In two novels that I recently read, Ralph Milne Farley’s The Radio Man (1924) and its sequel, The Radio Beasts (1925), engineer Myles Cabot accidentally transports himself to Venus and discovers a society of enormous and intelligent ants, the so-called Formians. But, it would seem, if a certain book of 1928 is to be believed, Cabot did not have to leave planet Earth to discover such gigantic and civilized creatures. The book in question is The World of the Giant Ants, which initially appeared in the pages of Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories Quarterly, a pulp magazine that, during its 22-issue run, published a full novel in every single issue … usually brand-new novels. Similar to still another book that I had recently experienced, W. H. Hudson’s Green Mansions (1904), the 1928 work was written by a naturalist and explorer who knew his novel’s South American terrain well. But whereas Hudson had specialized particularly in ornithology, the study of birds, A. Hyatt Verrill favored the study of insects: entomology. As in the Hudson book, his knowledge of his chosen field served him in good stead in this, his fifth of an eventual nine sci-fi novels. (Verrill, to be fair, also wrote over 100 nonfiction books on such varied topics as history, sailing, zoology, mineralogy and travel, as well as 22 sci-fi short stories.) No wonder The Science Fiction Encyclopedia mentions that his fiction “vividly dramatizes his professional concerns.” And as it turns out, again similar to Hudson, Verrill is a wonderful writer, with an easily readable style and a tremendous imagination. He seems to be a largely forgotten author today, but via The World of the Giant Ants, which has been brought back into print for the first time in 90 years by Armchair Fiction’s Lost World/Lost Race series, a new generation of readers is being allowed to experience the gifts of this natural storyteller.
The World of the Giant Ants is comprised of the field notebooks of Prof. Benjamin Henden, who had gone missing several years earlier while trekking through the largely unexplored area where Brazil, Peru and Bolivia come together. (Green Mansions, incidentally, had been set in the largely unexplored area where Brazil, Venezuela and Colombia come together.) The book is preceded by a short preface by its editor, presumably Verrill himself (Henden even mentions his “friend and confrere, Verrill” early on in his narrative!), who explains that he had gone on an expedition in search of the missing scientist, and had found Henden’s Jamaican manservant, Tom, who was carrying the field notes on his dying person. Henden, who had been one of the world’s foremost experts in the fields of ornithology and entomology, while also being something of a botanist and geologist, had latterly begun to take an interest in ethnology and archeology. As a result, his most recent expedition had found him in search of the legendary ruins of Tupec, which had supposedly been built and settled by a white race thousands of years before. Henden and Tom, as well as their two Pano Indian guides, had apparently been successful in finding the ruins, and had later discovered the hidden entrance to a miles-long tunnel leading from the central temple. The men had traversed the tunnel, had opened its heavy stone portal at the terminus, and had emerged into a land out of a prehistoric nightmare … a nightmare that grew even worse when the four had discovered that the stone portal had closed behind them and could not be reopened! The men were now in a valley, some 6,000 feet below the level of the surrounding lands and completely encircled by lofty peaks some 20,000 feet in height.
During the first third of Henden’s remarkable tale, he and Tom explore the valley and quickly learn that it is teeming with giant insect life as well as a race of debased humanoids who have the combined attributes of man, ape and insect; these brutes manage to kill off the two Panos almost as soon as our quartet arrives! In the book’s middle section, Henden and Tom befriend a colony of enormous but friendly agricultural ants; they spend months learning about these peaceful and hardworking insects, and even build a hut inside the ants’ village. And in the last section, our explorers take part in wars between their farmer friends and the aggressive leaf-cutting ants, and between the humanoids and the highly evolved, slaveholding red ants. And throughout, the two manage to just barely stay alive, as they face all manner of inimical perils in this lost and hidden crater world.
