I’ve discussed a few of Dennis Wheatley‘s books in past posts. Wheatley was a prolific author from the 1930s through the 1980s (though his most famous works were written from the ’30s to the ’50s), and he could rightly be considered the Stephen King of his time. Unfortunately, most of his works are out of print, with the exception of some inexpensive editions produced by Wordsworth Mystery & Supernatural. I’ve started foraging for his used books online, and managed to find an inexpensive first edition of his adventure thriller with the provocative title They Found Atlantis (1936). Though not his best work, it was an entertaining read and gives me an excuse to delve into some of the history of the Atlantis story and some of the Atlantis craze of the twentieth century. I’ll include some minor spoilers of the story, so don’t read any further if you want to discover Wheatley’s Atlantis for yourself! Otherwise, follow me below the fold…
The book features a large collection of characters, and the book departs from other Wheatley works I’ve read in that it is told in a third-person omniscient style. The story begins on the island of Madeira, where we are introduced to the gruff, retired British sailor Captain Nelson McKay, lounging outside a resort hotel with his friend Sally Hart. A strange boat pulls up into harbor, with a bathysphere tied to its rear deck. Sally’s sister, the wealthy Countess Camilla, motors out to the new arrival with her three suitors: the simple but bold Prince Vladimir, the aged intellectual Count Axel, and the vain and handsome movie star Nicolas Costello. At the boat they meet Doctor Herman Tisch, a German scientist who intends to search in the deep waters of the Atlantic for the legendary continent of Atlantis. Doctor Tisch is rather strapped for funds, unfortunately, but he convinces the Countess that he has pinpointed the near-exact location of the lost continent, and she agrees to fund his expedition. The entire group joins the doctor on his boat and they set sail for The Azores, from where their search will begin.
The early part of the book centers on discussions led by Doctor Tisch and the learned Count Axel, who give their ‘evidence’ for the existence of Atlantis in order to persuade the others to join the adventure. This part of the book is a little tedious, especially to someone who knows a little science, as it requires a tortured interpretation of the available evidence. Finally everyone is convinced, however, and the trip begins in earnest.
However, the entire expedition is a trap: a criminal mastermind has used the doctor’s legitimate expedition as a means to get the Countess and her friends alone, and has a diabolical scheme to separate her from her fortune. The second part of the book reads as a thriller and works extremely well. The various members of the expedition make numerous efforts to thwart the plans of Mr. Oxford Kate.
Eventually, the intrepid group of adventurers finds themselves marooned at the bottom of the ocean in the bathysphere. When all seems lost, however, they are swept into a gigantic air-filled cave. Here their troubles are only beginning, however, because the cave, and the dark tunnels beyond it, are inhabited by countless hordes of near-blind, sub-human creatures — and these creatures are definitely hostile to the newcomers. The scenes involving flight and battle with the beast men are the most engaging and horrific of the entire novel, and are quite effective.
The group finally finds safe haven in the remnants of the original Atlantis — a massive garden protected by a moat and a thorny hedge. The entire cavern is lit by a natural light source which replicates daylight and can be dimmed to simulate night time. The refugees are astonished to be met by a pair of lovely, unclothed humans who greet them in English and welcome them into their sanctuary.
This utopia is a collection of gardens, farmlands, and grazing lands which feeds the twelve Atlanteans. The Atlanteans live for well over a hundred years in perfect health and maintain their population at the level of twelve by occasional interbreeding. Before you start humming banjo music to yourself, it should be noted that Wheatley addresses this concern: although the Atlanteans are all related, they have mastered, by psychic powers, perfect control over their reproductive capabilities. In essence, they control exactly what sort of child they will produce, and have no risk of genetic disease. (Yes, it still sounds pretty creepy, though.)
Speaking of psychic powers, the Atlanteans speak perfect English because they have mastered astral projection, not to mention hypnosis. They spend most of their lifetimes traveling astrally around the surface world, watching events and learning languages and history. The time not spent traveling astrally is spent tending to the gardens of Atlantis and enjoying occasional romantic trysts with the various other members of the community. A drawing from the end pages of the book illustrates the layout and activities well:
If this utopia sounds very much like the Garden of Eden, this connection is not lost upon the new arrivals, and is in fact much of the point of Wheatley’s tale. As Count Axel imprudently declares late in the story, “This is like Eden — to make it complete you only need the serpent!” The serpent eventually does arrive…
Overall, the novel is a fun adventure tale. The rather odd imagining of Atlantis is a little disappointing in my mind, but the story ends with a last bit of thrilling adventure.
It has been noted numerous times that Wheatley was a bit of an elitist in life, and it often expressed itself in his writing. I was very curious to see if Wheatley’s vision of Atlantis would read as unsubtle praise of high society. Fortunately it wasn’t too heavy-handed, but the elitism snuck through occasionally. When Count Axel eloquently pleads the case of the refugee group, the Atlantean Nahou responds:
“Humans in such a desperate situation would have my sympathy in any case, but your words, Sir, show you to be one of the elect — a twice-born — and for your sake, if no other, I make your party welcome here.”
