetime of sorrows, and is said to have been depressed for much of his later years. He died of a heart attack on April 21, 1910, right when he said that he would: “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.” He died within 24 hours of the comet’s closest approach to Earth. The nation mourned his passing, and his surviving daughter placed a twelve foot long (id est: ‘mark twain’) marker at his grave. In his lifetime he championed abolition, suffrage for women, civil rights (going so far as to putting at least two African Americans through university), was an ardent anti-imperialist and anti-vivisectionist, and always with humour did he remind his readers of the many failings of man, god, and the government.

‘Humor must not professedly teach and it must not professedly preach, but it must do both if it would live forever.’

Mark Twain’s humour is what he is most remembered for. Among his many quotable quotes (and Twain is perhaps one of the most quoted of any American in history, with several web pages dedicated just to his clever quips) Twain once said ‘Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.’ Comedy has the power to topple the powerful. Humour is a hallmark of American politics, and no one did it better than Mark Twain: ‘The political…morals of the United States are not merely food for laughter, they are an entire banquet.’ He had little regard for U.S. politicians, paying them the backhanded compliment that ‘we have the best government money can buy’, and marked that ‘it could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native criminal class except Congress.’ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts annually awards the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor to such comedic luminaries as Tina Fey and George Carlin who frequently target the vagaries and hypocrisies of politics: ‘Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.’ Nothing better embodied this mordant view of American politics than his short story “Cannibalism on the Cars”, in which men stranded on a snow-bound democratically select who it to be eaten.

cannibalism-in-the-cars

 CANNIBALISM IN THE CARS

I visited St. Louis lately, and on my way West, after changing cars at Terre Haute, Indiana, a mild, benevolent-looking gentleman of about forty-five, or maybe fifty, came in at one of the way-stations and sat down beside me. We talked together pleasantly on various subjects for an hour, perhaps, and I found him exceedingly intelligent and entertaining. When he learned that I was from Washington, he immediately began to ask questions about various public men, and about Congressional affairs; and I saw very shortly that I was conversing with a man who was perfectly familiar with the ins and outs of political life at the Capital, even to the ways and manners, and customs of procedure of Senators and Representatives in the Chambers of the national Legislature. Presently two men halted near us for a single moment, and one said to the other:

“Harris, if you’ll do that for me, I’ll never forget you, my boy.”

My new comrade’s eye lighted pleasantly. The words had touched upon a happy memory, I thought. Then his face settled into thoughtfulness– almost into gloom. He turned to me and said,

“Let me tell you a story; let me give you a secret chapter of my life– a chapter that has never been referred to by me since its events transpired. Listen patiently, and promise that you will not interrupt me.”

I said I would not, and he related the following strange adventure, speaking sometimes with animation, sometimes with melancholy, but always with feeling and earnestness.

THE STRANGER’S NARRATIVE

“On the 19th of December, 1853, I started from St. Louis on the evening train bound for Chicago. There were only twenty-four passengers, all told. There were no ladies and no children. We were in excellent spirits, and pleasant acquaintanceships were soon formed. The journey bade fair to be a happy one; and no individual in the party, I think, had even the vaguest presentiment of the horrors we were soon to undergo.

“At 11 P.m. it began to snow hard. Shortly after leaving the small village of Welden, we entered upon that tremendous prairie solitude that stretches its leagues on leagues of houseless dreariness far away toward the jubilee Settlements. The winds, unobstructed by trees or hills, or even vagrant rocks, whistled fiercely across the level desert, driving the falling snow before it like spray from the crested waves of a stormy sea. The snow was deepening fast; and we knew, by the diminished speed of the train, that the engine was plowing through it with steadily increasing difficulty. Indeed, it almost came to a dead halt sometimes, in the midst of great drifts that piled themselves like colossal graves across the track. Conversation began to flag. Cheerfulness gave place to grave concern. The possibility of being imprisoned in the snow, on the bleak prairie, fifty miles from any house, presented itself to every mind, and extended its depressing influence over every spirit.

“At two o’clock in the morning I was aroused out of an uneasy slumber by the ceasing of all motion about me. The appalling truth flashed upon me instantly–we were captives in a snow-drift! ‘All hands to the rescue!’ Every man sprang to obey. Out into the wild night, the pitchy darkness, the billowy snow, the driving storm, every soul leaped, with the consciousness that a moment lost now might bring destruction to us all. Shovels, hands, boards–anything, everything that could displace snow, was brought into instant requisition. It was a weird picture, that small company of frantic men fighting the banking snows, half in the blackest shadow and half in the angry light of the locomotive’s reflector.

“One short hour sufficed to prove the utter uselessness of our efforts. The storm barricaded the track with a dozen drifts while we dug one away. And worse than this, it was discovered that the last grand charge the engine had made upon the enemy had broken the fore-and-aft shaft of the driving-wheel! With a free track before us we should still have been helpless. We entered the car wearied with labor, and very sorrowful. We gathered about the stoves, and gravely canvassed our situation. We had no provisions whatever–in this lay our chief distress. We could not freeze, for there was a good supply of wood in the tender. This was our only comfort. The discussion ended at last in accepting the disheartening decision of the conductor, viz., that it would be death for any man to attempt to travel fifty miles on foot through snow like that. We could not send for help, and even if we could it would not come. We must submit, and await, as patiently as we might, succor or starvation! I think the stoutest heart there felt a momentary chill when those words were uttered.

“Within the hour conversation subsided to a low murmur here and there about the car, caught fitfully between the rising and falling of the blast; the lamps grew dim; and the majority of the castaways settled themselves among the flickering shadows to think–to forget the present, if they could–to sleep, if they might.

“The eternal night – it surely seemed eternal to us – wore its lagging hours away at last, and the cold gray dawn broke in the east. As the light grew stronger the passengers began to stir and give signs of life, one after another, and each in turn pushed his slouched hat up from his forehead, stretched his stiffened limbs, and glanced out of the windows upon the cheerless prospect. It was cheer less, indeed!-not a living thing visible anywhere, not a human habitation; nothing but a vast white desert; uplifted sheets of snow drifting hither and thither before the wind–a world of eddying flakes shutting out the firmament above.

“All day we moped about the cars, saying little, thinking much. Another lingering dreary night–and hunger.

“Another dawning–another day of silence, sadness, wasting hunger, hopeless watching for succor that could not come. A night of restless slumber, filled with dreams of feasting–wakings distressed with the gnawings of hunger.

“The fourth day came and went–and the fifth! Five days of dreadful imprisonment! A savage hunger looked out at every eye. There was in it a sign of awful import–the foreshadowing of a something that was vaguely shaping itself in every heart–a something which no tongue dared yet to frame into words.

“The sixth day passed–the seventh dawned upon as gaunt and haggard and hopeless a company of men as ever stood in the shadow of death. It must out now! That thing which had been growing up in every heart was ready to leap from every lip at last! Nature had been taxed to the utmost–she must yield. RICHARD H. GASTON of Minnesota, tall, cadaverous, and pale, rose up. All knew what was coming. All prepared–every emotion, every semblance of excitement–was smothered–only a calm, thoughtful seriousness appeared in the eyes that were lately so wild.

“‘Gentlemen: It cannot be delayed longer! The time is at hand! We must determine which of us shall die to furnish food for the rest!’

“MR. JOHN J. WILLIAMS of Illinois rose and said: ‘Gentlemen–I nominate the Rev. James Sawyer of Tennessee.’

“MR. Wm. R. ADAMS of Indiana said: ‘I nominate Mr. Daniel Slote of New York.’

“MR. CHARLES J. LANGDON: ‘I nominate Mr. Samuel A. Bowen of St. Louis.’

“MR. SLOTE: ‘Gentlemen–I desire to decline in favor of Mr. John A. Van Nostrand, Jun., of New Jersey.’

“MR. GASTON: ‘If there be no objection, the gentleman’s desire will be acceded to.’

“MR. VAN NOSTRAND objecting, the resignation of Mr. Slote was rejected. The resignations of Messrs. Sawyer and Bowen were also offered, and refused upon the same grounds.

“MR. A. L. BASCOM of Ohio: ‘I move that the nominations now close, and that the House proceed to an election by ballot.’

“MR. SAWYER: ‘Gentlemen–I protest earnestly against these proceedings. They are, in every way, irregular and unbecoming. I must beg to move that they be dropped at once, and that we elect a chairman of the meeting and proper officers to assist him, and then we can go on with the business before us understandingly.’

“MR. BELL of Iowa: ‘Gentlemen–I object. This is no time to stand upon forms and ceremonious observances. For more than seven days we have been without food. Every moment we lose in idle discussion increases our distress. I am satisfied with the nominations that have been made–every gentleman present is, I believe–and I, for one, do not see why we should not proceed at once to elect one or more of them. I wish to offer a resolution–‘

“MR. GASTON: ‘It would be objected to, and have to lie over one day under the rules, thus bringing about the very delay you wish to avoid. The gentleman from New Jersey–‘

“MR. VAN NOSTRAND: ‘Gentlemen–I am a stranger among you; I have not sought the distinction that has been conferred upon me, and I feel a delicacy–‘

“MR. MORGAN Of Alabama (interrupting): ‘I move the previous question.’

“The motion was carried, and further debate shut off, of course. The motion to elect officers was passed, and under it Mr. Gaston was chosen chairman, Mr. Blake, secretary, Messrs. Holcomb, Dyer, and Baldwin a committee on nominations, and Mr. R. M. Howland, purveyor, to assist the committee in making selections.

“A recess of half an hour was then taken, and some little caucusing followed. At the sound of the gavel the meeting reassembled, and the committee reported in favor of Messrs. George Ferguson of Kentucky, Lucien Herrman of Louisiana, and W. Messick of Colorado as candidates. The report was accepted.

“MR. ROGERS of Missouri: ‘Mr. President The report being properly before the House now, I move to amend it by substituting for the name of Mr. Herrman that of Mr. Lucius Harris of St. Louis, who is well and honorably known to us all. I do not wish to be understood as casting the least reflection upon the high character and standing of the gentleman from Louisiana far from it. I respect and esteem him as much as any gentleman here present possibly can; but none of us can be blind to the fact that he has lost more flesh during the week that we have lain here than any among us–none of us can be blind to the fact that the committee has been derelict in its duty, either through negligence or a graver fault, in thus offering for our suffrages a gentleman who, however pure his own motives may be, has really less nutriment in him–‘

“THE CHAIR: ‘The gentleman from Missouri will take his seat. The Chair cannot allow the integrity of the committee to be questioned save by the regular course, under the rules. What action will the House take upon the gentleman’s motion?’

“MR. HALLIDAY of Virginia: ‘I move to further amend the report by substituting Mr. Harvey Davis of Oregon for Mr. Messick. It may be urged by gentlemen that the hardships and privations of a frontier life have rendered Mr. Davis tough; but, gentlemen, is this a time to cavil at toughness? Is this a time to be fastidious concerning trifles? Is this a time to dispute about matters of paltry significance? No, gentlemen, bulk is what we desire–substance, weight, bulk–these are the supreme requisites now–not talent, not genius, not education. I insist upon my motion.’

“MR. MORGAN (excitedly): ‘Mr. Chairman–I do most strenuously object to this amendment. The gentleman from Oregon is old, and furthermore is bulky only in bone–not in flesh. I ask the gentleman from Virginia if it is soup we want instead of solid sustenance? if he would delude us with shadows? if he would mock our suffering with an Oregonian specter? I ask him if he can look upon the anxious faces around him, if he can gaze into our sad eyes, if he can listen to the beating of our expectant hearts, and still thrust this famine-stricken fraud upon us? I ask him if he can think of our desolate state, of our past sorrows, of our dark future, and still unpityingly foist upon us this wreck, this ruin, this tottering swindle, this gnarled and blighted and sapless vagabond from Oregon’s hospitable shores? Never!’ [Applause.]

