Underground Literature & the Fascinating Cultural History of Hollow Earth Theory & Literature

Posted In:   From Issue 622   By: Mark Leffler

21st September, 2006     0

"There have been many books recently about important ideas or commodities that have changed the world. This one, I am happy to say, traces the cultural history of an idea that was wrong and changed nothing - but which nevertheless had an ongoing appeal."
From the author's introduction to Hollow Earth

About five years ago I reviewed The Art of Money, a wonderful book exploring the beauty of international paper currency. It was written by David Standish, a veteran freelance magazine writer who I had the good fortune of spending an afternoon interviewing in Chicago where he is on the faculty of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, teaching magazine writing.

During one of our phone conversations around that time, Standish told me he was spending part of the day in bed reading some Edgar Allen Poe and Edgar Rice Burroughs stories as research for a magazine article on Hollow Earth theory and fiction. We spoke briefly about the pleasure of being paid to read books.

Last week I spoke with Standish by phone again, this time to discuss the book that resulted from his research.
His tale begins with pitching Smithsonian magazine an article on Hollow Earth stories. Smithsonian had published his initial "Art of Money" article, which he later expanded into a book which was put out in a lavishly illustrated form by Chronicle Publishing. His editor at the magazine liked the idea and gave him the green light to dive into his subject, so to speak. In a sense, he ended up tumbling down a Lewis Carroll rabbit hole like many of the historical and fictional figures he was researching.

He recalls that "I kind of went berserk and turned in a huge number of words. My editor was kind and cut it down to a useable length." Unfortunately a new editor took over and passed on publishing the piece, "They gave me a very nice 'turn down" fee and at that point I found an agent and sold it." Standish had always seen the potential for a book in the topic. "As I got into it I realized that it really needed to be a book. The first draft I had was way too long."

Hollow Earth: The Long and Curious History of Imagining Strange Lands, Fantastical Creatures, Advanced Civilizations, and Marvelous Machines Below the Earth's Surface (303 pages, Da Capo Press) is an amazing journey through fact and fiction.

It begins in 1691 with Sir Edmund Halley (yes, the one the comet is named for) delivering a series of scientific lectures "proposing that the earth is hollow, or nearly so."

Halley was not part of the lunatic fringe of the scientific world as we might presume today with the benefit of hindsight and over three hundred years of scientific advancements.  He had helped finance the publication of Sir Isaac Newton's Philosophia naturalis principia mathematica in 1687 and based his theories on Newton's work.

Standish traces his interest in Hollow Earth back to the stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs he read as a teen.  While in college at Miami University of Ohio, Standish lived in a dorm named for John Cleves Symmes. Symmes had been a local settler whose namesake nephew became famous for his attempts to persuade the federal government to finance an expedition to the poles to find holes he believed existed that led to the earth's hollow interior. 

Symmes is also believed to be the author of Symzonia, the first American Hollow Earth novel and first American utopian novel as well.  Symmes blazed a path that would later be followed by Edgar Allen Poe, Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs (who even sent Tarzan into the center of the earth) and dozens, perhaps hundreds of other writers.

As it turns out, someone else at Miami University of Ohio had shown an interest in Symmes.  "I didn't know it at the time, but personally one of my English professors, Walter Havighurst, who was very prolific historian, had researched an article on Symmes that he never completed. As I was researching the book it turned out there was an archive of notes and research he did and they sent me copies," Standish recalls.

"My initial research was noodling around and trying to get a sense of the scope of the material from pre-history to the present. In fact, I wrote two chapters which aren't in the book. One was on ancient underworlds and afterlife kingdoms and another on Dante's Inferno. As I got into it I realized to make the book a manageable size it made more sense to go from Halley to the present and not work on earlier underworlds. The thing I find most interesting is that the idea of Hollow Earth changed and mutated with the times to suit the cultural needs and fears of the time. Symmes is a weird reflection of manifest destiny and Poe's novel (The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym) is a deep dark parody of the polar mania of the time. The connections are fascinating."

