There are strange red depths in the soul of the most commonplace man.
– Arthur Conan Doyle, The Lost World (1912)
[The Poison Belt] is the most thrilling story of its kind that I have read for a long time. From first to last the atmosphere is charged with one long horrible lingering dread – the kind of dread which, because it is so horrible, is so lovely.
– The Tatler (1913)
What an extraordinary writer Arthur Conan Doyle was. Not content with creating Sherlock Holmes, the greatest character in British fiction, he surrounded the detective with a wonderful supporting cast: Watson, Mycroft, Moriarty, Mrs Hudson, the Baker Street Irregulars, Lestrade. Then he gave us the vain but lovable Napoleonic veteran, Brigadier Gerard, as well as some historical novels that many – from Winston Churchill all the way to Peter Hitchens – regard as his best work.
And in his spare time, he helped establish the parameters of science fiction in the Professor Challenger stories. Which is where we join him…
There are three novels and two short stories about Professor George Edward Challenger, President of the Zoological Institute. Perhaps a brief resumé would be in order.
The first tale is the best known. The Lost World (1912) sees Challenger lead an expedition deep into unexplored territory around a tributary of the Amazon, where he believes there is a plateau, created from ‘a great, sudden volcanic upheaval’, which has remained isolated from the outside world since prehistoric times:
‘What is the result? Why, the ordinary laws of Nature are suspended. The various checks which influence the struggle for existence in the world at large are all neutralized or altered. Creatures survive which would otherwise disappear.’
He’s accompanied on this journey of exploration by a colleague and rival, Professor Summerlee, an adventurer named Lord John Roxton, and a young journalist Edward Malone, who is our narrator. And they do indeed find a place where dinosaurs and other supposedly extinct species still live. Every dinosaur story since has been in the shadow, and in the debt, of this novel.
All four men, together with Challenger’s put-upon wife, Jessica, are reunited for The Poison Belt (1913), convening at the professor’s house in Sussex. Challenger is convinced that the whole planet is passing through a cloud of poisonous gas that will end life on Earth, and persuades his little band to seal themselves into an airtight room with cylinders of oxygen. Thus, he believes, they will survive – albeit briefly – when all living creatures have expired.
Happily for humanity, it turns out that the gas only produces a temporary narcoleptic state: despite appearances, the world is not dead, just sleeping for a day or two. It wasn’t the first near-extinction story – even the poisonous gas is prefigured by M.P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud (1901) – but it is maybe the best.
The final novel, The Land of Mist (1926), is a horse of a very different colour, not science fiction at all, but a chance for Doyle to explore his theories on spiritualism. Challenger is here just for the sake of giving some scientific credibility to the investigation into psychic phenomena. He’s deeply sceptical, but for the only time in the series, his pronouncements are entirely wrong, and he’s won over to a belief in mediums, spirit guides, and messages from beyond the grave.
The two short stories were written after, but set before, The Land of Mist. In ‘When the World Screamed’ (1928), Challenger outlines his theory that ‘the world upon which we live is itself a living organism, endowed, as I believe, with a circulation, a respiration, and a nervous system of its own.’ He funds an experiment to drill deeper than any human has ever been before in a successful attempt to stimulate the Earth itself. The Gaia hypothesis would have come as no great revelation to Challenger.
And ‘The Disintegration Machine’ (1929) is just a few pages long, a brief tale of the inventor of a deadly machine, who’s seeking rival bids for his weapon from Britain and the Soviet Union.
There is, let’s be clear from the outset, a wide range of quality here. The Lost World is an established classic of science fiction and adventure; The Poison Belt is the best of them all, and ‘When the World Screamed’ is a great short story. ‘The Disintegration Machine’, however, is little more than a squib, and The Land of Mist is far too long; it’s only 76,000 words but feels twice that and will try the patience of anyone unconvinced by the existence of ectoplasm.