“The amendment was put to vote, after a fiery debate, and lost. Mr. Harris was substituted on the first amendment. The balloting then began. Five ballots were held without a choice. On the sixth, Mr. Harris was elected, all voting for him but himself. It was then moved that his election should be ratified by acclamation, which was lost, in consequence of his again voting against himself.

“MR. RADWAY moved that the House now take up the remaining candidates, and go into an election for breakfast. This was carried.

“On the first ballot–there was a tie, half the members favoring one candidate on account of his youth, and half favoring the other on account of his superior size. The President gave the casting vote for the latter, Mr. Messick. This decision created considerable dissatisfaction among the friends of Mr. Ferguson, the defeated candidate, and there was some talk of demanding a new ballot; but in the midst of it a motion to adjourn was carried, and the meeting broke up at once.

“The preparations for supper diverted the attention of the Ferguson faction from the discussion of their grievance for a long time, and then, when they would have taken it up again, the happy announcement that Mr. Harris was ready drove all thought of it to the winds.

“We improvised tables by propping up the backs of car-seats, and sat down with hearts full of gratitude to the finest supper that had blessed our vision for seven torturing days. How changed we were from what we had been a few short hours before! Hopeless, sad-eyed misery, hunger, feverish anxiety, desperation, then; thankfulness, serenity, joy too deep for utterance now. That I know was the cheeriest hour of my eventful life. The winds howled, and blew the snow wildly about our prison house, but they were powerless to distress us any more. I liked Harris. He might have been better done, perhaps, but I am free to say that no man ever agreed with me better than Harris, or afforded me so large a degree of satisfaction. Messick was very well, though rather high-flavored, but for genuine nutritiousness and delicacy of fiber, give me Harris. Messick had his good points–I will not attempt to deny it, nor do I wish to do it but he was no more fitted for breakfast than a mummy would be, sir–not a bit. Lean?–why, bless me!–and tough? Ah, he was very tough! You could not imagine it–you could never imagine anything like it.”

“Do you mean to tell me that–”

“Do not interrupt me, please. After breakfast we elected a man by the name of Walker, from Detroit, for supper. He was very good. I wrote his wife so afterward. He was worthy of all praise. I shall always remember Walker. He was a little rare, but very good. And then the next morning we had Morgan of Alabama for breakfast. He was one of the finest men I ever sat down to handsome, educated, refined, spoke several languages fluently a perfect gentleman he was a perfect gentleman, and singularly juicy. For supper we had that Oregon patriarch, and he was a fraud, there is no question about it–old, scraggy, tough, nobody can picture the reality. I finally said, gentlemen, you can do as you like, but I will wait for another election. And Grimes of Illinois said, ‘Gentlemen, I will wait also. When you elect a man that has something to recommend him, I shall be glad to join you again.’ It soon became evident that there was general dissatisfaction with Davis of Oregon, and so, to preserve the good will that had prevailed so pleasantly since we had had Harris, an election was called, and the result of it was that Baker of Georgia was chosen. He was splendid! Well, well–after that we had Doolittle, and Hawkins, and McElroy (there was some complaint about McElroy, because he was uncommonly short and thin), and Penrod, and two Smiths, and Bailey (Bailey had a wooden leg, which was clear loss, but he was otherwise good), and an Indian boy, and an organ-grinder, and a gentleman by the name of Buckminster–a poor stick of a vagabond that wasn’t any good for company and no account for breakfast. We were glad we got him elected before relief came.”

“And so the blessed relief did come at last?”

“Yes, it came one bright, sunny morning, just after election. John Murphy was the choice, and there never was a better, I am willing to testify; but John Murphy came home with us, in the train that came to succor us, and lived to marry the widow Harris–”

“Relict of–”

“Relict of our first choice. He married her, and is happy and respected and prosperous yet. Ah, it was like a novel, sir–it was like a romance. This is my stopping-place, sir; I must bid you goodby. Any time that you can make it convenient to tarry a day or two with me, I shall be glad to have you. I like you, sir; I have conceived an affection for you. I could like you as well as I liked Harris himself, sir. Good day, sir, and a pleasant journey.”

He was gone. I never felt so stunned, so distressed, so bewildered in my life. But in my soul I was glad he was gone. With all his gentleness of manner and his soft voice, I shuddered whenever he turned his hungry eye upon me; and when I heard that I had achieved his perilous affection, and that I stood almost with the late Harris in his esteem, my heart fairly stood still!

I was bewildered beyond description. I did not doubt his word; I could not question a single item in a statement so stamped with the earnestness of truth as his; but its dreadful details overpowered me, and threw my thoughts into hopeless confusion. I saw the conductor looking at me. I said, “Who is that man?”

“He was a member of Congress once, and a good one. But he got caught in a snow-drift in the cars, and like to have been starved to death. He got so frost-bitten and frozen up generally, and used up for want of something to eat, that he was sick and out of his head two or three months afterward. He is all right now, only he is a monomaniac, and when he gets on that old subject he never stops till he has eat up that whole car-load of people he talks about. He would have finished the crowd by this time, only he had to get out here. He has got their names as pat as A B C. When he gets them all eat up but himself, he always says: ‘Then the hour for the usual election for breakfast having arrived; and there being no opposition, I was duly elected, after which, there being no objections offered, I resigned. Thus I am here.'”

I felt inexpressibly relieved to know that I had only been listening to the harmless vagaries of a madman instead of the genuine experiences of a bloodthirsty cannibal.

-THE END-

 

 

 

 

 

 

The (In)Cedible Sherlock Holmes: Ironic Belief and the Metanarrative of the Modern Pastiche

When Sherlock Holmes made his debut on the stage of late-Victorian London he was a figure distinctly born of his day – and still is, though in an ever-expanding literary universe of his peers. Arthur Conan Doyle kept the world of Sherlock Holmes quite separate from most of the individuals and events of his era; he believed his tales to be ‘distraction from the worries of life’ that existed in ‘the fairy kingdom of romance’ (Doyle, 2004: 249). Sherlock existed in a recognisable fin de siècle London, but he did not rub shoulders with celebrities like Oscar Wilde, or criminals like Jack the Ripper, figures we know to have existed in the same space-time continuum. Copyright prevented Sherlock from hunting Dr. Jekyll or joining Van Helsing. In the last century, though, as Sherlock-inspired literature has flooded the market, the greatest detective in the world has become something else: a literary spirit guide to characters – both factual and fictional – of the Victorian and Edwardian chronotope (Cawthorne, 2011: vii).

Exactly how we approach this fusion of worlds and characters is best described by Michael Saler’s idea of the ‘ironic believer’,1 those ‘who were not so much willingly suspending their disbelief in a fictional character as willingly believing in him with the double-minded awareness that they were engaged in pretence’ (Saler, 2003: 606) – a form of complicit Orwellian doublethink without the sinister implications. In this context, Saler was referring to contemporary readers of the Holmes stories, but this same idea of ‘double-minded awareness’ still applies to the modern readers of Holmesian pastiches. Dr. Freud never mentioned working with a British detective in his notes; Queen Victoria’s secretaries never recorded a visit with a Mr. Sherlock Holmes; and yet, these are perfectly natural figures to appear in new cases because they would surely have met Holmes had he been real. There is little need to stretch the imagination into accepting these meetings, and it was merely an act of discretion that kept Watson from making these cases public sooner. Writers wishing to engage Holmes with his other fictional contemporaries require a slightly different approach. In wanting Holmes to be real – even if we are fully aware that he is not – steps must be taken to submerge our imaginations into a unified world where Sherlock Holmes and Dracula, Doyle and Stoker could be manifested. There must also be a reason for Conan Doyle/Watson to never have related these adventures before now either.

To this end, not all but many2 of the Holmes pastiches published in the last four decades have followed a two-fold reader-immersion process to satisfy the ironic believer: 1) in a preface, the author relegates the self to ‘editor’ of the found manuscript, and 2) Watson must explain the reason for narrative discrepancies (i.e. why did Robert Louis Stevenson never mention Sherlock Holmes in his account of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?), and present the ‘true’ story to the reader, who has now had their reasons to disbelieve assuaged. A new literary world is created in these two types of stories, one in which Holmes is ‘real’, and so are his contemporaries. Umberto Eco describes the need for ‘a completely furnished world’ in order to transformation of a much-loved cultural object into a ‘cult object’ so that ‘fans can quote characters and episodes as if they were aspects of the fan’s private sectarian world.’ This is not enough, though, as fans must also be free ‘to break, dislocate, unhinge’ (Eco, 1986: 197-8) this created world, allowing them to explore it, to expand it, to reshape it according to their own designs and understandings of the world. Thus, we can take almost the whole of fin de siècle writing, then, and fold it into a universe where Sherlock Holmes is both the centre and the gatekeeper. As readers of these new Sherlock productions, we ‘believe’ – with mental tongue in cheek – that the Watson telling the story of Sherlock Holmes’s encounter with Jack the Ripper is the same Watson who told us about Sherlock Holmes’s encounter with the Baskerville hound. Each of these must be unified in the same man for readers intellectually, or else there is no consistency and no reason to believe.

With that caveat, it must be stated that there are several forms of Sherlock Holmes that do not fit under this study, such as the animated show Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century (1999-2001) or the Young Sherlock Holmes series by Andrew Lane, which remove the character from his recognisable fin de siècle temporal situation. Sherlock Holmes does not aid MI6 in the Cold War; he does not wax despairingly on nuclear weapons; he does not eye the moon landing with his traditional indifference toward non-criminal trivialities; and Dr Watson is not a robot. These uses of Holmes break the reader’s faith in the author’s in situ world-building. For all of the flexibility extended to these novels in terms of literary and historical characterisation, there are in place some firm boundaries to the time and space of Holmes and Watson.

 

The First Believers

The reason Sherlock Holmes can be written as a semi-corporeal figure of history is because of the uniqueness of his status as ‘the first character in modern literature to be widely treated as if he were real and his creator fictitious’ (Saler, 2003: 600). Even while Conan Doyle was still alive others were taking up the pen to write their own Holmes mysteries for print and stage. Readers in London wore black armbands to mourn the death of Sherlock Holmes after the publication of ‘The Final Problem’. The character captured the imagination of the country, who viewed him as a man no different from themselves but for his preternatural cleverness. The stage actor William Gillette created the iconic image of a lean man in a deerstalker cap with a calabash pipe (not exactly how Conan Doyle wrote Holmes, but a convenient stage persona). Doyle cared so little for his creation that when Gillette wrote to Doyle asking permission to write his own plays for the character, Doyle responded ‘You may marry or murder or do what you like with him’ (Davies, 2001: 15). However, even Doyle himself acknowledged that it was Gillette who ‘changed a creature of thin air into an absolutely convincing human being’ (Green, 1983: 293). It is this willingness on Doyle’s part to relinquish his creation to the public sphere and give Holmes an avatar in Gillette which contributed to Holmes becoming such a well-known figure. Spreading Holmes beyond the confines of the Strand also gave him a greater presence in society, contributing to the belief that such a man could be real. Scholarly studies, articles and biographies filled in some of the gaps that Doyle left, carefully researched pieces that kept Holmes and Watson within the plausible world.

Many of these extended creations tried to work within the canon established by Conan Doyle; his own son, Adrian, and mystery writer John Dickson Carr, wrote a collection of short stories, The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes (1952), based upon the ‘unwritten’ cases. The end of each story is accompanied by a small clue from the canonical piece that inspired the story: ‘Among those unfinished tales is that of Mr. James Phillimore, who, stepping back into his own house to get his umbrella, was never more seen in this world.’ This is a line from the short story ‘The Problem of Thor Bridge’, which led to Conan Doyle the Younger (and Carr) to write ‘The Highgate Miracle’, filling in this piece of back-story, a throw-away line fleshing out Holmes’s life, to be picked up later.

