In November 1951, the first feature film based on a DC Comics superhero was released. That film, Superman and the Mole Men, is fondly remembered today, especially since it was later transformed into the two-part episode that aired near the end of the first season of TV’s Adventures of Superman, and shown on television under the title “The Unknown People.” In this film, Clark Kent and Lois Lane travel to the small town of Silsby, TX, to cover a story about the world’s deepest oil rig … a story that becomes even more interesting when denizens from deep below the Earth emerge from that borehole and cause panic among the populace. However, if a certain novel from almost 20 years earlier is to be believed, this was not the first time that such an operation had disturbed our underground neighbors. The novel in question is Two Thousand Miles Below, which was originally released as a four-part serial in the June, September and November 1932 and January ’33 issues of the Astounding Stories pulp magazine. Its author was one Charles W. Diffin, an engineer and airplane salesman who would go on to write many short stories and novels for Astounding, as well as another pulp magazine, Strange Tales. Diffin was already 48 at the time of this novel’s release, and would continue to write until 1936, when he returned to his chosen engineering field. If the novel in question is any indication, Diffin could have gone on to enjoy an impressive writing career. Two Thousand Miles Below is both imaginative and exciting, although it suffers from some occasional fuzzy writing, a lack of clear-cut descriptions, and a failure on the author’s part to answer many of the reader’s questions. More on this in a moment.
In Diffin’s book, the story opens during the advent of the last Ice Age, when a troglodyte named Gor, alarmed at the sun’s failure to keep his tribe warm, decides to take his people down into the Earth’s interior, via a hole that he had discovered at the rear of their cave. Flash forward some 115,000 years or so (I am throwing out that number only because Earth’s most recent Ice Age supposedly began 115,000 years ago … give or take a few millennia), to the futuristic year of, uh, 1942, and we meet 23-year-old Dean Rawson, who has just obtained backing from Erickson, Inc. to drill deep into the Earth (10 miles deep, actually!) and tap a volcanic region for its energy. He chooses the 20-mile-wide Tonah Basin in the American Southwest, in a harsh desert region surrounded by volcanic blowholes, and for the first few months, all seems to go well. But then, strange incidents begin to occur.
Equipment goes missing, their boring drill is melted, the borehole itself is mysteriously blocked, and eerie red and green lights are seen at night, emanating from one of the volcanic craters. Matters come to a head when an army of red-skinned demons emerges one evening, attacking Rawson’s men with beams of intense heat. A second attack results in the complete destruction of the camp’s towering derrick, melted away at its base by the heat weapons of those relentless marauders. This second attack brings about the desertion of all Rawson’s men except for Gordon “Smithy” Smith, a 21-year-old scion of a wealthy family whom Rawson had earlier rescued in the desert. Together, the two men venture up the side and into the crater where those lights had earlier been seen, and encounter … disaster! Rawson is captured by the red-skinned “Mole-Men” and brought deep underground to their truly hellacious domain, while Smithy hightails it back to civilization to alert the authorities and assist in some kind of a defense. Dean later undergoes torture and narrowly escapes being sacrificed twice before being rescued by the descendants of Gor and being brought so far underground that he actually passes through the core of the Earth itself and into the other side (!), while Smithy assists the U.S. Air Force in pitched battle with the Mole-Men, who have now begun to emerge and slay all throughout the American Southwest…
As I believe I have mentioned elsewhere, this reader has long been a sucker for books with two separate but parallel story lines. You know the kind I mean: As one of the plot threads reaches a cliff-hanger of sorts, we cut to the other one, and so back and forth. It is, I have found, a very efficient means of moving a story along, and Diffin employs the technique here in Two Thousand Miles Below with some effectiveness. His novel boasts any number of memorable scenes, including that first attack on Rawson’s base, during which foreman Riley (who we’d suspected would be a main character going forward) is killed, sliced in half by a heat ray; the two botched sacrifices that the Mole-Men attempt with Rawson, the first featuring a duke-out between our hero and a gigantic, yellow-skinned Mole-Man at the brink of a bottomless pit, the second an attempt to chuck Rawson into the blistering “Lake of Flame”; Smithy and the National Guard’s Col. Culver participating in an Air Force attack on the Mole-Men’s hordes below; and the finale, in which Smithy, Culver and 50 other soldiers invade the “Red Ones’” underground realm in an attempt to rescue Rawson.
