LAND UNDER ENGLAND by Joseph O’Neil
“Another lost-race sort of thing. Remnants of Roman civilization exist underground in a rigidly telepathically controlled society. The protagonist seeks them out as destiny and finds nightmare instead.”
-Karl Edward Wagner, “The Thirteen Best Science Fiction Horror Novels” (Twilight Zone Magazine, 1983)
It’s been a few weeks since I posted anything on this blog and one of the reasons is the difficulty I had getting through Land Under England. Written by Irishman Joseph O’Neil, this was one of the forgotten masterpieces on KEW’s essential list. The author had a job in the Irish ministry of education and did like his wordage. Not that being a verbose author is such a bad thing; look what Will Shakespeare was able to accomplish. But all the narrative does make for a tiring read.
The book is narrated from the POV of a man searching underground for his father. The narrator is descended from a long line of Roman settlers of England. He matures near the remnants of the Hadrian wall. In his family there is a tradition of finding an underground entrance to a subterranean world. Here, an entire company of Romans descended below the earth around the time of the Empire’s fall. The narrator’s father, after returning from WW1 shell-shocked, became obsessed with finding the entrance and disappeared. The narrator eventually follows in the footsteps of his father, although it is never precisely said how he finds the entrance.
After traveling through caves illuminated by phosphorescent glow, and battles with savage reptiles, he eventually finds an underground Roman civilization. But the civilization has become fused into a group mind. Somehow in the far past, telepathic humans were born who used their abilities to control the rest of the tribe. Known as “Masters of Knowledge”, they see to it that ordinary humans are trained as tools in service of the Roman state. In fact, these Romans have no need of slaves since every human being is in service to the state.
The average Romans are described as “automatons”, show no emotion, don’t speak, and exist to do whatever task is needed for the maintenance of society. Consequently, the underground cities have no houses, just hedges to separate the workers into divisions of labor. Beneath the “Masters of Knowledge” are the Commanders, who supervise work gangs via their telepathic abilities. When the narrator first encounters the Romans, his mind is probed by a Commander who is shocked to discover there are some people immune to his abilities.
Eventually, the Roman Masters decide the narrator must be “absorbed” into the state. They decide to do this by showing him how the state functions, hoping he will see the error of his will. The narrator, on the other hand keeps insisting he get to see his father. Finally, the Romans force him from their civilization, as they figure he’ll willingly come back to them, rather than try to find his way around in the darkness.
Where Land soars is in it’s description of the underground world. Hollow Earth theory was always a guilty pleasure of mine. I delighted in all the literature it spawned. Give me a DVD of Attack of the Mole Men, the soundtrack to Journey to the Center of the Earth and I am one happy geek. This book has the most vivid imagery of what an underground world might be like that I’ve ever encountered. He shows us vast seas illuminated by ionic displays. The seas are surrounded by swamps populated by predatory toads and spiders the size of lions. Everywhere, the phosphorescent glow of giant mushrooms illuminate the landscape.
But there’s not a lot of dialogue here. Since the Romans communicate by thought, they place ideas in the narrators head to describe themselves. At least half of the book is his impressions of the subterranean world. All of this can make for a hard verbal slog.
I can see why KEW put it on his list, since it has the best visual concept of what an underground world might be like. But it’s not an easy read by any means.
[Note: In an attempt to bring all my significant posts over to this new blog, I am reprinting many of the older book reviews. This one is from 11/10/09]
I read this when I was about 10 years old (1957!) and was in bed with flu. I still remember being gripped by it, though I now remember little of the story. Above all it influenced my life by instilling in me a voracious appetite for science fiction and sparking an interest in things Roman to which I owe a lifelong career as a classical numismatist. I shall read it again soon: who knows? Maybe I’ll hate it!
Incidentally I found this site following a conversation with friends about the books that had most influenced our lives, none of them had heard of Land Under England.