Monday, January 24, 2011

They Found Atlantis (1936)


I read most of They Found Atlantis in Cornwall, in early morning sessions by the sea, not far from Land's End, as the early morning breakers crashed against the rocks. The perfect backdrop for an entertaining if at times utterly insane fable.
The first half of the book is pretty straightforward stuff, a maritime adventure combining underseas exploration with a bit of high society intrigue, some sex, rivalry and a gangster plot above water level. Wheatley was by this time well practiced in the art of keeping two simultaneous plots on the move, and the opening chapters, mixing gangster thriller and sea adventure story, are as accomplished as ever.
But then, halfway through, it switches abruptly and - by me, at least - quite unexpectedly into outrageous sci-fi fantasy, as our intrepid heroes, stranded on the ocean bottom with no hope of returning to the surface, encounter an undersea kingdom of Atlanteans who grow plants in a sealed chamber, spend months asleep during which their astral bodies wander the surface of the earth and follow the lives of the inhabitants (on waking they then update their fellows with the latest developments, soap opera-style), see by earthlight, live for several hundred years, enjoy group sex, are forbidden from mentioning bad things lest they cause bad thoughts, and are plagued by a sub-race of blind, fish-eating sea humanoids and briefly glimpsed savage mermen.
Our heroes end up among them, get married and are then booted out again when sexual jealousy - long since evolved out of the gene pool of these enlightened ancients - leads to manslaughter. Not fancying spending the rest of their lives with the savage mermen they clamber up through the earth's crust to freedom.
Oh yes, and the one who's supposed to be an heiress isn't, and the one who's supposed to be just her dowdy relation turns out to be the heiress, and the attempt by smart-spoken gangster Oxford Kate (a man) to fleece her comes to nothing.
But I sense this is getting confusing. Let me retrace my steps.

What we have in They Found Atlantis is a Wheatley who has taken a gamble with fantastic and supernatural elements in The Devil Rides Out and seen that gamble pay off, plunging fearlessly into science fiction absurdity with a relish that I sometimes found myself wishing had been more cautiously applied. There is much wide-eyed fantasy, a schoolboy-like delight in the creation of alternative worlds, some left-over horrific detail from Devil (the description of the travellers' escape from the fish men is gruesomely described: "Tripping and stumbling over dead bodies and writhing wounded they literally hacked their way through the mass of short, naked, stinking, grey-white people"; Wheatley accurately describes the tableaux as "like a scene from hell conjured up by the vivid brush of some early Flemish painter"), and all combined with the usual clean-cut character dynamics of the straight, Rider Haggard-style adventure yarn.
Add to this the now customary fruits of his peripheral research, including lots of real, interesting scientific information about the techniques of undersea exploration that sits oddly indeed alongside the mermen, and you have a book that cannot fail to be interesting, but which must ultimately be counted among Wheatley's most eccentric diversions.

Of course, we don't doubt that they will find Atlantis - the title hints as much - but the discovery that it is still tenanted, and by a race of free-loving paganist weirdoes (this is the second book in a row in which characters have patiently explained to uptight western moderns the ancient glories of polygamy), will surely take most readers undefended.
Atlantis as a concept in a work of fiction I can swallow, but the non-Darwinian farrago of the book's final chapters I found a little too daft. Learned disquisition on the Atlantean phonetic alphabet further adds to the book's weird if often undeniably beguiling mix of rationalism and madness.

This is what Atlantis looked like, according to Wheatley, his wife, and his step-daughter

The book - which Wheatley described in Drink and Ink as "one of the best I have ever written" - was inspired by Wheatley's reading of Half Mile Down, adventurer William Beebe's account of the undersea discoveries he had made in his 'bathysphere', a reinforced iron sphere that allowed him to explore to depths previously impossible. The book had been published in 1934, and must have immediately set a train of thought in motion for Wheatley, who was fascinated by Beebe's account of the strange, twilight world beneath the waves, and the many strange and undiscovered lifeforms who make their home there. Wheatley dedicated the novel to Beebe when it was published two years later. (According to Phil Baker, Beebe was gracious enough to write him a letter of thanks, presumably for including so much of the technical detail concerning the bathysphere he had included in his own account.)