Diffin’s novel is a curious mixture of science fiction and fantasy, and indeed, both races of the underground dwellers — the monstrous, red-skinned, pointy-headed, barbaric Mole-Men, and the civilized, human-looking followers of the original Gor — boast weapons and contraptions of superscience to fascinate the reader. Thus, the heat rays and flamethrowers of the Mole-Men (actually, both of those gizmos struck me as being essentially identical) and the “jana” capsule of Gor’s folk. This jana, essentially a big, oblong, glass (?) bubble, allows the civilized folk to float or descend at high speeds through a shaft in the Earth, thus enabling them to pass through the Earth’s semisolid core and through to the other side! Operated by changing the amounts of Oro and Grah (mineral powders with plus or minus gravitational qualities) inside the jana, this contraption is perhaps the most way-out mechanical conceit in Diffin’s book; even more way-out than the enormous Holy Mountain of Gor’s people, the crystals of which are somehow able to pull in radio signals from the Earth’s surface, and which has thus allowed the “White Ones” to learn English over the decades! Now, if all of the above sounds improbable and far-fetched, well, of course it is. I did say that the book is in large part a fantasy, didn’t I? Still, it is an appealing conceit, our two lead characters are likeable and sympathetic ones, the action is slam-bang and relentless, and the suspense in the opening chapters (before the attack on Dean’s camp) is genuine. Still, as I indicated up top, there remain numerous problems that prevent me from giving Diffin’s work here a higher grade.
For one thing, although his imagination was fully engaged in this tale, his descriptive abilities were just not up to the task of enabling the reader to picture his conceits clearly. His writing style here is sketchy, with a dearth of defining detail. Perhaps it’s just me, but I never could properly visualize the mazelike world of the Red Ones, or even how these monstrous folks looked. The descent by jana through the Earth’s core (the so-called Neutral Zone) to the other side, and then the consequent, upside-down trip “up” to reach Gor’s domain, the “Inner World,” was an even tougher one to picture. And then there is the realm of Gor’s people itself, a 10-mile-long island in an ocean that fills a concave bowl of sorts, with a horizon higher than the island itself, and a sun of some material hanging high above … let’s just say that the reader’s imagination will be taxed to the limit as he/she endeavors to picture what Diffin is laying out in front of us.
The edition of Two Thousand Miles Below that I recently read is part of Armchair Fiction’s 24-volume Lost World/Lost Race series, and is similar to a pair of books in this same series that I recently experienced — S. P. Meek’s The Drums of Tapajos (1930) and F. Van Wyck Mason’s Phalanxes of Atlans (1931) — in that the author does not provide us with enough detail and background to flesh out his tale. Thus, in Diffin’s book, besides the fuzzy writing, we are left with any number of unresolved questions, such as: Why did the followers of Gor and the peoples who would eventually become the Red Ones/Mole-Men separate thousands of years ago, the Mole-Men staying a mere 50 miles underground and the White Ones journeying past the center of Earth’s core? How did the Mole-Men mutate into the monstrosities that they are today? By living in what is in essence a furnace-like inferno? And that subset of the Red Ones, the tremendous, yellow-skinned mutants … how did they come about? And what is the deal with that dazzling, “pale-green gold, magnificently brilliant” flaming ball that acts as a sun, miles above the surface of the White Ones’ Inner World? What is it composed of, and how did it get there? How have the brutish Red Ones managed to come up with weapons as sophisticated as their heat ray? All these matters, as I say, are left unresolved by author Diffin. And whereas the book manages to convey some sense of the claustrophobic conditions attendant on being deep underground, that feeling of overwhelming suffocation is nowhere near as intense as in Rex Stout’s remarkable Under the Andes (1914), another selection in this Armchair series. And Diffin even makes an occasional flub here and there in his narrative, such as calling the ghost town in Tonah Basin “New Rhyolite” on page 13 and “Little Rhyolite” on page 47. In a word, oy.
So yes, Two Thousand Miles Below certainly is a mixed bag, at best, and yet it remains a fun and engaging read. “I’d drill through to hell … with backing like that!” Dean exclaims after getting the green light from the Erickson execs, and boy, do those words ever prove prophetic! Unlike the peaceful and well-meaning Mole-Men who Superman would encounter some 20 years later, the ones that Rawson and Smithy go up against are anything but. They make Diffin’s novel the exciting thrill ride that it is. Too bad about all those negative aspects, however. Perhaps Diffin should have expanded his work to become a five-part serial; with a little more detail and explanatory background material, he really could have had a winner here…