“All this country is hollow”: Doyle’s Adventures in Subterranean Fiction

by Margie Deck & Nancy Holder

While wandering across the physical landscape of the Blue John Gap countryside, James Hardcastle observes that “all this country is hollow” and muses about what he might find if it were possible to break the cliffs open with “some gigantic hammer.” A subterranean sea, perhaps? More of the “great caverns which wind down into the bowels of the earth”? We of Team Terror know that with Doyle, anything is possible.

“Subterranean fiction” is actually a sub-genre of adventure fiction, and Doyle embraced adventure fiction, dedicating his most recognizable entry, The Lost World, “to the boy who’s half a man, or the man who’s half a boy.

Victorian/Edwardian readers were already familiar with stories about mysteries deep inside the Earth. Subterranean fiction grew out of an early theory that the Earth was hollow, and that various civilizations lived beneath its crust. Sometimes these societies were more advanced than ours, but usually they were more primitive. Dante’s Divine Comedy takes Virgil and Dante through the various rings of hell inside our planet. Once science disproved the Hollow Earth theory, science fiction and fantasy writers shifted their attention to stories that take place below the surface of the Earth—hence, “subterranean fiction.” One such author was Jules Verne, whose novel Voyage au Centre de la Terre (published in 1864) has been variously translated as Journey to the Center of the Earth and Journey to the Interior of the Earth. His adventurers travel 87 miles deep. Edgar Allan Poe, H.G. Wells, and even Lewis Carroll wrote subterranean fiction. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was originally titled Alice’s Adventures Under Ground. H.P. Lovecraft wrote The Mound. The TV show Stranger Things is a current example.

The Maracot Deep: The Lost World Under the Sea (published in The Strand from 1927—1928) and its sequel The Lord of the Dark Face (1929) might be characterized as Doyle’s suboceanic fiction. Doyle’s bizarre and inventive tale, “When the World Screamed,” a Professor Challenger story published in 1928, presents the entire Earth itself as a living being. This weirdest of weird tales is definitely the next step in the evolution of the subterranean subgenre, and like “Blue John Gap,” it is a shining example of Doyle’s boundless imagination.

More Mining the Gap

On the topic of the Peak District and what can be found there—

The book, Moor Mysteries by Steve Cliffe and Dave Kelsall, first published last summer, collects reports of enormous black dogs or cave bears roaming the moors, killing sheep and splitting the night silence with roars like a foghorn, and questions whether the secretive religious order the Knights Templar concealed their treasure in a cave on Kinder Scout.

On the topic of “Superfluous Women” of the Victorian age or otherwise, you might take a peek at the following—

In Victorian England, a woman ceased to be a legal person after she married.

Science fiction writer Brenda W. Clough discusses “Major Legislative Changes Affecting Women in the 19th Century.”

Germany banned the use of “Fraulein” in legal documents in 1972.

France banned ”mademoiselle” in 2012.

A Japanese slang term for an unmarried woman over the age of 25 is “a Christmas cake,” because they’re “not good” after the 25th.

Copyright 2022 Margie Deck & Nancy Holder


What is Blue John?

by Peter E. Blau

Blue John is a local name for a banded purple and white variety of fluorite that is found only in the Castleton area of Derbyshire, in the Carboniferous limestone at Treak Cliff. It was and still is mined in Blue John Cavern and Treak Hill Cavern, and vases of Blue John were and still are valued at a great price: a Regency Blue John vase (ca. 1815-20) sold at Christie’s in 2015 for £314,500.

continued . . .

The Victorian Superfluous Woman

by Elinor Gray Howell

The term “superfluous woman” became widely used in Britain after the Great War to describe the women left without marriage prospects after the death of 700,000 British men of fighting age. Since “The Terror of Blue John Gap” was published in 1910, however, we have to look to the pre-war trends that already existed to examine the use of this phrase. Census records from 1851 showed there was already a “surplus” of 365,821 more women than men, or approximately 1,054 women to 1,000 men; in 1911 the figure had risen to 1,068 to every 1,000. “For it to have reached 1,095 to 1,000 by 1921,” writes historian Suzie Grogan, “it is clear the war simply amplified a continuing trend.” Given the family-centric values of the Victorians, this surplus of women was a problem, especially among middle-class women for whom marriage, motherhood, and homemaking was the ultimate role. Working-class women did not pose such an issue, since there was no question of their use, married or unmarried. William Rathbone Greg, an English essayist, wrote about female domestic servants:

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Doyle &
“The Arabian Nights”

by Peter Adrian Behravesh

Though Doyle refers to this collection of stories as The Arabian Nights, a direct translation of the Arabic title (ʿAlf Layla wa Layla) is The Thousand Nights and One Night. This is not only a more accurate reflection of the framing device (wherein Shahrazad tells King Shahriyar a new story every night, until he finally agrees not to kill her), but also of the stories themselves, which are not exclusively “Arabian” in nature.

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page 2 of the manuscript of "The Terror of Blue John Gap"

The autograph manuscript of “The Terror of Blue John Gap” reproduced above is courtesy of Dartmouth College Library, Rauner Special Collections, MS-93: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.


an invalid stranger [deleted: s]. Truly the old maid is a most useful person, one of

the reserve forces of the community. They talk of the superfluous woman,

but what would the poor superfluous man do without her kindly presence.

By the way in their simplicity they very quickly let out the reasons why

Saunderson recommended their farm. The Professor rose from the ranks

himself and I believe that in his youth he was note above scaring crows

in these very fields.

This is a very lonely spot and the walks are picturesque in

the extreme. The farm consists of grazing land lying at the bottom of

an irregular valley. On each side are the fantastic limestone hills

formed of rock so soft that you can break it away with your hands.

All this country is hollow. Could you strike it with some gigantic

hammer it would boom like a drum, or possibly cave in altogether

and expose some huge subterranean sea. A great sea there must

surely be for on all sides the streams run into the mountain sides

never to reappear. There are gaps everywhere amid the rocks, and

when you pass through them you find yourself in great caverns

which wind down into the bowels of the earth. I have [deleted: an / inserted: a] small

[deleted: acetylene] bicycle lamp and it is a perpetual joy to me to carry it

into these wierd solitudes, and to see the [deleted: strange / inserted: wonderful] silver & black

effects when I throw its [deleted: vivid] light upon the stalactites which

drape the lofty roofs. Shut off the lamp and you are in the blackest

darkness. Turn it on and it is a scene from the Arabian nights.

But there is one of these strange openings in the earth

which has a [deleted: peculiar / inserted: special] interest for it is the handiwork not of nature but

of man. I had never heard of Blue John when I came to these parts.

It is the name given to a peculiar mineral of a beautiful purplish

shade which is only found at one or two places in the world. It is so

rare that an ordinary vase of Blue John would be valued at a great

price. The Romans with that extraordinary instinct of theirs, discovered

that it was to be found in this valley, and sank a horizontal shaft

deep into the mountain side. The opening of their mine has been

called Blue John Gap, a clean cut arch in the rock, the mouth

The full story as it was printed in The Strand is available at
The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia.