Of the nine books that I have read over the last year or so from Armchair Fiction’s current Lost World/Lost Race series, which runs to 24 volumes, no fewer than three of them have involved the discoveries of hitherto unknown civilizations far beneath the Earth’s surface. In Rex Stout’s truly thrilling Under the Andes (1914), three unfortunate Americans go through a hellacious experience at the hands of a lost race of Incas beneath the mountains of Peru. In S. P. Meek’s The Drums of Tapajos (1930), a quartet of American adventurers discovers the descendants of both the 10 Lost Tribes and Atlantis, uneasily coexisting both inside and beneath a mountain in the Brazilian wilderness. And in Charles W. Diffin’s Two Thousand Miles Below (1932), two separate races dating back to the last Ice Age are discovered, living around 10 miles beneath the Earth’s surface and past the Earth’s core. Well, now I am here to tell you of still another subterranean wonder that I have just experienced from Armchair Fiction: Richard Tooker’s Inland Deep.
Inland Deep initially appeared in shorter, novella form in the March 1933 issue of Amazing Stories, under the title “The Tomb of Time.” Illinois-born Tooker was already 30 at the time of its release, and had been making a living as a writer since 1924. By 1953, he would come out with three sci-fi novels, 16 short stories, and three novelettes featuring the character Zenith Rand. Tooker would expand “The Tomb of Time” three years later, and thus, it was again released in 1936 as a hardcover novel with the title Inland Deep. And after that 1936 release, it would go out of print for a good 82 years, until the fine folks at Armchair opted to bring it back to light for a new generation in 2018. This Armchair edition comes complete not only with a picture of Tooker himself, but with photos of the cover of the original 3/33 Amazing Stories and the hardcover dust jacket, as well as the interior artwork (by Leo Morey and Melvin Hansen, respectively) that graced both publications. And, I am happy to report, few of the typographical problems that have plagued so many of the other Armchair releases.
Tooker’s novel wastes no time getting going. On its first page, millionaire adventurer Roger Anson is putting forth his most recent idea for an expedition to one Bob Langtree, a man 15 years his junior and assistant curator at the Colorado-Western Indian Museum. It seems that two close friends of Anson’s had recently returned from a cursory exploration of Comanche Cave, in the wilds of northern Colorado, and had discovered an ancient footprint in the hardened clay of the cavern floor. The footprint was that of a humanoid, but featuring webbing between the toes, suggesting some kind of missing link. Moreover, Anson’s friends had heard a most peculiar wailing/screeching noise from somewhere in the cave recesses, although their search for a possible lost hiker in distress had turned up nothing. Anson successfully convinces Bob to mount another expedition to investigate, although it must be said that Langtree’s only interest in going at this point is so that he can be near Willa Anson, Roger’s beautiful and spunky daughter, who will be accompanying them, and with whom Langtree is quite infatuated.
To be brief, the trio is indeed successful in finding the mysterious footprint, and even in discerning those even stranger sounds emanating from behind one of the cave walls. A bit of dynamiting allows them to break through this wall, and since nothing is discovered on the other side of that barrier other than a branching maze of passages and a steep slope angling even farther down, some more dynamite is chucked down that passageway … just as a precaution. “Surely, a stick of dynamite isn’t going to do much damage in a place of this size. Throw in a bomb. I’ll be responsible if anything happens to us,” Willa had declared, and does the trio ever regret listening to her foolhardy words! This second blast sets off a cave-in behind them, leaving the trio trapped two miles beneath the surface, and with no other choice than going down that sloping ramp. And so it is that our rash but hardy band soon comes upon a wonder of wonders: an inland sea many miles in extent far below the Earth’s surface, the depths and shores of which are tenanted by the living descendants of prehistoric beasts, no less! And, in very short order, the explorers soon discover the authors of that mysterious footprint and those uncanny sounds: a race of bipedal, amphibious frogmen, who live upon islands in the underground sea, and whose intentions vis-à-vis our trio are dubious at best…
As compared to those three other subterranean lost-world novels mentioned up top, I would have to say that Inland Deep is not nearly as exciting and harrowing as Under the Andes (a novel that I really can’t recommend highly enough) but more detailed and convincing than the Meek and Diffin books. Tooker manages to generate a fair amount of suspense in his work here, largely by dint of those mysterious frogmen, who choose to silently observe our adventurers for the bulk of the story, their thoughts and intentions unknown. Sadly, we never learn too much about this patently intelligent, amphibious race, although we are vouchsafed a glimpse of one of their villages. The fact that these underground dwellers remain a largely unknown race by the book’s end, it should be added, is solely the fault of our adventurers, who kill one of the amphibians at first sight, and later dynamite a whole gaggle of them underwater quite gratuitously. Little wonder that the frogmen eventually grow emboldened and violent!
