Introduction to Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World

By Michael Crichton

Originally Published in a Re-Issue of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World

The literary achievement of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle cannot be understood unless one recognizes the excessive, even lurid, quality of his imagination. In real life, Conan Doyle was a physician and solid citizen—devoted father, energetic athlete, political activist, even a candidate for Parliament. He was a practical man, involving himself in causes as diverse as atrocities in the Belgian Congo, and the need to reform British divorce laws. In photographs he appears solid, too: strongly-built, mustached, sitting walrus-like at his desk with pen in hand, writing swiftly and making few changes once his words are on the page.

But the imagination that propelled his pen ran to extremes. Indeed it is hard to conceive of a more extreme character than Sherlock Holmes himself, with his monomaniacal focus on crime, fits of depression, cocaine injections, clouds of tobacco smoke, melancholic violin-playing, and bursts of furious energy once the game is afoot. Holmes is a brilliant creation, but he is excessive in every way.

And Holmes’ cases are filled with the exotic and bizarre—deadly trained snakes, ancient curses, dart-blowing dwarfs, mask-wearing children, rooms with crushing walls. A supernatural aura floats over many of the tales; unworldly forces are frequently evoked, as in “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” though always explained away in the end.

This tendency to excess is found not only in the Holmes stories, but in many others as well. One thinks of the paranormal “The Leather Funnel,” the lurid dementia of “The Beetle Hunter,” the ghastly revelations of “The Sealed Room,” and many others.

One might expect such excesses to strain credibility—and in fact, some of the stories do. But surprisingly few. For it was Conan Doyle’s peculiar genius to place the bizarre imaginings of his mind within an apparently realistic setting. Filled with telling detail, his stories seem real. We are convinced the author has walked every London street, has visited every house and shop, that he describes so convincingly.

Thus it comes as something of a shock to learn that the author did nothing of the sort. Conan Doyle did not live in the gas-lit London he described so well. Nor did he care about authenticity: “So long as you produce your dramatic effect, accuracy of detail matters little. I have never striven for it…What matters if I can hold my readers?” Thus, the London of Sherlock Holmes is not factual at all. It is a literary creation—a brilliantly executed, utterly convincing “dramatic effect.”

Sherlock Holmes had been a fixture of the literary scene for twenty-four years when, in 1912, his creator decided to set himself a fresh challenge to his skill with dramatic effects. Contemplating a new character and a new novel to introduce him, The Lost World, Conan Doyle informed his editor, “My ambition is to do for the boy’s book what Sherlock Holmes did for the detective tale. I don’t suppose I could bring off two such coups. And yet I hope it may.”

At first glance, it seems an odd ambition. In those days, the “boy’s book” referred to a particular kind of fast-paced story intended for younger readers—in short, juvenile pulp fiction. One would not expect it to attract the world-renowned author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a contemporary of Oscar Wilde, Joseph Conrad, and George Bernard Shaw. It was especially unlikely considering the fact that Conan Doyle was famously ambivalent about his most popular creation, Sherlock Holmes. Throughout his life, Conan Doyle considered himself first and foremost a writer of serious historical fiction. Just six years after he created Holmes, Conan Doyle killed him off—to make time, he said, for “more serious work.” The pressure of overdue bills and a clamoring public eventually persuaded the author to bring him back a few years later. But he was never happy about it, claiming that “I have had such an overdose of him that…the name gives me a sickly feeling to this day.”

Yet now, at the age of fifty-three, Conan Doyle was planning to create another popular character, in another popular genre. It may be that, exasperated with Holmes, he wanted to create a rival in the character of Professor George Challenger. Certainly we know that he followed the same procedure that had led him to Holmes, basing his character on a vividly-remembered teacher from his medical school days. Holmes had been based on Joseph Bell, a hawk-faced instructor with extraordinary powers of observation. For his new character, Professor Challenger, the author recalled “the squat figure of Professor Rutherford with his Assyrian beard, his prodigious voice, his enormous chest and his singular manner.”

