Written by Charles L. McKesson in 1898, Under Pike’s Peak; or, Mahalma, Child of the Fire Father offers several unique aspects to the terra cava genre, not least of which is its use of photographs instead of illustrations for visualisation of the book’s environment. McKesson provides both a humorous dedication and a very intriguing introduction. Firstly, the book is dedicated to his friend, Laura B., who apparently said to McKesson after reading the manuscript: ‘How did you dare write it? You don’t know a thing about woman – I hope your wife pulled every hair out of your head’ inspiring McKesson’s dedication ‘In the hope that she will be less severe in her criticisms in the future’ (p. 1).
As for the introduction, McKesson is providing an advertisement, setting the scene and events for the reader:
“PIKE’S PEAK, stately and solemn, stands guard over the eastern gateway to the Rocky Mountains. What this sentinel has seen during the centuries of lonely vigil is locked in his silent, rock-ribbed bosom. In the year 1896 a daring tourist entered that bosom and possessed himself of some of the greatest secrets of the age.
What he learned of the Cliff Dwellers who once inhabited the region lying at the base of Pike’s Peak; what he learned of the formation of the Cripple Creek gold fields… what he learned of the strange and mysterious character, Mahalma, Child of the Fire Father and of her peculiar sacrifice which has no parallel in literature, and what he learned of the philosophy of telepathy and kindred subjects, he tells in the story which follows.
If he tells truth, then truth is stranger than fiction; if what he tells is fiction, then fiction is stranger than truth.” (p. 3)
McKesson is blending the factual existence of Pike’s Peak and its location, with the fictional aspects of the narrative, and immediately laying the groundwork for readerly doubt about the novel’s veracity, while distancing himself from the story’s content; McKesson is now just the publisher/editor of someone else’s – a tourist’s – biography.
There is not actual in-narrative framing, with chapter one opening from ‘the tourist’s’ perspective – Thomas Larnard – of arriving in Colorado Springs, which happens to be McKesson’s home; but despite his disavow of origin for the story with himself in the introduction, there is no mention of a found manuscript or deathbed confession related to McKesson. It’s revealed that a Colorado Spring’s resident named Oliver Estiller disappeared on Pike’s Peak two years before while exploring it, and is presumed dead (p. 7). Following in Estiller’s footsteps, the narrator also goes exploring on the mountain and falls to unknown depths inside the earth (p. 11). Like The Coming Race there is no journey, just a sudden transition via accident from outside the earth to in, and a quick encounter with strange beings:
“There were a half-dozen creatures within the space illuminated by the match. The creatures… were about the size of a boy ten years of age. Their bodies… were covered with what appeared to be scales of various tints and colors. Their heads were unnaturally large, narrow and high in front… Their faces were as smooth as a child’s and the skin was clear and white. Their hair was light brown or auburn. Their hands and feet were white and shapely.” (p. 14)
Once more we read a uniformity of race, cast a pale and childlike to imply harmlessness (unlike the Vril-ya). This paleness, coupled with their apparently blindness (p. 19) is reminiscent of the guide in Etidorhpa, described as cavefish. The women are dressed in flowery bonnets, and the narrator thinks it like ‘living in a flower garden’, comparing them to ‘fairies’ (p. 20), and the children to ‘dolls in a toy store’ (p. 21), which serves to further remove them from a place of threat to one of Edenic peace. Larnard’s first glimpse of the vast flower creations constructed by the natives makes him think of his ‘descent’ as an ‘ascent’ that landed him in ‘a bouquet of flowers from heaven lodged in a radiant cluster of stars’ (p. 32). The Christian imagery employed by Larnard at the start of his tale represents the best metaphors he can construct for lack of knowledge about his surroundings.
All the Azonians – that is their name – are blind and deaf, evolved to work with each other via telepathy. Only Mahalama, the local leader and daughter of their deity, can vocalise to communicate with Larnard and Estiller. The Azonians are revealed to be technologically and spiritually superior to all other humans, but were driven by barbarians first into the mountains, and then underground for safety. It implies that the Anasazi cliff dwellings of the American southwest were constructed by the Azonians, who abandoned them in favour of a subterranean existence, where evolution once again took hold and transformed them into the pale, blind cavefish-like beings they are now. It also means that McKesson is not using Symmesian geography, but Vernian, the population existing within a system of large, vaulted caverns.
