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Hollow Earth: The Long and Curious History of Imagining Strange Lands,…

af David Standish

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228789,075 (3.63)3
Beliefs in mysterious underworlds are as old as humanity. But the idea that the earth has a hollow interior was first proposed as a scientific theory in 1691 by Sir Edmond Halley (of comet fame), who also suggested that there might be life down there as well.Hollow Earth traces the many surprising, marvelous, and just plain weird permutations his ideas have taken over the centuries. Both Edgar Allan Poe and (more famously) Jules Verne picked up the torch in the nineteenth century, the latter with his science fiction epicA Journey to the Center of the Earth. The notion of a hollow earth even inspired a religion at the turn of the twentieth century-Koreshanity, which held not only that the earth was hollow, but also that we're all living on theinside. Utopian novels and adventures abounded at this same time, including L. Frank Baum's hollow earth addition to the Oz series and Edgar Rice Burroughs'sPellucidar books chronicling a stone-age hollow earth. In the 1940s an enterprising science-fiction magazine editor convinced people that the true origins of flying saucers lay within the hollow earth, relics of an advanced alien civilization. And there are still devout hollow earthers today, some of whom claim there is a New Age utopia lurking beneath the earth's surface, with at least one entrance near Mt. Shasta in California.Hollow Earth travels through centuries and cultures, exploring how each era's relationship to the idea of a hollow earth mirrored its hopes, fears, and values. Illustrated with everything from seventeenth-century maps to 1950s pulp art to movie posters and more,Hollow Earth is for anyone interested in the history of strange ideas that just won't go away.… (mere)
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Fun. I’m always a little suspicious of journalists-turned-author – the Hollow Earth’s dust jacket blurb says author David Standish “teaches magazine writing at Northwestern University” - but the book is well done and a fun read. There is a little bit of the magazine article about it, and I believe the book was developed from an article Standish wrote for Smithsonian, but that style actually suits the topic well.


(An initial note: don’t confuse Hollow Earth with a number of other books with similar titles – for example, The Hollow Earth, by Raymond Bernard – a title and author discussed by Standish.)


Standish notes the concept of a hollow earth encompasses a number of concepts. I was surprised to find how many had some sort of resonance with superficially unrelated things I had run across in recent reading:


*The Earth is a hollow sphere with one or more other “earths” inside it (which may themselves be hollow, and so on). There may or may not be access to the inside from the surface. Notable proponent (surprisingly): Edmond Halley. Halley had two reasons for proposing this; one was the idea that God doesn’t waste anything and therefore wouldn’t make an enormous solid earth. The second, although incorrect, had a tenable physical reason. By Halley’s time, it had been discovered that the North Magnetic Pole (nobody was particularly interested in the South Magnetic Pole yet) moved slowly. Halley proposed that the internal “earths” each had its own magnetic pole, and the one observed on “our” Earth was the sum of the internal ones. Each internal earth rotated at a slightly different rate; thus the summed magnetic pole would move. I imagine you could probably make this work, just the way you can make Ptolemaic astronomy work if you add enough epicycles, deferents, and eccentrics.


*The Earth is a hollow sphere with continents, oceans, inhabitants, etc. on the underside, illuminated by some sort of central “sun”. Usually there is access to the “underside” through holes at the poles; sometimes elsewhere. Notable proponents: John Cleves Symmes Jr.; in fiction Edgar Allen Poe, Edgar Rice Burroughs. This is probably the most common concept of a hollow earth in modern times. John Symmes was a 19th century American military officer who decided that the Earth was hollow with 1200-mile wide holes at the poles allowing access to the inside. His evidence included the claim that some birds and animals migrate north, that now and then tropical driftwood washes ashore in Iceland, and that the aurora is light from the presumed central sun. There was supposedly an “ice barrier” some distance from the holes, but there were passages through it to allow for migrating animals, tropical driftwood, etc. Symmes may or may not be the author of Symzonia, about a purported voyage to the interior (the ostensible author is “Adam Seaborn”). Symmes was apparently an indefatigable if not very good lecturer on his theory, bombarding audiences (and the United States Congress) with requests for funds to conduct an expedition to the “inside”. He attracted a follower, Jeremiah Reynolds, who took over the lecture circuit and was, apparently, a much better speaker since he actually managed to raise enough money to finance an expedition to the Antarctic (the expedition, oddly, did produce some legitimate scientific results, including the discovery and description of some of the first Antarctic fossils). Unfortunately, Reynolds crew had signed on under the impression they were going on a sealing expedition – for shares of the profits – and became increasing resentful on discovering they were actually trying to sail to the inside of the earth. They mutinied, seized the ship, marooned Reynolds and the other officers and naturalists in Valparaiso, Chile, and set off as pirates. In one of the interesting resonances I mentioned, Reynolds spent his time in Chile collecting various South Pacific folktales and writing them up for publication in American newspapers; one of these was the story of a great white whale named – “Mocha Dick”. Apparently Dick had sworn off coffee by the time Herman Melville wrote about him and became “Moby” instead. In an even further resonance (not mentioned by Standish) the founders of the Starbucks Coffee Company wanted a name that expressed a nautical tradition. I’m not privy to their deliberations but I assume they considered “Moby Coffee”, “Dick Coffee”, “Ahab Coffee”, etc. before hitting on the first mate of the Pequod for “Starbucks Coffee”. On contemplating that – and I’m to blame, Standish has nothing to do with it – I note that the Starbuck’s mermaid has twin tail fins, uncharacteristic of the species. I theorize that she is perhaps descended from something noncetacean – penguin maybe, or even a plesiosaur. Or maybe she’s had an unfortunate encounter with a ship propeller. Or maybe, just maybe, she’s some creature for the interior of the earth. Conspiracy theories about Starbucks are invited.


