The Myth and Psychology of “Up From Earth’s Center” – Conclusion

At the end of Part 3 of this article, after exploring this story’s unique position as one of the final tales closing out the era of the hero pulps, as well as the narrative strangeness of the beginning and middle parts of the story itself, there was a portentous question remaining: was the Hell encountered in Up From Earth’s Center real?

At this point Lester Dent would probably chuckle, and say something on the order of “It’s a pulp yarn, kid. Stop looking at it like a sacred text.” And of course he would be right.

In his description of the story in his book The Adventures of the Man of Bronze: A Definitive Chronology”, Jeff Deischer points out that “…the original ending planned by Dent exposed the whole situation as a hoax. Editorial direction by (new) Daisy Bacon changed this to leave some room for doubt on the part of the reader. And greater hoaxes have been perpetrated in the series.”

Will Murray elaborates on this in his discussion of the story in the Sanctum reprint of Up From Earth’s Center. He cites correspondence between Dent and Bacon about the tale:

Dent:

“Many of the pulp yarns that have seemed the most successful had an adventure background that approached the bizarre….So what about a piece about a fellow who found a natural cavern in the Earth and in exploring the meanderings deep into the lower regions made the shocking discovery that Hell is exactly where it is reputed to be — down below? Having had a peek at it through a crevice, he left hurriedly. However the brief glimpse had been noted, and Old Nick dispatched a sort of junior-grade demon to silence the chap. The yarn would concern Doc Savage, after he is called into the affair, and his difficulties with the demon, j.g. At the end, a logical explanation of the whole affair could be whipped up to take it out of the realm of phantasia, should that be advisable. It would all give room for the wildness that readers, I believe, either love or loathe.”

Bacon:

“It seems to me that the idea which approaches the bizarre adventure might not be amiss, since the last story was along pretty practical ideas. I wish I knew more about it, but time is running out and we must be getting started so I can do something about the cover and so forth. It seems to me it would be very hard to give this story a logical explanation as you suggest and I am wondering if it might not have to be left in the realm of fantasy.”

There was, understandably, the usual deadline chaos going on at Street & Smith, as well as the new editorial direction for the series, which Bacon wanted to return to its adventure-story roots, whereas Dent had more enthusiasm at this point in his career for more sophisticated storytelling. So there is a feel of the whole thing being slapped together while the series got its bearings. And of course that wouldn’t happen either — instead, Street & Smith canceled Doc Savage magazine after that issue.

Deischer, in his Definitive Chronology, offers solid explanations for all the otherworldly aspects of the tale, and Dent certainly scattered those potential explanation-points into the narrative itself. But unlike most Doc Savage stories, he did follow the “left in the realm of fantasy” direction/conjecture from Daisy Bacon, and threw so many odd features and twists into the story that readers could also adopt supernatural conclusions if they wished.

All in all, a somewhat messy creative provenance, which produced what might have been intended as little more than a stopgap issue while the team of Dent as author and Bacon as editor jelled. Had the magazine continued beyond that Summer of 1949, rather than it being the final issue, readers might not give Up From Earth’s Center any more special status in the series than they do to The Green Master and Return From Cormoral, the two adventures that preceded it.

With all that in mind, there is still the conclusion to the story itself, which has both intense and bewildering moments. The upshot of the plot machinations is that two groups descend deep into the Earth — Williams, who is revealed to also be a “devil”, and has taken Leona and Gilmore Sullivan prisoner…and Doc, Monk, Dr. Linningen, and Wail — who is kept tied with a rope-leash — pursuing them. (Ham, we learn later, had been knocked unconscious and did not descend deep into the caverns.)

Hints and realities of drugging are every which way. Doc, Monk and Linningen are all “doped” at the Maine lodge before the kidnapping, and as they go into the caverns odd smells are described, some like flower-scents, and deeper in, a more pungent, rotting scent. Doc at one point uses one of his devices to test the air, but finds nothing conclusive.

Wail slips free of the rope and flees (oddly, for a character shown to be able to disappear at will, he does not do so, but runs deeper into the cavern, the very place he has expressed no desire to go. One wonders why he didn’t go the other way…). Wail (and Williams too) display unexplained abilities to see and navigate their path in the dark. They pass through a crack in the cavern wall, and from that point on, are presumably in Hell.

Painting by Iason Ragnar Bellerophon

This is where Doc experiences either hallucinations or hellish visitations. Boulder-like shapes that can move…fungoid entities with tentacles…Monk penetrates beyond the crack and experiences encounters with the same monstrosities. Then there is a final horror that practically unhinges Doc.