In any case, one cannot help comparing Holmes and Challenger, since the two characters are so diametrically opposite in every way that Challenger becomes a kind of anti-Holmes. Where Holmes is tall and lean, Challenger is squat and pugnacious. Holmes shuns publicity; Challenger craves the limelight. Holmes charms, Challenger insults; Holmes is subtle, Challenger crude; Holmes is diffident, Challenger aggressive. Indeed, the only trait they share is prodigious physical strength.

But if Challenger was intended to challenge Holmes, he is the wrong man for the job. The single most striking feature of Sherlock Holmes is that people believe him to be a real person. He is one of the few characters in fiction of whom that can be said. Challenger, on the other hand, is comical beyond belief. His excesses, his irascibility, and his ready insults make him fun to read, but no one would ever mistake him for a real person. No one goes looking for Challenger’s house, the way readers make pilgrimages to Baker Street, looking for the 221b address, which they are astonished to find is fictional. Challenger remains fixed on the printed page.

But in The Lost World, Conan Doyle did something far more influential than invent a character—he invented a particular kind of fantasy story, and demonstrated a successful way to tell it.

Of course, there was already a rich tradition of fantasy adventure stories, and no one knew it better than Conan Doyle. Nine years younger than Robert Louis Stevenson, three years younger than Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle had launched his own literary career in the late 1880s, a decade that saw the publication of Treasure Island (1883), King Solomon’s Mines (1885), Jekyll and Hyde, and Kidnapped (1886), She (1887), The Black Arrow and The Master of Ballantrae (1889). These were enormous public successes, and remain to this day masterful examples of the adventure form.

By 1912, when Conan Doyle began The Lost World, the literary landscape had changed. Stevenson had died eighteen years earlier. Rider Haggard, his rival, was still writing adventure romances but the intense interest that once allowed a poster to call “King Solomon’s Mines – The Most Amazing Book Ever Written” was long gone. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, published in 1901, had set the adventure story on a more adult, gloomy, metaphysical course.

Even more to the point, the world was becoming known, the blank spaces on the map filled in. It was increasingly difficult for authors to postulate some far-off land where strange doings might occur. There were no unexplored places anymore.

Thus the story Conan Doyle had in mind presented enormous challenges. He intended to write about an expedition to a remote, high plateau in South America, cut off from the rest of the world. In this lost world, evolution has taken a different path. Led by Professor Challenger, the explorers were to confront all manner of atavisms: dinosaurs, bizarre beasts, and ferocious ape-men. After surviving dread horrors and continuous peril, they would escape, and return safely home.

The story Conan Doyle wrote was a great success in its day, and more than fulfilled its author’s stated intention. Just as Sherlock Holmes set the standard—and in some sense established the formula—for the detective story ever since, so too has The Lost World set the standard and the formula for fantasy-adventure stories since that time. The tone and techniques that Conan Doyle first refined in The Lost World have become standard narrative procedures in popular entertainment of the present day.

It is one thing to conjure up a detective in a gas-lit London that already exists. It is quite another to create a world from scratch, fill it with dinosaurs and ape-men, and make it equally palatable. The Lost World succeeds brilliantly. How does the author do it?

One can view the novel as a catalog of procedures to disarm the reader. From the outset, its tone is light-hearted and comedic. Conan Doyle casts the narrative as an account of a real expedition, as reported by a participant. To support this, he includes all sorts of corroborative material that one might expect to find—maps, photographs of the explorers, and so on. (For the original novel, Conan Doyle supplied photographs of the main characters, including himself in a false beard as Professor Challenger.) And he sprinkles his text with references to real places and people, including such contemporary scientists as Wallace, Bates, Owen, and Lankester.