Well, leaving that aside and getting back to Standish, Reynolds appears to have inspired yet another author, eccentric genius/drunk Edgar Allen Poe. There’s no firm proof that Poe and Reynolds ever talked, but Poe wrote some favorable reviews of the Symmes/Reynolds theory in various magazines, attended at least one lecture by Reynolds, and – reportedly – repeatedly mumbled the name “Reynolds” as he was dying. Although Poe never wrote anything about the interior of the earth per se (unless you count various people in tombs) he wrote two stories and his only novel about getting there – A Descent Into The Maelstrom, MS. Found In A Bottle, and The Narrative Of Arthur Gordon Pym Of Nantucket. All of these involves unfortunates who have somehow found themselves caught in a whirlpool that presumably leads inside. (Jules Verne wrote a sequel to Pym: The Sphinx of the Ice Realm.)


Latter 19th century writers began to adopt the Symmes Hollow Earth as a vehicle for various utopian or dystopian stories, since by then the possibilities of “lost cities” on the surface had diminished considerably. Mizora, by Mary Bradley Lane, describes a feminist utopia discovered by Russian political prisoner Vera Zarovitch when the kayak she’s using to escape from Siberia is washed through a hole in the ice into the interior. The Mizorans have “eliminated” all men from their society – the exact means are never disclosed – and, interestingly enough, have also eliminated every woman who isn’t a blonde Aryan. They consider a narrow waist a horrible deformity, which suggests Ms. Lane really didn’t like wearing a corset. In another resonance, Mizora was mentioned in a biography of Jeanette Rankin I read recently; supposedly it was one of the books that had influenced Rankin’s politics – although there’s no evidence Rankin ever read it.


Lanes book apparently inspired some backlash, particularly The Goddess of Atvatabar, by William Bradshaw. Atvatabar is ruled by the living goddess Lady Lyone (in an engraving reprinted by Standish she’s topless, and according to Bradshaw has bright blue hair), and has various high-tech stuff powered by “maglectric” energy which seems to be generated by “twin souls”, which in turn seem to be some sort of celibate married couples. Well, that obviously can’t last, and Atvatabar is discovered by an American exploring crew steaming through the Symmes Hole, and is quickly conquered when the Atvatabaran women (including Lady Lyone) discover they like surface style love better than what they’ve been doing before.


In an amazing display of research thoroughness, Standish has tracked down dozens of other “hollow earth” novels and summarizes them. Many are now in the public domain and digitized; I anticipate a lot of downloads to my Kindle.


The Symmes-style hollow earth had a brief renaissance in the 1960s when Raymond W. Bernard (pseudonym for Walter Siegmeister), a disciple of Rudolph Steiner, self-proclaimed medical doctor (he did have a PhD, in education) and prolific writer on what would now be called “alternative health” topics (including a three-volume book about constipation) published The Hollow Earth. This was basically a rehash of Symmes with the addition that the internal world was the source of flying saucers and an explanation of why numerous flights over the poles hadn’t found any holes. (Bernard seized on a comment by Admiral Richard Byrd that he had seen land “beyond the poles” and interpreted it to mean that the geographic pole was actually a ring around the Symmes Hole. And, of course, a government conspiracy kept this hidden from ordinary people).