Added to the suspense quotient here is a fair amount of realistic detail, especially as regards the entry route to Comanche Cave and the winding labyrinth down to Hamlet Hall, where that initial footprint was found. Tooker makes us see and feel the subterranean wonders that he describes with some finesse. He also peppers his story with any number of exciting set pieces, including our heroes’ run-ins with various prehistoric life-forms (a sauranodon, an enormous pterodactyl/archaeopteryx hybrid, a 40-foot-high kangaroo creature, and a good ol’ brontosaurus); an exploration by raft of that inland sea; the rescue of Willa, after she had been kidnapped by the frogmen; and the final cataclysm, with our adventurers being pursued by the entire race of frogmen amidst volcanic fumaroles. And Tooker, as it happily turns out, is a pretty accomplished wordsmith. Take, for example, his description of that volcanic region at the north end of the inland sea:
The cliffs leaned like towers of Pisa toward the cave dome, their massive, adamant fronts flickering eerily in the gaseous glare of the volcano. Swaying to and fro, falling, eddying, spraying, the vast shadows of the geysers overcast the water and the walls with a pantomime of demon shades, all dancing to the stentorian symphony of rushing steam and boiling water. “The door of Hades,” muttered Roger, huskily…
So yes, despite the “tall tale” nature of the proceedings here, the author delivers his story with well-written grace and conviction, ultimately crafting a novel filled with excitement and suspense. If I were to level one complaint against Tooker’s tale, it is the three main characters’ regrettable penchant to chuck dynamite around, heedless of consequences, and their unnecessary acts of violence against the frogmen. Oh … and shouldn’t Langtree, an expert on fossils and geology, know that the Mesozoic was what is classified as an “era,” not an “epoch”? But perhaps I am nitpicking here. Inland Deep was a thoroughly satisfying lost-world adventure for me, and I do recommend it.
But wait … this Armchair edition is not quite finished! As an added treat, we also have a short story, written by Tooker, entitled “Ray of Eternity.” This tale also originally appeared in the pages of Amazing Stories magazine, but in this case, it was the November 1938 issue, for which it was the featured cover story. This Armchair edition also gives us a full-page look at that 80-year-old cover, featuring beautiful artwork by Robert Fuqua (and please don’t ask me how his last name was pronounced!). In this fast-moving tale, a young married couple, Ron and Vingie (Vingie?) Sherman, in their search for the bride’s industrialist father, track him down to the Arizona desert, where he’d supposedly gone to confer with a small-time inventor before mysteriously disappearing.
Once arrived at that inventor’s hacienda, in the middle of nowhere, the Shermans are held prisoners by the crackpot scientist, Eli Martin. It seems that Martin has discovered, during his study of cosmic rays, “the ‘time’ ray, the universal governor of evolution.” By concentrating those rays, Martin could propagate a force that would neutralize them (or something like that … I wasn’t too clear on this point). Long story short, the pale-green beam of his new weapon, if turned on a living being, could age that person by decades instantly, resulting in a withered mummy; if turned on machinery or equipment of any kind, that mechanism would likewise age drastically and fall to pieces. And so, Martin gloats, he has thus discovered a means of conquering the world!
What follows, in this concise and exciting tale, is an increasingly wacky brew that conflates Japanese spies, mistaken identity and at least three surprise twists, culminating with a cataclysmic finale that is practically jaw-dropping. It is quite an accomplished little tale, packing quite a bit of action into its 35-page length. After reading this story, most readers will likely wish that some fine enterprising publisher would gather all 16 pieces of Tooker’s shorter fiction into one nice anthology. Who wouldn’t be interested in his 1930s short fiction, boasting such titles as “Tyrant of the Red World,” “Moon of Arcturus,” “The Green Doom,” “The Swine of Canthros” and Zombies Never Die” as they do?
Anyway, there you have it: two very fine tales from Richard Tooker, an overlooked author who may now be discovered by a new generation of readers, thanks to this fine Armchair offering. Taken together, these two works make for a wonderfully well-paired and pulpy double feature. Frogmen, dinosaurs, cave-ins, volcanic eruptions, mad scientists, death rays … who could possibly resist?