American scientist Professor Silas Orcutt of the Smithsonian Institution and his Australian colleague Dr. Gregory Wise have mounted an expedition deep into what the book refers to as "the Central Australian Desert." For what, we don't know. We're told that Orcutt and Wise have been planning the trip for months in advance and have hired a local man, Nugget Smith, to act as their guide and to go ahead of them a few weeks prior to the group setting out to plant caches of food and supplies every few miles or so, but I can't remember exactly what it is Orcutt is doing out here. It's even described as "informal" and "semiscientific," as if Orcutt thinks he's off on some jaunt into one of the most dangerous places on Earth.
It won't matter anyway considering the manner in which the expedition is rudely interrupted and sidetracked. But that doesn't come until a little later.
Besides Professor Orcutt, Dr. Wise and Nugget, there are also two grad students from the University of Adelaide's Scientific Research Laboratories, Bill Carey and Tod Gray. Carey is English (that's him on the cover using a rifle the wrong way) and (I think) Gray is Australian. He and Carey often greet one another by going "Hi, Pommy" and "Hi, Aussie," respectively, hence my suspicions that Gray is meant to be Australian. Aside from his introduction scene, he's never referred to by his actual name; he has rather big ears and so he has earned the nickname "Jugs." Regarding the fifth member of the team, the aforementioned Nugget Smith, he has the unfortunate habit of exclaiming "Mamma, mamma!" about every other sentence, something many reviewers of this book have latched onto. In fact, "Mamma, mamma!" is his very first line. I don't know if this was a particular phrase used by rural Australians at the time, but I kept misreading it as "Mama mia!" half the time, as if Nugget were an Italian stereotype instead of an Australian one.
Anyway, the five of them are crammed into "a big utility vehicle" (What? it isn't a "ute?" I thought author Bernard Cronin - writing here as "Eric North" - was an Australian!) driving through the desert. They drive through a cave entrance with no earthly idea of where they're going (for such a meticulously planned expedition, they sure have no set goal or path in mind). Suddenly, there's a steep incline and the truck roars downhill inside the cave and... then, well, Cronin is a little vague about what happens, but things get swirly and it appears as though the truck drives straight through some kind of shifting rift in the rocks (rather like the one in the live-action Super Mario Bros. movie), which shuts after them. They promptly crash, wrecking the truck beyond repair, and decide to just... sort of continue the expedition. No real though of going back. Onward! Professors Challenger and von Hardwigg (or Lidenbrock, depending) would be proud of Orcutt.
Exiting the cave, the five idiots find the skeleton of a crocodile completely stripped clean of flesh, smelling strongly of formic acid. Ahead they see a jungle and several lines of what they at first take to be emus as well as "mast things." In short order, they learn that it isn't a line of emus but a line of humanoid ant creatures which they decide to call Ant Men, who dwell underground in another cave near the jungle. Despite being capable of spitting formic acid, the Ant Men are not evil; just not especially trusting of outsiders, and so they pretty much avoid the human interlopers initially. The jungle itself is home to various lost world type horrors including carnivorous toad-fungus things, but the main threat are the "mast things," which it turns out are giant praying mantises, and which the explorers infuriatingly keep referring to by the name "Big Sticks," which I'm sure Cronin thought was very clever.
The group gets separated during a battle between the Ant Men's soldiers and some of the mantises. Carey and Gray (I refuse to call him Jugs) witness the mantises eat a huge rock python and hypothesize that the Ant Men killed the crocodile whose skeleton they found earlier, but were interrupted in their meal by the mantises and driven away. The Ant Men the explorers encountered were a war party sent out to fight the "Big Sticks." Anyway, after an encounter with one of the toad-fungus creatures, Pommy and Aussie find a note from Dr. Wise explaining that Professor Orcutt got kidnapped by the Ant Men and taken into their underground realm. Reuniting with Wise and Nugget, the four men head off to try and rescue him, only to discover he doesn't necessarily need rescuing at all, for the Ant Men are treating him quite fairly.
The humanoid ants' society is very caste oriented and the Ant Men are all telepathic. The soldiers, who are black, only have a single antenna, while the civilians are green and have two antennae. The men meet and befriend one such Ant Man who they nickname "Bracelet" on account of the fact he wears a bracelet. Then there's the priest caste of the ants, who are red, and worship a giant prehistoric frog monster called the Frog God. They aren't very nice, and a civil war is brewing in which the black and green ants would very much like to throw off the yoke of the red priests so they don't have to fear the Frog God anymore. In the meantime, the human explorers agree to help Bracelet and his friends in their battle against the giant mantises, and much adventure is had.
My copy of the book (by Dover) is somewhat misleading on the back cover. It says "one of the fossil hunters" (is that what they were doing?) is captured by the Ant Men, and "Professor Orcutt must lead a dangerous rescue mission." Uh, Mr. Dover Copy Writer? How can Orcutt lead a mission to rescue himself? Said copy writer also discusses how the book "builds on a basis of scientific fact to create an authentic background for its pulp-fiction thrills." Well, sure, if you mean the preface to the book where Cronin basically says "fuck your scientific accuracy, but here's some dated-even-by-1955 pseudoscientific gobbledygook about living fossils, because if Coelacanths exist, so too must telepathic humanoid ants, giant mantises, fungus monsters and huge frogs worshiped as gods," even though it's intimated that the explorers pass through some kind of dimensional rift to enter the realm of the Ant Men, meaning Cronin's rambling at the beginning has nothing to do with anything; living fossils and creatures from alternate dimensions are apples and oranges, Bernie.
Not that the front cover is any better, depicting red ants fighting the mantises, even though Cronin is clear that the reds are the priest class, with blacks as the soldiers, and I can't recall a scene where a mantis attacks red Ant Men while being bonked repeatedly with a rifle by Bill Carey. Oh well.