Lost Civilizations and Found Adventures:
Finding the Beauty and Terror of Atlantis
The Mystery Under the Sea, by Kenneth Robeson (Lester Dent. 1936). PB reprint, 1962.
The Red Terrors, by Kenneth Robeson (Lester Dent. 1938). PB reprint, 1976.
The Man From Atlantis, by Kenneth Robeson (Ron Goulart. 1974). PB
We are seeking Atlantis today. I didn’t anticipate writing a review about Atlantis, but it developed out of an amazing used bookstore discovery. I stumbled across a massive hardback tome on a dollar shelf. Atlantis: Mother of Empires, written by Robert B. Stacy-Judd in 1939 (the one I discovered is a 1967 DeVorss reprint), is coffee table-sized, as heavy as a truck, and one of those books that makes a bibliophile’s mouth water. It is an absolutely gorgeous edition, with beautiful illustrations and pictures, margin annotations, and a quite unique “Maya-styled” fontography to it that I presume was developed by the author as many of his beautiful paintings are featured as well. The book is chock full of interesting data, followed by wild speculations about religions and the tribes of Israel, and the ancient Aztec and Maya all being offshoots of Atlantis. This Mother of Empires book, while maybe somewhat funny today in a dated not quite Von Daniken-esque wild speculation sort of way, will get me directly to the adventure reviews below, but let me explain a bit more.
Atlantis is the quintessential lost civilization. Ever since Plato first mentioned it in his dialogues, the myth of Atlantis has tantalized and inspired mankind. It has become the very symbol of lost cities and civilizations. For instance, some years ago the lost city of Ubar (the fabled city featured in both the Qur’an and A Thousand and One Nights) was discovered using satellite imagery. T. E. Lawrence had famously called this city the “Atlantis of the Sands,” so naturally when the book on the discovery was written by Nicholas Clapp in 1998, it was called The Road to Ubar: Finding the Atlantis of the Sands. Though Plato placed it originally “beyond the Pillars of Hercules” and hence most people consider it to be somewhere in the middle Atlantic (hence why the Ocean has that name), it has become such a sensation that there are theories to place Atlantis everywhere, from Antarctica to the North Sea, from Santorini near Greece to the mountainous plateau of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. Everyone is searching for, and finding, Atlantis.
The most logical place and the one backed up best by the scientific evidence to date is indeed Santorini, a volcanic island in the Aegean Sea. Santorini, classically known as Thera, was once a much larger island and home to a thriving Minoan civilization with cities such as Akrotiri, which still exists a la Pompeii, buried on the island beneath massive volcanic ash fields. This theory was covered popularly by Charles Pellegrino in his 1991 bestselling book, Unearthing Atlantis. This was a fascinating read and he allowed the public to encounter the science behind volcanic explosions and what they could do to civilizations. The sound of the explosion alone could kill, much less the horrifying spread of the ash clouds, poisonous gases, and tsunamis generated by the blast. He did a good job relating the impact that the eruption of Thera had on ancient Egypt, Israel, and Babylonia. If interested, there are plenty of detailed archaeological reports on Santorini and Akrotiri, and many popular histories that explore this more historical side of the myth. One of my other favorites to mention is Gavin Menzies’ 2011 book on ancient Minoan civilization, The Lost Empire of Atlantis.
We, of course, are here to cover the adventurous side of the myth. That massive Mother of Empires volume reminded me of all those great Atlantis-based adventures I read as a kid. So I went hunting for my old books. Odan the Half-God, by Manning Norvil (a Kenneth Bulmer pseudonym), came to mind. Odan is a series that chronicles a civilization that existed on the floor of the Mediterranean Sea before it was flooded. Robert E. Howard’s Kull, the King of Atlantis, is one of the most famous of the pulp characters and locates Atlantis classically upon an isle in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean that is doomed to sink beneath the waves before recorded history. All told, from Lin Carter on down the line, there are hundreds of Atlantean-loving authors I could mention. But rather than all out fantasy, I was pondering modern takes on the concept. Andy McDermitt has an exciting Atlantis series. The ever-popular Clive Cussler has a Dirk Pitt novel titled Atlantis Found. His adventure covers everything from Antarctica to crystal skulls to Nazis with advanced genetics and nanotechnologies. But I was thinking more along the lines of the original pulp characters who inspired the likes of Dirk Pitt: The Man of Bronze and the Avenger.
The Man From Atlantis was one of the later Avenger books ghost-written by Ron Goulart. This book I reread first because I had not read it since childhood. I was sorely disappointed. Though I love the Avenger character, this was one of those lackluster adventures dominated by a helper, Cole Wilson, and dealing with espionage and shadowy government agencies during war time. The unnamed secret government program even sounds like a perfect precursor to the X-Files, explained as, “I work for a federal agency which looks into odd and unusual problems.” While this could have been handled well, it was not. The book just failed on all fronts. To spoil the ending, the mystery revolved around the finding of such ancient medallions that had clues to the location of a buried treasure from Atlantis. It turned out to be located in the Azore Islands. Naturally, the book winds up with a race to dig up the treasure. However, being a poor adventure writer, the ball is utterly dropped and there is literally no payoff to this book. There is no treasure. In the distant past someone has already stolen the treasure, so they unbury an empty chest. Everyone dies for nothing, including the major villain who runs off and falls into a volcanic crack in the earth. This book should have been so kind to do the same, because nothing is more frustrating than no payoff.
By contrast, Lester Dent, the author of almost all of the Doc Savage novels, knows how to tell a story. In The Red Terrors he builds edge-of-your-seat tension, boils an adventure to a fever pitch, and grows a great mystery with a very detailed, substantial payoff. He fully delivers the goods, with everything from temples full of treasures, to high technology, to ancient civilizations and lost cultures. He even connects this adventure (though it is stand alone) to one of his previous books, The Mystery Under the Sea, explaining that we are seeing two different branches of one related ancient culture. There is a reason why Doc Savage is one of the most famous adventure heroes of all time. This book proves why and highlights Lester Dent’s amazing ability to take a very well-worn trope like the myth of Atlantis and make it highly original and extremely entertaining. You can see why authors have copied his ideas and style for decades. I could reread this book a dozen more times and still be thrilled.
I want to bring attention one last time back to the book which started me on this week’s particular quest, Atlantis: Mother of Empires. This was such a beautifully designed book! I cannot overstate how pleasing it is to hold an extremely well-thought out volume in your hands. The book held next to these cheap adventure paperbacks makes me ache with a desire for great classical printing. Why did this go out of fashion? It is a tragedy.
Wait, maybe the art of such printing did not completely die. I am holding in my hand a new book titled S., by J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst (The Ship of Theseus, by V. M. Straka). Here may be hope yet. More on this to come.