The Cave of a Thousand Columns by T.E. Grattan-Smith
I have never been to the continent of Australia before, and after watching a number of videos, both online and on television, concerning the fauna and flora there, I am really in no great rush to go. Perhaps you’re familiar with some of the videos I mean? Australia, it would seem, is home to the inland taipan snake (the world’s most venomous snake), kamikaze magpies, the freshwater bull shark, the Australian honeybee (one of the world’s most poisonous insects), raining spiders, the flying fox (the largest bat in the world), paralysis ticks, and the toxic gympie gympie tree. Still planning a visit? The country is also home to the predatory saltwater crocodile, giant centipedes, red-backed spiders (poisonous, natch), swarming soldier beetles, the Sydney funnel-web spider (the world’s most venomous spider), the coastal taipan snake (almost as bad as the inland one!), strychnine trees, poisonous cone snails, the dreaded stonefish, the torturously toxic blue-ringed octopus, and at least three highly venomous jellyfish: the common kingslayer, the sea wasp, and the Irukandji. Even the seemingly harmless kangaroos cause countless fatal traffic accidents every year, and the cute little platypus there is one of the few poisonous mammals in the world. And don’t even get me started on those baby-snatching dingoes! I think you’re beginning to discern my point! And yet, if a certain novel of the late 1930s is to be believed, namely T.E. Grattan-Smith’s The Cave of a Thousand Columns, there are even far more intimidating prospects in the natural world to be found in the island continent!
The Cave of a Thousand Columns was first released in 1938 by the British publisher Hutchinson, the hardcover volume sporting a nicely faithful cover done by one E. Boye Uden. The book would then go OOPs (out of prints) for a good 83 years, until the fine folks at Armchair Fiction chose to unearth it as part of their ongoing Lost World/Lost Race series, which currently stands at 42 volumes. As for the book’s author, Thomas Edward Grattan-Smith was born in the Australian state of Victoria in 1871 (to be precise, Victoria was then a colony), in the coastal town of Portland. He would go on to become a ventriloquist, journalist and, most notably, an author for young adults. As far as I can make out, Grattan-Smith, before his death in 1946, at age 75, managed to pen four novels, the book in question being his third; his final book, The Magic Billabong, would be released in 1939. So yes, The Cave of a Thousand Columns is indeed pitched to a YA audience, but, as a recent reading of the Armchair edition has recently demonstrated to me, still has great appeal for modern-day adults.
Grattan-Smith’s book introduces us to Major Jack Rogers, an officer of Australia’s Secret Service. (I’m not really sure what the Australian Secret Service of 1938 was responsible for, but it is not to be confused with the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, which was formed in 1952!) Rogers had recently obtained a map of sorts, from the aborigine chief Bal-yari, that would supposedly lead him through a vast underground complex, entered via a cave entrance in the crater of a dead volcano. Rogers, thus, decides to engage in a bit of exploration, enlisting as his helpers three unlikely youths: Ned Grattan, the “son of an old comrade”; Ned’s best buddy, Jim Stanley; and Ned’s 17-year-old sister, Mel. The boys are to accompany Rogers during his explorations, while Mel stands by at home, waiting to receive messages from the trio sent by wireless radio. The book wastes little time getting going, and by page 3, Rogers and the boys have arrived at the volcano, located in the coastal Blue Mountains (not the remote Outback, as might have been expected), and effected an entry. Unfortunately, trouble crops up almost from the start. After blasting through a blocked corridor with some gelignite, an underground lake is discovered, upon which our heroes paddle with their wheeled and collapsible craft. But when the cavern behind them disastrously collapses as a result of their blasting, Rogers & Co. are trapped, with no way to go back … only forward. And little can they suspect that their forced entombment will keep them fighting for their lives for many months to come!
During their time down under Down Under, the trio realizes that the mazelike system that they are paddling through covers many hundreds – perhaps thousands – of underground miles. The team encounters deadly snakes and is almost drowned during a rising flood. Most astonishingly, they encounter a tall, muscular, white-faced, humanoid birdman named Oon, whose assistance proves invaluable to them repeatedly. Oon, it seems, is the would-be king of an entire race of friendly Birdmen, who are in a state of perpetual warfare with the similar-looking although, um, black-faced and cannibalistic Birdmen. Rogers and the boys, almost inevitably, get drawn into this internecine warfare between the Birdmen and the “Blackfaces,” and make the startling discovery that the Birdmen’s queen is actually an 18-year-old girl who had gotten sucked down into the caverns three years earlier and who is … well, I suppose I shouldn’t say. However, I will let out that the background of young Judith Blaircourt constitutes a coincidence that does go far in stretching the reader’s credulity. But even after all the many travails have been overcome by our heroes, one big one – and I do mean big one – yet remains: the necessity of passing through the lair of the enormous snake (a god to the Blackfaces) that stands between our heroes and a possible route to an exit point. And personally speaking, I’d go up against a poisonous platypus any ol’ day before tackling the beastie faithfully depicted on the cover of this hugely ingratiating and entertaining book!
