Variously published as ‘The Coming Race’, ‘Vril’ and ‘Vril, the Power of the Coming Race’, this short 1871 novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton rode in on the coattails of Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth with a very similar premise; that of an exploration deep beneath the earth’s surface where mysterious wonders are found. It relies much less on science than Verne’s better known novel and more on anthropology and politics.
It’s the story of a wealthy young man who visits a mining operation in an undisclosed part of the United States. He and an engineer take a trip down into the deep parts of the mine and, after his guide is killed by a falling rock and a nasty encounter with a giant reptile, our narrator finds himself in the company of angel-like beings with vast powers. These are the ‘Vril-ya’ so called because of their mastery of ‘Vril’; an electromagnetic force that gives life, powers machines, controls minds and also has the ability to utterly destroy fellow beings. With such power at the fingertips of each and every member of their society, the Vril-ya have learned to live in a state of total peace. It was either that or blast themselves into oblivion. Rather than a tale of high adventure, The Coming Race is almost wholly taken up by a lengthy analysis of this underground society as if it were the real deal. Gender roles are reversed with the females more or less running the show. And the Vril-ya see democracy as a primitive experiment entirely eclipsed by totalitarianism; the only form of government through which order and unity can be achieved.
All this talk of anti democratic super-races may sound suspiciously familiar and any Google search of Vril or The Coming Race will turn up a plethora of astonishing sites referring to secret Nazi societies and paranormal hokum so muddled that it can be hard to figure out where the facts end and the fiction begins. The popular rumor is that in pre-war Berlin there existed a secret society who believed Bulwer-Lytton’s novel to have more than a ring of truth about it and indeed spent much of their time searching for the mysterious Vril, convinced that it really existed and could help them conquer the world and realize their idea of a master race. Or something. Nobody’s really too sure. This idea seems to have originated in an article by the German writer Willy Ley who fled to the USA in 1937, disgusted by the rise of Nazism in his homeland. He claimed that the superstitious and paranormal-obsessed minds of his countrymen were fertile ground for many lunatic theories (not least those of the Nazis). Further credence was given to this rumor by a book published in 1960 by Jacques Bergier and Louis Pauwels who claimed that the Vril Society was an inner circle of the elsewhere attested ‘Thule Society’ (Thule being a Greek mythological land in the extreme north and the alleged home of the ‘Aryan’ race). Alas for fans of conspiracy theories and occult societies, there is little other evidence to support these claims and, while the Nazis were indeed interested in mysticism, the activities and mere existence of the ‘Vril Society’ may have been exaggerated.
Another interesting note is that The Coming Race made the term ‘Vril’ a byword for any kind of special elixir in the nineteenth century, not least of which was the beef extract ‘Bovril’ which literally means ‘bovine vril’.