‘OUR EYES HAVE
SEEN GREAT WONDERS’:
THE LOST WORLDS OF
ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE
The Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy
ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE
‘It is imperative that now, at once, while these
stupendous events are still clear in my mind,
should set them down with that
detail which time may blur…’
(“The Poison Belt”)
The original lure of Science Fiction was the fantastic journey, which grew out of the traveller’s tale. The voyage into uncharted here-there-be-dragons. Exotic lands. Bizarre fauna. Unknown civilisations. Homer could populate the Aegean with mythic phantasmagoria and retain the suggestion of credibility. Marco Polo and Hernán Cortéz could penetrate alienness as fully awesome as any fictional terra incognita. Gulliver could sail to fantasias when there were still islands to discover as unsuspected as the moons of Mars. But world globalisation meant the fantasy option had to be marginalised to greater and greater remoteness if it intended to carry some shred of plausibility, its realms shoved into, and secreted in crevices and niches of increasing inaccessibility – until aerial reconnaissance and geo-sats filled in even those gaps, and fantasists had to nudge their Dragon Isles out beyond the stratosphere, racing the reach of telescopes to other worlds, stars, galaxies. And further…
But therein lies the sub-genre ‘Lost World’. Between Lemuel Gulliver and Yuri Gagarin it was just conceivable that the world held secrets of fabulous mystery. H Rider Haggard found his lost worlds in Africa. Arthur Conan Doyle discovered his – what Arthur C Clarke calls ‘my candidate for the perfect specimen of its genre’, with an expedition to an inaccessible South American plateau. And his adventure stands, even though whatever vestige of what-if has gone with much of the Amazon basin rainforest.
‘The big blank spaces on the map are all filled in’ he has Mr McArdle – news editor of ‘The Daily Gazette’
, say at one point, ‘there’s no room for romance anymore.’ He’s wrong. By dispatching reporter Edward D Malone to interview Professor Challenger, he initiates the process of its disproof. ‘The Lost World’
was originally serialised in ‘The Strand’
magazine from April-November 1912, with spot-art by Harry Rountree. Then collected into book form by Hodder & Stoughton. Conan Doyle was fifty-three, and Science Fiction as a genre did not exist. Yet this amazing book contains all the traits that most identify the attractions of big-screen SF.
Malone joins Challenger’s expedition in its hazardous ascent leading to them becoming stranded in the strange domain, they discover living dinosaurs, and are taken prisoner by primitive ape-like Doda tribesmen. Here lies all the ‘Ripping Yarns’ urgency of wide-eyed breathless heroics welded to a near-sublime sense of wonder and limitless possibility. ‘Apparently the age of romance was not dead’ Doyle writes, ‘and there was common ground upon which the wildest imaginings of the novelist could meet the actual scientific investigations of the searcher for truth.’ Later, with the help of the expedition’s fire-arms a human tribe living on the plateau’s far side – the Accala, defeat the Doda, and the team are shown a tunnel-system that returns them to the world below.
In the novel’s Professor George Edward Challenger, Doyle creates the most gigantically memorable character of his long writing career – even if the monumental ubiquity of Sherlock Holmes DOES
dominate his literary and popular reputation in a way that eclipses all else. Remove Holmes from the equation and Doyle’s fame would still be secure. ‘The Lost World’
was an immediate bestseller that rapidly graduated onto celluloid – first into a 1925 silent film, and again in 1960 in colour by Irwin Allen. A 1992 remake with John Rhys-Davies as Challenger and David Warner as Summerlee adds photographer Jenny to the team and transposes the Lost World to Africa. Then yet another film – in 1998, transposes the Lost World to a Mongolian plateau! And all the while, the book remain in print and continues to sell, while Challenger himself survived into further exploits which regularly see reprint – ‘The Complete Professor Challenger Stories’
in 1976, ‘The Poison Belt’
(1982), ‘The Adventures Of Professor Challenger’
(1985), and in 1990 ‘When The World Screamed And Other Stories’
They alone would ensure Doyle’s high profile. Then there’s his other ‘Scientific Romances’, Horror and Fantasy…
In “When The World Screamed” (‘Liberty’
magazine, 1928) Challenger sinks an eight-mile-deep shaft into Hengist Down to pierce the glutinous living core of the planet itself. Here, he’s described as a monstrous egoist, ‘a primitive caveman in a lounge suit… some people are born out of their proper century, but he is born out of his millennium.’ ‘The Lost World’
is more explicit. Professor Challenger, born 1863, educated at Edinburgh University, is ‘a stunted Hercules whose tremendous vitality had all run to depth, breadth and brain.’ He’s a genius, but one characterised by ‘insufferable rudeness and impossible behavior, a full-charged battery of force and vitality.’ Through this pugilistic and challenging persona, Doyle out-Hoyle’s gratuitously contentious astrophysicist Fred Hoyle. He even anticipates him by suggesting ‘had the germ of it (life) arrived from outside upon a meteor? It was hardly conceivable.’ Challenger is ‘a frontiersman from the extreme edge of the knowable,’ but it’s on the South American expedition with Malone, Lord John Roxton, and Professor Summerlee that the fiction REALLY
ignites. The bickering professors are drawn larger than life into huge caricatures, which gives them their contagiously infectious life.