I mentioned earlier that Verrill makes good use of his entomological knowledge in The World of the Giant Ants (which he supposedly penned whilst on a South American safari), and brother, isn’t that ever the truth! Thus, during the course of his book, our two adventurers have interesting experiences as they encounter humongous butterflies, aphids, sphingidae, bombycidae, crane flies, cockchafers, longicorns, fireflies, dragonflies, gas-emitting “bombardier” beetles, wasps, walking sticks, and hornets … not to mention gigantic toads, tortoises, iguanas and carnivorous plants. And these are the less problematic encounters! More deadly for the professor and Tom are run-ins with a fierce, egg-planting ichneumon wasp, an insanely savage loner ant, the disgusting critter known as a hellgrammite, a trapdoor tarantula, and several miles’ worth of oversized army ants, not to mention a case of poisoning from a deadly-to-the-touch ant tree. During all these encounters, Verrill/Henden gives the reader fascinating tidbits of information concerning the fauna or flora that we are meeting, and it is all quite illuminating stuff. (For example, did you know that our normal-sized leaf-cutter ants warm their warrens by masticating and fermenting leaves, which soon throw off considerable heat?)
And the author also manages to continually ply his reader with any number of thrilling sequences, including the one in which Henden is trapped at the bottom of an ant-lion pit; the one in which Henden tries to escape from an enraged bumblebee (a “watchdog” of the agricultural ants) by running through a cornfield (Roger O. Thornhill never had it so bad!); Henden and Tom’s two-man destruction of the leaf-cutters; Tom’s capture by the slaveholders; the discovery of the Tupec remains inside the hidden valley, and the riddling out of their origins; and finally, the last titanic battle, with Henden and Tom, the debased humanoids, the agricultural ants, the army ants, the bombardier beetles, the dragonflies and bumblebees on one side, and the martial red ants on the other, all leading to a climax that is both strangely moving and at the same time inevitable from the get-go. Pulpish and outlandish as it may be, the book is also weirdly wonderful; I was very sorry indeed to see it end.
As is often the case with one of this reader’s favorite authors, H. Rider Haggard, some of the most interesting points of Verrill’s novel occur when the author offers up his ruminations on various matters. Thus, here, Henden ponders on the limits of man’s imagination; on just why he, Henden, persists in writing in his notebooks while at the same time feeling that no one will ever have the opportunity to read them; on the uselessness and futility of any civilization that does not possess arts, culture, romance and literature; and about how little we really know, despite all our studies, regarding the mental processes of the “lower animals” around us. As Henden tells us at one point, “But again I am getting off my subject and must stop dissertating,” but this reader did not mind these tangential musings one little bit.
Verrill’s book contains hardly anything in the way of dialogue, other than an occasional comment from Tom, who, it must be said, and despite his continual use of the justly censured “blackspeak” of the era (“…Tha mos’ surely be obeah ‘bout here. Ah been went for pick tha’ flower an’ he turn to snake an’ try for nip me…”), is looked upon very much as an equal by Henden, and who saves the day by dint of both his courage and smarts on any number of occasions. (In a way, he serves a similar function as Hans to Haggard’s Allan Quatermain.) But this lack of conversational dialogue is hardly missed, especially when Verrill turns on his skill as a wordsmith. Take, for example, this passage, in which Henden and Tom discover some outsized mayflies:
…In a small opening ahead of us a shaft of sunlight cast a subdued golden-green light, and dancing about in this were a number of beings, who might well have been fairies. So fairylike were their pale, semi-transparent, graceful bodies, their gauzy iridescent wings and their flowing draperies, that even the most prosaic and non-imaginative person might have been converted to a firm belief in the existence of woodland sprites. Silently as wraiths, they circled and floated in the golden haze, their movements orderly and rhythmic, their motions graceful and following a well-defined system, and as ephemeral and unreal as a fragment of gossamer rainbow…
Whew! Not bad for a scientist type, right?
So, yes, Armchair Fiction is to be thanked for bringing this lost wonder back into print. It is a very nice volume indeed, and comes with the book’s original illustrations (by one Frank R. Paul) as well as a photograph of Verrill himself, shown in cowboy hat and boots, and supporting an inverted rifle by the barrel. The World of the Giant Ants also contains an astounding number of typos and punctuational errors, for which the editors at Armchair should hang their collected heads in shame. This is a pretty wonderful novel that surely deserves a nicer presentation, typographically speaking. As Henden mentions in passing of his adventures, “…nothing that the most fertile imagination could invent, nothing the wildest fiction could relate, would begin to equal the reality…” And speaking of imagination, this reader cannot imagine anyone reading this Verrill novel and not wanting to experience more. The author’s other novels, such as Beyond the Pole (1926), The Man Who Could Vanish (1927), Plague of the Living Dead (1927), The Bridge of Light (1929) and The Inner World (1935), are all enticing me now. Wish me luck, as I endeavor to track them down…