Other ostensibly ‘non-fiction’ pieces tried to accomplish the same world-building, such as William Baring-Gould’s Mr. Holmes of Baker Street (1962), which provided an entire history of Holmes, dating not just his canonical adventures, but the Adrian Conan Doyle/Carr tales and the theoretical family history of Holmes and Watson speculated upon by other writers of Sherlockiana. Many modern writers offer thanks to Baring-Gould and other Sherlockian scholars for their assiduous research, which help to maintain consistency in their own stories.3 Constancy is part of playing The Game of believing in Sherlock Holmes. Starting decades ago, and continued to the present, we find an assiduous cognition on the part of many authors that they are trespassing in an orchard not theirs, but nonetheless one in which they still hope to cultivate their own seedlings that will bear a fruit indistinguishable from the old trees. Consider the subtitle to Ernest B. Zeisler’s Baker Street Chronology: ‘Commentaries on the Sacred Writings of Dr. John H. Watson’ (1953); ‘Sacred’ is a very leading word choice, indicating a sacrosanct status of the canonical works, attributed not to Conan Doyle, but to Watson. These are not writing to be shoddily handled, but brought to life via the ‘love’ Eco stresses. The ‘ironic believer’ loves Holmes enough to play ‘The Game’ of pretending he is real, and stretching their imaginations to encompass both Conan Doyle’s canon and the works of Sherlockain scholars. All of this is enough to generate the ‘naïve believer’ who cannot distinguish between the fact and fiction of Holmes’s world.

The last quarter of the twentieth century, though, saw a change in this Sherlockian literary philosophy of not straying far beyond the canon, not the least of which can be credited to the handing off of the Conan Doyle estate from Adrian to his sister Jean in 1970 (who was far more lenient in allowing others to use her father’s work) and the gradual expiration of copyright on Sherlock Holmes, and, importantly, of other literary works. Holmes was no longer restricted to his own literary history, but was being given the opportunity to interact with history itself. The expansion of Holmes into the larger fin de siècle world was underway.

 

Sherlock + Historical Figures

The significance of this era can be seen in recent collections like Encounters of Sherlock Holmes (2013) edited by George Mann and Professor Moriarty: Hound of the D’Urbervilles (2011) by Kim Newman, which deliberately set out to bring fictional entities into the semi-real world of Holmes, and to fictionalise real individuals in the same setting. This is part of a pattern that has emerged since the 1974 publication of Nicholas Meyer’s international bestseller The Seven-per-cent Solution: the synthesis of the literary Sherlock Holmes with contemporary figures known to us in our own history. In the first of Meyer’s pastiches, Dr Watson and Dr Sigmund Freud conspire to cure Holmes of his cocaine addiction. A dumbfounded ‘What?’ is likely to be the reader’s initial reaction. What does it mean that Sherlock Holmes, a product of fiction for all intents and purposes, knew Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychology? Here we have two worlds colliding: Freud is being given a fictional life, and at the same time, Holmes is being pulled closer to our reality. There was even a letter sent to 221b Baker Street, inquiring as to the veracity of The Seven-per-cent Solution, to which the Abbey National Building Society (residents of that address as the time) responded quite simply: ‘Mr. Holmes has asked me to write to you with the information that The Seven-per-cent Solution is based on other stories and thus is authentic in one sense’ (Green, 1985: 231). Meyer’s work is being given authenticity ‘in one sense’ by the read secretaries assigned to answer the real letters sent to a fictional character at a real address. How does a man, a character, wrapped in their own solipsism, ever attain more reality than that? Even Dr John H. Watson has an author page on Amazon.com with over seventy titles accredited to him, giving him a digital existence; this is more than most (real) authors can claim. Despite modern creativity, though, the possibility of this continued existence goes back to the creator.

Conan Doyle cultivated a fertile field in which others could cavort with Holmes and Watson, leaving scattered clue for others to pick up on; ‘the giant rat of Sumatra’ and ‘the singular case of the aluminium crutch’, for example, remained behind after Conan Doyle died, and later writers could solve these cases to the best of their imaginations. This also allowed Watson the opportunity to leave behind ‘unpublished manuscripts’ (most in a tin box at Cox’s Bank) that others might find, edit, and publish themselves. Playing on the idea that Holmes was as real as his creator, and that Conan Doyle was only half of a literary team (Watson being the other half) then those works not passed on by Watson to his literary agent Conan Doyle are free to be ‘discovered’. Where the original stories employed no framing technique and simply launched into Watson’s narrative with a scene-setting paragraph, many of the modern novels must provide us with a frame that includes introductions by our so-called editors explaining how they came into possession of a Watsonian original. Watson himself must also leave us an explanation as to why these cases were not published after he recorded them. All of this is to engage the senses of the ironic believer: we know that it is not true, but we and the author engage in a game of mutual credulity. The author is taking Conan Doyle’s place, not necessarily as author, but as agent.

Meyer begins The Seven-per-cent Solution with a telling subtitle: ‘Being a reprint from the reminiscences of John H. Watson, M.D. / as edited by Nicholas Meyer.’ Meyer has disavowed himself of being the author of anything except the Forward and footnotes that permeate the tale and occasionally remove us from the nineteenth century and move us into twentieth century speculation. Meyer’s forward starts by addressing possible reader incredulity: ‘The discovery of an unpublished manuscript by John H. Watson may well engender in the world of letters as much scepticism as surprise. It is easier to conceive of the unearthing of one more Dead Sea Scroll than yet another text from the hand of that indefatigable biographer’ (Meyer, 1974: 9). He gives a history of the discovery of this manuscript, the efforts made to test its veracity, and his work at editing it for publication. The footnotes give either background to Sherlockian history (addressing references to other cases) or are Meyer engaging in speculation on the reader’s behalf: ‘Does this declaration suggest a reason why Watson never mentions his children, not even to state that he fathered any? N.M.’(Meyer, 1974: 121). Watson himself goes on to address readers and his reasons being persuaded that his particular tale ‘should never see the literary light of day’ (Meyer, 1974: 15). It is a two-step approach to fully submerge us into the universe controlled by Sherlock Holmes, one which continues to be emulated by other authors.

Meyer went on to pen two more novels, following his same pattern of two-fold immersion via editorial Forward and Watsonian Introduction: The West End Horror (1976) in which Holmes and Watson team with George Bernard Shaw to solve a series of murders linked to the West End stages, roping in additional cast in the likes of Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, and Gilbert and Sullivan. There are more ‘real’ characters among the cast than fictional. The Canary Trainer (1993) does something even more interesting: while Holmes is playing dead after ‘The Final Problem’, he becomes a violinist in Paris under the name Sigerson (something alluded to upon his return to London and literature in ‘The Empty House’) charged by Irene Adler with protecting one Christine Daaé from a certain Phantom of the Paris Opera, whore the orchestra is under the conduction of none other than Gaston Leroux. Now we have both the historical figure and his fictional creations coalescing in the Holmes metaverse. There is nothing supernatural to this Phantom, nothing that lies outside the realm of plausible: Meyer must rationalise every act, every trick, even if we know that Gaston Leroux is real, and his characters are not. If Gaston Leroux is real, but Leroux is appearing via the narrative portal of Sherlock Holmes, then there is a sense of reality bestowed upon the latter as the narrator of a portion of Leroux’s life and the inspiration for his most famous work.

A year after The Canary Trainer Sam Siciliano would follow with his own take on Leroux’s characters encountering Holmes, publishing The Angel of the Opera (1994), ‘written’ not by Watson, but Holmes’s cousin Dr Henry Vernier, whose Preface indicates a need to present readers with a Holmes that is ‘much more interesting’ and ‘much deeper’ (Siciliano, 1994: 7) than Watson’s stories ever revealed. This is excusing Siciliano’s deviations from the Watsonian perspective and canonical interpretation of Holmes’s character, while allowing for the fusion of two fictions. It is also set in the period of Holmes’s ‘absence’ following the Reichenbach Falls incident, but as Dr Vernier frames the story, Watson was angry with Holmes and a ‘major row separated them for several years. Watson was so angry that he promptly invented Moriarty and killed off my cousin’ (Siciliano, 1994: 8). Another explanation for Moriarty, Holmes’s apparent death, and how Holmes filled the intervening time. ‘The Final Problem’ is possibly one of the greatest (unintentional) gifts that Conan Doyle gave to fans of Sherlock Holmes and their Game.

Now that Meyer had provided a (highly successful) precedence for this intertwining of the historical and fictional, there was no stopping the not hundreds, but thousands, of pastiches that followed suit. ‘Pastiche’ may not always be the right word, however, as even a century ago, there was an objection raised to Sherlockian enthusiast Vincent Starrett that using the word ‘pastiche’ because it ‘has a derogatory sense, one of caricature’ (Starrett, 1968: 198) – and Sherlock Holmes is not to be reduced to a mere caricature in the eyes of the believer. Calling these neo-Holmesian stories ‘imitations’, though, would be also be a somewhat inaccurate designation: many are extension in an ever-expanding universe that has formed around one character of immense plausibility. In a Publisher’s Weekly cover story on the resurgence of Holmes in the last decade, there is a discussion with Sherlockian enthusiast Otto Penzler, who estimates that ‘more than half of recent published works put Holmes into conflict with vampires, werewolves, supervillains, and in futuristic settings’ (Picker, 2010: 19). These ‘genre bending’ works violate the traditional canon and the self-contained world of realism that attracted early followers, who considered Holmes to be as real as – or more real than – Doyle himself. But with the fictionalisation of so many historical characters to incorporate them into the universe of Holmes, it has become a more common practice to add some weight of reality to fictional characters, even those that occupy the boarders of the fantastic.

There are several other ‘historical’ fictions that feature Sherlock Holmes. The Stalwart Companions (1978) by H. Paul Jeffers revels in nearly twenty pages of authorial framing to set up an adventure between Holmes and future US president Theodore Roosevelt, steeped in so much historical research Jeffers provides footnotes for readers as Meyer did. Daniel Stashower’s The Ectoplasmic Man (1985) is a found-manuscript about Holmes’s case with Harry Houdini, a real-life friend of Conan Doyle, until they had a falling out over the latter’s spiritualist beliefs. In his ‘Editor’s Forward’ Stashower continues to play the ironic believer’s game with his readers, mentioning ‘that contemptible faction that insists Sherlock Holmes existed only in the mind of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. They are a spurious lot, surely’ (Stashower, 1985: 13). Following the two-fold immersion, there is then the ‘Author’s Forward’ in which Watson confesses to not publishing the account because ‘Houdini, always secretive concerning the details of his private life, forbade me to write of the matter within his lifetime’ (Stashower, 1985: 17-8). For the uninitiated ‘naive believer’ in Sherlock Holmes, it is possible to continue naively believing that Holmes may have indeed interacted with these figures of his chronotope; but it takes the ‘ironic believer’ to move with Holmes into the realm of his fictional contemporaries.