Beebe and his bathysphere

What Beebe made of the book's more fantastic episodes I do not know, nor am I sure how, when and why Wheatley decided to tie Beebe's invention with the myth of Atlantis in the first place. Judging by past form and Wheatley's own temperament, one might have expected something more along the lines of an undersea treasure hunt, with competing groups looking for treasure lost on the ocean bed. (This all sounds a lot like Peter Benchley's The Deep, and I was frequently reminded of Benchley's novel in the early stages of Wheatley's.) Almost certainly, I think, this would have been Wheatley's approach prior to the success of The Devil Rides Out, but the public response to that novel could well have emboldened (and drawn) him towards more fantastic themes.
It's possible that he may have read of the Atlantis myth during research for Devil: certainly there had been a revival of interest in the subject in the first half of the twentieth century, as an offshoot of Theosophy and similar occult and esoteric revivalist movements. But Wheatley does not mention anywhere that he took any particular personal interest, and it is relevant that (as noted in this extremely interesting discussion of the book and its influences) it is never clear when reading the book if Wheatley is himself a believer or simply using the old myths to help spin his yarn. (Whereas part of the unique power of Devil Rides Out derives from the reader's certainty of his absolute sincerity when describing Satanic powers.)
That the general occult research undertaken for Devil may have been his primary source of influence is further suggested by this passage, doubly interesting for its foretaste of the homunculi that would later become central to To The Devil, A Daughter:

"As with all other nations we had had in our midst from the beginning certain persons who practiced what, for want of a better name, I will call the Black Art. At first they were comparatively harmless, dealing only in spells, love-tokens and minor witchcraft, but the time came when they began to concern themselves with what you call 'science' and that proved the most unholy alliance which has ever entered the world.
"... the sorcerer-scientists saw their great chance to corrupt our people with their evil arts. They carried out many experiments in order to see if they could not succeed in creating life without the sanction of the Gods. 'Black' magicians in your upper world have endeavoured to do the same and have, as you may know, at times been partially successful. Such creatures are incubated in large glass containers and are termed Homunculi. They have the rudimentary form of man yet lack that God-given flame which you call the Soul. Our masters of Evil succeeded in the dread mystery at last, thus introducing a new and hideous race upon the earth. Beasts which moved and talked and functioned just like men although, unlike the lowest forms of true animal, they had not the faintest spark of the divine nature in them."

(That contentious swastika reappears too, in the pagan rites of the Atlantean women: "When she had done she kissed them both, made the sign of the Swastika on their foreheads, breasts, and thighs with a curiously scented oil from a tiny bottle...")
But another possible influence, of course, may have been his old mentor and prototype of Gregory Sallust, Eric Gordon Tombe (see here), who would have responded both to the wild esoteric fantasy and Greek classicism of the myth. Certainly the pagan Utopia that is Wheatley's Atlantis, all magic powers and no-strings sex, has a very definite touch of the Tombes about it:

"You see, each of us make what we require for ourselves and nothing more" Lulluma explained "and when we wish to eat we gather whatever fresh fruit is in season from the trees or net a fish in the lake and cook it. All waste is consumed immediately after by the earthshine."
"How does that work?" he asked. "It seems to have all the properties of sunshine."
"It has," she assured him. "You doubtless know that the centre of the earth is molten and gives off gases which are exactly similar to those which shoot out in great flames from the sun. Long ago our people tapped that source of heat and light and then it was a comparatively simple matter to conduct it through certain minerals so that it should give a steady glow. The circular arrangement round the roof enables the trees and plants to benefit from it at every angle in the same degree so that they are never distorted in one direction. The result is similar to that produced by the movement of your sun."
"Forgive me, but there are so many things I want to ask you" he smiled down at her. "From the way you speak you are obviously familiar with our upper world?"
"There is little do here" she answered enigmatically "except make love!"
"You find that pall at times?"
"No, never - because we do not abuse our zest for it. Once every year or two each of us has some tremendous affair which lasts a few months, then when we are satiated for the moment, we go away. Later the urge rises again and when we feel it really strongly we take our happiness with another."
"You speak of going away. What do you mean by that?"
"Two of us are always what you would call 'on duty' here. It was the turn of Nahou and myself when you arrived. The others spend most of the year in sleep. Sometimes we sleep for a month or more at a stretch, and during that time our spirit travels - as quickly as an ether wave. We have learned to direct it to the place where we wish to go. The eyes of our invisible bodies can observe your customs and our ears can hear your speech. That is how we have learned your languages and know quite a lot about you, but there are many things you do which puzzle us still."

The party's prudishness in particular tickles the Atlanteans: "They do not understand nakedness, as we do who are so old in time that we have come to appreciate the wisdom of reverting to the customs of simple savages in some things," they muse, then educate: "You will soon learn the joy of being free from such stuffy clothes and your skins will be the better for it."