Worse, The Land of Mist is terribly earnest, devoid of the humour that’s so integral to the appeal of the other stories. The Conservative MP Julian Critchley once wrote of The Lost World that it was ‘testimony to man’s insatiable thirst for marvels, as well as being one of the best adventure stories in the language’. He added: ‘It is also high comedy.’ This is true, and it’s a pity that Doyle lost sight of it in The Land of Mist.
The fun starts with Challenger himself, ‘with his rugged, eagle face, and his cold, blue, glacier eyes with always a shimmer of devilment and of humour down in the depths of them’. He’s an atypical scientist, a massively built, barrel-chested brute of a man, who can scarcely speak in anything quieter than a bellow, and whose arrogant vanity is matched only by his petulance and pomposity. ‘I have never yet encountered any problem,’ he declares, ‘which my inventive brain was unable to solve.’
He has a habit of physically assaulting those who irritate him, particularly journalists, and he contemptuously regards his colleagues as imbeciles. He also treats his beloved wife in a manner that would have been frowned upon then, let alone now – he punishes disagreement by lifting her on top of a seven-feet high pedestal in the hallway of their house, so that she can reconsider her attitudes.
‘He is a primitive cave-man in a lounge suit,’ reflects Edward Malone, having got to know him. ‘His colleagues hate him like poison.’ And the endless, petty squabbling between Challenger and Summerlee is not far removed from the ‘History Today’ routines of David Baddiel and Rob Newman.
In The Lost World the adventurers encounter a tribe of ape-men – the much sought-after Missing Link in the evolutionary chain – and Challenger finds a kindred spirit. The leader of the tribe, writes Malone, is
the very image of our Professor, save that his colouring was red instead of black. The same short, broad figure, the same heavy shoulders, the same forward hang of the arms, the same bristling beard merging itself in the hairy chest. Only above the eyebrows, where the sloping forehead and low, curved skull of the ape-man were in sharp contrast to the broad brow and magnificent cranium of the European, could one see any marked difference.
Captured by the ape-men, Challenger fits right into their society. ‘A single day seemed to have changed him from the highest product of modern civilization to the most desperate savage in South America.’
In case this sounds like we’re drifting into dangerously racist territory here, it’s worth pointing out that the ape-men are not actually human – unlike the tribe of natives who also live on the remote plateau, and whose cause is championed by our heroes. There is, broadly, a human solidarity to the adventures. True, Challenger describes the indigenous people of the region as ‘an amiable but degraded race,’ but then he adds sarcastically that they have ‘mental powers hardly superior to the average Londoner.’ Not so much racist, then, as massively misanthropic.
And it’s striking that when, stranded on the plateau, they see their loyal servant Zambo, the instinctive response is to be reminded of civilization: ‘His honest black face,’ records Malone, ‘helped us to remember that we really were upon this earth in the twentieth century, and had not by some magic been conveyed to some raw planet in its earliest and wildest state.’
The Missing Link, incidentally, makes a reappearance in The Land of Mist, in the shape of an apparition at a séance in a Parisian laboratory: ‘We can only say that it is either an apelike man or a man-like ape,’ explains a French scientist. ‘The face is Simian, but the brow is straight; the arms long, the hands huge, the body covered with hair.’
This theme of evolution runs through much of the Challenger material. Sometimes it’s just the incongruous clash of different eras, as when a pterodactyl appears in Edwardian London:
The face of the creature was like the wildest gargoyle that the imagination of a mad medieval builder could have conceived. It was malicious, horrible, with two small red eyes as bright as points of burning coal. Its long, savage mouth, which was held half-open, was full of a double row of shark-like teeth. Its shoulders were humped, and round them were draped what appeared to be a faded grey shawl. It was the devil of our childhood in person.
