Dinosaurs, Disintegration Machines and Talking to the Dead: The Wild World of Professor Challenger.
On the evening of June 2, 1922, at an American Society of Magicians dinner at the Hotel McAlpine, New York, after the whiskey and cigars, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, there as a guest of Harry Houdini, was given leave to set up a screen and projector. The famous author proceeded to astound his hosts with a film of apparently living dinosaurs. These were special effects rushes compiled by the stop-motion animator Willis O’Brien from the ongoing Hollywood adaptation of Doyle’s novel The Lost World. The footage was so impressive that some of the viewers left convinced it had been real. When the film was released three years later, with a prologue in which Doyle himself introduced the picture, audiences had never seen anything like it. The movie was an international hit and a sensation. Not until King Kong climbed the Empire State Building with Fay Wray screaming in his hairy hand did anything even approach the impact of The Lost World, starring Wallace Beery as Doyle’s short-tempered academic adventurer, Professor George Edward Challenger…
Although Doyle had ambivalent feelings, at best, towards his most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes, he made no secret of his affection for his irascible scientist, ‘G.E.C.’, a man with so many honours and letters after his name that they ‘overtax the capacity’ of his calling card. Alongside the Great Detective and the largely forgotten Napoleonic Hussar, Brigadier Etienne Gerard, Professor Challenger is Doyle’s only recurring protagonist. He appears in three novels, beginning with Doyle’s best-known work outside the Holmes’ canon, The Lost World (1912), and two short stories. The last of these, ‘The Disintegration Machine’, appeared in 1929, the year before Doyle died, indicating that he remained attached to the character to the end, unlike Sherlock Holmes who, he wrote as early as 1891, ‘takes my mind from better things.’ And just as Holmes’ stories revolutionised the genre of detective fiction, the Challenger series makes a significant contribution to the development of science fiction after Jules Verne and the early novels of Doyle’s contemporary, H.G. Wells. The Lost World quickly established a genre archetype that gives us literally hundreds of books and movies, from the original King Kong to the Jurassic World franchise.
The five Challenger stories by Doyle are all very different and written from three different perspectives, but what unites them all is the sheer force of Challenger’s personality. He is a man who must be right at all costs (and frequently is), does not suffer fools gladly, and alternately inspires absolute loyalty and utter contempt among those who know him. When Peerless Jones, the narrator of ‘When the World Screamed’ (1928), is first approached by Challenger for his expertise in Artesian boring, his initial response is: ‘It was clear to me that I was dealing with a lunatic.’ In The Lost World, the scientific community views Challenger as a charlatan at the beginning of the story, while Edward Malone, the Irish journalist destined to become his Dr Watson, is told by his editor that Challenger is ‘just a homicidal megalomaniac with a turn for science.’ Even the professor’s wife warns Malone in advance of meeting him that ‘he is a perfectly impossible person.’ And when, on the Amazonian expedition, Challenger reflects that ‘he never cared to walk on the Thames Embankment and look up the river, as it was always sad to see one’s own eventual goal,’ his long-time professional rival Professor Summerlee dryly replies ‘that he understood that Millbank Prison had been pulled down.’ As Malone explained to his readers: ‘He is convinced, of course, that he is destined for Westminster Abbey.’
Revisiting the Challenger stories, one can see the appeal of his creator. Both men are large and physically powerful (though Challenger is broad and compact while Doyle was tall), and both are possessed of equally strong opinions. These are supported by the enormous self-confidence of the upper middle-class Edwardian British male, and the absolute certainty in the rightness of their cause in the face of all opposition – and opposition there was, in fact as well as fiction. Neither Challenger nor Doyle had much time for critics, and the author has a lot of fun having his hero hurl journalists down flights of stairs, bop them on the head, and in one story position them next to an experimental excavation that showers them with a ‘vile treacly substance’. There’s a lot of Doyle in Professor Challenger, and both are visionaries and dreamers.
The Lost World is the Challenger story that everyone knows. Even if you’ve never read the original novel, chances are you’ve seen at least one of the film or TV adaptations, maybe caught one of the radio plays or even read the comics. And if not, you’ll almost certainly have seen one of the movies that are inspired by it. The common feature is a recognisable formula derived from Doyle’s adventure, in which a team of explorers comprising rival scientists, at least one man of action and a journalist documenting the expedition, discover a ‘lost world’ of prehistoric creatures and primitive humans. (Sometimes the world is discovered by accident after a shipwreck or a plane crash.) The group becomes marooned and must overcome a series of dinosaur-related obstacles, finally escaping and by accident or design bringing back a live specimen that then runs amuck in a major city before being captured, destroyed or otherwise subdued. (In the third act, the hero usually gets the girl, but there was none of that in Doyle’s robustly masculine novel.) This is essentially the plot, for example, of King Kong (1933, 1976, 2005), Lost Continent (1951), The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), The Land Unknown (1957), Gorgo (1961), Destroy All Monsters (1968), The Valley of Gwangi (1969), The Land That Time Forgot (1974), At The Earth’s Core (1976), Stargate (1994), The Lost World: Jurassic Park II (1997), the UK television series Primeval (2007-2011), Kong: Skull Island (2017), Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018), and many more besides – enough, in fact, to probably fill a decent-sized film encyclopaedia.
When Doyle published, the idea of a lost prehistoric world was not new. Jules Verne had imagined dinosaurs surviving in a subterranean environment in Journey to the Centre of the Earth in 1864 and the discovery of a tribe of ape-like men or ‘missing links’ in The Village in the Treetops (1901), but it is Doyle’s scenario that has stuck in the public imagination. He was also following the ‘lost race’ or ‘lost civilisation’ stories of Edward Bulwer Lytton (The Coming Race), Rudyard Kipling (‘The Man Who Would Be King’), and, most of all, H. Rider Haggard, who pioneered the modern genre with novels such as King Solomon’s Mines, She, and The People of the Mist. The nineteenth-century represented the height of European Imperialism, and these late Victorian adventure stories were at once a celebration of the popular view of British courage and manifest destiny, and an expression of anxiety about the otherness of the outer reaches of the Empire and the possibility of corruption by it. (This can be seen in Kipling’s gothic Indian tales and in the Sherlock Holmes story ‘The Speckled Band’.) There were also more realistic Modernist depictions of the harm wrought by Westerners in lands they had no right to occupy and did not understand emerging, most notably Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Doyle was an active campaigner against the atrocities committed in the Belgium Congo (where Conrad’s novel is set), writing the nonfiction book The Crime of the Congo in 1909. His Lost World characters Malone and Lord John Roxton are in part based on the journalist E. D. Morel and the diplomat Roger Casement, leaders of the Congo Reform Association. (In 1911, Casement started a similar campaign against modern slavery and human rights abuses in Peru, for which he was knighted. A prominent Irish Republican, the British executed him for High Treason after the Easter Uprising.) And in this period, the remnants of lost civilisations were being discovered and plundered for the museums of Europe, while missionaries and adventurers like John Hanning Speke, David Livingstone, Henry Morton Stanley, and Richard Francis Burton became national heroes. Challenger is partly based on the British Explorer Percy Harrison Fawcett, who ultimately disappeared in the Amazon jungle in 1925 while searching for a lost city. (Like Sherlock Holmes, Challenger’s more academic side, as well as his beard and his ego, was inspired by another of Doyle’s Edinburgh University professors, William Rutherford.) Blend these influences with the growth of modern palaeontology, the remarkable legacy of Richard Owen and the foundation of the Natural History Museum – not to mention the discovery of fossilised iguanodon footprints in a quarry near Doyle’s home in Sussex in 1909 – and you get The Lost World…
In Doyle’s novel, the desire to impress his fiancée (who yearns for a ‘man of action’), leads the journalist Edward Malone to blag his way into the home of the notorious Professor Challenger – lately returned from a controversial South American expedition. Challenger rumbles him and an altercation ensues, spilling out onto the street in front of a passing policeman. Unlike the other journalist’s Challenger has assaulted, Malone declines to press charges and, indeed, takes full responsibility for the incident. Begrudgingly impressed, Challenger takes him into his confidence. Having discovered the remains of an American explorer up country, including an intriguing sketchbook, Challenger had made it to a mysterious Amazonian plateau, which he was not able to ascend, although he bagged a pterodactyl with his rifle. Unfortunately, most of the evidence was lost in an accident on the river, and no one believes the dinosaur wing he managed to save or his one surviving photograph is authentic, hence his animosity towards reporters, who are portraying him as a liar and a crank. Later that evening, at a fractious public meeting at the Zoological Institute, Professor Summerlee proposes a new expedition to confirm or more probably debunk the claims, and Malone impetuously volunteers to cover it for his newspaper. The adventurer Lord John Roxton also joins the team. He knows the Amazon well, having fought slaver warlords there, and nothing about the blank areas on the map would surprise him. He wouldn’t be averse to having a dinosaur head on his trophy wall either. Although they argue all the way, Summerlee is forced to admit that Challenger was right, and he was wrong. The point is now moot, however, as the party is trapped on the prehistoric plateau, being hunted by an Allosaurus and a tribe of murderous ape-men… The day is saved in the end, naturally, and Challenger is vindicated, returning to London with a baby pterodactyl which quickly gets away from him.