I did find myself hoping, as the travellers become more and more enamoured of this dreary paradise, mooning about with a bunch of hippies twenty thousand leagues under the sea and never a thought for the world of fine wines and Hoyo cigars they have left behind, that the Atlanteans would suddenly prove less obliging than they seem, possessed of a sinister side, perhaps even that the whole thing may have been some kind of trap... but no, in true W. B. Yeats fashion it is we who are not worthy of the faeries, and when nasty human emotions cloud the antiseptic perfection of Atlantis it is time to travel back to the surface with all the other reprobates.

I get the feeling the champagne was flowing a little too freely at the Wheatleys' when much of this was being penned, and it is a relief on the occasions, not rare but not quite frequent enough, when the man's bluff cynicism shows through the hippy-dippy veneer. ("What do you hope to find if we go on," asks Nicolas in response to the suggestion that they should proceed further into the strange and perilous undersea world into which they have stumbled, "the Ritz-Carlton Grill Room round the corner or a handy Lyons?")
And there's a fascinating, lengthy passage in which the hero questions an Atlantean wise man as to the mechanical means of their survival underwater, and how such fantastic things as we have been bombarded with for several chapters could possibly be. Each absurd invention of previous episodes is accounted for in patient, thorough, painstaking and surely redundant detail, with each point made clear followed by some fresh objection, and again by a fresh explanation - of a sort demanded surely, by this time, by no more than one reader in a hundred. (Any who needed such validation to accept the events of the book would have given up on it long before it arrives!)
In moments like this it's as if the tension between Wheatley the fantasist and Wheatley the rationalist is actually being acted out on the page.
Certainly he is at his most relaxed and characteristic when then book is above water, the thrills are rational, and the pace measured enough for his customary expansiveness, discursiveness and trademark merciless characterisation.
The hero McKay (referred to as 'the McKay' throughout, and modelled on a recent acquaintance of Wheatley's, Captain Magee RN Retd, "a delightful character" who also contributed technical information to Black August, according to Drink and Ink) is a salty rogue, with Wheatley's own preferences in politics, women and lifestyle, presented, like so many Wheatley heroes, as somewhat rough around the edges, somewhat older and more dissipated than your average fiction adventure hero and by no means classically handsome, but possessed of tremendous strength of personality. And here is Wheatley on the heroine, Sally:

Sally's skin was good, her nose straight, her mouth full and red, her teeth excellent, the eyes wide set but not large enough to give her face distinction. She was attractive but not a real beauty.
Her cheeks were just a shade too full and nothing, she knew, could alter that any more than the most skilful plucking would ever convert her golden eyebrows from semi-circular arches to the long narrow Garboish sweeps which she would have liked. Besides, shame of all shames, her otherwise quite perfect figure was marred by thick ankles.

I say, steady on, old chap!
That reference to Garbo is one of a pair, by the way: elsewhere Camilla, the phoney heiress, contemplates breaking into movies and "outgarboing Garbo". Wheatley always took a keen interest in movies and movie people (a character called King Karloff is mentioned in passing, and one of the Atlanteans is likened to Mae West: a deliciously unimaginable image!), but it was perhaps ill-feeling towards their latest attempt to adapt his own work (The Secret of Stamboul, see here) that caused him to create the utterly repellent character of Nicolas Costello, crooning romantic lead of Hollywood movies, thief and coward, one of Carmilla's many jealous suitors and the ultimate cause of the travellers' ejection from Atlantis.
Sally and McKay have this exchange after the latter describes Costello as "that little filth":

"Nicky's not so bad. He's rather fun I think, and quite a famous film star. You've only got a hate against him because you don't like crooners - you said so the other day."
"I'd croon him if I had him in a ship with me," said the McKay grimly. "I took a dislike to that young man before I even knew what brand of idiocy he indulged in..."

Wheatley later describes Costello as "resplendent in a pale blue flannel suit that no man other than a film star would have dared to wear", and, as he exercises "the muted cross between a tenor and alto which he called his voice", observes:

Some people like listening to crooners. Obviously many people must, for the records of the theme songs from Nicky's pictures sold in their millions all over the world. Camilla certainly did, and lay back with half-closed eyes savouring to the full the primitive emotionalism of 'Dear baby God gave me, I'm holding your hands' and 'In all the world, Mother - there's no one like you'. Not so the McKay, who fifty feet away in the deck lounge, trumped his partner's trick, apologised and muttered fiercely: "God! how I'd like to tan that youngster's hide!"

It is in passages like these, rather than the more bizarre stretches of Jules Verne-like fantasy, that the authentic Wheatley voice is most clearly heard.