But we’re not expected to be fooled into actually believing this. On the contrary, The Lost World reads like a parody of a literary form. Conan Doyle understands that his approach does not reduce the reader’s acquiescence, but rather encourages it: even as we are amused, even as we are told not to take it seriously, we are subtly encouraged to go along with the gag.

Equally disarming is the author’s gentle way of denigrating his own project. His novel is old-fashioned and he does not hesitate to say so: “I’m afraid the day for this sort of thing is rather past,” the editor tells the narrator, young Malone. It is a way for the author to agree with the reader’s criticism, and thus set it aside. Yes, yes, it’s outdated, but let’s continue anyway.

Conan Doyle is similarly skillful in the way he introduces his outrageous premise. He presents us with a puzzle. Challenger shows the narrator Malone a notebook brought back from the jungle, containing impossible images, drawings of dinosaurs. What is the explanation for these images?

Puzzles are an excellent way to promote credibility because even the most skeptical reader will attempt to explain the puzzle, and in doing so must unconsciously accept the premise on which the puzzle is based. Thus, by the time the notebook has been explained away, the premise—that somewhere in South America there is a lost world of dinosaurs—has been accepted. Young Malone has accepted it, and so have we.

But in case any readers are still undecided, Conan Doyle creates a skeptic, Tharp Henry, to give voice to any lingering doubts.

“My dear chap, things don’t happen like that in real life. People don’t stumble on enormous discoveries and then lose their evidence. Leave that to the novelists. The fellow is as full of tricks as the monkey-house at the Zoo. It’s all absolute bosh.”

“But the American poet?”

“He never existed.”

“I saw his sketch-book.”

“Challenger’s sketch-book.”

“You think he drew that animal?”

“Of course he did. Who else?”

“Well, then, the photographs?”

“There was nothing in the photographs. By your own admission you only saw a bird.”

“A pterodactyl.”

“That’s what he says. He put the pterodactyl into your head…”

One can think of passages such as this as a psychological insurance policy for the author. Conan Doyle gives voice to the doubts of skeptical readers, who can now relax into the story. In addition, the passage provokes our natural contrariness. Tharp is so adamant we have been fooled that we are provoked to defend ourselves, insisting that we have not been. And the ironic “Leave that to the novelists” serves as a suggestion for readers to do exactly that—to go along with the novel’s premise, and not to worry about whether things like this happen in real life.

Finally, this passage presages a more powerful expression of skepticism to come, in the lecture hall scene. This conversation is therefore laying groundwork for the challenge that provokes the expedition, and Malone’s volunteering to go.

Thus by the time the expedition is underway, the reader is fully prepared—in fact, eager—to meet dinosaurs. The premise has been sold. Now we are entering an unknown territory where we can no longer bring our personal experiences to bear. From this point on, Conan Doyle is fully in control; as he once put it, “I claim I may make my own conditions, and I do so.”

But in fact, his problems have just begun. Selling his premise is, in fact, much easier than delivering on it. The first problem Conan Doyle had to face concerned the story’s pace.

By his own account, Conan Doyle intended to revive a fast-moving narrative form, the so-called “ripping yarn.” But an expedition through dense jungle is not fast-moving. Exotic places must be described, and searches necessarily take time. The very nature of the expedition threatens to impede his narrative.

Conan Doyle employs three solutions to the problem of pace. First, he attenuates the journey, arriving at the plateau in as few pages as possible. Second, he sustains a conflict between Professor Challenger and his intellectual nemesis, Professor Summerlee, as a kind of running gag. Whatever incident may occur along the way, we can be sure Challenger will make the most of it, and Summerlee the least. If Challenger sees a pterodactyl, Summerlee sees a stork. The two men argue about the speech of cannibals, the meaning of wildlife, the leadership of the expedition—indeed, they argue about everything. It passes the time.