It is rather interesting to look at why Wheatley might have been writing about Atlantis in 1936 in the first place. I suspect that it had to do with the psychic readings of famous (infamous) psychic Edgar Cayce. He would put himself in a trance-like state and give readings on numerous topics of history and spirituality, including — beginning in 1923 — stories of Atlantis. Some of his readings in the 1930s on the topic can be seen here. Cayce’s Atlantis was a place of high technology and mystical powers, very much in line with Wheatley’s description. Did Wheatley believe in it himself? He gives no mention of Cayce in his book, which I would have expected if he were a genuine acolyte of Cayce, so I suspect he was simply drawing inspiration from the popular view of Atlantis at the time. For the record, plenty if not most of Cayce’s ‘predictions’ — including the belief that parts of Atlantis would rise in the late 1960s — failed to come true.
Where did the story of Atlantis come from? The original accounts come from a pair of dialogues by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, in particular the dialogues Timaeus and Critias, thought to be some of the last Plato wrote. These dialogues feature conversations between Socrates (Plato’s late mentor), Timaeus, Critias, and Hermocrates. In Timaeus, Critias shares a story of rather… questionable… provenance about an ancient and perfect society. From Timaeus (Penguin Classics edition translation),
Critias: Listen then, Socrates. The story is a strange one, but Solon, the wisest of the seven wise men, once vouched for its truth. He was a relation and close friend of Dropides, my great-grandfather, as he often says himself in his poems, and told the story to my grandfather Critias, who in turn repeated it to us when he was an old man. It relates the many notable achievements of our city long ago, which have been lost sight of because of the lapse of time and destruction of human life.
With this introduction, it is a wonder that anyone ever considered the story authentic, considering how long of a grapevine it passed through. The story was told by Solon (who heard it second-hand from a very old Egyptian priest) to grandfather Critias (third-hand), who repeated it to Critias the younger (fourth-hand), who in turn is telling it to Socrates (fifth-hand) and then is being recounted in a fictional account by Plato (sixth-hand)! Also note that the story is being passed through a large number of years as well as people, and Critias claims he heard the story from his grandfather when his grandfather was 90 and he was 10!
There is plenty of description of the island, but let’s stick to the initial geographic details given by the old priest, speaking to the Athenian Solon:
Our records tell how your city checked a great power which arrogantly advanced from its base in the Atlantic ocean to attack the cities of Europe and Asia. For in those days the Atlantic was navigable. There was an island opposite the strait which you call (so you say) the Pillars of Heracles, an island larger than Libya and Asia combined; from it travellers could in those days reach the other islands, and from them the whole opposite continent which surrounds what can truly be called the ocean. For the sea within the strait we were talking about is like a lake with a narrow entrance; the outer ocean is the real ocean and the land which entirely surrounds it is properly termed continent. On this island of Atlantis had arisen a powerful and remarkable dynasty of kings, who ruled the whole island, and many other islands as well and parts of the continent; in addition it controlled, within the strait, Libya up to the borders of Egypt and Europe as far as Tyrrhenia… At a later time there were earthquakes and floods of extraordinary violence, and in a single dreadful day and night all your fighting men were swallowed up by the earth, and the island of Atlantis was similarly swallowed up by the sea and vanished; this is why the sea in that area is to this day impassible to navigation, which is hindered by mud just below the surface, the remains of the sunken island.
Though for many years reasonable scholars thought that Atlantis was completely a figment of someone’s imagination, it now seems likely that the story is based upon some genuine history, though extremely distorted. Sometime in the second millenium B.C.E., the volcano located at Thera in the Mediterranean exploded in one of the most violent eruptions in the history of human civilization, an eruption beating Krakatau in violence and making the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption look insignificant. Thera is located only 110 kilometers (68 miles) north of the island of Crete, the former home of the Minoan civilization. The Minoans had a powerful navy which could very well have been said to have “controlled, within the strait, Libya up to the borders of Egypt and Europe as far as Tyrrhenia.” The eruption at Thera sent devastating tsunamis to Crete, blanketed a large part of the island with ash and likely blocked large sections of nearby waterways with floating pumice, making them impassable. The Minoan navy would likely have been devastated by the eruption. It has been suggested, and seems quite reasonable, that this devastating eruption led to the eventual demise of the Minoan civilization. Those civilizations which had formerly had dealings with the Minoan fleet might well have viewed its sudden disappearance, combined with the obvious volcanic effects, as having resulted from the sinking of the island itself. Add a few centuries of confused grapevine-like storytelling, and you match the legend of Atlantis quite well*.
There’s one other aspect of Wheatley’s book that’s worth mentioning: it is dedicated to William Beebe, “inventor of the Bathysphere and Explorer of the Ocean Depths; who has made history by going a ‘Half Mile Down’ and opening up a new world to future generations.” Beebe was a co-inventor of the bathysphere, which was first used in 1930 to descend 600 feet below the ocean’s surface. In 1934, he made a record descent of 3,028 ft, which is no doubt the ‘Half Mile Down’ Wheatley refers to. A picture of Beebe and co-inventor Barton (from Wikipedia) is shown below:
I haven’t been able to determine if Wheatley knew Beebe well, or if this dedication was more of a friendly acknowledgment of the source of his inspiration…
* For a nice discussion of the Minoan eruption and other volcanic events in human history, see J.Z. de Boer and D.T. Sanders, Volcanoes in Human History (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2002).