You can find out the rest for yourselves, which is well worth it as the novel has several significant differences from its multiple screen adaptations. The best of these are the aforementioned First National (silent) adaptation of 1925, and the 2001 BBC miniseries, which are both available on DVD. Doyle lived to see and endorse the first movie, and the ground-breaking special effects wizard Willis O’Brien would go on to animate King Kong and mentor Ray Harryhausen, the king of the stop-motion monster movie. The excellent BBC version, though taking a few liberties with the plot (introducing love interests for Roxton and Malone and changing the ending to something rather more environmentally conscious than the original), was produced by Tim Haines, the director of Walking with Dinosaurs and the co-creator of Primeval. The 1960 Irwin Allen version, however, is glacial and uses live lizards with frills stuck on them against a green screen for dinosaurs which, as my son pointed out when we watched it together, only eat one person. Even veteran character actor Claude Rains (who played the Invisible Man and the Phantom of the Opera) as Challenger could not save it.
In the original novel, the joke – and the Challenger stories are often darkly comic – is that the professor is scarier than the ape-men and the dinosaurs put together. After a first act in which Challenger’s formidable character is built up in absentia as Malone learns about this apparent monster from people who have met him, the two men finally come face to face in the Professor’s study:
His appearance made me gasp. I was prepared for something strange, but not for so overpowering a personality as this. It was his size which took one’s breath away—his size and his imposing presence. His head was enormous, the largest I have ever seen upon a human being … He had the face and beard which I associate with an Assyrian bull; the former florid, the latter so black as almost to have a suspicion of blue, spade-shaped and rippling down over his chest. The hair was peculiar, plastered down in front in a long, curving wisp over his massive forehead. The eyes were blue-grey under great black tufts, very clear, very critical, and very masterful. A huge spread of shoulders and a chest like a barrel were the other parts of him which appeared above the table, save for two enormous hands covered with long black hair. This and a bellowing, roaring, rumbling voice made up my first impression of the notorious Professor Challenger.
Later in the story, Challenger’s marked resemblance to the alpha ape-man becomes a running gag, Roxton telling Malone:
…’pon my word they might have been kinsmen … This old ape-man—he was their chief—was a sort of red Challenger, with every one of our friend’s beauty points, only just a trifle more so. He had the short body, the big shoulders, the round chest, no neck, a great ruddy frill of a beard, the tufted eyebrows, the ‘What do you want, damn you!’ look about the eyes and the whole catalogue.
The two get along famously as well, while the rest of the party is very nearly sacrificed. Challenger later appeals to Malone to leave this part out of his account, and a tongue-in-cheek Forward, supposedly by Malone, notes that Challenger has recently withdrawn a libel action. Doyle is clearly having fun, probably because Challenger is the absolute antithesis of Holmes in everything but intellect. A man of extremely low impulse control, Challenger is volatile and verbally and physically violent. He’s arrogant, narcissistic and, while constantly denying it, he loves the glare of public attention and recognition. When facing an impending apocalypse in The Poison Belt, for example, Challenger is quite pleased that the final headlines are about him. (He had predicted the disaster.) But, as Malone explains in ‘When the World Screamed’, ‘Everyone who gets close to him learns to love him. There is no real harm in the old bear. Why I remember how he carried an Indian baby with smallpox on his back for a hundred miles from the back country down to the Madeira river. He is big in every way. He won’t hurt if you get right with him.’ Similarly, he later adds: ‘one feels that so big a man is not to be measured in our scale and that we can endure from him what we would not stand from any other living mortal.’ And at the end of the day, concludes Malone, ‘I’m proud to be anything to him.’ Challenger is thus larger than life in every way, like his author – Godlike, even; all-knowing, benevolent and terrible (he’s certainly messianic) – which allows for equally big adventures, and not just about dinosaurs.