Third, a tedious search is replaced by a succession of mysteries to be solved. Following the example of Jules Verne, whose Journey to the Center of the Earth retraced the route of an earlier explorer, Conan Doyle’s expedition retraces the route of the artist whose notebook we have seen. (It is clear that Conan Doyle drew heavily from Verne’s novel in shaping The Lost World. Both novels require a young narrator to prove his worth to the woman he loves by going off on a dangerous expedition with an irascible older scientist. Both novels establish their premise with a puzzle. Both recount plainly impossible adventures, and both eventually lead to the discovery of long-extinct beasts and other wonders.)

But Conan Doyle recognized the limitations of Verne’s simple narrative structure, which quickly devolves into a mere survival story, a search for water in passages beneath a volcano. For The Lost World, Conan Doyle establishes a more complex plot, with more intriguing characters. In particular, he draws the big-game hunter, Lord John Roxton, so vividly that the aristocrat frequently upstages Challenger himself.

Conan Doyle sustains interest by presenting, and resolving, a series of mysteries along the way. Why did Challenger seal his instructions? What is the meaning of the native drums? Whose skeleton was impaled on the bamboo? Where do the chalk marks lead? How will the expedition ever reach the plateau, now that the cave is blocked? And so on. This may be classic melodramatic structure, but it is far more sophisticated than that of Verne’s novel.

These serial mysteries, interrupted by the occasional swoop of a pterodactyl, soon bring us to the rocky pinnacle which we must ascend to reach the plateau. And here occurs the first genuine plot-twist of the novel—the protagonists arrive at the plateau, and are trapped there, perhaps never to leave.

With his characters cut off from civilization, Conan Doyle must now address the most serious problem of the novel: his lost world has no antagonist. Because he was recreating the view of scientists in the early twentieth century, his dinosaurs are lumbering, dim-witted beasts. They are not suitable antagonists. This may be why Conan Doyle focuses so much on pterodactyls—they are, at least, fast moving. But pterodactyls do not permit a great variety of aggressive behavior; they can swoop down and slice, but little else. Like the other dinosaurs, they cannot serve as worthy opponents, so Conan Doyle makes them objects of horror. Indeed, his description of the pterodactyl rookery is one of the most effective passages of the novel:

There were hundreds of them congregated within view. All the bottom area round the water-edge was alive with their young ones, and with hideous mothers brooding upon their leathery, yellowish eggs. From this crawling flapping mass of obscene reptilian life came the shocking clamour which filled the air and the mephitic, horrible, musty odor which turned us sick.

He goes on to describe them as “horrible… hideous… ferocious… filthy…like some devil in a medieval picture.” This description sets the tone for all that is to come, but in a sense Conan Doyle never surpasses this moment. Our first view of dinosaur life is also the most memorable.

Worse, this exposure to dinosaurs has the unfortunate effect of resolving the purpose of the expedition. In short order, Professor Summerlee is arguing they should all go home. “We came here on a perfectly defined mission…to test the truth of Professor Challenger’s statements….Our…work is therefore done…”

But this is plainly unsatisfactory. The expedition cannot simply turn around and leave; nothing has really happened yet. Conan Doyle needs a clever antagonist to sustain his narrative, and with warm-blooded, intelligent dinosaurs still fifty years in the future, he has no choice but to fall back on pure invention. In keeping with the atavistic theme of the tale, he postulates a race of savage ape-men (“dryopithecus of Java, [or] pithecanthropus”) who capture Challenger and Summerlee, and oblige the young hero and Lord John to save them before they are killed. These ape-men provide the plot twists for the remainder of our time on the plateau.

Contemporary readers may be nonplussed to find that a good deal of this later action occurs offstage. One could argue that Challenger’s capture by the ape men is sufficiently important that we ought to see it happen before our eyes, but we do not, because the narrator Malone is elsewhere at the time. We may even come to suspect Malone is being deliberately kept away from the action. And in fact he is. The reason is that the author wants events to be related in dialog by Lord Roxon.