But while Challenger may be Doyle’s most complete creation it’s the power of the tale that gives him fascination. Doyle’s style is unobtrusive, there’s carefully described flora and geology sufficiently detailed to suspend disbelief in the most sceptical reader, there’s magical evocations of the lake and its inhabitants during Malone’s solo nocturnal venture into the centre of the strange isolated plateau, the swamp of the pterodactyls, the glade of the iguanodons, yet there’s no phrase wasted on unnecessary introspection or artful artifice. The narrative is related through Ed Malone’s bulletins, ‘what I am writing is destined to immortality as a classic of true adventure.’
He’s not wrong… from bulletin one, through to the final scene of a pterodactyl loosed from Queens Hall over the roofs of London, it never lets up. Conan Doyle used what he termed ‘the universal pass-key of imagination,’ and with it he unlocked realms of wonder.
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‘…a dreadful thing has happened to us.
have forseen it? I cannot forsee any
end to our
troubles. It may be that we are condemned
to spend our whole lives in this strange, inaccessible
I am still so confused that I can hardly
of the facts of the present or of
the chances of the future.
To my astounded
senses the one seems most
terrible and the
other as black as night…’
(‘The Lost World’)
Echoing Ed Malone – Celtic temperament, Irish ancestry, Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle, born 22 May 1859, was Scots by place of birth – Edinburgh, but Irish by parentage. He had a strong-willed Catholic mother, and an artistic father with a history of epilepsy complicated by alcoholism, who was eventually confined to a Yorkshire asylum. Five years after Doyle’s birth Jules Verne was finding his own prehistoric ‘Lost World’ in ‘A Journey To The Centre Of The Earth’
(1864), a book popular at a time when the young Doyle was enduring education at the bleak Jesuit Stonyhurst Academy, while finding after-hours escape in Walter Scott’s ‘Waverley’ novels. It was followed by a more agreeable – but equally Jesuit spell at Feldkirch in Austria, where the young Doyle’s reading taste graduated to Edgar Allan Poe.
Resembling his creation, Professor Challenger, Conan Doyle served time at Edinburgh University, studying medicine. It’s speculated that ‘Sherlock Holmes’ was there too! Doyle met a Professor Joseph Bell at Edinburgh Infirmary, whose precise analytical methods supposedly provided the germ of the Great Detective’s technique. Doyle may also have found early models for the combative Challenger in a fusion of stentorian lecturer Professor Rutherford, and a fellow student George Turnavine Budd. The volatile and extravagantly eccentric Budd is also fictionally recreated in the epistolary novel ‘The Stark Munro Letters’
(1895), which semi-autobiographically relates details of their eventful shared medical practice in Plymouth. Budd was, to Doyle’s biographer Ivor Brown, ‘both physically and temperamentally freakish… a gift to the future novelist.’ He ‘did not live very long and a post-mortem revealed an abnormality of the brain’ which Brown infers was both source of his alarming genius, and of his outrageously unpredictable social behaviour. Both were traits to be transferred to Challenger.