Not being blessed with multiple film adaptations, Doyle’s other Challenger stories have not stood the test of time so well. And while none of them is perhaps quite as exhilarating as The Lost World, each is well worth a look by any fan of Doyle’s writing or of Edwardian science fiction in general. All are included in the Wordsworth Editions’ The Lost World & Other Stories, arranged in chronological order of publication, which is different to the setting of the stories. The character chronology is this:
The Lost World (1912) gives a calendar date that suggests the expedition took place in 1908. This is when Challenger, Malone and Roxton meet. (Challenger has a pre-existing and combative relationship with Summerlee.) The novel is narrated by Malone and presented as a series of newspaper articles for the Daily Gazette.
The Poison Belt (1913) is set in the summer of 1911, and again features the four explorers from The Lost World. Once more, Malone narrates for the Gazette.
‘When the World Screamed’ (1928) is set in 1921 and narrated by the American engineer Peerless Jones.
‘The Disintegration Machine’ (1929) is the final Challenger story to be written but is set a few months after the previous story. Malone returns as narrator.
The Land of Mist (1926) takes place in the year it was written, making it the final Challenger story chronologically. It is the third in the series; written thirteen years after The Poison Belt, Doyle’s increasing involvement with Spiritualism underpins the work. The voice of the text is the author himself, who also adds end notes in the first person explaining some of the parascience from his own research and personal experience. Malone and Roxton are present but Summerlee has passed away, as has Challenger’s wife. His daughter Enid is introduced, and the novel is largely about her and Malone, as well as operating as a Spiritualist tract. It is therefore very much the odd one out in the Challenger quintette, but a fascinating insight into Doyle’s personal beliefs, and why an author should avoid such things when telling a story.
The Lost World was clearly a tough act to follow. Doyle, therefore, crafted an intelligent and engaging sequel that offered continuity through reuniting his four heroes and change by setting the events in and around London, bringing the threat to the heart of the British Empire. If there is a link back to the dinosaurs in The Poison Belt it is in the theory of an extinction-level event, but it is equally precipitated by the inevitability of war in Europe. 1913 saw the continuation of the First Balkan War and the start of the Second, the Dublin Lock-out, the Mexican Revolution and the death of the suffragette martyr Emily Davis, while the Anglo-German naval arms race continued to escalate. A sense of catastrophe was in the air, a danger that Doyle literalises in his novel as the earth passes through an apparently deadly etheric belt postulated and predicted by Challenger. He assembles his three friends at his new country house, and along with his wife, they sit out the apocalypse in a sealed, oxygenated room, before exploring a devastated London. His servants are left outside, including the redoubtable butler and chauffeur, Austin:
‘Austin!’ said his master.
‘I thank you for your faithful service.’ A smile stole over the servant’s gnarled face.
‘I’ve done my duty, sir.’
‘I’m expecting the end of the world to-day, Austin.’
‘Yes, sir. What time, sir?’
‘I can’t say, Austin. Before evening.’
‘Very good, sir.’
The taciturn Austin saluted and withdrew.
Gallows humour often offsets the horror, although Doyle’s underlying message is deathly serious. The poison ether first causes symptoms not unlike drunkenness, leading each hero to behave amusingly out of character, while Challenger at one point lays in wait for his housekeeper under the dining table so he can bite her on the ankle just to see how she reacts. Before a climax that is at once unexpected but in retrospect inevitable (as all the best story endings are), the heroes take an eerie drive through the seemingly dead city, in a powerful extended scene that would not look out of place in post-war eschatological science fiction like Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend and John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, which in turn inspired a stream of apocalyptic movies and remains a popular genre to this day, probably for similar reasons of cultural response to Doyle’s novel. (At a guess, The War of the Worlds, published in 1897, might also have been an influence.) Given what was to hit humanity the following year, the novel’s denouement is as tragic as it is profound. Fans of Alan Moore’s Watchmen will find an echo of it there, which may or may not be coincidental. As The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen shows us, Moore knows his Victorian and Edwardian fantasy. Doyle’s next piece of writing after this was an article for the Fortnightly Review entitled ‘England and the Next War.’
There is then a long break, comprising the Great War and the following pandemic, in which Doyle’s long-standing interest in the paranormal – he was a founder-member of the Hampshire Society for Psychical Research in 1889 – blossomed into a fully-fledged commitment to Spiritualism which he saw as a ‘new revelation of God’s dealings with man’ to comfort the bereaved of the world. (Doyle lost his son and his brother on the Western Front.) Except for eight Sherlock Holmes stories for the Strand magazine in this period, Doyle’s literary output was largely non-fiction, exploring politics, the war and the supernatural, including his support for the ‘Cottingley Fairies’. In 1925, Doyle began the year with two Sherlock Holmes stories in the Strand – ‘The Adventure of the Three Garridebs’ and ‘The Adventure of the Illustrious Client’ – which he followed by returning to Professor Challenger in The Land of Mist, serialised in the Strand between July 1925 and March 1926.
