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Lyle Zapato

Book Review: Drome

Lyle Zapato | 2009-09-19.0440 LMT | Cephalopods | Cascadia | Hollow Earth | Lost Worlds | Entertainment | Retro
Cover: 'Drome' by John Martin Leahy
But why had they set out on a journey so strange and so hazardous -- through the land of the tree-octopi and the snake-cats, through that horrible, unearthly fungoid forest, and up and up, up into the caves of utter blackness, across that frightful chasm, up to the Tamahnowis Rocks, into the blaze of the sunshine, out onto the snow and ice on Mount Rainier?

Drome, written and illustrated by John Martin Leahy, is a pulp story about a strange underground world, home to a lost civilization that may be the progenitors of ancient Greek culture. It was originally serialized in the Jan.-May, 1927 issues of Weird Tales, and republished as a book in 1952. I'm reviewing the book, which I believe has some differences from the pulp original (a preface, footnotes, and some casual references in the main text to atom-bombs and television that don't seem particularly 1920s-ish.)

The story has two elements of interest to me: 1) it starts in Cascadia (the entrance to the underworld is on Mt. Rainier) with references to regional history and culture and 2) it mentions Cascadian tree octopuses, albeit of an unusual and deadly subterranean variety. So naturally I had to acquire an original copy for the ZPi library and review it.

Like many pulp sci-fi/horror stories, Leahy uses the device of the text being a first-hand account left to the reader as a record/warning of the narrator's discoveries. Leahy goes one iteration further by having another similar first-hand account nested within the main one at the beginning -- and even further still if you count the preface written by a character from one of Leahy's other novels (Darwin Frontenac from Zandara) explaining how he came to posses the manuscript. Perhaps it was Leahy's intent to evoke the worlds-within-worlds concept central to the Hollow Earth genre to which the story belongs.

The narrator is William Barrington Carter, who, on a dark and stormy forenoon, is in the library of the Seattle home of Milton Rhodes -- scientist, mountaineer, and close colleague of Carter's (he repeatedly refers to Carter as "old tillicum", Chinook jargon for "friend" -- he also incessantly, gratingly makes a point to say "Bill" whenever addressing Carter so we, the readers, don't get lost in their dialogue). Their planned trip to Mt. Rainier (or "Old He" as, Rhodes informs us, the old-timers call it) has been called off due to the deluge of rain. While they sit around with nothing to do, Rhodes gets a phone call from a man who is bringing over a "terrible, horrible, scientific mystery".

The man is named James Scranton. When he arrives, he confirms Carter's suspicions that he is related to the old Scranton family, about which Carter had heard as a child vague rumors involving Mt. Rainier. Indeed, it was his grandfather, Charles Scranton, who had made the rumored trip up the mountain in 1858. Scranton proceeds to tell a tale of his grandfather's encounter on Rainier with an "angel" and a "demon", reading from an old journal written by Scranton the Elder that has been kept secret in the Scranton family all those years.

In the tale, Charles, along with a team of three other explorers and an Indian guide, reach an area now known as Paradise Park. One of them sees something in the mist: an angelic white woman and a dark, shapeless thing with glowing green eyes. The Indian is attacked and nearly killed by the thing, which he calls a klale tamahnowis -- a demon. In the morning they decide to follow the trail of the angel and her demonic companion, which eventually leads them to a rock outcrop (since ominously named "Tamahnowis Rock") in Cowlitz Glacier. They hear a voice saying "Drome!" before being again attacked. The demon is shot, but not before it rips the necks of all except Charles.

Weird Tales, Jan. 1927
Cover of Weird Tales, Jan. 1927, showing Droman demon attacking a surface girl. (Click for gallery of pulp covers, including larger version of above.)

Rhodes finds the tale puzzling since there has never been similar attacks or sightings on Rainier reported, even though tourists often visit. Scranton then shows his hosts a news clipping from the Herald about a girl who died last week at Tamahnowis Rock. Official reports make it out to be an accidental fall, but the lacerations to her neck were like those caused by the demon's talons in Scranton's tale. And the girl's last words? "Drome! Drome!" Could the angel have returned?