*The Earth is mostly solid, but is riddled with caverns, tunnels, etc., that are inhabited by various things, usually unpleasant, or by the souls of the departed – often those sentenced to eternal punishment but sometimes the blessed as well. Notable proponents: Jules Verne, just about all ancient religions (oddly, Standish doesn’t mention Dante except in passing.), lots of scifi and fantasy authors. Standish doesn’t go very far into religious underworlds, which is probably not a bad idea. Jules Verne, of course, seized on the idea in Journey To The Center Of The Earth – Verne’s conception is not the “upside down” concept of the Symmes world, but rather just a network of large caverns entered through a volcano in Iceland. In yet another resonance, Verne apparently cribbed a lot of his ideas for prehistoric underworld inhabitants from La Terre Avant Le Déluge, which in turn figured as the rather strange and inappropriate source for illustrations in the recently reviewed The Call Of Distant Mammoths. Still another resonance is the Dungeons and Dragons race of “derros”, which are probably related to the “deros” described by science fiction writer/all around weirdo Robert Shaver.


*The Earth is hollow, and we are inside it; we live on the underside of a hollow shell. The apparent contradiction with observation is a result of invented abstruse optical and geodetic laws. Notable proponents: Cyrus Reed Teed (aka “Koresh”). Possibly the strangest of the all, I had previously run across Teed in a book by Martin Gardner. Standish doesn’t reference Gardner but has devoted a lot of time researching Teed on his own. Teed was an unsuccessful alchemist/naturopathic physician/inventor from upstate New York who hit on the idea – apparently sincere – of Koreshanity. Koreshanity apparently came to Teed in a sort of vision; its main features were a God that incorporated both male and female aspects, celibacy, communal living, socialism, and the idea that we are living inside a hollow Earth. Teed’s arguments for the last again struck a resonance with me; they were basically that Creation must be imaginable; humans can’t imagine an infinite universe, and therefore we must be inside a hollow earth. Standish doesn’t go further than that, but those of you familiar with 11th century Christian theology – and I feel safe to assume all of you are – will recognize this as sort of the inverse of the Ontological Argument first proposed by Anselm of Canterbury. (Anselm argued (basically – it’s actually more sophisticated) that since we are capable of imagining God, he must exist). Koreshanity attracted a number of followers, many of whom were middle-aged married women who all moved in (presumably in prefect celibacy) with Teed. By now Teed had changed his name to Koresh (yet another resonance – you may remember the leader of the Branch Davidians in Waco also changed his name to Koresh. There’s something about the old Persian that attracts wackos; in Teed’s case, at least “Koresh” is the Hebrew translation of “Cyrus”). At any rate, Koresh moved his utopia around the country – in Chicago for some time, it eventually ended up in Florida where it prospered for a while; the residents devoted a considerable amount of time using a device called the “Rectilineator” – which, based on Standish’s description and a couple of pictures, is sort of a giant multiple T-square – to prove that the Earth’s surface sloped upwards at about 8 inches per mile. However, things gradually fell apart. First, there was a hostile takeover attempt by Princess Editha Lolita Ludwig, who claimed to be the illegitimate daughter of Lola Montez and Ludwig I of Bavaria (yet another resonance; I reviewed a biography of Ms. Montez a while back). The Princess had founded her own esoteric religion in Florida and decided there wasn’t enough room for two in the same state; her attack consisted of a series of letters to the Fort Myers newspaper impugning the Koreshan’s morality. As it turned out the Princess (who was also Baroness Rosenthal and Countess of Landsfeld) had once been a Koreshan herself and they were able to fend off her attacks by suggesting she had attempted to become one of Teed’s favorites and was now “a woman scorned”. A more serious problem occurred a few years later; reminiscent of the Rajneeshees in Oregon, the Koreshians attempted to become involved in local politics, resulting in Teed getting beat up by the locals. Teed/Koresh apparently never fully recovered, and died in 1908. The Koreshans expected him to rise from the dead, and kept the body in state well past a prudent period for the Florida climate; eventually health officials showed up and insisted on burial. Even then the tomb had to have a 24-hour guard to keep enthusiasts out; it was eventually washed away in a hurricane. The surviving Koreshans eventually donated the remnants of the community to the state as a historical site; it operates as such to this day. Standish claims there are still a few believers in Koreshanity but if so I wasn’t able to find any Web presence.


