“For eighteen years the writer has been seated at this desk and all kinds of books have been passed in review, but has never before met with such a stumper”, wrote the literary critic for Chicago’s The Inter Ocean paper in 1895. And they were not alone. The Los Angeles Times called the novel “an extraordinary literary and scientific work”, a “new candidate for popular favor”. Soon after, the book’s title became a not-uncommon baby name for bookish parents. And, as late as 1986, we find J. Soule Smith (sobriquet: “Falcon”) remarking on the text’s long legacy: “What the author thought would be the puzzle of a few has become the study of the multitude”.
With a reputation such as this, you may be expecting The Picture of Dorian Gray, a Sherlock Holmes novel, or some other enduring classic. And yet, the novel under discussion is Etidorhpa; or, the End of the Earth: the Strange History of a Mysterious Being and the Account of a Remarkable Journey, John Uri Lloyd’s whimsical take on the “hollow earth” genre. Imagine the progeny of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth and an experiment in automatic writing by a member of Havelock Ellis’ peyote-munching cohort. Now steep that vision in Masonic paranoia, fringe geological theories, and a surprisingly earnest account of spiritual longing. Let it age a century and only then would you have a text that begins to hold a candle to Etidorhpa.
Published by the Cincinnati-based pharmacologist John Uri Lloyd in 1895, the novel features psychonautical learning long before Albert Hofmann discovered LSD. Indeed, Lloyd is somewhat frank, in scientific journal articles, about his auto-guinea-piggery. As R. J. Smith recounts, Lloyd breezily describes evaluating “the alkaloidal salts of morphine, quinine, cocaine, etc.”, by letting samples of each dissolve upon his tongue. But the author’s biography is equally mind-bending. He dined with Mark Twain, fished with Grover Cleveland, was employed by the Smithsonian to survey the licorice yields of the Ottoman Empire, and left behind one of the most remarkable private libraries in the United States.
The novel’s story feels indebted both to John Symmes’ theory of “Hollow Earth” and the kidnapping of William Morgan by supposed Freemasons. Like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Christopher Nolan’s Inception, the mise-en-abymic narrative creates a formal correlate for the supernatural plot. In brief: a man named Johannes Llewellyn Llongollyn Drury, studying occult and alchemic phenomena, receives an unexpected visitor late in the night. A white-haired man teleports into his parlor. As in Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, published three years after Etidorhpa, the creepiest quality of this ghostly apparition is not physical but textual. The elderly man entrusts a manuscript to our narrator, recounting events that transpired three decades earlier, and, eventually, introduces himself by the (almost) Old Testament moniker of “I—Am—The—Man—Who—Did—It”.
We jump into the manuscript, which tells of the man’s kidnapping by a secret hermetic society. His captors forced him to prematurely age in order to disguise his identity. Soon after, I—Am—The—Man is indentured to a guide, whose face, “if a face it could be called, was wet, and water dripped from all parts of his slippery person. . . the moisture seemed to ooze as from the hide of a water lizard”. The lizardly usher leads the now-aged man to the underworld (the entrance of which, we learn, is to be found in Kentucky). It’s like Dante meets Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland meets contemporary internet conspiracy theories about “the reptilian elite”. As Drury and the creature descend into the earth’s interior, their ever-evolving philosophical debate finds new scenery: forests of colossal fungi; a field of Brobdingnag hands affixed to the bodies of Lilliputians; and the experience of “eternity without time”, which comes with footnotes, whose syntax seems to exhibit the very symptoms of the substance it proclaims to decry:
If, in the course of experimentation, a chemist should strike upon a compound that in traces only would subject his mind and drive his pen to record such seemingly extravagant ideas as are found in the hallucinations herein pictured, or to frame word-sentences foreign to normal conditions, and beyond his natural ability, and yet could he not know the end of such a drug, would it not be his duty to bury the discovery from others, to cover from mankind the existence of such a noxious fruit of the chemist’s or pharmaceutist’s art?
The novel’s title stems from an encounter with a being named “Etidorhpa”, who appears after I—Am—The—Man declines to drink a distillation of “derivates of the rarest species of the fungus family”. Instead of drugs, he is intoxicated by this seraphic creature, whose rhetorical flourishes almost eclipse her physical beauty. “The universe bows to my authority”, she says. “Stars and suns enamored pulsate and throb in space and kiss each other in waves of light; atoms cold embrace and cling together; structures inanimate affiliate with and attract inanimate structures; bodies dead to other noble passions are not dead to love.” She later introduces herself as an entity once known as Venus, but whose true name is Etidorhpa (“Aphrodite” in reverse).