Convinced that important discoveries await on Rainier, Carter and Rhodes set off in the morning, telling no one where they are going, save Scranton, to whom they promised secrecy. They sneak revolvers into the park -- against park regulations! -- and make their way up the mountain to the site of the girl's death.

Rhodes finds an entrance into the rock and stumbles upon the angel, who screams and runs off down a passageway. Carter catches up and Rhodes describes the angel to him:

"What was she like, Milton?"

"I wish that I could tell you! But how can a man describe Venus? I know one thing, Bill: if all the daughters of Drome are as fair as this one that I saw, I know where all the movie queens of the future are coming from."

I looked at him, and I laughed.

"Wait till you see her, Bill. Complexion like alabaster, white as Rainier's purest snow! And hair! Oh, that hair, Bill! Like ten billion dollars' worth of spun gold!"


With the enticing prospect of, as Rhodes puts it, "cavernicolous Aphrodites" lying in wait below, they follow after the angel, going farther and farther down into the dark, along the way finding strange writing on a wall and a quasi-human skeleton with bat-like wings, which they surmise to be the remains of the demon that attacked Scranton's grandfather and which they declare a "bat-ape" or an "ape-bat", whichever you prefer.

After camping for the night, they follow the sound of falling water to an enormous cavern and again encounter the angel, only this time she has one of those ape-bat demons with her. Despite her holding it back with a chain, the demon attacks. Rhodes dodges and shoots the demon, but the angel, who turns out to be all too human, is caught in the chain and nearly pulled into a chasm. They manage to save her, which is good since, when four others of her kind rush to the scene, the angel tells the four in her language that Carter and Rhodes saved her life and they are treated thereafter as friends.

Through hand gestures, drawings, and what odd words they can single out from her language, they learn the angel is named Drorathusa (and later that the other four are her father, sister, half-sister, and brother -- who all have long, preposterous names, but are otherwise unimportant) and she comes from a place called Drome, to which she now intends to lead Carter and Rhodes. She is some sort of priestess, and a brave leader -- which Carter and Rhodes find delightfully whimsical, what with her being a mere woman. Those crazy underworld people and their queer ways!

They also learn why the Dromans, as Rhodes christens them, are traveling with a demon, or loopmuke. These creatures have a preternatural sense of direction, which is why Dromans domesticated them for use in finding their way around the uncharted passages outside of Drome. But loopmuke are unpredictable around strangers (hence the attacks) and the wild ones are feared even by Dromans. Now that Drorathusa's loopmuke is dead, getting back to Drome proves difficult, since they have to negotiate a labyrinth of tunnels spotted with remnants of other subterranean civilizations unfamiliar to the Dromans.

As they reach closer to Drome, they start encountering glowing clouds -- first as distinct blobs that Carter mistakes for ghosts, then later as an ever-present, swirly mist. It's this phosphorescent mist, which the Dromans call zur, that provides the light in this underworld. Rhodes theorizes that it's the result of some "electric manifestation analogous to the aurora", but admits that he really doesn't know what causes it, or its odd behavior of going dark at times, which Rhodes dubs an eclipse.

They also begin seeing signs of life -- fungoid growths that increase in size the farther they go, blind cave-fish, beetles, and giant centipedes. At first the fauna seems harmless, but they are soon attacked by the dreaded gogrugron (which they never actually see through all the towering fungus, but Rhodes manages to defeat it with a single revolver shot nonetheless, impressing the Dromans.)

When they finally reach the end of the fungoid-encrusted tunnel, it opens up on a vista of a mile-wide cavern. This is Drome! The enclosed region is filled with the glowing mists, which obscure the length of the cavern at least four miles in the distance with their glowiness. The cavern floor, hundreds of feet below them, is covered by a luxuriant forest, composed of cycadaceous trees and something like Douglas firs.

