Look out below

Bill Holm's latest book of poems is "Playing the Black Piano." He teaches writing at Southwest Minnesota State University and spends summers in northern Iceland.

NOTIONS of life underneath the ground, of secret realms within the Earth or of Earth itself inside a cosmic egg have an ancient history, from Hades onward. David Standish, in “Hollow Earth,” gives us fascinating and often bizarre tales of the last 300 years of them. His introduction states that this is not a book about “important ideas or commodities that have changed the world”; rather, he says, it is about “an idea that was wrong and changed nothing -- but which has nevertheless had an ongoing appeal.”

Readers will find Standish too modest in this claim. There’s an eerie sense, in the examples he gathers and describes, that these hollow-Earth worlds are metaphors for our human interior -- what we think of ourselves, our imagination of our inner life. They tell sometimes uncomfortable truths about us even as we are amused and diverted by their strangeness.

Standish’s examples begin with Edmond Halley, the famous 17th century mathematician and astronomer who discovered, among other things, the orbit of the comet later named for him. In 1691, he proposed the existence of three concentric spheres under our feet, each perhaps capable of supporting life and lighted by some form of interior luminescence. Halley was a reputable and renowned scientist, and his proposition inspired a whole gang of novelists, utopians and explorers.

The first notorious American hollow-Earth idea was proposed by John Cleves Symmes in 1818. He thought we had best, as a nation, scurry to either pole, where a hole several thousand miles across opened to a subterranean land that was habitable; at top and bottom, Earth was not cold but warm. Symmes’ Holes resonated in the national consciousness for a long time. Poe used the idea in a short story, “MS. Found in a Bottle,” and in his only novel, “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.” I hope Standish’s book arouses new curiosity about Poe’s surreal tale, at whose end the hero’s canoe is drawn over a hot, milky white cataract near the South Pole. Our literature tells us that we Americans have been odder longer than some of us thought.


The most famous interior-Earth story is, of course, Jules Verne’s “A Journey to the Centre of the Earth,” which begins with a descent into the crater of Snaefellsjokull in Iceland (or Mt. Sneffels, in Verne’s creative spelling). Inside the volcano, his travelers find tropical forests, prehistoric sea beasts, mastodon herds and an ocean. How do they escape? They are blown out of a volcanic chimney at Stromboli. Quite a trip: from western Iceland to Sicily inside the Earth.

Verne made use of new science to hook his readers. Charles Darwin had recently published “The Origin of Species”; fossil hunters were combing the world; geology was in its bright infancy, hardly 75 years old. Verne did a good deal of creative geological theorizing (“wonderfully cockeyed,” as Standish says), but here’s a haunting and prescient sentence from “Journey”: “Thus were formed those huge beds of coal which, despite their size, the industrial nations will exhaust within three centuries unless they limit their consumption.” And this in 1864! Do we have another century and a half? Probably not.

Standish unearths a real American character in Cyrus Reed Teed, known to his followers as Koresh, who proclaimed in 1869 that “the earth is hollow and that we all live inside a ‘cosmic egg.’ ” Furthermore, heaven and hell exist inside us. The Bible must be read not literally but symbolically. Matter and energy “are two qualities or states of the same substance [and] are each transposable to the other.” (Shades of e=mc2!) God is both male and female, and in the Koresh dispensation “a woman shall compass a man.” He also advocates communal property, with no money changing hands. Koreshanism is thus a grand amalgam of Freud, Marx, William Blake, Einstein, the alchemists and feminism -- and all this inside a cosmic egg. (A further flourish is that Teed, a native of Utica, N.Y., was a distant cousin of Joseph Smith, who, the Mormon faith proclaims, uncovered the angel Moroni’s golden tablets in Palmyra.)

The Koreshans founded a Utopian community a few miles west of Fort Myers, Fla., that flourished until well after the turn of that century -- a handsome, prosperous and ecologically sound town (the “offal of the city” was to be “transformed to fertilization”). It survives now as a state historic site. Koresh was news to me, as he may be to you, and I was properly impressed with the progressive drift of his ideas. Dingbat science is here wedded to creative social thinking -- and to a scientific intuition (like Verne’s on coal) that the human race must husband Earth’s resources. Perhaps we do live in a kind of egg, understood symbolically.


Standish produces plenty more of these hollow worlds, including those of Tarzan’s creator, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and L. Frank Baum, who takes Dorothy out of Oz into hollow Earth in “Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz” (1908). Standish’s list of hollow-Earth novels published between 1880 and 1915 (a non-exhaustive roster) is a couple of pages long. Even Adolf Hitler is said to have been seduced by hollow-Earth theories, subscribing to Koresh’s cosmic-egg idea and considering the Symmes Hole at the South Pole as an escape route.

“Hollow Earth” 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, though he’s overly fond of cute slang: Halley’s hollow-Earth theory, for instance, “wasn’t as off the wall as it may seem,” and a 17th century German treatise on magnetism is described as “a little cuckoo.” But mostly he’s a good guide to the imaginary hollows, saving you the labor of reading many a badly written novel by summarizing them neatly to reveal their weird plots. He does us a good turn by salvaging a book -- Poe’s novel -- that surely needed salvaging. He even summons Henry David Thoreau, of all people, in Poe’s and his own defense: “It is not worth the while to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar. Yet do this even till you can do better, and you may perhaps find some Symmes’ Hole by which to get at the inside at last.” That may be the right metaphor for “Hollow Earth.” It’s our own interiors that need earnest exploration.