But there’s also an underlying assumption that evolution leads naturally to humanity’s control of the world:
I remembered that Challenger had declared that man could not exist upon the plateau, since with his feeble weapons he could not hold his own against the monsters who roamed over it. But now it was clear enough how it could be done. In their narrow-mouthed caves the natives, whoever they might be, had refuges into which the huge saurians could not penetrate, while with their developed brains they were capable of setting such traps, covered with branches, across the paths which marked the run of the animals as would destroy them in spite of all their strength and activity. Man was always the master.
That’s Malone speaking, and of course he’s no scientist, so perhaps we shouldn’t take him too seriously. Except that Challenger shares the same view in The Poison Belt. The five of them, gathered in the Professor’s living room, with their dwindling cylinders of oxygen, look out upon a wasteland: ‘no man or beast moved upon the vast countryside which lay before us.’ But although all the animals on the face of the Earth may have been wiped out (as it appears), plant-life continues, and the Professor is sanguine about the long-term prospects:
‘It is but a temporary setback. A few million years, what are they in the great cycle of time? The vegetable world has, as you can see, survived … From this vegetable life in pond and in marsh will come, in time, the tiny crawling microscopic slugs which are the pioneers of that great army of life … Once the lowest form of life has established itself, the final advent of man is as certain as the growth of the oak from the acorn.’
I’m no more a scientist than is Malone, but I have to say this sounds like complete twaddle. As I understand it, evolution depends upon chance mutations that could be affected by any number of environmental variations, including external factors: the emergence of humanity could be prevented by, I don’t know, a meteor strike in the wrong place at the wrong time, or a change in sunspot activity.
But it is possible to see this retrospectively as a timely expression of optimism. Following serialization, The Poison Belt was published in volume form in August 1913 – exactly a year before Britain declared war on Germany, with all the mechanized slaughter and gas attacks that were to come. Bear that in mind when reading this description of Challenger’s chauffeur:
Down in the yard lies Austin with sprawling limbs, his face glimmering white in the dawn, and the hose nozzle still projecting from his dead hand. The whole of human kind is typified in that one half-ludicrous and half-pathetic figure, lying so helpless beside the machine which it used to control.
The idea that humanity will re-emerge from the devastation is an undeniably appealing one.
John Buchan’s thriller, The Power House, was serialized in Blackwood’s Magazine the same year that The Poison Belt appeared in the Strand. ‘You think that a wall as solid as the earth separates civilisation from barbarism,’ says Andrew Lumley in Buchan’s yarn. ‘I tell you the division is a thread, a sheet of glass.’ Conan Doyle goes one stage further, taking the image of the fragile pane and turning it into a literal window, separating our survivors in Challenger’s living-room from the desolate world outside:
There brooded over it all the stillness and the silence of universal death – a death in which we were so soon to join. At the present instant that one frail sheet of glass, by holding in the extra oxygen which counteracted the poisoned ether, shut us off from the fate of all our kind.
As it turns out, the poison – having done its worst – disperses from the atmosphere, allowing the Challenger party to venture out from their sanctuary and to visit the ghost town that is London. There, they discover they are not the only ones to live on, coming across an old woman with a medical condition that necessitates her use of oxygen, thereby enabling her to survive. She has just one question for her unexpected visitors: ‘What effect will these events have upon London and North-Western Railway shares?’ As a symbol of an enfeebled Edwardian middle-class, clinging to the shreds of gentility, it could scarcely be bettered.
In the aftermath of the event, when life has returned to the planet, it’s left to Malone to draw some positive conclusions from humanity’s glimpse of extinction:
Our generation has been reserved for a very special fate since it has been chosen to experience so wonderful a thing … Death has been imminent upon us. We know that at any moment it may be again. That grim presence shadows our lives, but who can deny that in that shadow the sense of duty, the feeling of sobriety and responsibility, the appreciation of the gravity and of the objects of life, the earnest desire to develop and improve, have grown and become real with us.
