You've all heard the phrase "It was a dark and stormy night." It's a cliched opening that's been referenced by everything from A Wrinkle in Time to Peanuts, and there's even an annual contest to write the worst first line imaginable in its honour. If you don't think it's that bad, that's because you haven't seen the rest of it. Imagine cracking open a book that starts like this:
"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents - except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."
That book is 1830's Paul Clifford, and it was written by Baron Edward Bulwer-Lytton. The man with the most 19th century British name imaginable was both a politician and a prolific writer, with his novels being the airport thrillers of his day. They sold so well that one, Pelham, is credited with driving blue coats out of style in favour of the black that the hero's told look better on him. He also coined phrases that are still used unironically, like "the almighty dollar" and "the pen is mightier than the sword." But, more importantly for now, his life and its consequences were weird as hell.
Let's talk about his marriage first, because it'll make any relationship problems you're struggling with seem quaint. After the father of his first love forced her to marry another man, a 24-year-old Bulwer-Lytton married Rosina Doyle Wheeler in 1827. This time disapproval came from his mother, and as punishment she withdrew his access to the family fortune. But that he went ahead anyway shows how serious he was, right? Young love must have prevailed?
They separated in 1833. The time commitment of his combined literary and political work strained their marriage, and his cheating broke it. The divorce was... not amicable. In 1839 Rosina began her own long-running literary career with Cheveley: or, The Man of Honour, and were it released today it could have been called Why My Ex Sucks Shit: A Novel. It was written in a pitch perfect parody of Edward's style, it was borderline libelous in its portrayal of Edward's stand-in as a pompous nitwit, and it was successful enough that it was repeatedly reprinted while spawning its own parody.
Now you know what they say about revenge: it's best served repeatedly and with increasing fervor over several decades. When Edward ran for re-election to Parliament in 1858, Rosina became one of his fiercest critics. After a very public and passionate denouncement that included suggesting he should be shipped off to Australia as a common criminal, Edward pressured her publisher to kill her career. When that didn't work the two used go-betweens to talk a cold, hard cash settlement, but negotiations stalled out. So Edward used his political connections to have Rosina committed to an insane asylum.
Locking up inconvenient family members -- primarily women -- was the 19th century equivalent of trashing them on Facebook. Unfortunately for Edward (but fortunately for society), two factors were working against him. First, a strange and well-reported abduction case a few years prior had lent considerable credence to the "Let's not incarcerate dames when they get uppity" movement, and trying to get away with it after that revelation would be like thinking that now's a great time to become a trigger-happy cop. And if you absolutely must try anyway, don't make your first victim a public figure. Rosina had her own connections, and a debate soon raged through British newspapers. If you think the current state of op-eds is bad, be glad the New York Times isn't arguing that Danielle Steel's weirdo ex-husband had every right to lock her away.
Rosina was freed after a few weeks of public outcry, and she and Edward finally reached a financial agreement. But she still ragged on him, at one point accusing him of sleeping with Benjamin Disraeli. In 1880, seven years after his death and three years before hers, she released a memoir called A Blighted Life that discussed the asylum incident while getting one last angry fusillade in. But with the worst of their exchange over, Edward could get back to his writing, so now let's talk about the book that led to insane Nazi conspiracy theories.
In 1871, Bulwer-Lytton published The Coming Race, a novel about a man's journey to the centre of the hollow Earth. There he encounters a civilization of angelic beings called Vril-ya who can channel an "all-permeating fluid" named Vril. It's basically the Force and can, among other neat tricks, heal grievous wounds and cause immense destruction. The book ends with the narrator returning to the surface to warn humanity that the Vril-ya may one day conquer them. It's pretty standard sci-fi fare.
But Bulwer-Lytton, who had an interest in the occult, also tossed in a bunch of references to the many mystical pseudosciences of his day. There's no evidence that he believed any of it; he was interested in the esoteric realm in the same way that you might be interested in the pantheon of Ancient Greece. But the book was so popular that "Vril" became a synonym for power that worked its way into product names, and now-fringe occult beliefs were so popular that a few wishful thinkers decided Bulwer-Lytton was using a fictional framework to reveal a real concept.
Now let's jump to 1947, when German-American science writer Willy Ley wrote an article on pseudoscience in Nazi Germany. He argued that years of anti-intellectualism from the Nazis made some Germans prone to believing claims that miraculous technology was perpetually right around the corner because, if you purge most of your physicists, fewer people will understand the basics of physics. As an example of how desperate some people were getting, Ley mentions a "Society for Truth" that was dedicated to unlocking the secrets of Vril.
Aside from Ley's claim, there's no evidence that this Society ever existed. But boy, did that not stop elaborate conspiracy theories from spreading, especially after a 1960 book quadrupled down on the Vril Society's existence. Here's an article that will teach you about Maria Orsic, the supposed Nazi psychic who guided the Vril Society by using her lengthy hair to establish telepathic communication with aliens who once lived in the Earth. They helpfully taught the Nazis how to make flying saucers and, while the psychic alien blueprints didn't arrive in time to turn the tides of war, they did allow Orsic and her followers to flee to space before Berlin fell. This YouTuber helpfully adds that Orsic secretly used Vril to contribute to most of Germany's innovations.
This is the kind of conspiracy theory that makes Flat Earthers roll their eyes, but fringe neo-Nazis who like having the esoteric in their racism dabble in it to this day. It's also permeated pop culture. The Nazi UFOs and moon bases of Wolfenstein and Iron Sky can be traced back to Vril, Vril pops up in Call of Duty's light-hearted zombie side stories, and Hunters, if you're unfortunate enough to have watched it, has alluded to a supposed Nazi interest in Vril. Vril's also merged with other esoteric beliefs to give us the real freaky stuff, like the idea that a superhuman Hitler is chilling under Antarctica with Hyperborean gods. Don't worry, that theory is so outlandish that it could only spawn from the mind of a, uh, prominent Chilean diplomat.
So that's how a 19th century potboiler led to spacefaring Nazis lurking on the moon and beneath the Earth until the time for their return is right. Bulwer-Lytton did not, of course, live to see any of that, but he did live to be offered the Greek throne. When Greece gained independence in 1830, England, France, and Russia chose its first King. He was forced to abdicate in 1862, so the role was offered to Bulwer-Lytton, a Hellenophile who had administrative experience from guiding the development of British Columbia. Showing blatant disregard for the Internet comedy articles that would be written about him 150 years later, he declined.
Top Image: NASA/Wikimedia Commons