As academic adventurer, Professor Challenger can be seen as the direct link between H Rider Haggard’s ‘Allen Quatermain’, and George Lucas-Steven Spielberg’s ‘Indiana Jones’, and hence becomes a timeless creation. Conversely, there remain many of Doyle’s sensibilities that are difficult for the modern reader to reconcile. After a brief medical apprenticeship in Birmingham, Doyle sailed as medical officer on an Arctic whaler, instinctively disliking the April seal-cull for the fur-trade he witnessed there. Whereas Lord John Roxton is presented as a wholly heroic figure largely on his prowess as hunter, ‘his eager hunter’s soul shining from his fierce eyes.’ On first sighting fresh iguanodon dinosaur prints in the mud of the Lost World, instead of fear or scientific curiosity ‘Lord John looked eagerly round him and slipped two cartridges into his elephant gun’!
By August 1885 Doyle had split acrimoniously with Budd – ripping his brass nameplate from the door with his bare hands. He sailed from Liverpool to Sierra Leone, then – while scrimping a medical practice in Portsmouth, he married, and began writing in earnest. This is the period of his first flirtations with ‘fantastic’ fictions. He had serious literary ambitions that manifested themselves in his novels. ‘Micah Clarke’
came first from Longmans in February 1889, after a number of rejections. An historical tale it sides with the West Country commoners in their insurrection against James II. It was followed by ‘The White Company’
(1891), a chivalrous mediaeval romance, written during his last unprofitable years as a general practitioner.
But all the while he was producing ‘less respectable’ material for a wide variety of periodicals to supplement his income. His first published short stories appeared anonymously, which means that such tales have subsequently been frequently misattributed, incorrectly pirated, suppressed or simply lost in ephemeral journals long extinct. But “The Mystery Of Sasassa Valley” graced the ‘mustard-coloured’ pages of the 6 September 1879 issue of the Edinburgh-based ‘Chambers Journal’
, uncredited. It was his second fiction submission, but first acceptance. The story is set in South Africa – ‘this abominable country’, and has its fantasy appeal invested in a ‘haunted valley’ avoided by ‘Kaffirs’. His character sees ‘what the niggers talk about’, a ‘frightful fiend’ with ‘a strange lurid glare, flickering and oscillating.’ However – after a false start or so, a diversion or two, the Sasassa Demon is discovered to be merely a huge diamond reflecting light! Doyle was paid three-guineas for the tale, conditional on his use of the expletive ‘damn’ being deleted by the editor.
It’s more likely that his use of other words would offend the sensitivities of modern readers, although there’s no evidence to suggest that ‘nigger’ and ‘kaffir’ betray anything more than the vocabulary of his time. Doyle considered himself to be socially liberal, and even stood as Liberal-Unionist and Tariff Reform candidate in the 1900 and 1906 elections. Although the use of the word ‘nigger’ occurs in as late a story as “The Poison Belt” (1913) – ‘a sick nigger in Sumatra’, there’s no evidence of any genuine feelings of racism.
In ‘The Lost World’
itself, the expedition’s mighty porter Zambo is ‘a black Hercules, as willing as any horse,’ and even though the qualities we are expected to admire in him – extreme loyalty and tenacious obedience, are just as applicable to a large and friendly dog, the character is respectfully drawn. Doyle’s vehemence is reserved for Gomez, a ‘villainous’ and ‘notorious’ half-breed. While in life Doyle vindicates himself of all such accusations by vigorously campaigning against Belgian racial atrocity in the Congo, and by opposing the pervasive xenophobia of the time by later staking his time, wealth and reputation in the defence of two men he felt to be unjustly imprisoned – a German Jew, and George Edalji, a Parsee. He also displayed unwavering support for the personal integrity of Irish Nationalist Roger Casement, loyal even through a period of Gay-smear stories deliberately disseminated by British authorities.