 

Sherlock + Fictional Characters

These novels, which combine Holmes with his literary contemporaries, are more likely to fall under that category of ‘pastiche’ as Conan Doyle’s creation must blend with another author’s. In the use of historical figures, the reason for excluding Holmes from their history is usually of one of discretion on the part of the detective and his chronicler toward the client. However, the approach to literary figures of history via the portal of Sherlock Holmes is addressed in two paths: one is a route tempered by the balm of sympathetic understanding on Watson’s part to the real authors’ predicaments of relating tales seemingly too fantastic for belief; the other, on the reverse, is the charge of deliberate falsification of the facts on the part of the ‘original’ author. As an example of the first, Loren D. Estleman’s Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Holmes (1979) uses Watson’s preface to state that

Holmes’s admonition to ‘be kind to Stevenson’ was unnecessary. Although it is true that Robert Louis Stevenson’s account of the singular circumstances surrounding the murder of Sir Danvers Carew contains numerous omissions, it is just as true that discretion, and not slovenliness, obliged him to withhold certain facts and to publish The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde under the guise of fiction. Victorian society simply would not have accepted it in any other form. (Estleman, 1979: 21)

This is the reverse of the track Estleman uses in Sherlock Holmes versus Dracula: or, The Adventure of the Sanguinary Count (1978). Watson also starts out by addressing the world of fiction which crosses into Sherlock’s world:

Before I begin my narrative, I feel that it is my duty to set the reader straight upon a number of erroneous statements made recently regarding the events therein described. I refer in particular to a surprising monograph which has enjoyed a certain amount of popularity since it first appeared some four months ago, authored by an Irishman by the name of Bram Stoker, and entitled Dracula.

…Although Holmes does not agree, it is my belief that Professor Van Helsing induced Stoker to deliberately falsify the facts where our line of investigation transacted his, in order to build up his own reputation as a supernatural detective, and to invent entire episodes to explain the discrepancies. (Estleman, 1978: 15)

Playing into the reader’s role of the ironic believer, it is not enough to simply filch a well-known literary character: their creator must be incorporated into the story, acknowledging the very fact of their creation. Discrepancy between original narrative and Watsonian interpretation of events must be accounted for in order to engage us in The Game of being ironic believers. We know Dr Jekyll, Mr Hyde, and Dracula – we have for over a hundred years – and Sherlock Holmes never met them until now. ‘Irony’ tells us they are meeting now because copyrights have expired and it makes for an exciting story; ‘Believability’ tells us they are meeting because in a nineteenth century world threatened by vampires and mad scientists, only Sherlock Holmes can save us.

The character of Dracula has appeared in dozens of Holmes pastiches since, but there is an interesting study by Daniel Cottom about these two figures – and their creators – about their representative significance in the fin de siècle. In ‘Sherlock Holmes Meets Dracula’ Cottom asserts

It need hardly be said that Stoker’s and Doyle’s protagonists never literally met, but this is not only because they happen to be fictional. The tales in which they live have incompatible premises, which represent two strains of the Gothic tradition. With Dracula we have an exploitation of otherworldy terrors in the tradition of Horace Walpole and Matthew Lewis, whereas Holmes updates the heritage of Ann Radcliffe, whose works dramatize eerie mysteries that are then all submitted to a rational explanation as her narratives draw to a close. (Cottom, 2012: 537)

Cottom is speaking of these two figures never meeting in their contemporary composition as bohemian products, but does not take into account their present connections. The human mind desires patterns and unity, and that includes fictions. Dracula and Holmes were in the same fictional London at the same time and therefore may have met. Many other authors seem to think so in their own pastiches: Séance for a Vampire (1994) by Fred Saberhagen; Sherlock Holmes and the Plague of Dracula (2007) by Stephen Seitz; and Sherlock Holmes and the Whitechapel Vampire (2012) by Dean P. Turnbloom meshes both the Dracula story and Jack the Ripper.

Dracula is not the only creature of questionable metaphysics Holmes encounters; the Martians of H.G. Wells have inspired more than one author. Sherlock Holmes’s War of the Worlds (1975) sees Holmes, Watson, and Doyle-creation Professor Challenger tackling the Martian invasion. Similar to Estleman’s use of criticism for Stoker, the Wellmans finish their account of extraterrestrial invasion with a letter from Watson to H.G. Wells, stating that the author ‘vastly exaggerated [his] own experiences, resorting sometimes to pure faking’ (Wellman, 1975: 224). Our role as ‘ironic believer’ is not to believe that Martians really came to Victorian England – because surely we would remember such a thing – but to believe that in a universe where, all else being equal, if both Sherlock Holmes and Martians existed, then Holmes would have defended Britain against the invaders. If someone (such as H.G. Wells) were to write a narrative about such an event that did not include the heroic actions of Sherlock Holmes, then they must be taken to task for such an omission and the true story told.

As far as can be discerned in the most popular pastiches (there being over 8000 on record as of 2010, far too many to read in a decade [Picker, 2010: 19]) Holmes does not meet any of his historical/fictional contemporaries that would have frequented Bloomsbury and fallen under the category of Modernist: Conrad and Marlow, Ford and Dowell, James and his Americans, et cetera. Instead, Holmes encounters those creations which occupy the liminalities of the Gothic threat to safety and order. What Cottom is saying (and present writers are unconsciously acknowledging) is that Sherlock Holmes has more in common with the fantastic than the Modernist. Dracula and Mr Hyde are dangerous to others; Marlow and Dowell are only threats to themselves. The existential musings of Modernist men and women unhappy about their world and laden with malaise can already be filled by Holmes when he is not on a case; there is no need for character repetition. Perhaps the inventions of Bloomsbury are too rooted in their own realistic world for even the ironic believer to accept their straying into the gothic world of Holmes.

 

Sherlock + Jack

There is certainly one piece of history that modern writers have tied Sherlock Holmes to more than any other: Jack the Ripper. The Last Sherlock Homes Story, Whitechapel: The Final Stand of Sherlock Holmes, Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson, The Whitechapel Horrors…These are just a few of the titles of Sherlock versus Jack. The case of Jack the Ripper occupies a unique space in the historical and fictional spheres of Holmes. The reality of five women murdered in Whitechapel in the autumn 1888 is undisputable; however, to solve the crime, to unmask Jack, must be a fiction. As the most infamous crime of the nineteenth century, it is all too tempting to have England’s most clever detective stop its most infamous criminal. But history tells us that Jack was never brought to justice: now he is not a man but an idea, a series of actions and results, speculations and newspaper articles, but Jack the Ripper can never be real to us in any literary form, or no more real than Sherlock Holmes himself. To pit these two characters against each other requires narrative acrobatics on the part of the author to explain why we have no identity for Jack the Ripper. To bring him to justice (whether Sherlock Holmes was the one to do it, or Detective Inspector Frederick Abberline) would be untrue to history. So how do modern authors navigate this historical and literary synthesis?

Michael Dibdin, in The Last Sherlock Holmes Story (1978)4 presents us with the traditional frame that has come into use: Watson’s lost manuscript is locked away until decades after his death, a piece never revealed to Arthur Conan Doyle, or ‘ACD’ as Watson refers to him throughout the novel. The ‘Editors’ provide a Forward explaining the discovery of Watson’s narrative, the disagreement about its publication and that some will ‘regret that two of the great mysteries of crime are finally solved, and will seek to discredit the solution’ (Dibdin, 1978: xiii). Dibdin method of uniting these facts and fictions is to cast Sherlock Holmes himself as the schizophrenic killer, as Holmes, Moriarty, and Jack the Ripper, all in one. And who is to say that Holmes was not the Ripper? Jack was never caught. Watson and Holmes – rather than Holmes and Moriarty – fight to the death at the Reichenbach Falls, and only Watson emerges, with a secret he must keep. Conan Doyle, unconcerned with the loss of his literary cash-cow, keeps writing Holmes stories, though there is no more Holmes, and no more input from Watson. Watson quietly goes along with this because he wants his friend to be remembered as ‘the best and wisest man’. Here we have the solution to the Whitechapel murders, an identity in the form of Moriarty generated by the split personality of Holmes, who did indeed die in Switzerland in 1891, the relationship between Watson and Conan Doyle is detailed, and the origin of the stories we know explained. There are no loose ends.

Bernard Schaffer’s Whitechapel (2011) is as much a detailed history of the actual murder investigation as it is a Sherlock Holmes story, using Holmes as a vehicle to explore genuine fact (in all its gory details) in pursuit of an answer. Schaffer sides with those theorists who blame the well-connected Montague Druitt, and it is those connections which keep Watson from publishing his full account with the solution to the murders. Lindsay Faye’s Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson (2009) presents a new solution to the crime, that in which it was a police officer assigned to the investigation, but Faye can do this while still remaining within established fact – besides the presence of Sherlock Holmes on the case. All of these tales walk us through one of the most documented crimes in history, using the characters of Holmes and Watson to solve the unsolvable.

Why did Arthur Conan Doyle never discuss Jack with Sherlock and his readers, though? In an essay by Jon Lellenberg that follows Caleb Carr’s Holmesian pastiche The Italian Secretary, Lellenberg hypothesises:

There is a reason why Sherlock Holmes never investigates a series of murders resembling the Jack the Ripper case of 1888, and that Dr Conan Doyle, interested in real-life crime normally, never appears to have studied or discussed it either. Some things are unspeakable except in terms of a psychology that Sherlock Holmes would have shrunk from embracing of his own accord, so repulsive its philosophical implications might have seemed to him. (Lellenberg, 2005: 274)

Theft, fraud, and the occasional homicide inspired by vengeance or inheritance were far more acceptable for Conan Doyle (and Holmes) to contemplate than the unfathomable ruthlessness of a serial killer. In Judith Flanders’s study The Invention of Murder, she notes that while some of Sherlock’s early adventures were quite violent, they turned later to the ‘quirky, even whimsical’ and that this is perhaps why Holmes remained so popular: ‘There was enough blood, enough violence, in Whitechapel’ (Flanders, 2011: 438-9). Holmes can keep away the shadows of danger that haunt the streets (and pages) of late-Victorian London, then and now.

 

Conclusion

Why Sherlock Holmes? Why is he our literary spirit guide to this era? That in itself is an entire PhD thesis, but Cottom makes an interesting insight into the canonical character: ‘In the world as Doyle portrays it, Sherlock Holmes is the only subject who can be supposed to know. No one else can enter into, communicate with, and comprehend all parts of society as he can’ (Cottom, 2012: 559). Pastiche writers of today can move Holmes beyond his self-contained universe and into the realms of history and literature, because if anyone was to know everyone in the fin de siècle (and be able to tell us the truth of them) it would be Sherlock Holmes.

I started out calling Holmes a literary Virgil, guiding us through the contemporary texts and events of Conan Doyle’s time. Type ‘Sherlock Holmes’ into Amazon and you will find scores of Holmes-related texts published every year, feeding this expanding universe. Sometimes we are still permitted to enjoy Holmes for himself – id est, Anthony Horowitz’s recent bestseller The House of Silk (2011) approved by the Conan Doyle estate, and engaging with neither historical or literary characters and remaining contained within the canonical world of Holmes himself. But this is an exception to the published Holmes stories of the last four decades, which have chosen instead to engage not just Holmes, but the whole of the late-Victorian and Edwardian eras as source material to build their narratives. The employment of Holmes in these narratives is not just about telling us a new Sherlock Holmes story: these are about moving Holmes into a wider engagement with history, and at the same time, pulling history into the world of Holmes, building verisimilitude for the potential existence of Holmes. Sherlock Holmes is a figure that has come to permeate so much of our culture (passing the boundaries of pure-fictionality) that it is legitimate to sit back and philosophically consider how real Sherlock Holmes is or may have been. He has become a focal point around which to construct an entirely believable historical universe, walking us through London’s foggy streets and introducing us to both Queen Victoria and Mr Hyde.

 

Notes

  1. As opposed to the ‘naïve believer’, who does not know any better.
  2. There are too many pastiches to be read these days, so for the most part this paper is focused on the Sherlock Holmes novels that come from reputable pens and publishers, rather than tiny presses, ebooks, and print-on-demands. One of the noticeable differences between these types of books is that the more well-known authors and titles engage in The Game of persuading the ‘ironic believer’ via the mentioned techniques.
  3. Lyndsay Faye, Nicholas Meyer, and Laurie R. King are among the best known examples that have used Baring-Gould as inspiration.
  4. For anyone who has not yet read the novel, and wishes to remain safely ignorant of the ending, then consider this your warned: Spoilers Ahead.