The next time we encounter Challenger, Malone and Lord John Roxton, the Great War has been over for eight years, but there is no sense that humanity has heeded the lessons that Malone hoped would be learnt. Here’s a character in The Land of Mist:
‘Ten million young men were laid dead upon the ground. Twice as many were mutilated. That was God’s first warning to mankind. But it was vain. The same dull materialism prevailed as before … The nations heaped up fresh loads of sin, and sin must ever be atoned for. Russia became a cesspool. Germany was unrepentant of her terrible materialism which had been the prime cause of the war. Spain and Italy were sunk in alternate atheism and superstition. France had no religious ideal. Britain was confused and distracted, full of wooden sects which had nothing of life in them. America had abused her glorious opportunities and, instead of being the loving younger brother to a stricken Europe, she held up all economic reconstruction by her money claims; she dishonoured the signature of her own president, and she refused to join that League of Peace which was the one hope of the future. All have sinned, but some more than others, and their punishment will be in exact proportion.’
It’s in this context, perhaps, that we should judge Conan Doyle’s clumsy hijacking of the Challenger gang in The Land of Mist to deliver a propaganda message for his faith. Christianity is seen to have failed for the ‘nine people out of ten who never enter into a church’, and spiritualism is presented as a ‘new revelation’ for humanity. (The New Revelation was also the title of Doyle’s first spiritualist work, published in 1918.) It doesn’t make the novel any better, but the desperation for some guidance is at least understandable.
What I really love about these stories, though, is not Challenger himself, nor the science that he and Summerlee represent, and certainly not the preachiness, but the pure adventure element.
To start with, Malone is motivated to join the first expedition because he’s in love with Gladys, a woman who’s unimpressed by his journalistic career thus far. ‘Just say the word,’ he pleads: ‘teetotal, vegetarian, aeronaut, theosophist, superman. I’ll have a try at it, Gladys, if you will only give me an idea what would please you.’ But it’s not as easy as that, as she suggests when sketching her ideal husband:
‘It is the mark of the kind of man I mean that he makes his own chances. You can’t hold him back. I’ve never met him, and yet I seem to know him so well. There are heroisms all round us waiting to be done. It’s for men to do them, and for women to reserve their love as a reward for such men.’
So Malone hotfoots it to McArdle, ‘the crabbed, old, round-backed, red-headed news editor’ to whom he answers at the Daily Gazette, begging to be sent on the most hazardous assignment possible. ‘You seem very anxious to lose your life,’ says McArdle, and Malone replies: ‘To justify my life, Sir.’ But this isn’t easy either. ‘The big blank spaces in the map are all being filled in,’ regrets McArdle, ‘and there’s no room for romance anywhere.’
But then the Challenger expedition to the Amazon turns up, and Malone realizes this is the chance of a lifetime: ‘What a three column article for the paper! What a foundation for a career! A correspondentship in the next great war might be within my reach.’
There’s no indication, by the way, of whether he ever did get to be a war correspondent. Probably not: he was of service age in 1914 and, if he didn’t volunteer, he must surely have been called up when conscription came. And he presumably emerged with some distinction; having already faced such extreme peril, the trenches would have held no great fear. ‘I was brought up with a horror of cowardice and with a terror of such a stigma,’ he observes early on in The Lost World. ‘I have an overpowering fear of seeming afraid.’ It’s a feeling he shares with Harry Feversham in The Four Feathers, and which was presumably overcome on the South American plateau as he confronted the nightmares of humanity’s pre-history:
In the deep shadow of the tree there was a deeper shadow yet, black, inchoate, vague – a crouching form full of savage vigour and menace. It was no higher than a horse, but the dim outline suggested vast bulk and strength. That hissing pant, as regular and full-volumed as the exhaust of an engine, spoke of a monstrous organism. Once, as it moved, I thought I saw the glint of two terrible, greenish eyes. There was an uneasy rustling, as if it were crawling slowly forward.