Conan Doyle’s biographer Owen Dudley Edwards claims to find traces of Roger Casement in the personality of Lord John Roxton…
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‘…had Caesar remained faithful as a General
the Republic and refused to cross the Rubicon,
would not the whole story of Imperial Rome
been different? Had Washington persuaded
fellow-countrymen to wait patiently
Liberal majority in the British Parliament
their wrongs – would not Britain
and all her
Dominions now be an annexe of
the great central
power of America? If Napoleon
had made peace
before entering upon the
Russian campaign… and
(“The Death Voyage”)
But meanwhile, his fiction continued to be ‘scattered around amid the pages of ‘London Society’
, ‘All The Year Round’
, ‘Temple Bar’
, ‘The Boy’s Own Paper’
and other journals’, as he confides to his autobiography ‘Memories And Adventures’
(1924). The extremely odd “An American’s Tale” in the 1879 Xmas ‘London Society’
is a Western in which are ‘heard the fearfulest screams in the stillness of the night,’ and a would-be ambusher is consumed by a giant Venus Fly-Trap with ‘leaves eight and ten feet long and thorns or teeth a foot or more… for all the world like some great sea squid with its beak.’ The victim of this proto-Triffid is ‘torn and crushed into pulp by the great jagged teeth of the man-eating plant.’
Conan Doyle also wrote about the occult (“Selecting A Ghost” in ‘London Society’
), the perverse – involving the macabre destruction of a singer’s vocal chords (“The Retirement Of Signor Lambert” in ‘Pearson’s Magazine’
, 1898), and the scientific curio (“The Voice Of Science” in ‘The Strand’
, 1891). The latter involves the new technology of the phonograph as a comic romantic device, while taking side-swipes at the then-raging Darwin vs Creationist dispute. But there’s little here that would genuinely qualify as proto-science fiction. There IS
a form of telepathic vampirism in an 1894 novelette ‘The Parasite’
– in which crippled psychic Miss Penclosa toys with sceptical young physiologist Austin Gilroy. In “The Los Amigos Fiasco” (1892) there’s an electric chair overdose, and a dust-to-gold and back again alchemy in “The Doings Of Raffles Haw” (1891). While Conan Doyle’s 1883 ‘Temple Bar’
short story “The Captain Of ‘The Pole Star’” draws on his Arctic experience as well as – perhaps, on Poe’s “The Narrative Of A Gordon Pym”, so successfully that it ‘struck a powerfully spectral note’ according to no less an authority than HP Lovecraft in his essay ‘Supernatural Horror In Literature’
In “A Pastoral Horror” (‘People’
, 21 December 1890) a series of murders in the Tyrolese Alps allows Doyle to employ fantastic phrases such as ‘ghastly pallor’, this ‘awful demon who haunts us’, and later ‘the vampire who haunts us… something almost supernatural in the malignity of this unknown fiend.’ But he defuses such horrific expectations when the villain turns out to be merely a homicidal mania possessing the eloquent priest Father Verhagen. With some irony, the priest is identified when he raises his hand to bless the congregation – thus revealing wrist-wounds inflicted by the near-victim of the previous night’s attack! While “Our Midnight Visitor” (‘Temple Bar’
, February 1891) is Scottish Gothic set amid the vividly documented bleakness of Uffa, which just might be a conflation of real Scots islands Ulva and Staffa. The tale is awash with dialect conversation postulating ghostly visitation – ‘a wraith or bogle’, who turns out to be merely a French diamond thief. But the narrator strikes a genuinely macabre note as he describes Achille Wolff and his father drowning – ‘revolving in each other’s embrace until they were nothing but a dark loom.’ The fictional Uffa crops up later in the Sherlock Holmes exploit “The Five Orange Pips” (‘The Strand’
, November 1891).
In his biography ‘Conan Doyle: A Biographical Solution’
(1977), Ronald Pearsall suggests that Doyle is an unconvincing writer of Horror stories because he doesn’t understand the psychology of fear. A large, physically active man, Doyle could understand adventure and heroism – he boxed, a pupil of Scottish champion Charlie Ball, and he was also an enthusiastic cricketer who once ‘bowled out’ the great WG Grace. He even played as goalkeeper for Portsmouth FA in 1887. He volunteered for active service during the Boer War despite already being in his forties, and ran a frontline hospital after being turned down. But he was a man who had little empathy with either passive introspection or fear.