Several minutes passed. He could hear the excited shouts
as Monk and Wail joined Linningen and the Sullivans; he
heard them continue onward. Their sounds nearly died
away.


Then he heard weak, horrible sounds coming from the mass
of fallen stone that had filled the crevice. He heard the
sounds grow stronger, until at last they became movement,
and a hideous figure began to drag itself from an aperture
between the blocks of broken stone. The creature, a hideous
caricature of humanity, spread itself over the broken stone,
clawing, whimpering.


It began crawling toward Doc Savage, moving on all fours,
stiffly and on dead limbs. “Help, help!” it wailed. “We must
go back. Help us to go back.”


Clawing its way to Doc’s feet, the creature clamped its paws
about his ankles. “Help!” it gasped.


Suddenly, Doc screamed, probably the first shriek of
unadulterated terror he had given in his lifetime. He kicked
wildly at the creature, which had buried its bony claws in his
legs.


He fought madly The thing began to climb up his body,
sinking clawlike fingers into his flesh, reaching upward for
another handhold. Doc slugged, pitched about; with ghastly
persistence, the thing clung to him getting nearer and
nearer his face. Then the creature was at his throat, trying
to drive small blunt teeth through the skin. Doc stumbled
and fell, conscious of the thing gnawing, gnawing like a vile
rat, seeking his jugular and his blood.


The tentacles of the creature that embraced him, indeed the
thing’s whole body, felt spongy and slimy, and about it was
the odor that Monk had noted, the sickening odor of fear. It
seemed to have, except for its ability to remain fastened
upon him, no real strength; he felt its teeth gnawing madly
at his throat with a futile desire to eat.


He remembered then about their fear of flame. His hands
were free; the creature seemed to have no desire to pin his
hands. He fumbled insanely in his pockets, found his
cigarette lighter and thumbed it into flame. Instantly, the
repulsive thing flew away from him, covering many feet in
one leap, and flattened itself against the broken stone,
wailing with maniacal terror. Doc Savage sprang to his feet,
more filled with fear than he had ever been, and began
running. He did not look back. He had no desire to look
back.

They return to the surface, and there is an epilogue in which many possible explanations are tossed off. Monk, wanting emotional relief from the whole thing, is quite ready to accept the talk of gas in the caverns and sympathetic joint hallucinations. Doc, intriguingly, takes little part in those conversations — instead he …stood at a window, frowning thoughtfully at the icicles which were forming at the eaves.

Wail is a prisoner of the authorities at this point, and Doc has a last conversation with him, in which Wail proclaims he is going to take his leave using his “devil powers”, and there is nothing that can be done to stop him. Doc leaves him in a locked room, the room’s guard peers in to make sure Wail is still there…and shortly afterward, he does indeed vanish.

The oddest thing about that (disappearances were no big deal in the course of the Doc Savage canon, they happen with distinct regularity), is Doc’s reaction to it. He actually — it appears — tells a lie. Or misleads, which is what he does when he wants to lie without technically lying. We have just seen his final interview with Wail, but flying in the face of that, is this conclusion to the novel:

The officer stepped through the door of the storeroom with
a completely blank and unbelieving expression on his face.
“Where the devil did he go?” he gasped.


The storeroom walls were intact, so were ceiling and floor,
and there were no windows. And no Mr. Wail.
Sergeant Griswold said, “When did you let him out?”
“I didn’t let him out!” the policeman declared emphatically
“Nobody let him out. He’s gone. Nobody went in there but
Doc Savage, and he came out alone after talking to this Wail
guy for a while. Isn’t that right, Mr. Savage?”


Doc Savage was wearing a thoughtful expression. “Right to
some extent. You didn’t hear me talking to anyone, did
you?”


“Huh?” The policeman stared. “Wasn’t he in there when you
went in?”


“Did you really think he was?” Doc countered.


The officer swallowed. “My God! Why didn’t you say the
room was empty? No! No, it couldn’t have been empty. I
looked in after you left and saw this Wail–Oh, nuts! I was
imagining–Why didn’t you tell me the room was empty,
Savage?”


“I thought it might be some sort of joke,” Doc said.


Sergeant Griswold swore. “I don’t know how that Wail got
away, but we’ll catch him.” The sergeant fisted his hands.
“We’ll make him wish he was back in the brimstone country,
where be claims he came from.”


“Want to bet on either statement?” Doc asked dryly.

And so ends both Up From Earth’s Center, and the long, remarkable pulp run of Doc Savage magazine. A strange ending indeed…one that echoes Dent’s statement from his letter to Daisy Bacon: “It would all give room for the wildness that readers, I believe, either love or loathe.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: