Book review of Underworlds by Stephen Ellcock


What comes to mind upon hearing the phrase “beneath the surface”? Stephen Ellcock’s Underworlds: A Compelling Journey Through Subterranean Realms, Real and Imagined (Thames & Hudson, $35, 9780500026311) rouses our minds from “a world of surfaces, of gloss and illusion and first impressions, a global empire of signs, sensory saturation and instant gratification” to remember the dark, labyrinthine world of the subterranean that has, since time immemorial, served as a wellspring of awe and fear for humankind. Known for curating online art galleries on social media, Ellcock presents an eclectic yet coherent collection of images ranging from dizzying ossuaries, to nightmarish animals of the deep sea, to the soothing colors of agates, to the sophisticated structures of mycorrhizal fungi.

Underworlds is split into five sections encompassing both the real and the imaginary. Ellcock pulls off an impressive feat in gathering material from sources as diverse and multifaceted as an underground ecosystem: In his quest to inspire, he moves not only between continents and time periods, but also disciplines such as philosophy, biology, art history and literature. Surreal, intricate artworks and photographs are accompanied by an even pacing of Ellcock’s own prose and factual explanations, as well as excerpts from others’ musings. The result is a dreamlike atmosphere and a trove of information that will leave readers with a newfound connection to the realms below us, which we have too often mindlessly ransacked for profit. As Ellcock writes, if we “heed the echoes of eternity calling from the lower depths,” we might just “claw our way back out of darkness.”

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