Instead, he ‘learned’ the techniques of the genre from others, from EA Poe in particular. A later story – “The Leather Funnel” (1902), is a dream of a torture chamber vault that recaptures Poe’s morbid fascinations exactly. Another story, “The Ring Of Thoth” (1890), recalls Poe’s “Some Words With A Mummy” (April 1845). There are more overt cross-over’s. The creation of Sherlock Holmes himself was to some extent based on Poe’s sleuth C Auguste Dupin of “Murders In The Rue Morgue” (in ‘Graham’s Magazine’
, April 1841). Doyle seems to admit as much in “The Fate Of The Evangeline” (from the Xmas 1885 ‘Boy’s Own Paper’
), a bizarrely convoluted tale of maritime romance, a lover’s self-imposed exile on the Scottish island Ardvoe, and the lost and haunted ship of the title. In the story Conan Doyle uses the device of reproducing spoof newspaper reports – as he would later do in ‘The Lost World’
, and goes so far as to quote his mentor – Poe, directly, to the effect that ‘those simple rules as to the analysis of evidence laid down by Auguste Dupin. ‘Eliminate the impossible’ he remarks in one of Poe’s immortal stories, ‘and what is left, however improbable, must be the truth’.’ Holmes himself discusses Dupin’s shortcomings in “A Study In Scarlet” (1887), while Doyle continued to champion Poe over his own creation as late as his American lecture tour of 1894, and in his book of literary criticism ‘Through The Magic Door’
In the meantime, among the plethora of hackwork from Conan Doyle’s dog-days was one that would prove singularly significant. The copyright to “A Study In Scarlet” was sold to the 1887 ‘Beeton’s Christmas Annual’
for £25, when Doyle was just twenty-eight. It was the first of four long stories and fifty shorts to feature Sherlock Holmes. The character was soon enjoying serialisation in Greenhough Smith’s ‘The Strand’
with classic illustrations by Sidney Paget. And Holmes was to guarantee Doyle’s financial independence for the years to come.
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‘My copy of ‘The Lost World’ (John Murray, 1914)
has as its frontpiece a photograph showing
Challenger and the other members of the party to
that great adventure. The Professor himself, with
his huge beard and bushy eyebrows, looks very much
like one of our distant ancestors… The model is
Doyle himself, heavily disguised, and I
that the irascible scientist was
much nearer to
his heart than his more
famous creation, Sherlock
(Arthur C Clarke in ‘Astounding Days’, 1990)
Conan Doyle was dismissive of academic attempts to ‘prove’ Holmes was based on the real-life character of Dr Joseph Bell. According to a newsreel interview Doyle considered such a connection ‘a monstrous growth from a comparatively small seed.’ No doubt he’d show equal contempt for efforts to reduce Professor Challenger down to a similar combination of personal memories. Like Holmes, Challenger – with his ‘Assyrian luxuriance of beard’, is the hugely accomplished product of a rare and prolific imagination. And if he rapidly tires of Holmes – ‘that pale, clear-cut face and loose-limbed figure was taking up an undue share of my imagination’ (‘The Casebook Of Sherlock Holmes’
, 1927), Challenger’s roots were a mature and developing enthusiasm.
More specifically, Doyle’s enthusiasm for archaeology came late in his life, after he’d moved to Crowborough on the Sussex Downs. By now he was wealthy and famous, an avuncular paunchy figure, faintly benign and moustachioed in the HG Wells style. He began collecting flints and axe-heads, acquired a large plaster-cast of a prehistoric footprint, and was drawn into the Piltdown Man controversy. ‘The Lost World’
was a direct result of this interest, the first draft of which he scribbled onto the cover of an archaeological journal. And although it was preceded by a series of impressions and tales ranging over the spectrum of antiquity – Greece, Byzantium, and Rome (collected into ‘The Last Galley’
, 1911), ‘The Lost World’
was by far its most incandescent manifestation.
A chapter heading – ‘Tomorrow We Disappear Into The Unknown’, sets the tone as the ill-matched expedition follow clues found in a notebook left by American artist-explorer Maple White. What they discover as ‘Maple White Land’ – the Lost World, is meticulously detailed. As large as an English county, they are able to circumnavigate the entire plateau in just six days. It is ‘an oval contour, with a breadth of about thirty miles and a width of twenty.’ Its general shape is that of a ‘shallow funnel, all the sides sloping down to a considerable lake at the centre.’ The geology is described in a convincing fashion, and there’s even speculation concerning the natural balance of fauna – why the carnivores haven’t multiplied unchecked so wiping out their prey.
Subsequent Lost Worlds – and there were still plenty to come, would seldom seem as plausible. Hyatt Verrill’s 1926 ‘Bridge Of Light’
ran in ‘Amazing Stories’
magazine, and also located its Lost World in South America. In 1940 Abraham Merritt’s hero of ‘The Snake Mother’
(published in ‘Fantastic Novels’
magazine) discovers another lost civilisation in an isolated valley in the Peruvian mountains, while LP Sherman’s ‘The Throwback’
(in ‘Fantastic Novels’
, 1949) takes place in a forbidden Sierra Madre valley inhabited by monsters from the ‘Secondary Era’.
Victor Rousseau’s ‘The Beetle Horde’
(in ‘Astounding Tales’
no.1, January 1930) posits a ‘Submundia’, a hidden world beneath the South Pole where the titular beetles rule a race of degenerated troglodyte humans. James Hilton’s ‘Lost Horizon’
(1933) and Dennis Wheatley’s ‘The Man Who Missed The War’
(1945) also qualify for inclusion, but the greatest uncoverer of Lost Worlds must surely be Edgar Rice Burroughs. His stories set in Pellucidar ‘at the Earth’s core’ rival his two ‘The Land That Time Forgot’ novels as probably the finest examples of his work, while in his Tarzan sagas his protagonists continue to stumble across forgotten African civilisations with predictable regularity long after such possibilities had become absurd. Even the original ‘King Kong’
(1933) movie has more than a passing similarity to Conan Doyle’s novel – and shares Willis O’Brian, its special effects designer from the 1925 ‘The Lost World’
movie. Yet the most deliberate attempt to recast the theme into an acceptably contemporary way must be Michael Crichton’s techno-thriller ‘Jurassic Park’
(1990) in which an island of dinosaurs are recreated from DNA. As if to make the debt even more obvious, it’s Steven Spielberg-directed movie sequel is even called ‘The Lost World: Jurassic Park’
Even Conan Doyle himself would make one more foray into the Lost World sub-genre…
Ivor Brown calls this late phase of Conan Doyle’s career proof of his ‘man-boyishness’, a kind of wilful refusal to age gracefully. More likely, he saw himself denied the literary respectability he’d earlier craved and attempted to achieve through his historical novels. The vast and continuing cult popularity of Sherlock Holmes restricted his reputation to what he considered ‘the lower stratum of literary achievement’. So he decided instead to enjoy that celebrity through a series of playful fantasies.
Easily the most impressive of these shorts is “The Horror Of The Heights” (1913), an almost Lovecraftian title which opens with the chilling line ‘there are jungles of the upper air, and there are worse things than tigers which inhabit them.’ The narrative purports to include the incomplete ‘manuscript known as the Joyce-Armstrong fragment’, detailing the experiences of an aeronaut who ascends to 41,000-feet to discover this weird aerial realm. ‘Conceive a jellyfish such as sails in our summer seas, bell-shaped and of enormous size – far larger, I should judge, than the dome of St Pauls. It was a light pink colour veined with a delicate green, but the whole huge fabric so tenuous that it was but a fairy outline against the dark blue sky. It pulsed with a delicate and regular rhythm. From it there depended two long, drooping, green tentacles which swayed slowly backwards and forwards. This gorgeous vision passed gently with noiseless dignity over my head, as light and fragile as a soap-bubble.’ Soon, the aeronaut is attacked by less attractive denizens of the sky – ‘threatening and loathsome’ with ‘goggling eyes… cold and merciless in their viscid hatred.’ The details of the ascent, the technical descriptions of the biplane’s operation and the problems encountered in its manoeuvre are authentically described, as the biology and appearance of his unearthly creatures are both stunningly imaginative and of an order of literacy only occasionally achieved by SF-to-come for many decades.
