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Enduring Crackpots 

The idea that refused to die!

As typical adolescents, interested in anything weird or gross, my friend Claud and I read a vast collection of purple-prosed, "unexplained phenomena" books. That's where we learned about fish and frogs falling from the sky, people spontaneously catching on fire, giant wheels of light in the oceans, and other, even more dramatic things such as the IRREFUTABLE FACT!! that the earth is hollow and people are living inside the planet.

We pretty much believed most of the oddball things we read, but the hollow earth scenario seemed far-fetched, even to our 14- and 15-year-old brains. The more we read, however, the more we kept running into STARTLING REVELATIONS!! about civilizations living within the earth. This was obviously a pretty popular idea among fans of, well, weird stuff, and had been for a long time. Claud and I grew up and put aside our fascination with frog showers and strange theories and traded them in for more practical pursuits like psychedelics and Hinduism. But I digress.

Now, lo and behold, interest in hollow earth theories has made a comeback, the Internet is teeming with Web sites devoted to all things inner-earth, and author David Standish has written a fun book that takes a flippant but intriguing look at one of the most enduring of all cockeyed ideas.

You're probably thinking only crackpots would believe entire worlds exist underground, and in most cases you'd be right. But the guy who originally came up with the idea, in 1691, was none other than Sir Edmond Halley of comet fame. Halley proposed that the earth contained smaller, concentric spheres, kind of like those Russian nesting dolls. Surprisingly, rather than being thrown into a nuthouse, Halley was knighted.

After Halley, the hollow earth idea simmered on the backburner for a couple of centuries until authors Edgar Allan Poe and Jules Verne revived it, most famously in Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth, which was eventually made into a 1959 movie that wasn't too bad, considering one of the stars was Pat Boone.

At the end of the 19th century, an era abounding in visionaries and nuts, a man named Cyrus Teed renamed himself Koresh and founded a religion that believed not just that the earth is hollow, but also that we're living on the inside. In due course, Koresh and his fellow Koreshans founded a commune and park in Florida, about 70 years ahead of Disney. Since the commune members were celibate, however, the sect eventually died out. Duh.

Standish goes on to trace the hollow earth theory through its appearance in popular fiction by the likes of L. Frank Baum, who wrote a hollow earth addition to his Oz series, and Edgar Rice Burroughs, Mr. Tarzan himself, whose "Pellucidar" series took place in a stone-age hollow earth. In the 1940s, Ray Palmer, editor of the sci-fi magazine Amazing Stories, actually convinced thousands of readers that flying saucers came from inside the earth, where an ancient alien civilization was being reborn.

Today, some people still believe in subterranean civilizations. One of the more common current hollow earth beliefs is that a New Age heaven exists down there, and that one of the entrances is near Mt. Shasta in, of course, California.

Hollow Earth contains more than 60 illustrations, including photos, old maps, movie posters, 1950s pulp art and drawings of weird-looking contraptions. Standish researched his subject well, but his prose is irreverent and makes for an amusing read for anyone interested in screwball cultural history. I just wish Claud and I could have had a copy way back when.

Also Recommended

Pegasus Descending by James Lee Burke (Simon & Schuster, 368 pages, $26). Burke's crime fiction novels about Louisiana detective Dave Robicheaux feature some of the most lyrical, evocative prose and complex characters in current popular fiction. This 15th book in the series takes on familiar Burke themes: the presence of the past, flawed heroes, redemption, and the irredeemable. Years ago, Robicheaux was too drunk to keep a friend from being murdered. Now, that friend's daughter is a drifter who waltzes into town, probably out for revenge. Dave also looks into the apparent suicide of a college co-ed, and comes to think the two cases are related. As usual, Burke creates a scorching, atmospheric morality tale, both hard-boiled and poetic. It's not up to his best, such as last year's Crusader's Cross, but it's close, and that's better than 95 percent of the crime fiction on bookstore shelves.

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