Table of Contents
“A surprising history of imaginary voyages to the planet’s core … entertaining … Standish’s research is impressive.”
New York Times Book Review
“Standish … has an engaging affection for his cast of fantasists and misguided visionaries.”
The New Yorker
“Gives us fascinating and often bizarre tales …
is full of lively illustrations and curious lore. Standish is a good explorer of the dusty corners of history, science and popular myth. His prose is clear and often humorous … He’s a good guide to the imaginary hollows.”
Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Standish … treat[s] us to a chronicle of fantasies in life and literature about subterranean worlds … Spelunkers of the imagination may enjoy this guide to a place not found on any map.”
Wall Street Journal
“Lively and intriguing.”
Boston Sunday Globe
“Standish proves a shimmering, informed guide … displaying a genuine care and admiration for those whose creations were scientifically, socially, or literarily worthy, or at least deeply, appealingly eccentric … smart and closely read.”
“[Hollow Earth] basks in the lurid glow of a theory whose hypnotic appeal will long outlive its rational plausibility.”
“Fans of Jules Verne, pulp-fiction adventure stories, and schlocky 1950s movies will get a thoughtful laugh out of
… A thoroughly enjoyable and fascinating read.”
“The hole story is … semi-tortuous and often quite amusing. A journey, so to speak, to the center of mirth.”
San Diego Union-Tribune
“The single strangest and most fascinating book published so far this year … a marvel.”
Palm Beach Post
“Standish seems to have a genuine affection for his assorted crackpots and dreamers, and he provides an amusing tour of their various underground utopias … a fun romp.”
“[A] lively and intriguing illustrated cultural history … Highly recommended for both science and literature collections.”
“A monumental work of screwball scholarship … A highly entertaining romp through the history of a theory.”
“[An] entertaining cultural history of a delusion.”
Times Literary Supplement
For Lisa, Maude, and Wilson
Be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought… . What was the meaning of that South-Sea Exploring Expedition, with all its parade and expense, but an indirect recognition of the fact that there are continents and seas in the moral world to which every man is an isthmus or an inlet, yet unexplored by him, but that it is easier to sail many thousand miles through cold and storm and cannibals, in a government ship, with five hundred men and boys to assist one, than it is to explore the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one’s being alone…. It is not worth the while to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar. Yet do this till you can do better, and you may perhaps find some “Symmes’ Hole” by which to get at the inside at last.
—Henry David Thoreau,
In roughly chronological order, I would like to thank Senior Editor Kathleen Burke at
magazine for giving me the go-ahead to do an article on the hollow earth for them, which got me started on this, and my apologies for going crazy and turning in a manuscript far too long. Great thanks, too, to my wonderful agent, Leslie Breed, for believing in the idea and finding a home for it. Senior Editor Ben Schafer at Da Capo stuck with the book despite many opportunities to bail out, given my turtle-like pace, fondness for digression, and writerly crabbiness. I am also grateful to several friends who read the manuscript in progress, offering both encouragement and helpful critiques—Scott Guthery, Beth Meredith, Chris Miller, and Lucie Singh. Medill School of Journalism graduate students Keith Chu and Michael Andersen were resourceful and persistent in tracking down source material and fact-checking. And a number of people provided invaluable assistance in sharing art and photography for the book’s illustrations: Klaus-Peter Gelber of the Mineralogical Institute at the University of Würzburg for Athanasius Kircher engravings; Rick Loomis of Sumner & Stillman Antiquarian Booksellers (
) for pictures of early Jules Verne editions; Michael Widner, archivist for the Koreshan State Historical Site in Estero, Florida, for many photographs of the Koreshan community; Bill and Sue-On Hillman, proprietors of the ERBzine website (
), for artwork from Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Pellucidar novels; also the Frank Frazetta Museum (
), for permission to use his terrific Pelludicar cover art from the 1960s and 1970s; and Jean-Luc Rivera for sending scans of sci-fi magazine covers from his extensive “Shaver Mystery” collection. And finally, I would like to remember John Weigel and Walter Havighurst, Miami University English professors whose influence on me proved both deep and lasting.
What do Sir Edmond Halley, Cotton Mather, Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, L. Frank Baum, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Adolph Hitler, Admiral Byrd, flying saucers, Superman, Mount Shasta, and Pat Boone all have in common?
If you answered the hollow earth, you’re way ahead of where I was before I started looking into this.
Like most kids of my time, I first encountered the idea that the earth might be hollow in Verne’s
A Journey to the Center of the Earth
—even though he seemed to take forever to get down there. Because my tastes were resolutely low-rent, tending toward rock ’n’ roll and science fiction, as a teenager I also read several of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s
novels of wild adventures in a prehistoric world beneath the earth’s crust, starting in the middle with
Tarzan at the Earth’s Core.
As an undergraduate at Miami University in southern Ohio, I lived for awhile in a dorm named for John Cleves Symmes, an early prominent settler in the area, and learned that he had a namesake nephew, a veteran of the War of 1812, who devoted the last years of his life to proselytizing for an expedition to the North Pole, where he expected to find a vast opening leading into the earth’s interior, which, he believed, was hollow, and contained an unspoiled paradise just waiting, well, to be spoiled. And then in a grad school Poe seminar, I found out that he’d liked Symmes’ peculiar idea enough to use it as an ending for one of his short stories, “Ms. Found in a Bottle,” and as a motif in his only published novel,
The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.
Years pass. I’d stuck all this vital information into a corner of the attic I call my brain and pretty much forgotten about it, just as I’d figured the rest of the world had—since everyone knows that it’s not hollow, right? Wrong. While surfing around on the Internet a couple of years ago, I came across a website for a newsletter called
The Hollow Earth Insider
—along with much else. It turns out that the idea is still alive and well, at least among a cadre of fringe devotees. Not a few claim they make regular astral-travel visits inside, where they find a New Age civilization of peaceful vegetarians. Type the phrase “Hollow Earth” into your favorite search engine, and prepare to be amazed at the amount of material that turns up. Google produced 2,100,000 hits the last time I looked.
The hollow earth has had a long history. Right down to the present, the idea has been used again and again, changing and evolving in ways that suit the needs and concerns of each succeeding time.
Virtually every ancient culture worldwide, and most religions, has shared a belief in some sort of mysterious subterranean world, inhabited by strange and powerful creatures, right beneath our feet. These underworlds were myriad. The Sumerians believed in a vast netherworld they called Ki-Gal; in Egypt, it was Duat; in Greece and Rome, Hades; in ancient Indian mythology, it was Naraka; certain schools of Buddhism believed in a worldwide subterranean labyrinth called Agartha; in Japan, there was Jigoku; the Germanic people had Hellheim; the Inca called it Uca Pacha, while to the Aztecs it was Mictlan, and to the Mayans, Mitnal. And of course, to the Christians, it’s good old Hell, toured most elegantly by Dante in the fourteenth century in his
The near-universality of these underworlds isn’t surprising. They’re the dark terrain of the unconscious given tangible form and structure, embodiments of the boogie-man who ran howling through our nightmares when we were kids.
But such mythic/religious ideas started to take on a scientific cast in the seventeenth century, beginning with English astronomer and mathematician Edmond Halley, best remembered for his famous comet. He gave us our first scientific theory of the hollow earth—in his formulation, consisting of independently turning concentric spheres down there, one inside the other. Halley arrived at this notion, which he presented to the prestigious Royal Society of London, to account for observed variations in the earth’s magnetic poles. His true imaginative leap, however, lay in the additional thought that these interior spheres were lit with some sort of glowing luminosity, and that they might well be able to
Generations of science fiction writers have been thankful to him for this ever since.