For a brilliant man, Doyle was prone to almost child-like literalness and credulity when it came to Spiritualism and the phenomena associated with it. In this, he was not alone among the great men of his age. The crusading journalist W.T. Stead was an ardent believer and promoter of the cause, as was the physicist Sir Oliver Lodge, whom Doyle had known well since they met in an anteroom at Buckingham Palace awaiting their knighthoods in 1902. Doyle had fully embraced Spiritualism as a religion in 1916 when his dead son Kingsley supposedly came through at a family séance and congratulated his father on the ‘Christ-like message you are giving to the World.’ Doyle subsequently devoted a large part of the rest of his life to spreading the word in lecture tours across Britain and America. After the twin cataclysms of world war and pandemic, Doyle saw himself increasingly as a prophet, convinced by his spirit guide ‘Pheneas’ (who communicated through his wife Jean’s automatic writing), that humanity was ‘sinking into a slough of evil and materialism’ propagated by earthbound ‘evil spirits’. Armageddon was coming, Doyle was told and believed, when ‘God’s own light’ would ‘descend and burn up the evil’, producing earthquakes and tidal waves that would herald the end. Central Europe and Russia were to be destroyed by seismic activity; America would once more descend into civil war, Africa would flood, Brazil would be razed by a super volcano and the Vatican would be obliterated by a ‘great light from on high’. England was to be the ‘Beacon’, where Christ would soon appear. Doyle recorded these predictions in a notebook he called the Prophesised Course of Events. His role, he was told, was to ‘prepare men’s minds so that when the awakening comes they shall be ready to receive it.’ This was all supposed to happen in 1925, when he was writing The Land of Mist, at the same time as his History of Spiritualism.
The result is a very interesting Spiritualist novel, but the weakest of the Challenger stories. This is, I think because Doyle allows his character to be driven by the plot rather than the other way around, in order to prove a point to which the true ‘G.E.C.’ would never yield. From the opening scene, he is a lesser figure than before; older, widowed, and more conciliatory:
But he was losing something of his fire. Those huge shoulders were a little bowed. The spade-shaped Assyrian beard showed tangles of grey amid the black, his eyes were a trifle less aggressive, his smile less self-complacent, his voice as monstrous as ever but less ready to roar down all opposition. Yet he was dangerous, as all around him were painfully aware. The volcano was not extinct, and constant rumblings threatened some new explosion. Life had much yet to teach him, but he was a little less intolerant to learning.
Worse, during the course of the story, Doyle shows Challenger to have undertaken inadequate research for a public debate, losing to a much lesser but better prepared (Spiritualist) scholar and, finally, admitting he was wrong about the ‘ghost people’, who he had previously dismissed as conmen followed by idiots and lunatics. Such an academic error and a humble reversal of opinion would be unthinkable from the Challenger of the previous two novels and feels like a betrayal by his creator.
The novel itself is episodic, the omniscient narrator ranging across a Dickensian cast of point-of-view characters, making it hugely different from the first-person accounts of the other stories. The frame involves Malone and Enid Challenger visiting different faith gatherings for a Daily Gazette series on contemporary religion in Britain and becoming increasingly involved in the Spiritualist church and with each other. Even Lord Roxton becomes a convert – at one point trying to shoot an evil ghost – and the friends try to convince Challenger of the truth of their beliefs, supported by various members of the Spiritualist community, some fictional, some taken from real life. As Malone and Enid go deeper into the Church, Doyle uses the novel to show different aspects of the active faith, from public gatherings to private séances and controlled scientific experiments, as well as the dark side of fake mediums, undercover police prosecutions, ridicule, and prejudice. As a historical document, these are vivid accounts, and obviously much better written than most Victorian/Edwardian Spiritualist writing, which can be turgid and mad.
