Hollow Earth

Review by Andrew Crumey

Published in Scotland on Sunday


Hollow Earth
David Standish
Da Capo Press, £14.99

Jules Verne was not the first person to imagine journeying to the centre of the Earth. For centuries people believed our planet to be hollow, containing creatures and even whole civilisations hidden from surface dwellers. What began as a serious scientific theory descended through mystical speculation into the stuff of fantasy, so that Standish’s fascinating account spans geology, literary history and new-age religion.

It began with Edmond Halley, famous for his comet, who attempted to explain variations in Earth’s magnetic field by supposing our planet to contain a series of concentric spheres, perhaps with people living on them.

Saving them from a life of darkness was the task of the next great hollow-Earther, John Cleves Symmes, who toured nineteenth-century America explaining that our globe has giant holes at the North and South poles which allow light inside. Symmes was ridiculed as a crank but spent his life unsuccessfully trying to get funds for a polar expedition that would prove his theory.

Things got a new twist from Cyrus Teed who created a utopian community dedicated to his own religion, Koreshanity, claiming that not only is our Earth hollow but we live on the inside, the sun and sky being a clever illusion. It makes for the most entertaining section of Standish’s book.

Another convert to Symmes’ theory was Edgar Allan Poe, who may have read Symmes’ self-publicising novel Symzonia describing a heroic mission down under. Poe seems to allude to the hollow Earth theory in his only novel, The Narrative Of Arthur Gordon Pym.

From there, Standish explains, the hollow Earth went truly global. Poe died unknown in America but had an ardent fan in Charles Baudelaire who set about translating the master into French, and the young Jules Verne was so smitten by Poe’s fantastic stories that he set about imitating them – including writing a sequel to Poe’s novel. The hero of Journey To The Centre Of The Earth follows a well beaten literary path.

A substantial part of Standish’s book is devoted to the many hollow Earth novels that appeared in the nineteenth century, most of them totally forgotten now except by scholars, and in many cases their synopses are as frankly dull as the novels themselves. Highlights however include Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, the fourth book in L Frank Baum’s series which took the characters below ground, and no less than six hollow Earth novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, including Tarzan at the Earth’s Core. Modern pulp fiction pays occasional homage to the genre, a recent addition being Indiana Jones and the Hollow Earth.

Polar exploration finally killed the theory when no holes were found, though devotees still crowd the internet, and Standish has done an admirable job unpicking fact from fantasy by tracking down primary sources, enabling him to debunk many second-hand myths of hollow Earth lore. One that sadly eludes him, though, is the story that Hitler believed in Cyrus Teed’s inside-out hollow Earth and ordered a scientific expedition to test it. The tale has been discussed by many fringe-science writers (notably Pauwels and Bergier) and it would be good to know exactly where it started, but Standish fails to follow it up. It is one small hole in an otherwise excellent book.