They descend and set off through the primeval forest, where they encounter more dangerous wildlife -- an attack by two "snake-cats" during an eclipse of the zur. They escape with only a thigh-revealing rip to Drorathusa's dress. Later, while camping for the night, they hear a scream, but wait until morning to investigate. What they find is gruesome:

The spot into which we had stepped was, for a distance of perhaps one hundred and fifty feet, almost free from undergrowth. Tall trees, looking very much at a first glance like Douglas firs, rose up all around, but there were other growths; there were twisted trunks and branches that had a gnarled and savage aspect; the light was pearly, misty; all made a fitting setting truly for that which we saw there in the midst of it.

For, sixty feet of so distant, still, white and lifeless, naked save for a skin (spotted something like a leopard's) about the waist, the toes two of three feet from the ground, hung the body of a man.

That itself was shocking enough, but what we saw up above -- how I shudder, even at this late date, as that picture rises up before me! It was a nightmare-shape, of mottled green and brown, with splotches of something whitish, bluish.

There were splotches, too upon some of the leaves and upon the ground beneath. It was like blood, that whitish, bluish stuff, and, indeed, that is what it was. In the midst of that shape, were two great eyes, but they never moved, were fixed and glassy. One of the higher branches had been broken, though not clean through, and, wound around this branch, the end of which had fallen upon that on which the monster rested, were what I at first took to be enormous serpents. They were, in fact, tentacula. There was a third tentacle; it hung straight down. And it was from this, a coil around the neck and two around the left arm, that the body of the unfortunate man hung, white and lifeless, like a victim of the hangman's noose.

Droman tree-octopus

"A tree-octopus!" I cried.

"I suppose most people would call it that. It has but three tentacles, however, and so is a tripus. And that scream we heard last night -- well, we know now, Bill, what it was."

I shivered.

"No wonder," I said, "that we thought that the sound was unhuman! In the grip of that thing, the tentacle around his neck! So near, and we never stirred to his help!"

"Because we never dreamed. And, had we known, Bill, we could not have saved him. Life would have been extinct, crushed out of him, before ever we could have got here and cut him down."

"I thought of some dreadful things," I said, "but never of a monster like that."

"A queer place, this forest, a horrible place, Bill," Milton Rhodes said, glancing a little nervously about him. "But come."

Carter insists that they take the time to bury the victim, which they do, ice-pick-severed tentacles still clinging to him. They continue on, get attacked by another creature, this one not even named much less seen, then find the boat belonging to the tree-octopus victim, which they use to travel down a stream. After yet another attack, this time by a wild loopmuke, and some days in another labyrinth, they at last encounter signs of Droman civilization.

Seeing one of their temples causes Rhodes to conjecture that some Droman architect must have found his way to the surface near ancient Greece and taught them his Droman secrets. At first Carter fears what horrible pantheon they worship in such a splendid place, but later they learn that Dromans are true monotheists, albeit with "some very absurd things in their religion, things dark and even things very terrible."

The inhabitants of the first village they visit are less than enthralled by Carter and Rhodes. When they reach the city of Lellolando, Rhodes is attacked in the streets by a man with a dagger, who later, with a band of like-minded hooligans, again attacks them while on the stream, only to be scared off when Rhodes fires his revolver at the man's boat.

It turns out that there's an ancient prophesy that two men from another world will one day come and the zur will stop glowing forever. Being the two surfacemen of the Droman Apocalypse doesn't make Carter and Rhodes popular. Coincidentally, when they reach the Golden City, capital of the Droman nation, the mist eclipses, plunging the region into darkness, and panic ensues. The eclipse ends, but now people are really worried about these two strangers. Nevertheless, Drorathusa is determined to bring them to meet the Droman Queen, Lathendra Lepraylya.

Carter and Rhodes go before Lepraylya and an assembly of priests and priestesses, including the high priest, a raptor-like man named Brendaldoombro. Drorathusa recounts all that happened and answers Lepraylya's questions. When it is Brendaldoombro's turn to question, he attacks Drorathusa, accusing her of seeking that which is forbidden, and accuses Carter and Rhodes of being demons, "minions of the Evil One", who have taken human form. He demands the two be executed, and his followers move to seize them, but the Queen calls in her guards to stop the mob. Lepraylya points out that if they were really demons, then killing them would release their demonic forms to wreck havoc. Besides, Droman law says there must be a trial. She declares that until Carter and Rhodes can learn the Droman language and thus be able to defend themselves, no action shall be taken.