His own personal journey to the center of the earth began as a youthful reader of Burroughs' Pellucidar novels while in high school. He then discovered Symmes while in college. When he sold the article concept to Smithsonian, he thought that scientific advancements in geology would have put to rest any serious belief in a hollow Earth. It turns out some crackpot theories are like the old Douglas MacArthur quote about old soldiers: they never die, they just fade away.

One day, while doing some research on Hollow Earth on the Internet he discovered a fascinating site. "I came across The Hollow Earth Insider by Dennis Crenshaw. He puts it out when the mood strikes him. It was in print originally and on the Internet the past five years. I thought 'Wait a minute. We're still thinking about this?' At the time I pitched it I hadn't done that much research. My jaw dropped because there was all this material going back to the 17th century."

While it's easy to snicker at people seriously thinking the earth could be hollow from the perspective of life in 2006, Standish does an excellent job of painting a portrait of a world on the verge of a scientific revolution that began around the time of Newton and Halley. It was a time when scientists as well as the general public took such ideas more seriously than we can easily appreciate.   

Readers may be stunned to learn that Henry David Thoreau's Walden even contains a reference to the frenzy of excitement about polar expeditions and Symmes' Hole. Standish came across the passage by accident.
"It was in the final chapter of Walden. I reread Walden for the fun of it while researching the book and it just popped out. 'Wow, that's serendipitous.' It proves that the idea of Symmes' Hole was widespread at the time."
Just as our current medical practices, religious beliefs and concepts of the universe may appear primitive and ridiculous 400 years from now, Standish cautions us to consider the state of scientific understanding during Symmes' lifetime.

"You have to take that thinking away to realize how unwhacky this is. Geology was a brand new science when (Jules) Verne wrote. So when Symmes said there were big holes at the polar caps it wasn't until (polar explorer Admiral Robert) Peary that anyone really knew." Standish says the popularity of Hollow Earth theories drops off precipitously around the start of the 20th century. "Until 1900, the truth about the polar regions and the earth's interior weren't really known."

But facts don't necessarily stand in the way of a catchy, albeit goofy theory catching hold of the popular imagination. Take the UFO craze of the 1950's, which also has a Hollow Earth connection via one of the sadder tales in the book. letter in the December 1943 issue of Amazing Stories, a science fiction digest, penned by one Richard S. Shaver (with some liberal additions from the editor Ray Palmer) began a long association sparking a huge response from readers and a long running series of "Shaver Mysteries". Unfortunately, Shaver was a very troubled man with a history of mental illness and personal tragedy. With the benefit of hindsight, one might conjecture that Shaver developed his tales of "actual" experiences in the earth's interior as a way of coping with his emotional pain. As the stories grew in popularity, and with the encouragement of Palmer, who rewrote most of the tales, Shaver took the lemons life gave him and made electric lemonade.

Oh, and the Hollow Earth connection to UFOs? That occurred when Shaver read an AP wire story about a U.S. Forest Service employee who saw saucer-like objects flying "at incredible speed." At this point the reader may imagine the voice of Jack Palance intoning "Believe it or not!'

Rereading Burroughs stories he had devoured in his youth, Standish found "it didn't seem as much fun. He wasn't a very good writer. He wrote too fast. For such an established writer, he was routinely rejected. He was an alcoholic. In the 1920's he began dictating his work. He was just a hasty awful stylist. His last Hollow Earth stories were just bad."

A similar fate was shared by Oz creator L. Frank Baum, whose fourth book in the series Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz (1908) featured a subterranean plot.

"The same thing happened with Baum. He got sick of writing the Oz books but they sold and made him money. His heart went into the movie business. He and Burroughs had a big interest in the movie business."

Standish's own professional writing career is almost as amazing as the characters that populate his latest work. He says he has always been interested in writing.  "I started writing short stories in ninth grade, wrote a science fiction novel with a friend and worked on the school newspaper." Then as an undergrad at Miami University of Ohio he began a humor magazine called Plague, after the novel by French Existentialist author Albert Camus.
Standish worked as writer, editor, publisher and distributor.  "I got my job at Playboy because of my experience with Plague. We had a Plaguemate and we wrote parody copy to go with it so it was sort of a step down to write the real thing."