Works Cited

Cawthorn, Nigel. A Brief History of Sherlock Holmes (London: Robinson, 2011)

Cottom, Daniel. ‘Sherlock Holmes Meets Dracula’, English Literary History (79, 2012), pp. 537-67

Davies, David Stuart. Starring Sherlock Holmes: A Century of the Master Detective on Screen (London: Titan Books, 2001)

Dibdin, Michael. The Last Sherlock Holmes Story (London: Faber and Faber, 1978)

Doyle, Arthur Conan. His Last Bow and The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (London: Penguin Books, 2007)

Eco, Umberto. Travels in Hyperreality (London: Picador, 1986)

Estleman, Loren D. Sherlock Holmes versus Dracula: or, The Adventure of the Sanguinary Count (London: Titan Books, 1978)

—. Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Holmes (London: Titan Books, 1979)

Flanders, Judith. The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime (London: Harper Press, 2011)

Green, Richard Lancelyn, ed. The Uncollected Sherlock Holmes (London: Penguin Books, 1983)

—. Letters to Sherlock Holmes (London: Penguin Books, 1985)

Lellenberg, John. ‘Dr Kreizler, Mr Sherlock Holmes…’, in Caleb Carr, The Italian Secretary (London: Time Warner Books, 2005), pp. 262-75.

Meyer, Nicholas. The Seven-per-cent Solution: Being a reprint from the reminiscences of John H. Watson, M.D. / as edited by Nicholas Meyer (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1974)

Picker, Lenny. ‘The Return of Sherlock Holmes’, Publisher’s Weekly (18 January 2010), pp. 18-9

Saler, Michael. ‘“Clap if You Believe in Sherlock Holmes”: Mass Culture and the Re-Enchantment of Modernity, c. 1890 – c. 1940’. The Historical Journal, 46, 3 (2003), pp. 599-621

Siciliano, Sam. The Angel of the Opera (London: Titan Books, 1994)

Starrett, Vincent. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (New York: Pinnacle Books, 1960)

Stashower, Daniel. The Ectoplasmic Man (London, Titan Books, 1985)

Wellman, Manly Wade and Wade Wellman. Sherlock Holmes’s War of the Worlds (London: Titan Books, 1975)

Sketches of the Impossible: Illustrating the Hollow Earth

(From a paper presented at the C19 conference at Penn State, March 19, 2016.)

Subterranean world. Hollow Earth. The Underground. Or my phrase to evoke all of the above, terra cava.

These words precipitate different mental images for different people, but before the nineteenth century, you would have found an almost universal response in the form of Hell, Hades, Dante’s Inferno. Certainly artistic renderings would reinforce this religious/mythic view.

Athanasius Kircher started to shift this paradigm in the seventeenth century, reinforced by Edmond Halley’s – erroneous – mathematical calculations that the earth must be a series of concentric spheres due to a miscalculation of planetary density. The Royal Society did not revisit the topic, though, and it remained one of the more obscure theories of natural philosophy until an unheard of retired American infantry captain sent out this short pamphlet: “To all the world, I declare the earth is hollow and habitable within, containing a number of solid concentric spheres, one within the other, and that it is open at the Poles…”

John Cleves Symmes Jr, a self-educated trader on the frontiers of St Louis, declared to all the world (that being mostly newspapers and universities in American and Britain) that the earth was hollow and habitable within and just waiting for brave Americans to plant the stars and stripes on entirely new continents. Because Symmes and his theory are relegated to the footnotes of history, it’s easy to dismiss as a minor philosophical fad. But we have the newspapers and magazine articles, novels and serials, to prove otherwise. What Symmes started far outlives his own death in 1829, and a significant part of that success stems from the imagery employed to covey what words could not. Why is this imagery important? Peter Mendelsund, in What We See When We Read, points out that “Visibility can be confused with credibility. Some books seem as though they are presenting us with imagery, but they are actually presenting us with fictional facts… These books predicate their plausibility, and for the reader, their conceivability, on an accretion of details and lore.” (p. 235) This theory of the hollow earth would continue to gain followers, ‘facts’ and stories for decades to come.

Symmes toured the US for years, giving lectures to large audiences with the visual aid of his own globe, showing the world open at the north and south poles. Even before Symmes began his tour, though, one of the first American science fiction novels was in circulation, Symzonia, presenting a map, a cross-section of the earth demonstrating the polar openings and reach of the sun. This is not a dark world lit with the fires of damnation, but one that shines just as brightly as our own. This one map is revolutionary, and will be duplicated in various forms for the next century. We don’t know who Adam Seaborn was, perhaps Symmes himself, more likely not (especially considering the misspelling of Symmes’s name in the title). But we see two worlds here, the second within the first, also open at its Poles, but this world is never explored in the text. The idea of multiple interior worlds was also dropped in favour of a single, hollow sphere by the second-half of the nineteenth century, when hollow earth writing enjoyed a publishing boom.

Unfortunately, Poe did not leave us any images of Arthur Gordon Pym’s Antarctic voyage to a polar opening at the bottom of the world, his narrative falling between Symmes and this later period of popular literary exploration. We have to skip ahead to the most well-known of all terra cava narratives, Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth. An enduring part of its legacy are the 52 engravings by Edouard Riou, bringing to life the geology and paleantology of Verne’s text, each picture an economy of a thousand words or so. Though not American in origin, it was well known in the US and those images went on to influence the artists illustrating later American terra cava narratives.

This is most clearly seen in an equally lavishly illustrated American text by John Uri Lloyd, Etidorhpa (and if you are wondering about the strange title, that is ‘Aphrodite’ spelt backwards). J Augustus Knapp, Lloyd’s artist, brings the giant mushroom forest from Riou’s engravings into play, dimly lit caverns, large crystalline structures, and scenes of exotic reptiles. Though thematically their narratives could not have been further apart (Lloyd’s novel is a trippy journey through the mind instead of geology), Knapp’s illustrations help to connect readers with a more familiar story. And this is a story deeply in need of familiar space and place; in a 1976 reprint, Neal Wilgus accused Lloyd of using marijuana, ergot and opium to conjure his tale. No one has accused Knapp of anything except good artistry in his interpretation of Lloyd’s prose, and perhaps borrowing a little heavily from Riou.

Etidorhpa goes even further than Journey, though, in its illustrative education, using half-page and text cuts to further illustrate events and scientific principles. Lloyd inserts himself into his own fiction, claiming to have received the manuscript from a fellow named Llewelyn Drewry, and includes a facsimile of a letter purported written by I-Am-The-Man-Who-Did-It, the primary narrator. All of this to build upon the veracity of his narrative, and before you get too far into thinking how ridiculous it would be for anyone to perceive Etidorhpa as anything other than a fiction, there were many Spiritualists who did embrace the novel at face value. Lloyd even includes a cross-sectional map of the world to trace the journey, and a map of Kentucky, purporting to show the entrance to this underground spiritual realm, as well as experimental ‘proofs’ for the physical functions of this subterranean world.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have William Bradshaw’s The Goddess of Atvatabar (1892), where Cyrus Durand Chapman provided sumptuous landscapes and spectacular battles, with further contributions from RW Rattray, Leonard Davis and Allen Dogget. Bradshaw’s own prose describes a kingdom with “the enchanted charm of Hindoo (sic) and Greek architecture, together with the thrilling ecstasy of Gothic shrines” in a capital city called Egyplosis. We’re of course seeing here the Western appropriation of the colonized, the irony of this being that the protagonist – an American adventurer and entrepreneur name Lexington White – does go on to conquer and colonize Atvatabar.  Readers are shown what Nathaniel Robert Walker described as “Babylon Electrified” in his article of the same title, exploring oriental and industrial hybridity. Many of the hollow earth narratives from this period employed the same styling, but none were illustrated as thoroughly as Atvatabar. This is a world of ‘spiritual batteries’ and fantastic technology; they can fly, but carry their goddess around on a sedan, and are no match for the daring-do of new King, Lexington White.

The work of Lloyd and Bradshaw is not typical however. Most of the terra cava narratives were limited runs from small presses or self-published for a small group of subscribers (which is actually how Etidorhpa got its start; Lloyd was able to work with Knapp because they were neighbours). If a writer could afford to put just one image into his or her (and yes, there were a few hers) story, a map was the first choice. But rather than travels lines dashed across the surface of a globe, we get cross-cut section of journeys through the earth. Part of the verisimilitude of any travel story is the potential to recreate it. Rather than obfuscate points of origin and entry, these are detailed, promising the allure of an adventure. Like Symzonia, sometimes these maps are the only illustrations we get. I like what Peter Mendelsund said about maps in his study: “Our maps of fictional settings, like our maps of real settings, perform a function. A map that guides us to a wedding reception is not a picture […] but rather, it is a set of guidelines.” (p 232). The guidelines, in this instance, are a reformation of the reader’s thinking about the earth’s structure.

What lends these maps and images the weight of semi-truth is the quality of the unknown. The Earth’s Poles were not reached until the first decade of the twentieth century. And even now it is hard to convince some people that they are there. (The sequel to NAZIS-in-space movie Iron Sky is going to be set beneath Antarctica, a popular theory for the hiding place of the remnants of the Third Reich). Other points of entry are to be found in caves and mountain crevasses. Variations on Symmes’s original theory are found, like this one from The Goddess of Atvatabar, which has a small internal sun rather than refracted light from the outside. This one, from Cresten; Queen of the Toltus, takes a more traditional view.

Symmes’s work was well known enough to not require extensive explanation or illustration. The significance of both of these is that the idea of concentric spheres has been eliminated, and the popular imagination has settled on a single hollow globe with water and lands held to the obverse side, gravity laying somewhere in the middle of the crust. These illustrations in fictions are hardly different from those that appeared in ‘non-fiction’ newspaper and magazine articles; if you see something from a purportedly neutral source, giving simply a report, this plays into Medelsund’s ‘fictional facts’; you’re not sure if the article is right or not, but it might be, and the images mesh with what you’ve seen from other sources; it is a circular proof, but only until explorers can definitively prove one way or another. (Cue Admiral Peary in 1909.)

I would like to take a moment to point out the antithesis of my discussion thus far, and that is the use of illustrations that in no way concern themselves with the setting of a terra cava novel and could by employed in almost any adventure story of the age. These concern themselves instead with characters, with the heroic white males and beautiful native females; they are mirrors for the reader instead of vistas. These could just as easily come from a Rider Haggard or Boy’s Own story. Adventure, intrigue, romance, yes, but specific indicators that this is a hollow earth narrative; not so much. I don’t think it is coincidental that the most remembered terra cava narratives, and the ones that went through multiple printings, were also those most lavishly illustrated with images of the fabulous. To quote Adam Sonstegard’s work Artistic Liberties, “Artists who merely leave characters on the canvas as they have them in print have not done their job; the character must be ‘bettered’ in the exchange.” (p. 11) And the hollow earth topos is a significant character.

An anomaly in this fantastic imagery is the decided non-fantastic. George McKesson uses photographs from around Cripple Creek in Colorado in Under Pike’s Peak, taking his influence from the local geology and mining operations. And GW Bell pictures of colonial authorities and native Māori and postcards of New Zealand in Mr Oseba’s Last Discovery. As American consul to New Zealand, Bell was attempting to sell the many benefits of the country, deemed by the inhabitants of the interior world to be the best place on the surface of the earth.