Early on, Doyle introduces a version of his own received vision through the mysterious ‘Mr. Miromar’, interrupts a meeting at the Spiritualist Church that Malone and Enid first visit to deliver his own prophecy:
What we want is, not that folk should be frightened, but that they should begin to change themselves—to develop themselves on more spiritual lines. We are not trying to make people nervous but to prepare while there is yet time. The world cannot go on as it has done. It would destroy itself if it did. Above all, we must sweep away the dark cloud of theology which has come between mankind and God…
The ‘dark cloud of theology’ is outdated Christian dogma that doesn’t accept that the dead now speak and are heard by the living. The argument was that God had sent ‘fresh evidence’ which ‘made the life after death as clear as the sun in the heavens’ but that this had been disregarded. ‘It was laughed at by scientists, condemned by the churches, became the butt of the newspapers, and was discarded with contempt.’ The Great War was, therefore ‘God’s first warning to mankind’ but ‘it was in vain’ because ‘The same dull materialism prevailed as before.’ The language reflects the Revelations of St. John, Miromar concluding, ‘All have sinned, but some more than others, and their punishment will be in exact proportion … Repent! Reform! the Time is at hand’:
‘Is this the end of the world, mister?’
‘No,’ said the stranger, curtly.
‘Is it the Second Coming?’ asked another voice.
Miromar’s prophecy goes nowhere in the text, however, which is also what happened in reality. When 1925 passed without a global crisis (although Hitler did publish the first volume of Mein Kampf), ‘Pheneas’ communicated to Doyle that preparations were taking longer than expected. By 1930, Doyle wrote to a friend that he had begun to wonder if he and Jean had been ‘victims of some extraordinary prank played upon the human race from the other side.’ (That ‘Pheneas’ was no more than a facet of his wife’s unconscious never occurred to him, just as he remained convinced that Houdini had genuine psychic powers however many times his friend told him it was all clever trickery.) And this was always the problem with Spiritualism. While scientific discovery built on scientific discovery, Spiritualism never progressed, no matter how many people did, and still do, want to believe.
There is also a melodramatic subplot involving the abused children of a fraudulent medium saved by their dead mother’s spirit which reads like an instalment of G.W.M. Reynolds’ Victorian penny dreadful The Mysteries of London (and is similarly polemical), but every such silly episode is balanced by another of pure genius. For example, there is the account of one of Charles Richet paranormal experiments in Paris and a genuinely chilling ghost story in which Roxton and Malone encounter a malevolent spirit in a haunted house. Taken as a whole, though, The Land of Mist is a creative failure, the narrative torn fatally between Doyle’s talent as a storyteller and his mission to bring the same message as Mr Miromar to his readers. One wonders what would have happened had he gone this way with Sherlock Holmes…
At some level, Doyle must have understood this himself, because the old Professor Challenger soon re-emerged – the younger, cantankerous, and monomaniacal model. His final outings are both short stories written for the Strand, about a year after the final Sherlock Holmes story, ‘The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place’. Both stories are really very dark jokes, written with the same sense of playful adventure as The Lost World, and are a nice swan song for ‘G.E.C.’ In ‘When the World Screamed’, Challenger attempts to test his theory that the earth is a living being similar to a vast sea anemone, oblivious to the beings that infest its surface, which he likens cheerfully to fungus. Challenger’s ego will not have this, and he resolves to drill through the earth’s crust – the carapace as it were – to ‘let the earth know that there is at least one person, George Edward Challenger, who calls for attention – who, indeed, insists upon attention.’ Finally, Challenger and Malone are reunited one last time in ‘The Disintegration Machine’, a tale of mad scientists, foreign agents, lightening alopecia, and a super weapon not a million miles from the ‘disintegrator-reintegrators’ of George Langelaan famous short story ‘The Fly’ (1957, filmed in 1958). I’ll leave you to discover the punchlines.
Still perplexed by the failure of Phineas’ predictions to come true, Doyle died suddenly of a heart attack at his home in Sussex on July 7, 1930, at the age of 71, having ignored his doctor’s warnings about Angina to lecture on Spiritualism in the Netherlands. His final words were to his wife: ‘You are wonderful.’ At his funeral, his family and members of the Spiritualist community celebrated rather than mourned his ‘translation to the other side’. On July 13, thousands of people filled the Royal Albert Hall for a séance during which the medium Estelle Roberts claimed that Sir Arthur’s spirit had joined her on the stage. I have often wondered what Professor Challenger and Sherlock Holmes would have made of that.
Dr Stephen Carver
This article was the winner of one of the inaugural Doylean Honors awards from THE ACD Society in the ‘For excellence in the “Scholarly Writing” category.
You can listen to the podcast on the Doings of Doyle website in which Stephen discusses the Professor Challenger stories with the hosts here: 27. Conan Doyle and Professor Challenger, with Stephen J. Carver (doingsofdoyle.com)
Image: A scene from The Lost World, the 1925 film version directed by Harry Hoyt, starring Lewis Stone and Bessie Love.
Credit: First National Album / Alamy Stock Photo