Mahalma – like many other female rules of terra cava narratives before her – becomes the key to the protagonist’s success. She is no object of desire for Estiller because he has a finance still waiting in Colorado Springs; for Larnard she is the superior creature to be turned to love for the base-born white American of honesty and bravery. From the outset Larnard is curious about her marital status, but does not inquire because Mahalma is ‘a person of good breeding’ and ‘a lady in the best sense of that word’ (p. 47). Not until chapter VIII does Mahalma make a physical appearance, presiding over a ceremony; seen from a distance she is described in terms of ‘dignity’ and ‘majesty’ (p. 80), ‘beautifully white and perfect in shape and form’ (p. 81), and ‘symmetrical in outline as if carved in marble for a model of a perfect face’ (p. 82). Larnard wonders if she is a ‘messenger’ from heaven, noting that she is not blind like the others, and is taller (p. 83), in addition to the fact that she also possesses the power of speech. Up close Larnard believes that she can ‘read [his] thoughts as an open book’ – once more hinting at telepathy – which he must guard as much as his words; her face is ‘small, round, delicate, sensitive… perfectly chiseled’ and spiritually beautiful for the ‘sweet, wise, and noble soul’ it emenated’ (p. 89). Mahalma is crafted a separate being from the other Azonians, emphasising her physical and spiritual superiority. This same technique is seen in A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder and Under the Auroras, inserting a female spiritual leader that is physically distinct from everyone else in the population, making her more attractive to reader and male protagonist.
After a desperate and ill Estiller kidnaps Mahalma in an effort to escape the realm of the Azonians, Larnard decides the only way to rescue her is to train his mind in the ways of telepathy. Every day, sitting in a dark room, he relaxes his mind and tries to ‘see’ an object on which he has fixed his mind (p. 195), as well as ‘listening’ to mental words (p. 196). Months of mental exercise finally pay dividends, and Larnard knows where to find her, even losing his ‘natural vision’ (p. 220) and seeing with his eyes closed like the Azonians. In mental communication with Mahalma, she tells Larnard that he is ‘standing on the borderland of soul life’, at the cusp of spiritual life (p. 223). Larnard reveals a ‘dual’ Mahalma, inner and outer, joy and suffering (p. 224), which brings to mind the duality of Christ, the physical and the divine. Is Mahalma, then, intended to be a saviour figure? But Larnard also moves onto a place of both physical and spiritual existence, with the implication that any mortal can achieve this, thus removing the uniqueness of spiritual divinity.
During this spiritual quest to rescue the physical body of Mahalma, their souls are ‘wed in the temple of the soul by the High Priest, Love’ (p. 229). There is no physical expression of this union, only mental. But this level of spiritual attainment comes at the price of suppressing all negative feelings, and when Larnard ‘sees’ that Mahalma has become Estiller’s lover, he loses the power of ‘mental vision’ forever (p. 242). But he does not give up his quest to find Mahalma, finally succeeding after several more months of exploring. When they finally meet again in person, Mahalma compares Larnard’s mental journey to climbing the ‘ladder of development’, that his present incarnation is more advanced that all previous (p. 265). Evolution is not just of the body, but of the mind and soul. The creation of each soul and body is explained in the same way as the nebula theory of the earth’s creation:
“At some time in the history of the past, a part of the infinite intelligence was individuated or separated and place in a crude mass of force and matter. This spark of intelligence gathered around itself all that it could use from that mass of force and matter, and when it had done this its progress was stopped until it could have other material upon which to work.” (p. 266)
A spirit, then, is a separate entity that moves from physical body to physical body, always in search of improvement.
All three (including a seemingly dying Estiller) return to the city of the Azonians, where Estiller regains his health, though in his sickness, he taken from Mahalma ‘the brightest jewel of womanhood’ (p. 273), a metaphor that leaves little doubt to its implications about virginity. Mahalma agreed to play the role of Estiller’s lost fiancé in order to preserve the lives of everyone else he threatened to kill. Estiller is to be forgiven his sins as well because of striking his head in his fall into Azonia, and claims memory of nothing until waking up on page 280. Because of his amnesia, Mahalma agrees to return Estiller to the surface, confident that he will not (or cannot) betray the existence of the rich Azonian civilisation. But Mahalma is haunted by the thought that she was wrong to so indulge Estiller (p. 293), chastity being more sacred than life itself for a woman (in McKesson’s mind). Without warning or explanation – except perhaps that sex is the undoing of an entire civilisation, and they are being cast out of the Garden – the vast underground realm begins to collapse, and only Estiller, Larnard, and Mahalma escape to the surface, where Mahalma promptly dies, begging Larnard to write the story of her people, and asking “Did I do wrong?” (p. 298).