There are no sketches, no fantastical illustrations; and let’s be honest, if one of these men has in fact produced a photograph of a subterranean civilization, we would be having an entirely different conversation. I was perplexed by this until coming across this small display at the Columbus Museum of Art:

Slide26

“Travel albums became popular in the late nineteenth century, when the tourism industry emerged. During this time, a growing number of photographers documented historic monuments and popular sites, as well as scenes of daily life, hoping to sell them a souvenirs.”

McKesson and Bell weren’t just telling us another hollow earth story; they were annotating – extensively – their travels. Mundane geography becomes fantastic geography just beneath the surface. These photographs don’t elicit the same response as the more imaginative sketches or weird flora and fauna, but in that sense it grounds the narrative in reality, perhaps a little too firmly. Neither book enjoyed great success.

Science in the nineteenth century was about exploring and explaining the unseen. Travel literature inspired the landlocked by showing them what they would never see in person. The individual scrap book became the mass-produced speculative novel. The discovery of iced-in, non-porous Poles, and geologists settling on the liquid magma structure of the earth, put an end to the boom in hollow earth literature, but its imagery can still be found in aspects of popular culture.

 

Scholars of the Terra Cava

In the nineteenth century, one would be hard pressed to find a scholarly article on the hollow earth, such things left to the amateur natural philosopher, spiritualist, and dreamer; the twentieth century – benefiting from the perspective of a known world distinctly lacking access to the terra cava – gave rise to the literary and historical scholar writing about the products of hollow earth theory. Different scholars have differing ideas about the meaning of the underground in literature. The historian Rosalind Williams proposes that ‘narratives about underground worlds have provided a prophetic view into our environmental future. Subterranean surroundings, whether real or imaginary, furnish a model of an artificial environment from which nature has been effectively banished.’[1] Few individuals have attempted to analyse the hollow earth, and many of the works are either incredibly broad or non-academic: Walter Kafton-Minkel did one of the first surveys in 1989 with Subterranean Worlds: 100,000 Years of Dragons, Dwarfs, the Dead, Lost Races & UFOs from Inside the Earth; Everett F. Bleiler’s science fiction catalogue, Science Fiction: The Early Years (1990), provides a more extensive summary of the known terra cava fictions and includes a few words about his thoughts on the story; Peter Fitting published an anthology with excerpts from several works, Subterranean Worlds: A Critical Anthology (2004); and David Standish wrote the decidedly non-academic survey, Hollow Earth: The Long and Curious History of Imagining Strange Lands, Fantastic Creatures, Advanced Civilizations, and Marvelous Machines Below the Earth’s Surface in 2006, only briefly summarising a few of the many terra cava narratives from the fin de siècle. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (2011) in its latest edition (available only online) also provides some information about hollow earth novels, but not extensive analysis, and some entries are incomplete or erroneous; such as ‘Orcutt, Emma Louise’, which identifies the inhabitants as all living underground in ‘Susepnded Animation’; the underground portions of the world are petrified remains of the dead, and the surface population very much alive.[2] The enrty for ‘Moore, M. Louise’ identifies the land visitied in Al-Modad as Al-Modad, which is actually the name of the protragonist.[3] In 2012 an edited collection of essays about the hollow earth, Between Science and Fiction: The Hollow Earth as Concept and Conceit, was published in Berlin, but this focuses almost entirely on European terra cava narratives, less in number compared to their American counterparts. No one has conducted a thorough examination of the dozens of hollow earth writings published in the United States in the nineteenth century and what they reveal about American culture, religion, and politics at that time.

Consider the following, from a newspaper ninety years after Symmes’s announcement, from a society formed to prove the earth is hollow:

‘It is time for action – not a time for mere talking. But the earth is hollow and our investigations will soon prove it. The poles so long sought are but phantoms. There are openings at the northern and southern extremities. In the interior of the earth are vast continents, oceans, mountains and rivers. Vegetables and animal life is evident in this new world, and it is possibly peopled by races yet unknown to the dwellers upon the earth’s exterior.’[4]

Though there are no scientific papers supporting Symmes’s theory, this newspaper article is an example of popular science in the United States influencing public thought and cultural products. Support for Symmes’s model of the earth isn’t to be found in searches of scientific journals, but in newspapers, independently published tracts by non-scientists, and fictional narratives.

Symzona, A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder, The Goddess of Atvatabar and more, when they appear in an academic analysis, are often referred to in terms that remove the story from realist connotations and examine them in satiric terms. While many of them employ some form of social commentary or political view meant to reflect back on the reader, that does not automatically make them parodies. Parodies tend to emerge later in a genre’s existence, after its tropes have been established. The pre-nineteenth century terra cava narratives were immersed in social satire, and this is where so many literary theorists misstep in their assessment of nineteenth century terra cava; just because the most well-known hollow earth books before this period were written in the vein of Swift and Voltaire does not mean that those which came later were intended to be interpreted in the same way; American authors tended to take a different narrative approach. Because the idea of a hollow or porous world being inhabited appears to be a ridiculous premise in the twenty-first century, it is easier to paint these novels with the wide brush of parody rather than to enter into the mind-set of contemporary writers and readers who viewed portions of the world as still unknown, and holding the possibility of rich surprises.


[1] Rosalind Williams, Notes on the Underground: An Essay on Technology, Society, and the Imagination (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), p. 4.

[2] John Clute, ‘Orcutt, Emma Louise’, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction <http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/orcutt_emma_louise&gt; Accessed 10/11/2014.

[3] John Clute, ‘Moore, M Louise’, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction <http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/moore_m_louise>  Accessed 10/11/2014.

[4] Anon., ‘Going to Look for a Big Hole at the Top of the World’, Marion Daily Mirror, Vol. XVI, No. 229 (25 April 1908), p. 9.

Nineteenth Century Anglophone Literary Worlds: The American Terra Cava versus the British Terra Amissa

In terms of the nineteenth century novel that went in search of terra incognita in a world whose maps were rapidly losing their blank spaces, an interesting distinction presents itself between the American and the British plot; while many American authors took up the pen in favour of a hollow world, British authors preferred the idea of a lost world. The differences extend far beyond geography, though, and are deeply reflective of cultural perception.

The British Empire, covering one-fifth of the world’s landmass, was unchallenged for supremacy, and this is reflected in the literature. Despite having the best maps in the world, plucky adventurers and lost sailors always seemed to find a hidden island or jungle plateau that revealed a heretofore unknown bounty of plant and animal life, along with primitive, hostile natives. Why? Because that is what centuries of British travel literature told readers to expect when they arrive in an uncharted territory. In keeping with post-Darwinian perceptions of racial hierarchy the Anglo-Saxon man was the pinnacle of evolution, and in literature proved this repeatedly by besting the primitive races he found in the corners of Africa and the Amazon.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 novel The Lost World bequeathed its name to this subgenre of literature, following a plucky young journalist to a unexplored plateau in the Amazon jungle, home of primitive, ape-like natives and a few surviving dinosaurs. Rider Haggard was one of the most successful craftsmen of the undiscovered country, from the primitive Amahaggar of She (1887) in Africa to the ancient Mesoamericans hidden in the mountains in Heart of the World (1895). These discovered pockets of primitive life (be it in the form of Ice Age fauna or troglodytes) usually experience a small apocalypse at the end of the narrative (floods, earthquakes, and volcanos are perennial favourites) explaining why they have not been incorporate into the British Empire. But even though these literary British adventurers were not always enriched materially by their experience, they did prove their masculine, British superiority by surviving.

The rapidly expanding American Empire of the nineteenth century took a completely different view of their place in the world. Americans feared running of space, exhausting their frontiers. A hollow world provided them with new continents, not just islands and mesas. And what writers found more often than not in these new worlds below ground were civilisations that far outstripped America’s. Only when America’s economic and technological capabilities began to outstrip Europe’s did their literary explorers did the primitive begin to appear in America’s hollow realms.

In 1820 Symzona appeared in the U.S., transporting readers through an Antarctic opening into a hollow world populated by a race of pure white utopianists. Less than one hundred years later Edgar Rice Burroughs sent his American adventurers into Pellucidar, a hollow world that resembled Doyle’s, filled with primitive races and saurian beasts, ready to be reformed by American ingenuity. The intervening years saw terra cava narratives meant to instruct Americans in spiritual, technological, and political improvement. Lane’s Mizora (1880) directed surface dwellers to better educate their children and liberate women; Welcome’s From Earth’s Center (1894) demonstrated the superiority of the single-tax economic theory in bringing about universal prosperity; Adams’s Nequa (1900) was a technotopia of sexual equality. American progressives saw room for improvement (lots of improvement) in nearly every aspect of their lives, and the creation of advanced civilisations inside the earth provided a didactic outlet for such yearning. America was not yet to the level of Great Britain, but with such reforms as those suggested in these narratives, they might easily surpass them.

The few British forays into nineteenth century hollow worlds starkly contrast with their American counterparts. None of them embrace the Symmes theory, but a Vernian semi-porous earth. Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race features an advanced civilisation, but one that does not encourage the improvements of humanity; the Vril-ya are a threat, and set to supplant the surface dwellers. Bulwer-Lytton’s use of an America protagonist expresses the British fear of being displaced by an ascendant American continent. Cutcliffe Hyne’s Beneath Your Very Boots (1889) also features an advanced civilisation residing in caverns beneath the British Isles, but they are not a separate race. Rather, the Nrada are descendant of the original inhabitants of the Britain who moved below ground to escape the worries of the world and form a more perfect society. Fawcett’s Swallowed by an Earthquake (1894) more closely follows its Lost World predecessors, following the adventures of two British students on holiday in Italy who are swallowed by an earthquake and encounter a primitive civilisation that is subsequently destroyed by further seismic activity.

The elimination of the Earth’s blank spaces and the discovery that there was no hollow earth pushed storytellers out into the stars, to find whatever advanced or primitive race they saw fit.

“From Earth’s Center”, The Repackaging of History and Economics

S. Byron Welcome’s novel From Earth’s Center (1895), subtitled ‘A Polar Gateway Message’, is a terra cava utopia set up with the found/delivered manuscript frame. Welcome was a resident of Los Angeles and opened the novel in the same city with the arrival of a messenger from inside the earth. Though one might mistake Welcome for being the ‘I’ in the Prologue, it is actually a character introduced by the primary narrator later, a Frank Hutchens who was meant to be on the expedition to the Arctic but dropped out at the last minute. The expedition was planned by Hutchens’s close friend (and the primary narrator) Ralph Spencer, described as ‘young, energetic and very ambitious’, a man who ‘loved America’s free institutions, and gloried in the nation’s liberality and prosperity’.[1] From the outset, this is to be a patriotic narrative of American potential. Spencer sends the proof of his discovery and authenticates his manuscript via the messenger, Mr. Reubin, who claims to hail from ‘the inner world’ (p. 4), marvels at sunsets as ‘remarkable phenomenon’ and brings with him a fortune in silver and diamonds (p. 7). Reubin takes Spencer to the airship he used to transport – or ‘smuggle’, to paraphrase Spencer (p. 8) – these goods that would normally have been subjected to a tariff to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars; but Spencer assures readers that ‘this man belonged to a nation too far advanced in the arts to be hampered by a protective tariff’ (p. 7). This barb is directly aimed at the American Custom House and the taxes they extract from created wealth. Hutchens decides to publish Spencer’s unedited “Message” as a book, rather than broadcasting the new of his discovery to the world, and assures the reader that he can ‘vouch for his [Spencer’s] absolute veracity’ (p. 9).

