Hollow-earth notions have worn a tinfoil hat for so long that it’s easy to forget what a curious and distinguished lineage they have. While David Standish’s Hollow Earth is, as he puts it, “the cultural history of an idea that was wrong and changed nothing,” his book basks in the lurid glow of a theory whose hypnotic appeal will long outlive its rational plausibility. Popularized by Edmond Halley in 1692 to explain the earth’s magnetic anomalies, the concept was revived in 1820s America by John Cleves Symmes, who added the idea of polar access holes. Suddenly Americans had another new frontier: Symmes gets name-checked in Walden, and hollow-earth explorer Jeremiah Reynolds intersects with the career of Herman Melville—it was Reynolds’s ostensibly hollow-earth 1829 Antarctic expedition that resulted in his seminal Knickerbocker article on the killer whale “Mocha Dick.” But the theory’s apogee comes with Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864), and Edgar Allan Poe, who based both his first short story and his only novel on the idea, and who feverishly called out Reynolds’s name from his deathbed.
One of the great pleasures of Standish’s book is observing the hollow-earth theory tumbling from half-sober science into intoxicatingly garish pop culture, be it the hokum of Tarzan at the Earth’s Core, the trippiness of Baum and Lovecraft, or the sublime creepiness of forgotten sci-fi like Editorpha. It was only a short step down from there into hollow-earth messiah cults like the Florida settlement of Estero Island and such Mystery Science Theatre 3000 fodder as The Mole People.
Hollow Earth is tremendous fun, even though it’s virtually missing a final chapter. The last three decades get barely a cursory glance, with no acknowledgement of the theory’s endearingly dorky afterlife in video games, D&D, Marvel comics, and even amusement park rides at Tokyo DisneySea and the much-lamented Dorney Park. One mystifying omission is the last truly successful hollow-earth pop artifact—Rick Wakeman’s synths-and-symphonies extravaganza Journey to the Centre of the Earth, which reached No. 1 in the U.K. in 1974 and remains both enjoyably ridiculous and ridiculously enjoyable. That’s a quality shared, come to think it, by hollow-earth theories themselves.