It, too, spawned its imitators. Arthur C Clarke comments on the similarities – too close to be coincidence, between it and SP Meek’s “Beyond The Heaviside Layer”, a short story in ‘Astounding’
dated July 1930. Not only did Conan Doyle do it first, declares Clarke, but his story was written ‘only ten years after the first heavier-than-air machine had staggered off the ground.’
A second story – “The Terror Of Blue John Gap” (‘The Strand’
, September 1910) tells of a ‘monstrous inchoate creature’ living beneath the ‘hollow’ countryside of Derbyshire – a beast not dissimilar to Bram Stoker’s ‘White Worm’. Doyle conjures up ‘a creature as no nightmare had ever brought to my imagination.’ He even hints at a full subterranean realm of such beings from which the monster originated. These tales, and some further Challenger exploits, show Conan Doyle’s SF at its most sophisticated, competing directly with HG Wells.
“The Poison Belt” bears the distinction of republication in Britain’s first-ever SF periodical – ‘Scoops’
in 5 May 1934, a weekly billed as ‘Stories Of The Wonder-World Of Tomorrow’, although the story had originally seen print just one year after ‘The Lost World’
. Brian Aldiss dismisses “The Poison Belt” as ‘a tepid performance, much under Wells influence’, or – to David Kyle, it was an ‘almost the-end-of-the-world story again reflecting Poe.’ The Earth drifts through a ‘poison belt’ of cosmic gas that at first appears to destroy all terrestrial animal life. Challenger, Malone, and the rest of the ‘Lost World’ crew escape its toxic influence by using air canisters, only to emerge into an aftermath of vast desolation. This is fictional territory to be revisited later by ‘School Of Cosy Disaster’ novelists such as John Wyndham and John Christopher. To Aldiss it’s ‘a picturesque deserted London that we shall meet again in ‘The Day Of The Triffids’
(1951).’ Although the dreadful power of the story is somewhat mitigated when people begin to revive from what is not death, but merely a comatose state. Then – following “When The World Screamed” (1928), there’s “The Disintegration Machine” (‘The Strand’
, January 1929), a light comic squib concerning Theodore Nemor, a Latvian scientist, and his odd invention. After both Malone and Challenger are disintegrated and reassembled, they dupe Nemor himself into the device and – fearing its use as a weapon of war, fail to restore him…
It might be kinder to leave Arthur Conan Doyle there. For what follows is a slow decline. The horrific scale of World War I casualties – including the death of his own son, brother and two nephews, affected his vision. A younger Doyle – after seeing military action against the Boers in Bloemfontein, had eulogised ‘wonderful is the atmosphere of war’, lamenting a pacified future ‘when the millennium comes the world will gain much, but it will lose its greatest thrill.’ While his swaggering Napoleonic comic ‘swashbucklers’ featuring Brigadier Gerard, delight in bloodshed. Now there’s a change in tone – ‘look how everything has been turned to evil. We got the knowledge of airships. We bomb cities with them. We learn how to sail under the sea. We murder seamen with our new knowledge. We gain command over chemicals. We turn them into explosives or poison gas. It goes from worse to worse…’ (‘The Land Of Mist’
Bookending the war, his short story “Danger” (‘The Strand’
, 1914) had predicted submarine warfare in a fictional siege of England by ‘Norland’, just one month before European hostilities broke out. Until his “The Death Voyage” (‘The Strand’
, 1929) is a speculative ‘alternative history’ postulating an imperial melodrama around the events during the war’s final hours. As the German war machine disintegrates the Kaiser is carried across Europe in the refrigerator car of a sealed train to lead his fleet into a ‘death voyage’ against overwhelming odds. Doyle’s attitude is respectful to this ‘great adventure of the supreme sacrifice,’ this ‘armageddon of the sea.’