Spencer, in the company of two friends, Ricardo Flemming and Owen Redcliffe, commission and ship to go explore the Arctic in 1890 in a quest for glory and to ease their own ennui, as well as to test ‘Professor Symmes’ theory’ (p. 17), which proves quite correct when they are pulled through a Symmes Hole and into Centralia. To their great fortune, English is the native language and Christianity the only religion, both brought by a ship of English explorers in the fourteenth century (p. 30). More than anything, Centralia has perfected their technology and political systems to create an enviable utopia of perfect people in a setting that seamlessly merges the industrial and the pastoral. Nothing emphasises this point more than the gardens with their every-blooming flowers, coated in a special varnish: ‘It is in a sense artificial, being a combined product of man’s ingenuity and nature’s bounty – a triumph in the science of cultivation’ (p. 32). While in many ways Centralia is similar to the United States, it is their economy, based upon the theories of Henry George, which allows them to surpass the former. George’s proposals, and the French Physiocrat political-economists of the eighteenth century, influence a great deal of the narrative. The Physiocrats espoused the belief that the wealth of a nature was derived from the value of its land and agriculture rather than gold and trade, which Adam Smith later countered with his Wealth of Nations (1776).

The most prominent feature of Welcome’s narrative is that it’s hardly a narrative at all, but a treatise on the political ideology of Henry George and his proposal for a single tax system on land use. George published Progress and Poverty: An Inquiry into the Cause of Industrial Depressions and of Increase of Want with Increase of Wealth: The Remedy in 1879, attempting to explain the cyclical nature of industrial markets and the perpetuation of poverty despite technological development and the wealth created by the industrial revolution. He was particularly concerned with land values, and how land speculation rose prices faster than wage labour could compensate for, thus depressing the economy and the serve of that land:

Take…some hard-headed business man, who has no theories, but knows how to make money. Say to him: “Here is a little village; in ten years it will be a great city – in ten years the railroad will have taken the place of the stage coach, the electric light of the candle; it will abound with all the machinery and improvements that so enormously multiply the effective power of labor…”
And if, under such circumstance, you take his advice, you need do nothing more. You may sit down and smoke your pipe… you may go up in a balloon, or down a hole in the ground; and without doing one stroke of work, without adding one iota to the wealth of the community, in ten years you will be rich! In the new city you may have a luxurious mansion; but among its public buildings will be an almshouse.[2]

 

George’s solution to this scenario is to introduce a single tax on the value of privately held land, a tax high enough to abolish all other taxes. The purpose is to force the land holders to use their property in the most productive way possible, offering jobs and creating wealth. All of George’s proposals are put to the gedankenexperiment that is Welcome’s novel. In discussing this novel, it is necessary to leave out a great deal of the long passages about taxes and land-use, which often overpower the narrative, but the following, from a member of the inner world, reads quite similarly to the quote from George:

If your parents own land in America, it is evident that private ownership in land is there recognized; and where that institution exists, land rents are higher than they would be under a natural order of things; and, since rent, interest and wages must all be aid out of production, the more there is paid out in rent, the less there is left with which to pay interest and wages. So, you see, labor and capital are robbed by the landlord system in two ways; first, rents are unnaturally high; and, second, the rent proper is taken by the landlord – a drone – instead of all the people. (p. 222)

This is nearly the whole of George’s argument, distilled down into one illuminating paragraph for readers, though George himself is never given any credit. Perhaps it was meant to prevent any prejudice on the reader’s part from influencing their view of the narrative. But the very last line of the novel calls America ‘the land of “progress and poverty!”’ (p. 274), reinforcing George’s thesis.

Only a very good historian would be able to identify the myriad of names used in the narrative as a variety of historical figures. The purpose of these borrowings is to highlight the potential of economic speculations; rather than providing an index or post-script, Welcome builds his list of sources and information into the characters. Ralph Spencer’s own name is likely taken from the British polymath Herbert Spencer, who famously said of government, ‘the interference of man in external nature often destroys the just balance, and produces greater evils than those to be remedied, so the attempt to regulate all the actions of a community by legislation, will entail little else but misery and confusion.’[3] Spencer almost mentions that his ‘twice-removed grandfather…was a great student of political economy’ (p. 18), Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot (1727-1781) one of the prominent Physiocrats of the age. Spencer’s friend Ricardo Fleming derives his name from the British economist David Ricardo (1772-1823). The third American, Owen Redcliffe, described by Spencer as ‘a philosopher’ (p. 13) may have derived his name from the Welsh social reformer and utopianist Robert Owen. The great Centralian economist that formed the basis of their society, Quesney, was inspired by the Physiocrat François Quesnay (1694-1774). Identifying the origin of Spencer’s love interest, Celia Lathrop, is also purely speculative, but she may have been inspired by American social reformer Julia Lathrop (1858-1932), who worked at Hull House in Chicago in the 1890s. The Centralian father of ‘Universal Evolution’, Decanto (p. 86), is an obvious parallel to Darwin. A Centralian inventor, ‘Rufus Gilchrist’, introduced direct coal-to-electricity that removed the steam engine process (p. 98), and name possibly derived from the British Gilchrist cousins, who developed a method to remove phosphorous from iron for the manufacture of steel.

Records reveal Welcome was active in promoting George’s ideas in and around Los Angeles and knew the man personally; Welcome’s only other written contributions seems to be newspaper articles arguing for a single tax system, From Earth’s Center being his only foray into fiction.

 

[1] S. Byron Welcome, From Earth’s Center; A Polar Gateway Message (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Co., 1895), p. 5. All other references cited in text from this edition.

[2] George Henry, Progress and Poverty: And Inquiry Into the Cause of Industrial Depressions and of Increase of Want with Increase of Wealth, Fiftieth Anniversary Edition (New York: Robert Schalenbach Foundation, 1935), pp. 293-4.

[3] Herbert Spencer, The Proper Sphere of Government: A Reprint of a Series of Letters, Originally Published in “The Nonconformist” (London: W. Brittain, 1843), p. 5.

Seeking Empire at the Centre of the World: Nineteenth Century American Hollow Earth Novels

[This is an abbreviated version of a paper delivered at ICFA 2014]

The 1890 Census of the United States erased once and for all the distinctive frontier line the once bisected the eastern half of the continent from the mythical west, a revelation that paralleled the global cartographic developments of the late nineteenth century: the disappearance of terra incognita. A subset of the unknown land I have termed terra cava, the narrative of an inhabitable space beneath the earth’s surface. Nether regions once considered only in terms of spiritual consequence became hypothetical realms of mineral and literary wealth.

There are three ways in which the developing consciousness of American empire is expressed in these novels: the need for commerce, the need for land, and the need for technology. Three forces of empire, three exemplifying novels among the dozens of terra cava narratives published in America that embraced the native theory of a hollow earth accessible via holes in the North and South Poles. These are not idle fantasies either; the US Exploring Expedition, launched in 1838, was initially commissioned by John Quincy Adams with the goal of discovering these polar openings and claiming the interior of the earth.

I – Symzonia and the American Adam

Published in 1820 under the nom de plume ‘Adam Seaborn’, Symzonia is considered to be one of the first American utopian fictions. Though occasionally categorised as a ‘burlesque’ for its commentary on American culture and use of charactonyms, Symzonia is serious in its treatment of the Symmes Theory of Concentric Spheres and the prospect of a hollow, habitable world.

In the shortest possible summary, Captain Adam Seaborn commissions a ship to sail to the Antarctic, where he expects to find a Symmes Hole opening to the interior world. The narrative is a conglomeration of Symmes’s scientific ideas (in the loosest possible definition of ‘scientific), anti-British sentiment, and socio-political commentary on the new nation of America. Finding a technologically advanced race of pure-white utopianists, Adam Seaborn, in scenes reminiscent of Gulliver’s Travels, find himself and his country wanting in the face of such perfection. Returning to the US without proof and thrown into debtor’s prison, Seaborn publishes his travelogue in hopes of earning his freedom and encouraging others to follow in his footsteps, to establish trade with the Symzonians before another country – id est, Britain – gets there first. America’s future in global trade and expansion rests on getting to the interior of the world.

John Reider writes of Symzonia as a ‘fantasy of appropriation’, one of ‘discovered wealth’ in a world perceived to be losing its easily obtainable resources. Seaborn is the fulfilment of what R.W.B. Lewis called ‘The American Adam’: he is the proverbial first man, entering into an Edenic garden; ‘The world and history lay all before him.’ Unfortinately, this Eden happens to already be inhabited. The experiences Seaborn gains – as with the original Adam – are his downfall and he is cast out. For a time, though, the voyage to Symzonia made Seaborn a very rich man, and the narrative ends with the prospect of regaining that wealth if another expedition is sent.

Believe it or not, the author of Symzonia, and John Cleves Symmes himself, were not being facetious. President John Quincy Adams commissioned the US Exploring Expedition in 1828 at the behest of Symmes’s followers, though the ships would not launch until 1838, nine years after Symmes died. In the intervening decade the focus shifted from reaching the interior of the world to simply charting the southern hemisphere and looking for trade opportunities. In his opening statement, Seaborn claims, “I projected a voyage of discovery, in the hope of finding a passage to a new and untried world. I flattered myself that I should open the way to new fields for the enterprise of my fellow-citizens, supply new sources of wealth, fresh food for curiosity, and additional means of enjoyment; objects of vast importance, since the resources of the known world have been exhausted by research, its wealth monopolized, its wonders of curiosity explored, its every thing investigated and understood!… The faculties of man had begun to dwindle for want of scope, and the happiness of society required new and more copious contributions.”

The concept of ‘Manifest Destiny’ – that the American flag would rule over the entirety of the continent, from the Atlantic to the Pacific – was still decades away from its full enunciation. And the Monroe Doctrine, which would press for American isolationism, would not be put into effect until 1823. But here we see Seaborn laying the foundation of an American desire to stretch the Stars and Stripes further into the world, lest the Union Jack get there first. At the time of publication, America had only been at peace with Great Britain for five years, and John Symmes himself fought against them in the War of 1812.

At the point that the narrative leaves the known map, venturing into the imaginative, the transition is subtle, leaving readers to wonder when exactly it was they left the surface of the earth. On the ‘discovery’ of ‘Seaborn’s Land’ at around between 78° and 83° S (further than Cook’s recorded Antarctic penetration or his Sandwich Land) a ceremony of deeply national, imperialistic, and legal significance is performed: “Aware that there was a possibility that I might miscarry, and never get back to this place, I devoted a day to the performance of a necessary duty to my country, namely, taking possession of the country I had discovered, in the name and on behalf of the people of the United States of America.” He plants a flag and a plaque attesting to the claim, then ceremonially fires the ship’s canons. Without a globally recognised body to settle land disputes, employing ceremonial formalities that should be recognised by other European bodies (no one else’s opinion counting) is the best any explorer can do. Seaborn, though naming the island for himself, does not claim it for himself, but for his country. Just like Columbus, he did not set out to form his own country, but to bring greater glory and gold to his home. This is an interesting and generous offer, considering that the US government did not sponsor and was not aware of Seaborn’s voyage, unlike the other empire-expanding voyages of exploration throughout history. He is acting without the foreknowledge and consent of his government; yet approval of his actions is assumed. The future American empire will not be assembled by the U.S. government, but by enterprising Americans.

II – Interior World and the American West

Symmes’s theory faded to the background of American consciousness in the wake of civil war and reconstruction – not to mention the U.S. Exploring Expedition returning in 1842 to report no Symmes holes in the Poles. In the last three decades of the century, though, it came roaring back. Two of Symmes’s sons wrote tracts about their father’s theory, as did several others. Fiction authors also came to appreciate the narrative opportunity a hollow world presented them with as the U.S. rapidly manifested its continental destiny.

Published in 1885 ostensibly for young, male readers, Washington Tower’s Interior World stands apart from its terra cava brethren for one very specific reason: it is not a lost race novel. There are no inhabitants in this lush, virginal paradise to contest the character’s claim to the interior of the earth. The proverbial Adams in this story do not need to fear being cast out of this garden; it is theirs to claim free and clear.