The Cave of a Thousand Columns, indeed, is a wholly enjoyable romp that is very nicely written and that features uniformly likeable characters. It is also very much an Australian book, by which I mean that the primary personality traits of Ned, Jim, Mel and Judith are their pluckiness, their love of the outdoors, their loyalty to one another, and their resolute determination; all the qualities that Grattan-Smith seems to feel his YA audience would do well to emulate. Naturally, several instances of typical Aussie fauna are encountered, such as the kookaburra and cockatoo birds, as well as the rock wallaby, and numerous Aussie words that might be unfamiliar to non-Australians are employed, such as “flex” for “wire,” “sandshoes” for “tennis shoes,” “cove” for “fellow,” “lubra” for “an aboriginal woman,” “sing-song” for “songfest” “and “offsider” for “assistant.” At one point in the book, Rogers calculates that the date must be December 21st, “the longest day of the year,” which prompted this reader to momentarily think “Huh … isn’t June 21st the longest day of the year?” But again, this is Australia, a land that the author naturally knew well … although his reference to the “2FC” might mean little to readers today. (It was an Australian radio station back in the 1930s, by the way.)
Grattan-Smith fills his novel with many exciting and dramatic moments, including the tense battle in the lake teeming with poisonous snakes; Oon’s first appearance; that nerve-racking flood, during which the cavern’s waters rise relentlessly to ceiling level; the three battles against the Blackfaces, each one more ferocious than the last; Judith’s first appearance; the battle with the monster snake, a creature reminiscent of those found in Robert E. Howard‘s Conan stories; and the wonderful scene in which our quartet emerges into the sunlight after many months. (The precise number of months, stated at the novel’s end, will surely come as something of a shock to most readers.) No wonder why Rogers says to the boys, even before they set forth on their explorations, “…we’re on the verge of some wonderful and perhaps dangerous adventures”! The author also adds some pleasing grace notes to his novel, such as that fight with the monster snake being occasionally depicted from the snake’s POV, and even throws in some elements of supernaturalism, such as Oon’s ability to communicate telepathically with Judith from afar, and his ability to show moving pictures of the prehistoric past with the use of a mystical ruby. Grattan-Smith’s novel is fast moving and often exciting, and with its reader-friendly, YA verbiage makes for a genuine page-turner, indeed.
And yet, I had some problems with Grattan-Smith’s work here. For one thing, I often found it very hard to envisage the route that our travelers were taking, especially toward the novel’s close. At one point, I could have sworn that they were headed due north, only to later realize that they were going due south. But really, in those underground caverns, where rivers intersect with one another and then loop back on themselves, who could possibly keep things straight? I more than half suspect, actually, that the author was trying to disorient the reader here, and to suggest a sense of directionless wandering, despite Rogers’ constant use of his boomerang-shaped map. Ultimately, I just gave up and tagged along for the ride. And those long months of being underground, by the way, never really engendered that uncomfortable sense of claustrophobia in me that other works in a similar vein have succeeded at; novels such as Rex Stout’s Under the Andes (1914) and Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960), and especially Leigh Brackett’s marvelous short story “Shannach – The Last” (1952). I also had a problem with nothing being made of our heroes camping out in a cavern with walls that glowed due to their radium-bearing ores (uranium or pitchblende, Rogers surmises). Would you want to make camp in a radioactive hot spot such as that, and possibly wind up like poor Madame Curie? This reader could also not stop wondering about why Rogers would choose a bunch of kids to accompany him on this hazardous journey, instead of some of his more seasoned fellow professionals, and why the kids’ parents would ever allow them to go. And speaking of the kids, the incessant put-downs and disparaging jokes that Ned and Jim constantly delight in do tend to grow a little old after a while, although I recognize that they are a major component of the boys’ personalities. And then, of course, there is the matter of the book’s implied racism, be it deliberate or inadvertent. Thus, the good and friendly, white-faced Birdmen are shown to be civilized and advanced, while the black-faced Birdmen are depicted as being violent, crude, cannibalistic and savage. I might have thought this apparent racism all in my mind, had it not been for Grattan-Smith referring to Rogers & Co. as “the whites” repeatedly, and Rogers & Co. at one point reflecting “…if a black man [Bal-yari’s ancestor, who had created the map of the underworld] could surmount these obstacles, well, they could do the same…” In a word, oy.
And yet, despite all, The Cave of a Thousand Columns (while I’m carping, the title of the book is a tad misleading, too, with the titular cavern being encountered very early on and not playing a terribly significant role in the novel at all) does still manage to entertain. The last page of the book promises more adventures for Rogers and the boys to come, and yet, sadly, those were not to be. But while I was looking up some facts on Grattan-Smith’s career, after finishing this book, I was very surprised to see that his first two novels are titled True Blue (The Adventures of Mel, Ned and Jim) (1920) and Three Real Bricks (The Adventures of Mel, Ned and Jim) (1935)! Thus, I can only assume that The Cave of a Thousand Columns is actually Book 3 in a loosely connected trilogy dealing with those spunky Aussie kids. (Now I’m wondering if The Magic Billabong is still another book in the series!) I wish I would have known this earlier, and been able to read these novels in their proper order. Remarkably, those two earlier works are in print right now, and based on Grattan-Smith’s 1938 effort, I think I would like to experience them someday…