Monday, August 2, 2021

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Lost World

I continue to be amazed by how many foundational works of fantasy and science fiction I haven't yet written about in this series – but then there are a lot authors and stories who've had a powerful influence on the hobby of roleplaying, such as Arthur Conan Doyle. Though most well known for his creation of the consulting detective Sherlock Holmes, Doyle is also responsible for the creation another character, one whose literary adventures have arguably had as great, if not greater, influence on popular culture: Professor Challenger.

George Edward Challenger is a Scottish professor of anthropology and zoology employed by the British Museum in London. In addition, Challenger is known as an inventor of some ingenuity, making him one of the most significant prototypes for the stock character of adventurer-scientist so beloved in turn of the 20th century popular literature and the later works inspired by it. Challenger makes his first appearance in the 1912 novel, The Lost World, about which I want to talk today, but he appeared in four other stories by Doyle – two more novels and two short stories – in addition to many other tales by later authors.

The Lost World is told from the perspective of Edward Malone, a young man who works as a reporter for the Daily Gazette. Malone is in love with Gladys Hungerton, an intelligent woman with whom he has been friendly for some time before the novel starts but who does not share his affections. When pressed as to why, she tells Malone that she is "in love with somebody else," quickly elaborating that "it's nobody in particular, only an ideal." Malone desperately – and rather pathetically – says that he can change; he is willing to become anything she wants him to be: "teetotal, vegetarian, aeronaut, theosophist, superman," if only she could love him in return. Gladys reproaches him harshly but fairly, telling Malone just the sort of man whom she might love.

"He would be a harder, sterner man, not so ready to adapt himself to a silly girl's whim. But, above all, he must be a man who could do, who could act, who could look Death in the face and have no fear of him, a man of great deeds and strange experiences. It is never a man that I should love, but always the glories he had won; for they would be reflected upon me. Think of Richard Burton! When I read his wife's life of him I could so understand her love! And Lady Stanley! Did you ever read the wonderful last chapter of that book about her husband? These are the sort of men that a woman could worship with all her soul, and yet be the greater, not the less, on account of her love, honored by all the world as the inspirer of noble deeds."

Rather than understand what Gladys was trying to tell him, Malone cavils, telling her, "We can't all be Stanleys or Burtons … besides we don't get the chance – at least, I never had the chance." She tells him "chances are all around you" and Malone takes this as the impetus to "do something in the world." 

Energized by his desire to be a man worthy of the esteem of his beloved, Malone sets off. He approaches his editor, McArdle, for advice in finding "anything that had adventure and danger in it." That's when the name of Professor Challenger first comes up. McArdle suggests Malone seek him out for an interview, though he warns him that Challenger is no admirer of reporters, one of whom he assaulted when he started asking impertinent questions about his recent South American expedition.

Malone then presents himself as a student rather a reporter in order to speak with Challenger. The ruse seems to have worked and he meets the famed zoologist.

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. I am sure that his top-hat, had I ever ventured to don it, would have slipped over me entirely and rested on my shoulders. 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-gray 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.

Challenger is no fool and he almost immediately sees through Malone's ruse. He becomes angry and, as he with a previous reporter, the professor attacks Malone and throws him out into the street. This catches the eye of a passing policeman, who intervenes. Despite this, Malone refuses to press charges against Challenger, who looks on him with humor, "Come in! … I've not done with you yet."

Inside once more, Challenger's attitude toward Malone changes. He exacts a commitment to secrecy from him and then tells him about his previous expedition. While in the Amazon, Challenger a "most extraordinary creature.

It was the wild dream of an opium smoker, a vision of delirium. The head was like that of a fowl, the body that of a bloated lizard, the trailing tail was furnished with upward-turned spikes, and the curved back was edged with a high serrated fringe, which looked like a dozen cocks' wattles placed behind each other. 

Malone is not sure what to make of this and advances the possibility that the creature might be something more mundane, like an elephant or a tapir. Challenger scoffs at this, pointing out that no elephants exist in South America. No, he explains, what he had seen was in fact a stegosaurus, a living fossil long thought extinct – and there were more like it in the Amazon. That's why he is planning another expedition and he asks Malone to accompany him. 

The bulk of The Lost World details the expedition into the titular lost world itself, a region of South America that is home not only to dinosaur but to hostile ape-men as well. Reading it from the vantage point of more than a century later, it's difficult to be as impressed with the novel as one would have been at the time of its initial release. Nevertheless, the ideas that The Lost World introduces were genuinely remarkable in their day, so much so that they influenced generations of writers, who borrowed ideas from it, sometimes without even realizing they were doing so. There's entire genre of literature named for the novel, a genre that continues to be popular to the present day. 

None of this is to suggest that The Lost World isn't an enjoyable novel – quite opposite, in fact. Professor Challenger is a terrific character, very different from Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. Likewise, Malone, despite his pathetic introduction, turns out to be a solid protagonist and reader surrogate. Then there's the lost world of the Amazon itself, with its strange inhabitants and sights, all of which Doyle memorably describes. The pace of the novel is slow at times, I won't deny, but the overall story is compelling and the vehicle of Malone's narration helps to overcome some of the slowness. Fans of adventure literature should find it to their taste and anyone with an interest in the roots of fantasy and science fiction should read it as well. 


  1. As a kid I devoured the Victorian 'adventure' books of Doyle, Haggard, Verne and Wells. I think they were more popular (or at least more readily available) here in the UK back in the 70s than Lovecraft, Burroughs and Howard...who I only came across after I got into RPGs with their American roots.

  2. This is a wonderful book.

    I should note that the resolution with Gladys is not at all to her credit. Malone was well rid of her.

  3. Such George Challenger stories as; The Poison Belt, The Day the World Screamed, and The Disintegration Machine, were the motivation for my Steampunk RPG Campaign "Challenger Corps." of over 100 adventures. That eight year spree of RPG sessions lead to the creation of "Steam Trek ref.

    Good stories are but seeds for creative GMs.

  4. This is a great tale of adventure and my favorite of the Professor Challenger stories. World War I changed Doyle's outlook in a number of ways and it showed in his work, understandably so.

  5. Is it as disgustingly racist as The White Worm?
    Or is that aspect more subdued?