Standish worked on the Playboy Party Jokes page, largely because the other editors didn't want to comb through the vast number of letters with contributions from readers. When he got burnt out, his replacement was a fresh out of college humorous young man from Washington University named Harold Ramis. Ramis would go on to Second City, National Lampoon stage shows and Radio Hour, SCTV and would eventually write and direct a slew of comedic gems too numerous to list.

After he escaped the chores of editing Playboy Party Jokes he got the opportunity to do some of the famous Playboy interviews. He says his most memorable interview was with novelist Kurt Vonnegut in 1973.  "He said things that have still stuck with me." Vonnegut liked the interview so much that he included it in his collection  Wampeters, Foma and Granfaloons (1974).

Standish is tickled to be a footnote in Vonnegut's biography.

During his tenure at Playboy he met another fresh out of college humorous young man named Douglas Clark Kenney. Kenny stopped in Chicago to promote the new humor magazine he was launching with fellow Harvard Lampoon colleagues Henry Beard and Robert Hoffman a new national humor magazine, National Lampoon.

Later, when senior editors at Playboy passed on some unsolicited short stories he sent them along to Kenney. 
"I was the defacto editor who read the unsolicited humor the magazine received. When these came in I thought they were wonderful, hilarious and filthy. We passed them around the office and you could tell where they were from the laughter. But the senior editors thought they were too filthy."

Kenney considered the author, Dartmouth graduate and former ad copywriter Chris Miller, "the find of the year". Miller's stories ran for years in the Lampoon and he collaborated with Kenney and Ramis on the screenplay for National Lampoon's Animal House, which became the top grossing comedy ever.

This led to Miller and Standish writing a script for a Club Med parody they initially called Club Sandwich. Kenney planned to direct, but these plans dissolved when Kenney was found dead from a fall from a cliff in Hawaii.  While Standish shares a writing credit on the movie that resulted, Club Paradise (starring Robin Williams, Peter O'Toole and reggae superstar Jimmy Cliff) it was a bittersweet experience.

"I was awful at it (screenwriting). It was horrible. Chris calls it his Vietnam. I would second that. None of us knew a thing about structure. But there was lots of funny stuff (two characters in their early version were named Filmore West and Sydney Australia). Chris used to say that we had all these nice, shiny Christmas tree ornaments and no tree. " Still, he did have the unforgettable experience of visiting the set and looking over and Holy Shit, that's Jimmy Cliff. He got to hang with Cliff, one of his idols, and remembers the reggae singer taking about an hour to roll a joint, constantly picking seeds out of the strong Jamaican weed.

Standish escaped his adventures in the screen trade with many such wonderful anecdotes, like the time he and Miller were in a studio parking lot and noticed a car with the vanity plate "REWRITE".

Standish maintains some interest in screenwriting and has done some work on a script about the final three years of novelist/journalist Stephen Crane's life.

But of course Standish is more than that. Reading Hollow Earth's narrative is like listening to a smart and funny friend who has read and knows way more than seems possible (like his explanation of how navel travel and the need to determine longitude led to the development of accurate portable clocks and watches because of the use of pendulums and coiled springs and how this all relates to Halley and Hollow Earth theory).

The information is all tied together and told in such a breezy conversational style that makes for pleasant hours of reading and later relating to friends.

Readers who would like to delve further into the fantastic realms of the Hollow Earth can visit a website created by Standish and a friend It's a work in progress and Standish hopes to add more texts and art, much of which appears in his book, including many covers from the Burroughs and Shaver stories. Standish can also be contacted via email at the website.

But how to explain the current interest in Hollow Earth theory today? Standish attributes some of this to a "new agey aspect" in today's true believers.

"I don't know how many people are involved, but there are some who believe they astral travel into the Hollow Earth.  A lot of people find it amusing. I don't believe there are many true believers.

"My own whacky theory is that the earth is a huge metaphor for hour heads, which have about the same shape. There is so much going on inside our own heads and we extrapolate that into the earth."

A quick glance at the book's cover illustration indeed looks much like a MRI scan of a brain.


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