Saturday 8 August 2015

Hollow Earth Settings - Victim to Stereotype?

When I think "Hollow Earth" I think Jules Verne-style pulp/VSF adventurers encountering lost tribes, dinosaurs, giant apes and bizarre life forms in a pulpy, Boys-Own adventure.

I know that there are lots of "underworld" myths.  Thanks to wikipedia (ironically, the most reliable entry on this topic I could google): (I'm not too worried about scholarly research, given the topic!)

We have plenty of mythic references (Sheol, Hell, Svartalfaheimr,the Greek Underworld, the Irish Cruachan, cavnerns leading to Purgatory or Tuatha de Daan).  There are German caves that lead to an "inner earth."  As far apart as the Pacific Islands, Brazil, America, the Caribbean and India there are legends of the first peoples emerging from a subterranean land.   So there's quite a bit of background and mythic "support" for it as a place.

In my RPG rummaging I could only find one Hollow-earth centric game, which merely played on all the stereotypes (which you could do with any other pulp-centric ruleset a la Savage Worlds).

The "science" of hollow Earth dates to Edmund Halley (the comet guy) who used it to explain geomagnetic fluctuations; it continued in various forms and in fact Antarctic expeditions resulted from the agitations of hollow-Earth proponents.  Hollow Earth has some support from the UFO crowd.  You know, Atlanteans/Nazis/Greys/etc - who also favour the Poles for their bases.

In 1788 Casanova (yes, the Casanova) wrote of a hollow earth populated by hermaphrodite dwarves.  Probably the most popular versions were Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth and Edgar Rice Burroughs "Pellucidar" series (psychic flying pterosaurs and ape men ftw.)

Whilst pulp is good, I feel Hollow Earth has been pigeonholed in the pulp era.

The awesomely zany Aussie series "Danger 5"  - Basically, Weird War II as seen through the eyes of a cheesy 60s B-movie.  In the latest episode, the team fought Mengele's mind-controlled Nazi dinosaurs in Antarctica with the help of jazz-loving chimps...

There isn't much "serious" Hollow Earth stuff out there (okay, it sounds a little ironic when I whinge about it out loud). The reason I'm commenting on this is a book I found really interesting - The Descent by Jeff Long.  It describes the discovery of a massive cave network beneath the earth surface, The story starts brilliantly -  Nepalese trekkers discovering a cryptic, mummified corpse, being lured into a cave to be hunted and slaughtered.  Then a military team investigating mass graves in Bosnia encounters something disturbing the graves - a military chopper crashes. Only the pilot survives, raving about "demons."  The worlds militaries start to explore this underworld, which may be inhabited by early hominids.  Whilst it fades after an excellent start, the book keeps a pseudo-scientific feel and its hard, gritty tone is at odds with the usual slightly silly/pulpy feel of most Hollow Earth literature.

The Descent (no relation to the movie) is a gritty, darker take on the "underworld" genre

Other books - notably "Ice Station" by Matthew Reilly, explored the idea of mysterious things buried under the ice, but this was incidental to the main story.   There was a bit more pulpy subterranean hijinks in Beneath the Dark Ice by Greg Beck (notable for its ridiculously superpowered protagonist and laboured text) which had a tentacled blob creature (aka The Thing?) that can mimic humans and hunts in a sunken Atlantean city beneath Antarctica ice - with caves systems that presumably stretch across the globe including to the Lost Colony in Roanoke.  However this book is just a cheap Thing ripoff and the underground world was just a series of "dungeons" for the heroes to be chased through - not a hollow Earth per se.
The wargame Helldorado has conquistadors (along with Arabs, Chinese etc) exploring Hell. However its theological bent perhaps puts it beyond the "Hollow Earth" genre.

My argument:
The "underworld" or  "hollow earth" with subterranean civilization and races is under-used, and pigeonholed into cheesy VSF/pulp settings in the pre-War years.  It's a genre that could (and should!) be explored more thoroughly.


  1. The Pellucidar of Edgar Rice Buroughs is an intriguing place - the way that the ratio of land/water is reversed so that Pellucidar has a larger inhabitable surface than the Earth within which exists, the Pendent world which hangs motionless inside the world, creating the "Land of Awful Shadow" beneath it...
    I'm surprised that you didn't mention The Coming Race by Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton, first published 1871. In this, the author discovers an ancient race who at some time in the past retreated into a network of caves beneath the world, technologically more advanced than humans,whose expanding population may one day force them to the surface, into confrontation with mankind...
    The Coming Race is notable for the energy force "Vril", from which the famous meaty drink Bovril derives its name!
    An interesting read is "The Lost World of Agharti" by Alec MacLellan which delves into various myths of underground worlds - it was from reading this (borrowed from Bangor library's unusually large occult studies section while at university) that I discovered Lytton's novel. No Amazon back then in 1993 so I had to resort to a second hand book network to track down a copy of TCR! Maclellan's book also covers Nazi investigations into the underworld, so ideal pulp material.

    1. Ah, but you see, I am merely interested in what I think is a relatively rich but unexplored setting... .... I'm not yet a complete VSF/pulp fanatic ;-)

      Speaking of enthusiasts, your "Vril" comment reminded me - holy smoke there's a lot of zany UFO stuff on the internet. If UFOs were brought into the equation... retilians, greys, Antarctic bases ....again I'm surprised we haven't got more X-COM style wargames.

      ...but instead we get 101 zombie games, and at least 50 each of WW2 and hard sci fi platoon. (cheers ironically)

    2. There is some weird allure to Zombie and WWII games. I have no interest in either genre but found myself working on a game for the TV show Combat! Then I realized the world didn't need more WWII games even if my had a TV spin on it.

      Companies and publishers are risk averse. Zombies and WWII have a much lower risk than Hollow Earth settings.

    3. Maybe I need to make a hard-sci fi platoon game, where soldiers that look like they're marines from Alien take on thawed out Nazi zombies....

      ...then sleep every night in the bed of money people would throw at me?

    4. If you did that, how would you sleep at night? On a huge pile of money!

      Make it a board game with billion tokens and cards with clicky bases and you are golden!

  2. I remember a couple of interesting gems from this genre. The more recent was probably inspired by The Blair Witch Project, and was a blog by a caver recounting some odd experiences in a caving system before the story ended with, "I'll doubtless be bringing more photographs next week!" The older was a short story by Arthur Conan Doyle, The Terror of Blue John Gap:

    1. Ah, that blog was a lot easier to find than I had anticipated, given how little I remembered of it!

  3. Inhumanoids, a cartoon from the 1980s, produced by the same company that did GI Joe and Transformers (Sunbow), had this theme and it was awesome. I think a wargame based on it would be likewise awesome.