Friday, 19 August 2011

Hit and Mist

The Lost World and Other Stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Professor Challenger, the “ape-man in a lounge-suit”, is someone else in Sherlock’s shadow, but in some ways he’s much more interesting than Doyle’s detective. Holmes may have set “the whole world talking” but “to set the whole world screaming was the privilege of Challenger alone.” He does that in the last story of the collection, in which the earth is found to be even more alive than the modern Gaia thesis suggests. And it kicks against Challenger’s prick. That foreshadowing of a later theme is also found in “The Poison Belt” (1913):
A third-rate sun, with its rag tag and bobtail of insignificant satellites, we float towards some unknown end, some squalid catastrophe which will overwhelm us at the ultimate confines of space, where we are swept over an etheric Niagara or dashed upon some unthinkable Labrador. I see... many reasons why we should watch with a very close and interested attention every indication of change in those cosmic surroundings upon which our own ultimate fate may depend.
There are some very interesting and prescient ideas here: Doyle should get much more credit for his pioneering science fiction, but there again Holmes is probably to blame. Not that Holmes would have wanted to take the limelight: he’s introverted and not played for comedy. Challenger is the opposite in both cases. Ted Malone, the narrator of “The Lost World”, notes that his “enormously massive genial manner” is “almost as overpowering as his violence”. Later, Malone has an unpleasant encounter with a tick in the South American jungle:
“Filthy vermin!” I cried.
Professor Challenger raised his great eyebrows in protest, and placed a soothing paw upon my shoulder.
You should cultivate the scientific eye and the detached scientific mind,” said he. “To a man of philosophic temperament like myself the blood-tick, with its lancet-like proboscis and its distending stomach, is as beautiful a work of Nature as the peacock or, for that matter, the aurora borealis. It pains me to hear you speak of it in so unappreciative a fashion. No doubt, with due diligence, we can secure some other specimen.”
There can be no doubt of that,” said Summerlee, grimly, “for one has just disappeared behind your shirt-collar.”
Challenger sprang into the air bellowing like a bull, and tore frantically at his coat and shirt to get them off.
Each of the four main characters in “The Lost World” has a distinct personality, as though Doyle is trying to embody the Greek humors: there’s the choleric Challenger; the phlegmatic Summerlee, Challenger’s sardonic scientific rival; the sanguine Lord Roxton, a big-game huntsman who accompanies the expedition for sport; and the melancholic Irishman Ted Malone, the journalist who narrates the story. It makes for entertaining reading, as I’ve found every time I’ve come back to the story. And my re-readings must be in double figures now. Doyle’s racial descriptions will provoke sniffs of disapproval in many modern readers, but they’re something else that may be prescient and they aren’t confined to “villainous half-breeds” and the “huge negro Zambo, who is as faithful as a dog”. He also describes the Irish as distinct within the white European super-race.
Doyle’s prescience seems to have failed in the longest story of the collection, which, in its way, is another joke at Professor Challenger’s expense. Having made the character popular before the First World War, Doyle shoe-horned him into “The Land of Mist” in 1927 as part of his propaganda for spiritualism. I’ve never re-read this story, which has more historical and biographical importance than literary. Doyle lost a son and brother during the War and the wishful thinking that inspired his support of spiritualism is evident throughout. He even makes Challenger turn on his head for the purposes of the book’s propaganda. This is Challenger in “The Poison Belt” in 1913:
“No, Summerlee, I will have none of your materialism, for I, at least, am too great a thing to end in mere physical constituents, a packet of salts and three bucketfuls of water. Here ― here” ― and he beat his great head with his huge, hairy fist ― “there is something which uses matter, but is not of it ― something which might destroy death, but which death can never destroy.”
But in “The Land of Mist”, fourteen years later, it’s necessary for Challenger to oppose spiritualism and be brought round against his will. He espouses materialistic nihilism as Malone and his daughter Enid, both reporters, are about to attend a spiritualist meeting. Malone reluctantly accepts it as an intellectual proposition:
“But my instincts are against!” cried Enid. “No, no, never can I believe it.” She threw her arms round the great bull neck. “Don’t tell me, Daddy, that you with all your complex brain and wonderful self are a thing with no more life hereafter than a broken clock!”
Four buckets of water and a bagful of salts,” said Challenger as he smilingly detached his daughter’s grip. “That’s your daddy, my lass, and you may as well reconcile your mind to it.”
Enid doesn’t and in the end Challenger admits he was wrong. The effort Doyle put into the story was wasted: it’s only a historical curiosity nowadays and seems likely to remain so. To see why the other stories, some much shorter, are much more valuable, simply pick up a copy of the collection in the excellent Wordsworth series.

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