In true American Manifest Destiny philosophy, the protagonists, are inspired by their present circumstances ‘with the spirit of enterprise, and they determined to incur the hazards, difficulties, and hardships of a migratory life, being supported with the belief that they were destined to accomplish a great work – a work of no less importance than that of opening communication between two worlds’ (pg. 74). This is a sentiment found often in other hollow earth works; that of the characters feeling duty bound to alert the rest of the world to the presence of a hollow and habitable land waiting for trade, settlement, etc. The bait for readers to yearn for this world’s veracity is set in the rich open lands, exotic pelts to be obtained (pg. 85) and the gold that is just lying around waiting to be plucked from the ground (pg. 99). The mythical view of the American pastoral as an Eden is being recreated in the hollow earth. In the tradition of formal colonial claiming, the three men recite the solemn oath ‘We… do by right of discovery, now formally take possession of the Interior World in the name, and for the eternal behoof of the United States of America’ (pg. 128). This kind of ceremony can be seen clear back to Symzonia.

In his study of the American west as symbol and myth, Henry Nash Smith referred to the American west as the ‘Garden of the World’, and American empire built upon ‘a populous future society occupying the interior of the American continent’ (p.12). At the end of Tower’s novel, two of the three men remain behind, newly married to the female descendants of the lost Tichborne heir (a piece of history we cannot delve into now) – they are a pair of Adams and Eves who will begin to populate the interior of the world, wanting for nothing. The pages of the novel are filled with references to a variety of ever-budding fruits and abundantly available meat sources: ‘Nature was most generous, supplying their table with every luxury that heart could wish’ (p. 154).

This western garden of America helped to fulfil the doctrine of the ‘safety valve’, allowing the ever-increasing population of the U.S. to move from East to West into empty lands, preventing over-population from leading to urban squalor and perceived social decay. Tower’s novel embodies this principal from start to finish, in an authorial introduction that states his intent to ‘present a narrative entertaining to boys, yet free from any thing tending to awaken vicious or ignoble passions’, along with a 33-page index providing ‘scientific’ evidence for his theory of gravitation in a hollow world. Tower claims that ‘the Interior World is of a vast extent – only a few thousand square miles less in area than the exterior.’ The reader, hopefully free of any ignoble passions, will believe Tower’s assertions and follow his lead to this vast interior world on behalf of Americans everywhere.

III – Atvatabar and the Machine in the Garden

No other terra cava novel is so blatant in its imperial fantasy as The Goddess of Atvatabar, given the rather lengthy subtitle, ‘Being the history of the discovery of the interior world and the conquest of Atvatabar’. Published in 1892 by William Bradshaw, this narrative of overt American land acquisition was graced with an introduction by Julian Hawthorne, comparing it to the likes of Bulwer-Lytton, Haggard, and Verne, and praising it above their works; European rather than American authors, emphasising the literary distinction between Old World and New World literature.

The protagonist is called Lexington White, a wonderfully American and imperial name if there ever was one: the first battle of the American Revolution, and the symbolic colour of purity. He is a wealthy, private entrepreneur – like Adam Seaborn – who sails through the Arctic Symmes Hole and encounters a lost race of universal attractiveness and unparalleled technological advancement. White’s conquest is not just of the country of Atvatabar, but the heart of its resident goddess, Lyone, both seemingly by force. Initially he sets out ‘for the sake of science and fortune and the glory of the United States’ (p. 9) It is the old inducement of imperialism: Glory, God, and gold. White set out for the North Pole with the intention of standing on top of the world, a ‘monarch of an empire of ice’ (p. 10). White has gone so far as to provide his crew with ‘a special triumphal outfit… a Viking helmet of polished brass surmounted by the figure of a silver-plated polar bear’ (p. 12). Image and pageantry, invoking the northern warriors of old and the ancient Roman practice of a triumphal march. This was never just an exploring expedition; it is a new century of conquistadors.

As for Lyone, the celibate goddess, a stolen kiss from her is a ‘proclamation of war upon Atvatabar’ and the inevitable ‘destruction of a unique civilization’ (p. 94). With legitimacy granted by the love of the local deity, White and his crew succeed in deposing the current monarch and crowning himself the new king of Atvatabar, Lyone the Queen. Bradshaw is negotiating a fine line between American aspirations for empire, and the American belief in the superiority of its democratic republic. White, his crew, and the United States now have access to all of Atvatabar’s $8 trillion in annual revenue (p. 167) and advanced technology, which will put America ahead of its global competition. Where Symzonia sought only to seize trading preference for America, Atvatabar has seized the land itself. Where it differs, however, is that the British offer assistance near the end of the narrative; where the nineteenth century started with British and American competition, the close of the century saw America and British cooperation in economic and imperial ambition.

The technology made available by Atvatabar’s conquest aligns with Leo Marx’s study of The Machine in the Garden; technology makes Atvatabar better, a utopia that has figured out how to negotiate industrialisation with the dream of the pastoral. The Atvatabarans have worked out how to balance their mechanised society with both urban and agrarian ideals.

Conclusion

Americans would not be the first to either of the Poles, but they did not miss out on the opportunity to claim the interior continents of the world: the final nail in the coffin of Symmes’s theory of a hollow, habitable world was pounded into place. The terra cava narrative disappeared into obscurity, to be replaced by adventures stories set on other planets in outer space; there was nothing left on earth to conquer without running into other people who too much resembled the reader. Traditional imperialism was already starting to buckle under the strain of socio-political reform.

Who is Superior? Bulwer-Lytton’s Anxieties About America

Coming-Race-webresThough most infamous, perhaps, for giving the literary world ‘It was a dark and stormy night’, Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race (1871) is arguably his most famous novel,one that turns the table on traditional imperialism, and is also, strangely, set in the US (Bulwer-Lytton was British). His uses of imperialistic, utopian and spiritual themes are echoed in nearly all American terra cava novels to follow, and the contemporary reviews of many of these novels used The Coming Race as the standard against which they are measured. It is interesting that Bulwer-Lytton, one of the few hollow earth authors to come from outside the US, would choose to write from an American perspective (even jokingly refers to the narrator’s father’s run for Congress being unsuccessful against his own tailor).

The narrator first introduces himself with some basic biographical information to establish his character and reliability as narrator, the traditional son of a well-to-do, respected family. Though how the narrator comes to this place is explained, it is not the process of a journey, but a quick accident, eliding over the long descriptions of travel often seen in other narratives of this type. Symmesian geography is not being employed, but rather the Vernian semi-porous world of Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

The civilisation (Vril-ya) we meet is utopian, and explained in detail according to Bulwer-Lytton’s own experiences as a Member of Parliament and Secretary of State for the Colonies. Like so many other utopian novels of the time, the Vril-ya society abstains from alcohol and the consumption of meat. Poverty is unknown and the sciences abound, technology being the linchpin of their civilsation. Upon first entering the city Tesh (as our narrator comes to be called, and to whom I mentally append the given name of ‘John’) is introduced to automatons of semi-human form who respond to Vril-ya commands given by the touch of a staff, and lifts – which were a new technology in Bulwer-Lytton’s time (p. 27). The wings of the Vril-ya are not biological, but actually mechanical (p.36) – a feature which may have been inspired by Robert Patlock’s The Life & Adventures of Peter Wilkins, A Cornish Man (1751), which featured mechanical flight on the part of native inhabitants of the South Pole.

From the first moment a member of the Vril-ya race is met, we know that they are rich, and that they are powerful. Tesh describes the first sight of the beautiful creatures which ‘roused that instinct of danger which the sight of a tiger or serpent arouses’ (p. 25), even though this ‘creature’ was also adorned in a tiara of jewels (p. 24), letting the reader know this is no savage. Riches abound everywhere; when Tesh enters the home of his rescuer, even concussed he does not fail to take notice of the ‘Oriental splendour; the walls were tessellated with spars, and metals, and uncut jewels’ (p. 27). This is the wealth of America that Bulwer-Lytton fears, writing as he did in the years following the California gold rush; wealth so abundant that its possessors have little regard for it. Wealth that develops technology. Where European scientists specialised in developing scientific theories, Americans pushed further ahead in technological development.

The description of the appearance of the Vril-ya echoes imperialist language, how they possessed the ‘gravity and quietude of Orientals’ with ‘dark eyes and red man’s colour’ (p. 28). But instead of their non-white appearance being a mark of inferiority, they inspire dread in Tesh (despite their apparent kindness) because he senses that they ‘could have killed me as easily as a man can kill a bird or butterfly’ (p. 29). Our narrator experiences what it is like to be viewed as a lower form of life, when he is on the streets and examined with the curiosity of some ‘rare wild animal’ (p. 31). A mark of the Vril-ya superiority is their disgust at any ‘vehement emotional demonstration’ (p. 34), a parallel to the British ideal of the ‘stiff upper lip’. Tesh is also told that though he is obviously not part of the barbarian tribes existing under the earth, he obviously does not ‘belong to any civilised people’ either (p. 42). He is caught between two worlds, old and new, as Bulwer-Lytton and other Englishmen may have felt. The British empire may have been at its pinnacle in 1871, but the United States was rapidly spreading across the American continent at the same time. The new wealth found in the West allowed Americans to begin reversing the travel of their ancestors, taking boats back to Europe for long tours of history and culture.

American exceptionalism is heavily satirised by Bulwer-Lytton in Tesh’s explanation to the Vril-ya about his origins, ‘to expiate on the present grandeur and prospective pre-eminence of that glorious American Republic’ and its bright future in which ‘the flag of freedom should float over an entire contient, and two hundred millions of intelligent citizens, accustomed from infancy to the daily use of revolvers, should apply to a cowering universe the doctrine of the Patriot Monroe’[1] (p. 44).  The Vril-ya hosts are horrified by everything they hear from Tesh about the US, and make him swear to never repeat this description to anyone. At the same time, Bulwer-Lytton is expressing his own – British – anxiety about Great Britain losing its superior place in the world to the Americans, who are truly the ‘coming race’. Possessed of a military that twice beat the British, and producing some of the most advanced armaments in the world, the U.S. – should it choose to exercise that power – would have threatened British hegemony.

The Vril-ya are endowed with mystical powers via their use of Vril. The breath of a boy on Tesh’s forehead ceases the pain from his concussion and puts him into a restorative sleep (p. 28). On page 35, Tesh refers to the Vril-ya as something like the ‘Peri’ of Middle Eastern myth, beautiful creatures descended from fallen who could be both benevolent and malevolent. The first time he ever witnesses their flying dance, Tesh is overcome with the belief that he has seen some form of witchcraft and panics (p. 36) much like other explorers who have perceived demonic action in the practices of newly encountered races. He is reacting without rationality, which marks him as inferior. ‘The Coming Race – both the title and the book’s ominous concluding phrase – reflects a long-standing interest of Bulwer-Lytton’s, the occult, here given pseudo-scientific dressing, and his somewhat confused cogitations on the theory of evolution’ (Brain Aldiss, ‘Introduction’ to The Coming Race, p. 5-6).

Interestingly, as ridiculous as it may seem to the modern reader, there were many in the nineteenth century who took the novel to be non-fiction, demonstrating the pervasiveness of the belief in interior life, technological advancement and spiritualist powers. Followers of Theosophy embraced the novel and the powerful magic substance of Vril, which become synonymous with life and virility. Marketers used it to christen and sell Bovril in Great Britain, heedless of the warning that Bulwer-Lytton was trying to put across, that the Americans are the Vril-ya and they are coming to supersede the British.

[1] A reference to the Monroe Doctrine of President James Monroe, who insisted that no further colonial action by European powers should take place in the Americas, and America would stay out of European affairs; a political stance the US maintained for generations.

“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).

 

Post Navigation