August 17, 2006


Hollow Earth: The Long and Curious History of Imagining Strange Lands, Fantastical Creatures, Advanced Civilizations, and Marvelous Machines Below the Earth’s Surface. By David Standish. Da Capo. $24.95.

     We are all living inside Earth, not on its surface.  Or: Earth is made up of concentric spheres, like nesting dolls, and there may well be life within.  Or: the warmth inside Earth sustains a vast civilization.  Or: flying saucers come from inner space, not outer space.  These are but a few of the beliefs about a hollow Earth held by crackpots, serious scientists and authors over the centuries.  Dictators held them, too: Adolf Hitler, his Third Reich crumbling around him, explored the possibility of escaping within.

     What is, or was, going on here?  David Standish, who teaches magazine writing at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, takes a journalist’s approach to the variegated and decidedly odd history of belief that the Earth is a hollow sphere (or concentric spheres – an idea seriously advanced by Sir Edmond Halley, for whom the famous comet is named).

     This is a fascinating study, and it covers a lot of ground.  Starting with scientific approaches to Earth’s supposedly hollow nature, Standish progresses through the pseudoscientific 19th-century notion of John Symmes that the Earth could be entered from either pole, to literary journeys suggesting the same possibility – notably Edgar Allan Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.  From there it is a natural step to the most famous novel about a hollow earth, Jules Verne’s A Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), which owes a debt to Poe that Standish explains briefly and clearly.

     Standish has a pleasingly flip style that fits his subject matter well: “Verne was just a normal guy whose life gave little hint of the fantastic voyages that he would find within and that would make him the originator of the modern science fiction novel.”  This style stands the author in good stead as he moves into more modern and increasingly weird ideas about a hollow Earth, such as Koreshanity.  This is a religion, founded in the 19th century by a man named Cyrus Teed, who “loves nine-dollar words and isn’t shy about making up new ones.”   Koreshanity’s central tenet is that the Earth is hollow – and we all live inside it.  “Promulgating these ideas would be a large order for a young man whose life so far had been undistinguished at best,” writes Standish, who then shows just what Teed did and how he did it – a fascinating (and in some ways cautionary) tale whose ending did not come until 1961.

     The latter part of Standish’s book shows the persistence of the hollow-Earth myth in literature, including but by no means limited to L. Frank Baum’s Oz series and the Pellucidar saga of Edgar Rice Burroughs.  The book’s final chapter, intriguingly titled “The Hollow Earth Lives,” includes everything from comic books to B movies (“Superman and the Mole Men”) to Internet-based weirdness – with Web sites you can check out yourself.  Standish does make fun of this persistent belief (“I’m just getting an incoming message from one of the fillings in my teeth”), but he also makes an effort to understand it – to show why this particular dream has persisted for centuries, always changing form but never quite disappearing.  Hollow Earth is in some ways a romp through pseudoscience, and in other ways an exploration of the reasons for human self-delusion and the peculiar forms that one type of wish fulfillment has taken for hundreds of years.

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