But the key story of this late phase is the fantasy novel ‘The Land Of Mist’
(1926), a hideously inept propaganda text for Doyle’s new-found interest in Spiritualism, thinly disguised as fiction. ‘Post-war conditions and new world problems had left their mark’ says Edward Malone, and perhaps – charitably, the same can be said for Conan Doyle. He’d long since abandoned Catholicism in favour of a healthy agnosticism, but now dabbled in Buddhism and Theosophy, hypnotism and Oriental mysticism. He also delved into FWH Myers’ study of psychic research ‘Human Personality And Its Survival Of Bodily Death’
(1903) in an attempt to give meaning to, and find some explanation for the Great War’s carnage.
It was a thread of interest that could be traced back as far as a séance he’d sceptically sat in on in Southsea, accompanying the eccentric astronomer Alfred Wilkes Drayson. A 1900 short story – “Playing With Fire” (‘The Strand’) also deals playfully with psychic chicanery, one which conjures up a unicorn! But certainly after 1920 he devoted his time, cash, and still not-inconsiderable energies to promoting the pseudo-sciences. He wrote books on the suspect topic, including a well-researched two-volume ‘History Of Spiritualism’ (1926), and even ‘The Coming Of The Fairies’ (1921) in which he credulously affirms faked evidence for the existence of the ‘Cottingley Fairies’.
‘The Land Of Mist’ uses the ‘Lost World’ personnel to give voice to Doyle’s own experiences of seeing and smelling ectoplasmic manifestations. An annotated index of sources follows the story, intended to strengthen its ‘authenticity’. Lord Roxton is seduced by the concept following a spirit visitation by the then-deceased Professor Summerlee, ‘having exhausted the sporting adventures of this terrestrial globe, he is now turning to those of the dim, dark and dubious regions of psychic research.’ Challenger is initially fiercely hostile, snorting ‘like an angry buffalo’ at the very mention of visiting a Spiritualist – ‘next week the lunatic asylum, I presume?’ Perhaps Conan Doyle should have taken heed of Challenger’s commendable contempt – ‘there seems to me to be absolutely no limit to the inanity and credulity of the human race.’ Instead, he contrives the Professor’s unlikely conversion, and then abandons him as a new apostle of the pseudoscience.
It’s a sad and undignified end to the career of such a contagiously powerful creation.
Certainly, whatever rationalist bias energised his earlier flights of imagination completely desert this later Conan Doyle. His last book, and final ‘Lost World’ is ‘The Maracot Deep’ (1929), published the year before his death. To Ivor Brown this is ‘a descent into nonsense as well as into the Atlantic.’ Maracot himself – a kind of fusion of Doyle’s two most successful characters, Challenger and Holmes, discovers Atlantis, battles the forces of evil on the ocean bed, and utilises psychic forces to destroy the monstrous ‘Lord Of The Dark Face’ who menaces the subaquatic civilisation in a totally unconvincing denouement.
But at his best, during his finest years, Conan Doyle’s forays into Science Fiction stand up well to comparison with those of his contemporaries – including HG Wells. “The Horror Of The Height” in particular, while ‘The Lost World’ rightly remains a classic of the genre. It’s a fantasy as rich as ‘the wild dream of an opium smoker, a vision of delirium…’
‘Evolution’ writes Doyle through the mouthpiece of Challenger’s colleague Mr Waldron, ‘was not a spent force, but one still working, and even greater achievements were in store.’ In that phrase lies all the promised wonder and anticipation of the most visionary Science Fiction.
Research texts used for this article include:
‘CONAN DOYLE: A BIOGRAPHICAL SOLUTION’ by Ronald Pearsall (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1977)
‘MEMORIES AND ADVENTURES’ by Arthur Conan Doyle (Oxford Press, 1989)
‘CONAN DOYLE: A BIOGRAPHY’ by Ivor Brown (Hamish Hamilton, 1972)
‘THE UNKNOWN CONAN DOYLE: UNCOLLECTED STORIES’ edited by John Michael Gibson and Richard Lancelyn Green (Secker and Warburg, 1982)
‘A PICTORIAL HISTORY OF SCIENCE FICTION’ by David Kyle (Hamlyn, 1976)
‘THE QUEST FOR SHERLOCK HOLMES’ by Owen Dudley Edwards (Mainstream Publications, 1983)
‘BILLION YEAR SPREE’ by Brian Aldiss (Corgi, 1973)