Monday, November 16, 2009

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Lost Continent

Atlantis figures prominently in pulp fantasies, usually as a long-lost kingdom of great might and magic whose rule inaugurated a Golden Age for humanity. Characters such as Robert E. Howard's Kull and Henry Kuttner's Elak both call Atlantis home, but their stories appeared three decades or more after Charles Cutcliffe Hyne wrote The Lost Continent. The novel was originally serialized from July to December 1899 in the British periodical Pearson's Magazine, where H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds had appeared two years previously. The serial was eventually collected under a single cover in 1900.

The Lost Continent presents itself as a historical document recently uncovered, a framing device common in 19th century fantasies. The supposed document is the work of a warrior-priest named Deucalion, who acted as governor for Atlantis over its colony in the Yucatan peninsula. According to the book, Atlantis at its height ruled over parts of Central America and Egypt, in addition to its islands in the ocean that now bears its name. Unlike many Atlantean aristocrats, Deucalion is honest, just, and loyal. He's a throwback to an earlier time before decadence and corruption were the order of the day.

Needless to say, Deucalion's uprightness makes him many enemies, chief among them being Phorenice, a usurper who's claimed the title of empress and governs without respect for either the ancient traditions of Atlantis or concern for anything other than her self-aggrandizement. Phorenice recalls Deucalion from his post as governor, tortures his betrothed, Naia, and generally makes this upstanding man's life hell, forcing him, against his better judgment, to go rogue. He joins forces with rebels seeking to bring down the empress and restore Atlantis to its previous glory. Unfortunately, Deucalion and the rebels soon realize that toppling Phorenice is no easy task and only truly drastic measures are likely to succeed.

Knowing the myth of Atlantis, we all know how the story ends, but getting to that end is an enjoyable ride. It's filled with memorable -- if often formulaic -- characters, massive battles, magic, daring rescues, near-deaths, and, of course, world-changing cataclysms. The Lost Continent is definitely a work of the Victorian age, with that that implies. It's a bit "stiff" in places, but, from my perspective, that only adds to the book's charm, as Hyne's vivid imagination strains against the cultural norms of his own day.

Furthermore, the book's style lends a bit more plausibility to its framing device. You can more readily believe that this is a translation of an ancient text written by someone from another age, because, for us in the 21st century, it is -- not from some prehistoric time, true, but the fact remains that The Lost Continent is a product of a somewhat alien culture and that works in its favor. The book also benefits from having been written in the aftermath of works like Ignatius Donnelly's Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, which present "scientific" theories about the lost continent and its history.

Hyne's novel is thus filled with lots of little details about Atlantean society and culture that make terrific fodder for gamers or anyone interested in Victorian crackpottery about the ancient world. And, as I said, it's a fun read in its own right and worth the time, if you can find a copy. Fortunately, the book was reprinted at least three times in the 1970s, so there ought to be a surfeit of paperback editions available cheaply through the secondhand market.


  1. I love how all of this stuff is so old, I can find it at Project Gutenberg and download it to my ereader for free.

  2. Definitely a classic, mammoth and all. I've always been surprised that Altantis isn't used more often as a FRPG setting.

  3. I love this column and must congratulate you on your full professionalism!

  4. Out of interest, are you familiar with the works of James Churchward and its apparent influence on late nineteenth and early twentieth century Atlantean fuelled myth? I am not particularly familiar myself, but only happened upon it a few years back when trying to figure out the plot and influences of the anime RahXephon. My recollection is somewhat vague on the subject, but apparently he popularised (or created) a particular form of the Atlantis myth.

  5. I have a copy of Ignatius Donnelly's Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, which I read in my twenties. I may have to dust it off. Based on this recommendation, I picked up a copy of The Lost Continent today on Amazon for less than $2.00 and then felt compelled to place Elak of Atlantis in my shopping basket at Piazo. Looks like I have reading theme developing.

    Jerry Cornelius said...
    I've always been surprised that Altantis isn't used more often as a FRPG setting.

    Me too. Hmmm... maybe there is a project here.

  6. I was really amazed by this book, especially how it seems to hit all the hallmarks of sword & sorcery decades before that genre is considered to have come into existence. Bloddy battles with prehistoric beasts (both dinosaurs and saber-toothed cats) decadent city-scapes contrasting with wild barbarians, strange cults and arcane mysteries, naked princesses in need of rescue, and of course a self-made hero striving at the center of it all. I really wonder if this book was influence on R.E. Howards works.

    Its been reprinted several times after the 1970's. My own cop is a 2005 edition, and a quick skim of amazon finds several others. Shouldn't be hard to find at all.

  7. Also, I think you over-stress the book's perceived Victorian prudery. Deucalion is a bit of a stodge, yes, but the two prominent women in the story are hardly fainting heroines in the style of Mina Harker; both of them leap into battle multiple times to wreak swathes of bloody slaughter that would give even Belit pause,

  8. I found the GURPS Atlantis book quite interesting.

  9. While we are on the subject of Atlantis, why not read the first hand account from Plato - Atlanteans were described as brutish seaborne invaders (not unlike Vikings) threatening Athens until miraculously, Atlantis was destroyed, thereby saving Athens and whole ancient world, not unlike the divine wind destroying the invading Chinese fleet and saving the Empire of the Rising Sun. Not quite swords and sorcery, but a viable D&D source material none the less!

    Word verification: CHBUKI, those are the young offspring of the warlike tribesmen dwelling on the ice floes on the northern shore of the Kaltersee mentioned Lone Wolf gamebook series. The little boogers ride on their fathers' shoulders in specially mounted harnesses while the dads are busy skiing, and they shoot nasty little short bows, arrows coated with paralytic poison to stun the prey into captivity and to take the intruders alive so that they can be questioned about how many intruders are there and where the invaders come from.

  10. I have a recent printing of Atlantis, the Antedeluvian world, but I've got an 1883 printing of Ragnarok: the age of fire and gravel, also by Donnelly and just as far reaching and interesting as the antedeluvian world.

    I don't know if it's available on one of the out of print sites, but I recommend it if you can find it.

  11. Matthew,

    I am familiar with Churchward's work. The man had quite the imagination and his musings on Mu had wide influence in both "occult" and literary circles in the early 20th century.

  12. Also, I think you over-stress the book's perceived Victorian prudery.

    When I used the word "stiff," I meant the prose, not the content of the book, as such. Pheronice is a real piece of work and definitely not a typical Victorian female.