I initially picked up this collection of stories because it had a dinosaur on the cover. That wouldn’t usually tantalise, but we have recently adopted the habit of humming the Jurassic Park anthem whenever sailing around the mountainous islands in southern Thailand, so it was with excitement that I began this prelude to the greatest film ever made.
The collection comprises The Lost World, a straight-forward but enjoyable adventure to the depths of the Amazon rainforest to authenticate wild claims of living prehistoric fauna; The Poison Belt, an interesting, if ultimately unsatisfying, end-of-the-world tale; two short stories about scientific discovery, both dangerous and unnerving; and finally The Land Of Mist, the least interesting of the lot that reflects the author’s peculiar belief in spiritualism (seances, ghosts and conversations with the dead).
Each story is linked by a single character, the egomaniacal, outrageous and often violent Professor Challenger. This man of science is simultaneously a Darwinian throwback: a great, booming Neanderthal “with the greatest brain in Europe”. Imagine Richard Dawkins, on crack, played by Brian Blessed.
Indeed, the Dawkins similarity is most apparent when Challenger accepts the invitation to publicly debate the scientific basis of Spiritualism:
“I am well aware that by such condescension I, like any other man of science of equal standing, run the risk of giving a dignity to these absurd and grotesque aberrations of the human brain which they could otherwise not pretend to claim, but we must do our duty to the public, and we must occasionally turn from our serious work and spare a moment in order to sweep away those ephemeral cobwebs which might collect and become offensive if they were not dispersed by the broom of science.”
You could stick Dawkins’ name on that and no one would bat an eye.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was, of course, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, but I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read any of those famous stories. All I know of his written work is that, apparently, all his characters are constantly ejaculating. Thankfully, these outbursts occur only twice in this book, my favourite being:
“Pretty doin’s! What!” That was his ejaculation as each fresh tremendous combination of death and disaster displayed itself before us.
I expect that’s what Prince Charles screams amid the throes of passion – “Pretty doin’s! What!”
Aside from my immature sniggering, I really do love how Doyle writes: big, brash characters, bandying extended metaphors about like so many creative writing students, and narrative conceits, like this inverted cliffhanger:
“A dreadful thing has happened to us… [list a number of woes]… Let me give you, with as much detail as I can, the sequence of events which have led us to this catastrophe.”
MUST READ – MUST FIND OUT! MUST READ – MUST FIND OUT!
But my enjoyment is often simply derived from the wonderful language of the nascent 20th century. For instance, on intoxication, Doyle writes:
“Drunken Silas Linden was coming home. He was in a gloomy, sulken state of befuddlement.”
We’ve all been there, amIright? AmIright?
If nothing else, this book has made me want to read the Sherlock Holmes canon. It’s not terribly taxing, or ground-breaking for that matter, but it’s fun and engaging, and, perhaps once or twice, a little thought provoking. A quote in the introduction from Ivor Brown says it better than I can:
“The intellectuals are not captured or engrossed by an author’s ability to tell a story… So Doyle does not enter their reckoning… He wanted to please and he did please.”