Conan Doyle had long ago realized that any description—even the description of violent action—slowed the pace of the story. He could achieve far greater narrative speed by doing everything in dialog. Over the years, he honed his dialog to the point of astonishing compression. At times he could dispense with description entirely. In “The Three Students,” Sherlock Holmes is inspecting the living room when he says,

“…Where does that door lead to?”

“To my bedroom….”

“I should like to have a glance round. What a charming, old-fashioned room! Perhaps you will kindly wait a minute until I have examined the floor. No, I see nothing. What about this curtain? You hang your clothes behind it. If anyone were forced to conceal himself in this room he must do it there, since the bed is too low and the wardrobe too shallow. No one there, I suppose?”

Conan Doyle could compress action as well:

“The game’s up, Ryder,” said Holmes, quietly. “Hold up, man, or you’ll be into the fire. Give him an arm back into his chair, Watson. He’s not got blood enough…. Give him a dash of brandy. So! Now he looks a little more human…”

The swift power of Conan Doyle’s dialog is equally evident in The Lost World when Challenger describes his first expedition to the South American remote plateau:

“And then, sir, what did you do next?”

“It was the wet season, Mr. Malone, and my stores were exhausted. I explored some portion of this huge cliff, but I was unable to find any way to scale it. The pyramidal rock upon which I saw and shot the pterodactyl was more accessible. Being something of a cragsman, I did manage to get half way to the top of that. From that height I had a better idea of the plateau upon the top of the crags. It appeared to be very large; neither to east nor to west could I see any end to the vista of green-capped cliffs. Below it is a swampy, jungly region, full of snakes, insects and fever. It is a natural protection to this singular country.”

Conscious that a paragraph of dialog could replace whole pages of description, Conan Doyle missed no opportunity to shift action to reported speech, as he does with Lord Roxton. And he knew that paradoxically, properly-written dialog could convey a greater sense of immediacy than a description of action while it occurred.

Furthermore, the speaker could add color and humor to his account, and it is the continuous insertion of outrageous humor in The Lost World which encourages the reader to lower his guard. Thus early on, Challenger puts his wife on a pedestal to get her out of the way; and thus, late in the story, Challenger is found to have a distinct resemblance to the chief of the ape-mens, which is a source of fun once the danger is past. Challenger wants to make sure young Malone does not tell this to a wider audience:

“…You may have heard some rather fatuous remarks of Lord John Roxton’s which seemed to imply that there was some—some resemblance—”

“Yes, I heard them.”

“I need not say that any publicity given to such an idea—any levity in your narrative of what occurred—would be exceedingly offensive to me.”

“I will keep well within the truth.”

But that of course does not satisfy Challenger at all, who must finally announce, “The king of the ape-men was really a creature of great distinction—a most remarkably handsome and intelligent personality. Did it not strike you?” To this the youthful reporter agrees, and Challenger finally goes to sleep.

The action on the plateau, whether confrontations with beasts or ape-men, is treated with the combination of tension and good humor that marks the rest of the narrative. In the end, this is the most enduring influence of The Lost World. Its author found a way to tell a fantasy story by inviting you to laugh at it and to believe it, at the same time. It is a technique that has been used many times since, particularly in movies.

The first film version of The Lost World was released in 1925, starring Wallace Beery. At a cost of a million dollars, it was the most expensive picture ever made to that time. The dinosaurs were created by stop-motion animation. Subsequent versions of The Lost World were filmed in 1960, 1992, and 1998, and a popular television series of the same name began in 1999.

But the influence of Conan Doyle’s storytelling techniques—to say nothing of his dinosaurs—was evident as early as 1933, with the release of King Kong. The combination of realism and parody, humor and suspense that Conan Doyle pioneered has proven to be a durable audience-pleaser. Modern audiences take these unlikely dramatic combinations for granted; if they think of them at all, they are inclined to view them as modern and ironic. But in fact these juxtapositions have a long history—going back to the misty, South American plateau of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World.