In short, Malone discovers in Challenger’s company the great truth of the adventure hero:
It is only when a man goes out into the world with the thought that there are heroisms all round him, and with the desire all alive in his heart to follow any which may come within sight of him, that he breaks away as I did from the life he knows, and ventures forth into the wonderful mystic twilight land where lie the great adventures and the great rewards.
Not that it does him much good, mind. He names the lake on the plateau Lake Gladys, after his love (‘Boys will be boys,’ snorts Challenger), but when he gets back to England, he finds that she’s got married in his absence to a solicitor’s clerk, ‘a little ginger-haired man’. Not only that, but she’s distinctly underwhelmed by Malone’s professed love: ‘it couldn’t have been so very deep, could it, if you could go off to the other end of the world and leave me here alone.’
Best of all, the Challenger stories give us Lord John Roxton, a full-time adventurer with a ‘spare, scraggy physique’, a ‘gaunt, whimsical, Don Quixote face’ and ‘twinkling blue eyes,’ behind which ‘lurks a capacity for furious wrath and implacable resolution’. Despite his ‘jerky talk, his short, strong sentences, the half-humorous, half-reckless tone that ran through it all,’ he is without question ‘a born leader’.
He lives in the Albany (‘the famous aristocratic rookery’), where one hopes he might have known A.J. Raffles, and he has a bachelor pad of such splendour that it’s worth dwelling on:
Rich furs and strange iridescent mats from some Oriental bazaar were scattered upon the floor. Pictures and prints which even my unpractised eyes could recognize as being of great price and rarity hung thick upon the walls. Sketches of boxers, of ballet-girls, and of racehorses alternated with a sensuous Fragonard, a martial Girardet, and a dreamy Turner.
But amid these varied ornaments there were scattered the trophies which brought back strongly to my recollection the fact that Lord John Roxton was one of the great all-round sportsmen and athletes of his day. A dark-blue oar crossed with a cherry-pink one above his mantel-piece spoke of the old Oxonian and Leander man, while the foils and boxing-gloves above and below them were the tools of a man who had won supremacy with each.
Like a dado round the room was the jutting line of splendid heavy game-heads, the best of their sort from every quarter of the world, with the rare white rhinoceros of the Lado Enclave drooping its supercilious lip above them all.
In the centre of the rich red carpet was a black and gold Louis Quinze table, a lovely antique, now sacrilegiously desecrated with marks of glasses and the scars of cigar-stumps.
He is ‘the man who had earned himself the name of the Flail of the Lord through three countries’, and he’s revered in South America for his relentless war against ‘Peruvian slave-drivers’. As he explains to Malone:
‘There are times, young fellah, when every one of us must make a stand for human right and justice, or you never feel clean again. That’s why I made a little war on my own. Declared it myself, waged it myself, ended it myself.’
The morality is sound, but really he craves a bit of excitement:
‘A sportin’ risk, young fellah, that’s the salt of existence. Then it’s worth livin’ again. We’re all gettin’ a deal too soft and dull and comfy. Give me the great waste lands and the wide spaces, with a gun in my fist and somethin’ to look for that’s worth findin’.’
He shares McArdle’s perception that we’re running out of places to explore: ‘Top of the Alps is becoming a perfect bear-garden. Short of Everest there don’t seem to be any decent privacy left.’ Which is why he leaps at the chance of the South American expedition.
Unlike Malone, we do later learn something of his service in the Great War. He was wounded in an episode that Rudyard Kipling’s Stalky or John Buchan’s Sandy Arbuthnot would have been proud of, as MacArdle recounts: ‘He led a small column in East Africa and made a wee war of his own till he got an elephant bullet through his chest.’ But although he’s fearless in the face of any danger, Roxton is reduced to a mumbling wreck in formal situations, as when the Heavy Game Society throw a dinner in his honour. ‘Oh, I say! By Jove! What!’ is the totality of his speech.
