‘Etidorhpa’– 1896 Cincinnati novel takes hallucinatory trip inside Hollow Earth

Cincinnati history is a deep well. So much of the past is evident in this city. It often grabs people and pulls them in, myself included. Once you start with some odd or interesting historical anecdote, it’s compelling to follow the story backward. On the way, you find yourself going down curving alleyways and fascinating paths. 

Polly Campbell
Polly Campbell

If you come across the 1896 novel “Etidorhpa,” by John Uri Lloyd, you will be pulled further into deeper and twistier alleyways and tunnels. Foundational to the science fiction/fantasy/secrets-of-the-universe genre of American literature, this book has never been out of print, and still commands a following of people willing to bushwhack through its dense prose. 

It begins with a young Cincinnati businessman’s visit from a ghostly man named I-Am-The-Man-Who-Did-It. He tells of a journey through the interior of the Hollow Earth, reachable from a cave in Kentucky. He is guided by a faceless figure who lays the truths of existence on him, from science to morals to spirituality. 

Lloyd was a pharmacist, a member of the Eclectic school of medicine. This was one of many alternative medical sects that sprung up in the late 19th century. The ancient theory of bodily “humors” and the drastic cures of bleeding and purging were being discredited. Better science was needed. Other alternatives like osteopathy, chiropractic and homeopathy seem a lot more like wishful thinking. Between 1834 and 1939, there were 19 medical schools in Cincinnati teaching various approaches (or ripping people off). The longest-lived were the Eclectics, who took a middle path.

Lloyd’s great work for the Eclectics was finding new medicines derived from plants. He built a lucrative pharmacy business selling patented “specifics.” He and his brother Curtis Gates Lloyd, a mycologist, amassed a huge library of books about botany and medicine and mushrooms. It’s the basis of the Lloyd Library, still thriving in a nondescript building you may have passed downtown at Plum and Court streets. 

Some people think the journey in “Etidorhpa” was inspired by a psychedelic mushroom trip, and one chapter describes giant fungi. On the other hand, there are several chapters about the dangers of drink and narcotics. And, though there is one fantastical, hallucinatory section, no one would do ’shrooms if the result were as boring as “Etidorhpa.”

The main repeated action is the faceless guy showing I-Am-The-Man something crazy, I-Am-The-Man objecting, then the faceless guy explaining why it’s perfectly consistent with science: Why you’re weightless at the center of the Earth, and how salt can be extracted from brine without evaporation. How you can see your own brain but you can’t kiss your own elbow. With diagrams. I have no idea if any of them make sense, but I’m pretty sure volcanic eruptions aren’t caused by water, and that the Earth isn’t hollow. 

That Hollow Earth thing has a local history. John Cleves Symmes Jr. of Newport (a nephew of the area’s original settler, John Cleves Symmes) devoted his life to telling people about his theory of a hollow Earth with several interior spheres. He was always considered a crackpot, but apparently Lloyd was one of his believers. 

After trudging timelessly (though they’re weightless, so not so trudging), I-Am-The-Man is let in on Lloyd’s ultimate aim. “A study of true science is a study of God,” says the eyeless guide. By “cold, scientific investigation . . . we can commune with angels.” Then I-Am-The-Man gets a glimpse of what life could be like with a blissful glimpse of Etidorhpa, a radiantly beautiful woman whose name is Aphrodite spelled backwards. 

I’ve read – skimmed – the book a couple of times. What I find interesting and possibly visionary is how Lloyd challenges his challengers, not by saying they have to have faith, but that they haven’t done the science right. They’re working with insufficient data or they’re thinking too narrowly. “Matter is not food, but a carrier of food,” he says. “What is food? Food is sunlight.” That’s true! Good way to look at it. 

You can discern the man who thought there were better ways to treat disease than using leeches, and tried thousands of plant-derived compounds looking for them. Perched at the turn of the century, he’s trying to negotiate science and religion, trying to understand whether science is going to be a benefit or a curse in the future.

That impulse to explain it all with an alternative to the received wisdom is not unique to the 19th century. Obviously. It’s now stronger than ever. I wouldn’t be surprised to find an account on X promoting the Hollow Earth theory and claiming we don’t know about it because of antifa, or Taylor Swift. I admire Lloyd’s skepticism and his energy in trying to show us the light, but I’m kind of glad he didn’t have access to the internet.

Polly Campbell covered restaurants and food for the Cincinnati Enquirer from 1996 until 2020. She lives in Pleasant Ridge with her husband, and since retiring does a lot of reading, cooking and gardening, if that’s what you call pulling weeds. She writes monthly on a variety of topics, and she welcomes your feedback and column suggestions at editor@moversmakers.org.

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