THE CAVERN OF FIRE (1888) – Written by Francis W Doughty. This novel was originally serialized in The Boys of New York from September 15th to November 3rd of 1888. The main character is Professor Hardcastle, head of Merton College in Illinois. Hardcastle’s pet theory over the years has been that America’s mound builders were really from ancient Greece.
At long last he gets some proof of his belief when a tornado not only slams Merton College but also tears open one of the aged mounds in question. Hardcastle, his student Jack Merton and their Chinese aide John Foo discover an iron chest in the opened mound. The chest contains leather pages which, when translated by the professor, are revealed to feature the account of an ancient Greek adventurer named Polyxaphanes.
Polyxaphanes explored far northern caverns leading deep into the Earth, past the realm of the Hyperboreans and ultimately surfacing amid the Toltecs of what is now Mexico. From there the resourceful Greek eventually found his way to America. Hardcastle, Merton and Foo set off in a lighter than air balloon to search for the Mexican end of the vast subterranean cavern system described by Polyxaphanes.
More rogue winds like the tornado that flattened Merton College blow the lighter than air craft way off course and the trio land by a volcano in Nova Zemlya near what is now Russia. Through a ridiculous coincidence, that happens to be where Polyxaphanes ENTERED the underground caverns. (Why not just have them find the Mexican cave that the Greek explorer found and enter there? I have no idea.)
Our three heroes make their way deeper and deeper into the Earth, examining the archaeological ruins of an ancient civilization along the way – a civilization whose citizens had human bodies but canine heads. Eventually the professor, Jack and John come to a vast underground sea of boiling water.
A ceramic ship left over from the lost civilization is found along the shore and the trio use it to travel across the waters. They come ashore at a city surrounded by phosphorescent rocks which keep the place lit up like daytime on the surface. There is plenty of vegetation in the area plus more buildings and statues of the dog-headed humanoids which we learn call themselves the Zum-Zums when survivors are found.
These dog-people distrust outsiders and attack Professor Hardcastle and his companions. Taking shelter in a deserted temple, our heroes use grenades to force the Zum-Zums to give up their pursuit. Our heroes journey onward, finding but eventually losing a fortune in diamonds as they continue their subterranean odyssey.
At long last the underwater sea joins with a river that carries the ceramic vessel up to the surface in Mexico, at presumably the cavern exit that Polyxaphanes wrote about.
The Cavern of Fire reads like it’s always just on the verge of turning into a classic sci-fi tale, but always peters out instead. The anticlimactic ending embodies all of the lost potential in this odd story. I much preferred Doughty’s sci-fi/ Pulpish story The Man in the Black Cloak. +++
FOR TEN MORE EXAMPLES OF ANCIENT SCIENCE FICTION CLICK HERE: https://glitternight.com/2014/03/03/ten-neglected-examples-of-ancient-science-fiction/
FOR WASHINGTON IRVING’S 1809 depiction of an invasion from the moon click here: https://glitternight.com/2014/05/05/ancient-science-fiction-the-men-of-the-moon-1809-by-washington-irving/
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