Standish has done yeoman work gathering all this together; the bibliography includes dozens of titles of obscure hollow earth books. The writing style is light (which is probably necessary considering the topic). I suppose my only complaint is Standish never does anything to scientifically debunk the various claims, simply relying on ridicule; to be fair I expect an explanation of why Gauss’s flux theorem of gravity prohibits inhabitants of the underside of a hollow earth would be a little much for a popular work. There are frequent illustrations taken from the references; the Divine Locomotive of Atvatabar is probably worth the price of the book by itself.
( )
1 stem setnahkt | Dec 11, 2017 |
An overview of some of the many theories about the earth being hollow, from Edmond Halley to John Cleves Symmes through to some of the current silliness bandied about on the internet. But largely a look at the hollow earth as a theme in fiction, covering some of the very many novels which take the hollow earth as a major plot point (the vast majority of which, Standish admits, are absolutely terrible).

There are more than a few silly mistakes here, and the book is designed fairly poorly, I'm sorry to say. Those things, and the repetitive nature of the text, detract from the idea, which is a fairly interesting one.

Could have been much better than it is. ( )
  JBD1 | Jan 4, 2014 |
The best bits are the early parts about Halley's attempt to account for the wandering of the magnetic poles by positing the Earth to consist of concentric shells - where he threw in the idea that the inner surfaces may be inhabitable to forestall the then inevitable objection that the inner shells would be useless and God therefore wouldn't have created them - and how the idea was taken up by fringe types like John Cleves Symmes (who thought the inner and outer worlds were connected by polar openings and therefore endlessly campaigned for polar exploration) and Cyrus Teed (a visionary who modestly named the religion he founded "Koreshanity" - Koresh being the Hebrew form of his given name - and was convinced that our world is the inside). Unfortunately, these are marred by poor editing and Standish not being as funny as he thinks he is.

The rest of the book mostly consists of summaries of novels that involve an interior world (not always on the hollow shell model). A few deservedly famous works, like Verne's A Journey to the Centre of the Earth, figure, but it's mostly ones that in Standish's own estimation are forgetable to dreadful. I ended up skipping a lot of this, Standish's attempts to connect them to then-current fads and fears not being interesting enough to justify the often lengthy summaries.

There's surprisingly little on Hollow Earth in more recent crackpottery, despite repeated references to the flourishing online cottage industry of new-agers and conspiracy theorists who have adopted the idea. Perhaps the idea is that if the reader is interested they can just go out and see for themselves - a selection of links are provided.

Overall, a bit of a disappointment.
2 stem AndreasJ | Nov 5, 2011 |
An interesting exploration into the world within the world. I have heard of Symmes' Hole and various other ideas, but it is nice to see them all described and collected into one book. There is also a nice accounting of movies and popular fiction that have extended the ideas in both good and bad examples.

Also, there is a good bibliography and index to assist the reader. A fun little book about a strange idea. ( )
  hadden | Jul 2, 2011 |
A Crackerjack book about a crackpot idea, well researched and eminently readable. ( )
  JNSelko | Jun 23, 2008 |
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Beliefs in mysterious underworlds are as old as humanity. But the idea that the earth has a hollow interior was first proposed as a scientific theory in 1691 by Sir Edmond Halley (of comet fame), who also suggested that there might be life down there as well.Hollow Earth traces the many surprising, marvelous, and just plain weird permutations his ideas have taken over the centuries. Both Edgar Allan Poe and (more famously) Jules Verne picked up the torch in the nineteenth century, the latter with his science fiction epicA Journey to the Center of the Earth. The notion of a hollow earth even inspired a religion at the turn of the twentieth century-Koreshanity, which held not only that the earth was hollow, but also that we're all living on theinside. Utopian novels and adventures abounded at this same time, including L. Frank Baum's hollow earth addition to the Oz series and Edgar Rice Burroughs'sPellucidar books chronicling a stone-age hollow earth. In the 1940s an enterprising science-fiction magazine editor convinced people that the true origins of flying saucers lay within the hollow earth, relics of an advanced alien civilization. And there are still devout hollow earthers today, some of whom claim there is a New Age utopia lurking beneath the earth's surface, with at least one entrance near Mt. Shasta in California.Hollow Earth travels through centuries and cultures, exploring how each era's relationship to the idea of a hollow earth mirrored its hopes, fears, and values. Illustrated with everything from seventeenth-century maps to 1950s pulp art to movie posters and more,Hollow Earth is for anyone interested in the history of strange ideas that just won't go away.

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