The Lost World
In The Lost World (originally published in 1912), we first encounter another of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s durable creations, the irrascible and pompous (but admittedly brilliant, even if the admission is made by himself) Professor George Edward Challenger. Like Conan Doyle’s Brigadier Gerard, there can be no doubt that Challenger is a minor character in the author’s oeuvre, but he is a figure which as repeatedly drawn the attention of both cinema and television, with numerous adaptations of varying quality undertaken over the years.
The Lost World opens on the reporter Edward Malone, who is sent by his editor, McArdle, to interview Challenger, the latter character being known to be rather bombastic and abusive towards journalists. The journalist finds the Professor much as promised, and a row quickly ensues. After a bout of fisticuffs, Challenger admits some admiration for how Malone has conducted himself and invites him along to a lecture that evening at which Challenger delivers a bombshell: he announces that some prehistoric beasts have survived to the modern day in a previously unexplored land deep within the Amazon basin.
Obviously greeted with scepticism, Challenger elects to undertake an expedition to South America himself, taking only a few trusted colleagues and a dubious companion with him: Malone the newspaperman, Lord John Roxton, the big game hunter who is familiar with the Amazon, and Professor Summerlee, who holds grave doubts about Challenger, set out on an expedition.
What follows is a solid adventure tale, at times a bit slow, but overall told with a gusto and verve that made Conan Doyle’s tales of the cold logic of Sherlock Holmes just as exciting. On reaching the isolated plateau on which the creatures are said to live, and finding clues that a previous expedition has reached this point, Challenger and company encounter not only several dinosaurs, including iguanodon and allosaurus, but a variety of other extinct mammals and reptiles, including glyptodon (a sort of giant Pleistocene armadillo, about the size of a modern Volkswagen beetle) and pterodactyls. Roxton discovers an unusual blue clay which he later reveals to contain diamonds. And the expedition fall into the midst of a war between an isolated group of modern humans and a race of “ape men” (whether this is meant to be something in the genus homo or an older lineage remains unclear).
For 1912, this is rather advanced and visionary writing, but naturally pays a price in terms of the accuracy of the science as we would view it now, one hundred years later. Wondering how such large creatures could maintain sustainable populations for sixty-five millions years may make your head spin. Equally, given humanity’s track record, it’s also hard to see how, having introduced modern humans, everything else on the plateau wasn’t hunted to extinction by the time of The Lost World (as, indeed, the glyptodon likely finally were). If you aren’t bothered by such considerations, though, or can find a way around them in your reality, then forge ahead unafraid, by all means. This was a good year for such stories, as it was also the year that both of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s most popular characters appeared, John Carter in A Princess of Mars, and, of course, Tarzan (and Burroughs would write variations of the Lost World-esque story himself several times in his career).
The tale concludes with the party’s escape from the plateau and return to England, where their announcement and documentary evidence are met with supreme skepticism. However, thanks to Roxton’s diamonds, the party are able to profit from the journey, and establish themselves comfortably, although Roxton has decided to return to the Amazon.
The Poison Belt and Other Stories
In 1913’s The Poison Belt, we see the return of Professor George Edward Challenger, symbolically named for kings of England, and find him at the centre of a new tale. The story may seem familiar to us now, but at the in which the world is due to pass through a belt of cometary debris (or, indeed, “interplanetary ether”, as the science of the time had it), which appears to have the effect of killing all human life on the planet stone dead. As the inhabitants of the world die, Challenger and his three companions from The Lost World, the journalist Malone, Lord Roxton, and Professor Summerlee manage, together with Challenger’s wife, to narrowly stave off death by securing themselves in a sealed room fed with oxygen cylinders.
They observe the effects of the “poison belt”, including out-of-control fires and train disasters, they suspect only that they too will soon succumb, once their oxygen runs out. However, miraculously, they are spared, their cylinders having lasted long enough. The four adventurers embark upon an expedition to what now appears to be a dead London. Fleeing the ghostly city, they return to Challenger’s Surrey home, only to find that the effects of the belt are temporary, and that, aside from those who died in accidents resulting from the sudden sleep, the world’s population is basically unharmed.
The book is an odd precursor to so many works of disaster fiction, including a particularly dreadful one that I am reading at the moment. But even genuinely compelling and thoroughly admirable works like The Day of the Triffids, The Midwich Cuckoos are, not to mention every one of the pulp tales of the 1930s and ’40s, and for that matter all zombie books and films since, owe something of their origin to Conan Doyle’s simple device of the sudden and all-encompassing force which overtakes the world. The fact that Arthur Conan Doyle was evidently not so much a pessimist that he sought to permanently exterminate his fellow man, but rather allowed most of them to live with a godlike stroke of the pen, likely says more about us a century later than it does of him. The Poison Belt is an interesting effort, which could have done with a bit more mayhem, but will interest all those who enjoy the “apocalyptic” sub-genre of science fiction.
The remaining pair of stories in The Poison Belt and Other Stories (and here we skip over 1926’s The Land of Mist for the moment, as I have yet to find a copy) reflect Doyle in a slightly more playful vein, if still grimly humorous. In “When the World Screamed” (1928), Challenger has undertaken a deep excavation of the Earth in Sussex, and has summoned Mr Peerless Jones, an expert in the boring of artesian wells, to aid in the final step. The story which follows, and Challenger’s hypothesis that the rocky planets are really giant space-going sea urchins, sadly remains uncorroborated by science, but the way in which Challenger metes out his own sort of justice to the members of the Press is both amusing and disgusting at once.
In “The Disintegration Machine” (1929), the final Challenger story, the Professor is faced with an inventive villain who promises a weapon of terrible destructive force to the highest bidder among the nations of the world. Challenger’s solution is one in which he carries the law into his own hands, in a manner sometimes echoed in Doyle’s other famous creation, Sherlock Holmes.
When most people speak of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, they mean him essentially to be synonymous with the character that is – justifiably – his most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes. But I would suggest that even in the same breath, it is important not to forget another invention from Conan Doyle’s fertile mind: the late, great Professor George Edward Challenger. Four stars, heartily recommended.
The Lost World was originally reviewed 3 February 2014. The Poison Belt and Other Stories was originally reviewed 29 February 2014.
Find your copy of The Lost World at AbeBooks.com.
Find your copy of The Poison Belt and Other Stories at AbeBooks.com.