In private, he can be much more expressive, with a dry sense of humour. ‘Can you shoot?’ he asks Malone, and when the latter replies, ‘About average Territorial standard,’ Roxton is shocked:
‘Good Lord! as bad as that? It’s the last thing you young fellahs think of learnin’. You’re all bees without stings, so far as lookin’ after the hive goes. You’ll look silly, some o’ these days, when someone comes along an’ sneaks the honey.’
This is 1912 and the imagery is very much in keeping with other contemporary writers. Kipling’s parable ‘The Mother Hive’ (1909) told the cautionary tale of a wax-moth stirring up discontent among the worker bees and destroying the stability of the social order, while Robert Baden-Powell’s endorsement of the insects in Scouting for Boys (1908) was even more forthright: ‘They are quite a model community, for they respect their queen and kill those who won’t work.’ There was a lot of bee imagery in Edwardian England.
Roxton’s mix of moral authorities is typical too of the public-school ethos of the times:
‘I’m a Christian of sorts, but it seems to me there was somethin’ mighty natural in those ancestors of ours who were buried with their axes and bows and arrows and the like, same as if they were livin’ on just the same as they used to.’
Elsewhere, he says that ‘the Church of England that I was brought up in fills my very modest need,’ but we’re not convinced. In The Land of Mist there’s a fine exchange between him and a Church of England vicar, in which he explains that he has no faith in divine justice:
‘If good wins, then it runs a doosed long waitin’ race, and most of us never live to see the finish. Look at those rubber devils that I had a scrap with up the Putomayo River. Where are they? What! Mostly in Paris havin’ a good time. And the poor niggers they murdered. What about them?’
In return the clergyman cites a case from a report of the next world, that gives a spiritualist take on the parable of Dives and Lazarus:
‘The dead rich man pauses before the lovely dwelling. His sad guide draws him away. “It is not for you. It is for your gardener.” He shows him a wretched shack. “You gave us nothing to build with. It was the best that we could do.” That may be the next chapter in the story of our rubber millionaires.’
But Lord John can’t wait that long:
I gave some of them a shack that was six foot long and two foot deep. No good shakin’ your head, padre. What I mean – I don’t love my neighbour as myself, and never shall. I hate some of ’em like poison.
In my estimation, the Professor Challenger stories are Conan Doyle’s third best series, after Sherlock Holmes and Brigadier Gerard. Yet so great a writer is he (no artist has brought me so much pleasure over so many years) that three of the five Challenger tales are absolute classics.
Even in the weaker entries in the series, there are good things to be had. ‘The Disintegration Machine’ gives Doyle a chance to do some Red-baiting that would have amused John Buchan, as Malone mocks ‘prosperous and intelligent men, with astrakhan collars to their coats, glistening top-hats, and every appearance of that bourgeois well-being which the successful Communist so readily assumes.’
And The Land of Mist has a minor character who’s simply splendid, a ‘big, frowsy woman with a shock of dyed hair and some remains of a florid beauty, now long over-ripe’, who used to perform in the music halls, making something of a name for herself with a song that went:
Hi! Hi! Hi! I’m the dernier cri,
The girl with the cart-wheel hat.
It’s a fine parody of the music-hall style, and her sad fate is characteristic of a profession that could be extremely harsh. She retired from performance at the insistence of a drunken bully of a man, but after his death in an (arranged) accident, she returns to the stage, and never recovers her position:
it became too painfully evident that she was anything but the dernier cri, and that she could never get back. Slowly she sank from big halls to small halls, from small halls to pubs, and so ever deeper and deeper, sucked into the awful silent quicksands of life which drew her down and down until that vacuous painted face and frowsy head were seen no more.
And, in one last clip, here’s a character defending art, however morally reprehensible the artist:
‘Poe was a drunkard, and Coleridge an addict, and Byron a rake, and Verlaine a degenerate. You have to separate the man from the thing. The genius has to pay a price for his genius in the instability of his temperament.’