In the following months, Brendaldoombro uses his influence to exile Drorathusa, seeing her as a rival. He also tries, unsuccessfully, to assassinate her. However, Rhodes single-handedly breaks Brendaldoombro's power over the people by showing off his fancy surface math (Drome is untouched by such wizardry as trigonometry or Arabic numerals), which impresses not only Lepraylya and the learned men of Drome, but also the average Droman citizens, who are much more into science than rabble such as yourself, you abracahokum-believing, political-jiggumbob-following surface-dweller!

Uh, anyway... Brendaldoombro dies, conveniently, of natural causes, allowing Drorathusa to return, whereupon she is elected the new High Priestess. Carter and Rhodes are now in the clear! Rhodes celebrates by marrying the Queen, much to Drorathusa's stoically concealed disappointment (and, one is starting to get the impression, Carter's too).

Then one day, Rhodes tells Carter that he plans to return to Seattle to get much needed surface-supplies -- like a book of logarithms! Oh, what respect shall he command over the Dromans once he beguiles them with logarithms! -- then he shall return to Drome and stay out his days. His wife gave him permission to do this, so it's all cool.

Carter wants to go too, but is worried about the questions their sudden appearance after being gone so long would raise and of others following them back to Drome. Rhodes tut-tuts this, and declares his intent to blow up the entrance on Mt. Rainier when they return so that no surface politicians may follow. The last thing Drome needs is to be infested with politicians! Those blundering, asinine, hypocritical, lying, stupid, coat-turning, insane politicians! Take that politicians! (Hypothesis: Leahy didn't like politicians.)

Nevertheless, Rhodes also believes that a record of their discovery should be given to the Above World should one day they become worthy enough (i.e. sufficiently politician-free) for communication with Drome (perhaps by radio or the marvel of television!) Rhodes intends to write down those things which, in his opinion, will interest the scientific world; while Carter is more suited for the action-packed narrative that you, dear reader, hold in your very hands!

And thus ends Drome! But is it the end? Perhaps our heroes will, as Carter hints, seek further adventures in the fearful and unexplored underland beyond Drome known only as... Grawngrograr! Only they won't because Leahy never wrote a sequel. The end.

If my cliffsnotes didn't spoil everything for you and you still want to read Drome, there's a 2007 reprint published by Wildside Press, the current Weird Tales rights-holders (their online store only has the hardcover version available, but you can find the cheaper softcover on Amazon.com, etc.). I don't know if that's the 1952 book version or the 1927 W.T. version (or really how much of a difference there is between the two). Also, the 1952 book has a dust-jacket illustrated by the author (with the tree-octopus image on the jacket spine!), while the reprint has a generic, ugly cover the publisher apparently uses for all their reprints.

Afterthought Update: If you want a taste of Leahy's writing, a short story of his is available online: "In Amundsen's Tent". It involves Antarctica, a tent, a discovered journal, and a human head. It also mentions Darwin Frontenac, the author of Drome's preface who apparently appears in other stories by Leahy.

The introduction about Leahy on the above site says that "the flyleaf of the [1952 Drome] book reportedly mentioned a sequel which never appeared." I have a copy of the book and can find nothing like that, but in the story near the end, Carter talks about wanting to go on further adventures. Perhaps this is where that "report" originated from.

Some other trivia about the book that might be of interest: there are four illustrations by Leahy inside, not counting the one on the dust jacket. They are, in order: a two page image of Rhodes et al. trekking through glowing mist, with fungoid growths and a centipede; the tree-octopus, shown above; Lathendra Lepraylya on her throne; and another two page image of Rhodes et al. in a boat in the distance with what I assume are the two "snake-cats" (they look more like dragons) in the foreground. The latter illustration is repeated twice on the insides of the cover, completely filling up both endsheets.

Also there's an amusing palimpsest on the dust jacket. The text on the inside front flap was misprinted -- some of the lines were out of order. This was fixed by printing a giant block of silver ink on top of the whole thing and reprinting the proper text above that, but you can still just make out the misprinted text below.

End of post.